You’ve Changed Maaaan…

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You may notice that the site undergoes a few aesthetic changes over the next week or two. It’s going to get tidier, neater, a bit more unique and hopefully a bit more professional.

First up is the excellent banner at the top there with an artist’s interpretation of me preparing to fight cinema. The artist in question is Ed Clews, an illustrator based in Harrogate and creator of some excellent children’s literature. Here is his illustration blog, Ed Clews Illustrations and a sneaky preview of his latest book for little ‘uns, Splishy Sploshy. I’ve even stuck one of his sketches up there for you to have a chuckle at.

May 19th: Drugs are bad.

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108. The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005)

In Kenya the wife of a British High Commission diplomat is killed. From this event the story of The Constant Gardener spirals outwards showing how Rachel Weisz’ radical political activist, Tessa, falls in love with diplomat Justin, played by Ralph Fiennes. It also shows Justin’s investigation into the murder, asking questions and probing into the mysterious work that Tessa was carrying out in Africa.

Everything about this film aches with loss. It is integral to the film that you believe in Weisz and Fiennes as a couple and you do. They manage to seem so awesomely in love that when the plot begins to suggest that Tessa was unfaithful I found myself willing it not to be true. This is the heart of the loss. As Justin digs deeper into the circumstances of Tessa’s death the more deep and resonant are the flashbacks to their relationship. Weisz manages to imbue Tessa with a carefree rebelliousness that credibly enchants all the men on screen, she is a force of nature and a beacon of humanitarian kindness. It may prove to be the role of a lifetime.

The Constant Gardener is an excellent film, combining a powerful emotional journey with a genuine insight into the morally ambiguous activities of major pharmaceutical companies in Africa. It’s edited with Meirelles’ typically hyperactive tone and photographed with a vibrant palette concocting a delirious feast for the eyes.

May 17th: When men were men and women were whores, without exception.

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107. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

Probably one of the last classic Peckinpah films that I hadn’t seen. This is the classic tale of the two friends that ended up on opposite sides of the law. But, as usual in Peckinpah’s movies, the opposition isn’t quite as simple as that. The film follows the journey of the two titular men as Garrett is hired to hunt and kill William H. Bonny, Billy the Kid, by the encroaching land-owners of the newly tamed frontier. During the course of this hunt Garrett loses touch with his station as the Sheriff and begins a descent into a moral vacuum. He becomes the hard-drinking, womanising archetype of the West – getting worse the closer he gets to Bonny. There’s even the suggestion that Garrett helps Bonny to escape from the first time they capture him, fuelling his own tragic descent. A descent in marked contrast to Bonny’s easygoing charm as he mulls over fleeing to Mexico or sticking around.

The whole film is set to the strains of Bob Dylan’s original soundtrack. I have been informed by a musician friend that Dylan is the greatest song-writer to have ever lived. I don’t know how you quantify this, if indeed you can at all, but I do know that his music sits easily with this melancholy film and adds further texture to Peckinpah’s beautifully desolate landscapes. Dylan cannot act though – no way. This doesn’t detract from a typically macho piece of cinema where men are big and flawed and women are furniture or bystanders. It is what it is with no apologies and possibly tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly enjoyable for it.

Note: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Pop Star Vehicles’.

May 16th: 11 angry, 1 less so…

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106. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) #9 in IMDB top 250

12 Jurors convene in a room to decide the verdict in a 1st degree murder case. Eleven of the men immediately vote the boy on trial, guilty. One juror claims that the case isn’t as open and shut as the others would believe and so the conversation to decide whether or not this eighteen year old boy lives or dies begins. This is watertight film-making of the highest order. For 90 minutes there is tension and drama and only one setting (aside from a small section in the courtroom at the start and outside the room at the end). It overcomes the biggest challenge of any play that is transferred to the screen, it is cinematic. More so than many films with more extravagant settings. Sidney Lumet shows an expert hand in manipulating the camera to keep the whole piece interesting and the project is aided by some excellent performances all round – particularly from the headliners Lee J. Cobb and producer Henry Fonda.

There is a pretty heavy liberal ideology in the film which I couldn’t help but be charmed by, especially in the current climate of American politics where the battle lines have never been more clearly drawn. This is a classic work of great American drama which is never dull, not for a second. Oh, cheers to Richard for the lend of the DVD too.

May 14th: Hot Java

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105. The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982)

Mel Gibson is the excellently named Guy Hamilton, a journalist on his first major assignment to Indonesia in 1965. He befriends a diminutive photographer, Billy Kwan, and becomes romantically involved with Sigourney Weaver’s diplomat, Jill Bryant. All this occurs against the backdrop of the Indonesian civil war erupting over this period. The film is anchored by Linda Hunt crossing genders to play Billy. Her performance is a rare and unexpected chance for an actress like her to shine, and shine she does. It came as no surprise to learn that Hunt won the Academy Award for best supporting actress, unsurprisingly there mustn’t have been many roles in the traditional mould on offer as the only things I recall seeing her in since are as the headmistress in Kindergarten Cop and the Museum proprietor in The Relic. I’d recommend watching this purely to see a brilliant performance which shows up Weaver and Gibson who contrive a fairly mechanical and uninspiring romance.

The Year of Living Dangerously is a beautiful film, even the slum squalor of the Indonesian peoples is made to seem exotic and enchanting. Unfortunately I couldn’t shake the disturbingly cynical colonial feeling of the whole thing. This applies specifically to the resolution which, whilst I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible, is very weirdly redemptive for Hamilton. His moral dilemma on whether to break news pertaining to the break of war is presented as an opposition to his own relationship rather than the direct impact on the country and people of Indonesia, which it will have a huge bearing on. It left me with a slightly bitter taste about the whole thing, as has this review which has meandered all over the bloody place to avoid giving away the plot!

May 13th: Reboot and prosper

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104. Star Trek (JJ Abrams, 2009)

Where to start, how do you review a film that has already been bombarded from all angles by those most acidic of reviewers on the internet – the fanboys, or in this case ‘Trekkies’? Well I’ll start by making it a little more personal. Star Trek films were the preserve of a special spot in my house as a youngster – the Sunday afternoon film. A spot they shared with the Richard Lester Musketeer films and The Pink Panther series. Films that were shared experiences with my father and brother. The acid test of any new Star Trek film is whether or not it would fit seamlessly into that niche. This film achieves that brief all too easily. It is so assured in everything that it does and the performances are almost all spot-on, the sad exception being Simon Pegg’s out of place Scotty. It moves at a rapid pace for a Trek film, it has a memorable villain in Eric Bana’s Nero and perhaps most importantly it allows a new audience to connect with these old characters without condescending or confusing them. And that has to be the overarching success of the film, the money is rolling in and it is because they have found the right balance to appeal to a new generation of viewers. I said in my Mission Impossible III review that JJ Abrams has the current aesthetic nailed down and this continues to be true; where Michael Bay makes my eyes hurt, Abrams manages to ‘do’ frenetic without ever going overboard. This is an impressive and assured start and the money being made suggests that the U.S.S. Enterprise has got a pretty big journey ahead of it.

May 12th: Dick Dastardly

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103. Internal Affairs (Mike Figgis, 1990)

Seen in isolation from any of his other work, this is the film that could make you believe that Richard Gere is a talented actor who could fulfil a variety of roles. As corrupt cop Dennis Peck he manages to ooze across the screen leaving a trail of broken hearts and dead bodies in his wake. Andy Garcia is the Internal Affairs cop on his case and the two become entangled in a web of deceit that can only end badly. Gere is detestably magnetic, he dominates the action and Mike Figgis plays it up superbly with his direction and his own score. The film is soaked in a murky moral grey area and none of the main characters are above suspicion as Peck pulls the strings behind so many of them. This may be a police procedural but it is one filmed with style and an impressive villainous performance at its heart.

I reckon this is the only real villain that Gere has ever played. I can’t think of any others – I can’t actually recall any of his other performances that were of any real note. Anyone?

Note: Internal Affairs is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Cop Movies’.

This Master’s Voice

On May 14th I recorded, alongside my good buddy Jim Whiting, the Sheffield Live Film File show hosted by the ever gracious and witty Simon Thake. We chew the fat on the latest releases, movie news, misquoted films and how to pronounce ‘synecdoche’. It’s been released as a podcast which you can download or stream from here…

Sheffield Live Film File

May 11th: Imagine that.

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102. Chapter 27 (J.P. Schaefer, 2007)

Should you pity Jared Leto? He’s a massively successful musician and very attractive chap who the women seem to love. Both of these reasons seem to suggest that acting stardom could beckon for the blue-eyed boy. This should have been the film to have propelled him into the serious ranks. Leto plays Mark Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon, in the three days leading up to the assassination. The performance is thoroughly convincing as Leto adopts the sad Southern accent and gained an enormous amount of weight to look like Chapman. The resemblance is worryingly accurate and the traditional stories circulated about the problems associated with massive short-term weight gain. It is a noteworthy performance though, filled with melancholy and neurosis. It is quite unfortunate that despite this, the film itself is quite poor, Schaefer sticks mainly to close-ups and tight angles. I can understand his desire to force the audience closer to the performances but it becomes far too stifling when the screen is filled with Leto’s huge face all the time. There isn’t any room to breathe in the film and as a result it seems to suffer from a sense of inertia, lacking movement. It’s not an enjoyable film to watch despite the excellent central performance, frankly – it bores. It should be taking its cues from films like Taxi Driver and The Assassination of Richard Nixon, both of which have strong similarities to Chapter 27 but also have the presence of mind to show the world around their protagonist in more detail and help to throw the characters into relief. And so I come back to the point, should you pity Leto? I feel a bit for the chap – he’s clearly worked his nuts off for this and it opened on about 3 screens in America before disappearing completely after some average reviews. Even Lindsay Lohan managed not to be irritating in the film. Such a shame then that they didn’t have a better man at the helm to give this film a slightly wider scope and vision that would have complemented the central performance.

May 10th: The spy who waterboarded me.

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101. Mission Impossible III (JJ Abrams 2008)

The Cruiser’s action juggernaut picks up its third director capable of spectacular visual arrangements. This time though, things are getting nasty. In the post-Bourne world where Abu Ghraib is still fresh in peoples minds and films like Taken are smashing up the box office then you need to get a little bit dirty. This time the ‘fatality free’ Ethan Hawke is gone, this time they’ve messed with his wife and he wants some serious revenge. Torture and international arms deals come in to play (recalling both Taken and Lord of War) and the Cruiser is ready to play hardball. Although the whole thing is pretty forgettable stuff, whilst it is on screen the action sequences in particular are energetic and intelligent. There’s a clarity to the choreography and it doesn’t get bogged down in exposition at any point.