May 4th: Precious

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100. The Hunt for Gollum (Chris Bouchard, 2009)

A group of enthusiastic Lord of the Rings fans have clubbed together and made this 40 minute fan-film set just prior to the events in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. They have somehow managed to emulate the aesthetic of the Jackson films with incredible success on a shoestring budget of just £3000. This is a genuine labour of love and an ode to Jackson’s achievements. I’ve got nothing but admiration for people who go to these lengths in their spare time so I’ll say nothing more about it other than to advise that you get it watched yourselves – here.

May 1st: Shit Sandwich

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99. Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater, 2006)

Last year I watched, and very much enjoyed, Thank You For Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2005). It struck me that Fast Food Nation had the potential to be a sort of sister film. It could have been a savage and witty exposé on the methods of producing the foods that we take for granted. It isn’t though. Instead Linklater has worked on crafting this narrative from the non-fiction book and rather than imbuing it with zippy sharp dialogue and swift pacing he opts for a much more sober tale. Greg Kinnear heads up the cast along with several big-name cameo appearances as the story unfolds of what happens at a meat processing and packing plant. The film meanders between several different threads and even references Linklater’s superlative Dazed and Confused with a party at the watchtower. Unfortunately the whole thing left me kind of cold though, for some reason it lacks energy and verve. It doesn’t propose a solution or a way out or effect any change – it isn’t supposed to. But it doesn’t make you angry enough about the system either, and this is perhaps its biggest failing.

More Guns, Hot Naked Chicks, Car Crashes and a Double Whiskey…

I absolutely loved the initial promo trailer for Give ’em Hell, Malone (see it here). I reckon it was the best trailer I’d seen in a long while. Well, the more conventional Cannes trailer is out and the film is still up there on my radar. The soundtrack just gets better with the addition of Johnny Cash’s cover of the Soundgarden classic Rusty Cage. The dames look hot, the whisky looks cold and the fightin’, car crashin’ and deformed bad-guy count appears to be in order.
Here’s the new trailer for your viewing pleasure…

May 2nd: Hollywood Save Us!

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98. The 11th Hour (Nadia Conners & Leila Conners Peterson, 2007)

Leonardo DiCaprio presents this eco-doc about how we’re all killing the planet because massive corporations don’t care about the cost of ‘externalities’ and mass consumerism isn’t mindful of its waste produce. The first 40/45 minutes of this are a relatively sedate trawl through the science of our decline and introduce the concept that we, as a race, are approaching the last possible point where we can effect change in the circumstances – The 11th Hour. So far, so dull. The real excitement is generated in the last half an hour of the film where various scientists and experts discuss their propositions to redesign the way we live and the way we consume. The ideas are exciting, refreshing and innovative. Regardless of your stance on the causes of climate change it would be trite to deny the beauty of these designs and the nobility of the projects.

April 29th: Oskars all round.

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97. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) #7 in IMDB top 250

Weighing in at a tasty 3 hours plus this is a chunky film. There’s not an awful lot you can say about it that hasn’t already been said. If you don’t know the story; Liam Neeson is Oskar Schindler, a Czech businessman and Nazi party member for whom World War II presents a business opportunity unlike any other. His newly established ceramic factory in Krakow employs Jewish workers from the hastily built ghetto, because it is cheaper than employing a ‘normal’ Polish worker. Over time Schindler becomes more and more aware of the atrocities being committed against the Jewish population, especially after the arrival of the new Captain, Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes), and the construction of the concentration camp at nearby Płaszów. Eventually, at great risk to all involved, Schindler makes arrangements to rescue over 1000 of the Jewish inmates at the camp under the guise of a cheap labour force.

This is powerful and mature film-making at its finest. There isn’t a hint of sentimentality about the film at all. Instead it makes great strides at forcing you to view this story in all its grisly detail. A story of misery, pain and endurance. At the centre of the whole thing are four stunning performances. Liam Neeson as the Nazi whose believable gradual transformation is a credit to the actor and to Steve Zaillian’s script, Ben Kingsley as the accountant who smuggles the most needy into the factory and manages a performance mainly of great emotion through the simplest expressions, Embeth Davidtz as the maid caught and captive in the madness and horror next to Ralph Fiennes’ Göth. This is the clincher. Fiennes is on the verge of being overtly camp, too pathetic and impotently angry but instead he manages to balance the performance on a knife edge. He never descends to any easy trope, instead he finds the broken human inside the character and pushes him forward alongside the disgusting engineer death.

Schindler’s List might have easily suffered from being worthy or trite but it doesn’t. It is a superb piece of cinema about an important and incredible true story. See it.

One quick final point. There is a writer for The Guardian newspaper called Tanya Gold. I don’t know Tanya but I’m afraid I find her a little bit annoying. She recently wrote an article about how we have too much of the Nazis in our popular culture, fearing that it somehow amounts to a kind of fetishism. Well, Tanya may have a bit of a point but it got lost in her desperate scramble to attack any culture product with a sniff of swastika and she made a bit of a messerschmidt of the whole thing. Read it here. Whilst there is a bit of a national fascination (it isn’t quite an obsession yet) with the defeated culture fascist Germany you have to accept a bit of chaff with the wheat. For every Schindler’s List there may well be a story about ‘Nazi cows’ but I think I’d be willing to pay that price for a piece of cinema this satisfyingly constructed.

Note: Schindler’s List is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘True Stories’.

April 28th: Old School

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96. F/X2: The Deadly Art of Illusion (Richard Franklin, 1991)

Up until last year I was convinced that I’d seen this film when I was much younger but after watching F/X: Murder by Illusion (Robert Mandel, 1986) last year I thought I’d confused the two. I did remember the telemetry suit controlled clown from this sequel though. When I saw it was on I figured I’d watch it and see if there was anything worth writing about. Good job because I had a very interesting thought whilst I was watching the film. Would it be possible to make it now?

The film centres on the character of Rollie Tyler (played by Aussie actor Bryan Brown), former special effects expert turned designer toymaker. Drawn back to his initial calling to assist in a police trap for a serial killer Tyler is sucked into a web of conspiracy and double-crosses which he manages to escape from with the aid of…

You guessed it, special ‘F/X’!

Although it has dated the charm of F/X2 is obvious and more importantly it glories physical effects and the ingenious methods that film-makers would utilise to present seemingly impossible feats on the screen. It struck me that with the advent of computer generated effects, especially the evolutionary leap that they made with Jurassic Park in 1993, we are in danger of losing this kind of technician to the computer. Whilst that might sound melodramatic, I’m not too averse to CGI as an embellishment but films are now using CG blood-splatter and obliterating minor effects that can never really look as good, to my eye at least. To this end I think that both films, F/X and F/X2 are an ode to art form and are films that couldn’t really be made today.

Oh, the telemetry suit/clown thing is both freaky and brilliant.

April 27th: Life is like a box of stupid.

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95. Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006)

Mike Judge is one of the leading American chroniclers of idiocy. With Beavis and Butthead he put up mirror to the issue of losing a generation to MTV. In interviews Judge is softly spoken and often serious about his work, especially Beavis and Butthead. He claims that he sees a prevalence of idiocy and of people who are happy to be idiots. He expanded this into the workplace with the slow-burning hit Office Space, which despite initially failing managed to find its audience on DVD in spectacular style, at one point entering 20th Century Fox’s top 20 DVD sales chart back in 2003. Idiocracy isn’t quite as subtle as Office Space. In fact it isn’t subtle at all. The satire in this is so obvious that it is almost a parody of itself.

Luke Wilson is Private Joe Bauers of the US Army. He is so average in every way that it is decided that to put him forward as a test subject to be cryogenically stored. When the experiment is forgotten about Joe wakes up 500 years in the future where he discovers that, due to a kind of reverse evolution, he is the smartest man alive.

This is Beavis and Butthead territory, Judge is just blankly holding up a mirror to society and asking it to take a long hard look at itself and its blithe acceptance of advertising, insipid and degrading television and crooked soundbite politics. It has a few laughs and Luke Wilson’s gentle charm carries the whole thing easily but this doesn’t hold a candle to the excellent Office Space and it seems unlikely that Judge will ever be able to re-capture the zeitgeist the way he did with Beavis and Butthead. But I hope he continues to chronicle the dumb because it continues to be entertaining.

April 26th: Diary of an animal lover.

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94. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Timothy Treadwell was an infuriating man. Determined to spend as much time as possible living amongst the grizzly bears of Alaska he filmed hours and hours of footage of his ‘work’ which consists of living with and being close to the bears. On the 6th October 2003 Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by one of the bears he cared so passionately about. Werner Herzog has pared down the footage shot by Treadwell, added in some interviews and comments and presented a quite extraordinary documentary in Grizzly Man. What Herzog succeeds in doing is quite remarkable, where I went into the film expecting only to dislike Treadwell because of his frustrating desire to be close to a wild animal that doesn’t want him there, the finished film managed to present a depth of view that I wasn’t expecting. Yes, Timothy Treadwell was in many ways deluded about his actions and their impact. Yes, he obliterated his girlfriend from the footage to make it appear as if he was alone. But Herzog explores the question ‘Why?’ He uncovers the story of a man who repeatedly failed in his endeavours and sought to recreate himself on more than one occasion.

It is a complex journey, Herzog clearly admires Treadwell’s footage and his bravery but he also knows that the man is deluded and confused. He isn’t helping these bears as much as he is helping himself to feel as if he belongs as though he is contributing. It is difficult to view this as anything other than a false fight that Treadwell has set up to enable him to see himself as a lone hero.

Whatever your view – this sad story is fascinating and upsetting. The description from the coroner of Treadwell’s final moments is grisly, and in its own way heroic. But you won’t be able to shake the feeling that it was also, ultimately, avoidable. Grizzly Man is a superb documentary and a fascinating account of someone who failed to find a voice in the human world until he crossed the boundaries into the animal world.

April 25th: It is pretty weird in Belgium.

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93. Calvaire (Fabrice Du Welz, 2004)

Belgium is not a prolific producer of cinema, especially not films that break onto the international scene. Calvaire (called The Ordeal in England) is a rarity in that respect. Consider this a warning though, Calvaire is weird. It only really works, in my mind anyway, as a drawn out metaphor. Marc is a singer from a small town where he seems to have inspired the entire town into obsession. And this is the central theme of the film. As Marc travels to the big city to seek his fame he is forced to stop at an out of the way inn when his van breaks down. The owner of the inn, Bartel, quickly becomes obsessed with Marc and the film quickly becomes a psycho-sexual variant on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Marc is chased and hunted by the local villagers who seem to be projections of Bartel’s fractured mind. This is an odd film, the narrative is purposely difficult and this is enhanced by the setting. The rural Belgian woodlands oscillate between dank autumn and frigid snow-blasted winter as the film descends further into madness. If you can stick it out through the bestiality and the dancing then you might enjoy it.