August 7th: Case Closed?

Anatomy

165. Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959) #202 in IMDB top 250

It has certainly been a while since I managed to watch anything from the IMDB top 250 so I made a conscious decision to get stuck in with this courtroom drama from Otto Preminger.

Opening with a trademark Saul Bass title sequence, much like The Man with the Golden Arm, we’re introduced to James Stewart’s relaxed lawyer Paul Biegler. He’s persuaded to take the case of Lt. Manion, a man who has murdered a local bar owner. Biegler spends the first hour of the film investigating around the events and building his case. This is where the film takes a turn for something very special. We know Manion killed the man, he admits as much but the reasons why are shrouded in lies, half-truths and intrigue.

The last 80 minutes of the film are mainly in the court itself and it is the platform for the best cinema trial I’ve ever seen. Free of histrionics it relies more on subtlety and the mannered joust between two lawyers. Stewart’s Biegler is up against George C. Scott’s State Attorney, Claude Dancer, and their battle is epic. It’s about every minor detail from where they stand to how they intonate each question, it’s a great depiction of the cut and thrust of argument.

Aside from Stewart and Scott Lee Remick really sizzles as Manion’s outrageously flirty wife. My only real experience of Remick prior to this was her fairly repressed role in The Omen as Damien’s mother. In this she is perfect as the trailer-trash temptress who might be the key to the case. And this is where it gets a little subversive. I’m not sure about the case, I think the ending is excellent but it certainly isn’t typical, but to say anymore would ruin it for anyone who wants to see it – and it comes heartily recommended.

Note: Anatomy of a Murder is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Courtroom Dramas.

Guest Appearance

Hello you lovely people.

I’m currently making a guest appearance over at Paperhouse, the blog-site of the excellent up-and-coming writer Sarah Ditum. She’s wrestling away with actual paid writing work at the moment so at her behest, and perhaps my suggestion, I’ve made my mug visible over there. It’s a mid-term report on what it is like to be ‘Vs Cinema’ and the effect it has had on me. I hope you like it.

Read my post – One man against the movies.

Go to the Paperhouse front page and scroll through her awesome writing.

If you need any proof about how sharp Sarah is then I’ll let you in on one of our many conversations where I don’t come out of it so well…

Chris: “Pfft, fashion? What’s that? What does it really mean? It’s cobblers, the lot of it. It’s all surface with no substance – that sums up the people who like it. Fashion is for idiots.”

Sarah: “Well dressed idiots.”

Chris: “I, err… yeah.”

August 6th: Off-off-off-off Broadway

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164. Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest, 1996)

Never, as long as he lives and works, will Christopher Guest ever be able to escape the shadow of Spinal Tap. A fact he seems to have embraced rather than rejected judging by their latest tour. Waiting for Guffman represents one of Guest’s ‘mockumentary’ films, alongside Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

Guest stars as Corky St. Clair, a supremely camp exile from the rigours of the off-off-off Broadway theatre. His exile has lead him to Blaine Missouri, a town celebrating it’s sesquicentennial (that’s 150 year anniversary). It’s for the celebration that Corky decides to stage a play to cap the celebrations. After assembling his motley cast Corky gets confirmation that Mort Guffman, a theatre representative from New York will be in attendance and tensions begin to rise.

This is an exceptional comedy, Guest seems to have a knack of getting improvised performances to construct elaborate and extremely funny gags. He’s aided by a cast of actors on top form, Eugene Levy (who co-wrote), Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara and the ever beguiling indie darling Parker Posey are the stand-outs as the cast members of Corky’s musical masterpiece ‘Red White and Blaine’. It clocks in under 90 minutes and stays sharp and punchy, Guest really trims down everything to make sure that the gags are constantly coming at a rate of knots. It may never pass into legend like the ‘Tap but by the time the curtain raised on the gala performance I found myself willing them to succeed whilst giggling away at the crazed collective.

August 5th: Not Enough Dick

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163. Screamers (Christian Duguay, 2005)

When I reviewed Minority Report a few weeks ago there was a whisper or two that I hadn’t mentioned Screamers as one of the better adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s work. Always one for a bit of top quality sci-fi I decided to have a watch.

Peter Weller leads a retinue of soldiers stationed on a distant planet, engaged in a pitched battle against another army on the other side of a disputed desert mine. Weller’s forces are protected in this war by the titular ‘Screamer’ robots, rat-sized mechanicals with buzz-saws attached. When Weller decides to take up the offer of peace talks with the opposing forces he sets off only to find that things have taken a sinister turn on the planet and the Screamers are evolving.

Screamers is something of a disappointment. It’d be too easy to dismiss it as no-budget, idea free banality. But there are ideas, from the source material, evidently tossed away early on. The evolving machines raise some questions about identity but there’s no contemplation on the answers here, just an excuse for some very poorly directed action sequences. There are two locations for most of the film, the desert and the warehouse, I mustered some excitement toward the end when there was a scene in the mountains but they just found their way into another warehouse. If you are making a cheap sci-fi film then you should concentrate on the ideas (see Moon), if you’re making it action heavy then you should make sure you’ve got the budget, or creative talent, for it. Anything else is a recipe for failure and means you won’t be making it onto any list of successful adaptations.

August 4th: Apt Title

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162. Big Nothing (Jean-Baptiste Andrea, 2006)

I’ve always felt that Simon Pegg is my friend. He isn’t, except in the strange part of my head where he invites me to be a new flatmate character in the third series of Spaced and I go to the pub quiz every week with him, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright and Jessica Hynes. Mark Heap only comes along occasionally because he’s ‘a bit funny about going out’. Simon realises that I’ve got a great sense of humour, much like his, and I write the next film for him and Nick Frost to appear in before we all go round to Quentin Tarantino’s house for a movie marathon.

Welcome to my fantasy.

In Big Nothing Simon and David Schwimmer are a pair of IT workers who decide to have a crack at a bit of low level blackmail to make some cash. Things start to go wrong quickly and they continue to get worse as the bodies pile up. This is sub Coen brothers stuff really, a feeling that is only enhanced when Coen favourite John Polito turns up. But whilst it was pilloried on release, the worst you could say about it is that there’s much better stuff already out there in the same mould. Simon needs to drop the accent though – that really doesn’t work.

August 2nd: Sky High

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161. Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

How high is 1350 feet? I can’t properly visualise it. In 1974 Philippe Petit planned and executed a wire walk, 1350 feet up, between the two World Trade Centre towers. This documentary tells of the events that lead to this so-called ‘art-crime of the century’.

There’s a lot of credit to dish around here, director James Marsh and his editor, the excellently named Jinx Godfrey, have conspired to create an exhilarating film about an event which has no clear existing footage. They are aided by the charismatic ball of energy that is Petit. His excitable narration lends momentum to the film which consists predominantly of existing footage of Petit and his crew performing similar stunts at Notre Dame, Sydney Harbour Bridge and training for the World Trade Centre. There are interviews of the other people involved and some minor reconstructions too. By the time the operation is in full swing I was completely wrapt. Petit is such a fascinating character, the stunt itself is so bold and the whole operation seems doomed to never get off the ground. That’s why it doesn’t matter that you don’t actually see any footage of the event. The news helicopter film was far too indistinct and the footage from the ground was the same. But I didn’t care, the photographs, the description and the power of a well made documentary sold me.

The event itself is absolutely awe inspiring. It gets more so when they reveal that Petit didn’t just walk from one side to the other. I won’t spoil it by saying what he did whilst he was up there but it sends my vertigo off just by thinking about it. It’s a phenomenal achievement that has been honoured with an excellent documentary.

August 1st: Saturday Special: Charlie Sheen’s Teeth and Sherilyn Fenn’s Tits.

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160. The Wraith (Mike Marvin, 1986)

Well, as soon as Educating Rita had finished I turned over to find The Wraith on BBC1. Charlie Sheen is the avenging angel who turns up in a small Arizona town to clean up the local drag racing gang. Lead by the cold Packard Walsh, Nick Cassavetes on scenery chewing form, they killed young Jamie Haskins. Walsh took Haskins girlfriend and continues to bully his younger brother. That is until Sheen’s Jake Kesey arrives to avenge Haskins. Jake is The Wraith and with the power of his Knight Rider-esque sportscar and gleaming white teeth he sets about disposing of the gang bit by bit, whilst also getting the girl and taking the younger brother under his wing.

It’s revenge by numbers but notable for one or two things. The drag racing subculture on display makes this a kind of proto The Fast and The Furious. Nothing special but it is always interesting to see how low-budget genre films are able to capitalise on niche youth culture to garner an audience. Sheen himself has that cheeky smirk on his face throughout, he seems to be having a great time. And then there’s Sherilyn Fenn. I had a huge crush on Sherilyn Fenn when I watched the entirety of Twin Peaks on VHS over a two week period. I also went a tiny bit mad and heard weird plinky jazz music all the time, but that’s another story. This is an early appearance for her and it is pretty clear that she wasn’t backward about coming forward. Perfect dross for a late and lazy Saturday night.

August 1st: Another Brick in the Wall

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159. Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983)

After watching a documentary on the Open University on BBC4 I was pleasantly surprised to see this on after, as I’d never seen it before I thought I’d stick it out. I’m currently nearing the end of an OU unit on Shakespeare (hence the adaptations I’ve reviewed) so it seemed particularly appropriate. I also had a drama teacher and family friend who was a massive fan of Willy Russell and schooled me on the benefits of having strong working class characters in your stage productions.

Michael is the perpetually sauced University lecturer, Frank, who takes on an OU student in the form of Julie Walters’ Rita. Hailing from a working class background Rita is a straight talking hairdresser who has decided that she wants to understand literature. The central relationship is the thing here and Caine and Walters are superb. It really is Willy Russell’s writing at its very best. Rita’s husband being unable to understand why she is interested in Chekhov and poetry whilst Frank’s girlfriend is conducting an affair with one of university associates. Relationships strain and fracture, Rita and Frank have to come to terms with what their problems and backgrounds really count for in the grand scheme of life and it’s appealingly warm and funny.

It isn’t an advert for the OU but it is a reminder that this is an institution that offers opportunities to everyone from every walk of life and it is an institution that I’m increasingly proud of as a British invention.

August 1st: All the way Che

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158. The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004)

The South American cinema boom in the last decade has produced some refreshing and excellent film. Walter Salles has been around the Brazilian film scene for some time but this film represents his first in a language other than Portuguese (Spanish) and also his biggest success financially. It’s the story of a road trip taken by a young medical student Ernesto Guevara and his older friend Alberto Granado. The trip, taken in 1951, was initially on motorcycle but that soon changes as they travel around the continent of South America.

What makes a revolutionary? What is it that occurs in the mind of a person that forces them down a particular road in life? The Motorcycle Diaries is essentially the story of these formative experiences as Ernesto sees life beyond the borders of his middle class upbringing. He witnesses the cruelties and oppression that people undergo through the different countries. Salles frames these crucial moments as black and white memories, postcards of people and their circumstances. These are the formative moments that trigger Ernesto’s burgeoning socialist ideology and what will eventually lead him to become the ‘Che’ Guevara we know.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a moving story about friendship, Ernesto and Alberto are engaging and funny and the script and performances are pitched well enough so that you feel comfortable in their company.