Tinseltown

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203. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) #32 in IMDB top 250

In a dramatic attempt to squeeze in a few more from the IMDB top 250 before the close of the challenge I decided to have a watch of this.  It’s a stone-cold classic from one of the all-time great Hollywood directors.  What’s most surprising is just how dark this film is.  It lost out on the best picture Oscar to another film I reviewed this year, All About Eve.  Where that film had a central character corrupted by the lure of fame, Sunset Blvd. is just darkness from start to finish.  This is the desolate landscape behind fame, those driving to achieve it and those who have been discarded from the Hollywood machine and left to rot on the sidelines.

William Holden is Joe Gillis, a screenwriter in the midst of a slump.  Much the way Holden’s career had stalled at the time.  Whilst running from the bailiffs he happens upon the dilapidated mansion of forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond, played by forgotten silent film star Gloria Swanson.  Her mysterious butler turns out to be a former silent movie director, he’s played by the great fallen silent film director Erich von Stroheim.  Can you see a pattern emerging?  Soon Joe is living at the mansion and writing up the screenplay for Desmond’s triumphant return that will never be made.  Instead the film begins to reach for the giddy depths of delusion, the three central characters are all complicit in the lie and it continues to spiral out of control until the mesmerising conclusion.

What a brave and intelligent piece of cinema this is, Hollywood is often self-congratulatory and rarely this self-critical.  To be this derisive in 1950 strikes me as remarkable bravura on the part of the man whose career depended on the patronage of the studios.  It is coldly brilliant film.

Sunset Boulevard is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘LA Movies’.

Whistle Lad…

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202. Whistle and I’ll Come to You (Jonathan Miller, 1968)

Adapted from the M.R. James short story ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ and made for the BBC as a winter ghost story, the success of this film spawned a yearly traditional ghost story.  A fusty and slightly cranky professor travels to the Norfolk coast for a winter break.  Whilst walking he discovers a graveyard and from one of the crumbling graves he plucks what looks like a bone whistle.  Later that evening in his hotel room he plays the whistle.  And then the dreams start.

This is quite a phenomenal piece of television, it’s so studied and calm – modern audiences might find it a bit too slow but that’s part of the charm.  There’s an economy to the camera movement that borders on Hitchcockian, and I can pay no higher compliment.  From the point that the whistle is found there is a steady incremental growth in the foreboding, starting with the exquisite shot of a shadowy figure in the distance on the beach until the extraordinarily disturbing dream sequence where fear is encapsulated in a series of bleak vistas.  I loved this adaptation and I’d urge anyone to seek it out.

Pullover

Jumper

201. Jumper (Doug Liman, 2008)

Doug Liman made Swingers, Go and The Bourne Identity.  Three films that I really quite like.  Jumper has a lot of promise, and it starts quite well.  Showing in a quick flurry of scenes what life might be like if you could teleport yourself to any conceivable location on the planet.  It is a snappy and exciting opening that sets up the exciting premise of David Rice’s life, especially with the hints of other ‘Jumpers’ (people who can teleport – not knitted Christmas presents favoured by Giles Brandreth) and a secret cabal of people who hunt them.  Unfortunately the whole thing is anchored around Hayden Christensen and Rachel Bilson and they can’t act.  Christensen had proved this in the Star Wars prequels and Bilson’s ‘pedigree’ comes from appearing in the teenage version of Dynasty, The OC.  With a pair of lead actors who generate as much heat as an Amish toolshed the film is overly reliant on inventive use of the jumping and the support cast.  This is where ballet-boy Jamie Bell comes in.  He can act and he shows the other two up quite embarrassingly.  Ultimately though this is a film of lost opportunity, much of that is probably due to material that was excised because they were saving it for the sequel – according to the DVD extras.  That’s some serious bravado and it has only just paid off with the sequel having gone into pre-production recently.  Hopefully that can make up for this empty vessel and with any luck some of the cast took some acting lessons in the intervening period.

The Eyes Have It

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200. Blind Fury (Philip Noyce, 1990)

I was born back in 1981, the formative film experiences for me weren’t really in the cinema – which was a treat, a special outing.  No, my love of the moving image came from the VHS era, where the landscape exploded, cinema ticket sales reached their all-time low in 1984 just as low/micro-budget film-making took off and a myriad of companies emerged to take advantage of a new and low-cost route to the audience.  Blind Fury reminds me of this era, it reminds me of being young and of a certain rough’n’ready aesthetic that permeated the times. This would be reason alone to love it, to find it gently tickling the pleasure senses – but there’s more…

Rutger Hauer is Nick Parker, a Vietnam Vet who had the misfortune to be blinded in active service but the luck to then be adopted up by a friendly village of Vietnamese people who train him to be an expert swordfighter.  20 years later he has to escort an annoying boy (played by the kid who was the original Hobie in Baywatch) across America to his father, a former soldier friend whose debt problems have gunmen chasing them all over the place.  Blind Fury is a quaintly Americanised version of the Zatoichi stories from Japan, the massive bonus is that it stars Hauer – a bone fide VHS star.  Just mentioning his name to my friends brought forth a series of reminisces about films like Split Second, Wanted: Dead or Alive and The Hitcher.  The Dutch Aryan is one of my favourite actors and will live in celluloid eternity for his astounding speech at the end of Blade Runner.  Here he plays the Zatoichi role with a knowing smirk on his face.  Blind Fury is silly, good humoured fun and some amusingly wayward B-movie acting from the supporting cast carries the whole thing along nicely.  And how good is that poster?  Look at that brilliant grin on his face!

To Teach or Not to Teach

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199. The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008)

Palme d’Or winner at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival this film stars its own writer, François Bérgaudeau, in a semi-autobiographical story of the problems he encountered when teaching in a French inner-city school.  As interesting and engaging as it is I really struggled to see quite why this was deemed worthy of winning any top awards.  As an English teacher myself it was interesting to see how French is taught in French schools, where the emphasis is laid and how similar this is to the pressures laid at the door of English teachers in this country.  Bérgaudeau is François Marin, a teacher who manages through good intentions to become embroiled in a series of confrontations with a class.  There’s a sense of panic in portions of the film where you are left to wonder about Marin and the decisions he has to make, often on the spur of the moment.  Despite this and a series of strong performances from the young people involved it never struck me as a film that will have any serious implications for French society.  My yardstick for this is Mathieu Kassovitz’ excellent La Haine a film which had deep ramifications in forcing large swathes of French society to acknowledge problems they might have otherwise ignored. For more on that read this excellent Criterion blog entry.

As for The Class, it’s an interesting film especially as a counterpoint to the much more gentle French schoolteacher documentary Etre et Avoir.  But perhaps I’m missing something, perhaps I am too close to the subject matter to truly understand what is happening in the film.  Because I didn’t love it, I found myself being critical of the mis-steps that Marin makes in dealing with certain situations.  I did find it to be ultimately an honest film though, not worried about letting the audience know that regardless of the situation there will always be pupils who are let down and left behind. An unfortunate outcome that I’m increasingly aware of.  I’d welcome any other views from my fellow teachers…

For a much more optimistic and descriptive review of The Class read this piece from Guardian writer Peter Bradshaw.

America’s Game

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198. Bad News Bears (Richard Linklater, 2005)

A remake of the 70s film of the same name, Billy Bob Thornton is the failed alcoholic baseball player (sound familiar?) who is given a chance at redemption in the form of a coaching position for an inept little league baseball team.  The typical journey of the sports film is undertaken and it has more than a little in common with the excellent Friday Night Lights.  Not least Thornton himself.  This is a different mood though, its good sardonic fun in the vein of Thornton’s other successes, like Bad Santa. He brings a fantastic world weary sense to proceedings and Linklater continues to make entertaining mainstream family films (School of Rock) as well as his indie fayre.

Love is… Zombies!

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197. I Love Sarah Jane (Spencer Susser, 2008)

Young Jimbo really does love Sarah Jane, what a shame he can’t tell her – he can’t broach the subject because of his nerves.  His nerves may be frayed by living in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. I Love Sarah Jane is an exceptional short film filled with the accurate clumsy diction of young people, a setting reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies and filmed with calm assurance by Spencer Susser.  Watch and enjoy…

Big moody robots

196. Panic Attack! (Federico Alvarez, 2009)

Here is a little treat for you, Federico Alvarez’ short film which has garnered him a deal with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House production company.  The Uruguayan has made a film which impressed me with its style and panache. In addition I’m reliably informed it contains more genuine giant robot thrills than Michael Bay’s last robo-budget-spunk Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Fries with that?

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195. Monsters vs Aliens (Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon, 2009)

Press ganged into watching a film with my niece she opted for this, DreamWorks latest entry into the pantheon of CGI extravaganzas.  It is a fairly run of the mill story for a childrens film, overcoming adversity and all that but wrapped in homage to 50s B-Movies with blob monsters, giant women and flying saucers.  Resolutely average stuff seemingly designed to sell Happy Meals rather than tell a good story.

Fishy

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194. The End of the Line (Rupert Murray, 2009)

I love an eco-doc, they follow such a predictable pattern.  They show you a dreadful picture of the modern world, or in this case the devastation wrought by industrial fishing. This lasts for roughly 50 minutes and takes a variety of forms.  The End of the Line plays out like a combination of investigative journalism and historical information film.  The thrust of the thing is that we are overfishing the world’s oceans and that drastic measures are needed in order to halt this slide.  This is where the second part of the eco-doc comes in, lasting about 20/30 minutes you get the potential solutions, the spots of light on the dark horizon.  This is eco-doc by numbers but the message contained within is undeniably powerful and if even half of what is said is true then humans have a lot of work to do to restore some balance to the situation.