January 16th: Fat Ballet

25. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) #50 in IMDB top 250

Every now and again a role comes along that seems perfectly suited to an actor, a role that effectively mirrors their own life. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke has just such a role. Beaten and scarred ageing wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson struggles to hold his life together, estranged from his daughter, struggling to pay his trailer home rent and finally told by doctors that he has to quit wrestling. Rourke has effectively lived this story over the past 25 years and his face tells the story. Generic plot aside, you’re watching for the performances. As convincing as Rourke is he’s matched by Marisa Tomei whose stripper with a heart of gold, Cassidy, is Randy’s only friend. The pair of them are commodities – their bodies are their livelihood but they can no longer depend on them as their age finally catches up with them.

I have to admit to being completely bemused by the English advertising for the film. It’s focused on the, admittedly well filmed, wrestling sequences. Without prior knowledge you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the focus of the film, thankfully it isn’t. The Wrestler is an excellent character drama with very genuine performances and a worthy awards contender.

Note – I also adored the fist-pumping 80s cock-rock soundtrack particularly ‘Balls to the Wall’ by Accept. But that might just be me.

January 14th: And it burns, burns, burns…

 

24. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)

 

Here I am with another in the long line of classics that I somehow managed to miss over the years. It’s pretty easy to see why this film has lasting appeal as I laughed out loud whilst sat in the house on my lonesome. It’s quotable, packed with gags both big and small and it doesn’t let up. Blazing Saddles takes the Western and embraces it, subverts it and finally perverts it. Cleavon Little is fantastic as the newly appointed Sheriff and Gene Wilder is an excellent foil. The rest of the film roars along until the slightly disappointing final scenes, once the sheriff is accepted by the townsfolk then the film understandably loses some of its zeal. That’s forgiven though as Blazing Saddles has retained its overall charm and most of its gags still hit.

 

Everyone has a favourite bit in a film like this, mine has to be ‘Where all the white women at?’ Yours?

 

Note: Blazing Saddles is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Comedies (American)’.

January 13th: Deadly Questions

 

22. Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn, 2004)

 

So often an excellent trailer is followed months later by an average film. So I approached Layer Cake wondering if the reverse could be true as the trailer was abysmally off-putting. What a pleasant surprise it is to watch a smart film with an economical style and a very sturdy cast. Daniel Craig serves an admirable apprenticeship for his Bond role and Sienna Miller puts on some flash underwear (I’m not actually sure if she can act but she has decent career as a clothes horse to fall back on). Layer Cake deserves to join the clutch of decent modern British crime thrillers alongside Gangster No.1 and Sexy Beast. Matthew Vaughn has come a long way since being Guy Ritchie’s finance guy and has made a more watchable film than any of Ritchie’s recent dreck.

 

Tangent: Sorry to sound like a repetitive feminist but all the women in this are fucking rubbish characters, untrustworthy gobshites or mute eye-candy. What was the last decent female character in a British crime film, Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday?

 

 

 

23. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) #214 in IMDB top 250

 

Once again in the hands of the master, Rope is Hitch’s experiment in continuous shooting. With only 10 shots the film and adapted from the play, Rope is deliberately stage-like. Despite this, as I mentioned in the Rear Window review, you can feel that you are being guided by Hitchcock, manipulated by the easy flowing camera movements. Not much I can add to what’s already been written so I’m going to go off on another tangent.

 

Tangent: I read, courtesy of IMDB, that the film was banned in certain cities of America due to the implied homosexuality between the murderous chaps Brandon and Phillip. This implied homosexuality looks pretty tame, if obvious, in hindsight. But it’s indicative of attitudes from the time. Gay characters are morally crippled, their choice of lifestyle reflecting a lack of ethical fortitude. Have we actually managed to move on from this? Or have gay characters just climbed one or two rungs above other minority groups – meaning they can now be ‘best friends’ to the main characters?

January 12th: Shades of Grey

 

Renaissance (Christian Volckman, 2006)

 

This animated French future-noir with hints of Blade Runner and Equilibrium is an exceptionally beautiful film. Using the rotoscope animation seen in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Renaissance took a staggering 6 years to produce and with a daring monochromatic palette it looks quite unlike anything else out there. Unfortunately this technique obliterates the minutiae of human expression and distances the viewer from the emotional impact of the scenes. The story, police officer Barthélémy Karas investigating shadowy corporations and kidnapped scientists, is entertaining if unremarkable genre stuff meaning Renaissance is an intriguing curio but not revolutionary, despite appearances.

 

Note: Another 100 word challenge, any thoughts?

January 11th: Golden Boy and Icy Girl

 

19. The Great Waldo Pepper (George Roy Hill, 1975)

 

A bit of the all-American boy, Robert Redford, seemed appropriate for a Sunday afternoon viewing. I went into the film with a bit of prior knowledge having read screenwriter William Goldman’s excellent ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’. In it Goldman describes the process by which the screenplay was commissioned and eventually constructed and the way he realised, upon watching it with an audience, where he had made a dreadful error of judgement. At the halfway point in the film this error is made when a major character is killed, somewhat unexpectedly. Goldman said the audience reactions were absolutely dreadful. He knew then that they’d lost the audience at this point and that they weren’t going to buy into the rest of the film. Now I’ve seen it, I understand. It may well serve the narrative but it completely rips the heart out of the film. The problem is exacerbated by the callous way in which the surviving characters seem only to worry about their careers in the scene that follows. It’s a catastrophic error in the development of the film.

 

Aside from this the film does have a real charm about it. Goldman, George Roy Hill and Robert Redford are the team from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (which will also be reviewed on here soon). Aforementioned death aside, this comfortable arrangement translates to give much of the film a welcome sense of ease and of an accomplished and friendly atmosphere. Redford is a movie star, a latter day matinee idol who has a fantastic screen presence. Learning that all the actors, Redford included, did all of the aerial stunts made the aerial sequences of the film become even more impressive. This was the era of the ‘barnstormers’, daredevil pilots without a World War to fight and with plenty of skill in a bi-plane who would go from town to town offering rides and stunts for a fee. The film captures this lost era with some stunning photography and, if you can forgive the mid-film calamity, a pretty engrossing story.

 

Note: The Great Waldo Pepper is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Flying Movies’.

 

 

 

20. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) #190 in IMDB top 250.

 

Oskar, a bullied, shy 12 year old boy in a snowy Norwegian town befriends Eli, a girl who has recently moved in next door. But Eli has a secret that means she’ll always be 12 and she can’t be exposed to sunlight. Let the Right One In is a beautifully shot portrayal of the beginnings of adolescence where adult emotions and situations begin to violently invade childhood. The film is dependant on the child actors and their performances are utterly convincing, especially Lina Leandersson as Eli who conveys the combination of ancient ferocity and isolated youth with understated aplomb.

 

Note: I’ve set myself a kind of ‘commission challenge’ with this review of making it only 100 words long. Let me know if you think I managed to get everything across.

January 9th: Kicking arse and taking names since 2009

17. The Foot Fist Way (Jody Hill, 2006)

 

Courtesy of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and their ‘Funny or Die’ website and taking its cues from Napoleon Dynamite and The Office this is one hell of a quotable comedy. As a result it will be brilliantly appropriate for repeated drunken viewings. Comedy is a difficult subject to review, it engenders a much more subjective viewpoint, one persons Bill Hicks is another persons Jethro. So take it from me, if you thought The Office was cringe-worthy or that Napoleon Dynamite was just plain weird, steer clear of this. If you thought they were funny then give The Foot Fist Way a try and marvel at Danny McBride’s creation, Tae-Kwon Do instructor Fred Simmons. A man who is so comically unaware of his failings that by half-way through the film you’ll be willing this loser to succeed. And for what it’s worth I laughed my arse off from about 10 minutes in, right until the end.

 


 

18. Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008)

 

Taken is a truly post-Bourne film. We’ve moved on completely from the muscle-bound action heroes of the late 80s and early 90s via the wire-fu and firearm acrobatics of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and John Woo respectively. Where are we now? Taken is a great illustration of the current trend, the fighting and gunplay are bonecrackingly kinetic, Europe is the preferred backdrop and torture is an acceptable tool in the burgeoning arsenal of the hero. There’s a very economical approach to narrative, the set up is dealt with in 15 minutes. Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, his daughter has been kidnapped and he is going to tear-arse around Paris cracking heads and gunning his way through the criminal underworld until he gets her back. Hmmm, succinct. There really is no narrative progression from 15/20 minutes onwards, instead there is pain. Skull-crunching, limb-busting pain. It’s worth noting that Bryan Mills is a curiously unsympathetic hero, he genuinely doesn’t care who he steps on to get back his daughter – innocent or guilty – they’re in his way. In this way the film differs from the Bourne trilogy, as it ends you’ll feel no sense of empathy with Mills, you certainly won’t like him.

Whilst it may be an unsatisfying meal for your mind, Taken is a feast for the eyes and a shot of adrenaline in the arm. It mightn’t linger long in the memory but the sight of Liam Neeson smacking someones head in a car door certainly entertains.

January 7th: Service with a Smile

Clerks II (Kevin Smith, 2006)

 

I approached this film with a deal of apprehension and I think I need to explain why, to give some context my thoughts and ramblings. I started really loving Cinema when I was 15/16, around the time I first bought an issue of the now sadly defunct Neon movie magazine and began spending an unhealthy amount of time in Jack Beanstalk Video in Timperley. I remember very clearly at this time that I read somewhere about Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994) having been a success on the festival scene in America and getting a video release in the UK. I managed to watch the film on its premier on Sky Movies and I absolutely loved it. I was obviously a bit impressionable but I thought ‘this is it!’ This was the breath of fresh air for my generation of audiences. It was sharp and witty, it had great songs, great characters and things that actually related directly to me. I worked in a cornershop, I smoked myself insanely stoned, I had no idea about what I wanted to do in life and I was definitely having issues with women (how to find them, what to say to them and not make a tit of yourself). So Clerks was largely to blame for my ensuing film obsession. I obsessed over Kevin Smith’s subsequent films but, over time, steadily fell out of synch with what he was doing from my disappointment with Dogma to the extent that I didn’t bother watching Jersey Girl or Clerks II. Maybe I felt like I’d grown out of Kevin Smith or that I’d gotten to a stage where he wasn’t important anymore.

 

So when a friend of mine, knowing about this blog and my challenge, lent me Clerks II with the words ‘It’s rayt fucking funny’ I was a touch worried about how I was going to find it. I was a bit surprised at the warm sense of return at the start. To see the characters back, not in bit parts or cameos but in a story of their own, was really pleasing. The return is definitely re-treading old ground but it’s pretty comfortable ground and for the most part it’s funny too. The same Kevin Smith problems that saw me drift away from his work are still in evidence; despite it being his strength the script can be too wordy by a fair distance (leave the Star Wars shit alone!), the editing is occasionally clunky and the sentimentality wins through in a very American way. That said it certainly isn’t the disaster I feared, the humour hits more than it misses, poor Brian O’Halloran’s inability to act is offset by the other cast members (Trevor Fehrman as Elias is superb) and it lead to me wallowing in a weird nostalgia as you can tell by this somewhat bizarre review.

 

Cheers to Shaun for the DVD and cheers to Andy for this alternative response/review when I told him I was watching Clerks II

 

“It’s utter, utter, UTTER balls. I went through that film doubling my loathing of it every minute that went by.”

January 6th: Just Looking


Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
#16 in IMDB top 250.

 

What can I add, when watching a film that has been written about ad infinitum and will continue to be written about? What? Well, it’s quintessential Hitchcock really, encompassing his core themes of voyeurism and sexuality within a fantastically tight scenario. Now endlessly referenced in popular culture, Rear Window, unlike Soylent Green, lives up to its status of ongoing cultural importance – in this case the film is worth the credit. It’s filmed with real economy, no shot is wasted. You feel, from start to finish, as if you are in hands of a master manipulator. The pacing is tight and never allows for any boredom because the story develops with such a gentle ease. Jimmy Stewart manages another career defining performance (how many can one actor have!) and Grace Kelly is a blinding mix of New York glamour and adventurous muse. A classic in every sense.

 

Perhaps more importantly, why hadn’t I seen this before? Embarrassingly I can’t really explain, my Hitchcock experience is relatively threadbare for a student of the cinema. Many thanks then to Russo who has leant me the Alfred Hitchcock 14 film box-set, expect to see a few more reviews of the great mans movies and I hope to be able put forward some more salient and interesting points rather than just spunking praise all over the place like an excited terrier.

January 5th: Food For Thought

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

 

You’ll note, so far, that I’ve avoided any spoilers in my reviews – and long may that continue. But who is reading this and doesn’t know the twist at the end of Soylent Green? Surely, surely there can only be a handful of people reading a movie blog who don’t know what happens. I knew. I knew because the term ‘Soylent Green’ has itself passed into popular culture as a ‘meme’ of sorts. It’s a replicating piece of knowledge that allows people ‘in’ to a joke or a reference. Chances are you’ve seen a parody or reference to Soylent Green several times in your life and you’ve asked someone or looked it up and, without actually having to see the film, you know. You know what Soylent Green is. So what effect does this have for a viewer of the film for the first time, abundantly aware of the properties of the titular substance? Well, it makes the film a bit dull to be honest. There was no tension to be had. Soylent Green may have been a shocking look at a potential world we might one day inhabit when it was released in 1973. Now though, the cultural reference has completely surpassed the film itself in terms of impact and relevance. But that’s quite a harsh review, Soylent Green has plenty to interest aside from the plot itself – it’s a wonderful window on the early 70s ideas of the future, especially the newly looming ecological awareness of the time. Charlton Heston as Det. Thorn is watchably brusque and caddish as he traverses the crowded New York City in search of answers. And finally for all the video game players, a sexy woman (amusingly called ‘furniture’ in future parlance as women come with the rented accommodation) plays ‘Computer Space’ in one scene – the first ever arcade game. Unfortunately though Soylent Green is hamstrung by its own kind of success.

Note: Soylent Green is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Surprise Ending Movies.

January 4th: Mondo Horror and Medical Thriller


Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

 

Dario Argento is the master of Italian horror cinema and, as a horror fan it’s an absolute disgrace that I’ve never seen anything other than Jenifer (2005) and Pelts (2006), his entries in the Masters of Horror TV series. Suspiria is widely considered to be the archetypal Argento film, so where better to start.

 

Suspiria is different right from the start, as plucky ballet student Susan rushes through the airport Argento chooses to focus on the mechanics of the automatic doors as they unlock and then stab back together. This innocuous event is set to the crashing maniacal music that of Goblin. Powering over the film, this bizarrely arranged mixture of pulsing electronic sounds, chanting and cackling is a real assault on the senses. It gives the first five minutes of Suspiria an awkward, eerie feeling that the plot itself doesn’t dictate. Couple this with the gaudy reds, sickly greens and yellows that shade over the film and the relatively run of the mill story about a school which acts as a cover for a secret society takes on a deeply unsettling tone. Suspiria is a film which demands your attention, it isn’t subtle but it is extremely effective. Special mention goes to the scene involving coiled wire (pictures of which were used to promote the film), a scene that combines all of the elements mentioned above to sickening effect.

Note: Cheers to Conor, whose Mum’s DVD I’ve had for a good few months – I’ll return it now!

 


 

Coma (Michael Crichton, 1978)

 

More airport novel films? Aye, but from the master of the airport novel, Michael Crichton. Despite it being on the BBC every month throughout the 90s I’ve never seen Coma before and for the first 40 minutes I understood why. It has aged badly in terms of its pace. However, when Geneviéve Bujold’s increasingly fraught Doctor begins to plunge deeper into the conspiracy of this medical thriller events begin to snowball with pleasing rapidity. Coma isn’t spectacular but it entertains as long as you ignore the outdated ‘moral question’ speech from Richard Widmark.

 

What interests me more about this film is that the lead role is certainly Bujold’s. Michael Douglas is the sceptical second fiddle offering meaningless platitudes for most of the film. Comparisons are very interesting with yesterdays reviewed film Kiss the Girls. In both the lead female character is a Doctor. Both are strong willed and outspoken and throughout the course of the film unable to maintain into a stable romantic relationship. Hollywood tropes rejoice – your position is not imperiled. It’d seem that if you are to be an independently minded female in a Hollywood narrative then you cannot also be part of a happy couple. Bujold’s character can’t maintain her lead status in the film though – during the climactic scenes Douglas has to save the day and Bujold’s life and the suggestion is that they’ll end up a happy couple at last; all she had to do was lie down and let the man do his bit, so to speak. Still, Coma was released before Lt Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and Marge Gunderson (of Fargo) burst onto the screen and out of that lot only Marge got to kill the bad guy and stay married!

Note: Coma is in the Neon 1000 Essential Videos to Watch listed under ‘Hospital Movies’