Archive for the Film Category

1001: A Screen Odyssey

Posted in Film on 20 August, 2010 by Ally

If this blog had any readers, it wouldn’t have escaped their notice that I don’t really post much anymore. However I have resumed regular blogging with my friend Rachel, as we are trying to watch and review each of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. The list spans 105 years of cinema and we have committed ourselves to watching it all. Even Top Gun.

Follow our progress on our blog, 1001: A Screen Odyssey.

Claudia Winkleman to host Film 2010

Posted in Film, Television with tags , , , on 29 March, 2010 by Ally

Today the BBC announced Claudia Winkleman will replace Jonathan Ross as host of Film 2010. Even for an ardent Wossy detractor, this does not strike me as A Good Thing. “Everyone has an opinion on film,” she states in the press release, ignoring the fact that some are more informed than others. Claudia Winkleman, while eminently likable, has no previous form in film criticism and apparently nothing more to guide her than gut instinct. That’s also true of the viewing public, but we expect our opinions to come from those more knowledgable than us.

This is merely speculation of course: Not just counting chickens before they’re hatched, but deciding said chickens will be shit. Nevertheless this wonky egg doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Muppet Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on 24 November, 2009 by Ally

Mere words cannot express how much I love this video. Sesame Street aside, my youth is sadly lacking in fond Muppet memories. That doesn’t diminish the affection I have for Kermit and the gang, and the pure joy of muppetry is abundantly clear in this new video. I recommend going directly to youtube and viewing it in HD.

Many thanks to @GarethFW and @Glinner for tweeting the link.

Bend Me, Remake Me, Any Way You Want Me

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on 20 August, 2009 by Ally

I was dismayed to hear of two remakes in the pipeline. Steven Spielberg danced a merry jig on a few graves whilst announcing plans to remake Harvey, the classic 1950 screwball comedy (based on a 1944 play) starring James Stewart as a man who befriends an invisible rabbit. Meanwhile Disney and Robert Zemeckis are collectively pissing on the Beatles’ legacy by collaborating on a 3D version of psychedelic 1968 cartoon Yellow Submarine.

The cover version is a useful analogy. Cover a less successful song and discover it was a hit waiting to happen, such as Hendrix’s Hey Joe. Recreate a classic song accurately and it’s written off as pointless, like Westlife’s various crimes against music or Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. Transform it beyond recognition and it’s desecration — i.e. Mark Ronson’s godawful output (even if you didn’t like the Zutons to start with).

And it’s hard to imagine Spielberg’s Harvey as anything but a Ronsonesque exercise in memory-soiling. We still regard the 1950 version with fondness. Anyone quoting it is compelled to mimic James Stewart’s distinctive Southern drawl, and another actor stepping into his shoes will find it damn near impossible to fill them. As for Yellow Submarine, didn’t Across the Universe serve as a stern warning that Beatle-inspired musicals just don’t work outside the 1960s? And do we really need to see the Fab Four rendered as eerie, dead-eyed avatars like those in The Polar Express?

Yes, remakes can be worthwhile. John Huston’s iconic version of The Maltese Falcon was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and it made Humphrey Bogart a star — partly because George Raft’s contract enabled him to pass on remakes! But while the third Falcon movie tried to fix some failings (or cash in on a hit book), modern remakes exploit the enduring popularity of the originals. Hands up who preferred the recent Taking of Pelham 123. How about Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Thought not.

Ikiru

Posted in Film with tags , , on 16 August, 2009 by Ally
Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru translates as “to live,” something Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) hasn’t done for nigh-on thirty years, and won’t be doing much longer. Every day he sits at his desk in the department of something-or-other, stamping forms while most of the actual work is redirected to other departments. His wife is long dead and he is incapable of nurturing another meaningful relationship, whether with his coworkers or his son.

He suffers from a worsening stomach complaint, which the doctors reassure him is a mild ulcer. He is warned by a wise patient that such a diagnosis, matched with his symptoms, is more likely terminal cancer – it was customary for doctors to spare patients of such difficult knowledge. Faced with his imminent mortality and the realisation that his life has been intensely boring, Watanabe vows to make the most of his limited time. The problem is, he doesn’t know how.

The first half of Ikiru charts Watanabe’s desperate attempts to recapture his joie de vivre, carpe diem and other such untranslatable concepts. First he becomes a barfly, enjoying the brief respite from introspection that drinking allows him. Here he meets a writer who shows him the town. Hot jazz music, dancing girls and pinball machines all fail to thrill him. He even silences one club with a poignant barroom singalong of Gondola no Uta:

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips

Meanwhile his coworkers are mystified by his sudden absence, especially young Toyo, who requires his rubber stamp to submit her resignation. Watanabe is drawn to her youthful impatience and frank honesty, and she soon becomes his reluctant lifeline. Quizzing Toyo about her new job making children’s toys, Watanabe finds the inspiration to make meaningful use of his remaining time. His colleagues are surprised to find him back at work, bristling with energy and determined to transform a stagnant plot of land into a children’s playground.

The second, slightly drawn-out half of the film is told in a series of flashbacks as the colleagues remember Watanabe at his wake. They ponder over his mysterious change of character, and gradually come to the conclusion that the secretive Watanabe knew he was dying. Noting that we are all dying, the bureaucrats – stricken with grief, guilt and alcohol – vow to continue their lives in Watanabe’s spirit. Sadly this vow is short-lived and the department reverts to its old, wasteful and boring ways.

Parts of Ikiru are deeply moving. An obvious highlight is the iconic scene of Watanabe on the newly-built playground swing, singing softly to himself as the camera peers at him through the climing frame. Other parts are somewhat frustrating, especially the long wake scene. The bureaucrats take an absurdly long time to come to conclusions. Perhaps this is a way of baiting the audience, urging us to follow Watanabe’s example instead of theirs. But having spent the duration of the film contemplating my own mortality and making vows to myself, I too have reverted to my old, boring ways.

Kubrick’s Tube: The Aspect Ratio Debate

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 17 July, 2009 by Ally

The Aspect Ratio Debate. It’s not a pretentious art-rock band, but a question that has plagued Stanley Kubrick fans since the beginning of home video. What did Kubrick intend for us to see on our television screens, and does this still apply since the widescreen TV boom?

The issue originates from Kubrick’s dismay at seeing a pan and scan version of 2001: A Space Odyssey — a version formatted to fill a 4:3 TV screen by cropping off the edges of the image. As a preventative measure Kubrick shot his subsequent films in open matte, essentially capturing more of the image than was needed for widescreen theatrical presentation. This allowed for TV broadcasts without the use of pan and scan (which compromises the original cinematography) or letterboxing (which, although it would be my favoured solution, Kubrick reportedly found distracting).

It was these fullscreen versions that were released on VHS and DVD, and thus the versions that many fans have grown to love after years of repeated home viewings. They were indeed the versions favoured by Kubrick for home display, but not for theatrical presentation. This is perhaps most obvious when you compare the opening scene of The Shining. In the full frame version, the camera helicopter’s shadow can be glimpsed for at least one second, while it is hidden in the widescreen version. Surely a perfectionist like Stanley Kubrick would not ultimately favour the version with such a blatant technical glitch.

And the simple fact is that home display has advanced greatly since Kubrick’s death. High-definition widescreen televisions offer the most cinematic experience currently possible without an actual cinema, and the theatrical version comes closer to filling the screen than the so-called “fullscreen” version of old. Consumers are more aware of aspect ratios, and less likely to panic at the first sign of black bars on their screens.

But when films like The Shining were screened in two different formats (slightly wider in the US, slightly taller in Europe) it becomes harder to honour the film-maker’s intentions. Warner Brothers could offer fans the choice, but considering there are three possible aspect ratios and two different cuts of The Shining, the prospect of all those transfers becomes daunting (not to mention prohibitively expensive).

The current DVD/blu ray release of The Shining uses yet another aspect ratio — the current widescreen TV standard of 16:9, which is somewhere between both theatrical versions. It’s preferable to a compromised version of the film based on outmoded technology, but it is still a compromised version of the film… just one based on current technology! It’s less drastic a change than the one necessitated by 4:3 screens, but honestly, are black bars really that distracting when they allow us to see the vision originally presented to us in the cinema?

Synecdoche, New York

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on 2 June, 2009 by Ally

synecdoche

/sinekdəki/

noun a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in England lost by six wickets (meaning ‘the English cricket team’).

— ORIGIN Greek sunekdokhe, from sun- ‘together’ + ekdekhesthai ‘take up’.

Charlie Kaufman, 2008

Charlie Kaufman, 2008

Synecdoche, New York is a film unlike any other I have seen. Not in terms of its relatively conventional directorial style, rather that story is one that has never been imagined before (with good reason). It is two hours of cinema trying to encompass all human experience by telling the story of a theatre director whose pet project has similar aims. It is, to quote that character, “about everything.” It is a film my head may never fully comprehend, yet I know my heart already does.

But first the context. Synecdoche, New York is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter behind such quirky hits as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While viewers were easily charmed by the emotional resonance of those otherwise cryptic films, Synecdoche is obsessive both in its search for deeper truth and its headlong plunge into mind-boggling narrative devices. This makes it harder to penetrate, but I’m fairly sure it’s brilliant.

I feel obliged to attempt a summary. To simplify it almost beyond recognition, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a New York theatre director who has earned renown for his unconventional staging of Death of a Salesman, although he is quietly dissatisfied with it. His personal life is even less fulfilling. He is plagued by mysterious medical complaints, he flirts achingly with box office receptionist Hazel (Samantha Morton), and he cannot form strong bonds with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) or their daughter Olive. Adele eventually leaves him to pursue her own artistic career in Berlin, taking Olive with her.

Thanks to his professional success, Caden is awarded the MacArthur genius grant. He uses this to fund a neurotic new project. He fills a disused warehouse with replica apartments, populating it with actors who “perform” their lives based on his daily notes. He aims to create a piece of absolute, brutal realism by perfectly replicating the minutiae of daily life for every character. There are no bit-parts, as in life we are each the main character of our own story.

His new wife Claire (Michelle Williams) plays herself, while an eerie stalker called Sammy (Tom Noonan) is cast as the fictional version of Caden (Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan)). At Sammy’s (Tom Noonan) suggestion, Tammy (Emily Watson) is cast as the fictional Hazel (Samantha Morton).

To reflect Caden’s real life, Sammy and Tammy proceed to cast their own version of the play, building a second warehouse inside the first. And the cycle continues… Envision an inverse Truman Show, an infinite loop of Shakespearean plays-within-plays, a never-ending self-referential Russian nesting doll.

Meanwhile the impossible frequently happens. Caden’s seductive counsellor Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) sells him books which appear to predict his situation as he reads. He is also able to follow Olive’s progress through her childhood diary, which updates itself as she grows. I can but speculate what this all means, but Caden’s surname might be a clue.

I won’t spoil any more plot points for you. Just know that when you leave the cinema, you may find yourself looking at the world with new eyes.

You are the lead in your own story.

And everyone else’s extra.

Stumbling Down Memory Lane

Posted in Film, Nothing Really with tags , , , , on 9 February, 2009 by Ally

I discovered Monty Python as a young teen, as young teens have been doing ever since the Flying Circus was first smuggled onto the midnight airwaves. So many of their quotes are indelibly branded into my very psyche, thanks to repeating viewing during my so-called formative years. It is so much a part of my childhood that I eventually distanced myself from it, putting away childish things to become a fully-fledged (or at least partially-fledged) man. But today I stumbled upon a highly-defined time machine, when a blu-ray copy of Life of Brian arrived from my DVD rental service.

I recalled the dialogue vividly, but the actual meaning of the film had disappeared in the foggy recesses. It is strange territory to revisit such stuff after so long and see what my 11-year-old self was too young to understand or appreciate. Or perhaps I was just too giddied by the exuberant surrealism and anarchy to detect the prominent religious and social satire running through the narrative. The absurdity of it always appealed to me, but the significance of said absurdity had completely eluded my younger self. Silly person.

The pleasant surprise was that it still made me laugh. And much like the Simpsons, what makes me laugh now differs from what made me laugh back then — although, thanks to its constant presence on the television schedules, the Simpsons never dropped off my radar in the same way Python did. This made watching Python an interesting (if somewhat narcissistic) yardstick by which to measure my own personal growth.

And I have come to the conclusion that I have not grown. I have merely changed shape.

R.I.P. Ann Savage

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on 29 December, 2008 by Ally
451px-page_23a-small-ann_savage

Ann Savage as Yank Magazine pinup girl

I just read the sad news that iconic femme fatale actress Ann Savage has passed away. She was the star of cult classics like the low-budget noir Detour (1945) and Guy Maddin’s “docu-fantasia” My Winnipeg (2007). She will be sorely missed.

Mingus Mingus Mingus

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , , , on 8 December, 2008 by Ally

First off, I must apologise for the recent drought of material. It’s been so long since my last post, I actually have to get accustomed with the new WordPress layout — how dare they change it while I wasn’t looking?

I’ve been so uninspired of late, it takes wildly unpredictable music to capture my stale imagination. To that end, I have been listening to plenty of Mingus. Charles Mingus, don’t call him Charlie or he’ll knock you into next week and you won’t be able to play the top octave on your trombone no more. One particularly interesting Mingus release is the Jazz Icons DVD of filmed rehearsals with his 1964 ensemble, featuring fellow angular jazz freak Eric Dolphy. The three dates have pretty similar setlists, but the improvisation keeps it interesting enough to watch the whole two hours in one sitting. The first version of “Meditations on Integration” is particularly interesting, with one passage sounding rather like surrealist classical music — Mingus creates sounds by tapping, rubbing and scratching his bass, as well as throwing things into the open lid of the piano.

It is fascinating to be able to watch the group, see how they interact (and how they deal with Dannie Richmond’s crash cymbal falling over mid-song). Being a big Eric Dolphy fan, I watched him particularly closely. You can see his thinly-veiled desperation as he waits for his turn to play. There are stories of him practising on his instruments literally all day — alto sax in the morning, bass clarinet in the afternoon, and then an evening in the park playing flute with the birds. Ironically, a concert would mean less playing for him.

On a different note, I have placed an order for a new television. No longer will I strain to see actors’ faces, as the size of my screen will have more than doubled! (This is due more to the pitiful size of my current television than the extravagant proportions of the new one.) It’s full HD too, meaning all I need now is a Blu-Ray player. And… well, all the other stuff that a Blu-Ray player necessitates.

I’ve been rather frustrated whilst browsing the Blu-Ray discs on offer. There are a good few films released on region-locked discs in America that haven’t yet made their way to these shores — particularly classics like The Third Man and Casablanca. I’m tempted to track down some sort of region-free player, but the expense and inconvenience may be considerable, especially for films I do already own on DVD. Still, I look forward to seeing films in greater clarity than I had previously been able to enjoy at home.