Monday, 22 March 2010

Frankenstein

7. Frankenstein (1931)
Dir: James Whale

In my experience, the Horror genre is perhaps the most under-appreciated film genre amongst cinema snobs. True, the market has been flooded out by identical stalk-and-slash films or pointless American remakes of overrated Japanese chillers. There are also those who oversimplify the concept of horror films, seeing them as pointless exercises in the fantastical and grotesque. Again, many of them are but then every genre has its weak imitators of the pioneers and the greats. I've also genuinely heard someone in one breath wondering aloud why people would subject themselves to the negative emotions of fear and disgust and in the next extolling the virtues of the latest Weepie. No cathartic value in facing your fears then, but depressing yourself to the point of tears is A-OK!

For me, film genres all have the potential to offer us classics and the Horror genre has done so time and time again. Far more than just lascivious exercises in depravity and gore, at their best horror films compel us to face up to and explore our worst fears from the monsters of the Universal and Hammer Horror films to the madmen of John Carpenter's 'Halloween' (1978) or Alfred Hitchock's 'Psycho' (1960) to the intricately depicted psychological meltdowns of Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion' (1965) and Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' (1980). If the point of great art is to explore human experience and emotion in all its facets then how can we possibly omit these creeping, festering fears from discussion?

When Universal first released James Whale's brilliant 'Frankenstein' in 1931, they were nervous enough about the power of its horrific story to tack on a (admittedly rather tongue-in-cheek) disclaimer at the beginning, in which actor Edward Van Sloan warns viewers of a nervous disposition that they may wish to leave the screening. While many of the Universal horrors are now considered tame enough to be shown on afternoon television (where I first saw 'Frankenstein'), in 1931 it is not hard to see how some of this materiel would have seemed horrific to cinema-goers to whom Horror was still a fairly new genre. For instance, 'Frankenstein' opens with a sombre funeral scene but the mood changes to one of grisly humour as the crazed Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his moronic assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye) descend upon the newly buried corpse in an attempt to find a brain for their creation, a quest which also takes them to a recently utilised gallows and a science lab, in which Fritz hilariously destroys a brain labelled 'NORMAL BRAIN' and has to steal another labelled, predictably enough, 'ABNORMAL BRAIN'.

The humour (which may well be completely unintentional) of these opening scenes soon gives way to a deadly serious, beautifully realised mood of encroaching madness and terror, an atmosphere largely set by Colin Clive's wonderfully baroque performance as Henry Frankenstein. Dwight Frye, who plays the hunchbacked Fritz, also gave a mesmerising performance as a madman in Universal's previous horror 'Dracula' (1931) but his was a deliberately over-the-top and hilarious turn. Clive strikes exactly the right note as Dr. Frankenstein, portraying his temporary insanity as largely contained, only spilling forth during moments of revelation (the famous "It's alive... It's aliiiiiiiive" sequence, which remains powerful despite the many, many parodies, again thanks to Clive's superb thesping). Clive's central performance contrasts with and makes up for the blandness of the majority of the other roles. These include Mae Clarke as Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth, John Boles as his friend Victor Moritz and Frederick Kerr as his father. Clarke is decent though she is given little to do until her big screaming scene with the monster, while Boles manages to be dreadful in a part which demands practically nothing of him. His presence in the narrative is completely unnecessary and a potential love-triangle plot that is hinted at early on comes to absolutely nothing. Kerr, meanwhile, is limited to a few bits of feeble comedy relief which he plays relatively well but which are at odds with the main tone of the picture.

All these little quibbles are forgotten, however, when we factor in the film's other great performance. Boris Karloff as The Monster is simply astonishing. Aided by an exquisite make-up job by Jack Pierce (also responsible for the frankly ridiculous make-up in Universal's subsequent 'The Wolf Man' (1941)), Karloff sets about creating the most memorable monster that ever stalked the screen. As a character, Frankenstein's monster is a blessing for an actor of Karloff's subtlety. Unlike Bela Lugosi's one-note portrayal of Dracula or Lon Chaney Jr.'s lifeless Wolf Man, Karloff's Frankenstein is at once a sympathetic victim of circumstance. Like a lost, bewildered child, the monster only kills out of confusion, self-defense or his tragic inability to determine right from wrong. Karloff is touchingly infantile as he reaches up towards the sun in an attempt to grab it or when (in the film's most controversial, moving and horrific scene, often cut from the film for many years) he accidentally drowns a young girl who genuinely wants to befriend him when he misunderstands a game they are playing.

Throughout these misadventures, Karloff communicates the character beautifully through expressions, movement and unintelligible grunts and groans. The tiniest of half smiles he cracks when presented with a flower is incredibly touching, as is the innocent, uncomprehending terror he portrays as he is hunted down by a torch-wielding mob in the film's famous climax. Although Universal weakened the film by insisting that a happy ending be tacked on, in which Henry Frankenstein recovers from both his run in with the monster and his temporary insanity, it was never Henry for whom the audience was rooting. By the picture's end, only the hardest hearted of viewers could not find themselves hoping for the monster to escape the vigilantes whose anger he does not have the capacity to understand.

Many of the Universal Horrors, though still beloved by many to this day, have not aged particularly well. Whale's 'Frankenstein' (and it's classic sequel 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935)), however, is an exception. It manages to sidestep the campiness and unconvincingness of 'Dracula' and 'The Wolf Man' thanks to the brilliant performances of Clive and Karloff and the intensely atmospheric direction of James Whale. Whale looked, for inspiration, to silent German expressionist classics such as FW Murnau's 'Nosferatu' (1922) and Robert Weine's 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920), far more chillingly dreamlike and disturbingly memorable landmarks than the early Hollywood efforts of the sound-era. The result is a horror masterpiece filled with explorations of human shortcomings that characterise some of the best horror films and a level of real pathos that is rarely present in the genre.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Pit Stop: A Wild Hare

Pit Stop: A Wild Hare (1940)
Dir: Tex Avery

It's a classic set-up. A round-headed, bulbous-nosed hunter creeps through the woods brandishing his gun, briefly turning to the audience to inform them "Be vewwy, vewwy quiet, I'm hunting wabbits". Coming across a rabbit hole, the hunter begins to dig while from an adjacent hole a grey bunny emerges, casually moseys up to the hunter and, with a breathtaking confidence that suggests he sees the hunter as no threat whatsoever, asks "What's up, Doc?" And cinema history is changed forever.

Tex Avery's 'A Wild Hare' not only created a universal superstar in Bugs Bunny but also remains the quintessential Bugs cartoon to this day. Mention the name Bugs Bunny to anyone and 90% of them will immediately picture a rabbit hole in a forest and Elmer Fudd stalking towards it. Not only does 'A Wild Hare' open exactly this way, the first line is Elmer's most famous catchphrase. When Bugs puts in an appearance, his opening line is perhaps the most famous catchphrase of all time. So the scene is set, the template established for a rivalry that will continue for decades. There's enough history in the opening couple of minutes of 'A Wild Hare' to make any serious cartoon fan's heart swell with joy but there's plenty more to recommend it. While it may seem like a comparatively no-frills cartoon for those who grew up watching the many, many variations on this set-up that followed, keep in mind that this was Bugs's debut and these now familiar routines are being tried out for the first time. Bugs has rarely been cooler or looked more handsome than he does in 'A Wild Hare', his nonchalance really striking a chord with audiences and ensuring his place in cartoon history.

While there were a handful of cartoons that predate 'A Wild Hare' starring prototype Bugs Bunnys, Avery's cartoon is undoubtedly the first time he was the character we all know and love and, therefore, clearly his official debut. Avery's expert timing, Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan's instant chemistry as Bugs and Elmer and a solid script by Rich Hogan all contribute to creating an Academy Award nominated classic and the smell of history that now lingers around 'A Wild Hare' makes it positively electric. 'A Wild Hare' is an experience to treasure which, for me, will never lose its heart-stopping air of excitement.

The Ladykillers

6. The Ladykillers (1955)
Dir: Alexander Mackendrick

Between 1947 and 1957, Ealing Studios produced a series of comedic films which have come to be regarded as classics. The Ealing Comedies, as they have collectively become known, are frequently held up as examples of great British filmmaking. With their peculiarly British approach to storytelling and humour, there is a cosy atmosphere about the Ealing comedies which often belies the actual material. The best of these films usually have a blackly comic streak running through them and this is certainly true of the two most brilliant Ealing Comedies: 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' (1949) and 'The Ladykillers' (1955), both of which use murder as a subject for laughs.

'The Ladykillers', usually recognised as the last of the great Ealing Comedies, is probably also the very best of the lot. Set largely in and around one small house, 'The Ladykillers' is briskly paced and tells its simple but effective story in a compact 90 minutes. William Rose (the writer behind British comedy 'Genevieve' and who would later write 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner') has written a very tight script that relies heavily on situation above all else for its humorous appeal but throws in some moments of belly-laugh slapstick for good measure. Another asset to the film is director Alexander Mackendrick, who had already directed previous Ealing Comedies 'Whisky Galore!' (1949), 'The Man in the White Suit' (1951) and 'The Maggie' (1954). Mackendrick juggles the subtler comedic moments and the slapstick well and manages to make scenes of four grown men chasing a parrot (a concept that could have been disastrous) genuinely funny.

The third real asset 'The Ladykillers' boasts is the wonderful Alec Guinness. One of the great actors of all time, Guinness was already a mainstay of Ealing Comedies, most notably for having played no less than eight different roles in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' and for giving a perfectly judged, Oscar nominated performance in 'The Lavender Hill Mob' (1951). As "Professor" Marcus, the leader and mastermind of a gang of criminals, Guinness gives a positively electrifying turn in which he has already out-acted most other performers you could name before he even opens his mouth. His first appearance in the film, as he emerges from the shadows in a doorway to reveal a facial expression you instantly know is untrustworthy, is etched on my brain forever and is surely one of the great first appearances of a character.

The rest of the supporting cast is filled with talent, including future 'Pink Panther' co-stars Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, and the disarmingly sweet but disconcertingly indestructible Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce, the little old lady the gang plan to dupe into helping them steal a fortune from a security van. While many scripts would make the robbery itself the main focus of the story, in 'The Ladykillers' it is merely a fleeting set-piece early in the narrative. Mackendrick and Rose are keen to get the gang back into Mrs. Wilberforce's oddly lopsided house where their subsequent confinement leads to the real nailbiting battle of wills and subsequent murderous machinations. In fact, 'The Ladykillers' is at its weakest on the few occasions it ventures out of the house and its surrounding area. The robbery is merely a necessity to the plot and is dispensed with relatively quickly, along with the only truly unsuccessful scene in which Frankie Howard and Kenneth Connor make cameo appearances as an antagonised barrowboy and a taxi driver respectively. In this scene, the comedy becomes too broad and silly for even Mackendrick (who did a stirling job with the earlier parrot scenes) to handle as applecarts are spectacularly upset and punches are thrown at the flimsiest of provocations.

This one hiccup is easily forgivable, however, given the great robbery planning scenes that precede it and the even better scenes that come afterwards, in which the criminals true identities are discovered by the staunchly honest Mrs. Wilberforce, setting in motion a desperate chain of events which are both hilarious and genuinely dark and exciting. While many have noted that 'The Ladykillers' lacks any big laughs, this sentiment is usually expressed by those who favour discernible jokes over a cumulatively funny escalation of events. There is clearly room for both in cinema and 'The Ladykillers' is one of the prime examples of how to execute the latter. The deeper into trouble the crooks get, the greater their desperation and the louder our laughter. I can think of few scenes that tickle me more consistently than the image of Alec Guinness bent awkwardly over the piano as the criminals are forced to endure Mrs' Wilberforce's tea party with fake smiles when they should be making their escape.

(While it is better not to spoil 'The Ladykillers' for those who have not seen it by saying much more, I should add that there is also a 2004 remake that should be avoided at all costs. Amazingly, this version of 'The Ladykillers' was written and directed by The Coen Brothers, easily my favourite directors of recent times. It seems a shame that my first mention of the Coens in this blog should be in relation to their foolish attempt to remake an inimitable classic but expect to see at least 8 or 9 of their masterpieces cropping up for review as this blog grows in size).

'The Ladykillers' is a film that manages to appeal to tastes across the board. It is lighthearted enough for family viewing on a Sunday afternoon and yet it is dark enough to appeal to those who crave something edgier. It has oodles of great character and situation-based humour and yet it also has people falling through chairs and chasing escaped birds.It has laughs but also thrills and moments of genuine suspense. Best of all, it has Alec Guinness, surely an actor who offers something for everyone. If you never see him in this role, you'll never understand how the line "Put him in the barrow" is one of the funniest in the history of British comedy.


Saturday, 13 March 2010

Withnail and I

5. Withnail and I (1987)
Dir: Bruce Robinson

When writing reviews designed to encourage others to seek out and share in your own personal pleasures, part of the joy is the opportunity to enthuse about the things you love. However, while I enjoy immensely singing the praises of great works of art, I invariably shy away from tackling my very favourite pieces in any medium. This can be the result of many factors, including the fear of an inability to do the piece justice and the desire not to soil the purity of the straightforward, unanalytical relationship I have previously enjoyed with certain sources of visual and aural pleasure. With Bruce Robinson's 1987 classic 'Withnail and I', the former is very much the case. How could any piece of writing (and there have been many) possibly encapsulate the devastating brilliance of this tragi-comic masterpiece?

By rights, given the nature of this rhetorical question, my review should end there. And yet, to compile a list of my favourite films ever and not include a suitably lengthy entry on 'Withnail and I' would be to do a disservice to my own blog, let alone the enduring work of Robinson, Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths and Ralph Brown. While there are numerous hilarious and perfectly judged bit-parts (most famously the shrill police officer who shrieks "GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN"), it is these five men who carry the film and make it the great work it is. Robinson's comedically ahead-of-its-time script is arguably the lynchpin (though his subtle, muted direction is also impressive), but its success hinges on finding exactly the right actors to play each of the four leads. This requirement has been fulfilled on every count.

Of course, there is Richard E. Grant as Withnail, a beautifully judged performance in a role which most actors would have seen as an opportunity to go wildly over the top. Grant somehow manages to portray Withnail as the emotionally flamboyant creature he is without camping it up even remotely. This is a performance of great depth, the wretched sadness of the character cloaked behind swathes of hilarious, perfectly delivered lines that would leave most actors scratching their heads in an attempt to find a suitable reading. There is added emotional weight to Grant's performance when you factor in that the actor's baby girl had died just 13 weeks prior to the shooting of 'Withnail and I', a tragedy that surely could not help but be visible in this saddest of comedy turns.

While Grant manages to portray Withnail's flamboyance without making him camp, Richard Griffith's character, the sweet-natured but sexually predatory homosexual Uncle Monty, allows him to unleash every hammy impulse he has ever had in his career. And yet, while he enjoys this rare opportunity, Griffiths also gives a deftly controlled performance of hidden subtleties. Rather than make Uncle Monty a limp-wristed stereotype designed to insult gays everywhere by making a punchline out of a sexual preference, Griffiths creates a real human being, emphasising the character's penchant for florid language as a method of deflection from his own weaknesses and insecurities. Robinson has weaved numerous references to Monty's past into the screenplay which highlight the tragedy of what he has become; an overweight, lonely ex-actor who will "never play The Dane".

Given the force of these two powerhouse comedy performances (two of the best to ever appear on cinema screens), Paul McGann has his work cut out as the titular "I", actor Marwood, ostensibly the film's straightman and the sole character who seems to be in with a chance of escaping his nightmarishly squalid situation. McGann's performance frequently goes unmentioned as critics tend to focus on Grant and Griffiths but Marwood is perhaps the hardest part to play. He is the emotional centre of the film, the comparatively normal narrator with whom we can empathise. It is through his complex relationship with Withnail that we are given fleeting glimpses of the latter's humanity. In order for us to accept this, however, their relationship must be believable and McGann manages to indicate, without making it overt, the affection he has for his fellow unemployed actor. Again, this straightman role (which, in reality, is too funny to be truly considered a straightman role) is one that could and would have been played completely wrongly by most actors. Just as the unimaginative thespian would have played Withnail as a Kenneth Williams impression, so Marwood could well have been rendered as a constantly exasperated victim who communicates through exaggerated double takes and cartoonish facial expressions. McGann is shrewd enough to detect that there is none of this in Robinson's script and, in fact, Marwood has much in common with Withnail and often enjoys his company and the lifestyle they share. The full extent of this shared affection reveals itself in the heartbreaking final scene in which both men beautifully portray their love for one another in the most moving goodbye in cinema history.

Completing the cast is Ralph Brown as Danny the drug dealer. With his unique dress-sense and monotonous Harold Steptoe voice, Danny is the one caricature amongst the subtle performances. And yet, that is exactly how Danny is written in the script and Brown grounds him in reality enough that his two scenes are not remotely unbelievable and stand as some of 'Withnail and I's most hilarious sequences.

Plot-wise, 'Withnail and I' employs the early Seinfeld-ian manifesto to create a film about nothing. The story, if we momentarily ignore all other facets of the film and synopsise based on action alone, is simply about two out of work actors who go to the country and then come back. Yet clearly the uneventful narrative framework is merely the scaffolding for a film which examines issues of friendship, sexuality, ambition, love, depression, dependency (both chemical and human) and the crushing anticlimactic collapse of ideals which characterised the final days of the 1960s. This latter theme, evoked through the presence of a great soundtrack and characters like the disillusioned Danny (who has one of the best speeches of the film in his final oratory about the death of the 60s), is crucial in setting the film's tone and, while it isn't mentioned a great deal in the dialogue, 1969 is practically 'Withnail and I's fifth main character. The sense of the Summer of Love being written off as a failure alongside the likes of growing concerns over Vietnam, the disintegration of the Beatles and the recent memory of Martin Luther King's assassination all epitomise the dank, desperate atmosphere of 'Withnail and I', while Withnail and Marwood probably strike a chord with millions of children of the 60s who were left directionless and disillusioned by the appearance of "hippy wigs in Woolworths".

In a film that is jam packed with quotable lines, Robinson has managed to stay true to all four of his characters. Often, quotable movies simply place big wodges of clever dialogue into the mouths of characters who would never say such words (Quentin Tarantino, brilliant as his early films are, is a conspicuous practitioner of this verbal incongruity) but Robinson makes Danny's lines hilarious in a completely different way to Monty's, just as Marwood's dry denouncements counterbalance Withnail's flamboyant proclamations. This is one of the reasons 'Withnail and I' is still so widely quoted, because there are so many different types of brilliant lines and not a discernible proper joke among them. The comedy, more than in any other film that immediately springs to mind, comes entirely from character, situation, performance, turn of phrase and the masterfully deployed art of effective swearing. I won't allow this review to descend into yet another list of all the eternally memorable quotes that appear throughout the film (and it's no exaggeration to say that there is practically one every few seconds) but rather just encourage anyone who has yet to see 'Withnail and I' to seek it out immediately.

Friday, 12 March 2010

It Happened One Night

4. It Happend One Night (1934)
Dir: Frank Capra

There are certain films that are guaranteed to cheer you up no matter when you watch them or what mood you happen to have been in beforehand. For me, 'It Happened One Night' is the epitome of such a film. Director Frank Capra has always been a go-to-guy for feelgood, and such overtly sentimental movies as 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946) and 'You Can't Take It With You' (1938) have earned his work the tag "Capra-corn"! While this is undoubtedly sometimes justified, it is unfair to categorise all Capra's work by the cosiness of some of the more warm and fuzzy moments and his movies are far more than the one-note heartwarmers they are sometimes dismissed as. Case in point, 'It Happened One Night'.

While there are occasional elements of the sentimentality that all us Capra fans love, they are few and far between in 'It Happened One Night', taking a back seat to the fast-paced, unpredictable dialogue and the attention grabbing performances of the leads, Claudine Colbert and Clark Gable. The plot doesn't sound like much on paper: an heiress on the run from the overbearing father who opposes her recent marriage, makes the acquaintance of a hard-drinking newspaper man who agrees to help her travel across the country undetected to her new husband's arms in exchange for exclusive rights to her story. First they annoy each other but gradually a relationship develops and the two fall in love. Can their feelings for each other conquer all the obstacles that stand in their way? Sounds like any number of dreadful films you've sat through before, doesn't it?

'It Happened One Night', however, is far from dreary or unoriginal (remember it was made in 1934, when cinema was still in its infancy). It's packed with great, unusual dialogue, such as Gable and Colbert's argument about what makes a good piggyback, and hilarious bit-parts such as the incessantly jovial driver who gives Gable and Colbert a lift and insists on turning every conversation they have into an improvised song. This sort of quirky materiel crops up throughout the movie, wrongfooting anyone expecting the same predictable squabbling that characterises so many of these couple-thrown-together comedies. Also wrongfooted are those expecting Capra-brand sweetness and light. Although it may seem dated to modern audiences, 'It Happened One Night' is shot through with constant sexual themes which would have seemed quite risque to 1934 viewers. Of course, there's the famous hitchhiking scene in which Colbert memorably shows off her legs to a passing motorist but, more importantly, there's the "Walls of Jericho", a symbolic blanket which Gable hangs between his and Colbert's beds every night to give them privacy. The moment Gable names the blanket the Walls of Jericho, we know it is destined to crumble at some point and every sexually repressive hang-up this barrier represents will crumble with it. We're encouraged to desperately await not the couple falling in love but the act of consummation that will confirm this love.

There's also an edginess to many elements of the script, most notably in a still shocking scene in which Gable poses as a murderous kidnapper to scare off an unwanted pest who has caught on to the truth behind Colbert's identity. He begins by acting threateningly towards just the weaselly snooper himself but the dialogue becomes more brutal (and, consequently, more jaw-droppingly hilarious) when Gable begins to imply that some nasty accident might befall the man's young children, a suggestion that sends him fleeing wildly from the scene. It's a sequence that still has the power to amaze viewers after seven decades and Capra pulls it off with finesse. He deftly weaves such brutally funny set-pieces together with moments of real warmth and joy. The most conspicuous of this is a communal sing-a-long on a bus which turns into a full-on musical number, with passengers taking turns to perform a verse of 'The Man on the Flying Trapeze'. It's borderline Capra-corn but, as usual, Capra keeps it just the right side of endearing and follows it immediately with the aforementioned child-threatening sequence thereby maintaining a perfect balance between the movie's cutting, edgy wit and its warm, sincere lovability.

Despite being only a small movie financially, 'It Happened One Night' became an enormous hit by word-of-mouth. It is exactly the kind of film that becomes popular because people are so taken with it that they feel the need to see it again, and with friends. The film went on to win all five of the major Oscars at that year's ceremony (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay), the first film to do so and a record that was not equalled until 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' did the same in 1975. While in most critics eyes it has been displaced as Capra's masterpiece by the likes of 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939), 'It Happened One Night' remains Capra's most constantly watchable, zestiest film and will likely continue to delight film-lovers and win converts for decades to come. It sets the bar by which romantic comedies should be judged and it's a sad thing to note that the majority of recent films in that genre have made no serious attempt to equal its wit and charm.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Pit Stop: Le Batteur du Bolero

Pit Stops
I intend this blog to build up into a list of feature length films that I adore in one way or another. As such, I have decided to limit movies on the list to those that are at least 40 minutes in length. However, this disregards many other works of cinematic brilliance such as short films or the classic theatrical animated shorts of Warner Bros., Disney, MGM et al. To not include these great works would be a crime so I propose to write, alongside my film reviews, a series of occasional shorter reviews entitled 'Pit Stops', which take in shorter but no less highly-recommended celluloid treats.

Pit Stop: Le Batteur du Bolero (The Drummer of Ravel's Bolero) (1992)
Dir: Patrice Leconte

Often when we sit down to watch a film we long to be wowed by stories writ large on the screen and filled with bold brash flourishes and cinematic trickery. We long to see flying Deloreans leaving trails of fire behind them, Steve McQueen jumping barbed wire fences on a motorbike or Sigourney Weaver shrieking "Get away from her, you bitch". However, just as often many of us find ourselves longing for something more pared down, focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, the intricacies of human relationships or the emotional complexities of a single fleeting moment. Sometimes the most thrilling film experience can be one that inspires enormous empathy in the viewer by simply tapping into an experience that is deeply familiar to them rather than something from their wildest dreams.

When it comes to examinations of life's smaller moments, they don't come much smaller than Patrice Leconte's simple but beautifully realised short 'Le Batteur du Bolero', a film largely composed of a single, eight minute shot. Leconte's starting point is his own hatred of Ravel's famous classical piece, 'Bolero' (for many a piece of music that is mentally inseparable from Torvill and Dean's 1984 gold medal winning Olympic routine), which he has stated he finds to be a boring and repetitive piece of music. To illustrate this point, Leconte chooses as his film's hero the drummer who must keep the ultra-repetitive rat-a-tat marching beat going throughout the whole performance. The film opens with the camera focused on the conductor. We then get a shot of the whole orchestra and the camera slowly pans across the musicians to finally settle on our unlikely hero; an overweight, balding drummer awkwardly perched at his instrument and gently tapping out the beat to which he will be a slave for the duration of the performance. The camera comes to a stop on him and will not move for the rest of the film. We are now forced to share in the personal nightmare of one man's struggle with crushing tedium. Jacques Villeret, who plays the drummer, goes through a series of facial expression that range from blank disengagement to excruciated winces of desperation and despair. His sqirmy fidgeting and mental anguish are so instantly recognisable to anyone who has found themselves trapped in a situation of utter boredom and discomfort that this one simple shot of a man fighting his own disintegrating patience becomes completely compelling, not to mention absolutely hilarious.

We need our cinematic escapism, of course we do. We need crashing cars, exploding buildings, huge automatic weapons and one-liners casually tossed out during life-or-death situations. However, it is just as important that we analyze and appreciate the little moments that make us who we are, the very humdrum minutiae which we use those other films to escape from. 'Le Batteur du Bolero' shows us how this can be done in a fascinating and entertaining way and, in doing so, demonstrates the fact that overweight drummers suffering from irksome, apathetic despair are every bit as important to cinema as Bruce Willis's dirty vest.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Schizopolis

3. Schizopolis (1996)
Dir: Steven Soderbergh

"In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything."

So begins Steven Soderbergh's 'Schizopolis', one of the strangest and most daring films ever made by an American director who would go on to become a huge mainstream success. Soderbergh burst onto the scene in 1989 with his smash hit indie picture 'Sex, Lies and Videotape', after which he spent several years struggling to live up to the constrictive hype that was heaped upon that film. Just as it seemed Soderbergh's initially promising career was fading, he made the switch to more commercially viable films like the slick 'Out of Sight' (1998), the Oscar-winning 'Erin Brokovich' (2000) and the hugely popular 'Oceans...' series of films. Despite mainstream success, however, Soderbergh has always remained true to his indie roots as well, occasionally slipping in a low-key efforts like 'Full Frontal' (2002) or 'Bubble' (2005) (the first film to be simultaneously released in cinemas, on DVD and on Cable), and acting as producer on such great independently spirited films as 'The Daytrippers' (1996), 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (2005), 'Keane' (2004) and 'Far From Heaven (2002).

Despite having had his fingers in many different pies, 'Schizopolis' is quite unlike anything Soderbergh has been involved in before or since. The plot, such as it is, is extremely difficult to summarise but any attempt to do so should give the reader some idea of just what they're up against, a warning they really should be issued with before sitting down to watch this film. So here goes:

Fletcher Munson (played by Soderbergh himself) is a low level drone working for T. Azimuth Schwitters, the leader of a self-help/religion called Eventualism (a satire on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology). Suddenly finding himself promoted when his colleague dies, Munson must write a speech for Schwitters that summarises the impossible to grasp nature of Eventualism. As he struggles to do so, he must also contend with an exaggeratedly furious boss; a failing marriage that has degraded into a predictable routine; an annoying colleague known only as Nameless Numberhead Man, who insists on ordering pornographic videos of morbidly obese women through Munson's home adddress; his paranoid fears about his own health; and the very real possibility that his wife might just be having an affair with a Conservative dentist called Jeffrey Korchek who also happens to be Munson's exact double.

As the latter concern becomes more apparent, the film switches to the second of the three numbered segments into which it is divided. Part two presents things from the viewpoint of Korchek (Soderbergh again), who is indeed sleeping with Munson's wife (played by Betsy Brantley). While Munson's wife seems completely happy and determined to leave Munson for Korchek, Korchek is instead determined to start an affair with one of his patients, who happens to bear a strong resemblance to Munson's wife (and is also played by Brantley). His pursuit of this lands him with a sexual harassment lawsuit to deal with, which is not even to mention his missing brother and the violent, monosyllabic psychopath who is hunting this brother down.

Part three switches to the viewpoint of Munson's wife and introduces Soderbergh in yet another role, as a mysterious, French speaking stranger with badly dubbed dialogue. Alongside all three of these chapters runs a parallel story in which a local bug exterminator named Elmo Oxygen goes from house to house sleeping with a series of bored housewives while a couple in an SUV observe him, finally stating their intention to poach him from the film and cast him as an action hero in their own movie.

Sounds exhausting doesn't it?! Thankfully, although attempts to decode the plot do contribute to making 'Schizopolis' extremely rewatchable, the perplexing storyline is secondary to the many hilarious comedy routines which hang upon it. 'Schizopolis' is primarily a film about language and the various ways in which we mangle our mother tongue. Munson's boss sets out his objectives for writing the speech in meaningless management blather which sounds good without really telling Munson anything he needs to know. Munson himself communicates with his own wife in a symbolic set of signifiers which merely indicate the thrust of their cliched conversations. This extract of dialogue from when Munson first arrives home perfectly illustrates the point:

Munson: Generic greeting.
Wife: Generic greeting returned.
Munson: Imminent sustenance.
Wife: Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Munson: Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement!

Munson is far more candid with his neighbour, openly stating "Is your wife coming over over tonight? Because her big ass always leaves me satisfied". Meanwhile, exterminator Elmo Oxygen communicates with the numerous housewives he seduces, in a surreal nonsense language which replaces real words with others in an astonishing oral jigsaw. For instance, Elmo greets people with the phrase "Nose army", says goodbye to them with the words "Smell sign" and propositions them with the word "Landmine" (to which the excitedly affirmative reply is, of course, "Ambassador jumpsuit landmine"). The charmless dentist Korchek addresses his patients with dental-care cliches delivered like an oral-hygiene obsessed action hero ("You don't have to floss all your teeth... just the ones you want to keep"). When he attempts to get poetic in order to seduce the object of his lust, the result is a comedic masterpiece of a letter which is the highlight of the whole movie and ends with the line "I know that if for an instant I could have you lie next to me, or on top of me, or sit on me, or stand over me and shake, then I would be the happiest man in my pants".

It is this relentless barrage of comedy genius that stops 'Schizopolis' becoming a bore for those who have no patience with such surreal offerings. Even if you have no idea what is going on, there are plenty of moments to laugh at. Soderbergh, clearly multi-talented behind the camera, emerges as a brilliant comic performer and manages to give three different identities to the three characters he plays through the subtlest of variations. Not everything is subtlety though. Soderbergh is also a deft physical performer. As Korchek, he performs one of the most brilliantly exaggerated double-takes in movie history. As Munson, he has the audience in hysterics just by pulling a series of strange faces in the mirror, a particularly memorable sequence which demonstrates just how phenomenally expressive a human face can be. Sometimes 'Schizopolis' throws in a random non-sequitur just because it amuses Soderbergh: a tree with a sign stuck to it that reads 'IDEA MISSING' or an almost subliminal caption which states "No fish were harmed during the making of this film".

By this point in my review you'll probably fit neatly into one of two categories: One being people who are thoroughly intrigued at the prospect of such a strange sounding film, the other being people who have made a mental note never to touch this film with a ten foot pole. 'Schizopolis' is certainly not for everybody and there are those who will find it maddeningly incomprehensible. To me, however, that's all part of the fun. There are so many ideas stuffed into 'Schizopolis' that it still reveals something new to me every time I see it and, against all odds, I truly believe that I understand it a little bit better every time I see it too. I first saw it after I randomly fished it out of a supermarket bargain bin during my late teens and bought it out of curiosity. Initially I enjoyed it for its surreal comedic flourishes but over the years I've come to appreciate its enormous satirical power and extraordinarily intelligent deconstruction of our uncomfortable relationship with our own language. I have also enjoyed it in a new light ever since I discovered that it was made in the midst of Soderbergh's divorce from his leading lady, Betsy Brantley. Clearly the breakdown of communication was a very relevant subject and the fact that the failing marriage on screen reflects the real-life failing marriage of the very actors portraying it sets the whole movie in a different, bittersweet context.

'Schizopolis' is the epitome of a hidden gem. Deemed too challenging for a mainstream audience, this inspired oddity pretty much sank without trace upon its very limited release. This is part of its appeal and has assured 'Schizopolis' has attracted a cult following, though not as large a following as you might expect. Nevertheless, it's a film I will adore for the rest of my life, though not one I would recommend to just anyone. If this review has piqued your interest, you may well love 'Schizopolis' as much as I do. If you feel completely baffled just from having read my inadequate attempt at a synopsis, however, approach 'Schizopolis' with caution. But do approach it if you get the chance, you may just be surprised at how much you enjoy it.


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Dir: Wes Anderson

Like so many people my age, I grew up loving the books of Roald Dahl. Dahl had an unrivaled ability to tap into the mindset of children and his stories opened up incredible worlds of imagination. Given the phenomenal inventiveness of these texts ('The Twits' remains one of the funniest books ever written), Dahl ought to have been ideally suited to film adaptations. Although filmmakers could hardly hope to rival the thrilling images Dahl's writing conjured in the minds of countless youngsters (or the superbly anarchic illustrations of Quentin Blake, which I will always associate most with Dahl's work), you'd think this great materiel would have resulted in at least one truly noteworthy big screen version. Yet somehow Dahl's work has never translated particularly well to celluloid. Films based on Dahl's work have usually fallen way short of the mark and in some cases were simply dreadful (Tim Burton's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)). Even the more celebrated efforts such as 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (1971) (for which Dahl wrote the screenplay himself) and Nicolas Roeg's 'The Witches (1990) failed to satisfy because of a misjudged tendency to sweeten some of the edgier moments in the source materiel. Indeed, Dahl himself apparently so detested the tacked on happy ending to 'The Witches' that he protested outside cinemas, encouraging the public not to see this compromised version of his original vision.

Decades of Dahl's work being mishandled has eroded any interest I might have had in forthcoming movies based on his work. But recently news of a new Dahl film caught my attention and, though I had significant doubts about the project, the news that Wes Anderson was to write and direct the film made it irresistible to me. Anderson has been one of the most unusual and consistently brilliant directors of recent times. His distinctive sense of humour, deadpan style and excellent repertory cast (including such talents as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman) have resulted in an as yet unsoiled catalogue of astonishing films. It's almost impossible to pick a favourite from the likes of 'Rushmore' (1998), 'The Royal Tennenbaums' (2001) and 'The Darjeeling Limited' (2007).

Given my love of both Dahl and Anderson, the stakes were high as I walked into the cinema to watch 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'. I dreaded the thought of Anderson ruining his uninterrupted run of gems and neither was I particularly thrilled at the prospect of seeing another Dahl story have all the lovability drained out of it. And yet I couldn't quite imagine how these two very different visionaries could fit together and create something worthy of either of them. It took about 20 minutes for me to realise how Anderson had got around the problems of making a successful Roald Dahl film: he hadn't made a Roald Dahl film at all. He'd taken the excellent source materiel as a starting point and then proceeded to mould it into something instantly recognisable as a Wes Anderson film.

Dahl purists may be irked by this prospect. After all, Dahl's stories bear the stamp of their author so prominently that the idea of replacing his stamp with that of another may sound like heresy. Yet Anderson's own trademark style is not dissimilar to Dahl's, even if it's a comparison no-one thought to make until the arrival of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'. Both are subversively hilarious, both are able to mix the obvious with the subtle to devastating effect and both avoid sentimentality in favour of a more satisfying emotional depth. So, having taken Dahl's excellent story as a starting point, Anderson simply does what he does best by injecting his own personal brand of brilliance into the film. The result is not only the first totally successful Dahl adaptation but yet another rival for the prize of Wes Anderson's best film.

Anderson has added a few well-judged extra plot points and characters to flesh out the story but he maintains the quirky feel of Dahl's book by opting to tell his story with traditional stop motion animation. The animal puppets are impressive, slightly grotesque creations, eschewing cutesiness for a more realistic look which is offset by the humanising clothes they wear and the fact that they walk around on their hind legs. The sets are all magnificent and the whole film has a gorgeous, Autumnal look. The voice cast is headed up by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, both great in their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Fox, and also features Anderson regulars Schwartzman, Murray and Wilson. The cast, particularly Clooney and Schwartzman, all give beautifully understated performances as they rattle off Anderson's hysterically funny dialogue. Anderson also takes a gamble by opting to include another of his trademarks, an impeccably chosen soundtrack of classic pop music. The thought of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' set to the sounds of The Beach Boys' 'Heroes and Villains' or The Rolling Stones 'Street Fightin' Man' may sound ludicrous on paper but the gamble pays off and it works brilliantly. Again, this is due to the fact that 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is far more a Wes Anderson film than it is a Roald Dahl one and in a Wes Anderson film we expect the great music to be present.

While it looks and sounds terrific, it is probably 'Fantastic Mr. Fox's' script that makes it most remarkable. This is dialogue the like of which we've not come across in a children's film before. Indeed, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is not a children's film at all. It is tailored much more towards an adult sensibility. There are one or two big laughs for the kids but overall the humour comes largely from character traits and exquisitely hilarious turns of phrase which are funny for no discernible reason. Anderson's target audience is made explicit by one of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox's' strangest quirks. It seems that the script has been written to include swearing but that Anderson has then gone back and replaced these expletives with the word "cuss". So at one point we hear Clooney's Mr. Fox refer to the situation being "one big clustercuss" for everyone! Little flourishes like this make it clear that 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is more than just the latest in a line of sickly-sweet children's films starring talking animals.

It takes a truly incredible film to win my vote for best animated film of the year in the same year that Pixar released the masterful 'Up' (2009). And yet, with its beautiful visuals and exceptional script, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' has not just done that but has managed to vie for the title of best film of any kind for that particular year. It's a subtle, hilarious, expertly judged and infinitely rewatchable piece of work that I will return to again and again. Finally, Anderson has given us a Dahl adaptation to treasure.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Adventures of Robin Hood

1. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)
Dir: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

I thought it would be appropriate to begin my new blog with a review of a recognised classic from Hollywood's Golden Age but one for which I have a deep affection as well as admiration. I considered 'Citizen Kane', 'It Happened One Night', 'Casablanca', even 'Snow White & the Seven Dwarves'. But while these are all movies I love, none of them quite inspire the same boyish excitement and sentimental nostalgia for an age I never experienced first hand than 'The Adventures of Robin Hood'. I'm not saying by any means that I prefer the latter over any of the former, all of which fill me with an incomparable feeling of awe and warmth. Yet with its beautiful outdoor settings, breathtaking cavalcade of exquisite set-pieces and relentlessly infectious joviality, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' transports me to another world away from the problems of everyday life like no other film I can think of. It's quite simply cinematic magic, all filmed in "Glorious Technicolor" which floods my brain with serotonin and paints a smile on my face as bright as the vivid greens and reds of its own celluloid images.

I have always loved the story of Robin Hood since I was a child. However, few filmic attempts to capture the essence of what struck a chord with me about this legend have been particularly successful. While I loved the Disney animated version as a child (and still do, incidentally), live action efforts like 'Robin and Marian' (1976) or 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' (1991) left much to be desired. My favourite Robin Hood related offerings were invariably parodies like Tony Robinson's brilliant children's TV series 'Maid Marian and her Merry Men' (1989-1994) or Chuck Jones' classic animated shorts 'Robin Hood Daffy' (1958) and 'Rabbit Hood' (1949). However, these were spoofs, albeit affectionate, of the tale I loved so. What I craved was a full-scale recreation of the jocular, boisterous, colourful epic that filled my mind every time I read the stories of Nottingham's noble bandit. When I first discovered 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' all my dreams came true at once.

It would likely be impossible to recapture what makes 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' so wonderful in a modern day production. The high levels of camp which characterise the whole story wouldn't sit comfortably with any 21st century movie techniques I can think of and no current stars of the day would seem comfortable in the full Lincoln Green outfit and tights that my vision of the true Robin Hood story demands be in place. Yet in 1938 everything was perfect for such a yarn. The Technicolor process, relatively new at the time, was absolutely ideal for this materiel, its bold, garish attractiveness capturing the storybook joy of the story. The script was able to be campy without seeming ludicrous and the old style sets create a real sense of pageantry which Robin Hood absolutely hinges on. And then, of course, there is the cast...

Could there ever be a more perfect man for the role of Robin Hood than Errol Flynn? His easy charm, winning smile and agile frame all make him ideal but it is his utter willingness to immerse himself in this potentially ludicrous role which makes it work so brilliantly. Flynn is unselfconscious in the extreme, seemingly loving every opportunity to prance around in tights, brandish his bow, smirk out a cheeky putdown and throw back his head in exaggerated, bellowing laughter. He's like a schoolboy relishing being centre of attention in his school play, which taps into an essential characteristic of the boyish Robin which was so noticeably missing in later portrayals by the likes of Kevin Costner or TV's Jonas Armstrong. But just as crucial to the success of 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' are the leading lady and villain and both are portrayed beautifully. Olivia de Havilland is a great Marian and she makes the speed with which she falls for Robin, a man she openly despises to begin with, utterly convincing. More impressive still, de Havilland somehow manages to make herself more beautiful as her character becomes more appealing. Some of the is achieved through the use of costume and camera work but it is mainly down to de Havilland's acting. At the outset, as she fawns over Prince John and closes her mind to the wrongdoing that surrounds her, she is almost repulsive at times. As she melts and acknowledges her own naivety, however, de Havilland unleashes her allure through her performance until she is as utterly captivating as any Maid Marian should be.

But for the best performance of the film we must look to the villain. 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' provides Robin with three adversaries but one is particularly of note. The Sheriff of Nottingham, usually the baddie most readily associated Robin Hood, is reduced here to a bumbling, overweight buffoon and while Melville Cooper does his best with the role he cannot escape the fact that he is handed the majority of the movie's weakest bits. Claude Rains as Prince John sounds like a much more tasty prospect. Rains is absolutely one of my favourite actors of all time and turned in unique, ahead-of-their-time performances in many great films of the era. He was terrificly multi-layered as different types of villain in Hitchcock's 'Notorious' (1946) and Frank Capra's 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939), stole the show from Bogart and Bergman in Curtiz's 'Casablanca' (1942) and was positively mesmerizing in David Lean's oft overlooked 'The Passionate Friends' (1949). Unfortunately, Rains' performance as Prince John is a rare misfire. In keeping with the campy tone, Rains overplays the effeminate side of the Prince and the resulting performance is, to be perfectly blunt, totally weird and rather ineffective. With a strong villain being so crucial to any production of this story, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' could have been in grave danger were it not for the ever-reliable presence of Basil Rathbone. The Sheriff and Prince John are both wisely kept out of the action and pushed into the background by Rathbone's tremendous performance as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Rathbone seems to instinctively know how to play the role and he looks tremendously handsome in the period costume. Eschewing the element of camp that runs through most of the other performances, Rathbone's Gisborne is a threatening, frustrated presence who quietly longs for Marian and nurses a furious hatred of Robin. Even when Rains and Cooper's shtick takes centre stage you can see Rathbone quietly acting at the edge of the frame, his blood boiling that little bit hotter with each scene until the spectacular sword-fight at the climax of the film allows him to unleash his fury. While much of the cast rise to the occasion and turn in exactly the right kind of performance for the materiel, it is Rathbone who walks away with the acting honours with his delicately judged thesping.

With all this going for it, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' only needed a good script and director to succeed and it has both. Embracing the essential joviality of the story but generally stopping before it spills over into the ridiculous, Norman Reilly Raine & Seton I. Miller's screenplay wisely puts the emphasis on action with set-piece after set-piece keeping viewers enthralled. The film opens with a very brief set-up (including a nice symbolic spilling of wine) and then we are thrown immediately into the first big action sequence as Robin single handedly escapes from the castle banquet he has cockily gatecrashed. It is instantly apparent from this heart-stopping sequence that we are in for a treat and Curtiz and Keighley keep the thrills coming, some of them small scale (the duel on the bridge with Little John) and others large (the archery tournament). When any major exposition is required, they neatly insert a written caption which ensures we get all the necessary information without having to slow down the pace. By the film's finale (a legendary sword fight between Flynn and Rathbone which is every bit as wonderful as you've probably heard), only the most demanding of moviegoers could complain they had not been entertained at some point of the movie.

'The Adventures of Robin Hood' is a film I absolutely adore and will never tire of. If anybody ever suggests watching it I literally jump at the chance and I find it so thrilling to this day that I have to suppress the urge to leap out of my chair during the film and mime along with the swordplay on screen. I consider 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' one of the greatest cinematic experiences in existence and a must for any movie fans, hell, for everybody.