Goldfinger (1964)

May 13, 2009

Goldfinger

I genuinely think that this is one of the best films I’ve seen.  I go back to something that I often harp on about- a film must be judged against its aims and Goldfinger has lofty aims which it  exceeds.  The third Bond picture followed the excellent From Russia With Love and deliberately raised the stakes from that early high-spot.  The intention is to retain the levels of intrigue and to increase the wow factor with a bigger budget used wisely.

Connery returns again as Bond in a serious, steely mood- there is a spite behind his wisecracks throughout- and, for me, his third performance in the role is his best.  By his fifth he would have relaxed into sleepwalking through the films for cash.  And his iconic status here is assisted by the direction of Guy Hamilton (pipping Martin Campbell as the best of Bond’s directors) who achieves the double intention of making Bond credible as a thriller hero and yet incredible as an unflappable superman.

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The film- like The Great Escape which I watched a few weeks ago- is more than a mere film these days, it is a huge part of our cultural fabric.  And, with that in mind, it’s hard to ignore the significance of Oddjob, Pussy Galore, the Aston Martin DB5 and “no Mr Bond I expect you to die”.  But doing that and judging this solely on its own merits it still stands up.  It is fantastic entertainment; tightly scripted, well acted in the main with compelling memorable characters, hilarious dialogue- “shocking, positively shocking”, “no mister Bond, I expect you to die”, “I must have appealed to her maternal instincts”, “I have a slight inferiority complex” and a great interaction between Bond and his allies M, Q, Moneypenny and Felix Leiter.

I honestly love it. Everyone does don’t they? 10/10

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Oliver Twist (1948)

May 3, 2009

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It’s difficult to know what to mention first- Lean’s masterfully clear narrative structure or Guinness’s incredible prosthetic nose (what is it about Lean putting Guinness in mad costumes?); Robert Newton’s eyeball-rolling losing-it-rapidly Bill Sykes or Guy Green’s wonderful almost Expressionistic camerawork; the atmospheric opening or the delicious scenery-eating of Francis L. Sullivan- this is a very rich film.  I love the performances, the pace, the storyline and dialogue (though most of the credit there goes Boz, obviously) but most of all I really love the look of the film.  The stark monochrome contrast and wonderfully deep set locations in scenes like Sykes’ rooftop escape or Twist’s flee through the London streets leave an indelible impression on the watcher.  This looks more like the London of Dickens’ novels than any film I’ve seen- it is authentic and haunting.

I don’t want to say too much, I want to surprise myself when I see it again.  Everyone knows the story but this retelling of it is still surprising. Superlative, better even than Lean’s Great Expectations.  10/10.

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Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (2009) * Second viewing

April 14, 2009

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“Haunting blanched beauty”

The first time I saw this I was so enchanted by it that I concluded my notes with the words “If this film isn’t the best of the year, then I may not live through the one that beats it”.  I have to say that I was probably underselling it.  The first time I saw this- on a leaked screener played on a small screen- I probably didn’t truly appreciate the haunting blanched beauty of the film or its stunning soundtrack (by Johan Söderqvist).  Well I do now.

Tomas Alfredson’s film has been trailed over here as a pretty standard horror film (I haven’t seen the trailer but it is apparently very generic).  The poster, reproduced at the bottom, doesn’t give a sense of what is to follow at all.  I suppose the aim is laudable- get bums on seats and let the quality win them over- but filling screenings with people expecting eye-popping gore and sudden shocks doesn’t seem very fair upon either them or upon the people who might want to watch something beautiful and romantic and may then miss this on the basis that it is being sold as if it was The Omen Part 14 or something.  Tough call.

I’m not even sure that it is a horror film, even after seeing it twice.  There are horrific elements of course, but the film is more than that.  It is a coming-of-age film, a love story, a film about childhood and loneliness and resilience and pain and conventionality and unconventionality.  There is a theme in Sam Mendes’ overrated but nonetheless impressive American Beauty about seeing beauty where others don’t and that applies equally here.  Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is an outsider, bullied and ostracized by his classmates and misunderstood by his family but Eli (Lina Leandersson) connects with him in the same way that, we are led to presume, Eli connected with Håkan (Per Ragnar) before him.  What Eli connects with isn’t Oskar’s vulnerability or loneliness, despite this being their common ground, it is his latent rage (the first words Eli hears from him are “Squeal! “Squeal like a pig!”) and his total detachment from the conventional standards and expectations of the people around him.  When he strikes his erstwhile tormentor Conny (Patrik Rydmark), his immediate reaction to seeing the blood and pain is one of curiosity which turns to delight.  And this is the most interesting aspect of their friendship- Eli is the vampire with a capacity for violence which is tempered by a disregard for it while Oskar’s capacity for violence is latent and expressed only through his fascination with newspaper reports of murders and his knife.

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The theme of seeing the beauty in unexpected places extends to the visuals of the film itself.  The icicles on the climbing frame, Oskar’s snot running from nose to mouth, dripping blood in the snow, the hand-print fading on a windowpane, Oskar resurfacing in the swimming pool- no matter how mundane the subject, a perverse beauty is created by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.

Something that struck me on second viewing was the possibility that the very final scene (on the train) doesn’t happen.  What if Oskar dies and this is his dying thought?  He certainly appears to die- he ceases to struggle, he doesn’t inhale upon resurfacing, he has a beatific smile upon his face- but this is purely speculation.  The only real clue is the complete lack of reaction from Conny’s brother when another boy is dragged away by Eli- his hand doesn’t react at all- but is that really a clue.  It’s dodgy territory this, where does it stop; what if the whole thing was in his imagination?  I prefer the more literal ending.  It makes more sense that, with Oskar taking the place of Håkan, the story turns full cycle.  There are signposts to this throughout the film- Håkan’s jealousy of Eli’s new friend as he watches from the window, Eli’s tender gesture when he asks her not to see Oskar that evening, the way in which Håkan targets the ‘normal’ boys who would be Oskar’s tormentors and would have been his own.

My descriptive powers are pitifully inadequate for the task of conveying my admiration of Let The Right One In.  10/10

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Ace In The Hole (1951)

April 10, 2009

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“This is pitch black”

Last month I watched Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch.  I said then “I never feel that  Wilder was truly comfortable making sex comedies. There is a bitterness and cynicism within them… this corruption at the core of the films that make them resonant and pertinent to this day”.  Well if I thought Sunset Blvd. was dark, then this is pitch black.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tattum; a journalist who has been kicked off various big newspapers and is working for a small circulation newspaper in Albuquerque.  He stumbles across a story that he can exploit as a means of getting him back into a prestigious job.  That the story has only a limited shelf-life and needs Tattum to involve himself in machinations to keep it going is the basis of the storyline, that those machinations involve risking a man’s life and capitalising on his suffering give the film its thematic thrust.  Douglas is excellent, his performance is not only thoroughly convincing but is necessarily ambiguous at certain points.  Throughout the film you hope that Tattum will see the immorality of his exploitation of Leo Minosa’s suffering and have a change of heart which is hinted at again and again- at one point he learns that unless he makes a change that Leo will die the next morning and he starts putting those changes in motion.  This is it you think, he’s seen the light.  Then he explains that Leo’s death will ruin his human interest story.  Even at this stage, faced with effectively murdering a man in order to get a big newspaper story he is unable to see past his own self-interest.  It may not have all of the ingredients of a typical noir thriller but films don’t get any more noir than this.

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One of those key film noir ingredients is the femme fatale figure and Jan Sterling’s role as the unsettled wife of Leo Minosa who aims to capitalise on his misfortune and then leave him typifies that.  She isn’t the Eve to Kirk Douglas’s Adam (see how I follow a snap of her eating an apple with that?  Oh yes!) as he was rotten to start with, but she is corrupt and corrupting- all heavy-lidded beauty and actions without remorse.  That said, I wasn’t thrilled by her performance at all.  I understand that her portrayal is highly regarded but for me it was flat and obvious: she starts corrupt and scheming and ends corrupt and scheming, there’s no arc, no nuance, no stand-out moment.  I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and scream “Act damn you!”.  I guess I’m on my own on this one, but the opportunities she has to steal the film (stopping Leo’s mother praying for his rescue because her help is needed to serve customers, brilliant dialogue like “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons”, the scenes with Douglas where his character may win the argument but she gets more to do as a result ) are really wasted.

And that is what stops the film being absolutely perfect because, quite frankly, in every other aspect it is.  Ace in the Hole is cynical and brutal and pointed and merciless and utterly uncompromising.  There is no hero, there’s no-one to root for, there’s no-one even to like.  Everyone in it is self-serving, nasty or cynical, or else weak, cowardly and thoroughly unsympathetic as a result.  There isn’t even a happy ending.  Billy Wilder’s cynicism here isn’t confined to the newspaper hacks who keep the story going.  He focuses upon the corrupt officials who allow this to happen, the travelling hawkers and peddlers, the rubber-neckers, the travelling vigil-holders, spectators, vultures and ghouls, the contractors who take the more lucrative long way around, the sideshow entertainers and the local entrepreneurs.  Everyone wants to indulge in the Leo Minosa tragedy- it’s a human interest story!  Watching this in the wake of the Jade Goody carnival funeral, it can’t help but strike me how close to reality the whole thing really is almost sixty years later.

Only an idiot would say this film isn’t perfect and then give it 10/10.   10/10.

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The Wicker Man (1973)

April 6, 2009

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Possibly the greatest horror film ever made

As I was flicking through the TV channels I happened upon the opening credits for The Wicker Man.  This is simply an incredible movie, I’ve seen it often enough that I could recite the script along with the players and, for that reason, my notes about it will be pretty brief.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw this, it was long overdue and my very dear friend and Best Man Matt  brought it around with him for me to see.  I was struck then, as I’ve been struck ever since, by the creepy way that no-one on the island seems totally secure in their own skin.  Whether or not this is a happy accident like some of the lighting freaks in Easy Rider really isn’t of great significance to me.  It could just be that the actors are standing and listening intently for off-screen instructions or that they have been creatively and intelligently coached by the Robin Hardy (and isn’t it strange that he didn’t make his only other film thirteen years after this?).  The effect is simply unnerving, for the protagonist Sergeant Howie and for the viewer.

Woodward, who to me will always be The Equalizer, is marvellous here as the investigating policeman.  His grim determination to do his duty in the face of things he finds by turns repellent, compelling and baffling.  And, if you think about it, had he answered ‘the Siren’s call’ (as surely every male viewer would have expected him to) then the ending of the film would be redundant.

As an advert for celibacy, then, the film is a flop.  As a terrifying psychological horror, though, it is pretty much unsurpassable. 10/10

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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly / Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (1966)

April 1, 2009

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This is going to be brief because I’d already posted a full 10/10 review but it has disappeared.

Last night I went to a rare-as-hen’s-teeth big screen showing of this.  There were seven people in the cinema watching it.  Seven.

Last month I saw a fight break out as people queued to get in to see Slumdog Millionaire.  The show had sold out but these people already had tickets, they were fighting just to get into the theatre first and get the best seats.

There are people I know who would be thrilled by this.  They want the best films and music and books and TV shows to be exclusive, secret, their own personal property.  I’m not of that mindset at all, I want to share The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with everyone.  I want people to develop the same love and respect and admiration and sheer exhilaration that I do for it.  I can’t tell you how excited I was for the whole day knowing that I would be seeing this that evening.

Leone’s direction of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly  is masterful.  Everything about it.  I love the patient way that the scene is set for each event, the build-up being far more important than the set-piece itself.  The extreme close-ups on the eyes of the protagonists, the silence, the tension.  This is going to sound embarrassingly pseudy but what the fuck, I believe it.  Leone’s direction here reminds me of a big cat stalking its prey.  It moves slowly and gradually, sinews tensed, eyes alert, silently, stealthily awaiting the perfect moment and then in an instant the violence is over.  In that way Leone is the opposite of Peckinpah whose violent scenes are extended as far as possible with repetitions from multiple angles and slow-motion sequences.  Where Peckinpah invites the viewer to gorge on the blood and destruction, Leone despatches it as quickly as possible.  For Leone, the act is trivial in comparison with the circumstances surrounding it- eyes filled with fear and determination, quivering hands poised to draw- and what is behind that.  Much as I love Peckinpah’s great westerns, Leone’s approach is better.

I must have seen this fifty times and (aside from some unglued make-up on Clint’s dehydrated neck and the ropey title sequence) I can’t find a flaw.  Brilliant, beautiful, brutal.  10/10

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His Girl Friday (1940)

March 24, 2009

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It’s the sheer relentless pace of the film that astounds you.  The overlapping dialogue and fast-paced narrative leave you breathless as the scoop changes from minute to minute.  This is hilarious stuff.  The Coen Brothers, talented as they are, tried the same hectic screwball style with The Hudsucker Proxy– Jennifer Jason Leigh basically does a Rosalind Russell impression throughout- but came up well short of this level.  It’s a testament to the genius of Howard Hawks.

Suave as ever, even in a double-breasted suit that most men would look a chump in, Cary Grant plays newspaper editor Walter Burns the ex-employer and ex-husband of Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson.  She is to remarry Ralph Bellamy’s nice-but-dim insurance man Bruce Baldwin and drops by Grant’s office to tell him just as a big news story breaks.  This sets off a fantastical chain of events where everyone conspires and plots against everyone else all to get their big share of the pie- Grant has Bellamy thrown in prison three times in a day, Russell assists a death row prisoner in making sure that his insanity hearing sees him cleared, the Sheriff unwittingly helps the prisoner escape, Grant has Bellamy’s mother kidnapped, Russell hides the fugitive from the police, the Mayor and Sheriff (Clarence Kolb and Gene Lockhart) bribe a messenger to withhold the prisoner’s reprieve and order their men shoot to kill, newspaper men hounding a witness for information make her jump from a window…  So much happens so quickly and all of it is so unreal that considerations of taste and decency are irrelevant, this is suspension of disbelief time- an exaggeration, a distortion under the microscope.  When Cary Grant describes Bellamy to a girl he is sending to distract him with the words “he looks like that Hollywood actor, Ralph Bellamy” or says “the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach” (his own real name) then these are clear signals that it is all a big joke.  And it truly is great fun.  It isn’t a kind look at the journalistic trade (Russell says: “A journalist! Peeking through keyholes — running after fire engines — waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if they think Hitler’s going to start a war — stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that got chased by apemen! I know all about reporters — a lot of daffy buttinskies going around without a nickel in their pockets, and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives will know what’s going on!“) but it does make it all look such dastardly fun that you can’t help but envy them all their unscrupulousness, wit and camaraderie.  Howard Hawks could make road-sweeping look like a barrel of laughs!

The two lead performances are mesmerisingly good, Grant plays with great charm despite the frantic nature of his role and Russell is superb as the ballsy, headstrong ‘newspaper man’.  This is dynamite. The dialogue is fantastic and so pacey that you can barely pick up on it.  As the story breaks Grant is on the phone to his sub-editor to clear the front page “That’s what I said — the whole front page!  Never mind the European war!  We’ve got something a whole lot bigger than that… What Chinese earthquake?  I don’t care if a million people died, the deuce with it… Take the President’s speech and run it on the funny page … Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page too” it is hilarious stuff watching the whole thing spiral out of control with Grant and Russell continuing two, maybe three conversations at a time. The direction allows us to keep pace superbly- the plot is never confusing, the narrative is clear despite the breakneck speed and the sheer volume of characters involved.  A fantastic achievement.

Oh I loved it.  As Rosalind Russell says to Cary Grant “you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way” – 10/10.