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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Far From The Madding Crowd (1967)

April 13, 2009

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“Why is love such a misery?”

Thomas Hardy’s novel was one of the texts I was set for my A-Level English Literature course and I hated it.  I hated the slow pace, the unnecessarily detailed sections (there were, I recall, about three pages describing a barn on a hillside which no-one ever entered or discussed again) and the cloyingly sweet pastoral setting.  Dorset in winter isn’t idyllic, whatever Hardy would have you believe.  While that should make it surprising that I even risked the near-three hour film adaptation, it does also mean that I won’t spend these notes banging on “it isn’t as good as the book” as I did with Watchmen and The Damned United recently!

Such pressing reasons not to like (or even watch) Far From The Madding Crowd were outweighed by the Kinks connection, my admiration for Schlesinger’s sixties films, the cinematography of Nic Roeg and Terry Stamp.  I love Terence Stamp.  When I was commenting having seen Valkyrie, I said “This is Terry Stamp doing an advert for that life insurance that only the over-50s can have“.  The guy is basically sleepwalking his way through risible film after risible film these days (his last few films have been Valkyrie, Yes Man, Get Smart and Wanted) but this shouldn’t detract from the fact that he is an incredibly talented, charismatic actor with some superb performances behind him.  For me, this is one of them.  There is a moment where Stamp turns to Julie Christie with cold-eyes and says “this woman is more to me dead as she is than you ever were or are or could be” and you are simply awestruck.  He chills you to the bone as he destroys her with spite and malice by completely underplaying it.  The words are delivered deliciously, with venom.  It is a powerhouse performance, he is breathtaking.  The beauty of Jude Law combined with the presence of a young (pre-self-parodying) Pacino.  Amazing stuff.  But what a wasted talent!

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No-one else here hits quite those heights, but there is still a great deal to admire here.  Julie Christie plays Bathsheba Everdene with just the right mix of arrogance and insecurity, her independence is stripped away little-by-little until Troy feels compelled to admonish her “don’t be so desperate”.  She skilfully retains a degree of ambiguity in the early stages and it is never truly clear whether Bathsheba is being purposely cruel or simply immature.  Smashing performance.  Peter Finch, the raving mad prophet of the airwaves from Network, plays Francis Boldwood another man on the verge of a nervous breakdown here- albeit with much greater composure.  Here he internalises the trauma, expressing it subtly; a quiver of the eyebrow, a distant glance, a mouth opening wordlessly.

The central performance is given by Alan Bates in the role of Gabriel Oak.  His character is the first and last that we see and provides the moral compass for the film.  He is always honest, if respectful, always thoughtful and exemplifies the traditional values of moral certitude and diligent stoicism.  His response upon being financially ruined by a sad quirk of fate is simply to remark “Thank God I am not married.  And this serene acceptance of events is what works against Bates, who is a fine actor, because he has nothing to do but look calm and read his lines.  It’s no coincidence that the most virtuous character is called Gabriel, is it?  Actually, I may as well moan about something that has bugged me since 1991- Far From The Madding Crowd has a character called Oak who is solid and dependable and one called Troy who is handsome but comes with hidden defects.  This is like giving them a white ten gallon hat and a black one- great literature my arse!  I’ll stop now, I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about the book, only the film.

The mechanics of the film are impressive, Roeg captures the landscape beautifully giving a sense of the absolute surrender to the elements which each character suffers from (indeed Boldwood, through machinery, is the only character who attempts to master his circumstances- as he does with his attempted bribery of Troy, a nice touch- but this proves futile).  The soundtrack, including originally composed folk songs, by Richard Rodney Bennett has a lilting pastoral beauty which serves to build the mood of the piece beautifully.  These things, in addition to the suppressed passion in the performances, are co-ordinated by Schesinger to produce a slightly arid and slightly too worthy reading of the novel.  It is almost as if he was so determined to move away from the small-scale urban setting of his great opening trio of films (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling) that this overtook any other considerations.  It doesn’t ruin the film at all, but it does create a film where there are a few fantastic set-pieces (the unexpectedly harrowing scene where the sheepdog runs the sheep over the cliff, the tension of Gabriel and Bathsheba battling the storm, the carnival, the sword exercise where Troy seduces Bathsheba) interspersed with some disappointing ones (the obvious soft-focus scene where Boldwood first sees Bathsheba, the slow-motion shot of Bathsheba tossing the corn in the cornmarket, the harvest dance and the marketplace scene where Oak looks for work).

And so it’s a good film, but still a disappointing one.  Worth seeing again, but only when I’m in a patient mood 6/10.

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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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Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

March 31, 2009

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It’s mad this.  I love it, but I’m aware of how mad it is.  Veteran B-Movie actor Eddie Constantine reprises a regular role as private detective Lemmy Caution in a Jean-Luc Godard film set in the future.  Bonkers.  Brilliant.

As with any film Godard makes the emphasis is very much on realism.  And so you have a sci-fi film noir thriller set in a dystopian future (is there any kind of future in the movies?) which is filmed in mid-60s Paris featuring actors wearing contemporary clothing and driving contemporary cars.  In fact, if it weren’t for the dialogue you would have no idea that this was set in the future.  It could almost be a French version of What’s Up Tiger Lily?  And yet, it is very realistic because Godard chose the most futuristic parts of Paris and Coutard shot them in such a way that it works.  We’re not talking a Buck Rodgers future here but a terrifying vision of a very real, very near future.  The film begins by telling the viewer that it is “24.17 Oceanic Time” which will really, really strike a chord with anyone who has read Orwell’s contribution to the genre 1984.  Or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  And those source materials are a pretty important touchstone for the film referenced throughout- with the omniscient central government, dehumanised population and deliberate shrinking of the language.  It is telling for me that Godard’s sci-fi film is the antithesis of the gaudy, style-over-substance, effects and costume-heavy movies which dominate the genre.  Strip away the trappings, he is saying, and there must be more to the film than mere window-dressing.  He must have hated the Hollywood of the last three decades.

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The film opens with Lemmy Caution arriving in Alphaville under the assumed identity of a newspaper reporter from Figaro-Pravda (that is simply delicious by the way).  The wonderful Misraki B-movie soundtrack accompany Caution as he enters an Alphaville hotel, checks in, gets the lift to his floor, negotiates the winding corridoors and arrives at his room.  This is all achieved with one tracking shot including the lift sequence (the camera goes up in one glass elevator, Caution in another alongside it) it takes four minutes in full.  Amazing.  I can’t emphasise that enough.

Alphaville is a harsh, cold, loveless and remorseless place.  Five years on from À Bout de Souffle,which was in part a love letter to the city of Paris, Godard’s view appears to have completely changed.  Caution’s disdain for Alphaville simply gives voice to Godard’s for Paris: “Everything weird is ‘normal’ in this damn town” he says at one point.  What Paris is and what it is becoming informs much of the movie thematically.  This also makes Constantine’s uncomfortable performance work really well, he isn’t a natural or polished and his clunky accented delivery and hesitant body language is perfect for the role of discomfited outsider.  He is taking the whole thing super-seriously  as a spy thriller and seemingly ignoring the philosophical or futuristic bits that he doesn’t quite get.  It’s a great case of a Director using an actor brilliantly in spite of the actors limitations, I love Eddie Constantine in this (and, in the interests of balance, I should say that he also does a pretty good job in The Long Good Friday).  Godard makes the most of Constantine, his ‘interesting’ face and world-weary manner- he is in almost every shot, certainly every scene.

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And yet he isn’t the key figure in the film.  The film is, in many ways, a love letter to Anna Karina.  From the first moment that she appears- accompanied by a beautiful score for strings and lit with great sensitivity- she is objectified as being of almost preternatural beauty.  Her performance justifies this treatment too, she is sensational in this.  The moment at the climax of the film where she says for the first time and with a new understanding of the gravity of her words “I love you” is one of those heart-meltingly rare cinema moments that stay with you.  She speaks as if these are the first words she has ever said, the music swells, fin.  Truly beautiful. 

Love is one of the things which can save Alphaville.  During the execution scene- a man is executed for acting illogically- he wept when his wife died, his final words are: “Listen to me normal ones!  We see a truth that you no longer see.  A truth that says the essence of man is love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice.  Everything else is an obstacle put up by your blind progress and ignorance!”.  The execution itself is odd (the prisoners are shot by firing squad beside a swimming pool and retrieved by synchronised swimmers who are applauded wildly by spectators) and this bizarre method is in keeping with the bizarre reason for the execution.  Godard is mocking the concept (and indeed the conceit) of this future.  He goes further in the following scenes and reveals that in the face of dehumanisation, poetry is the answer.  When Alphaville’s super computer (and by the way Alphaville’s super computer has a voice like a frog vomiting) interrogates Lemmy Caution, it asks “do you know what turns darkness into light?” to which he responds poetry.  And reading a book of the poet Éluard’s poetry entitled ‘The Capital of Pain’ (presumably chosen for the title as much as the content) reawakens the humanity within Karina’s character.  Yet it is here that the film falters to a degree, as with all of Godard’s work, there is a heavy philosophical element and the longer-than-it-seems sequence on anti-linguistic theory (“unless words change their meanings and meanings change their words”- that kind of stuff) is a step that the film could really do without.  The film isn’t serious enough to do such conceits justice- that’s my feeling anyway.

Aside from that interlude (which I would probably have tolerated much better if I hadn’t been too tired to understand it all) this is typical Godard, he doesn’t piss about with unnecessary pauses, he just puts relevant scenes and events on screen in an innovative way subverting everything which has gone before.  He even depicts a fight in still photos to avoid unnecessary and untidy camerawork.  A film about the resurrection of tenderness and of love.  8/10

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The Great Escape (1963)

March 28, 2009

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With Elmer Bernstein’s Western-style theme tune, a name like The Great Escape and those big fuck-off red titles you know where you are with this from the start.  It’s a bombastic, unsubtle, flag-waving crowd-pleaser.  There’ll be no ambiguity or equivocation here. This is a regression to childhood; the Allies are Dennis the Menace, Bart Simpson, Winker Watson and Kevin McAllister while the prison guards are their hapless parents and teachers.  And that also tells you what this isn’t, this is by no means a serious historical document.  It very well may be a dramatisation of a novelization of real events, but that’s like relying upon a blurry photograph of an artist’s impression of a bank robber to identify a suspect.  No, whatever the titles may have you think, this is a fantastical exercise. Of course, that’s not a criticism- it’s a defence.  Critics of the lack of authenticity in this film really should avoid cinema as a medium of entertainment.

What you can justifiably put the boot in about is the almost total lack of plausibility- the claustrophobic tunnel-digger, the blind forger, the American flier in chinos and a sweatshirt who got shot down clutching a baseball mit, James Coburn’s dreadful broad Orstrialiurn accent, the secret still that even the prisoners can’t find which produces enough moonshine for three hundred men… It just depends how far you’re willing to suspend your disbelief.  Me?  Well, in the right mood I’ll accept it- even if it does make being a prisoner of war look like more fun than a night out with Keith Moon.

But whether it’s any good is the most important question and, well, it’s okay.  It’s the best part of three hours long and there only a few dull passages- for example, the first half hour seems to fly by with all of the characters being introduced in turn, but the next half-hour on the complexities of hiding different coloured dirt and how to get a camera out of a prison guard drag.  What’s more the sheer volume of characters makes it a challenge for John Sturges to introduce them all- giving Cavendish a scarf and Henley a polo-neck may help us distinguish between them but that’s no use if we don’t know which is which.  And that’s the best thing about the film, the clarity of characterization.  God only knows what kind of a challenge it must be keeping such a huge cast of star egos happy with their screen time while keeping the film under five hours long.  Sturges does that really well here.  Whoever is directing The Expendables will find that out for himself soon enough.

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The next best thing about the film is linked with that.  The next best thing about the film is Steve McQueen.  Okay, I’m biased, I love Steve McQueen but he is genuinely the most watchable thing on show here.  It isn’t his acting, which is competent enough, it is his charisma and sheer screen presence.  I suppose the fact that he is swaggering around in what looks like his own clothes and had the whole iconic motorbike sequence added just because he likes motorbikes helps.  John Sturges, deliberately or otherwise, just lets him stroll onset and steal the film from everyone else.  No-one remembers Charles Bronson and John Leyton rowing away at dusk in beautiful soft-focus, but everyone remembers the motorcycle jump.  I suppose that means that Sturges’s decision to humour him paid off, even at the cost of completely overbalancing the film.

Despite the best efforts of arch overactor James Garner and dear Dicky Attenborough, Donald Pleasance is the only man who comes close to McQueen when it comes to creating a memorable character.  He is thoroughly lovable, a perfect English gentleman designed for Hollywood consumption.  Splendid.

What is most usually overlooked about The Great Escape is the amount of time that is spent on largely unsuccessful post-escape events.  The Elmer Bernstein theme and the very phrase ‘great escape’ represent- in the minds of the majority- Allied supremacy over Nazi tyranny; like the Dunkirk evacuation or Custer at the Alamo or even Balboa’s first tilt at the world title, glorious failure is much more memorable than mere success in Hollywood’s estimation.

So it’s mostly crap, but enjoyable, iconic, quotable crap that everyone needs to have seen to understand the intercontextual references that appear in countless other books or films or songs or TV shows. The Great Escape is far more than just a film, it is a part of our cultural heritage.  6/10

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The Trip (1967)

March 10, 2009

Not really sure why I hadn’t seen this before.  I went through a phase of really obsessing about the ‘summer of love’.  I was intrigued by psychedelia, acid, free love, Haight-Ashbury and all that shite.  I also used to really love Jack Nicholson- still do to an extent- and so this should have been right up my street.  What I really envied was the feeling that people seemed to have that everything was just about to get a whole lot better- a zeitgeist that probably lasted for a couple of weeks and no more.  Wisdom and experience have taught me how false a dawn it was.  The Paris riots, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Altamont, Kent State  and everything that followed were bad enough, but learning how the Haight became full of broken-minded junkies almost overnight and how the whole thing allowed Nixon to get a stranglehold on America does sour the taste a little.  So there’s baggage accompanying this film.  It isn’t just a Corman exploitation flick (it is that, obviously) but it’s a relic from a shattered dream.  It represents the crushing of hope under the weight of the establishment, the man rules okay!

Excluding the context, how is it as a film?  Well, a failure I guess.  It’s like being at a party where you’re the only person who isn’t drunk.  There’s a lot of fun being had but you aren’t included and watching other people in an altered state isn’t exactly rewarding.  Peter Fonda (who undergoes the titular trip) sees things that scare him or make him feel euphoric or blow his mind, but we just see dwarves or mounted men in soft-focus.  If the aim of the film is to replicate the LSD experience- whether for educational reasons as the introductory titles claim, or to make a quick buck like any other exploitation film- then it fails miserably.  Except in the sense that LSD is a dissociative drug and I was anything but engaged.

What is interesting about The Trip is how it is almost a dry run for Easy Rider, lots of things that work well in that movie (the campfire scene, the counter-culture dialogue, the way the sunlight bleeds into the camera, the different film effects used, Fonda’s dissatisfaction with the career/marriage conformist life and Hopper’s monumental performance) are given a dry run here.  And for that, it is important.  So I forgive it for being a bit crap.  4/10

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Made in U.S.A. (1966)

March 9, 2009

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During this film the phrases “a Disney film with Humphrey Bogart” and “a Disney film with blood” are used.  And you can see what is meant by that.  This is super-stylish and, like all of Jean-Luc Godard’s finest films, mixes the personal and the political into a simple yet complex take on Film Noir.  The simple yet complex theme is evident in the dialogue as well as the construction of the film.

Godard’s work at this point seems far more overtly political than his earlier films and is almost an expression of his doubts and uncertainties with regard to left wing politics and how they can be reconciled with contemporary society.  There are overtly political visuals (the grafittied- there’s no right way to spell that is there?-  phrase Liberté gets machine-gunned) and dialogue (political tracts recounted by tape recorder as a clue in the case).  As an expression of what was happening in the world in general and France in particular (the Paris student riots were about two years away) Made in U.S.A. shows Godard to be both a product of and a leader of his times.

And it is, of course, an homage to the American B-movies that Godard references throughout.  If not made, this film was certainly conceived in the USA- if a country can also be a state of mind and I’m not getting all up my own pseudy arse with this!  The film features Anna Karina tracking down the murderer of her ex-lover.  The murder was the result of his involvement in or at least knowledge of a political assassination.  Karina, as was mentioned above, is a contemporary version of Bogart’s noir persona- uncompromising, hard-headed and thoughtful.  She is being tracked by a criminal and his callow, hapless accomplice (much like Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon).  As far as a linear plot goes, that’s your lot.  Non-linear plot elements are the constant pop-culture allusions, the tape-recorded monologues on the French political situation and a discussion on perspectives and how they shape our view of the world.

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Being a Godard film, of course, it looks marvellous- the constant juxtaposition of stark white internal scenes with bright primary colours, the beautifully lit exteriors which seem so fresh, the long fixed-lens close-ups, the reflections of Karina barely visible in a photograph frame behind the head of the subject, the twins in the gymnasium- his visual inventiveness is indefatigable.  And it sounds marvellous, with real-life intervening in the form of sirens, telephone rings and overhead planes.  The influence of all of this on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films is obvious (the basic storyline, Karina’s appearance, the name hidden by a sound effects etc) and is further testimony to the power of the film to extend beyond itself and take on an importance beyond merely being a piece of cinematic art.  There is a scene where Karina and László Szabó sit down and describe what happens in the next part of the film rather than acting it out- this constant deconstruction of the cinematic myth (the dialogue constantly talks about movie scenes, characters, events, the mise-en-scène– hell even the characters are named after actors or directors) serves to remind us that Godard is making statements that go beyond the simplistic storyline.  The story is not what the film says, it is merely a vehicle to express the director’s statement.  Has the auteur theory ever been supported in so stark and blatant a way?

This is a film that needs to be seen and re-seen for things to make sense.  At present it’s a 7/10 but that should improve as the references become clearer with further viewings.  Of course, the whole thing could be a vacant pop-culture act of pretension, but I don’t believe so.

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