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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Villain (1971)

May 1, 2009

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“I don’t want a fertile imagination, I don’t want to know if society’s to blame, I just want to catch criminals”

The film opens with two heavies waiting in a London flat, as a car pulls up in the street below they wake Burton giving him time to wash his face and compose himself.  As he does so, the owner of the flat returns and they hold  him captive.  Fresh and alert, Burton enters the room and- with barely a word- begins to deliver a vicious beating and then takes out a cut-throat razor.  Our next sight of the victim is when Burton looks up from beside a drip of blood (having made a crass joke about pigeon droppings) and sees him tied to a chair hanging from a window horrifically lacerated.  On the other hand our next view of Burton sees him after he returns home and gently wakes his Mum with a cup of tea and offers to take her for a ride out to the coast.  Now THAT is how to start a film!

This is one of those films that you rarely hear about, almost a lost classic.  You’ll be discussing Get Carter or The Long Good Friday and someone will say ‘you should see Villain‘, only as no-one ever has the conversation moves on quickly.  It’s such a shame that this is forgotten and shite like The Business is relatively lauded.  Richard Burton plays Vic Dakin, the kind of character that in summary sounds implausible; he’s a gay, sadistic, sociopathic gangland boss who lives with his Mum and rules part of London through fear.  It sounds implausible except that there was a guy like that in the sixties called Ronnie (or maybe Reggie, I get them confused) Kray.  And, whether you find him plausible or not, the depth of characters like Dakin put this film streets ahead of most efforts in the genre.

It isn’t just about Burton- and he is compelling, just the right side of overdoing it- everyone on show here is a cut above.  Especially Ian McShane who, as Wolfie a small-time hustler and object of Dakin’s sadistic lust, has an even more compelling part and really makes the most of it.  Even some of the minor characters are fascinatingly written- Nigel Davenport’s dogged, determined and stoical policeman Matthews who appreciates the futility of his task but presses on anyway; Joss Ackland’s gangster who spends an entire hold-up chomping down hard-boiled eggs to ease his stomach ulcer; top-notch Irish character actor T.P.McKenna’s rival gangster who is far more businessman than criminal; and smarmy, velvet-purring Donald Sinden as a crooked, seedy MP.

In fact, it isn’t just the characters- the plot is formulaic but the dialogue is marvellous (“he’s a bit bent for a start. You know the type, thinks the world owes him something. A wanker“, “you festering pig“, “Stupid punters. Telly all the week, screw the wife Saturday“) especially when Dakin is upbraiding anyone who dares to even look at a woman (“sordid!“) or doesn’t wash their hands after taking a piss.  I also liked the underlying themes that crime is just a job, a means of employment on both sides of the law and that removing one criminal just creates an opportunity for another jobbing criminal.  The crime-as-a-business angle is never overplayed but the existence of a structure, hierarchy and protocol as a given is an important aspect to Villain.

I’d like to mention Christopher Challis’ excellent cinematography, not only does he handle the task of transmitting gritty realism with aplomb but he manages to capture an excellent car chase and also take very intimate and graphic shots of various fights including the main crime around which the film revolves.  Superb.  The soundtrack too (Jonathan Hodge) is excellent, switching from tinny funk to stabbing synthy strings to John Carpenter-like piano motifs; all of it is reminiscent of films that would follow but oddly Hodge himself would get very little more work, similarly the director (Michael Tuchner) did little else of note.  But at least they did this.  A proper British gangster thriller that I loved- they even found a space for a Michael Robbins cameo- 8/10.

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State Of Play (2009)

April 27, 2009

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There’s a few minor problems in making these notes.  Firstly, the film that the cinema listed as beginning at 19.45 was past the opening credits when I took my seat at 19.45 and who knows what I missed (not much I imagine in truth as big fat Russell Crowe- who looks increasingly like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion (see above)- was bribing his way onto the scene of the first crime scene as I arrived).  The second issue is that the film was followed by a televised Q&A with the director Kevin MacDonald and I want to satisfy myself that my notes reflect what I saw and not what I’ve been told I saw.  I’d forgotten until I saw the film that I’ve seen (at least some of) the original BBC series upon which it was based. Thankfully my recollections were not strong enough to spoil the plot or for me to draw comparisons with the original players. In fact the greater danger lies in my having seen Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men and The Parallax View; which are the more significant touchstones for the piece (Klute, another probable antecedent of State Of Play, is near the top of my teetering to-see pile).  The final problem is that- thanks to a combination of hectic work, golf, season 2 of The Wire, training for a charity run and socializing- I saw the film seven days before sitting down to complete these notes.

And while seven days ago I didn’t dislike it, on reflection I certainly don’t especially like it either.  The plus points are some strong acting performances (and I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome Crowe back to acting after his recent experiments with sleep-walking through films), some tight direction and editing and a really good pacy build-up to the climax.  Ah, the climax- I didn’t want to get to the climax straight away (and I swear that never normally happens!) but I may as well now.  In the enjoyable light comedy Paris When It Sizzles William Holden is talking Audrey Hepburn through the writing of a script (“aha! The twist… then the twist on the twist… and another twist” or something) and that’s what the ending of this film reminded me of.  I guess it’s true of thrillers in general but especially of this film- not every twist can be plausible and, when you’re ending on a solid and believable one, it doesn’t work to shoehorn in another one.  Especially if the tip-off clue isn’t much of a clue at all.  In State Of Play the tip-off is that a character reveals that she knows something which she shouldn’t leading Russell Crowe to uncover the whole thing.  But it doesn’t- not plausibly and his deduction is not the only (or even the likeliest) logical conclusion.  A solid but unspectacular thriller becomes, therefore, a flimsy melodrama.  It’s a real shame given the effort that had so clearly been invested in the piece.

The only other thing that stands out is that the soundtrack is absolutely fucking appalling- bombastic, overloud, generic and off-putting.  I was grumpy about it throughout and in the Q&A MacDonald indicated that he’d been unable to find a score which he thought was appropriate and the studio agreed with until the eleventh hour (he implied that he wanted something soft and piano-led).  He got what he was given I reckon, a shame.

Oh yes, and that feller off the Orange adverts is in it as a straight actor.  As is Jeff Daniels of one of the funniest films ever; Dumb And Dumber.

Anyway, 4/10 overall.  Solid except for Ben ‘Easter Island’ Affleck; he is appalling as ever.

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Finally Sunday! / Vivement Dimanche! (1983)

April 21, 2009

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“so sweet and touching a love letter to Hitchcock

I’ve got such a list of films that I haven’t made notes on that I’m having to rattle through them at great speed.  I’m not even going to mention Jules et Jim, which I saw recently and again at the weekend.  I think I’ve got the balance right but I do find my notes useful, so it’s a shame.  I saw Jules et Jim because speciality French movie channel CineMoi had advertised a showing of Vivement Dimanche! but decided to show the 1962 classic instead.  I started watching and couldn’t stop but I couldn’t help being miffed as I’d missed the chance to see the one Truffaut that I haven’t seen and don’t own and then a little digging revealed that I do own it!  It was released in Australia as Confidentially Yours, though having seen the film I can’t see why, and was part of a box set I picked up some years back.  So, I got to see a Truffaut double-bill.  “Who’s the Daddy now?

This is smashing.  It is Truffaut working through his Alfred Hitchcock fixation (the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews make fantastic reading) by making a perfectly-executed homage.  This being a (pseudo) Hitchcock it revolves around a man who is accused of a crime that he may or may not have committed and his attempts to elude the authorities for long enough to clear his name.  It’s suspension-of-disbelief time of course, this is a film where the police have set up road-blocks and search the city for a man who is sat comfortably in his office which they’ve neglected to check.  But it doesn’t matter, the film is so sweet and touching a love letter to Hitchcock that you can let anything go.

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the innocent victim of circumstances- by turns confused, afraid and indignant- with the glorious Fanny Ardant as the secretary who is secretly in love with him and does his investigating for him whilst he is ensconced in the office (a nice nod to Rear Window).  Both are excellent and their chemistry is lovely to watch.

But it’s the Hitchcock motifs that matter the most.  The film is immediately suspenseful from the shooting of Massoulier which opens and is undercut throughout with a tense string soundtrack which is tremendously reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s best.  There are images of telephones ringing in empty rooms, scenes shot from outside through windows, the first person the couple suspect is dramatically revealed to be a Priest, Fanny Ardant’s Barbara zips from city to city looking or clues, she witnesses a murder but can only see the murderer’s legs, the audience is manipulated to believe then disbelieve then rebelieve in Trintignant’s character…

I don’t believe that this focusing upon the Hitchcock angle is doing the film down at all, it is certainly a tense but enjoyable thriller in its own right and the reverence it shows for the Godfather of all modern thrillers is a strength.  There is also a brief reference to Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory– a film which was once banned in France- and, as this was to be Truffaut’s last film it is almost as if he is saying goodbye and expressing his thanks to great filmmakers from before.  Like when Bob Dylan played ‘Song For Woody’ at his 40th Anniversary tribute concert.

It’s far from flawless but I loved it.  Can’t wait to see it again. 7/10

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The Dark Knight (2008)

April 17, 2009

the-dark-knight-1“Fan-boys might want to look away now”

I’m really pushed for time this week, so my notes will be brief and lacking in support or explanation for any opinions offered.  The purpose of these notes is for me to not have to remember anything and so its a bit of a risk to note down how I feel and not why I feel it.  To myself in the future, I apologise.  Whilst I’m busy caveating, I should add that my first viewing of last year’s biggest film (that’s the kind of unsubstantiated guess I was on about, on reflection Mamma Mia! probably beat it) took place in three broken spells on the 320×240 screen of my phone.  Hardly ideal viewing circumstances.

The films I avoided last year because of the hype were Wall-E and The Dark Knight.  I wish I’d seen them both on the big screen now, but for differing reasons- in Wall-E‘s case it is simply because it was a beautifully constructed piece of high-art masquerading as a kids’ filmThe Dark Knight, however,  is very specifically designed for the multiplex viewer- with its dark look, booming sound effects and the huge visual impact of its explosions.  Seeing it on a phone (or even a big fuck-off telly) can never do that justice.

The film itself is a pale shadow of Batman Begins.  I know that it’s easy to slag off a sequel, but that isn’t what’s happening here.  The sequel, unusually, is the more lauded of the films.  For a long spell in 2008, an IMDB poll had The Dark Knight rated as the greatest film ever made- currently it is merely the 6th best film of all time according to voters there.  Personally, I greatly prefer the first film because a lot of the determination that was there to make a really good film first time around appears to have been lost in the desire to make a really great spectacle.  The subtlety and intrigue is gone.  Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was troubled yet driven, morally ambiguous and too immature for the role he had created for himself.  In this film he is a towering intellectual giant with a clear moral code and a ludicrously husky vocal delivery once he gets that suit on.  Far be it from me to suggest that someone has disrupted Bale’s process, but I much preferred it when his Bruce Wayne was a three-dimensional human.  I’ll never tire of that audio clip, by the way.

Fundamentally, Batman is James Bond in kevlar body armour.  He goes outside the law and employs astonishing gadgets to bring down world-threatening bad guys in the final reel of the film.  Michael Caine is M, Morgan Freeman is Q and Maggie Gyllenhall (a huge, huge improvement on Katie Holmes and the one aspect of the film where the quality is ramped up on the original) is Vesper Lynd.  And this is a pretty decent Bond film; the set-pieces are amazing, the villain is charismatic (but it isn’t quite worthy of the posthumous plaudits) and the suspense is held pretty strongly for the most part.  The problem, as is often the case with this type of film, is the plot- The Joker wants to create mayhem in the only city on the planet with a superhero by bankrupting the numerous crime overlords and turning the tough-on-crime District Attorney into a delusional psychopath.  Just because he can.  There are twists along the way, but they’re not interesting or surprising.  You know a twist is coming because it is signposted way ahead by the projected plot being that little bit too straightforward.  The intention is to lull the audience and then surprise them.  Well either I’m too cynical or there was too much lulling and not enough surprising.  Even weaker than the plot, though, is the dialogue, which everyone delivers as if they were Richard Burton on Richard III.  That is the weakest thing in the film.

The costumes and visual effects and lighting and stunts and all the dull stuff that only matters if the rest of the film is up to scratch are all great, I should say.  But it’s effectively just a very effective marketing tool and a great visual spectacle and very probably a great multiplex experience (if a little long) and not much of a film.  4/10

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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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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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