Monthly Archives: October, 2011

Halloween Special … Halloween

Halloween is a distinctly American holiday, but one that is gaining an ever increasing following here in Australia. I have no particular fondness for the holiday, but any excuse for a blog will do. I thought that for pretty obvious reasons John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) was an appropriate film for this special 1001 post. I think I have stated before that horror is not my favourite genre. I am not sure why. I think I always presume that I will get scared, but I am not sure if I have ever been truly traumatised by a horror film. Nevertheless, I was not taking any chances. I watched this early on a bright sunny day, with the curtains open. This film was voted the second scariest film of all time in a recent Empire Magazine poll though, so maybe this would be the first to really affect me. The DVD menu was ominous; I was scared shitless just playing that, due to the incredible music playing over the top of it.

My fear continued unabated once the film started, as the same piece of music opens the movie. It is an incredible piece, made even more amazing by the fact that the music was composed by Carpenter himself (given he directed and co-wrote as well, that makes this quite the auteur piece). This leads into one of the best opening halves in film history. The tension throughout is astounding and unrelenting. The opening credits are surely some of the best ever, establishing this tension I am talking about and featuring one creepy fucking Jack O’ Lantern. Check them out:

From here we jump into an opening scene where the soundtrack makes it nigh on unwatchable. First person, point of view shooting seems like such a tacky cliché these days and it is rarely used well. In the hands of most directors it seems like a ‘wow, see this fancy shot I am doing here hint hint nudge nudge’ gesture, instead of being employed for a reason. Here it is used to devastating effect. This first scene really is sheer genius. Big SPOILER alert – the shot comes from the murderer’s point of view. So the audience’s view is restricted to only what he can see as he climbs the stairs. Then in a masterstroke, the view is further obscured when the killer puts on a mask. You will find yourself straining to see things just outside the killer’s vision. For a moment after the first person murder all you can hear is the heavy breathing. And then comes the big reveal as the mask is removed, and the camera wheels around to reveal just how young the murderer is. Really stunning stuff, and a reminder to me just why I love watching film and watching films outside the kind I would usually be attracted to.

After this opening sequence the plot jumps forward 15 years. The killer Michael has been locked up for that entire time, and has not spoken a word. He returns to the town he grew up on a Halloween evening, and is intent on wreaking more havoc. This film is all about control, the control that Carpenter as director wields over his audience. In addition to the mask already mentioned in the opening scene, various camera angles and things such as car windshields and even just darkness are used to control the frame and only allow the audience to see what he wants us to. It is such a simple technique, but one that works so very well. The director perfectly controls how much of the villain he wants us to see at any particular time. Sometimes his body just impinges on the frame slightly, just to remind us that he is there. The audience is repeatedly toyed with as Carpenter refuses to show all of the villain. Also key to Carpenter’s control is the incredible use of soundtrack. I really can’t emphasise enough how brilliantly this is done. It may be the best use of soundtrack I’ve ever witnessed, no exaggeration. There is the recurring piece of music that I have already mentioned which is used to herald the villain’s presence. Which sounds like it would give too much away, but instead enhances the malevolent nature of him. As well as music there are also a couple of audio motifs employed, such as the villain’s heavy breathing which is chilling as it emanates from behind closed doors and the like. It is strange how even though you are aware that the music and the breathing mean the bad guy is around, it can still elicit such tension from the situations rather than breed familiarity. The use of all the music and audio cues is also so beautifully measured, when it could have so easily been overblown.

This film “introduces” Jamie Lee Curtis (of course her mother Janet Leigh starred in Psycho (1960) a film Halloween has often been compared to), and you have to thank it for that. She has such a nice, clever screen presence which is evident, even from this early age. In fact all the young female actors who inhabit this film are quite good. Considering the type of films that Halloween is accused of inspiring, it is almost a surprise that there only about four or so murders in the whole film, and they are not that graphically shot given today’s standards. Much of the body of the film is Michael in the car, driving around, stalking his would be victims as his creepyarse music plays. It is a slow, suspenseful build that creates a fantastically intimidating atmosphere. This is created in what is meant to be a slice of typical American suburbia. But it also comments upon the coldness of modern society. There is a harrowing scene where a distraught teen screams her lungs out for help, but her neighbours simply ignore her, some going actively out of their way to avoid assisting. It could be argued that this build goes on a little too long, but I think I would prefer that to an alternative of mindless killing with no explanatory build-up. And in a strange way, once the killing starts the film actually gets somewhat less scary rather than more. That is not to say there is not still the odd fright, including the biggest of the entire film. The second half is not as satisfying as the first. This is partly because it is slightly inferior, but also happily because the first stanza is absolutely phenomenal.

If you know anyone silly enough to believe that the auteur and genre are mutually exclusive, show them this film and show them how wrong they are. I highly recommend watching this on Halloween night if you are keen for a horror flick. You’ll probably be scared at some stage, but even if not you will be treated to incredibly high class filmmaking.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Progress: 44/1001

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Hitch just wants to have fun

After letting slip with my secret confession that I had not seen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) in a recent podcast, I thought it was high time I right this wrong. Here we go.

The film stars a classic Hollywood star Cary Grant, in a classic mistaken identity plot. The film starts out by perfectly evoking the rush and crush of city life. The Hitch cameo comes early, and it helps evoke this atmosphere as the director races for, but ultimately fails to catch, a bus. And it is in this environment that Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill thrives as a high powered advertising executive. He is soon dislocated from his domain though as he is mysteriously kidnapped by thugs who mistake him for someone else. The film eventually morphs into a transamerican chase film, at which point Grant is paired up with Eva Marie Saint who plays an interesting variation on the Hitchcock blonde. She is a complex love interest who mysteriously helps a fugitive for no real reason and is heavily involved in one of the film’s great twists. The whole film is driven by an absolutely cracking script which manages to be funny, mysterious and clever. The director harnesses the script to put us in the protagonist’s shoes, and just as he has little idea what is unfolding, we too are left in the dark. The effect is that the film builds a wonderful sense of mystery as we the audience, and Thornhill, try to establish exactly who his kidnappers are, and what they want with him.

Hitchcock’s penchant for clever shots that make film nerds everywhere swoon is also on display throughout the film. As Thornhill flees following the murder at the U.N, Hitch delivers what is surely one of the great high angle shots of all time. It is shot from a towering, dizzying height as Grant’s character races out of the building through a courtyard. There is also a cracker of a POV shot towards the end of the film which makes the audience cop a punch to the head. The script also delivers some rather forward dialogue, dripping with flirting and sexual innuendo. This film features probably the dirtiest conversation ever held on a train. The conclusion of the film wraps up incredibly quickly, as mentioned by Jon in the podcast. Actually it is unfathomably quick; I had to re-watch it just to establish what had happened. The last 10 or so minutes of the film features twist upon twist, most of which are satisfying ones.

I coined the rather silly title for this piece before I actually watched the film. I thought of it because for some reason, I thought this was going to be a more light-hearted film from Hitchcock. And whilst it is a little slighter than some of his films, it is definitely not a defining marker of the movie. Even so, I think the title is still apt because the film is highlighted by a number of massive set-pieces in which the director is clearly having a lot of fun, revelling in being delightfully over the top. The first of these comes early in the film, where an attempt to take Thornhill’s life results in his car dangling over a cliff, which is followed by a drunken car chase. This sort of sums up Hitch’s brilliance in this film. A car chase is a stock element, but he reimagines it, making it slow paced as Thornhill tries to overcome his inebriation to escape. And Cary Grant makes a fantastic drunk. Hitch follows this pattern with set piece after set piece: the murder at the U.N, the fantastic finale atop Mount Rushmore and of course the piece de resistance of set pieces – the crop duster scene. This sequence is magnificently constructed with shots of the empty countryside increasing the sense of isolation, and car after car raising Thornhill’s hopes that the man he is waiting for will arrive. Despite not being exactly logical, surely there are easier ways to kill a man than with a crop duster, the scene is ultra exciting. And eat your heart out Michael Bay, it ends with a frickin plane flying into a frickin petrol tanker. Drawing attention to the fact that the film is essentially a few big set pieces linked together, would be a criticism of most films. But the great thing about all of these set pieces is that they are reimagined brilliantly in a way that you suspect only Hitchcock could pull off. They are just all so good. Speaking of the director’s ability for reimagination and originality, the whole film is a genre flick, a spy thriller, as reimagined by Hitch. A spy thriller full of government espionage that simply does not focus on the spy at all, rather examining the outer reaches of the web and the everyman caught up in it.

This is a wonderful romp which features one of the absolute best scripts of all time. Like every Hitchcock film there is so much here worth seeing, he truly is a master director and there has never been another like him. Do I prefer it to Rear Window (1954)? Not quite, but it is a very different film and both are true classics.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 43/1001

An elephant, two mice and a puppet walk into a bar…

The current cinematic and DVD re-release of The Lion King has classic Disney films back in the public consciousness a bit more (not that they are ever that far from it). And a recent rampage through a DVD store by my partner have Disney DVDs weighing down the shelf at home. Well at least with those currently available (seriously what the hell is the deal with Disney’s DVD release strategy? Do they withhold titles from release so they become more ‘sought after’ or is it something more nuanced than that?). I digress. These purchases gave me the perfect chance to relive a couple of old school Disney classics, and bring you my thoughts on them.

First up is Dumbo (1941), the tale of the baby circus elephant with ginourmous ears. The film opens with a great opening sequence showing storks making deliveries to the zoo. This sets up nicely the vein of humour that runs through the film (best exemplified a little later on by the circus train), along with establishing the family values that are such a key part of it. The images of the mothers connecting with their adorable new babies are … adorable. The plot of the film concerns Dumbo, the baby elephant who is teased for the size of his ears, but eventually learns to harness the power of them for his own benefit. It also explores his relationship with the other circus animals, and the human players of the travelling big top as well. Despite some lashings of mean spiritedness and some definite heart wrenching turns – both necessary to give the plot at least some impetus – Dumbo proves that you do not have to create something overflowing with darkness to create something brilliant. The film contains a number of scenes of the simplest beauty which are just so fulfilling to watch. The one where Timothy Q. Mouse sits atop a bar of soap and scrubs Dumbo with a toothbrush, whilst giving him a pep talk, as the young elephant gently weeps springs to mind. Then of course there is the ‘Pink Elephants’ sequence, which is definitely not what I would call simple. Wow. I hated this bit when I was a kid. The scene is essentially a drunken hallucination, featuring pink elephants dancing and much more strangeness. Good luck getting this into a family film these days. Despite the fact that it does not exactly fit with the rest of the film, the sequence is unabashed brilliance and the artistic highpoint of the film. Weird as shit though.

Even in this day and age of incredible film technological advance, there is still little more visually arresting than classic Disney animation. The film is beautifully rendered and so much care has gone into the look of the film. The depictions of the animals perfectly capture the spirit of the real things, and the baby animals are cute beyond belief. Along with the film’s striking animation, its other technical strength is undoubtedly the soundtrack. This is not like many other Disney films which are musicals in the sense that they build to a number of big musical numbers, delivered by main characters at key points in the film. Rather, the music in this is for the most part what you would consider a more traditional soundtrack. I think this is better in some ways, and is unsurprising that this aspect of the film was lauded, with it winning the Academy Award for ‘scoring of a motion picture.’ The film is very short by today’s standards, which is a good thing. It clocks in at a shade over an hour, and this actually works in the film’s favour. It leaves you wishing there was more, rather than most contemporary films which leave you wishing they finished half an hour ago. There is something to be said for knowing exactly how much is the right amount of a good thing.

Animal circuses are a bit of a taboo in contemporary society, and something that personally I definitely do not agree with. And I think that in its own small way the film deals with these issues. There are a number of scenes of abject cruelty toward animals that are a little hard to swallow, but are put in there because these sort of things do occur. There is also a nice, humorous touch on the unnaturalness of animals in the circus. During the circus parade, a gorilla is hamming it up for the audience, bellowing and rattling the bars. When he finally breaks a bar, he does not know what to do with it and meekly puts it back in its place.

Thematically, this story filled with all kinds of wonderful animals, expresses itself through two very human relationships – that of a mother and son, and that of friendship. The first half or so of the film is a tale of a mother’s love for her child. From the first moment she sets eyes on the baby Dumbo, Mrs Jumbo is taken totally with her new child. She defends him against the taunts of the other elephants about his oversized ears. This defence also leads to the film’s emotional highpoint. In an exhilarating scene, when Dumbo is mercilessly teased by a gang of buck-toothed youths, Mrs Jumbo springs into action. And this really is an action piece as she flings aside circus workers who try to contain her rage as she defends her son to the last. The result of this is that when she is finally brought under control, Mrs Jumbo is placed in a small caravan plastered with signs reading ‘Mad Elephant’. The downcast Dumbo sheds a forlorn tear as he mourns being separated from his mother. After these events Dumbo is cast out by the other elephants which leads directly to the films other great relationship, the one between our elephant protagonist and Timothy Q. Mouse. Timothy immediately goes out of his way to help Dumbo. It is one of the purest depictions of friendship put to film I think. The mouse has nothing to gain from creating and maintaining a friendship with Dumbo, but he in an instant becomes his greatest advocate. Just a bloke, helping out another bloke through the goodness of his heart. The appearance of Timothy Q. Mouse brings with it the film’s greatest vocal performance by Edward Brophy who is intensely endearing. In fact the voice acting is all really good, pleasantly lacking the grandstanding celebrities which plague contemporary releases.

In many ways this film is close to perfect. I don’t know that it was my favourite Disney film growing up, but it has rocketed to the top of that list now. And it has really inspired me to go back and watch all of the Disney films, including the ones I have missed. If I can find anything close to this in terms of emotive and technically astute filmmaking I will be happy. This is a film for everyone.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Preceding Dumbo by just a year, Pinocchio (1940) belongs to that distinctly Disney rare breed, a ‘kids’ film based on a classic piece of literature which is far removed from its source. A tale of a wooden puppet with a lonely, single male creator. The puppet is given life, and told essentially that if he proves himself to be brave and true, he will be imbued with real life.

There is so much to love in the wondrous design of all of these old Disney films, and it starts from the opening credits. They are simply and elegantly designed but immediately tell you that you are watching a Disney film, and are in for a treat. The sound design in the film reminds me of these opening credits as well, such good, beautiful work. And such effort is taken with the details, like all the various clocks in Geppetto’s workshop which go off in synch, dazzling with their variety. The backgrounds are stunning in this film, looking like masterful paintings, perfectly complementing the sharply focused action going on in front. A technological breakthrough allowed sweeping pans and shifts of camera to be made over these delightful backdrops, meaning action was not restricted to a single frame. Just as the film starts with some of this wondrous design I am referring to, it also finishes up with it too. The whale that dominates the last section of the film is beautifully and awesomely animated, showing the size and power of the animal. The whale and the water look almost hand painted such is the beauty. For me, I don’t think the animation of water (such a difficult thing to render in an interesting way) would be done better til Finding Nemo (2003) some 60+ years later.

The very sweet story in some ways feels like three or four short films joined together. The second one following Pinocchio’s creation sees him abducted by the villainous Stromboli so he can be used in show business. Stromboli is a wonderfully terrible and horrifying presence, separating Pinocchio from Geppetto and threatening to turn the young puppet into firewood. This mean streak is perfectly rendered in his physicality, a giant of a man with a massive black beard. This sequence of events leaves Geppetto heartbroken at the loss of his son that he has only just received. The old man toils in the pouring rain searching forlornly for his son. The next subplot concerningly involves the kidnapping of young boys and taking them to a place called “Pleasure Island”. This is a place where the kids are encouraged to smoke cigars and wantonly destroy property. In the end though it is all a front for an operation that turns kids into donkeys – of course. This sequence sees one of the most intense scenes where Pinocchio’s new young friend graphically turns into a donkey. The episodic narrative comes through tonally with the film being pretty uneven throughout. But the last section is the most assured. It shows Pinocchio in a traditional, heroic light as he bravely hunts down the whale that has swallowed his father Geppetto. It also benefits from having all the major characters on screen for most of the time, which makes the interactions more interesting.

Character wise Jiminy Cricket is one of Disney’s most iconic, and he certainly has an incredibly iconic look with his smooth green head and snazzy getup that he is so proud of. In some ways the cricket is an extremely human character. In his role as conscience he tries his best to keep his young charge on the straight and narrow. Despite numerous setbacks and at times a lack of encouragement from Pinocchio, he never gives up, always coming back again and again to help him out. Pinocchio’s father Geppetto is also a really original character. It is beautiful to see a single father figure such as him contain not one semblance of a mean streak. He is a simple, lonely man. Early on in the film he dances with the toys he makes, and his only meaningful relationships are with his cat and fish. His one true heartfelt yearning is to have a son to call his own.

The film is exceptionally rich from a thematic perspective, in some ways overburdened with themes, making it difficult to engage with the story stuck below. From the moment he is given life, Pinocchio is told that he can have true life, if he proves himself. This is a moral tale, showing the trials that one must pass on the journey to manhood. Showing what it takes to be a “real boy”. And it renders this journey in a very conventional way. There is a clear focus on resisting temptations and listening to your (always faltering) conscience. These themes are clearly aimed at children – the physical manifestation of lying in Pinocchio’s nose growing for example. There is also a focus on the pressures on a child to satisfy their parents. In many ways the one true fear that the young Pinocchio has is that his father will be disappointed in him. And this is hard to reconcile with the fact that we all make mistakes, especially the youthful. It is also about innocence being led astray. It seems like this is turning into a long list of pretty heavy themes, and it can feel like that at times as more and more life lessons are thrown into the mix. There is such a thing as being too laden with ideas and teachings

I think for me, in some ways, this film suffered because I watched it so soon after watching Dumbo, and I think it is slower, and not as enjoyable or iconic as that film. But that is not to disparage the film. It is a wondrous achievement, and the core message of what it takes to be a real boy (girl/man/woman) is a timeless one.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

Progress: 42/1001

The Road to Rio #4: The Malaysia and Oman Revelation

The Socceroos played two more games over the past week on their road to the 2014 World Cup. These games were far from being glamour matchups, the first being a friendly against Malaysia, the second a qualifier against Oman. Despite the relatively low level of hype surrounding the games, the manner in which the Socceroos performed gave fans reason to be excited. Here are some thoughts on both games.

The Socceroos played Malaysia here in Canberra last Friday night. I was lucky enough to be at the game live, and for me there is nothing like seeing the Socceroos live, no matter the opposition. Unfortunately only a little over 10,000 Canberrans felt the same way as me, meaning the Socceroos played in front of one of their smaller crowds of recent times. I have read some criticism over the small crowd which I think is fair enough. Plenty of places would love Socceroos games, and I thought more would show. It is a bit of a Catch-22 situation though. Many people would have turned their noses up at the opposition. But if you can’t generate a good crowd for this game, then bigger name teams are not going to be brought. I think that if you consider that Sydney, a city of 4 million people could only manage 24,000 or so for the game that followed, an actual qualifier, then all of a sudden the Canberra figure does not seem so shabby.

Anyway, enough of that, onto the game. Put simply, the Aussies dominated. The first half was the most dominant performance that I have seen them put on in a long time, and we led 4-0 after 45 minutes. The brilliant thing that Holger Osieck is doing with this squad is bringing through the second tier of players. Rhys Williams played at right back and excelled. Williams playing in that position allowed the usual right back Luke Wilkshire to push up into the right midfield role where he was a constant threat. Alex Brosque was a bit of a revelation for me playing up front. I have never been sold on his quality at this level, but Holger has given this guy a new lease on life. He ran his guts out, both tracking back in defence and making incisive leads in attack. His work off the ball actually was phenomenal. And most importantly for an out and out striker he found himself with golden opportunity after golden opportunity. Brosque scored two goals, and were it not for a couple of shanked finishes, he really should have had four. But for me, the player of the match was undoubtedly Josh Kennedy. I write about Josh a lot, but that is because he is in my view one of our key players. It was great to see him bang in another two goals to add to his burgeoning Socceroos goal tally. But the most pleasing thing was his incredible work with his feet. I have always rated Kennedy’s ability to hold the ball up at the front. However his incisive passing was, here’s that word again, a revelation. A few of the through balls he through threw were frankly fantastic and the few knockers of Kennedy out there should watch this over and see if they still have complaints.

In the second half the intensity really fell away. The Socceroos were only able to add one more goal to their half time tally as Osieck rang the changes. The Malaysians managed to get a bit more of the ball, but were in reality a bit lacklustre throughout. The game really did peter out, but that is not to take away from the performance of the Socceroos who delivered one of the better performances of recent times. It is great to see the Aussies dominate a team, even if they were outclassed totally. I don’t care who you are playing, at the international level, if you put 5 goals away, you have done well.

The more important game of the two was Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier against Oman. A win in this game would put the Australians on the brink of going through to the final round of Asian qualifying. Osieck deployed his strongest possible side. After the experiment in Canberra on Friday, Rhys Williams again started behind Luke Wilkshire. Brett Holman was recalled, and started alongside Josh Kennedy in attack. Perhaps the only surprise was that Matthew Spiranovic was preferred to Sasa Ognenovski in the centre of defence. I am not sure the reasoning behind this, but it appears that Osieck considers the youngster a genuine first choice option. Spiranovic, much like Brosque, is beginning to fulfil his massive potential under the tutelage of the German. For me, it was also excellent to see Adam Federici play a full, important game in goals. Whilst he did not have a whole lot to do, everything he did do was assured and safe. Throw in one first class save off a free kick, and we are in save hands whenever Schwarzer is not available.

The first half was an interesting one. The opposition was of a higher quality than the Malaysians on Friday night, so they Aussies were not able to run totally rampant. But in truth they totally controlled proceedings. They held and moved the ball well. Strange though was the very small amount of chances the Aussies were able to craft. I believe that we had only 4 shots on goal through the first 45 minutes, which is really not enough when you have the kind of dominance that we did. It was also only 1-0 at half time, with the goal coming more from calamitous Omani defending than anything else. One very pleasing aspect of the game though was the Australian defence. Thailand really exposed us on the counter in the first qualifier and Oman was trying to do the same. But Spiranovic and Neil were not having a bar of it. Spira was using his height to cut out any attempted crosses proficiently, while the captain was having one of his stronger games of recent times.

For all their slick ball movement and control of the game, the Aussies only had a single goal buffer at the break. Anyone will tell you that is not a comfortable position to be in. All credit to the team then for coming out and killing the game in the second half. But they achieved it through what they had been working on all game. It was pleasing to see them not revert to long ball tactics or anything like that in order to get the all important second goal. Kennedy scored yet another goal (after providing an uber-clever step over in the build up which evidenced his blossoming under Holger Osieck better than any other incident), and Mile Jedinak finished off the scoring with a nice reflex finish from a free kick.

So where are we sitting on our Road to Rio? Still a fair way off, but things are looking very good. This round of qualifying is essentially done and dusted. We need one point from the final three matches, and whilst nothing in life or sport is a sure thing, it would take a meltdown of French national team proportions for us not to get it. But like I say, we are still a long way off. The final round of qualifying will be exceedingly tough, and all these great performances will count for nothing at that point. Except for the great playing style and team unity that Holger Osieck is building of course.