Monthly Archives: February, 2012

The Blockmaster

At least in Australia, Boxing Day 2011 saw two new Steven Spielberg blockbusters open on the very same day. And in typically Spielbergian fashion the two films would struggle to be more different. War Horse (2011) is a serious, ‘Oscar-bait’ drama, a WWI-set love story between a horse and a boy, whilst The Adventures of Tintin (2011) is the director’s first animated venture, a 3D mo-cap adaptation of Herge’s iconic series of adventure comics (and was awesome – featuring in my top 10 films for 2011). This sudden output would be a surprise were it to have come from any other director. But where Spielberg and big budget flicks are concerned, nothing is a surprise, or at least shouldn’t be after all these years.

When you talk about blockbusters, not just by Spielberg, you really cannot start off by not talking about Jaws (1975), which in many ways signalled the birth of the big-budget ‘event’ picture. This is for a couple of very important reasons. Traditionally, films opened gradually across the states. They would open in a big centre or two and then expand out. The major advantage of this is that it would slowly build hype as word of mouth spread. And by the time it opened in a particular city, people would be ravenous to see it because of all they had heard and read. Jaws broke with this tradition with a mass release, being simultaneously released on something like 450 screens. Although this is commonplace now, why make such a change? Well for starters it mitigates the effect of shit reviews because everyone (in theory) just rushes out and sees the film on the first weekend. Whilst there were concerns to the contrary, Jaws in the end had very few poor reviews to counter, going on to become a cinematic classic. But this approach works well when you have a modern day dog such as Clash of the Titans (2010) on your hands. This approach also shifts the timeframe in which you need to generate hype for the picture. So instead of post-release reviews hyping the picture, it is achieved through a pre-release advertising and merchandising blitz encompassing making-ofs, press tours, Happy Meals and a whole lot more. The other major point to make about the release of Spielberg’s killer shark thriller is timing. Summer in the states, had traditionally been a bit of a dead period for releases. Awards season was still many months away so there was no need to build any films for that (and this is I guess a bit more of a modern phenomenon anyways). And more importantly it was summer surely everyone had better things to do like lick ice creams on the beach rather than sit inside a dark cinema catching a flick (this logic is foreign to me, but apparently some people are into other things besides watching movies). But the summer release of Jaws started a tradition that lives on to the present day, with many massive flicks geared to capture the summer blockbuster market.

Now onto Spielberg’s film itself. I thought I had seen it before I sat down to watch it the other day, but I now suspect that I had just seen part of one of the sequels on T.V. Whilst I was expecting a thriller, Jaws is really a horror film par excellence. With a young child being one of the first to meet their maker at the hands of the man-eating shark, the film immediately establishes that no-one is safe. The scene is beachside holiday, with holidaymakers frolicking in the blue ocean under the bright shining sun. The enjoyment of these frolickers helps to build the tension, so when that music kicks in, the tension has been built to almost unbearable heights. The swift transformation from peaceful calm to the terror stricken atmosphere of a shark attack was for me reminiscent of a Nirvana song shifting gear from quiet to loud. As for that music in the film, even though you’ve heard the score 14 million times (surely one of cinema’s most iconic, up there with the James Bond and Halloween (1978) themes), it is still awesomely chilling. The film, whilst carrying this horror streak throughout, also evolves generically. It increasingly weaves in dramatic elements (Drahor? Horrama?), before finishing with a second half that is classic closed setting thriller. Is there a more isolated setting than three men, alone upon a boat, tiny against the comparative vastness of the ocean? Here also, the final hunt creates quite the emotional event out of a hunt that could have been in other hands played simply for action and machismo.

The film opens with a wonderful night-time scene which allows Spielberg to dazzle with his expert cinematography. The combination of light is managed perfectly so that the night is seemingly all-pervasive, yet you can still actually see what is occurring perfectly. A number of the characters in this film are much like archetypes of the Western genre. Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody for example is a lone cop, fighting for the people he is employed to protect, against the tyranny of bureaucracy and the tourism dollar. Surprising depth is lent to the film by the depth and nuance of the relationship between Brody and his wife Ellen played by Lorraine Gary. They have just moved from the big smoke to Amity Island, thinking they would find peace. But struggles await their relationship as the titular shark begins terrorising the town. Robert Shaw’s fisherman Quint starts out as a saltydog caricature, but his character too gradually builds depth. Before the final shark hunt, he prepares his fishing gear like a cowboy prepping his gun, getting ready for battle, with Spielberg showing this meticulous preparation in slow detail. He is a cowboy, getting ready to track his foe, and his caricature gains much nuance, most notably through an expertly delivered monologue aboard the boat recalling a famous wartime ordeal that establishes his connection to sharks. Probably the film’s best performance comes from Richard Dreyfuss as the young oceanographer Matt Hooper. The friendship that gradually grows between him and Scheider’s Brody is wonderfully drawn, being borne out of the mutual desire to get the powers that be to recognise the seriousness of the situation. And his verbal sparring with Quint on the final hunt has the dual effect of at times lightening the tension, and other times heightening it.

It says much for Spielberg’s highly evolved storytelling chops that in a film about a killer shark, the real villain is not the shark, but rather the mayor of Amity Island. The mayor ignores numerous warnings that there is a highly dangerous shark on the loose, preferring to put the almighty dollar above all else. There is also a fantastic plot twist where one shark is caught, but turns out not to be the one doing the killing. But the grubby mayor will not listen to reason in this regard either. This back and forth between the Mayor and Scheider’s Brody is reflective of current arguments over how to deal with sharks that start to kill, arguments that seem to erupt every summer in Australia. Should the shark, surely just doing what comes naturally, in its natural environ, be left to its own devices. Or should it be hunted down to protect swimmers? And what role does the tourism dollar’s importance to a coastal town’s economy have to do with the final decision? At the end of the day though, this is pulp horror/thriller, yet just like a Peter Temple or Cormac McCarthy novel, it is elevated above pulp by the excellence of its execution. In this vein, the discovery of Ben Gardner’s body is one of cinema’s great frights. I had seen a clip of this scene before, yet it still scared the snot out of me when it came.

There are numerous classic myths about the shark used in the film. That the first time it was put in the water it sunk straight to the bottom of the ocean, that they continually ballooned up, got caught in seaweed and so on; the veracity or otherwise of these myths has often been argued about. What is for certain though is that Spielberg is able to work brilliantly with what he has, which is a physically imposing model that looks clunky and fake as all hell, and I imagine would have to audiences in the mid-70s. The first shots of the beast are delivered from an extremely high angle as it cuts through the ocean, which makes the model look ok, and its size suitably intimidating. The issue with the shark is really not so much what it looks like but how it moves, and this comes out in the couple of close ups of the shark attacking which in some ways are a little comical given the clunkiness of the model’s attacks. Moviegoers can probably be thankful for the poor quality of the model though, as it served to make the director consider deeply how much to show the shark, and how much to just hint, however overtly at its presence. In the end, Spielberg nailing that balance is one of the great joys of the film.

This is a wonderful film, perhaps in my top 10-20 favourite of all time. This is big-budget, Hollywood at its best, and it shows that when this type of filmmaking is done well, it is as worthy as any style in cinematic history.  

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

The next blockbuster of Mr Spielberg’s that I am going to examine will always hold a special place in my heart. Jurassic Park (1993) was one of the first films I remember seeing in the cinema, and my Nan and Pop took me to see it with my sister. I remember everyone jumping when that motherfucking Velociraptor sticks its head through the wall (I still jump every time I see that). And I remember that, as a dinosaur nut at the time, I absolutely loved it. I also remember my grandparents not liking it, thinking it was a little too violent for my 7-year old sensibilities.

I’m a little surprised that Jurassic Park’s opening scene has not become more iconic. It immediately sets the tone for the whole film, establishing its sci-fi stylings and soaring, classic adventure film soundtrack. It also has the brilliant close-up of a mouth screaming “shoot her” as the dinosaur claims its victim uncontrollably. The film does not look back from there. There are self-referential (in a good way) nods to Indiana Jones, and I think in many ways Spielberg is here riffing on and expanding upon his entire preceding oeuvre. The other thing the film definitely does is create a wondrous world for the audience to lose themselves in. From the moment Richard Attenborough lovingly says “welcome to Jurassic Park” the audience is taken there, and the outside world is lost. The scenery is visually spectacular and it is populated by numerous, huge creatures rendered using effects that still expertly hold their quality today, 18 years of advance down the road.  They still look so real, and there are no Jaws-esque dodgy models on offer here.

Script wise Michael Crichton has helped craft something both more engaging and intelligent than the source novel he also wrote. It is great that in a blockbuster such as this, the script maintains a level of scientific enquiry, with guesses at how dinosaurs lived. What’s more the more scientific aspects of the dialogue are actually incorporated into the overall screenplay, rather than feeling like bits of a uni lecture which have been tacked on. Thematically, the attainment of and profit from scientific knowledge is specifically acknowledged in dialogue from Jeff Goldblum’s character, and the film explores this on a broader level – especially through the relationships between the characters and their underlying motives for finding themselves on this island off the coast of Costa Rica. The creation of this scientific and inquisitive tone to the film, results in the birth in a lab of a baby dinosaur being as exhilarating to witness as a T-Rex attack.

But enough of all that, how about all the dinosaurs going nuts and ripping people’s heads off? Well there is plenty of that going on here too. I mentioned my first viewing of this film as a youngster, and my two most memorable recollections of that screening fall into this category. The first is the ‘toilet’ scene which sees the first major attack of the film. A man is plucked from the toilet scene, and I have never forgotten that, or the Jeff Goldblum quip that follows it. The second scene is where the Velociraptor bursts through the wall just as Laura Dern’s character has restored the power. It’s the film’s big shock moment, and I remember afterward my pop joking about how hard my sister had dug her nails into his arm at this point. Just like in Jaws Spielberg uses calm as a counterpoint to courage. Most famously the first Tyrannosaur attack is preceded by a close-up of a glass of water, with the ripples in the liquid signalling what is to come. The end result of Spielberg’s ability to render chaos and destruction is a film that is really quite frightening and gruesome in parts.

Every so often there is a performance in a blockbuster film that will have people up in arms about the lack of recognition these types of films, and performances in them, get at awards time. Sam Neill’s turn in Jurassic Park is one such performance. It definitely deserves plaudits as he conveys the role of grumpy yet brilliant palaeontologist brilliantly. His character also evolves nicely into a morally upstanding dude of a father figure when required.  Whilst I am a fan of the sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), it definitely lacked something not having Neill on board. Richard Attenborough is terrific as the scientific ‘visionary’ behind the creation of Jurassic Park in the film. This character is part visionary, part mad scientist. Well he’s not mad, but Attenborough brings to life a man who struggles to reign in his obsessions and their illogicality. Then there is Jeff Goldbum’s chaos theorist, a man diagnosed in the film as suffering “from a deplorable excess of personality”. Goldblum really does bring that excess to life, playing a delightful nerd with fantastic glee. Actors must love these characters which allow them to play it up to excess but still be serving the purpose required by the film. And any film with Laura Dern yelling SHIT! SHIT! Over and over again is fine by me.

Even today, the best part of 20 years later this film still inspires me with a sense of awe. The same sense of awe I had for dinosaurs I had when I was a kid, collecting Dino mags. An intelligent film that is one of the supreme blockbusters ever made.  

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Only one man could release a harrowing wartime blockbuster about WWII Jewish Genocide in the exact same year as a mammoth budget, thrills and spills dinosaur film. Schindler’s List (1993) is that film. I think that in many ways Holocaust films are easily dismissed these days as awards bait, and I think that in some circumstances that assertion holds merit. Films on this subject should never lose their impact, but I think that in some ways they have become a dime a dozen in recent years.

There is no such risk with Spielberg’s take on this horrendous moment in 20th Century history though. The atypical storyline ensures that the film provides a different view of wartime. The narrative concerns Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson. Schindler is a member of the Nazi party who arrives in Berlin, looking to make money from the War. One good way to increase profits is to employ in his enamelware factory Jews who are in detention nearby, given that there is no requirement for him to pay them. The film tracks the relationship between this money hungry businessman, and the oppressed people he employs. I have to say, I did not think that Neeson was capable of delivering a performance of this quality. He is mind bogglingly good. Schindler is an intriguing character, so he has much to work with. Knowing the vague outline of the plot before seeing this film, I assumed that he would be a somewhat one-dimension figure, a rogue Nazi white knight who was morally pure, upstanding, could do no wrong and the film would adulate him. Spielberg is too good a filmmaker to engage in that kind of glossing over of reality though and what we get is a flawed man. Initially his motives are quite unclear, and when they are finally revealed, they are not as idealistic as one would have assumed. He’s a man who is hungry for money, who happily swans around in bars and woos members of the Nazi establishment. A man who only gradually comes to realise exactly what it is that he is witnessing before him, and gradually summons the bravery and the means to do something about it at great personal risk.

The most prominent member of the Nazis that Schindler regular comes into contact with is Ralph Fiennes’ chillingly portrayed Amon Goeth. Goeth is one of the great supervillains of film history. At times, the character and performance threatens to veer into moustache twirling, arch villain territory. But in the end the character works, as a representation and ultra manifestation of the Nazi scourge. The film starts slowly, and I actually found it a little confusing in the early going as it struggles for flow. Early on, I think the film also grapples with how best to portray the atrocities committed – should it be done graphically or more subtly. Both approaches appear in the film, but I think the first such event which really hit me during the film belongs to the latter camp. It is a scene of luggage being emptied, luggage that belonged to Jews who had just been sent to the gas chambers. The luggage is emptied and then painstakingly sifted through to locate anything of value. Heartbreaking. Once the film settles, it is repeatedly horrifying, and still has a massive impact to this day, showing the unmitigated horror of what occurred. The most tense of these ‘horrors’ that is portrayed is the travel of a train containing female Schindler Jews. The audience can only watch in horror as the train takes them, not to the location of Oskar Schindler’s new factory, but instead to Auschwitz. The notion of their looming location starts as a seed of thought, and Spielberg slowly adds on layers, til it becomes shockingly apparent where they are headed. The scene that follows in the ‘gas’ chamber is the film’s most unbearable to watch. The black and white cinematography is stunningly good, sharp and deep. I don’t know if cinematography is inherently better when black and white or if it is just the fact that this particular art form is highlighted more by the nuance that comes from shooting without colour.

Whilst I found the film achingly emotive, I did not find it to be manipulative. The scenes of the Jewish people being rounded up are truly horrifying, and it is during these Nazi raids that Schindler starts down his eventual path. He spots a young girl, dressed in red (a bold splash of colour by Spielberg) who he sees moving through this chaos. It is not a cheapened, instant transformation but rather this moment triggers deep thought and soul searching on behalf of Schindler which permeates the rest of his journey. The pacing of this change is a good thing, helping to make it feel legitimate. A film like this is always going to be a difficult one to finish in a satisfying manner. Schindler’s evolution of sympathy is finely finalised. However some of the ending is perhaps a little po-faced and sentimental with an abundance of big speeches and a group hug. However the last shot of the real-life Schindler Jews and their descendents visiting the grave of Oskar Schindler provides a fittingly poignant end.

I have spoken above about the complex construction and characterisation of the character of Oskar Schindler. It is worth noting that there is a thoughtfulness of the representation of all those involved in the War here. Whilst it is there, the film goes further than Nazis=good, Jewish people=bad. One example are the scenes of young children throwing stones at the Jews as they are corralled into ghettos, or making throat-slitting gestures as they are transported by train. Spielberg is showing us the indoctrinated, multi-generational hatefulness that pervaded Nazi Germany. Perhaps pondering how you stop that hatred, or the transference of it from one person to another. Have no doubt though, the sheer fucking evil of the Nazi regime is made abundantly clear, especially through the character of Goeth.

The film does have its critics though. Perhaps the most notable of them is Claude Lanzmann, the director of the 9 hour Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) who attacked the film as melodrama and a deformation of historical fact. Whilst I have commented on what I perceive to be the interesting and complex characterisation of Schindler, it has been claimed that Spielberg overtly glosses over aspects of his persona, namely that his womanising ways are minimised, as is the role of his wife in the eventual saving of the Schindler Jews. The criticism has also been made, reputedly originally by Stanley Kubrick, that the film is celebratory about the fact that 600 Jews were saved by Schindler, yet 6 million were exterminated by the Nazis and the film chooses supposedly neglects that fact. This is a difficult one. I don’t know that the tone is particularly celebratory, and despite the fact Schindler is lauded at the end of the film, I think the portrayal of him is a nuanced one. I would think that no film could accurately convey the true horror, and especially the true scope of the Holocaust; and I don’t think this should stop aspects of these events being portrayed, if it is done in a manner that is as respectful as this. I do not have the knowledge or the first-hand experience to draw definitive conclusions regarding the criticisms directed at the film. I just feel that I should let you all know that people with both the knowledge and first-hand experience have both praised, and attacked aspects of the film and its treatment of the Holocaust, and that you should do your own research on these things.

The film is as powerful as the subject matter deems it should be. Parts of the film left me crestfallen. It is difficult to think with any depth about the Holocaust without feeling unbearably oppressed at the state of the human race. Does the film provide hope? I’m not sure, and if it does, it is not undue hope.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 54/1001

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My Favourite… Hitchcock Film

Hitchcock is a rare breed of director and probably the most iconic of all time. He is one of the very few directors whose films are a genre unto themselves – you can watch a Hitchcock film in the same way you can watch a Gangster or Western flick. Add to that the fact he made over 50 films, ranging from the silent era to the 70s, and you have a man who can generate diverse views. Let’s check em out. 

Tim from Not Now I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie writes:

I have never seen a Hitchcock film I did not like, and oftentimes I feel as though my favourite is the one I have seen most recently. That is sort of the case at the moment, as I loved Sabotage (1936) a British era adaptation of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” and could easily write this piece on that.

However if I ponder a little more deeply on which is indeed my favourite, I come up with the same answer as Hitch himself did. My favourite Hitchcock film is Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the film Hitch always maintained was his favourite of those he made. Why is it my favourite Hitchcock film? It doesn’t have the sheer visceral exhileration of Psycho (1960), my first introduction to Hitchcock. Nor does it have the brilliant high concept conceit of Rear Window (1954) or one of the greatest scripts of all time like North by Northwest (1959). Despite not having any of these, for me the film eclipses them all.

Teresa Wright gets top billing over Joseph Cotten in the opening credits. Who deserves it? Hard to say as they are both fantastic, playing a namesake Uncle and Niece both called Charlie. Cotten’s character is a delicious one, he is delightfully evil. The audience knows it from the start but it takes a fair while to pin down exactly why. Cotten is having fun, playing Charlie with manipulative glee. His niece Charlie is a different kind of Hitchcock woman. She is whip smart and onto her uncle from the start. And lets just say that her actions at the end of the film don’t leave you thinking she belongs to the weaker sex (personally I think that much, not all, of the general thoughts on women in Hitchcock films as weak or failures is simplistic). Wright more than holds her own, easily accomplishing the difficult task of playing a believable teenager.

Many of Hitch’s films are urban set tales, but Shadow of a Doubt sees most of the action take place in small town America suburbia. It reminds me a lot of the setting of Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) but perhaps more nuanced. And the setting allows Hitch to cultivate a great family dynamic with each of the family members being allowed to craft distinctive characters. In fact the film is full of perhaps the most beautifully crafted characters in Hitch’s canon who have the pleasure of enchanting the audience with perhaps the slickest dialogue in any of his films. The film also has a lot of nuance and rewards the viewer by slowly but surely revealing its psychological depth.

More than anything, the film just gets you in. I re-watched it late the other night while drinking a beer. For no reason at all at one point, I paused the film, hopped up and poured the rest of my beer into a glass. It just felt right. Upon restarting the film, I realised that a character onscreen was at that moment also pouring a beer into his glass. The film just sucks you in and makes you part of what is happening onscreen like only the very best of cinema. If you haven’t seen this somewhat lesser known Hitchcock film, then go out and track it down.

James from Film Blerg writes:

Having previously adapted Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940) to triumphant acclaim, Alfred Hitchcock took on du Maurier’s 1953 short story The Birds (1963). Unlike the impressive Saul Bass designed openings seen in Psycho and Vertigo (1958), The Birds is much more understated. As the film opens, birds are heard fluttering back and forth. Already enough to send shivers down one’s spine, the birds then appear flying manically back and forth, forewarning of the terrors to come.

Having seen The Birds as an eight-year-old, I subsequently became anxious of overflying birds and their potential for ravenous depravity. Later screened in my first year cinema studies class at La Trobe University, the class continually laughed throughout the film’s entirety to my absolute and appalled shock. Susan Sontag wrote on the aesthetics of camp only a year after The Birds release, and much of the film’s retrospective humour can be derived from its references to camp.

Our lecturer Anna Dzenis warned us of the strange happenings that occur when she screened The Birds. True to her word, less than a week after the film was screened, I had an unfortunately incident with a bird on the golf course. It was true. When The Birds is screened, somewhere a bird will attack.

Hitchcock’s The Birds begins with prankster Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). A young socialite coming from a wealthy and established family, Melanie is headstrong and intuitive. Upon meeting Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in San Francisco and sparking a playful conversation, Melanie secretly arrives in Bodega Bay where Mitch spends the weekend with his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and much younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). And then the birds attack…

Jessica Tandy is unsurprisingly the strongest performer of the ensemble, and details true fear with the utmost class and sophistication. Not to say that Hedren, Taylor or Suzanne Pleshette (who plays Mitch’s former flame Annie) give weak performances. Making her feature film debut, Tippi Hedren makes an indelible splash which never really reached the same heights.

An epic battle of man against nature, motionless child against pecking psychotic bird, Alfred Hitchcock creates pure terror with each horrific bird attack. Much of the horror is instilled through a lack of sound. The only thing that is audible as the birds attack is the sound of their attacking. The actors are left silent (sans the school children scene), striking up believable panic.

The following clip highlights the criminal mastermind nature of the birds. While detailed my distress during the screening, the clip does highlight a particular funny moment. Especially from 1:15 onwards.

James Madden is the editor of Film Blerg. He is currently undertaking a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne and is a Screen editor of Farrago magazine. He has also contributed to Portable T-Squat and Upstart.

Jon from The Film Brief writes:

Hitchcock’s Rear Window exemplifies all the talents and class of the great director in a way that few of his other films manage — the folksy, pragmatic presence of Jimmy Stewart, the fluidity of the photography, the perfectly-named Grace Kelly, and of course the voyeuristic undertones that Hitch knew to be the underpinning of all great cinema. We go to the movies to watch other people and Rear Window throws that concept back in our face repeatedly — sometimes it is nauseatingly perverse (in the case of the attractive blonde dancer that Stewart ogles), sometimes it is sad (the not-quite-good-enough pianist across the way), sometimes it is intriguing (the domestically-challenged couple that become so important to the film’s plot). Rarely, though, is it easy to turn away from, especially when we know we should.

Stewart plays LB. “Jeff” Jeffries a daring photographer, house-ridden due to injuries sustained on an assignment that turns to watching the other residents of his apartment complex through his rear window. He is resistant to the advances of his friend Lisa (Grace Kelly), preferring to obsess over the various characters of his daily real-life soap operas. As always with Hitchcock, the plot turns sinister, as Stewart witnesses what seems to be a clear-cut case of domestic tension turning into murder. The twist is something of a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin, though. This story may look to be a murder mystery on the face of things – and certainly the resolution of this aspect of the story is paramount to the film’s effect – but really it’s a movie about movies first and foremost, and a movie about a damaged man’s relationships second. Jeff’s neighbours and their foibles make for fascinating viewing, particularly considering the lovely seamless way that Hitchcock films them and Jeff’s observation of them. But the main delight, for me, is the dialogue, the patter between Jeff and the people in his life – the little touches of humour in Stewart’s delivery, the gentle breaking of Lisa’s heart in every glance Jeff-wards, the way that Lisa cleverly wins into Jeff’s affection by becoming interested in his obsession.  Matched with the brilliantly languid camerawork, this is a movie that can be enjoyed with the sound off and the picture on, and vice versa.

Of course, as always with Hitchcock, there is a regrettable undertone of slight misogyny, a sense that women just aren’t up to the task of pleasing men. Grace Kelly is one of Hitch’s classic tortured female characters – beautiful, intelligent, but still unable to justify herself to the men around her. In Rear Window, Jeff manifests his love of the flawed mundanity of everyday life by criticising Lisa for being ‘too perfect’ all the time! As usual in Hitch’s films, his women bear the brunt of his men’s shortcomings. This unfortunate perspective has always grated me about Hitch’s movies, but his brilliance in all technical realms of the film-making art trumps his sometimes questionable morals.

Rear Window is my favourite Hitchcock film. Something about it encapsulates everything about the old master that endears me to him. And I just love the fact that this is really a movie about movies and the voyeurism therein masquerading as a murder mystery.

Jon Fisher is the creator and editor of The Film Brief and host of The Film Brief podcast which you can find on iTunes.

 

 

Worth Watching January 2012

Worth Watching:

  • The Troll Hunter (2010), Andre Ovredal – Ah, ye olde found footage trick aye. This wisely keeps the ‘shaky cam’ to a minimum and focuses on being a mockumentary. It’s a good one as well, with the fantastic character of Hans, the titular hunter at its core. This is pretty light, and does lag at times. But it is fun and the performances are good, which makes it quality lazy weekend afternoon viewing fare. 
  •  Puss in Boots (2011), Chris Miller – This Dreamworks animation combines some great Western elements with fairytale mythology, all driven by a very cool protagonist. Somehow despite only going for 90 minutes, the film feels far too long. But there is plenty for all to enjoy, especially seeing as it wisely dispenses with the later Shrek films’ annoying obsession with pop culture references
  • Larry Crowne (2011), Tom Hanks – Had very low expectations, and a hammy tepid start backed this up. But then the introduction of the character of Tahlia, an inspired performance by Gugu Mbath-Raw, is a real shot of life for this film. Hip visual style of text messages appearing onscreen actually looks cool, rather than tryhard. This is a charmer of a film that unearths a new star (for me at least) and reminds you how good Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks can be with the right material.
  • Alice in Wonderland (2010), Tim Burton – This copped a bit of a panning as people tired of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp double team. Lewis Carrol’s book is a very strange one, in reality a piece of rambling nonsense. This is a good fantasy film which chooses to reimagine Alice as older than in the book. Canberra’s own Mia Wasikowska is fantastic in the main role and Helena Bonham Carter and Matt Lucas also deliver really good turns.
  • Mad Bastards (2010), Brendan Fletcher – A bleak look at indigenous Australian life and the respect inherent in it. It’s lent a delightful, atmospheric air from the Pigram Brothers soundtrack. Central performance by Dean Daley-Jones as TJ, a man battling his many demons is very strong. The best bit is the actors sharing their real stories at the end of the film.
  • Alias Season 3 (2003), J.J. Abrams – This is the weakest series yet, with The Covenant nowhere near as menacing as The Alliance when it comes to super villainous adversarial organisations. Melisa George’s sheer inability to settle upon an accent for the entire season is annoying, as is the series lingering for way to long on one plot point concerning her character. Having said all that, the character of Jack Bristow played by Victor Garber deepens and evolves brilliantly this season. And me and my girlfriend sat down and knocked it over in about three days, so it’s clearly addictive.
  • Snowtown (2011), Justin Kurzell – A really washed out palette is used to portray lower class suburbia. I find it hard to use words to describe this film which is almost unwatchably brutal at some points. Whether it was ‘good’, ‘great’, ‘enjoyable’ or what. This was the most harrowing film I have ever watched bar none. I felt physically repulsed by it multiple times, and have never had that experience before. Daniel Henshall gives a fucking insanely good performance. This is a visceral, dirty film which makes you feel terrible to be part of the human race. If you can handle it, watch it. But there will be plenty who cannot.
  • The Adventures of Tintin (2011), Steven Spielberg – All kinds of awesome. Grand adventure on a Spielbergian scale. The mo-cap process has ensured a wonderful looking cartoon world.  Some wonderful, old school filmmaking especially some of the beguiling match shot editing. And by far the best opening credits sequence of the year.
  • Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011), Brad Bird – This is a big, dumb action movie, but a good one.  Well acted, well shot and enough big budget ‘holy shit!’ moments to fill this kind of piece. Morgan Spurlock’s latest is clearly affecting me though, because again I found the product placement here extreme.
  • Alias Season 4 (2005), J.J. Abrams – More of the same really. More silliness, more Indiana Jones meets James Bond, more lengthy DVD sessions with the girlfriend. The show is a lot of fun despite the silliness. But I can’t help but feel this series is just biding its time a little for the final series. However the early episodes especially impress, playing like one off thrillers with strong self-contained narratives.
  • Duel (1971), Steven Spielberg – Spielberg’s first feature, and already you can see the assuredness of his direction. The film is mostly shot from inside the one car, and it says a lot for Spielberg’s skill that it always engages visually despite this, especially when using some of the extended first person shots. Despite some wooden acting, this is a taut thriller with effective characterisation, and above all some great psychological tension.
  • The Muppets (2011), James Bobin – I liked, rather than loved this. It sort of gets by on the quality & spirit of the pre-existing characters. You have to applaud the originality crafted by Segel et al, it is just a shame that it doesn’t all work. The film is far too self-aware and self-referential and the Chris Cooper character is a major misstep in tone. The inevitable ending is full of charm and joy though, which gives hope for another outing from this franchise.
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Steven Spielberg – Not as good as the first, but actually quite a different film. This is a King Kongesque monster flick. A definite ‘vicious monsters on the loose’ vibe to it. An amazing cast including the returning Goldblum and Attenborough, along with new cast members Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite and even a young Vince Vaughan don’t hurt. And if you are a dinosaur nerd like me, the fact they bring in new species like the stegosaurus, make this pretty much an automatic tick.

Not Worth Watching:

  • The Fast and the Furious 5 (2011), Justin Lin – Paul Walker and Vin Diesel are two of the less charismatic dudes to ever appear onscreen. They’re made to look all the worse because Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is one of the more charismatic. For the most part this is a stupid, loud film but also at times slickly and excitingly shot with some cool old school stunt work. Ultimately though, there is too much Walker and Diesel trying to act, and not enough of The Rock, or car chases.
  • United (2011), James Strong – This often feels like a middling BBC TV drama and the initial exposition is very clumsy. That said David Tennant is very very good and the film does not shy away from portraying national heroes (Bobby Charlton) in an unheroic light. It is less tame after the huge tragedy that the film revolves around, but unfortunately the film is just not that great an experience.
  • Bad Teacher (2011), Jake Kasdan – More like bad movie.
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), Michael Bay – Hated the first 2. Hijacks historical footage such as assassination of JFK, and veers into the offensive with its treatment of Chernobyl. Absolutely no one in this gives a halfway decent performance. Why the fuck is John Malkovich slumming it in this? Fights which should look visually stunning are incomprehensible. These films have no redeeming qualities, and this one is borderline unwatchable.
  • The Smurfs (2011), Raja Gosnell – Nostalgia piece for me, I used to watch the original cartoon before school. The voicework has none of the charm of the original, and the film creates no sense of wonder which is essentially a given in an animated film. Joyless, with obscene product placement, a wasted Hank Azaria and some troubling attitudes toward women. The delightful performance from Jayma Mays is the only thing in the entire film with any charm.
  • Mr Popper’s Penguin’s (2011), Mark Waters – Jim Carrey is far too talented to be in films like this. Pippi, his tongue twisting secretary is one of the more annoying characters in cinema history. Far too many poo and ball in groin jokes mar what could have worked if they hadn’t bothered with the crassness cause it’s actually quite sweet in a lot of other aspects. Why is it in ‘family’ films that we are always meant to be cheering for the divorcee parents to get back together, even if one has moved on?
  • Black Swan (2010), Darren Aronofsky – Early on Aronofsky over-directs, clearly straining to put the viewer into psychological thriller territory and the whole thing feels forced aesthetically. The focus should have been on Portman’s character chasing her dreams and the lengths she was willing to go to achieve them. The strongest plot point, Portman needing to encompass the black & the white swan, is undermined by the underdevelopment of Kunis’ character in order to incorporate too many stock horror elements that detract from the film. The best performance actually comes from Vincent Cassel but overall I just found this a bit unfocused & annoying.
  • Superman Returns (2006), Bryan Singer – This is so poor. How a film this rubbish and boring could be made about our blue and red clad hero from Krypton befuddles me. The narrative is underdrawn and incomprehensible. There is zero excitement to be found, Brandon Routh doesn’t deliver much as Superman while Kate Bosworth is probably the worst Lois Lane ever. The attempts at visual stylistics either come off as bad CGI, or just looking like things other films did a whole lot better 10 years earlier.

If you only have time to watch one The Adventures of Tintin

Avoid at all costs Superman Returns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Some time ago, a friend of mine became aware of my blog on Facebook. The first thing he did after that was request that I review Back to the Future (1985). As it is on the 1001 I said I would ‘soon’ (this was somewhere between 6 and 12 months ago). So here are my thoughts on the film, unfortunately not quite as quick a turn around as I was hoping for.

I can understand why that was my friend’s first thought when seeing my blog. Zemeckis’ film is a really formative one for many people, me included. Even though I was born after the film was released, it is still a film that along with a very select group of others (James Bond films, Jurassic Park (1993)) helped to engender the love of film that still resides within me. What is it that makes it such a formative film? It is a combination of many elements and no doubt I cannot pin down them all. For starters it is a family film, so is able to be seen by anyone and it also has that perfect balance of aspects that appeal to young and old alike. It is also a phenomenally well made film, unsurprising given the filmmaking chops of the aforementioned Zemeckis and a producer you may have  heard by who goes by the name Steven Spielberg. Then there is the endlessly quotable dialogue, the adventure aspects of it and so on and so on. It also kicks off what I think is one of the better trilogies film has produced and you could easily build a claim that any of the three is the best. My personal favourite is Back to the Future II (1989) which incorporates a lot of sci-fi stylings, but I am also a big fan of the generically western Back to the Future III (1990).

And I am also a massive, massive fan of this, the first film. I love it dearly. Funnily enough, for a time travel film, this is a film about time. The film opens with a shot of a wall filled with a myriad of clocks. Old newspapers and photographs also populate this first scene. On paper it sounds clumsy and ham fisted, but in practice the referencing of time here works perfectly. It is an interesting way to approach the film, with the notion of time in the back of your mind as it shows how far the concept permeates deep into the film. All aspects of it, the passing of it, the ravages of it, the inescapability of it, our attempted manipulation of it, but also its positive aspects such as its healing qualities and its ability to bring us to new experiences and loves. The whole experience of the film is rendered with just the right amount of ‘tude. This is not a very precise or scientific term, but there is just a certain attitude that imbues all of it. Doc ripping the plutonium off from the Libyans, telling Marty that when the DeLorean hits 88 miles per hour he was going to “see some serious shit”, Marty fronting the band of Marvin Berry and delivering a rendition of “Johnny B. Goode; I could probably give you 50 similar examples. It is all of these little touches which help elevate this film from the realm of good family flick to something much more.

The film is expertly made. Spielberg is the greatest populist filmmaker of the modern era, and you could make the argument he is the best ever. You can see his producer’s touch all over the self-assuredness of this movie. I am a big fan of Robert Zemeckis as a director, and this admiration extends to his current focus as an innovator of motion-capture filmmaking. I know the plan is for Steven Spielberg to return to the director’s chair for the third Tintin feature in his and Peter Jackson’s current series, but I would love to see Zemeckis have a shot. That adventure style narrative is right up his alley, and A Christmas Carol (2009) showed what he could do in the mo-cap world he has been working so hard on. Aside from the two great filmmakers behind it, the film also benefits from an exceedingly good script and performances. The screenplay was written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale and they have crafted a real work of art in what they have achieved. The achievement is twofold in that they have crafted a great narrative and also filled it with memorable, quotable dialogue. The great danger in a time travel story is to have it get too convoluted and complicated. This film embraces that by having rectifying one of these complications the central narrative thrust of the 50s set part of the film. Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly inadvertently interrupts the meeting of his parents, leading to the distinct possibility he will never be born. So he must put all his energy into ensuring that his nerd father, and flirtatious mother hit it off (not before a couple of awkward incest moments). What also develops through this section of the film is a really sweet reverse teacher father/son relationship between Marty and his teenage dad, with Marty shepherding and protecting him through this challenging stage of his life. Then of course there is the dialogue, from all parties but especially Christopher Lloyd’s peerless Emmet ‘Doc’ Brown. “This is heavy”, “Are you telling me this sucker is nuclear?”, “1.21 Gigawatts!” “Flux capacitor fluxing”, I could go on. The film also trades in that classic Hollywood technique of setting up for a sequel (or two). But this is not done in an annoying way; rather the film sets up multiple layers to be returned to later in the series. And it also ensures that the central narrative of the film is resolved at the end of the film rather than just leaving it half done.

The film in many ways was intended as a star vehicle for the (until then) T.V. star Michael J. Fox. You can see why there was such a desire from the studio to create some sort ideal role for him, because he gives such a wonderfully assured and joyful young performance in this film. The wrong actor in this role would have completely derailed the film, but Fox’s turn helps to ensure it is a classic. Of course Lloyd’s Emmett Brown is delightfully over the top, managing to be just unhinged enough to endear himself without grating. Lloyd’s physicality, the use of his facial expressions and entire body in his reaction to the events unfolding around him, are what manage to achieve this. Lea Thompson and especially Crispin Glover are also excellent as Marty’s parents. They manage to convince and engage when playing awkward (or promiscuous teenagers) and as middle-aged parents disappointed with the actions of their own teenagers. Glover’s is close to the best performance in the film, and one of those giving him a run for his money is Thomas F. Wilson as the bully Biff (Wilson is also phenomenal in the later films, managing to play Biff from a teenager to an old withered man excellently). He is equal parts intimidating hard man and bumbling buffoon, the latter seen when his car ends up covered in manure, setting up one of the series’ best recurring jokes. Shit, everyone is good in this film. Even the bit parts with only have couple of lines are really well acted.

Quite early on in the piece I was intending on using one of the film’s classic pieces of dialogue as the blog’s title. I settled on the one above after much conjecture, because I think it encompasses much of what the film achieves in my opinion. This is a mainstream, family adventure film, but it is quite possibly the best one ever made, and definitely one of my favourites. It literally transcends and is on a higher level, than most everything of a similar vein. 

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Progress: 51/1001