Sunday, 31 January 2016

Three Great Movies About... L.A. Night Crawlers

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday night.

This is the first of a three-part series I'll be doing on movies about crime in Los Angeles. The theme for the first part is night crawlers, or in other words, loners who work the criminal nightshift and use vehicles to hunt down their victims. Much like New York, the city's flat grid layout makes for mighty fine driving scenes, car chases, and floaty moving camera street shots and cityscapes. There is something about the atmosphere of L.A. at night, the lighting in particular has a tint that makes it look more cinematic than most cities. Alas, they have apparently changed it all to LED now so the look of such films in future will never be the same.

Nightcrawler (2015)

"The best and clearest way that I can phrase it for you, to capture the spirit of what we air, is think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut."

This is of course my inspiration for this week's theme. I placed it 3rd in my best films of last year list, and after watching it again I think it might have deserved to be higher still. Jake Gyllenhall is Lou Bloom, an intense, creepy weirdo who gets himself into the business of filming the aftermath of horrific nighttime tragedies for television news. "If it bleeds it leads". So he and a hired assistant go fleeing around the city hunting for car crash and murder victims to film for money, getting more and more obsessed by obtaining footage that no-one else has. A proper thriller, totally original, and proves that no other actor these days does deranged outsiders as well as Gyllenhall.

It also shows how different American culture is - in the UK our breakfast news is usually along the lines of; a boring politician saying something boring, a visit to a cheese factory (cheese sales are up 1%) and a heartwarming story about some fluffy kittens.

Collateral (2004)

"Someday? Someday my dream will come? One night you will wake up and discover it never happened. It's all turned around on you. It never will. Suddenly you are old. Didn't happen, and it never will, because you were never going to do it anyway. You'll push it into memory and then zone out in your barco lounger, being hypnotized by daytime TV for the rest of your life."

Tom Cruise looks tired in this, deliberately so, going through the motions of his night job to pick up a pay check. The difference is that his job is that of a hitman, and we follow him over a single night as he tracks down his list of targets. He hires, or rather takes hostage, a yellow cab driver (Jamie Foxx) who is forced to become his chauffeur/accomplice for the evening. Jamie Foxx is excellent in the taxi driver role, and I thought it was a nice touch to see him being lectured on wasting his life - by his hostage taker. The neon lit streets of L.A. have probably never been photographed better than this, Cruise looks spiffing in his grey suit and grizzly appearance, it's the best script Michael Mann has been involved with and also for me his most satisfying film. I'd actually forgotten how good it is, not having seen it since initial release over a decade ago, and I really like when you rediscover a film after enough time has passed to make it fresh and unpredictable again.

Drive (2011)

"If I drive for you, you get your money. You tell me where we start, where we're going, where we're going afterwards. I give you five minutes when we get there. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything a minute on either side of that and you're on your own. I don't sit in while you're running it down. I don't carry a gun. I drive."

When I'm looking for films to write about I usually like to include something lesser known or that I hadn't seen before. For this theme though I couldn't look beyond Drive as my my last selection, it may be very well known already but that's because it's brilliant. And it gave me an excuse to watch it again. Ryan Gosling is a movie stuntman who also works as a getaway driver for criminals. It’s one of those films that is elevated to another level by the soundtrack, it’s so perfect that it seems impossible the songs weren’t written specifically for the film (Donnie Darko was another such example of that). Gosling’s character is effortlessly cool, yet carries the aura of terrifying violence should the need arise. When the violence comes it is brutal, maybe more graphic than it needed to be, and still he somehow remains likeable. This may be to do with his relationship with neighbour Carey Mulligan, the way they just stand smiling and staring at each other makes them both come across as slightly shy, normal people who can’t quite express their feelings. I love this film, and I think in decades ahead it will still be remembered as a classic. In the unlikely event anyone was ever remotely interested enough to ask me why I love movies so much, I’d just hand them a pile of films and tell them to go watch. This would be one of them.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Three Great Movies About... Mountain Disasters

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday night.

I think there may be something wrong with me. For some reason I have for a long time been fascinated by mountaineering disasters. Even though I have zero interest in partaking in mountain climbing myself (I rarely consider even walking to the shop down the road), I have been through loads of books and films on the subject. I can take or leave stories about successful mountain climbs where all is well, but when it all goes horribly wrong, I'm in. Now I realise that the climbers (and their families) have suffered terribly as a result of these events, but you can't get away from the fact that they do make for quite the cinematic experience. I find it fascinating to hear stories of the people who go onto these mountains knowing full well that they will be perilously close to serious injury or death at any moment. At least retelling their stories means they will be remembered, whether they survived or not. With Everest having just been released on DVD, I thought I’d have a look at that and pick out a couple of other true accounts of unimaginable nightmares that occurred on the most dangerous mountains on Earth.

Everest (2015)

Perhaps the most high profile story of mountaineering tragedy happened on Everest in 1996, when two expedition groups were hit by a huge unexpected storm that left many dead. This is an ambitious retelling of those events, I wouldn’t say the script is anything special but it is for the most part a spectacular film to look at. It’s one of those films that I wish I’d gone to see in IMAX 3D, I’m not usually fussed about such things but watching it on a TV somehow didn’t feel like it was doing it justice. I’m a big fan of the journalist Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, his character features in this even though it isn’t apparently based on his book. If I was him I would sue. Anyway I enjoyed the film well enough because of the convincingly harrowing situations and visuals, even if I doubt I’d watch it again. Also, just in case it was ever in any doubt, it did remind me never to attempt scaling any kind of mountain. Unless there’s a car park and restaurant at the top.

Touching the Void (2003)
In 1985 two climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, attempted to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in Peru. No-one had ever previously reached the summit. A long way up, Joe suffers a horrific injury and events lead to the two of them being separated. In an incredible feat of human endurance, and a situation that would be the end for most people, he somehow made it out alive. A riveting documentary that is part reconstruction and part interviews with those involved (it's obviously not a spoiler to say he survived, given he's retelling his own story). The cinematography is also pretty remarkable, how they managed to film scenes of this quality in such harsh and dangerous places is beyond me. If you only ever see one mountain disaster film in your life, make it this one, it's fantastic.

North Face (2008)

This is the story of a disaster that struck a group of climbers trying to win the race to be the first to climb the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland. Although Everest has the highest peak, the Eiger’s North Face is regarded by many as the toughest climb in the world. Pushed on by Nazi "encouragement" to beat other nations to the summit, two German climbers make an ascent on a route that hadn't been attempted before. On the mountain they achieved feats of climbing that have passed into mountaineering legend, yet things went badly wrong, and this is an impressive dramatisation of what happened. I think some of it may use a bit of artistic license, Joe Simpson followed up Touching The Void with The Beckoning Silence (2007), which tells this same story but with quite a few differences of opinion on what unfolded. When it comes down to it though, North Face is the better film.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Blind Spot Series... 1: Good Will Hunting (1997)

This is a film I've been meaning to see for years, and had only heard good things about, so it seemed a good choice for my first 'blind spot' viewing (further details and the list of films I'll be watching for this project are here).

An award-winning maths professor (sorry Americans, it's maths not math) discovers a mathematical genius within the university, except he's not a student, but a cleaner on probation. Matt Damon plays the genius who has the potential to be one of the great minds of the age, yet is always in trouble and has no desire to do anything of importance with his life. As a last resort to keep him out of prison, he is sent to a therapist, played by Robin Williams.

The film turned out to be as enjoyable as I'd expected, striking a nice balance between easy-to-watch and hard-hitting drama. Although the focus is mainly on Damon's character, it is the performance of Robin Williams that stands out, another example of how exceptional he could be when he was healthy and in the right role. There is real emotional depth in the sessions between those two, it's a surprise that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck could write a screenplay this good at their first attempt. Although it’s maybe even more surprising that they haven’t written anything else together since, at least that I’m aware of. And I haven’t even mentioned the supporting cast - Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard, Minnie Driver, and directed by Gus Van Sant. Thoroughly recommended viewing, I wish I'd not waited so long to see it.

Next month’s planned ‘blind spot’ viewing is… Incendies. So there’s that to look forward to.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Blind Spot Series 2016: The List

By way of Jenna and Allie's Flick Chicks blog (which I heartily recommend), I came across the film site The Matinee and their Blind Spots series. Running for five years now, the idea is to pick twelve well known or highly rated films you should have seen but for whatever reason never have. Your blind spots, in other words. The reason for selecting twelve is that you watch and review one each month, and is an achievable movie-watching goal for the year. You can read more about it (and join in if you want) here.

I have probably already seen the majority of what I'd say were regarded as the classics, especially now I've finished the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, but there's an endless supply of great films out there. So the most logical method of coming up with a list seemed to be: head to IMDb, tick off everything I'd seen in the top 250 rated films, and pick out 12 from those remaining. At the time of writing I've seen 211 of those, though the unseen includes some new releases like Star Wars. And now I have my twelve that I aim to have seen and reviewed by the end of 2016, some are titles I've not heard of before and others I've simply overlooked.

American History X (1998)
Reviewed March.

Before Sunrise trilogy (1995-2013)
Reviewed February.

Good Will Hunting (1997)
Reviewed January.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Incendies (2010)
Reviewed February.

In the Name of the Father (1993)
Reviewed May.

The Intouchables (Untouchable) (2011)
Reviewed February.

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)
Reviewed April.

La Haine (1995)

Mary and Max (2009)

Wild Tales (2014)

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Monday, 18 January 2016

Three Great Movies About... Old Folk Road Trips

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday night.

You know how it is. You're ambling along, ticking off the days, working, eating, sleeping, and before you know it, you're old. You've lived nearly a whole goddam life. Everything becomes just that little bit more urgent, and there's always that one place or person that you need to visit before it's too late. While there's breath left in you, there's time enough for one more road trip. These sort of movies are to me the equivalent of comfort food, and the following three stories tell of older folks who feel a desperate need to get somewhere, each hitting the road for a journey across America.

The Straight Story (1999)

“The worst part of being old is rememberin' when you was young.”

I saw this for the first time this week. It may be my favourite film of all time. Really. A scruffy old man called Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) hears news that his brother, who he has not spoken to for years, is seriously ill. He decides to bury the hatchet and travel to visit him, hundreds of miles away, but without a driving license there is only one obvious solution: drive the whole way on a lawnmower. It's a David Lynch film, but you’d never know - it's entirely normal, beautiful, and doesn't feature dwarves talking backwards. I honestly cannot put into words how much this film affected me, as I've mentioned before I am not an emotional person, but I would challenge anyone not to be moved by it. It floored me. It's about as close to perfect as any film I've ever seen. The looping music by Angelo Badalamenti fits the pace and tone of the story down to a tee, the characters have depth and wonderful dialogue to work with, particularly in the scenes where old stories are recounted, and Lynch shows a level of restraint that has never been hinted at in any of his other work. It's a film that has you thinking about getting old, and what you'll be like at that time of life. If, when the time comes, I have the opportunity to decide what will be the last film I see in my life, there’s a very strong chance that I’ll choose The Straight Story. It's as good as that.

Nebraska (2013)

“So, you told the Sheriff you were walking to Nebraska?”
“That's right. To get my million dollars.”

This film must surely owe a large debt to The Straight Story, even if it’s not in the same class. Again it’s a scruffy white haired man (Bruce Dern) who gets it into his head that he must get out on the road, this time with the belief that he’s on his way to Nebraska to claim a jackpot prize. It’s a father-son road trip, and so offers ample opportunity for humourous exchanges between them as much as deep-and-meaningful ones. It was released in black and white, which does work in terms of making things visually bleaker, though I think this de-colourisation would have made more of an impact if the attempts at humour had been toned down or removed to fit such a look. Lighter touches can aid a film like this, but a few less silly moments might have taken it somewhere that would stay with me a lot longer. As it is, a very watchable and enjoyable film with moments of real quality, just not enough to make it one of the greats.

The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

“I guess when you've lived longer than your house and your family, then you've lived long enough.”

An elderly woman, stuck living with her son and nightmarish daughter-in-law, has one last wish to fulfil: return to her old home in Bountiful, Texas, one last time before she dies. When they won’t agree to her wishes, she decides to board a bus and make it happen for herself. Adapted by Horton Foote from his own acclaimed and long-running stage play, it is a seemingly simple story that reveals it’s depth as the old woman shares her life story with others she encounters on the journey. It is quite sentimental, some might find it too much so, but Geraldine Page (who won a best actress Oscar for her performance) portrays the woman with such warmth and humbleness that you can’t help but root for her to make it.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Three Great Movies Set In... Alaska

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday night.

This week's theme takes us to the wilderness of Alaska. For cinema it is a perfect location - vast, spectacularly beautiful landscapes with almost no populated areas and the threat of imminent danger looming day and night. A State so large and unpopulated that if Manhattan had the same population per square mile, it would be home to a mere 14 people. It's a place that writers and filmmakers have always been drawn to because it makes a great setting for a story, whether true or imagined. Although I've never been, I've long been fascinated by it, and have watched many movies and read many books set there. This is my pick of three fantastic stories where this harsh, remote environment dominates the lives of the characters, and because of what it does to them, you could say the landscape almost becomes the lead character in itself.

Into the Wild (2007)

"I'm going to paraphrase Thoreau here... rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness... give me truth."

Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) is a high achieving student who becomes disillusioned with civilised life, and heavily influenced by literature from the likes of Henry David Thoreau (Walden) and Jack London, he gives away everything he owns and walks out on his family to live alone in the middle of nowhere. Played by Emile Hirsh, we follow his journey to reach Alaska, the impact on his devastated family, and the extraordinary events that unfold when he gets there. This is a very special film for me, the cinematography is incredible and it's such a profoundly moving story - I'm not in any way a crier, but I will say this got to me in ways that few films ever have. My outlook on life has been similarly influenced by the likes of Walden, although more as a way of thinking rather than the extreme actions that Thoreau or McCandless took. Even if you don't feel the same way about this particular film, I hope you will know what it's like to experience a film that feels like it's been made just for you, and this is that for me. Even having read John Krakauer's book and watched the film numerous times, I will never get my head around the fact that this is a true story.

Limbo (1999)

"What are you buying when you get on a roller coaster? Not risk, but the illusion of risk. Being hurled to the edge of danger but knowing that you'll never have to cross it... The obvious next step is not bigger and better facsimiles of nature, but nature itself. Think of Alaska as one big theme park."

On first look this film by John Sayles (Lone Star) appears to be a fairly ordinary drama about a relationship between a fisherman (David Strathairn), a singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and her troubled daughter. Watchable enough without being remarkable. Then a good while into it, the story heads in a completely unexpected direction, with a plot development and tonal shift that almost turns it into an entirely different film with the same characters. I was initially drawn to this by the title and tagline: "Limbo: a condition of unknowable outcome", which kind of sums it up without helping in any way to explain where this story is going.

The Grey (2011)

"Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day".

The land mass of Alaska covers around 660,000 square miles, a fifth of the entire size of the US, and almost all of it is uninhabited except for bears, wolves and other beasts that want to eat you. So it's not the ideal place to have a plane crash, which is exactly what happens to Liam Neeson and a group of fellow oil workers. On top of dealing with their wounds, the cold and the inhospitable landscape, they are being hunted down by a pack of ravenous wolves. Whilst I would question Neeson's instincts of challenging any kind of wild animal to a fight, it did make for an entertaining fable, and there are plenty of poetic moments and dialogue that elevate it above the norm. This is by far Neeson's best action/adventure movie, and coincidentally, according to official records it's exactly 660,000 times better than Taken.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Three Great Movies About... Sabotage

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday night. 

This week's theme is sabotage; the act of deliberately making life very difficult indeed for someone else, by damaging, obstructing or destroying their property for political, military or personal gain. It's an excellent subject for cinematic storytelling, and these films show that the idea can be used to produce entirely different yet equally engrossing movies.

Jean de Florette (1968) and 
Manon des Sources (Manon of the Spring) (1968)

Gerard Depardieu plays a hunchback outsider who inherits a countryside house in Provence, France. When he moves his family there with the intention of farming the land, he is driven to the point of madness by the jealous locals who attempt to force him out by sabotaging his water supply. A truly beautiful, funny and moving story that was released as two separate films, but is in fact one continuing story. If you don’t like spoilers please don’t read anything about the second part, Manon des Sources, it’s events are entirely dependent on the prior Jean de Florette. Really something special, if you consider yourself a fan of cinema you simply have to see these. And oh god that music.

The Train (1964)

A German officer is trying to get a train loaded with a collection of the world’s finest priceless paintings out of France into Germany before WWII comes to an end. Burt Lancaster has to think up increasingly audacious and imaginative methods of sabotage in attempt to stop that train. I really enjoyed this, they clearly went to great expense and effort in the making of the action sequences, and it’s a proper thrill-ride with many of the same perilous qualities that made Wages of Fear (1955) so good. It also raises some interesting questions about the value of art against the value of human life. Explosions, derailments, hostages, subterfuge, guns, fine art and philosophy. What's not to like?

So that's my first stab at this, three excellent films to start with I think (I guess you could say it's two films, but they were released separately, and it's my blog so shooshed). Tune in again same time next week for my next three films and another theme.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Life Itself

2016! May I wish ye all a Happy New Year from Scotland. Fir auld lang syne, ma jo. Fir auld lang syne.

I’d like to begin my blogging year with a look back at a documentary that proved to be my most inspiring and moving film of last year: Life Itself. It tells the story of Roger Ebert, his path to the status of arguably America’s leading film critic, through to his final days battling the rare illness that claimed his life. For anyone with a passion for the movies, all I can do is I wholeheartedly recommend seeing this. If you write about films, whether professionally or for your own amusement, it will be an inspiration. If you read or listen to the opinions of film critics, it will make you realise how few can express themselves the way Ebert did. If you simply enjoy watching films, then this is a well made and interesting story worth telling about a complex and fascinating character.

Being from the UK I have only been vaguely aware of the name Roger Ebert, oblivious to his major TV film review programme alongside Gene Siskel, and his Pulitzer prize winning writing. In fact it was only because I have been importing US dvd’s for years that I knew of him, and his “two thumbs up!” rating which often adorned the cover. To be honest that always seemed a little cheesy to me, yet now that I know more about how he worked, I realise that filmmakers coveted such a rating. It’s like a five star review from other critics, only more so.

The documentary itself is unexpectedly frank about Ebert’s personality, there’s none of the sugar coating you might expect of a film about someone so highly regarded. We learn of his battles with alcohol addiction, his refusal to accept that opinions other than his own could be correct, how difficult a person he was to get along with, and his ferociously ill-tempered screen relationship with Gene Siskel. It’s this that makes the film a success, because it produces a story that is honest and real, and just what Roger Ebert himself would ask of such any such documentary maker. It will also always be to Ebert’s credit, and that of his wife Chaz, that they allowed such access during his time in hospital and show his shocking physical deterioration. I suspect most high profile people would have shied away from that, and wanted only to be remembered as they were in the past.

His final written review was of To The Wonder by Terrence Malick. It is such a fitting film to have closed with, of course it is poignant to read, but it’s more than that. His writing is so eloquent, even poetic, and he offers such a profound final statement on the purpose of movies. I urge anyone reading this to go and soak in that review, given the context and beauty of what he wrote, I can’t help but think that it's one of the best film reviews I’ve ever read. Coincidentally, To The Wonder was one of the few films I also reviewed on my old blog, and I found it interesting to compare my own thoughts with his. I was actually quite pleased to find that I had similar feelings about the film and had picked up a few things from it that he also did - the difference is in how much better he could put that into words. Even though we won’t see any more reviews from him, Roger Ebert's legacy will be that people like me will keep returning to read his thoughts, be inspired by them, and through his reviews continue discovering great stories that we'd missed along the way.

"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013