Friday, 25 March 2016

Blind Spots Series... American History X (1998)











Back in the 90's, no actor did a better disenfranchised angry man than Edward Norton, from Primal Fear to Fight Club, and this film here. Even though I was a big Norton fan around that time, I hadn't been especially tempted to see American History X at any point since release, and that can only be due to the subject matter. He plays a violent, racist thug who spouts Nazi propaganda and demands that anyone who doesn't conform should be punished, deported or worse. Surrounded by and brainwashed into extremism from a young age, as is the little brother he has so much influence over, the story leads towards him committing an act of extreme violence and dealing with the consequences that follow.

It is actually one of the most shocking films I've seen in some time, and one that will be difficult to forget. I wouldn't necessarily call it an enjoyable film, nor particularly easy to watch, but it is absorbing and never gratuitous for the sake of it. There is a point to the violence, a message being hammered home that this kind of extremism still exists and is as hate-fuelled as it was when Adolf Hitler first came to power with this nonsense. The way the story unfolds is an intelligent means of showing what it's like to be involved in these hate-crime groups, and also what it's like to be someone trapped inside such a community when you don’t hold such views or come to realise how misguided it is to make hatred the main purpose of your life. Norton is magnificent, such a furious performance that recalls his amazing rant into the mirror in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (which I highly recommend). His skin-headed, Swastika-tattooed Derek Vinyard is one of the most fearsome characters ever committed to celluloid, reaching a crescendo in one scene that I had to briefly look away from (something I very rarely feel the need to do). Not that it matters, but how he didn’t win an Oscar for such a performance is beyond me.

I didn’t get from the film an idea of how widespread these problems still are in America, but even though it is fictionalised you’d have to assume the writers based it on some kind of reality. If the message is that America is especially prone to this kind of thinking and behaviour amongst it’s society, then I guess the film is raising the question of why, even if it’s not really providing the answer. This level of anti-immigrant, anti-black bigotry may only be within a small percentage of the population, but what I can say with some confidence is that if Donald Trump ends up President, the film might as well be retitled American Future X.

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Blind Spots is an ongoing project from film site The Matinee, and this year I’m joining in. The idea is to pick 12 well known or highly rated films you’ve not seen but feel you should have, and vow to watch them all by the end of the year. If you write your own film blog, feel free to join in at any time. My list is here, all selected from IMDb’s top 250.

I've also recently started listening to an excellent podcast called Filmspotting, where two guys sit around discussing recent and older movies in some depth, and picking top fives on a related theme. They frequently refer to films they've not seen as Blind Spots, so the idea is obviously more common than I'd realised. You can download the podcast each week for free on iTunes or the Filmspotting website.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

A Few Good Movies... set in movie theatres and cinemas



You know one of the little things I really, really love seeing in movies? Scenes where you get to watch people watching a movie in a cinema/movie theatre. There's something indefinably satisfying about being in the cinema but looking back towards the audience, the flickering glow on their faces in the darkened room, imagining what they're seeing, and the shaft of light from the projector overhead. To this day, whenever I'm in a cinema I always look behind me for the little projection booth window where that light comes from, something I've done ever since I was a kid. I distinctly remember one particular Saturday afternoon at my local playhouse in 1995, aged 13. The picture was Dumb and Dumber, on my own in an almost deserted screening, and I sat right at the back underneath the little window trying to hear the whirr of the projector. Then an usher (yes they still existed back then) came up and made me move near the front for no obvious reason. Twenty-one years later and I'm still bitter about that.

This also just reminded me of the old Pearl & Dean "pah pah pah pah pah pah" pre-trailer music, and the crappy adverts for local businesses just before the film started (for years my cinema always featured the exact same ads for a carpet seller round the corner, and a restaurant whose big selling point was a toy train that continuously choo-chooed along a ledge above your head). Ah the good old days.

Some of my favourite films include iconic scenes that take place inside cinemas (True Romance, Amelie, Donnie Darko, Fight Club, Taxi Driver to name a few) but that's not what this list is about. I wanted to seek out movies that are actually about or set in movie theatres, and have now been through a whole host of them that range in quality from outright masterpieces through to eye-gougingly awful. Now please turn off your bloody mobile phones, put down the sodding popcorn and quit talking, for the main feature is about to begin...

“You see the people come into your cave with the 200 year-old carpet... the guy tears your ticket in half, it's too late to turn back now… then you come over here to where it’s dark, could be anything in there, and you say... here I am, what have you got for me?” (John Goodman, on the wonder of entering the cinema, in Joe Dante's "Matinee")

A Useful Life (La Vida Util) (2010)
We begin with a delightful little film from Uruguay, about a man who finds himself unemployed after 25 years working for a cinema that is forced to close it's doors. The theme of cinemas fading into irrelevance is shared by several of the films in this list, and there's an inherent sadness and nostalgia which comes with that, but what's interesting is that filmmakers want to focus much more on a message of joy and hope in such stories. Here we have a man who, like the cinema itself, could perhaps have decided his newfound situation means he is no longer of value. Instead he sees it as a new lease of life, leading him towards lots of little moments that pay homage to movies of old, and actions (including a few amusing ones) that his old self probably wouldn't have taken. It's beautifully photographed in black and white, and the set design is notable for it’s plainness, even the cinema is a bland ordinary building when you’d normally expect to see art deco or elaborate aged architecture. To make it feel even further out of place, I'd say the direction is of the more unique variety, with memorable scenes including the man standing in the cinema corridor whilst literally nothing happens. I love little things like that in movies, it’s like a brief intermission in an already quiet and undramatic film. I don’t want to mention too much in the way of specifics, but I hope this at least gives a flavour of what a charming and unusual film this is, and I can only encourage you to check it out.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)
This is the one. The masterpiece that 18 months ago inspired me to start Italian language night classes, in the hope that one day I'll be able to see it anew without the need for subtitles. Most people learn a language for travel or work, but for me, having such a specific movie-related goal is keeping the motivation going even when I get a bit lost in class (which is often). The reasons for loving Cinema Paradiso are plenty, but firstly it involves a tale about a young boy hanging out at his local cinema, gawping in wonder at the giant screen and being a constant menace to the projectionist Alfredo. This is all backstory to the boy, now grown into a successful film director, returning to the town and specifically the cinema he hadn't seen for three decades. I can't imagine how they could have improved a single second of this, from the iconic score by Ennio Morricone, to the script's heartbreaking threads of love and loss, the cheeky humour of the little boy, the picture postcard village setting, the architecture of the theatre, and of course the film's ode to the complete and utter joy of settling down in your seat, the lights fading, and for the next couple of hours letting someone else's life become your own. Cinema Paradiso is a rite of passage for anyone who loves the movies. Perfetto.

Demons (1985)
I'm not spending long on this one, seeing as it's the sort of B-movie dross from Italian director Lamberto Bava that I prefer to avoid. A weirdo hands out flyers to strangers inviting them to a secret movie screening at a German cinema no-one realised still existed. Everyone who turns up to the cinema is then killed in a multitude of gruesome ways, and there's zomb... nope sorry it's just not worth discussing. By ten minutes in the writers had given up on any kind of plot, but good on them, that was a full 5 minutes after I myself lost interest. Maybe it was fun for them to make. Maybe I will never care.

Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema (1990)
Now back to the good stuff. There are flashes of genius in this Polish fantasy that makes my head spin just thinking about it. Imagine you're in a cinema and the actor in the film you're watching suddenly starts swearing, refuses to say his lines, and brings the film to a grinding halt. But you still continue to see the actors on screen because that's where they exist. This will sound very familiar if you've seen Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (which I'll come to), but not only is this a homage to Allen's film, it actually incorporates that film into this one. Better still, at one point you are watching a movie in which a man is watching a movie in which a woman is watching a movie, all of these movies are about actors refusing to act, and the characters from all of them merge into the movie you're watching. Clear? Me neither. Funny, clever, inventive and stark-raving mad; Polish cinema is alive and well.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino lays out a big 'what if?' scenario that finds Adolf Hitler and his band of merry men gathered together for the premiere of their latest Nazi propaganda film, thereby offering a once in a lifetime chance for the Nazi-hunting Basterds to end the war in a single night. The whole movie theatre setup is brilliantly staged, with one particularly great scene in the projection room, featuring music to die for. I like when Tarantino shows off his inner film geek, and this time it's through character discussions about German cinema and the flammability of nitrate film stock. I should also mention Christoph Waltz and his amazing performance as Hans Landa, the Jew hunter, especially in that opening scene in the French farmhouse. I've never thought of milk in the same way since. From all the films I've seen over the years, I still hold that up as my favourite opening scene to any movie. Not everyone seems to love the film, but I’m ok with that. I've come to realise that the key to being a good film writer, or even a good film viewer, is to have conviction in your own tastes and not be swayed by popular opinion or what critics say you should like. And I'm sticking to my guns on this one.

Kings of the Road (1976)
Now onto a German film that would be most easily described as a road movie, but with the distinctive touch of unusualness that director Wim Wenders often brings to his pictures. Clearly if it’s a road movie it can’t be set in a single cinema, instead it follows two men as they traipse around Germany visiting lots of movie theatres. One of them is a travelling projectionist/mechanic, and winds up fiddling around in the projection room of each cinema. At just short of three hours you do need to put a little work into this, especially during the spells when no-one says anything, and much of it is very odd and very slow. I’ll admit to finding myself switching off a few times, but impressively it kept drawing me back in, and I would like to revisit the film again sometime to take on another layer of appreciation. What I can say however is that I was definitely fully alert when it reached the scene in which we have the pleasure of watching a man defecate outdoors, and even though it’s something we all do (indoors at least), it’s not the sort of thing I’d usually go for in terms of viewing entertainment. Unsee! Unsee!

The Last Picture Show (1971)
Watching this again was fascinating. First time around I quite enjoyed it, and that was about it. It was only on second viewing that I realised what a profound and melancholic film this is, with metaphors for growing up, growing old and passing on littered throughout the picture. A coming-of-age story of teenagers growing up in a remote, dusty old town which offers almost nothing to entertain them except the picture house. Shot in black and white in an almost ghost-town setting akin to some of the old westerns the cinema itself is screening, you get a sense of bleakness in what lies ahead for the ones who will never get the chance to move away, and you see the boredom and isolation felt by those who are already beyond that point (particularly with one woman who comes to know one of the teenagers during the story). The other thing that I hadn't picked up on first time around was just how much the aura of the cinema and it's owner hangs over everyone in the town, and how important it is to their lives. I think I missed that because most of the film doesn't actually occur in the theatre itself, and this is a great example of movies sometimes needing a second look before you begin to really appreciate what the writer and director were trying to say.

The Last Projectionist (2011)
It used to take up to five years to fully train a projectionist, now with automated digital equipment you can be trained and ready to work in less than an hour. That's how much the method of exhibiting movies has changed. I'd been aware of this documentary for quite a while, in fact I came across it when I was trying to think up a name for this blog and was hunting around for cinema related words or phrases. Given the subject matter and the fact that cue marks are such a key part of the projectionist's job, I was looking forward to seeing this, but sadly it disappointed. There are tales of old condemned cinemas in England, plenty of archive material and conversations between a group of ex-projectionists reminiscing about old times, so it covers all the bases. It's let down though by a very dry presentation, much of it is bordering on dull, and the camerawork during the projectionist conversations is distracting when the focus should be solely on those speaking. Shame, I wanted to like it a lot more.

The Majestic (2001)
There are two types of Jim Carrey. One is the exhausting hyperactive child who hasn't taken his medication (see The Mask, The Grinch, Dumb & Dumber). The other is that same child after he has taken the medication (The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The Majestic falls into the latter category, with him playing down the goofiness for one of his most traditional acting roles. He's a Hollywood screenwriter who suffers amnesia after an accident, and winds up in a small town, whereby the townsfolk believe him to be a returning war hero. Not having any idea of his actual identity, he takes up residence in (and revives) the old rundown cinema: The Majestic. It's a pleasant enough tale, but goes way too heavy on the sentimentality and there are too many illogical plot developments to overlook. Despite that, I think Carrey shows he is an actor with a wider range than he probably gets credit for, and I'd like to see him do a few more low key roles in future. My main conclusion from the film is that if I ever won the lottery I would buy an old fashioned out-of-business movie theatre and bring it back to life, just for the fun of it. Even if no-one came, I'd have somewhere nice to while away my days watching movies.

Matinee (1993)
From Joe Dante, the director of Gremlins, comes this ode to the b-movie monster classics. John Goodman plays a madcap film producer who's invented cinema's next great spectacle: "Mant! in Rumble-Rama and Atomo-Vision" (half man, half ant, Mant). What this amounts to is the audience being scared/tortured by lots of in-cinema special effects, bangs and vibrating seats in synch with the movie. I tried this sort of cinema experience once, it was rubbish, but it does look fun here. It's really a film for kids, or you'd think that, but it's actually set amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis and has Goodman cynically releasing the film at this time for publicity and to deliberately terrify people who are already petrified by the imminent threat of nuclear war. We even witness President Nixon's actual television address to the nation from this time, which I’d never seen before, and at that moment can’t imagine how close it must have felt to the end of days. There's also a real sense of passion about movies and movie theatres coming from the script, with several little speeches from Goodman's character about the magic of cinema, and a spot-on explanation of why people keep coming back to see horror pictures. For kids and fans of the old b-movie monster pics, this will be a bit of a treat.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
“I’ve just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything”. I’ve already discussed how this links in to Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema, but there is actually yet another film to come in the list (going way back to the silent era) which has a similar idea and must surely have been Woody Allen’s inspiration for this. The concept involves a waitress, Cecilia (Mia Farrow), who becomes obsessed with a film called The Purple Rose of Cairo, and attends her local movie theatre every night to see it. After a few nights, one of the characters brings the plot to a shuddering halt by walking out of the screen and into her arms. What’s clever here is that Allen has both the character and the actor playing the character out in the real world as separate people (played by Jeff Daniels), and the idea that movies are actually performed live by the actors for every screening is inspired. As is the response from the bemused studio executives when they find out the actors in their film have simply stopped acting, and are all appearing on screen from different scenes to find out what’s going on. I don’t think there’s any Woody Allen films that I truly love, but plenty I like well enough when he’s on-form with the one-liners, and this is up there with his most creative output.

The Rep (2012)
I felt so sorry for the three guys involved in this. The Rep is a documentary following their attempts to open a independent repertory picture house, called The Toronto Underground Cinema. I felt sorry for them because from the outset they seem way out of their depth in terms of understanding how to make a business work, how to actually get customers through the door, and what films people would actually be prepared to pay to watch. The difficulty in reviewing such a documentary is you end up reviewing the people in it rather than the film itself, and I did find their character traits a touch unappealing, with them often being quite unpleasant towards each other. A lot of this is no doubt down to the stress of their situation, so is at least understandable. The naivety on show however is amazing to see, and it’s probably easy to point this out when you’re not involved, but there are so many obvious mistakes that could have been corrected to help them avoid the difficulties they get into (things like immediately having to close again after opening night because they forgot to order any more films to screen, and the lack of obvious signage outside meaning that most people would never know a cinema was even there). For those reasons it’s a frustrating and deflating film to watch, but for anyone thinking about opening their own independent cinema, they would be well advised to see this first. The realities are a lot less fun than you’d expect. Available on iTunes.

Sabotage (1936)
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s early works, and one of those films that is both ahead of it's time and now quite dated. The story is as modern as can be however, and could be retold today with very few changes, seeing as it involves terrorism in London. A cinema owner is involved in a plot to set off a bomb in a prominent location in the city, but the authorities are onto him. The question is will he pull it off without getting caught? Hitchcock was always one for detail, and this starts with a shot of a dictionary zoomed in to the definition of sabotage, giving a little clue as to what lies ahead. I’m not too sure why Hitchcock was so obsessed with murder and concocting the perfect means of getting away with it, but it was to cinema’s advantage that he was allowed to be, as it’s a damn sight more interesting than Hollywood's formula of repeatedly plonking 30's screen icons under perfectly angled lightbulbs to reel off one predictable romantic platitude after another. He reused the template here on numerous occasions, and the later ones did reach another level, but this is the only one with a crowd of people outside a cinema politely demanding their money back after the power goes out. You can't beat a jolly polite British protest.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Time for a bit of honesty now. I have seen more silent films than I care to mention, and frankly I disliked almost all of them. I think it was slogging through all 7 (yes, seven) hours of Les Vampires that finally broke me. Tedious beyond belief. The big problem is that without the ability to communicate in words, it's obligatory to overact and overemphasise every emotion. Could you imagine anything worse than watching a mime artist perform for hours on end? That essentially is silent film. I've come out in cold sweat just thinking about it. Anyway, I'm now going to disagree with myself by admitting that Sherlock Jr is a fun, funny, relentlessly imaginative comedy about a cinema operative who also sees himself as a bit of a sleuth. Buster Keaton had fantastic comic timing and the sight gags come thick and fast, from the small scale (a running joke about a pile of rubbish he's just swept up outside the theatre) to the large (leaping around on trains, and the eureka moment involving him stepping into the cinema screen and causing chaos inside the movie). As I say, the other films I mentioned owe a huge debt to Keaton's imagination, and a rare example of a silent picture I enjoyed. P.S. Apologies if I've offended any silent film aficionados.

The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)
How good would it be to live in a place and time when, in the company of a lady, a man would feel it necessary to apologise for uttering such a despicable word as "rascal"? It would be splendid, I'd say. This film occurs in a such a place, Sloughborough (pronounced sluff-bruh) in England to be precise, and is an appealingly quaint little story about a couple who inherit a dilapidated cinema from an uncle they never even knew existed. Thinking they are headed for great riches, but soon discovering otherwise (everyone calls the cinema "the fleapit", with good reason), circumstances dictate that they must reluctantly try reopening for business. In the bowels of the theatre we find a collection of doddering old cinema staff who bring a warmth and gentle humour that you never really get to see in films produced today. Most notable amongst them is an almost unrecognisable Peter Sellers, as the alcoholic projectionist who is the only one with any idea how to operate the rusty old equipment. His favourite tipple is a bottle of Dewar's whisky, clearly marked with Perth, Scotland on the label. That happens to be my hometown, and my aunt would have been working in the Dewar's bottling factory around the time of this movie - it's a nice thought that she might have had a hand in producing very the bottle(s) we see him guzzling down. If you’re a fan of the old Ealing comedies like Whisky Galore!, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Ladykillers, I think you'll enjoy this.

Splendor (1989)
Lastly we come to a real hidden gem, a film I'd never heard of before, and had to break my no-imports rule to see. I'm so glad I did, for it turned out to be quite a find. Sharing many of the qualities that made Cinema Paradiso so special, I struggle to understand why this has remained so far under the radar. Marcello Mastroianni (La Dolce Vita) plays the owner of an old cinema in a picturesque Italian town, who is forced to sell up when the theatre falls on hard times. This is how the movie begins, with the story of the cinema and it's inhabitants then told in flashback. Like some of the other features above, this is Ettore Scola's passionate and mournful ode to the dying art of the movie theatre, with a message so beautifully put across that it made me feel guilty for not going to the cinema more often. One of the many films screened in the theatre is It's a Wonderful Life, with it's famous ending that never moved me in the way it did for so many. Splendor may be my It's a Wonderful Life. A finale to fill you with utter joy, break your heart and fall in love at the exact same moment, the magic of cinema encapsulated in a single scene. If you rate Cinema Paradiso as a favourite, or are even just a fan of movies in general, then I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Writer and Director Scola passed away just two months ago, and what a great tribute it would be if Splendor could find it's way back into cinemas again and finally get the recognition it deserves. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

Splendor has been lovingly restored and released on DVD and Blu-ray by French distributor Gaumont, currently no-one has released the film on disc elsewhere, but fortunately both the DVD and Blu-ray have English subtitles, and the Blu-ray is multi-region. I imported mine from Amazon France (checkout is easy to work out as it's same layout as all Amazon sites), but have a shop around on your local Amazon or eBay, it's well worth the effort.


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Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You...
Next up in my season of movies about the movies, I'll be doing filmmaking nightmares, when the production of a movie goes horribly wrong. I've almost finished watching my list of these already so shouldn't be too long with that.

Any Other Suggestions?
If you know of any other good films that fit this theme, I'd very much like to hear about them. Drop any suggestions in the comments box.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

A Few Good Movies... about courts-martial

Inspired by A Few Good Men, the film I obviously ripped this A Few Good Movies title from, my first subject involves movies based around courts-martial (note the correct-but-doesn't-look-right pluralisation, it's not court-martials apparently).

Now I like a courtroom drama, even the rubbish ones are usually watchable enough. All the questioning, posturing from the prosecution and defence, elaborate statements, objections, witnesses and contradictory evidence leading up to the verdict... it's a recipe for potentially gripping cinema. A court-martial is essentially a military version of this, and when a member of the armed forces is accused of a crime, they face trial under military law (are court-martialed, in other words). They differ from ordinary court trials in that everyone involved is armed forces personnel, including the judge, jury, prosecutor and defence. The laws are also different, with the likes of cowardice, desertion and refusing to follow orders being trial-worthy crimes that obviously wouldn't apply to us lesser species. They can also decide on the punishment, which ranges from being sent straight to bed without any supper, through to imprisonment or even death by firing squad. Many of the films below are true stories, I'd only seen three of them before, and the good news is that the majority were well worth seeing. As ever, I've tried to outline only the basic plots and avoid major spoilers, so you can read on even if you haven't seen some of these.

"Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I'm ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion." (Kirk Douglas, in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory)

A Few Good Men (1992) 
This is one of those films with a line so famous that I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t know it, even if they’d never seen the film itself. It’s an
“oh that’s where that line comes from” moment. I won’t spoil the surprise. The story surrounds two Guantanamo Bay Marines accused of murdering a fellow Private, and the trial which aims to uncover whether they acted alone or under the orders of their Commanding Officer (Jack Nicholson, who does his angry man/borderline psychopath routine to great effect). Tom Cruise leads the defence in a role that was tailor-made for him, a cocky yet determined young lawyer who also has doubts about his abilities (just to cover all emotional bases), and he’s joined on counsel by Demi Moore who is primarily there to offer Cruise pep talks and look spiffing in an officer’s uniform. In the role of prosecutor, Kevin Bacon entered the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s flattest ever haircut (not really, but it is exceptionally flat even for the military). It was written by Aaron Sorkin, so if you’ve ever seen The West Wing or Steve Jobs or The Social Network then you’ll know this is a very wordy film, so much to say and so little time. As ever it is the quality of his writing that takes it above many other such films of the 80’s and 90’s, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Breaker Morant (1980)
In the time of the Boer War, which I'll admit to knowing nothing about, three Australian soldiers go on trial accused of shooting prisoners. They insist they were acting under the orders of their superiors, and mount their defence on the argument that they have been made scapegoats. It sounds an interesting premise, but despite it being Oscar nominated and featuring in the New York Times Best 1000 Films list, this one was a struggle for me. For any courtroom drama to work, you've got to care about the outcome and be minded to root for at least one side; I just couldn't find a way to do either. The court case itself is functional but nothing special, the outdoor scenes are well enough shot and the ending's quite good, beyond that I found myself a smidgen indifferent to the whole thing.

The Bounty (1984)
The first of two mutinous stories to make the list, and the most recent of
the four feature film versions of Mutiny on the Bounty. It was the cast that caught my eye here; Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson. Hopkins plays Captain Blyth, a ship commander who pushes his crew to breaking point, leading to them overtake the ship and set him adrift in a lifeboat. Told in flashback in-between Blyth's trial scenes, held to decipher whether he was guilty of any crime that could have caused such a revolt, it's a cracking true story and superbly told. The cinematography stands out too, with a number of distant ship-in-silhouette sunset images that allow the film time to breathe a little. I've seen the highly rated 1935 version with Clark Gable, it's good but I preferred this one, modern filmmaking techniques and a more open-ended conclusion made for a better film. Consider my buckles well and truly swashed.

The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Another sodding mutiny. And not as good a one either. Here's why: Humphrey Bogart. Whenever I see his name leading a movie I'm about to watch, a little bit of me dies inside. It's not that I think he was a bad actor, it's just that he's always exactly the same in every single film, and so I can never believe in the character; I'm just watching a man reciting lines in a fairly monotone and expressionless tone. The plot here isn't too bad actually, telling of a Navy ship commander who loses the will of his crew and thereby his command when they start to doubt his sanity. The court-martial element aims to find out whether the men who orchestrated the mutiny acted illegally or with justifiable reason. More crucially, it tackles the big question of whether a man who likes to roll metal balls in his hand can be classified as certifiably insane, and that's about the level of psychological insight the film peaks at. If nothing else, it does feature one of the greatest 'missing strawberries aboard a US naval ship' mysteries that I've ever seen, and after this I've definitely seen them all.

Carrington V.C. (1954)
You've got to admire a courtroom drama that has the judges mulling over whether to call the next witness or stop for luncheon. Yes, actual luncheon, not lunch like us commoners have. Everyone speaks in the right and proper Military English you see, all "oh I say" and "what ho old chap". The story is about a highly decorated British Officer (David Niven) who is accused of stealing £125 from the army base's safe, and the trial in which he acts as his own defence. Remarkably they managed to turn what seems a fairly trivial crime into a full blown trial that takes up the entire film, using the time to go through a lot of court procedure that most films would skip past. There's even time enough for a few dashes of humour, if you can call it that, thrown in to lighten the tone. The sets and cinematography and unremarkable at best, it's a very old fashioned style of filmmaking, and the story is nothing to write home about - so it's a bit of a mystery why I still found it pleasantly watchable.

The Execution of Private Slovik (1974)
Now things start to get interesting. At the start we are warned that some viewers may find the content of this film upsetting, not something you often see in a movie, and it has the effect of immediately raising expectations. It tells the true story of the only US soldier to be executed for desertion since the civil war, his willingness to go to court-martial rather than return to battle, and his misunderstandings of the consequences of such a choice. Even though the title gives away the outcome, I was quite taken aback by the film, and can scarcely think of another American film bold enough to present the scenes that it does in a manner that you typically only see in cinema from Eastern Europe. A young Martin Sheen plays Slovik, and honestly it is a magnificent performance dealing with a character who has to be cowardly yet brave, terrified yet calm. He absolutely gets that, especially in the lead up to his death, and I wondered how any actor could mentally get themselves into a place where they could deliver such a role. Then I came across this quote from Sheen himself: "Slovik was given a batch of letters on the very morning he was shot. The mail had backed up for some months. So there were many letters that he'd never seen. In fact, he didn't read them all. He only read a few that morning. He couldn't get through them. Janet wrote to me a whole batch of letters and asked me not to open them until the scene was shot, and that's exactly what I did. One of them was so powerful that it just overwhelmed me. On camera I read it." Nothing else needs said.

Hart’s War (2002)
Here's an intriguing premise. A court-martial that takes place in a German POW camp, in which an American fighter pilot is accused of murder and tried by his fellow prisoners. Is that even allowed? Or hold any legal validity? I'm not sure but at least it brings something original to the genre. Bruce Willis gets to be the Colonel in charge of the whole affair, Colin Farrell is the inexperienced defence lawyer, and Terrence Howard is used to good effect as the accused who has to deal with appalling racism even from his fellow soldiers. I was surprised to see the issue of racism within the Army play such a large part in a major US picture, the language and behaviour of military personnel may have been this way during WWII but it's not something I've seen much suggestion of in other war movies. The trial itself is quite cleverly constructed, and there's a few distant explosions and convincing fighter pilot scenes that help create the right sense of time and place. The highlight for me though was the performance of Marcel Iures as the Nazi Commandant camp leader, who has fun toying with the Americans who need his permission to hold the trial at all, and in his interfering with proceedings. There is a flawed moment when he has to say something along the lines of "so you want to hold a court-martial like in those American movies?", a case of the film being too clever for it's own good, but I can overlook that. It's not a masterpiece, but it is far better than expected.

King & Country (1964)
I didn't imagine this theme would bring up movies of such a high quality, clearly the military and the subject of courts-martial brings with it a seriousness and therefore a demand from those involved to get it right. This is the pick of them for me. A hard, unforgiving picture about a WWI soldier facing trial for desertion, posing the question of whether he was in his right mind when he simply walked away during battle. Tom Courteney (seen recently in 45 Years) gives everything he has to the lead role, making it easy to believe he's fresh from battle and has witnessed things that no-one should. You believe in his fear, confusion, yet certainty in his mind that he couldn't have taken any more. Fear and confusion - it strikes me that in this one character, the film precisely captures what war boils down to for a soldier. Most war films would need a couple of hours of relentless explosions, death and destruction to make that same point. Joseph Losey directs the trial scenes with such restraint, letting the actors take charge of a claustrophobic makeshift courtroom, and ensures that every line of dialogue and detail of the case is included only if it is essential to the character or in the reaching of the verdict. There are still some more good films to follow, but I'm calling it now: King & Country is the best court-martial movie ever made.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Now we move on to a tale that includes not one, but two courts-martial and a normal court trial to boot. Let me try to explain. At the heart of this is a biopic about Emile Zola (played by Paul Muni), a controversial French author who fought to bring attention to the cause of injustice in society. However what it's really about is the Dreyfus Affair, a famous case in which a French Lieutenant was set up by his superior officers and found guilty of treason. Years after the Lieutenant is imprisoned on a remote island, Zola concocts a trial of his own in order to bring out the truth. The courts-martial are only shown in their verdicts, but are so important to the story and trial which follows that I thought it had to qualify. The main trial is fantastically well staged, with farcical proceedings involving a judge who won't allow any questions, Army witnesses who refuse to answer anything anyway, and Zola delivering one of those grand lengthy final statements that I love to see in courtroom dramas. Great stuff.

Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick’s most traditional picture features Kirk Douglas as a Colonel who brings the case for the defence, following charges of cowardice against three of his men. There’s a lot more to it than that, with the accused having been selected at random by a General trying to make an example of an entire unit who retreated to the trenches in the midst of a battle they had no chance of winning. An especially good performance from Douglas gives weight to an already strong script, his fury over the incompetence and calculated self-interest of his superiors, from the trenches all the way through to the court-martial itself, is a sight to behold. The fact that everyone is speaking American despite being French does prove a touch distracting at first, but it's not the only film on the list to do this, and becomes a non-issue once you decide to go along with it. One of the few films in this genre that I had seen previously, and one that stands up well to repeat viewing.

Rules of Engagement (2000)
And repeat viewing is just what I can't imagine will ever be necessary with this one. It's not that it's a bad film by any means, just falls into the category of 'enjoyable but once is enough'. Samuel L Jackson is a Colonel up on charges of ordering his unit to open fire on a gathering of civilians outside a US embassy. There is little peril in the trial itself, seeing as the film lays out exactly what happened before we reach the courtroom. It is therefore left to opposing military lawyers Tommy Lee Jones and Guy Pierce to make something interesting out of what's left, and despite them being terribly cliched characters (one a past-it self-doubter, the other a super-confident young hotshot), they do make a good stab at it.

Town Without Pity (1961)
And finally, something spirit-crushingly poor. Have you ever seen a movie that was entirely broken by the use of a single song? Yes you have, if you’ve been unlucky enough to experience Town Without Pity. It’s a story about three soldiers who go on trial accused of raping an innocent young woman, which you’d think would lead to a potentially dark and powerful drama. So who in their right mind thought that the perfect match for such a story would be a jaunty little theme song by Gene Pitney, one that wouldn’t have been out of place in something like Happy Days? And not only that, the director thought it so good as to play it on repeat through almost the entire film. It seems everyone in the town is constantly listening to the same song, in their cars, on their radios, at home, in cafes, hell there’s even a live band playing an instumental version at one point. Ridiculous. The same song was later used in the movie Hairspray, which says it all. For good measure we also have to put up with a lousy script, and a selection of cast members who appear to have won a prize to appear in movie: no acting experience required. The only thing remotely salvagable from this mess is the performance of the always watchable Kirk Douglas, but I can only hope he promptly fired his agent afterwards.

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Currently Unavailable
To prevent myself spending a fortune on dvd imports, I'm restricting my viewing for this series to films that are legally available to stream or rent on disc in the UK. The following potentially interesting titles haven't been released here yet but may be available in the US or elsewhere:

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) - Directed by Otto Preminger, starring Gary Cooper
Man in the Middle (1964) - Directed by Guy Hamilton, starring Robert Mitchum
The Rack (1956) - Directed by Arnold Leven, starring Paul Newman
Sergeant Ryker (1968) - Directed by Buzz Kulik, starring Lee Marvin


Coming soon to a theatre near you…
Next up I’m going to have a go at a season of movies about the movies. It’ll include films set in cinemas/movie theatres, documentaries about filmmaking and the movie industry, filmmaking nightmares, an article I have in my head about the future of cinema, and one or two other bits and bobs. Moving to wider genre articles removes the demands of trying to keep up with weekly deadlines and gives me more scope to explore the themes (like I did with the Christmas one), plus allows more time to watch my way through the NY Times 1000 which I’ve been neglecting of late. From now I’ll just be taking my time and posting articles whenever they’re ready.