Monday, 25 April 2016

Blind Spots Series: Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)

Courtroom dramas are possibly the closest that cinema gets to a live stage play, with events mostly contained within a small space and a focus predominantly on dialogue rather than action. Sometimes they’re mediocre (Fracture), sometimes they’re good (A Few Good Men), and once in a blue moon, they’re Judgement at Nuremberg. Filed alongside 12 Angry Men, this is one of the best courtroom dramas I’ve ever seen, and I might add, is amongst the contenders for my best not-new film of the year. But then most of the blindspot films I’ve checked off so far this year are just as worthy of contention.

Slow, methodical, meticulous and exceptional in every regard, this is a script that forces the director to take his time and allow the viewer as much as the judge to take in all the facts and opinions of the case. Although it carries similarities with 12 Angry Men in the way of tone and directorial style, here we experience the procedure of the courtroom rather than jury room. The other crucial difference is that this film is based on a real trial, in fact one of the highest profile trials in history. The second world war is over, Hitler is dead, and Germany is now occupied territory. Four high ranking Nazi judges are being tried within the American legal system for war crimes relating to the mass murder of millions of civilians in the concentration camps, and it is up to Chief Judge Dan Haywood to preside over the case. Spencer Tracey plays the judge, and it’s a real tour-de-force performance, his ragged face and worn-out demeanour perfectly expressing the weight of the decision he is going to be faced with and the political pressure he’s coming under. By the end of the eight months of testimony, rousing speeches, accusations and graphic details of what occurred in those camps, he just seems shattered by it all. In all honesty I was too, it is difficult to absorb three full hours of this and not be affected by it. This isn’t fiction, it really happened, and forevermore people will wonder how on earth these people could have got away with such atrocities for so long before the world came to realise.

“I am going to tell them the truth. I am going to tell them the truth if the whole world conspires against it. I am going to tell them the truth about their Ministry of Justice. Werner Lampe, an old man who cries into his Bible now, an old man who profited by the property expropriation of every man he sent to a concentration camp. Friedrich Hofstetter, the "good German" who knew how to take orders, who sent men before him to be sterilized like so many digits. Emil Hahn, the decayed, corrupt bigot, obsessed by the evil within himself. And Ernst Janning, worse than any of them because he knew what they were, and he went along with them. Ernst Janning: Who made his life excrement, because he walked with them.”

There is a particular section of the trial that stopped me in my tracks, a devastating scene in which graphic footage of what was found at one of the camps is played to the courtroom. I have seen many documentaries on the subject, but it doesn’t make you any more immune. I’m not going to describe it, just say that it is very, very difficult to watch. I think the director, Stanley Kramer, was brave to include it in the trial and not just refer to it, and it is a key part of what makes the film so successful. From this point on, the actors, the characters they are playing, and the viewers are all brought to the same level and state of mind. I doubt the actors would have needed to fake any emotion for their parts, though the four playing the accused (including an excellent low key performance by Burt Lancaster) and the lead for the defence (Maximilian Schell) must have had a harder time of it. How do you defend the indefensible?

Masterpiece is a word used too often in the description of movies, I likely overuse it myself, but I can’t find any other word that could do this film justice.


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.

Friday, 8 April 2016

A Few Good Movies... about filmmaking nightmares (when film productions go disastrously wrong)

I was relishing the prospect of exploring this theme, watching people trying to make movies as everything falls apart around them, battling against all the odds to do something as seemingly simple as producing a finished film. Many of the films below were new to me, and almost all of them made for amazing viewing. We have documentaries about events so bizarre, so catastrophic, so unlikely, that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were fiction. Then there are fictional stories of attempts at filmmaking that turn out to be so disastrous and silly that you could just as easily believe were true. This has been a brilliant theme of discovery for me, I’ve given all but two of the films a rating of 4 or 5, and there’s at least three that are amongst the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. I urge anyone reading to check out the higher rated films; if you’re anything like me, there’s events in these that will have your jaw hitting the floor.

“If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that: I live my life or I end my life with this project…” (Werner Herzog, on the hellish production of Fitzcarraldo, in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams)

American Movie (1999)
Every single person who has ever had a dream of making a movie, and then tried to make it happen, will see themselves in Mark Borchardt. This wonderful documentary follows his efforts to make it as an independent film director, struggling to complete a succession of self-penned scripts without any meaningful budget or crew. Along the way he ropes in whoever he can to help, from his poor mother, his uncle, and his best friend Mike. Oh yes, Mike. He's the real star here, a doped-up softie who's addicted to lottery scratchcards, and who happens to be one of the funniest real-life characters I've ever seen in a movie. Every time he's on screen the film just lights up, and you have to this for him alone. Beyond that, this is a documentary that really gets under the skin of the main protagonist - we learn of his difficult upbringing, his broken family, and his never-give-up attitude driven by the desire to have more than his life has offered so far. To live the American Dream. There is sadness in his story, and his years of persistence with failing projects should make you feel sorry for him, but it only makes you root for him to succeed. It is also testament to Chris Smith for capturing all of this in such a funny, and entertaining documentary.

Burden of Dreams (1982)
One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. Seriously. This is the behind-the-scenes story of the making of Werner Herzog’s epic movie Fitzcarraldo, and the disastrous sequence of events that occurred throughout the production. Who would have thought that trying to make a film about hauling a boat over the top of a mountain, in the depths of a remote South American jungle, would cause so many issues? So much of what happens here is jaw-dropping, there is surely no director other than Herzog who would have continued with the project given what happens, and few would have even tried it in the first place. I’ve only seen Fitzcarraldo once and I wasn’t even sure what to think about it, but I realise after seeing this that it may well be a masterpiece, and he may well be a genius. The finished film, because somehow it was finished, is lead by the lunatic actor Klaus Kinski, but we discover they’d actually originally filmed then had to abandon a large part of the production with two very different actors in the lead. It’s remarkable listening to Herzog’s own thoughts on the project, how he felt he had no choice but to keep shooting against all the odds, to defy common sense at every turn, and that the purpose of his existence was either to finish the film or die trying. What an amazing documentary, even if you’ve never seen Fitzcarraldo, you have to see this.

And then see My Best Fiend (further down this list), Herzog’s own doc about his filmmaking experiences working with the seriously disturbed Klaus Kinski. If can take even more, Herzog wrote a book about it all too; "Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo". I haven't read it yet, but definitely plan to.

Day For Night (1973)
Francois Truffaut is a director whose work I've struggled to get into, even though he's held up as one of cinema's greats. I wasn't a huge fan of this first time around, and having now given it a second viewing, I'm still of much the same opinion. It's a mildly diverting tale depicting the making of a fictional film that suffers a multitude of production problems, along with offering an insight into the compromises required to get films finished. Impossible filming schedule deadlines, actors forgetting lines, having breakdowns, inconveniently dying... that kind of thing. I did quite enjoy the street scenes in which the director is orchestrating the hundreds of extras, it makes you realise how difficult it actually must be to do that on real films and make it look natural. That never even occurred to me before, you just assume extras in busy scenes are left to wander around at random or do whatever comes instinctively. I found some of this dragged on, and would have preferred if it tried to play up the comedy angle more than it did, but it was passably watchable nonetheless.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
When I started watching my way through this theme I was sure that this would come out top of the pile, and it would have if not for Burden of Dreams. Hearts of Darkness is probably the most famous filmmaking documentary, telling of the truly nightmarish production of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Like Burden of Dreams, you can only watch this and wonder how on earth they ever wound up with a finished product, such is the scale of the catastrophic events which unfold. As Coppola himself put it, things got so extreme that everyone involved essentially reached a point of madness. Speaking of which, Marlon Brando's infamous behaviour on the set is recorded and analysed in detail, and still no-one comes out any the wiser. He was off his rocker by this point, but there's always the slight suspicion that he's just playing everyone for fools (although there is, amazingly enough, another film to come in the list in which he gets even worse). Dennis Hopper was out of his mind on drugs without a clue what was going on, and the Martin Sheen was pushed almost to the point of death. Now that’s how to make a movie. One of the finest and most riveting behind the scenes documentaries ever produced, about one of the finest ever films.

Living in Oblivion (1995)
As much as I enjoy watching the acclaimed, high profile films mentioned above, I’ll admit I get much more satisfaction from “discovering” a lesser known gem. This is a funny and clever fictional account of an independent director (Steve Buscemi) trying to make a film with no budget whatsoever, a crew who keep messing things up, and a cast who are beyond hopeless. More than any other on the list, this film gets across exactly what it’s like to be on a film set (not that I’d know, but let’s assume). We sit there watching take after take, the same scene repeated until they get it right, and then when they do, the camera’s not turned on. It is farce upon farce, and all the better for it. Filmmaking is shown to be a very silly activity indeed, and if it wasn’t for the fact that this is all so ludicrously amusing, anyone thinking of becoming a filmmaker would probably be put off the idea for life. Buscemi is superb, but so are the entire cast, every one of them perfectly encapsulating their own incompetence and/or egomania. It’s the first Tom DiCillo film I’ve seen, and I’m now very keen to see what else he’s done.

Lost in La Mancha (2002)
A disastrous shoot in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong, right up to the point where the film is abandoned. Lost in La Mancha, the documentary about Terry Gilliams' failed attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is the very definition of a filmmaking nightmare. It's the only film on the list where things got so bad that there wasn't even a finished product to show for their efforts, the studio just pulled the plug. When you have cast members not appearing, budget problems, a lead actor falling badly ill, and the full force of mother nature trying to finish off your movie, perhaps it's wise to call a halt. It's an absorbing insight into how films are funded and controlled by studios, how important insurance companies are to the production, and how careless the movie industry is with money. Within that crazy system, you have to admire Gilliam's determination to not make life easy for himself, ploughing on with the most difficult films he can think up, especially when everyone else is just bemused or worn out by how he operates. The same goes for the viewer, most of what he produces is perplexing to say the least. I can't quite believe it, but even after all of this went so badly wrong, he's actually having another go at it. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, attempt number 2, is scheduled for release in 2017. He'll never learn.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau (2014)
I don't even know where to begin with this, it's such an extraordinary documentary. It tells of the disastrous attempt to film The Island of Dr. Moreau, a weird monster picture that ended up being dubbed one of the worst films ever made. It’s no surprise given what they all went through to get it finished. There are many parallels with Hearts of Darkness, in terms of the sequence and scale of the events that keep bringing the production to a shuddering halt, and many of the actors, crew and director to the point of madness - and in the case of Marlon Brando, well beyond that. Wait til you see Brando's behaviour on set, there are just no words to adequately describe it. He'd reached proper loony by this stage, at one point suggesting to the director that his character should wear a hat, then take it off to reveal he is in fact a dolphin. I'm not making this up, and that only scratches the surface of what he gets up to. It’s a documentary that starts slowly, but builds into something riveting, shocking and utterly unique. You have to see this.

The Making of ‘…And God Spoke’ (1993)
If you can picture Spinal Tap but with filmmakers rather than musicians, then that’s this. A mockumentary about a couple of guys, director and producer, trying to make a low budget movie of the Bible - it sounded right up my street. In truth it didn’t quite live up to expectations, but was still mildly amusing. There are some clever ideas like them starting out with an attempt to film the entire story of the Bible, then cutting large swathes of story from the script when they realise they have neither the time or budget, and that the film would go on for days. There’s even discussions about whether Jesus needs to be in it at all. To give another example of the silliness on show, in one scene Moses appears on a hillside to announce the ten commandments to the gathered crowd, and due to product placement agreements, he’s forced to hold a 6-pack of Coca-Cola. If that sounds like your sort of thing then there’s enough to enjoy, I just felt that the writing wasn’t funny enough often enough to make it a classic - and that’s a real shame because it had the potential to be one.

Mia Madre (2015)
A comedy drama from Italian director Nanni Moretti, which featured in my top 20 films of 2015, and tells of a female director trying to make a movie whist her life falls apart. Her mother is ill in hospital, her relationship has hit the rocks, and she’s questioning the very point of the film she’s trying to make. Added to that, her film features an Italian American actor (John Turturro) who seems to be on the verge of a breakdown, can never remember his lines, and repeatedly misunderstands his part in the scenes. It’s a fine comedic performance by Turturro, one of his best for many years, and this comedic tone helps balance against the more downbeat strands of the story. There’s also a wonderful scene outside a cinema, which is turned into perfection by the use of a Leonard Cohen song. I’m a fan of Moretti’s work, he often explores aspects of life that should be downbeat yet finds a way to lighten them, and this is certainly one of his best. Another of his comedies on a similar theme that I’d recommend is Caro Diario (Dear Diary), which tells the story of a screenwriter buzzing around Rome on his scooter, contemplating life and his next script.

My Best Fiend (1999)
After Burden of Dreams, who would have thought there would have been enough material for another fantastic documentary about Werner Herzog's crazy filmmaking experiences? Herzog this time turns the camera on himself to discuss the extraordinary working relationship he had with Klaus Kinski, recounting his own tales and interviewing others about their experiences on the set of the five films they made together. We discover that Kinski was a genuine raving lunatic, a destructive egomaniac who frequently went into fits of rage over the tiniest things, and could manage hours of screaming at people before he'd restore sanity and return to filming. There's an amazing story about an incident involving a snake and a man on the set of Fitzcarraldo, and Kinski's response to this event is incomprehensible. I've never seen anyone like him before, on or off screen, how on earth did anyone manage to work with him? How did Herzog get five films finished with such a madman in the lead role? Herzog does actually explain how and why they kept working together even though they hated each other for much of the time, and it's also quite a revealing insight into his own character. Marlon Brando carried the reputation of being difficult to work with, but he's a pussycat compared to Kinski, the ultimate filmmaker's nightmare. I'm struggling to think of any documentary that has changed my perception of a person, especially an actor, as much as this one.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
It’s no coincidence that Hollywood’s greatest ever musical features a lead character named Donald. Added to Donnie (Donald) Darko and Donald Draper in Mad Men, and you can only conclude that it’s the best of all the names. Except Prime Minister David Cameron’s middle name is Donald, which immediately invalidates my point. Is this the strangest ever review of Singin’ in the Rain? So far I’m thinking yes. Does it even fit this theme? Sort of. The storyline is a gentle spoof of the chaotic transition from silent to talking pictures in the 1920’s, in which the major stars of the day were suddenly expected to speak. Imagine! So you have the studio executives panicking over how they’re going to make a picture when their previously silent star attraction, Lina Lamont, has the vocal range of a especially high-pitched mouse. Not only that, everyone from the crew to the cast is struggling with the basics of microphones and sound recording, until the answer hits them: turn the picture into a musical and mime everything. Gene Kelly was in his element here, it’s one of cinema’s best ever performances, and no human has ever had more charm than he. If you’ve never seen Singin’ in the Rain, you’ve never known the movies. Doo doo doo doo, doo, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo…


Coming Soon to a Screen Near You…
The final part of my season of movies about the movies will take a different direction. It feels like we’re at the beginning of an exciting new era in filmmaking, where the power of the traditional studios is diminishing, and the ways we consume movies is radically changing. The future of independent cinema seems like it could lie in the hands of Netflix and Amazon, the new moviemaking superpowers, so for the next part I’m going to watch my way through the currently available Netflix Originals.

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Great Directors... Martin Scorsese... Part 1 (1963-1977)

My quest to watch my way through Martin Scorsese’s entire directorial career has reached it’s first milestone, ten films and a quarter of the way in. So far it hasn’t been entirely what I was expecting, but I’ll explain more about that as I go. I’m including all available shorts, documentaries and feature films. Wthout further ado…

What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963)
Hmm. Not the best start. This is a 9 minute short he made in his film student days, about a guy who becomes obsessed with a picture hanging on his wall. You can see little flourishes of the humour Scorsese would later use as his career took off, but I found the style of this film a little grating. It is a student film though so I’m not going to be too harsh, or give a score, because at that stage of film school I imagine it is all about experimenting and finding your “voice”. The best thing about it is that it’s actually survived all these years and found it’s way onto Youtube, but it’s really only a curio for Scorsese completists.

It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964)
His second (available) short film is slightly more substantial, but still I’m not getting much of a sign that this is by someone who will go on to become one of the most influential and entertaining directors of all time. It features a mobster named Murray, who looks back over his rise to success in the mob game, and attributes much of his wealth and success to his best friend Joe. Except behind his back, Joe has been anything but a friend. The most striking thing about this is how the talking-directly-to-camera thing reminded me of his last film The Wolf of Wall Street. Again for completists only, and available on Youtube.

Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967)
We move now into Scorsese’s first feature length film, and the first of his collaborations with Harvey Keitel. Disappointingly, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. The story surrounds J.R. (Keitel), an Italian American who sees himself as bit of tough guy, but also a good Catholic boy. Do all Italian Americans think of themselves in this way, or is it just in the movies? Keitel gives a solid performance in one of his earliest roles, but I found Scorsese’s writing of the character became quite unpleasant, particularly in his response to a rape. It could be that he was commenting on sexual attitudes at that time, and the contradictary messages coming from the church, but for me the same point could have been made in a more sympathetic manner. In terms of editing and direction the film is a little aimless at times, with some tiresome scenes involving “the guys” hanging out that could have been shortened or cut altogether, and unnecessary dream sex sequences that didn’t add anything to the story. He would at least develop some of the ideas on show here into the far superior Mean Streets.

The Big Shave (1968)
A five minute film in which a man shaves his face. Events take a bloody turn, shall we say. It’s not worth critiquing, but if you're a fan of either blood or shaving, it's a reasonable way to spend a few minutes. Available on Youtube.

Boxcar Bertha (1972)
I'd never even heard of this film before, so went into it thinking it could soon be time to begin wishing I'd never started this project. But ooh, it was actually quite good. This is a film that might best be described as Bonnie and Clyde and Clyde and Clyde, seeing as it’s about a young girl who (literally) romps her way around 30’s America with a group of union railroad men, robbing and destroying whatever gets in their way. You can see the difference an increase in budget makes, this looks so superior to his earlier work, presumably down to having access to better equipment and crew. Probably even just a better understanding of how to make a movie. It’s also a lighter and funnier script, not that I’d call it a comedy, and I enjoyed seeing him step away from the New York setting for the first time. Barbara Hershey and David Carradine created fun and interesting lead characters, and for the first time in this list, help form a satisfyingly entertaining movie. I also liked the name connection to the character Carradine would go on to play 30 years later (Kill Bill), on both occasions called Bill. One of Quentin Tarantino’s endless references to other movies, or just a coincidence?

Mean Streets (1973)
Now this is where his filmmaking really starts to take off. Harvey Keitel is joined by Robert De Niro for a superb tale of a low level bar owner trying to make his way through the ranks of the mob. Set in Little Italy, the home of the stereotypical Italian American gangster (in the movies at least), this is a film that oozes fuhgettabaddit's and capiche's from every pore. De Niro plays a rebellious nobody who thinks he's above being a somebody, refusing to pay back his mounting debts owed to the neighbourhood's loan sharks, and making life increasingly difficult for Keitel's play-it-by-the-book character. You can see why De Niro is about to become a breakout star. If we're talking specifically about this type of Italian American neighbourhood gangster picture, I still think Scorsese (and even other directors) had better work to come, but there's no doubting Mean Streets had a massive influence on the genre. Before this, mobsters were usually caricatures in costumes - he turned them into real people. It's also the first film he made that I'd call a must-see.

Italianamerican (1974)
This is a sweet and funny documentary in which Scorsese interviews his parents about growing up in their New York neighbourhood. They're a fantastic couple, bickering with each other about tiny things yet always in a good humoured way, and with a natural awkwardness in how to behave and what to say in front of the camera. I love that we get to see his mum make the spaghetti sauce, and that she keeps breaking off the interview to go check it (keep an eye out during the credits for the recipe). Things like that are what make this a bit of a treasure, an insight into the lives of Italian Americans without the need for any flashy drama, just a camera and two people with entertaining and interesting stories to tell. The best thing is that with every film to follow, whenever there's a violent or foul-mouthed scene, I'll be sat there imagining his mum's reaction.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
Again Scorsese is defying my expectations of his work, with another film I'd not heard of previously. A road movie of sorts, similar to something like Five Easy Pieces, that follows a singer (Ellen Burstyn) and her amusingly hyperactive son through a succession of towns, men and jobs. When the singing work falls away she finds herself waitressing in a diner, where she meets Kris Kristofferson, and tries to find ways to get through the day in a life that hasn't panned out as she'd hoped. It doesn't feel much like a Scorsese picture, but I enjoy stories like this about straightforward working class people, and the performances are strong throughout. The film belongs to the son Tommy though, played by young Alfred Lutter, who manages to be likeable despite playing such a deliberately irritating child, and can tell the best joke-that-makes-no-sense you'll ever hear. I enjoyed this a lot, definitely one I'll be returning to. Oh and it's worth seeing if only for the genius opening scene - if you can imagine a foul-mouthed Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, then you're somewhere close.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Travis Bickle, one of cinema’s greatest loners, drives a yellow cab around the streets of New York as a way of dealing with insomnia. A combination of sleep deprivation, and just being a bit of a lunatic, leads towards obsessions with a beautiful woman (Cybill Shepherd), a politician associated with her, and a young prostitute (Jodie Foster). De Niro was made for this lead role, and has spent the rest of his career trying to repeat it. Scorsese’s writing is tremendous, up there with his very best, repeatedly hammering home Bickle’s viewpoint of the city: sleazy, dirty, noisy, disgusting. That last word probably sums up the inside of the character’s head; he is disgusted by what he sees around him, and in his own disturbed way, decides to start putting things right. I’d also say it is one of Scorsese’s best looking films, the cinematography captures that ‘fleapit city’ vibe perfectly, and those vents billowing steam into the New York streets have never been used more atmospherically in a movie. Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the famous “you talkin’ to me?” scene, although it’s funny how memory of iconic scenes can be distorted, he actually plays this particular section a lot calmer and more low key than my prior recollection of it. There is almost nothing negative I could say in regards to the film, it’s the one I was most looking forward to revisiting in this list, and it never disappoints. Martin Scorsese has finally announced his arrival at the top table, one of the very best directors around, and this is his first masterpiece.

New York, New York (1977)
Oh. What happened here then? We’ve gone from cinematic greatness directly to one of the least engaging films I’ve seen in some time. De Niro is back again, this time alongside Liza Minnelli, playing a couple of jazz musicians who sing and play their way around New York. Robert De Niro as a talented jazz saxophonist? Nope, not buying that in any way. There’s some drama between them, and lots of talking, but I struggled to care. I must confess that I have a passioniate dislike for jazz, I hate it with all my might, so I was never likely to be won over. The appeal of listening to people playing random notes is lost on me - when a toddler banging away on a toy piano can achieve the same effect, it’s time to sit down and write yourself a properly structured tune. Having said that, you could argue that a great film would be able to hold your attention and interest even if the subject matter isn’t usually your type of thing. This doesn’t, and there’s almost three interminable hours of it. The only positives I can find are that it looks nice enough, and the famous title track isn’t unpleasant, but I’m looking for more than that unfortunately. Sorry Mr. Scorsese, if you’re reading (and I’m sure you are), you lost me on this one. A disappointing way to finish part 1 of this project then, I can only hope it’s uphill again from here.