Talking Movies

August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

Gone with the wind

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu

The Lodger

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King Kong

It Happened One Night

The 39 Steps

A Night at the Opera

Top Hat

Secret Agent

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Gone with the Wind

TheBigSleep-011

1940 to 1949

His Girl Friday

Rebecca

Citizen Kane

The Maltese Falcon

Casablanca

Shadow of a Doubt

The Big Sleep

The Stranger

Rope

The Third Man

1950 to 1959

Strangers on a Train

The Lavender Hill Mob

Singin’ in the Rain

Them!

Rear Window

High Society

Moby Dick

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Rio Bravo

1960 to 1969

Last Year in Marienbad

The Manchurian Candidate

The Birds

The Great Escape

Billy Liar

Dr. Strangelove

Goldfinger

Dr. Zhivago

The Sound of Music

The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ma Nuit Chez Maud

The Italian Job

1970 to 1979

Kelly’s Heroes

Aguirre the wrath of God

The Godfather

Dog Day Afternoon

Jaws

All the President’s Men

Annie Hall

Star Wars

Superman

Apocalypse Now

1980 to 1989

The Blues Brothers

Chariots of Fire

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Blade Runner

Ghostbusters

Back to the Future

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Aliens

Blue Velvet

Wall Street

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Die Hard

1990 to 1999

JFK

My Own Private Idaho

The Silence of the Lambs

Terminator 2

The Age of Innocence

Jurassic Park

Pulp Fiction

Speed

The Usual Suspects

Scream

The Matrix

Fight Club

2000 to 2009

Memento

Almost Famous

Moulin Rouge!

Ocean’s Eleven

Donnie Darko

The Rules of Attraction

The Lord of the Rings

Team America

Brick

Casino Royale

Atonement

The Dark Knight

2010 to the present day

Inception

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

Incendies

Skyfall

Mud

This is the End

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Birdman

High-Rise

20th Century Women

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January 28, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Director Matthew Vaughn eschews the current gritty James Bond formula for an R-rated absurdist spy fantasy from Mark Millar’s comic-book.

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Kingsman begins as it means to go on; tongue firmly-in-cheek; as terrible CGI explosions rock a Middle Eastern fortress, only for the falling stones to form into the title credits. Our hero Galahad (Colin Firth) is on a mission that goes fatally wrong, leading him to pay his respects to the widowed Michelle (Samantha Womack), and give a promise of aid, if ever needed, to her infant son Gary. Nearly two decades later a Kingsmen rescue of kidnapped climate change expert Professor Arnold (a cameo too good to spoil here) goes awry. A replacement Lancelot must be recruited, and all the Kingsmen must put forward a candidate. At this precise moment Gary, now known as Eggsy (Taron Egerton), gets into deep trouble with his criminal stepfather Dean (Geoff Bell), and calls in Galahad’s favour. Galahad proposes Gary as the new Lancelot, and so begins a dangerous mentoring in privatised espionage…

Kingsman is a blast. There’s a certain X-Men: First Class vibe to the Lancelot competition presided over by Merlin (Mark Strong) at a country house, with nice class warfare between chav Eggsy and upper-crust Digby (Nicholas Banks) and Charlie (Edward Holcroft). Egerton is endearing as someone hiding his potential because of his circumstances, and Sophie Cookson as sympathetic toff Roxy is a winning foil. Less sympathetic is the leader of the Kingsmen, Arthur (Michael Caine). There’s an odd meta-textual dance here between Egerton having played toff in Testament of Youth and cockney Caine’s enthronement as a cinematic elder. But that’s as nothing compared to the meta-madness when Galahad discusses old Bond films with lisping tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L Jackson). Firth is effectively playing The Avengers’ Mr Steed, and loving it, while Jackson seems to be nodding to his Unbreakable role as a squeamish super-villain, with a surprisingly interesting motivation, who delegates murder to lethal blade-runner henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella).

Vaughn’s use of music deserves special mention. Eggsy’s car-thieving exploits are rousingly accompanied by Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’, a surrealist gore-fest is played out to the strains of Elgar (in what feels oddly like a nod to Dr Strangelove), and then there’s ‘Freebird’… Vaughn tops Cameron Crowe’s demented use of that song in Elizabethtown, and, given that Crowe had a band rocking out on the guitar solo and determinedly ignoring the giant flaming bird flying past, that’s saying something. A vicious sermon by the great Corey Johnson is interrupted by utter carnage as Galahad gets embroiled in a fight to the death with the entire congregation. If The Matrix lobby scene used a high concept to banish guilt over massacres by heroes this pushes the envelope even further. Cinematographer George Richmond and Vaughn close up on the action and deploy a grainier look to hide cheats in their sustained bloodthirsty mayhem. And what mayhem it is – a choreographed wonder of continual stabbing, shooting, garrotting, strangling, bludgeoning that produces jaw-dropped, impressed disbelief.

There’re quibbles to be had, notably the rather tasteless use of Hanna Alstrom’s Swedish princess and the sudden ending, but Kingsman’s bloody good fun.

4/5

May 1, 2014

Twelfth Night

Wayne Jordan tackles Shakespeare’s serious comedy and the result is nearly three and a half hours of mystifying directorial decisions.

Viola (Sophie Robinson) and her ship’s Captain (Muiris Crowley) are washed up on the shores of Illyria. Her twin brother Sebastian having drowned, Viola adopts his wardrobe to become a male courtier to Duke Orsino (Barry John O’Connor); quickly being favoured above long-suffering Valentine (Elaine Fox). The Duke is in love with the widowed Olivia (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), who’ll have nothing to do with him. Olivia is also fending off the suit of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Lambert), friend of her dissolute cousin Sir Toby Belch (Nick Dunning). Her court is split between the punctiliousness of Malvolio (Mark O’Halloran) and the buffoonery of Sir Toby, with the Fool Feste (Ger Kelly) and Fabian (Lloyd Cooney) siding with Toby, especially when Olivia’s servant Maria (Ruth McGill) devises a prank to humble Malvolio. But Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) did not drown, he was saved by Antonio (Conor Madden), and their arrival causes comedic chaos…

That at least was what Shakespeare wrote, but it’s not what Jordan renders onstage. The opening line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ is taken a bit … literally: 5 massive speakers are wheeled out onto the stage and Orsino plays raucous music on a mandolin plugged into them. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of the start of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ video… The speakers are (saving a fridge, table and chairs) all the set Ciaran O’Melia provides, and they’re redundant for most of the action. When active they provide comedy extraneous to the text: playing ‘Sexy Boy’ for the Duke parading his Freddie Mercury cloak, and Rage Against the Machine for Sir Toby standing on a table shouting profanities until the music is turned off. Sir Toby also gets a gong sounded when he does the crane pose during a fight, and he leads Feste and Sir Andrew in a barbershop version of ‘Firestarter’. These are all funny only by virtue of being inappropriate, but if you can’t find comedy within Shakespeare why stage him? Why not set Twelfth Night in Manhattan and sprinkle it with Woody Allen one-liners to get laughs?

This is the third Jordan Abbey production I’ve suffered thru after Alice in Funderland and The Plough and the Stars, and he apparently has no idea of pacing. Twelfth Night starts at 730 and runs until 1055 with one interval. It’s a romantic comedy, and it’s nearly 3 ½ hours long… The mark of a confident director of Shakespeare is their willingness to cut the Bard’s text. Instead Jordan inserts material: the insistence on having everyone listen while one character sings a song makes you feel you’ve wandered into some Cameron Crowe nightmare. The ‘brave’ anti-Catholicism of Alice is also in evidence, as, unheeding of Calvary’s critique of the blanket vilification of priests, Jordan decides that the priest interrogating Malvolio should be played by Feste adopting a thick Kerry accent. His appearance being preceded by a jibe from Shakespeare produces the bizarre spectacle of English Anti-Catholicism enacted via Irish Anti-Catholicism.

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And then there’s Jordan’s queering of Shakespeare and weak casting… Robinson fails to project the necessary comic vivacity as Viola, indeed by the finale Viola has become a petulant teenager, and her Northern accent does not synch with Fullam playing her ‘identical’ twin Sebastian at all. But internal logic isn’t much of a concern in this production. Sebastian is introduced in bed with Antonio (in their tiny whiteys, as everyone must appear in their underwear), as a very literal reading of a few lines of dialogue is used to make them a gay couple. But Jordan wants us to applaud this enlightened reading while at the same time having Valentine play pantomime shocked when she sees it, which is just ridiculously smug back-slapping: much like Alice’s ‘satire’, Jordan appears to think he’s scandalising an audience of Eisenhower and DeValera stalwarts. And then with massive illogicality Fullam’s fey mannerisms as Sebastian are instantly dropped for an enthusiastic sexual relationship with Olivia. Sebastian is either inconsistent or opportunistic, and faithful Antonio is totally shafted by Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia, who herself is played as obviously still in love with Viola in her female guise. Internal logic schlogic…

The obvious saving grace of this production is the great Mark O’Halloran as Malvolio. He is very funny, especially in convincing himself by crazy leaps of logic that Olivia has written him a love letter. His hysterical appearance in a full yellow-bodysuit underneath his suit is perhaps over-egging the comic pudding, but it’s saved by the perverse dignity with which he replaces his glasses over his hooded head. Radmall-Quirke also exudes that quality of perverse dignity in fending off Malvolio, and the gradual softening of her icy facade is well played. Ger Kelly is also a splendid physical presence as Feste, and his delivery of Fool’s wit sparkling. The impulse to go too far is intermittently present in Lambert’s drunken Sir Andrew, but his outraged vanity gets the biggest laugh out of the script Shakespeare actually wrote. Dunning, however, feels like he’s playing Aidan Gillen’s Sir Toby, not his own.

Dunning’s unexpectedly mean-spirited Sir Toby seems to feed into a bizarre interpretation of the text by Jordan, in which he wants to queer Shakespeare by having the traditional climatic heterosexual marriages be a parade of misery. Olivia and Antonio are unhappy at losing Viola and Sebastian. The Duke marries Viola for no apparent reason, making Valentine unhappy. Sir Toby is horrid to Sir Andrew, and loses his only friend, while Sir Andrew runs away from Illyria. And Malvolio runs thru the audience, with his face stained with tears. O’Halloran is so good you feel like crying at Malvolio’s humiliation, but his exit line could be high comedy as could Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s parting. Instead after 3 ½ hours nearly everyone ends up miserable. The finale is thus so muted that when Feste sings you half-expect the characters to come back. And then they all do, in their underwear … and gather under a giant shower-head, before running off to don bath-robes before bowing. As with so much else, such as the pointless drumming minor characters start before the audience has returned from the interval, I had no idea why that decision was taken.

This production will no doubt receive the acclaim that all Jordan’s projects get, but after three duds I can only protest such acclaim’s undeserved.

2/5

Twelfth Night continues its run at the Abbey until May 24th.

June 22, 2011

Top 5 Cinematic Big Sisters

I recently saw Donnie Darko at the IFI Open Day and the brilliance of the double-act by the Gyllenhaal siblings made me think about compiling a shortlist, not of the best sisters in cinema because that’s a very long and different list, but of the best big sisters in film.

(5) Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep)
It may seem odd to isolate this iconic film noir femme fatale role for this one particular quality but a huge part of Vivian Sternwood’s motive for keeping tabs on the investigation of Philip Marlowe is to protect her crazy little sister Carmen, and she’s prepared to do a lot to keep her safe…

(4) Anna Kendrick (Scott Pilgrim)
Anna Kendrick’s character is perhaps the best example of the hilariously unappreciated big sister. She’s perpetually put-upon by her younger brother’s best friend, who is constantly stealing her boyfriends, but continues to risk it, and hilariously continually suffers, for her loving compulsion to be forever doling out good advice to her irresponsible and inattentive sibling.

(3) Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Ferris’s big sister is eternally infuriated by his popularity, but, after a day where his shenanigans once again drive her up the walls, an encounter with a drug-addled Charlie Sheen (how little things change in 25 years) leads her to loosen up and finally stick up for her conniving but loveable younger sibling.

(2) Maggie Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko)
Always keeping an eye out for Donnie; quizzically observing his antics at their party; but never doing so without a good deal of snarkiness; the opening dinner scene; Elizabeth is probably the most convincingly nuanced big sister in recent memory, undoubtedly helped by the fact that this exuberant double-act is an actual brother-sister acting team.

(1) Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous)
“Listen to Tommy with one candle lighted and you will see your entire future”. Zooey’s break-out role was the impossibly idealised cool older sister who defies their mother on her younger brother’s behalf, before setting him on the path to his eventual career by bequeathing her awesome record collection to him; with handwritten cryptic instructions…

February 25, 2010

Adjusted for Inflation

Avatar will be discussed in this blog next week but the coverage of its success inspires this related and very simple question – why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Who could forget what summer 2007 felt like: “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. Notice something suspicious here? How it seems that nearly all the records were set by recent blockbusters? Suspect that there’s an unholy alliance of lazy journalism and cynical PR operating? It’s a painfully easy headline to just rehash the press release from a studio boasting that its latest masterpiece has just “broken the record for the most takings between a Tuesday and a Thursday, before the 4th of July weekend, EVER!” It saves having to think about the quality of the film and its importance, if any. But box-office returns do not a classic make…

There are legions of now revered films from Citizen Kane to Fight Club that did disastrously on release. Critics and studios fought on for them though as prestige movies, and, over time, quality prevailed as their reputations soared while bad films that were more commercially successful were forgotten. Cameron Crowe almost anticipated that his excellent film would do badly at the box office by inserting Gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs into Almost Famous in a fashion that says as much about film criticism as it does about rock journalism. Art, this fictionalised Bangs argues, is where the uncool can hide their ugliness and transcend themselves. Artists hide behind their work, but rock stars have to be beautiful – they are always centre-stage. In the sphere of rock music the only place the uncool can hide is behind the byline. The journalists are the true custodians of something pure and high-minded that gets lost out there in the hype of tours and record sales. When the sales figures are forgotten enough journalists hammering on about artistic integrity and how something neglected really was great can provide a weird afterlife, like that of The Velvet Underground, who couldn’t give records away and have now entered our consciousness as a pivotal and important 1960s band. So it is that film critics can hammer home the virtues of neglected works and chip away at popular trash.

The obsession with opening weekends, which sees a film sink or swim by whether it can make enough money to be an easy headline for Monday’s papers, is not just a betrayal of this function of journalism it is lobotomising cinema. Quality is not important, as 2007’s summer of the threequel proved. If you throw enough eye candy and CGI at the screen it can, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend. Once word of mouth gets out it’ll collapse precipitously but who cares? It’s not like you’re crafting anything of lasting value, certainly not a sleeper film that will make money for months on end like When Harry Met Sally did as more and more people heard about its charms.

The banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film from the last 15 years that appears in the list of Top 10 Films of all time once you adjust their box-office gross for inflation. No Spider-Man 3 or Shrek 3 trouble the Top 10 despite shrill protestations of their record-breaking popularity. Odd, huh? But this note of reality destroys not only tabloid journalism but recent serious journalism. Peter Biskind has created a grand narrative that 1960s Hollywood was losing money precipitously because it was making films like The Sound of Music instead of Easy Rider. Well Easy Rider‘s box office isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit next to that of The Sound of Music. This grand narrative, which is almost an origin myth for sex, violence and drugs equating to serious drama and less explicit fare being censored triviality, falls apart as the figures prove that when given a choice audiences went to polished escapist crowd-pleasers over bleak grimy slices of nihilism. Star Wars was greeted as the Second Coming after a decade of films like Taxi Driver and Chinatown which critics revered but audiences, reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation rightly regarded as downers. Spielberg, derided by Biskind as a mere entertainer, has two entries in the Top 10 Films of all time!!

All of which raises questions that will be dealt with next week in discussing Avatar. Adjusting for inflation raises uncomfortable questions about what appeals to audiences by suggesting that people now are in fact historically disinterested in cinema-going despite sensational headlines about record box-office business. So let’s remember, it’s called show-business. Let’s have a little more focus on the show and a little less on the business. Leave the opening weekend financial statistics where they belong, on the back pages, of the Hollywood trade papers…

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