Whenever critics or film institutions publish lists of the greatest films ever made, the same old names keep cropping up with an air of increasing tedium. It's very easy to be blasé or dismissive about Citizen Kane or Casablanca on the grounds that nothing original can be said about them; all possible plaudits have been dished out and the matter is settled.
Metropolis is one of those films whose reputation is so richly deserved, it is almost annoying. You sit there in the darkness poised ready to pick the film apart, to laugh at all its flaws and scoff about how dated it is. But despite its length and the inherent extremities of silent film, all you can do is sit there in unrelenting awe of what remains an extraordinary piece of cinema.
Like so many of the films we now revere, Metropolis was severely misunderstood when first released. The New York Times film critic Mourdant Hall described it as "a technical marvel with feet of clay", and socialist author H. G. Wells dismissed it as "foolishness, cliché, platitude and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." At a time of high cinema attendance, American distributors refused to distribute any film which ran longer than 90 minutes. The film was therefore cut and edited severely, and some theatres actually ran it through projectors at one-and-a-half times the intended speed to get the running time down even more.
The discovery of a longer, 16mm print in Argentina in 2008 means that today's version of Metropolis is the most complete and logical available. There are still small sections missing from the original version, which are replaced with extended inter-titles; we still don't have the scene of Rotwang and Freder fighting each other in the lab. And in some of the reinstated scenes, the print is grainy and murky. But ultimately none of this matters, because the visual splendour and substance of Metropolis is enough to take anyone's breath away.
The first startling point about Metropolis is its sheer scale; it was and is the most expensive silent film ever made. The city which Lang puts on screen is absolutely vast, with roads snaking around buildings and aeroplanes dodging the highest floors of the New Tower of Babel. The film popularised the Schufftan process, in which the actors are super-imposed in-camera onto a scale model or drawing reflected in a partial mirror. Through this technique, the actors appear small and insignificant against the architecture of the city. The shots of the athletics track or the workers' underground city look expansive and realistic, and unlike a lot of epics the scenery expresses and communicates the themes, allowing you to lose yourself in this world without losing sight of the characters.
In addition to its mechanical scale, the film employs over 37,000 extras and around 750 child extras, in scenes which make even Ben-Hur look thin on the ground. Even in this age of advanced motion capture, in which Peter Jackson can create astonishing battles with an artificial cast of thousands, it is fascinating that so many genuine human actors can be captured on camera in such a personal and kinetic manner. The scenes of the workers rampaging through the streets, or the children rushing through the drowning city, are every bit as breathtaking and exciting as the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.
Beyond its technical brilliance, Lang's films is also hugely influential in its impact on the character conventions of Western cinema. Although doctors and scientists had already been portrayed in a sinister light (in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance), Rotwang is the archetypal mad scientist. Both his character and the lab in which he works were a huge influence on James Whale's Frankenstein, and reflections of his long hair and gloved hands can be seen in everything from Back to the Future to Dr. Strangelove.
The politics of Metropolis are also more complicated and nuanced than one would first assume. It is a deeply Marxist film, depicting a rich capitalistic class who live in happiness in the Eternal Gardens while the workers struggle in a subterranean city (which, one might add, prophetically foreshadows 1960s brutalist architecture). The workers are both the bottom of the pile and the foundations on which this affluent society depends. The early footage of the workers drudging through the gates conveys the misery of proletarian life, with individuals being driven to exhaustion working the same machines, performing the same tasks, day-in, day-out.
But although it contains scenes of revolution, Metropolis differs from conventional Marxism both in its treatment of religion and in the role it accords to women. The meetings which Maria holds down in the catacombs are held in a chamber with huge crosses and an altar. She uses the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel to demonstrate the inherent and fruitless conflict embedded in the capitalist system - namely one in which the head (bourgeoisie) and hands (proletariat) are permanently unable to communicate, thereby hampering progress and eliminating any possibility of widespread happiness. The very fact that she invokes a 'mediator', who will come and join these forces through the heart, is ample evidence that Lang does not regard religion (or at least faith) as purely the opium of the people.
The character of Maria is cleverly employed to both subvert traditional expectations of female roles and to expose the excess and hypocrisy of the upper classes. Although she ends up with our male hero, and is frightened to death by Rotwang (who wouldn't be?), Maria is still an independent, intelligent, forceful figure, who stands up for herself rather than just hanging around waiting to be rescued. When the robotic Maria (or maschinenmensch) is created, Rotwang demonstrates how indistinguishable she is from the real thing by having her perform an erotic dance for the gentlemen of Yoshiwara. These seemingly respectable men drool over her like sex-mad adolescents, and all veneer of dignity on their part is gone.
One of the key themes of Metropolis is that of machines being able to replicate and impersonate humans, and in doing so influence the way we live. Like Blade Runner and The Terminator after it, the film entertains the possibility of humans and machines unknowingly coexisting, and the latter being able to manipulate us, either through violence or more subtle forms of suggestion. Lang demonstrates this both through the Frankenstein-like transformation of Maria and by Freder's emotional responses to the plight of the lower orders. In one terrifying scene, he imagines a malfunctioning machine as a ghoulish face with a mouth full of fire, and man walking into its jaws as human sacrifices to slake its wrath. The perception of machines being human is a two-way process; we have to form an emotional bond to fully believe what we are told.
While it comes at you dripping with substance and wowing you with its imagery, Metropolis isn't afraid to let its audience have fun as well. It's often the case that people laugh at silent cinema, with its exaggerated gestures, quicker frame rates and often pantomime characters. But with Metropolis, you're encouraged to laugh with the film, whether it's Freder being chased through the Eternal Gardens or the robotic Maria laughing gleefully at the workers doing her bidding. By encouraging this, the film avoids getting bogged down in its darker moments, resulting in a film which is both enlightening and entertaining.
Metropolis remains one of the best films of the silent era. Its impeccable level of craft and beautiful imagery is matched by a storyline so dripping with substance that we forgive any elements which seem confusing or overly familiar. It has dated extraordinarily well on both a technical and a political level; certainly it holds up a lot better than something like The Birth of a Nation, or Battleship Potemkin. Most of all, Metropolis is one of the foundation stones of modern film-making, in science fiction and beyond. It is expressionist cinema at its absolute best, and a real must-see for all film fans.
The recent release of Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman makes this the perfect time to re-examine the Disney version of Snow White, whose success and reputation these films are trying so hard to emulate. The temptation would be to go in intending to rip the film to shreds, holding it up as a glorified relic to give the modern versions of the fairy tale a fighting chance. But for all the cynicism surrounding Disney (most of which is justified), there is no getting away from the fact that their first feature-length animation is a masterpiece.
In an age where fairy tales have been thoroughly deconstructed, and their positions on gender and sexuality have been analysed down to the letter, it would be very easy to dismiss Snow White as outdated, chauvinist claptrap - or to blame it for the arguably worse, more offensive claptrap that followed. While the film isn't as overtly limiting in its depictions of women as some of the more recent Disney offerings, you can make the point that its success set the template for everything that followed, and therefore it deserves its fair share of the blame.
If you were incredibly cynical, you could sum up the story of Snow White as follows: an icy bitch tries to kill a prissy brat because she's prettier than her, and apparently looks count for everything as far as women are concerned. The brat breaks into the house of seven men who are old enough to be her (grand)father, becomes domesticated while they do the work, falls for the oldest trick in the book (being tempted by an apple) and is then given the Vladimir Lenin treatment. Then, just when all hope is lost, a man whom she barely knows comes along and saves the day.
All this criticism and more, from people far better versed than me, holds up to some level of scrutiny. And Disney's subsequent record leaves them open to accusations of exploiting and slowly deflowering their first child. And yet, for all the self-righteous resistance you attempt to put up, it remains completely irresistible. Whether you view Snow White as a gigantic technical leap forward or as a strong and distinctive retelling of the Grimms' fairy tale, the film still fundamentally works, as a piece of animation, as a piece of storytelling, and as an outstanding visual experience.
It's important to understand just how ground-breaking Snow White was on animation. As I mentioned in my Peter Pan review, the film was dubbed "Disney's folly" when first announced. The conventional wisdom of the time was that the only way to make money with animation was through shorts: you could produce a large number of them relatively quickly, allowing you to build up a regular audience, and always had something in reserve if one of your cartoons fared poorly. Feature-length animation was a huge financial risk which threatened the future of Walt Disney as a creative artist. Hence he and director David Hand were as thorough as possible with the finished product - and it shows.
By creating a 90-minute cartoon with very high production values and such relatively large narrative scope, Disney shifted the goalposts for what animation was capable of doing. While the studio continued to produce shorts, particularly in the form of US propaganda during WWII, the emphasis was now on full-length animation which could compete with the live-action talkies. You may go so far as crediting Snow White as the first of many breakthroughs in the quest to put animation on equal footing with so-called 'proper' filmmaking.
If you choose to ignore the influence of Snow White on the film industr, it still holds up as a product of its time. The animation is outstanding, utilising the technique of rotoscoping to create realistic physical movements for all the characters. Like Peter Pan, the majority of Snow White was created by filming the actors on partial sets, with the animators using stills of the actors as a basis for character construction. Disney's philosophy was always to treat the magical or fantastical as if it really could happen, and be making the characters both look and feel human, we settle into the story much quicker than we might in a more modern, CG effort.
The visuals of the film also demonstrate the amount of choreography that goes into animation. In an animated film nothing is improvised or made up on the fly, and Snow White feels like it has been worked out to the tiniest detail. That's not to say that it feels cold or clinical - quite the opposite. The musical sequences in particular are inventively choreographed to work in outlandish and hilarious jokes as the physical comedy builds. One of the best moments in the film finds Dopey playing the drums, and having multiple sticks run through his sleeves to create a drum roll.
Disney has often been accused of softening the edges of its subject matter, with "the Disney version" serving as a pejorative means of defending the source material. But whatever truth this may hold today, there is still plenty of rgenuine darkness in Snow White, which is both indicative of the original fairy tale and an intelligent elaboration of it. The scenes of Snow White running through the creepy trees are every bit as scary as the Pleasure Island scenes in Pinocchio or the Pink Elephants in Dumbo. It's not hard to see what Dario Argento was talking about when he claimed to have based Suspiria on this film.
Although it takes certain liberties with the original fairy tale, Snow White does retain some of its substance. The story is at its heart about characters dealing with jealousy and resentment, contrasting the wicked Queen's fortunes with those of the dwarfs. The Queen feels threatened by Snow White's beauty and youth, but also by her popularity, whether with the birds or with a handsome prince. While most of the dwarfs welcome Snow White in, Grumpy resents her for poisoning his friends' minds with her "wicked wiles". While the Queen's spite result in her destruction, Grumpy manages to overcome his suspicion of women and plays a sizable role in the rescue.
There are also vague Biblical elements to the film, which are reflective of both Disney and the German traditions from which the source emerged. The most obvious element is the poisoned apple: the Queen is Lucifier, who takes on a more trusting form (the old woman) and tempts Eve (Snow White) to eat the forbidden fruit in return for what she truly desires. The Queen's demand to have Snow White's heart reflects the Devil's desire to remove humanity's capacity for love and compassion. And of course, the ending in which Snow White comes back to life is a clear paraphrasing of the resurrection, with the handsome prince standing in for God.
While none of this imagery is conveyed in an overly heavy-handed way, it is the music of Snow White which guarantees its approachability. 'Whistle While You Work' and 'Heigh Ho' are still infuriatingly catchy, while 'Some Day My Prince Will Come' is orchestrated with suitable grandeur. Frank Churchill would later go on to write 'Baby Mine' for Dumbo¸ while the incidental composer Paul J. Smith would later work on Pinocchio and Bambi. Their inventive melodies are brilliantly arranged and the lyrics remain wittily acrobatic.
For all the baggage it carries as part of the Disney brand, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains the jewel in Disney's crown after the best part of 75 years. Its ground-breaking technical work is matched by its breezy storytelling, rich imagery and the extent of our emotional involvement. Its influence on American film is vast and various, and on its own terms it still holds up as a fantastic piece of fantasy filmmaking. In spite of everything you care to throw at it, however true or justified your complaints, it is still the fairest in the land.
In 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were in their prime. The combined success of A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going! and Black Narcissus had cemented their status among the most inspiring and innovative filmmakers of their day. When J. Arthur Rank heard their next project was going to be a film about ballet, his heart sank and his financiers panicked. They needn't have worried, for the result is a total masterpiece, both among their work and in its own right.
The Red Shoes is a breathtaking film, a perfect marriage of spectacular visuals and a slow-burning, heartbreaking story. It blends the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen with powerful undercurrents about art, obsession, jealousy and devotion. The whole thing is held together by Powell and Pressburger's trademark direction, which blends fantasy and reality effortlessly, taking the audience on a highly imaginative journey. The first time out you will be so overwhelmed you won't know what to think, save that the film is something very, very special.
Dance has always been a popular subject on film; even Metropolis has several minutes of it, as Maria's robotic double seduces her audience of impressionable voyeurs. But notwithstanding the other problems of most mainstream efforts (Grease, Flashdance, Step-Up etc.), there are many examples of dancing being used to either needlessly pad out a film or to disguise narrative shortcomings. On the one hand, we have the twenty minutes of roller skate dancing in Heaven's Gate (which is about twenty minutes too long). On the other hand we have the ending of The Millionairess, with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren waltzing on the balcony with nothing but contempt for their viewing public.
The Red Shoes' first big strength is that it falls into neither of these traps. The dance sequences in it are not only beautiful, but they are filmed with the same sense of discipline and restraint exercised by the ballet teachers when drilling the dancers. Although the film is over two hours long it never feels baggy, because the dancing is kept to a minimum and only used to initiate a plot point or important piece of character development.
This is particularly true in the centre of the film, when the whole of 'The Red Shoes' ballet (written specifically for the film) is performed on screen. Like many older films, the dance sequences are filmed in long takes with straightforward editing, to give a sense of scale and the level of physical preparation which went into choreographing the dance. But more than that, this 20-minute sequence is filled with enough visual brilliance and imagination to rival anything in Moulin Rouge! or Spirited Away.
The Red Shoes is a classic Powell and Pressburger film because of the unique way in which it blends fantasy and reality. During the eponymous ballet, we drift between the realistic portrayal of the dance, as something being performed on a physical stage, and the more fantastical view of the world which is coming entirely from the mind of the central character. In one magical moment the red shoes magically appear on Vicky Page's feet, and as she dances with the shoemaker she sees in his face the faces of the different men dominating her life. These touches come so quickly and so seamlessly that it is a challenge to say where we are at any given moment. But there is enough beauty and passion in these scenes to prevent us from getting lost or confused.
The Red Shoes is often cited as one of the most visually extraordinary films ever made - a moniker which it thoroughly deserves. Of all the films made in the golden age of Technicolor, this is probably the best (pipe down, Wizard of Oz purists: it's not that good). It's not just that the colours are so perfectly rendered on screen, but they are used symbolically and sparingly to convey the deeper themes of the picture. Take the scene where Maurice Lermontov is picking out the exact pair of red shoes that Vicky will wear for the ballet. What could have been a simple showcase for Jack Cardiff's cinematography becomes a multi-layered and intriguing scene which hints at the nature and motives of certain characters.
As you might have guessed by now, The Red Shoes is not centrally a film about ballet. You certainly don't have to be a fan of ballet to enjoy it. The original fairy tale is about a singular passion which comes to dominate a person's life. That passion for dancing is made physical in the magical shoes. which force the wearer to dance forever, until - in the original version - she cuts off her own feet and dies. And while there may be nothing quite so graphic in this version, the ending is every bit as earth-shattering.
Vicky Page, played brilliantly by Moira Shearer, is a young woman who desires nothing more than to dance. In one of the film's key scenes, Lermontov questions her about why she wants to dance. She asks him, "why do you want to live?"; he replies, "I don't know exactly why, but I must" and she repeats his answer. Page's talent is something that she does not fully understand, and Lermontov gives her a chance based solely on her technical abilities. But as the film moves on, his tutelage develops into something a lot more personal, and Vicky is forced to question her raison d'etre still further.
The Red Shoes is a brilliant examination of jealousy and obsession, centred around the conflict between art and love. Both inspire great levels of devotion, whether to ideals (the art of dancing or the dream of love) or to practical gains (money or marriage). But unlike many modern films, The Red Shoes keeps a lid on this jealousy until the very last scenes. There are several moments throughout of Lermontov and Julian Craster essentially fighting for control of Vicky, both as a person to be loved and as a object to be marketed. But these conflicts are never directly over the girl, with most of their conversations surrounding individual sections of music, interlaced with tart remarks about standards and ambitions.
Vicky is caught in the middle of a powerful love triangle consisting of love, art, and the gifted individual. On the one hand, she is drawn to Lermontov, who offers her success and nurtures her talent but cannot allow her to love anyone. He despairs at his prima ballerina who leaves the company to get married, remarking: "a dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.". On the other hand, there is Craster, a talented composer who is devoted to Vicky whilst wanting to further his own career via the opera. He is the only one who can offer her love, but the sting in the tale is that her talents must come second to his ambitions.
In the climactic final scene, we see these two forces come to blows as Vicky breaks down and does not know what to do. After Craster leaves, Lermontov consoles her and she prepares to perform. But suddenly, clad in the red shoes, she dances out of the theatre, all the way to the railway station and to her tragic end. Many might questions this small inconsistency (why is she wearing the red shoes at the start of the ballet?), but as Powell pointed out it makes sense when we examine what motivates her to leave the theatre. Did she choose to go of her own free will and love for Julian, or did the shoes make her go against her will?
The Red Shoes is a magnificent achievement, with fantastic central performances, breathtaking visuals and a wonderful soundtrack. Its influence can be seen in most of the great Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, and there has never been a film about dance (or ballet) which has captured the art in such a fascinating manner. It is hard, however, to call it Powell and Pressburger's best film, because of their extraordinary body of work. One thing is for sure - Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan has a very hard act to follow.
Since the brand was revived several years ago, Ealing Studios have developed a reputation for quaintness. With the exception of John Landis' underrated Burke and Hare, the majority of the new Ealing's output has been frothy, often retrograde films designed solely for the export market. How easily we forget that the self-same studio once produced some of the darkest, edgiest and blackest comedies the world had ever seen. And there is no better example of this than Kind Hearts and Coronets, which takes pride of place with The Red Shoes as one of the finest British films of the 1940s.
Describing any old film as 'edgy' comes with problems. Changes in social attitudes since the 1940s means that, on one level, filmmakers are now able to show a wider range of subjects to a greater extent than ever before. Under this line of argument, what was once considered edgy, radical or insightful now looks timid and tame. But even if we accept this as a general rule, Kind Hearts and Coronets still stands as a proud and intriguing exception. Like Peeping Tom eleven years later, it has retained its emotional impact even after its aesthetic achievements have been surpassed.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a comedy about a serial killer, at a time when the vast majority of films involving murder sought to completely demonise the assailant in question. More than that, it is about a serial killer who vengefully targets the aristocracy, who while waning in power still held a great deal of influence in government and high society. The film is a vitriolic attack on the British class system, thinly disguised as an erudite comedy of manners. To paraphrase Macbeth, it may look like the innocent flower, but it is most definitely the serpent under it, and its venom is ruthless and bitter.
In a further comparison to Peeping Tom, the film had a rocky ride with the censors when first released. Sir Michael Balcon, then-head of Ealing, sought to distance himself from the film, believing that the public could not handle its ironic treatment of the subject matter. In line with the restrictive Hays Code, the American distributors requested that Robert Hamer added a ten-second epilogue, to show Louis Mazzini getting his comeuppance in a way while the original ending only implied. While Alec Guinness went on to win an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, neither Dennis Price nor Robert Hamer would ever reach this level of success again. Film critic David Thompson described the latter's fortunes as "the most serious miscarriage of talent in post-war British cinema".
Many of the classic Ealing comedies used present events to satirise the past and vice versa. Passport to Pimlico satirised both the Berlin airlift and the exile of the Dutch monarchy to Canada, while some commentators have argued that The Ladykillers is a send-up of the post-war Labour government. Kind Hearts and Coronets was made in the year of the Second Parliament Act, which further curbed the power of the House of Lords and with it the aristocracy. The real-life political attack on landed wealth is contrasted with the lethal attacks of Louis Mazzini, with the aristocracy being 'killed off' in both cases.
Kind Hearts and Coronets has a very poisonous view of the British class system, and in particular of the aristocracy's attempts to justify its position. While marrying out of love may have brought Mazzini's mother poverty, marrying for wealth and "good breeding stock" brings nothing but misery. Whatever diversions the D'Ascoynes may pursue (the navy, photography, the church, hunting) there are a universally inward-looking bunch, with little time for anyone whose interests or backgrounds are not identical to their own.
Although Mazzini is of noble blood, his training as a draper, shop assistant and bank clerk gives him a middle-class status, something which simultaneously repulses and pleases him because it serves as the perfect cover for his crimes. The closer he comes to his goal of becoming Duke of Chalfont, the more he takes on the characteristics of a D'Ascoyne, shunning his childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood) and refusing to help Lionel in his hour of need. The film brutally depicts the entrenched arrogance of the British elites, something which has persisted longer after the D'Ascoynes of this world have withered away.
Dennis Price, who had previously found fame in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, is absolutely extraordinary in the lead role. Having been aptly described as "sourly handsome", he presents Louis Mazzini as a man of immense class and sophistication, but who is also capable of being cold, dismissive, callous and sociopathic. Price was always self-deprecating about his acting abilities, describing himself as "second-rate" and "lacking the essential spark." But whatever else happened in his career, this performance is enough to dismiss all such deprecation.
What makes his performance so interesting is that, for a lot of the time, Price doesn't speak. The prolific use of voiceover gives his performance a silent movie quality - not because his movements are exaggerated, but because his facial expressions and posture play a bigger part in his characterisation. Normally this amount of voiceover could quickly become tedious, but here it works brilliantly, taking us behind Mazzini's mask of dignity. It makes his deadpan expression all the more funny, as the most unspeakable things are uttered without the merest twitch of his lips. It is as though we were inside the mind of a killer, hearing his darkest deeds completely uncensored and without any license on the part of the screenwriter.
Kind Hearts and Coronets' themes of love and class are also expressed in Mazzini's relationships with women. For most of the film he is taken with Sibella, who marries Lionel but confides in Louis due to their friendship as children, and increasingly out of desperation as just how boring her husband is. Louis strings Sibella along, playing with her heart strings and being glad to kiss her while knowing he can never bring himself to be with her. This is a further example of Louis' corruption as he grows closer to his goal, becoming as cold and as haughty as the people who caused him to swear revenge.
If Sibella is the proud plaything who is ultimately beneath his stature, Edith (Valerie Hobson) provides the security of wealth and the moral backbone Louis needs. Their initial meeting, while her husband is still alive, indicates that such a marriage would not be any fun: her strong religious conviction forbids drinking, leading her husband to keep gin and whisky in his dark room. Much of the film plays out like a bedroom farce as Louis tries to keep the two women from ever meeting. In the final scene, he has to choose between dull security and loving disgrace, quoting from The Beggar's Opera as he struggles to make up his mind.
The humour in Kind Hearts and Coronets is as black as can be, with multiple jokes about hanging and all the murders having a comedic quality. These range from the general being blown up as he opens the caviar, to the admiral mistaking port for starboard and sinking his ship, and finally Mazzini's employer dying of shock after inheriting the title. There are dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, such as Mazzini's comments after shooting down Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne: "I shot an arrow through the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square." But a lot of the time the film is so edgy and so forthright that you're almost afraid to laugh: the barb is so strong that to laugh is almost too easy a response.
The film is most popularly remembered for Alec Guinness, who plays all eight members of the D'Ascoyne family. He was originally only offered four roles, but pressed Hamer to cast him in all eight after reading the script. Suffice to say, he's magnificent, with each family member having clearly developed character traits and quirks, and each looking hilariously pompous in all that make-up. The split-screen shooting used to put all eight characters on screen is utterly seamless, and Hamer's direction is totally first-rate.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a perfect black comedy, which is as funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and as artistically accomplished as the best work of Powell and Pressburger. The performances are all superb, particularly from Guinness and Price, and Robert Hamer's direction gives the film a note-perfect pace so that all the jokes hit the spot. Over 60 years since it took the world by storm, it remains the darkest, edgiest and funniest of the classic Ealing comedies, and will be reducing generations to fits of laughter for years to come.
The 1950s found Alfred Hitchcock in his prime. Freed from both the shackles of the British studios and the meddling of David O. Selznick, he was finally free to make the films he wanted to make, exactly the way he wanted to make them. This period yielded many works which have become cemented classics - Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and North by Northwest. But Vertigo is arguably his finest work, being unbearably suspenseful and the greatest depiction of obsession in all of cinema.
Although it was received mixed reviews when first released, Vertigo is now recognised as a highly influential work on filmmakers. Individual directors have paid tribute in their own way: Martin Scorsese has waxed lyrical about it in interviews with the AFI, while Mel Brooks used it as one of the main bases for his affectionate parody, High Anxiety. Its impact on the horror and thriller genres is plain to see, influencing films as varied as Single White Female and Mulholland Drive.
The ironic thing in all of this is that Vertigo is not a characteristic Hitchcock film. It does not conform, at least not entirely, to the various tropes and conventions which we now associate with Hitchcock. Most of his thrillers are driven by narrative: the story is everything, and the characters involved in it are there only to advance the story in which they find themselves. Vertigo is more of a character study, with the narrative and much of its complexity deriving directly from Jimmy Stewart.
Hitchcock described Vertigo as his most personal film, and it isn't hard to see why. Apart from the artistic freedom that he enjoyed making it, much of the film is self-reflexive: it is about his approach to filmmaking and especially his attitude to women. Hitchcock famously remarked that actors should be treated like cattle - being pushed and prodded around, told what to do, with someone else doing all the creativity. This approach is writ large in Vertigo in such a way that the characters mirror it directly.
Scottie, played by Stewart, is Hitchcock, obsessively analysing people's motivations and behaviour, following them at length and attempting to mould them to look and act the way he wants. His dark obsession with Judy reflects Hitchcock's fascination with blondes: he wants her to be 'Madeleine', her character, because that it is the only version of her he cares about. But for all his hard work, no understanding is gained; the relationship is one of fascination, but never comprehension or satisfaction.
A comparison can be drawn between Vertigo and Peeping Tom, Michael Powell's incendiary masterpiece from two years later. Both films have male protagonists who are obsessed with perfection, which they convey or project in their attitude to women. Both films are self-reflexive, shedding light on the relationship between a filmmaker and the actors who end up in font in his camera - a relationship which, in both cases, turns out to be fatal. And both are triumphs of their genre, which fulfil expectations in terms of terror and suspense while still feeling fresh and ground-breaking.
A further similarity between the films is their extraordinary cinematography. Robert Burks collaborated with Hitchcock extensively between Strangers on a Train and Marnie, and his mastery of Technicolor is on a par with Powell's old master, Jack Cardiff. The recurring deep, passionate reds are as dazzling as anything in The Red Shoes, and are complimented brilliantly by the piercing, threatening blues of the New Mexico skyline and Stewart's purposeful eyes. The film invades your senses with its manipulation of colour, with every shot brimming with menace and intent.
Equally impressive are the dream sequences. These are better integrated than the dream sequence in Spellbound, famously directed not by Hitchcock but by Salvador Dali. Hitchcock may not have the literacy of Dali when it comes to Freudian imagery, but the effects are impressive for the day. Better still is the image of Kim Novak as Judy emerging as 'Madeleine' - she appears to shimmer as fantasy and reality attempt to merge into a macabre fairy tale, to the internalised delight of Scottie.
A further highlight of the film is Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack, perhaps his best and arguably his most famous other than Psycho. As Scorsese observed in an interview with Sight and Sound, the score is built in spirals and circles, mirroring the obsession of the character as he keeps coming back to the same point. The score is ever-present but not intrusive, perfectly judging every scene and never doing the work for the actors, as can often happen in melodrama.
But what makes Vertigo ultimately so suspenseful, and so successful, is its confidence and attention to detail which is present in every aspect. Everything about its plot, its character construction and execution of suspense has been meticulously figured out, and yet it still has the ability to keep us guessing and genuinely surprise us at each turn. There are few thrillers which are so confident about the strength of their twist that they feel the need to withhold it for so long and so willingly. The twist when it comes is an absolute belter, rewarding our attention and pulling us further in.
If Peeping Tom is the cinematic Bible on voyeurism (with Blue Velvet a very close second), Vertigo is the accompanying volume on obsession. It shows with great detail and intelligence how unhealthy fascinations can start with something so small, and grow almost beyond the host's control until they have consumed everything else. Scottie takes the snoop job as an innocuous favour to an old friend; the first sight of Madeleine plants into his mind a seed of sympathy, a desire not to see her harmed. From the moment he has saved her life, this desire grows into fascination, to the point where he cannot imagine life without her (hence his silence at the sanatorium).
The story of Vertigo is a further reflection of obsession. We are made to study the characters, asked to decipher their every facial tic until we too are in danger of becoming obsessed with them. The twists and turns that occur make us simultaneously elated and frustrated - elated at what truth they reveal, frustrated that we could not spot them sooner. Both the characters' story and our experience of it end as they began - with one big shock which cements these emotions.
Jimmy Stewart was blamed by Hitchcock for the film's failure when first released. Hitchcock thought the age gap between Stewart and Novak was too obvious, and the two never worked together again. In hindsight, it was a triumph in conveying the theme of a seemingly innocent man being manipulated and corrupted - a process which he both resists and encourages. Stewart, once the wholesome leading man in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It's A Wonderful Life, is transformed into what is arguably the most skin-crawling character in 1950s cinema. It is a masterclass in subtle madness, and remains his finest performance.
Vertigo is a terrifying triumph in every aspect of its execution. Hitchcock's subsequent efforts saw his abilities gradually diminish, but here the master is at the peak of his powers. The story is complex and rewarding, and the atmosphere which Hitch creates through lighting, music, colour and composition, is unbearably tense. Like Mulholland Drive more than 40 years later, Vertigo will pull you in to its dark, troubled world until you are unable and unwilling to escape. If you come away from this review convinced that I am obsessed, it means that the film has done its job.
When looking back on his long career in an interview with The Onion, Robert Altman said that "you tend to love your least successful children the most", saying that he felt more affection for Popeye than for anything critics and audiences embraced, such as Short Cuts or Nashville. One wonders whether Michael Powell would have taken the same view of Peeping Tom, the film which all but destroyed him as a filmmaker.
But unlike Popeye, which produces reactions ranging from 'utter rubbish' to 'guilty pleasure', there can be no doubt that Peeping Tom is a blistering masterpiece. You will struggle to find a more audacious, bold, striking and shocking piece of British cinema, at least until the rulebook was re-written by A Clockwork Orange. Coming at the beginning of a decade which would be defined by rebellion against any and every convention, Peeping Tom blazed the trail, stepping into the darkness with a red-hot torch at the cost of setting its own coat-tails on fire.
Considering that Peeping Tom and Psycho were released within months of each other, you would expect audiences to have flocked to both releases, and for both to become regarded by critics as among the best works of 1960. Aside from their similarities in terms of story and characters, there was very little to separate the prestige of Alfred Hitchcock from that of Michael Powell. While the former was more recognisable in public and was in his commercial prime, the latter had captured audience imaginations during the war years through his work with Emeric Pressburger.
Sadly for Powell, who was a close friend of Hitchcock's, joint adulation was not to be. While Psycho enjoyed huge box-office success and garnered four Oscar nominations, Peeping Tom was greeted with outright hatred in the British press and quickly disappeared from screens. For the next twenty years the film was seen as an untouchable bête noire, a half-whispered rumour of a once-great man gone mad. It was not until 1979, when Martin Scorsese was asked to remake it, that Peeping Tom began its long rise from the critical sewers to take its place among the all-time greats.
It would be tempting to blame Peeping Tom's demise on the perceived small-mindedness of 1960s audiences, something seemingly reinforced by the ridiculous reviews which branded it as "evil", "vulgar" and "repellent". But watching the film even 50 years later, you can understand why even the most open-minded people in any age would be shocked by it. On this occasion it is not so much a case of finger-pointing at audiences, as applauding the dangerous (and self-deprecating) vision of a director.
Peeping Tom was made at a time when cinema was still very much focussed around the life and trials of the rich and famous: a time when films were star vehicles with often shamefully predictable plots, consisting of little more than talking, smoking, dancing and kissing (though not always in that order). When Hollywood attempted to tackle difficult subjects, or to interpose itself among the less fortunate, it did so in a way which was often deeply patronising (in the case of My Fair Lady) or which smoothed over any rough edges in a way which made the finished product seem dishonest.
The problem wasn't simply that the subject of Peeping Tom was a million miles from the ballet of The Red Shoes or the pilots of A Matter of Life and Death. It was more the way in which prostitutes, sleazy models and above all a serial killer were presented in a way which was not only realistic, but empathetic. The film eschews melodramatic convention, contrasting the showy, frothy acting of the film star (played by Shirley Anne Field) with the considered, naturalistic and more believable performance of Carl Boehm. Proof of this is to be found in the murder of Moira Shearer's character; Powell allows her to perform a flamboyant dance routine, as happens in The Red Shoes, before her dancing days are cut short with a tripod leg and a piercing scream.
As Scorsese observed, Peeping Tom is like the darker, shiftier cousin of 8 1/2. Both are self-reflexive films about filmmaking and the role of the director, and both feature said director coming in front of the camera (Powell appears in the black-and-white sections as Mark's manipulative father). For Federico Fellini, cinema was inherently a force for good, a place of magic in which the director was a creative genius with noble intentions. But for Powell, in an act of brutal self-deprecation, cinema was a dangerous weapon in the hands of an insane voyeur, who would exploit, manipulate and even kill, just to get the perfect shot.
In complete contrast to the fairy tale quality of his earlier work, there is very little in Peeping Tom in the way of childlike magic. Film is presented as a medium characterised by darkness and strange noises; Mark's dark room is like a haunted house or Frankenstein's lab, only instead of slamming doors and creaking floorboards, we have the flicking of metal switches and the drip-drip-drip of silver nitrate. Camera and projector hum and whirr like some sinister insect, waiting for the right moment to pounce and claim its victim.
Having likened filmmaking to murder, Powell then turns the camera on us to show that we are as much a part of this as the director. The film is a breath-taking examination of voyeurism, arguing that the very act of watching a film is voyeuristic. When we pay good money to sit in the dark for two hours, we are devoting our time to watching others who are oblivious to our presence and have no means of defence. We see their lives play out in such detail that we become unwittingly obsessed by them; our psychological relationship is of the same morbid fascination which prompts Mark to make his documentary.
As with Blue Velvet more than twenty years later, this revelation of our role in Peeping Tom produces a reaction combining repulsion and mesmerism; we are shocked, or offended, we cannot look away. But rather than shock us cheaply by showing the murders in graphic detail, Powell leaves the real terror of what is occurring entirely in our minds. Towards the end of the film, Anna Massey discovers the footage of Mark's victims; she watches, being frightened and repulsed - but she keeps watching. The camera tracks her reactions in a long panning shot, which tell us all we need to know about what is happening.
But even taken outside of all its commentary, Peeping Tom is still terrifying as a pure, full-on horror movie. Carl Boehm's performance is extraordinary, helping to create an immensely compelling character who feels more three-dimensional than Norman Bates. The psychological trauma which Mark suffers could be lazy shorthand, but instead he comes across as a lonely, fractured young man who struggles with himself, something reinforced by the distant, broken quality of his slight Austrian accent.
The film explores the relationship between love and fear, with Mark wavering between the two as he is caught between the need to complete his documentary and the affections bestowed on him by Helen. We feel so close to Mark that when his doom approaches, we are willing to ignore or forgive his gruesome actions if it would save or redeem him. This is the final savage trick of Peeping Tom which reinforces our position as voyeurs; not only are we drawn to gaze, we impose emotion on people's actions so that even the truly terrifying can seem tragic.
Peeping Tom is a barnstorming masterpiece which ranks alongside The Red Shoes as Powell's finest achievement. Its psychological complexity and cerebral treatment of its themes are perfectly complimented by Powell's direction, and the whole project is enhanced by Otto Heller's luridly beautiful visuals. It is still as fresh, shocking and truly terrifying as it was over 50 years ago, and in its level of emotional engagement - say it quietly - it's a better film than Psycho. In short, it is compelling, chilling and nothing less than essential viewing.
Whistle Down the Wind is a truly extraordinary film. Bryan Forbes' debut feature is a gut-wrenching, darkly comic allegory which takes one of history's most spectacular events and retells it in the most bittersweet of circumstances. It foreshadows both the gritty, compelling realism of Ken Loach and other great Christian allegories such as Being There and The Green Mile. Most of all, it's a fantastic commentary on childhood, belief and the erosion of both by the grim realities of the adult world.
It is remarkable that a film about some of the most complex aspects of theology should be so accessible and welcoming to the casual viewer. The film's treatment of its biblical subject matter is neither bald nor manipulative; it never glosses over important questions, nor does it ever make a deliberate tug on the heartstrings of its audience. Every shred of emotion we have for Kathy, Blakey and the rest is completely genuine, and in its third act the film builds to a breathless final scene, in which we are completely in the shoes of the central character.
In a number of ways, this is the opposite of The Railway Children, both as a novel and later as film. Where The Railway Children is essentially light, airy and carefree, with only moments of real danger, Whistle Down the Wind feels strict and repressive. Arthur Ibbetson's brooding cinematography paints the Lancashire countryside as somewhere stark and unforgiving; the early scenes of Kathy and Charles walking over the hills are closer to the 'dance of death' at the end of The Seventh Seal than to Jenny Agutter's pleasant frolicking along the railway lines. Shooting in black-and-white gives the film a Bergman-esque sense of pathos, particularly towards the end where Kathy's world virtually comes apart.
The film makes it clear very early on that it is a Biblical allegory, reinterpreting several key passages from the Gospels. The score riffs on the carol 'We Three Kings' and the scene of the children presenting gifts to Alan Bates in the barn is a clear restaging of the nativity, with Kathy et al as the shepherds and the other children as the Magi. In this version, the "Arabian charm bracelet" and free gift in the comic stand in for gold, frankincense and myrrh, while the story Bates reads from the comic represents either the parables or the Sermon on the Mount. This kind of gesture is present throughout the film, right up to the moment where Bates is searched and holds up his arms like he is being hung on the cross.
Although it restages the story of Jesus from birth to death, the central message of Whistle Down the Wind lies in the middle of Matthew's gospel: "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." This is not a film which views children as stupid, or gullible, or easily manipulated. If anything they are the opposite, possessing a large amount of common sense and reasoning. This may be structured around something which we as an audience know to be 'untrue', but the children's 'faith' in Blakey is never portrayed as irrational or foolish.
In contrast to the children's openness and willingness to believe, the adults in the film are reluctant to talk about religion, or indeed any moral issues which are outside their own interests. The film does touch on church, Sunday school and the Salvation Army, but all the scenes directly involving these see the adults skirting the issues, dodging the difficult questions and worrying instead about trivial matters like lead and guttering. In the scene in the café between Kathy and the vicar (who can't even remember her name), his answer to her question quickly gets off topic and becomes an irrelevant sermon. The bully is the oldest of the children and the most prominent sceptic in the group, to the point at which he slaps Kathy when she first tells him the news. He is already on his way to adulthood, settling for dark monotony over other-worldly hope.
The idea that the film puts across so brilliantly is very similar to that hinted at in Being There: namely that if Jesus were to return to earth, we would not recognise or accept Him. This is a world which clings onto religion and traditional order, and in doing so has turned its back on the childlike nature of faith, the only thing which a relationship with Jesus requires. The adults in the film are so wrapped up in their own affairs, so sure of their own convictions and traditions, that they are unable to even accept for a moment the possibility that Kathy is telling the truth.
This meaty subject is well-handed by a subtle script adapted from Mary Hayley Bell's novel. The film revels in the earthiness of its dialogue; it doesn't feel like a pretend version of Lancashire, with the characters as parodies of working-class life. Forbes' direction is notably unfussy, shooting key moments in the most understated way to allow the themes of the dialogue to speak for themselves. The best example of this comes after the death of Charles' kitten, where he and Kathy discuss why things have to die. Rather than make this a confrontation, Forbes shoots it with the camera at their backs as they fling pebbles into the lake. The film treats the deepest philosophical questions on a level playing field with every other issue the characters face, arguing that these questions are just as important and relevant as anything which the adults consider superior.
The bleakness of the characters' predicament is punctuated by a wonderful sense of humour. The film derives its initial comedy from the warm, brutal honesty of the children, largely on the part of Charles who is wonderfully played by Alan Barnes. In an early scene, Kathy expresses doubts about the Bible being true, and Charles spits out the line, "wait 'til Jesus comes and gets you!". Later, after his sister remarks that Jesus can do anything, he asks if the Lord can provide him with a big chocolate cake for his birthday. Gradually the film becomes more pathos-ridden and this outré kind of humour is replaced with a deep, underlying sadness. By the end we are in the same territory as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and the only comedic element is a conditionally happy ending.
Hayley Mills' central performance is incredible, being truly naturalistic and yet wise beyond her years. Bernard Lee, most famous for playing M in the James Bond films, is very compelling as the father, who attempts to stamp his authority on the household but is ultimately in the pocket of Auntie Dorothy. And Alan Bates' performance is very good, on a par with his best work in Women in Love.
Whistle Down the Wind is a magnificent piece of British filmmaking, with strong performances and an even stronger script which convey deep questions about life and purpose in the most accessible way. The dialogue is intelligent without being pretentious, the direction is suitably unfussy, and the film is emotionally gripping to the point at which at moves you to tears. Without this, Being There, The Green Mile and Angela's Ashes probably would not have been made. But more than that, it demonstrates the relevance of a story which is so often ignored in today's society. It is a subtle reminder of the power of faith and the need to see the world with the open eyes of a child.
After a decade in filmmaking, Stanley Kubrick was just beginning to get the public recognition he deserved. His earlier works, like The Killing and Killer's Kiss, had received critical acclaim but were modest box-office hits. His two brushes with the mainstream had been both ambivalent: Spartacus was heavily criticised, and the censorship scandal surrounding Lolita made him regret the whole process of making it.
Dr. Strangelove was the film which finally catapulted Kubrick into the public eye, giving him both critical adulation and huge commercial success. His classic satire of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction struck a chord with audiences, who had just seen the world teeter on the brink with the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But even outside its original context, Dr. Strangelove remains not only the greatest black comedy ever made, but also the very best film of the 1960s (with 2001 a close second).
The secret to Dr. Strangelove's success can be found in its production history. Kubrick and his producing partner bought the rights to Peter George's novel Red Alert with the intention of making a straight drama about the threat of nuclear war. Kubrick's obsessive reading of Cold War literature gave the production a certain weight, but as the writing sessions went on, his mind began to wander into absurdist territory (e.g. wondering what the Russian Ambassador would eat when visiting the War Room).
This shift from straight drama to black comedy results in a film in which everything is played so straight that you can't help but laugh. Every aspect of the Cold War and the 'logic' of nuclear deterrence is justified on its own terms, and taken so deadly seriously that the entire construct becomes totally absurd. Kubrick constructed the production carefully, so that everyone who was 'in on the joke' was made to feel like it was the real thing. With George C. Scott, Kubrick constantly beat him at chess on set, making the former work harder on his performance. In the case of Slim Pickens, who was drafted in to play Major Kong, he didn't even tell him it was a comedy.
Like Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket either side of it, Dr. Strangelove is chiefly concerned with the futility of war and its destructive power on the individual. But where those works conveyed this through the psychological trauma of the central characters, this film is more instructed in structure, showing how nuclear deterrents have put at greater risk the very people they were designed to protect. General Turgidson talks about secret studies showing that there would be 'only' 20 million casualties should the Russians retaliate. When the President cites the comparison with Hitler, he asks him to put the American people before his place in the history books.
From this thesis Kubrick takes a dive deep into Freud, arguing that all politics and conflict have a basis in sexual frustration. Sex runs throughout Dr. Strangelove, from the coital act of planes refuelling in mid-air to the deadly multiple orgasms of the Doomsday machine. The film is constructed like a sexual act, with things starting slowly but confidently and gradually building to a breath-taking climax.
The idea of sex and sexuality permeating every human act is conveyed subtly in every line and image in the film. General Jack D. Ripper orders the deadly attack because he believes that fluoridation of water is a Communist plot that has made him impotent. In Ripper's mind, adding fluoride to water will reduce Americans' ability to reproduce, and therefore its ability to produce soldiers to keep fighting the Russians. Under these circumstances, he decides that if he cannot reproduce, then no-one else should be allowed to either: at least, that way, there would be peace on earth.
There are Freudian undercurrents elsewhere too. There is frequent talk from Ripper about "precious bodily fluids", and from Dr. Strangelove about radiation never "penetrating" deeper mine shafts. The President is named Merkin Muffley, 'merkin' being another term for a pubic wig, while 'Turgidson' could easily be a euphemism for an erection. And Strangelove's plan for living space (more on that later) involves a ratio of 10 females to each male, reflecting how the desire for sexual satisfaction shapes the way men govern themselves.
Within this there is an underplayed comment about the objectification of women. With the exception of the Playboy centrefold and Turgidson's 'secretary', all the characters in Dr. Strangelove are men. The women are treated as sex objects in either situation, so that it may as well be the same actress playing both women (and, in fact, it is). Their fate would be no better under Strangelove's plans: on top of mandatory polygamy, they would be selected according to fertility and sexual stimulation, so the men can set an example by sitting around breeding all day.
This final section is Kubrick at his most cynical, arguing that even when faced with disaster, political structures and attitudes irrevocably persist. Just as the German scientists who built V2 rockets were enlisted to send America to the Moon, so Strangelove is a war criminal who has become accepted simply by changing his name. His essentially Nazi plans for lebensraum and an Aryan race are met with enthusiasm on both sides - something which is doubly ironic considering Muffley's earlier comments about Hitler. And as soon as the plan is agreed upon, the US military start suspecting the Russians of planning a sneak attack to create a "mineshaft gap". The same arguments are being had even in the last seconds before everyone and everything is destroyed, like vultures picking at a rotten carcass.
As always, Kubrick's direction is magnificent, fleshing out all these ideas but never at the expense of the characters. The integration of stock footage is so seamless that when the troops attack Ripper's base, it could be actual news footage from urban warfare, not like that in Full Metal Jacket. In many of Captain Mandrake's scenes, where he is surrounded by computers, Kubrick tilts the lens so that he always looks small and insignificant compared to the technology which dominates him. Such shots, together with the failure of the CRM-114, hints to Kubrick's work in 2001 about perfect machines that go wrong.
The last 20 minutes with the B52 bomb run is an editing master-class worthy of D. W. Griffith himself. These scenes are scored by a recurring riff with a military drum beat, a simple device which gives us the rhythm needed to make all the technobabble tense and interesting. And then there is Major Kong riding the bomb, an image which encapsulates our response to the film: we shift from laughing out loud to an awkward chuckle and finally open-mouthed horror at what is unfolding.
The performances in Dr. Strangelove are all terrific. For all his good work in Being There, Peter Sellers was never better. Being allowed to freely improvise, he nails all three characters, managing to be ridiculous and down-right hilarious while constantly seeming reigned in. Sterling Hayden is pitch-perfect as Jack D. Ripper, and George C. Scott is brilliant as Turgidson: even at his most (unwillingly) exaggerated, he still seems grounded in reality.
Dr. Strangelove is an undisputed masterpiece which still looks and feels as fresh and as radical as in 1964. Kubrick marries career-best performances from his cast to strikingly constructed visuals and a script with substance and sardonic wit coming out of its ears. It holds up on every conceivable level, as a black comedy, as a piece of socio-political commentary, and above all as a damn fine piece of filmmaking. It is, beyond any doubt, a stupendous work and the best film of the decade.
In selecting the greatest high school movie of all time, there are a number of different 'schools' from which to choose. We have the light-hearted nostalgia of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off; the awkward indie spirit of Napoleon Dynamite and Grosse Point Blank; the adolescent gross-out of Porky's and American Pie; and the twisted one-upmanship of Carrie and Heathers.
But while all of these entries are valid and have their own merits (even Porky's), they cannot hold a candle to the overall winner: a film which combines earthy black comedy with artistic flights of fantasy, and savage satire of the establishment with personal quandaries about sex, servitude, romance and rebellion. And, as a bonus, it is the film which launched the career of Malcolm McDowell. The film is If...., the director is Lindsay Anderson, and the result is one of the greatest films of the 1960s.
If.... might seem an odd choice for the greatest ever high school film when we consider the kind of schooling on which it focuses. Set in the fictional College School deep in the conservative heartlands of 1960s England, it explores the kind of education and school system which the vast majority of us will never have to endure. It's the kind of school that would serve as an ideal backdrop for a story like Goodbye Mr. Chips or The Browning Version: while capable of producing fine drama, it doesn't smack of rebellion, let alone revolution.
Fortunately, If.... has both qualities in spades, and it captures all the essential elements of adolescence that have been replicated in often putrid detail by its American progeny. It manages to be aware of the intelligence and sophistication of public school while overtly and sarcastically mocking everything it stands for. The very title is an act of thinly-veiled defiance: If... is a famous poem by the staunchly patriotic Rudyard Kipling, with the extra '.' in the ellipsis being an impudent revision of the way of life it encapsulates. The final scenes in particular give new meaning to the poem's penultimate line: "Yours is the earth, and everything that's in it."
Like many films of the counter-cultural period, If.... depicts the relationship between the older and younger generations as being one of bitter opposition. The older generation, embodied by the masters, parents and prefects, are entrenched in the pre-war, imperial mindset with an emphasis on serving one's country and knowing one's place. The younger boys, including Mick Travis, feel no attachment to these values, regarding them as irrelevant, out-dated, stuffy and dull.
But while there is this broad divide in outlooks between the generations, there are instances of crossover on both sides. Some of the teachers harbour relatively subversive thoughts and attempt to convey them, such as Graham Crowden's history teacher who cycles right into the classroom and then proceeds to outline his own peculiar take on key historical events. The headmaster is less successful in this, calling Travis into his office and repeating the phrase "I understand" to a point of desperation.
Just as not all of the teachers are straightforwardly stuffy and backward, so not all the students in If.... are didactic flag-wavers. The students who rebel are not politically motivated like their counterparts in Zabriskie Point; in the words of the headmaster, "You're not rebels. That would be too easy." Travis may have posters of Lenin and Che Guevara on his wall, but his monologues are more concerned with the beauty of freedom, and the need to live a truly meaningful and joyous life even in the shadow of a possible nuclear holocaust. He rejects and flouts all forms of authority, despising the very essence of anything which inhibits him from free expression and the passionate act of being himself.
One aspect of free expression on which If.... focuses is sexual liberation. In one of the film's more surreal segments, Travis and one of his friends steal a motorbike and drive some distance to a roadside café. Once there, they order coffee, Travis plays some classical music on the jukebox and, without any notice or questions asked, begins an affair with the waitress. In other section, a young boy spots Wallace training on the parallel bars, and they develop a homoerotic relationship. Anderson may not be encouraging free love in the now-clichéd manner of hippie movies, but he uses these scenes to reinforce his point about needing a society shaped by the people, rather than the other way around.
If.... is Anderson's stand against the traditional values of England - everything from duty and propriety to the barmy traditions of private clubs. The film is part of his continued attempt to destroy the post-war malaise of British cinema, just as his political heroes had tried to destroy it through guns and social democracy. Throughout the film we see bastions of the community attempting to drill their students with values of 'honour', 'duty' and 'fighting the good fight', only for these ideas to crumble into absurdity and insignificance when applied.
Two examples perfectly illustrate this point. The first comes at the three-quarter mark, where the chaplain gives a sermon on fighting for Christ, and how desertion or failure to fulfil duty is the greatest and most unforgivable of sins. But less than ten minutes later, he is cornered by Malcolm McDowell during the war games and becomes a quivering coward, terrified by the prospect of there being real bullets in Travis' gun. At the end of the film a visiting General gives a speech about how "the cynics" have nothing to replace the old values which they criticise. But what starts as convincing soon descends into the absurd: he speaks about discipline, only for his public to stumble into the aisles in blind panic while the stage beneath him goes up in flames.
The film is built around the central performance of Malcolm McDowell, who is little short of magnificent. It's a very close rival for his work in A Clockwork Orange, which could be described as the more cynical cousin of this film. Stanley Kubrick and Lindsay Anderson may direct in totally different ways, but they both use McDowell superbly, utilising those huge, puppy-dog eyes, perfect hair, curled lips and upstart demeanour. And then there is the voice, which is note-perfect when delivering his poetic musings and savage put-downs to the uptight prefects.
There is a further comparison with Kubrick in the idea of discipline and degradation being used by the establishment in a manner which ultimately destroys it. The brutal scene of Travis being caned repeatedly in the gym is like an artier, moodier version of the boot camp scenes in Full Metal Jacket. Travis may not take on the psychotic quality of Private Pile, but his experience of brutality makes him more determined than ever to fight against the system and reclaim his identity.
The visuals of If.... are distinctive in their combination of colour and monochrome cinematography. When the film was first released, people read into the black-and-white sections as having some deeper artistic meaning, with a variety of theories being posited. In fact, these sections exist for the simple reason that Anderson ran out of money - or, as in the chapels scenes, it was quicker and easier to light for monochrome on a tight production schedule. Whichever is the more true, the film benefits from its unique look - it's a happy accident which reinforces the artistic and personal tone even if it doesn't bring much in the way of meaning.
If.... remains as incendiary and as perfectly formed as it was over 40 years ago. Anderson's masterful yet understated direction gifts us with a series of properly believable performances, and his balanced of the natural and the surreal is effortless, particularly in the final shootout. While the revolutionary zeal and optimism surrounding it have long since faded, the film remains both a truthful product of its time and a work of timeless genius. It is an extraordinary piece of British cinema and is essential viewing.
Picking Stanley Kubrick's greatest film is like trying to choose between a series of perfectly formed diamonds. Every time you revisit one of his films, in whichever order and context, you gravitate towards that offering as a masterpiece - only to change your mind having seen the next one. Such is the master's skill in almost every genre that it is hard to pick one which either epitomises said skill or accurately represents his oeuvre.
But when push comes to shove for this reviewer, it isn't such a tough decision. For all the undeniable brilliance of Dr. Strangelove or Full Metal Jacket, the out-and-out winner is A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel is unparalleled in its time and ours, as a literary adaptation and in science fiction. It's been called everything from the first punk movie (Steven Spielberg) to right-wing propaganda (Roger Ebert), and is still as shocking, disturbing and satirically sharp as it was more than 40 years ago. Above all, it's a masterpiece of storytelling, substance and pure filmmaking, with Kubrick at the very peak of his powers.
If asked to sum up A Clockwork Orange in one word, the only one that would suffice is mesmerising. Watching Kubrick's film is a truly hypnotic experience: from the first haunting chord in the opening titles, we are pulled into the film as if in a trance, forgetting about any world that may exist outside of it. The first shot of Malcolm McDowell, staring at us with his head slightly down, is akin to that of a hypnotist as he sends his patient into a state of complete submission. Once under Kubrick's spell, it is physically impossible to look away.
The first key ingredient to this mesmerism is the soundtrack. Written by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, who worked with Kubrick again on The Shining, it blends classical and electronic music to stunning effect. The dark, haunting synthesisers at the beginning serve as a murky counterpoint to the jolly and uplifting renditions of Beethoven, both in traditional orchestral recordings and the jazzy re-workings on harpsichord. The score riffs ironically on various military themes, which works particularly well during the Ludovico sequences.
Much like Blade Runner more than a decade later, the visual world of A Clockwork Orange is conceived as the future that might result if certain aspects of our present are extrapolated. With Ridley Scott's film, it is the threat of overpopulation, the environmental problems that result, the intensification of social hierarchies and the loss of humanity in a world dominated by machines. With Kubrick, it is the alienation of youth, the dehumanisation of mankind, and most chillingly the acceptance of the latter as a form of punishment or control.
Like all great dystopian science fiction, what matters is not the surface resemblance, but the reflection of underlying moral and social problems. It doesn't matter that young thugs now wear tracksuits and Burberry rather than jockstraps and bowler hats, just as Blade Runner isn't rendered irrelevant by the current absence of flying cars. The moral questions raised in this film are still controversial, and our society is no more enlightened or mature in its conceptions of justice, freedom or possible punishments.
While Kubrick's films have always been open to multiple interpretations, there are three general perspectives on A Clockwork Orange. The first sees it as a conservative work about youth, rebellion and the counter-culture. The film is either a reaction to the empowerment of young people, depicting them in entirely negative ways, or a call to arms of said young people which is darker, edgier and nastier than its hippie predecessors. Both views accuse the film of glorifying violence, with Roger Ebert calling it "a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning". Whatever the knee-jerk appeal of this view, it is, like Ebert, well wide of the mark.
The second interpretation, which carries more weight, sees the film is a warning against state power, and how the use of reconditioning can undermine individual freedom to such a point that the whole notion becomes irrelevant. The prominence of socialist architecture in the film, such as concrete tunnels and high-rise flats, indicate a society emerging from failed social engineering, with a rise in "the old ultra-violence" being part of the fallout. This theory is consolidated in the use of nadsat, the slang language invented by Burgess which is a mixture of English and Russian, which in turn gives the film an even more unique and timeless feel.
Throughout his career Kubrick was fascinated by the social and political mechanisms which conspired to dehumanise and imprison individuals. Dr. Strangelove explored the absurdity of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which nuclear deterrents put at greater risk the very people they were designed to protect. In Full Metal Jacket he explored the techniques by which humans are turned into killing machines, and how said machines can so often turn on their masters. A Clockwork Orange is the most subversive of these examinations, using a guilty, twisted and depraved protagonist to reinforce the importance of choice and free will.
Having undergone the Ludovico Technique, Alex becomes the clockwork orange of Burgess' title: fleshy on the outside, but fatally mechanical on the inside. He is incapable of crime, but also incapable of other human actions such as self-defence and appreciation of music. In order to prevent him from threatening society, the state have destroyed Alex's self. He contemplates suicide for the simple reason that he cannot choose whether to be good or bad.
This brings us on the third and most radical interpretation. Where both the previous views argue over which party is the moral one, this school holds that morality has nothing to do with it. In this relativistic, almost Foucauldian interpretation, all the relationships within the film are expressions of power, in which notions of right and wrong are invoked only to show who holds power over whom. The prison service, the Catholic priests, the doctors and Alex's droogs are all but sources of discourse, wrestling endlessly for the right to set the rules.
The force which Alex exerts (beating up gangs and beggars) is counterpointed by the mental and psychological forces exerted on him, from being spat on in custody to near-drowning by his former droogs. Kubrick went on record as saying that the Minister and the radical writer differ "only in their dogma", with both wanting to exert power over Alex and through him control the opinions and actions of the public. The film explores how certain human acts, such as sex, have incurred double standards in favour of the rich and intellectual. Where Alex's conception of sex as "a bit of the old in-out" is criminalised, the powers-that-be have no problem with doctors having it off in hospital, or the cat-lady's phallic sculptures.
Whichever interpretation one leans towards, there is no denying A Clockwork Orange's power as a black comedy. The 'Singing In The Rain' sequence is perfectly executed, so that it shocks the first time round but then draws you in on the joke. Whether it's Alex's deranged social worker, the fraught dinner table talk with Patrick Magee, or Alex's ramblings in the hospital, it is damned impossible not to erupt into laughter. But like Dr. Strangelove, it is laughter laced with fear and deep discomfort, lest any part of what we see become reality.
It is equally impossible to talk about A Clockwork Orange without mentioning Malcolm McDowell. Having excelled in Lindsay Anderson's If...., he was the natural choice for the part, and even without his immense reputation he is simply perfect for every second he is on screen. His snarling, boyish looks, precocious posture and fabulous voice are all immaculate, and once you have seen him in that iconic costume, no-one else can ever carry it off.
Kubrick's direction in A Clockwork Orange is superb, both in its technical invention and its brilliant storytelling. He was often accused of being cold and clinical, being more interested in ideas than the human beings who embodied them. But so many of the film's high points are moments where the technical skill combines with deep connections to humanity. A good example comes in the lakeside scene, where Alex beats up his droogs in slow motion. This, coupled with dolly shots and close-ups, exaggerates the expressions of the characters and pulls you right into their pain, anguish and triumph.
A Clockwork Orange is the greatest film of the 1970s and the high point of Kubrick's career. It mesmerises from start to finish, flooding us with style and substance, and reinventing science fiction as it goes along. Malcolm McDowell is nothing short of stunning in the lead role, and the film is a good example of star and director working in harmony at the top of the respective games. In the end it is impossible to summarise all its glories in such a short space. Suffice to say, it ranks only behind Blade Runner as the greatest film of all time.
Some films have become so recognised as masterpieces that no-one bothers to analyse them anymore. If you mention The Godfather, people will quickly pronounce it to be one of the greatest films ever made, but if you ask them to pin down exactly what makes it great, they will struggle beyond recycled praise for the central performances. It's the same story with Chinatown: its reputation as one of the finest films of the 1970s is both maintained and justified, but the precise reasons for its greatness seem to have been forgotten.
Chinatown is an extraordinary piece of work, and is by far and away Roman Polanski's best film. Part classic flatfoot film noir, part murky political thriller, Chinatown is a bitter, twisted and cynical exploration of corruption, identity and political intrigue wrapped up in the Californian water wars of the 1920s. When held up against its big rivals for Best Picture -- The Conversation and The Godfather Part II -- it outperforms both of them, creating two hours of cinema which are mercilessly gripping and thoroughly rewarding.
In his previous few films -- Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Macbeth -- Polanski had combined a deep-rooted interest in psychological trauma with a penchant for outrageous visuals. While all three films have their substance rooted in the torment of the central characters, and the collapse of their mental state as the world closes in on them, Polanski is never afraid to compliment this with the shock value associated with gore. The rape scene in Rosemary's Baby is frightening, not just because it is mentally disorientating, but because of the physical damage being inflicted on Mia Farrow.
In Chinatown, on the other hand, the most outré or gory moment occurs in the first hour, when Jack Nicholson's nose is sliced open by Polanski as a warning for him to stay away. With a couple of exceptions, the rest of the film is subdued and understated, with the truly frightening or creepy moments coming from revelations in the dialogue. It feels like a more mature work, with characters which are considered and rounded rather than simply vessels for psychosis.
Much like Blade Runner nearly a decade later, Chinatown draws on traditional film noir characters and conventions, and retunes them to suit the interests of the story. Jack Nicholson's private eye, Jake Gittes, is every bit as downbeat and cynical as Humphrey Bogart, but he also has a patience and intelligence which lesser flatfoots have neglected. The precise manner in which he wanders through the records room, or waits for the acting chair of the water board, indicates someone who is confident, self-assured and determined to see this matter through. As the mystery deepens, Gittes' motives grow from wanting to clear his name to wanting to save the town from the evil forces at work. He undergoes a definite moral shift, and his painstaking approach to snooping makes this all the more convincing.
Likewise, Faye Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray is not a token femme fatale or black widow. There is a romantic entanglement between her and Gittes, but this is not consummated until the final third of the film. Where Gittes starts off cynical and steadily becomes more moral, she appears cold and distant when in fact she is the most moral character in the film. There is the classic sense of mystery surrounding her, and the film gives only fleeting clues about her relationship with her husband and father. This not only makes the resulting revelations more shocking, but it makes her character compelling: we want to study her, unravel what is going on behind those plucked eyebrows and red lipstick.
Like all great noirs -- indeed like all great thrillers -- Chinatown has a twisty and labyrinthine plot, which requires your full attention to follow every twist and notice every clue. It may be that, like Blade Runner, you don't fully understand everything until about the fourth or fifth viewing. But even the first time round there can be no doubt either of Chinatown's depth or its believability.
The thing which distinguishes it from the work of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese is its complete and bitter cynicism towards every institution of modern society. For all the dark moments in The Godfather, and all the grittiness of Mean Streets, there is a faint undercurrent of nostalgia present in these films, either for the lifestyle of old-time gangsters or for a past version of America. Producer Robert Evans hired Polanski because he wanted the film to be an outsider's view on the hideous corruption therein, and as a result no institution is left unscathed.
Chinatown is at heart about how the very organisations that were created to serve the public now function for the precise opposite effect. Mulwray talks about her husband wanting the water supply to belong to the people of LA, to prevent it private owners like Noah Cross holding a town to ransom by turning off the taps. But in the end that is exactly what happens; Cross still holds the town in the palm of his hand, using the Club to pump freshwater into the sea in the middle of a drought. The face of evil may have changed, but its intentions remain the same.
Towne's script marries this feeling of betrayal and the lack of real change with a series of revelations which show just how far ordinary people have been let down by the people they trusted to provide for them. The sexual themes of the story which emerge are symbolic of the way in which the likes of Cross have manipulated ordinary citizens for personal gain. Cross' incestuous relationship with Evelyn is an echo of his 'raping' of Los Angeles and its resources. Cross has no regard for the little people his grand scheme is harming: when Gittes asks him what he can buy that he can't already afford, he coldly replies: "The future."
The final scenes of Chinatown are some of the best in cinema. Up until this point, despite all the darkening turns, Polanski seems to have convinced us that good will triumph: Cross will get his comeuppance, Evelyn will escape to Mexico and everyone will live happily ever after. But in the space of four minutes, Gittes is arrested by his former colleagues, Evelyn is killed, her 'daughter' is taken in by Cross, and Gittes is advised to leave as the cover-up becomes complete. The perfect closing lines -- "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" -- embody the film's thesis of the triumph of power and money over truth, and the inability of individuals to defeat the system. In this dark world all rules and moral codes are irrelevant, and the only way one can survive is to do "as little as possible".
Chinatown is an outright masterpiece which has stood the test of time and matured as a viewing experience. The splendid central performances by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are married to beautiful cinematography and meticulous direction with Polanski at the very top of his game. Robert Towne's script is one of the finest of the last 40 years, with intelligent dialogue which captures both the dry wit of Gittes and the sense of desperation and futility which surrounds the characters. It is as shocking and enthralling today as it ever was, both as a self-contained story and as a commentary on human greed. It is a magnificent masterwork which deserves every plaudit in the book.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the few comedy films which continues to deserve its hype. Now thirty-eight years old, it remains incessantly hilarious, fantastically silly, magically absurd and brilliantly surreal, right down to the last detail. It is the perfect balance of intelligence and madcap anarchy, drawn together by razor-sharp writing and superb comic timing from every performer. It is low-budget film-making at its absolute best, and one of the best films of the 1970s.
The first and biggest hurdle that Holy Grail has to overcome is the transition from the small screen to something more cinematic. Many comedy series have faltered here, but the very essence and structure of Python gives them a leg-up. The TV shows were always conceived as streams of consciousness, in which ideas bled into one another and minds wandered freely. Scenes ended not with a punch line, but when things stopped being funny, and nobody either inside or outside the joke questioned it. This means there is far greater scope to construct an over-arching narrative over the course of ninety minutes, as opposed to creating an anthology of episodes similar to And Now For Something Completely Different.
The second hurdle, arising from this, is preventing the film from becoming baggy or having long sections of no laughs in between set-pieces. Thankfully this problem is swiftly overcome by two means, one intentional, the other not so. On the one hand, Holy Grail was very tightly scripted from the beginning, under the same rules and restrictions of the TV series - namely, if it's not funny, it goes. This led at one point to half the script being binned because it didn't gel with the rest of the story. On the other hand, the very, very low budget (less than £250,000) meant that there was simply no room to shoot any scene or sequence for longer than was deemed necessary.
The result of this careful preparation, and even more careful execution, is a film which is not only efficient but incessantly funny. From the famous opening credits to the Castle Aargh and everything in between, the film is packed full of jokes in a way which, Airplane! aside, has never been emulated. Every conversation builds as a routine to a hilarious climax, and barely a line goes by without something quotable coming along. The script is the perfect balance between the verbal and the visual, high-brow and low-brow, making it a comedy film that is genuinely for everyone.
There is not enough room to praise or point out all the great sequences, not without giving a scene-by-scene commentary of the whole film. There are, however, a number of categories of jokes which can be easily recognised. Although the film as a whole is a spoof of the Arthurian legends and the epics of Cecil B. DeMille, very little of the humour is derived from directly poking fun at these things, in the manner of Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. Instead we have numerous examples of surreal absurdity (the Knights Who Say Ni ordering Arthur to cut down a tree with a herring); repetition (the Bridge of Death, Swamp Castle); existential role-reversal (Dennis the peasant arguing about anarcho-syndicalism); and running gags (swallows with coconuts, the cat being beaten, and the constant appearance of rabbits).
One question which has bothered both Python fans and film fans alike is whether or not this is better than the Life of Brian. John Cleese opines that Brian is a "more mature" work, noting sardonically how Americans tend to prefer Holy Grail while Brits opt for Brian. And he does have something of a point. It is more mature and professional from a technical point of view, and it is more substantial in either its subject matter or its use of it. But Life of Brian has its problems, most of which relate ironically to its abundance of substance.
Although the film is still very funny, it has a more obvious axe to grind than Holy Grail, and there are moments where it loses sight of what is truly funny in favour of focussing on what is simply uncomfortable. In Life of Brian, you're focussed on the story so intently, so aware of the intelligence and the controversy, that many of the little distractions - like the aliens sequence - get lost. In Holy Grail, you still follow the story with some intent, and everything is efficiently told, but the jokes speak for themselves and ultimately triumph over ever other aspect.
Every member of the Python team is at the top of their game in Holy Grail - even Graham Chapman, who was still a rampant alcoholic and struggled to remember his lines. Like all the Python films, this is an ensemble piece; no one member is allowed to dominate and be the star, no matter how many roles Michael Palin plays. Terry Gilliam's animations are as beautifully mad as ever, helping at very least to get around the budgetary limits and humorously divert us while time passes.
Each of the six gets at least one scene in which they excel, although Cleese is particularly brilliant in both the fight with the Black Knight and the one-man assault on Swamp Castle. Like all the best low-budget films, you're so swept along by the story and laughter that you aren't constantly trying to spot the body doubles or continuity errors. After a while you don't even notice it's the same six guys playing all the characters (well, almost).
The influence of Holy Grail remains writ large in comedy and in film-making. To some extent, this is unsurprising because of Gilliam's subsequent success. His first post-Python films, Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, have Holy Grail hovering somewhere in the background either in the story or the aesthetics. Likewise much of Handmade Films' output owes something to the ropey, creaky (but still fantastic) look of this film.
The film's most curious legacy, however, lies in the realm of horror comedy. Python's relationship with gore started in the TV series - think of the sketch about Sam Peckinpah's 'Salad Days', with blood oozing from every limb and every prop serving as a murder weapon. In the film we have the Black Knight, Swamp Castle, the Killer Rabbit and the Bridge of Death, all of which are simultaneously gross-out horrific and laugh-out-loud hilarious. You only have to look at Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead or Peter Jackson's Brain Dead to see reflections of Python's undying genius.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the film to turn to whenever you lose faith in the power and lifespan of comedy. It is brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and contains more moments of hysterical laughter than almost any other film. It still has the charm and vibrancy which it had at the point of its conception, and its reputation and influence will only grow as time goes by. For all the subsequent efforts of Python, both as a troupe and individually, this remains their finest achievement and the benchmark against which all their other work should be measured. It's a masterpiece, a classic, a joy and a thrill - quite simply, the greatest comedy of all time.
1976 saw the release of two great films about journalism which remain gripping and compelling even though the professions they examined have long since changed dramatically. In one corner, we have Network, a film which anticipated the move towards ratings-driven TV news with a career-best performance from Peter Finch. In the other corner, we have All The President's Men, perhaps the greatest film ever made about print journalism and one of the all-time greatest thrillers.
The first miracle of All The President's Men is that it manages to be a superbly tense conspiracy thriller even though we already know what the conspiracy is. Films which attempt to capture the political or social zeitgeist (in this case the fall of Richard Nixon) either date very badly or are often found wanting dramatically; they presume that there is no need to do the legwork, since we know how it ends even before we start.
All The President's Men gets the balance absolutely pitch-perfect between the facts and the drama. Robert Redford, who also produced the film, insisted that everything that played out on screen was factually accurate, to the point of liaising between screenwriter William Goldman and the real-life journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to ensure that every detail was correct. Those of us who are knowledgeable about Nixon and Watergate can watch the film and admire how well all the pieces fit together and all the facts are checked, while those less familiar will soak up all the information, admiring the work of the journalists and the screenwriter, who conveys all the twists, turns and dead ends.
Being this factually accurate pays off in dramatic terms for two reasons. Firstly, it means that the film's political stance, if it has one, is not so blatantly obvious that it weighs the action down, as with Redford's Lions for Lambs. But more importantly, it demonstrates that the filmmakers have confidence in the material, believing the truth to be so extraordinary in its own right that to dress it up in Hollywood convention or other such artifice would do the audience a great disservice.
Because the film is so relentlessly focussed on the story, the audience become like junior reporters following Woodward and Bernstein around, desperately trying to keep up and learn on the job. Like real-life journalists we are receiving information from a range of sources with varying degrees of reliability, to the point at which we almost feel the need to take notes. The dialogue is rattled off at a pace which makes even The Social Network look choreographed and considered.
Unlike so many contemporary thrillers, All The President's Men manages to be so completely understated, keeping a lid on things and building tension throughout its running time. All of the big revelations come out through small tics in the dialogue; there are no great swathes of exposition to remind the audience what has happened so far. It takes us two hours to get to Deep Throat finally telling Woodward what he wants to hear in the car park; like Woodward, we have had to earn this information through patience and perseverance.
The sense of tension created by the revelation of events and the pressure on the characters means that the film has no real need for action set-pieces or choreographed thrills. The closest things approaching action sequences are little pops of paranoia surrounding Woodward in the last hour - the disturbance in the car park, or the two journalists typing out their conversations for fear that they are being bugged. That's not to say that set-pieces in themselves are a bad thing, or a sign of dumbing-down in Hollywood movie-making. But All The President's Men simply doesn't need them - it does things the hard way, which turns out to be the smart way and the right way.
It would be very easy to praise this film on purely nostalgic grounds, coming from a time when thrillers didn't have to end with explosions, and when there was 'proper' investigative journalism instead of commercially-minded, celebrity-saturated hearsay. But the makers of All The President's Men would not accept this rose-tinted view of journalism, and the film specifically warns not to take such days for granted. Long before Rupert Murdoch's empire-building, the conflict between money and the truth was present, and crucially the truth didn't always win hands down.
There are several arguments in the film about the freedom of the press and its independence from the state and government. This conflict is present in the initial disagreements between Woodward and Bernstein which govern their different styles of reporting. Woodward is the newcomer who believes in facts above everything else; he types up his article, only for Bernstein, the seasoned hack who likes something with flair, to polish it behind his back.
In one scene about halfway through, the two reporters are in a car arguing about the difference between fact and gut instinct. Woodward use the example of snow falling overnight, or a man stopping and asking for directions, to demonstrate that one cannot simply rely on logical presumptions to be sure that something happened. Bernstein's responses, while broadly in agreement, belie a disagreement between substance and style, graft and guesswork which would come to shape the industry.
As a paean to 'proper' journalism, the film is a lot more subtle than something like Good Night and Good Luck, which used stock footage of Joseph McCarthy to hammer its point home in every scene. And unlike George Clooney's film, All The President's Men does a brilliant job of showing the fear and intimidation involved in the profession and practice of journalism. This is present throughout Woodward and Bernstein's work, from the persistent refusal of people to go on the record, to the pressure coming from their bosses who are staking the reputation of their paper on what could be an entirely spurious story. Woodward and Bernstein are forced to balance their own personal ambitions within the paper, the desire to protect people from exposure and ruin and the need to tell the truth - something which is no easy task.
All The President's Men is also masterful at making the very act of writing exciting. As I mentioned in my review of Adaptation, it is very difficult to put the physical act of writing or typing on screen in a manner which is genuinely cinematic. But Alan J. Pakula achieves this in his directorial style, which is completely unfussy and marked by great attention to detail. So accomplished is his direction that you almost don't notice it, which might explain why he is so underrated as a filmmaker. The tension he builds makes one focus on all the random doodles on Woodward's notepad, and the typing scene is very well-paced.
The performances in All The President's Men are all front-page material. Robert Redford is great, proving that he was more than just the pretty face from Butch Cassidy and The Sting and carrying himself with poise and conviction. Dustin Hoffman gives some of his best work as Carl Bernstein, resisting the temptation to 'over-method' as he did in Marathon Man the same year. And there is a terrific supporting role for Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat. Holbrook, best known for his appearance in The Fog, brings a murky edge to the character which not only conveys the danger of his situation, but leads you to believe that he is no good either.
All The President's Men is a proper thinking-person's thriller with great direction, superb performances and an impeccable script. Though the worlds of both politics and journalism may have changed, the film's ideas and approach remain as fresh and bracing as they were 35 years ago. Whether as a paean to journalism or an argument for political accountability, a debate about the nature of truth or a thrill-a-minute drama, it succeeds on every conceivable level, resulting in a movie for the ages.
Just it's hard to imagine cinema without Steven Spielberg or Stanley Kubrick, so a world without David Lynch seems as absurd and as nightmarish as one of his films. The man who is arguably America's greatest living filmmaker has so completely re-written the rulebook for surrealist filmmaking, that even non-fans like Roger Ebert would admit that the world would be a duller place without him.
If you want proof of this sea-change which Lynch has caused in cinema, you need look no further than his debut feature Eraserhead, a dark and fascinating fable about marriage, heaven and industry which set the midnight movie circuit alight in the late-1970s. Marrying Alan Splet's masterful sound design to a series of horrifically beautiful and strange images, Lynch creates a viewing experience which is nothing short of mesmerising.
Part of the mystique of Eraserhead lies in the fact that relatively little is known about it even after 34 years. Lynch is famous for refusing to reveal what his films mean, but the production history is as mysterious as the finished product. There are no making-of documentaries, and even Lynch's own interviews focus on the pre-production rather than the actual filming.
Eraserhead was filmed intermittently over six years beginning in 1970, when Lynch received a grant from the American Film Institute to film a 21-page script about adultery. What began as a long short morphed over these six years into a four-hour rough cut which Lynch subsequently pared down to 90 minutes. During this time Lynch experienced a spiritual epiphany, beginning his involvement in transcendental meditation which he continues to this day.
Lynch's photography, both past and present, has often revolved around disused factories or industrial landscapes which have fallen into disrepair. Eraserhead mirrors this fascination, depicting a vision of post-industrial society which makes the workers' city in Metropolis look like the Costa del Sol. Every building seems to be either a relic of a bygone age or coming apart at the seams; where there are plants or trees, they are black and completely bare. Alan Splet's amazing soundtrack howls and wails, as if the Earth itself were groaning under the weight of Man's work, from all His once-great achievements now rendered obsolete by age and progress.
By creating such a dark and desolate landscape, Lynch makes us feel isolated and alien to our surroundings: we are the living and the breathing in a world comprised entirely of death and decay. This feeling of alienation and malaise spills over into the characters, with Henry's father-in-law remarking that the whole world has become a "hell-hole". Their conversations are filled with the awkward silences that would become characteristic of Lynch's work, while the black-and-white visuals give the impression that this world is slipping into the next, like the characters in Samuel Beckett's Endgame who are patiently waiting for death.
Like Alien two year later, Eraserhead's central story revolves around the male fear of pregnancy and the Freudian connotations of offspring. Some commentators have speculated that the entire film is an allegory for Lynch's anxiety about the birth of his daughter Jennifer - none moreso, incidentally, than Jennifer Lynch herself. Regardless of whether that is true or to what extent, this theme is writ large throughout Eraserhead, and manifests itself in a number of sinister ways.
When Henry first discovers that he is a father, he reacts not with delight but with fear - fear not of the parents' reaction, or for his girlfriend, but of what monster he may have created. The film begins with the spectral apparition of a child emanating from Jack Nance's mouth, as if this creature was spawned from the darkest depths of his unconscious. The baby is the id to Henry's ego, its bizarre and impossible constructions being at odds with his straightforward demeanour and limited range of expression. Along these lines, Henry's attack on the child is the ego (or super-ego) defeating the animalistic id, albeit with serious and unforeseen consequences.
Over the course of the film both Henry and his girlfriend are tormented by their child. It lies screaming incessantly at night, to the point where the girlfriend packs her things and goes home, leaving the baby entirely in his care. From then on the baby becomes more menacing and vindictive towards Henry: first it screams to prevent him leaving the flat, and then it laughs at him when it seems the girl who lives across the hall no longer cares for him.
With this development Eraserhead becomes a film not just about fear but about responsibility, in which the child is the physicalisation of Henry's conscience. Although Henry is hardly the philandering type, he does entertain fantasies of other women, where the brunette across the hall or the strange blonde who lives in the radiator. There are almost hints of Pinocchio in the father-son relationship, with the almost unreal baby keeping the real-life father on the straight and narrow. But unlike Pinocchio, there is no friendship between them, and ultimately the puppet permanently rebels against his conscience.
In his 2006 book Catching the Big Fish, Lynch called Eraserhead his "most spiritual movie", and claimed that the whole project came together after he read a certain (unnamed) part of The Bible. There are huge Biblical overtones in Eraserhead, and most of them are from the more unpleasant parts of the Old Testament. Not only does the baby represent the sins of the father being visited on the sons (Exodus 34:7), but the man in the moon moving all the levers could be God setting all of this in motion.
Alternatively, the man in the moon and the woman in the radiator may have nothing to do with God at all. They might be projections of Henry's subconscious, being respectively a scapegoat and a possible source of redemption. The man resembles the baby in all his rashes and peculiar spots, hinting at the concept of Man creating a jealous, negative God as a projection of his own cold heart.
When the lady is dancing, she tramples on copies of the apparitions from the beginning, suggesting to Henry that he must overcome this evil to gain both her love and his salvation. The final scene, where she embraces Henry and the screen fades to white, could indicate that he has gone to heaven - where, as the song says, everything is fine. There are clear through-lines to Mulholland Drive in her resemblance to Marilyn Monroe (whom Betty/ Diane also resembles) and in the use of a theatrical performance within the world of a film.
All of these interpretations are valid, and there is nothing in the content of Eraserhead which can be explained for certain. What is for certain is the terrifying nature of the special effects used to bring this baby to life. Various rumours surround this unique special effect, the most common being that it is a pickled calf foetus, animated from within. Whatever it is, its twisted shape and harrowing cries burn deep into our subconscious and genuinely freak us out. We jump when we see it break out in spots, and its death throes are nothing short of nerve-shredding.
Eraserhead is a dark and twisted masterpiece which remains one of the most extraordinary debut features in all of cinema. Lynch's direction is immaculate, creating a unique cinematic vision which is not only frightening but deeply visceral and dripping with substances. It is a high point of surrealist cinema that would have made Salvador Dali proud, and may even be the best such work since Un Chien Andalou. In any case, it is essential viewing for everyone with even an iota of interest in film.
In my review of Dark Star, I referred to John Carpenter as "the most accidental of pioneers", since the films which he created simply to get by have since become widely recognised as innovative and culturally significant. Just as Dark Star bridged the gap between old-school sci-fi and space opera, so Hallowe'en is a cinematic bridge from Psycho and Black Christmas to full-on, nuts-and-bolts slashers like Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine. But even taken outside of its legacy, it remains a memorably terrifying film, and the high point of Carpenter's career.
Contrary to popular belief, Hallowe'en is not the first slasher film. To some extent that title belongs to Psycho, which is also one of the classiest considering its strong psychological underpinning. The serial killer motifs therein were taken up by Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which explored serial killings within a context of complete moral nihilism; no explanation was ever offered for what Leatherface did, or the way in which he did it.
Hallowe'en takes the sexual elements of Psycho, blends it with the motiveless excesses of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and serves it up with Carpenter's unique sense of rhythm and love of the unknown. If Psycho was the film which made serial killing an art form (a tradition proudly continued by Dario Argento), Hallowe'en was the film that helped to take it into the mainstream. It made the slasher sexual again, setting the template for most of what followed until Wes Craven retuned things in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
So much modern horror, including the Hallowe'en 're-imaginings', try to explain everything to their audience; they feel the need to find a reason for every aspect of the killer, and no back-story must be left incomplete. Doing this often neglects the elements of uncertainty and menace which are essential parts of being scared; Alien wouldn't be half as scary if we had a complete psychological profile of the creature.
What makes Hallowe'en so special, and so brilliant, is its ruthless and brutal simplicity. There are no sadistic, lingering deaths, no confusing subplots, no unnecessary gore and no gratuitous nudity -- just genuine fear and genuine terror. Michael Myers doesn't need his motives explaining -- the fact that he is so singular makes it more terrifying.
Hallowe'en was designed as a drive-in movie, an exploitation film made on the cheap that would play for two weeks and then disappear. Under these circumstances they couldn't be any indulgences, whether creatively or financially. But like all the best low-budget films, it manages to get beyond its limitations and be innovative in the process. It takes several elements which on paper seem completely hokey and somehow makes them scary again. There have been dozens of horror films involving escaped mental patients, ignorant parents, or a police force which doesn't believe our hero or heroine. But the atmosphere which Carpenter creates, and the precise way in which the encounters are handled, conspire to give us the creeps.
Running through the whole film is an undercurrent about how the notion of being scared has become instititionalised. Laurie Strode comforts the child she is babysitting by telling him the bogeyman can only come out on Hallowe'en night. The fact that Hallowe'en is so widely observed and its practices so commonplace have taken the edge off it; it is no longer associated as a night of evil spirits preying on the weak, but as an excuse for the kids to have fun, the adults to go out and everyone in-between to have sex. This trend is even bound up in the production of the film, which was originally titled The Babysitter Murders.
Carpenter seeks to redress this balance, proving there are still things to be scared of which cannot be confined artificially to a single day. The children Laurie babysits are never scared by the films they watch on TV (including The Thing from Another World, which Carpenter would later remake) and so assume that there is nothing to be scared of. But as soon as the boy catches a glimpse of Myers, he starts screaming hysterically and fearing for his life.
The fear of the unknown is present in Hallowe'en right from the opening shot. As the camera approaches the house and we move inside, we have no idea from whose perspective we are seeing the events. The repeated use of a steadicam (or pana-glide, as it was originally called) gives the impression of seeing events from a first-person viewpoint, and the film keeps shifting so you are never sure whether or not you are seeing things through the eyes of the killer. This, coupled with the fantastic synthesizer score played in 5/4 time, creates an unmatched level of unease, predating Stanley Kubrick's work on The Shining by two whole years.
The fear of the unknown manifests itself in the character of Michael Myers, described by Dr. Loomis as "purely and simply... evil". Although Myers appears to be human in appearance and movement, there is something supernatural about him, demonstrated by his inability to be killed and his way of appearing and disappearing with great speed. There is no emotion with Myers, no sense of pleasure in his killings; he kills for no other reason other than that is what he does. Like Dr. Loomis, we spend time trying to understand him but eventually conclude that the only thing we can do is contain him. He is an archetypal bogeyman onto whom individuals project their own fears; the blank face masks serve as a canvas, a mirror in which we look and see our deepest fears.
Much has been made of Hallowe'en being a twisted morality tale, which borrows from the old 'tale of the hook' to warn people about the perils of having sex. Proponents of this view do have a point, considering that all of Myers' victims are people who are doing what they shouldn't be doing, and the only teenager who manages to stand up to him is a virgin. But Carpenter has long downplayed this view, claiming that the film is more about temptation and repression than the physical role of sex. While her classmates are content to drink under-age and tease each other about boys, Laurie is quiet and introverted. She is also the most intelligent of the group, and is the first to be aware of Myers' presence; hence she is better-equipped to deal with him, regardless of her sexual status.
It's easy to look at the ending of Hallowe'en as an excuse for a sequel, but this does pre-suppose that such a thing was intended. Unlike today, where many sequels are green-lit before the original has made its money back, this was intended as a stand-alone piece; Carpenter refused to direct Hallowe'en II despite a massive increase in the budget. As it stands, the ending is brilliant, with Donald Pleasance's facial reactions perfectly conveying the final chill: that Myers is still out there, and remains unstoppable. The film then puts the icing on the cake with a montage backed by Myers' heavy breathing, indicating that now he could be anywhere, and that we could be next.
Hallowe'en remains a masterpiece of horror, tapping into archetypal fears and scaring us to death with brilliant efficiency. The central performances by Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis are note-perfect, the camerawork is superb, and Carpenter shoots the entire film with the perfect balance of shock value and suspense. None of the sequels, knock-offs or remakes have dented it reputation, and thirty years from now it will still be as scary as ever. A triumph of low-budget cinema and a real must-see.
It?s almost impossible to undersell the importance of Alien, both as a film in general and as a contribution to both science fiction and horror. It introduced mainstream audiences to Ridley Scott, one of the greatest directors of the last forty years. It proved that science fiction filmmaking could still be rooted in ideas and metaphors at a time when the likes of Star Wars were shifting the genre towards pure entertainment. And it scared the living daylights out of a generation of filmgoers, something which it still does more than thirty years on.
Just as Blade Runner was both futuristic and nostalgic, drawing on and updating the conventions of film noir, so Alien is on one level a harmony between two separate schools of horror. On the one hand, it is a haunted house movie, based on a premise which stretches back to the 1920s: a building harbours an evil presence or creature, which bears ill will to the people inside. On the other hand, it draws on the slasher genre pioneered by Black Christmas and Hallowe?en, in which a group of people are picked off one by one by an evil force, who then meets its match in the shape of the ?final girl? as an avenging angel.
What Alien manages in one full swoop is to solve the central problem of both these genres by a combination of setting and character development. The flaw in most haunted house films is simple: if being in the house is so terrible, why not just leave? In Alien, there is no escape. The Nostromo is a never-ending labyrinth of corridors and air ducts, and a monster could be lurking behind any corner. The film is unbearably claustrophobic, to the point at which you find yourself feverishly scanning every corner of the screen as the panic steadily builds.
Likewise, the flaw with most slashers is that the characters are so paper-thin that we don?t care about them. The main reason people paid to see all the Hallowe?en sequels and knock-offs was the elaborate and increasingly goofy manner in which the victims were killed. Somehow we went from Hallowe?en, with Michael Myers as the essence of evil and barely any gore on screen, to Lucio Fulci?s The New York Ripper, in which our antagonist stabs prostitutes whilst doing duck impressions.
Alien, on the other hand, takes its time to build up its characters in the opening act. The first hour is dreamlike and takes its time, from the slow Kubrickian shots of the corridors, to the time-lapse of John Hurt emerging from hyper-sleep, to the wry discussions about the poor quality food and the bonus situation. Even after the face-hugger attacks Kane, the film sticks to its guns and keeps the character development going. It builds up Brett and Parker?s outsider status and the lack of respect for Ripley, factors which become of key importance as the story unfolds.
Alien has been described as the anti-2001, the blue-collar depiction of space against the gleaming white dignity of Kubrick?s vision. This is unsurprising, since its writer Dan O?Bannon also wrote and starred in Dark Star, John Carpenter?s oddball sci-fi comedy which contains many similar elements (albeit played for laughs). The Nostromo is a grimy and dingy place, inhabited by worldly-worn men and women who care about little more than getting paid and getting home. The elements of corporate paranoia and gender inequality which begin to infiltrate make Alien a compelling social commentary. ?The company?, with Ash as its representative, is aloof, greedy and uninterested in the lives of ordinary people, or women in particular. These same ordinary people (and women in particular) end up saving the universe, albeit through massive and involuntary personal sacrifice.
The acid test of all horror movies (no pun intended) is whether or not they remain scary, and Alien is still one of the scariest ever made. A large part of this lies in the technical construction of the film. Scott understands that true fear lies in the mind of the audience; people are not scared by what they see, they are scared by what they think they have seen. By showing so little of the alien until the very end, Scott plants a seed of fear and paranoia into the audience?s mind, which grows exponentially as the body count rises. The combination of lighting, camera angles and Jerry Goldsmith?s nail-biting score creates an atmosphere of unstoppable terror in which all one can do is watch, pray and scream.
Alien plays on the ancient fear of the unknown, challenging the audience?s curiosity and confounding our expectations. The most famous example of this is the ?chest-burster? or ?birth? scene, which is rightly considered one of the scariest scenes in cinema. In the scenes leading up to it, we are led to believe that the worst is over; the face-hugger is dead, Kane has come out of his coma, the ship has been repaired and they are once again on their way home. Then Kane starts to choke, something which is distressing but nothing out of the ordinary. Hence when the alien bursts through his chest, covering Lambert in blood, we sit there petrified at the sight of this creature and stunned by just how well we have been deceived.
But it is not just the fear of the unknown which makes Alien so terrifying. The film draws on a long line of science fiction films which have dealt with some form of alien possession or violation of the human body. Mario Bava?s Planet of the Vampires is the most frequently cited influence, but there are also hints of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and The Thing from Another World (which would later be remade as The Thing by John Carpenter). So much of horror is rooted in the idea of people we think we know turning out to be something else ? vampires, pod people, mothers of xenomorphs, these are all means of challenging our perceptions of human identity.
But Alien goes further than basic possession, equating the alien with the fear of rape or the male fear of pregnancy. H. R. Giger?s designs are insanely phallic ? the long, curved head of the alien with its internal set of teeth, which extend like a thrusting phallus to violently penetrate and impregnate the victims. All the men on board are picked off before the women, and in the Director?s Cut we see chilling shots of their bodies being cocooned to serve as incubators for further aliens. Just as the Eraserhead baby is a metaphor for the father?s fears and dark secrets, so the alien is like a son that turns on its surrogate fathers.
There has been a great deal of discussion as to the feminist implications of the Alien franchise, with James Cameron?s instalment being held up as the greatest expression of this. But actually Alien has as good a case, if not a better one, because of the precise nature of Ripley?s transformation. Ripley spends much of the first film in a passive role ? she is something of a goody-two-shoes, who goes by the book and has little respect from the lower orders of the crew. After the death of Dallas she becomes the leader or matriarch, but doesn?t take on traditionally male characteristics in doing so. While Parker goes into a battle-crazed rage, she remains calm and considered. She retains her maternal or feminine qualities, as shown by her decision to take Jones with her, and her defeat of the alien is a profound expression of her individual identity and refusal to be exploited. Compare that to Aliens, in which Ripley takes on much more macho or masculine qualities, undergoing a similar shift to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.
Alien remains a masterpiece of both science fiction and gothic horror, conveying deep psychological themes while scaring us to death. For all the talents of James Cameron and David Fincher (whose instalment is very underrated), it also remains the most complete and profound member of the franchise, a status which doesn?t look like being threatened any time soon. Sigourney Weaver is the stand-out from a note-perfect cast, and Ridley Scott?s direction is simply extraordinary, taking something utterly fantastical and making it terrifying real. A magnificent achievement from every angle, and the first of Scott?s many masterpieces.
When it comes to reviewing films, there are two kinds of masterpieces. One is the film in which every single scene is immaculately perfect, and your emotional involvement supports and compliments this perfection. The other, more contentious kind is a film which on paper is riddled with faults, but the experience of watching it is so intoxicating that all such faults can be forgiven or forgotten.
With war films, the first camp is defined by Full Metal Jacket and the second by Apocalypse Now. Where Stanley Kubrick's film is meticulously constructed and judged to clinical precision, Francis Ford Coppola's is simultaneously a bloated, meandering mess and one of the greatest films of all time. Full Metal Jacket is the more accessible and perhaps more rewarding, but on the big screen Apocalypse Now is nothing short of knockout, as all the elements of Coppola's epic collide in a full-on and frightening story of darkness, madness and war.
As with so many great films, the production history of Apocalypse Now leads us to believe that things should have turned out very differently. John Milius, who had written much of Clint Eastwood's dialogue in Dirty Harry, drafted a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness by the middle of 1969. Originally titled The Psychedelic Soldier, George Lucas was set to direct before being hired to helm American Graffiti. In 1974 the project came to Coppola, who had just seen both The Conversation and The Godfather Part II nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Shooting for the re-titled Apocalypse Now began in March 1976 and was scheduled to last for five months. Soon after shooting began, Harvey Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen and in May the entire set was destroyed by Typhoon Olga. When filming resumed a month later, Marlon Brando turned up heavily overweight and completely bald; Coppola compensated by dressing him in black, shooting him in shadow and using a body double in the wide shots. While shooting the ending in 1977, Sheen suffered a heart attack and had to walk a quarter of mile to get medical attention. By the time Coppola finished editing the film for release in August 1979, Apocalypse Now was two years late and three times over budget.
If you attempted to write down all the things that are wrong with Apocalypse Now, it wouldn't take you long to get quite a big list. For a start, the film is too long - or at least, it feels too long. The story of Captain Willard travelling up the Nung River unfolds at a very leisurely pace, with every section of the river having some major significance in terms of plot or mood. There is no montage or time-lapse footage of the boat rapidly reaching the Cambodian border, and the longer it goes on the less sure you feel that Coppola actually knew where the story was going.
There is a very fine line in screenwriting between poetic and ponderous, and Apocalypse Now crawls along this line like the snail on the edge of a straight razor. The actual scenes of Brando reading poetry in the temple are dull; the fact that we can't always make out what he's saying annoys us at first, but after a few lines we couldn't care less. By the time you have reached the temple, you are more or less certain that there will be some kind of brutal final confrontation between Willard and Kurtz, so that even as you sit there soaking up T. S. Eliot, you wish that things would get a move on.
Then there is the problem of characters. Martin Sheen is absolutely terrific as Captain Willard, and in spite of his incoherence Marlon Brando manages to match him in the last truly good performance of his career. But as is the way with epics, a lot of the supporting cast don't get even half the screen time they deserve. When you've got a film featuring Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, you expect them to be on screen a lot. But only Duvall gets the screen time and the character depth he needs, with the other two becoming largely superfluous.
Finally, there are aspects of Apocalypse Now which reek of the indulgence present in New Hollywood and 1970s filmmaking in general. This is typified by Coppola's self-referential cameo as the director of a war documentary; Sheen walks into his shot at the river mouth, and he shouts: "Don't look at the camera! Keep on fighting!". If Coppola was making a point about the psychological role of a director, it's handled a lot more clumsily and self-importantly than Peeping Tom. Add in the sequence of a live cow actually being butchered and you have more than enough reason to dismiss this film.
So far, Apocalypse Now would seem like the Vietnam equivalent of Gone With the Wind: commendable for its scale and ambition, but over-long with too many characters and several questionable scenes. And yet, for all the truth in what I have said, none of it really matters. For Apocalypse Now is not a film to be dissected but to be experienced; it will burn its way into your synapses in a mixture of horror and wonder. Watching it is less like making a Swiss watch than walking into a cloud of hallucinogenic vapours. If you refuse to go with it, you won't get it, but if you do, it'll be one hell of a trip.
Instead of recreating the experience of Vietnam with a deliberate and calculated sense of hindsight, Apocalypse Now seeks to put the audience in the same place as the soldiers so they can decide how war felt and why men behaved the way they did. Because the script was written during the war, there is no attempt made by Coppola to lecture the audience one way or the other. There are no easy answers to the questions of right and wrong, and the film's slow, meandering tone is vital for us to soak up as much information as we can. Whatever our conclusions, we feel like we've been through hell with these characters, and been changed irrevocably by the horrors of war.
So much of Apocalypse Now is about the chaos of war, and so it's appropriate (at least to some extent) that the film should feel out of control. The relaxed discussions at the beginning, in which Willard's mission is laid out, give us some kind of grounding so that we know where he will end up. But the film is populated by profound and moving insights into the inherent anarchy and absurdity of war. These range from Robert Duvall's insistence on surfing at the beach to the post near the Cambodian border where the troops are fighting without a commanding officer. These scenes produce reactions ranging from laughter to sadness to genuine fright, and often all three at once.
Apocalypse Now keeps adding more and more literary aspects to its central story, like someone throwing books into a library that had just been set on fire. The final showdown between Willard and Kurtz is an inventive restaging of The Golden Bough, in which the murderer kills the mad king and becomes king himself. Much of Martin Sheen's dialogue is culled from Michael Herr's Dispatches, which would later be used by Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket. And Kurtz takes on aspects of both Eliot's 'The Hollow Men' and Genghis Khan, whom Coppola studied while the sets were rebuilt.
At the heart of Apocalypse Now is the darkness at the heart of all mankind, and the ability of such darkness to consume all that is good and just and sane if fully unleashed. Kurtz has tipped over into this darkness by his experiences in Vietnam. The war has caused him to see the futility and the nonsense in his orders, and he now lives out his days as a hollow man who has understood evil at the cost of losing his soul. Willard kills Kurtz to fulfil his mission, but the very act of obedience threatens to tip him over into the same darkness. Although he manages to resist, he leaves Kurtz's kingdom as a shell of a man, his life shattered by knowledge of that same evil.
Apocalypse Now is a truly extraordinary piece of work which is fully deserving of its masterpiece status. In spite of its myriad flaws, it retains an indescribable aura which leaves us shrinking into our seats, mesmerised and paralysed with fear and wonder. It's a film which damaged both Coppola as a filmmaker and the New Hollywood movement, whose reputation for indulgence had finally caught up with them. But at the dawn of the blockbuster age, it is a fantastic last hurrah and remains one of the most extraordinary experiences in American cinema.
There comes a point in the life of any true-blooded film reviewer when they must plant a flag in the sand and argue their case for the greatest film of all time. It's a daunting task, since the films which we most revere often take on an 'untouchable' quality. They resonate so strongly with us and are so perfect in construction, that we almost daren't approach them, lest our feeble words and platitudes fail to convey their majesty.
Blade Runner is everything you could want from a film, and so much more. It straddles genres ably, incorporating elements of science fiction, gothic horror, film noir and action-adventure. It achieves a perfect balance between style and substance, allowing for a bittersweet examination of complicated ideas amidst a vivid landscape of light and colour. It has the scientific head and cold surroundings of a perfect dystopia, but genuine characters and a heavy human heart. And once experienced in its fully-realised Final Cut, nothing will ever come close again.
A quick glance at the production history, however, shows that things could have turned out very differently. The original screenwriter, Hampton Fancher, fell out with both director Ridley Scott and author Philip K. Dick, who resented the very idea of a Hollywood adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Scott had only come to the project because of the pre-production delays on Dune. He took the job to rid him of that burden and to take his mind off the recent death of his brother.
Scott arrived in Hollywood expecting a free rein after the critical success of The Duellists and the ample box office of Alien. What he got instead was a heavy-handed studio and a very difficult Harrison Ford, who had just cemented his megastar status with Raiders of the Lost Ark. What followed were many miserable months of night shoots, funding issues and voiceover recordings, as the studio re-cut Scott's footage and made Ford record endless voiceovers in case the punters didn't get the plot. This disjointed and expository original cut received mixed reviews and underperformed commercially, and that, it seemed, was that.
It has taken a long time for the true version of Blade Runner to come to the surface. But with every passing year, and every new cut that has come along, more of the true nature of this extraordinary work has come to light. Now we have the Final Cut, the only cut over which Scott had full creative control. It is Blade Runner at its most personal, complete and immaculate. Scott believes it to be his best and most personal film; on the basis of this cut, that's not about to change.
Most of the critics who praised Blade Runner the first time round were quick to dismiss the film is visually beautifully but lacking narratively. They were half-right. No-one could deny that the film is breathtakingly beautiful, with every shot perfectly composed and a score of both scenes and images which take one's breath away. The opening shots of the Los Angeles skyline are mesmerising, as is the image of a tower of flame arcing and reflecting in the eye of a nameless observer. These scenes embody what is so special about the film - its ability to take the vast, the mechanical and the dystopian, and find the personal, the hopeful and in human in everything we see.
The film has been appropriately described as a neo-noir, since it takes the conventions of classic noirs like The Third Man and retunes them to better suit its own particular choices in terms of themes and character development. Scott clearly has great affection for the various noir motifs, filling his scenes with carefully chosen shadows and beautifully lit cigarette smoke. His visual decisions with both lighting and colour really bring out the sense of mystery and ambiguity which is at the heart of all great noirs. Even without the voiceovers, Deckard is a born natural in the role of unreliable narrator.
But there is so much more to Blade Runner than pretty experiments with light and shade. The true strength of the film lies in its myriad themes and complex exploration of ideas, ranging from man's environmental impact and the nature of advanced urban society, to the spiritual and existential quest for self-knowledge and the boundary between what is human and what is not. Scott's greatest trick is to bring out these ideas through the most subtle and intelligent of visual touches; his background in advertising allows him to offer us multi-layered imagery as a guide in place of dry philosophical meanderings.
The most prophetic message of Blade Runner is that the future is far bleaker than we could have imagined. The society presented to us in Blade Runner is akin to our own in one key aspect: we are living with the consequences of what has gone before and are uncertain of where to proceed from here. In this Los Angeles, there is social decay, uneasy multiculturalism, widespread crime, prominent sexuality, massive inequality and an intelligent but emasculated underclass, both in our midst and 'off-world'. The predominant mood is one of gloom, struggle and pathos, embodied by the fact that it is nearly always raining.
The replicants in Blade Runner make up this underclass, and are symbolic of both the persistence of slavery and the dangers of technological advancement. The twist is that their status as second-class citizens was not forced upon them by circumstances but preconceived before their creation. Just as all the newborns in Brave New World have their class and intelligence predetermined, so replicants are created with varying levels of intelligence and capabilities, and are all given a four-year lifespan - a failsafe against them 'developing their own emotions' and turning on their creators.
Roy Batty's rebellion against his 'father', Dr. Eldon Tyrell, is both the monster turning on his master in the manner of Frankenstein and a powerful religious allegory of the distant relationship between God and Man. Roy, played with terrifying presence by Rutger Hauer, is the Prodigal Son whose intelligence and desire for consciousness lead him to his creator (whether literal or metaphorical). Tyrell is both a benevolent father and some form of monster, showing compassion and understanding while never properly accepting his 'son'. 'Man' rejects 'God', doing literally what Nietzsche described symbolically, and condemns Himself to a short life of loneliness and fear.
But that is not the end, for one of the greatest themes of Blade Runner is salvation and redemption. Deckard's encounters between both Roy and Rachael are steeped in the idea that, in the midst of all this uncertainly and terrible injustice, hope can thrive and the true goodness of people can come through. The big question at the heart of the film is this: what does it mean to be human? How can we define what is human and what is not? And - perhaps more importantly - does it matter if we cannot?
So much ink has been spilled over whether or not Deckard is a replicant, and there are strong arguments on both sides; Scott believes that he is, Ford believes that he isn't. Perhaps the real answer lies in a third explanation, namely that the boundaries between human and non-human are now so blurred that definitions of what counts as 'human' are little more than irrelevant expressions of power. The concept of being 'human' is so complicated, so ambiguous and so multi-faceted, that to exclude or demarcate any one body from another through codes, whether moral or political, is pointless. In this situation the only thing that triumphs is love - whether the brotherly love of Roy sparing Deckard's life or the romantic love between Deckard and Rachael.
Both these relationships begin with the lines between human and replicant clearly drawn; Deckard is down Roy, and the first time Rachael visits him he dismisses her fondest memories as "implants". But eventually both Roy and Rachael prove a certain kind of devotion toward Deckard, saving his life on one occasion each. These acts of compassion render Deckard's preconceptions obsolete. He undergoes the same act of soul-searching and reaches the same conclusion with both parties; replicant or not, so long as there is love, there is meaning. Both the tender love scene with Rachael and the heartbreaking 'tears in rain' sequence with Roy are the consummations of this revelation; as the dove flies into the sky, Deckard puts his old ways behind him, and surrenders himself to the only thing that matters.
Blade Runner is by far and away the greatest film ever made. Every aspect of it from the acting to the Vangelis soundtrack is flawless, both in design and execution. The performances of Harrison Ford and Sean Young are mesmerising, and remain the highlights of their respective careers. It is also Scott's best film by a county mile; for all his great work on Alien and Gladiator, he has never bettered this. Most of all, Blade Runner is an extraordinary odyssey through the human psyche, taking characters in the gutter and using them to focus on the stars. It is, quite simply, perfection.
David Lynch's career up until Blue Velvet seemed to be a steady progression from surreal outsider to failed mainstream director. Eraserhead remains one of the strangest horror films ever made, something which could only have come from the slightly insane mind of an auteur. The Elephant Man is a strong but peculiar hybrid of this imagery with the normal conventions of a biopic; the result is interesting but not entirely satisfying. And then we have Dune, which is more than enjoyable as a guilty pleasure sci-fi, but even after 25 years its look and its narrative remain a mess. In 1984 it seemed that David Lynch's career as a director was over. But that was before Blue Velvet came along.
It's hard to believe that Dune and Blue Velvet were made by the same director, let alone released within two years of each other. Where Dune is rambling, muddled and lacks a solid creative drive, Blue Velvet is intense, mesmeric, and truly frightening. Where Dune is purely a space fantasy which does little justice to its multi-layered source material, Blue Velvet manages to be a murder mystery, an erotic thriller, a social satire and a horror film all at the same time. Lynch is a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick, and like Kubrick's work this is a film which requires your full attention to really appreciate it. But once it has your attention, it will never let you go. Just as the final scene of Eraserhead leaves you staring at the screen wondering what the hell just happened, so Blue Velvet will hold you in a trance as you simultaneously flinch and marvel at what occurs on screen.
The references to Kubrick are apparent from the start. The film owes a great deal to The Shining in its eeriness and near-constant suspense. From the first shot after the credits, you're certain that something isn't right, and even the happiest scenes underscore this un-real feeling to the world Lynch puts on screen. In The Shining, the opening 15 minutes are slow-moving and relatively naturalistic; there is still a staged quality to them, but they served as both set-up and contrast to the madness that follows. With Blue Velvet, it's almost as though someone put on The Shining and skipped the introduction; the eerie and all-too-perfect Overlook Hotel looms large over Lynch's Lumberton.
There are also references to Barry Lyndon in Blue Velvet's cinematography. Frederick Elmes said in interviews that Lynch wanted to see how dark they could make the sets, to utilise the potential of shadows and natural light to create tension. Some of the scenes in Dorothy's apartment are seemingly filmed in only natural light, and the multiple staircase scenes have a film noir quality which deepens the sense of murky terror lurking at the heart of the film.
But although Blue Velvet spans genres, at heart it is a film about voyeurism. The crime thriller aspect of it as a metaphor for individuals' desire to dig deeper and discover what lies beneath, even if -- or perhaps because -- they know they will get hurt in the process. Just before Jeffrey sneaks into the apartment, Sandy remarks, "I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert." In Lynch's mind, they are clearly one and the same.
It would have been very easy to take this premise and run with it either as a straightforward erotic thriller or an exploitation film; the result would have been a trashy but enjoyable 90 minutes. But Lynch is too clever for that. Just as Kubrick did in Eyes Wide Shut over a decade later, so Lynch offers the audience sexual titillation and then turns it against us to expose one of our deepest flaws. The theme and experience of voyeurism are present not only in the events unfolding, but in the way you watch them. You watch Isabelli Rossellini undress and the terrifying Dennis Hopper assault her as a voyeur, and throughout the film you have a strange, twisted feeling in your heart and stomach. You're feeling guilty for being there, and yet a strange, animalistic thrill prevents you from leaving or looking away.
One complaint that critics made about Blue Velvet was that in this world there are no shades of grey. But that's the whole point. Again, it would have been easy to have made this film as a more simple genre piece, in this case either as a thriller in which the good outsider stops the bad guys, or as a conspiracy piece about police corruption. But Lynch sticks to his guns, showing that no matter how normal or law-abiding things seem on the surface, once you move behind the picket fence all manner of dark and strange things can occur.
The central point of Blue Velvet is that all those on screen are guilty; all have become corrupted by their desires, and some -- in the case of Frank -- have even been deranged by them. Much like C. Thomas Howell's character in The Hitcher, Jeffrey Beaumont may start out as the hero (so to speak), but as the film progresses his naivety falls away in the face of the evil around him, so that in the end he is as much in the slough of despond as Dorothy Vallens or Frank Booth. The moment that Jeffrey beats Dorothy to calm her down is analogous to the final scene of The Hitcher where Howell shoots Rutger Hauer. In that moment both characters have crossed to the dark side.
As all of this plays out, however, Blue Velvet becomes an oddly moral film insofar as it tackles how one should deal with the guilt and shame. Jeffrey's responses in the second half are admirable in that he tries to bring down and expose Frank, while working on a relationship with Sandy based upon love rather than on using her. As unlikely as it may seem or look on paper, the film has a happy ending, with order seemingly restored and love (and robins) in the air. But knowing Lynch, it may not be that simple. This little battle may be over, but the war may carry on for a long time.
Blue Velvet is a mesmerising masterpiece, albeit one which is not easy to sit through. It's uncomfortable, disturbing, surreal and strange, all of which means that it will stay with you, for better or worse, for all time. The film contains some wonderful performances, from the understated work of Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern to the chillingly psychotic Dennis Hopper and the highly strung Isabella Rossellini (note, incidentally, the subversion of the Hitchcockian stereotype; here the blonde is the hero's salvation and the brunette his downfall). The film is beautifully shot, masterfully directed and possesses a script which is both relaxing and razor-sharp; one wishes David Mamet could have written a script like this when he came to write The Untouchables. A truly strange and terrifying film, one of the best of the 1980s and a must-see for all film fans.
Much of Sam Raimi's early work is tied up in his relationship to the Coen Brothers. After Joel Coen served as editor on The Evil Dead, the Coens utilised Raimi's techniques of creating short films to get money for their directorial debut, Blood Simple. Where Raimi had made Within the Woods, a 32-minute short which became The Evil Dead, the Coens created a fictional trailer for Blood Simple and played it in theatres. The trio collaborated again on Crimewave, a live-action comic-book romp which flopped due to studio interference.
While the Coens weathered the storm and went off to make Raising Arizona, Raimi was faced with the knowledge that another flop could curtail his directorial career. Eventually he gave in to pressure from acclaimed producer Dino DeLaurentiis and signed on to make a
sequel to The Evil Dead. And it's a good job he did, because in Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn we have what is arguably his best film - a film that was not only treated better by the censors, but which is darker, scarier, funnier and more thrillingly demented than the original.
There has been much debate among fans of The Evil Dead as to whether Evil Dead 2 is technically a sequel or a remake. There have been many sequels to successful films which have retained the setting or scenario while inserting new characters, but the film is so similar to The Evil Dead in terms of plot and character development that it has to be a remake. The best way to think of the film is through the comic book principle of retroactive continuity, otherwise known as retconning. We are seeing a familiar storyline relayed with new additions and new emphases, to take account of the larger budget, Raimi's maturity as a director, and acknowledging the knowledge and interests of the original movie's fans.
The guiding principle for Evil Dead 2 is to remove all the bad stuff and make the good stuff better. To be fair there wasn't an awful lot of bad stuff in The Evil Dead, but the film immediately benefits from the lack of another tree rape scene. The make-up effects are more ambitiously gross, the camerawork is more kinetic, the slapstick is much better integrated, and the ending is a lot funnier.
The first instance of this principle being put into practice is the first five minutes, which effectively recaps The Evil Dead right up to the point where Ash was possessed by the demon running at him in the famous final shot. All the important elements in the original story remain - Ash and his girlfriend Linda making out, the tape recorder reciting incantations, Linda becoming a deadite and Ash becoming possessed. But while the original was a take on the final-girl scenario, where Ash emerged as the hero by being the only one left, Evil Dead 2 recognises that Bruce Campbell was the best actor and had the best character, so the focus shifts much more onto him.
The shift in character emphasis also has a positive impact on the tone of the film. The Evil Dead was immensely terrifying because it how unrelenting it was: the nameless Lovecraftian force was contrasted by the number of protagonists, any of whom could be attacked and subsequently prey upon the others. With the sequel, we are forced to focus on Ash until the archaeologists arrive in the second half. There feels like there is more at stake because he has no-one he can turn to and we have no hope if he gets killed. While The Evil Dead functions like a supernatural slasher movie, Evil Dead 2 is like a slasher movie that's been started twenty minutes before the end. It's the equivalent of doing Alien with only Ripley on the Nostromo, or The Haunting with only Nell in the house.
Raimi has a habit of putting his stars and audience through the mill; in the scenes where characters get punched, bashed or covered in blood, he's often standing just off-camera pressing the buttons and throwing the dangerous objects. By having the focus on Ash, the amount of pain and misery concentrated on the character becomes intensified to absurd degrees, and this absurdity in turn makes the film much funnier. Because Campbell is a great physical actor, he takes all this punishment in his stride, knowing exactly when to laugh and when to scream.
There is no better example of this then the sequence of Ash battling his possessed hand. Having tried to drown it in the sink, the hand starts bashing Ash over the head with plates and punches him in the stomach until he slumps unconscious into a pile of smashed crockery. On top of the initial absurdity (his hand being possessed and not the rest of him), the hand then proceeds to drag Ash's body towards a meat cleaver lying on the floor. We get a 'hand's-eye view' as it inches closer, only for Ash to stab it, and then cut it off with a chainsaw screaming "Who's laughing now?!". Having delivered the perfect blend of horror and slapstick comedy, Raimi gives us a cracking punch line, as Ash puts the hand in an upside-down metal bin, and weighs the bin down with a copy of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.
Evil Dead 2 also cranks up the humour by taking all the jokes in the first film to their logical conclusions. Instead of a small rickety old bridge that gets destroyed, we have a massive bridge over a vast, gaping chasm. Instead of sweet, awkward small talk between Ash and Linda, we have a goofy line about opening the champagne. Instead of simply wandering down into the cellar to get the pages of the book, we have Bruce Campbell fitting a chainsaw onto his severed arm and fooling around with a sawn-off shotgun. And instead of one pipe bursting and covering Campbell in blood, the whole cabin fills with gallons of blood when Ash shoots through the wall.
Evil Dead 2 also fleshes out some of the horror aspects which were explored in the first film. The Book of the Dead is now officially called the Necronomicon, in reference to H. P. Lovecraft's work of which Raimi was a big fan. The evil force rising up in the woods feels more malevolent, as it not only batters the cabin but manipulates objects in side of it, such as the deer's head and the laughing lamp. Even the zombies make a little more sense than the first film: not only do the humans keep mistakenly seeing them as people they love, so some of the monsters find their last remnants of humanity coming out, such as Annie singing a lullaby to her possessed aunt.
The make-up and special effects are also much better constructed. This isn't too great a surprise, since the original effects had no budget whatsoever and were done with whatever the actors could get hold of. But the rubber effects in particular are brilliant, whether in the distorted face of Ash as he emerges from the puddle or the grotesque zombie torsos that are so intricately disgusting. The stop-motion effects are better too, paying homage to the work of Ray Harryhausen while still feeling scary in their own right. Proof of this comes in the revelation of the evil force before it is sucked into the portal; it could look ridiculous, being essentially a tree with a face, but even after 25 years it's still pretty creepy.
As with the previous film, Evil Dead 2 just wouldn't work without the performance of Bruce Campbell. It's fair to say that he did all his own stunts, and looks for every moment like he has been put through the mill, but still keeps coming back for more. Not only is there the goofy, B-movie charm of the original Ash, but the film uses its jokes to show the psychological trauma he is going through. One of the funniest moments finds Ash is staring at his reflection in the mirror, and mutters to himself: "I'm fine." Then his reflection comes out of the mirror, grabs him and says: "I don't think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound... fine?"
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is a horror-comedy masterpiece and the pinnacle of Sam Raimi's career. Everything about the film is better, darker, smarter, funnier and scarier than the original, with Raimi marrying the horror and slapstick perfectly and avoiding any unnecessary awkwardness. It's a fantastic crowdpleaser which just keeps on delivering, with Campbell in his prime and the film firing on all cylinders. And for those who said the original simply couldn't be improved - well, "who's laughing now?!".
Full Metal Jacket is one of those great films which simply defy description. Even by Kubrick's standards, this is a highly complex, cerebral and multi-layered film, synthesising his meticulous technical and artistic sensibility with a wide range of compelling and familiar themes. It's not an easy watch, being at turns clinical and meandering, ruthless and relaxing. But for those who would give it their full attention, Full Metal Jacket is every bit as rewarding and harrowing as Apocalypse Now, and may even be the greatest film ever made about the Vietnam War.
Coming towards the end of a wave of films about Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket is much less a response to the likes of Rambo and Platoon than it is a refinement of Kubrick's earlier works. War has never been war from his films, whether in the cold war satire Dr. Strangelove, the trenches in Paths of Glory, or the epic cavalry battles in Barry Lyndon. Even 2001 and The Shining, which on the surface have nothing to do with war, touch on related themes such as dehumanisation, the relationship between man and machines, and the repressive nature of society's most treasured values and institutions.
At the centre of Full Metal Jacket is a chilling exploration of the attempts made by governments and armies to turn ordinary men into emotionless killers. The opening forty-five minutes feature some of the most beautifully constructed swathes of profanity outside of a David Mamet film, delivered by ex-drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey in a manner which is truly terrifying. After he punches Private Joker in the stomach, the camera cuts to him shouting in close-up, so that he is directly lecturing to you. Hartman seems incapable of mercy or understanding; he is the perfect machine, aware only of his pre-programmed duty. He is incapable either of disobeying himself or of tolerating disobedience in others, whether intentional (in the case of Joker) or unintentional (Private Pile).
All of what has just been written will reflect one's experience on first viewing. But after watching it a second time, Kubrick's motives become clearer. This is not a realistic depiction of army training in the strictest sense -- although the dialogue was improvised by a former drill sergeant and the period setting is faithful to its source, Full Metal Jacket is not an objective demonstration of the way things are. What it is instead is a blackly comedic and subtly savage argument for the impotence (both literal and metaphorical) of all authority figures. It is a demonstration that perfect machines are not so perfect, and that the seemingly black-and-white world of the military is riddled with inconsistencies and double standards.
Like Dr. Strangelove, there are prominent sexual or Freudian undercurrents throughout the film. Early on, Hartman instructs the grunts to give their rifles a girl's name "because this is the only pussy you people are going to get." The recruits' sexual urges become irrevocably intertwined with their instruction to kill, so that when they are offered a hooker outside a deserted cinema, they treat the act of sex like a battle -- it is a literal 'conquest'. This suggests that violence is an expression of sexual frustration, and therefore that Hartman is the most frustrated of them all.
The impotence of the army's methods is demonstrated in various ways. The most immediate way is that, after getting over the initial shock of the opening scene, we find ourselves perversely laughing both at the recruits and the drill instructor. Hartman and Pile become some kind of twisted double act, with one being up-tight and commanding, the other dopey but ultimately well-meaning. You're still slightly scared of Hartman, because you know from what he is capable of, but you find yourself endlessly rooting for Pile,
The fact that we find ourselves chuckling during these scenes is a hint at the great success of Kubrick's film in terms of characters. Kubrick was often criticised for being more interested in ideas than in people, of taking a God's-eye view at humanity and reducing his characters to puppets. Full Metal Jacket proves this to be nonsense, since our characters are able to maintain their distinctive and individual features even when at their most mechanised and soulless. The Man can berate and break them as much as it likes, but with a couple of notable exceptions, all of them remain human underneath, as shown by their more relaxed and easy-going state when the action moves to the Perfume River.
The powerful and very human message of Full Metal Jacket is this: no matter how much power someone or something is, their hold over individuals is never complete, and never works entirely in the way that was intended. Private Joker survives by learning how the system works and obeying it only when he has to. In a key scene a brutish colonel orders him to remove his peace button; but in the very next scene, Joker is still wearing it and smiling. His nickname is deserved, not just because of his flippancy towards the press office and Animal Mother, but because he 'gets the joke', realising the pointless nature of war.
But of course, being a Kubrick film, there's not a happy ending in all this. The film is prominently about the duality of man ("the Jungian thing", as Joker calls it), and it is therefore fair to assume that Joker and Pile represent the two sides of humanity. The army is portrayed as a paradoxical invention, something designed to protect humans by taking away people's humanity, and hence both Joker and Pile are destined for destruction.
Through a series of shots which resemble Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Pile becomes a perfect machine who kills not because he chooses to but because that is what his training and orders demand of him. He bites the hand that feeds him, turning the gun on himself because there is no-one left to give him orders. Joker's destruction is far more harrowing because he actually has to choose whether to kill or not. In the moment where he has to kill the sniper, we see his mental crash on screen, as he wrestles between his humanity and the possible mercy of killing her. After the shot is fired, he acquires the famed 'thousand-yard stare' of a broken man, over whom the system has won a small but significant victory. At one point Joker remarks that "the dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive", and yet as the film ends we wonder whether that is true.
The performances in Full Metal Jacket are absolutely terrific, with the stand-out being Matthew Modine as Joker. Having starred opposite Nicolas Cage in Alan Parker's Birdy, Modine was no stranger to playing soldiers. This is his finest performance, bringing a true sense of humanity to the character. R. Lee Ermey is very strong as Hartman (as one would expect), Adam Baldwin is brilliant as Animal Mother, and Vincent D'Onofrio is totally engrossing as Pile. In many war films a couple of characters will be deliberately under-written so that we don't get distracted by their deaths; here you identify with everyone, so that every time a kill comes your heart is ripped in two.
Full Metal Jacket is a full-blooded triumph for Kubrick, which is almost on a par with his best film, A Clockwork Orange. It is a heady and intoxicating mix of philosophy and adrenaline which is suitably open-ended and highly thought-provoking. It's the kind of film that will both enthral and bemuse you while you watch it, and then you will still be thinking about it three days later. Like its only true rival Apocalypse Now, if you're not totally focussed when you watch it, you may well find it ponderous and uninvolving. But go in prepared and with an open mind, and you will experience what is possibly the most intelligent and chilling war film ever made. It is, quite simply, awe-inspiring.
When it comes to American high school films, the 1980s belonged to John Hughes. Through Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Hughes perfected a sweet, light-hearted and nostalgic look at adolescence which touched the hearts of a generation. But like many trendsetters before him, it wasn't long before the master's work was widely imitated and devalued until it became an out-of-touch caricature. Such efforts were often enjoyable, but we never believed that we were seeing real teenagers on screen - and in the case of Hughes' later works, that was very often true.
In the midst of all this pastel-shaded gaiety, Heathers comes at you like a fizzling flask of vitriol, burning through those pleasant but deceptive veils to reveal the dark and bitchy underbelly of high school life. To this day it remains one of the darkest, funniest and edgiest comedies of the 1980s, which will make you howl with laughter even as you squirm in discomfort. While not an easy watch, it has lost none of its potency in 23 years, and is perhaps second only to Lindsay Anderson's If.... as the greatest high school film of all time.
While the John Hughes stable of films were often accused of being conservative, Heathers' production history suggests a work of great artistic ambition. Daniel Waters wrote the script with the intention of Stanley Kubrick directing it - a huge ambition for a first-time screenwriter. Waters believed that Kubrick was the only director who could get away with a three-hour film, and the only person who could make the definitive high school film, to go with the definitive sci-fi film in 2001.
First-time director Michael Lehmann, who had made a splash on the cult circuit with his short film Beaver Gets A Boner, got the gig of directing Heathers through his friendship with producer Denise di Novi. Di Novi was hot property in Hollywood in the late-1980s, having worked with Tim Burton on his hit comedy Beetlejuice, starring Winona Ryder. Ryder was offered the part after the success of Beetlejuice, proclaiming it to be the best script she had ever read. The rest, as they say, is history.
The look of Heathers is a very conscious departure from the John Hughes stable. The opening scenes, where the Heathers and Veronica are introduced, are a clear parody of Hughes, with bright and welcoming pastel shades which become darker as things move on. There is a dreamy feel to the opening act with soft focus around the edges of the screen, with Lehmann seeking to achieve the same hypnotic, discomforting effect that David Lynch did in Blue Velvet. Little by little the colours grow harsher and darker, culminating in a dream sequence which rivals Suspiria in its luridness; the prominent use of red and Ryder's passing resemblance to Jessica Harper put these sections aesthetically close to Dario Argento.
The visuals of Heathers play an important part in the film's dismantling of preconceptions that high school is the happiest time of your life. It depicts the various cliques at Westerburg High (the jocks, the nerds and of course the Heathers) with the perfect balance of the real and the extreme. Even if the bullies or the bitches we encountered weren't quite so hideous or self-absorbed, there is more than enough truth in their characterisations to make us shudder and recoil. The uptight, immaculate look of the Heathers perfectly encapsulates all those teenage girls who played on the affections and fears of others to hide their own insecurities.
The script of Heathers is nothing short of terrific, with scenes and sequences that are as good, if not slightly better, than anything Quentin Tarantino was turning out in the same period. Many of its one-liners have entered into cinema history, such as Heather Chandler's sarcastic retort, "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw", when Veronica suggests they hang out with different kinds of people. Some of the lines are hilariously surreal, like Ram's father exclaiming "I love my dead gay son" as Ram lies in an open coffin in his American football kit. But others are so scabrous that they make even hardened pros wince - for instance, JD's comment that "Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except for date rapes and AIDS jokes."
The best lines in Heathers are those which tap right into the teenage angst and low self-esteem of the characters. Early on in the film, the Heathers are chatting in the girls' toilets. Heather Duke, who suffers from bulimia, is teased by the girls with phrases like "don't you feel the urge to purge?" When she finally gives in and starts throwing her guts up, Heather Chandler rolls her eyes and remarks dismissively: "bulimia is so 1987". Later on in the film, Veronica writes a long passage in her diary which begins "My teen angst bullshit has a body count" and concludes: "Are we going to prom or to hell?". Lines like these are stupendously inventive in conveying the pressures of high school and the hypocrisies of the in-crowd.
The film is utterly merciless towards its characters and the audience. Every time you think the film has reached its limits, and drawn a line in the sand, it takes a full stride over that line and pulls you over head first. It doesn't take long to adjust to the tone of Heathers in and of itself, but the jokes become darker and more inventive with every turn. One of the best examples of this comes when JD and Veronica are slumped in the car having just killed Kurt and Ram. Veronica takes the cigarette lighter and applies it to her hand in self-flagellation; JD stops her, before leaning over to light his cigarette from her smouldering palm.
Just as Monty Python's Life of Brian is a film about blasphemy rather than a blasphemous film, so Heathers is a film which mocks the media presentation of teenage suicide rather than teenage suicide itself. It handles the subject with a ruthless intelligence, showing how the act of suicide can produce bizarre psychological reactions, turning enemies into martyrs and uniting completely different kinds of people. It also shows how parents and the media approach the issue in a way which is ultimately irrelevant or ineffective to the needs of the children. In its handling of a difficult and complex subject matter in a way which is both visceral and stimulating, Heathers is on a par with We Need To Talk About Kevin - and on that front, there is no higher praise.
Although it seems odd to say it, Heathers comes across as quite a moral film. The film entertains the fantasy of all frustrated or bullied teenagers, namely wishing death upon their enemies, and shows the central character coming through triumphant by being true to herself and asserting her own way of treating people. It is a coming-of-age film insofar as Veronica endures by reaching a point of maturity, where she need no longer entertain such evil desires.
From this perspective, JD is the physicalisation of Veronica's desires or temptations. He acts like the little devil on her shoulder who is at once repulsive and irresistible. JD gives her what she wants in terms of affection and satisfaction, but at the cost of losing control of her own destiny, and Veronica's eventual defeat of JD is her recognition that she doesn't have to be a bitch or a psycho to survive in life. There is a comparison with Let The Right One In in how the film uses an outsider character to represent the burgeoning, adolescent aggression of the characters, with similarly destructive results.
There has been some debate over the ending of Heathers since the film was first released. The ending Lehmann originally envisioned involved Veronica blowing up the entire school and the cast re-uniting in heaven at a massive prom. In hindsight this would have been a little fanciful, treading too close to the 'Christmas in Heaven' sequence from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. The ending as it stands is perfect, completing Veronica's defeat of both her demons and the Heathers, ushering in a new phase of her life.
Heathers is a terrifically dark comedy which remains unrivalled in the pantheon of American high school films. The performances are first-class, with Winona Ryder in terrific form as Veronica and Christian Slater channelling Jack Nicholson from The Witches of Eastwick. Their great work is complimented with Waters' outstanding script and Lehmann's sharp direction, all of which conspires to create a true, dark-hearted masterpiece. One thing is for certain - after seeing Heathers, you'll never look at high school the same way again.
Film franchises are subject to the law of diminishing returns. If a sequel is sub-par compared to the original, it's very unlikely that any third instalment could redress the balance, let alone be the best film in the series. Even if a sequel turns out to be good, or even slightly better than the original, the third instalment of a trilogy is so often the weakest film - Army of Darkness and Mad Max 3 being very good examples.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would therefore seem like a lost cause. Not only is it following a sequel which dropped the ball (Temple of Doom), but it comes five years after Harrison Ford last wore the fedora. In that time Steven Spielberg had attempted to branch out into more 'serious' dramatic work with The Colour Purple and Empire of the Sun; any return would have a tinge of reluctance to it. But once you look beyond the reputation of threequels or the long production process, you are left with an astonishingly good film, which refines everything that made Raiders of the Lost Ark great and brings a whole lot of new things to the table. Forget Jaws, forget Raiders, forget anything else: this is Spielberg at his absolute best.
The move back to the territory of Raiders is a very conscious one. Spielberg said that he wanted to make a film that reminded both him and the audience of why they fell in love with Indy in the first place. Not only is the tone much more light-hearted and the plot more quest-driven, but the opening sequence plays through almost the exact same beats of the opening to Raiders. We begin with the Paramount logo over an actual mountain, before tracking towards men walking through a deserted area and Indiana going into a place where he isn't supposed to be. There is the enigmatic reveal of the man in the hat (not Indy on this occasion), followed by the unveiling of a valuable object and an elaborate chase.
The way I've described this opening, you might be quick to pass off Last Crusade as a desperate rip-off of the original. In fact, the film takes everything that Raiders got right and makes it that little bit better. The jokes are funnier, the pacing is faster, the interaction between the characters is a little more complex, and surprisingly there is more depth to the story. This film is the perfect example of how popcorn films can be made with both brains and heart; not only can they be slick and efficient in their execution, but they can make you really feel for the characters in a way that brings out the substance of the story.
Much of the substance takes the form of the mythology of the Holy Grail. It's still ultimately very silly - the Holy Grail has about as much to do with Christianity as flaming sacrifices have to do with Hinduism. But as with Raiders, the mythology is watertight enough so that the themes surrounding the Grail come out while working as a plot device. You can still view the Grail and the diary as McGuffins if you want to, but the film is more intelligent than Raiders in its connection of plot and theme, always inviting you to read more in without demanding it at the expense of the action.
Each of the themes that emerge finds the history of the Grail and its keepers matching up with the present circumstances of the characters. Henry Jones Sr. has devoted his entire life to the pursuit and discovery of the Grail, just as the knights and the holy order have dedicated their lives to protecting it. Both Indiana and the Nazis are more active and opportunistic in their approach, but they make very different moral choices which ultimately determine their fate. While Donovan and Elsa are ultimately greedy, believing in the Grail only for the sake of acquiring its power, Indiana truly makes a leap of faith, respecting its power and acknowledging his own humble status.
Last Crusade, like many of Spielberg's films, is about sons trying to reconcile with their fathers (and vice versa). As before the script ties up the central relationship with the mythology of the Grail, giving the interplay between father and son a great deal of weight, and in turn making the stakes seem higher once we have invested in them. Both Temple of Doom and Last Crusade attempt to flesh out Indy by taking us back before the events of Raiders, but Last Crusade is far more effective in showing how all his little tics, fears and attributes came about.
As a result of the opening, Indiana's motivation shifts from a slightly more principled form of thrill-seeking to an attempt to either win approval from or spite his parents. The differences between father and son in approach are ultimately outweighed by their similarity of moral belief and passions - right down to falling for the same woman. Their relationship reflects the distance between God and Man, with Man searching for power and approval from other sources, and ultimately reconciling through an admission of the father's greatness and a mutual expression of love. As silly as it might seem in what is essentially a big-budget B-movie, the relationship between Henry Jones and 'Junior' is really quite powerful.
A lot of the film's appeal in this regard comes from the brilliant performance of Sean Connery. Early on in the production Connery said to Lucas and Spielberg: "Listen, I'm [Indy's] father. Whatever he's done, I did it first, and I did it better." By all accounts he brought a lot of ideas to the production about set-pieces and character, and the film crackles and sparks whenever he and Ford are playing off each other. Despite being only 12 years older than Ford, Connery carries himself brilliantly, with just the right balance between doddery incompetence and surprising ingenuity. It's arguably Connery's best work since Bond, and perhaps his last truly great performance.
The supporting cast of Last Crusade are also fantastic. Denholm Elliott's role shifts from a father or mentor figure in Raiders to cosseted comic relief; there's a great deal of natural comedy that emerges from putting a man who "got lost in his own museum" in such great amounts of peril. Julian Glover, who got the role through his appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, is a perfect fit for Walter Donovan, with the suave, well-dressed and well-spoken exterior disguising a dark, ruthless heart. And Alison Doody is very good as Elsa Schneider; while her character isn't as resourceful as Marian Ravenwood, she makes Elsa appealingly conflicted; we know what side she's on, and yet we keep asking questions about where her loyalty truly lies.
One of the biggest boons of Last Crusade is its humour. In Temple of Doom the warmer, more playful scenes only came in short spurts - for instance, the bedroom scenes with Indy and Willie playing mind games with each other. In this film the jokes flow freely, with each and every scene either containing witty dialogue or a great physical gag. Not only is the film edited far better than Temple of Doom (at least in terms of pacing), but the humour compliments and adds to the characterisation, rather than serving as a welcome break from uninviting imagery. There is no better example of this than when Indy runs into Hitler with the grail diary: the Fuhrer has the key to great power in his grasp, but he mistakes it for an autograph book, signs it and moves on.
Even if all you cared about was the action set-pieces, Last Crusade delivers them in spades. There are so many great scenes to choose from, with each action scene lasting for just the right amount of time, serving the plot while being memorable in its own right. The tank chase is particularly brilliant, with Spielberg using every possible camera angle to wring the most of one massive prop. The fights are inventive, the editing is superb, and John Williams' music is (no pun intended) note-perfect throughout. It's one of the best scenes in the whole series, and considering how high the bar was set by the Raiders truck chase, that's saying something.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a brilliant and breathless masterpiece which takes the crown hands down as the best film in the Indy series. It has all the strengths of Raiders with none of the flaws of Temple of Doom, refining everything that has gone before and then throwing in a great deal more humour and heart. Whether you're looking for sentimentality with substance or just two hours of popcorn fun, you'll struggle to be disappointed by this expertly-crafted thrill-ride. It is one of the greatest films of the 1980s and the best film of Spielberg's career.
The Disney Renaissance was underpinned by two major shifts in Disney thinking. One was a move back to the fairy tale and fantasy territory that had underpinned the Golden Age, and the other was a more confident and forthright approach to production and promotion. Disney spent much of the 1980s figuring out exactly what kind of stories they wanted to tell and how they wanted to sell them, and after many failed but interesting attempts, they finally hit lucky with The Little Mermaid.
But even with Mermaid's critical acclaim and box office success, Disney's return was by no means solidified. Their tactics of releasing films in quick succession suffered a setback when The Rescuers Down Under slipped under the radar, where it has remained somewhat ever since. It would take something really special to finally convince critics that Disney was well and truly back - and that special something was Beauty and the Beast. Even after 22 years, it still stands proud and untarnished as the perfect jewel in Disney's second crown.
In my review of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, I spoke about Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise being far more accomplished dealing with adaptations than they are with original stories. They are masters of taking a pre-existing, often reputable source, and channelling its darkness in a way that younger audiences can appreciate. The version presented here is hardly the most faithful to the original fairy tale (though such terms are problematic, considering the many different versions of all the classic stories). But it is extremely faithful to the spirit of the story and plays it straight, taking all the magical elements at face value.
This new-found confidence of Disney is plain to see throughout Beauty and the Beast. There are numerous scenes which draw on the company's back catalogue and invoke past glories, but unlike the wilderness years these references are driven by a desire to celebrate the past and integrate the present, rather than just film up the frame. There are big nods to Snow White in the opening scenes, with Belle's interaction with the animals mirroring that of her historical counterparts. The montages in 'Be Our Guest' look back to Fantasia, as do the dancing mops in 'Human Again' (which was cut from the original release). More esoterically, Gaston's character design owes a fair deal to that of Brom Bones in The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad.
The big question that's always raised regarding Beauty and the Beast is whether or not the film promotes Stockholm syndrome - the psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy, sympathy or affection towards their kidnappers over a prolonged period. The line of argument goes something like this. Belle is initially repulsed by the Beast, as any sensible person would be, and only falls in love with him as a result of being imprisoned by him. What seems like a genuine unlikely romance that succeeds against all odds is in fact an unfortunate psychological trauma, to which our heroine is condemned forever.
It may be fashionable and convenient to invoke, but in terms of the plot this argument holds no water. While it is true that Belle chooses to stay in the castle, she does so out of devotion to her father rather than affection for her captor. Her relationship with the Beast is strained at first and she continues to exercise authority, even when it will put her at opposition to him - in contrast to those with Stockholm syndrome, who end up fawning over their captors.
When the Beast rescues her in the forest (having allowed her to flee), she is genuinely thankful and repays kindness with kindness, not because she feels psychologically bound to, but because that was always in her nature. Finally, when the Beast allows her to go and save her father, she leaves freely of her own accord, and as before the Beast makes no effort to stop her or beg her to return - much to the amazement and despair of his loyal servants.
This line of defence also hints at another success of the film: its heroine. Belle is a far more rounded character and a far better role model than Cinderella, and the film has very different emphases compared to other Disney princess films before or since. A lot more time and care is given towards her intelligence, resourcefulness, independence and morality, setting her up as a genuinely likeable character who is more grown-up and worldly than, say, Aurora. Yes, she may be beautiful on the outside, but there's so much more to her than that.
Beyond Belle, the characterisation throughout Beauty and the Beast betrays immense care and attention to detail. The vast majority of the supporting cast don't appear in the original story, but genuine thought has gone into every last one of them, and many of the character decisions are both creative and imaginative. The physical characterisations match up beautifully with the personalities - Lumiere is light and greasy, Cosworth obsesses over punctuality and order, Mrs. Potts is warm and homely, and Chip is impish and precocious. If nothing else these decisions bring real character and coherence to this world, grounding the audience in their logic while always preserving the magic.
The visuals of Beauty and the Beast reflect the desire to find the magic and ethereal in the potentially ordinary. The whole colour palette has a blue tinge to it, extending to the dark shadows of the Beast's cloak in one direction and to the uninviting snow in the other. The film captures all the visual ingredients of the European fairy tale (forbidding castles, dark woods, close-knit villages, etc.) and presents them in the most ravishing way possible. It's as though Disney were attempting to justify its entire iconography through the strength of its animation, and suffice to say it works wonders.
The film runs a whole gamut of emotions and is masterful in shifting from and balancing different tones. Linda Woolverton, who also worked on The Lion King, understands the horror underpinnings of fairy tales, and neither she nor the directors pull any punches in the moments that need to be scary. The Beast's entrance is deeply intimidating, and the film makes excellent use of shadows and sounds to ramp up the terror through suggestion. Equally scary are the scenes in the West Wing, beginning slowly with Belle's face in the cracked mirror and then letting lose when the Beast discovers her and flies into a blinding rage.
Equally, Beauty and the Beast is an incredibly funny and heart-warming experience. Since the central relationship is so intense, much of the comic relief has to come from the supporting cast, and each character shines in their own way. Cogsworth is a hilarious fall guy, bringing endless merriment from his pomposity and cowardice. Certainly his antics rival those of Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone for pure unmitigated hilarity, and the glossier animation allows more of the physical humour to be fully realised.
Most of the heart-warming moments in the film are brought to life through Alan Menken's score. I've been hard on Jeffrey Katzenberg in the past (and with good reason, regarding The Black Cauldron), but his decision to make the film a musical was the right one. The songs are all stand-outs, combining catchy melodies and clever lyrics without ever sounding like the singers or writers are showing off. The first few notes of the title song are enough to make your heart sing and quiver, while 'Be Our Guest' remains completely irresistible.
Not only is the film tonally perfect, but the script understands the emotional depth and subtleties of the story. Its overarching themes about inner beauty and not judging by appearances are expertly conveyed through the strong character writing and development. Even the most cartoonish figures, like Gaston and Lefou, are written like believable human beings capable of rational decisions. Not only is the film's message a brilliant one for children, it's delivered in a manner that encourages them to think rather than just accept the events that they see.
Beauty and the Beast is the crowning glory of the Disney Renaissance and the company's best work since Sleeping Beauty. The respectful and intelligent treatment of the original story is married to beautiful visuals, fantastic character writing and a soundtrack that remains one of the best in any 1990s film. Even after all these years its power still remains, to wow your senses and above all win your heart.
Film biopics are almost impossible to get right, because they require the uneasy marriage of so-called ?objective? history and the ?subjective? art of filmmaking. Many films never get the mix right, tipping in one of two directions. Either they become incredibly hagiographic, in the case of Good Night and Good Luck, or they become a means to heckle historical characters, like JFK and Nixon. In both cases the director?s viewpoint triumphs over any historical ?truth?: the story the director is putting on screen overshadows any given ?reality?, so that the film becomes either a sycophancy convention or an iconoclast?s lecture.
The reason that Ed Wood is such a success is that we know from the start what the director?s intentions are. Tim Burton makes it clear from the opening ten minutes that his film is a tribute to Wood, rather than a sweeping biography. The Hammer-style opening credits, in which Jeffrey Jones rises out of the coffin and gives a deliberately hammy speech, show Burton?s admiration for a kindred spirit. Hence there are never moments where you feel cheated or insulted by the images he puts on screen or the liberties he takes. You know it?s an admirer?s tribute, and so you invest with the characters as characters rather than worrying about whether it?s ?true?.
The look of the film is absolutely superb: from the opening credits in the graveyard to the ending at the premier of Plan 9 from Outer Space, you feel like you?re actually in one of Ed Wood?s films (only it?s good). The aesthetic is seamless to support the idea that Wood?s films and ideas came from his own life experience; his transvestism serves as the inspiration for Glen or Glenda, and his admiration for Béla Lugosi leads Wood to cast him as God. The black-and-white cinematography not only captures the look of 1950s Hollywood very well, but it serves as a warm and nostalgic reminder of a bygone age, albeit one with similarities to our own.
Central to this film is the idea of artistic creativity struggling against the commercial pressure and legal might of studios. It?s clear that Burton sees something of himself in Wood, and wanted to offer an alternative viewpoint to counter the common image of him as ?the worst director of all time.? The Wood he puts on screen is eternally optimistic, excitable, childlike and full of creativity; all he lacks is the ability to keep his feet on the ground and realise what works and what doesn?t. For all this Burton doesn?t paint him as a saint: his optimism and love for Orson Welles escalate throughout the film to the point at which it becomes delusional. But you still find yourself rooting for the character no matter how often or how badly he fails.
Part of this likeability is down to Johnny Depp?s performance, which is one of his very best. Burton?s background in animation means that he understands composition and physical shapes; when you marry that with Depp, great physical actor, the result is always impeccable. Depp?s every tic, twitch and vocal mannerism draw the audience in, staying on the right side of disturbing without being overtly creepy. Even the strangest of these, where Depp shakes his head while grinning and then blurts out ?Yes!?, leads you to laugh with the character rather than at him. It?s a master-class in immersing oneself into a role.
Many of the other performances are also of a high quality. Martin Landau is superb as Béla Lugosi, balancing decrepitude with a strange vigour. It doesn?t matter that Lugosi didn?t curse like a sailor in real life; his rants about Boris Karlof fit with the character on screen, and he more than deserved his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Bill Murray is wonderfully droll as the openly gay Bunny Breckenridge, and the film even manages to get a good performance from Sarah Jessica Parker. There?s also a fine cameo by Vincent D?Onofrio playing Orson Welles (although his voice is dubbed by Maurice LaMarche).
In fact, this scene is central to the film. In real life Wood never met his hero Welles; they never had a conversation about Citizen Kane or their struggles against studios. It doesn?t matter, because that scene is not meant to be historically accurate or realistic. The scene, and the film as a whole, is a microcosm about the struggles of filmmaking. It?s a reminder that bad things can happen to the best of people, and that no matter what the result is, perseverance will win the day. Both Wood?s and Welles? work was trashed when it came out ? now most of it is held in high regard.
Ed Wood is easily Tim Burton?s best film before Sweeney Todd. It?s a film which manages to be bold and beautiful while never selling out either to sycophancy or sentimentality. The pacing is perfect, with no sequence in the whole two hours being any less than the ideal length, and most importantly it features a whole cast of developed characters which depart from the stereotypes and in whom we all invest. It?s a wonderful piece of work, beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted and helmed by one of the best directors of the last 20 years. A true masterpiece.
Just as Star Wars shifted the focus of science fiction from inner space to outer space, so there is a trend in the 1980s and 1990s for time travel films which are more concerned with the mechanics of time travel than its metaphysical implications. For all the intelligence of Back to the Future, its fascination with how a flux capacitor could actually work leads us to get distracted from the deeper impact had on the characters. Eventually this trend of effects over depth gave us the likes of Timecop, in which time travel is little more than an action gimmick.
In one fell swoop, Twelve Monkeys completely redresses this imbalance which has dogged this sci-fi sub-genre for some time. Taking the best elements of the Chris Marker short Le Jetee, it draws on the likes of Blade Runner and Slaughterhouse Five to create a chilling and compelling portrait of both a post-apocalyptic future and a chaotic near-present on the brink of destruction.
The examination of time travel in Twelve Monkeys centres around Novikov's self-consistency principle. This complicated area of theoretical physics deals with the issue of paradoxes - for instance, going back in time to kill one's own grandfather. It essentially postulates that while time travel may be physically and technically possible, the past and future cannot be altered because any intervention by the traveller would create a paradox.
A good cinematic example to illustrate this is the much-maligned ending of Superman, in which Superman reverses time by spinning the Earth backwards so he can avert an earthquake and stop Lois from being killed. In this example, the cause of Superman going back in time is the death of Lois - but if he changes events and she lives, he would have no reason to go back and so Lois would still die. The timelines correct themselves, with cause and effect cancelling each other out.
Twelve Monkeys expands this realisation into a fascinating thesis on the futility of humanity and its inability to avert potential, self-imposed disasters. Novikov's logic is present throughout: Cole is chosen to go back because he is a good observer, rather than some kind of hero who can stop the virus. The scientists who send him there are only interested in finding a cure for their society, rather than stopping the virus at its inception. Cole witnesses his own death but can do nothing to prevent it. Arguably he causes it the crisis as well, considering what happens when he is sent to the wrong time the first time out.
Cole and his counterparts are modern-day Cassandras: in the words of Dr. Railly, they have "the agony of foreknowledge combined with impotence to do anything about it." Cole's agony is aggravated by the flashbacks of the airport, which become more significant and poignant as the film rolls on. There is a through-line between Cole's predicament and that of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five; both characters have some foreknowledge of their own deaths and some form of fatalistic contempt for the powers-that-be, whether they be generals or scientists.
To prevent such a depressing thesis from weighing the film down, Twelve Monkeys is shot is a deeply disorientating manner. There are many Terry Gilliam tropes involved such as unusual camera angles and cleverly timed zooms which gave a sense of scale and demonstrate how small our protagonists are. Most of the scenes (especially those with Brad Pitt) have an immense kinetic energy, with a script which walks a tightrope between wacky profundity and blathering nonsense. But unlike on his later films, Gilliam's execution of these scenes is perfect and profundity always wins out.
Like Brazil and The Fisher King before it, Twelve Monkeys is a great examination of insanity and the thin line between madness and genius. But what makes this film clever is the way in which our perceptions of madness and sanity shift as the characters develop and more information about the apocalypse comes to light. There is a rich thread running throughout the film about the assumed status and logic of psychiatry, and how this status is used to manipulate people. This clearly hints back to the work of French philosopher Michael Foucault, whose work in Discipline and Punish explored the relationship between knowledge (e.g. the discipline of psychiatry) and power (the way individuals can be controlled through the received credibility of said discipline).
At the beginning, we are convinced that Cole is the only sane person within the world of the film. The doctors who examine him in 1990 diagnose him as mad on the basis of the accepted wisdom of psychiatry, the "new religion". But by the final half-hour, it is Railly who is convinced that he was telling the truth, while Cole wants to accept that he is delusional. In the end, we don't know how real anything is any more. We remain glued to the story because of the high stakes and tension, but are just as confused, hysterical and disorientated as the characters, which in testament to the immersive power of the film.
This rich, enticing vein of ambiguity runs throughout the screenplay, which comes from the co-writers of Blade Runner. This time round it is not a question of who is human and who is a replicant, but who is mad or sane. And as in Blade Runner, there is an appealing third possibility - namely that neither distinction matters because the lines between them are blurry, artificial constructs. Like Deckard and Rachael before them, Cole and Railly choose to abandon their intended paths and escape, not just from this dark world but from all concept of reality. Fantasy and reality blur into one in the final section: one moment they are in a cinema showing Vertigo and The Birds, the next Railly is a Hitchcockian blonde who appears as Cole's salvation.
Aside from its bleak exploration of time travel, Twelve Monkeys is a great political document, subtly tipping its hat to a wide range of contemporary issues. Having a virus which is destined to wipe out most of mankind can be interpreted as a reaction to the growing AIDS pandemic. The film is deeply cynical about political action, depicting the Army of the Twelve Monkeys as "teenagers playing revolution" in the mother of all red herrings. And many of Brad Pitt's jabberings in the mental hospital are insightful comments about Western culture. Comments about people becoming little more than consumers and being infantilised by television are closely reminiscent of Neil Postman's arguments in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
The performances in Twelve Monkeys are all of the highest calibre. Bruce Willis gives his finest performance as Cole, displaying genuine sensitivity and emotional depth so that we truly feel the pain and suffering of his character. The few action sequences in the film are downplayed so that they don't feel like John McClane has just burst into the future.
Madeleine Stowe has the same stoic noir beauty that Sean Young has in Bade Runner, managing to show frenzy without ever overcooking it. Brad Pitt is great, managing to play crazy without annoying us, and giving a rounded performance fully deserving of his Oscar nomination. And David Morse is downright chilling in his pivotal role; certainly it's a million miles from Brutus Howell in The Green Mile.
Twelve Monkeys is an outstanding science fiction film written and directed with confidence and intelligence. The performances are superb, the visuals and set design are captivating, the dialogue is both funny and poignant, and the ending is truly perfect. As a Gilliam film it takes pride of place next to Brazil, and it is up there with The Green Mile as one of the greatest films of the 1990s. It is an utter triumph from every conceivable angle, that will scramble your brain and then stay with you forever.
When searching for snappy one-liners to compare movies, it's very easy to make a fool of yourself. The Wicker Man is not "the Citizen Kane of horror movies" - not because it isn't great, but because it's not a horror film. The Adjustment Bureau is not "Bourne meets Inception" - because it's a great deal lighter and sillier than either of those. And Princess Mononoke is not "the Star Wars of animation" - because it's arguably a whole lot better than Star Wars.
Princess Mononoke is an enchanting, dazzling piece of filmaking, refining and retuning elements from Hayao Miyazaki's previous works while still feeling bracingly original. Its technical perfection in its marriage of hand-drawn and CG animation is matched only by the nuance and vibrancy of its storytelling and the multi-layered subtlety of its themes. It is also the film which finally broke Miyazaki into the West, with John Lasetter of Pixar overseeing the English-language dub.
In relation to Miyazaki's back catalogue, the film is closest to his earlier epic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Both films depict multiple civilisations at various stages of economic and political development, in the context of a modern world wrestling with the influence of ancient gods and demons. And, of course, both feature female protagonists whose motives and allegiances are not entirely clear-cut. But although it's slightly longer, Princess Mononoke is a much more focussed work. Even when it has to balance multiple story strands which become more and more frantic, it constantly feels like it a film that knows what it is doing and where it is going.
As always with Miyazaki, the visuals are beautiful to behold. But Mononoke is notable for being the first of his works to incorporate elements of CG animation alongside more traditional hand-drawn techniques. Because of Miyazaki's affection for hand-drawn animation, both in its personal touch and its tactility, CGI is employed only very selectively - the most notable example being in the opening battle between Ashitaka and the possessed boar. CG technology is used to animate the demon worms on Ashitaka's forearm, but because they are carefully coloured and only on screen very briefly, you honestly couldn't tell the difference.
Although the film is a PG certificate, there are many moments in Princess Mononoke which are dark, creepy or just plain surprising. In its opening minutes a number of people are decapitated by arrows or have their arms shot clean off in the heat of battle. The writhing mass of demon worms which cluster round the boar are reminiscent of Gerald Scarfe's psychotic animations in Pink Floyd - The Wall. In several scenes characters are bleeding or have some form of life-threatening injury - the camera doesn't flinch, and the implication is that neither should we. And then there is the last 30 minutes, of the Deer God turning to the same void-like black sludge of No-Face in Spirited Away, spreading all over the landscape and destroying all that he touches.
What these moments hint towards is the emotional maturity of Princess Mononoke. It is a refinement of Nausicaa in its depiction of characters who are morally ambiguous. This is a world without absolute concepts of good and evil, in which ideas of right and wrong exist solely within the minds of its protagonists, some of whom have very limited perspectives. The world is one of complex economy and murky Realpolitik, with alliances being made and broken constantly. Few animated films have so brilliantly captured the reality of modern politics while keeping their fantasy world so seamlessly unique.
As well as having several interweaving strands, Princess Mononoke is notable amongst animations for having no central protagonist and no-one who is straightforwardly heroic - which makes The New York Post's comparison with Star Wars all the more redundant. All of the characters believe that what they are doing is right. San is defending the Deer God and the wolves whose spirit inhabits her from the encroaching humans, whom she accuses of unduly destroying the forests. The humans in the ironworks believe that the ancient gods stand in the way of their progress, only turning to them in order to exploit their power and win wars.
Ashitaka, who could be called our lead character, has both a selfish and an existential bent. He is selfish in that he journeys to find a cure for his curse, and has little time to be delayed by the needs of others. But through his many meetings and coming to terms with the force that is consuming him, he comes to realise his place in the universe and atone for what he has done. At the beginning of the film, he is more impulsive and self-centred, allowing his cursed arm to control him at crucial moments; but eventually, through his attachment to others, its power relents and he learns to live with himself.
Like Nausicaa before it, Princess Mononoke is an environmental film in its negative depiction of humans' impact on the world around them. But as before, the film makes the point of focussing on attitude as much as action, and by refusing to caricature humanity as purely and inherently evil. The forest creatures may be fighting back against the humans but they are also warring amongst themselves - the wolves versus the boars, the boars versus the monkeys and so forth.
In its characterisation of the gods, the film is much more of an allegory of the Renaissance, with people trying to kill or forget 'ancient Gods' to forge ahead and create a new civilisation. Up until the last ten minutes, it is very even-handed, suggesting that while what the humans are doing is destructive, the vengeance of the gods is hardly better, with both sides prone to being headstrong and impulsive. There are also big spiritual overtones to the Deer God's final act. Having regained his head and slaked his wrath, he gives up his spirit to rejuvenating the forest, drawing comparisons with Christ or the story of Noah and the flood.
Princess Mononoke continues the trend in Miyazaki's works of equal footing for female characters. Women not only take a more dominant role but their identities are freely accepted, whether at the ironworks or in San's leadership of the wolves. When women claim to be more productive than men and able to defend themselves, Miyazaki resists throwing in a set-piece showing a woman humiliating a man in battle or another such cheap gesture. There is more than enough in the humorous banter between male and female to suggest that these people are not to be messed with, let alone belittled.
As if we needed any more convincing, Princess Mononoke has moments of pure fantasy which are absolutely to die for. The sequence of the Deer God dissipating into the Earth and turning the whole land green puts even the heaven sequence in Porco Rosso to shame. The marriage between fantasy and reality is perfect, placing moments of visual magic and poetry in the midst of deep personal conflict. San and Ashitaka do not end up together, at least not romantically, but in view of the magic unfolding they learn to recognise each other's differences and gain mutual respect. San learns to tolerate the existence of humans, while Ashitaka embraces nature, in the hope that the others will follow his example.
Princess Mononoke is a pure, undiluted masterpiece and one of the very best films of the 1990s. It is a truly outstanding piece of work, whether visually, thematically or technically. Its execution on every level is note-perfect, addressing complicated and grown-up themes while never shutting out the younger viewer. Most of all, it is a film which proves not only the virtues of animation as a medium, but which demonstrates that animation does not have to be inferior to live-action, either in content or delivery. It is a true masterstroke that will stand the test of time.
The Truman Show is a truly brilliant film, and a huge turning point in the careers of its key players. It introduced a more mature and meaningful side of Jim Carrey, allowing him to get beyond rubber-faced comedy and find a new, more serious audience. It consolidated Peter Weir's status as a great director, which ultimately led to a Best Picture nomination for Master and Commander. And it launched the career of Natascha McElhone, a very underrated actress who would later star opposite George Clooney in the remake of Solaris.
Many people have written about how the film was ahead of its time in predicting the influence and extent of reality television on our culture. But what's even more interesting is the way in which this vision or prophecy is presented. There have been a long history of films which have either looked at individuals being manipulated for the sake of entertainment (Network) or have revealed dark secrets hiding beneath the visage of perfect American suburbia (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Stepford Wives and much of David Lynch). What connects these diverse and interesting films is their ultimately cynical nature, which is present not just in their subject matter but in their look and their resolution.
What is so different about The Truman Show is that it manages to handle these subjects very well indeed while still being warm and inviting. We find the characters charming and engaging rather than creepy and eerie. We invest in the distant relationship between Jim Carrey and Natascha McElhone because they are genuinely likeable and believable characters, and they make the film more accessible than it otherwise would have been. In Blue Velvet, you understand very early on that everyone on screen is guilty; your attachment and empathy comes partly from the moral growth of Kyle McLaughlan and partly from the hypnotic style of shooting. In this, the empathy comes from a far more simple yet equally valid desire to see an optimistic outcome in this oddly threatening world.
That's not to say that the film isn't afraid to be savage. Throughout this charming looking film we find occasional and biting references to the 'progress' of our society. Weir deliberately lit the interior scenes very brightly, so that every shot of Truman or his wife looked like an advertisement. It's so effective that when the obviously fake product placement pops up in conversation, it's more of a surreal tangent than the jarring cop-out we have come to expect.
The few shots we see of the public watching the show portray them as people with little life outside of watching others. The final line of the film, "What else is on?", is a barbed attack on our increasingly short attention spans, and plays with the idea that the emotional involvement we have with characters like Truman is ultimately manufactured. We don't really care about the people on screen, we just respond to certain shots and music cues in a way which is pre-programmed, either by genetics or by social conventions. It's almost as though Weir is playing Kubrick in that final scene, using the film as a mirror into which we look and see our increasingly sinister reflections.
All of this moralising is made more powerful by the fact that Weir allows for ambiguity. In presenting to us the dangers of a society based around reality T.V, he acknowledges the potential benefits that it may bring. Ed Harris' character is the mouthpiece for this, arguing that Truman's life is an inspiration to millions; the power of television to reach large audiences makes him a perverse kind of role model, and in return he need not fear anything, at least in theory. The irate conversation which Christof has with McElhone's character makes him seem more sympathetic, if not moral, so that you understand why he created the show even if you don't agree with it. The screenplay doesn't force any of its moral points down the audience's throats, instead allowing them to accept as much of it as they wish.
The appeal of the film is underscored by a series of remarkable performances. Most of these had to be natural enough so that Truman was convinced that everything was normal, but at the same time forced enough to make them stand out from the 'public' and remind us that it's a show. In fact the best moments in the film are where this divide becomes almost indiscernible -- we get sucked into the action, becoming more than just observers or voyeurs.
So many comedians have reverted to serious roles late in their career as a final admission that they are no longer funny -- a comment which was wrongly made about Peter Sellers in Being There. Jim Carrey knew this and took a pay cut to do this film, to prove to himself and the world that he could do drama. He has a childlike frailty to his performance reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition, and he manages to reign himself in when the film requires him to become more off-beat and wacky.
Laura Linney is a great match for him as Meryl, portraying her as the forced, perfect woman from The Stepford Wives with perfect teeth and solid family values. She may have less to work with, but her strained and serious attitude towards both her life and her acting career really lifts the more subtle comedic moments. Natascha McElhone is brilliant, delivering a performance in which she does so little and yet says so much. She's only on screen for a few scenes, but like Claire Danes she has genuine presence so that we cannot help but invest in her character. And Ed Harris is fantastic as Christof, allowing the lines to speak for themselves and handling himself with the same quiet grace that he has in both Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.
The Truman Show is a well-written, well-acted and well-disciplined film which takes complex, relevant subject matter and relays it to the audience without either alienating or patronising. Every single scene serves a purpose and the film is the perfect length. Rather than spending a lot of time setting up the world, we get a brief glimpse of it before the story literally falls into our sights in the first five minutes. It has the pace and discipline which perhaps Master and Commander lacked, coupled with a visual sensibility which is arresting and endearing. Weir is a great period director, drawing on both the look and themes of Dead Poets' Society to craft what could be his masterpiece. One of the best films of the 1990s and a real must-see.
It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in film or literature that Stephen King, one of the great humanist writers of our time, could be the source of one of the greatest Christian parables ever committed to pen or placed on celluloid. Frank Darabont?s first creation, The Shawshank Redemption, was and is awe-inspiring, but with The Green Mile he has created one of the five greatest films of all-time.
At nearly three hours long, and shot in a style which is slow-moving, it?s by no means an easy ride. And whereas Shawshank gave you something in the way of a happy ending, with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman embracing on the edge of the Pacific, this is dark the whole way through. There are, however, several moments of light humour to give the audience ample relief, for instance where Wild Bill (Sam Rockwell) spits the moon pie at Brutal (David Morse), or the dark but warm banter between the guards and the governor (James Cromwell). Even the character of Percy becomes funny in the end; the more cowardly he becomes, the more ironic the humour is until he gets his comeuppance in the last hour.
This film, like Shawshank before it, is a feast for the intellect riddled with little touches, visual motifs and allegorical exchanges which renew one?s faith in the power of cinema. John Coffey, played by the amazing Michael Clarke Duncan, is more than just a faith healer who is a victim of a miscarriage of justice; he is an allegory for Jesus, who suffered similar plight before his death. The racial prejudice of 1930s America is analogous to the racial antipathy between the Romans and the Jews, culminating in Jesus being condemned to death at Pilate?s hands. Coffey?s ability to perform miracles comes at a price, both in his growing reputation and the physical toll it takes on him (remember that sequence in the Gospels where Jesus and the disciplines take the boat out into the centre of the lake to completely escape the crowds?). And finally, like the Lamb led to the slaughter who did not open his mouth, Coffey accepts his fate in sure knowledge of his innocence, to demonstrate how flawed our existence is and how our world is empty and futile without unconditional love.
Like some of Stanley Kubrick?s later films, The Green Mile is also a subtle commentary on the dual nature of the prison system, something which simultaneously dignifies and dehumanises the individual. On the one hand, the guards in the prison are perfectly civilised. They deal in death every day and yet they are not reduced to animals as a result of their jobs. With the exception of the sadistic coward Percy (Doug Hitchison), they are all genteel, salt-of-the-earth individuals, who treat each other and the prisoners with dignity and respect. On the other hand, they live their lives on Death Row, a place designed to sap the human spirit and destroy all hope. The guards are hard when they have to be, are cynical, disillusioned with their faith and difficult to shake out of their routines. And the prisoners vary in their responses to their fate, from tearful remorse (John Coffey) to insanity (Wild Bill) and quiet acceptance.
Tom Hanks has given many great performances over a career spanning three decades, but this has to be his best. He was wrongly overlooked for the Best Actor Oscar, perhaps due to winning it twice in a row earlier in the 1990s for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and being nominated the previous year for Saving Private Ryan. He inhabits Paul Edgecomb like no other character he?s ever played, combining hope and cynicism, light and dark in perfect measure, to achieve both pathos and humour. Supporting roles from David Morse, Barry Pepper and James Cromwell are also highly commendable.
The film is beautifully shot, with great sets which are both expansive and claustrophobic. The direction is languid but no scene is allowed to overstay its welcome just to prove a point. This is a dark, tragic, tear-jerking film which will bring you to tears and warm the heart in equal measure. The greatest film of the 1990s, a real must-see.
Most directors would kill to have one masterpiece in their body of work. Most would crawl across broken glass to have two. But with Gladiator, Ridley Scott joins the hallowed ranks of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Francis Ford Coppola, with his third complete and utter triumph. After a long period in the critical wilderness, few could have believed that this prodigious talent, who peaked so early in his career, could ever recapture his past form. But disregarding his subsequent efforts, there can be no doubt from watching Gladiator that Scott is one of the greatest directors of the last twenty years.
Ten years after its release, it's easy to blame Gladiator for any number of films which have followed close on its heels. Aside from Scott's slightly underwhelming Kingdom of Heaven, we've had to deal the hagiographic hyperbole of Troy and Alexander. And then there is 300, which combined the looks of Gladiator and Sin City before stripping out all the substance of both to create something truly silly. One could further argue that without Gladiator, there would be no Pirates of the Caribbean; Scott's success, both critical and commercial, seemed to suggest that long-dead genres were not so long-dead.
If we ignore its legacy for the moment, we are left with a powerful film which, like Batman Begins, is a perfect marriage of substance and spectacle. Like Christopher Nolan, Scott is a commercially-minded auteur, someone who marries a pure artistic vision with a no-nonsense approach to filmmaking. Scott knows what will sell, but he doesn't let the box office dictate his shooting style. Gladiator is a very accessible film, but it is also emotionally intense and visually striking, containing any number of images which wouldn't look out of place in an art film. These range from the poppies falling in the arena before the final showdown, to the shadows on the bust as Marcus Aurelius is killed: one eye is seen in light, the other in shadow, representing the empire slipping into darkness.
Being a swords-and-sandals epic, the film does have to conform to some extent to the conventions of Spartacus and Ben-Hur. Despite coming from all over the Roman Empire, our main characters all speak English in vaguely British accents. We know that our main character will not die before the end of the film. Much blood will be spilt, there'll be plenty of crowd shots, and there definitely won't be a happy ending. On that basis, you'd think you could sketch out the plot of the film on the back of a serviette. But Scott is cleverer than that, and knows that we're cleverer too.
What Scott manages to do in Gladiator is to inject these conventions with new life, not by subverting them so much as bending them and adding his personal touch. Scott gives us a central battle between good and evil, but he twists it by making Maximus either the most reluctant of heroes or the most enticing of anti-heroes. He is not a killing machine on a spiritual warpath; he kills because he has to, only when he has to, and he does not enjoy it. The film avoids falling into the trap of justifying his killings, either by belittling the people he kills, or by suggesting that the reward of seeing his family in Elysium was worth all the bloodshed. It's ultimately tragic, since the central character is essentially broken and slowly dies over the course of the film.
Russell Crowe's performance in the central role is incredible, but equally incredible is that of Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus. In the emperor Scott gives us a villain who is sinister and creepy, and yet strangely vulnerable. His incestuous love for Lucilla is writ large, but this can equally be read as his means to express an overall desire to be loved. Commodus is also a tragic figure, insofar as he causes his own downfall, craving to be loved whether by his sister or the people of Rome. In the end, both turn against him; his sister realises her love for Maximus, and the crowd look on in silence as Maximus pushes a knife slowly into his throat. We do not warm to Commodus but we completely understand his pain and anguish at being neglected by his father and lied to by his own soldiers. We feel sorry for him as he dies, rather than just cheering Maximus on.
Credit must also go to Scott, as well as the writers, for giving this story a compelling female presence, something which previous historical epics have lacked. Scott has a good track record with strong female characters; think of Ripley in Alien, Rachael in Blade Runner, or both leads in Thelma and Louise. Unlike James Cameron, however, he never feels the need to gloss over their more 'feminine', sensitive qualities. Where Cameron in Aliens gave Ripley a gun and called it feminist, Scott allows Connie Nielsen's character to work to her own strengths. She is a loving mother with genuine feelings, who is also intelligent and wise in matters of the state, and exerts influence by choosing who she trusts.
At its heart, Gladiator is not really a film about revenge, redemption, or weaponry. It's a film about love, whether for one's family or the people one serves. What starts off as a film about duty and honour slowly transforms into a battle between the hardship of the mortal world and the forgiving arms of the next. After the death of his family, Maximus spends the rest of the film in a deep quandary. He knows he must fight the injustice of Commodus' rule, but the longer he resists, the longer he stays away from his family, and the further he must go in stopping his foe.
What Scott manages is to give us all these interesting and arresting ideas within a well-told story beset with enough breathtaking spectacle to stop us losing interest. Unlike The Dark Knight, the set-pieces are kept to a minimum and make sense in the order in which they come. More impressively, the themes of the story are never put on hold as the crowd-pleasing action unfolds. Even in its most blockbuster moments, like Maximus and Commodus having a punch-up in the arena, the film still carries immense weight and depth. They are not just men in shorts hitting each other, they are symbols, locking horns for the future of Rome in a way which neither really wants.
All of Scott's films are visually arresting, but in this one he really excels himself. John Mathieson's cinematography is brilliant, capturing Scott's 2nd century through a wonderful range of metallic greys, woody browns and olive greens. By opening with a battle scene, we are thrust straight into this world. Five minutes in, before a single word has been spoken, we feel right in the centre of that battlefield, in a world with its own culture in all dimensions. The battle scenes themselves are gripping; before the arrival of The Lord of the Rings, this was one of the best on-screen battles around.
Gladiator is a monumental triumph of a film, an epic with a great sense of heart and purpose which never fails to enthral and entertain. Although on a par with Alien and Blade Runner, the film is perhaps most similar to Apocalypse Now: for all its tiny flaws and little meanderings, the film holds an intense hypnotic pull on your senses, so that in the end you just can't help but love it. If you want realism or historical accuracy, you won't find it here. But what you will find is a powerful story which echoes through the ages, brought to us through riveting performances and helmed by a director at the top of his game. If Robin Hood even faintly resembles this, it could be the film of the year.
Moulin Rouge! raises an interesting question: is it possible for a film to be simultaneously a genuine favourite and a guilty pleasure? All attempts to make sense of Baz Luhrmann's musical through reason alone will come to nought, leading us to believe that it can only be enjoyed ironically. And yet the film is so unrelentingly joyous that you would need a heart of stone not to like it with a straight face (well, a grinning straight face at that).
Normally in my reviews I'm able to provide a series of rational arguments for why a film is good or bad, and when I give a film the highest possible rating, those arguments need to be all the more watertight. But while I can point to individual aspects which add to its overall effect, this is a film that goes for the heart (and the jugular) rather than the head. It's fast, fluid, flashy, funny and farcical, all at the same time. All I know for sure is that I love every fibre of its mad and hyperactive being.
Even if you don't like Moulin Rouge! as a story or an experience, you have to admit that there is something brilliant (or at least interesting) in Luhrmann's central conceit. The film has two sources of inspiration: Luhrmann's experience of a Bollywood film while working in India, and the rave and club culture of the 1990s. In creating this film Luhrmann set himself the modest task of trying to capture the high drama and comedy of Bollywood, while also showing how the Bohemian movement at the end of the 19th century mirrors the musical one at the end of the 20th. It's an audacious task, but after Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, we have come to expect nothing less.
While in lesser hands the film would have been a complete disaster, with Luhrmann we have one thing to guide us through: he believes in the project to the point of utter madness. The Moulin Rouge he gives us has all the characteristics of the rave culture with a 19th-century sensibility. The dancing is aggressive, the drug use is endemic, the costumes are revealing, and the dance floor is a place where men of utterly different backgrounds can freely mingle for as long as their uppers hold out. Luhrmann replicates the intense atmosphere of a club and then garnishes it with lavish period detail, complete with the broader, more melodramatic acting style that was in vogue in the 1890s.
From this point of view, it makes complete sense for the film to be edited hyperactively. You might complain that constantly cutting every few seconds means that we don't get to take in the gorgeous sets or costumes as fully as we would like. But to do this would undercut the spirit of the age which the film is depicting. These are the days of absinthe and the Great Binge, a revolution led by artists who were reckless and impulsive: they were rebelling against the slow, dull pace of aristocratic life which the Duke represents. We are meant to feel like we've entered a trip - and if we feel a little bad coming down, or have a headache afterwards, that's all part of the experience.
Another common criticism, aside from the editing, is the lack of original songs. It is notable that the first musical to be Oscar-nominated for 10 years has only one original song, and 'Come What May' itself was disqualified on a technicality. Indeed, if you were feeling particularly cynical, you could hold Moulin Rouge! to account, not just for the resurgence in musical films like Chicago and Nine, but for the growing trend of musicals which are essentially bad karaoke of pop songs, such as We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages.
Whatever truth may be in this claim, your view on Moulin Rouge! itself will depend largely on your view of jukebox musicals as a whole. They can be simply bad karaoke, like the examples I've mentioned, but they can be good if their songs are used to advance the plot, however bizarrely. You could even argue that all Quentin Tarantino's films are essentially elaborate jukebox musicals, since the music plays such a big part in connecting the various characters and move us from one arc to the next. Certainly no-one complains about Tarantino's lack of original music (well, apart from me).
The song choices in Moulin Rouge! work brilliantly because they are tied to a story which is so far over-the-top that it actually makes a crazy kind of sense. While his contemporary Rob Marshall began his career as a choreographer, Luhrmann's background is in opera: he is used to dealing with stories and character arcs which are simultaneously profound and absurd. In isolation, it might seem ridiculous to have 19th-century dancers gyrating around to 'Lady Marmalade', or Richard Roxburgh and Jim Broadbent dueting on Madonna's 'Like A Virgin'. But like Flash Gordon or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the film knows how ridiculous it is, and encourages us to embrace it - and once we tumble into its own private Wonderland, everything seems strangely normal.
What we have in Moulin Rouge! is essentially a huge, giddy pantomime, which isn't remotely weighed down by any kind of self-consciousness. We have a series of clearly-drawn, archetypal characters, whose emotional developments are telegraphed to the audience, on the basis that we all know the stories so well that there's no point in pretending otherwise. We know from the start what will happen to Christian and Satine, just as we know who to cheer and boo at when we go to the theatre at Christmas. What holds our attention is how believable the characters are within these ridiculous constraints. Opera's characters will always be somewhat absurd, but if their singers sing the parts well, it doesn't matter.
Once we view Moulin Rouge! in this light, as a pantomime par excellence, we begin to see that all the accusations of the film being pretentious are misplaced. Those who would claim that the film is old hat or in denial are missing the point; it openly embraces the clichés of musicals, and doesn't so much reinvent them or subvert them, as take them past the point of total absurdity until they start making sense all over again. The film may not be radically new in its central story, but it is new in how vividly it chooses to present it. As far as its narrative ambitions go, it is, to coin an oxymoron, bombastically humble.
The love story of Moulin Rouge! bears close resemblance to The Red Shoes. Both stories are seen from the viewpoint of a young, impressionable artist looking to make his way in the world - in Michael Powell's case the composer, in Luhrmann's case the writer. Both fall deeply in love with a talented and conflicted young woman, who has ambitions of escaping her current world. Both become part of a love triangle involving a dark, brooding figure with great power; while Richard Roxburgh isn't as purely intimidating as Anton Walbrook, he fits the bill very nicely. And both stories end in a blend of success, fate and tragedy, with the woman's fate sealing that of the two men: the innocent heart is destroyed, and the guilty heart is further darkened.
But rather than simply feeling like a transliteration of Powell's film, Moulin Rouge! gains an identity of its own through the panache of its performers. Ewan McGregor gives one of his finest performances as Christian: he sings superbly and plays the naïve fool with complete self-belief. Considering how unbelievably charismatic he is here, it's hard to believe that he went straight from this to filming Attack of the Clones (and on the very same sound stage).
Nicole Kidman, who can be brittle and irritating, compliments him beautifully as Satine. She's clearly having immense fun, reflecting the glamour of Golden Age Hollywood while managing to be both playful and insecure. Richard Roxburgh is fantastically entertaining as the Duke, with his every twitch and stifled scream sending you shrieking in laughter. Best of all, however, is Jim Broadbent, whose Harold Ziddler is quite stupendous. He has the hardest part, since his character has one foot in the madness of the Moulin Rouge and the other on the firm ground of the Duke. He balances the two roles brilliantly, and seeing him as the Maharaja is simply to die for.
Moulin Rouge! is a masterpiece of the sublime and the ridiculous. Luhrmann's marriage of lavish visuals and operatic storytelling is immensely striking, pulling you in a world that is so totally absurd that it makes total sense. It is simultaneously the guiltiest of guilty pleasures and the most genuine fun you've had in your entire life. It is the greatest musical of the noughties, and a triumph of epic proportions.
Having bewitched audiences with the likes of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, David Lynch has once again shifted the goalposts of filmmaking as he enters the fourth decade of his career. Mulholland Drive is an astonishing, extraordinary piece of work, a mesmerising masterpiece and the jewel in Lynch's crown. It is a beautiful, hypnotic, twisted and strange film which draws the viewer inescapably into a unique and fascinating universe of crime, dreams, sex and tragedy. It is, quite simply, the best film of the decade.
As with much of Lynch's work, there is no simple way to describe what Mulholland Drive is about. Lynch himself has always been coy or hesitant to give meaning to his films, leading some to brand him as the Lars von Trier of surrealism. There is a possibility that his whole career is a prank, and behind those kinetic hands and immense head of hair, he is secretly laughing at us. There have been instances in Lynch's career where he has been self-indulgent or excessive, but he is genuine in everything he does, and Mulholland Drive is proof of it.
Hence when we come to identify the themes of the film, and attempt to unlock its symbols, we realise very early on just how many different interpretations there could be. In fact - to go all self-reflexive for a brief moment - writing about Mulholland Drive is emphatic proof of the subjective nature of film; what I write is what I understand to be true, but I must acknowledge even as I write these words that there are many other ways of seeing the same thing. Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has a film sparked so much dispute and discussion over its meaning and implications, and my piece, however well-constructed or meticulous, cannot give you all the answers. That is the eternal appeal of Lynch, of all great filmmakers, and is one of the great joys of life.
The experience of watching Mulholland Drive echoes the experience of writing about it. It is one of a very rare breed of films which hold you in such a hypnotic state that your normal critical faculties become temporarily suspended. You slowly forget to pay very close attention to the mystery at the heart of the plot, because the sense of mystery is so all-pervading that it engulfs everything. You stop trying to unpick scenes to decipher what they might mean, because they are staged in such an eerie and beautiful way that you simply have to sit transfixed and let them wash over you.
This is not to say that the film doesn't want you to think - on the extreme contrary. Mulholland Drive is a hugely intelligent film, and every shot feeds you with information through its visuals, its dialogue or simply its sense of atmosphere. Angelo Badalamenti's unusual score sends shivers down your spine, and almost every conversation consists of broken dialogue; as in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, there is a constant sense of threat and unease, with any reassurance feeling like the opposite. Because there is no natural flow from what one character is saying to the next, you find yourself moving at the pace of the film, waiting on every word they say in the knowledge that it will be significant.
Mulholland Drive is prominently about dreams, specifically the relationship between dreams and reality. There is no straightforward narrative which is easy to follow; to paraphrase Roger Ebert, in dreams the mind only focuses on what fascinates it at that instance in time. It makes no sense to impose something as abstract and heartless as logic onto such a surreal and subtly shifting landscape; to do this would only confuse us further. Instead we simply have to embrace the experience and see where it takes us - we have to dream as the film dreams.
The film has been described as a 'poisonous valentine to Hollywood', since it marries a fleeting celebration of Hollywood and acting to Lynch's continuing themes of darkness and horror lurking not far beneath a beautiful surface. Mulholland Drive takes his thesis of 'small towns with secrets' from Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and expands it to an entire city; everyone is part of this world where simultaneously dreams are made and lives are nightmarishly torn apart.
One aspect of the plot is about creativity, self-belief and natural talent struggling against a system where power and connections are everything. The scenes involving Justin Theroux's director being intimidated by the mob are a sly allegory for Lynch's nightmarish experience on Dune. His character goes from defiance to sheepishness and reluctant acceptance; the Cowboy he encounters could either be his conscience or the personification of the system, winning by its old-fashioned combination of muscle and clever talk (or in this case, non sequiturs).
The film is also an examination of the nature of acting, in which characters or identities are created and inhabited for short, disconnected periods of time. This is an illuminating observation, and ties in with the overall theme of dreams and reality.
For the first two hours, we follow Betty Elms, played brilliantly by Naomi Watts. She is an aspiring actress who comes to Hollywood to seek her fortune. At the same time, a woman (Laura Elena Harring) has a car accident which makes her lose her memory; she wanders from the eponymous road through the streets of Hollywood, ending up at the house where Betty is staying. Betty befriends 'Rita' (who takes her name from a poster of Rita Hayworth), helps her find her identity, and the two become lovers.
In the final half-hour, once the blue box has been opened, we find that everything has changed. Watts' character, now called Diane, is a failed actress while Harring's character, now called Camilla, is about to marry a successful director (Theroux). Diane is immensely jealous of Camilla's success and hires someone to kill her. But once the deed is done, she is driven crazy by guilt, regret and a longing for affection, and ends up shooting herself.
The most generally accepted version of events - and the one to which I personally subscribe - is that the initial period is Diane's dream and the last half-hour is the bitter reality. Diane invents the characters of Betty and Rita to escape her grim reality, or re-experience the past. Betty is intelligent, resourceful, confident and destined to be a star - just look at her audition for the film, in which she seduces both us and the film crew. Rita by contrast is pathetic, frightened and vulnerable; she is the perfect means for Betty to satisfy her ego, and their scenes of lovemaking are essentially self-love.
But those who dream cannot dream forever, and many dreams end with cracks of reality begin to break through. In both the 'dream' and 'reality', Camilla Rhodes is the obstruction preventing Diane/ Betty from realising her ambitions: in the 'dream' she is cast in the role she wants (thanks to the will of the mob), and in the 'reality' she is her ex-lover who has grown weary of her charms. The colour blue is another symbol which demonstrates this: the blue box is a passageway between the dream world and the real world, and Betty begins to convulse when the blue lights flash around Club Silencio.
Diane's dream is the ultimate expression of her inability to accept that she is a failure, both professionally and personally. Like the lead character in Sunset Boulevard (which is referenced in the opening minutes) she falls from brief stardom and egomania to obscurity, self-loathing and destruction. She masturbates in a desperate attempt to recapture that sense of ecstatic affection she felt as a star. But soon the ghosts from her past drive her over the edge and she chooses death over another day in her personal hell.
Mulholland Drive is one of the most open-ended, ambiguous, mind-bending and mesmerising films you will ever see. Any attempt to address or summarise the issues it raises will only scratch the surface; there is too much going on in this powerfully hypnotic film to reduce down to pithy one-liners and short paragraphs. Multiple viewings are essential if one is to unlock every puzzle, and each viewing only improves the experience as more ideas come to light and new puzzles emerge to stimulate your mind. It is a truly extraordinary experience, with stunning performances, perfect direction and simply gorgeous visuals, all of which blend together effortlessly into what can only be described as a masterpiece.
When I reviewed Mulholland Drive not so long ago, I commented that it was "one of a very rare breed of films which hold you in such a hypnotic state that your normal critical faculties become temporarily suspended." Films like Lynch's work contain so much of the magic and mystery of cinema that the experience becomes everything, and no matter where it goes, we follow. But this was not the only film from 2001 to achieve such a powerful effect upon its audience.
Spirited Away is the culmination of Hayao Miyazaki's extraordinary career, only just edging out over its predecessor, Princess Mononoke. It is a stunningly animated, beautifully told story which reinvents Alice in Wonderland for the 21st century while offering profound insight into Japanese culture and the psychology of growing up. While Princess Mononoke has more ambition in terms of its story, Spirited Away wins out through the sheer power of its emotional appeal.
On its simplest level, Spirited Away sees Miyazaki returning to the story and themes of Alice of Wonderland, whose influence can be seen throughout the work of Studio Ghibli. But whereas something like The Cat Returns bore only fleeting similarities, the early sections of Spirited Away are like a direct retuning of Lewis Carroll. Instead of sitting on the river bank being bored at her lesson, Chihiro is sullen in the back of the car, cross with her parents for moving house and taking away all her friends. And instead of falling down a rabbit hole, she wanders through a long tunnel which, in a further fairy tale connection, is found in the middle of a deep, dark wood.
As with Alice, Chihiro drifts into the company of many unusual characters, all of whom in some way misinterpret her purpose in this world (assuming of course that she has one). And many individual scenes or characters play out like Miyazaki's own wry take on Carroll's bizarre fantasy. The sequence of the baby being turned into a fat little mouse is like Alice shrinking after sipping the bottle marked 'Drink Me', while No-Face is a spookier version of The Cheshire Cat, and Yubaba and her twin sister Zeniba fill in for the red and white queens from Through The Looking-Glass.
But there is so much more to Spirited Away than a join-the-dots parallel with Alice in Wonderland. For starters, Chihiro is not a conventional protagonist, either in her narrative arc or in the extent to which we empathise with her. Instead of immediately bonding with her, like we would with Nausicaa or Kiki, we initially find her an irritating brat; she is cowardly, prone to sulking and stamps her feet when she doesn't get her way.
When her parents are turned into pigs by gorging themselves on the ghostly food, we bond with Chihiro since she is the only human character remaining in this ever-creepier world (at least, until Haku turns up some minutes later). Much like Pan's Labyrinth a few years later, we adopt the viewpoint of the central character so closely that when the fantasy elements are introduced we accept them with open arms and wide eyes. No matter how bizarre, surreal or downright strange Miyazaki's designs become over the next two hours, we remain totally absorbed in Chihiro as a character.
Although her overall goal may be to save her parents, Chihiro's arc through Spirited Away is not to be a hero, but to survive. Lost in a world which she has no hope of understanding, she relies on her own judgment in choosing who to trust and when to trust them. She does not enter the world of the gods with the intention of destroying a great villain, with most of her major acts being accidental or having consequences which are unintentional. Sometimes this works out in her favour, in the case of the River God; other times, in the case of No-Face, it almost claims her life.
Chihiro's search for her parents is both a literal and a metaphorical one, being bound up with the search for her own identity. When Yubaba allows her to work in the bathhouse, she steals Chihiro's name and begins calling her Sen; Haku warns Sen that unless she remembers her own name, she will be trapped here forever. Chihiro came into the ghost world at a crossroads of her own identity, having been forced to part from her old self with the move. The theft of her name represents the death of her childhood self; she must decide what must be erected in its place, and what role her parents must play in her life after she returns to reality.
Just as in Princess Mononoke, the characters in Spirited Away walk a tightrope between good and evil in which our definitions of either do not carry much weight. This is a world in which loyalties are if not constantly shifting then very difficult to pin down; as before, we have to trust our heroine's judgment because her perspective is all we have to go on. The film tricks us beautifully into believing that the friendly can be threatening or vice versa, making something as simple as a paper man be really scary or an eight-armed, spidery mechanic be deeply endearing.
This richness and ambiguity make Chihiro's process of self-realisation more compelling, as Miyazaki avoids the painting-by-numbers character development of recent Disney efforts. Her relationship with No-Face in particular is a learning curve in which she learns to adjust her impetuous naivety to something more mature, while retaining her belief in everyone's capacity to do good. Even when No-Face is chasing her while regurgitating black sludge, Sen is motivated less by out-and-out fear than a desire to help him overcome himself even at the cost of her own life. It is this form of sheer selflessness which endears her and which eventually saves her.
Just as Mulholland Drive used its characters to examine the nature of filmmaking past and present, so the spirit world of Spirited Away reflects modern-day Japan, looking to its imperial past as it drifts ever more away from it. When Chihiro's parents find the town, they remark it must be an old theme park, saying that many were built before the economic downturn in the early-1990s. The gluttony of her parents reflects the consequences of this downturn and the difference between generations, while the scenes with the River God tap into issues of pollution previously explored in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
The design of Spirited Away is staggeringly beautiful, incorporating elements of both hand-drawn animation and CG techniques to reinterpret themes from Miyazaki's previous works. There is the same use of rapid background movement in frames, so that whole cities seem to rush by while Chihiro and Haku rush through the streets in perfect clarity. The film is deeply dreamlike in places, particularly the scenes which take place in or around water and which are complimented by the beautiful score by Joe Hasaishi. But Miyazaki is not just a genius where light is concerned; his darker tones are extraordinary too, from the thick sludge spewed forth by No-Face to the fire that spews from Yubaba's mouth.
On top of everything else, Spirited Away is a proper children's film in its accessible and intelligent treatment of themes and characters. Its blend of darkness and light is note-perfect, so although there are many scenes which are creepy or strange, there is more than enough in the way of humour to compensate. In fact, it's surprisingly laugh-out-loud, with the bouncing heads, the balls of soot or the baby-turned-mouse being so adorable that they threaten to steal the show.
Spirited Away is a truly astonishing animation which marks the high point in a career of already dizzying heights. Its thematic richness and subtle storytelling are matched only by its impeccable level of craft, with Miyazaki at the top of his game in every respect. Even after a dozen viewings it never fails to work its magic, bringing out the childlike spirit in even the most cold-hearted viewer. It is the Pan's Labyrinth of animation, and nothing more needs to be said.
When New Line Cinema first offered a relatively unknown director a budget of $285m, to make a trilogy of films from a source that was deemed un-filmable, you could have been forgiven for assuming we would have another Heaven's Gate on our hands. Likewise, as more and more big-screen imitations have turned up and fallen short, it is easy to be cynical about The Lord of the Rings because of the legacy it has left. But as is so often the way with these things, it only takes a quick revisit of the trilogy for all fears to be laid to rest and for all the magic to once again take hold.
Even if the other instalments of this trilogy had never seen the light of day, The Fellowship of the Ring remains a masterpiece in its own right, an epic with substance and emotional power which rewrites the rulebook for fantasy filmmaking. Considering the enormity of the project and the ambitious scope of J. R.R. Tolkien's novel, it is something of a miracle that it was even made at all. But what is a bigger miracle is that a film this long, with this many characters and this much introduction, should be so flawlessly executed that it holds up even after 20 or 30 viewings.
Part of what makes the film so magical is the sheer level of craftsmanship and attention to detail, both in the visual representation of Middle Earth and the deeply affectionate treatment of Tolkien's story. Before even the prologue has finished you are utterly convinced not only that Peter Jackson was the right choice to direct but that every effort has been expended to do justice to the material. There are no dodgy special effects, no props which have been built down to a price, and no locations which feel like the real world is being frantically kept off screen.
When designing the film, Jackson and WETA's Richard Taylor sought to create a world and series of cultures which would expand beyond the four corners of the screen. Everything about the film, from the hair on the hobbits' feet to the grandest building, feels completely bespoke, and in being so detailed the smallest object like a belt or a sword can come to embody and define an entire culture. Because of this level of detail, you never have that awful experience of recognising a prop or set piece. You won't find the tankards in The Prancing Pony hiding in the back of your cupboards, and the woodland communities are not simply jumped-up versions of Endor in Return of the Jedi.
But although the world of Middle Earth is rich with its own cultures, this is balanced out by a desire to be realistic in the film's depiction of characters and situations. The battle scenes may be fantasy violence, but the violence is structured realistically. You don't always need to show blood to understand that people are getting hurt, and unlike the Star Wars prequels we don't end up with fights which defy the laws of physics because of an over-indulgence in CGI. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a mythic pre-history, as something that could have existed in a forgotten dark age. And that same spirit has been replicated here: we believe enough in the mechanics of this world to accept it, but there is also plenty of magic in which to lose oneself.
Fellowship is the gentlest film in the trilogy, with more focus in its first hour on Hobbiton and setting up the idyll of the Shire. On the surface this would seem like the easy part of the whole project, since it doesn't involves epic battles with a cast of thousands or scenes of enduring physical pain. In fact, this is the part of the trilogy that Jackson simply had to get right. These scenes have to demonstrate not just the idyllic and sheltered lives of hobbits, but the pure and harmonious way of life which Frodo undertakes his quest in order to preserve. And they succeed wholeheartedly, making us feel part of this community, at home with its customs and laid-back means of existence. Hence when the first elements of darkness creep in with the arrival of the Ringwraiths, we are every bit as terrified as the hobbits or inhabitants of Bree.
Even though it is the gentlest in the trilogy, the film has real darkness and builds the creeping sense of horror really well. In the first encounter with the Ringwraith, we see insects crawling away from the tree in which the hobbits are hiding, like the whole of creation is repulsed or terrified by the very presence of this fallen king. The scenes in Moria are deeply claustrophobic; even before the orcs and goblins turn up you feel like you are walking through the bowels of hell, on a thin path of light between two immerse darknesses. The Balrog and the Uruk-hai are terrifying, the former especially since its presence is subtly suggested through the evocative use of red light, and when revealed it is every bit as monstrous as one would have hoped.
What is really striking about The Lord of the Rings, and Fellowship especially, is how this progression of increasing darkness is counterpointed by humour. Though this aspect is less prominent in the books, it makes sense for there to be some form of comic relief amidst the gathering gloom and destruction of human souls. Jackson comes from a background in horror comedy, having made his name in the 'splatstick' horror of Bad Taste and Brain Dead. There are clear hints of this macabre humour in the battle scenes, and the comic interplay between Merry and Pippin as is much comic relief as a naïve, absurdist reaction to the strange, dark worlds ahead of them.
Tolkien likened the ring to a machine: something which is cold, clinical, calculating and by its very nature heartless. Tolkien was not a Luddite, but he was aware of the way in which technology could be used to eradicate human will. One of the delicious ironies of the story is that the enemy is both a distant concept (like 'technology') and something which must be carried with them (like a sword). Characters are seduced by the concept or potential of the ring - Boromir, believes it will help his people and save his country. But what is designed to bring victory can just as swiftly bring defeat, and just as men die upon their own swords, so the ring will destroy those who carry it.
Much of Fellowship examines the rise of industry and man's relationship with nature. The elves, who have a harmonious relationship with nature, are in the autumn of their years and are beginning to leave Middle Earth. The orcs and Uruk-hai, meanwhile, represent the march of progress, technology and modernity, exploiting and trampling on nature in the name of power. Sauron's decision to tear down his trees and replace them with machinery is a symbol of civilisation advancing at the expense of nature, a development which creates competition for resources and causes humanity to turn on itself. While Sauron creates a pure, almost Aryan race in the Uruk-hai, mankind stands on a knife-edge, unsure of which direction in which they should proceed.
The film also has a breathtaking soundtrack, which contains some of Howard Shore's very best work. Because The Lord of the Rings is a deeply emotional story about worlds colliding and civilisations collapsing, it is necessary for the score to be prominent and for it to embody and encapsulate the different cultures. In this case, it fits so perfectly that you can't believe that the actors weren't mapping out their movements to it. From the tender scene between Aragorn and Arwen to the drums matching the Uruk-hai's tempo through the woods, the music never misses a beat and succeeds where so many melodramas fail, matching emotion to music without compromising the performances.
The Fellowship of the Ring is a barnstorming masterpiece, which balances its multiple stories effortlessly. Although it has an easier job than its brothers in this respect, you never feel as though characters are being ignored or getting left behind, and every performance in the ensemble has depth and conviction. The film is visually spectacular, from the ethereal beauty of Lothlorien to the gloomy depths of Moria. Its set-pieces are as intimate and thrilling as its romantic scenes, and Jackson's direction is flawless. It is the perfect start to a perfect trilogy.
Over a career spanning 40 years, Stephen Frears has demonstrated versatility in his filmmaking rivalled only by Alan Parker and Ridley Scott. His directorial stamp is so subtle that you would have difficulty convincing the casual viewer that Dangerous Liaisons and High Fidelity were directed by the same man. With Dirty Pretty Things he returns to the gritty territory of My Beautiful Laundrette, and delivers what is possibly his finest film.
It's all too common for a film to boast about its 'gritty realism', with most such boasting being a hopeless cover for a preposterous storyline or sub-par shooting style. But even if Dirty Pretty Things felt the need to boast about such things, there would be no need for it. The world which Frears creates is so readily and shockingly believable that we don't need constant reminders that we are seeing might actually be based on fact.
Like much of his 1980s work, Dirty Pretty Things has an unassuming visual style. Chris Menges, who has worked with Frears extensively since Gumshoe, lights London completely naturalistically, with no effort made to glamorise the characters' surroundings or gloss over the dingier aspects of London. This is not a film which takes on a pertinent and sensitive subject only to hand it with kid gloves: it is frequently painful to watch, but in a way which is ultimately vindicated.
Dirty Pretty Things is about the British underclass of illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, who come over in their thousands ever year to do the jobs that no-one else will do. Though the film is nearly ten years old, the political issues it raises are still big hot potatoes; rarely a week goes by without the Daily Mail bursting blood vessels over immigration numbers or benefit cheats. But the film is layered and nuanced enough to make xenophobe reconsider, or at least to admit how lucky they are.
The central point of the film is that a capitalist society cannot function without an underclass of cheap labour which can be readily exploited. Whether they're driving taxis or cleaning toilets, the people in this underclass live virtually hand-to-mouth with no proper rights and no chance of police protection. They exist in a limbo state where the only choice is survival, by any means and at any cost.
Throughout the film several characters sell or attempt to sell one of their kidneys to Signor Juan (Sergi Lopez) in exchange for that most coveted of items, a British passport. This storyline allows the film to explore the workings of the black economy, again without either glamorising or outright condemning its participants. Signor Juan is presented as equally a monster and a twisted entrepreneur: as he says, "I'm an evil man, and yet I am saving a life." He is fulfilling the capitalist dream by making something of himself and earning money, but his success comes at the expense of innocent people who have no form of defence, legal or otherwise.
If Steven Knight's screenplay wasn't so adept at constructing characters, Dirty Pretty Things would quickly descend into melodramatic hogwash. Instead, the film is a screenwriting triumph, with Knight thoroughly deserving his Oscar nod. On the one hand, there are attempts made to differentiate between the different aspects or layers of the underclass: Okwe is an illegal immigrant, Senay is seeking asylum, and Guo Yi is an employed refugee. By showing their different circumstances and levels of security, the film avoids the trap of caricaturing the underclass as something to be pitied, and hence it never risks us losing trust in the story.
On the other hand, Knight's screenplay constantly resists becoming too generic. The storyline contains a number of mystery or thriller elements, with Chiwitel Ejiofor's sleepless protagonist bringing something of a film noir feel. But neither Frears nor Knight ever feel the need to crowbar the characters into an existing mould. Sophie Okonedo's prostitute may be pleasant, but she's not a hooker with a heart of gold.
The story of Dirty Pretty Things unfolds very economically, with a perfect sense of pacing which allows the characters to develop of their own accord. By setting most of the action in and around a hotel, we get a microcosmic view of the issues, so that the ideas never get so broad that they drown out the characters. For all the time you spend soaking up the political implications of their actions, you are mainly and constantly interested in the protagonists and whether or not they will survive the increasing number of ordeals put before them.
Because it treats its subject so honestly and truthfully (without being earnest or worthy), there are a number of scenes in Dirty Pretty Things which are uncomfortable to watch. One of the first scenes finds Okwe finding a human heart lodged in the u-bend of a toilet, a sight that will turn many a stomach. The surgical scenes are appropriately gruesome, producing the desired reaction of revulsion without feeling like they were just included for shock value.
Alongside this, however, the film is very good at catching us off guard at certain moments. There are several scenes where the story threatens to slip into cliché, only for the camera to cut and reveal something which sheds new light on what is happening. When Okwe first goes into the back room of the cab office, he is asked to get down on his knees. We think he is about to provide the man with oral sex, but it later emerges that he was a doctor examining him for venereal disease.
In a similar sequence, Senay is working in a sweatshop and asked to perform said act on the manager in return for keeping her on after the police have raided. Audrey Tautou sinks out of shot and the camera zooms in on the manager's face, which turns to a grimace after he is bitten. The recurring image of presumed oral sex could be seen as a metaphor for the position and status of illegal immigrants. On the surface we are the ones being pleasured and in control, when in fact they have at least as much influence, and we have no means of responding should the relationship break down.
This latter scene also hints at the presence of humour in the film. Rather than going down the route of being admirably grim, Frears acknowledges that the characters would use humour to get through their experiences. It is not a comedy, but there are a few moments which provoke a light chuckle, which in turn provides much by way of context and pathos. One such moment finds Senay eating a stew Okwe has cooked, and he remarks, "you can do many things with pork". Senay stops eating, being a Muslim and therefore forbidden to eat pork, and Owke continues, "of course, I used lamb."
The performances in Dirty Pretty Things are all first-rate. Sergi Lopez, best known for his role in Pan's Labyrinth, brings a sneering, snooty quality to the character while never slipping into pantomime. Audrey Tautou proves her range as an actress, giving a layered and subtle performance on a par with her work in Amelie. And Chiwitel Ejiofor is terrific, delivering every line with the right balance of conviction and nervous apprehension.
Dirty Pretty Things is one of Frears' finest efforts as a filmmaker and remains of the best films of the decade. Its intelligent handling of a difficult subject matter is complimented by its versatile treatment of its characters, culminating in an ending which is both valedictory and heart-breaking. On the basis of his subsequent output (Mrs. Henderson Presents, Cheri, Tamara Drewe), it may turn out to be the last great film Frears ever makes. But that cannot tarnish a remarkable viewing experience which has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.
In the words of actor John Rhys-Davies, "Part One was a damn wonderful film. You ain't seen nothing yet." The Two Towers is every bit as brilliant, if not slightly better than its predecessor. The stakes are raised and the story is darker, but it's also a film which demonstrates Peter Jackson's knack for balancing multiple storylines, serving up eye-popping spectacle while keeping an unshakeable grip on the substance he introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Where Fellowship took its time to set up the world of the hobbits and flesh out the backstory surrounding the ring, The Two Towers doesn't have any kind of initial exposition or recap to pull us back into the story. It doesn't need to: the opening sequence, which takes us back into Moria and shows us what happened next, is as heart-in-mouth as you could possibly want. It pulls us back into Middle Earth without simply retreading old ground, so that by the time that Frodo awakes from his dream, we know exactly where we are and are raring to go.
A common claim made about trilogies is that the second and/ or third instalments do not stand up as films in their own right. But Two Towers defies this, feeling every bit as well-crafted and distinctive as the first film. 'The Lord of the Rings trilogy' is a misnomer, since Tolkien wrote it as one book which was then split into three by the publishers. This is not a trilogy of one film with sequels, like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia. It is the second part of one story, and all three parts blend together seamlessly.
It is this seamless progression from one book to another which made it sensible to shoot the films simultaneously, and is also this quality which allows Jackson's more obvious creative decisions to work. The single biggest change is that Frodo's death-defying encounter with Shelob is delayed until the start of the third film, confounding expectations of those who had read the book. In other circumstances this would have been a costly error, but the level of skill present on screen leads you to implicitly trust the filmmaker, so that even when there are noticeable alterations they remain within the tone of the film as a whole.
As before, the film's production values are superb. Every prop, costume and item of set is meticulously detailed and beautifully ornate, absorbing you as a spectator and making you feel immersed in the cultures of Rohan and Ithilien. The difference is that these designs now have to contend with far more kinetic and larger action set-pieces than anything in the first film. If Fellowship laid the groundwork for both the story and the scale on which it would take place, the second film builds on these foundations and flexes its muscles to show what can be achieved.
To create the Battle of Helm's Deep, Jackson and his production team created a computer program called MASSIVE, which entails creating hundreds of individual CGI figures capable of independent thought. This makes the battles more believable, with battalions of otherwise faceless armies taking on individual qualities, if only for a moment. The merging of CGI with reality is every bit as convincing as the amphitheatre scenes in Gladiator, but the organic effects are also terrific. Treebeard has all the physicality which comes from animatronics but none of the jerky drawbacks, and the continued use of forced perspectives works as well as anything on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Two special effects stand out more than any. The first is the de-ageing of Theoden, where the zombie-like King of Rohan loses 40 years in a single shot. Not only does his hair recede and change colour, but the entire structure of his face is subtly altered, and yet it feels as tactile as the make-up he wears at the beginning. The other, of course, is Gollum. Like the introduction to Hobbiton, this was a death-or-glory moment for the trilogy; since Gollum is one of the connecting pieces in the story, if we did not accept this portrayal than all would be lost. But Andy Serkis succeeds with effort to spare, putting in a tireless performance and truly inhabiting the character.
The Two Towers is a darker, more threatening film than its predecessor, a mood which is brilliantly conveyed in its battle scenes. Being a 12 certificate film, we are still in fantasy violence territory; the focus is on the suggestion of injury rather than lingering on blood like Gladiator or Braveheart. For all the spearings and decapitations, which again hint back to Jackson's horror past, the focus on violence is briefer and when individual pain is addressed (as with Haldir), it is largely implied. But despite the scale and the huge number of characters, we still feel a huge emotional attachment and so the pain and fear is very real.
Although Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a mythic pre-history of Europe, The Two Towers brings out its allegorical connotations which are embedded in the author's experiences of war. Tolkien served in WWI and wrote the bulk of the story during WWII, and there is an obvious comparison between the battle for Europe and the battle for Middle Earth. The union of the two towers is analogous to the war-time union between Germany and Russia, moving like a pincer on Eastern Europe - or perhaps Germany and Italy, since one power is overrun part way through the story.
The film places a twist on the theme of nature and machines clashing for the future of humanity. In the first film, the machines had it all their own way, but with the arrival of the Ents, the "shepherds of the forest" who in turn control the trees, nature is beginning to fight back. However, as the war turns the way of greenery on one front with the flooding of Isengard, at the other end the machinery of Mordor is making mincemeat of the divided forces of Gondor.
In the middle of both these conflicts, you have man and machine locked in combat for control of the world. The central battle, between Frodo and the ring, stands on a knife-edge, and it is increasingly unclear as to who is controlling whom. As before, the beauty of The Lord of the Rings is its harmony of the epic and the personal, with all parties caught up in a conflict which is both physical and metaphysical.
As with Fellowship, what really sticks with you after many viewings is the film's note-perfect marriage of darkness and light. In light of its imitators (some pleasant, some not), we depict it as wholly dark, bleak and brooding in a bid to drum up its heft and credibility. But there is a lot of humour laced among even the darkest scenes. The rivalry between Gimli and Legolas is beautifully judged, and the scene of the latter killing soldiers while using a shield as a skateboard is straight out of Bad Taste. Even Sam's speech at the end about the 'great stories', which teeters on 'message moment' schmaltz, works as an expression of hope amidst a gathering storm.
The Two Towers is every bit as magnificent as its predecessor, if not slightly moreso. Like Mad Max 2 or The Evil Dead 2, it builds on everything that was brilliant in the first instalment while carving out its own identity. Howard Shore's score is brilliant, especially in the dream sequences with Arwen, and Jackson's direction is note-perfect, beautifully judging the emotional impact of every last shot. Whether as a brilliantly constructed epic or an intimate story of struggle and temptation, a frightening allegory or a fascinating fantasy, there is something in The Two Towers for absolutely anyone.
There are so few third instalments of trilogies which genuinely work. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is an enjoyable disappointment, with good action sequences but a cliché-ridden plot ripped off from Peter Pan. Day of the Dead is less tense than its predecessor and less threatening in its political subtexts. And Army of Darkness is plain and simple pants. But with The Return of the King, Peter Jackson has done it: he has crafted a trilogy of masterpieces which also get progressively better.
The Return of the King is the darkest and scariest of the trilogy, building on both the creepy supernatural elements of The Fellowship of the Ring and the frighteningly real battle scenes of The Two Towers. But it is not just a case of bigger or darker being better, for the film is also the most absorbing of the three when taken as a work of fantasy. Without wishing to insult the brilliance of the first two films, this climactic instalment is the one which immerses you most in Middle Earth. You stop using the brief lulls to process the allegory and use those instead as breathing points as the darkness threatens to engulf everything.
As with Two Towers, part of the film's success lies in raising the stakes faced by both the hobbits and the world of men. At the end of the previous film, Gandalf remarks that "the Battle for Helm's Deep is over... the Battle for Middle Earth is about to begin." The intensity and scale of the film, with many different races coming together and clashing, makes even the most elaborate and thrilling elements of Two Towers fee like an opening skirmish. You really get the sense of a world not only the brink of collapse, but teetering over the abyss like a spinning sword that must eventually topple.
Return of the King achieves this through a number of openly scary scenes as Frodo and Sam inch further towards Mordor. Seeing Minas Morgul lit up in green light is creepy, and as the column of energy rises shrieking from the tower, you feel the shivers running down your spine. Shelob the spider is terrifying, and the quieter moments with her on screen are proof that this trilogy does not rely solely on its score to create tension. There is genuine, petrifying fear as she stalks Frodo on the narrow road to Cirith Ungol, even for the lucky ones who aren't arachnophobic.
But the most chilling moment of the film comes, ironically, in the hottest place on Middle Earth. In the centre of Mount Doom, at the end of their quest, Frodo stands holding the ring over the lava, ready to destroy it. As the lightning flashes all around him, his face is lit up like a skull as pure evil dangles right in front of him. When he turns to face Sam, he has the look somewhere between a possessed man and a frightened child - and then he takes the ring, smiles and disappears. Just when we have been convinced that our hero will do the right thing, evil rushes up in one last subtle push, and delivers a blow every bit as shattering as the ending of Chinatown.
So much of Return of the King explores the theme of temptation, broadening it out beyond Frodo, Sam, Gollum and the ring. Early on in the film Pippin looks into the palantir and almost loses his mind as he comes into contact with Sauron. This is on the one hand a dark foreshadowing of what will happen to Frodo, and on the other hand a reflection of the curiosity of Smeagol, a curiosity which eventually turned him into Gollum. But in the eventual fate of the latter, the film puts a clever twist on its running theme, portraying Gollum's temptation or desire for the ring as the ultimate cause of its defeat. Gollum gives into his own temptation and inadvertently redeems the world in the process.
The film also gives us a rich character study in the form of Denethor. The character is Lear-like in his rejection of one of his offspring at the expense of another, and both Boromir and Faramir have elements of Cordelia about them. His descent into madness, whether out of grief, despair or paranoia, is a truly Shakespearian descent, and there is a rich counterpoint between Denethor and Theoden. The former clings to authority for its own sake, believing himself to be more worthy than any heir and disregarding the well-being of his people. The latter doubts his worth as King of Rohan, marching to his own death if it will defend those he seeks to love and honour.
In the midst of these two kings, we have the man who would be king (apologies to Sean Connery). Return of the King finds Aragorn wrestling with his own demons and identity, having to finally decide whether to accept his fate at all costs (as has Theoden) or to remain alive at the expense of his people (Denethor). The scene of Aragorn calling on the army of the dead is more than simply a test of physical courage. In summoning this army he is forcing himself to confront and accept the responsibilities and pressures that would come from being king; it is as much a rite of passage as the trial run for the final battle.
These rich characters both old and new quickly find themselves in a series of brilliant battles. You quickly stop trying to spot which shots are with effects and which aren't because you're so caught up in the action, thanks to the flawless design of the creatures and the internal logic and spontaneity of the battles. But as before, in the midst of this darker, more serious tone, there is still so much of Jackson's humour in the film which means it doesn't have to be watched with a stony face. The on-going rivalry between Gimli and Legolas is great fun, particularly when the latter brings down an entire Oliphant. There are also further hints of Jackson's horror past: the club-handed orc captain resembles the aliens out of Bad Taste, and there are hints of Brain Dead in the dead army's design (but sadly, no kung foo-fighting priests).
There has been much debate over the ending of the film, with even its biggest fans complaining that it is too long and baggy. When Jackson's latest film, The Lovely Bones came out, critics pointed to this section as the birth of an indulgent streak which had carried through into King Kong and finally caught up with him. But in fact, all things considered, it is the only reasonable way that it could have ended.
Firstly, the goal of the trilogy was to faithfully represent the book, taking creative decisions where necessary which retained the themes and spirit of Tolkien's leviathan. The decisions to leave out the scourging of the Shire, or the epilogue involving the deaths of all the fellowship, are as much about judging tone as judging an audience's patience. Jackson gets the balance perfect, with all the important stories being rounded off and all the other ones hinted at in a way which explains everything. It is important to see the reunion of Aragorn and Arwen, but the blossoming love between Eowyn and Faramir as less significant.
Secondly, the slower, more dreamlike execution is these scenes is appropriate. After all the rapidly cut battle scenes, with every story intertwining from multiple camera angles, having scenes which are longer and more languid might seem anticlimactic. But the purpose of these scenes is to adjust us sufficiently to make Frodo's farewell all the more heart-breaking. At the heart of these scenes is Frodo's struggle to readjust not just to life in the Shire, but to life itself. The quest did claim his life as Galadriel predicted: not by physically killing him, but by eroding his very self until he can no longer function or belong in the real world. The elves become like the angels in Wings of Desire, observing Man's woes and preparing Frodo for heaven, that he need no longer suffer the pain of his wounds or the torment of his memories.
The Return of the King is a magnificent climax to a wonderful series of films. There is not a single scene or shot which feels badly assembled or out of place, and as always the impeccable design will have you wide-eyed with wonder. But like its predecessors, The Return of the King offers so much more than dazzling visuals. From its first to last frame it holds your heart in the palm of its hand, its ability to scare equalled by its subtlety with themes, characters and story. A true triumph.
Science fiction is one of the most malleable genres around: it can be light or dark, scary or funny, insightful or escapist. Most impressive, however, is its continuing ability to cross-breed with other genres, and in doing so produce great works in cinema and other media. In the past forty years we have been treated to sci-fi horror (Alien), sci-fi comedy (Dark Star), sci-fi action (Aliens) and sci-fi noir (Blade Runner).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the latest addition to this cross-breed family: being equal parts Philip K. Dick and romantic comedy, it qualifies succinctly as a sci-fi romance. There have been previous science fiction films which have dealt directly with romantic love, but precious few have both the tenderness and intelligence which comes from the match made in heaven that is Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman.
Because of its romantic elements, the film has been dismissed in some circles as an essentially shallow exercise, something which is visually enthralling but ultimately little more than a Hugh Grant rom-com with A-levels and shuffled timeframes. Some of the most damning criticism came from Rick Kisonak, who described it as ?Love Story with frontal lobotomies? and concluded that it was ?not a lot more than a thinking person?s 50 First Dates.?
Such comments appear ludicrous even before half an hour has passed. For one thing, you never get the sense that Kaufman or Gondry are being overly complicated for its own sake. The visual and emotional tone of the film is not that of two intellectuals desperately trying to show off. The film is profoundly open-hearted and involving, combining existential parables with light-hearted humour and insights into the human condition which at no point feel preachy or pretentious.
One of the great triumphs of Eternal Sunshine is that it manages to be incredibly complicated and readily accessible at the same time. Like Inception after it, there are layers of hidden meaning within each image or scene, but part of the fun is getting lost in events as the plot barrels forward at a frightening pace. Gondry leaves little visual hints lying around, such as Clementine?s changing hair colour, so that if we stop and question where we are, there is a perfectly good explanation. But for most of the time, like Joel and Clementine, we are simply compelled to run headlong from one scene to the next with little care or concern except for the safety and happiness of the characters.
In terms of its lineage, Eternal Sunshine is the film to which Kaufman has been working towards for his entire career. Like Being John Malkovich, much of the action takes place within the mind of its characters, and as with Adaptation we find different shades of the same character coming into contact with each other. From a sci-fi point of view, the film resembles Philip K. Dick in its fascination with paranoia and the blurring of identity, and there are clear hints of Total Recall in both the visuals and the film?s dreamlike state. Even the machine used to extract Joel?s memories of Clementine resembles the memory implant machine used in the Paul Verhoeven film.
Gondry?s background in music videos gives him a concise and focussed method of storytelling; when you only have four minutes to get a message across, you can?t afford to be baggy or indulgent. You get the distinct impression that he is unflinchingly focussed on the characters and upon keeping Kaufman?s script moving forward. You therefore embrace his visual extravagance and unusual approach to special effect, both of which are defining features of the film.
When Christopher Nolan was shooting the dream sequences in Inception, he strove to film as much as possible in-camera with mechanical effects. He did this on the grounds that if the actors were delivering their lines to green-screen, they wouldn?t believe in the world of the dream, and therefore neither would we. Gondry takes the same approach, shooting most special effects sequences in-camera using old-fashioned forced perspectives (or trompe-l?oeils). The scenes of Jim Carrey being bathed in the sink or hiding under the table have a very organic sense of the surreal they make memories physical rather than whimsical, rooting the chase and its flights of fantasy firmly in some form of reality.
The film drifts seamlessly from memory to memory and back to the real world, resisting the constant urge to stop and explain where we are. By the time Joel has begun relating a memory to Clementine, that particular section of his mind begins to disappear; lights flicker off, fences disappear, frozen lakes turn into train stations and people vanish into thin air. Certain sections see Joel revisiting old memories which have fragmented. In one scene, he revisits a conversation in which all the characters? faces have become blurred, resembling the freaky masks worn by the schoolchildren in Pink Floyd ? The Wall.
Eternal Sunshine?s central thesis is that all events which transpire in our lives are at some point in time meaningful, and that any attempt to block out such experiences will only lead to recognition of their ultimate importance. The title, which comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, is deeply ironic; in being able to artificially forget bad memories, the characters are just as distressed if not moreso by what unfolds. The first time around, the sequence on the train to Montauk seems normal and straightforward. The second time round, we watch hindsight playing out and the true meaning and power of this scene becomes clear.
In attempting to move on from Clementine, Joel discovers that their relationship (and the memories thereof) was the only time he was genuinely happy. He tries to preserve those memories not because he has forgiven her, but because otherwise his life may not have a cohesive sense meaning. One could almost argue that the film is an analogy for Alzheimer?s disease with Joel as the patient, struggling to remember others in order to make sense of himself.
Memories are a vital part of a person?s identity, and the film does an interesting job of showing how identities can be manipulated. Elijah Wood, in an really creepy performance, uses Joel?s memories to seduce Clementine, copying his ?chat-up lines? word for word. His character is desperate to be liked by women, and believes that the only way to achieve happiness is to impersonate other people. It is testament to Kaufman?s skills as a writer that scenes like these are not played for cheap, bawdy laughs ? nor instead that the scenes of the technicians getting stoned never venture too far into Cheech and Chong territory.
The film is anchored by the central performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, both of whom are often incredibly irritating. Like The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, Carrey?s wackiness is completely reigned in and he gives a brilliantly well-rounded performance full of pathos and subtlety. Winslet, on the other hand, is allowed to leave her ?English rose? image behind and play kooky, wacky and impulsive. But her feistiness and intensity hold our attention, creating a sense of mystery which engages us. The chemistry between these two give us an emotional bond around which Kaufman?s philosophising is anchored. When they decide to give things another go, it feels poignant and meaningful because of the genuine emotional journey we have taken with them.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a superb slice of science fiction with all the emotional intensity of a Mike Leigh film. It is the pinnacle of Gondry and Kaufman?s respective careers, being proof positive not only of their talents but of the continued relevance of romantic drama. In addition to its exemplary performances, the film is witty, insightful, tragic and humane, often all at the same time. It is one of the best films of the decade, and no amount of selective memory loss is going to change that.
The first time I saw Pan's Labyrinth, I declared that it was on a par with The Lord of the Rings as one of the great works of fantasy filmmaking, not only of the decade but of all time. I wrote these words in expectation of Guillermo del Toro helming The Hobbit, which sadly did not come to pass, and subsequently compared the film to Let The Right One In as a demonstration of the worth and power present in seemingly familiar territory.
Having let the dust settle, and in anticipation of Peter Jackson's return to Tolkien, the time feels right to re-examine Pan's Labyrinth in a different context. And if anything, del Toro's masterpiece is even more astounding, astonishing and heart-breaking second time round. It is the pinnacle of del Toro's career to date, the culmination of all the greatness he showcased in Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, and proof that he is, to paraphrase Mark Kermode, the Orson Welles of fantasy filmmaking.
As well as being a sister film to The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth draws on a number of influences from del Toro's formative years as a filmmaker. Its extraordinary special effects, a mixture of CGI, make-up and animatronics, recall his childhood love of John Carpenter's The Thing, while its strong-willed and inquisitive female protagonist hints at his appreciation of Lewis Carroll. It is also part of a rich vein in fantasy and horror filmmaking which explores past or alternative identities bubbling to the service, something David Lynch approached in Mulholland Drive and David Cronenberg depicted in The Fly and A History of Violence.
The comparison with Alice in Wonderland helps to illuminate the huge strength of Pan's Labyrinth, which lifts it far above the more standardised, condescending fantasy that Hollywood often produces. Terry Gilliam, whose works also blend fantasy and reality, has long argued that through the eyes of a child, fairies and demons seem just as real as anything we adults take for granted. While Gilliam faltered in his own approach to Alice (Tideland is at best an admirable failure), Pan's Labyrinth genuinely makes you see the world through the eyes of a child. It doesn't do this by referencing childlike imagery in a knowing, adult way: it does it by treating the child's viewpoint as the most reliable, if not the only reliable view on offer in a world which everyone is struggling to understand.
Within the first ten minutes of the film, Ofelia has been established as the only possible point of focus. The brief backstory surrounding Princess Moanna gives no suggestion that she and Ofelia bear any resemblance. After this we are thrust straight into the back-end of the Spanish Civil War, shown a world of brutality and ruthlessness contrasted by our early sightings of the fairies in the woods. Because Ofelia is the only other person who recognises seeing the fairies, and makes no effort to deny it to herself or her mother, we naturally gravitate towards her, taking her view as ours - something that never falters in the whole of the next two hours.
The world of Pan's Labyrinth is visually extraordinary, with del Toro and long-time cinematographer Guillermo Navarro working in perfect harmony to create a unique cinematic experience. The colour palette is awash with ethereal blue light and faded pastel and watercolour tones; the lavender purple of the soldiers' uniforms looks like colourised black-and-white footage. The make-up and creatures all have an unnervingly grotesque quality, whether it's the giant toad, the Faun, or the mouth of Sergi Lopez after it has been sliced open with a razor.
Pan's Labyrinth is a film which recognises and celebrates the darkness of fairy tales, emphasising that they are not, as Ofelia's mother believes, childish stories that one eventually grows out of. There are numerous moments in the film which are really scary or deeply uncomfortable, and none more so than Ofelia's encounter with the Pale Man. This terrifying creature with sagging skin, sharp teeth and eyes in the palms of its hands, is as creepy as the witches of Brothers Grimm and as brooding and sinister as Bluebeard. The film earns its 15 certificate for his scene alone, not so much for its graphic content but from the sheer terror generated from both the design and the brilliant performance of Doug Jones.
Like all the best fairy tales, Pan's Labyrinth has a deep moral backbone buried under its layers of magic and mystery. Del Toro described the film as being about "a princess who forgot who she was", with the lead character needing not only self-belief but self-sacrifice to achieve her goal. Ofelia begins to refer to herself as 'Princess Moanna' very soon after her encounter with the Faun, but she finds herself torn between her need to complete the tasks and the love she shows for her mother and unborn brother. Her capacity for compassion towards the human world is seen by the Faun as a weakness, but ultimately it is this which proves her worth and allows her to re-join her father in the underworld.
Del Toro contrasts the dark worlds of Ofelia's monsters and war-torn Spain to make a number of points about fantasy and human nature. Fairy tales, and by extension horror movies, have often been held up by their respective fans as mechanisms to cope with the horrors of the real world: by being exposing to darkness at a young age, within a carefully controlled environment, people are better equipped to deal with real evil whenever and wherever it emerges. Del Toro clearly agrees with this: the longer Ofelia spends carrying out the Faun's tasks, the less intimidated she becomes by Captain Vidal.
Pan's Labyrinth is structured in such a way as to draw parallels between the monsters in both worlds. This is not as direct or blatant as Peter Pan, where traditionally the same actor plays Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, to make a point about children fearing their parents. The point del Toro is making follows on from the observation about the cathartic effect of fantasy and horror stories. On the one hand, the creatures in Ofelia's 'fairy tales' are not simple, frothy and easy to dismiss: even those who are on her side are genuinely threatening. On the other hand, the real world contains characters every bit as monstrous and sadistic as the Pale Man. They differ in their methods, but share the goal of crushing the human spirit and imagination, whether through physical torture or psychological humiliation.
The film is a masterpiece of directorial skill which finds del Toro at the top of his game. His choice of shots and camera angles is masterful, maintaining intimacy with the characters even during the moments of great splendour or breathtaking human tragedy. Individual shots, like the blood trickling down Ofelia's fingers or the screaming mandrake root, are shot in intense close-up to emphasis the pathos of the situation. Equally impressive is the seamless editing, which allows fantasy and reality to blend without effort. In one memorable shot, we move from the toad's kingdom in the base of a tree to the soldiers in the forest through a simple pan of the camera.
Pan's Labyrinth is also a deeply political film. Set at the end of the Spanish Civil War, it shows how fragile and vulnerable fascist rule is in reality. The wellbeing of the base depends greatly on the personal strength and charisma of Vidal: when he begins to be undermined or express doubts, the whole system quickly collapses. As with Ofelia's storyline, it is a case of imagination and ideals triumphing over the cynical, the ruthless and the cold-hearted. The ingenuity of the rebels in the woods seems no match for military might, but it is this ingenuity, self-belief and self-sacrifice which ultimately eliminate Vidal.
Pan's Labyrinth is a peerless masterpiece among fantasy films, rivalling The Lord of the Rings for the title of greatest fantasy film of our time, if not all time. Del Toro's superb direction and incomparable storytelling are reinforced by amazing performances from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia and Sergi Lopez, following on from his villainous turn in Dirty Pretty Things. Its horrific beauty and overflowing imagination makes for two hours of mesmerising cinema, culminating in a final scene which is both heartbreaking and triumphant. It is one of the great films of the decade, and the jewel in del Toro's golden crown.
Tim Burton?s most recent films, Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, have included a broader sentimental streak than we have come to expect. As great as those films are, the final scene of the latter can on first viewing seem to jar with the rest of a dark film. So for all us misery-guts out there, people who like their films dark, bleak, pessimistic and brooding, Sweeney Todd is the answer to all our prayers. For everyone else, it remains a stupendous triumph of a film, one of the very best of the year and tied with Ed Wood as being Burton?s masterpiece.
Musicals, on stage or on screen, are always an acquired taste. Musical plots usually involve a large amount of suspending disbelief, and the camp quality that comes with randomly bursting into song can seem toe-curling to the uninitiated. Even the greatest of the genre, like Mary Poppins, suffer from a ?shininess?: a strange sense of time, plot and realism being put on hold whenever a song starts up. Mary Poppins gets around it through great character development in between these pieces, but even in the best moments of ?Step In Time? or ?Feed The Birds? you can feel a little bit lost.
The great virtue of Sweeney Todd is that there is no jarring barrier between the songs and the other sequences. Most of this is down to Stephen Sondheim?s wonderful compositions. The sheer number of songs and musical asides mean that the music flows like a conversation. The lyrics are delivered in the manner of friends talking, rather than actors bellowing out to the balcony, and their content contains so many rich and clever phrases that they eventually become seamlessly woven into your consciousness. Just as you expect someone you know to always pronounce a word in a certain way, so you come to accept the vivid imagery as standard and expect nothing less. Even with the ultra-polished studio recordings, you still feel like the actors are talking/ singing directly off the cuff to you, and that is a wonderful feeling.
But it?s not just the music which makes this such a delight. It?s also down to the performers who bring said music to life, fitting snugly into their characters as if they?d obsessed over playing them their whole life (which is true for Helena Bonham Carter). Johnny Depp?s performance is truly mesmeric. For every second he is on screen, even when he is saying or doing absolutely nothing, he holds your gaze and your heart in the palm of his hand. From the second he first steps on screen, he sends a shiver down your spine, and for the rest of the film a strange mix of warmth and fear comes over you when he appears. Though not a natural singer, Depp has a great voice whose rough tone cements the character as someone both threatening and severely misunderstood.
Helena Bonham Carter is a great match for Depp, considering she had only three months of singing lessons before filming begin. Through roles in previous Burton films and the Harry Potter series, Carter has become the embodiment of all things gothic, and so she has no trouble fitting in with the character on a visual level. But beyond that, she adds a great mix of emotion and earthy humour which lift the character, making her at once a demon and a damsel in distress, a businesswoman and a butcher. Her eyes fixate you with a look of sympathy which both hides and alludes to the fear and absence of love at the centre of her life.
Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall are both having a ball as the villains of the piece. The latter has already proved his singing credentials in Topsy Turvy, and he struts and waddles, toad-like, through his scenes with menace. As for Rickman ? well, menace is his middle name. We get all the traditional ?bad guy? tropes from Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but under Burton?s direction he blossoms into someone who is at once threatening and darkly funny. The scene in which he sentences a young boy to be hung is both funny and tearjerking, and he sings like a deep bassoon to compliment Depp?s violin and Carter?s piccolo. Even Sacha Baron Cohen is brilliant, casting off the uneven mantle of Borat to inhabit Alfonso Pirelli, who is so charmingly ridiculous that he almost steals the show.
All of these great performances inhabit a visual world which is, in a word, impeccable. It?s certainly the bleakest world that Burton has put on screen since Sleepy Hollow, and the London he creates shares a heritage with that film. It?s almost as though the dank backwaters of Sleepy Hollow at the end of the 18th century had become even further corrupted, either giving birth to 19th-century London or being swallowed up by it. It?s painstakingly beautiful, with wonderful cinematography which brings out the deep reds, silvers and greys, and the city which goes on forever seems constantly shrouded in frightening shadows. The costumes and the seaside scenes clearly owe something to The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, Burton?s collection of poems from five years earlier containing a vast array of strange yet beautiful characters. Oddly enough, the final scene with the oven and the pool of blood, seems strangely reminiscent of the ?Acid Queen? sequence in Ken Russell?s Tommy.
The story of Sweeney Todd is so well-known that dwelling on its themes is scarcely worth the effort. Most people are well-aware of its treatment of revenge and its scorn for idealism, naivety and youth. This is seen in the character of Toby, who starts off a cherubim and ends up with the same dark eyes of Sweeney. But Burton?s Todd from the outset seems to be about how in the end everyone is tainted by guilt, whether they take part in the crimes of Todd or not.
The opening credits ? which always set the scene in Burton films ? show blood and water mixing, first in the clouds and finally in the sewers. Burton is using this as a metaphor for how violence, crime and vengeance contaminate everything they touch, so that even those most distant from them are potential victims, either literally (with a slash of the razor) or in their failure to oppose it. The central lines of the film come outside the Old Bailey, when Judge Turpin asks Beadle Bamford whether the boy he sentenced was guilty. Bamford mutters, ?Well if he didn?t do it, he surely done something to warrant the hanging?, to which Turpin replies, ?What man has not??.
Sweeney Todd is a stupendous triumph of a film, a blood-and-guts masterpiece which does justice to its source material and places its distinctive stamp on a well-worn melodrama. It is easily Burton?s best film since Ed Wood and Johnny Depp?s performance is on a par with that film. The direction is inspirational and always interesting, the visuals are mesmerising and the music simply divine. But despite all the darkness and gore, there is an incredible warmth to the piece which, at the very least, holds you attention during the bloodshed and frequently makes you laugh. After two conditional successes, Burton has finally found a way to incorporate his new-found warmth into his existing style, creating in the process a definitive work of art.
After The Bourne Supremacy, any potential sequel would have to up its game. Paul Greengrass had pushed himself further through United 93, and Martin Campbell adopted the darkness and gritty style to re-launch James Bond with Casino Royale. The 'shaky camera' style of Supremacy had become widely imitated, though most who attempted to mimic Greengrass failed to marry the style to gripping drama. If a sequel were to happen, it had to redress this balance and better all that had gone before. Nothing else would do, and no-one else could do it.
Thankfully for us, The Bourne Ultimatum is brilliant. It is an extraordinary piece of work, and clearly the best instalment in the trilogy; it may even be Paul Greengrass' best film. Everything which made the previous two instalments so gripping is refined and reshaped into something new, and Greengrass pushes the action and drama to breaking point to create something is intense, intelligent and unforgettable.
Purely on a technical level, The Bourne Ultimatum is a perfect thriller. It is believable, exciting and all the pieces fit together beautifully. But most of all, it is fantastically tense, beginning where Supremacy left off and never letting up the pace until Bourne's final moments of reckoning. From the shootout in Waterloo Station to the car chase through New York City, the film is proof positive that you can hold in an audience in a state of nerve-jangling tension without resorting to explosions or incoherent techno-babble.
Despite being roughly the same length as Identity, The Bourne Ultimatum feels quicker, sharper and edgier. Greengrass' builds on his successful marriage of action and drama in Supremacy and broadens it out so he can recreate this seamless tension wherever the camera is placed. Even when you are watching the characters on CCTV, rather than being up close and in their face, you feel like you're right there in the room with them, completely part of the story. Even when the odd contrivance happens, like Bourne surviving the car bomb, the film gets away with it because we are so gripped by the general picture. The Tangier fight is terrific: every cut is perfect and the whole sequence leaves you breathless.
What really makes The Bourne Ultimatum great, though, is the precise way in which the stakes are raised. The presence of Blackbriar moves us away from a game of 'us' and 'them' (albeit one in which both 'us' and 'them' are fragmented and disparate). In both the previous films, our focus has been so rooted on Bourne (and rightly so) that the other CIA goings-on have not been examined in great depth. Now that Bourne is re-entering the web, we have to take time to examine that web, and so the film delves deeper into the extreme measures of the intelligence services.
Alongside the battle between Bourne and the CIA, there is a secondary fight between two schools of thought over the role and remit of the security services. "A republic lives on a knife's edge" says Albert Finney's Dr. Hirsch, and the two figures charged with safeguarding it are after Bourne for different reasons. On the one hand, we have Noah Vosen, an arch-Machiavellian who heads the Blackbriar operation. He praises the virtues of "no more red tape", being able to dispatch terrorist suspects in the instance he needs. He treats Bourne as a dangerous figure who knows too much, and must be eliminated to serve the greater good. On the other hand, we have Pamela Landy, who is equally tough and no-nonsense but has a clearer sense of morality. Her interest in Bourne has more to do with the nature of Blackbriar, and questioning whether both he and it have been manipulated.
Because Greengrass is so adept at recreating reality on screen, there are several moments in the film which are genuinely chilling. When Vosen orders the killing of Nicky Parsons, Landy disputes his decision. She yells, "You start down this path, where does it end?"; he replies coolly, "It ends when we've won." Vosen believes that his decisions are entirely justified on their own terms, reminding Landy not to "second-guess an operation from an armchair." The shoot-on-sight authorisation is especially eerie, considering the film was released in the UK just after the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. At one point Matt Damon says: "This is real". With everything else in place, we believe him.
In structuring the plot around the treason of Neil Daniels, Greengrass subtly hints at his own political views. Where the intelligence services in Identity were completely uniform in their approach and beliefs, here they are populated with the likes of Landy and Daniels who are getting cold feet about everything happening around them. When Bourne and Landy finally meet, she remarks that "this is not what I signed up for". We also have the various agencies still competing against each other, whether in the Spanish police arresting the spies in Madrid or the shootout in the New York car park.
Amidst all this nail-biting tension and political substance, The Bourne Ultimatum also finds time to create a greater sense of cohesion within the trilogy. The film recognises the need to tie up all the loose ends in a way that Supremacy didn't need to, chiefly because Supremacy began two years after the events of Identity and therefore could essentially start afresh.
To this end, we have more flashbacks, which are more graphic and more painful for the central character. The jump cut at the end of Supremacy is incorporated into the final third, turning a crafty zinger into an incremental plot device. And Nicky Parsons cuts her hair like Marie Kreutz did in Identity. This is perhaps symbolic, since Bourne sends Parsons away rather than let her come with him. This is him atoning for Marie, ensuring he does not repeat his mistake and endanger someone he cares about.
The true genius of the film comes in the last 20 minutes, where Bourne finally discovers who he is and why all of this started. Greengrass knows that this is the one bit that cannot be rushed, because it is the crux of the story and it encapsulates everything the series has examined. He takes his time with Damon and Finney, showing how the ideal of "saving American lives" has been so brutally turned on its head. In committing himself to his country, Bourne has signed up to an organisation which allows US citizens to be targeted if the likes of Vosen deem it necessary. The republic has begun feeding on itself, and must be stopped before it is too late.
The performances in The Bourne Ultimatum are superb. Matt Damon goes from strength to strength, atoning in one fell swoop for both The Brothers Grimm and The Good Shepherd. David Straitharn has never been better, improving on his performance in Good Night and Good Luck to make Noah Vosen a force to be reckoned with. Joan Allen and Julia Stiles are both on great form, and it is good to see the latter becoming more than a peripheral character. And Paddy Considine makes good of his supporting role, proving that there is more to him than his work with Shane Meadows.
The Bourne Ultimatum is an extraordinary piece of work and the summation of one of a fantastic trilogy. Its fight sequences are brilliantly thrown together (no pun intended), its direction is superb, its acting is fantastic and it is positively dripping with substance. It is the perfect thinking-man's action film, with enough meat to chew on and enough mind-blowing spectacle to entertain. Most of all, it is a fabulous thrill-ride, in which every scene is cohesive and constantly thrilling. Bond, hang up your Rolex: this is the new gold standard.
There comes a point as a horror fan when you think you've seen it all. You've gotten used to the same old monsters turning up in increasingly similar stories, and you begin to lose faith in the ability of films to deeply scare and affect you. And then, out of nowhere, comes a film which completely blindsides you, a film which touches a part of you which you thought had ceased to exist, and which warms the heart even as it sends shivers down your spine. As it was with Pan's Labyrinth, so it is with Let The Right One In.
Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John Adjive Lindqvist's novel is an outstanding, extraordinary piece of work, and one of the very best films of the decade. Equal parts vampire horror, coming-of-age fable, crime drama and intimate romance, it is the film which truly makes vampires scary again, and gives them a genuine reason for continuing to turn up on our screens. The film is every bit as frightening and chilling as it is touching and heartbreaking, and once exposed you will remember it forever.
What makes the film so initially extraordinary is its distance from the horror genre in terms of its production. Lindqvist may be an acclaimed horror writer, but Alfredson had next to no knowledge of horror or vampirism before coming to the project. When a director approaches a genre in which they have no prior interest or experience, the result can be disastrous - Roland Joffe's Captivity being all the proof you need. But in this case the distance is what makes the film so special. Alfredson has spoken about the tendency for filmmakers to 'blue-print' each other, to copy their visual approaches so closely that the finished products become homogenised. His distance allows him to make a vampire film without any baggage or fanboy prejudices, and in doing so completely redefine a genre.
Aside from its resemblance to Pan's Labyrinth, Let The Right One In merits comparison with other works by Guillermo del Toro, who himself described the film as one of the best he'd seen in years. Both Let The Right One In and Del Toro's Cronos are vampire films in which the vampirism is not a symbol for sex or lust: the latter explores it as a reaction to ageing and the fear of death, centred on the close friendship between a young girl and her grandfather. There are also tonal similarities with The Devil's Backbone, a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. The film is haunting to watch, with the pale nature of both characters and landscape making the community on film like a hinterland between our world and another.
Let The Right One In is on one level a film about loneliness. Both Oskar and Eli are different kinds of outcasts, individuals who find each other in a world which isn't ready to accept either of them. Oskar is shy and sensitive, finding it hard to make friends and making himself an easy target for bullies. Eli, meanwhile, is probably hundreds of years old, and is used to moving from place to place to avoid being discovered and destroyed. The film taps into a central tenet of the original Dracula novel, namely the vampire's fate to live a life of solitude and torment at the hands of his victims. The price of immortality is the feeling of guilt or shame which surrounds the means of achieving that fate.
The film is also a coming-of-age story, but again in an entirely non-sexual context. Oskar's shyness and cowardice is counterpointed and contradicted by his obsession with death. He keeps a knife under his pillow, collects news clippings about murders and knows rather a lot about forensic pathology. His first lines, "Squeal like a pig!", are quotes from Deliverance, and yet for all his determination he lacks self-belief. Only after meeting Eli does he begin to stand up for himself and act like a man; only when he finds an equal or source of strange affection does he find a way to channel this inner rage.
Mark Kermode famously described Let The Right One In as a film about children that just happens to feature vampires. There is no clunky attempt made by Alfredson to draw on the back catalogue of vampire stories, nor is there any lazy twist to sexualise the story as Oskar and Eli grow closer. The few romantic scenes (if they can be called that) are shot with the utmost respect for the characters, and the film clearly emphasises the relative innocence (or apparent innocence) of both parties. Even the brief shot of Eli wearing no underwear is a red herring, reinforcing the character's androgyny rather than giving in to base titillation.
What distinguishes Let The Right One In from so many vampire films is its subtlety. Everything is beautifully underplayed and the film reveals itself very, very slowly; little touches in the imagery and colour say all that is needed, and the dialogue just fills in the blanks. There is hardly any soundtrack, and what remains is prominently bittersweet, reinforcing the sombre and poignant tone with nothing to distract us from the sad beauty of the central relationship. It's lazy journalism to compare a Swedish film to Ingmar Bergman, but there is the same sense of sparse, existential emotion at work here.
This sombre and tender approach makes the violence in the film all the more scary and shocking. The film is a 15 certificate, which means most of the really nasty stuff is implied rather than expressed. But we almost don't need to see all the scenes of Eli feeding, not just because we know what she is but because being too explicit detracts from her enigmatic nature.
All the violent scenes in Let The Right One In are handled directly and sensitively: they are never gratuitous or over-egged, but neither is there any attempt to sanitise the actions of Eli and her family just because we empathise with them. Whether it's a man hanging from a tree with his blood collecting in a jar or Ginia bursting into flames in the hospital, the scenes of blood-sucking and its consequences are chillingly no-nonsense. Alfredson's camera in these scenes is purely an observer, not a judge. He puts us alongside the murders, neither condoning nor condemning the characters, and thereby increasing their impact.
What makes Let The Right One In so special is the precise way in which it scares you or chills you. There is a harrowing moment where Eli walks into Oskar's room without being invited, and she starts to violently haemorrhage, with blood pouring from her eyes and every part of her body. What seems upsetting in its own right becomes even moreso with the symbolism contained therein. When Oskar screams and begs her to come in, he is breaking down the barrier of rejection towards Eli and overcoming his own distance from other people. The final scene on the train is heart-in-mouth stuff, leaving our story suitably open-ended and ambiguous. On one level, it's the confirmation of a love which cannot work and yet must; on another, it's a dangerous and potentially fatal step into the unknown.
Let The Right On In is on a par with Pan's Labyrinth and is one of the best films of the last decade. The central performances from Kare Hedebrant and Linda Leandersson are terrific, the latter maintaining a childlike innocence while bearing the weary expression of age. Alfredson's direction is superb, playing every scene and sentence note-perfect and choosing his angles and lighting meticulously to create a haunting atmosphere. Forget Twilight, forget the American remake - this is the Citizen Kane of modern vampires.
There is something very special about debut features. They have a spark to them, an indescribable mystique which is endlessly enticing to a film fan. In some cases, like Repulsion, they are the foundation to a brilliant career; in others, like Donnie Darko, it may be the only decent film a director makes. The sign of a great director, as opposed to a good one, is someone who can make a film with this certain something while working under extreme restrictions, whether it be a low budget or heavy-handed producers. On this basis, the artist formally known as Zowie Bowie is someone we should be very excited about.
Moon is a truly terrific film from Duncan Jones, being a thrilling and irresistible mix of old-school sci-fi with modern production techniques and a brilliant central performance. Itâ??s a film which deals with deep political and humanitarian issues without ever losing sight of the people who are caught in the middle of these conflicts. Itâ??s about cloning, the energy crisis, corporate paranoia and the manipulation of memory, all channelled through a terrific central performance by Sam Rockwell, who is fast becoming one of the best in the business.
If, like me, youâ??re a science fiction fan, then it wonâ??t take you long to spot all the films to which Moon owes a debt, either visually or thematically. There are clear echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey both in the sterile white interiors of the moon base and in certain specific shots. Consider the footage early on of the Earth â??risingâ?? from behind the Moon, or the end sequence where Sam Bell is descending through the atmosphere in what can only be described as a â??monolithicâ?? tunnel of light.
Moon also contains references to other prominent dystopian works, mainly from the 1970s. There are hints of Solaris in the central characterâ??s yearning to be back on Earth with his family, along with eco-inflected scenes which borrow from Silent Running and conspiracy elements which are reminiscent of Soylent Green. There are more modern references too, of course; both of Ridley Scottâ??s sci-fi masterpieces are acknowledged, mainly in the bleak surroundings which make space seem as inhospitable as it is in Alien or Blade Runner.
A lot of the praise which Moon has received has focussed on it being a return to â??good old-fashionedâ?? science fiction, in which outer space is a means to explore inner space rather than fight off type-fighters while wearing strange costumes. In a way this is unfortunate, because the most remarkable thing about Moon is that it is not just a distillation of old films with a topical story shoved on top. The references are clear and recognised, but Jones is too ambitious to simply pay homage to these conventions. The film is not in the least bit nostalgic, save in its desire for substance over spectacle.
What we get with Moon is a story which is equal parts conspiracy thriller, dystopian sci-fi, love story and political tract. The story of Sam Bell, who is mining â??Helium-3â?? on the Moon on a three-year contract, is both incredibly simple (you can follow it whatever your state of mind) and satisfying complex (you can read into it as much as you like).
What hold your attention is not just the quality of the script, but the way in which Jones sustains tension throughout the film. He is fully aware of his limited resources, having learnt his trade on commercials, and chooses to make the best of these limitations rather than covering them up. As with Paranormal Activity, the low budget allows Jones to make the small significant; he is able to take something as tiny as an out-of-place edit in a transmission, and use it to plant seeds of paranoia into the audienceâ??s mind. The film is brilliantly eerie, capturing that sense of deep and constant unease that, Lynch and Polanski aside, very few directors have mastered.
At its heart, Moon is about identity. It shares with Blade Runner the idea of artificial humans (whether they be replicants or clones) who do not know that they are artificial. But where Blade Runner used this idea as the starting point for a dark examination of human nature, Moon goes in a different direction. Although the film, like Blade Runner, is clearly about the untrustworthy nature of corporations in allowing such an scheme to exist, it is at heart a story of personal struggle.
Sam Bell, like Rachael, goes through the personal torment of questioning how real he really is. He has to tortuously share the base with someone who is a version of himself, someone who is innately him and yet completely unlike him. He finds out how long his wife has been dead without his knowledge, and in a harrowing scene finds out that he is by no means the first of his kind. The film is strangely reminiscent of The Shining, because of the theme of time and events repeating themselves without the characters realising it. On one level it could be argued that the whole film is really an internal dialogue, and that the different versions of Sam Bell only exist in the head of the original, as does all the subsequent paranoia.
The brilliant thing about Moon is that all of these sequences are executed in a completely internalised way, with no effort made by the director to explain what youâ??re seeing or teach you what it means. Jones could have easily gone the same way as Paul W. S. Anderson in Event Horizon, with everything leading up to a great showdown and the whole base being destroyed. But he sticks to his guns, focussing relentlessly on the story and its themes so that you remain engrossed and genuinely tense as to how this is all going to be resolved.
Sam Rockwellâ??s performance is terrific, on a par with his work in The Green Mile and far superior to his previous sci-fi outing, The Hitchhikersâ?? Guide to the Galaxy. His slow decay is brilliantly executed through make-up, but he doesnâ??t overly rely on this. He somehow manages to convince us that the two Sam Bells are simultaneously clones and completely different characters, in the same way that Jeremy Irons managed in Dead Ringers. The film is really a one-hander, since Kevin Spacey makes only sporadic appearances as GERTY. But when he is on screen, heâ??s really great, managing to marrying the creepiness of HAL with a strange but welcome sense of humanity. The one big section of plot exposition, in which he reveals that Sam is a clone, makes it feel like he is on our side, and yet we are never completely sure where his loyalties lie until the very end of the film.
Despite its dark and sterile trappings, Moon is a very moving and very human film. It isnâ??t deliberately cold in the manner of 2001, but neither does it pile on the sentimentality in a way that lumbered Silent Running. The whole film is expertly tense, and the ending leaves you almost teary-eyed at the simultaneous triumph and tragedy of the central character. Itâ??d a fantastic science fiction film which plays to both the devoted fans and newcomers, with a great script, a great score and a great director. It may be a bold claim so early in his career, but Duncan Jones could be the new Ridley Scott. If this is his Alien, his Blade Runner will really be something.
It's very easy to judge a film solely by a director's background. Different filmmakers display different sensibilities depending upon where they learnt their craft. But just because a group of directors start in the same place, it doesn't necessarily mean that their work will be equally appealing or appreciated; both Ridley Scott and Michael Bay cut their teeth on adverts, and yet their names are never in the same sentence.
In this way, Tom Ford's background as a fashion designer (and photographer) does not necessarily mean that his films will resemble feature-length perfume ads. Peter Bradshaw's review in The Guardian dismissed his lauded debut as "Bereavement by Dior", a rather spiteful comment from a normally reliable critic. If anything, A Single Man is proof that one should not judge a filmmaker by where they come from, as opposed to what they does with the talents they has gained. From that point of view, A Single Man is a brilliant and fascinating work.
There can be no doubt that Ford's film is visually ravishing, but as beautiful as every shot is, the colours and the composition are never allowed to overwhelm the people at the heart of it. Eduard Grau's cinematography is very intimate; nearly every shot is a tight close-up, so you can see every little movement on the characters' faces as they struggle to hold themselves together. The flashbacks to George's life with Jim are shot like old home videos, with grainier picture quality and greater contrast. Many scenes feel positively dreamlike, such as the wonderful sequence of George driving his car. Time slows right down, and as he looks out of the window he sees happier memories silently passing him by.
The brilliance of A Single Man is its steadfast refusal to let such beauty get in the way of the story. And the story is far from simple, either in the events that unfold or in the manner in which they are told. At the start of the film, George Falconer makes clear plans in his head as to what he will do with his last day alive; and yet for all his efforts, both in the way he looks and in what he does, things keep getting in the way which complicate his day, to the point at which he openly loses his temper.
All the little inconveniences which bother Falconer are the kinds of encounters we would take for granted, since we are not conscious that we are experiencing them for the last time. While the prospect of Nicholas Hoult following us around would perhaps get on our nerves, it would not drive us to the point of suppressed rage because our goals are not so rigid and unavoidable. The film argues that all these little things are of great significance, that every encounter, good or ill, is potentially life-changing.
Because the film takes place over a single day, we are able to dissect the behaviour of George Falconer much more meticulously than if we saw his gradual decline over a period of months. The dreamlike flashbacks give the film a psychological slant, with the specific choice of colours and length of sequences giving us an insight into the workings of our memories. We very rarely remember events precisely as they happened; we add in our own details, omit the bits we don't like, set them to music or even change the setting and the colour scheme.
Falconer is a character who is constantly bothered by his memories; they are a chance to relieve a happier stage of his life, but with every slice of happiness comes a final moment of despair at the thought that he is getting older and growing further away from his past. Much like Naomi Watts' character at the end of Mulholland Drive, the despair comes not just from the loss of the person you love, but from the shattering of perfect dreams by frightening reality, to which the only natural response is self-destruction. The first 20 minutes are especially heartbreaking, and Colin Firth's narration will have you on the edge of tears.
In order to prevent these moments of despair forcing their way out and exposing him, Falconer puts up various physical barriers between him and the outside world. The fact that he takes so long to get dressed, right down to wearing a new shirt and polishing his shoes, is a sign of how desperate and empty his predicament is. His thick-rimmed glasses are an emotional barrier, with Firth only removing them in the final scene after his life-affirming encounter with Hoult.
But in spite of all his preparation and care, Firth's character still struggles to make it through the day. Friends and colleagues make passing comments about how tired he looks, or invite him round for drinks the following evening. Hoult's persistence, however well-meaning, troubles George because it threatens the privacy of what he is doing. Over dinner with his old friend Charley, he erupts when she describes Jim as "a substitute" -- both are drunk but he feels hopelessly and helplessly exposed.
Despite its main character being gay, the film makes very little of Falconer's sexuality or the political situation surrounding this. Aside from the billboards for Psycho and the short bursts of chat about Cuba, very little is made about the period setting either. Both are completely accepted by both the filmmaker and the characters, with neither feeling the need to justify or decry them. The most prominent running reference is to the work of Aldous Huxley; Falconer's English class is studying one of his novels, and Hoult's character frequently talks about taking mescalin, which Huxley employed in writing The Doors of Perception. This is a film which takes pride in the subtlety of language, not just Huxley's or Isherwood's, but of English as a whole.
One of the most surprising things about A Single Man is how funny it is. The premise is bleak and downbeat, but the film is never po-faced; it doesn't ask you to constantly take it seriously, or wag its finger at you to be quiet. One takes it seriously by recognising its compelling story and captivating performances, not least by Colin Firth on the form of a lifetime. But there are plenty of moments for laughter, whether in the surreal monologue of the girl with the scorpion, or the outrageous sexual banter of Firth and Julianne Moore over dinner.
Firth's performance dominates the screen with self-effacing grace and understatement; he inhabits Falconer like he has secretly lived him his entire life. Julianne Moore is a great match for him, having displayed her talent for period drama in both Savage Grace and Far from Heaven, both of which had overt sexual themes. Matthew Goode is very strong as Jim, bringing a bickering spark to the flashback scenes, and Nicholas Hoult is on great form as the student. We are never sure of his intentions, and our opinion of him changes at least three times in every conversation.
A Single Man is as brilliant a debut as anyone would ask for, and is up there with Moon as on the best films of the year. Ford's direction is of the highest quality, offering up gripping scenes which hold our hearts suspended in mid-beat. The performances are all terrific, the score is mind-blowing and the script is superb, but above all it is a deeply involving, emotional film with a powerful story about despair, identity and self-belief. This is a film which will keep you on the brink of tears and yet allows you to laugh, warmly and openly, with the characters. A true, unadulterated masterpiece.
Most of us have at least one film which we can watch over and over without necessarily getting anything new out of it. But there is a small number of truly magnificent films which keep rewarding us, intellectually and viscerally, even when there is no need for the gift to keep on giving. Inception is a worthy member of this club, sharing pride of place with A Clockwork Orange, Mulholland Drive and - dare I say it - Blade Runner. Every new viewing opens up new theories and interpretations, while confirming its status as the best film of 2010 and of Christopher Nolan's career.
A lot has been written about the reputation of Inception as a 'smart blockbuster' which proves that audiences aren't stupid and lays down the gauntlet for the rest of the film industry. While all of this is completely true, it has been said so often that people have been led to doubt whether the film has anything of offer beyond what it represents: in other words, is it meant to be admired rather than enjoyed. Make no mistake: Inception is a smart blockbuster, but in order to appreciate it we have to look beyond its possible implications for the industry, at least for the moment.
Inception is the culmination of Nolan's career, at least up to now. It shares a number of qualities with his previous efforts while having its own identity, like a series of jewels that have been waiting ten years for a crown. There is the deceptive chronology of Memento and The Prestige, used to make you question everything you have seen and distrust the editing over where stories begin and end. There is the nail-biting action of the Batman films, with real characters exploring ideas and experiencing pain in the midst of outstanding special effects. And there is the genre integrity of Following and Insomnia, creating in this case a film which follows heist film conventions without being in any way limited by them.
All of these elements are woven together by Nolan's constant pursuit of verisimilitude, the art of finding reality and believability in the most fantastical of stories and concepts. Rather than go down the surrealistic route, filling the heist with scenes from Eraserhead or Un Chien Andalou, Nolan creates a hyper-stylised world which is so akin to our own that his artistic flourishes feel all the more surprising. His use of organic, physical effects wherever possible confirms his desire to keep us rooted in reality even as the world around us becomes extraordinary. The story introduces the mechanics of dreaming incrementally, so the film never grinds to a halt for plot exposition or loses its way by twisting too much at once.
At its most superficial (if such a word is appropriate), Inception is about the nature of dreams and dreaming. In previous films which have explored dreaming, particularly as part of a thriller storyline, the boundary between dreams and reality has been all too obvious. Think, for instance, of Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, whose dream sequence directed by Salvador Dali is in stark contrast to the rest of the film.
Inception corrects this, blurring the lines so seamlessly that we quickly understand the danger the characters are facing - both in failing their mission and in losing themselves to their own sub-consciences. During her training, Cobb warns Ariadne not to base a dream's architecture on real life, because that is the easiest way to lose your bearings and perhaps even end up like Mal. The feeling of getting lost is reflected in our experience as an audience: the film is constantly asking us to keep up, and there are only so many points where we can rely on totems or editing to tell us where we are. But as with Mulholland Drive, feeling lost is not only fun, it enhances the experience, making the dream-state all the more believable, threatening and fascinating.
Like all great heist films, Inception is not really about the job itself. Nor, indeed, is it entirely or primarily about the nature of dreaming. The mechanics of dreaming, involving inception and extraction, heavy sedations and multiple dreams-within-dreams, are there to serve the plot by putting an enticing twist on the conventions of the heist film. But they also provide an introduction to a host of other interesting themes and ideas, each as enticing and multi-layered as the dreams in which they appear.
One of Inception's biggest themes is identity, namely the ability in the dream world to be whoever you want, potentially forever. Like Mulholland Drive before it, it examines the idea of characters creating whole worlds or lives for themselves within a dream or fantasy. In this case the dreams can be designed and engineered to such a degree that reality becomes unnecessary: characters spend so long in dreams that reality seems like a pale imitation of the world which offers them everything they need.
The one factor connecting all the members of Cobb's team is that their abilities and worth are enhanced by being in the dream. In reality, Eames is flippant, soft-headed and can't hold onto his money; in the dream he is brilliant, impersonating people and garnering information with ease. Arthur begins as a "stick in the mud" with no imagination, but in the dream he gains the imagination needed to bring the team home. Cobb is the exception to this rule: haunted by guilt, any potential enhancement in the dream in cancelled out or undermined by his troubled, unrestrained psyche.
There is a counterpoint in the characters between Mal and Ariadne, played with superb skill by Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page. Both are to some extent experiments of Cobb: he trials inception on Mal, in a move which produces the impossible (inception) at the cost of creating the unbearable (her death). Ariadne represents Cobb trying to avoid his past mistakes, revisiting the impossible for the sake of catharsis. His relationship with Ariadne is sensitive because she sees through him, providing his salvation from the dream while giving him the chance to atone for Mal's death.
When Darren Aronofsky made Requiem for a Dream, he commented that it was not so much a film about drugs as about addictive impulses - what constitutes or defines a drug, and therefore what makes a drug addict. So much of Inception is about addiction, with the characters being sedated to experience dreaming and their dreams being a pursuit of the high that is unlimited creativity.
As with Aronofsky's work, Inception contrasts the limitless possibilities of the characters' fantasies with the threatened or actual destruction of their lives, minds and memories. Cobb was drawn to extraction by the ability to design whole new cities which could never exist, and when Ariadne runs away he remarks that "reality won't be enough for her anymore". But these optimistic sections are given perspective by the revelation that Cobb can no longer dream of his own accord. The chilling scene in the Mombasa basement hints at what he threatens to become if he does not restore his grip on reality and work for something more than the selfish high of extraction or inception.
The performances in Inception are magnificent across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio has been working hard to cast off the pretty boy image of his early career, and in this case he manages it, turning in his most layered and accomplished performance to date. Cillian Murphy has an intriguing fractured quality to his performance which brings subtlety to his relationships with the other characters. And Tom Hardy is outstanding as Eames, providing much of the light relief as the world falls apart around him.
Inception is a mesmerising masterpiece which improves with every viewing. Its mind-blowing, hyper-tense action sequences are perfectly complimented by its multi-layered examination of dreaming, addiction, catharsis and identity. It is visually superb thanks to Wally Pfister's outstanding cinematography, and Hans Zimmer's unusual score is nothing short of breathtaking. But at the centre of everything is Christopher Nolan, possibly Britain's greatest living director, who has delivered a film which is not only smart, but utterly flawless.
Fate has a funny way of producing amazing success out of apparent failure. For the best part of two years, director Lynne Ramsay struggled to bring The Lovely Bones to the silver screen. She relinquished the project in 2004 and contemplated giving up filmmaking, while The Lovely Bones eventually emerged in a heavily flawed version helmed by Peter Jackson. But without being unfair to either director, this failure was almost certainly a good thing. Otherwise, we wouldn't need to talk about Kevin.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is Ramsay's first film in nearly nine years, and is without any conceivable doubt the best film of the year. It's an astonishing, bold and haunting work which is both evocative and emotionally draining, combining a fragmented, nightmarish narrative with expressionistic visuals to create an intoxicating experience. Its unique and frightening vision of the world will chill you to the bone and remain with you for a very, very long time.
Regardless of its other merits (and there are many), the film is a flawless adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel. Ramsay doesn't fall into the trap of many bestseller adaptations, which simply arrange the pages in a literalistic order, shoot what they contain and hope that the performances will somehow hold it together. Instead she takes the book's fragmented confessional structure and transforms it, allowing the story to move between events fifteen years apart without any feeling of directorial imposition or incoherence.
We Need To Talk About Kevin finds Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton at her terrifying best) looking back over her relationship with her first-born son, struggling to understand how and why he ended up massacring his classmates with a bow and arrow. Their story is told expressionistically, with imagery, colours and sounds being employed to connect Eva's memories. We are never spoon-fed any easy answers about where blame or cause may lie, or whether Eva's intense guilt is justified. The experience is draining in the best possible sense: we follow every glance and sound intensely, feverishly looking for some kind of meaning in all the horror we encounter.
Purely on a narrative level, We Need to Talk About Kevin is an extraordinary representation of how memory works. It is on a par with Memento in its refusal to allow plot to get in the way of story, or mechanics to override emotions. The internal logic of Kevin is present in its powerful colour palette: the film begins with Eva being drenched in tomatoes at La Tomatina in Spain, which foreshadows the gruesome massacre that Kevin will wreak upon his innocent and unsuspecting classmates. But like Christopher Nolan's later works, like Inception and The Prestige, feeling lost or deeply confused is as thrilling as having it all worked out.
Outside of Nolan's mental and narrative acrobatics, the film to which Kevin sits closest is Inland Empire, David Lynch's most recent and perhaps most esoteric work. Both films feature female protagonists who are dragged deeper and deeper into a dark world from which there is seemingly no escape, and in which the power of their imaginations are as great an enemy as whatever physical evil may be waiting for them. Eva's guilt, shame, negligence and suppressed despair are a powerful cocktail which produce moments of both earth-shattering horror and painful beauty.
The other comparison between Ramsay and Lynch is in the disorientating use of sound. The soundtrack to Kevin is by Johnny Greenwood, who previously scored There Will Be Blood, and here he continues his fascination with the intrusive quality of music. Where There Will Be Blood featured burbling eruptions and groaning ironwork (akin to Alan Splet's work on Eraserhead), Kevin is populated with background noises being amplified in a way which is fantastically unsettling.
The film's exploration of memory and trauma is not confined to the evocative nature of colour and composition. Ramsay's sound design is magnificent, turning ordinary background noise into a source of threat and menace. Kevin's constant screaming as a young child leaves Eva and us with a heightened sense of the world around us. We hear a lawnmower, or a sanding tool, or even rain falling, as if there were a woodpecker hammering away in each ear.
In one memorable moment, Eva parks Kevin's pram by a pneumatic drill in the road, going to desperate lengths to drown out her child's complaining. We are on constant alert throughout the film, and every sound, especially from Kevin, feels like a vicious attack. But as well as being aware of such attacks, Eva appears to have grown numb because of them: it's difficult to say whether she simply no longer cares about what Kevin does, or whether she is too tired to fight. Perhaps she invites in the noise of the world around her to help her forget the problem she has borne.
The film is an intelligent, nuanced and multi-layered approach to the nature of evil, asking many questions to which there are no satisfying answers. It's redundant to single any one out as the 'issue' of the film, because they are all interconnected and there is no sugary pay-off that you would find in more Oscar-baiting work. The film is almost structured as a thriller, in which we are charged with gathering all the evidence and offering our verdict as to what happened and why. But the evidence is so conflicted, ambiguous and speculative that it will take many viewings and much discussion to settle on even a workable version of events and motives.
One of the questions which Kevin raises is whether evil is something which is innate, or whether it is a product of one's upbringing. Eva is far from a natural mother, seemingly incapable of dealing with Kevin and harbouring bitterness at him for ruining her life and career. But both of the actors who play Kevin (Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller) have a disturbing charisma and intelligence: they are smarter than Eva and Franklin, seeing through their every word and deed, and having no time for emotions unless they serve their interests.
From this arises the question of who is to blame for everything. Is Kevin guilty because he is inherently evil, a sociopath who exists to provide entertainment for the empty-headed morons that are called his equals? Is it Eva, for not standing up to him? Is it Franklin for ignoring Eva's warnings, laughing off her perhaps irrational ravings with comments like "that's just what boys do"? Or perhaps it is a wider social problem: Kevin speaks about the voyeuristic nature of modern society, in which people on TV are filmed watching TV, and in which what is left of entertainment comes from acts of shocking, shattering horror like those that he will perpetrate.
Finally, there is the role of emotions to consider. It is possible to accept, up to a point, that Eva never really loved Kevin: that she held him responsible for ruining her chances of happiness, and soon got tired of playing mother, knowing full well that there was no point. But equally there is evidence of Kevin's emotional side underneath his dark veneer. We might accept that he is a sociopath, someone who cannot process human emotion and revels in causing pain to others. But in the final scene in the prison, he is openly afraid, a sign that he is still a child who craves affection. This is a significant if pyrrhic victory for Eva in a story of shame and sorrow, and the ending with her walking into piercing white light would seem to leave things on a balance between optimism and stark pathos.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is the film of the year and Lynne Ramsay's best work to date. It is a shocking, haunting, deeply unnerving masterpiece with a bold artistic vision, every bit as striking and earth-shattering as the best works of David Lynch. If we get another film as good as this in the decade, let alone the year, all the dross which passes in between can easily be forgiven. It is a staggering achievement on all fronts, and nothing short of essential viewing.
It's fast becoming a habit that my favourite film of a given year doesn't come out until the year is almost through. Last year brought us many great films, but come October I was still fretting than no film I had seen was quite worthy of my maximum rating. Then We Need To Talk About Kevin came along and blew my mind, and while I have attempted to catch up on the likes of Drive and Take Shelter, it remains my favourite film of 2011.
In 2012 I find myself in an almost identical position. There have been a number of great films released this year, with Berberian Sound Studio having held the top spot and coming perilously close to perfection. Then along comes Killing Them Softly, the latest from Andrew Dominik, which arrives without the relative fanfare of Chopper or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Suffice to say, it will take something extraordinary to prevent it from being my film of the year, being the best cinematic crime drama since Goodfellas and a masterpiece in its own right.
When reviewing the film on BBC Radio 5 Live, Mark Kermode remarked that Dominik's key ability as a director is being able to tell a story at the right pace and for the right length of time. Killing Them Softly is an extremely efficient piece of filmmaking, being nothing but pure, visceral storytelling in which not a single frame is wasted. While Jesse James played on the languor and weariness of its main character to reflect the slower pace of 19th-century life, this is short, sharp and straight to the point. It begins exactly where it needs to begin, and ends exactly where it needs to end, without a syllable or obvious artistic flourish more.
The comparison between this film and Goodfellas is not entirely misplaced. Both are period dramas rooted to some extent in the 1970s, and much of them entail characters who were involved in drugs and have become decrepit. The presence of Ray Liotta in both films leads us to presume this is how his Henry Hill would have turned out, had he not been killed or got out while he still could. The difference is that Martin Scorsese's film, like The Godfather trilogy, has a feeling of ironic nostalgia in amongst the brutal violence. While Scorsese romanticised the gangsters' world in order to puncture said romance, Dominik cuts to the chase and suffers no fools.
A more accurate comparison, in terms of narrative, would be with Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. In Ferrara's film, the foreground story about the Lieutenant solving a crime (the rape of a nun) is married to the background events of the baseball series, which ultimately decides the Lieutenant's fate and leads to him being gunned down by the mob. This time around the foreground story involves Liotta's card game being knocked over for a second time, and the background is the banks being bailed out and the election of Barack Obama. Like Bad Lieutenant, the foreground and background of Killing Them Softly reflect each other and combine to shape the fate of the characters.
The film draws a parallel between the bailing out of the banks and the fallout of Liotta's game being robbed. Both organisations are depicted as being run by criminals with no morally redeemable features, with both needing to be straightened out by individuals who are no more noble or legitimate in their aims. In each case certain individuals are removed (or in the game's case, killed) as a public gesture of reassurance: their departures send a strong signal that something is being done, even if their disposal ends up having no positive effect or practical benefits whatsoever.
Some reviews have complained that this device or comparison is clunky, believing that the film would have worked just as well without it. In fact it adds to the film, partially by preventing it from seeming generic, and partially by adding a greater feeling of the characters being burdened, and in the very pits of their own personal hells. This is not an overly simple, 'bankers-are-baddies' thriller like The International, which is just cashing in on contemporary political events. It's a crime drama that is equal parts 1970s nihilism and 2000s alienation, delivered in a manner which is accessible but not opportunistic.
What makes Killing Them Softly so memorable, and so striking, is how cold it is. The film is incredibly brutal, containing multiple scenes of violence which are deeply and shockingly repulsive. Whether it's Ray Liotta being graphically beaten up by gangsters, or someone's head being blown open with a shotgun, the film is without any doubt a top-end 18 certificate. But what's more striking than the violence is how black it feels, drawing no quarter with any of its characters, or introducing any elements that offer any kind of happy ending or hope for the future. It makes Tyrannosaur feel like The Sound of Music, and that's no mean feat.
Dominik is very careful to ensure that none of the criminals depicted in the film come across as remotely likeable. None of them are crafty, charming, intelligent, or even lucky - they are all pathetic, desperate and insecure. The film paints a grim picture of American society, with pond life at the very top and very bottom of the social ladder, and Richard Jenkins' character being stuck in the middle, trying to understand how this could have happened and how to sort it all out.
It's hard to think of another film in recent times which has been so forthright and so determined to deconstruct the glamour and mythology of crime. While Ferrara gave us some form of redemption for the central character, the characters in Killing Them Softly are condemned to this grim, shadowy existence in which their money offers no comfort, let alone contentment. There is no attempt made to romanticise the drug culture, the gun culture, or whatever corporate structure has grown up in the crime world: we are staring deep into the abyss, and for once no light is getting in to spoil the view.
Further of evidence of this is displayed in the film's depiction of machismo. The characters are almost entirely male, with the only female characters being prostitutes, and the script contains lines of rampantly misogynistic dialogue to reinforce the male dominance in this world. And yet these lines and this character balance are not used to support the masculinity of the characters: it is used to demonstrate how feeble they are, and how their male pride ultimately comes to nothing. The title reflects the slow death of the characters, through decrepitude and despair; to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, they die not with a bang, but a whimper.
Running throughout Killing Them Softly is the idea that everything is a transaction. During their discussions in the parked car, Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins argue about affording the air fare needed to bring James Gandolfini on board. Even for a hitman, Pitt is emotionally distant from the events around him: he knows full well that what he is doing may not fix things, but he is resigned to doing them regardless. In the final scene, which plays out over Obama's victory message, he berates Jenkins for trying to rip him off, ripping apart notions of community and society, and ending with the killer line: "In America, you're on your own. Now fucking pay me."
Pitt's performance as Jackie Cogan is both the icing on the cake and the audience's main reference point as they wander through this dark world. Even with his reputation for glamour, both on- and off-screen, Pitt comes across every bit as scuzzy and loathsome as his counterparts, with only a sense of distant cool really separating them. It's one of the best performances of his career, certainly on a par with his previous collaboration with Dominik on Jesse James. You might go so far as calling his character this generation's Jack Carter: like Michael Caine, you have an actor of great glamour and charisma transforming into the embodiment of ruthless and relentless cruelty.
Killing Them Softly is the best film of the year (so far) and proof of Andrew Dominik's status as one of the greatest directors of our time. The film is directed with ruthless efficiency, with Pitt's outstanding performance being matched perfectly to that of Richard Jenkins, all underscored by Greig Fraser's grim cinematography and Dominik's adept camerawork. It is both this generation's Get Carter and a stunning masterpiece in its own right. Above all, it's refreshing in just how dark it goes, being unforgiving, visceral and as black as obsidian.
Film fans have a very love-hate relationship with the Oscars. We love them, or at least put up with them, because they are a means of getting the general public to see more adventurous, unusual or sometimes challenging films, and they form the perfect icebreaker for film-related conversation. Likewise, we hate the Oscars for being a bad advert for the film industry, being out of touch, smugly self-satisfied, and usually getting it very, very wrong.
In this manner, Oscar buzz has to be handled the same way every year: acknowledged, but taken with a pinch of salt, in the knowledge that the best picture probably won't win Best Picture. This year, however, is different, because for once the Academy got it right. 12 Years a Slave is a truly transcendent piece of film-making which cements Steve McQueen's burgeoning reputation, and is perhaps the most deserved Best Picture win for a decade.
In the past, films which have explored the subject of American slavery have tended to be from the white man's point of view. Films like Amistad, Lincoln and Amazing Grace have noble intentions and often a lot of talent behind them, but they tend to view slavery as an issue that noble-minded, morally-upright white men must resolve, in opposition to less noble-minded, morally-upright white men. In doing so the people whose cause they claim to be championing are unduly and often unintentionally marginalised.
McQueen's film, by contrast, is told very much from from the slaves' point-of-view. It's very easy to put this down to his status as a Hollywood outsider: being a British director who started out as a visual artist, one could argue that he brings an objectivity to the subject that no American filmmaker could have done. As compelling as this argument may seem, however it does ignore both the transatlantic nature of the production and McQueen's own ancestry, which includes many victims of slavery.
More important than McQueen's background or status is his sensibility, which is key to the film's success. He has a recurring interest in dehumanisation or the abuse and degradation of the human body. Having handled starvation in Hunger, and sex addiction and attempted suicide in Shame, he now gives us the commodification of human beings into property, and the physical abuse given to slaves in the form of lashes, attempted hanging and rape. The film is deeply emotional but also disturbingly clinical, a very rare trick to have pulled off.
McQueen establishes this approach with the opening shots: a cold open on a sugar cane plantation in media res, and then a sex scene between two slaves which is the very definition of unsexy. We see our two participants in close-up, moving slowly against each other but with not a shred of joy or love on their faces. In doing this, McQueen shows how slavery strips people of their humanity, to the point where even the most sacred and joyous of acts have become empty and devoid of meaning. Like Naomi Watts' masturbation scene at the end of Mulholland Drive, sex has become the act of those who are hollow, desperate and defeated.
Much of 12 Years a Slave looks at the means by which people become institutionalised into slavery. The film goes to great lengths to show how hard it is to escape being a slave, with Solomon Northup being robbed of his identity and becoming little more than a portion of labour that can be bought, sold and mistreated at will. Much of the film is concerned with the brutality inflicted upon the slaves by their masters, and as in his previous work McQueen never pulls any punches.
Even by the standards of a generation raised on so-called 'torture porn', 12 Years a Slave is an incredibly brutal film. It's arguably the most violent mainstream film since The Passion of the Christ, the difference being that the violence doesn't drown out the deeper message, as it does in Mel Gibson's work. The characters are so well-written and sensitively portrayed that every violent act perpetrated against them carries great weight and brings the appropriate response of repulsion. The scene where Patsey is repeatedly whipped is one of the most flinch-inducing moments in modern cinema.
Scenes like this reflect the film's nuanced understanding of how the power relationships between masters and slaves are structured. It acknowledges that hard power in the form of whippings and rape were not enough to guarantee obedience; slaves were also institutionalised by adopting the customs of their masters. By behaving like their captors, and being rewarded for their obedience, their desire to rebel and escape is steadily eroded, much like the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption.
This is played out in the film on at least three occasions. Firstly, we see Solomon play his violin at a dance for Mr. and Mrs. Epps: the joyful tunes he played as a free man are honed into the respectable, formal melodies of which they approve. Secondly, we see Shaw's plantations, where slaves are treated like country ladies, being plied with tea and cakes to make them accept their lot in life. And thirdly, in Patsey's whipping, where Epps invites Northup to beat his own kind, forcing him to embrace and appropriate the very form of violence that would be used against him.
The film is also very interested in the hypocrisy of religion. Christians were very prominent in the abolitionist movement later in the 19th century, and yet both Ebbs and the more moderate William Ford use scripture to justify their actions. Ford leads his slaves in services and prayers in his gardens, while Ebbs views an outbreak of cotton worm as a plague from God. Both men see slavery as their Biblically-sanctioned duty, something which in Ebbs' case extends to abusing them as well.
In lesser dramas, these characters would be painted in broad strokes as blind, deluded morons who should be ridiculed. But both McQueen's direction and John Ridley's fantastic screenplay constantly invite us to question things more deeply, and challenge our own beliefs in the process. Both Ford and Ebbs' behaviour are perversions of Christianity, neglecting Christ's teaching of compassion and forgiveness in favour of out-of-context Old Testament brutality. But we are still invited to view them as flawed men rather than dismiss them as madmen, no matter how easy that would seem.
12 Years a Slave is centrally a story of survival. It avoids falling into the trap that Schindler's List did, namely attempting to fashion a heroic story out of circumstances which didn't deserve it; in the words of Stanley Kubrick, "Schindler's List is about success. The Holocaust was about failure." Northup does very little that could be considered heroic: he doesn't liberate his fellow slaves or challenge the system to its core. He is very fortunate to survive, based upon the people he meets, and when he is swept off he is forced to leave Patsey behind.
On top of its thematic richness and brilliant storytelling, the film looks absolutely splendid Sean Bobbitt has collaborated with McQueen on both his previous films, as well as lending his eye to the underrated Byzantium. At times the plantations on which Northup works have a distinctly lyrical quality, reminiscent of the best work of Terence Malick. But as with Byzantium, there is plenty of room for harshness amongst the lavishness, and McQueen never lets the beautiful colours dominate proceedings or sanitise the violence.
The performances in 12 Years a Slave are very hard to fault. Chiwitel Ejiofor is amazing in the lead role, rivalling his performance in Dirty Pretty Things for its emotional depth and sensitivity. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o thoroughly deserved her Oscar; she makes Patsey a complex, wounded lady who never fails to break our hearts. Michael Fassbender continues his winning streak with McQueen, turning in another powerhouse performance as Ebbs, and there is good support from Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch, as John Tibeats and William Ford respectively.
12 Years A Slave is an utter masterpiece and a worthy winner of the Best Picture Oscar. It is a fantastic, mesmerising creation which is at turns a gruelling endurance test, a profound mental stimulant and a powerful emotional drama. McQueen's status as a great director of our time is assured, as is its status as an essential piece of filmmaking. It is, quite simply, astonishing, and a shoe-in for the best film of the year.