Movies to see before you die

A Knight’s Tale

Posted on April 27, 2011. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

A Knight’s Tale almost falls into that category of films not enough people know about. It’s not exactly a cult or unheard of movie, but it rarely pops up on blogs or lists of must-see movies, which I think is a shame because it’s a really great film.  In fact, every time I watch it, I’m always surprised by how good it actually is, and so I thought a post was in order.

For those who don’t know, A Knight’s Tale is based on one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and tells the story of William, a peasant who decides to pose as a Knight in order to achieve fame and fortune on the Jousting circuit.  What writer/director Brian Helgeland does so well here, is seamlessly mix the modern with the medieval to come up with a movie which feels entirely up to date while at the same time being about what may seem (until you see the film of course) a rather quaint dark age pastime.

Jousters were the rock stars of the middle ages. They were the ridiculously overpaid footballers who people would argue about in pubs and cheer on in the stadium. And that’s what is done so well in this film.  The matches are full of action, with some effective use of slow motion, and Helgeland really highlights the potential danger of charging at someone with a pointy stick!  The rock star theme is furthered by some fantastic merging of modern anthems with traditional music. Queen’s We Will Rock You is used to get the audience straight into the right mindset, and there is a fantastic bit of work with Bowie’s Golden Years in the Banquet.  One of my favourite uses of pop music in a movie because it’s done so well. Check it out for yourself:

The fusion of eras is at times anachronistic; femme fatale Jocelyn’s costumes and hairstyles would I’m sure make a few historians twitch, but it doesn’t matter in a movie like this, which is more about the feeling of the time than the actual detail.  And it brings what could be quite a stuffy story right up to date, still feeling fresh now a decade later.

Not only does A Knight’s Tale have some quirky use of music and costume, it also has some knockout performances from a great cast. Heath Ledger is reliable as always, and Rufus Sewell fits easily into the brooding bad guy role, but for me the star of the show is Paul Bettany. As one of my favourite actors, I’m always a bit surprised that he doesn’t seem to turn up much in big movies. He seems to have taken a Depp-esque route of doing films you wouldn’t expect to find him in.  As writer and overzealous gambler Chaucer, Bettany is just brilliant. From his first unflinching entrance through to his collection of awesome speeches he steals every scene and rightly so.  He has a perfect balance of humour and heart which is reflected throughout the movie and I think has a lot to do with why this film works.

For those who have the DVD, there is a deleted scene containing an extra speech from Chaucer at the stocks and I can’t for the life of me work out why it was cut. It’s a beautiful moment and really should have made the final movie, so check it out if you can.

A Knight’s Tale really is a film that deserves more recognition.  On the surface it looks quite fluffy, and it isn’t exactly Apocalypse Now, but it deserves some credit for telling an old story in a very new way.  If you haven’t seen it yet then you really should.  Definitely more worth your time than the endless Royal Wedding coverage this weekend anyway.

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The King’s Speech: A BAFTA breakdown

Posted on February 17, 2011. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a lack of awards chatter on the blog this year.  This is for two reasons. Firstly, having written posts the last two years I’m not sure there’s anything new I can bring to the party when it comes to debating the differences in the British and American voting systems; and secondly, I’ve been completely useless at getting to the cinema since I started my new degree and so have seen very few of the nominated films

Last night however, I finally managed to get myself to Leicester Square again for a long overdue appointment with The King’s Speech. As one of the last people in the universe to see this film, I thought rather than write you a straight review repeating what everyone has already said about how this really is a groundbreaking piece of cinema, I’d break it down in terms of last week’s BAFTA sweep, with one eye on the coming Oscars at the same time.  Kind of two birds with one stone.

Best Film (and Outstanding British Film)

Well, this one is a bit of a no brainer.  The King’s Speech is not a film I would ordinarily seek out, but the trailers caught my eye and once the critics started going insane about it I knew I had to get to the cinema.  I think the best thing about this film is the way it focusses a very down to Earth problem in an impossibly ostentatious setting.  Not being able to express yourself is one of the most frustrating feelings, and combatting that as someone who is supposed to speak for the nation is a very strong starting point for a story.  It could have worked just as well as a film about a normal man with a stammer, but the fact that he is a kind of second-choice King brings a grounded humanity to the character which has the audience really rooting for him.  It’s a testament to both the direction and the performances (more on that later) that we can feel a connection with a family who are as far removed from the common man in the cinema as you can possibly get.

An undeniably deserving BAFTA win, but I’m not sure it’ll repeat the success at the Oscars.  I’d like it to, but I have a feeling True Grit or The Social Network might take it.

Original Screenplay

It’s a very British screenplay: filled with emotion but in an incredibly understated way that suits the tone of the film perfectly.  There are some, now infamous, scenes which will probably stick in the collective memory for a long time, but some of the more subtle moments are what gives this film its class.  Two particular moments for me were when Bertie (if Lionel can call him that so can I!) is coming to terms with the fact that he’s going to become King, and the final scene where he delivers his speech.  That last movement is so wrought with tension it shows just how much we’ve invested in the characters.

As far as the Oscars go, I can’t call this one.

Original Music-Alexandre Desplat

I’d spotted this win before I went so I was keeping one ear on the music while I watched.  It’s a gracefully understated score, with simple piano and strings mirroring the drama in a totally non-invasive way.  I’m definitely going to have a listen to it again now that I’ve seen the film to properly admire the work that went into it. He’s in with a shot at the Oscars, but Zimmer might just beat him to it.

Supporting Actor-Geoffrey Rush

For me, Rush very nearly steals the film out from underneath Firth.  He is instantly likeable and wonderfully down to Earth.  His complete lack of reverence for the monarch is fantastic, and r elatable in our increasingly non-royalist culture.

I went in expecting to see a knock out performance from Firth, but Rush really surprised me.  I shouldn’t have been shocked really, he’s always good in eveerything he does.  I really hope he gets the recognition he deserves at the Oscars.  If he doesn’t I think it might go to Bale.

Supporting Actress-Helena Bonham-Carter

I can go either way with Helena Bonham-Carter.  I’m never quite sure what I think of her but she tends to be better than I expect her to be.  That’s definitely true in this case. She gives an very strong performance with just the right amount of dry wit and tenderness.  I think she’s got serious competition from Hailee Steinfeld at the Oscars but I’m glad she got the British award for a classically British character.

Leading Actor-Colin Firth

Well, this is what everyone is talking about isn’t it?  In the last few years, Colin Firth has remembered that he is an actor and a very good one at that.  He’s finally got out from under the shadow of the RomComs and Mr Darcy and started making films where he gets to play someone other than the uptight Englishman.

His portrayal of King George feels like it is coming from someone who really knows the man.  He shows both the sensitivity and the strength in his character as well as capturing the exasperation of someone who has a lot to say but cannot say it.  It’s a very respectful depiction, but it’s fearless enough to show him as a human being rather than an untouchable.

He’s in with a very good chance at the Oscars. And I really hope he wins, because he deserves it.

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I finally saw Inception!!

Posted on January 23, 2011. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , |

I know, how 2010 am I?

When friend and one time guest blogger Josh found out that I had got my hands on a copy of Inception on DVD it was instantly reserved for our not-so-regular group movie night.

I’m a bit late to jump on the “it’s amazing” band wagon, but I will say that I thought it was a triumph of visual effects and cinematography.  It takes the early ideas of bullet time and wire work, mixed in with super slow-mo HD filming to give a stunning experience that I think rivals Avatar for sensory impact.  I remember seeing a trailer for it, probably about a year ago, and thinking, “this one’s going to be good.” It was.

As for the plot?  Movies with open endings normally send me into a rage (Don’t get me started on The Ninth Gate or Matrix Revs).  However, in this case it was in perfect keeping with the movie.  I’m not sure I’ve decided how I think the film ended, but in a way I don’t think Nolan actually wants us to, it’s more about getting us to ask the questions and think about whether it would be better to live in a dream if the real world could never be what you wanted it to be.

Inception is basically the answer to the question “What happens if you cross The Matrix with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it’s a good answer.  All the performances are strong, particularly good old Leo, who is going from strength to strength as he breaks out of that pretty boy shell.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him hold a gun in a move before, and I wasn’t sure he’d suit it, but he seemed to carry it off pretty well.

It’s interesting the number of films about alternate realities and the subconscious there have been in recent years.  Alongside The Matrix trilogy and Eternal Sunshine, we’ve had Avatar, Surrogates, Gamer, A Scanner Darkly… and countless others I can’t quite put my finger on right now.  It’s clearly a popular topic, probably because its one of the last areas of Science that we really haven’t got much understanding of.

Anyway, not that you need me to tell you, but Inception is a fantastic movie that deserves the hype it’s been given.  It is a bit of a mental workout, but not so much that you get lost 20 minutes in like you can with some Psych-thriller style movies.  It’s also great fun for me to spot my university cropping up in the occasional scene.

I’m sure the DVD doesn’t quite compare to the full cinematic experience, but it translates pretty well.  It’s bound to sweep the boards in awards season.

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Keep them out of bright light, don’t get them wet and never, ever feed them after midnight.

Posted on December 13, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , |

Guess what I’ve been watching?

I’m not going to write a full review, because there is already enough on the internet about why Gremlins is genius, but it’s going to get a quick post, mainly to explain why it doesn’t make it into my Christmas Top 12

I do love Gremlins. It’s a brilliantly bizarre movie, which brought us some of the cutest (Mogwai) and most destructively violent creatures seen on screen.  It is a standard monster movie-bad thing takes over defined area and must be stopped-but somehow setting it on Christmas Eve adds an element of sweet homeliness you wouldn’t expect.  I think the strangest thing about Gremlins is that it seems like a kids film, but it clearly isn’t.  At first glance, you have a nice little story about a boy who gets a magic pet for Christmas, but once you get into it you realise you’re watching a film where in the space of about 5 minutes you see a series of deaths involving a blender, a microwave, a snow plough and an out of control stair lift.

That’s why Gremlins falls just short of the top 12.  It is a fantastic film, and the inventive ways they came up with to kill off various characters, not to mention the fantastic characterisation of each Gremlin in the party scene, is sheer brilliance, but it’s not really one you can all watch round the fire together on Christmas Eve.  The Christmas setting of this movie is purely coincidental, it could just have easily have been Billy’s birthday.

Gremlins (and Gremlins 2 come to think of it) is definitely a movie to see before you die.  If only I could have a Mogwai for Christmas.

(Actually, I do have a little toy Gizmo. He dances and sings. I love him very much.)

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Medics in the Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries

Posted on December 4, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

In a word: Wow

Up next in my cinematic journey through the world of medicine is Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, yet another movie that has been sitting on my “to-watch” list for years.  This one is definitely one not to miss.

The Motorcycle Diaries is the story of Che Guevara before he was “Che.”  Back then, he was simply Ernesto, a young medical student embarking on an epic journey across South America with his friend Alberto.  On their travels, the pair encounter the terrible hardship of some of the poorer communities, as well as spending time working at a leper colony on the banks of the Amazon.  Through his interactions with the people and patients he meets, we see how Ernesto goes on to become the iconic political figure Che.

I know less than nothing about South American history or Che Guevara, but I found this film fascinating.  Rather than shoving his political ideals down our throats Salles takes the audience on the same journey as Ernesto, so we naturally form the same conclusions.  There is some clever use of black and white, showing the people who have most affected Ernesto, which are then repeated at the end in juxtaposition with photos of the real Ernesto and Alberto.  The shots are still, but not stills, appearing as memories for Ernesto as a kind of living photograph, made more poignant by the fact they are all looking directly to camera, as if looking to him for help.

The cinematography in this film is magical.  There are some beautiful sweeping landscape shots which emphasise how small Ernesto and Alberto are and how difficult the early part of their journey is.  It reminded me a lot of Brokeback Mountain, even more so thanks to composer Gustavo Santoalalla, who worked on both, using a very traditional and simple score to punctuate key moments.  Showing the tiny bike picking across arid landscapes gives a wonderful sense of scale to the movie, really emphasising the grandeur of their journey across the continent as well as how insignificant they are in terms of the their problems compared to the communities they meet.

The relationship between Ernesto and Alberto is very well played, with the older and more experienced Alberto taking a less serious view of life and providing some nice comedy, while  Ernesto’s diary voiceover gives us an insight into how he is changing as a person.  Although only Ernesto is a medical student, there are moments when Alberto has to take charge, highlighting how Ernesto has not yet qualified and still has a lot to learn, both about medicine and life.

There is a wonderful moment in the film, as the pair meet a couple looking for work in the Atacama Desert, where we switch from focussing on the troubles of our two travellers, to realising that there are a lot of people far worse off in the country.  It is subtly played, but marks the beginning of Ernesto’s desire to do something about the inequalities he is discovering.  There are many clever moments like this, for which credit must be given both to Salles and editor Daniel Rezende.  The ending is particularly effective, book-ending nicely with the opening of the film, and bringing the audience back up to date with an account of what happened to the real Che.  The use of original photos and the final shot (which I wont spoil) is a particularly nice touch.

Seeing the photos at the end of the real Alberto and Ernesto highlighted just how well this film is cast.  Not only do both protagonists give impeccable performances, but they both look remarkably similar to their real life counterparts.  Gael Garcia Bernal (Ernesto) and Rodrigo De La Serna (Alberto) have a great chemistry on screen, making their close friendship entirely believable.

What I haven’t mentioned, of course, is that this is a foreign language film-Spanish with subtitles.  As an ex-Spanish speaker (I’ve forgotten more than I ever knew) I was able to pick up the odd phrase without looking at the titles, but in no way was reading the dialogue distracting.  In fact, if this movie ever was made in English I think it would have lost a lot of its power, as the whole point is the discovery of a country and the uniting of it’s cultures.

Again, I’m looking at this film through the eyes of a medical student, so I could find a lot to relate to in Ernesto.  It’s not unusual for medical students to go off on epic journeys of discovery before they settle down and commit to their careers, and Ernesto clearly would have made a great doctor.  Although at first he is somewhat brash and unsympathetic with a patient, he becomes a very caring doctor, taking a personal interest with his patients and mixing with them as equals.  Unlike A Matter of Life and Death which portrays the traditional God-like infallible Doctor, here we have a far more modern view.  Although in the most part honest and loyal, Ernesto has his faults and is shown to be a very human character.  He is more what we would expect from our doctors today, professional when it counts, but also an accessible human being who is not automatically put on a pedestal.

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film that I instantly wanted to turn over and start again, but I had that feeling with Motorcycle Diaries.  Seeing as it’s a pretty long film, that’s saying something.  It’s both an engaging and intense story, elegantly shot, which (excuse the cheesiness) really does take you on a journey with the characters, to help you understand how a young medical student went on to become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries.

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Medics in the Movies: A Matter of Life and Death

Posted on November 28, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , |

Carrying on with my new selected module and I’m really enjoying learning about camera angles and mis-en-scene. 😛

Our first group screening was A Matter of Life and Death, a 1945 classic by groundbreaking production team Powell and Pressburger.  I’d seen clips and heard bits about it, but never actually watched from start to finish.  I’m glad I finally did, as the idea of the film I had in my head was way off the mark, and I probably would never had watched it had it not been coursework!

On with the review:

A Matter of Life and Death revolves around the strange premise of a man cheating death by getting lost in the fog.

OK, so it’s a little more complicated than that, but that is the basic gist. Pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) is going down with no parachute, radioing in what he assumes will be his last words to the unsuspecting June (Kim Hunter).  He has bravely given away the last of the parachutes to his crew, and now plans to jump from the plane to his certain death.

It’s not often that a movie can get away with killing its leading man in the opening frames, and here is no exception.  Peter wakes up on a beach, assuming he’s dead.  Here’s the twist though, because of the thick fog the night his plane went down, the Conductor sent to collect him and take him to the next world missed him, and he has somehow ended up still alive, relatively unscathed, and only a few hundred feet from June’s house, who he fell in love just before he “died”.  Convenient right?

I know it sounds convoluted, but stick with me ‘cos it works.  Peter is visited by the Conductor (Marius Goring), who, in an effort to make the books balance up above, tries to convince Peter that he needs to “die” since he is only alive by mistake.  Peter wins the right to appeal his case in the high court, with the help of June, and village doctor Frank (Roger Livesy).

On paper it sounds like a very confusing movie, but actually it’s a skillfully told tale, making the most of relatively new colour technology to distinguish between the two worlds.  While you might expect Heaven to be in glorious Technicolor and our drab little world to be in black and white, it’s actually the other way around, highlighting Peter’s desire to stay on Earth.  The colour transitions are used very well, reminding me of Pleasantville a lot, especially with the fade on the rose.

We are actually first introduced to the “heavenly” world between Peter crashing and waking up, where we meet his late friend and crew member waiting for him.  The whole thing is run (not surprisingly in context) as a military operation, where new arrivals report to collect their wings and everything is run very much to schedule.  So when Peter goes AWOL it literally sets alarm bells ringing, as the staff scrabble to try to undo their mistake.  There is no malice in their wanting to take Peter back, he is treated almost like a misplaced package.

Part of the charm of this film is the wonderful Englishness of it.  Peter has possibly the stiffest upper lip I’ve ever seen on film, completely unfazed by his imminent death at the beginning of the movie, but at the same time he has a hugely Romantic personality, which contrasts nicely and goes a long way to support the Romeo and Juliet style love affair between him and June, which takes place within a matter of days.  Added to their whirlwind romance is the fact that while he is English, she is American, which doesn’t go down well with the Prosecuting counsel upstairs.  A good proportion of the trial is given over to examining the relationship between us and our cousins across the pond, which at the time was pretty unusual since we were allies who had just finished fighting a war together.

Of course, the reason I was watching this film was to focus on the doctor and he really is an interesting character.  There is (obviously) a lot of religious imagery in this movie, but the introduction of the doctor looking down over the village through a camera obscura is striking and begins a series of metaphors relating to the God-like status of doctors and surgeons.  They are portrayed as the mediators between the two worlds, literally making the decisions about who lives and dies.  Frank is essentially the stereotype of the good country doctor; devoted, omniscient, self-sacrificing and above all incredibly knowledgeable.  He remains calm under pressure, and always fulfils his duty (without wanting to spoil things, he really does take “above and beyond” to a whole new level).

One of the questions I’m supposed to consider is what impact this portrayal would have on public perceptions of doctors, and I’d be interested to hear what those of you who have seen it think.  In a way, although the film shows doctors in an incredibly positive light, I think it is potentially damaging for public perceptions, as it holds up an impossible ideal that today’s (and I’m sure the same was true in the 40s) doctors cannot possibly live up to.  Despite being an antiquated idea, a lot of Frank’s personality traits; complete devotion to his patients and undivided attention to the case, are still what people expect in doctors today.  Not that you shouldn’t expect the best healthcare possible, but no one can be entirely devoted to every patient. It’s a paradox.

I can see now why A Matter of Life and Death always features in movie buffs “must-see” lists.  It’s full of clever imagery and some pretty groundbreaking ideas for the time that still stand up 50 years later.  The final message is one that has been used in cinema since the very beginning: Love conquers all, but it’s done in a very original and engaging way.  I’m definitely recommending it to you all, and I’m hoping that like me, you’ll be surprised that a movie you may have written off as a dated oldie is actually just as good today as when it was first made.

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Medics in the Movies: M*A*S*H

Posted on November 13, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Those of you who have been reading this for a while (ta, by the way) may know that I’ve just started a medical degree.  As part of my course, we all take one module from outside of the normal curriculum, probably so that we don’t go insane from too much pure Science.  One of the options just happened to be “Medics in the Movies” where you watch films with doctors in and then review them.  Sounded right up my street.

What this means for you guys is that over the next few months some movies will be popping up that are a bit of a departure from my normal choices (we’re watching one from each decade and from a variety of different countries).  If things go well, my writing might even get a little better.

Before we get on to the set movies, our first assignment was to choose any film that featured doctors and be ready to present it next week.  I chose M*A*S*H; a film I’ve always wanted to see but somehow never gotten around to.  Finally I had the perfect excuse.

M*A*S*H stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, although we aren’t actually told that in the film.  In fact, we aren’t really told much about anything, with director Robert Altman preferring to let his audience make up their own minds about what they are seeing.  The only set up we get is the mellow opening music (the iconic Suicide is Painless) set over scenes of helicopters bringing in the wounded.

M*A*S*H is essentially a war film without the war.  The only gun shots heard during the movie are at half-time in the football match, and at no point does it get morbidly wrapped up in “the horror” of war.  Instead, Altman makes his political point through black comedy and in the graphic surgical depictions.  It’s a far more affecting way to make an anti-war statement, as we see the people trying to pick up the pieces and literally put the men back together, ready to send them back to the front.

There is an unexpected amount of realism in this movie.  The dialogue is largely improvised and often overlaps, a technique which I found strange at first but grew to appreciate, as in real life people don’t always wait for the other guy to finish his lines.  This also added to a lot of the humour between the apathetic General and his faithful sidekick Radar.

Perhaps I should back track a bit and talk about plot, although to be honest I there isn’t really one.  M*A*S*H follows the day-to-day lives of a group of army surgeons during the Korean War (*Trivia* The text in the opening scene locating the film in Korea was added later at studio insistence, as Altman deliberately left geographical; references out of the movie so that the location could easily be confused with Vietnam).  There isn’t really a story as such, we just follow the exploits of Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper (Elliot Gould), and Duke (Tom Skerritt) as they find new ways to subvert the system.

The surgeons are often described as “medical mavericks,” which I can understand but don’t entirely agree with.  What struck me was that while out of the operating theatre they did everything they could to undermine authority and generally not follow the rules, once they were scrubbed in they were entirely professional.  I could go on about this for hours as it will probably make up the substance of my presentation, but in short, while Hawkeye and Trapper are essentially the antithesis of what we think of as a good doctor, they are so good at what they do that they can get away with it (kinda like House!)

M*A*S*H is kind of a boys film.  Not only because of the subject matter, but also the misogynistic view it takes of women.  At times even I felt sorry for “HotLips” even though she is incredibly annoying.  However, this is self-aware misogyny; Altman is satirising it as well as using it for easy laughs.

The humour of M*A*S*H is very dark, but at times very funny.  It’s often said that doctors tend to have a very black sense of humour as a coping mechanism, so if you scale that up to be dealing with horrific war injuries you can see what they were going for.  The scene in the Japanese hospital was probably my favourite, showing Gould and Sutherland at their cavalier best.  The comedy is contrasted with some pretty graphic surgical scenes, highlighting both the terrible injuries caused by the war and the incredibly poor conditions that the medical teams worked in.

The film ends very abruptly, with what could be an emotional point, as some characters get to go home while others are left behind.  M*A*S*H doesn’t dwell on the morose though.  Even dentist Painless’s suicide attempt is treated with a combination of apathy and humour (and some great Last Supper imagery, see pic above).  There is only one incidence of a character getting upset on screen, otherwise people seem (on the surface at least) to take everything in their stride.  Again, I think this goes back to a coping mechanism, as if people did start to let each loss get to them they would never be able to function.  By doing this, Altman allows the audience to feel emotions on the characters behalf, making his anti-war message all the more poignant.

M*A*S*H is heading its way straight on to the Movies to See list, and I strongly urge that you all do.  Whether you’re interested in the War, the Medicine, or you just want a laugh, this film has a bit of something for everyone.

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You wait all month for a review and then two come along at once!

Posted on October 24, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello much neglected readers!

I’m not going to start yet another post with apologies for absence, but I will say this: turns out at med school they expect you to do some work. Who’d have thought?

Anyhoo, to make up for my startling lack of posts I’m bringing you a double feature of reviews.  Two movies which at first seem pretty different but are linked by some common themes.  And the fact that they are both pretty damn good.

Harry Brown

This was a film I’d heard of but never really found out about.  Michael Caine is usually a safe bet though so I gave it a whirl.

On the back of the box it says “contains scenes of violence, hard drug use and strong language.” They aren’t kidding.  All of that takes place within the first five minutes of the film, with films shot on shaky hand-held cameras to mimic the paradoxically named “Happy Slapping” videos.

Perhaps I should backtrack a bit; Harry Brown takes place on a generic estate completely taken over by a gang of what the news like to refer to as “Youths” who are now terrorising the residents.  There are some strong performances amongst the younger cast, including Jack O’ Connell (AKA Cook from Skins) and Ben Drew, who really is chilling as the sociopathic gang leader Noel.  The big name here though is Michael Caine as the eponymous Brown, and he is just as strong as everyone would expect him to be.  Emily Mortimer also plays well as the slightly stereotypical but nonetheless realistic female DI who is ignored by both her superiors and subordinates.  None of the characters are given distinct back stories, instead we are given clues to their pasts and left to make up the rest for ourselves.  For example, we are told Mortimer’s character chose to work on the troubled estate when she could have had a much easier job, but when you couple that with the opening scene you can formulate your own theory as to why she wants to work here. (I’m being deliberately cryptic to avoid spoilers, but if you’re interested drop me a comment.)

This stark narrative style is crucial to fit in with the realism of the movie.  There is a very bare score, only at a couple of key dramatic moments, otherwise the sound you hear is being played out on screen.  The performances are rough, not actually coming across as “performances” but almost as if this was a documentary.  I think that’s what makes the film affecting, the fact that even though it isn’t a true story, it could be.

The plot isn’t exactly shocking, as Brown loses everything at the hands of the gangs he decided to take a stand, but at the same time nothing feels predictable.  The aforementioned violence is also skilfully used, not in any way gratuitous and again reflecting a realism that in the end makes the films far more frightening than any drawn out horror could.

Not in any way an uplifting film, but I would definitely recommend Harry Brown as a great depiction of what the politicians really mean when they say “Broken Britain.”

The Pianist

Perhaps not a natural double feature with a film about British gang culture, but both Harry Brown and The Pianist explore themes of oppression, fear and the senselessness of random violence that make them quite ripe for comparison.

Like Harry Brown, The Pianist is a very minimalist film.  The score is sparingly used, mainly consisting of (obviously) a few movements of piano score.  This film is also strongly focussed on the realism, made all the more distressing by the fact that this is a true story.

The movie tells of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman and his ordeal during the Nazi occupation.  I think the most powerful message in the film is the irrational nature of the Nazi violence towards Jews.  It seems impossible that they got away with such random acts of violence, yet we understand that there was very little the Jewish population could do to stand up against such vicious hatred.  The scenes I found the most distressing involved random members of a line up being picked out and shot.  Imagine living in those kind of conditions, where you could be killed at any moment for absolutely no reason.

Adrien Brody is very strong as Szpilman (well, he did win an Oscar) at times carrying the whole movie alone with little or no dialogue.  Special mention has to be given to Thomas Kretschmann also, as SS officer Wilm Hosenfeld.  The counterpart between him and Szpilman towards the end of the film is perfect in its symplicity, and the role reversal at the very end is a great twist on everything we’ve witnessed so far.

A lot of movies of this nature are described as “harrowing” but I think The Pianist is one of the few films which actually deserves that description.  The first half is particularly hard to watch, but never self-indulgent.  Brody charts Szpilman’s decline well and at times it is hard to understand why he would want to carry on, but there is a turning point about half way through the film, where we see that he has survived this far and is going to continue fighting in the face of utter hopelessness, which gives what could be a soul-destroying movie a surprisingly uplifting message.

I think my enjoyment of the movie was somewhat hampered by my poor historical knowledge, and a couple of times I got a bit lost, particularly when two very similar looking blonde heroines got involved, but this movie is more about the overall impact than the details.  It is constantly compared to Schindler’s List which I (shockingly) haven’t seen, but the muted palette of colours did draw some comparisons even in my unenlightened mind, particularly when some bright red trams appeared towards the end.

Both The Pianist and Harry Brown are stories of men who lose everything.  Both our protagonists are standing up against extreme forms of what is essentially bullying, although obviously to a far greater extent in the former.  I would say that Harry Brown is actually the sadder of the two films, because while Szpilman gains a shred of his old life back at the end, Brown is left with nothing and no one.  Perhaps the fundamental difference is that while Szpilmanvis just trying to survive, Brown is driven by revenge, which is in itself destructive.

The power of both films is in their realism.  The barren cinematography and sound hammer this home, leaving the viewer unsettled in the knowledge that the events of The Pianist are true, and those of Harry Brown could be.

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Withnail & I

Posted on October 3, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , |

It surprises me that despite a Quote of the Day I haven’t really written about this classic cult movie.
Withnail & I really does seem to inhabit the underground. A lot of people haven’t heard of it, but those who have absolutely love it and will immediately be able to quote you some choice lines (more on that later.)

It’s a strange story, centering around two out of work actors in 1960s Camden Town (a very familiar area for me) based on the real life recollections of writer/director Bruce Robinson and housemate Vivian MacKerrell.  There is no real explanation for our two protagonists predicament.  The eponymous “I” is never named in the film, although he is often referred to as Marwood in other sources. We learn everything we need to know about the characters from their disjointed conversations and “I’s” paranoid internal monologues.  The opening scene with the fantastic sax Whiter Shade of Pale really sets the scene and kicks off a fantastic soundtrack.  Sparse though it is, the action is peppered with some classic tunes including Hendrix and The Beatles as well as some simple melancholic original music.

I think the reason Withnail has become such a cult hit is its portrayal of a completely un-glamourised bohemian lifestyle.  The pair meander between drugs and alcohol (giving rise to the infamous drinking game), with neurotic “I” struggling to keep Withnail this side of sanity.  The portrayal of Withnail by Richard E Grant is made all the more impressive by the fact that he is a teetotaler.  In order for him to understand Withnail’s addled view of the universe, he famously got absolutely hammered on Vodka before filming began.

Paul McGann also shines as world-weary “I”.  You get the feeling he’s  been swept up in Withnail’s lifestyle but that also, unlike Withnail, there is hope of an escape for him.  Ralph Brown’s Danny is also one of the most iconic characters I can think of.  The only character I struggle with is the slightly too over the top Monty played by Richard Griffiths, but as he facilitates some great comedy moments we’ll let him off.

And while we’re on the subject of comedy, Withnail has quite possibly the funniest script I’ve ever heard.  Nearly every line is a quotable classic, with some of my favourites including:

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.”

“What have you found?” “Matter.”

“How do we make it die?”

“If I spike you, you’ll know you’ve been spoken too.”

“This is a far superior drink to meths”

“There must and shall be aspirin”

and of course, “GET IN THE BACK OF THE VAN!”

(These being the selection with less colourful language…)

It’s both a very dark and very funny film, altenating effortlessly between the two.  The fact that the story is, at least partly, true also adds to its tragedy. (SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH).

The end of the film is beautifully pitched.  As “I” sets off to begin his new career, shaven hair making him look like a completely different person and really hammering home that he doesn’t belong in this world anymore, Withnail is left in the park, quoting Hamlet to the wolves in the rain.  It’s a brilliant moment.  In the original novel, Withnail then returns home, filling the shotgun he stole from Monty with the remains of the wine, which he drinks from the barrel before killing himself.  While the film doesn’t show this, you do get a sense that Withnail wont survive without his friend.  The real life Withnail (MacKerell) also died young from throat cancer, allegedly from drinking lighter fluid.


Withnail & I is a brilliant film, well deserving of its cult status that really needs to be seen by a lot more people. It’s filled with British talent and really captures the enotion at the turn of one of the most famous and infamous decades.  If you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you go out and buy it as soon as you can.  Especially if, like me, you happen to live round Camden.

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Posted on September 2, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , |

Having been raised on musicals, it has often surprised people that I have never seen Cabaret. I finally got around to rectifying that.

It’s very hard to write about Cabaret without comparing it to Chicago.  The musical style is similar and that Bob Fosse choreography is unmistakable.  It was the music that finally got me around to watching the film, having spent a couple of days listening to the soundtrack and reminding myself how many of the songs I knew without even realising it.

For me, the stand out number is Money Money. The staging of that scene is spot on, capturing the nature of greed while balancing it with humour.  This is often lauded as the film that made Liza Minnelli, bringing her out of her mother’s shadow and showing her as a star in her own right.  She is a brilliant Sally Bowles, completely uninhibited and free with a childlike naivety.  However, it was Joel Grey who really blew me away.  As the MC, he has an eerie combination of the androgynous and the sleazy, alongside a heavy scoop of wry humour.  More than anyone, you get the impression he sees what’s going on in Germany, but isn’t afraid to poke fun at it.  It’s a fantastic characterisation and I don’t think the film would be half as good without him.

For those who don’t know, Cabaret is set in Germany during the rise of the Nazis.  There presence is initially dismissed as just another group of misfits, but hints of their menace grow, culminating in the disturbing Tomorrow belongs to me. Another brilliantly pitched scene, it begins as a close up of a young boy singing, but as we pan back to see his Hitler Youth uniform and the crowd being to join in with his song and Nazi salute, the idea of “tomorrow” becomes more and more sinister.  The final scene in the Kit Kat bar really hammers the message home.

Against this backdrop of the rise of Nazism is a relatively simple plot of boy meets girl.  In fact the set up of one American, one German and a Brit almost sounds like the beginning of a joke.

Unlike a lot of traditional musicals, characters don’t burst into song in the middle of conversations, with the exception of Tomorrow belongs to me, all the numbers take place on stage in the Kit Kat Club, giving a big scoop of realism to what is quite a dark movie.  Again, I find myself thinking of Chicago, which, particularly in the stage version, balances fantasy music numbers with real life action.

Cabaret is often referred to as a sad movie, with Sally the tragic protagonist, but I’m not sure I agree with that.  I was expecting to feel sorry for Sally, but everything that happens to her is her own choice.  No one is oppressing her, and the way she ends the movie is entirely by her own doing (I’m trying not to give too much away here.)  The final number, Cabaret, is often written about as a powerful moment which disguises Sally’s pain, but in a way I found that rather than feeling hurt and alone at the end of the movie, Sally seems to be triumphant in going back to her cabaret lifestyle rather than the white picket fence that never would have suited her, and that she chose to destroy.  She wants to be on stage, and that’s exactly where she ends up, so can she really be seen as tragic?  I’d argue that poor Brian gets a much rougher deal of it, although even he seems to have gained more than he’s lost.  I guess what it comes down to is that although Cabaret is essentially a love story, we know from the outset that the two characters are incompatible, and we realise with them that although they love each other, they will probably be happier apart.

Having finally seen this much talked about musical, I have to say I don’t rate it as highly as I would many others.  There are some knock out moments, but also some slow ones.  It’s neither a feel good nor a sad film, but I think that’s exactly where it’s supposed to be.  Having said that I would defintely recommend watching it, I think it’s true that it has to be seen, and not just by musical fans, as underneath the jazz hands is a pretty serious movie.

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