Monday, May 14, 2007


At some point last year, I came across a list of 50 Movies To See Before You Die, as compiled by film 'experts' on behalf of Film Four. Prompted, rather than inspired, by this - because the list wasn't all that inspiring for the most part and I'm reasonably sure some of the films cited were better postponed until after I'd snuffed it - I gave some thought and consideration to some of the movies that I ought to get around to seeing before alcohol means nothing more to me than a preservative. Some were relatively recent, some were older, reputed classics, while a few were then up and coming. Given that I used to make a point of going to the cinema once a week, minimum, I'd been conscious for some while that, in my quest to keep up to date with various TV series, I'd forgotten about these other pleasures called 'films'. So I went ahead and compiled my personal list of 50, consulting a few mailing list friends for a recommendation or ten. Now, clearly, I wasn't going to be able to pull a Cool Hand Luke and manage all 50 at one sitting, and part of me even imagined I was in for some Starship Enterprise-scale five year mission or something. But here we are, no more than a handful of months down the road and I find I'm past the halfway point. Woohoo!
So, by way of marking the occasion, I thought it'd be fun to air my thoughts in brief on each of the fillums I've seen so far. I've managed to watch other movies along the way that weren't on the list, so I feel confident I've redressed the TV/Movie balance pretty well. But for now and without further ado, here are my reviews of the list-ed movies in their respective nutshells:
All About Eve
One of those movies I didn't really know what to expect when I sat down to watch, but then this captivating story emerged. Less about Eve, more about Bette Davis who spits venom in a way that would put most serpents to shame. Also numerous points go to Anne Baxter for her Eve. There's as much a sense of her duping the audience, even when we know there is definitely something about her.
Breakfast At Tiffany's
Surprisingly charming for a movie with George Peppard in it. Probably owes a lot to Audrey Hepburn in that respect. Never quite up to the promise in that beautiful opening scene where Holly Golightly nibbles on her eponymous takeaway breakfast outside Tiffany's window, but things get tense when Cat is abandoned. Warning: you'll never get Moon bloody River out of your head. Except when that song by Deep Blue Something breaks in.
Bride Of Frankenstein
Much funnier than probably intended, I thought. (Although, see Gods And Monsters.) Perhaps I should have watched it late at night to help capture the classic horror atmosphere, but it wasn’t the classic I’d been led to believe. The genetically modified Lilliputians were just too bizarre – what were they thinking? – and the fact that Elsa Lanchester, the eponymous Bride, appears only minutes before the end, I felt, was a shame. Plenty of laughs though.
Buffy The Musical (Once More With Feeling.) Not technically a movie, I know, but it was as much on my must-get-around-to-seeing list as a lot of the other titles and now that I have I kind of wish it was a film. For all those folks too quick to bandy around the word 'genius', check this out for a good definition.
City Of God
City of Oh My God, more like. Brazilian Goodfellas, I’ve heard it called, but frankly the 'Goodfellas' were a civilised, friendly bunch. A brilliant look into a very scary world and it’s put me right off ever going to Buenos Aires.
Constant Gardener
Not a heck of a lot of gardening in evidence, but no disappointment arising from that. Slow, but compelling and tense in all the right places. Definitely a pessimistic air about it from the get go, so luckily I wasn't expecting a happy ending. Scary too, in a way that only Africa - and, apparently, Buenos Aires! - can be.
Hmm. Not as good as it was cracked up to be. A patchy anthology, really, which serves to illustrate that everyone in LA is highly strung. Helped by some powerful performances and potent use of soundtrack to underscore some genuine 'moments'.
Decent enough thriller, except I guessed the twist. Still, since it does feature Jennifer Aniston, it could be argued I didn't watch it for that.
Fortune Cookie
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Billy Wilder. Nuff said, really. Boom Boom Jackson is the most naive, upstanding football player ever, but that's an important contrast to all the wonderful cynicism on display through the rest of it.
Get Carter
Very much a film of its time, but just gripping enough to keep me with it. Nasty and rough around the edges, in ways only a British gangster movie can be and it comes as little surprise that pretty much everyone Caine meets ends up on his hit list. Still, there's something refreshingly straightforward and un-Guy Ritchie about it and something fitting about the fact that Caine's avenging 'angel' (yeah, right!) gets to enjoy his revenge for all of a few seconds.
Girl, Interrupted
Angelina Jolie. Pah! I'm not a fan, especially after all she's done to Jennifer Aniston. She's good in this, but it's easy to see why her performance attracted so much attention - she's playing the more outrageous, further-off-her-trolley character. Winona's quieter, understated performance is, for my money, just as solid. She really should do more acting. She's far better at moody, sullen and pissed off with the world than she is at shoplifting.
Gods And Monsters
Sometimes all you need is a simple story and two great actors. One of those plays in movie-form, Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser really sell this curious love story. Also gave me some cause to rethink my take on Bride Of Frankenstein and if I get to watch that again, I'll be sure to watch it as a comedy. The ending doesn't come as anything but expected, but sometimes it really is the journey and not the destination.
Good Night, And Good Luck
Excellent. Not the paciest of Clooney movies, but the best I’ve seen. Compelling stuff and wonderfully reflective of two periods: then and now. History, contemporary relevance and a rash of great performances. David Strathairn, chief among them.
House Of Mirth
That title’s meant to be ironic, don’t you think. God, this was achingly slow. Thank heavens I watched it lying on the couch. Beautiful sense of period and Gillian Anderson is just as eye-compelling as ever, but I ended up watching it with a similar detachment to that displayed by most of the characters. See Age Of Innocence for some jollier Edith Wharton.
Il Postino
Beautiful, touching, gently humorous, sad. Slow, perhaps, but not in a plodding postman sort of way, more like a stroll where you're enjoying the scenery and the company.
Infernal Affairs
Haven't seen a decent modern-setting Oriental movie for ages. This was the goods, though. Slower and it's no Hard Boiled on the gun play front, but it has style, grace, top cinematography and a nice tense, undercover cop, undercover bad guy story. Obviously, I need to get around to seeing Scorsese's The Departed, for comparison.
La Belle Et Le Bete
Lovely. The film equivalent of a yard of lace. Exquisite, if a little too short.
Lord Jim
What? A halfway decent film adaptation of a Joseph Conrad book? Never. Well, like most adaptations of novels, you have to squint and look on the film as something in its own right, and as such. Peter O'Toole makes for a charismatic and sympathetic lead, but it goes for epic style at the expense of more detailed portraits of some of the characters.
Clever, and not in a way that causes it to disappear up its own arse. In reverse. Mike from Neighbours plays it brilliantly and I've always liked seeing Joe Pantoliano crop up in things since Midnight Run.
Pan’s Labyrinth
Brutality and Fairy Tales, who'd have thought? Well, the Brothers Grimm, of course. Reality and fantasy masterfully interwoven, persuades an adult audience it can pass as easily between the two as a child. Imaginative creatures, with one monster almost but not quite as nightmarish as its real world Spanish Civil War counterpart.
Dated and what's wrong with Glenn Headly's voice (guess that's a product of knowing her as ER's Abbey Keaton), but I could see where it got its reputation. Who'd have thought you could get a film like this from the writer of the Doctor Who TV Movie? The creepy parts are really good and the set design for the paper house itself is great.
a) Solve pi beyond a few billion digits or b) work out why this film is highly rated by anyone. Tough choice, but I'd sooner go for a). Purposelessly weird, striving to make up for lack of story with pretentious camera work and the mystique of monochrome. The basic message for the 'hero' is 'Stop worrying about the meaning of life, just get on and enjoy the patterns in the leaves'. It’s such a simple answer, you wish he'd get there sooner.
Seven Swords
Not in the same league as The Seven Samurai or other more recent Oriental offerings, but stylish in its own way and I liked the attempt to characterise the swords themselves as well as the warriors who wielded them.
Spirited Away
Completely, colourfully mad, but equally wonderful. Best pay attention though. My wife walked in halfway through and I had to explain why the boy was a dragon, where the pigs came from, and all about the mouse, the giant baby and the bouncing heads. Difficult to encapsulate in a few words. Still, despite my poor explanations, she stayed and watched to the end.
Interesting, powerfully played and sadly likely to be topical for some time to come. It's slow and demands patience and attention and is occasionally guilty of assuming its audience knows exactly how the oil world works. A little like the West Wing sometimes assumes we know what everyone's talking about, but less accessible. Warning: horrible torture scene at which I'm still cringing.
They! were a bit disappointing. The giant ants were done fairly well for a B movie of its time, but I'd have liked to have seen more of the insectoid communists rampaging through the city, wreaking havoc on model cars and such. I guess I got a different impression from a poster or something. The initial stages, in the desert, are tense, but the "excitement" peters out fairly shortly and there are fewer laughs than you'd expect from this type of movie.
The Third Man
Perennially, my sister would look at me in disbelief and horror and ask, "You haven't seen The Third Man??!" and I couldn't believe it either. Finally, I have. Terrific stuff and this, even when I know who the 'Third Man' is, so there's no twist to speak of and I even guessed where the whole thing was ultimately leading. Still, worth it for the brilliant use of the cat in revealing the presence of Harry Lime and for Orson Welles proclamation about the cuckoo clock. Warning: another movie that will leave a tune in your head for days!
Touch Of Evil
Charlton Heston as God, I can buy, but as a Mexican, no. That aside, this is close to the classic I was led to believe it was. An outstanding tracking shot following the bomb in the trunk of the car. Orson is superb and it’s stark and brutal without being overtly so. Genuinely tense, with plenty of real menace where it needs to be. Aptly titled.
Smart and sophisticated and the use of three tints to differentiate sections of the story is effective and not nearly as gimmicky as it might sound. Loaded with great performances that don't feel like performances. Catherine Zeta Jones is good. There are better people in it, but it's the sort of thing you don't get to say very often.
Un Couer En Hiver
Hmm. One of those slow meandering love stories where not much happens. Rather like Lost In Translation, I couldn’t see how it was so highly rated. It’s played well, but apart from feasting my eyes on Emanuelle Beart, I didn’t get much out of it. For one thing, the lead guy stretches credibility when Emannuelle Beart offers him sex and he turns her down. Nobody told me it was an out and out fantasy.
I’m trying to think of a movie quite like this, and failing. It’s spectacular, dark and horrific with a neat twisty sort of detective story and more than a dash of fantasy thrown in. Gorgeous imagery – well, apart from the bloody bits – and a mystery worth following to the end. Plus Martial Arts. I guess it reminds me a little of Brotherhood Of The Wolf, it has that homogenous feel to it. Visuals that linger in the mind longer than the story, but prompted an interest in the man behind the fiction.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
Quirky small town story, with about the right mix of humour and tragedy, made less ordinary by some great performances. The answer to the titular question is simply that Gilbert lives in a town where life is so dull, he even feels himself attracted to Juliette Lewis. Gods, I'd rather be eaten.
Wings Of Desire
Visual poetry, apparently, and has much the same effect in me as poetry in general on me. Would have gone whoosh! right over my head, but whooshing is a concept foreign to this film. Something powerful about the scene in the library, with all the angels gathered around, and the idea of Columbo as a retired angel is irresistible, but by and large it all went plodding over my head. Not my cup of wasser at all.

And there we are. Brief as I tried to be, it's made for a lengthy blog. But to make up for that, I'm sure it'll be a little while before I get around to seeing all the remaining movies and - if only because I'm well past halfway through the 50 - I'll be almost certain to be briefer next time round. :)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Doctor Who: As Rubbish As It's Always Been

Well, just as two TARDISes can't occupy the same space without the danger of recursive occlusion, Doctor Who and Eurovision apparently can't share the same Saturday night without fear of a ratings implosion. So we're being treated to a mid-season break and as much as I found myself thoroughly unmotivated to blog about New Who while it was on, this (actually welcome) breather does afford an opportunity to reflect on the third season so far. And it'll save me the job of a full season overview come the end. For which, courtesy of the trailer that followed last Saturday's Lazy Arse Experiment, I have higher hopes. Even if, by the time we get there, I find I can't be bothered to review individual episodes, I'll be sure to let you know if those hopes are dashed!

Meanwhile, Season 3, thus far has failed to spark much enthusiasm on my part, it must be said. As noted, I haven't even been inspired to air my opinions here. Possibly because I was always raised with the idea that it was impolite to yawn in public.

Maybe it's just some of the show's laziness rubbing off. Because if there's one word that has characterised this series so far, lazy is it. It's as though the producers, revelling in DW's rediscovered popularity, are far too content with the status quo. Appropriate enough, I suppose, given their apparent aim to demonstrate just how many hits you can produce with the same three chords. There's still the famous Doctor Who variety, but it feels as though it's been so heavily branded that, no matter how diverse the locations visited or the genres being revisited, there's an underlying - and underwhelming - sense of sameness and predictability to proceedings.

It's getting old. Rusty, you might even say.

It says something, I think, that Smith And Jones, the season opener, so far rates as this year's highpoint. And I wonder now whether that has more to do with the fact that it surfed in on a wave of New-Season optimism, a sort of post-Runaway Bride notion that anything had to be an improvement, than any actual upturn in the quality of product. But let's hold on to that initial positive impression for the time being. Despite its share of flaws and plot holes, it had a certain vitality and, at the time I did feel that there was something of a regeneration in evidence. New companion, new beginning and - in some respects - better than Rose.

Then along came The Shakespeare Code. The first of this year's stories to feel like a shopping list. Shakespeare, three witches, Doctor Who - tick all the ingredients and you get exactly the recipe you expect. Gorgeous CGI backdrops come to the foreground because, despite a degree of colour and sparkle to the dialogue, the rest is just a predictable 'Shakespeare For Dummies' exercise, peppered with tired quote-dropping, the 'surprise' revelation that the witches are aliens and the tried and tested final act of having a bunch of CGI aliens swirl pointlessly around flexing their pixels, until they can be banished back to their abyssal dimension by the recitation of the worst hidden code in any text by anyone ever. God forgive you, Dan Brown, if Da Vinci's Code is as feeble as Shakespeare's.

Next, Gridlock. The plot engine splutters in its efforts to keep the anti-grav VW camper story afloat, coughing out fumes that smell distinctly of that old McCoy classic, Paradise Towers. Contrivances are built into the dialogue to attempt to hold the entire dumb scenario together, but even a dose of the Macra can't save it. But never mind, it has oodles of CGI spectacle and an emotive bit with a hymn, presumably to inspire us all to pray for something better.

For those that did, you got Daleks In Manhattan and Evolution Of The Daleks. DIM/Evolution. Says it all, really. For one, if you're going to have Daleks In Manhattan, you need to produce something that equals everything that title conjures. For another, if the Daleks are going to evolve, should it really be into spats-sporting sub-Jagaroth headed hoodlums with no talent for acting? Once again, some gorgeous CGI backdrops are the best thing about it and amid the feast of things that are wrong with this two-parter, it also manages to be slow. To say nothing of the gamma ray-lightning hybrid that proves so crucial to the 'plot' resolution. Dreadful. When we could have had Daleks doing great Busby Berkeley dance numbers, damn it. (Even with fountains and a spot of synchronised swimming, why not - the Daleks seemed to fare okay under water in The Dalek Invasion Of Earth.)

Still, likely to be more memorable than, um, er, The Lazarus Experiment. Doctor Who By Numbers, with the limited palette and brushes the BBC can afford once they've spent out on a CGI monster worthy of some ropey old video game. The Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns lives again. A non-event, but for the Mr Saxon arc elements which were clearly more important than any story it might have offered.

And that, for me, sheds a little light on the nature of the problem. Instead of a story, more often than not, we're getting a synopsis that happened to make it all the way to the production stage. There's so much emphasis on pace, a plot is rarely given enough time to breathe and grow into a story. No, it has to keep swimming in order to stay alive - like a shark, except it's apparently just as easy to jump while it's so constantly on the move ;). It's like, oh, what if the Doctor and Martha went to [this place] or we did a story where [this was the basic setup], and this happens, that happens, oh and the Doctor sorts it out somehow. I know it's a bit patchy, but as long as it's got pace and lots of spectacle and a good CGI monster to thrash around a bit at the end before being defeated, we don't need to worry about minor considerations like story development, internal plot consistency, that sort of thing. And anyway, we have an army of fans standing by with the Plot Polyfilla to cover over our mistakes and omissions. Slap. Dash.

In fact, more mystifying than where Doctor Who might have gone wrong - hardly a mystery, since its flaws seem so glaringly obvious from where I'm sitting on a Saturday night - have been the defences put forward by some fans. Among them, in essence, the header for this blog. Yes, it's a cynical paraphrasing on my part, but when criticisms have been levelled at any of the New Who offerings, folks have argued that, well, it was no worse than, say, The Underwater Menace (random example picked to protect the innocent), or whatever. And maybe it's just me, but as arguments go, it's flimsier than a lot of New Who plots.

As far as I can understand it - which is not very far, I'll grant you - what I'm being told is that current Who is no worse than a 30-40 year old TV show. Hmm. Further, if you can forgive the flaws in Timelash, then you can certainly forgive those in Boomtown. Well, I don't forgive either, but I just chose two examples of the worst of each. For one, there's such a vast gap in terms of production and TV has moved on in such leaps and bounds, that I don't think it's valid to compare old with new. But perhaps more importantly, I don't know what it proves, other than the above contention that 'Doctor Who is as rubbish as it's always been'. Whereas I don't see it as unreasonable to expect a modern resurrection of an old show to have raised its standards in line with the modern competition, as opposed to - apparently - settling for being (as the Talking Heads used to say) the 'same as it ever was'.

Not only is there a capacity to forgive an older show certain deficiencies, because it's quite possible to allow for the advances in TV we've seen in the meantime - and, certainly in the case of some of the very early episodes, Doctor Who comes across as more of an am-dram theatrical production (The Keys Of Marinus?) that happens to be on this new-fangled marvel they call 'television', than a full-blown modern TV production that's attempting to be some sort of mini action movie (Rise Of The Cybermen, I'm - reluctantly - looking at you). Doctor Who writers in the past had to contend with the artificial - and characteristic - 25-minute cliffhanger-required episode format. Modern Who writers only have to contend with the - pretty much industry standard - 45 minute episode. If comparisons are to be made, then far fairer to compare with other more recent shows that have had access to all the same tools and resources. Of course, then New Who runs the risk of looking shoddy and at least as am-dram as its 'illustrious ancestor'. (And yes, I only use that phrase to aggravate those fans with Rose-tinted specs. ;) ) But if you're set on playing in the major leagues, then you'd best field a professional team. And the thing is, the people behind New Who are professionals - skilled, talented, qualified etc - but, as I've discussed previously here, I don't see the same evidence of care in the 'finished' product as I do in many other shows.

What they have on their side - in abundance - is the BBC publicity machine. I don't recall a time when Doctor Who ever had the support and publicity it has now. Yes, the New Series' initial popularity seemed to justify some spinoffery, but we now have Totally Doctor Who, Torch(yawn)wood, Confidential and a glut of Radio Times covers, to say nothing of the piles of high-profile merchandising. And now we also have the show receiving special treatment, getting a nudge back in the schedules because the BBC have noticed a drop in the ratings whenever they show it at an earlier time.

We know it's the BBC's flagship show, and that's great. But honestly, it's everything you'd expect of a British-built flagship. Paper thin hull, susceptible to the simplest of attacks and about as capable of ruling the waves as a lone gunman on a surfboard. If only they built their flagships like they used to, with a bit of weight and substance, care and craftsmanship - as well as the go-faster stripes and all the advanced technology - they'd be a far more formidable prospect in the face of the modern competition. And the BBC might not be so afraid of it sinking.