30 December 2011

Films of the Year | 2011

My concern that there will be a backlash with this film isn't enough for me not to make it my number 1. I came out of the cinema with a great big smile on my face and that's a rare thing in modern cinema. If you are satisfied with the simple things in life, I think you'll love it. A small film with a very big heart.

Biblical, spiritual, immense. Yes, the dinosaur scene might have worked a little better on storyboard than on screen, but The Tree of Life definitely had vision. I'm astonished that it hasn't been nominated for more of the big awards, but perhaps the world still isn't ready for Malick. 

3.  Drive

I saw Drive at an early preview not knowing what to expect. From the second the pink eighties credits rolled and the first synth beat pulsed from the speakers, I was hooked. Nicolas Winding Refn has made a brilliantly crafted film with killer set pieces that never fail to shock. Gosling doesn't have much to do other than brood and look pretty, but he does it awfully well.

Lars Von Trier doesn't do light and fluffy. Lars Von Trier does bleak, intense, and in this case, the end of the world. A film of two halves which leaves you thinking long after the credits have rolled. 

No classic Laurence Olivier adaptation here. Andrea Arnold has ripped up the (tired) costume drama rule book and brought us a film that blisters and brings to live that tragic romance on the moors. It is a film to stir the senses and make you grateful for the warm bed you go home to each night.

Released in the UK in January, although it feels last one of last year's babies. It's a love-it or hate-it experience, and I fall firmly in the former camp. You never quite know what's going on, and that's the fun of it.

It's a dog eat dog world out there. Brilliant.

Cold, clinical and beautifully shot. Tilda Swinton proved she's one of the best in the business with a pitch-perfect performance.

Devastating. I'm a sucker for films about lost love, and this one resonated strongly with its beautiful mise-en-scene and restrained direction from Terence Davies.

A four and a half hour costume drama set across two centuries. Rashomon meets Barry Lyndon meets Crash. I loved it.

Still to see:

A Separation
The Ides of March

It's been a great year for film. Roll on 2012. I have high hopes.

19 December 2011

Review | The Deep Blue Sea

I went into the screening of The Deep Blue Sea knowing I would love it. There you have it. I was already biased, based mainly on my memories of the Vivien Leigh version and also the depressing subject matter. See, I love a good cry at the cinema. I'm one of those crazy creatives who often finds more solace in sadness than in happiness and froth. So as soon as I saw the film trailer, I was sold.

The Deep Blue Sea tells the story of Hester (Rachel Weisz), a woman who finds herself bored in a marriage to a kind, elderly judge, and is drawn into a passionate affair with an ex-war pilot, Freddy (Tom Hiddleston), who she eventually gives up her respectable world to be with. The film begins with her attempted suicide - still illegal at that time - caused by a frustration of not being loved by Freddy with the same intensity of feeling that she has for him. 

For the film to succeed, the choice of actor for the role of Hester is paramount. Rachel Weisz proves that she is one of the finest actors working today, with a performance that is poignant without being pathetic. Hester would rather be in a destructive, unbalanced relationship that allows her to feel with every fibre of her being, rather than married to a man who adores her but does not satisfy her. It's an age-old dilemma that will always split opinion; is it better to have loved and lost, or never to have loved before?

In these modern times, it's tricky for films with stories of unhappy marriages to ring true. Nowadays we can quite easily follow "I do" with "Actually...I've changed my mind", and for the most part, nobody bats an eyelid. It's possible that films such as The Deep Blue Sea (and Brief Encounter or The End of the Affair) lose an edge for a modern-day audience, and their tales of restraint - or lack of - can seem irrelevant. Davies's direction is never damning of Hester, which is how it may have been presented by a director fifty years ago. The focus here, however, seems to be more on Hester's passion, and that's something with which we can all identify.

I never experienced it myself, but Terence Davies manages to make me feel like I knew the fifties. Not the candy-coloured optimism of America that we are so often presented with in the movies, but rather the bleak, poor austerity of post-war Britain. Instead of Happy Days diners and picket fences, we are presented with smokey pubs and blitzed buildings; instead of sunshine and cocktails, we have ration books and fog. The mise-en-scène is perfectly pitched. The fifties in England seems to have been like a continuation of the war but without the bombing. 

You get a feeling from The Deep Blue Sea that everyone just tried to soldier on. 

18 December 2011

3D. Please Die.

They look cool.
It is with little hyperbole that I deliver the following statement with as much eloquence of speech as I can muster: I hate 3D. Yes, James Cameron, you "King of the World" with your floppy hair and gold plated statuettes, I am one of those cynics who simply...does not get it.

We don't.
From the second I was asked to "Please put on your glasses" (on top of my glasses) way back in 2009, I knew it was not for me. Looking around at my fellow audience, I couldn't help but notice that we all looked like a load of numpties, sitting there with blacked-out specs and wide open mouths. Remember Marty Mcfly's gormless son in Back to the Future Part II? That was us. I won't go into my thoughts on the actual "film" itself, but suffice to say I've never been a big fan of computer gaming. 

Two years on, it seems we are still in love with this experience. Not only are the studios commissioning new films to be made with 3D in mind, but we are still prepared to cough up the additional £3 per ticket to experience it the Cameron way. It seemed I didn't learn my lesson with the blue movie. Since then, I've experienced it twice more with Toy Story 3 and today, with Hugo

Toy Story 3 was a brilliant film. It had a great script, brilliant characterisation, and true vision. Those should be the essential requirements of any movie. All these elements should be executed with such loving and diligent care that any extra fluff such as 3D or other gimmickry simply enhance the experience. And that is exactly what Pixar achieved. They escaped the curse of the second sequel by really nurturing their baby and then using the 3D to add, not dominate. (Cameron, take note. A lot of us see past the specs and Sam Worthington's dodgy accent.)

Hugo. Oh Hugo...Oh Scorsese. Not only was the film a slow, over-indulgent, turgid bore of a picture, but the 3D was - with the exception of the excellent swooping opening scene - blurry and inconsistent. More than once did I have to check and readjust my glasses. If you make a film about the experience of cinema, if you want the audience to be engrossed in a story about the richness of filmmaking, why would you have them constantly trouble-shoot the equipment required to actually watch the film? The irony would be laughable if the "experience" hadn't just cost me £25. 


What also escapes me is the reason for the 3D in the first place. Although they label it 2D when we watch a regular film, our eye actually interprets it as 3D. We don't imagine the actors as being flat cut-outs on a rectangular screen, even though that is what we are being presented with. Our peepers are actually very clever pieces of tech on their own. Yes, Mister Titanic, my eyes were seeing in three dimensions long before you spotted your latest cash-cow. When watching a 3D movie, all that ends up happening is the characters look like cut-outs, the sets looking like flat props, and we end up so focused on the technology that we forget to suspend our disbelief. They have tried to introduce depth by attempting to trick my eyes, and all they have succeeded is giving me a whopper of a headache.

Do you hate 3D as much as I do? If so, I implore you to stage your own personal boycott. Let's go back to the heady days of just watching a movie, and we'll save a fortune in ticket prices and Nurofen.

I'll leave you with a word from 3D's sponsor:

"I don't care about them [3D haters]. If you could wave a magic wand and give everyone in the world an orgasm simultaneously, there'd still be cynics looking for a way to criticise that." ~ James Cameron

Jim. If 3D is your idea of an orgasm, you're seriously missing out. 

 *And on the subject of Hugo, if I watch one more film about Paris that includes a corny shot of the Eiffel Tower and accordions on the soundtrack, heads are going to roll. Gene Kelly, you have a lot to answer for.

16 December 2011

Friday Night Watch

I've spoken about this film three separate times in the past week.

I think tonight's the night for a little reunion.

15 December 2011

The Future's Bright? The Future's Digital.

"Days of Heaven"
So far this week I have seen four films at the cinema and all four were digitally projected.  Subsequently mentioning this on Facebook, I was informed by a former cinema colleague that my local cinema is now 100% digital. This news, although inevitable, has floored me.
I will try to keep the nostalgic sensibilities to a minimum, although it will be tricky for an analogue junkie like me. Throughout the history of picture-making, quality has always been sacrificed for convenience, and this will always be the way of the world. “Hollywood” is an industry and that means business; pure and simple.  Still, it makes me sad that heat splices will soon go the way of the dodo.
I knew the end of film was in sight, but little did I realise how soon it would come. A recent issue of Sight and Sound included the following in the editor’s note:
January 2012 will apparently mark the point at which there will be more digital screens in the world industry than analogue…What’s more, mainstream usage of 35mm will have vanished from the USA by the end of 2013, with Western Europe set to be all digital in the mainstream one year later.
One of the most beautiful films ever made
The benefits of shooting digital are obviously numerous, both to the studios who are financing the production and to the cinematographers themselves. Roger Deakins, one of the best known Directors of Photography in the industry, talks about this in a recent interview:
It gives me a lot more options. It’s got more latitude, it’s got better colour rendition. It’s faster. I can immediately see what I’m recording. I can time that image on set with a color-calibrated monitor. That…goes through the whole post-production chain, so it’s not a case of being in a lab and having to sit and then time a shot on a shot-by-shot because this has already got a control on it that’s set the timing for the shot.
In terms of practicalities, digital trumps film. If it allows the artist to do a better job, then it could be argued that it is better for the production and the industry as a whole. I am all for this. I do not work in the movie industry and so to insist on a passionate opinion would be silly. 
But my feelings are based on just that; feelings. It’s the romance of cinema that I have always loved. The box of film stills sneakily cut for me by projectionist friends from the latest releases touches the same nerve as the scene from Cinema Paradiso when Salvatore sees the reel of all the censored kisses. The tangible feel of the touch of a print will always rule my heart, but sadly the clinical and convenient numbers of digital must always rule the head.
"Cinema Paradiso" (1988)
The one bright side I hope for is this means the smaller budgeted films will make it to screens outside of the main cities. Producing reels is an expensive and time-consuming business, and so a film like Wuthering Heights (2011) could never hope to be featured in a multiplex in the heart of suburbia where it would be unlikely to recoup that cost. If the future is digital and is therefore more cost effective, perhaps this will push those smaller films out to the masses (and stop people feeling that they have to download to get their Andrea Arnold fix). I hope, but without too much faith.
What I am most fearful of is the effect the changeover to digital will have on what we see on screen. Experts agree that it is Avatar (2009) that that pushed the industry into such a fast digital transformation. Yes, Avatar; that film about blue smurfs that stole storylines from several existing films and spliced them together with all the subtlety of a Hollywood hack. The film that heralded the start of the awful trend where you have to put another screen between you and the action, and essentially put the brakes on smaller, independent films that would not have translated well to 3D. 
No, this isn't a naff '90s poster. This is the future.
 Yes, the future is James Cameron. And it terrifies me.

30 September 2011

Review | Drive (2011)

To live is to drive. At least, that’s the impression you get watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s film. Our (anti) hero, who has no name but is played by the increasingly impressive Ryan Gosling, feels at home only when behind the wheel. After driving the getaway car during a thrilling opening car chase, he arrives back to his sparse apartment, lit only by the neon of the city outside. Standing alone in his room, his shadow beamed on the bare walls, he surveys his surroundings briefly before walking out. For him, the road is where he belongs.
There have been many films over the years that speak of a yearning for the open road. Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise both feature vistas of wide open spaces and use the road as a metaphor for a feeling of disconnection from the outside world.  Drive differs in that we don’t see those vistas; instead we are there in the car with Gosling. We are the passenger, glimpsing our hero from side-on or in the rear view mirror.
Drive is littered with so many movie references that it reads like a film student’s wet dream. The comparison to a western is an obvious one – a lone ranger fighting injustice and saving the innocent woman and child from the bad guys. The frothy pink font of the credits and the bright lights of L.A. bring to mind ‘80s Michael Mann, as well as the monotonous synth-pop beats of the soundtrack. One particularly strong scene in an elevator is reminiscent of In the Mood for Love, as is the frequent skulking in hallways.

Partly what I love about filmmaking is the craft itself. I love seeing a director’s vision, and this film feels as if it’s been storyboarded to death. Not one scene on the screen is accidental –Refn has planned every shot and lighting set-up with such thought and attention to detail that it feels beautiful in its exactness.
Finally shirking off the poster-boy image he acquired with The Notebook, Gosling rounds off a trilogy of mature turns in Half Nelson and Blue Valentine with a performance of brooding intensity. He manages to bring a little soul to what could have been an empty and two-dimensional character. Gosling is an actor who can do so much with minimal effort; there are no theatrics here. Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks put in decent efforts as the token females, respectively playing the underwritten mother in trouble and femme fatale roles with reliable skill. Male supporting performances are also stellar from Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston.

Yes, this film is violent. Whether it is gratuitous is the topic of another discussion entirely, but personally, those scenes don’t remain with me. However, they are not without consequence, as the aforementioned elevator scene demonstrates (no plot spoilers here).
With Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn proved he had promise. With Drive, he manages to create a pulp noir that succeeds in being slick and stylish, but without selling its heart and soul. He might just prove to be the filmmaker Tarantino could have been.

07 July 2011

This year is a Malick year

Where did June go?

No matter, because tomorrow I'm off to see this.

It's finally here.

11 May 2011

Spotlight | Billy Wilder

I would like to introduce you to one of my Top 5 directors, Mr Billy Wilder.

As opposed to directors such as Orson Welles and Hitchcock who liked to bring attention to creative camera angles and editing, Wilder favoured emphasis on a sharp script and biting dialogue. He never wanted to bring attention to the actual filmmaking process, rather he wanted the audience to lose themselves in the story and characters. This no doubt stemmed from his origins in his native Germany as a screenwriter and he enjoyed a long collaboration with equally sharp-witted writer, I. A. L. Diamond.

It is his ability to “tell a good story” which is why I love him as a director. I’ve always been a firm believer in the theory that it is impossible to make a great film from a bad script (hence my hatred of anything remotely Michael Bay-like), and Billy Wilder felt the same.

Although probably best known for this:

Some Like It Hot (1959)

He is one of my best-loved directors for this:

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

And possibly my alltime favourite…

The Apartment (1960)

A few quotes burned in my brain:

“That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise” The Apartment

Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I *am* big. It's the *pictures* that got small.

Sunset Boulevard

“Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!” Some Like It Hot

“When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara” The Apartment

“Story of my life. I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Some Like It Hot

“There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you're trying to be twenty-five.” Sunset Boulevard

“It’s not how long it takes, it’s who’s taking you” Some Like It Hot

“I'd like to spell it out for you...only I can't spell” The Apartment

“Mr De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up” Sunset Boulevard

“Nobody’s perfect!” Some Like It Hot

Do yourself a favour and rent one of the above films this weekend. You’ll have a couple of hours of wonderful.

21 April 2011

Trailer | Tree of Life

There are no words to express how excited I am about Terrence Malick's new film.

18 April 2011

Turn on those City Lights

If he had been alive yesterday, Charlie Chaplin would have turned 122 years old.

I usually hate these pointless headlines, invented by the media for no reason other than to fill in a blank on their schedule. However, this is actually quite telling. 122 years is a long time in the entertainment world. When you think that the medium of cinema is only just over 100 years old itself, anything older seems archaic. Even in his forties, Chaplin was considered a bit of a luddite for his insistence on keeping his films silent whilst the rest of Hollywood embraced sound. He resisted for as long as he could, and in so doing, marked himself as a member of the old guard even at a relatively young age.

I fell in love with Chaplin as a child. I was the kid who spent most hot summer days inside, curtains drawn, watching back to back screenings of The Tramp and his flower girl. Like all great friendships, a relationship with Chaplin is one that evolves over the years. The adventures of "The Little Tramp" were some of my favourites from the tender age of 5 or 6. I adored the slapstick comedy, the scenes of drunk characters bumping into lamp-posts or escaping baton-wielding policemen. Show me a child who doesn't find the eating machine scene from
Modern Times hilarious and I will declare them certifiably insane.

As I left childhood behind, it was the scenes of love and loss that struck a chord. I couldn't watch the final scene of
City Lights without reaching for the Kleenex. There is no sound apart from the swell of sweeping strings; their mouths move, but no words come out. Instead, the emotion comes from the expression of their faces, their eyes, the way they move their hands. There is no script to prop the actors up.

Now when I watch his films, I still love the slapstick and humour, the pathos and heartbreak, but I see something fresh and new. For those who think that silent films are irrelevant and from the dinosaur-age of moviemaking, watch the factory scenes from
Modern Times and think again. Chaplin's tramp stands at a production line, working so fast that he doesn't even have time to scratch his nose. If he takes a moment to swat a fly, he has lost the rhythm of his work and must work even harder to make up for lost time. Chaplin seems to be suggesting that in the world of 1936, the pace of technology is moving so fast that we can only ever play catch-up. Now, 75 years later, how many of us struggle to keep up with the constant updates to our iPads, computers and mobile phones? How many times do we take a mini break from Twitter or Facebook, only to then feel like we have a deluge of information to catch up on when we return? Like that production line, it is hard to take a break without feeling like you're falling behind. Chaplin - irrelevant? If anything, as its title suggests, Modern Times is a film for our age too.

03 March 2011

Review | The Apartment

Ever since I first saw it as a teenager, I have been in love with
The Apartment (1960). Perhaps it was the opening shots of Manhattan that cemented my love, or maybe the loveable character of C.C. Baxter played by the wonderful Jack Lemmon. Possibly it came down to the pin-sharp script or the perfection of Shirley Maclaine. In hindsight, I think it was simply a blend of all of the above.

The Apartment tells the story of C.C Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an insurance man who works on the nineteenth floor for a firm based in Manhattan. He finds himself popular amongst the firm's executives for his apparent willingness to lend out his apartment for them to entertain their secretaries and mistresses. As he begins to climb up the corporate ladder, he falls in love with Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine), an elevator girl who happens to be in love with one of the executives. You can imagine the rest.

The film swings between comedy and drama, dealing with serious themes for the time such as adultery and suicide (which was still illegal in 1960). It captures the monotony of office life perfectly, with the unbearable din of the typewriters and the dreary lights in the suspended office ceiling stretching to infinity behind Baxter. We understand why he is attracted to Fran, whose bright and sunny disposition is a perfect contrast to the tedium of his everyday life.

I adore this film. If a gun was put to my head and I was forced to name my all time favourite movie,
The Apartment might well be it (It swings between this, The Godfather and Annie Hall). For me, great film-making is all about the script. And this film has a humdinger of a screenplay. The words bite and sink their teeth. That last line will forever be etched in my consciousness.

Watching it in 2011, it is obvious how influenced
Mad Men creator, Matt Weiner is by The Apartment. From the staging of the office scenes through to the clothes, characters and what comes out of their mouths, it all has a definite hint of Draper & co. Filmmakers who channel Wilder include Sam Mendes, whose American Beauty had much to owe to this and Wilder's other gem, Sunset Boulevard. Despite some of the issues in The Apartment belonging very much in 1960, it seems that the essence of the film and its maker still shines brightly. To quote Baxter, "I guess that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise."

10 February 2011

Spotlight | Edith Head ~ Designer Extraordinaire

It is impossible to write a blog about vintage film without spending at least one post discussing the merits of Edith Head. Even before the lead actress appears on screen, I can tell I'm in for a couple of hours of sartorial sweetness when I see "Costumes by Edith Head" appear on the opening credits.

She holds the record for being the woman with the most Oscar nominations in history ~ a staggering 35 nominations with 8 wins. Even if you've never heard of her name, you have no doubt seen and recognise several of her creations worn by Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis and Grace Kelly to name but a few. Studios were keen for their films not to fall out of favour with passing trends, and Edith Head assisted by designing iconic costumes that were classic and timeless. Many modern brides owe their dress designs to this talented lady.

(above left ~ talking to Hitch / above right ~ with Audrey)

I also love her trademark black fringe/chignon and dark glasses, which she had from the 1930s until the end of her life. Like her creations, it made her timeless and almost ageless. I like my designers looking chic ~ if they're expected to make others look good, they should be stylish themselves.

A snippet of her back catalogue:

All About Eve
A Place in the Sun (1952)
Roman Holiday (1954)
Sabrina (1955)
To Catch a Thief (1956)
Funny Face (1958)

For the best example of her amazing creations, set aside three hours to watch The Ten Commandments. Technicolor knew how to make colours sing, and there are few sights more glorious than that of Anne Baxter in shades of emerald, ruby red and sapphire.

For further inspiration, you might want to buy this book. Or perhaps you want to treat me instead?

07 February 2011

Review | A Place in the Sun

Those who know me, know that I'm a sucker for an old black and white movie. Throw in the beauty of Elizabeth Taylor and the costumes of Edith Head, and you've got the perfect Sunday afternoon, with or without the rain.

A Place in the Sun tells the story of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a young boy from the poor side of the tracks who takes a job at his rich uncle's factory. Desperate for some warmth in his life, he starts a relationship with a fellow factory worker, simple, trusting Alice (Shelley Winters). Soon after, he starts to fall in love with the glamorous and beautiful Angela (Elizabeth Taylor), as well as developing a hankering for her family's rich and carefree way of living. Despite his best efforts, George is unable to escape Alice, who is desperate for George to marry her. As he falls further in love with Angela, George finds himself going to more extreme lengths to rid himself of his former conquest, with devastating consequences.

The film manages to blend both scenes of romance with a serious, threatening edge. Clift succeeds in making us feel sympathy for the plight of George, even when he is leading on both Alice and Angela. This is a story of the "American Dream", with George desperate to make something of himself and escape the poor of his youth. With their attitude of "anything is possible", Americans have constantly been encouraged to seek a better life for themselves, often at whatever cost. As we see in A Place in the Sun, the chasing of a better life can make us blind to the consequences our actions are creating.

Perhaps we also feel sympathy for George because of our k
nowledge of what befell Clift in reality. Considered a lost and troubled soul, Montgomery Clift struggled his whole life with his sexuality and died at the young age of 45 from a heart attack. His friendship with Elizabeth Taylor lasted until his death, and their scenes together demonstrate a strong, undeniable chemistry.

If it's a good black and white film you're after, look no further. Sixty years on, it's still fresh as a daisy.

03 February 2011

Memo | Favourite film? Impossible.

One of the questions I love to ask people I meet is "What's your favourite film?". It's an ice-breaker, it can lead to all kinds of new conversation, and I think it says so much about the person themselves. Unfortunately, I can never answer that question when asked of myself (which also probably reveals far too much about my personality). To name just one favourite film would be like choosing one favourite song or one favourite vintage dress; it changes with the mood or time of day. I might be feeling nostalgic and go for Gone with the Wind. Or perhaps I'm in the mood for a little pick-me-up, in which case Singin' in the Rain. The Godfather might suit my more serious frame of mind. The point is that there is no number one. They're all contenders and that's the way I like it.
My list includes musicals, comedies, costume dramas, documentaries, biblical epics, mob movies, westerns, french new wave, P.O.W dramas, black comedies, foreign films, ballet and a mockumentary about a fake rock band. Variety is the spice of life, so they say. What I love about favourite films is that "best" doesn't come into it. I can appreciate that a favourite film might not be the most technically brilliant ~ It's how it makes me feel that's important.

What are your favourite(s)?

02 February 2011

Decor Obsession | Pillow Talk

Rom-coms aren't usually my cup of tea, but I can happily make an exception for one from the 1950s that features Doris Day as well as fabulously gorgeous set decoration. 1950s and 60s design rocks my world, and although Doris Day's apartment in Pillow Talk (1959) is a little frou-frou for my tastes, I still adore the pastel colours and oversized lamps.

Love the hanging pendants...and a view of Manhattan can never be beat.

How I love abstract oil paintings. I can't resist buying them and have about five at home waiting to hang...just need to find more walls...

I have a bit of a thing for grasscloth walls.

Pink and purple - probably two of my least favourite colours, and yet they work so well with lemon yellow. I think the key is to not fear the colour clash - embrace it and let it take over every white surface.

Who can resist pastel colours and sixties split-screen?

So that's this week's decor obsession. Do these retro 50s digs turn you on or off?