Monday, 18 August 2008

Unforgiven (USA, 1992)

With Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood – cinema’s second most iconic cowboy – returned to the genre he and Hollywood had all but abandoned and delivered the finest performances of his career both in front of and behind the camera. Capitalising on the lessons he learnt acting under Sergio Leone and Don Siegel – to whom the film is dedicated – and from his own 20-year career as a director, Eastwood revised the revisionist Western, removing whatever romance remained, and presenting a psychological landscape as harshly realistic as his film’s physical setting of sweaty whorehouses and filth-strewn streets.

When an irate ranch hand slashes a young prostitute’s face, her co-workers at a Wyoming cathouse – outraged by the leniency of the punishment imposed by tyrannical local sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) – club together to place a bounty on his head, and that of his pretty much innocent accomplice. Tempted by the reward – and the glory of earning it – a youthful and unlikely-looking gunfighter known, possibly only in his own mind, as ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett), pitches up at the decrepit homestead of decrepit pig-farmer William Munny (Eastwood), an infamous former fastgun and ‘killer of women and children’ and ‘just about everything that ever walked or crawled’. Having grown up hearing of Munny’s pitiless proficiency as an executioner, he hopes to enlist the older man’s lethal assistance in claiming the money – but, having sobered up since his murderous youth, and with two motherless children to care for, Munny isn’t eager to return to an outlaw life. (At first, he won’t even admit he is William Munny, afraid The Kid has come to avenge a father or uncle he killed before he hung up his holster.) He realises, though, that his pigs are dying and his son and daughter are suffering, and eventually he is persuaded to dig out his shotgun and six-shooter. Unfortunately, his decision ropes in his equally aged and out-of-practice partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman), and makes inevitable a collision with Daggett and his zero-tolerance regime.

It’s never likely to end well – and indeed it doesn’t. If the drama of other films is – as is often claimed – ‘gripping’, then the drama of Unforgiven is positively vice-like. But, as Barry Norman noted when he included Unforgiven in his choice of the 100 best films of cinema’s first century, while ‘how it all works out, who dies and who doesn’t’ is fascinating enough, it’s the subtext of the film that’s truly riveting. Most Westerns – although ostensibly set in a lawless frontier where order is always unstable and violence the only arbiter – follow a stringent set of moral rules: however hairy it might look for him in the middle of the movie, come the final shootout the film’s goodhearted gunslinger will, by virtue of his moral superiority to his opponents, prove the quickest draw and the keenest shot. Unforgiven is far too intelligent – and far too unforgiving – for anything as soft as that. The victor of its climactic gunfight doesn’t survive because he is a hero, or defending a righteous cause, but because he is the best at shooting men dead. He, more than any other character in the film, has understood its creed: in life, ‘deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it’.

Even a filmgoer with a phobic aversion to watching Westerns, or scenes of violence, or even Eastwood movies, won’t find much fault in Unforgiven. Most faultless of all is its acting. The performances of Hackman, Freeman and Richard Harris as ageing gunhands – and perhaps even of Woolvett as a would-be William Munny – were all equally Oscar-worthy, but it is was Hackman’s grandstanding, but ultimately pathetic, display as ‘Little’ Bill that took the year’s Best Supporting Actor award. Originally reluctant to accept the role because he didn’t want to be seen brutalising a black man so soon after the Rodney King / LAPD incident, Hackman allowed none of his initial trepidation to transfer to the screen. As in his other Oscar-winning turn – as ‘Popeye’ Doyle in 1971’s The French Connection – he plays a violent and unlikeable law officer who, because of his profession, is nominally a good guy but is hardly a hero. His portrayal of an honest but philosophically suspect strongman, who believes in aggression only when he is the aggressor, is one of the standout explorations of American masculinity in a genre rich in such studies.

Hackman’s wasn’t the only Oscar won by Unforgiven; two, for Best Picture and Best Director, deservedly went to Eastwood. A third, for Best Actor, did not. Because the Academy – justifiably – felt that Al Pacino had been overlooked when nominated for performances for which he probably should have won Oscars, they – unjustifiably – honoured him for one for which he certainly should not: his hammy, half-baked blind man in Scent of a Woman is tiresome and amateurish when set against Eastwood’s subtle and painstaking performance as William Munny. But I doubt the Oscar-voters’ error irked Eastwood much: Unforgiven, and its critical and awards show success, had at last legitimized him as one of the world’s great moviemakers. It is not only one of Hollywood’s greatest Westerns, but also one of its greatest films.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Detour (USA, 1945)

Some films seem able to embody an emotion or state of mind: with Singin’ In The Rain it’s joy, with The Shawshank Redemption it’s hope, and with Detour it’s fatalism. Time magazine, which included Detour on its (admittedly idiosyncratic) list of ‘The 100 Top Movies of All TIME’, said ‘no film is noirer’ – and certainly it’s impossible to think of one that is. An inescapable pessimism flows from the script and infects every aspect of a production that – shot in six days for a cost, depending on who you believe, of either five- or twenty-thousand dollars – is in budgetary terms a featherweight of film, but that punches like the heavyweight champion of the world.

Deadbeat piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hopes to walk down the aisle – or rather ‘make with the ring and the licence’ – with his curvy, nightclub singer girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). She isn’t so keen and, convinced she can make it in Hollywood, moves to California, leaving him to hitchhike after her. Eventually an amiable, if unlikely, character called Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) gives Roberts a ride and, for a while, things are going well. Then, suddenly, Haskell dies and, in trying to revive him, Roberts accidentally lets Haskell’s head fall heavily against a rock. Sure that anyone to whom he tries to explain these events will think him a murderer, he swaps clothes with the corpse, and steals not only Haskell’s wallet and car, but also his identity. Once he gets far enough away, he reasons, he can dump the car and clothes and revert to being Al Roberts. And perhaps he could have, had he not picked up a shapely and sarcastic passenger named Vera (and played by Ann Savage). Unfortunately for Al, she had met the original Haskell and understandably smells a sewer rodent. Immediately, Roberts finds himself ‘tusslin’ with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman’, and, naturally for a noir character caught in such a contest, plummeting into a personal Hell of blackmail, betrayal, crime and killing.

Although, as Roger Ebert wrote, Neal is ‘a man who can only pout’ and Savage ‘a woman who can only snarl’ their interaction is as riveting as that of any of the great onscreen couples. While many noirs allow their characters to face their fates with someone they love, or at least lust after, Detour’s spirit is far too malign for that: here the two main characters are locked together only by enmity. They scratch and stab at each other in a hate-fuelled perversion of the kind of words Bogart and Bacall characters use to flirt, and the scenes they share are as unforgettably electric as any between Lauren and Humphrey.

By including Detour in this selection of often faultless films, I don’t mean to imply that, as some low-budget classics do, it manages to be miraculously unlimited by its restrictive funding and shooting schedule, and emerges every bit as good as it would have been had it been given a blockbuster budget. A sub-student-film shonkiness is evident in every scene and there are a dozen jarring moments – my favourite of which comes when Roberts is shown ‘playing’ piano and the hands on the keys are so obviously not Neal’s they might as well be black and have an extra three fingers on each hand – that would have been lethally laughable in a lesser film. In Detour, though, the false-seeming sets and awkward acting enhance the eerie unreality of the story they showcase – and this is central to our understanding of the film.

The circumstances of the first death in which Al Roberts is involved – and from which he profits – are unlikely but believable; those of the second, however, are so improbable they are difficult to accept. Watching them we begin to wonder, if we have not already, if Al isn’t telling us porky pies. Crucially, because the film unfolds in flashbacks narrated by Roberts, we are not shown events as we are sure they occurred, but as he tells us they did – and, the more he talks, the more we wonder if Detour’s story isn’t so much a plot as an alibi. It is, more than any other aspect of the film, our doubts about the validity of what we have witnessed that explain why Detour survives in the memory much longer than many more famous and expensive efforts. Days after watching the film, you’ll likely catch yourself still puzzling over whether Al Roberts is a liar, or just the unluckiest lunk in hitchhiking history.

Even if you’re in search of a black and white classic, Detour is easy to overlook. Despite its cult status and critical acclaim, its name still has little of the cache of those of other standouts in its genre. But, runt of the film noir litter though it is, Edgar Ulmer’s brilliantly bleak 68-minute thriller deserves just as much attention as its more robust brothers like The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. Crammed with the kind of cynical 1940s dialogue that must have tasted sour to say, Detour is a dark little gem and, as those idiosyncratic critics at Time pointed out, unquestionably the noirest of noirs.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Fist of Fury (Hong Kong, 1972)

Bruce Lee is a legitimate legend, but the films he starred in – as distinct from his performances within them – are generally disappointing. Too often, the scripts are un-involving, the actors unconvincing and the direction uninspired. Fist of Fury is the exception – a high-impact martial arts masterpiece worthy of combat cinema’s greatest star, and of any audience’s attention.

Lee plays Chen Jeh, the standout student of Jing Mo, a patriotic but pacifistic Chinese martial arts academy in Japanese-controlled Shanghai. After Jing Mo’s master dies, representatives of a Japanese bushido school burst in and insult his memory. Although his superiors advocate non-violence, Chen soon retaliates, and his shin-smashing assault on the entire student body at the dojo downtown sparks a gang war that’s quickly intensified by his investigations into his beloved teacher’s mysterious demise. (And his habit of punching Japanese people until blood leaks out of their eyeballs.)

To enjoy the action in many martial arts movies, you’re required to forget all logic and suppress every twinge of disbelief. (Frankly, I question the effectiveness of the ninja death star when employed in the average pub brawl, and I’m not convinced that, faced with an army of exquisitely skilled sword-wielding assassins, even the most polished practitioner of Tiger Crane Kung Fu wouldn’t be better off just distracting them for a second and running away like a deadbeat babyfather.) The fights in Fist of Fury, however, require no such indulgence. Lee, and director Lo Wei, stage a succession of low-tech tear ups that are so spectacular, and so realistic, they make you duck and dodge in your seat – and, beyond that, Lee’s transcendent charisma and clearly genuine ability to beat up practically anyone in the world sweep away any lingering improbabilities.

Frequently, kung-fu films only come alive during the fight scenes – and, on top of that, many of those fights scenes often seem to have been included not to propel the story or illuminate the characters, but to satisfy some studio quota of punches per hour. Fury avoids both these drawbacks through the constantly increasingly tension created by the certainty that Chen’s revenge does not – as is almost always the case in action movies – somehow take place outside the law. Even as we are cheering him on, we’re aware that Chen’s actions are criminal; that, for however admirable a reason, he has made himself a murderer; and that he’ll be held accountable for it. Because of this, none of the fights he picks are unimportant – each is an encounter for which he, a young man of supreme potential, is prepared to sacrifice his freedom and future – and none of the quieter scenes are insignificant. There’s even a believable love interest, whose charming concern for Chen’s physical safety in the short-term, and for their shared aspirations in the long-, remind us that the events of this film aren’t being played out in one of those uncomplicated movieworlds where life-long happiness is the inevitable product of giving your enemies a righteous hiding in the final scene.

This certainly isn’t a perfect picture – the dialogue is often threadbare, the bad guys are all one-dimensional dastards, and, at one point, an iron bar-bending Russian mafia boss is flown in just to give Lee’s character an extra ass to kick – but its intelligence in maintaining a tight plot and its bravery in eschewing an all-is-well ending mark it out from the likes of Enter- and Way Of The Dragon. Of course, the whole production is just an excuse to display Lee at his lightning-limbed, bare-chested best, but it’s all executed with such panache and aplomb we don’t mind any more than we mind a Laurel and Hardy film being just an excuse for Stan and Ollie to lark about.

The mere presence of Lee makes Fist of Fury superior to virtually all other kung fu films; every moment he is onscreen provides an emphatic answer to the question – if you’ve ever felt the need to ask it – of why he is hero-worshipped with such unparalleled intensity even decades after his death. But that’s not enough to make this a great movie. What elevates Fury into a classic is that, for once, everyone else in a Bruce Lee film raises his or her efforts to something approaching his level. If you have even the weakest craving for a cinematic serving of sweaty machismo and undiluted adrenaline, Fist of Fury is the picture to see.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Wings of Desire (Germany, 1987)

The story is simple: angels are around us every day – listening to our thoughts, recording our actions, and puzzling over our idiosyncrasies – but we never know they are there. When one of them falls in love with an emotionally unfulfilled trapeze artist, he has to choose between his feelings for her and his life among the immortals. It seems like the sort of subject matter Hollywood would serve up as a confection – and it is. In 1998, Wings of Desire was not so much remade as diluted into City of Angels starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan. Whether or not you’ve seen that film, and whatever you thought about it, I’m convinced you’ll enjoy the original – because it’s practically impossible to imagine that anyone wouldn’t.

This is one of the world’s most life-affirming films. It’s festival of a life, an ode to the tragedies and triumphs that occur in every moment and across every lifetime. Filled with obvious but unobtrusive symbolism – the Berlin wall suggesting the division between the physical and the divine, history and ambition, life and death; the trapeze artist dangling, literally and figuratively, between Heaven and Earth – it finds sensual answers to spiritual questions, and is about both our biggest ideas and smallest experiences.

It’s also about Berlin, its architecture and atmosphere, its past and its prospects, as they were understood in the last years of the East-West divide. The city, still withered from the Second World War but somehow defiantly beautiful, is as much the star of picture as Bruno Ganz – who plays Damiel, an angel who longs to be human. His partner – around Berlin and throughout eternity – is Cassiel, another celestial overseer but one more resigned to the limits of his angelic existence. Together and apart, they eavesdrop on the interior monologues of troubled Berliners – a woman about to give birth; an OAP frustrated by man’s inability to properly embrace peace; and, most movingly, a young man about to kill himself – and, where they can, they impart a sudden and inexplicable feeling of consolation.

In an initially absurd sub-plot – which threatens to unbalance the picture but is integrated so smoothly it actually enhances it – Peter ‘Lieutenant Columbo’ Falk appears as himself, and eventually reveals he used to be an angel, but gave it up for the chance to live and love and say, ‘Just one more thing…’ in three thousand and thirty-six different ways whilst wearing a grubby raincoat. Like everyone else, Falk can feel an angel’s presence but, unlike everyone else, he understands the sensation. Recognising that Damiel is near one night, he encourages him to become human by eulogising the joys of mortal existence, praising not the life-changing thrills of falling in love or fathering a child, but the gentle delight of warming your hands on a cold day or deciding to smoke a cigarette. It’s enough to seduce Damiel, and he is soon no longer an angel.

The moment when he becomes a man – the film flicking from monochrome to colour – is cinematic magic. Suddenly, Damiel is free to taste hot coffee, tie a child’s shoelace, and buy a silly hat. He once was blind, but now he sees. Stopping a man on the street, he asks him to identify the colours in the graffitied faces on the Berlin Wall. ‘What’s this?’ he says, pointing to one of them.
‘Blue,’ says the man.
‘Blue!’ exclaims Damiel, as if he’d just recognised a long-lost loved one. His pleasure is exquisite, and his gratitude for being alive inexpressible. It’s a scene that could have come from It’s A Wonderful Life (had Frank Capra shot that movie in colour).

There are several such moments the film, and it’s because of Ganz that they all work as well as this one. None of us – except perhaps Peter Falk – has any idea what it feels like to wait from the beginning of time until the end of the 1980s just to smile and have someone smile back, and yet, when Ganz shows us the experience onscreen, it instantly rings true.

It’s misleading, though, to discuss this film purely in terms of its plot or performances. This is, for much of its running time, a mood piece unconcerned with story. It likes its characters to indulge in sensory delights for their own sake whilst pondering the great questions, and it likes its audience to do the same. That we go along with this, and never once want it to hurry up and cut to the bit where the erstwhile angel gets the girl, is predominantly due to its astonishing visual beauty.

When Wim Wenders wrote the script for Wings of Desire with the acclaimed Austrian playwright Peter Handke, he pulled off something special. When he filmed it with the equally acclaimed French cinematographer Henry Aleken, he pulled off a miracle. The idea of shooting in black and white everything we see from an angel’s-eye view, and in colour everything we see from a human’s perspective, is borrowed from A Matter of Life Death – but employed with a skill and confidence that’s totally original. If you’ve ever literally liked the look of a film, this one will mesmerize you.

This isn’t an archetypal date movie; it’s certainly not a romantic comedy, and it never makes the potential transition from eccentric celebration of human beings, and being human, to soupy love story. Even so, if your partner ever turns to you and suggests you spend an intimate evening watching City of Angels, turn to him or her and suggest you watch Wings of Desire instead.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Thin Blue Line (USA, 1988)

In 1976, a Texan patrol officer named Robert W. Wood was the victim of an apparently motiveless murder when he ordered a car to pull over on a dark Dallas road. In 1977, a drifter named Randall Dale Adams was wrongfully convicted of the killing and sentenced to the electric chair. Finally, in 1988, master director Errol Morris premiered The Thin Blue Line, a landmark documentary that achieved what the justice system could not: it solved the murder and identified the true killer. As a result of the evidence Morris had presented onscreen, Randall Adams’s conviction was overturned and his freedom restored.

That story alone makes this picture worth watching. What makes it worth including in this collection is its status as one of America’s most fascinating and accomplished bits of filmmaking. The Thin Blue Line is more than just a documentary: it’s a non-fiction thriller, a murder mystery that touches on racism, corruption, perjury and the Klu Klux Klan, but revolves around an innocuous non-event, a perceived insult so slight it’s almost impossible to accept that everything that was done to Randall Adams happened because of it.

Many documentary-makers are compelled to cast themselves, if not as the star of their films, at least as a major supporting player. Morris has no such vanity, and removes himself from The Thin Blue Line as completely as Truman Capote removed himself from the events of In Cold Blood. Not once in the film do we see or hear our director. Instead, like all investigators, we are alone with the facts and fictions of the case, the witnesses and the would-be witnesses, and our instinct to somehow sort it all out. The static camera studies its subjects so intently, and Morris’s ability to draw out their stories is so refined, that at times we feel we are interviewing them ourselves; in those moments we can actually forget we are watching a film.

But we’re not allowed to forget for long; Morris constantly reminds us that, though he’s never seen, we are always in the company of a brilliant moviemaker. Showy as he is, he avoids the flashy but formulaic devices so abundant in non-fiction films – the camera never zooms in suddenly to signpost that something incredibly important is about to be said, and there are no unnecessarily arresting jump cuts to make sure we’re still paying attention. Instead, Morris ensures that everything in his film – whether it’s a stylised reconstruction of the crime; a burst of Philip Glass’s distinctive score; or a plain old interview with a policeman – provides insight either into the murder of Robert Wood, or those offering their opinions about it.

Some documentaries, rather than feeling like finished works, can seem like rough cuts of films to be crafted later on – but I would I never noticed that had I not watched Morris’s movies. Furthering the comparison with the Capote of In Cold Blood, Morris is the filmmaking equivalent of a tireless prose stylist who sifts a mass of information and condenses it into a taut and carefully honed essay. This film is only around an hour and forty minutes long, and the case it details is complex and contradictory, but its content is constructed so efficiently, and paced so precisely, that we never feel either overwhelmed by, or deprived of, information.

We are even allowed time to develop emotional reactions to the key characters, so that when we are confronted with the last scene – in which we hear the real murderer dispassionately confess both his crime and his reason for incriminating Adams – we are devastated. The final shot, which tells us that Randall Adams is ‘serving a life sentence in Eastham Unit, Lovelady, Texas’, would be unbearable if we were watching without the knowledge that this film eventually freed him.

An entire academic career could be devoted to tracing the impact of The Thin Blue Line; if you’ve ever watched CSI, Crimewatch or The Sopranos, or practically any documentary or crime film made after 1988, you’ve seen this movie’s influence. Now see the movie itself.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

El Topo (Mexico, 1970)

A black-bearded gunslinger possessed of mystical powers rides across the desert with his naked, seven-year-old son clinging to his back. Happening across the aftermath of a massacre, he urges the boy to commit a mercy killing before resolving to hunt down the bandits responsible for the slaughter. Finding them holed up at a Franciscan mission where they pass the days spanking monks and pretending to be dogs, he delivers justice by castrating their colonel. Then, he callously abandons his child and rides around in circles until he has found the magical ‘four great gun masters’ (the most unremarkable of whom seems to sleep on a sand dune and can catch bullets in a butterfly net) and challenged them to a series of showdowns.

Later, our hero – presumably the titular El Topo – is murdered and reborn a god to a subterranean race of inbred beetle eaters. To raise funds to free his newfound followers from their underground incarceration, he finds work as a tap-dancing clown in an anarchic city where black people are branded like cattle, cross-dressing churchgoers play Russian roulette to prove their faith, and he is forced to publicly make love to a midget. After this, he becomes the agent of a miniature apocalypse, survives a full-on assault from a firing squad, and inadvertently unleashes a cripple stampede.

I promise it’s even stranger than it sounds. Adored by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and considered almost sacred by stoners and students (not that those are mutually exclusive classifications), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s absurdist Western is a definitive cult film and possibly the weirdest movie it’s worth watching.

Bashing Eastern imagery against Christian iconography in a way that’s both sacrilegious and reverential, offsetting the intellectualising with sex and sudden violence, and filtering it all through the sensibility of a Spaghetti Western, Jodorowsky creates in El Topo an cinemascape of staggering, if incomprehensible, beauty. Ideas are everywhere: scabrous assaults on organised faith are presented alongside endorsements of Christian teaching and handpicked pearls of Asian philosophy; fragments of mysticism and mythology supplement post-Freudian probing of basic sexuality; and discussions of destiny collide with parables about self-determination. There’s even, apparently, a bit of autobiography – Jodorowsky claims his father was so afraid of turning into a homosexual he only once touched the infant Alejandro: when he carried his six-year-old son on his back across several kilometres of sand.

There’s always an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ quality among admirers of any film as obtuse as El Topo. Buoyed by Jodorwosky’s boast that ‘If you’re great, El Topo is a great picture; if you’re limited, El Topo is limited’, there are those who claim to see in it a cohesive satire of all spirituality that practically reveals the meaning of life. Equally, there are those who dismiss the whole thing as a slapdash headtrip, and still others who attack it for being, at times, indecipherable and, at others, too transparent. Perhaps I’m just limited, but I tend to think they’re all missing the point.

Though the film’s message – if it has a central message – is never clear, it is never supposed to be. The main character is, for much of the movie, adrift in an unlikely universe in which he finds no unifying faith or obvious purpose, and it’s the perilous uncertainties of forming your own philosophy in an environment where anyone can pick whatever they like from whatever they find on a belief system buffet accessible to all that is seemingly Jodorowsky’s theme. We’re living in an age, he argues, without many easy answers – and we’re watching a movie that reflects that.

Nevertheless, El Topo is occasionally over-earnest – but this can’t be held against it either. True, some of its attacks on the evils of unchecked capitalism and American concepts of racial integration range from the unsubtle to the unbelievably obvious, but they are delivered in such an unusual way they never seem tired. What’s more, these unsubtle sections are necessary oases amongst the inscrutability – we need a little obviousness to help us engage with a film that could otherwise be un-involving.

And, while it might seem unlikely from a summary of the plot and its theological implications, El Topo is certainly involving. It is a searing, amazing, alarming experience; the more you watch it, the more you want to watch it, and the more you are rewarded for looking beyond the films at the local Odeon or the popular choices in Blockbuster. If you like a film to resemble at least one other you’ve seen, and aren’t fond of the unfathomable, then El Topo isn’t for you. If, however, you fancy seeing the eccentric extremes to which imagination can be stretched on a cinema screen, there is no better film in the world.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Drunken Master / Drunken Master II (Hong Kong, 1978 / 1994)

Jackie Chan is one of cinema’s most valuable treasures: a performer as accomplished as any of the great silent comedians and as appealing as any idol from Hollywood’s golden age. Watched together, these two slapstick kung fu classics – shot sixteen years apart – make the best showcase for his astonishing skills.

Real-life martial arts master Wong Fei-Hung is one of the most frequently filmed characters in movie history: since the 1940s, portrayals of the 19th Century folk hero have appeared in over 100 films – but I doubt any of them were more memorable Jackie Chan’s turn in Drunken Master. Far from foreshadowing the emotionally repressed but physically indestructible incarnation later created by Jet Li (in the magnificent Once Upon A Time In China series), Chan plays the young Fei-Hung as a lovable delinquent who, callow and unpredictable, is forever embarrassing his father with his merry insolence and high-kicking hi-jinks.

Despairing of his ability to discipline his troublesome son, the humourless Master Wong eventually forces Fei-Hung into the tutelage of Beggar Su – an aged, hirsute vagrant whose kung fu is unbeatable provided he’s smashed off his face. The dynamic that develops between the scarlet-nosed teacher and his reluctant student will be familiar to fans of The Karate Kid, and the explosions of high-tempo low comedy it leads to well known to admirers of the Marx Brothers. As Beggar Su, Yuen Siu Tien proves himself as much a master of the secret art of scene-stealing as his character is of booze-fuelled fisticuffs – and, in maintaining his equally endearing performance whilst enduring such obvious agonies in the training scenes, Chan defies both physics and physiology.

Everything in the first three-quarters of the film, however, really only exists to set up the finale. When a local land dispute results in a contract being taken out on the life of Wong Sr., Fei-Hung returns home to defend his father against an apparently invincible assassin known as ‘Thunderfoot’ (played by Hwang Jang Lee, a fighter so ferocious he was once challenged to a duel by a South Vietnamese knife-fighting expert and supposedly killed him with a single kick). The resultant eruption of hand-to-hand (and face to foot) combat – in which Jackie uncorks the extra-strong wine and unleashes the legendary Eight Drunken Gods – is as brutal and hilarious as only one of Chan’s cinematic scraps can be.

Drunken Master’s director, Yuen Woo-Ping, is now the most acclaimed fight choreographer in the world – aside from overseeing the action in innumerable Hong Kong classics, he also orchestrated the dazzling dust ups in The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill – and the combination of Yuen behind the camera and Chan in front of it creates a level of on-screen excitement inconceivable in 99% of other movies. If you think kung-fu films aren’t for you, watch Drunken Master and think again.

Over a decade and a half after his first outing as Wong Fei-Hung began Chan’s transformation from aspiring star to international icon, he revived the character in a complex but pleasantly lightweight story about British attempts to purloin invaluable Chinese artefacts, a catastrophic mix-up over ginseng, and – of course – the combative benefits of binge drinking.

The main difference between the first Drunken Master and the second is that, while the original is a classic movie starring Jackie Chan, the sequel is a classic Jackie Chan movie. By 1994, Chan had long since switched from mere superhuman actor to superhuman actor-choreographer-director, and Drunken Master II demonstrates the best of everything that makes his films so unmistakable.

Most unmistakable of all is what happens after the film has finished. The end credits of a Jackie Chan film are always welcome – not in the way that the end credits of a Pauly Shore film are always welcome, but because, as the list of key grips and gaffers scrolls up one side of the screen, the other is generally filled with eye-watering outtakes of stunts gone awry. More than anything that actually makes it into the movie, Drunken Master II’s procession of outtakes – in which horrified crewmembers are perpetually rushing into shot brandishing bandages and even fire extinguishers – demonstrates the outrageous risks Chan is prepared to take in pursuit of a perfect stunt.

The action scenes that do feature in the final cut have only one flaw: they are so intricate – and so spectacular – they overwhelm the eyes. Watch this film only once and you’ll miss most of it; I can pretty much guarantee, though, that if you watch it once you’ll want to watch it a least a dozen times more.

One day – and it’ll be one day soon – CGI will render most of Chan’s talents obsolete and all of his risks unnecessary. While that may deprive cinemagoers of whoever would have become his successor, it won’t harm him. Jackie Chan has left a mountain of work that will be enjoyed, regardless of fashions or technical advances, for as long as cinemas exist. The Drunken Master movies sit at its peak.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Rocky (USA, 1976)

Before Rocky Balboa succumbed to sequelitis and morphed into a comic book hero battling Soviet supermen and ending the Cold War with just a pair of patriotically patterned shorts and a sturdy uppercut, the character was a believable human being – an unranked boxer who coulda been a contender but never had the guts to try. ‘You had the talent to become a good fighter,’ snarls Burgess Meredith’s archetypal cornerman, Mickey. ‘But instead of that you become a leg-breaker to some cheap, second-rate loan shark … It’s a waste of life!’

Having lost his locker for being more of a bum than all the other bums at the local gym, and with a mounting distaste for breaking bones to order, Rocky has little in his life except his stuttering attempts to chat up Thalia Shire’s sweetly shy pet shop assistant. Then, through a series of flukes and a marketing masterstroke, he is given a token chance at the Heavyweight Championship of World, held by the preening, Ali-esque Apollo Creed. What follows is enough to make anyone bounce about their bedroom screaming, ‘Yo, Adrian!’ before nipping to the kitchen to drink half a dozen raw eggs.

If you started watching the Rocky films somewhere among the sequels, you might assume the original saw Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character switch from obscurity to world domination in no more than the length of a masochistic training montage and one inspiring sprint up some museum steps. But Rocky isn’t that kind of movie. In it, Balboa doesn’t transform from street thug to the greatest boxer in the world: he moves from a man content to be a disgrace to himself to one unwilling, at least for one glorious night, to be any less than he can.

It’s a powerful tale, and nowhere near as saccharine as it sounds. It’s based on the real life achievements of Chuck Wepner – the un-fancied pug who, in 1975, so nearly went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali – and reality in Rocky wasn’t just confined to the inspiration for the script. Enough grit pervades every scene, and every important performance, to (almost) balance out any implausibility. Throughout, while it’s the broad strokes of the plot that make you want to watch Rocky, it’s the perfectly rendered details of the production that make you want to revisit it.

Seminal moments – and tunes – abound. Rocky’s thigh-pumping climb to frozen-framed glory before the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the bloody-fisted beating he gives a side of frozen beef in the meat locker; and his climatic in-ring embrace with Adrian are all, I’m sure, somebody’s favourite movie scene. Bill Conti’s score is justifiably as famous, and beloved, as the film itself and its finest few minutes – the suitably soaring 'Gonna Fly Now' – has, I’d bet, spurred more men into sudden explosions of vigorous activity than anything in Emmanuel. (I’ve always said that, were Ivan Pavlov still around, he would long since have abandoned conjuring dog spit with the sound of a bell, and would instead get his kicks using snippets of the Rocky theme to make men of a certain age suddenly start shadowboxing.)

Of all Rocky’s highpoints, however, it is the ending that ensures its status as a classic. The last seconds of Rocky, which I won’t spoil here, are as flawless as those of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or – though I’ll be struck down by thunderbolt for saying so – Casablanca. Astonishing when you consider that Stallone, who in scripting them showed such expert judgement, later decided it was a good idea to marry Brigitte Nielsen and make Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

I absolutely love all the Rocky movies (with the exception of Rocky V, which is an abomination against Nature and the undisputed low point of Western culture) – but even I wouldn’t attempt to argue that the follow-ups belong in a collection containing the likes of Brief Encounter and Come and See. But Rocky does. Its quality stands out from the rest of the series as conspicuously as ten-year-old Michael’s did from the rest of the Jackson Five. It’s a classic of populist American moviemaking and one of the greatest film fairytales.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Last Year At Marienbad (France, 1961)

Alan Resnais was something of an over-achiever. Night and Fog, his thirty-minute examination of the aftermath of the Holocaust, has serious claims to the titles of both finest short and finest documentary ever made; Mon Oncle d’Amerique, which Resnais shot in Montreal, is frequently cited by Canadian critics as the best film ever to emerge from their country; Hiroshima Mon Amour became a monument in cinema history and sacred text to the French New Wave; and Last Year At Marienbad managed to be better than them all.

During my abortive college career, I once spoke to a friend about Marienbad, which we had both seen on TV the night before. Overhearing us, another student asked, ‘What’s Last Year At Marienbad?’ As I readied myself to reel off some pretentious claptrap about a haunting investigation into the ambiguity of memory that eschews conventional narrative and reinvents our expectations of the movie, my friend said simply, ‘A beautiful film.’ That, I realised instantly, was the perfect answer.

The geometric precision, what Ian McEwan might call the ‘mathematical grace’, of Marienbad’s set design and cinematography is astonishing. If you’re at all interested in photography, you could have a hell of time just watching this movie with the sound off. (And you’d probably understand as much of what’s going on as you would if you watched it with the sound on.) But beyond just being beautiful, this faultless photography is as important to the film as anything said or done by anyone in it, and moulds the mood and tone of the work as effectively as, in a novel, does perfectly crafted prose. The brilliant clarity of Resnais’s images (particularly notable when watching the digitally re-mastered DVD), doesn’t, as you would expect, make the scenes it shows us easier to comprehend. Instead, the clearness of what we see contradicts the fuzzy uncertainty of what we think about it, and further undermines the faith Hollywood has implanted in us that all films will be unchallenging to watch and easy to understand.

Alongside this, the jarring organ sounds (to call them ‘music’ would be stretching the definition) and stylised performances – which somehow seem both impassioned and emotionally distant – combine to create an onscreen environment unlike any we have seen before. It’s through them that, just as Brazil and Der Cabinet Des Dr Caligari manage to recreate on film something of the experience of dreaming, Marienbad manages to recreate something of the experience of memory.

If you’re suspicious of art house cinema and like your movies to have a gripping story, characters you can relate to and a neat ending that won’t leave you with more questions than answers – or any questions at all – you probably shouldn’t read the next sentence. Marienbad doesn’t really have a plot, it barely has a setting, and we don’t really learn much about its three main characters, who are identified only as A, X, and M. The beautiful A seems to be married to the stern M, and the peculiar X spends most of his time trying to persuade her that she had an affair with him a year ago in Marienbad. After introducing these quasi-characters the film then presents string of unanswerable questions about them: were X and A lovers? Is he lying? Is she? Were they ever together at Marienbad? Were they ever together at all? If you’d never heard of this movie before reading this, then ‘Do we care?’ might seem a more pertinent question. The answer, amazingly, is yes. Few art films are as captivating as this one, and very few are anywhere near as good.

As I’ve no doubt demonstrated, it is difficult to write anything worthwhile about Last Year At Marienbad. The film is so purely a work of a cinema that trying to describe it in words feels like trying to paint a picture to describe a piece of music. In fact, the only words really worth writing about Marienbad are these: watch it.

Austere yet enjoyable, difficult yet exciting, open-ended yet satisfying, Last Year At Marienbad is a treat you should allow yourself at least once. If all that sounds like pretentious claptrap, then just remember that Marienbad is, above everything else, a very beautiful film.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Sholay (India, 1975)

In 1999, when the BBC held an online poll to determine ‘The Superstar of the Millennium’, the winner was not Charlie Chaplin or John Wayne, or Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise, but the Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan. Though a surprise, the result was far from unjust: Bachchan – whose status in India is something between megastar and demigod – may well be the most popular movie star on the planet. This is his most famous work, and probably the most famous of all Bollywood films.

While many cinemagoers in the West may never have seen – or even heard of – Sholay it is safe to call it one of the world’s favourite movies: aside from being the highest grossing film in the history of Indian cinema, it is also perennially voted both the country’s best, and best loved, movie, and has topped polls of favourite films in countries as diverse as Britain and Iran.

Jai and Veeru (played by Bachchan and fellow Bollywood idol Dharmendra) are a sort of sub-continental Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, adorable rogues and master thieves known to every jailor in India. Summoned by a former police inspector who, having once arrested them, has first hand knowledge of their bravery and derring-do, they are hired to capture the murderous bandit chief, Gabbar Singh (a marvellously loony Amjad Khan). Precisely why the erstwhile lawman (Sanjeev Kumar, giving what must be the single most sour-faced performance in the history of the silver screen) is so keen to have Singh captured alive, but literally won’t lift a finger to help, is a tantalising mystery that runs throughout much of a film that is, at times, an Eastern Western, an action movie, a thriller, a comedy and, I suppose, a musical – but always a top-drawer entertainment.

Just as Seven Samurai is, for English-speaking audiences, the most accessible masterwork of Japanese cinema because of the vast influence Western movies (in both senses of the term) had upon it, so Sholay manages to feel at once exotic and familiar because of the obvious inspiration cowboy films provided for its creators. There are direct references to Once Upon A Time In The West and One-Eyed Jacks, and the spirit of Butch Cassidy, The Magnificent Seven and The Searchers runs throughout. (It’s unsurprising, given its colossal box office success, that the film gave birth to a genre known as ‘the curry Western’.)

There’s a great deal more to Sholay, though, than the influence of Sergio Leone and John Sturges. As almost always with a Bollywood movie, the music is as integral to the film’s appeal as the screenplay, and here R.D. Burman provides a thumping score and five fine songs. The staging of these musical numbers – particularly the Festival of Colours and the final song, ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’, during which the heroine is forced by bandits to dance over broken glass to prolong her lover’s life – is unforgettable.

There are film fans, and even film critics, who love world cinema but just don’t seem to watch Bollywood movies. I’m sad for them, because they’re missing some tremendous films. There are as many great Bollywood movies as there are great Hollywood movies, and Sholay may just be the greatest of them all.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Yojimbo (Japan, 1961)

A nameless warrior happens into a windswept, godforsaken town over which two criminal gangs are at war. Believing the world would be better off without either of them, and that he could profit from the process, he plays each against the other. If you’ve never heard of this film and yet that seems familiar, you’ve probably seen Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars or Last Man Standing starring Bruce Willis, both of which are remakes of Yojimbo. While Dollars is a classic in its own right and Last Man Standing is an enjoyable movie, neither can compare to Akira Kurosawa’s original: a picture so exciting, and so brilliantly made, it is perhaps the only film that holds equal appeal to the most po-faced art house audiences and beer-sodden students in search of an action movie.

As usual, playing John Wayne to Kurosawa’s John Ford (or rather, Clint Eastwood to his Sergio Leone) is Toshio Mifune, possibly the greatest of Japanese film stars and certainly the most popular in the West. His performance – comic, frightening, violent and heroic –is just as central, and just as intensely entertainingly, as Marlon Brando’s in On The Waterfront or Alan Ladd’s in Shane. Mifune was one of the greatest stars of 20th Century cinema, and if you’ve never seen one of his performances this is the one with which to start. Equally memorable is Masaru Sato’s score, which – percussive, persistent and brilliantly foreboding – is one of the finest I’ve ever heard, and easily the equal of Ennio Morricone’s equivalent, and iconic, music for A Fistful Of Dollars.

Impressive as the contributions of Mifune and Sato are, the star-turns in Yojimbo are given by its director and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa. What’s most striking about this film, after just how much fun it is, is the amount and clarity of information Kurosawa manages to put onscreen at one time. In my favourite shot, a moment before the film’s eruptive climax, we see (from left to right): the hanging feet of the friend whose capture has drawn Mifune out of hiding and into battle; the imposing semi-silhouette of Mifune himself; the ruins of a building destroyed in the violence he has set in motion; and two of the henchmen who, if previous skirmishes are anything to go by, he is about to relieve of their limbs. The shot creates in seconds a level of tension other films would require whole scenes to convey – and it is because every shot in the film is just as intelligently assembled that the script can be so deliciously terse, and yet never confusing. Certainly, the plot is complicated, and unfurls rapidly, but we never feel we have to work to keep up with it.

This is not Kurosawa’s best film, but to be included in this or any other collection of classic films it doesn’t have to be. If there are such things as ‘must see movies’ – and much as I love great films, I don’t think there are – then Kurosawa directed at least six of them. If you only ever watch one samurai film, make it Seven Samurai – but if you watch two, make the second Yojimbo.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Shoah (France, 1985)

One of the most moving scenes in cinema simply shows a man, middle-aged and unremarkable, standing in a field. The field was once the site of the Chelmno concentration camp and, of the 400 000 Jews shipped there by the Nazis, the man, Simon Srebnik, was one of only two who survived. ‘No can describe it,’ he says. ‘No one can recreate what happened here … and no one can understand it.’

In this excruciating scene, the first in the film, Srebnik expresses the ethos of the whole picture: no one can recreate the Holocaust on screen, and no one can comprehend it sitting in a cinema – but, that said, it’s vital we try. ‘I’m not in the mood to see a 4-hour documentary on Nazis,’ says Annie Hall when her boyfriend suggests they take in The Sorrow and the Pity. You have to wonder how she would fare in front of Shoah, a 9-hour documentary on the Final Solution.

Shoah contains no re-enactments, no archive footage, and little authorial narration. Instead, the film consists almost entirely of interviews with those who survived, witnessed, or perpetrated the Holocaust. As they talk we sometimes watch them, and sometimes footage of the sites where the events they describe took place: now-innocuous sections of the Polish countryside, the train tracks over which hundreds of thousands were driven their deaths, and the ruins and relics of the death camps themselves. (Even more unsettling than images of the disused concentration camps are shots of the places where life has carried on. Auschwitz, at least, has become a museum and an eternal reminder of what went on within it; far worse are the streets that now have no Jewish residents, and the towns where the locals are no longer sure if there was ever a synagogue.)

Because of its style, there is some debate over whether this is actually a documentary, with its director, Claude Lanzmann (who is, incidentally, professor of documentary film at the European Graduate School in Switzerland), chief among those who insist it isn’t. To me, the argument is irrelevant: whether we call this a documentary, a non-fiction film or an anthology of oral history is immaterial. What matters is what is onscreen – and what is onscreen is a miraculous picture, one that has the potential to alter anyone who sees it.

To create such a work Lanzmann employed a number of practices that would draw criticism had they been used to educate us about any other subject. He promised contributors (admittedly former Nazis) that not even their names would be mentioned in the film, and then secretly filmed them; he badgered interviewees (many of them Holocaust survivors) until they broke down and described experiences they were clearly beyond uncomfortable talking about; and he door-stepped people who categorically had no wish to be filmed. Few would argue that he shouldn’t have used these tactics: it’s through them that he manages to paint, better than any other filmmaker, a portrait of industrialised evil on an international scale grounded in the rawest experiences of the individuals involved.

Take, for example, the moment when Abraham Bomba, a Jewish barber put to work in Auschwitz, is hounded out of his tearful silence and delivers, with Lear-like intensity, a description of the fellow barber forced to cut the hair of his wife and sister without telling them that, moments later, they would be gassed. Now consider how much would have been missed had Lanzmann complied with Bomba’s request that he stop shooting 5 minutes earlier.

Of all Lanzmann’s debatable methods it is the secret filming that produces the most affecting material. At one point, convinced that no one beside Lanzmann can hear him, a former concentration camp guard named Franz Suchomes sings an upbeat anthem penned about Treblinka by one of his fellow guards. I would call it the most chilling moment I’ve ever seen on film, were it not for what follows immediately afterwards: Suchomes relaxing into his seat and announcing cheerily, ‘No Jew knows that [song] today.’

If you don’t fancy 566 minutes of the most unremitting horror you’ll ever hear about, I don’t blame you. But if you decide not to seek out Shoah ask two questions of yourself:

1) How many movies have you seen that genuinely had the power to readjust your perceptions of both modern history and the human condition?


2) Can you afford to pass on one that does?

Whenever I watch Shoah, I’m overcome by the idea that any other film I’ve ever called powerful or important is insignificant by comparison. That notion is nonsense, but it does indicate how overwhelming an experience Shoah is. I’m sure anyone who’s ever sat all the way through it (and I warn you: as 9½ hours of nothing but the naked realities of the Nazi death camps it’s as much of an ordeal for the emotions as it is for the arse) has at some time felt the hyperbole they usually throw at great films to be suddenly, and startlingly, insufficient.

I don’t believe in the concept of ‘must see’ movies. I could never suggest someone’s experience of cinema, or of life, could be invalidated simply by not having seen La Grande Illusion or Casablanca, much as I adore them. Subsequently, I’m not going to say ‘everyone should see Shoah’ – but I will say that I cannot imagine anyone who would not benefit from doing so.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (USA, 1965)

Russ Meyer claimed the success of his movies was entirely due to the oversized breasts invariably attached to the actresses he cast in them. If that were true, his work would have no more appeal than the banal nudist films it rendered all but obsolete. Meyer was no lowest common denominator pornographer; he was master of his material, father of a genre, and perhaps the most cheerfully perverted mind ever to be allowed to make movies.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is the Annie Hall of his oeuvre, made in the sweet spot between the earlier films in which he honed his style, and the later work in which his snowballing fixation with hot air balloon bosoms would unbalance his movies just as the bosoms themselves unbalanced the actresses whose backs struggled to support them.

Three Zeppelin-breasted beauties take a break from go-go dancing and drive across the desert looking for kicks. Their leader, played by the architecturally eyebrowed Tura Satana, is Varla, an amoral, karate-chopping psychopath so fearsome she could – and soon does – snap a man in two. (Satana, who was gang raped aged nine and then sent to reform school for supposedly tempting her attackers, admits to having a good deal of anti-male anger to channel into her performance. And it shows. Were there an award for the most kickass anti-heroine in movie history, Varla would stride nonchalantly over the bloodied corpses of Lady Snowblood and Beatrice Kiddo to claim it.)

Soon, the girls have kidnapped the ultra-innocent Susan Bernard, learned of a wealthy, wheelchair-bound recluse living 5 miles from a phone line, and set off to help themselves to his fortune. Rolling up at his rundown farmhouse they discover that said recluse is a sexual sadist set on revenging the railway accident that crippled him on all womankind – and, from here on in, events play out in an orgy of inter-gender violence, man against machine violence, and racing car versus wheelchair violence. (The key term here, as Alvy Singer would say if he overheard me in a cinema queue, is ‘violence’.)

Although atypical among his work in that, for one thing, it doesn’t feature any frontal nudity, Faster, Pussycat! is now universally acknowledged as the greatest of Russ Meyer’s films, and one of the finest of all exploitation pictures. And so it is. The plot, never a necessity in a Meyer movie, is tightly adhered to and so the tension never slackens; the camera work and composition seem to fetishize everything onscreen; and, as ever with R.M., the editing is a cut above superb.

John Waters (director of Hairspray and Pecker) famously kick-started the cult of Faster, Pussycat! by calling it both ‘beyond a doubt the best movie ever made’ and ‘better than any film that will be made in the future’. Did he genuinely believe that? I doubt it. But the point he was making, and the point made by all of Meyer’s admirers, is that this movie is so overwhelmingly wonderful that anyone who has ever sneered at it, or dismissed it as beneath consideration, should be immediately disregarded as an imbecile.

When the work of other auteurs of exploitica has long since fallen from memory, Russ Meyer’s movies will remain. When (and if) Meyer’s other films should themselves be forgotten, Faster, Pussycat! will endure as the ultimate cult movie – one of the trashiest, and most entertaining, films ever made.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Brief Encounter (Great Britain, 1945)

A triumph of pristine photography, sensitive direction and, above all, Received Pronunciation, Brief Encounter is the British Casablanca and Noel Coward’s greatest contribution to cinema. Peter Ustinov said Kind Hearts and Coronets is the kind of film that makes you want to read the script. Brief Encounter is the kind of film that makes you want to learn it by heart and perform it as a party piece, like the sixth formers in The History Boys.

The brief encounter in question occurs in a railway station café one Thursday afternoon; Celia Johnson’s perky housewife has grit in her eye, and Trevor Howard’s handsome doctor removes it with his handkerchief. A week later lunch follows, and an afternoon at the cinema, and soon the pair have plunged headlong into a love neither can ignore or allow.

It’s rare for two actors to have such chemistry as Johnson and Howard, and rarer still for them to convince us that their characters, too, have the same connection, but their performances – Johnson with upper lip stiff, lower lip quivering, and huge, liquid eyes expressing every unspoken surge of desire and guilt; Howard at once honourable and adulterous – dovetail exquisitely. We want desperately for them to be together, but know from the first scene they cannot. That throughout the film we allow ourselves, illogically, to believe that love might still find a way is the greatest compliment that can be paid to its storytelling.

There are great films in which one quality – a magnificent central performance, say, or a white-hot script – cover up less successful aspects of the production. In Encounter everything is polished. The use of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto – lush and emotive without ever over-sweetening the syrup – is a masterstroke. As is the choice to have Johnson’s character narrate the story in one long, warts and all confession to her husband that is heard only inside her own head. The inclusion of secondary characters of no real interest to the lovers is equally ingenious, and never allows us to forget that this is a cameo set in an infinite if mundane world in which, at any moment, a thousand other little dramas are playing out similarly unnoticed.

Perhaps no great film is quite as ripe for parody as Encounter – it takes place in an un-recapturable age of clipped accents, hysterical women and pre-war morals, all which are a little too close to laughable today – but these quirks, which would be full-blown faults in almost any other movie, are advantages here. They combine to deepen our affection for the whole production and reinforce the feeling, unavoidable with every viewing, that romance in the movies really was better when the picture was black and white and the sex unseen. You have to engage with a weepy, just as you do with a horror film. Engage with Brief Encounter, and you may just weep your eyeballs out.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)

In 2003 Quentin Tarantino chaired the Cannes jury that awarded its Grand Prix to Oldboy by Chanwook Park. Park and Tarantino have much in common: both make recklessly creative, ultra-violent thrillers that take place in a reality that resembles ours but never quite behaves like it; both seem, at times, to have more talent than they know what to do with; and both make critics, fans and filmmakers alike talk about the future of movies being in safe hands.

One night podgy, unpleasant businessman Oh Dae-Su is abducted as he staggers drunk from a police station – and imprisoned, without explanation, for 15 years. Whenever his room needs cleaning or his hair needs cutting music is played, gas is released and he is soon unconscious. And so, for a decade and a half, his only human contact is the odd glimpse of the guards who bring him his daily fried dumplings.

He has a television set, which becomes his ‘school, home, church, friend and lover’, and from which he learns his that wife has been murdered and he is the only suspect. Aside from watching TV, he spends his days writing a diary that lists everyone he feels he has ever offended, and torturing himself with one of those inhumanly punishing fitness regimes that only mortally wronged movie heroes hell-bent on transforming themselves into one-man firestorms of vengeance ever seem to undertake.

And then, just as inexplicably as he was kidnapped, he is released. A tramp saunters up to him, hands over a mobile phone and a wallet stuffed with cash, and soon Oh Dae-Su learns he has just five days to work out why, and by whom, he was imprisoned. Here begins a mystery a complex as anything Philip Marlowe had to cope with in The Big Sleep, and as disturbing as anything Jake Gittes faced in Chinatown.

Criticism of Oldboy has often stressed that it doesn’t give a realistic impression of the length of Oh Dae-Su’s confinement. It’s true that other films have better detailed the minutiae of long-term imprisonment, but they were prison movies, and the stultifying routine of life behind bars was often their main theme. Oldboy’s theme isn’t incarceration but revenge; what is important is not that we experience the ceaseless boredom of 15 years’ solitary confinement, but that we see the effect it has on Oh Dae-Su. And – whether we are watching him recoil as imaginary ants burst from beneath his skin, or wincing as punches the walls of his cell until he collapses to his knees in agony – we see that as vividly as we could ever wish to.

Few movies this extreme (and, be warned, Oldboy is extreme) manage to be half as good. Here, for once, the violence, sex and swearing really do teach us something about the characters, and really are integral to the plot. So assured and intelligent is Park’s handling of his material that even the movie’s most infamous scene, in which the newly freed Oh Dae-Su devours a live octopus, its tentacles thrashing and twining around his wrist as he chews off its head, never seems the distasteful gimmick it would have been in a thousand lesser films. Certainly it is arresting, repulsive even, but it is also apt, neatly expressing Oh Dae-Su’s need to both engage with and rage against life.

An even greater tribute to its director’s talent is that this scene is far from Oldboy’s most memorable. That honour surely goes to the staggering scene, shown entirely in one long, unbroken shot, in which Oh Dae-Su, having returned to the site of his incarceration armed only with a hammer, fights his way along a corridor crowded with a dozen hostile heavies. The action scrolls steadily from left to right, and so recalls a computer game. The violence, however, is frighteningly realistic. It is also close to senseless – these men are not truly enemies but merely obstacles – and the relentlessness of his aggression, even as a knife protrudes from his back, teaches us more about the intensity of Oh Dae-Su’s frustration than could be conveyed in twenty pages of dialogue.

It’s an indication of the quality and pace of Oldboy that everything I’ve described so far happens in its first 45 minutes. There’s more to praise, too, than just the confidence of the direction and the fascinating story: the central performance deserves to make Min-Sik Choi an international superstar; the colour scheme, all muted greens and dirty greys, perfectly reinforces the dark and unforgiving tone; and the plot, though labyrinthine and openly improbable, is never nonsensical.

Since the late 1990s, South Korea has been producing the most exciting cinema on the planet, and it was Oldboy that won the world’s attention. As with any young film, and this one is only a few years old, there’s a chance it won’t seem as vibrant and dazzling in 15 or 30 years’ time – but there is no chance it will ever slip quietly from the memory of anyone who sees it. Oldboy is an electrifying thriller, and one of the movies of the decade.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Great Expectations (Great Britain, 1946)

Once, during an English and Drama lesson at school, a classmate of mine said no great text had ever been turned into a great film. I disagreed and, though I could have cited Henry V, Barry Lyndon, A Streetcar Named Desire or several others, I choose as my example Great Expectations: a masterpiece on the page, I said, made into a masterpiece on screen. ‘Do you really think so?’ asked the teacher. ‘I thought Gwyneth Paltrow was crap.’

It was that incident, as much as the sheer magnificence of this movie, which made me want to include it here. If English teachers in England haven’t heard of this film, I wonder who else is missing out. David Lean’s adaptation of the great British novel is one of the great British films – and, more worryingly for my old Drama teacher, one of Eng Lit’s finest study aids: show it to a class of students about to read Dickens for the first time and, within 113 minutes, they would each have an uncanny impression of his work without ever having a read a word of it.

Some actors – Robert De Niro, for example, or Humphrey Bogart – have a knack for appearing in all-time great films. Alec Guinness (who would go on to feature in Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr Zhivago, Star Wars, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets…) displayed that fortunate ability from the very start of his career, appearing here in his first (speaking) role as Herbert Pockett, one of a stream of supporting characters made as memorable by Lean’s cast as they were by Dickens’s descriptions. (Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham, Frances L. Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers and – outstanding even in this company – Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as Estella are all unforgettable.)

But the performances on show, marvellous as they are, are only one facet of a film in which every detail is superb. The spell-casting costumes, Oscar-winning set design and cinematography, and a script that miraculously converts a three-volume novel into a two-hour film while retaining its full spirit and impact are all equally responsible for an atmosphere that is unmistakably, and joyously, Dickensian. The plot is, of course, unimpeachable and the editing – most conspicuous in the famous moment when Magwitch startles the young Pip – exposes as uninspired the arrangement of so many of the movies we sit through.

1946 was a vintage year for English language film. In America it brought It’s A Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Sleep and My Darling Clementine, while in Britain it saw the release of the magical A Matter of Life and Death. Great Expectations is equal to any of them, a film to delight bookworms and film lovers, adults and children, and anyone who appreciates a brilliant story brilliantly told.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Come and See (USSR, 1985)

A friend once asked me what I thought was the greatest horror film ever made. I said Come and See, and I was totally serious. There must have been wars less harrowing to fight in than this, perhaps the greatest of all war movies, is to watch. The blurb on its DVD cover describes Come and See as a forefather of Saving Private Ryan, now routinely touted as the best modern war film. The comparison is to Come and See’s discredit. If Ryan were a 20-minute short and ended with its magnificent shot of bloodied waves washing back onto Normandy Beach, it would be a masterpiece: up to that moment it is incomparable, after it, it is merely an intelligent action movie. Come and See, in contrast, achieves onscreen what Guernica achieves on canvas.

We follow Florya (15-year-old Alexei Kravchenko), a naïve Belarussian teenager, as he joins a company of partisans fighting the Nazi invasion and comes to witness, endure or escape a stream of obscene, but increasingly mundane, violence that ages him physically and distorts him psychologically. The brilliance of the film is that, as an audience, we are not permitted to just be passive witnesses to this violence. A dozen ingenious devices – exemplified by the moment Florya is deafened by a German air raid and the film’s sound cuts out so that we hear what he hears – pull us into the mayhem and ensure that, just as living it traumatises the characters, watching it traumatises us.

Although Come and See's isn’t a true story, and no part of it is an attempt to recreate actual events, the film is anchored in the real-life experiences of those who made it. Elim Klimov, who directed and co-wrote the film, was forced to flee the battle of Stalingrad as a child, while Ales Adamovich, with whom he wrote the script, fought, like Florya, as a teenage partisan.

While this tell-it-like-it-was honesty accounts for much of the film’s terrific resonance it also prevents it from becoming a one-dimensional procession of war-is-hell overkill. Joy and desire are to be found among the horror – heightened to an insane, end-of-the-world intensity by the likelihood of imminent annihilation – and one of the film’s unforgettable images is of Glasha, the beautiful girl who becomes Florya’s companion, dancing wildly in the rain. This simple, unexpected scene is one of cinema’s purest expressions of the basic joy of being alive. Its inclusion is inspired, and does much to make Glasha’s eventual (off-screen) fate as excruciating in its way as the celebrated barn scene.

Come and See isn’t a film it’s easy to watch over and over, but then it isn’t a film you need to watch over and over; if I never saw it again I couldn’t forget a frame of it.

Some of you asked why I chose the title ‘A Petrified Fountain’. It’s taken from a Jean Cocteau quote: ‘A film is a petrified fountain of thought’. It's a bit pretentious but – considering the other options I came up with were ‘These Films Are Wonderful’ and ‘Watch These Movies Or I'll Sit On Your Head’ – I think I made the right choice.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Introduction / Napoleon (France, 1927)

I’m not a film critic; I’m not even a film studies student. I’m just an enthusiastic amateur who devotes much of his limited energy and intelligence to watching the best movies he can find. Nothing as self-indulgent as a parade of my favourite films, and nothing as self-important as an attempt to sketch a film canon, this blog will, I hope, simply be a succinct guide to some of the best, and most enjoyable, motion pictures the world has managed to produce. Just as similar selections, whether published by renowned critics or posted in lists on Amazon, have helped me to seek out and enjoy many of the most intense treats available to a filmgoer, I hope this blog will lead someone to at least one unforgettable film.

Films will not be featured in anything like an order of merit, or anything like an order at all, and every sentence should, by rights, be preceded by 'In my opinion…' or 'As far as I know…'

Napoleon (France, 1927)

Watching a great film on television is like looking at a great painting reproduced on a postage stamp – and Napoleon proves this more conclusively than any other movie. Abel Gance’s stirring hagiopic of France’s most storied leader is cinema on the grandest scale: daring, epic and inventive. Seeing this in 1927 it must have felt as if everything that could be done in a film was being done in this one. As Orson Welles would do in Citizen Kane, Gance employed all the techniques available to a filmmaker at the time and, when they proved insufficient, he invented new ones.

A five-hour silent film, the chief selling point of which is its director’s trailblazing command of filmmaking technique – as opposed, say, to its story, comedy or enduring star performances – is never going to be an easy sell to a 21st Century audience. That is a monumental shame, because I’d bet body parts there are thousands of filmgoers who will never consider watching this film who would be blown away by it if they did. While some silent classics – Zemlya, for example – probably don’t give out much of what the modern moviegoer is looking for, Napoleon remains exciting and accessible. It is not a relic, and watching it is never a chore. Though long, it is never ponderous and, though old, it never seems dated. Each scene has a point, and a purpose, and, as every moment is significant, our interest never wavers.

In addition to all that, Napoleon is also one of the best action movies ever made. Only Sergei Eisentein before, and only Sam Peckinpah since, ever brought chaos to the screen as assuredly as Gance does here, beginning with the glorious disarray of a snowball fight at the Brienne Academy boarding school, where a belligerent stripling named Bonaparte first displays a genius for warfare, and culminating in the initial surges of The Battle of Lodi.

I’ve always thought ‘breathtaking’ a silly word to use when you’re talking about a movie. Few films are good enough to stop me breathing (few films are good enough to stop me eating popcorn), but the first time I saw Napoleon was the only time in my life – that didn’t involve either speaking in public or unfastening a bra – when I had to remind myself to breathe. Napoleon is one of the great films, one of the few movies that can be discussed alongside any novel or play or piece of music and not make cinema seem a fledgling, second-tier art form by comparison. There are several versions of the film knocking about; if you’ve never seen any of them, stop reading this, go out and watch one.