Celebrating Great Films

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Inside Out

#51 at the time of writing.

This is about Riley, an 11-year-old girl, and the personified emotions inside her head that shape her childhood and battle with the complexities of growing up.

Pixar excel at making films that work on multiple levels - in particular, children can enjoy them for the colourful characters and comic action, adults can enjoy the sly jokes and emotional undertones, and everyone can enjoy the stories that weave it all together.

This film is also experienced on a different level by adults than children, but instead of just laughing at different moments, the kids are laughing and the adults are slitting their wrists.

Yes, this film is depressing. It's core message is that growing up = loss; growing up is difficult and it's ok to be sad about it. This message is hidden behind storytelling and spectacle of the absolute highest calibre, but still, I left the cinema without the spring in my step that Pixar usually evokes. Instead, I left dragging my feet.

So I find this film difficult to judge. Well, not really, it is clearly wonderful, but I'm just not sure I want to see it again. It's going to be hard enough watching my own kids grown up without reliving Riley's loss of innocence.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

#30 at the time of writing.

I enjoyed Mel Gibson's Mad Max when I was a kid, so I thought I knew what to expect with this, and initially I didn't intend to go see it at the cinema. But then I saw it rocketing towards the top of IMDb's Top 250, so I gave it a chance.

It felt like being in the front row of a thrash metal concert for two hours. Seriously intense.

I can't think of the last time a film packed so much over-the-top action into what is essentially one epically extended chase scene without giving almost any respite at all, and yet was still compelling. The stunts - mostly done for real - are impressive, the disdain for action movie conventions is refreshing, the acting is persuasive, and the story has surprising narrative heft.

It is surprising that this film got made after languishing in development hell for over two decades, and even more surprising that George Miller was at the helm, the same director of the last three Mad Max movies, even though the last action flick he directed was 30 years ago and since then all he's done is Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet.

It was originally conceived back in 1998, and slated to be shot in 2001, until the September 11 terrorist attack put the kibosh on that. Another attempt in 2003 failed because of security concerns related to trying to film in Namibia and the outbreak of the Iraq War. By 2007, after Mel Gibson lost interest in the role, Heath Ledger was rumoured to be the next Mad Max, before he died from an overdose in 2008. (Really - that was 7 years ago already?) In 2009 the project was briefly recast as a 3D animated movie. In 2011 principal photography started in Australia, but heavy rain (not great for a desert movie) forced a move at the last minute to Namibia.

Yet, somehow, it got made. And, somehow, it's a blockbusting hit. Bravo.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

#67 at the time of writing.

Two Japanese children try to survive alone after their parents are killed and their city firebombed towards the end of World War II. An unflinching tale of the terrible personal tragedies of war.

Our Western sensibilities have trained us to think of animated features, and films starring children, as being for children. Yet this is a most adult, and artful, and depressing picture. It was produced concurrently with the delightful My Neighbour Totoro, and the two were released as a double feature - but they could not be more different. One is about the loss of innocence, the other embodies the purest innocence. One is about the consequences of conflict, the other avoids conflict altogether.

If you get a chance to see this, don't watch the awful dubbed version. The voices are so silly it takes most of the impact away. Why couldn't they do a decent job with the dubbing, like they did with My Neighbour Totoro! (Probable answer: this is one of the few exceptions to the Disney-Tokuma international distribution deal.)

SPOILER ALERT! Read no further if you haven't seen the film. Sadly, the film is based on a true story. Akiyuki Nosaka lost his little sister during the war to malnutrition and blamed himself for her death. His 1967 novel, on which this movie is based, was written to come to terms with the loss.

Monday, February 02, 2015


#38 at the time of writing.

I had mixed feelings about this one. It's about a young student who subjects himself to the fearsome tutelage of his mentor in his quest to become an all-time great drummer. It's a very good film, no doubt, but I don't like it when bullies are celebrated.

To be fair, the story stuck in my head, and the questions it raised. What does greatness cost? Does the end justify the means? When you're pushing for better, where do you draw the line? And actually it's exactly that ambiguity which elevates this film.

The tension runs high, and the lead characters are wonderfully played by Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons. The music is good, but it didn't really strike me as a music film - it's about other things. Anyway, full credit to debut writer-director Damien Chazelle for realising such a powerful film.

Sunday, February 01, 2015


#125 at the time of writing.

The most original film I've seen in a long time - probably in years. Having seen director Iñárritu's Amores Perros and Biutiful, I initially steered clear of this film, expecting it to be beautifully filmed, gritty, and soul-crushingly depressing. But more than once I heard friends say that this was something else - and indeed it is sublime. It's funny, hopeful, and always unexpected. The story fizzes along with captivating energy. I loved it.

It's about a washed up Hollywood superstar, famous for (long ago) playing Birdman à la Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man, who tries to reinvent himself as a respectable Broadway artiste. But he must overcome towering doubts, hubris and the bunch of wackos he calls family and friends. The style is very theatrical, with no visible cuts, plenty of backstage shenanigans and disarming magic realism.

I totally didn't realise until afterwards that Birdman was a real thing. That makes this movie the craziest adaptation since Adaptation. And that can only be a good thing.

(I just read that Antonio Sanchez's musical score, performed almost entirely by drums, was disqualified by the music branch of the Academy Awards. Why?! It's great!)

Saturday, November 08, 2014


#15 at the time of writing.

Wow. I continue to be in awe of the grandeur and ambition of Christopher Nolan's (and his brother's) vision and their ability to bring it to the screen in epic style. For me, Inception was impressive but ultimately unsatisfying. Interstellar is just as impressive if not more so, but with a stronger emotional core than catapults it into the highest echelons of cinema.

The film starts slowly, on a farm struggling to survive in a world suffering from lethal dust storms and chronic food shortages, and then shifts gear (almost too quickly) into SPACE! But out of the nearly three-hour running time of this film, I reckon I spent a good hour on the edge of my seat with tension and emotional tumult, to the point where I found myself trembling and exhausted - but desperately wishing for another hour to allow the story to play out. When we finally left the cinema it took me a good ten minutes to decompress before I could string a sentence together.

So, yes, I think it's brilliant. Clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also a better adaptation of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War than any adaptation of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War would have been. The representation of space as stark, brutal and indifferent to human emotion; the rigorous hard science fiction; and the unexpected, uplifting twists of hope that burned the story into my heart.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Paths of Glory

#61 at the time of writing.

The futility and irony of the trench warfare of WWI is shown as a unit commander in the French army must deal with a mutiny and a glory-seeking general. I was lucky enough to watch this early Kubrick masterpiece at my local cinema recently, and the film's story and message have lingered with me for days.

As the closing credits rolled I found myself both exhilarated and depressed. Could Colonel Dax have done anything differently? What would I have done in his situation? Who was most to blame, and to what degree was any kind of justice served? These questions roiled around in my head afterwards.

Kubrick's early reputation as a prodigy was richly deserved. There is no sentimentalism here, no "patriotism" clouding the absurdity and cruelty of war. It is simply but cleverly filmed. The long tracking shots build tension and heighten emotion. There is a subtle emphasis on the stark contrast of the safe and opulent château where senior officers planned the war, and the stinking trenches where men followed orders with fear and loyalty knowing that death was their ultimate reward. And the final scene was extremely moving - nothing to do with the rest of the story, but underscoring the message that war makes us forget our humanity.

Impressive also, is that Kirk Douglas was in his 40s when he starred in this 1957 movie, and he's still around today. One of the last remaining stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood

The brief essay at the Criterion Collection provides an enlightening insight into the film.

Some interesting trivia from IMDb and other sources (if you believe it):

Winston Churchill claimed that the film was a highly accurate depiction of trench warfare and the sometimes misguided workings of the military mind.

The epic battle sequence was filmed in a 5,000-sq.-yd. pasture rented from a German farmer. After paying for the crops that would have been raised that season, the production team moved in with eight cranes and as many as 60 crew members working around the clock for three weeks to create trenches, shell holes and the rough, muddy terrain of a World War I battleground.

For box office reasons, Stanley Kubrick intended to impose a happy ending. After several draft scripts he changed his mind and restored the novel's original ending. Producer James B. Harris then had to inform studio executive Max E. Youngstein and risk rejection of the change. Harris managed by simply having the entire final script delivered without a memo of the changes, on the assumption that nobody in the studio would actually read it.

Concerned by its negative portrayal of the French army, the French government urged distributors United Artists not to release the film, and so it was not submitted to the censors, and not shown in France until 1975. Switzerland also banned the film (until 1978), accusing it of being "subversive propaganda directed at France." Belgium required that a foreword be added stating that the story represented an isolated case that did not reflect upon the "gallantry of the French soldiers."

Director Stanley Kubrick met Christiane Kubrick (then Christiane Harlan) during filming; she performs the singing at the end of the film. He divorced his second wife the following year to marry her, and they remained married until his death in 1999.

Actor (and colourful off-stage character) Timothy Carey was fired during filming, allegedly for some disruptive attempts at self-publicity including a staged kidnapping. His final scenes were shot with a double.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

#58 at the time of writing.

Much like its predecessor Avengers Assemble, which I blogged about here, this Marvel comic book adaptation makes silliness into a virtue. It has all the wrong ingredients, yet somehow it manages to bundle them together into a witty, well-paced, ambitious and compelling story. You may even end up empathising with a talking raccoon and a fighting tree.

For me, this is the best Marvel film since Iron Man. Although I say that without having yet watched the other recent Top 250 entry X-Men: Days of Future Past. Meanwhile, the snob in me squirms at the readiness of the Top 250 list to embrace all of these brash big budget superhero flicks.

That snob impulse is mollified by the insider knowledge that director James Gunn cut his teeth making weird sexploitation films with Troma Entertainment.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

#123 at the time of writing.

I haven't seen many of director Wes Anderson's efforts. I recall not thinking much of The Royal Tenenbaums, but absolutely loving Moonrise Kingdom. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, his meticulous kitsch style reaches a pinnacle as he tells the story of a hotel and its legendary concierge, a delightful and quirky adventure through the stereotypes of interwar Europe.

When I walked out of the cinema the sensibilities of the film had rubbed off on me; I was seeing symmetry in everything, talking terribly deferentially and making only right angled turns.

A wonderful fantasy.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Lego Movie

#172 at the time of writing.

I was surprised to see this on IMDb's Top 250 - a brand cash-in flick just doesn't scream high expectations. But the trailer looked fun, so I went to see it with my wife yesterday (we are still children at heart).

So does it deserve the hype? Well... it's good... but I suspect it won't stay on the Top 250 for long. It's very high octane, with lots of laughs, and a sweet ending that caps it off nicely. The story follows a Lego construction worker, who always follows instructions in true Lego style, as he learns the value of occasionally throwing away the manual and unfettering his creativity.

Two things especially struck me: First, that the film is so fast and action-packed in its jerky Lego world that my head was left spinning (probably exacerbated by the 3D). A little too much for me perhaps. However, the amount of effort that the animators went to to make the world seem so expansive and... Lego-ey... is seriously impressive. The amazing attention to detail will be bliss for Lego geeks.

Second, the film is relentlessly po-mo, filled with references to other films, breaking the fourth wall, self-aware story elements and characters that knew they were part of a film, and shamelessly unsubtle cultural references designed to appeal to the cynical and surreal tastes of the Internet generation.

Nice to see that fifteen years later one of my favourite films, The Matrix, is still being parodied...

Saturday, February 22, 2014


#125 at the time of writing.

Way back when I blogged about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I said that if I had to choose a personal top 250 films, it would be full of films like that one. Except there aren't any.

Now there's one.

I enjoyed Her possibly more than any film since Eternal Sunshine (which is my favourite film of all time). I love any film that takes a clever conceit and explores its consequences as far as possible - and then stretches it even further, until your imagination is blown. This film does that wonderfully, with plenty of heart and humour.

Eternal Sunshine was written by my #1 screenwriter (with the possible exception of Terry Rossio), Charlie Kaufman - and two other films written by him (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) were directed by Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed Her. So perhaps it's not surprising that this film reminded me of Eternal Sunshine; the two men apparently share a certain kind of quirky creative sensibility that massively appeals to me.

This near-future sci-fi romance tells of a heartbroken and lonely man (played by Joaquin Pheonix) who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system. Their relationship evolves through highs and lows, and meanwhile the depth and complexity of the AI's consciousness evolves (in a charmingly flawed way, echoing the fallibility of its human creators), and simultaneously society's attitude towards this new kind of intelligence evolves. These three threads build and intertwine slowly and subtly without ever taking the focus away from those intimate human moments that define love.

To top it all off, this film has one of the most intense and endearing 100% platonic male/female relationships that I've seen in movies (the main character and his friend played by Amy Adams).

The voice of the AI was originally Samantha Morton's. She was present on the set with Joaquin Phoenix every day. After the filming wrapped and Spike Jonze started editing the movie, he felt like something was not right. With Morton's blessing, he decided to recast the role and Scarlett Johansson was brought and replaced Morton, re-recording all the dialogue.

Hey Academy, are you listening? Never mind Gravity, pay no more than lip service to 12 Years A Slave, and give this film some love. (Yah, they won't listen…)

Sunday, February 02, 2014

12 Years a Slave

#90 at the time of writing.

This is the only slightly embellished true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in the mid-19th century American deep south. Director Steve McQueen's wife noted that there are more films about Roman slave Spartacus than about the far more relevant and immediate Atlantic slave trade.

It's interesting that it took a British-helmed film to really get under the skin of what it was like to be a slave in America - an unsentimental and unflinching portrait. There's all the brutality and abuse of Django Unchained (which I saw last year), but with none of the ridiculousness.

I was perhaps a little reluctant to go and see this, which reinforces my suspicion that my favourite reason to watch a film is escapism. This is the opposite of escapism. I'm not in a rush to watch Steve McQueen's critically acclaimed previous films Hunger and Shame.

Monday, January 27, 2014

City Lights

#34 at the time of writing.

A tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl, and woos her with the help of an unreliable millionaire friend.

My reaction to this (American) film was pretty much the polar opposite of my reaction to Metropolis, a contemporary German film that I watched last year. Metropolis felt messy, overacted, unsubtle - but awesome, epic, stylish. City Lights is neat, gentle, sweet - but... well... just a little bit dull.

The movie calls itself out as a pantomime, and it certainly excels at that, with Charlie Chaplin's wonderful comic timing, choreography and pathos carrying the story along. I watched it with my nearly three-year-old daughter and she loved it.

Anyway, I am clearly in the minority with my under-enthusiasm. Orson Welles said this was his favourite movie; Albert Einstein attended the American premiere and George Bernard Shaw the British one. The American Film Institute ranks it as the 11th best film of all time.

This was Charlie Chaplin's first film made during the sound era. He faced extreme pressure to make the film as a talkie, but such was his popularity and power in Hollywood that he was able to complete and release the film as a silent (albeit with recorded music) at a time when the rest of the American motion picture industry had converted to sound.

Charlie Chaplin, ever the stickler, allegedly re-shot the scene in which his character the Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower-girl 342 times, as he could not find a satisfactory way of showing that the blind flower-girl thought the mute tramp was wealthy.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

#53 at the time of writing.

I really enjoyed this film. It brims with relentless energy, wit and unfettered amorality. The mostly-true story of Jordan Belfort, an unscrupulous stockbroker who got phenomenally rich cooking the books in post 90's recession America, this movie is a tour de force.

The constellation of stars in this film deliver powerhouse performances, but Leonardo di Caprio particularly excels, delivering his wonderfully written lines with explosive yearning and gurning. Terence Winter's script, under Martin Scorsese's direction, is a masterclass in irony.

The film caters to a generation who grew up on Trading Places and Gordon Gekko, and has grown weary of stories about yet another rogue banker who has brought down yet another company too big to fail, with the main character more than once making a joke of skipping over the technicalities of his fraudulent activities - because we've heard it all before.

Greed, drugs, sex and debauchery are unabashedly glamourised (it has the dubious accolade of featuring the word "fuck" more than any other film in history), with the tone remaining comic and frenetic throughout the three-hour running time - no doubt masking considerable suffering and utterly failing to condemn some seriously bad behaviour. This analysis says it all.

Jordan Belfort, the real one, made $1,000,000 on the movie rights...

Monday, November 11, 2013


#50 at the time of writing.

Went to see this film, about two astronauts that get stranded in space, at the IMAX yesterday. Totally worth shelling out the extra cash to see it 3D on the big screen. It's more like a theme park ride than a movie. And what a ride!

The first 15 or 20 minutes is presented as one long shot with no cuts, extremely impressive given that the actors are floating around in zero gravity fixing a space station module with the sun setting on Earth in the background.

Sandra Bullock may have seemed like an unlikely choice to play the main character (alongside George Clooney), but she does fantastically well, even making you believe some of the bits that could have seemed silly in lesser hands. A dream role for her, I imagine. (Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman were previous choices.)

But I suspect that this would lose much of its impact on a small screen. Like I said, more of a ride than a film. The writing felt at best formulaic, and at worst slightly annoying. The end could have been immensely emotionally impactful, but it somehow missed the beat. The music was once or twice intrusive. And the science requires a bit of suspension of disbelief - like everybody knows that tears in space don't fall!

However, undeniably extremely suspenseful, tense and intense. A great achievement. Well done especially to Alfonso Cuarón for realising such an ambitious vision.

Definitely worth watching the companion piece, Aningaaq. And the other, unofficial companion piece...

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Toy Story

#112 at the time of writing.

The genre of digitally animated movies owes a huge debt to Toy Story - the first feature film to be entirely computer animated. If this film had been rubbish, the genre might have sputtered and struggled to get going. But with an unblushing emphasis on character and story, animation giant John Lasseter's Pixar (using Steve Jobs' computers) deservedly exploded onto the scene and never looked back.

The early Nineties: Terminator 2 had shown that digital trickery could be used to great effect; Lawnmower Man proved that digital effects were no substitute for a crappy story. After a couple of limp decades, Disney were experiencing a resurgence of success with musical animated features such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Enter a quirky non-musical feelgood film about toys that come to life, and boom - cartoons are cool again, for adults as well as children.

Re-watching this for maybe the tenth time recently, I continue to be struck by just how wonderful it is. The jokes! The characters! The phenomenal voice work from Tom Hanks! It hasn't aged at all. And it's hard to believe that such a high quality movie could possibly have been matched - perhaps even outdone - by its two sequels. (The best trilogy of all time?)

The story of Toy Story's production, and the hiccups along the way, makes fascinating reading.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

A Beautiful Mind

#190 at the time of writing.

I watched this film again today and found it compelling and ultimately very emotional. It's the story of genius mathematician John Nash's battle with schizophrenia - the Hollywood version rather than being comprehensively accurate, but the spirit of the tale rings true.

The way his delusions were handled in this film was particularly effective for me. I understood the helplessness he must have felt, the seductiveness of the mental trap he found himself in. And also the fear and frustration that his wife had to overcome to support him (Jennifer Connelly in an Oscar-winning performance; the movie also won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay).

According to IMDb's trivia, this was named as one of "The 20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time" by Premiere magazine. Which makes me think that Premiere don't know squat. (Looking at the rest of the list only confirms it.)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Amores Perros

#187 at the time of writing.

My first experience of director Alejandro González Iñárritu was one of his more recent films, Biutiful, which captured a dark side of life in Mexico City, full of people trapped in vicious cycles of crime and abuse. This is similar, but done with more flair, more character.

Three interlocking (but very different) stories, centring around a car crash, with dogs as a running theme. Superbly acted all round, but especially noteworthy is the standout performance by Emilio Echevarria (playing El Chivo, a political dissident turned hitman), and Gael García Bernal (Octavia, the lovesick dog fighter) in his debut - or at least breakthrough - role.

This is the first of a trilogy, with 21 Grams and Babel following. I'm not in a rush to see the others in the trilogy. No doubt they're just as brilliant, but I bet they're also as depressing. I'm going to load me up a rom com or two first.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Roman Holiday

#220 at the time of writing.

What a delightful film. A rom com, technically, although it feels leagues more sophisticated than most. The story of a bored and sheltered princess who escapes her guardians for a day of adventure in Rome, this movie moves along at a jolly old clip, full of clever physical comedy without descending into slapstick (well, maybe a smidge), and refreshingly real human reactions. And to top it all off, a touching ending that leaves you thinking.

Props to director William Wyler (who seems to have been cursed with a lasting reputation as always being only the second best) for creating something that feels so fresh, and to Audrey Hepburn and Eddie Albert for wonderful acting. (Gregory Peck was just a little too straight down the line to stand out.)

Despite this being her first major film role, Audrey Hepburn deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar. An auspicious start to her career. Her character is sublime - spunky, vulnerable, noble, petulant, charming, tortured - and she captures it all.

The original writer, Dalton Trumbo, was blacklisted as one of the legendary Hollywood Ten, and therefore could not receive credit for the screenplay, even when it won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Instead, his friend, Ian McLellan Hunter, took credit for the story and accepted the Oscar. Trumbo's wife, Cleo, was finally presented with the award in 1993, long after his death in 1976.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Once Upon a Time in the West

#24 at the time of writing.

The fact that this is often lauded as the best Western movie ever made confirms to me that I'm not a fan of the genre. Pioneering and railroad building and strong characters (male and female) should be right up my street, but honestly I find it hard to have patience for the whole slow paced, lonely desert, angry men, badly dubbed thing.

Having said that, even if I wasn't at the edge of my seat, I appreciated the massive amount of artistry in this film. I suspect that, now I know what to expect, my enjoyment of it would only grow if I watched it again. (And I am prepared for the mindset I'll need to enjoy director Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy whenever I get round to watching that.)

Mrs. McBain travels from New Orleans to move in with her new family in frontier Utah, only to find them murdered. But by whom? And why? The prime suspect befriends her and offers to go after the real killer, accompanied by the mysterious Harmonica man on his quest to get even.

I was fascinated to learn that (as well as Bernardo Bertolucci) horror master Dario Argento had a hand in creating the story. How much, I wonder, of the success of 1960s Italian-made "Spaghetti" Westerns in subverting and enriching the genre is down to the creative cleverness of these men, and how much is simply down to approaching the subject matter from a different, more detached cultural context?

Interesting that Clint Eastwood was offered a role, but turned it down. He was getting offered roles a grizzled gunman in 1968?! That guy must be SO OLD by now.

Ennio Morricone's score must also be mentioned as a highlight.