Monthly Archives: December 2013

#247 Raging Bull

(1980, Martin Scorsese)

“I knocked him down. I don’t know what else I gotta do”

It’s still very much the Christmas season, and today is Boxing Day, so let’s celebrate with an appropriate movie – a movie about boxing, of course!

Raging Bull is a biopic of former middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, also known as the Raging Bull due to his relentless fighting style and explosive personality. The movie starts Robert De Niro as LaMotta as he gains his middleweight championship belt and becomes a star, but his jealousy and his appetite threaten to destroy his relationships and career.

As always with many Scorsese/De Niro collaborations, the first thing that was obvious to me with Raging Bull was De Niro’s absolutely fantastic performance. While performances in the likes of Casino and Taxi Driver were very noticeably the famous De Niro we all know and love, he takes it even further here and manages to completely become LaMotta.

What’s more, he does it twice in the same movie, portraying both the aggressive boxing champion at the top of his game and the bloated failure of his later years. He manages to be convincing as both, even going as far as gaining a lot of weight for the later scenes and looking barely recognisable. It’s definitely adds to the evidence that De Niro had an awful lot of talent back in the day.

Other performances were excellent. Cathy Moriarty as Vikki, LaMotta’s long-suffering wife, was a suitable mixture of fragile and brash, while Joe Pesci surprised me by playing a character that was actually rational. As an actor I’m used to seeing as angry gangster types with short fuses, it was bizarre to see him acting as the voice of reason here. Great, but bizarre.

It’s just a shame, then, that the movie is nowhere near as interesting as other Scorsese movies I’ve reviewed. While Taxi Driver was a fascinating insight into the mind of an angry young man, Raging Bull fails to recreate that level of fascination. Bickle just felt like a better constructed character, which is especially bizarre since Travis Bickle was a fictional construct while Jake LaMotta is very real.

The first thing that struck me as odd was where the movie started. Normally in biopics, we get an insight into what led them into the career that made them famous, or some degree of knowledge into their background, but Raging Bull just drops us in right in the middle. When we come in, LaMotta is already a boxer and heading his way up the ranks to become a champion.

It feels a little awkward to start us off here since we don’t get any real introduction into who LaMotta is, and we don’t really get any sense of progression from this. What’s more, because it starts here, the movie then seems to struggle with what to do with the rest of its running time.

What happens next is the movie becomes rather slow and ponderous, and ultimately fairly repetitive. In between fights, we get scenes of LaMotta at home with his wife or out and about with his brother, and these scenes all kind of blend together since the same thing typically happens. Someone says something, LaMotta misunderstands, LaMotta gets angry, there’s a heated argument, cue the next fight, repeat.

Nowhere is this more notable than in his relationship with Vikki. As the years go by, LaMotta gets increasingly jealous and believes his wife is cheating on him, leading almost every interaction between them to be little more than a shouting match about this supposed infidelity, and it gets very old very fast. Perhaps I’m just tired of movies featuring bullish husbands treating women like crap, but every time it happened again, I was rolling my eyes.

What’s more, there were plenty of other issues surrounding their relationship. The age difference at the start was somewhat uncomfortable, especially with a very awkward sex scene during the early stages. They also got married alarmingly quickly, especially considering LaMotta was already married, and not much was made of this particular problem, and it would have potentially added more drama if they’d dealt with it.

What’s more, it feels like there’s a real lack of focus on his actual boxing career. Fights are used to link scenes together, not as the central plot. It feels a bit weird to me that a movie about boxing focuses so little on actual boxing.

Overall, Raging Bull was certainly a well-constructed and well-acted movie that nonetheless often fell a little flat. Interesting if you’re curious about the career of Jake LaMotta, but otherwise not one of Scorsese’s best in my opinion.

Starring Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty & Joe Pesci
Written by Jake LaMotta (autobiography) and Paul Schrader & Mardik Martin
Produced by Robert Chartoff & Irvin Winkler
Cinematography by Michael Chapman
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker

Favourite Scene: Joe Pesci calling out Jake for being an absolute moron was pretty nice.
Scene That Bugged Me: If I wanted to watch a movie where someone recites the speech from On The Waterfront, I’d watch On The Waterfront. Invent your own closing monologue, Scorsese!

Watch it if: You like New Yorkers yelling at each other for two hours
Avoid it if: You want to watch a lot of boxing

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#246 The Wizard Of Oz

(1939, Victor Fleming)

“There’s no place like home”

It’s Christmas Eve! You know what that means, right? Yes, of course, it’s time to take a look at an appropriately Christmassy movie! But wait, there aren’t actually that many actual Christmas movies on the must-see list (It’s A Wonderful Life was the main one of only two), so like last year, when I reviewed Babe, I’ll instead be pulling up a family-friendly movie.

In other words, the kind of thing you’re likely to stick on when you’re full of turkey and unable to move. The kind of thing that tends to get added to Christmas programming for that very reason. This year, we’ll be looking at The Wizard Of Oz.

You should all know what The Wizard Of Oz is, surely? Judy Garland plays Dorothy, a young girl living on a farm in Kansas. After a run-in with a grumpy neighbour (Margaret Hamilton), Dorothy runs away from home and ends up caught in a tornado, waking up in the mysterious Land Of Oz. Here she is instructed to find the Wizard who will be able to return her home, and along the way she gathers a rag-tag team of friends in the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), who wants a brain, the Tin Man (Jack Haley), who wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who lacks courage. Throughout their journey they have to watch out for the Wicked Witch Of The West (Hamilton again), who likes to keep trolling them as they move through the land.

Everyone knows about The Wizard Of Oz. It’s cemented its place in pop culture over the years, and has been the subject of many homages and parodies over the years, but has it stood the test of time?

First off, visually it certainly does stand up. Being one of very few movies from the 1930s in full colour, The Wizard Of Oz made great use of its colour palette, presenting a great contrast between the drab sepia of Kansas and the vibrant world of Oz. The transition from sepia to colour was also superb and seamless, performed entirely through a doorway as Dorothy steps out into her new world, and I was genuinely impressed by it.

Some of the effects look a little ropey today, but it’s a movie from the thirties, what do you expect? Despite the obvious man behind the curtain for most of the effects (see what I did there? EH?!?), they do still look pretty impressive, and it’s hard to fault the makeup jobs of Dorothy’s trio of friends, which are a real highlight.

But beyond the visuals, how well does the movie stack up in terms of plot and characterisation? Well, I’m going to be brutally honest here – the plot is ridiculous. Dorothy doesn’t really have much motivation to do anything and her entire job is to stare vacuously at things in amazement. The Good Witch is a persistent Deus Ex Machina that conveniently solves every problem Dorothy encounters. The ultimate meeting with the Wizard results in them getting cop-out rewards for their efforts, and a realisation that none of the movie really needed to happen. And don’t get me started on the logistical issues surrounding the Wicked Witch’s final demise.

But that’s OK. The Wizard Of Oz isn’t even pretending to take itself seriously. The comic performances of the trio prove as much, since they’re all campy and over the top. One liners are thrown about all over the place, including some that still hold up today – I’ll admit I enjoyed the Scarecrow’s “some people without brains do an awful lot of talking” line a little too much. The entire movie just feels too much fun to discredit the plot issues too much, since it’s likely that no one involved particularly cared all that much.

Instead, the awkward plotting and general silliness of the whole thing are the movie’s real charm. It’s a delightful romp of a film that wants to do nothing more than keep you entertained, and does so in a way that so unashamedly happy.

Plus it’s Christmas, so bitching about the movie and saying it’s terrible wouldn’t be in the spirit of the holiday. Instead, it’s a great choice for this time of year, since it’s feel-good silliness which remains charming and lovely and entertaining, even to this day. But you probably watch it every time it’s on TV anyway, so I probably didn’t even need to tell you that.

Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Pat Walshe and Terry the dog
Written by L. Frank Baum (novel – The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz) and Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Music by Herbert Stothart (score) and Harold Arlen (songs)
Cinematography by Harold Rosson
Edited by Blanche Sewell

Favourite Scene: The aforementioned joke about stupid people talking a lot.
Scene That Bugged Me: “Only bad witches are ugly” What a great message for the kids! Ugly people are vicious monsters that want to murder your pets! Wonderful!

Watch it if: It’s on telly. Which it will be.
Avoid it if: You have a severe phobia of whimsy

#245 Withnail & I

(1987, Bruce Robinson)

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”

Part of British movie culture is the Withnail & I Drinking Game. For every drink one of the characters in the movie has, you must drink the same, with the only exception being lighter fluid, which can be substituted for rum or something. But while this is part of our culture, the question remains, is the movie itself any good?

Withnail & I is about two out-of-work actors, Withnail (Richard E Grant), a drugged-up alcoholic with an inflated sense of self-importance, and, uh, “I” (Paul McGann), whose name we never learn, but also seems to be a bit more level-headed. Frustrated by their squalid flat and poor job prospects, Withnail convinces his wealthy uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to lend them his country cottage for a weekend break, which isn’t as helpful to them as first expected.

Often considered a classic of British comedy, I went into Withnail & I expecting a lot. I actually felt like I’d been missing out having never seen the film before despite it being such a classic. And now I’ve seen it, I can definitely say…I really had been missing out.

I hate reviewing comedies, since generally if I find them hilarious, that’s the end of it as far as my opinion goes, and Withnail & I is absolutely hilarious. It features lead characters who are utterly useless and grotty as hell, but never once overplays this, and is played surprisingly calmly all things considered, and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength.

Richard E Grant is the real star here, with his bumbling and drunken performance stealing the show. What’s impressive is how well Grant can maintain this spaced-out lazy slob of a man while keeping him charmingly well-spoken at all times. He might not be able to stop drinking or hang onto a pair of wellies, but he can pass for Shakespearian in his tone.

McGann is also fantastic, playing a much more level-headed character who spends most of his time exasperated by his friend’s actions. He’s the straight man to Grant’s funny man, and it’s a good dynamic. Not that McGann doesn’t have his fair share of comic moments, but overall his performance is the much more serious and subdued, and he does a great job.

The dialogue is also top-notch, with the conversations between the two being quick-witted with impeccable timing. I laughed out loud at Grant pleadingly delivering the quote at the top of the review, and the duo’s bafflement about how to kill and eat a live chicken is pure joy.

If I have any problem with Withnail & I, it’s the subplot about Monty, who is a repressed homosexual, preying on McGann’s character. While possibly fitting for the late 80s when the film was released, in today’s more liberal attitudes towards homosexuality, the whole sequence can feel a little uncomfortable and almost damaging.

But that’s about it. I struggle to explain exactly why I enjoyed Withnail beyond what I’ve stated, since I already stated I hate reviewing comedies, but needless to say this is a truly great comedy that has largely stood the test of time and deserves its classic status.

Starring Paul McGann & Richard E. Grant
Written by Bruce Robinson
Produced by Paul Heller
Music by David Dundas & Rick Wentworth
Cinematography by Peter Hannan
Edited by Alan Strachan

Favourite Scene: The perils of eating a chicken!
Scene That Bugged Me: Monty preying on McGann’s character was just unpleasant.

Watch it if: You want to see classic British comedy
Avoid it if: You’ve gone on holiday by mistake

#244 Dead Man

(1995, Jim Jarmusch)

“Your poetry will now be written in blood”

WESTERNS! As regular readers will know, I hate Westerns and have yet to see one I’ve particularly liked, especially if John Wayne is in it. That said, Dead Man is an unusual Western, one that stars professional weirdo Johnny Depp and is set in a strange dream-like world. Perhaps this may be the Western to convince me of the value of the genre.

Dead Man features Depp as William Blake, a man who travels to the mining town of Machine to work as an accountant. When he arrives, he finds that John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), the owner of the metalworks, has handed the job to someone else, leaving Blake to wander the town. This leads to a run-in with an attractive woman named Thel (Mili Avital) and her ex-boyfriend, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne), both of whom end up dead while Blake is wounded. Upon waking, Blake finds himself accompanied by a native called Nobody (Gary Farmer) and finds himself hunted for the deaths, leaving the two to wander the wild frontier.

Dead Man is what happens when Westerns get pretentious. It has all the typical elements of your normal Western, from wandering the frontier while searching and/or being pursued, to gruesome shootouts, all the way to a native spirit guide and grizzled town figureheads. But it’s also shot in highly saturated black and white, heavily quotes poetry (he’s not called William Blake by accident) and features a soundtrack composed by Neil Young sitting in a room watching the movie and noodling around on his guitar.

As a result, there are times when Dead Man can feel tiresome and almost draining. Everything is shot in a deliberately “arty” way, to make it seem like it’s trying to say something important. The only problem is, it’s pretty much saying nothing at all.

I honestly don’t know what message Jarmusch was trying to convey with this movie. It follows the conventions of Westerns too closely to be any kind of deconstruction of the genre, the poetry connection doesn’t really make sense and there’s no real message to be found in the ultimate futility of much of the movie’s events. My initial feeling was that the entire movie was a metaphor for death (which would fit the title), but it’s hard to make that stick consistently.

Instead, the movie ultimately feels like an idea Jarmusch had while watching Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and listening to 70s blues rock, possibly while high out of his mind. Even Roger Ebert said he didn’t understand what the film was trying to say, and if he didn’t get it, how do you expect a self-professed amateur such as me to grasp the hidden message?

Speaking of 70s blues rock and being high out of your mind, Neil Young’s soundtrack does not help in the slightest. I know I often find myself commenting on soundtracks only when they’re really bad, but this is a new low. It sounds like a one-take deal made by jamming out in front of the recently-edited movie which, to be fair, it was. More often than not, characters will be wandering about doing nothing in particular of note when suddenly, a loud CLANG of an electric guitar will come in for no reason other than Neil Young felt like contributing something.

The only saving graces this movie has are the fine acting across the board, especially from Depp at the centre of it all (to be fair, the movie was made when he actually could be bothered to do his job), and the sight of Iggy Pop wearing a Bo Peep dress, playing a transvestite because of reasons.

Dead Man is what happens when you try too hard to be clever in deconstructing a genre and making something even more incomprehensible than the genre you’re deconstructing. Come back, John Wayne, I forgive everything!

Starring Johnny Depp & Gary Farmer
Written by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Demetra J. McBride
Music by Neil Young
Cinematography by Robby Muller
Edited by Jay Rabinowitz

Favourite Scene: Iggy Pop in a Bo Peep dress will never not be entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: The ending got very muddled very quickly.

Watch it if: You really like Johnny Depp and/or Westerns
Avoid it if: You can’t stand Neil Young’s music

#243 The Deer Hunter

(1978, Michael Cimino)

“You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about”

It seems odd now, but once upon a time, Hollywood was reluctant to talk about Vietnam. While WW2 movies started springing up while the war was still happening, Vietnam movies took a while to appear, possibly due to the questionable nature of the whole affair. Then The Deer Hunter came along, and dared to represent the harsh realities of the war, shocking the world.

The Deer Hunter is in three parts – the first being a wedding in a small Pennsylvania town where Steven (John Savage) is getting married, with his wedding doubling as a send-off party for him and his friends Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken), who are about to be shipped out for duty in Vietnam. The second part is during the war, where the three become prisoners of war and forced to play Russian roulette. The third part is the aftermath, and the effects of war on people.

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#242 A Man Escaped

(1956, Robert Bresson)
Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut

Finding context for some films on the must-see list is hard. Sometimes a movie like this one comes along that doesn’t really seem to have much of a place in film history and never really gets much of a fanfare, but ends up being surprisingly quite good. Today, we take a look at obscure prison drama, A Man Escaped.

As you may be able to guess, A Man Escaped is about a man who escapes. That man is Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), a member of the French Resistance during World War II, who is taken prisoner by the Nazis and holed up in Fort Montluc. Unwilling to stay captive, he spends much of his time there meticulously whittling away the boards of his cell door and planning an elaborate escape. And then the title pretty much gives away the ending.

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#241 Taxi Driver

(1976, Martin Scorsese)

“You talkin’ to me?”

Taxi Driver is an incredibly dull documentary movie about the life of New York cabbies and how the job works. It’s a documentary that focuses on a small group of them, featuring exciting scenes where they describe how their meters work.

No, I’m just kidding because you all know what this movie is since it’s a Scorsese classic and one of Robert De Niro’s most well-known roles.

Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a lonely, socially awkward man living in New York. Due to his severe insomnia, he takes a job as a taxi driver so that he has something to do at night. Throughout the film, we learn of his low opinion of many people around the city, and witness his clumsy attempts to interact with women. He also befriends a child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), and tries to save her.

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#240 Rear Window

(1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

“A murderer would never parade his crime in front of an open window”

I love Alfred Hitchcock. I love James Stewart. I quite liked Vertigo, although not as much as I expected to like it. But what about another famous Hitchcock/Stewart collaboration? How well does Rear Window stack up today?

In Rear Window, Stewart stars as L.B. Jefferies, also known as Jeff, a photographer who was involved in an accident at a race track and ended up with a broken leg, confining him to a wheelchair. In his boredom, he resorts to people watching, viewing the activities of his neighbours, including a practicing ballet dancer, an amorous newlywed couple, a frustrated songwriter and a lonely spinster. His spying causes complaints from his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and home nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), but takes on a dark turn when Jeff witnesses what appears to be his neighbour Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murdering his wife.

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