Monthly Archives: March 2014

#270 Planet Of The Apes

(1968, Franklin J. Schaffner)

“Take your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!”

Imagine if you will, a strange planet far beyond the stars where evolution did something very silly and made apes the dominant species instead of humans. Now imagine your reaction when you discover that planet WAS EARTH ALL ALONG! Yes, today we’re looking at Planet Of The Apes, with one of the most-spoiled endings of all time. It’s even on the cover of the DVD box these days! But even with the ending spoiled, how is it? Is it still good?

A group of astronauts led by George Taylor (Charlton Heston) set off on a long mission to the far reaches of space, climbing into hibernation while the ship steers them to a distant planet. When they wake up, they find themselves on a desolate world. After wandering through the desert, the astronauts are all captured by strange ape men, who view Taylor with great curiosity. Taylor must now figure out how to survive in this strange new world WHERE APES EVOLVED FROM MEN?!?!

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#269 Great Expectations

(1946, David Lean)

“Pip, a young gentleman of great expectations”

UUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGH period drama. As if to prove to me that an obsession with period drama based on dusty old literature is not a new phenomenon in British cinema, here’s Great Expectations, an old 1940s adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel. Go on then, let’s get this over with.

Like all Charles Dickens stories, this is the story of an orphan. It is the story of Pip (Anthony Wager / John Mills), a young orphan who encounters an escaped convict and visits a wealthy spinster named Miss Haversham (Martitia Hunt) as a companion for her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons / Valerie Hobson). Later in life, Pip inherits property from a mystery wealthy benefactor and moves to London to become a gentleman. Over time, he pursues Estella, tries to work out who the benefactor is and learns a few life lessons along the way.

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#268 Sideways

(2004, Alexander Payne)

“When do we drink it?”

Is there anything more pretentious in this world than wine culture? I personally don’t think so. Spending hours swirling around a glass of fermented grapes and then claiming that it smells of wood shavings and tastes like strawberries is an activity I’ve never quite understood. So hey, here’s a movie about that! HOW WONDERFUL!

Sideways is an independent movie from 2004 about two men who go on a wine-tasting tour of California as a sort of middle class bachelor party. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a failed writer and wine enthusiast treating his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) to the trip before the latter gets married. Throughout the trip, Jack wants one more sexual fling before becoming a husband, while Miles wants a relaxing trip. Shenanigans happen.

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#267 Gone With The Wind

(1939, Victor Fleming)
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”

Gone With The Wind is one of those classic movies that inevitably ends up on Movies You Must See lists, so it was inevitable that I’d end up reviewing it one day. It was the highest-grossing movie of its time, and depicted the American Civil War from the perspective of white Southerners. But how well does it hold up today?

Gone With The Wind centres on Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a young Southern socialite living in Georgia on the cusp of Civil War. Romantically interested in a man named Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), she tries to seduce him despite him being engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), while she simultaneously catches the attention of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). As civil war rages, Scarlett manipulates and deceives her way towards winning Ashley’s attentions before eventually marrying Rhett in a tortured marriage. Basically, lots of things happen here.

It’s easy to see why people love Gone With The Wind. It’s an ambitious project which covers a lot of ground story-wise, with excellent costume design and cinematography, and some really great moments that cement its place in cinema history.

Clark Gable is a fantastic example of this. The man has charm coming out of his pores, and is easily the best thing about the whole movie. Rhett Butler is an inherently awful person for the most part, but Gable makes him likeable and I don’t know how he did it. It’s a shame that for much of the first half of the movie he tends to disappear offscreen for long periods, since he’s always missed when he’s not around.

There are also some hugely effective scenes running throughout. The scenes of war are always powerful, feeling difficult to watch and sometimes being downright terrifying. I’m not someone who normally buys into “war is hell” imagery (simply because it’s so overdone it’s become cliché) but these scenes were extremely effective. But the scenes of the war’s effects hit even harder than the war itself, especially a scene where Scarlett’s father has clearly lost his mind following the loss of his wife in the hostilities, which was incredibly moving.

But Gone With The Wind is far from a perfect movie. For a start, it’s over three hours long, and me and films of that length don’t get along too well. What’s more, there are times when it definitely feels that long, especially in the second half of the movie where things like to drag on longer than they need to. There are also plenty of instances where a scene that really should be urgent simply isn’t.

There is also the fact that the movie suffers from some particularly offensive period drama floofiness early on, with Southern Belles and gentlemen wandering around chortling about their life and how the South will never be beaten. It’s a little bit tiresome, at least until Rhett comes in and tells them all how dumb they all are. Fortunately, this doesn’t last, but this combined with the movie’s tendency to drag at times, it threatens to derail the movie before it’s even begun.

However, while the period drama floofiness eventually disappears, Scarlett O’Hara never stops being intensely unlikeable. She’s a manipulative, shallow, selfish, irredeemable bitch. Vivien Leigh does a great job playing her, but man is it difficult having this person as a protagonist. She’s impossible to identify with, and more often than not, you simply want her to fail at everything.

It’s also really hard to tell exactly what the attraction between her and Rhett is. Quite often, he will pursue her and attempt to seduce her, all while openly admitting she’s a terrible human being. I never found the romance particularly convincing. Perhaps this was the point, since they hardly have a perfect marriage in the second half of the movie, but it’s still really bizarre.

And then of course, the most common complaint about Gone With The Wind by modern reviewers is one that I agree with. Set in The South, the movie naturally features a number of black slave characters, all of whom are portrayed as amusingly stupid and absolutely happy to be in slavery. Their portrayal is meant to be laughed at, as if those silly brown people are an amusing sideshow, and these days it’s just uncomfortable.

And yet, despite all of these faults, Gone With The Wind somehow manages to hold together as a solid, watchable package and it’s easy to see why it’s such a classic, albeit a hugely flawed classic.

Starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard & Olivia de Havilland
Written by Margaret Mitchell (novel) and Sidney Howard
Produced by David O. Selznick
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by Ernest Haller
Edited by Hal C. Kern & James E. Newcorn

Favourite Scene: Rhett ultimately realising how tired he is of Scarlett’s crap and tells her that most famous of movie lines (see page quote).
Scene That Bugged Me: While escaping from Georgia in the midst of war and fires, they sure do take their sweet time.

Watch it if: You like sprawling period dramas with excellent acting
Avoid it if: Its absurd length is far too much for you

#266 Battleship Potemkin

(1925, Sergei Eisenstein)
Броненосец «Потёмкин»

With all eyes recently on Russia because of the Sochi Winter Olympics and the much-less positive anti-gay laws, and even less positive actions in Ukraine, it seems somewhat fitting that today we will be taking a look at one of the most successful Russian propaganda movies ever made, Battleship Potemkin.

Battleship Potemkin is a dramatic re-enactment of the 1905 mutiny on the real Potemkin, where sailors disobeyed their officers over their working conditions, and these actions ultimately led to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The movie, which celebrates the rebellion and the rise of communism, starts with sailors living in squalor and forced to eat maggot-infested meat, ultimately culminating in a battle, and gaining the sympathy of the people of Odessa.

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#265 Celine & Julie Go Boating

Céline et Julie vont en bateau
(1974, Jacques Rivette)

“BUT THE NEXT MORNING”

)

So, last time we watched a movie about close female friendship framed as a road movie. Well, this time we’re taking another look at a movie about female friendship, and I swear I didn’t plan that. Today, we’re taking a look at Celine & Julie Go Boating, a French movie about…two women and a mysterious house???

While sitting on a park bench one day, Julie (Dominique Labourier) witnesses a young woman, Celine (Juliet Berto) clumsily walking past, dropping her scarf and sunglasses. Julie picks them up and chases after Celine, leading the two to become friends and eventually move in together. After flirting with switching identities, with Celine disguising herself to meet Julie’s childhood sweetheart and Julie hijacking an audition scheduled for Celine, they eventually become fascinated with a strange house that seems to be telling its own story.

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#264 Thelma & Louise

(1991, Ridley Scott)
“You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself”

Feminism in film is often a thorny topic, one that centres on representation of women in cinema. Far too often, movies put men front and centre, leaving women to be side characters or leads in fluffy romantic movies only. It’s rare for women to be put front and centre in more demanding roles, and that’s before we even see some of the struggles women face and are still trying to deal with via feminism. But in 1991, Ridley Scott had a go at tackling the subject with Thelma & Louise.

In Arkansas, Thelma (Geena Davis) lives with an overbearing husband, causing her to be passive and withdrawn. Her best friend, Louise (Susan Sarandon), is much tougher and self-assured. Louise suggests a weekend away, and Thelma escapes and goes along. However, before their weekend can truly begin, Thelma is almost raped by a man at a bar. Louise saves her by shooting and killing him, leading the duo to go on the run to escape the consequences of this action.

Thelma & Louise is a sometimes-difficult movie to watch, from the uncomfortable rape scene to the realisation that Thelma’s naivety gets the duo into more trouble than it should. The rape scene does need to be mentioned, especially because of how unpleasant it is. I personally find rape one of the most reprehensible things a person can do, so I was not having a good time with that scene. Which I suppose means it did its job. But beneath all this difficulty is a very strong movie about friendship.

And what a friendship. Thelma and Louise are two very different characters that manage to bounce off each other incredibly well. Despite their vast differences, these two are believable as friends. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but they do have excellent on-screen chemistry and it’s easy to see why Louise still sticks by her buddy despite the worst things that happen to them.

Both characters are also hugely sympathetic. Thelma is alarmingly ditzy at times, but her naivety has a degree of innocence to it, almost as if being with her controlling husband has reduced her to this state, especially with her increasingly coming out of her shell as the movie progresses. Louise is harder and sterner, but there’s a genuine affection for her friend, and the permanent sense that she’s been hardened through trauma. Both women are excellent characters played perfectly, and that was the main thing this movie needed to get right.

Performances are also excellent from the supporting cast. Brad Pitt is charming and sleazy in equal measure, Harvey Kietel is surprisingly sympathetic in his role as a “villain” and it’s hard to not feel sorry for Michael Madsen’s character for getting wrapped up in something he doesn’t know all the details of, but supporting Louise all the same.

The movie has had accusations of being “man-hating” and “anti-men”, and while certainly Thelma’s would-be rapist, Thelma’s husband and Brad Pitt (basically all men Thelma directly has to deal with, funnily enough) are all absolute shits, Kietel and Madsen are played sympathetically, which is especially odd with both of them famously playing amoral jewel thieves only a year later in Reservoir Dogs. There’s a balance between awful men and reasonably OK men. It’s just that everyone in this movie is a deeply flawed character, so it probably just seems that all the men are portrayed in a bad light. The heroines don’t get off much easier, after all. And in a world where everyone’s an asshole, isn’t that true equality?

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plot points are a tad melodramatic, and the increasingly extreme problems the duo face can get a little silly. In addition, Thelma’s naivety can get a little grating, even going as far as deciding that being on the run is the perfect time to get some sexin’ from a random man who openly admits to being a thief. This section of the movie also slows the pace a little too much in the context of everything else. But oddly, everything holds together well on the characterisation alone.

So, basically, the flaws are pretty minor. Thelma & Louise is ultimately an excellent movie about friendship, feminism and felonies, and I highly recommend it.

Starring Geena Davis & Susan Sarandon
Written by Callie Khouri
Produced by Mimi Polk Gitlin & Ridley Scott
Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography by Adrian Biddle
Edited by Thom Noble

Favourite Scene: Thelma pointing a gun at a police officer was pretty damn badass, it has to be said
Scene That Bugged Me: Seriously, now is not the best time to have sex with Brad Pitt!

Watch it if: You like road movies, revenge movies or movies about genuine female friendship
Avoid it if: You’re expecting a happy ending

#263 Strangers On A Train

(1951, Alfred Hitchcock)
“My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer”

Hello I am a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and this is often considered one of his best. Therefore today I am going to replace my normal review with a single sentence that says “it’s a Hitchcock movie, so yes”.

That’s a copout? Dammit. Fine, I’ll write a proper review. But only if you murder someone for me.

No, not really. But that is the plot of Strangers On A Train. Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is looking to divorce his cheating wife Miriam (Laura Elliot) so that he can marry the more elegant Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). On a train journey, he meets a man named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), and the two get talking. In the process, Bruno suggests the perfect murder – Bruno murders Miriam, Guy murders Bruno’s father, and neither will ever be suspected. Guy is naturally reluctant, but Bruno goes ahead and executes his part of the “deal”, and now expects Guy to uphold his end of the bargain.

When I first heard about the movie, the concept seemed incredibly implausible – who in their right mind would agree to commit murder with a random person on a train? But once I started watching, it made sense. One man is crazy and openly admitting to psychopathic tendencies and the other is reluctant and doesn’t know what to do about him, getting himself unwittingly involved in a murder without knowing.

The concept even manages to address its single plot hole – why doesn’t Guy just go to the police after some random man starts talking to him about murder? Granger’s performance makes it pretty clear that Guy is the kind of man who’d simply prefer to pretend it never happened, and that he was too awkward to approach the police. The fact this can be picked up rather subtly is a testament to the performances here.

Aside from Granger, who is an excellent everyman and hugely sympathetic for the bizarre situation he’s found himself in, Walker is also utterly terrifying as Bruno. He’s alarmingly polite and charming with an unmistakeable sinister edge, and he’s creepy as hell.

There are times, however, when he’s a little too over-the-top. There’s a scene at a party that Guy is attending and Bruno decides to crash where the latter skulks about being noticeably odd (which is commented on by other attendees) and even attempts to strangle a woman, but still escapes scot-free. It’s bizarre.

Then again, the conversation with the women that led to the strangling was hugely weird anyway. Casually discussing murder as if it’s some jolly romp and then allowing a random man to demonstrate strangling techniques on you is some strange form of ignorance that could only possibly exist in an alien civilisation that has no concept of murder or, I don’t know, the issues of letting a stranger put his hands on your neck!

Oddly enough, though, that scene was my only complaint. As is typical with Hitchcock movies, Strangers On A Train is tense and mysterious, drawing suspense not from a whodunit, but from wondering exactly what will happen to Guy if he doesn’t hold his end of the supposed deal. Will he do it? Will he try and escape? Where will this dangerous game lead?

And it all builds up to an incredibly dramatic climax involving a thrilling fight on an out-of-control carousel. It’s a little silly, but Hitchcock made it work within the film’s universe. The ending was also immensely satisfying and the final scene was another fine example of Hitchcock’s dark humour, and I loved it.

That said, it wasn’t as good as The Birds, Psycho, Rear Window or even Frenzy, but it certainly felt more tightly-woven together than Vertigo or Spellbound. It’s definitely somewhere in the middle, and it’s another example of why Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors of all time.

Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman & Robert Walker
Written by Patricia Highsmith (novel) and Whitfield Cooke, Czenzi Ormonde & Raymond Chandler
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Music by Dimitri Tomikin
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by William H. Ziegler

Favourite Scene: When Guy appears to agree to hold up his end of the “bargain”, the movie is just dripping in tension and gluing me to the screen.
Scene That Bugged Me: That damn strangling scene! No, not the actual murder, the other scene!

Watch it if: You like Hitchcock, obviously
Avoid it if: You, for some reason, don’t like murder thrillers (what’s wrong with you?)