Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Pan's Labyrinth : Is It actually any good? Really?

Controversial. Sacrilege, you might say. The Spanish language film directed by acclaimed Guillerme Del Toro in 2006, and released to widespread critical praise won countless awards, including 3 Oscars, and rose to the top of many "Best Of" lists for films that year.

Now the thing with praise is that it can sometimes disguise the reality. A Chinese whisper effect takes place as journalists communicate to one another that x film is the coolest thing ever, and they fall over themselves to heap superlatives upon it. The problem with this? Ever heard of the Emperor's New Clothes? There are films which you're told you will like, that you must like because everyone else does are often a disappointment. The best films often one where one has the least expectations or foreknowledge, discovered by accident while flicking channels, or taking a punt on a movie we've never heard of at the cinema. Perhaps it's something to do with consciously trying too hard, engaging the mind instead of letting the experience of a film hit you.

So, it was with trepidation that I sat down to finally watch Pan's Labyrinth on Sunday night. Suffice to say I was not disappointed. The story in set in Spain in 1944, as the battle to rid the country of rebels against the fascist rule of Franciso Franco is taking place, in this post-civil war period. Ofelia, a young girl of 11 who is in love with fantasy tales and literature, accompanies her pregnant mother to her step father, a ruthless captain working to wipe out the resistance to Franco's regime.

As they join Ofelia's new step father in the mountain ranges of North West Spain, the young girl discovers a Labyrinth, stealing away at night to follow a cricket which turns into a fairy, to find a mythical Faun creature in an underground lair who tells her that she is in fact Princess Moanna, giving her 3 tasks to complete before she is allowed to return to the underworld.

This magical world of mythic creatures and quests is counterpoised, as it unfolds against the harsh backdrop of a world in which the battle between the fascists and the rebels continues, as Ofelia also discovers a housemaid, Mercedes, and the resident doctor in the barracks are also assisting the rebels who hide in the hills, with brutal consequences.

The tale is in a sense like a modern day Peter Pan, with the young girl choosing to renounce the evils of the adult world for a fantasy which may, or may not actually exist. The ambiguity of the fantasy reminded me of the programme Life On Mars, and to a lesser extent, films like Fight Club and A Beautiful Mind, in the sense that the spectacle we are witnessing may or may not be real, but we are participating in a version of reality through the eyes of someone who is either crazy, or has visionary insight into another, fantastical reality, and is confronted with a choice.

It was a visceral experience, moving and highly emotional. You'll see in my earlier reviews from this summer, that I found Hellboy II to be over-rated, due to the presence of Del Toro as director. Visually stunning but lacking in a strong, engaging narrative. After seeing this earlier film I can now appreciate where the critical praise has come from. So, do believe the hype, after all.

Hack Rating 4/5

Monday, 29 September 2008

Paul Newman : RIP

Legendary screen actor Paul Newman passed away this weekend aged 83 at his home in Connecticut, after a long battle with cancer. Tributes have poured in from all corners of the film world to celebrate the contribution of an actor who worked across six decades of cinema.

Newman, who was a gunner in World War II, was instantly recognisable for his piercing blue eyes and, like contemporaries such as Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen he had a rebellious, outsider persona, with key performances in movies such as Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Hustler, and Hud.

He studied at the famous Actors Studio in New York, soon after appearing in religious drama The Silver Chalice. He was so embarrassed by his performance that the often self-deprecating actor took out an advert in Variety magazine to apologise for his performance.

Nominated for 10 Oscars, including one for directing his wife in Rachel Rachel. His 50 year marriage to his wife was a Hollywood rarity, and succeeded partly because he remained the outsider from world of movie celebrity, mirroring the unconforming nature of his performances. He eventually got his break playing boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).

A famous humanitarian, he was such a supporter of liberal causes that he made it onto President Nixon's enemies list, claiming it was the single biggest honour he had received. Newman set up a food retail company, donating all profits to charity, which currently total approximately $250 million, as well as making considerable donations to various charities with with he was involved, including a $10 million donation to charity of which he was a member.

Newman worked on 60 movies, alongside such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Redford, finally winning his Oscar in 1986 for The Color Of Money.

late in his career he continued to gain distinction for his performance in 2002's Road To Perdition. Of his contribution, director Sam Mendes said, "“To say he was an extraordinary man would be an understatement.

“For me personally, working with him was the highlight of my professional life. He saw himself as a working actor, not a movie star, and insisted that everyone else did the same. There was no ego, no entourage, no hangers on. Only Paul, his script and his incredible spirit. One can say this about very few people, but he was a truly great man.”

Monday, 22 September 2008

Taking The Proverbial: Top Five Spoof Movies

With the release of Ben Stiller's cod-epic war extravaganza Tropic Thunder hitting the big screen last Friday, I decided it was time to look at a handful of classic spoof movies that subvert and play with existing movie conventions.....

1. Spaceballs (1987): Mel Brooks' take on the Star Wars triology, Star Trek and other futuristic nonsense, given the po-faced original (Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas, "you can type this shit, but you can't read it"), was like shooting fish in a barrel, with characters including Dark Helmet (played by Rick Moranis), Yogurt (re: Yoda, d'uh), and Pizza the Hut, and a story involving a galaxy far, far away. An animated TV sequel hit US networks just last weekend. Top Quality Quote: Dark Helmet, aiming magic "Shwartz" ring at Lone Starr's privates, "Say goodbye to your two best friends, and I don't mean your pals in the Winnebago".

2. Airplane! (1980): The 70s was the decade of the disaster movie, beginning with Airport (1970), and ending with this definitive spoof flick, making a name for Leslie Neilsen in the process. A fairly simple plot which involves a veteran pilot conquering his fears to land a commercial flight when it is stricken by a case of food poisoning, it provides some of the funniest laughs ever in a movie, and some immortal dialogue. Airplane also made it into AFI's Top 100 funniest films ever, at No 10. Top Quality Quote: "Surely you can't be serious" "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley".

3. This Is Spinal Tap (1984): My personal favourite from this, or any list of comedy films, this early eighties mock documentary about a fictional British band on a promotional tour in the US for their album "Smell The Glove". Famously unfunny to rock musicians of actual bands, including Steve Tyler and Eddie Van Halen, who found the humour too close to home, most of the laughs are improvised by the 3 Americans Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, with perfect accents, setting the standard for future generations of character comedians and fans of the documentary format, including Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen. Top Quality Quote: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever".

4. Austin Powers Trilogy (1997-2002): The International Man of Mystery, and all-round ladies man, Mike Myers' comic creation obviously owed a debt to James Bond movies, and the spy genre, which provide fertile ground for hilarity. Shag-adelic Powers is a 60s spy who escapes from his own decade and the clutches of nemesis Dr Evil, with the help of cryogenic freezing. He then thaws out in the late 1990s, finding social mores have changed (sadly free love isn't the order of the day anymore), while his battle with the arch enemy re-initiates. Oh, and watch out for characters with names like Fat Bastard, Felicity Shagwell, and Alotta Fagina. Top Quality Quote: Dr. Evil: "Begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism".

5. Blazing Saddles (1974): Another Mel Brooks classic, this satire of Western movies sends up every convention of the genre. The story involves a corrupt politician who appoints a black man as the new sherriff of a small town in the Old American West where everyone has the surname Johnson, is not for the politically correct, containing the use of the word "nigger" 17 times - it was partly written by none other than Richard Pryor, by way of explanation. The black comedian's sparring partner Gene Wilder plays the Waco Kid in the flick, while screen cowboy John Wayne refused a cameo in the movie, fearing it was "too dirty" for his wholesome image. Top Quality Quote: "You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons".

Friday, 19 September 2008

Top Five Political Movies

With the forthcoming release of W., the biopic of outgoing American president, dubya, and Frost/Nixon, which depicts the famous, highly controversial interviews conducted with the disgraced former US leader, it looks like Hollywood is going all political and gearing itself up for the forthcoming elections.

Having a penchant for going a bit Ben Elton myself, I thought I'd get in a bit of politics, and give you a rundown of my Top 5 Political movies, in no particular order......

1. All The Presidents Men (1976): The definitive movie about US politics, and the perfect companion piece to Frost/Nixon. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman shine in the real-life story of 2 investigative reporters working on the Washington Post, who uncover a scandal involving President Nixon's re-election campaign, or Watergate, as it became known. The work of the journalists ultimately contributed to the impeachment of the President, and the film won several academy awards. Top Trivia: The makers initially tried to film the movie in the actual Washington Post newsroom, but it proved impossible, as the real-life employees tried to "act", some even disappearing off to the gents to apply make-up!

2. Scandal (1989): Telling the story of John Profumo (played by the least likely ladies man, Ian McKellen), the British Cabinet Minister who in 1963 had an affair with showgirl Christine Keeler (played by the rather lovely Joanne Whalley), who was also romantically involved with a known Russian spy. The Minister then lied about the relationship on being questioned in Parliament, and the affair ultimately contributed to the collapse of Harold MacMillan's Conservative government. Top Trivia: There were complaints that some extras can be seen having unsimulated sex during an orgy scene, which turned out to be the result of an unfocussed candlestick. The film was however still re-edited to obtain an R certificate in the US.

3. Dave (1993): Not the Freeview channel for endless Top Gear repeats, but an early nineties comedy starring Kevin Klein as a lookalike of the corrupt incumbent president, and who steps in at the behest of a manipulative Whitehouse insider when the real leader suffers a stroke. The "what if" scenario paves the way for comedy moments, and well-intentioned liberal stuff about how a regular citizen untainted by the Washington machine can do the right thing. Top Trivia: Several fictionalised broadcasts from actual US TV shows were recorded for the film, including Tonight Show starring Jay Leno, and Larry King Live, where Oliver Stone sends up himself by suggesting a conspiracy theory which, it turns out, reflects the unlikely events of the movie.

4. JFK (1991): Talking of conspiracies, movies and Oliver Stone, another early nineties gem detailing the events surround the death of 35th US President (and Marilyn Monroe conquest) John Franklin Kennedy. Kevin Costner plays a District Attorney helping the government investigation, uncovers the inevitable covering up of a conspiracy which allegedly goes to the highest echeons of power. Top Trivia: The film caused such a public outcry upon it's release, that it lead to the opening of the "Assassination Records Review Board", a government body which worked for 6 years collating documents and conducting interviews relating to the death of the much-loved President in order to ensure there was no cover-up.

5 The Manchurian Candidate (1962) A Cold War political thriller starring Frank Sinatra, and a young Angela Lansbury, the idea of the story is that the son of a prominent right-wing politician has been brainwashed in order to instigate an International Communist Conspiracy, using false memories. Far superior to the 2004 remake, the film has a rare 100% rating on film site Rotten Tomatoes. Top Trivia: Hollywood rumours suggest that Sinatra had the film withdrawn from circulation following the JFK assassination.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Preview: London Film Festival 15th - 30th October

The 52nd London Film Festival kicks off this year will showcase new work by film makers including Steven Soderbergh, Michael Winterbottom, Haile Gerima, Arnaud Desplechin, Takeshi Kitano and Shyam Benegal.

Event will also include "Screen Talks" sessions with Danny Boyle, Michael Sheen and Robert Carlyle, and celebrities in attendance will include Benicio Del Toro, Gwyneth Paltrow, Omar Sharif, Liam Neeson, Penelope Cruz, Nanni Moretti and Rachel Weisz.

5 Movies to Look Out For at LFF

1. Che (Part 1 & Part 2) - Fascinating biopic of revolutionary hero Che Guevara by Steven Sodebergh, tracing his rise from obscurity to military leader. Worth it to see the ever-excellent Benicio Del Toro in the lead role (Parts 1 & 2 on 25 Oct, Part 1 on 27 Oct, Part 2 on 29 Oct).

2. Hunger - Disturbing and compelling depiction of the 1981 IRA Hungerstrike, a debut movie by Turner-Winning artist Steve McQueen, uncovering an important piece of recent British history (19 & 20 Oct).

3. Quantum Of Solace Daniel Craig returns in his second outing as the legendary secret agent. The first public screening of the movie, which premieres 2 days later (29 Oct).

4. Slumdog Millionaire - Trainspotting and 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle's touching story of the hard life young man from the ghettos of Mumbai who aces his way through India's Who Wants to Be a millionnaire . The film won the Cadillac People's Choice Award earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival(30 Oct).

5. W. - Oliver Stone's take on George W Bush and his story as he rises from alcoholic bum to leader of free world, with crumpet from Thandie Newton as Condonleeza Rice (23 Oct & 24 Oct).

In additional to a total of 189 feature films including these, and lots of interviews, events, and debates, the National Film and Television School will also hold screenwriting classes with Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) prior to showing his new film Synecdoche, New York which will be premiered for UK audiences after being first shown earlier this year at Cannes. Writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King Of Scotland) will also discuss the fine art of screenwriting prior to the prior to premiere of the hotly anticipated Frost/Nixon.