The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Paul Thomas Anderson cited this film as his chief inspiration of his magnum opus There Will Be Blood and it’s easy to see why. John Huston’s adaptation of mysterious writer B. Traven’s 1927 novel, is as exciting as it is unnerving and plays as a cautionary tale on the dangers of wealth and greed.
In 1920s Mexico, struggling Americans Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) befriend wise old Howard (Walter Huston) and together they set off to find their fortune in gold on the Sierra Madre mountains. On the way they encounter bandits and deal with a fellow avaricious American, and soon enough the cracks in their friendship show through as they are consumed by greed and mistrust.
This masterpiece is justly one of only 500 justly selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.’ Perhaps most significantly, it is an exhilarating classic action adventure (it’s easy to see a bit Indiana Jones in Bogart’s rugged Dobbs) that is actually about something worth saying. ‘As long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow… that’s when the trouble starts,’ says Howard.
Although it’s filled with action, there’s still room for brilliant performances especially from Bogart who becomes more and more paranoid. The scene in which he maniacally talks himself to sleep after shooting his friend, with the hellish campfire licking the screen is particularly creepy. But it was Walter Huston, the director’s father, who would walk away with an Oscar for his performance as the enthusiastic Howard. His son picked up Oscars for directing and writing, which remains the only instance in which a father and son have won Academy Awards in the same year – a fitting tribute to an excellent film.
Shame list total: 1,211
Double Indemnity (1944)
Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) visits the home of businessman Mr Dietrichson to discuss a policy renewal. Dietrichson isn’t home so instead he rampantly hits on his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and together they hatch a plan to kill her husband and nick off with the money. Of course, it doesn’t go according to plan thanks mainly to Neff’s cigar-chomping Columbo-style boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Adapted from James M. Cain’s novel by director Billy Wilder with the help of one Raymond Chandler, the man behind hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe, this is the ultimate film noir. Such hardboiled detectives are nowhere to be seen but the film is full of shadows, murder, greed and a great femme fatale. The film never lets up for a second but it takes you with it – sparky dialogue allows for plot to be told on the run. Many of the most gripping scenes such as Neff coming face to face with Jackson (Porter Hall) the only man who could possibly identify him as a killer, creep up and take you unawares such is the quality of the script and the acting. MacMurray is great as Neff, the nice, mild-mannered insurance salesman turned murderous lover, and Stanwyck is suitably melodramatic. The real draw, though, is Robinson as the tenacious Keyes. There is a great staging device in which a wounded Neff shows up at his office in the middle of the night to tell the whole story by way of dictating a confession. The fact that Keyes is a friend first and a colleague second makes way for a gripping and moving finale.
Shame list total: 1,212
The Squid and the Whale (2006)
Conspicuously autobiographical having been based on writer-director Noah Baumbach’s own experiences of growing up in the middle of his parents’ messy divorce, The Squid and the Whale takes a bitter view of marriage, parenting and people in general. Teacher Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) is a ferociously intellectual one-time best-selling author who isn’t dealing well with the fact that his wife Joan (Laura Linney) is now more successful than him as a critic. When they decide to get a divorce, their children deal with it in a variety of odd ways. Teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) puts his father on a pedestal which makes him awkward and pompous – a kind of cerebral Napoleon Dynamite. He is caught out for claiming a Pink Floyd song as his own and defends himself by saying that he believes he could have written it had someone else not beaten him to it. Bernard’s way of bonding with younger son Frank (Owen Kline), who messily discovers alcohol and masturbation, is to curse his way through their tennis games, something that rubs off on Frank without him even noticing. All this acid is fuelled by great performances, especially from Jeff Daniels – Bernard, with his serious demeanour, corduroy jacket and academic beard, is a resentful, jealous, deluded, selfish bastard, and a bad father to boot. The handheld direction gives the film that extra dollop of squalor and realism, and considering the perpetually brownish tint (dusty hardback books and unpainted walls abound) it’s quite fast-paced. Still, despite the zippy brutality of the dialogue, it ultimately feels rather empty.
The Wrestler (2008)
Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was a big wrestling star in the 1980s. He still wrestles but he also has to work part time at a supermarket and he can barely afford to pay the rent in his shitty trailer park. This is his life, and we’re with him for every bloodstained second.
When he suffers a heart attack after a particularly bloody match in which his back is studded with staples, he is told that he cannot put any strain on his heart. Knowing that he’s doomed, he becomes desperate to make some kind of human connection with stripper Cassidy (an excellent Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter Stephanie (an equally impressive Evan Rachel Wood).
Such realism is a far cry from the surreal nightmares that abound in director Darren Aronofsky’s previous work. Brutal fight scenes cut to Randy entering the locker room to cheerful applause from his peers; men he beats to a pulp hug him with genuine respect.
Jump cuts like this give The Wrestler its home movie feel and reveal its theme of duality that makes it so fascinating – Randy has trouble balancing his persona with his own identity. While working on a deli counter, a customer recognises Randy as ‘The Ram’. His reaction is to jam his thumb into the meat slicer and quit in dramatic, theatrical fashion.
Such scenes work because of Mickey Rourke’s sheer intensity – his incredible performance is the film, and it turns what could have been pure trash into a surprisingly deep and unforgettable drama.
Role Models (2009)
Paul Rudd is a genius. For years he has been an indie comedy staple, and more often than not his presence in a film is what makes it so enjoyable. So when he takes the lead in a film he co-wrote, it’s not surprising that the result is pure comedy gold.
When disgruntled energy drink salesman Danny (Rudd) and his colleague Wheeler (Seann William Scott) trash their work truck, their faced with the choice of going to jail or community service. Choosing the latter, the pair join child-mentoring scheme Sturdy Wings. Danny’s charge is Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) – an awkward, shy teen, obsessed with medieval role playing society LAIRE – while Wheeler has to look after foul-mouthed, racist, sexist, black kid Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson).
Danny and Wheeler’s reticence and irresponsibility eventually turns to fatherly affection but not before Wheeler loses Robbie at a party and Danny gets Augie kicked out of his beloved LAIRE. The script successfully balances sickly sentimentality (Danny’s dinner table confrontation with Augie’s parents is particularly sweet) with adult humour (Wheeler giving Robbie a lesson in ogling) mainly due to the quality of the acting talent. Paul Rudd’s intuitive talent allows him to switch between potty-mouthed outbursts and convincing emotion with such ease, but the real pleasure is watching the younger performers let rip. Bobb’e J. Thompson’s outrageous dialogue will leave you in hysterics and Christopher Mintz-Plasse shows a range that was unapparent from Superbad. If that wasn’t enough, the LAIRE battle royale finale will have you punching the air.
The week before I also watched Lakeview Terrace and completely forgot to review it. So…
Lakeview Terrace (2008)
LAPD officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) is a good guy on the surface – a model cop and devoted family man. When newlyweds Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) move in next door, Abel takes offence at their interracial relationship and becomes a force to be reckoned with. Confrontations that begin with all too familiar annoying neighbours stuff (intrusive floodlights, a petty fight over a hedge) get really ugly when the gloves come off.
Samuel L. Jackson has always been a likeable star and here he is, as ever, pure charisma. Seldom has he been so intimidating – it’s easy to forget that he usually plays heroes rather than out-an-out villains. He manages to imbue Abel with a vicious charm while spitting his dictatorial politics (because black people can be racist too). As he turns from rude to menacing to downright nasty with alarming speed, the perfectly pleasant Chris and Lisa have to find hitherto unearthed reserves of willpower and strength to stand up to him.
As Abel’s worldview collides with the Mattsons’, director Neil LaBute pits violence against luxury – shootings take place by the side of a pool, Chris loses his cool at a party at Abel’s house. Writers David Loughery and Howard Korder also manage to give the film a kinetic energy rare in such thrillers. Sadly this means that it peaks a little too soon so that after such sharp escalation, not even Jackson’s powerhouse performance can’t save it from a formulaic finale.
I also re-watched The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day in preparation of Terminator Salvation. The original is much better than I remembered – taut and as menacing as its title character. The sequel is sadly not quite as good as I remembered – despite the groundbreaking special effects, it’s a flabby beast that replaces plot with explosions. Schwarzenegger’s acting has certainly improved but now that he’s the goodie and beshtesht fwends with annoying little squeaky twat Edward Furlong, he’s turned into an overgrown teddy bear. Still, it’s faster paced than its predecessor and makes good use of Robert Patrick as the truly sinister T-1000.
The number of people who say Star Trek when they mean Star Wars (and vice versa) is remarkable. It’s not just laymen either – it’s a faux pas occasionally made by even the spottiest Comic-Con attendee.
It’s an easy mistake to make. Not only do the names sound similar but the two franchises are weighty beasts, and both have obsessive fanbases that range from graduates in Klingon to those who dress as Han Solo to get married.
Sci-fi nerds must be a scary bunch to film directors especially to those who are tackling the beginnings of such impenetrable lore as the birth of James Tiberius Kirk. J.J. Abrams seems undaunted though. After conquering TV schedules with Alias and Lost, making Mission: Impossible cool again and dazzling audiences with Godzilla-meets-The-Blair-Witch-Project sci-fi-horror Cloverfield, Star Trek probably sounded like an easy undertaking. He clearly knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing here is making a Star Trek film that’s significantly not for diehards.
Opening with a blistering battle in which Kirk is born seconds before his father bravely sacrifices his life for his crew, this is a film which grabs you by the pointy ears from the beginning and never lets go. Next up, Spock’s childhood in which he’s picked on for having a human mother (played inexplicably but not unsuccessfully by Winona Ryder). It becomes clear early on that the film is all about these two characters meeting and becoming friends – the other iconic characters are merely picked up along the way, and that is the film’s secret weapon.
The casting is so effortlessly perfect that it seems as if this handful of actors will actually grow up to become the characters they portray. Chris Pine makes for a suave, laidback Kirk and creates a great sense of camaraderie among his new crew. As well as looking the part, Zachary Quinto is as conflicted as Spock as he is menacing as über-baddie Sylar in TV’s Heroes. Top marks also to Zoe Saldana for her sexy Uhura and Karl Urban for his gruff Bones. But for the most part, the acting hits just the right balance between impersonation and performance, finding unique character beats between each ‘Dammit Jim’ and ‘Illogical captain’.
But this is not just a showcase for funny accents (yes, Pegg, that means you) and party pieces. This is a sci-fi film after all, and the action truly stands out. From the opening battle, to Kirk running from a giant unidentified beastie, it’s a breathless two hours that manages to thrill and amuse. One of the most exciting scenes has Kirk, Sulu (John Cho) and a random crew member dressed in red, in a death-defying skydive onto a midair Romulan platform followed by a good old-fashioned punch-up. Needless to say, only two survive.
Such in-jokes are mainstream enough for the uninitiated to appreciate – it’s a neat trick showing non-Trekkies that they know more about the characters and situations than they think they do. Even without all that, it is, above all else, fun. The script zings with witty banter, the odd bit of slapstick and some fast-paced plotting that sees Romulan Nero (a dastardly Eric Bana) travel back in time to seek vengeance on a key character. Let the plot wash over you for best results.
That Abrams has turned such a vast, unwieldy piece of pop culture into a colourful, shiny and easily digestible piece of entertainment is no mean feat. A sequel is already on the cards so we can look forward to more adventures in a galaxy far, far away. Or is that the other one?
Since I have failed to update my blog for nine weeks, I thought that rather than doing nine separate posts, I’d do one big round up which takes this blog past its first birthday. Starting, then with the shame list itself:
Being There (1979)
When simple gardener Chance’s (Peter Sellers) elderly boss dies, he is forced to leave the house he grew up in for the very first time. He stumbles upon rich Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine at her most sexy and enchanting) who becomes infatuated with him. When his off-the-cuff speeches about gardening are taken as Zen-like wisdom, he becomes a national celebrity. Chance gave Sellers the role that summed up his life, so it was fitting that it was one of his last performances. ‘I have absolutely no personality at all,’ he once said. ‘I am a chameleon. When I am not playing a role, I am nobody.’ He imbues that level of blankness in Chance beautifully – a simple man raised by TV (like a cross between Forrest Gump, Truman Burbank and Jim Carrey’s cable guy), he is disarmingly polite, smart, softly spoken, honest. The misunderstandings create wonderfully absurd comedy, but Being There is so much more than just two hours of people talking at cross purposes – it is both gentle and foreboding, with a soft autumnal feel making it a richly rewarding journey, even if the controversial ending does give the film an unnecessary other dimension.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
It’s easy to see why Forbidden Planet is so influential. In sci-fi terms, it’s got it all – pioneering special effects, lavish sets, great costumes, robots, monsters, action, romance, laser guns and flying saucers. A spaceship travels to the far reaches of space to investigate a mysterious planet only to find that one of its two inhabitants has a dark and scary secret. While fairly slow paced until near the end when an invisible threat attacks, it’s a wonderfully immersive experience.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s violent balls-out Western is lauded as being one of the best of its genre. While certainly a great story (a bunch of ageing outlaws plan ‘one last job’), it’s a long slog punctuated with lots of clichéd drunken cackling and thigh slapping. Still, the dialogue zings, the performances are spirited and there are some great scenes including a train hold up and the final shoot out.
Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
After The Wild Bunch, I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of another long Western. I needn’t have worried since this is one of the best films I’ve discovered in the past 12 months. Charles Bronson is captivating as the mysterious ‘Harmonica’, Henry Fonda plays against type as utter bastard Frank and Claudia Cardinale is just gorgeous as Jill McBain, the widow whose late husband’s money provides the MacGuffin for a tale of greedy bandits and honourable gunslingers with a score to settle. Long and slow it may be, but every shot is so piercing and intense, that I wanted it to go on longer.
Seven Samurai (1954)
In 16th century Japan, farmers in a small village hire seven samurai to fight off a group of dastardly bandits intent on stealing their crops. A great story filled with comedy, tragedy and action, but it’s frankly too bloody long.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
In 1970s Michigan, a group of male friends become obsessed with five sisters who struggle against their oppressive mother and all commit suicide. Based on the debut novel by Pulitzer prize-winning Jeffrey Eugenides’, The Virgin Suicides suffers from literary adaptation fever – so many directors adapting ‘worthy’ novels inevitably resort to using an annoying and lazy voiceover. There are some great performances particularly from James Woods as the girls’ disconnected father, and it builds up tension in a strange, woozy fashion aided by a dreamy soundtrack by Air, but it ultimately fizzles out. Thankfully, Sofia Coppola’s direction is distracting enough to rescue the film from its narrative failings – the soft feel is closer in tone and style to Marie Antoinette than the superior Lost in Translation, but it makes for a surreal and unique teen film.
Shame list total: 1,213
Also watched over the past nine weeks were:
Eden Lake (2008)
A young couple go camping at the titular lake only to be terrorised by a gang of young tearaways. High in concept and tension, this provocative and deeply unsettling British thriller is all the more terrifying for the fact that this kind of thing actually does happen all the time. The film succeeds in that it doesn’t ram its politics down your throat – the social commentary is implied, never forced. With that level of responsibility bestowed, nay pushed on the audience allows writer/director James Watkins to be as brutal as he wants. The camera mercilessly shows you everything – knives on flesh, broken glass in necks, people on fire, a sickening Stanley knife scene – and each horrific scene gives way to one even more hideous and cruel. Characters this shockingly realistic are a testament to the quality of both the screenplay and acting. Rather than allowing the audience to adopt a lazy ‘fucking kids’ attitude, the film puts as much blame on irresponsible, ignorant adults, and ultimately it lets you make up your own mind.
Little Children (2006)
Brad (Patrick Wilson) is married to Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). Sarah (Kate Winslet) is married to Richard (Gregg Edelman). Brad starts an affair with Sarah. Both couples have kids and creepy sex offender Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) lives nearby. The plot revolves around those key facts, but despite its meandering story, Little Children gets by on a few great scenes (including ones set at a public swimming pool, a book group and a shocking scene in a parked car) and some excellent performances, especially from Jackie Earle Haley as the troubled mummy’s boy, and a surprisingly good turn by Noah Emmerich displaying complex fragile machismo. The direction is inconsistent (the tone shifts between American Beauty, When Harry Met Sally and Desperate Housewives) and there’s an annoying, unnecessary voiceover which marks it a little too obviously as a literary adaptation. It builds slowly and doesn’t quite deliver the big ending, but it’s ultimately a satisfying story until the voiceover ruins it by ramming home the message that you’d already worked out.
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Lovable chubby panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) unexpectedly becomes the mythical Dragon Warrior and is trained by wise red panda Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) to defeat evil snow leopard Tai Lung (voiced, improbably, by Ian McShane). It may sound like lightweight kiddy fare, but Kung Fu Panda is easily the best animation that Dreamworks has produced since Shrek, maybe surpassing even that. The voice cast really shines, although having never seen Deadwood, I still can’t get past the idea of Lovejoy playing a nasty piece of work. What really impresses, though, are some great training and fighting scenes, and stunning visuals. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for kids.
The Escapist (2008)
If prison movies are a sub-genre, then prison breakout movies are a sub-sub-genre. The Escapist is what happens when you take The Shawshank Redemption to England, give it a shot of adrenaline and a cast of kick-ass character actors with an Italian Job-style caper feeling of camaraderie. Twelve years into a life sentence Frank Perry (Brian Cox) discovers that his estranged daughter is ill. Determined to make his peace with her, he recruits a bunch of cons to help him escape. Director Rupert Wyatt confidently cuts between two timelines – the planning which often feels like a good old-fashioned caper, and the exciting escape itself. Wyatt manages to get real drama out of every shot, thanks largely to his superb cast. Brian Cox is, as ever, electrifying as world-weary Frank and Joseph Fiennes (yes, pretty boy Shakespeare) is believable as a hard-as-nails mentalist, but the real joy is Damian Lewis as head screw Rizza – softly spoken and terrifying. Despite the action that precedes it, the surprisingly moving twist ending does not feel out of place.
If anyone asks why Clint Eastwood the director is as prolific and respected as Clint Eastwood the actor, just show them Changeling. In 1928, single parent Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) who returns home from work to find her nine-year-old son missing. After five months of searching, the LAPD announce the return of her son, but she insists that the boy they find is not her son. Fraught and emotional, she harangues the police only to wind up in a mental institution. With help from Pastor Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), she takes on the whole of the LAPD and continues searching for her boy. Those that criticise the film for its length are missing the point entirely – that Eastwood manages to condense the unbelievable true story that spans seven years into less than three hours without ever losing the film’s focus is no mean feat. Because true stories seldom fit a narratological pattern, Eastwood picks and chooses from different genres: one minute it’s a conspiracy thriller, the next it’s a courtroom drama, the next a hardboiled noir making room for some stunning visuals. Jolie is hugely impressive as Collins as slowly transforms from loving mother to steely crusader, her politeness gradually wearing down into grim determination. Malkovich is as intense as ever as the no-nonsense reverend, and Jeffrey Donovan is perfectly oily as the LAPD captain J. J. Jones – it’s the kind of role that Guy Pearce would play with relish. Presumably he was busy.
Eagle Eye (2008)
D.J. Caruso is going to have to work hard to shake his Hitchcock copycat reputation. After virtually remaking Rear Window for the iPod generation, he brings back his leading man of choice (man of the moment Shia LeBeouf) to the kind of wronged- man-on-the-run thriller that Hitch did so well. So it’s a bit like North By Northwest, only not as good. Jerry Shaw (LeBeouf) comes home to his flat only to find it full of the kind of weaponry that requires three UPS trucks to deliver. A phone call from a mysterious woman tells him to exit his apartment immediately. So begins a cat-and-mouse rollercoaster that sees him team up with fellow victim Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) to run from FBI agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton). There are also a lot of car chases, helicopters, explosions and guns. The film has been accused of making no sense but because it’s a 21st century techno thriller, it verges on the sci-fi which means there’s also a lot of shiny high-tech gadgetry and smoothly flowing screens that have somehow wandered in from the set of Minority Report. So of course it doesn’t make sense – does it make sense that HAL tries to kill Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Its biggest sin is in being half an hour too long and guilty of further typecasting its star LeBeouf – who is born for the screen – as a loveable wretch. Better to switch off your brain, let the ridiculousness of the plot wash over you and enjoy the overblown, brainless fun.
American Gangster (2007)
How many gangster films set in America have there been? Loads. How many of them are called American Gangster? One. Despite its arrogant title, Ridley Scott’s true crime epic is a gangster film, not the gangster film but at least it’s the real deal. In the 1970s, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) becomes the biggest importer of heroin in Harlem by buying directly from the source in Thailand. While he’s busy becoming king of New York, Newark detective Richie Roberts, the one honest cop in a city of corruption, is put in charge of a task force to stop major drug trafficking. They may be real people but they’re still recognisable cookie-cutter characters – Washington plays Charismatic Badass (see also Training Day), while Russell Crowe plays Shabby Maverick Hero (see also The Insider). Scott, however, tells the story with his trademark panache even if the final showdown between these two Hollywood heavyweights falls somewhat short of expectations.
During these nine weeks I also watched You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, but I slept through most of the second half (I wasn’t feeling well), so I cannot make an informed judgement. I enjoyed what I saw of it though.
At some point during this time I also re-visited Pan’s Labyrinth and Seven – and both are just as good as I remembered them.