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This is a pretty intense experience, especially if you know nothing about the subject matter. A community of Mohawks form a road block to prevent local land developers from turning their ancestral burial grounds into a golf course. Incredibly, the Canadian government sends in tanks and soldiers to break them up. Negotiations fail, and events escalate to an astonishing degree. I kept assuming that things couldn't get any worse, and each time they they did. Eventually we have the Canadian Army beating up an old man and stabbing a teenage girl with a bayonet. It's incredible to watch, given that Canada has a reputation as a warm and fuzzy nation.
I guess the only problem with this film is that it's heavily slanted toward the Mohawks and their supporters. We rarely get to hear the alternative opinions from the other side, from the Quebecois who became so angry that they threw rocks at cars, and the soldiers who behaved with such brutality. Why was there so much anger? It would have been useful to know. And the filmmaker never explains who she is and why she is able to film everything on both sides of the supposedly impenetrable siege fence with good quality sound and images. I'm sure there are answers to these questions but the documentary's naive use of an omniscient narrator avoids answering them.
Still, you come out of this shaking with anger and ashamed of the Canadian government. A '10 years on' documentary would be interesting.
The Porcelain Pussy (2004)
Well, I laughed
I saw 'The Porcelain Pussy' at the Halifax Film Festival and thought it was great fun. It's a gender-reversed film noir spoof, in which a hard-boiled female detective tries to locate the eponymous ceramic feline. All the noir clichés are amusingly inverted, so there's a scene in which the lady detective meets a glamorous homme fatale who bats his eyelashes a lot and is filmed in a soft focus glow. The chick whom plays the detective is very funny and has the hard-boiled style down perfectly. Also, the cinematographer deserves praise for beautifully capturing the film noir look.
It's not going to change the world but it's a funny film with some great performances and I hope it gets distribution of some kind.
Yes, it's just one joke, and not a very funny one at that, but you have to admit that the Dam Dog, when we finally see him, is cute. He has a happy face and looks overjoyed to have made it in the movies. While I am unlikely to place this squib of a film in my top 10,000, I hope the Dam Dog is resting peacefully in his grave, wherever it is.
Even 108 years on, "L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat" still has the power to shock and stun the viewer as the huge train hurtles unstoppably towards you! Every time I watch this movie I instinctively leap out of the way, screaming "train!!" This blistering one-minute film is like a cinematic punch in the face: it is movie-making of the first order, and has never been bettered.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
My god, it's full of stars
For all those bewildered by the length and pace of this film ("like, why does he show spaceships docking for, like, 15 minutes?"), here's a word you might want to think about:
Beauty is an under-rated concept. Sure, you'll often see nice photography and so on in films. But when did you last see a film that contains beauty purely for the sake of it? There is a weird belief among cinemagoers that anything which is not plot or character related must be removed. This is depressing hogwash. There is nothing wrong with creating a beautiful sequence that has nothing to do with the film's plot. A director can show 15 minutes of spaceships for no reason than that they are beautiful, and it is neither illegal nor evil to do so.
'2001' requires you to watch in a different way than you normally watch films. It requires you to relax. It requires you to experience strange and beautiful images without feeling guilty that there is no complex plot or detailed characterization. Don't get me wrong, plots and characters are good, but they're not the be-all and end-all of everything. There are different KINDS of film, and to enjoy '2001' you must tune your brain to a different wavelength and succumb to the pleasure of beauty, PURE beauty, unfettered by the banal conventions of everyday films.
"All art is quite useless" - Oscar Wilde.
As You Like It (1978)
Holy mother of god...
This is from the early days of the BBC Shakespeare series, when they were young, naive and foolish, and before the budget shrivelled into minus numbers. To make 'As You Like It' they actually went outside, rather than to a studio, filming the play at Glamis Castle and a forest nearby, just to give it that epic quality. And they hired some of the best actors in the theatre, and gave them nearly 30 minutes to rehearse. Halcyon days.
Filming outdoors requires time and money, neither of which is on display here. The wind whips away the actors' words and blows their hair in their faces. And more intrusive are the animals. In a scene involving Corin, a flock of rare-breed sheep jumps over a gate while he is talking. The sheep are far more interesting than Corin (each one jumps in a slightly different way, and one of them nearly trips over). But the director seems to have the Ed Wood approach to such things ("It's realistic, because that's what would happen in real life"). Meanwhile, the opportunities offered by filming outdoors are wasted. Glamis Castle is perfect for the evil Duke's castle: it's a nasty-looking Gothic pile with pointy towers and a huge, looming bulk. And yet the director films on a gorgeous summer's day and manages to remove the slightest trace of Gothic gloom from the castle. And the forestry commission land looks just that. I'm sure I saw tyre-tracks on one of the country roads.
Even worse than the dodgy film-making is the child-like naivety of the interpretation, which frequently reminds one of amateur dramatics in a church hall. This is encapsulated in the hilarious entry of Hymen, who runs down a hill dressed like a member of Bjorn Again, and with a big cheesy grin on his face. It would be nice to think that this is an affectionate acknowledgement of the absurdity of the play's plot. Maybe I'd think that if it was openly metatheatrical, or deliberately camp. But the characters treat Hymen with awestruck wonder, and the poor viewer is left longing for something EITHER profound OR deliberately humorous.
Sadly, there are no decent films of 'As You Like It', but before you watch this one try to find Christine Edzard's 1992 version, which has its flaws, but has at least has had more than five minutes of thought put into it.
Not I (2000)
I didn't like the way Neil Jordan filmed this play. Beckett's idea was to have an apparently disembodied mouth hover a few feet above the stage, spewing an apparently stream of consciousness monologue.
Jordan casts Julianne Moore, who is a great actress, and gives a good rendition of the monologue. But the film is too excited about the fact that a real movie star is in it: at the beginning, we have to watch Moore sit down in a chair (with cameras pointing at her mouth), just so that we know it's really her. This spoils the concept of an anonymous, disembodied mouth. Another problem is that Moore's mouth is, frankly, too pretty: Beckett wanted the mouth lit by a harsh light, but Moore's is lit to make her lips look luscious - pleasant to look at, but not really Beckett's point.
It's OK. But a filming method closer to Beckett's stage intentions would have made the point better.
no matter try again fail again fail better
It's quite an achievement to take a five minute play and completely miss the point, but that's what David Mamet seems to have done. Beckett's play is about a director and his assistants trying to create a stage image of abject despair. They take an actor, the Protagonist, who remains silent throughout, and adjust him and tweak him until his clothing and posture project the required image of pitiful dejectedness. Then they shine a light on him and admire their handiwork, and the applause of a vast audience echoes through the theatre. But instead of staying in his abject position, the Protagonist rebels: he lifts his head and stares the audience in the eye. The applause falters and dies. End of play.
It's probably the most optimistic play Beckett wrote and symbolises the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of totalitarianism (it was written for the imprisoned Czech playwright Vaclav Havel).
Anyway, Mamet spoils it by trying to make it naturalistic. First, he films it in a real place, which looks like a tiny theatre in a village hall, with dinky wooden chairs and a parquet floor. This means that Harold Pinter, as the Director, looks like a local amateur dramatics honcho rather than a symbol of totalitarian oppression. Secondly, Mamet ignores Beckett's stage direction about the applause of a vast audience, and instead gives us only the Director's Assistant clapping; this removes the film even further from its satire on totalitarianism. Finally, Mamet obscures John Gielgud's poignant performance as the Protagonist: we don't see him raise his head, and only see his face for a couple of seconds (whereas Beckett asks for a long pause), so the play's most powerful moment is muffled.
All I have to say, Mr Mamet, is, IT'S MEANT TO BE SYMBOLIC!! Hello...?
The Year We Went Bland
2010 has its good point and bad points. [possible spoilers ahead]
Those of us who know anything about astronomy suffer when watching 99% of all sci-fi movies, in which the laws of physics and the realities of space are regularly distorted. One of the great things about '2010' is that is was inspired by real science - the discovery by the Voyager space probe of volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io, and of a possible ice-covered ocean on the moon Europa that may contain life. The latter discovery formed an intriguing parallel with the plot of '2001' which was about evolution being kick-started by an alien intelligence, and you can understand why Arthur C. Clarke was tempted to write a sequel that took account of all this. The film beautifully reproduces the landscapes of Io and Europa in an accurate way (although Jupiter looks like a sherry trifle gone mad), and it is great to see a film where the laws of physics bind the characters utterly (except of course, the ultra-evolved Dave Bowman).
The film thus had potential to be a worthy successor to '2001', and it's a tragedy that the film was given to a director with no vision at all. Hyams does a competent job, but shoots the film as a bog-standard space thriller, without a scrap of Kubrick's art or profundity. And whereas Kubrick saw that Arthur C. Clarke's clunky dialogue could only work if the actors were told to perform like robots, the characters in '2010' are played as real human beings, which is no fun if your lines consist entirely of techno-speak, plot-exposition and strained attempts at humour.
Still, there are some very memorable moments, in particular the dizzying spacewalk toward the tumbling Discovery, and the black spot spreading across the face of Jupiter. And the ending is really rather beautiful. It would be good if there were more science fiction films like this - intelligent, philosophical and beautiful. But they need to be made by artists, not competent drones.
The Winter's Tale (1981)
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
This is a TERRIBLE film, one of the worst Shakespeare adaptations ever made in the history of the world. It manages to bore FROM THE FIRST FIVE SECONDS, and to watch the entire three hours is an appalling prospect. Made with no imagination at all, and on a budget of 57 pence, it has only one (boring) set, and an array of famous actor giving boring, boring performances. Even the comic pastoral scenes are slow, clumsy and lumpen. Poor Shakespeare. Poor students forced to watch this film. When you die and go to Hell, this will be the in-flight movie.
The Comedy of Errors (1983)
To cast one Roger Daltrey may be regarded as a misfortune. To cast two looks like carelessness.
This is a woefully clunky piece of film-making, and its biggest mistake is to use sophisticated special effects (sorry, awkward split-screen work) so that the same actors can play both identical twins. The BBC series is always over-literal in its interpretations, and this is a classic example; when the two Roger Daltreys and the two Michael Kitchens are identical to the point of pristine perfection, the story is actually made even less realistic than it was before. And it's also made less interesting; the actors don't play each twin as having a different personality, so it's difficult to tell who is who, and even more difficult to care. (Quite apart from the fact that Daltrey can't act...)
Unintentional humour: check out the under-rehearsed actors who attempt to mime Egeon's story of his travels. It's really funny in a painful kind of way.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1996)
This film is based on a wonderful stage production that was staged by the RSC in 1994. On stage it was superb, and I think of it as one of the best times I've ever had in the theatre.
The film, however, is a complete mess. All the effects that were so magical in the theatre - the forest of lightbulbs, the flying umbrellas, the mysterious doors - look ridiculous when they're turned into bad computer graphics. And although some of the performances are good - especially Alex Jennings and Des Barritt - the pacing of the film seems poor. In particular, the mechanicals scenes are stilted and unfunny - and 'Pyramus and Thisbe' is mangled with poorly-timed slapstick and glooping sentimentality. And most annoyingly of all, Noble introduces a Macauley Culkin lookalike, who runs around being wide-eyed and imaginitive, infusing the film with unnecesary Hollywood schmaltz.
I regard this film as a brave, but poorly-executed attempt at translating faithfully a stage production to film. It doesn't really work, but at least Noble's vision is more imaginitive than the other films of the 'Dream'. And bad though the film is, it's still better than the ghastly Michelle Pfeiffer / Kevin Kline version, which should be avoided like the plague.
As You Like It (1992)
Misguided but occasionally good
This is a rather frustrating film, with occasional patches of brilliance lost in a generally dull and inept staging. It's an attempt at making a modern-dress film of Shakespeare's play. The Court of France becomes a flashy office block in London, and the Forest of Arden becomes the banks of the dirty river Thames. The pastoral shepherds become homeless people. Purists may shriek, but this is actually rather clever, since Shakespeare's Arden is not meant to be a jolly happy place; it's meant to be a place where the attempt to live a simple life is complicated by the fact that the winter winds are freezing cold, and that poor people can be just as miserable as kings.
There are some good performances, especially Andrew Tiernan, who doubles Oliver and Orlando, and Edward Fox, who plays Jaques as a drily witty public-school toff, slumming it with the homeless. Occasionally the new setting works really well, such as when Orlando is slouching in the foyer of the 'court', and when the girls are seen trailing across an industrial wasteland, carrying their belongings in Harrods shopping bags. And I liked seeing Audrey as the owner of a caravan-cafe, and her tomato ketchup sandwiches are funny.
But there are some awful moments too. Griff Rhys Jones' Touchstone must be the least amusing performance in the history of film. The wrestling match happens, but is not shown on camera (we only see the audience's response), presumably because they couldn't think of a modern equivalent but didn't want to cut the scene. Worst of all is the dire folk music soundtrack, which belongs in a 'traditional' film of the play rather than a modern interpretation. For most of its duration, the film is slow, awkward and ultimately foolish.
I would like to be supportive of this film. It certainly should be viewed by anyone interested in the play. Although its faults outweigh its merits, there are moments that will illuminate your understanding of the play, and it's good that there are filmmakers who want to present Shakespeare in a controversial way. Christine Edzard is the precursor to Julie Taymor's 'Titus', and Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo and Juliet'. And for that we should be grateful.
Shakespeare must be smiling in his grave
All these people whining that Julie Taymor has 'distorted the text' by presenting a Roman story in modern dress should prepare themselves for some shocking news: Shakespeare did the same thing. A drawing exists from the 1590s of a production of 'Titus'. It is the only surviving contemporary illustration of a scene from Shakespeare. And what does it show? It shows Titus wearing a toga, Tamora wearing a medieval dress and a medieval crown, and two guards wearing Elizabethan soldiers' outfits. Now try reading 'Julius Caesar'. There you'll find a character who describes how he "plucked open Caesar's doublet". In the same play, you'll find characters who wear "hats and cloaks" - in Ancient Rome! And this isn't some weird pecadillo of Shakespeare's. This blurring of historical eras is a quality of Renaissance literature, art and drama across the board .
Those who decry the excesses of 'postmodern' directors should wake up. The 'traditional', 'accurate' productions of Shakespeare were invented by the Victorian theatre, not the Elizabethans. And this po-faced Victorian literalism has been stifling Shakespeare's plays ever since. Elizabethan dramatists were not pedantic history majors, fussing over historical accuracy. They knew that the stories they enacted were ALIVE, and that the events they depicted were just as much a part of their own culture as that of Ancient Rome. And they knew that by mixing the past and the present they would KEEP those stories ALIVE by refusing to allow their audiences to view the stories as an ancient tale from a vanished past. That's what Julie Taymor is doing in this film. She isn't 'accidentally' muddling up Imperial Rome, Mussolini's fascism, and the adrenalin-craving violence of modern youth culture. She is rubbing your noses in the fact that they are the SAME, and that we cannot complacently brush off 'Titus Andronicus' as cheap senationalism divorced from reality. Because it isn't. You don't believe me? Try reading an Amnesty International report. Or try watching the news one day.
Yes, the film has its faults. But don't criticise its eclectic postmodernism. Shakespeare would have had no problem with it, because Taymor's vision is derived from the very theatrical practices that Shakespeare was steeped in. It's the dry-as-dust Victorian literalism hankered after by some of the reviews below that would have offended Shakespeare.
More films like this, please!
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1997)
Revolting travesty of Orwell
The British 'heritage film' industry is out of control. There's nothing wrong with filming classic novels, but why must they all be filmed by talentless nobodies? This film rips the guts out of Orwell's tough novel, turning it into a harmless, fluffy romantic comedy. 'Aspidistra' may not be Orwell's best work, but no-one who reads it can forget its superb depiction of poverty. Orwell emphasises not only the cold and the hunger, but the humiliation of being poor. In the novel, London is a bleak, grey, cold, heartless city, and Comstock prays for it to be blasted away by a squadron of bombers. But this film irons out anything that might be in any way disturbing, and creates instead a jolly nostalgic trip to charming 1930s London, in which everything is lit with shafts of golden sunlight, and even the slums of Lambeth are picturesque and filled with freshly scrubbed urchins and happy prostitutes. Comstock's poems about the sharp wind sweeping across the rubbish-strewn streets seem completely out of place in this chocolate-box world. Worst of all is the script's relentless bonhomie, ancient jokes, and clunking dialogue. It's so frustrating because Richard E. Grant is the perfect person to play Gordon Comstock, and the film is packed with great actors. But it's all for nothing. This film made me so angry! Britain's literary history is something to be proud of for its richness, complexity and power. And what do we do with it? We employ bland nobodies to turn it into soft-centred, anodyne pap for people who want to feel that they are 'getting some culture' while they drink their Horlicks and quietly doze off.
Uncle Vanya (1963)
Clumsy film of a stage production
This production may have been good on the stage, but its transferral to film gives little indication of that. Theatre acting is very different to film acting, and when you point a camera up close to a theatre production, the actors look absurdly stylised and over-the-top. Here, in 'Uncle Vanya', one of the classic works of nineteenth-century naturalism, everyone struts around like marionettes, as if they're acting in a play by Marlowe or Brecht. The actress who plays Yelena suffers especially; her graceful movements and slow, musical delivery are presumably intended to project the idea of a fashionable city woman, but in close up she is almost unwatchable. It's a shame, because behind the film you can sense a great production. Michael Redgrave is a good Vanya, suitably dissolute and hangdog. Max Adrian is funny as the cranky old professor, and Joan Plowright is sweet as Sonya (although she's far too old for the role). But there are also some terrible misinterpretations; Laurence Olivier's representation of Astrov as plump, dapper and jolly is bizarrely wrong. You get no sense that Astrov has spent the last ten years working without a break in the cholera-ridden swamps amongst starving peasants-indeed, Olivier cuts the lines that describe all this! Similarly, the entire production is too polite and inoffensive; there's no real sense of bleakness, and no sense that the characters exist in a real, living world (an effect that Chekhov was so good at). Worse still, all the characters treat Vanya as a likeable, amusing companion, with the result that his cynical comments and miserablist pronouncements have no bite at all. This is a film of interest only to theatre historians and would not be a good way to introduce newcomers to Chekhov. Watch 'Vanya on 42nd Street' instead, which is not only a better production, but is also a real film, rather than a clumsy recording of a stage production.