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30 Day Film Challenge – 29. A Movie You Wish You’d Seen in The Cinema

When you see a film in the cinema, it can go one of two ways. You can be distracted by those around you, as a child kicks the back of your seat and a bored teen checks their Twitter feed in front of you and sweet packets rustle all around you and you just want to go home… or you can be transported and whisked away into a shared state of induced hypnosis along with everyone else. There’s no middle ground.

When it goes right, I love the cinema experience. The swanky chairs, the overpriced popcorn, the sound that blasts you out of your seat. I always feel anxious going in that sitting in a room full of strangers will be awkward and uncomfortable – that’s rarely the case, though, even when I end up sitting next to a stranger. If I had more money, I’d go to the cinema more often.

Of course, you can’t catch every film in the cinema – especially not those from decades before you were born! I like to keep an eye out for screenings of classic movies, because there are plenty of films that I’d love to see at the cinema. I’ve caught Alien, ET, The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hope to catch more soon.

Of all the films I’d love to see on the big screen, Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns are the ones that would kill me. I would die of sheer joy. His films are so epic in their scope, but I’ve only ever seen them on the small screen. The huge sweeping landscapes were shot for cinema, not living rooms. I want to experience them as they were intended. I want to get lost in that desert West, with gunslingers and duels and haunting melodies. I want to sit in that darkened room and be swallowed up by the grand scale of it all.

It’d be nice to see the Back to the Future trilogy in the cinema, or to be thrilled by Jaws on the big screen, but there’s something about the beauty of the Sergio Leone Westerns that makes me long to see them writ large.

If you ever spot one screening locally, please let me know!

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30 Day Film Challenge – 28. A Favourite Documentary

I love telling jokes. There’s a craft to it – you can’t just mumble your way to the punchline and expect to get a laugh. It’s all in the delivery. It’s not even what you say, it’s how you say it – or in some cases how you don’t say it; a perfectly timed eyebrow-raise or sharp look can get just as many laughs as a witty bon mot.

I also love telling anti-jokes. Anti-jokes are in no way about the punchline – if anything, the punchline is usually a letdown. in an anti-joke, the point is the fun you have getting there. If I’ve never told you The Ducky Joke, remind me next time I’ve had a drink and I’ll show you what I mean. I’ve not told it in ages so I’m a bit rusty, but I’ll get back into the swing of it.

The greatest of the anti-jokes is The Aristocrats, the subject of this documentary. A legend from the days of vaudeville and variety, The Aristocrats isn’t so much a joke as a comedian’s exercise. The joke always starts the same way – a man walks into a talent agency and says ‘boy, have I got an act for you!’. He then proceeds to describe a family act, though in some versions he brings the family with him to act it out in the hapless agent’s office. The act is invariably a vile, crude, offensive, lewd, scatological, gross, abusive nightmare, getting worse and worse as the joke goes on, with all sorts of horrendous actions and bodily fluids all over the place. It reaches a crescendo and comes to an end, after which point the dazed and horrified talent agent asks ‘what the hell do you call an act like that?’ And the man says, ‘the aristocrats!’.

I told you, it’s an anti-joke. The point of it isn’t that the punchline is funny, it’s that the joke takes a long time to tell and racks up the horrified laughs. And this documentary discusses its form, its function, its merits and the different ways it can be employed.

The ‘cast’ of the documentary are a whole host of comedians, including the late great Robin Williams, many of whom tell their own version of the joke. It’s a fascinating insight into the mechanics of comedy and a chance to laugh at dick jokes all in one. The comedians discuss punchlines and why the joke works and tell other, similar jokes along the way. Some of the jokes hit better than others, but when someone like George Carlin or Whoopi Goldberg is onscreen, you can’t help but listen and laugh along with them.

As the documentary goes on, you find yourself thinking up your own version. You can’t stop yourself. The Aristocrats is an anti-joke in which you express your innermost squicks, because you inevitably fill the act with the things you find the most offensive. It’s like a game of Cards Against Humanity that way.

Get me drunk enough and maybe I’ll tell you mine…

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30. Day Film Challenge – 27. A Movie That Turned its Genre Upside Down

We all know how some films are going to go. It’s not that they’re tired and predictable, though some of them are, of course. It’s just that with certain genres come certain expectations, certain tropes that we see played out again and again. Boy meets girl and they hate each other, so of course they’re an item by the end of the movie. A ragtag sports team of misfits can’t win a match until their unorthodox new coach breathes new life into them. Someone pretends to be something they’re not to win the affections of another, until the liar is revealed and all seems lost until the inevitable happy ending.

And, of course, the inevitable demise of the partying college kids who visit the creepy cabin in the woods.

Cabin in the Woods is a film about a group of college kids who go to party at a cabin in the woods. More importantly, it’s a film about why they go to party at a cabin in the woods. It’s about why you can watch a horror movie and go ‘surely I’ve seen this before, but with vampires?’. It’s about why you find yourself throwing your arms around and screaming ‘don’t go out there alone, what, are you high?!’. Everything happens for a reason, you see. There is a method to the madness.

What’s so great about this film is you can enjoy it as a meta treatise on horror films, or you can just sit back and enjoy it on its own merit. The cast are clearly having a great time, and in the last third the film just sort of goes ‘ah to hell with it’ and explodes in a shower of blood and monsters. It’s also all very funny at times. But if you look only a little a bit deeper, you can appreciate it for what it actually is – a love letter to the form of horror movies.

It’s very difficult to talk about Cabin in the Woods without spoiling its central conceit, which is an excellent framing device for the action revolving around the unfortunate cabin-visitors. It’s really quite clever, and by the end of the film your questions are all answered and wrapped up very satisfactorily.

Now, let’s all split up and go explore the spooky forest alone…

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30 Day Film Challenge – 26. A Movie You Used to Love but Can’t Stand Now

As we get older and gain more life experience, we find that our tastes can change drastically. You can go from hating broccoli to realising you’ve just been cooking it wrong (tip: roast it, with garlic. Crunchalicious!). You can grow up holding relatively conservative beliefs only to find them falling by the wayside as you learn more about the world. And you can go from laughing uproariously at fart and poo jokes to shrugging your shoulders and smiling weakly.

There was a time when Jim Carrey was the king of comedy. His madcap shenanigans were the very definition of side-splitting. Those goofy voices! The gurning! The… er… the goofy voices … and the gurning … yeah, the problem is there’s really not too much to his style of humour. A bunch of obnoxious catchphrases, a face made of rubber and that’s about it. It was appealing to pre-teen me because I was the target audience and my tolerance threshold for puerile and childish humour was still pretty high. As I’ve grown older that’s changed – I still enjoy a spot of the puerile (Cards Against Humanity, anyone?) but presentation is more important to me, and I’m just too annoyed by Jim Carrey’s earlier  movies to be able to enjoy them again.

The Ace Ventura films are the worst offenders (although, Dumb and Dumber…) because there’s almost nothing to recommend them. No edge, no interesting story or clever jokes. Just wave after wave of ‘wacky’ antics, followed by oddly-inflected catchphrases instead of punchlines. It was funny to run around shouting ‘alrighty then!’ when I was 13. It’s rather less so now. There’s also the matter of the hideously uncomfortable transmisogyny of the film’s climax, which still makes me cringe when I remember that I found it funny. I like to think I’ve grown as a person since then, though probably not as much as I’d hope. I’m working on being a better person.

I still have a soft spot for a couple of Jim Carrey films; The Mask is still a favourite of mine because all the cartoony gurning stuff actually has a place and a reason within the world of the film, and it’s not just some guy being weird for the sake of being weird. And The Truman Show is a masterpiece, the first time Jim Carrey showed that he could carry a film through actual, you know, acting. Those I can revisit, but the Ace Venturas? No. For me, their time is past.

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30 Day Film Challenge – 25. A Film That is the Most Boring Thing I Have Ever Put in My Eyes

 

Sometimes you need a popcorn extravaganza, with explosions and fistfights galore. That’s fine, there’s no shame in that, we all need something to switch off and enjoy. On the flipside, sometimes you need a good low-key brain-bender, something that you really have to pay attention to in order to get the most out of it. It’s tough going and you loose the thread at times, but when it all clicks into place and you figure out, it’s such a rush, a wave of satisfaction.

Primer is not such a movie, though it desperately wants to be. in it, four young men are hard at work building a mysterious machine in someone’s garage. What’s the machine? What does it do? What sinister plot will unravel? Fucked if I know, I started drifting off halfway through.

The problem with the film is that it completely fails to engage you. There are long stretches where not very much happens at all while characters talk – what do they talk about? Again, fucked if I know. Half of the dialogue is incomprehensible because it makes no sense (chalk this down to me not being highbrow enough for it) and the other half is incomprehensible because you can barely hear it (chalk this down to a shockingly bad sound mix). It just goes on and on until it ends.

I know the plot involves multiple timelines, and so it should be fun trying to tease out what’s happening at any given moment in the grand scheme of things, like untying a particularly tangled knot by teasing out the ends and following the thread. It should be a mystery you want to solve. But the problem is that the film doesn’t give you anything to care about. To me, the characters were indistinguishable and interchangeable. They were just sort of there. it really makes it difficult to care about what happens to them.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m just not the target audience for this film. As it is, I only know one person who loves it (sorry, Mick) and I still just can’t see why. Watching the film was like watching paint dry, except the paint already dried hours ago and you couldn’t tell because it was just so dull and bland.

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30 Day Film Challenge – 24. A Movie That Justifies its Long Runtime

Lawrence of Arabia is a film so long that its trailer lasts nearly 5 minutes. Clocking in at around 3 and a half hours, it’s the sort of runtime that has Peter Jackson salivating. The intermission should have an intermission. If you want to watch the whole film without a bathroom break you might need a catheter, or at least an empty bottle.

It’s long, is what I’m saying. When someone uses the word ‘epic’ in terms of film, Lawrence of Arabia is often the first example they reach for. It’s an account of the British’s attempt to unify the nomadic Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire and help win WWI, an attempt that worked pretty well in that the Ottoman Empire is no more and said tribes (eventually) got their own countries with borders nicely mapped out by their colonial overlords. And if you buy the film, it’s all down to one man the eponymous Lawrence.

Shot mainly in Morocco, Spain and the beautiful Wadi Rum in Jordan, the film is visually stunning. The desert stretches off into the distance in every shot, with all its harsh but elegant beauty. David Lean and DoP Freddie Young have a perfect eye for gorgeous shots – check out Omar Sharif’s first introduction, or the first time we see a figure topping the crest of a sand dune. These are shots that have influenced filmmakers for decades since.

The cast is excellent too, if you can get past the odd bit of brownface (I’m looking at you, Alec Guinness). After all, it’s the film that brought the late great Omar Sharif into the public eye, and of course catapulted Peter O’Toole to superstardom.

If you can get past the fact that your bum will be stiff and your back will be aching by the time you’ve finished the film, I really do suggest that you watch it. It’s slow-paced, but it’s worth every minute.

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30 Day Film Challenge – Favourite Scenery Chewing Performances

Acting is a fine and noble profession. To tread the boards or to grace the silver screen, telling stories of conflict and human emotion. It requires a delicate hand, a subtle touch, a masterful balance.

And sometimes you just say ‘fuck it’ and dial it up to 11.

Chewing the scenery is a phrase that is applied to a performance where an actor is, er, very enthusiastic in their portrayal. They got a bit over the top, a bit out of control. It’s often awful, but it’s almost always a hell of a lot of fun regardless.

Here are a handful of my favourite over-the-top scenery nommers.

Jeremy Irons – Dungeons & Dragons

Off to a strong start! Jeremy Irons doesn’t so much chew the scenery as tackle it and shake it like a terrier killing a rat, unhinging his jaw ans swallowing large pieces of it whole. In this so-bad-it’s-brilliant fantasy flick, he may as well have a massive glowing neon sign around his neck saying ‘I AM TEH EVIL WIZARD’. Power hungry and more than a little bonkers, his character livens up the movie every time he’s on screen.

Al Pacino – The Devil’s Advocate

Al Pacino is the devil. Er, in this film, I should add. I’m sure he’s lovely. In this film he spends his time slithering around like the proverbial serpent until, in a wonderful show of hammery, he makes his explosive speech about God’s sadism and his own love for mankind. It’s glorious.

Alan Rickman – Prince of Thieves

This one is a doozy. It’s the king of death scenes, as Alan Rickman goes from triumph to pain to confusion to pain again to possibly constipated to dead. It’s the yardstick by which all movie deaths are measured. It’s a performance to treasure for all of time.

Nicholas Cage – 50% of his movies

Nicholas Cage is a man of two halves. He’s capable of delivering performances so downplayed that they’re in danger of being bland. They’re not bad, they’re just not very special. And then there’s the rest of his career – bug-eyed full-throated banshee wailing and wild gesticulating. There’s nothing quite like Nic Cage at the top of his game.

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30 Day Film Challenge – 22. A Film With a Scene That Blew You Away

WARNING: the video above is an EXTREMELY violent scene. It is also a SPOILER. Watch at your own discretion.

Every once in a while, I film will come along which surprises you. Either it comes with presuppositions that get smashed or you simply just don’t know what to expect and are blindsided by it. Kingsman: The Secret Service was such a film for me. I knew it was an action film, I knew it was directed and written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman of Kickass fame, and I knew Colin Firth was in it so it would at least be watchable.  What I didn’t know is that it’s the best James Bond film since Goldeneye.

It’s got everything – searing wit, snappy dressers, suave and sophisticated spies, outlandish gadgets, a killer femme fatale and its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek. There’s a very jolly stiff-upper-lip feel to much of it, and the young protagonist Eggsy provides a really nice grounding element as a far more rough and ready type. And his pug is adorable. The only real bum note is Samuel L Jackson’s surprisingly understated performance – he doesn’t do quiet well, and even a Bond spoof needs an over-the-top villain. He would have been perfect if he’d let loose a little more.

But there was one scene that made my heart stop. By the end of it, my jaw was literally hanging open. Tonks and my sister can verify this. I was so overcome by what I’d just seen that I had to take a moment to recover afterwards. The scene in question is an orgy of violence, a bloodbath of epic performance, set to the wailing guitar of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. Colin Fith’s character whirls around, dealing death to everyone around him, as guns are fired and knives are stabbed and necks are snapped and – just watch it, ok, just watch it.

It would have been so easy for this scene to just be shock value and nothing else. But the way it’s shot! It’s not all one shot, but the shots are long enough that it feels like one long scene, a bloody dance of death that just goes on and on and on. If you’re not squeamish, then something about it is a real joy to behold. It’s like letting a violent monster loose and watching it unleash hell. As long as the violent monster is beautiful.

And the kicker? Colin Firth did the vast majority of the stunt work himself. It was a requirement for taking on the role. He had to get into shape to do it. With the exceptions of the bits where he’s slammed around (he’s getting on a bit, after all), it’s all him. He’s an artist, a true and pure artist.

If you don’t agree, that’s completely understandable. A brutal yet silly 4 minute sequence of death and carnage isn’t for everyone. But for me, it was the pinnacle of the movie. It’s so well put together that it just blows you right out of your seat. And it makes you feel like you’re right in the thick of it, dodging bullets and deflecting knives with the Kingsman.

Won’t you fly high free bird yeah…

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30 Day Film Challenge – 21. A Terrible Film from a Great Director

If you have clicked the link and watched the video before reading this post, congratulations, you’ve already hit rock bottom so the only way is up from here. The trailer is as bad as the movie, and the movie is bad.

Francis Ford Coppola is a huge name in movies. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, he was instrumental in bringing counterculture to Hollywood. Check out Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls for a fascinating insight into Hollywood’s upheaval and transformation at this time.

You may recognise Coppola from such successes as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and being Nicolas Cage’s uncle.  The Godfather trilogy (especially the first two but I’m in a small minority in that I like the third) are the finest gangster films alongside the likes of Goodfellas, and Apocalypse Now is a surreal war is hell drug trip. His Dracula is also highly entertaining, despite Keanu Reeves’ atrocious ‘English’ accent. Gary Oldman’s performance in the title role more than makes up for it, and there are some very impressive visuals.

That… was the last good movie he made. And with Twixt, he has reached the nadir of his career.

Twixt is a ‘horror’ film, and a ‘thriller’ film, in the sense that these labels have been applied to the film my the marketers and so that’s what we have to call it. I would have gone with a ‘boring’ film and a ‘steaming pile of crap’ film personally, but that’s why I don’t work in marketing (and blog posts like this are why I don’t work in film reviewing.)

Val Kilmer plays a third rate horror writer who visits a small town while on a book tour and ends up investigating a grisly murder. Sounds clichéd, but interesting. It is, and it isn’t. The pacing of the film is shoddy and there are long stretches where it feels like nothing happens. And then when it does happen, it’s not worth waiting for. There’s some sort of dull mystery going on involving Lost Boys rejects across the way and Bruce Dern’s oddball sheriff, but who cares – there are dream sequences to watch!

And man oh man, the dream sequences are awful. They look like FMV sequences from old games like Phantasmagoria, badly integrated with a flat obviously CG background. Val Kilmer’s character meets a young girl who may or may not be dead and it actually comes across like he’s trying to flirt and it’s just creepy and weird and ugh. And then there are the dull conversations with Edgar Allen Poe, who is definitely dead.

Eventually, the film ends and you just sort of go ‘Oh. Was that it?’.

You might be wondering why I bothered to watch it all the way through if it’s so bad. I like to commit, even to pain. And I was genuinely curious, in a horrified way, as to whether or not it would suddenly turn into a good film. It doesn’t have a shred of Coppola to it, it just feels like a turgid mess.

If you ever have the chance to watch this film, just don’t bother. It’s not even so bad it’s good. It’s so bad it’s bad.

Avoid.

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30 Day Film Challenge – 20. A Film With an Amazing Soundtrack

A good soundtrack can make or break a film. If you don’t believe me, try watching Jaws without the music. A good soundtrack is as integral to a film as a good cast, a good crew or a good script. Without a soundtrack to keep the audience engaged, the film is incomplete. And a lacklustre soundtrack is almost as bad as no soundtrack at all because it can take you right out of the movie.

I’ve chosen two films today, one for each type of soundtrack. First there’s the instrumental score, which is anything from a full orchestral accompaniment to the electronic soundscapes of Tron Legacy’s soundtrack, to the incessant jazz drum solos in Birdman. It’s the traditional soundtrack, the one that gets your heart pumping for the car chases and gets the tears welling up for the dramatic death scene.

There are any number of amazing composers who’ve brought life to classic films over the decades. What would Psycho be without Bernard Hermann’s screeching strings? Jerry Goldsmith’s contribution to genre cinema is staggering, and of course there’s the legendary John Williams. These people are just as important to the filmmaking process as directors, though they’re surrounded by less glamour.

And when it comes to Westerns, there’s none greater than Ennio Morricone

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a brilliant film with an amazing soundtrack. It’s as wide an expansive as its desert setting, as iconic as the star’s performance. The main theme has cropped up in parodies everywhere, and you only have to cry ‘aaaAAAaaa!’ in a crowded room to get a ‘wa wa wa’ response. When I’m out and about in my hat, at least once a month there’s someone who cries ‘aaaAAAaaa!’ at me. Because originality is for suckers.

Ecstasy of Gold, the track featured in the scene above, is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time. It’s hauntingly beautiful and builds to a great climax as Tuco runs around the graveyeard searching for… well, watch the movie. It’s also the track that opens every Metallica concert, so it’s got great connotations of rocking out.

Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone were a perfect fit for each other. Those movies would certainly still be good with different soundtracks, but they wouldn’t be as memorable. There’s something bittersweet melancholy in each of the scores, even the rollicking Fistful of Dollars intro. But for my money, this film’s soundtrack is the best of the Spaghetti Westerns for consistency in quality. It never lets you down.

That’s my choice for the first type of soundtrack. For the other…

The other type of soundtrack is of course the jukebox soundtrack. Feature a bunch of songs in your film, throw them together on CD, instant sales as people will buy the albums to relive their favourite moments from the films. This sort of soundtrack is tricky to get right, as it can be a delicate balancing act with regard to which songs you choose. Quentin Tarantino is the undisputed master of this type of soundtrack, packing his films with often-forgotten gems that get a whole new lease on life in pop culture thanks to their inclusion. See also the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack which I talked about last week sometime.

Empire Records has one such soundtrack, and it’s great – nearly every track is a singalong treat, and it’s got a great mid-90s vibe. Pop music back then was coming out of a lite hiphop & eurodance phase and was about to hit the bubblegum boyband boom, so it was in a pretty interesting awkward-inbetweener stage. The best part of the soundtrack was that it really added to the film, making retail look more fun than it may be (disclaimer: I have never worked in retail and so cannot comment on how fun it may or may not be). Ok, the relatively laidback manager and funloving staff did a lot to give that impression, but the soundtrack helped massively.

Are either of these two the best soundtracks of all time? No, absolutely not, of course not. That’s not the point of these blog posts. They’re just two films I love, two soundtracks I love, and if you’ve not seen the films then maybe if you give them a try you’ll love them too.