Wednesday, January 31, 2007

January Films

Watched this up in Sligo with the folks, who I think were a little apprehensive. Dare I say their doubt was completely unfounded? Yes, I do! Jimmy Stewart is the perfect choice for the loveable Elwood P. Dowd, an amiable gentlemen who's best friend just happens to be a six-foot tall bunny rabbit (the eponymous Harvey). Touching, genuinely funny and cute without being irritating, this is a must see.

Okay, I love Hitchcock as much as the next person. And I especially like it when Hitch is directing James Stewart (see: Rear Window and the criminally underrated Rope). I also like the sinister stories about how this film reflects Hitch's desire to mold every actress into his ideal of an ice-cool blonde. Unfortunately, I also liked the hilariousness of this film...which I doubt was the desired effect.

All About Eve
My all time favourite film. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Bette Davis (as an ageing actress, suitably fitting), All About Eve is not only a scathing look at Hollywood, a disturbing account of growing old and an almost Hitchcockian tale of double-crossing and identity-thievery, but it is also one of the wittiest films I have ever seen. It's the role Davis was born to play and also stars Marilyn Monroe in a small cameo. Off the top of my head, I can think of numerous fabulous quotes and snatches of dialogue. Relentless. Brilliant. Depressing. See it!

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis again, this time paired up with her "arch-nemisis" Joan Crawford. I'm slightly skeptical about the whole Davis/Crawford fued story. I don't doubt they disliked each other ("Joan Crawford has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie", Bette Davis) but I'm also fairly sure that part of their supposed hatred of each other was fabricated by the studios. The casting in this sinister, yet amusing film is inspired though, with Davis (slathered in make-up and looking fairly demented) cackling away over her crippled sister.

Kill Bill Volume I
Bright, super-stylised, violent, joyful pastiche of every film Quentin Tarantino has ever loved, ever (including some of his own). I knew that this film lacked some of QT's trademark sparky-dialogue, which I did miss. However, I settled down to enjoy blood spurting from every corner, Uma Thurman holding court in a yellow tracksuit and, my personal highlight, the amazing soundtrack (constant rotation I tell ya, constant rotation).

Guys & Dolls
It's Marlon Brando! Singing! In really bright technicolour! "Luck Be A Lady" is the stand-out song, Frank Sinatra is a little annoying and it doesn't enter the same ballpark as Singin' in the Rain or West Side Story. It's still a fun, colourful picture with some neat dialogue.

The Usual Suspects
I hate Channel Four. It was on one of their inane countdown of the top 100-whatevers that the central twist of this film was divulged to the nation....before I had seen it. Undeterred, I caught it on FilmFour earlier this month and although I enjoyed and admired it, the overall impact was slightly lessened by the fact that I already knew who Keyser Soze was! Argh. Oh, fun fact: year ago, Gabriel Byrne, one of the Suspects, used to deliver the post round where my dad lived. He had the hots for one of my aunts and used to ring the bell in the hope she'd answer. Ah, in a paralell universe, I am Gabriel Byrne's niece.

His Girl Friday
For some reason, I watched this whole film thinking the Hildy Johnson character was played by Katharine Hepbrun. Probably I was getting it confused with Bringing Up Baby. I got a bit of a shock when the end credits rolled with "Rosalind Russell". Ah, fuck it, they're both from Connecticut. Justified. I was laughing too hard to notice who the hell she was played by at any rate. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

Bad Education
Almodóvar does Hitchcock, while retaining his love for transvestites and the like. Out of all his films I've seen, the cinematography is probably the best so far (the football game, the swimming pool shots, the scene at the lake) and Gael Garcia Bernal makes a thoroughly convincing woman.

The Pursuit of Happyness
I've already written about this: nice turn from Smith, cute kid, uplifting message blah blah blah.

Bringing Up Baby
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Best Comedy Film. Of All Time. Ever. In The Universe. In My Opinion. Okay, but seriously, this is a total gem. Screwball, slapstick, innuendo, irony, puns and a leopard. All tied up in a crazy plot (try to explain it to somebody, sounds utterly stupid, doesn't it?) with Cary Grant having the time of his life and Katharine Hepburn falling down and into rivers and off dinosaurs and through bushes and in love. Hah!

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!
Almodóvar again. The earliest of his that I've watched. It's funny, sexy and a little dark. Antonio Banderas is a delight!

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
Jimmy Stewart again. Idealistic, big-eyed senator Mr. Smith with his genuine love for America and his eager plans doesn't stand a chance in Washington. For climatic, filibuster scene, Stewart dried out his throat with bicarbonate of soda. Now THERE'S the kind of man we need taking an active part in the running of this country. E
h, that country, rather. America.

Now, Voyager
It's Bette Davis! (Yay!!) With big eyebrows and frumpy dresses! (Boo!!) Smoking like a chimney! (Duh!!) Did someone just scream "Melodrama!?" Yes, indeedy, the mother of all melodramas. The plot's slightly implausible (from slightly insane frump to slim beauty in three months?) and the continual break-downs may grate a little if you're in the wrong mood, but it's still a classic. And you can't deny the ending: the lighting of the two cigarettes, "Don't lets ask for the moon Jerry, we have the stars!" and the swelling music as the camera pans up to the moonlit sky...excuse me, I've got a little something in my eye..

Bobby're going to have to excuse me for a good while, folks. By the end of this Emilio Estevez film I was a complete wreck. This nearly beats the finale of Doctor Who in the Makes-Catherine-Cry polls. This film, along
with Mr. Smith goes to Washington and The West Wing, does the difficult job of making me feel hopeless patriotic towards a country I've never been too. While some of the interlocking characters and storylines don't quite work (Ashton Kutcher's stoner treaded the fine line between dispensible and vomit-inducing), the ultimate point was poignant and well-crafted. The use of the music, especially Simon & Garfunkel, was noteworthy in the quiet manner it scored the tragedy. I swear, the next film I see in the cinema better not make me cry...

So there we have it, every film I watched from the 1st-31st of January. Pas mal, pas mal.

Happy Birthday!

Yes, today marks the 70th birthday of Philip Glass, Mr. Einstein on the Beach himself.

Hey, I looked up the date Arvo Pärt was born, to see if my theory of "This Is The Decade Where Contemporary-Classical Composers Turn 70" was correct and it's correct! Pärt celebrated his 70th in 2005 and of course, my boy Reich turned the big SEVEN OH last year. Who'll it be in 2008?

Tune in next year to "The Decade Where Contemporary-Classical Composers Turn 70".

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Ultimate Showdown: Foreign Maestros Vs Pirates

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood was rife with directors, actors and screenwriters collaborating on classic films. Audiences were regularly treated to screwball comedies by Howard Hawks, noir masterpieces like “The Third Man” and wry satires on the film industry with “All About Eve” and “Sunset Blvd”. Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock were unstoppable and charismatic. Talented stars the likes of Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis charmed the film-going population, while still retaining an air of intrigue.

Fast forward. It’s 2006 and the highest grossing film of the year is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a film which relies on the (admitably talented) star-power of Johnny Depp, while dispelling old-fashioned notions that what good films need are originality, good directing, believable acting and plots which make sense. A quick glance over the rest of the top-ten highest grossing films speak for themselves: a limp threequel in X-Men 3: The Last Stand, 4 computer animations still trying to best Pixar’s early output, and the adaptation of The Da Vinci Code which, despite having big profile stars and a respected director, received some of the worst reviews of the year. Is this really what we want to see on our screens? Must we shell out valuable money to see such turgid nonsense? While the majority of the film-going public may be quite happy to go along with whatever Hollywood shoves under their noses, I think its time we, as a nation full of intelligent, avid movie-watchers, made a stand and started looking outside Hollywood.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my pick for the three most inventive, brave and original films of 2006 were made in a foreign country: Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver”, Michael Haneke’s “Caché” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”.

“Pan’s Labyrinth”, the epic fantasy by Guillermo del Toro, released in December 2006, received rave reviews across the country. Arriving to our screens just in time to top many Best-Of 2006 lists, this film has been nicknamed the Citizen Kane of our time by some enthusiastic reviewers. Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a visually and emotionally stunning film chronicling a young girl’s escapism from the cruelty of her world into a dreamland populated by fauns, fairies and monsters. Ivana Baquero plays the part of Ofelia, a young girl who moves to live with her new stepfather along with her heavily pregnant mother, with a maturity and naturalism far beyond her years and we warm to her from the very start, willing her on in her dangerous and frightening journey.

Probably best known for his 2004 comic book adaptation “Hellboy”, the Mexican director manages to evenly match the two aspects of his film – the harsh reality of the fascists running Spain mirroring the bizarre and often terrifying tasks Ofelia is set in the mystical labyrinth. Del Toro is not afraid to shock audiences; this is visceral film-making at its very best, with the unapologetically hateful character of Capitán Vidal as the cruel, vain, fascist general and a number of scenes which are painful to watch. However, the ultimate message of this film is one of hope and the ambiguous ending will leave audiences talking for days afterwards.

Made in 2005 but released in Britain and Ireland in 2006, “Caché” opens with a shot of a house. The camera lingers here as the credits roll. It stays on this one house for what seems like an age, unmoving, still. “What,” wonders the audience, “are we supposed to be looking at?”. Its uncomfortable viewing and we are further disconcerted as we learn that this is a sinister videotape, anonymously sent to the family who live in the house. In film-circles, the decline in use of long takes is often lamented. The 1998 blockbuster “Armageddon”, which boasts an average shot length of 2.8 seconds, is often cited as an extreme offender when it comes to the decline of long takes. It is only thanks to directors like Quentin Tarantino, who often utilises long takes in his films, that modern Hollywood fare is prevented from becoming the equivalent of television commercials. However it is only natural that to properly explore the long take we must turn to the country which invented cinema, France. In “Caché”, Michael Haneke has used long takes to their greatest possible effect. The film is suffused with shots like its opening, long unbroken streams of footage which simultaneously intrigue and repel us. Starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as affluent, intellectual Parisians tormented by the voyeuristic videotapes, “Caché” is a tense thriller which begs for repeated viewings. Although the ending is left unresolved, something which may irk many of those who see it, Caché leaves enough clues and symbolism, especially in its final, outstanding shot of a school, to inspire debate and argument for years to come.

Finally, we reach my pick for the Best Film of 2006, Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver”. A quick scan over the box office top 10 of 2006 reveals the loss of pure, passionate film-making. Almodóvar sets out to rectify this, crafting a film full of colour and life, a visual love-letter to all the women who have inspired him (most notably Penelope Cruz) and his home country of Spain. These topics are nothing new to the acclaimed director, but it’s safe to say that “Volver” is one of the peaks of his career to date. The lush cinematography, a haunting score by Alberto Iglesias (who also scored Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her” and “Bad Education” ) and a career-best performance by Penelope Cruz make “Volver” not just a moving, humourous and touching tale of three-generations of women, but also a deeply rich and satisfying watch.

It’s a shame that foreign films appear to have a limited appeal. Do we really want to bombard our senses with poorly made star-vehicles and unnecessary remakes? While none of these films are obscure (all three directors are big names and Del Toro has made his fair share of Hollywood films), we tend to overlook them in favour of the big blockbusters. Perhaps it is the fact that they are subtitled, with many of us protesting that it is too much effort to simultaneously read the subtitles and follow the action onscreen. However, if we don’t make the effort to seek out foreign films, we’re denying ourselves all of the pleasure, thrills, shocks and tears that await us.

So, in 2007, with a whole new set of films lined up for the coming year, lets broaden our horizons and look beyong Tinseltown.

You never know what you might see…

Monday, January 15, 2007

Cinema Trip!

On Sunday afternoon, I saw "The Pursuit of Happyness" at Cineworld with Ellen. Having already slagged me off for getting teary-eyed at the trailer for this when we first saw it before Christmas, my sister was more than ready to poke me in the ribs if I started blubbing. She wasn't disapointed.

While "The Pursuit.." won't shock anyone with it's ending or inevitable uplifting message, it does pass the time in a pleasant and rewarding fashion. Will Smith is as likeable as always, playing a slightly more challenging role than previous fare ("I, Robot", "Hitch") and his real life son, Jaden Smith, is adorable. Some plot details are slightly implausible, but there's enough warmth and gentle humour to ensure that the audience are rooting for Chris Gardner until the very end, which is quite surprising in it's simplicity. There's no final outburst of joy, no explosion of feeling. And that makes it all the more moving.

In other news, I also saw my first cinema trailer for Spiderman III. Excited, much? There was a lot of emphasis placed on Sandman and Venom, which is what the fans want to see. Only one quick glance at Gwen Stacey though, who I pray has a large enough role to take away from Kirsten Dunst. Oh please, God.

Roll on May 4th!
Last Autumn I decided to keep a log of all the books I read and then write about them. It lasted a pitiful two months before I delayed and let a mound of Christmas reading pile up on me. In any fact, here is my log for October.

October 2006

Books I’ve Booked

“House of Leaves”, Mark Z. Danielewski
“Snow”, Orham Pamuk
“Leaves of Grass”, Walt Whitman
“The Ode Less Travelled”, Stephen Fry
“Life of Pi”, Yann Martel
“Special Topics in Calamity Physics” Marissa Pessl
“Kafka on the Shore”, Hauki Murakami

So. Here I go, embarking on yet another copy-cat idea, hoping this lasts more than previous endeavours have done. Previous attempts to chronicle every film I’ve ever seen (yes, really) or update my journal regularly have failed. This time, the person I’m aping is Nick Hornby – writer, father and dedicated follower of fashion. (Okay…the last line’s not true, it should read Arsenal Football club, but I wanted to stick in a Kinks reference in there somewhere. Consider this an apology). As well as writing witty, melancholy, madly sucessful novels like “About a Boy” and “How To Be Good”, Hornby has also written two non-fiction books. One is about his love for music (31 Songs) and the other, which I’m taking the liberty to steal from shamelessly, is called The Polysyllabic Spree and is an account of his reading habits every month.

My efforts will be a little different, for a number of reasons. The most obvious is Nick Hornby is a 40-something male with lots of money to splurge on book-buying, while I’m a teenage girl who gets most of her reading material from the library. Another crucial difference is Hornby writes for a publication (The Believer) which forbides any slagging of any kind. Thus, Hornby is required to grant books he disliked anonymity. I won’t be. If I don’t like something, I’m prepared to slag it off. Hopefully, though, this will be kept to a minimum. Celebrating the great is always more fufilling than demeaning the bad.

After that succint introduction, I’ll begin my account for October. Bear in mind, now, that my idea came to me at the start of November, so I’m relying on my memory (not a hugely reliable resource, I warn) to help me. Some books I mention may well have been read at the end of September and I’m almost cetainly leaving out some books. Oh well. If I’ve forgotten them, they probably weren’t worth discussing (I’m sure I’ll regret that statement sometime shortly).

October is one of my favourite months. There’s something about the crisp air and crunch of leaves, the golden afternoons, that make me turn into a super scholar and an even better reader. Walking home with the lights fading around you, clutching a notebook and folder through fallen leaves suddenly seems more magical than it obviously is. With this in mind, I look over the books for this month. Some unusual choices, poetry for one. A huge debut novel that divided critics like the Berlin Wall. A novelist who won some little prize recently (nothing major..). And a rereading of the post-modern magnum opus, “House of Leaves”.

I’ve read HOL before. It must have been a year ago, perhaps longer. I borrowed it from the library, read it in a couple of days, took it back. Recommended it to a few people. Forgot about it. Then, earlier this year, I was reminded of it when I came across a review of the authors new book, “Only Revolutions”. I began to look into it, intruiged. Somewhere along this line, I started getting interested in HOL again, and was slightly embarrassed to realise I couldn’t remember much of it. Ask me to tell you the plot? Recount what I liked and disliked about it? Not a chance. So, it was with a tinge of shame that I borrowed the huge tome again, promising myself I’d read it properly this time, a reading I’d remember. Take your time, I said. Dwell on it. Take it in.

Of course, I didn’t dwell on it. I read fairly quickly and it’s a stuggle to slow my eyes down. I’ll come back to this later. I finished the book in 3 days (which isn’t that fast, but there is a lot of reading in this book!). Instead, I switched my brain on fully as I read and tried to take as much of it in as I could. It worked, thankfully. Now, onto the actual book. For those of you uninitiated (it can’t be that many), HOL is the debut novel by Mark Z. Danielewski. It has all the stylistic features you’d expect of a post-modern author with big ambitions – A story within an story within a story, pages of footnotes, different words printed in different coloured ink, secret codes, pages filled with writing crammed into every available surface and pages with only one or two lines of text. Of course, it claims to be real. But what of the actual story? Firstly, let it be known I enjoy the Russian-doll method of stories with stories. Paul Auster does it beautifully in Oracle Night. Why, I even did in in 5th class when I wrote “The Black Horse” (appearing in all good bookshops this Spring) when I was 11. And Danielewski does it well here. Most of the time, anyway . I found myself tiring of the two main storylines, constantly switching from one to the other, and I admit I may have skimmed past parts of Truant’s story, finding Zampano’s book more interesting. Skimming is essential in this novel, actually. Who’s actually going to read through the thousands of names of photographers somewhere in the middle? The very technical bits about houses were also read fairly swiftly. But, I do think HOL is a really good book. People may criticise it for being too ambitious, for trying to pack too much in and that is true, however, I think Danielewski just about pulls it off. It got genuinely creepy at parts and I did enjoy the claustrophobia in the text that mirored the storyline. It’s a grand idea, huge and sprawling and confusing. But it is to be admired.

Ultimately, HOL is a full, interesting read. It won’t be topping my list of favourite books anytime soon, purely because I prefer books where I invest some emotional worth into, which HOL failed at, for me at least. But, I don’t think that was the intention.

I mentioned above that I tend to read fast. This is probably the main reason poetry and I don’t get along. Poetry needs and deserves to be savoured, admired slowly, dwelt on. My quick eyes protest to this. I’ve been making efforts lately, picking up collections of poetry at a random page and trying to puzzle out the meaning of whatever poem falls open. Stephen Fry’s entertaining book, “The Ode Less Travelled” is a marvellous aid to the poetry-novice, urging the masses to Read Poetry Aloud. It’s with that in mind that I took Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” from the library. I’ve been interested in Whitman since I read Michael Cunningham’s “Specimen Days” that involved Whitman, like the his previous novel “The Hours” dealt with Virginia Woolf.

“I celebrate myself and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”

Stephen Fry’s right. These words need to be shouted off a cliff somewhere or proclaimed from a podium. I haven’t read the whole of LOG (who does that with poetry? And anyway have you seen the size of it?) but the parts I have read stick in my mind. And they sound great when spoken aloud.

Gee willikers! I’m on my third page already. Still got a number of books to namedop and still sitting in my pjs on this Sunday in November with the albatross of school hanging annoyingly around my neck. Speaking of school, the next book I’m talking about will be “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Pessl. One of the few books I actually purchased this month (possibly the only) and one of the ones I enjoyed the most. There was a lot of hype about this book, mostly articles about how pretty, wealthy and well-read she was. Then there were a lot of articles that mentioned the articles about how pretty, wealthy and well-read she was. So, in a desperate struggle to break from the mold, I’m not going to mention how pretty, wealthy and well-read she is. Oh, shit.

I could call this book pretentious if I didn’t hate the word and like the book so much. Evey chapter is named after a respected novel (Brave New World, The Trial etc), there are numerous references to texts both real and imaginary during the story and it ends with a Test. It’s a very long book. It’s also very funny, clever and enjoyable. Blue Van Meer, the adolescent narrator, is very likable and tells her story with so much enthusiasm and so many unusual metaphors, the whole thing is a delight to read. It reminded me a lot of “The Basic Eight” by Daniel Handler, a book I’ve read twice this year because I love it so much. The two books have a similar narrator, an infectious smart-alecky style and a murder buried somewhere in both their plots. Handler’s book just about tops “Special Topics” purely because of length. He manages to introduce as many characters and obscure references in half the time, and is better for it.

Speaking of being concise…I’ve managed to waffle on at length and still leave out some books that I’ve read this month, including the magnificent “Kafka on the Shore” (yup, I actually use the word magnificent. And mean it, too). There’s not much I want to go into to about this book, apart from the fact it touched me and I got that incredibly calm feeling I get when I read Murakami. The Pamuk…I’m ashamed to say I never finished it. I picked it off my father’s shelves at a lull in the middle of the month (I was between library visits) and read the first three hundred pages. It’s nicely written and informative, but it didn’t grab me and I was shortly side-tracked by other literature. I plan to grapple with the wretched thing and finish it soon, though. Wait. That sounds way too negative. I did enjoy what I read, but it was tough going. Sorry, Orhan. Oh, well. I’m sure you’re too happy after your Nobel prize to care. And quite right too.