Friday, 4 December 2009

Best films of the decade - part 2

Carryng on from where I left off yesterday, here are my further musings on the films I have seen on the combined 'best of/definitive' films of the last decade from The Times and The Telegraph.

The Last King of Scotland: Great film, great acting and James McAvoy

Little Miss Sunshine: Made me laugh and cry out loud: very embarrassing and very surprising!

The Lives of Others: Quite simply outstanding

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring / The Return of the King: The first one was the best, I was bored by the end – just get on with it for God’s sake! There's a reason neither listed the middle of the trilogy - it was mind-numbingly dull. The projector broke down four times while I watched this film; I thought I would never get out of there alive. NZ went into orgiastic self-congratulatory mode.

Memento: I love Guy Pearce – I loved this film

Michael Clayton: Guess what; good actors and a good script can make a great film. It's a suspense, but not a thriller.

Milk: Not bad for an ‘issues’ film, but I love Sean Penn – the man can do no wrong. I prefer Mystic River as his better performance of the decade, however.

Minority Report: I like future-world-gone-wrong films, and they go very wrong here indeed

Moulin Rouge: Who thought it would be a good idea to take two actors who patently can't sing and put them in a musical? It seemed to work - Parisian slums never looked so glamorous and sales of absinthe rocketed

Mulholland Drive: I never got David Lynch, so I watched this to see if it would help – it didn’t

No Country for Old Men: Would have been a great film with one of the most excellent scenes – flipping the coin at the gas store – but ruined by the rambling pseudo psychoanalysis at the end

The Pianist: Adrien Brody shone, America continued it's love/hate relationship with Roman Polanski. Whatever you think of the man, he makes a damn fine film

The Piano Teacher: Ouch! Painfully uncomfortable to watch, deeply disturbing and typically European

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: Is it weird when you and your mum fancy the same bloke? Johnny Depp desperately deserves an Oscar for making pirates sexy again.

The Queen: I love Helen Mirren and I love The Queen

The Royal Tenenbaums: So much hype; so many good actors; so ultimately disappointing

School of Rock: Strangely appealing – grown men acting like geeky teenagers is occasionally funny – as long as it’s not real life

Shrek: I'm not a big fan of animation or kid's films, but I'll make an exception for the grumpy green ogre and the funky soundtrack

Sideways: Great understated film although merlot gets a shockingly bad rap

Slumdog Millionaire: How could anyone not like this film?

Spiderman: Not a patch on Batman but Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are cute together

Syriana: Everything's political - I love stuff like this

There Will Be Blood: Will there ever! Often compared with No Country For Old Men, I preferred this, but then I studied the book at university

This is England: Margaret Thatcher has so much to answer for; this film is part of her legacy – brilliant (the film, not the legacy)

Traffic: Ho hum; too worthy for it's own good

United 93: Why did I watch it when I knew it would all end so badly? Depressingly realistic

The Wind That Shakes the Barley: I never expected Ken Loach to sympathise with the IRA – nearly walked out of the cinema in disgust

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Films of the decade?

'Tis the season to compile lists of 'best of's. As it is a year with a 9 at the end, we can extend that for a whole ten years! The latest list from The Times sent to tyrannise me is The 100 Best Films of the Decade. Unlike The Telegraph list of 100 Books That Defined the Noughties, this list goes further by suggesting they are the best films.

I have of course had a look, and find I have seen 41 of their 100. I then realised that The Telegraph had done a list of 100 Films That Defined the Noughties, so I had a look at that too. Curiously, I discovered I had seen 41 of their choices too (20 of which were the same). I neither agree nor disagree with thier order on the list, but these are my comments on what I have seen of their chosen films, in alphabetical order:

28 Days Later: According to Him Outdoors, this is the perfect Valentine’s Day flick. Great opening scene - kind of like The Day of the Triffids but with zombies

About Schmidt: Sometimes I just don’t understand why films get nominated for Oscars

Amelie: Utterly nauseating. Some of my best friends liked it; I try not to hold that against them

Atonement: I liked the film almost as much as the book - high praise, indeed!

Billy Elliot: Any film with The Jam and The Clash on the soundtrack has got to be good, and this is superb

Bend it Like Beckham: Some fantastic actors explain the off-side rule. And some others launch their career

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan:is niiiice. How that man is still alive is beyond me

Bowling for Columbine: Guns don’t kill people: highly-charged testosterone-fuelled morons do

The Bourne Supremacy / The Bourne Ultimatum: Good action films but I’ve seen better. I suppose they were filmed in tandem (like LOTR) so should get similar kudos, but I wish cinematographers would learn to hold the camera steady!

Brokeback Mountain: What is it about the words ‘short story’ that Ang Lee failed to understand? Two men lie and cheat on their wives – why is this a big deal? Why should I feel sorry for them? Because they’re gay? So what? Lying and cheating is lying and cheating.

Casino Royale: Bond is back – I wasn’t sure about a blonde Bond, but he really is a living action man

Children of Men: In the future there is Clive Owen and no children – I can’t wait!

Chopper: Played ‘drink along a swear word’ to this – got very very drunk

The Constant Gardener: Despite the bland title, this was a spectacularly good film

Control: Great music; great acting (even from Samantha ‘yes, it-would-kill-me-to-smile' Morton); great directing; great city – what more can I say?

We learn that racism is like so not cool

Dancer in the Dark: Bjork is just plain weird

The Dark Knight: I know it’s sacrilegious, but I preferred Jack Nicholson’s Joker

The Departed: Classy drama/thriller from the in-crowd

The Devil Wears Prada: Saw this on a plane and was surprised to find myself enjoying it. I liked the Meryl Streep character – and Emily Blunt – but wanted to slap the insipid assistant

Downfall: Powerful, frightening, mesmerising, German

Erin Brockovich: Julia Roberts proves she's not just a pretty face

Gladiator: It took a long time for Russell Crowe to worm his way back into my good books after this talent-free epic. I bet he was gutted

Good Night, and Good Luck: I so wanted to like it and yet I can barely remember it

Gomorrah: The matter-of-fact unglamorous violence scared the shit out of me – I never liked Naples much anyway

Gosforth Park: Brilliantly acted upstairs/downstairs drama works on so many levels - ha!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: It's not the best but it was the first. Apparently J.K. Rowling stipulated that all the actors must be British, which is why the deries of films remains so fine

In the Loop: One of the best films I’ve seen this year

Kill Bill: Women with good figures everywhere drove blokes wild dressing up in yellow leather. As far as I'm concerned, the 2000s was simply not Tarantino's decade.

I'll continue this later...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Books read in June

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in June. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

Luncheon of the Boating Party – Susan Vreeland (3.3)
This novel is the imagined story of the Impressionists; in particular, Auguste Renoir and in even more particular, his painting of the Luncheon of the Boating Party. It’s not especially well written with too much repetition and off-putting changes in narrative voice, but when it focuses on the art and technique of painting it is at its best. The depictions of regatta races, lengthy meals, indolent bicycle rides and languid afternoons are ideal for a film. The motif and historic interest is supplied by the group of painters that created a movement and challenged a regime.

Vreeland writes well of the emerging style, explaining how Renoir and Monet had discovered together that “juxtaposed patches of contrasting colour could show the movement of sunlit water”. She notes that the tantalising impressions rather than faithful reproductions owe much to train travel. “The squinting and the speed made the countryside whiz by, transforming market gardens and houses into blurred shapes, momentary sensations of colour and light without detail.” Renoir believes that everything has layers which he builds into his paintings, loving the texture of the paint and the shapes, sounds and sensuality of a place.

Vreeland’s Renoir is lusty and full of life. He chronicles actors and actresses, dancers, boating parties, friends, wine, prostitutes and duels. He favours the low-brow and although he knows there is an underside to this style of life, he doesn’t dwell on depression. He champions the seductive life of Montmartre that we have come to recognise from romantic novels and films about this period.

Of course, part of his love of life is a love of women and he paints them as he would like to touch them, admitting that he can’t paint a woman he doesn’t love, which makes him sound like a dirty old man. He views them as objects and the sexual analogy is far from subtle as “With his brush loaded and juicy, he pushed the wet tip gently into the hidden folds of her skirt, and stroked again and again, pushing farther, gently, wet into the wet already there.” We get the picture.

Will & Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life – Dominic Dromgoole (4.3)
In this semi-autobiography about his relationship with the bard, Dromgoole (artistic director of the Globe Theatre) contends that Shakespeare wields a massive influence over the English in both language and culture. He writes a little about Shakespeare the man, mentioning his politics, his religion and his background, but these snippets of information about Shakespeare’s life and times probably tell us more about Dromgoole himself than his subject.

In fact, this is definitely not a book about Shakespeare but rather about Dromgoole’s experience of him. His private history mingles with generalities and concepts and he writes about himself as a social misfit with brutal candour. He is unaware that he doesn’t exactly have a stereotypical upbringing (his mother was an actress turned teacher and his father a theatre director and TV executive) and his upper middle-class genes practically scream out from the page.

He writes well about the plays themselves – their language and characters which give them their magic. The biggest threat to Shakespeare, as Dromgoole sees it, is the over-analysis of what he calls the ‘Shakespeare industry’ who give the plays an interpretation comprising modern constructs that simply had no place in his time. He scorns the concept production in which a director “who has only half or quarter understood a play” chooses a style and then “relentlessly forces everything to fit.” He argues that there is no consistent style in the world, so why should there be in the theatre?

Some of the most interesting aspects of the book are about stagecraft and the art of acting. He also has words of wisdom about the process of theatre including the stage itself, the wings and the rehearsal room.

On the whole it is Dromgoole’s eulogy to Shakespeare, the human not the god, tempered with realism and sounding a cautionary note to would-be scholars.

Valeria’s Last Stand – Marc Fitten (4.5)
In describing this novel, I want to use such words as whimsical, delightful and charming. Like a mediaeval morality tale, it proves that foolishness in love is not the sole prerogative of the young. In deepest Hungary, Valeria, a grumpy old battleaxe, is smitten by a potter who adopts her as his muse. This angers the proprietor of the local pub, Ibolya, who has designs on him herself. The village depends on her favours as she is the one who controls the alcohol, so everyone takes sides.

Meanwhile Ferenc is hopelessly in love with Ibolya, despite having a wife himself, and the potter’s assistant attempts to ignore the attentions of Zsofi who he thinks is just a good friend. The mayor has them all dancing to his tune as he parades his pretty young wife and promises development that never materialises, despite the frequent visits from Korean dignitaries.

When a chimney sweep arrives (most of the men are known only by their profession), the villagers take heart, as apparently chimney sweeps are lucky, according to rural superstition. He quickly seduces the women (many of whose flues haven’t had a thorough sweeping in ages) and antagonises the men, but he is unaware that the bicycle he rides into town is profoundly unlucky. With overtones of Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes we are treated to a quick history of how the contraption has passed through many tragic circumstances. The novel is earthy, rustic and ribald, almost like one of the Canterbury Tales, with a moral twist of mob mentality, manipulation and turning on the weak.

The writing is both magnificently evocative language and eminently readable. Fitten’s characters come to life through his rudimentary and ironic descriptions. It is light-hearted in the vein of The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith or A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. Like these novels, there is a cynical edge, and the seam of politics is never far from the surface. There is a conflict throughout between the pride of history and traditions, and the irritation that these are only preserved because no one cares enough to attack them.