Monday, 15 April 2013

The Cinematic Easter

It wasn't always going to happen. It was only a couple of days after the holidays started that I decided to try and cram as many films into my free time as possible. Because, as I've said before, the holidays are for watching movies. So I sit here, just under a week after school has restarted, having watched No Country For Old Men, Back To The Future, Bugsy Malone, The Godfather Parts I and II, Miller's Crossing, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Inception, Winter's Bone and Fargo, all within the space of a fortnight. I know that I promised to look at every film I see. How do I handle this? One big chunk of 97% pure reviews. I called it the Cinematic Easter, and this marks the very end of it.

It started the Friday that school finished. I decided that it was as good a time as any to finally watch No Country For Old Men, so I did, and I wrote about it the next day. Here it is. I'm quite glad I did that, as it saves a few lines here, and it means I can start with,

Back To The Future (1985)

In my first post on here, I mentioned that I have four movie posters in my room. One is for The Hobbit, Peter Jackson's 2012 Tolkien epic, one is for The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's 2011 Batman epic, one is for Jaws, Steven Spielberg's flawless magnum opus, and one is for Back To The Future. Put quite simply, it is the greatest teen comedy ever made, and it is tied with Raiders of the Lost Ark for greatest movie of the eighties. It is significant not least for being the film that launched Robert Zemeckis' career, without whom we would have never seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away or Flight. He could have chosen a worse career-starter than this.

Marty McFly is introduced flicking on, and destroying, the largest guitar amplifier in cinema history. He then picks up his skateboard, travels to school, meets up with his quite good-looking girlfriend and auditions with his rock band in front of Huey Lewis ('I'm afraid you're just too darn loud'). Already, we're quite jealous of the boy, and that's before we find out he's friends with Dr Emmett Brown, an eccentric scientist who has stumbled upon the secret to time travel. From there on, it just gets worse and worse. Marty accidentally travels back in time thirty years to a wonderfully-crafted 1950s Hill Valley. There, he gets his dad beat up, gets into an odd relationship with his mum, harnesses the power of lightning and influences both a future mayoral election and popular music. I've said this before, with The Dude and Ferris Bueller, but Marty McFly is one of the coolest characters ever to grace the cinema screen.

The plot is very clever, with an intricacy that has become a rarity. It is written with humour and smarts and directed with love. Back To The Future is a film which can be watched an infinite number of times and only get better. Believe me, I speak from experience.

The campaign had got off to an enviable start, and it continued the next afternoon.

Bugsy Malone (1976)

In primary seven, the final year of primary school, my class decided to put on a show to mark the occasion. That show was a rather abridged version of Alan Parker's brutal 1976 vision of gang warfare in Prohibition-era Chicago. Although I only had a limited role as a butler and auditionee (for a show at the seedy, illegal booze house Fat Sam's Grand Slam), the show seemed to be a success with the parents in the audience. And why shouldn't it have been, since we were roughly the same age as the actors in the original film.

I can't imagine who came up with the idea of filming a violent gangster film as a musical with a cast of children and why. They must have had a pretty nasty knock on the head from that toilet bowl. Nevertheless, it managed to make it to the cinemas and became very popular, as evidenced by the fact it was shown on TV just a couple of weeks ago, a full 37 years after its release. The acting is as faulty as you would expect from a group of 12-year-olds (bar Jodie Foster, who had already made a magnificent impression in Taxi Driver with Robert De Niro), the adult voice used to dub the children's singing couldn't be less convincing, and it falls a bit flat when trying too hard to be serious. However, it is these idiosyncrasies that give Bugsy Malone its charm. There has never been another film quite like it, and it's uniqueness that many film makers crave, but usually fail to achieve.

A majority of the songs are a joy, particularly Bad Guys and its reprise at the ending, Good Guys, which finishes with the famous refrain that was used for a Coke advert a few years ago. Unfortunately, the gimmicks decided upon during production outweigh the story and characters for interest. It wasn't helped by the fact that the same night, Film4 was showing the gangster film that all others look up to.

The Godfather, Parts I and II (1972, 1974)

Film4, over the first week of the Easter holidays, were showing two of cinema's greatest trilogies. The first was Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy, followed swiftly by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. For the sake of variety, I decided only to watch two of the six, namely the first two that were shown. These two films, incidentally, both occupy a place in the Internet Movie Database's top three films of all time. Arguments to decide which is the better out of the two often end up declaring the winner the greatest film ever made. It's one of the great debates of the film world, and I wanted to have an opinion. Having seen the original before, I took the opportunity to catch the sequel the following night.

Hardly a scene goes by in The Godfather that isn't already iconic. We start at the wedding of Don Vito Corleone's daughter, where we are introduced to the dark, totally unfamiliar world of the leader of a Mafia family. We meet a man who is growing tired of the violent surroundings he has grown old in, who loves his family so fiercely that he wants nothing more than to see them leave his brutal world and live in peace. His dream collapses, however, when he falls victim to rival families, and he watches his youngest and most innocent son, Michael, replace him in the bloody and dangerous position of the Corleone family patriarch. The Godfather's carefully maintained family crumbles in front of him. Al Pacino's outstanding performance as Michael makes for the most spectacular character arc ever committed to screen.

His story continues in the sequel/prequel, Part II. Michael is suffering from his deep descent in the first film. The dark consequences to becoming a Mafia family leader are becoming evident in all aspects of his life, as things spiral further and further down. This story is juxtaposed with the telling of Vito Corleone's origin story, a fascinating tale that shows in great detail how he went from a child in Sicily to one of the most powerful men in New York City. It is this prequel story that I enjoy most about Part II, possibly because it is so similar to Michael's story in the first film.

Maybe it's because it went on too late, but I found myself confused by Michael's story in the second film. A minor concern, but enough for me to say that I much prefer the original Godfather. The plot is so rich and powerful, and so brilliantly controlled by Coppola, that it is as close to perfect as popular films have managed to come.

The gangster theme that had inexplicably appeared in my viewing continued the following night, on Tuesday.

Miller's Crossing (1990)

When I won an Amazon voucher at a university competition day, I used it to buy as many Coen brothers films that I could buy with the funds. Out of the four I could afford (along with the cheapest DVD player on the internet), three were watched by the end of Easter. Miller's Crossing was my second, part of a box set of three along with Fargo and Raising Arizona. It just seemed the most appropriate after the three I had watched beforehand, and, to my surprise, it sat along the might of the previous two quite comfortably.

There is a special aspect to the films of the Coen brothers that can't quite be pinpointed, but that makes them unmistakable. It's something in the quickness of the speech, the darkness and wit of the script. Miller's Crossing is a prime example of it. Violence is sprinkled throughout it with merry abandon, such as in the wonderful sequence in which a glorious shoot out is performed in Albert Finney's home, to the strains of Danny Boy. Gabriel Byrne's Tom Reagan is the sole sane man surrounded by a mad world, a character archetypal to the brothers' films. He plays around with his gangster superiors with intelligence and quick wit. Watching the best of actors work with such terrific writing is entrancing.

I'm pleased to report that my love for the Coens has not dwindled since watching this, and I'm sure it would do no harm to keep watching it many times over. The next film that week came from a different angle, altogether more subtle.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I was really treating myself this week. The Coen brothers the day before, and on Wednesday I decided to allow myself a healthy dose of my very favourite actor, Gary Oldman. He was Oscar-nominated for this, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's take on John le Carré's classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but lost out to Jean Dujardin. If you're listening, Academy, I should point out that that award is long overdue for our Gary.

Skyfall this is not. Rather than dangling a Union Jack from every available surface, Tinker presents an altogether more seedy British secret service, beige walls dimly lit by dangling light bulbs. While it might be more bleak, it is no less dramatic. The film begins with an agent being shot in Budapest, by people who could only have known who he was if they had a contact in British Intelligence. Oldman's George Smiley is brought out of retirement, as there is no one on the inside who can be trusted, to find the mole. Smiley is reluctant, quiet and reserved, but highly intelligent and wise after his long years at the highest level of British Intelligence.

The ensemble cast is, predictably, superb, with such folk as John Hurt and Colin Firth giving it their best, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy standing out, and Kathy Burke being wonderful in her one scene. Although I lost the story a bit towards the end (probably more to do with tiredness than anything else), it didn't detract from how enjoyable it turned out to be overall. The next day, I visited a completely different genre of cinema.

Inception (2010)

Occasionally, I'll see a film in the shops that I just pick up and get as an impulse buy. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was bought in the Scotmid up the road during my lunch break in school, and Inception was bought when my mum and I were in Asda getting something for dinner. My sister had mentioned it after she had seen it in a friend's house, saying that it was both quite difficult to get your head around and very enjoyable.

Both, quite an understatement. Breathtakingly intricate, incredibly intelligent, technically innovative and utterly spectacular, Inception is one of the greatest films of the 21st century. The brainchild of one of the few true geniuses of modern popular cinema, Christopher Nolan, it takes some effort to believe that such a magically imaginative tale could be made up. Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb is a man who has mastered the technique of entering the dreams of those sleeping around him and stealing ideas from their heads for use by others. However, he needs to perform the impossible when he is asked to actually plant an idea inside another's head - inception. He and a group of fellow dream invaders climb deeper and deeper into their victim's psyche to persuade him to destroy his father's business.

Every intricate detail is fully thought out and developed, from totems (small items carried by the people entering the dream to let them know if they are in the dream or in real life) to dream architects (the people who map out the place where the dream will take place; a place where the laws of physics and logic don't necessarily have to be adhered to), lending the film a complex mythology that, nevertheless, can be understood and accepted by the viewer in the space of one film. It is a truly remarkable achievement. The next film of the cinematic Easter was rather more downplayed, and in a very different environment.

Winter's Bone (2010)

For a laugh, a group of friends who make up a proportion of the local Explorer group decided to take a short break on the island of Arran, off the west coast, in one of our number's family holiday home. As nice a place as Arran is, with waterfalls and deer and golden eagles and views and all sorts, it does suffer from being relatively small and full of dull people. This means that, unfortunately, there isn't much to do once the sun has dropped behind Holy Isle, and we ended up lounging in Michael's (the co-owner of the holiday home) comfortable living room with only a guitar, a Bop-It and a television for entertainment. Handily, the latter was in working order on that Saturday night.

As it turns out, one of the group (Finlay, a co-Wreck It Ralpher) has quite a thing for Jennifer Lawrence, star of The Hunger Games and 2013 Best Actress Academy Award winner for Silver Linings Playbook. Her breakthrough film, Debra Granik's bleak drama Winter's Bone, was on TV that night, and without much else to do, we decided to give it a watch purely for her sake. As it began, the 'independent production' nature of the film was really made clear. It is set in the Deep South of the USA, where your uncle lives in a trailer in the garden and six-year-olds are shown where to shoot to kill. There is no music, just the intense nature of the performances to heighten the tension. Lawrence plays a young woman who is told she will be evicted unless she can tell the police the whereabouts of her father, who has been missing for quite some time. She sets out to confer with creepy relatives and her father's creepy associates in order to find the truth and keep her house.

Winter's Bone wouldn't be a typical choice for a film to watch on a boy's weekend island holiday. Perhaps American Pie or The Hangover would have come to mind a bit quicker. It maybe wasn't perfect to watch as the night was drawing deeper and you're trying to keep yourself awake. A Nightmare On Elm Street would certainly have done that. But while I wouldn't recommend it under the circumstances, you could do a lot worse than giving it a watch. Lawrence demonstrates why she is much more than just a tween girl's icon, and the final scene, which explains the title pretty starkly, is gritty and harrowing in a way that silenced the four teenagers and one grown man in the room. Certainly worth a look at.

Fargo (1996)

It had been a week since Winter's Bone. A week of desperately scribbling down the silly amount of homework I had been given to complete over the holidays, and a week of realisation how much I could have got done rather than just watching films at every opportunity. As Saturday came round again, I decided that it was time to reward myself for all my hard work, and so I cracked out the DVD of my very favourite film, the Coen brothers' masterwork Fargo. This would be the final one, the climax in a fortnight of great cinema.

The drama is flawless, the comedy blacker than Zorro's wardrobe, the writing unbeaten and unbeatable, the acting, the directing, a masterclass. Take a look at the meetings of William H Macy and Frances McDormand in Lundegaard's office, watch McDormand's long, poignant speech towards the end as she drives her police car through the snowy wilderness of North Dakota. There isn't a mildly flawed performance to be seen anywhere, and the greatest ones truly are the greatest. As Peter Serafinowicz put it, the music sounds like God shaking his head in dismay, the melancholy and simple theme piercing through as Jerry Lundegaard's ridiculous plan to get a share of his father-in-law's wealth goes horrifically wrong. Not an element of Fargo doesn't work. By the way, if you do decide to watch it, look for Mr Mohra, the greatest single-scene character in any film ever made.

I try to be wary of bigging up a film too much, in case someone expects a mind-blowingly brilliant film when they only get a pretty good one and they think that they would have enjoyed it more if it wasn't for my gushing over it. All I want to say is, watch Fargo. Decide what you think of it. In all likelihood, it won't become your favourite film. You might actively not enjoy it. No one shares anyone else's opinions completely, and I'd be frightened of anyone who shared mine. All I can say is, there are one hell of a lot of films out there, so when you find your favourite, you're going to bloody enjoy it. I bloody enjoy Fargo.

And thus, Fargo ended the glorious Easter of cinema. Two days later, I was back at school. I felt better for it. At another unarranged date, another cinematic holiday will occur. Hopefully then, I'll have sorted out my writing so it won't arrive in such an unwieldy block. I'm looking forward to it.

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