Sunday, 22 September 2013

Amadeus (1984)

It was the September Weekend holiday last week, in which Scottish state school kids get both their Friday and their Monday off for a four-day weekend in the middle of September. Late on the Thursday evening, I noticed that Amadeus, the 1985 Best Picture winner, was on BBC Two at quarter to midnight. I took the split-second decision to give it a watch, regardless of how early I was supposed to get up the following morning and how tired I would be by the end. I would commit myself to this film. It was only as the title card appeared:

AMADEUS

DIRECTOR'S CUT

...that I sank back in my seat and put my head in my hands. It would be a long night.

But what a director. MiloŇ° Forman is my second-favourite Czech, and his 'other film', One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is undoubtably one of the best films I've ever seen. Forman won the best director Academy Award for both One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus (two out of his three nominations), and both won best picture. His movies craft extraordinary characters and tells their story with exceptional skill. If there's anyone I'd trust to re-edit a film up to three hours long to take me late into the night, it's Forman.

The extraordinary character at the centre of Amadeus is Antonio Salieri. He's an Italian composer with a gig writing music for the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna. We join him as an elderly man in a mental institution, where he retells the story of his glory years to a young priest; glory years which were largely eclipsed by the meteoric of a ridiculously talented former child prodigy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Where Salieri can write the occasional march for a royal event, Mozart is in another league. As Salieri recounts, he wrote his first entire symphony at the age of eight. When he composes, he writes out the exact complexities he is hearing in his head in one go, making no mistakes in any of the multitude of parts.

Salieri's problem is that Mozart is a conceited, arrogant, moronic arsehole. He doesn't nearly deserve the divine talent that has been bestowed upon him. This drives Salieri's jealousy beyond reasonable bounds, and he fantasises about murdering the young man so he can play his own compositions at his funeral. It only intensifies as Mozart has success after success, writing great symphonies and operas, the beauty of which Salieri can only awe at (Amadeus' soundtrack is immense). His narcissism and immaturity is toe-curling to watch. It's a situation that the best of us can relate to: the mind-melting irritation that comes as a result of being bettered by a seemingly undeserving contemporary, one who achieves so much more with far less effort.

With this story, Amadeus speaks to a vast majority of us. Those of us who have ever been made to doubt that hard work will get you anywhere. Those of us who have ever been driven to rage by the taunting of our superiors. However, the message behind Amadeus, so vividly demonstrated by Forman, is that these attitudes have deep consequences. They will destroy you as well as the target of your spite, and no one comes out clean. It's a truth that everyone will learn over the course of their lives. Save yourself the time and the bother, and bathe in the magnificence of the incredible Amadeus.

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Sunday, 15 September 2013

Elysium (2013)

I was in Edinburgh last week for one of the all-too-infrequent day visits with Connor and Chris, two of my friends. Whilst we had decided that the trip would involve going to the cinema, we hadn't a clue what we were actually going to see until about half an hour before the film started. Having surfed through most of the options on my phone, and dismissed a vast majority of them, I suggested we try a movie I was vaguely curious to have a look at: Neill Blomkamp's dystopian sci-fi Elysium.

Blomkamp had only one feature film to his name before he made Elysium - the well-received District 9 from 2009 - but he already had an enviable reputation in allegorical science fiction. Amazingly, District 9 was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2010 (losing it to The Hurt Locker), one of the few from that genre to achieve that honour. Famously, not even Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was nominated. It was for that reason that I decided to give him a go.

For Elysium, it appears that Blomkamp has decided to be a bit more subtle with his metaphors and a bit more focussed on the action side of things. Elysium is an enormous, beautiful satellite where the privileged of Earth have set up home in order to escape from the mess of a planet beneath them (a concept not previously unheard of: I kept getting flashbacks to Wall-E). A hairless Matt Damon is part of the unloved back on Earth, and part of a plan to infiltrate Elysium and put every human back onto the same level. This is easier described than done, though, as any illegal ships found entering Elysium's sacred airspace are immediately destroyed by a big gun shot by a very angry South African man down on the surface.

Naturally, in a film in which a handheld missile launcher is used to take out spaceships as they fire off into orbit, there is an abundance of violence in Elysium. Some of the images will stick with you for a while. There's the bloody surgery scene, where Matt gets holes carved into him and metal strips screwed into his skull, and the moment where a man gets his face blown off in slow motion... which, incidentally, he lives through. While there is something oddly beautiful about someone being blown into fragments on board a satellite, it's not a film to take the grandkids to see. Suffice to say, Elysium's gore is the most realistically realised gore I've ever seen in a film.

But while the focus is certainly on the action, there's more than an undercurrent of moral warning. Elysium, at its base, is a film about class and privilege. It shows the consequences of a future where the out-of-touch wealthy have finally achieved what they've always desired: a remote paradise where they can socialise with others like themselves, bask in the myriad benefits that their vast wealth can afford them, and relax far away from the working classes who caused their every problem whilst they suffered down on Earth. They take advantage of miraculous health-beds that remove any disability or disease in a person's body by using them as a means of staying forever young; the poor, meanwhile, have to make do with incredibly overcrowded hospitals with the minimum number of doctors and nurses who cannot afford to spend any time on them.

The proletariats and their employers have grown so far apart that they are literally living on different worlds. The poor get poorer and sicker, the rich live on in wilfully ignorant bliss, justifying their unjustifiable privilege with the disillusioned belief that they have earned the right to not help anyone except themselves. Ta-daa! That's capitalism. Kudos to Blomkamp for creating such a satisfying metaphor. He makes his views on the ruling classes known, too, by cheerfully smashing spacecraft into their perfectly tended lawns. Quite satisfying.

Besides big names Damon and Jodie Foster, some of the best performances in the movie come from relatively unknown actors. Brazilian Wagner Moura is outstanding as the twitchy, unstable Spider, and his emphatic way of delivering lines is quite fun to watch. Diego Luna is wonderful in the short time he's got as the tragic Julio. Previous Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley would be worth casting just for his fantastic South African accent, but he makes a really terrifying villain in Agent C.M. Kruger. It's all enjoyable, fast-paced action but also, notably, it's a film with a point. Personally, I can't wait to see what Neill Blomkamp's still got up his sleeve.

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Friday, 6 September 2013

Finding Nemo (2003)

I've now written about just over 50 films for this blog, and I'm already on my fourth Pixar film. I don't think I've ever found such a large amount of any other studio's output so appealing and so watchable. Looking in front of me now, I notice that the Munro family has every Pixar movie bar four (Ratatouille, the two Cars films and the recently released Monsters University) on DVD. The one I chose to watch is perceived by many to be their greatest feature to date, which naturally means it is also considered among the best animated films of all time.

It's not difficult to see why. What appears to be a relatively simple story on the surface (fish is kidnapped in front of his dad, who has many adventures trying to find him again) turns out to be a deep parable of what it means to be a parent. Finding Nemo follows Marlin, an overprotective clownfish voiced by the great Albert Brooks, as he frantically searches for the son who was snatched out of their home off the coast of Australia and plopped in a dentist's aquarium. Mortifying, perhaps, but director Andrew Stanton ensures that the darker parts of the story are dealt with promptly so they bolster the story without alienating the younger folks the film is aimed at.

The cast of speaking characters is immense, and as Marlin meets more and more different fish, each with an important message for him to find, the tale becomes more epic. It's an odyssey on the scale of Jason and the Argonauts, but with the intimacy of a character study piece. The impressive calibre of actor lending their voices to the movie reflects the quality of the writing. As well as Brooks, there's Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Barry Humphries and Eric Bana, along with the obligatory John Ratzenberger and a role for the director as Crush, the easy-living turtle who rides the East Australian Current with his son Squirt. None put a foot wrong.

But more important than the voice cast and the moral message is the question of whether Finding Nemo actually appeals to its target audience of kids. Well, I can answer this. I was in that demographic when it came out. I bought a 3D Finding Nemo poster when a Pixar exhibition came to the National Museum in Edinburgh, and it's still in my room. I believe no kid could ever be disappointed by it. There's no time to get bored, as the action moves along very quickly with multiple new characters being introduced every five minutes. It's difficult not to be entranced by Pixar's portrait of the spectacular, vibrant colours of the fish and the Great Barrier Reef, sharp bubbles rising amongst floating rings of azure refracted light. There's comic relief aplenty. It's an instant favourite film.

There's nothing not to like about Finding Nemo. It has charm by the barrowful, and depth to match its setting. Show it to a child and they'll be captivated for the running length. It even manages not to suffer from the Cuddle Syndrome many animated films fall victim to, which involves a blatant overconcern for upsetting children with scary or sad scenes, wrapping them in a thick layer of cotton wool. Finding Nemo takes its viewers, whatever age, along with Marlin on his odyssey, with all the necessary highs and lows. It is a masterwork in movie production, supported by an outstanding script, and it fully deserves its lofty respect in the animation, and wider film-making, world.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro