Thursday, August 20, 2015

1: The Shawshank Redemption

[Reminder: these articles do contain spoilers. In this case, I really would like you to see the film before reading this, so stop what you're doing and go and watch the film. I'll see you in two hours. OK?]

I'll never forget when Rob (housemate at the time) told me he owned Shawshank on DVD but had never watched it and was thinking of getting rid of it as he was probably never going to watch it. So that same day Gloria and I sat him down and insisted we all watch it together, and I think Kevin and Martyn probably joined us for the experience as well. Because when a film is this good, you WANT to share it with everyone, because you know - guaranteed - that they will like it too. And sure enough, as the credits rolled, Rob grinned up and said "That's so good! I can't believe I've never seen that!"

The thing that always amazes me - and it shouldn't, I know - is that it's a Stephen King story. Yes, the horror writer whose more accessible material would be something like 'The Green Mile' (which made the short-list for this Top 40) but who more normally is responsible for some of that darkest horror stories you'll ever encounter. But here we have a story, told over time with real character development, without the need for supernatural intervention and it wonderfully, gloriously works. The first time I watched it I remember the tension building, particularly when the Tim Robbins character gets the rope, night falls, and he doesn't come out of his cell in the morning... the sheer tension is amazing. And they look in, and the cell is... empty. Completely empty.

And then the movie gives you about five minutes to figure it out, while the prison authorities shout and search before the hole behind the poster is discovered, and the real situation is revealed. And you get that glorious moment of freedom when you see him escape, along with his perfectly planned-and-executed series of events to appear as the silent-silent-partner and make off to Mexico with all the money. And finally, when Morgan Freeman gets to join him and the credits roll... I just remember thinking "That's so good! I can't believe I've never seen that!"

It is that good.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2: The Hunger Games/Catching Fire

A very recent addition to the top 40.

Recent additions to any 'all time' list are never usually good - if you ever ask "what are the best songs of all time" and have people vote, you'll frequently find songs from that year will be far nearer the top than they should be. Ask the same question ten years later and they'll have gone away.
However, the fact is I'm only going to be forty once and so this is my only chance to rank The Hunger Games and Catching Fire in the list. I think in ten years they will still be in the list, and very probably still in the top ten, although I can see the eternal positivity of Airplane and the eternal negativity of Apocalypse Now possibly surpassing it. But right here, right now, these two films - taken together as one unit, for reasons I will describe in a moment - sit above them, proudly in second place on the list.

I paid little attention to the first film when it came out. I vaguely knew about it because people on the radio talked about it (notably Messrs Kermode and Mayo), mainly in the light of "what big movie franchise is going to follow on from the success of the 'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight' series of films?". But I didn't read the books (which I understood where aimed at a teenager audience, which I'm increasingly finding I'm not), and I didn't pay any attention to the success of it, and when the second film came out I paid no attention to that one either.

Except then came Netflix. They held the rights to the first movie and kept it up on their home page, so whenever you went to see something else there it was, staring you in the face saying "big Hollywood movie you haven't seen yet". And since the little I knew about it was 'dystopian sci-fi' rather than 'supernatural/dark' I thought ok, I'll watch it. And then I found the next movie - Catching Fire - was not yet on Netflix but WAS at the local RedBox DVD rental kiosk, off I went to said rental kiosk that very same day to get the second one, the first having been so good. Then I insisted Gloria watch them both also, so I got to see them again. Then the third movie was about to come out, so had to watch the first two again also before heading to the cinema to see the third on the day it was released.

And when you tie in the original novels themselves, the websites, wikis, discussions and of course the Mark Kermode reviews, which are all very positive, you realise that Suzanne Collins created a story, a world, a future, a set of characters... an entire THING with tremendous originality and strength. And the people who made the books into films managed to do so without breaking it too much, which is always something of an achievement - but now can you imagine Caesar Flickerman being played by anyone other than Stanley Tucci? Or President Snow being anything other than just like Donald Sutherland's portrayal? Jennifer Lawrence herself is, of course, wonderfully intense as Katniss, basically spending three films (so far) telling her potential suitors 'stop bothering me with romance questions, I haven't got time for such things right now' while the world seems to coalesce around her, gravitationally bound to her Mockingjay persona.

Add to that the climax of 'Catching Fire' - the arrow in the sky, breaking the dome and the arena, the world literally and metaphorically crashing down as the rebellion is suddenly revealed... those are the moments a writer can put in a book and can fail in conversion to the screen. Here they got everything - the tension, the timing, the effects, the walk into the unknown - everything correct. And as the sky shatters and the dome comes crashing down, you really do have no clue what's going to happen next. And to get to that state at the end of a second film in a sequence is very impressive indeed.

The third one doesn't make the inclusion because I've only seen it once and it seemed to be a holding pattern to some extent - not sure of the value (other than financial, which is the main one I suppose) or having the third film. I fully expect the fourth and final one to be right up there when it comes out in November, however, and I'll be sure to use its release as an excuse to watch the first three again.

I really do love it. But there's one that still stands above it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

3: Apocalypse Now (Probably the 'Redux' version)

I once told a friend (circa 1994) that I'd seen 'Apocalypse Now' about twenty-five times, and I was just about starting to get into it. There's so much - so much - going on that while you can certainly follow the main premise on first viewing, there's no way you'll appreciate everything that's going on. And after about twenty-five viewings I was beginning, just beginning, to get my head around it.

And then in 2001, Francis Ford Coppola went and released a longer version ("Redux"), which added a variety of scenes (most notably the French plantation sequence) but also re-ordered and slightly extended some other scenes - placing the water-ski scene on the river where it SHOULD be (after they begin sailing up the river!), explaining the problem of having napalm in the morning (it kills the surf) and why the boat was hiding under trees when they went looking for mangos (hiding from Kilgore after stealing his surf boards). The whole thing was re-organized, made more sense, added more character and atmosphere... and made us all wish he'd made an even longer version so we could see even more of the cut scenes.

The documentary concerning the making of the film - called 'Hearts of Darkness' after the Joseph Conrad story that inspired the film - shows the craziness, excesses and tensions that went into making the movie itself (in itself it could be described as an epic) and I'd recommend watching that to find out about what really went on, and how we end up with the final versions of the film we have today. But it will suffice to say for now that the scene where Martin Sheen punches and shatters a full-length mirror was a totally unscripted, ad libbed moment of madness.

The first few times you watch the film itself, you don't even need to bother about the Marlon Brando character really - pay attention instead to Martin Sheen's character development, the storyline of what the Generals want from him, the craziness of Kilgore, the psychotic and even psychadelic scenes around the last outpost at the bridge and the deeply aware response to Sheen's question "soldier, do you know who's in charge here?" - response: [pause] yeah.

Then eventually after several watches you get everything else down, all the boat incidents, Dennis Hopper's wonderful photo-journalist, "if I say it's safe to surf this beach, it's safe to surf this beach!"... and finally decide it's time to pay attention to Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz. And you just listen to his inane ramblings and ridiculous orders - I still don't see why Chef had to die really - and let the poetry of this self-obsessed, half-crazed nutter in the jungle just wash over you. And frankly I'm probably talking about Brando himself there, not Kurtz - huge swathes of his monologues are totally ad-libbed and just cut with minimal processing to include in the final film.

They all pretty much went nuts making this movie. It's scary but almost documentary in its final form, Brando's voice echoing in the final scene.

The horror. The horror.

Monday, August 17, 2015

4: Airplane!

In contrast to the last movie, this is probably one you DON'T want to watch while flying over the ocean. Actually I take that back. I'd watch this film anywhere.

I know it's not for everyone. I know the humour is too simple/repetitive/even crude at times for everyone's liking, and I know it's not as clever or random as Monty Python, and I know lots of the jokes are just simple puns but it works because everyone - and particularly the brilliant Leslie Nielsen - treats every joke response as if it's exactly what they were expecting. Case-in-point: the "smoking or non-smoking" scene where Striker decides to get a ticket for the plane:

Airport Salesperson: Smoking or non-smoking?
Ted Striker: Smoking.
Airport Salesperson [handing Striker a boarding pass that is belching out smoke]: Have a nice flight!

 - and they both treat it as if it was totally normal and completely what was expected. THAT is where the subtle humour really comes in - deadpan, dry, whatever you wish to call it - THAT is what makes it funny.

Naturally I'm going to offer more quotes here:

Lady in seat: Nervous?
Ted Striker: Yes.
Lady in seat: First time?
Ted Striker: No, I've been nervous lots of times.

Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.

Rumack: You'd better tell the Captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?
Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.

Rumack: I won't deceive you, Mr. Striker. We're running out of time.
Ted Striker: Surely there must be something you can do.
Rumack: I'm doing everything I can... and stop calling me Shirley!

Rumack: Captain, how soon can you land?
Captain Oveur: I can't tell.
Rumack: You can tell me. I'm a doctor.
Captain Oveur: No. I mean I'm just not sure.
Rumack: Well, can't you take a guess?
Captain Oveur: Well, not for another two hours.
Rumack: You can't take a guess for another two hours?

And you'll of course notice the emergence of Dr Rumack in those quotes, who doesn't appear until halfway through the film. Leslie Nielsen himself was of course a well-established character actor who had played straight roles over many years on both film and TV. Shortly afterwards, however, he appeared as a certain Frank Drebin in a short-lived TV spoof series called "Police Squad", basically playing the same Dr Rumack character and which, of course, he would go on to reprise directly in the 'Naked Gun' series of films. Indeed until his recent death he never really played any other character again, just Dr Rumack/Frank Drebin over and over, and it never got old. If you ever want to know anything about deadpan comedy, just watch later Leslie Nielsen films.

The man was a comedy genius. And this was the best of them all.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

5: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Just watched this one again on a plane flight. There, alongside the current crop of Hollywood blockbusters and a few significant classics, was sitting "Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan", a film that shows if nothing else that it IS possible to make a sequel that is better than the original. And that's not just because the original ("Star Trek: The Motion Picture") was so unimaginably awful (and it was).

Clearly the people at Paramount knew they had something good. Star Trek had run for three seasons in the late 1960s to mild success but the re-runs and syndication deals had made the show grow in popularity in the years following its cancellation. Add to that the massive success of Star Wars in the late 1970s and you can just see the dollar-focused minds at Paramount thinking "ok, what have we got that's spacey-wacey?" So they got the cast of Star Trek together and made that initial pointless movie in 1979 that was so bad you can't even pretend to like it because everyone knows you're lying if you say you do.

But that didn't stop the original TV series CONTINTUING to be popular, all it did was draw increased attention to the fact that it was so good compared to the film. So the good people at Paramount found a recently-joined producer named Harve Bennett, who knew basically nothing about Star Trek, asked him to make the next movie "better and for less money". So they sat him down to watch all the original episodes of the TV show to work out what it was that made it work. He saw the episode about Khan and liked both the complex character and the open ending of the episode (left on the planet... what happened to Khan and his people next?) and out came Star Trek II. With Nicholas Meyer directing and the original cast returning - including the brilliant Ricardo Montalban reprising Khan himself - the story, characters and atmosphere were not only more akin to the original Star Trek series, but much more successfully updated. The story is both original and simple, and stands up well over time, and the central characters are shown not only as facing - and dealing with - human situations (the no-win scenario, the needs of the many etc) but also as maturing themselves, getting older and having to deal with that.

The follow-up films were never quite as good - although number 6, "The Undiscovered Country" (essentially a decent 'whodunnit' set in space) came close to making this list. But The Wrath Of Khan stands the test of time, setting a high bar to follow. And I really do like it, even watching it on a plane going over the Atlantic some 33 years after its initial release.

Friday, August 14, 2015

6: A Few Good Men

Judge Randolph: Consider yourself in contempt!
Kaffee: Colonel Jessep, did you order the Code Red?
Judge Randolph: You don't have to answer that question!
Col. Jessup: I'll answer the question!
Col. Jessup [to Kaffee]: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I'm entitled to.
Col. Jessup: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the TRUTH!
Col. Jessup: You can't handle the truth!

That's the most famous scene, obviously. But the build-up - it's a long movie - and even the aftermath shows some seriously deep consideration of one of the key questions in legal military behaviour: the so-called defence of superior orders, or more accurately the fact that there is no such defence. To me the film itself isn't so much about the characters - while they are beautifully portrayed by some of the absolute leading actors of the era (and Kevin Bacon), and while the characters show more depth than just a straightforward portrayal of various military stereotypes, the key question isn't whether Jessup ordered the Code Red (we know he probably did) or even whether Kaffee can get him to admit to it in court (although that's obviously where the dramatic tension reaches crescendo), the point is that even after all that is over, Kaffee's clients - Downey and Dawson, the two who performed the action itself - are STILL guilty of having performed it. As Dawson says to Downey right afterwards:

Downey: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!
Dawson: Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy.

The issue first really came to light in the Nuremberg trials following the second World War, where German officers stood trial but pleaded as their defence that they were acting under orders from a superior officer, and could not refuse. After the first trial of a general who used this defence, a precedent was set that such a defence was not acceptable as an excuse for committing atrocities. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (December 1948) also enshrined the same principle. Which all sounds fair enough.

But what the film does here is expose the issues that arise from this - very noticeably NOT taking a side one way or the other - but simply saying that this is a complex problem without an elegant solution. Yes, Downey and Dawson were under superior orders and had, in their immediate situation (as the film makes clear) NO way to disobey orders, but the fact is they did perform the criminal act in itself. They were put in an impossible situation and had to bear the consequences of it, however fair or unfair it might be. The partial solution - as shown by the film - is to follow the trail of the superior orders to find the person who initially GAVE that order, and that person also therefore bears guilt, and in some cases (depending on the severity of the case usually) there might be a lessening of the sentence for those who followed the order.

But it's clearly a problem without an obvious solution. And 'A Few Good Men' exposes that, through a dramatic, well-portrayed sequence and character set, and leads you to ask the core question: what SHOULD have happened to Downey and Dawson in the aftermath of the truth coming out? Because frankly, the law simply doesn't know what to do.

It can't handle the truth.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

7: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

John Cleese left Monty Python before the fourth series and it's often said that his absence left both the audience and Graham Chapman (his co-writer) let down and empty. However when you look at the dates involved, it's funny to think that Cleese re-joined Python almost the minute that final series was complete - the series aired in late 1974 and Cleese was back with the rest of them making Holy Grail for release in 1975. The initial planning and storyline had actually begun after the third series of Python - thus with Cleese included - so his departure from the troupe was basically just a brief hiatus allowing Palin, Jones and co to do more of their own thing.

Anyway - once we get down to the film itself, we're on very safe ground. Cheaply filmed - and indeed most of the funding there was came from rock bands such as Pink Floyd who preferred to give their band-derived income to Python rather than pay 70% income tax to receive it themselves - it can be viewed either as a series of set-piece sketches or as a genuine developing story, punctuated with humour. Either way, the 'African swallow' bit, the 'Knights who say Ni' bit, the 'It's only a flesh wound!' bit, the 'You mother was an 'amster and your father smelled of elderberries' bit - and we could go on - are all not only quotable but almost necessary parts of cultural education in late twentieth century English-language civilisation.

My favourite bit? Probably the 'three questions' routine. Simple premise, but they are able to twist it and get more out of it than you'd ever think possible. Spike Milligan himself couldn't have done any better with it.

That's my favourite bit. What's yours?