Tuesday, June 30, 2015

19: Blade Runner (Director's Cut)

The thing about Blade Runner is that it's to some extent what the future used to look like. When you watch it, part of you is thinking wow, that's an amazing vision of the future state of our society, part of you is thinking wow, they got that stuff about micro-biology and genetic engineering spot on and part of you is thinking wow, whatever happened to Atari anyway? In some ways it's a beautiful, fluid look into both our present and our future, and in some ways (primarily the Vangelis soundtrack and the Atari product placement) it is still stuck firmly in 1982. But that only serves to make it more interesting.

The Director's Cut is the vastly superior version - so much so that I don't think anyone even needs to see the original version any more. The removal of the narration and 'happy ending', along with the insertion of the unicorn dream sequences (hinting that Deckard himself is the final replicant) not only adds to the atmosphere of the movie but also means it makes more sense and is much more re-watchable. The emergence of the characters of the replicants - at once both psychopathic and child-like - is a central theme, best expressed at the end of the film by Rutger Hauer's character:

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

It is unquestionably one of the most atmospheric films ever made, and while the storyline is simple (kill the replicants one at a time) the overall effects - even without the twist for Deckard himself - draw you in to a sense of empathy with the characters, even a sense that the replicants are the most 'human' of them all. It captivates your senses, it makes you think and it leaves you asking questions.

What more could you need?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Short List: Top Ten Mark Kermode Movie Quotes

Mark Kermode's review of 'Entourage' from last week.

Mentioned at the start of this Top 40, and again in 'The Princess Bride', Mark Kermode is a UK-based film reviewer. While he appears in numerous media - newspapers and television included - his most popular outlet has been as the resident movie reviewer on the Simon Mayo show on BBC Radio 5 live. In fact, when Mayo himself was moved to an entirely different network, the BBC smartly decided to keep that particular slot - and even extend it out to two hours - on a Friday afternoon because the listenership was so high.

Listened to - and corresponded with - by numerous UK actors ("Hello to Jason Isaacs!") and winner of several awards, he has a reputation for two things: firstly being unafraid to disagree with other reviewers (for example, he thought the universally-panned 'Basic Instinct 2' was relatively ok because it fulfilled genre expectations), and secondly for having a tendency to go off on a big explosive diatribe ("Kermodian Rant") when there's a major movie that he doesn't like. More to follow as we move on, but to get us started, here's my Top Ten Kermodian Rant Quotes from the BBC radio show, including one from just last week...

10. Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
"The death of narrative cinema."

9. Revolver
"I feel bad for Guy Ritchie. I can wake up tomorrow and think 'I didn't make that film'. He has to wake up and think 'I made Revolver'."

8. Johnny Depp's performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl
"It's a case of an actor who doesn't know how to act, and a director who doesn't know how to take him to one side and say 'Stop doing that Johnny, it's silly'."

7. Sex and the City 2
"My expectations were low, and I have to say they were met." ... "It is consumerist pornography. It is an orgy of dripping, dripping wealth that made me want to be sick."

6. Sex and the City 2 - AGAIN - on the plot point of them all going on vacation
"This is a plot device known from all movies based on television series that have run out of steam. The example is 'Are You Being Served'... it is essentially THAT film."

5. Entourage
"It's just this pornographic, consumerist, hate-filled piece of propaganda which says this is what you should aspire to. This level of utter vacuity, this foul, soul-sucking, horrible vacuum of vile emptiness is what you should aspire to. And you wait for the bubble to burst, and it doesn't" ... "Compared to this Sex and the City 2 is a call to arms for the dispossessed masses of the world."

4. Revolver - AGAIN
"Watching Guy Ritchie's "Revolver" will make you want to pour petrol on your head and set fire to yourself. It's not that Revolver is just bad - it's that it's so mind-buggeringly,intestine-stranglingly hideous that you actually start to worry about the mental state of its creator. Honestly, if I was a doctor and somebody walked into my surgery and pitched Revolver, I would reach for the medicine cabinet forthwith."

3. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
"Never was a film more accurately named. If you pay money to go and see Pirates of the Caribbean it's your own fault and you're bringing down the collapse of western civilisation."

2. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
"Episode 2 is better than Episode 1, but then so is slamming your head in a car door."

1. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
"In two years time, when the whole thing has gone down, when the ship has sunk, when civilization has been reduced to some crying, weeping, wailing child after rivers - sloughs - of this horrible vulgarization of what was once a children's toy, I want a letter - I WANT A LETTER - saying 'I'm sorry'."
Back to the Top Forty tomorrow, but there's more Kermode to come...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

20: The Princess Bride

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

This is another one where it's on the border between being truly of its genre and being a parody of it genre: the love/adventure/quirky thing is played out very carefully and the humour so drily (Billy Crystal's appearance apart) that you wonder if it's actually totally serious. But then you look at the director and realise it was made by the same guy who did This Is Spinal Tap and conclude that there is an underlying current of parody taking place. And once you can place the film in that particular frame of reference, it becomes a total delight to watch - and like the Blues Brothers, it's one you can watch over and over and it gets better each time.

The story itself is actually quite strong when you consider that most people remember the set-piece scenes, the characters and the quotes rather than the plot itself. But when you think about what actually happens, you realise that William Goldman's original novel was very strongly plotted with twists and turns and a good amount of character depth. The reason most people don't appreciate this, however, is because the rest of the film is so strong: the ensemble cast (including Peter Cook no less, more about him in a later list...), the scenery, the music (Mark Knopfler again, feel free to flick over to the Top 5 songs in the music list if you've forgotten about him already) and the quotes...

"You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line"! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!"

"We'll never survive!" - "Nonsense. You're only saying that because no one ever has."

And you know what's coming last...

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Mark Kermode reviews films for BBC Radio Five Live and, besides often quoting that line along with his sidekick presenter Simon "straight to the heart of the periphery' Mayo, uses The Princess Bride as something of a standard against which to judge other movies of a similar tone. In particular, I recall the review of Disney's "Enchanted" in 2007 where Amy Adams played a typical Disney animation princess who is thrown into the 'real world' - Kermode's strong recommendation of this film included the notion that "It's not 'The Princess Bride' but very few things will ever reach that level'" - the mere fact of comparison to The Princess Bride, even if the other movie isn't as good, is a recommendation in itself.

But most importantly, we need to do this one last time:

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Friday, June 26, 2015

21: The Blues Brothers

The funny thing about Blue Brothers is that I didn't particularly like it the first time I saw it. I thought the plot was vague, the cameos were forced and the car chases were over-the-top. But about three years later I still recalled the car chase scene and thought 'I'd quite like to see that again'.

So I did, and realised it's not an actual film in that regard. It's comedy both within the storyline itself and also making fun of the genre of car-chase movies and musical-cameo movies. And it does it with car chases of such incredulity, and musical cameos of such incredible talent, that you just have to enjoy it. From the Nazis to the police chases, from the country-and-western bar in Kokomo (hang on, Kokomo?) to the bizarre actions of Carrie Fisher's character, you sit there and cheer with every scene, and it becomes better the more times you watch it.

I'm told that Dan Aykroyd had never written a movie script prior to this, and he had no clue how to do it. All I can say to that is that maybe more people who don't know how to write movie scripts should be allowed to do so.

Espeically if they're on a mission from God.

22: The Italian Job (1969)

So many classic moments. Not just the visual effects of having the coloured Minis driving through the back streets of Turin, but the wonderful cast put together to include Michael Caine at his absolute peak, Noel Coward of all people ruling the roost from behind bars and even Benny Hill as the somewhat 'troubled' scientist. Add some music by Quincy Jones, references to the England football team (the current World Cup holders) and you have a joyous portrait of 1969 as well as a tremendous story.

Then you watch it again and enjoy the performances even more. The quotes are legendary:

"'You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, Sir' - 'Yes, I used a machine gun'"

"Just remember this - in this country they drive on the wrong side of the road."

And of course...

"You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"

And then there's the Self-Preservation Society song and the frankly bizarre ending, the bus teetering over the edge of a cliff with no way out unless they lose all the gold. All set up for a sequel.. which of course never happened, so that means it's up to us to figure out what Michael Caine's "great idea" was. In 2009 the Royal Society of Chemistry ran a competition to find the best scientifically-sound solution, the only conditions being it took less than thirty minutes and did not use a helicopter. You can read about the winning solution here, but it just goes to show how deeply ingrained the film is in the UK's national consciousness to still be not only recognisable but causing debate after 40 years.

Just like me, right?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

23: Schindler's List

Well, this blows away the arguments about a film making this list because it's fun or because you want to watch it over and over. I've seen Schindler's List twice in my life, and that's one time too many. But everyone, everyone needs to see it once.

The direction and the story is, of course, very strong - award-winning strong. And those two elements combine powerfully to produce something that can only be described as heavy, a weight on your shoulders that will re-emerge and burden you again every time you even think about the movie. There's no real sense of hope here - what Schindler did was amazing, brave and very important, but the backdrop of the reality of the holocaust is such that you know all he did was a drop in the ocean. He was a good man, and that is clearly demonstrated in the film, but the background situation is so insanely evil that even after all these years I find it hard to think about the atrocities depicted in the film, knowing they were not only accurate but probably understated and also within living memory. And that outweighs the good Schindler was able to do, even though he's depicted very fairly. The holocaust is just too much bad.

To be clear, then: Schindler's List is in the Top 40 because of the sheer power of the film. Not in any way because I want to watch it again.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

24: Frozen

And this isn't just because I have two pre-school-age daughters. Although, frankly, that's a part of it - without them I wouldn't have probably ever seen this film.

It's a strong story - a very loose retelling of 'The Snow Queen' but where the backstory is that the Snow Queen herself is essentially a victim of circumstance also. As I understand it, Disney intially thought the big strong concept in the film was of Anna, the younger sister, being the hero and trudging off through the snow to rescue her sister, and that it would therefore be Anna who would be the central character and role model for all the little girls watching it. Oh no, Disney, not even close.

Thing is, if you put an older sister in a stunning flowing dress with magical powers that she can't quite control, and give her the best song of the film, AND have that 'I can't quite be accepted by my family, I need to run away because I'm a little bit different' pre-teen thing going on, who do you THINK the girls are going to identify with? And that's what happened: Frozen came out and was huge, massive, [insert size-based adjective here] - stayed in the cinemas for months, the DVD release was an even bigger success, and Disney stores had to ration/auction the limited run of merchandise from the initial release because demand was so huge. Case-in-point - while searching eBay for Elsa dresses (because they weren't available anywhere else) during the first half of 2014 I saw one for a starting price of $1200. $1200! That was the going rate, apparently. Sheesh. I love my daughters but for $1200 I'd want a talking snowman to go with it.

Anyway - the movie IS good, really good, the story holds up to frequent re-watching (just as well really) and the soundtrack is, of course, totally first-rate, even if 'Let It Go' really is just another four-chord wonder. Wonderful characters - Olaf is a very special creation - and very special treats for those watching closely: yes, Rapunzel is there, but so - if you look very closely in the right spot at the right time - is Tiana from 'The Princess and the Frog'. Now THAT kind of Easter Egg is what pre-school girls like.

But even then, does that put it in the Top 40 when there's no place for 'Star Wars' and no place for 'The Godfather' and no place for 'Repo Man'? Answer: yes, because I enjoyed it more on first watching and enjoyed it more on subsequent watching, and today would rather watch Frozen that either of the other two. The fact I have two little girls is bonus points, although it's probably true that without them I'd never have paid it the slightest bit of attention in the first place.

Monday, June 22, 2015

25: Beverly Hills Cop

I know that to some extent, the inclusion of Beverly Hills Cop is like including T'Pau songs in the music Top 40. It's mid-80s pop-culture and on reflection may seem a little dated, or at least seem like you haven't paid any attention to it since about 1993 and mostly forgotten it ever existed.

But here's the thing: Beverly Hills Cop won an Oscar, and not just any Oscar, but "Best Writing (Original Screenplay)" which is frankly a pretty big deal. The fact that Eddie Murphy wasn't involved with the project until two weeks prior to filming seems impossible to believe: it seems to have been written especially as a vehicle for the kind of character he played for the next ten years. Fast-talking, so clever, so funny and perfect for the role which was originally supposed to be a straight action hero, probably played by Sylvester Stallone.

And that's why it's in the Top 40. Murphy's portrayal - able to slip so easily between humorous and seriously dramatic - brings a relatively two-dimensional storyline to life (although not as two-dimensional as the sequel movie) (and we're not even going to talk about the third movie, which was unimaginably awful compared to the first). The direction keeps everything at a good pace, the supporting actors are good and overall it's re-watchable many times over - but all the time you're looking at Eddie Murphy, dominating the screen with his tremendous charisma, and wondering what on earth he's going to do next.

And put the soundtrack on there - "Axel F" is standout, obviously, but Glenn Frey's "The Heat Is On" was a huge hit back then also - and you have a winner, all round. Yes, there are 24 above it in the list, but this one is seriously good and worth another look after all these years.

Friday, June 19, 2015

26: Groundhog Day

The funny thing about 'time loop' movies and TV shows is that in theory you need to watch it far fewer times to get an appreciation of whats going on, since so much repetition takes place in the single viewing you have. However the statistics show that Groundhog Day was only reasonably successful to good, if unremarkable, reviews on its initial release and yet over the years has been rewatched enough that it has risen to a mighty 96% 'fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I saw it at the cinema when it came out in 1993, and liked it a lot. I liked it because I'd heard adverts on the radio for it so I knew what was coming in terms of the basic story setup. I liked it because I knew both Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell from previous films, and liked their work very much (Bill Murray in particular I thought was extremely funny). And I liked it because it was fresh, different, not like anything I'd seen before, and it was funny - understated and deadpan as Murray's best work is, but really really funny. And as a comedy fan (wait until we start talking about the top radio shows ever) that counts for a lot. Funny, even when he repeatedly commits suicide, which frankly is a very unfunny subject.

And the fact that you don't know quite how it's going to end - that counts for a lot also. If you think about it during the movie - and I'm not sure I did during my first viewing since I was so engrossed in the story and the performances - you could predict that there would be some kind of resolution, some kind of escape from the time loop - but like Murray's character, you really can't think what it would be. And while the final escape is arguably weak (seems like fate determined that he had to spend the day perfectly according to some Hollywood director's definition of perfection), it does give you a sense of completion.

But then you watch it again, and again, and again. And appreciate the subtleties more each time. And the humour. And the performances. And the story. It's just really good.

And, like Truman Show, like Cast Away, the question is: what would YOU do? And what's interesting is that it's the exact opposite of Cast Away in that sense - the problem is not can you find a way to survive and how do you deal with it, it's that you are essentially guaranteed to survive whatever you do, and how do you deal with that?

But mainly it's funny.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

27: Gone In 60 Seconds (2000)

So here are the statistics: Dead Poets Society gets an 85% reviewer rating on Rotton Tomatoes, whereas Gone in 60 Seconds gets a mighty 24%. So how is the latter higher than the former on my Top 40 At 40?

Well, here's part of the answer: the audience appreciation on Rotton Tomatoes for Gone in 60 Seconds is 77%, which isn't too shabby. It doesn't match the 92% for Dead Poets Society but it does show you that, in general, your average viewer likes this film a lot more than the critics do. As one reviewer says, "check your brain at the door and enjoy with popcorn".

But for me it's a fun movie, with a few fun car chases (yes it could have done with more), a few confused plot lines (we probably don't need that many characters unless we're going to actually give them something to do) and a fun fun soundtrack. It's almost like watching someone play a computer game where you have a clear task set out for you - in fact I seem to recall there was a mission exactly like this in GTA San Andreas. And watching that is kind of fun.

And then you have Christopher Eccleston in it, and you get major bonus points for that, even if just for the fact that when he falls from a great height and dies at the end of the movie you can say "no it's ok, he's just going to regenerate into David Tennant".

And I'll watch it again, in an instant. Even though I don't particularly like Nicholas Cage, I'll watch it. Even though it's not as deep or thought-provoking as the 'Three Colors' trilogy, I'll watch it.

Because it's fun. And it's my list.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

28: Dead Poets Society

Probably Robin Williams' most successful role - and that's saying something. I first watched it at the cinema aged 14 and came out with two impressions: firstly that this film wasn't the great thing the reviewers cracked it up to be, and secondly that the guy from Mork and Mindy was very good.

Over the years I've watched it several more times and to some extent the film has grown up with me - when I was younger I saw only the point of view of the boys themselves and thought about what it would have been like to go to that kind of school in that kind of period, and how the initial scenes of school terms beginning in early autumn are the same wherever and whenever you go to school. And as I've grown older I've learned to see a little more from the perspective of the adults in the family - Williams' character, the other teachers, the Principal and the parents. Not that any of that helps explain the storyline at all - as far as I can see, everyone messed up pretty badly both in the lead-up to the suicide and the ensuing cover-up - but it does show how we change as we get older.

And of course the final scene is beautiful, right from the overal concept of 'O Captain My Captain' and standing on the desks (and the fact that it was led by the shyest member of the class) through to the little details such as which of the class stood and which did not (even though some were only very very minor characters in the overall story). Williams played the role - and that scene in particular - with a wonderfully understated grace which, although he attempted it again, he was never able to totally recapture (looking in your direction 'Good Will Hunting').

Wonderful direction, strong story, good acting. Are there really 27 movies better than this?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

29: Mars Attacks!

The thing is, at the time it was made and released there were a spate of movies along the same lines. 'Independence Day' is the classic comparison piece (the biggest B-movie in history), but work on Mars Attacks! actually pre-dated Independence Day. Of course the real comparisons are to the 1950s B-movies such as 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' and beyond that all the way back to H.G. Wells and 'The War Of The Worlds' which is the same basic premise. And we can talk about the ensemble cast, the gloriously consistent approach of the Martians (response to any appeals for peace is along the lines of ok, shake hands, ZAP ha ha ha killed you) and some really classic Tim Burton direction and artistic effects.

But it's Slim Whitman and Tom Jones who win it for me - the idea that Whitman's yodelling country music is the only thing capable of destroying the Martians (compare with the bacteria and viruses of H.G. Wells' original story), and the secondary notion that the post-apocalyptic world will begin with Tom Jones singing "It's not unusual" while surviving wildlife flocks to his side just like in a Disney princess scene. Wonderful, gloriously crazy and so off-the-wall you just have to enjoy it.

Thank you Tim Burton, thank you everyone. And when the aliens do eventually invade, at least it gives us something else to try when the nuclear weapons don't work.

Monday, June 15, 2015

30: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

I'll say it again: I don't really like westerns. There's this one, there's The Shootist down at number 38, and that's it for the Top 40, although I will say that "Once Upon A Time in The West" came very close, primarily because of the soundtrack, and actually the brat-pack "Young Guns" almost made it for enjoyability value alone. But aside from those, no Clint Eastwood classics, no more John Wayne, nothing. Meaning, I suppose, that this one must be my favourite western of all time.

And it is good, there's no doubt about it. While critics in 1969 gave it a mixed response, and apparently studios initially turned it down because they didn't like the concept of the heroes escaping to South America, it's a strong story and fascinating (as with a lot of westerns) because it is based on actual events. But unlike your typical western, they didn't always win, they didn't always try to remain outside the law and a lot of their later life really was based on 'can we find a way to even survive' rather than the always-in-charge Wayne or Eastwood story.

And it's about the times as well - the classic bicycle scene is wonderful and of course nothing directly to do with the storyline directly, more painting a picture of the times changing. And at that same spot in the film, B.J. Thomas's 'Raindrops keep falling on my head' goes beyond the film itself and right to the culture of the late 1960s and even on to today. The final, inevitable, climactic ending - while not necessarily being to everyone's liking - does round off the tale accurately and comfortably enough that you get closure on the film and feel very much that you got to see the whole story.

Redford and Newman on top form as well, of course, and that only adds to the enjoyment. And that's what it is - a sad story about criminals and their lifestyles that is frankly enjoyable. A contradiction perhaps, but that's what films are all about at the end of the day: entertainment.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

31: Amazing Grace

Essentially a biopic of William Wilberforce and his slow, gradual move to legally abolish the slave trade in British statute, this one is full of good performances and good thoughts. While Ioan Gruffudd covers Wilberforce comfortably, the portrayals of John Newton (Albert Finney in vintage form) and particularly Pitt the Younger (an early outing for Benedict Cumberbatch) carry tremendous dramatic weight and make the whole story come to life.

And as you may have gathered by now, one of the things I very much like in films and narratives generally is that I like it when they tell me where today's world comes from. This explains - clearly and without too much artistic licence - what the background was, who the main forces were on both sides and even the clever parliamentary and political manoevrings that Wilberforce and co were able to use to move things in the right direction to finally set up abolition. Add to this the underlying message that principles and good ideas really can become reality with a lifetime of effort, along with a note to our generation today about the importance of politics and legislation, and you have a film that is dramatic, relevant and thought-provoking.

At the very least it's worth watching again now that Benedict Cumberbatch is famous.

Friday, June 12, 2015

32: Life Of Brian

Watching it today I find it astonishing - utterly implausable, in fact - that people considered this film to be blasphemous. The few depictions of the life of Jesus in the film are both entirely in line with Biblical accounts and presented completely fairly. The humour then derives not from ridiculing Jesus, but from the possibilities (not entirely implausible!) of what happened at the fringes of those experiences: the wise men trying to find the new-born baby in the manger and coming to Brian's manger first by mistake, or those at the edge of the crowd at the sermon on the mount who were unable to clearly hear exactly what Jesus was saying ("did he say blessed are the cheese-makers?")

Of course the heart of the objection by the religious establishment of the early 1980s was that the film did, clearly, look to ridicule a type of religious fanaticism that is present in a lot of scenarios, whether first century Palestine or the UK of the late twentieth. The section where the crowd following Brian factionalises on whether his symbol is the sandal or the gourd, while totally missing the point that Brian had no interest in being any kind of leader, raises the point that it's crazy just to follow a fad without looking at the heart of what's going on. Which is again to me a strong argument the Python team were making, probably unconsciously on their part: look at what Jesus actually said and did. And if you do, will you find another Brian, or will you find that there was something else going on?

And so, once we get past all that, we can allow ourselves to relax, sit down and actually enjoy the movie, which contains some of the strongest set-pieces Python ever did - from "he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy" through to "what have the Romans ever done for us", the Judean People's Front Crack Suicide Squad through to "I am Brian of Nazareth and so is my wife". And of course 'Always look on the bright side of life', which was an outside shot at the Top 40 music but didn't make it.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

33: The King's Speech

Interesting background, very good performance by Colin Firth and overall a fascinating story covering the father of the current Queen as he dealt with speech impediments and how that can affect you if you're a monarch (there are not a lot of self-help books for that particular scenario, believe it or not). But why does it make the top 40? Two reasons in particular.

Firstly a comment that Colin Firth makes to Michael Gambon (who plays George V, his father) - when discussing how things are done in their family, Firth replies "we're not a family, we're a firm!"   - which frankly gives you more insight into the nature of the UK monarchy than just about any other explanation I've ever heard. Certainly today when asked to justify the continued existence of the British Royal Family, the standard response is economic: that they bring in more in tourism and other such revenue than they cost to maintain. If he really did say that back then, it was a comment far ahead of its time, but either way today it's the best way to understand the British Crown and its reason for continuing.

Secondly, the moment at the end - which I understand did not occur, but would have happened at other times - was when George VI and his wife and their two daughers go out to the balcony and wave to the crowd: that is the very beginning of the group you see today when they do the same thing. Elizabeth is of course grown up and married and has been Queen for a very long time, but her mother and sister were alongside her for a long time before they passed away, and would often be in such balcony appearances. And even though the family is now two, even three generations on, that group of four on the balcony is the beginning of what we know as the Royal Family today.

But on top of all that it's a human story, an enjoyable one and even though George VI did die so soon after the events portrayed in the film, you get the impression that it was a triumph that he was able to at least contain, if not entirely defeat, the speech issues he faced.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

34: This Is Spinal Tap

It is said that numerous famous rock musicians and bands do not like 'This Is Spinal Tap' beacuse it's so close to their own experience it's unfunny, and even slightly spooky. It is also said that many people, for many years (continuing to this day) believe 'This Is Spinal Tap' to be an actual documentary about an actual band, despite the fact that the principal actors themselves are famous for many other things. The actors themselves have somewhat perpetuated this by performing shows and even tours as 'Spinal Tap', thereby raising the question of whether they are, in fact, a real band.

The fact remains, however, that the film itself - 'This Is Spinal Tap' - was created originally as a spoof documentary about a pretend rock band, mocking both the musicians of the day and the documentary style itself that is still very familiar today. Mostly ad-libbed and then created by Rob Reiner from editing the huge amount of material this produced, it works on so many levels and even follow-up releases such as the DVDs contain commentary tracks with the actors discussing the movie scene-by-scene actually IN CHARACTER as the band themselves. So, in many ways, 'This Is Spinal Tap' (and indeed the entire universe created around it) can best be seen as a sort of long-form improvisational comedy routine.

Mostly, of course, it's funny. And as a music fan it's fun to watch it just to figure out who (or what) is being parodied at any given moment, and beyond that just to recall the set-piece sketches, whether it's the stonehenge prop disaster, the airport metal detector moment or the spontaneously-combusting drummers. And you just know they must have had a ridiculous amount of quality footage that they simply didn't use. Genius stuff.

And all that without mentioning that it goes up to eleven.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

35: The Truman Show

Another 'what if' story: what would you be doing if you were Truman? What would make you sit up and think 'hang on, this isn't real'? And what is it about the world around you today that makes you sit up and think that?

And that's why it works - it's a human story, a good strong narrative but beyond that it raises so many questions at some many levels. All the way from 'what is reality' through 'how can it be ethical to adopt a baby and use a human life in this way?' right through to 'practically, how WOULD you prevent him trying to escape?' and even how you'd handle all the extras, where the holes in the system would be and what's the psychological relationship of Cristof to Truman? And if Kristoff is there, where's Olaf? (Sorry, wrong movie).

But the best way to watch it is just to watch it and enjoy a performance that you wouldn't have thought Jim Carrey was capable of, but as it turns out he's perfect for it: a huge over-actor, here he gets to over-act a dull 1950s straight-man and it suits him down to the ground.

If, of course, the ground is even real.

Monday, June 08, 2015

36: 12 Monkeys

I do need to declare some degree of bias here: the fact that this is a Terry Gilliam movie does give it added points. Frankly Gilliam could make a film about painting a wall in grey and beige and I'd watch it. Not that 12 Monkeys wouldn't have made the list without it being a Terry Gilliam film, but there would be at least a chance that I'd simply have passed it by and never watched it.

That said, once you get into it you do forget that it's Terry Gilliam, at least the first couple of times through. This is because not only is the cast list absolutely first-rate - Bruce Willis was NOT the first choice for this role, I understand, but frankly can you imagine anyone else doing it (least of all Nick Nolte)? Bruce Willis has this way of doing 'action hero' without making it totally unbelievable that he has vulnerabilities, a subtlety to his acting that many of his peers simply don't have. And then the story, the story...

The thing is, you really don't know where it's going next, but somehow when it does go all over the place (and it does: first world war, really?) you are able to follow it and just go with it, however crazy it may seem. And by the end you've seen the loose ends pretty much all tied up, along with a good prototype of the paradoxical time-loop plot thing that Steven Moffat likes to use in Doctor Who every week (where something causes itself). And at the end you breathe, and think 'wow, that was a journey but we made it' and the slightly ambiguous ending gives you hope without letting you know that everything is totally resolved and the virus is going to be stopped.

Thoroughly enjoyable, re-watchable and with enough twists and turns to keep everyone interested without being able to predict what's going to happen. And bonus Gilliam points as well.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

37: Frost/Nixon

The original interviews are, of course, legendary - the moment when David Frost essentially got Richard Nixon to admit to criminal behaviour and apologise to the nation. And in this movie, Peter Morgan adapts his own stage-play version of the events to the big screen. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella play the leads and, with some artistic licence (the late-night phone call mainly) they recreate both the background to the interviews and the sessions themselves. And the movie - since its release in 2008 - has been a critical and commercial success, not setting the world alight by any means, but justifying its existence and its budget.

So why is it in the Top 40 when, say, 'Life Is Beautiful' is not? Primarily because of a couple of very well-judged, well-written and amazingly-directed scenes. Firstly the moments when Frost realises the only way it's going to get decent television viewership is by syndicating the interviews - as the movie puts it "buying a network for the night". The sheer amount of investment of both money and reputation that went into this thing was enormous, and represented an enormous gamble by Frost. And I never knew that before this film - quite how much Frost put on the line for this, and what it would have cost him if it didn't work.

And secondly, of course, is Frank Langella's performance, particularly in the climactic scenes where he gloriously and deliberately stumbles his Nixon persona to a place where he can only say "when the President does it, that means it's not illegal." And the audience of the film, even though it already knows all this and probably has already seen the original interviews, is mermerised and stunned by what is happening on the screen. To be able to do that on a recreation of existing and known filmed content - and be able to draw such drama out of it even though it's not the original - is an amazing achievement.

And of course once you've seen the movie, the next thing you want to do is watch the original interviews again. Which is a further achievement in itself.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

38: The Shootist

I don't particularly like Westerns and I don't particularly like John Wayne. So when my Dad sat me down and encouraged me to watch The Shootist with him, I did so much more out of a sense of duty rather than any expectation of cinematic greatness. And yet here it is in the list, and indeed I've watched it several times since that original viewing, and it always strikes me as fascinating because of what it says about the times - both the time the movie was set and the time the movie was made - as much as for the usually-trotted-out piece that it was essentially all about John Wayne.

The premise is this: John Wayne plays an old cowboy in the year 1901 and doesn't really know how to handle both getting old and the fact that his old wild west seems to be ceasing to exist. Add to that the fact that his doctor friend has just diagnosed him with terminal cancer, this old boy just wants to go out a way of his own choosing. So he comes to town, gets to know a few people, he reads a newspaper, organises a shoot-out in a bar and dies in said shoot-out.

And the usual thing trotted out at this point is the following: this was John Wayne's last movie, after he had already lost one lung to cancer and knew he didn't have long to live, and thus the movie is a reflection of the man. Right? Well, maybe, but that's not the point for me. What struck me the most was the observations of the townspeople during the film.

Firstly you had the mother-and-son combination of Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard, and Wayne's uncertainty over whether a rough, gun-toting (read: very capable of killing people) cowboy is the right role model for a young lad in the new century. Which is interestingly played out all the way through.

But even more so was Wayne's confrontations with the town marshall, played by Harry Morgan (yes him from MASH). Morgan's character makes it clear that there's no place for old cowboys in the new world they're trying to create:

"The old days are gone, and you don't know it. We've got waterworks, telephones, lights. We'll have our streetcar electrified next year, and we've started to pave the streets. We've still got some weeding to do, but once we're rid of people like you we'll have a goddamn Garden of Eden here. To put it in a nutshell, you've plain, plumb outlived your time."

And that was the quote I always remember. In 1901, when people were planning and building the towns, cities and what has become the 'urban jungles' of today, the people of the time really, honestly thought they were building a "Garden of Eden". That was the vision behind our cities today, our concrete wastelands, our brownfield sites, our dilapidated city centres and our urban sprawls. It was supposed to be a Garden of Eden. And the people at the time really thought that.

And maybe I'm over-reacting but that one line has stuck with me all these years, helping me understand how our world - our urban world of the UK and US at least - came to be the way it is. And it was John Wayne who took me there.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

39: March of the Penguins

Who'd have thought a documentary about the life cycle of Emperor penguins could be so compelling? From start to finish, you're on the edge of your seat thinking alternately "how do they do this?" and "hang on - WHY do they do this and not just live somewhere nicer?" For a generation familiar with penguin-based animations (Happy Feet being the prime example, but there's Madagascar of course and that one about the surfing penguins), this is the real deal. They don't sing and dance, but what they do is far more amazing - they survive where no other form of life can survive.

Add to that the superb voice of Morgan Freeman and you have the recipe for success. He's not David Attenborough, nor does he need to be: you're not going to cut to a scene with Morgan Freeman hiding behind a snowdrift peeking out at the penguins while doing an aside to camera. But his voice lends a gravity and real-world emotion to the proceedings without anthropomorphising too much.

What you may NOT know is that the original version - which is French, by the way - was voiced by two people, a female and a male, in the first-person rather than the third, telling the tale as the voices of the parent penguins in question (negating my earlier point about anthropomorphism), with a child's voice providing dialogue for the chicks as they appear on the scene. What you may also not know - or not like to hear - is that the penguins in reality aren't as altruistic as the film-makers may like us to believe: some of the 'adoptions' of chicks by other parents may be more forced than not. In other words, we're talking about kidnapping. Or chick-napping I suppose.

Either way, it's an amazing spectacle to watch, and Freeman's voice really does give us hope that, among other things, someone other than David Attenborough can do natural history documentaries.

40: Cast Away

How do you know your movie is going to be a hit? Well, when it works despite the main co-star being an anthropomorphised volleyball, you're probably on the right lines (although I note Wilson was not nominated for any Academy Awards in the 'supporting' category). Seriously, a huge percentage of the film is spent with Tom Hanks talking to a punctured ball and yet it becomes not only believable but also emotionally wrenching - you really feel it when Wilson is eventually lost at sea, and I understand that some people did cry in the cinema at that point.

But beyond that the questions it raises - primarily 'how would YOU survive?' make it fascinating viewing on so many levels, from getting drinking water right the way through to tooth problems. The gradual reveal of his time on the island, including why there isn't any more rope, is very carefully handled, and the triumphant crescendo associated with the eventual escape from the island is well-earned. The ending also is just purely believeable: people HAVE moved on, including the Tom Hanks character himself - and what ARE you going to do now, if it's you in that situation?

Not perfect, but intriguing, and just strong enough to keep 'Silent Running' off the Top 40.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Top 40: Movies

It's Only A Movie, Mark
The next Top 40 At 40 is very different. Not because it's a different category - frankly after music the next one you'd probably expect would be films - but I almost feel the need to apologise in advance because it's not going to be anything like as varied as the music category, and there definitely won't be as many that you've never heard of, although there are one or two surprises in there (38 and 12 in particular). Probably the 'didn't make it' lists will be more interesting, featuring stuff like 'Roman Holiday', 'Silent Running', Three Colours Blue' and 'Life Is Beautiful'.

But you'll have to wait another forty-or-so days for that. Most of the Top 40, whichever way you look at it, are mainstream to some extent, either through Hollywood studio funding or through audience reaction over the years. There will not be anything like Stephen Roach or Richard Searles popping up here.

The other difference between movies and music is that it's not so important to be 'repeatable'. Some music items failed to make the list due to the fact I haven't listened to them in fifteen years, despite being undeniably great pieces of music. However some of these films I have only seen maybe once or twice, although towards the top of the list - certainly the top 20 - I've seen multiple times and never yet started enjoying them any less. Still, it didn't seem quite so important since a film is dual-sense (sight and sound) for an hour and a half (or more), and most of the songs were only around four minutes.

On the question of spoilers, I'm going with the approach that you've SEEN it and I don't care if I'm presenting plot points that give it away - although for the most part I'm not focusing on that side of things. But that assumption is in place, so don't say you haven't been warned. (And no, Sixth Sense is not in the list so I don't have to deal with that.)

Oh, and one more thing - I'm going to say this now and get it dealt with early on: there are NO 'Star Wars' films and NO 'Godfather' films in my Top 40. There just aren't. We'll somehow just have to get over it and get on with our lives.

And that guy in the photo? Mark Kermode. More about him as we progress through the list.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Music: Near Misses 71-75

Rounding out the music part of Top 40 At 40 with the final batch of tunes that didn't make it...

Desperado - Eagles: Stronger in my view than "Hotel California", this didn't miss out by much. Musically interesting also - no chorus, just verses and a couple of sort-of-bridges. Last verse really build well. But no Don Henley in the Top 40, even if he's hiding in a band.

I Want You Back - Jackson Five: Infectious beat, brilliant bassline, unique vocal performance. But that's just the chorus. If the whole song was as good as the chorus this could have been top twenty material, without question. More, Jackson Five, we needed more!

Galveston - Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell: A slow-burner over the years, and I've now finally come to realise what an amazing piece this is. Definitely prefer Campbell's more upbeat original version than the slow ballad arrangement he took to performing live, although I believe Webb meant it as a folksy anti-war song originally.

Bridge Over Troubled Water - Paul Simon: The thing is, I'm a real Paul Simon/Simon and Garfunkel fan. But nothing totally stood out as a single song. Graceland makes it if we talk albums, so does the album that contained this track; as far as individual tracks go, this is the only one that really screams "musical genius" loud enough to even make the short-list. The Boxer, Graceland, American Tune and Only Living Boy In New York all got cut at the long-list stage.

Moon River - Henry Mancini: Beautiful, whoever performs it. But not quite enough to make the list. Like the Jackson Five, we needed a little more. Andy Williams' version gets the nod over Audrey Hepburn for which video to show.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Music: Near misses 66-70

The penultimate list of not-good-enough music...

Voices - Dario G: Never knew this until 'The Beach' movie soundtrack but very clever building from initial instrumental through to the chanting at the end. Not a top 40 song, but everyone should listen to this one.

Promise Me - Beverley Craven: Overall tune puts it in the shortlist, little piano instrumental in the middle almost puts it over the top. Not quite enough mystery in the music - although there's certainly some - and not quite the start of the journey like Piano in the Dark. But this really could have been in there.

The Boys Of Summer - Don Henley: It's good - especially the guitar - but put in a straight fight against any of the 30-40 list it lost out. I think the final time it was replaced in the list was by 'From The Inside Out' by Hillsong, a very different song and that was the moment I realized that Don Henley just wasn't going to make the list.

I Can Only Imagine - MercyMe: Good lyrics, good music, good song, but like 'Stairway to Heaven' I just don't listen to it any more. Not quite enough staying power to make the final list.

Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen: How could this not be in the top 40? It's great - truly great - and Brian May's guitar is the strongest part of the piece (particular towards the end), it checks a lot of boxes (getting to the end makes you feel you've achieved something; it 'earns' the right to do 'loud'; musically very interesting and varied without being up itself too much). But not quite enough overall in each area to push it over the top. 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' beat it, but then so did 'Going Home' by Runrig.