Unforgettable films: Part One

My Film and Cinema category has been somewhat neglected of late. When I started this blog, short reviews of films by genre or country were one of the regular features. I stopped doing these, as I felt that I had played it out, and had nothing left to offer. Instead, I began the occasional series ‘Just been watching…’, looking at individual films in a random fashion, as I happened to watch them on DVD, or catch them on TV.

I follow a fair few other film blogs on the Internet. These dedicated bloggers deal with films and cinema as a single issue, and devote more time to watching films than I do, using services like Netflix, or watching on Smart TVs with an Internet connection. They obviously watch many more modern films that I can, and keep up to date with the trends. Many of them are avid fans of the recent crop of blockbuster films, or super-hero franchises, something I admit to avoiding.

Then there are the ‘Top’ film sites, those that like to showcase their opinion on the top ten or top twenty films loved by themselves and their readers. They also branch out into subjects like ‘Top Ten Horror Films’, or ‘Top Ten Romantic Dramas.’ There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it can often lead to healthy debate, lots of comments, and a big blog following. Good luck to them. Then there are the rather ‘serious’ sites such as Curnblog.com, where I have been pleased to have had eighteen articles published. They deal with all sorts of film-related issues, from new releases, to reviews of documentaries, and film fairs.

On this blog, Film and Cinema is just one of many categories. yet I am often asked to write more on the subject, and frequently asked to offer ‘Top’ lists, as a comment on other sites. I have studiously avoided ever stating what I consider to be the ‘best’ films ever made, or to provide lists of my own, in any forum. This is because I would simply find it too difficult to do. I would need countless categories to even begin to attempt it. Best German film? Best War film? Best Gangster film? And so on.
However, I am willing to add some recommendations to this post, films that I personally consider to be ‘unforgettable.’ This does not mean that I consider them to be the best films ever made, or that I am asserting that they are better than others in the genre. Just that for me, they are unforgettable.

Many of these have been covered elsewhere on this blog, so apologies for duplication.

Some films stay with you, and get better every time you see them. You can recall scenes at will, remember the lighting, the curl of cigarette smoke, even the view from a window. In 1982, I watched Ridley Scott’s new film, ‘Blade Runner.’ I had never seen anything like it, and left the cinema feeling completely overwhelmed. Next year, it will be thirty-five years old. Yet it is as fresh today as it ever was, and I can watch it again and again; whether the original version, or one of the numerous director’s cuts released since. I can see Daryl Hannah spraying black paint on her face, or the fear sensed by J.F. Sebastian, when he meets Roy Batty. I will certainly never forget this modern masterpiece of film-making.

I have watched a lot of war films in my 64 years. I could write a blog about those alone, and might just do that, one day. I have seen bad ones, great ones, and average ones. Some with subtitles, some made in the silent era, and others made in the 21st century. One has stayed with me far more than all of the others. Impossible to get out of my head. Images that are disturbing, yet fascinating, almost hypnotic in their sheer wonder. Elem Klimov made ‘Come and See’ in 1985. I didn’t get to see it for a long time after that, when I found a copy on VHS, later swapped for a DVD. This amazing film tells the story of a teenage partisan, fighting with Soviet forces against the Germans, during WW2. But that is too simple an explanation. The horrors, the surreal images, the documentary feel, all wormed their way inside my consciousness in a way almost impossible to explain. Once seen, never forgotten.

Musical films have been a popular genre ever since the appearance of talking pictures, and ‘The Jazz Singer.’ I have many favourites, not least the wonderful collaborations of Rogers and Astaire, and the eye-popping choreography of Busby Berkeley. Old or new, musicals charm audiences, and divide opinion too. To be honest, there are far more that I don’t like, than those that I do. But one has endured, providing images and memories that I can recall, as well as being able to repeat the lyrics of the songs featured. In 1972, I went to see the film ‘Cabaret.’ This cinema version had all the enjoyment of the stage show, and was able to escape the theatrical boundaries to expand the story. Liza Minnelli was not the obvious choice for Sally Bowles, but took the role and made it her own. I can recall her powerful rendition of ‘Maybe This Time’, or see her in her cheeky outfits, strutting around the stage. Like all the best films, I never tire of seeing it, and even though I own the DVD, I watch it whenever it is on TV.

When I was first taken to the cinema as a child, we never missed a chance to see the big films of the day, generally referred to as ‘Epics.’ I loved them all, from ‘The Ten Commandments’, to ‘How The West Was Won.’ In later life, I had cause to reflect that many of these films were not very good. Wooden acting, dodgy special effects and unconvincing sets can all be seen now, with the benefit of experience. However, one remains in my memory. Every scene, every set-piece from the intimate scenes, to the huge battles. I can forgive it almost anything, as I have never forgotten it. One line from the film has passed down into everyday use, and featured in many spoofs too. I just have to type this line, and you will immediately know the film I refer to. “I’m Spartacus…”

CGI has transformed everything we used to understand about films. Love it or hate it, the possibilities are endless. No need for thousands of extras in a film like ‘Troy.’ Just paste them in on a computer later on. Why build expensive sets, when the actors can just perform against a screen, and you can paint in the surroundings later? Anything from Ancient Rome (‘Gladiator’), to the far reaches of an imagined galaxy. (‘Avatar’) The only limitation is imagination. In 1963, computers were the size of houses, and if film-makers wanted special effects, they had to be produced the hard way. Stop-motion filming, using tiny models, with actors having to imagine the foe that they were fighting, or fleeing from. But to my 11 year-old self, they were no less exciting. Fifty-three years later, I can still recall every effect conjured up by the marvellous Ray Harryhausen, for the film ‘Jason and the Argonauts.’ From sword-wielding skeletons, to the flapping harpies. Simply magical.

I could equally do this post just about foreign films. I have watched many in my time, and almost half the films in my DVD collection have subtitles. As soon as I was old enough to go to the cinema on my own, some of the first films I sought out were made in Russia, Japan, or France. There are just as many of these wonderful films that I have never forgotten, so it is hard to choose just one to feature here. For imagery alone, as well as as an almost insane performance from Klaus Kinski in the lead role, I have to mention Werner Herzog’s spellbinding 1972 film, ‘Aguirre, the Wrath Of God.’ This story of European conquistadors in 16th century South America never ceases to impress, and to remain in the memory. Thrilling location filming, near-impossible conditions and scenes including Aguirre being mocked by (real) monkeys, add up to a truly unforgettable cinema experience.

Some films are intended to make you feel sad. They are known as ‘tear-jerkers’ in the industry, deliberately playing to your sentimental side, or presenting a tragic situation designed to cause upset to the sensitive viewer. One example of this type of film might be ‘Love Story’, the 1970 film starring Ryan O’Neal. Better films are content to tell a story, to show it in an unflinching way, and let the viewer conclude that it is sadder than anything contrived to make them cry. Based on real events in Ireland, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ is a 2002 film written and directed by Peter Mullan. It shows the harsh treatment and sexual abuse dealt out to poor young women who have been incarcerated in a Catholic laundry run by nuns, for the simple reason of having had sex, or becoming pregnant. Watching this film is like being put through an emotional wringer, as the marvellous cast pluck at your every heart-string. It is not only unforgettable, it relates events which were shameful in the extreme. This is not ancient history. It is not even Victorian history. The film is set in 1964.

We all like a good laugh now and again. Comedies were the most popular films in the silent era, and continue to attract huge audiences today. My own favourites include most of the hilarious Marx Brothers films, and nearly everything starring W.C. Fields. More modern chuckle-inducing fare would see my shoulders moving to ‘Animal House’, ‘The Blues Brothers’, and ‘Hot Fuzz.’ Then along came this film. A foul-mouthed talking bear, humans having sex with cuddly toys, and a buddy-buddy relationship steeped in hilarious set pieces and snappy exchanges of dialogue. Against everything I held dear, I had to admit that I loved it. I laughed a lot. Real laughs, not chuckles. I have watched it more than once, and still laugh every time. I even enjoyed the sequel, and that’s saying something. If you haven’t got it yet, it is ‘Ted.'(2012) Here’s a trailer.

Since the early days of cinema, film-makers have tried to scare the paying audience. Send them home with nightmares, and visions of monsters lurking in the shadows. The public have paid untold millions to be frightened out of their wits, and writers and directors have continued to pile on the gore, the scares, and the horrors. As time has passed, events and visions that would once have been considered to be unspeakable, or tasteless in the extreme, have simply become run-of-the-mill. My own opinion is that the scariest things are those unseen. The manifestation of the fears that we all have in our own heads, imagining uncomfortable situations from which there is no escape, or are beyond human comprehension.
In 1999, a low-budget horror film took America by storm. With a small cast, negligible special effects, and the new idea of ‘found-footage’, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ had hardened audiences running from cinemas, and even managed to frighten hackneyed old film critics. I decided to see it when it was released here. I still can’t forget it. This is how to make a scary film, with little money, but a lot of talent.

I hope that you enjoyed the first part of this look at unforgettable films. There will be at least a part two in due course, if not more.

Film and Cinema

Do you like historical epics? Are you a film buff or film fan? If not, then read no further.
However, if I have got you even remotely interested, please click this link to read my latest article on curnblog.com

http://curnblog.com/2015/04/05/seven-classic-historical-epics-you-havent-seen/#comment-29634

This is my fifteenth article on this excellent website, and if you have any comments, positive or negative, please feel free to add them under the original.

Thanks in anticipation, and Happy Easter to everyone. Pete.

Some films I shouldn’t like

There are certain films that a serious film fan just should not admit to liking. They should revile them, pour criticism upon them, and expose their flaws and weaknesses, all the time secretly enjoying them, in private. The following films all fall into this category, for some reason or another. Trouble is, I really like them all, and I will try to explain why.

Pretty in Pink. A 1986 American romantic drama, with High School kids fretting over relationships and Prom dances. Come on, me? It should just go into the bin, surely? But no, you would miss out on some great performances, good characterisations, and some young actors really stepping up, to lift his film out of its brat-pack roots. You even get Harry Dean Stanton, as the pouting Molly Ringwald’s dad. This hackneyed tale of poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks, falling for rich boy she can’t have is just that. But it’s better than that, so much better, and the reason is simplicity itself. Because they all take it so seriously, playing their parts as if they are in a Stephen Soderbergh Art House film, many years later. (And some were). We get early flashes of brilliance from James Spader, as the slimy friend of the object of Molly’s Ringwald’s desire, and a quiet, sleepy turn from Andrew McCarthy, as the boy himself. What seals the deal for me, is the fantastic performance by Jon Cryer, as the socially inept Duckie, who has always loved the girl, and is prepared to sacrifice everything for her happiness. His mimed performance of  ‘Try a little tenderness’, across the floor of a record shop, is one of my favourite moments in cinema. Then there is the title song, performed by the Psychedelic Furs, but only over the closing credits, at least on my version. Pop magic. Oh yes, there is a happy ending too, sorry about that. Here is Duckie, miming to the Otis Redding version of that song I mentioned. I could watch this every day.

Caligula. This 1979 epic was directed by Tinto Brass, an Italian film maker well-known for his cheap titillation films, on the borders of soft porn. It was funded by Bob Guccione, head of the Penthouse magazine and blue film empire, and had to be cut to ninety minutes for cinema showing, because of its nudity, and pornographic content. It is now available uncut, in a full version, running just under three hours. What’s to like then? Well, pretty much everything, and for one good reason, the cast. As they say in poker, read ’em and weep. Peter O’Toole, John Geilgud, Helen Mirren, a clutch of Italy’s finest, and Malcolm McDowell, playing the lead role of Caligula, in a manner so crazy, it was a wonder he wasn’t banged up in a nuthouse as soon as filming ceased. Even a hammy script, dubbed Italian hunks, and completely shameless sex and full-frontal nudity cannot detract from the quality of the performances. There are mad set pieces too.  A huge machine that cuts off the heads of prisoners buried up to their necks in the sand. A scene in an Imperial brothel, where the wives of senators are forced to take on all comers, to raise money is filmed on a vast set, with a huge cast of fornicating extras, indulging in all kinds of unspeakable perversity. There is rape, murder, buggery, torture, execution, incest, and even abortion by disemboweling. No degradation is too low to sink to. But this was Rome, at the time of its most depraved emperor; that was pretty much what it was like. I feel I should apologise in advance, but I just can’t resist it. Make sure you get the uncut version though, and don’t watch it with your Mum.

The Blair Witch Project. In 1999, this indie film, made on a shoestring budget, took the fringe festivals by storm in America. Audiences screamed, or walked out of the cinemas, either from fear, or disgust at how bad it was. It made the evening news in the UK, and the hype was full-on. The best promoted film with no budget for promotion, ever. I finally got round to seeing it, expecting the worst. Hand-held camera, unknown small cast, all set in a few acres of woodland. How can it possibly be any good? It wasn’t good, it was fantastic. Everything about it screamed talent, and innovation. The three lead actors gradual downward spiral into distrust, and downright hatred of each other, is superbly portrayed. The tension built up by the finding of a few twigs or stones, arranged in a pattern is hard to imagine, until you see it. Close up camera angles, and one of the cast always being out of shot filming the others, it all just works. The night photography, and eerie sounds heard from the black expanse outside the tent can make the hair stand up on your arms. And the last scene, with little action except one person standing motionless in a dark room, lit by the camera, is one of the most chilling moments I have ever witnessed in a film. Believe the hype. This is that last scene. Do you see what I mean?

Witchfinder General.  There have been remarkably few films about the English Civil War. This 17th Century conflict ravaged most of England, and set families against each other, resulting in the execution of the King, and a short-lived dictatorship by Cromwell. As someone very interested in this subject, I tend to collect, or at least watch, all and any films made about it, or set during those years; and this is one of them. Made in 1968, it was sold to the public as a ‘horror’ film, with scenes of torture, executions, and some sexual content. By today’s standards, it is remarkably tame, showing less than we might expect to see on a modern TV drama, after the viewing watershed. It stars Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, who was actually a real person, and self-styled ‘Witchfinder’ during those times. Using this time period, and the Civil War setting, is merely an excuse for a film about nasty people, preying on the fears and insecurities of an ignorant population already in shock, as a result of this devastating war. Hopkins, and his leering assistant, obtain money (and some sexual gratification) by examining women to see if they are witches They usually are found to be so, and executed accordingly. Hopkins is then paid by the local dignitaries, in gratitude for his ‘work’, before moving on to the next town. He uses the spurious authority of ‘Parliament’ as his cover, although he was never officially appointed to that role. The meek villagers he encounters are too afraid to question him, and he continues unchallenged, until he makes the mistake of interfering with the family of a young Roundhead cavalryman, a member of Oliver Cromwell’s regiment. This proves his undoing in the film, though of course, this was not the case in real life. This film enjoys cult status with many, and does have some effective moments, alongside many questionable acting performances. I like it simply for the Civil War connection, you may well enjoy it for a number of other reasons. Who knows? Here is the theatrical trailer.

Excalibur. The legend of King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table, has been the subject of numerous films, almost all of them forgettable. From the cringe-worthy musical ‘Camelot’, to the lampooning farce of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, there have been many others purporting to bring the truth behind this legend onto the screen. In 1981, the film maker John Boorman threw his hat into the ring, and brought us this epic version. Taking liberties with time and place, and moving the events from their supposed time in the 6th Century forward a few hundred years to a more recognisable medieval setting, he assembled a magnificent cast, and a suitable budget. At the time, I remember coming out of the cinema in London, thinking that I may have just seen a future masterpiece. The crashing soundtrack, swirling visuals, and (for that time) astounding special effects, left me reeling. Thirty years later, it does all seem a bit tame, and surprisingly clumsy in parts, but I have not lost my affection for it. Helen Mirren is at her sex-siren best as the wicked  Morgana, playing her part as if it was written by Shakespeare. Nicol Williamson as Merlin is capricious, irritable, and yet shows that it is really him that holds all power, regarding the other characters like children that he has to look after. Nicholas Clay plays a worthy Lancelot, even though costume (and direction? ) make him come across like a gay pin-up boy. The cast list rolls on, never failing to impress; Gabriel Byrne, Cherie Lunghi, Patrick Stewart , Liam Neeson, Corin Redgrave, at times it just feels as if everyone is in it. Nigel Terry takes the lead as Arthur, a strange choice. For reasons best known to the director, and possibly Nigel himself, he plays the part as a country bumpkin, with appropriate accent, and slack-jawed appearance. Supposedly educated and groomed to manhood for his role as the King by Merlin, he doesn’t really alter his performance at all. That aside, there are other treats in store. Robert Addie appears as Mordred, the incestuously conceived son of Arthur, all childish wickedness, and resplendent in gold armour, looking as camp as a row of tents. He brings the country to war, famine, and disease, by attempting to seize the throne; and the Knights leave, in search of the grail, which they believe will save the realm. It is great stuff really, pretty much irresistible, but it is tosh. Here is the trailer, accompanied by the powerful music of Carl Orff.

Sorry about the length of some of those reviews, I suppose they took longer, as I had to explain why I like things that are generally considered to be unwatchable, or forgettable. Each of these films remains fresh in my mind, and each supplied one or two fantastically memorable scenes that I will never forget. That sums it up, I think.