Have you Seen...?

Monday December 15, 2008 in books read 2008 | films

David Thomson’s Have you Seen…? could easily be passed over as an old fashioned, frankly unnecessary brick of a book. At 1000 pages, this is a film guide that recalls the era when Halliwell’s, and then later perhaps Time Out, provided your unputdownable film reference. Do we need such a heavy manual in this age of gadgetry? Can’t we just look for reviews on our iPhones? Well we can, although Thomson provides a very refreshing collection of film writing that’s worth investigating if you have the muscle.

Cover of have you Seen...? by David ThomsonHave you Seen...? Have you the strength to lift it?

How do you read a heavy film guide? Do you simply plough in from the start? Do you do what I did and look up all of your favourite films from memory until you are exhausted? Thomson lists his reviews alphabetically, beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and ending with Zabriskie Point. He also provides a chronology, listing the films he’s covered from 1895 (L’Arrosseur Arrossé) through to 2007 (You, the Living). He doesn’t provide an index, however, so if – like me on my second interrogation of the book – you want to look up specific actors or directors, you’ll find this harder to do.

Like every film reviewer, Thomson is opinionated, and, like every film book, you’ll find opinions you’ll agree with more than others. You’ll find opinions that will make you cross. The films left out can also annoy, so while he includes Kind Hearts and Coronets, he doesn’t include The Ladykillers. Where’s Get Carter? Where’s Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving? Why does he include some tv such as The Sopranos? And so on. It’s also very easy to tell who his favourites are; he’s obviously a fan of Ridley Scott (next time you’re in the bookshop have a sneaky read of the excellent Alien review) but not so much of Spielberg. And he’ dismissive of Star Wars to the point that it’s hardly worth him including it at all. Of all the film genres out there, he’s most baffled by horror, and repeats himself several times by stating that the genre dates badly. But when he does tackle it, for example Rosemary’s Baby and The Silence of the Lambs, he writes well.

Of all the geniuses of film, Thomson writes best on Hitchcock. On Psycho:

After one of the great night drives in American film, with torment in the rearview mirror, Marion comes to a shabby motel bypassed by the new highway – in the fifties, America’s rural character was erased by freeways. Yet something remained in the bypassed spots – rancor, regret, revenge, as mothers and sons huddled together in the same lamplight.

Elsewhere in the book there’s excellent musings on Hitchcock’s other major films, as well as interesting insight into the careers of Welles, Polanski and Kubrick. But this is a film guide beyond review, mostly because I’m still reading it, and I’ll be reading it for years to come. Now I’ve got to know Thomson, agreed to disagree in several areas, I’m moving on to the discovery phase – reading about the cinema I’ve missed, avoided or simply don’t know. Because this guy has seen an awful lot of films…


Films I Haven't Seen Meme

Friday June 27, 2008 in films | meme

From The Pickards.
Are there any extremely famous, worthy or acclaimed films that you’ve never made the effort to see? I’ve seen all of Hitchcock. I’ve also seen most of Truffaut. But I have a lot of gaps. In the days of video recorders I would tape worthy films, keep them for years and eventually tape over them. I kept The Mission starring Robert De Niro for years and never watched it. Films I have simply never seen and have never had the urge to see include:

  • Anything with Humphrey Bogart in it
  • Anything by Fellini
  • My Left Foot
  • Any of the Star Wars films apart from the first one
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Anything with Bette Davis in it apart from the Hammer film where she wears an eyepatch
  • Born on the Fourth of July
  • Any Charlie Chaplin
  • There Will be Blood (has anyone actually seen this?)
  • Anything by Clint Eastwood post Unforgiven
  • Anything by Martin Scorsese post Goodfellas (I threw the DVD of Gangs of New York across the room)
  • Practically everything by Robert Altman
  • The Sound of Music, even though we have it at home on DVD
  • Battleship Potemkin
  • Most of what you might call The Meryl Streep Collection
  • I also have a problem with Al Pacino, although I have endured Scarface
  • Gone With the Wind
  • 95% of Westerns
  • High School Musical
  • Bend it Like Beckham
  • All Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney collaborations

I’d also like the time back I wasted on trying to understand the Bourne films.

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Bafta Thoughts and Shane Meadows

Tuesday February 12, 2008 in films | reviews

Despite being exhausted from a hectic weekend, I valiantly sat up on Sunday night to watch the Bafta awards. I was glad I did, as most of my favourites from the last year received some recognition. Javier Bardem was named Best Supporting Actor for No Country For Old Men, Control received a screenwriting award and Atonement was named Best Film. I was also glad to see that Shane Meadows was given the award for Best British Film for This Is England. I’ve followed Meadows’ career for years, from his early short films including Small Time through to Twenty Four Seven and the excellent A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes. Like all of his work, This Is England is set in his native Midlands and follows a schoolboy’s experience of skinhead culture in 1983.

I watched This Is England the night after I’d seen the exhausting Ashes to Ashes, a new over the top TV series set in 1981 – a 1981 writ large with new romantics everywhere and a soundtrack of synthesised pop to drive you crazy. Although my classroom memories are probably more attuned to new romanticism than skinheads, I appreciated Shane Meadows film much more than Ashes to Ashes because it chose not to ram the 1980s culture, in this case mostly ugly, in my face. There was some attention to get the detail of the period correct, and, like Ashes to Ashes This Is England featured shots of clunky early computers and the fashions – skinhead or otherwise – are shockingly dated. There is also an effective montage opening the film that brought the real horror of the early 80s back for me – the Falklands War. Margaret Thatcher. But the film eavesdropped on a set of characters that are probably evident in any time; the vulnerable, the easily led and the bullies.

Tempted by the friendship and shared culture of the local skinheads, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is attracted by the uniform, music and petty vandalism that his new comrades can provide. This is until the edgy and unpredictible Combo (Steven Graham) returns to the gang following a spell in prison. His presence causes a rift, with particular consequences on Shaun.

Like all of Meadows’ films, there is some difficult and uncomfortable subject matter, made – like A Room For Romeo Brass – more disturbing by the involvement of impressionable children. Bleak at times This Is England does offer some hope at the end, and although it brought to mind Alan Clarke’s Made In Britain – itself made in 1983 – it wasn’t nearly as depressing in outlook. Perhaps times really have changed for the better.

None of This Is England‘s cast received awards on Sunday night and the Best Actor went to Daniel Day Lewis for There Will Be Blood, who himself appeared in another slice of social realism in My Beautiful Laundrette. This 1985 film was much lauded although I’ve always found it unrealistic – especially Day Lewis. A little too much style over content. More Ashes to Ashes than This Is England.



Monday September 10, 2007 in films | recent cinema

The film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a masterpiece – a true cinema classic.

Keira Knightley in Atonement

The 2001 novel is a favourite of mine, and Joe Wright (director) and Christopher Hampton (screenplay) lose nothing of the power and potency of the book. In many ways they succeed in improving upon it.

A blistering hot afternoon like yesterday might not be the best time for a trip to the cinema, but I have to take these chances when they come, and besides – like McEwan’s opening chapters the film brilliantly recreates a very similar summer day in 1935. Hot, still days where people think nothing of plunging into cool water; which is essentially what kickstarts the events in Atonement.

A young girl called Briony (Saoirse Ronan) witnesses three incidents that lead her to form conclusions surrounding a fourth. When her cousin is assaulted, she accuses a young man called Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) of the brutal deed. Wright emphasises the strength of fiction in Briony’s word and how her imagination can filter the truth into something else. The sound of typewriters echo through the film’s soundtrack, their sound hammering their importance in this story into us. And is is the typed word that gets Robbie into trouble; when a sexually explicit letter to Briony’s sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) accidentally falls into Briony’s hands and she later witnesses a sexual encounter between Robbie and Cecilia – in a library, another world of fiction and shaped truths – her imagination goes into overload.

Following Robbie’s arrest the film jumps ahead to the wartime settings of London and Dunkirk. Anyone who has read the book knows to expect that things continue not to be as they seem and Wright really begins to shine here as an artist. The long sweeping shot of troops on the beach at Dunkirk is already becoming something of legend and it really is that good; the scene of Robbie walking through this hell-like vision is breathtaking – visually stunning and also managing to add to some of the intellectual themes of the book. Soldiers play at an abandoned funfair, a broken doll’s house sits abandoned, a ferris wheel turns oblivious to the devastation around it. I want to see this part of the movie again and again to fully appreciate its brilliance.

The film (like the book) will no doubt attract some criticism for its ending, which features Vanessa Redgrave as the now dying Briony, now a celebrated author, in the present day. We’re asked bluntly to think about truth and fiction, what we have just witnessed for two hours, how we would possibly want Briony’s ending to be any different. There is a stunning scene involving the 18 year old Briony (Romola Garai) – now a nurse in wartime London as part of her self-imposed atonement – and a dying French soldier that I think holds the key to the whole story. It’s about misunderstandings and lies, and how sometimes we can do nothing other than give in to them.

What’s best about the whole experience is that a great novel is turned into a fantastic and cinematically clever film. Visually, water plays a part in several key scenes. Cecilia diving into a pond to provide the beginning to Briony’s misunderstandings, Briony jumping into a river to force Robbie to rescue her, a final tragic scene during an air raid in London and the two lovers on an empty beach, embracing as the waves rush around them. This last image one of the most moving I have seen in cinema for some time.

Please see this film – there are excellent performances all round and Joe Wright is a director to watch in the future. It’s unadulterated rich, stunning cinema.

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Into the Labyrinth

Thursday July 26, 2007 in films | recent cinema

I had it all planned out…

This is my favourite time of the year for lounging, and due to a combination of having the house to myself for a while and being in the middle of a transition period (I am starting a new job in August), I’d decided to take it easy over a long stretch of summer evenings, reading in the garden as the sun set in front of me…

Well it hasn’t quite turned out that way, and it’s mostly been snatched moments in between rain, wind and cold. It’s cold now, and although not yet seven o’ clock I’m inside. No sunset worth seeing tonight.

But the nights drawing in a little quicker than expected has meant that I’ve finally got round to seeing Pan’s Labyrinth. This is a film that caught my eye sometime ago, and following several passionate recommendations from the film critic Mark Kermode (a man I have the greatest respect for, despite his extraordinary hairstyle) I decided to rent the DVD.

Pan’s Labyrinth, or El Laberinto Del Fauno, is a Spanish language film by the director Guillermo del Toro. I was expecting out and out fantasy from the trailers I’d seen and this is satisfied by a large part of the film. There’s some extraordinary imaginary creatures, both charming and terrifying. Perhaps the most well known image from the film is … well … this one:

Pan's Labyrinth

But this definitely isn’t for children; apart from the fantasy scenes being the stuff of disturbing nightmares there’s worse to come. The backdrop of the film is fascist Spain in 1944, and the fantasy world that a young girl called Ofelia buries herself in only hides her momentarily from brutal reality. Her mother is heavily pregnant and both are in the charge of a sadistic army captain called Vidal, brilliantly played by Sergi López. Rebels haunt the nearby woods and Vidal makes it his duty to destroy them, resulting in some unforgettably powerful scenes in recent cinema.

Pan’s Labyrinth is an incredible film; Ofelia is scolded for the books she loves reading and the fantasy world she creates, but I left the film wanting to join her to forget the terrible darkness of the Second World War. It also made me question myself; did I find fairytale scares as chilling as real human brutality, was I enjoying cinematic violence (both real and imaginary) in equal measures – what’s real and what’s imaginary on the cinema screen?

Ultimately this film asked me, if you indulge in fairy tales and then meet a real life bogeyman, what do you do? The most frightening thing to face of all…


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