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500 Five-Star: The Big Red One (1980)

March 8, 2013

For someone like me-a history graduate with a special interest in the Second World War-, The Big Red One is effectively sent from heaven.  Director and writer Samuel Fuller was a rifleman in the War, and this film is effectively a memoir of that life: of the violent times, the dull times, the celebratory times and everything in between.  Told in what really boils down to a series of vignettes, The Big Red One tells the story of four young men in the US Army and-though I hate to put it in such simple terms-describes what life was really like for them.  Fuller’s rough, uncompromising storytelling. combined with his unique perspective, makes him the perfect fit for such a film; it is brutal, without doubt, but then so it should be.  A recognisable cast, including Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, and Kelly Ward (known to most as Putzie from Grease) do a superb job in portraying the life of a WW2 soldier, but the star here at all times is Fuller’s stunning filmmaking prowess.  This is an absolute must-see for all history buffs and film fans.

Verdict:

War films don’t really get any better.  Empire got this so right.

*****

500 Five-Star: Belles of St Trinians (1954)

February 23, 2013

I am quite hard to please when it comes to comedy films.  I don’t watch comedy blockbusters all that often, and so when I do choose one, it’s because I expect a lot from it.  Then, of course, I invariably end up disappointed, because the combination of my too-high expectations and the fact that really good comedy is extremely bloody tough to create means that pleasing me is nigh on impossible.  The only film I remember actually LOL-ing (yes, I said LOL-ing) at in the last couple of years is Bridesmaids, and even that was only one or two times (though, admittedly, one of those times, my husband had to pause the DVD because I actually couldn’t breathe.  When I do laugh, I go for it wholeheartedly).  I watch more low-key comedies much more often, the types of which are more gently amusing, and subtle in their humour.  I don’t feel a pressure to emit a large belly laugh, and in the end, the experience is all the funnier for that.

Belles of St Trinians is a combination of the two types described above: the subtle, gently comedy, and the ridiculous, farcical, begging-for-laughs comedy.   And sadly, for me, it failed drastically in both ways.  I wasn’t carried away by the silly moments, nor tickled by the overall ‘amusing’ tone.  Maybe it’s a generational thing, or maybe I’m just too simple to appreciate the complexities of the Ealing mode of humour, but I was bored, longing for the thing to end so I could get back to my life.  What’s strange, though, is that I feel like I could have been amused by it.  It was so silly that it could have worked, should have worked…and it’s very possible that in another medium, such as a book, I might have been hugely entertained.  It just didn’t come together for me as a film.  And given that Belles of St Trinians is a film that is regarded so fondly by so many people, I find that quite a shame.

Verdict:

A film that neither entertained me, not gave me much to admire.  However, because I was at least able to watch it to the end without being filled with gutwrenching hatred, I’ll still give it…

**

500 Five-Star: Billy Elliot (2000)

January 14, 2013

Being from the North East of England, I suppose I should have seen Billy Elliot before now. Honestly though, it just isn’t a film I was ever remotely bothered about seeing. I missed it at the time of release, and in the years since I’ve seen enough Stephen Daldry movies to make me care very little about ever seeing any more (though, as he’s-devastatingly, for me-slated to direct the movie adaptation of ‘Wicked’, I guess that means I’m going to have to put my prejudices aside yet again). I should also point out that, while knowing it was set in the North East, I actually didn’t have a clue that it was also set during the Miner’s Strikes. Having worked within the community of a small town in Durham, and seen just how much of an impact Thatcher had, and still has, on the area (because this is a film blog, and not a politics blog, I will be polite and leave it there, but trust me when I say it partially kills me to do so), I have no doubt that I would have watched ‘Billy Elliot’ a lot sooner if I had known that particular fact.

As it turns out, I enjoyed ‘Billy Elliot’ very much indeed. Did it blow me away? No. Did I think about it for very long afterwards? No. But, you know, it was solid: an enjoyable, and extremely well-constructed story, with a great central performance and some very touching moments. I loved the dance sequences and the central, very real, relationship between Billy and his father, but I do suspect that much of my appreciation came as a result of the references to local history. Were I not from the North East, I doubt I would have felt quite so much of a connection. I was also very intrigued by the ‘by the numbers’ feel of the film as a whole. It felt very much like Daldry was ticking boxes in the triumph-over-adversity genre, but given that I’m thirteen years late in viewing it, it’s also entirely possible that ‘Billy Elliot’ was the forerunner in a revitilisation of that particular kind of movie: a rule-setter, rather than a follower. Given ‘Billy Elliot”s success, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it offered something new at the time; sadly, however, seeing it so late seems to have removed some of the film’s power.

Verdict:

Two hours well-spent, but ‘Billy Elliot’ is not a film I feel any need, or desire, to watch again any time soon. For that reason, I must disagree with Empire and give it only…

****

500 Five-Star: Breaker Morant (1980)

January 5, 2013

I watch a lot of films.  Not as many as I would like, but definitely more than the so-called ‘average person’.  I love films, and because of that, I go into every new film hoping to be surprised and astounded.  I want to watch a film and believe that it has been made out of genuine passion and care, rather than for financial gain or ego trippage.  If I get just a small sense of that, then I’m always likely to look on a film more favourably, even when it doesn’t quite reach perfection (or as close to it as any filmmaker could realistically get).  It may be the view of a simple idealist.  It may be that I’m being horrendously naive when I choose to believe that Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo starred in 13 Going on 30 because of love for the script, and therefore refuse to hear a word against it.  If so, then so be it.  I like my simpleton ways.

In the case of Breaker Morant, the fact that it holds a place in Empire’s 500 Five-Star Films is enough to know that my love for the film isn’t just down to my romantic nature.  I know that, despite the fact I hadn’t even heard of it before starting this project, it is considered a great film by many critics and regular viewers alike.  However, there were faults to be found within it.  It’s rather melodramatic in places, to the point of corniness, even, and it took around an hour for me to feel fully immersed in what turned out to be a very intriguing and powerful story.  These faults are more than made up for by the positives though.  It’s a beautiful film, as well as the type of story that simply doesn’t get told if those behind it aren’t passionate about making it so.  Telling the real-life tale of a trio of soldiers who are court-martialled for effectively following orders from high command, it’s not only an excellent piece of drama, but asks important questions about violence and hierarchy in war.  The answers are not spoon-fed to the viewer, but rather left to linger, and what Breaker Morant eventually boils down to is a remarkable piece of anti-war rhetoric.  With excellent performances and a tremendously strong ending to round things off, it’s the type of film in which any fault becomes incredibly easy to ignore.

Verdict:

Not a perfect film, but anything as intelligent, well-crafted, and impassioned as this deserves very high praise.

*****

500 Five-Star: Being John Malkovich (1999)

December 30, 2012

I waited a long time to see Being John Malkovich.  I used to work in a video shop and always meant to get it out, but never got round to it. I recorded it off the TV one time, and then ended up deleting it when I found myself a whole season behind on Grey’s Anatomy and rapidly running out of space on my Sky+.  When I started working through the Bs in this project, it was one of the first to be sent by LoveFilm, and finally, I thought the time had come.  It had…for twenty minutes, at least, until the DVD stopped working, and had to be sent back.  It took five months for it to be sent back out, and by this time, I was so sick of the thought of ‘Being John Malkovich’ that it took me another six weeks before I could be bothered to give it another try.  All in all, we’re talking about nine years from when I originally contemplated watching it, before finally getting round to it.  And you know what?

It was not worth the wait.

Not even remotely.  Because, I’ll be totally honest: I didn’t get it.  What’s worse, I didn’t care about getting it.  I didn’t care about the horrible characters in their horrible little world, I didn’t care about the ‘dazzling’ originality, I didn’t care about the nonsensical and downright stupid story, and I didn’t care about what it had to say.  I. Just. Didn’t. Care.  And you know, I like filmmakers to try something new.  I like interesting premises, and I like to see a fresh approach to storytelling.  What Being John Malkovich boils down to, though, is a grotty little story about awful, selfish people-just one that has had a load of stupid ideas flung at it in an attempt to BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS.  It didn’t feel like intelligent, brave filmmaking, but simply the work of somebody who wishes he was a provocative and clever auteur, and proves himself instead to be a transparently desperate and boring hack.

Verdict:

You already know I’m not going to agree with Empire.  However, because the performances (by some of my favourite actors, alas) were impressive, I’m going to be generous and mark it a little higher than the film as a whole really deserves…

**

Dreamworks Double: Madagascar 3 and Rise of the Guardians

December 16, 2012

As I believe I’ve mentioned a fair few times on Ratpatootie, I have some issues with Dreamworks Animation. These issues aren’t particularly original ones-in fact, they’re the same problems spouted by numerous critics and blogggers: too reliant on A-list voice actors, too interested in in-jokes and parodies as opposed to quality storytelling, and a blatant preoccupation with money making over serious quality. The films churned out by the studio are generally entertaining enough, with admittedly excellent production values, but they’re also entirely forgettable…probably because they feel like a small throwaway part of a very expensive production machine, rather than a product of tender love and care.

(NOTE: I’m going to go ahead and assume that you all know I’m not counting ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ in this, because that is, quite frankly, brilliant. So brilliant that I prefer to pretend that it isn’t actually a Dreamworks film at all, because it almost shatters all my long-held beliefs in one fell swoop)

It comes a surprise to me as much as anyone, then, that when I chose to introduce my two year old daughter to ‘big girl’ cinema (instead of mother/baby showings) this month, the first two films we saw were Dreamworks features.

Trust me, I didn’t plan it this way. Lily has, up to this point, had her films very carefully selected for her, in the hope that she’ll grow up appreciating ‘proper’ films and disregarding a lot of the tat that passes for children’s films. So far it’s worked a treat: every day, Lily insists on watching either Toy Story 2, My Neighbour Totoro, or Tangled. Such is her obsession with Toy Story 2, in fact, that with her limited vocabulary of 80-100 words, she could tell you pretty much the whole story in order if you asked her. Her taste in films is excellent,and happily, she’s learning a lot from her chosen favourites too. She’s been enjoying them so much that I just couldn’t wait any longer: it was time to give the cinema a go. She only turned two last month, which many might consider early for cinema trips, but her attention span is brilliant and she’s adventurous enough to always enjoy giving something new a go (not being able to remember the weekly trips in the first nine months of her life, when she was still young enough to sleep through the whole film). Strangely enough, and despite all the reasons I mentioned above, I found myself quite intrigued by the then-upcoming release of Rise of the Guardians. Must have been that ‘Avengers for tots’ line that I kept seeing everywhere; I mean, who could possibly resist that? I wasn’t sure, though, if it might be a little too intense for a toddler’s first real cinema trip, and so I decided a trial run was in order. And it just so happened that the only Lily-friendly film on release a fortnight ago was another Dreamworks one: Madagascar 3.

I’d heard a lot of positive reviews about Madagascar 3 before its release, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t believe a word of them. I’d seen the first Madagascar, and as far as I was concerned, it was everything I disliked about Dreamworks Animation in a neat little package. I dreaded to think what a nightmare the third installment might be, but I had to give something a go…and alas, the world isn’t lucky enough to have new Pixar and Ghibli films on a weekly basis with which to entertain our little ones.  I was extremely surprised to find, therefore, that the reviews were right.  Madagascar 3 is a hugely entertaining adventure that I honestly didn’t begrudge paying to see, and funnily enough, its success lay in all of the ‘problems’ listed above.  The A-list stars put in tremendously funny voice performances,  the stupid jokes and overblown set pieces were often rather hilarious, and at this point in the franchise, everyone knew the film was going to make money…something that clearly meant the makers could let loose and have some fun.  It looked gorgeous, had a wonderfully offbeat and amusing script, and ultimately was just an animated feature of great quality.  I may never get over the surprise.

Best of all, Lily loved it too.  The cinema experience as a whole seemed to be quite exciting for her, with the only real problem coming during ‘The Hobbit’ trailer: it freaked her out to such an extent that I thought we were going to have to leave, only for a well-timed Smartie to calm things down.  Phew.  And so, I had no qualms about taking her to see Rise of the Guardians this week…and if Madagascar 3 was such a treat, then I was expecting even greater things this time around.  Sadly, it was not to be.  There were just enough set-pieces to keep it interesting for Lily (though she began to grow slightly restless about fifteen minutes from the end), but the charm and wonder that I was hoping for was sorely lacking.  I’m not entirely sure what went wrong: the voice talent put in a good shift (I especially enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s wisecracking Easter Bunny), the action sequences were a lot of fun, and I feel madly in love with the silent, but oh-so-cute Sandman.  These pieces just couldn’t come together to make a cohesive whole.  Both the story and its underlying message were muddled, the villain was weak, and there was nothing to get swept up in.  It’s sad, really, because I get the sense that this was a Dreamworks film that was aiming towards ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ territory: it wanted to be a classic, heartwarming tale, but it just couldn’t quite figure out a way to get there.

It’s going to take a lot more than two films to help me overcome my Dreamworks Animation prejudices.  However, even Rise of the Guardians-despite its many issues-has helped sway me a little in the right direction.  Neither film felt quite as calculated as the likes of Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda et al, and I honestly believe that the studio is beginning to get the knack of combining money making with quality filmmaking.  In the end, both Madagascar 3 and Rise of the Guardians were films that I felt provided positive cinema experiences for my two year old…and if that keeps her away from Tinkerbell and the like for a little while longer, that can never be a bad thing.

Madagascar 3: 4/5

Rise of the Guardians: 3/5

500 Five-Star: A Bucket of Blood (1959)

December 9, 2012

A Bucket of Blood is a funny one; funny both in a ‘ha-ha’ type of way, and in a ‘what the hell kind of events transpired to leave me watching this on a Friday night?’.  I didn’t expect much of it, and was left pleasantly surprised by just how much it entertained me, but I really can’t help but wonder what sort of madness was involved in producing it.  Billed a horror-comedy, the film stars Dick Miller as Walter Paisley, a talentless artist working as a waiter in an damn-near unbearable Bohemian cafe.  A crazy turn of events leads to Walter, who is desperate to be noticed and acclaimed by those who frequent the cafe, accidentally killing a cat, covering it in plaster, and ultimately being hailed as a sculptor of genius proportions.  Finally receiving the adoration and attention he has craved for so long, Walter basks in the glory…but soon realises that he must resort to even wilder methods in order to keep up this new found image.  It’s a ridiculous premise, but then it’s supposed to be, as the film is essentially taking the pee out of the underground art scene of the day and the pretentious fools who fill it.  This is most amusingly realised in the character of Maxwell, a poet whose words-spoken with such gravitas-are about on a par with the literary work of Pippa Middleton; it is a role played marvellously by Julian Burton, and well worth watching the film for on its own.  However, Burton isn’t the only success story.  Not only are the performances across-the-board excellent, but A Bucket of Blood as a whole is a very endearing and enjoyable way to spend an hour.  Madness, it may be, but it’s calculated madness with very clear purpose: to amuse, gently mock, and, most importantly, entertain.

Verdict:

Low budget, slightly demented, a little disturbing…but made with a lot of care, and never less than tremendous fun.  I can’t quite bring myself to raise it to the glory bestowed by Empire, but I recommend it wholeheartedly anyway (and you can watch the whole thing on Youtube, by the way, should you wish)…

****

 

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