Archive for the ‘Blind Spot Series’ Category

As I write this last blind spot post of the year on Christmas eve I thought I should go for a seasonal movie. I have seen most of the classic Christmas movies and have no desire to see Elf, that’s how I ended up with The Polar Express.

The Polar Express poster

On Christmas Eve it is revealed that a young boy is beginning to doubt the existence of Father Christmas. Just before midnight he is woken by a noise that it transpires is a steam train parked outside his house. Onboard the train he is joined by other children for a trip of a lifetime to the north pole.

I remember the movie coming out but had no interest in seeing it and knew little more than what I had seen in the trailer. As I looked for a little background, I discovered it is based on a book by Jumanji author Chris Van Allsburg. Considered a classic “Christmas story” in America but largely unknown here in the UK. Particularly admired for its illustrations resulting in a perfect jumping off point for the film adaptation.

The Polar Express wolves

Notable as an early example of an motion capture computer-animated, it is actually listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as the first all-digital capture film, a format director Robert Zemeckis would return to three years later for Beowulf. The animation is stunning in both detail and use. Combining the vast landscapes of John Ford with the camera trickery of Steven Spielberg. In its innovative style and production it is in some ways a cousin of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Casshern that came out the same year. Both the most expensive to make and also the most successful, it was a modest success at the cinema, it has found its real home on DVD and television where it appears to have become a Christmas staple.

The Polar Express train

The story is surprisingly short and simple concentrating mostly on the train journey with one set piece at the north pole. Despite a few scenes of action and adventure there is never any real sense of danger or peril making the final result a little bland. The ending lacks the ambiguity that could have turned it from a full frontal assault on Christmas spirit into a more interesting story. All this is said from the point of view of a cynical thirty-something and not its target audience. For any of my criticism, the film probably only has one fault, its target audience is very narrow having little appeal to older audiences.The Polar Express santa

It may come across that I am trashing the movie, far from it I did enjoy it and I appreciate the innovation involved in its production.  However, for all its technical innovation it all a little hollow.  While the film isn’t without its charms, I can’t help thinking I would rather be writing about the film that is on in the background as I write this article, the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

Check out what Ryan and the others have been watching HERE.

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Having already seen a handful of Louise Brooks movies it now seems strange that I have only just got around to watching her most iconic Pandora’s Box but as with so many others, silent cinema has been a blind spot for me for a long time.  It is a sad fact that most people I know have no idea who Louise Brooks was, those that have heard of her know little beyond her iconic haircut.  With the renewed interest in silent cinema after the success of The Artist I can only hope that more people people discover Brooks’ movies.  I have certainly seen more silent films in the last couple of years than at any time since I was a student.  pandoras box poster

Based on two plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind; Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904) and written/directed by Austrian filmmaker Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Brooks plays Lulu a former dancer and mistress of wealthy middle-aged newspaper publisher, Dr. Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner). Schön announces that that he is going to marry Charlotte von Zarnikow (Daisy D’ora). Lulu agrees to perform in a musical production produced by Schön’s son Alwa (Francis Lederer). Schön brings Charlotte to a performance where she walks in on Schön and Lulu embracing in a store cupboard, she breaks of the engagement. Schön then agrees to marry Lulu. Events at the wedding that a series of events resulting in a downward spiral for Lulu and those around her.pandorasbox1

I’m glad that I didn’t see the movie in the early 90’s when I first saw Brooks’ other seminal movie Beggars of Life, as it would have been a very different film to the I have just watched. When the film first came out there were different versions shown in different territories. By changing the dialogue cards, the relationship between the characters was changed. some versions also included an unconvincing but redemptive happy ending. The 131 minute version I saw is believed to be the closest to the directors original.Pandora's Box

Silent cinema can be a little alien to modern audiences, Pandora’s Box is surprisingly accessible. The acting although within the traditions of silent movies is more naturalistic than you would expect. Brooks’ performance is expressive and alluring. The character is often described as a femme fatale, but she often comes across as too innocent for this moniker. More reminiscent of the Jessica Rabbit line “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” She isn’t looking to hurt others, she just wants a good time and doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions or allure. This combination of innocence and sexuality is something that no one before or since has been able to portray like Brooks. It could have all been so different, director Georg Wilhelm Pabst nearly cast Marlene Dietrich to star, that would have made a very different film. Brooks remains an alluring and engrossing screen presence, it is a tragedy of cinema that she didn’t have more great parts.Louise Brooks  Pandora's Box

The appeal of the film is more than just its star. The themes of the carefully and cleverly constructed story are classic, they had been seen in theatre for years and would become a mainstay for cinema for a generation or more. The photography is brilliant making the film look fantastic. Unlike so many movies of the time that look like they have failed to move on from their theatre origins use a small number of similar looking sets, Pandora’s Box makes use of different styles depending on the setting and tome of the scene. The Berlin apartment sequences at the start of the movie are bright sharp. As the film gets progressively darker, the images do too, culminating in the oblique angles and long shadows of German Expressionism. Despite these dark tones and themes the film isn’t without humour, there are many funny moments. Ahead of its time in so many ways, it is often quoted that Countess Anna Escheats (Alice Roberts) is considered by historians to be cinema’s first lesbian character.Louise and Alice Roberts

I am sometimes hesitant to recommend silent films to people who aren’t used to watching them. A little like foreign language films, if not attuned to the style you may struggle to get into the rhythms of the movie. Pandora’s Box, however is probably accessible to far more film fans than other silent films.

Click HERE for other November Blind Spot Movies. 

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sullivans travels poster“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have?”

How can a comedy from more than seventy years ago still be relevant today? Two reasons, the world really hasn’t changed that much, and writer/director Preston Sturges’ script is unbelievably clever and an on the mark. A timeless satire and social comedy/commentary that is as much about life as it is about films and the movie business.

Film director John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is disillusioned and dissatisfied with the shallow, superficial and lightweight comedies that he has been making. Determined to make his masterpiece by adapting the (fictitious) social realist novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes, this is where the Coen Brothers got the name from). Looking for inspiration and to help him understand the life he hit’s the roads and rails of America disguised as hobo. Along the way he meets “The Girl” (Veronica Lake) a young woman who has given up of her dream of making it in Hollywood.sullivans travels

The first and most comic part of the movie sees Sullivan attempting to escape the his studio minders and live like a hobo. A little like Bill Murray reliving the same in Groundhog Day Sullivan finds that despite his best efforts all roads lead back to Hollywood. The film makers and the studio executives find it as hard to charge the direction of their lives as the hobo’s they are impersonating. For all the wit of its clever, sophisticated dialogue the movie isn’t afraid to descend into slapstick from time to time and is all the better for it. The film is at its best when it introduces Veronica Lake as the unnamed girl. She is tough and streetwise but broken girl, broken by her failure to make it in Hollywood and like Sullivan looking for a way out of town. The two characters bounce off each other with a natural ease with real chemistry between the two actors.sullivan's travels veronica lake

SPOILER WARNING: To be honest, there is no big twist you will see the conclusion coming.  After been knocked unconscious and thrown into boxcar Sullivan finds himself sentenced to six years in a labour camp for assaulting a railroad worker. Through the one part of the plot that feels forced or contrived, everyone believes Sullivan to be dead. A classic case of be careful what you wish for, it isn’t until he truly hits rock bottom that Sullivan understands the value of his work and he finds a direction, but not the one he thought he was looking for. As he finally sees another side to life he still believes his destiny is to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? A social realist story in the vein of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). It isn’t until from the kindness of a local church that he and his fellow prisoners get to see a Disney Pluto cartoon. Not only does he find himself laughing at the lowest point of his life but he sees the escapist enjoyment in the faces of the rest of the audience. In other words: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have?”sullivans_travels

For all his ideals and big ideas Sullivan is a fool, blind to the importance of what he does and the effect has on audiences. His humility and humbleness are not the virtues they first appear to be. Where he thinks he understands ordinary people, his preconceptions separate him from them. It is no great surprise that during the recent economic downturn, cinema attendances went up just as they did during the depression. For a man at the top he needed to find bottom before he can understand this. Hollywood isn’t always great at turning the camera on itself but once in a while it gets it right, really right, and when it does it is something very special, that’s what Sullivan’s Travels is.

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For the second time since I started writing blind spot posts I really was blindsided by a movie. I recently purchased a box set of Billy Wilder movies, all of which I had seen before, or so I thought. As I started watching Witness for the Prosecution (1957) I quickly realised I had never seen it before. To be honest I think I had had mixed it up with Double Indemnity (1944 – also directed by Billy Wilder) or Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959).witness for the prosecution charles laughton

On release from hospital barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is ordered to take it easy by doctors and his overpowering private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa – Bride of Frankenstein – Lanchester, Laughton‘s real life spouse). Despite this, he agrees to take the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power). Vole has been charged with the murder of Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), a rich, older widow who he stands to inherit a fortune from. Things are complicated when it is revealed that Voles wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) is going to be a witness for the prosecution.witness for the prosecution marlene dietrich

Starting life as a play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution had already clocked up more than a thousand performances in the West End and on Broadway. With the help of screenwriters Harry Kurnitz and Larry Marcus , Wilder manages to concoct a mystery that Hitchcock would have bee proud of. The announcement at the end: “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” And the tagline on the poster: “You’ll talk about it, but please don’t tell the ending.” Aren’t that far removed from Hitchcock stunts.Witness for the Prosecution Tyrone Power

A courtroom dram with lots of twists and turns is nothing new, you have probably seen countless times before, but this movie is over fifty years old, so many of the other movies we have seen have been influenced by this. Like so many Wilder movies, one of the keys to its success is the perfect casting. Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Elsa Lanchester are all brilliant but Charles Laughton is in a different world, I would go as far as to say I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. The sublime performances coupled with the measured direction allow for the near impossible task of making the twists interesting even if you see them coming. The result of this despite the pleas marketing people, viewers who know the plot aren’t disadvantaged by knowing the plot making me keen to see the movie again. And thanks to Laughton and Wilder, although far from a comedy the movie is full of funny moments.witness for the prosecution Elsa Lanchester

Full of all the twists and turns you would expect from Christie coupled with the perfect pacing and brilliance of Wilder. The ending is as brilliant and perfect as you would expect of Wilder.

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Most of the films I have spoken about so far in this series are either all time classics or more recent and highly regarded movies (mainly animated as that is where my blind spot lies) but Remo Williams is in a strange way the most appropriate movie for the series. Born in the mid 70’s I grew up in the 80’s watching thousands of movies on VHS as a kid. Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, or Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous as it is known in the UK market is the type of movie I would have watched in the 80’s. For example I remember watching a glut of cop thrillers involving revenge and or corruption including: Raw Deal (1986), Cobra (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987), RoboCop (1987), Number One with a Bullet (1987), Red Heat (1988), Blue Jean Cop (aka Shakedown) (1988), Cop (1988), Tango & Cash (1989) and Next of Kin (1989). However I didn’t see Remo Williams, why? Because I had never heard of it until I started blogging, over the last couple of years the name keeps coming up, usually on Man I Love Films and the MILFCAST. So it suddenly became an essential movie I hadn’t seen, a Blind Spot.remo-williams-the-adventure-begins-poster

Based on The Destroyer series of pulp novels; the first Created, The Destroyer was written by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir and published in 1971. The series now runs to nearly 150 books, but only one movie. The American title “The Adventure Begins” suggests the start of franchise, future films failed to materialise. There was a 1988 TV pilot with Jeffrey Meek in the title role, but it wasn’t picked up. A reboot has been suggested, most recently in 2009 when there were reports of Charles Roven and Steve Chasman, the producers responsible for The Dark Knight and the Transporter respectively (Jason Statham as Remo Williams could be interesting) taking an interest, but things don’t seem to have gone beyond speculation.remo williams

Sam Makin (Fred Ward) is a tough New York cop and Marine Corps veteran who is unwillingly recruited by CURE a secret government organization who rename him Remo Williams. Williams is sent to Korean martial arts master, Chiun (Joel Grey – best know as the MC from Cabaret) who trains him in the fictional “Sinanju”. Quickly sent on his first mission involving a dodgy weapons manufacturer and the resulting corruption within the US Army, he comes across Major Rayner Fleming (Kate Mulgrew – captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager) who is investigating the same thing.Remo Williams The Adventure Begins

Directed by Guy Hamilton who had previously been at the helm of a Harry Palmer and four James Bond movies, the potential franchise was in good hands. The interesting thing about the film is that it isn’t actually that good, in fact there are lots of things wrong with it. Chief among the problems, It looks cheep and the story lacks scope, ambition and direction. The portrayal of Chiun by Joel Grey rivals Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in its awkwardness. The film never knows when it should be serious and when it needs to be a comedy. Having said all this, it has its moments and is often good fun. Fred Ward makes a good reluctant and moody hero and surprisingly good leading man. The big set piece fight on the Statue of Liberty is well choreographed and shot as are some of the other fight scenes. The first meeting between Remo and Chun is excellent, reminiscent of Morpheus and Neo. This along with the bullet dodging makes me think The Wachowski’s are fans. Composer Craig Safan’s score is often cheesy 80s synth’ but actually fit’s the tone of the movie well and is lifted the kung fu movie inspired sections. I can’t help thinking had I seen it in the 80’s I would embrace the good and overlook its problem the way I can with films like The Running Man (1987) and Road House (1989).Remo Williams the statue of liberty fight

As a fun action movie the film works, but it lacks any depth or subtext. I’m glad to have seen it but it is far from an essential classic and because I saw it 25 years to late it lacks the emotional nostalgia that I have for other 80’s movies.

You can find the rest of the Blind Spot Series at The Matinee 

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When picking a blind spot movie what better recommendation than one from the series organiser, that is sort of what I have done. Back in June, Ryan and his guest Matthew Price spoke about The Iron Giant on the Man of Steel episode of The Matineecast.the iron giant poster

Small town America 1957, Hogarth Hughes a young boy living with his mom discovers a giant robot that has crash landed from space. Due to his need to eat metal the giant is sure to be discovered as he leaves a trail of destruction behind him. Hogarth, helps him and hides him in a nearby scrap yard. But soon government agent Kent is on their trail.

iron giant diner scene

I was aware of the movie from its initial release but didn’t bother watching it because it is animated and as mentioned previously I have never been particularly interested in animation. I had read the 1968 novel The Iron Man by Ted Hughes as a kid and remember enjoying it. It turns out plot of the film is very different from the one in the book, but it does share a lot of themes and ideas. At the heart of the movie is the character of the giant who appears to be some sort of weapon, a war machine, but he chooses to be good, he chooses not to kill. Set in what is to the modern eye a is a more innocent time, a time when the world was in a post war boom the cold war was still relatively cold. But the red scare and the fear of nuclear war was real. In the mist of this the essance of death and killing, a weapon learns the beauty of the world, the importance of friendship and possibly the meaning of life. The beauty of it, is the purity, he learns it froma child with the innocence and optimism of a child. To top all this off the film doesn’t fall into all the usual clichéd problems of animation: cute animal sidekicks, impromptu song and dance numbers, innuendo filled comedy to keep the adults entertained.MCDIRGI EC011

I am not one to wax lyrical about look of animation, it doesn’t interest or excite me in the same way as cinematography, having said that The Iron Giant is both interesting and strangely pretty to look at. I’m told it employs a mixture of traditional and computer generated animation, but I really don’t care, how they achieved is insignificant, what they achieved is what matters. What they have achieved is a genuine family film. It isn’t a kids film with nods to adults, or an adults film watered down for kids, it is a film that can hold the interested of kids and adults alike, and one that parents can happily show to kids knowing it won’t be in any way unsuitable. It is a modern-day fairytale, a fairytale for a generation that doesn’t believe in fairytales. The voice cast includes Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr. and Vin Diesel, but this really isn’t that important. The delivery of the cast is good as is there comic timing, but there is nothing showy or ostentatious about it. A cynical person may suggest the 53 words spoken by the giant represents a larger vocabulary than Vin Diesel is used to delivering in a movie. However you look at it the cast do their job to great effect.The iron giant scrapyard

This is the second animated movie I have seen in the Blind Spot series, and while I sort of enjoyed Princess Mononoke and could see what others like about it, I actually liked and enjoyed The Iron Giant and will probably watch it again some day.

See the rest of the Blind Spot films for July HERE

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When I mentioned to a friend that I was doing this Blind Spot Series, of all the classic movies he could have suggested he said something along the lines of “I bet you still haven’t seen Billy Elliot”, he was right. So why hadn’t I seen it? The aforementioned friend had seen the movie with his wife and recommended I see it. I wasn’t interested. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I am as small minded as the characters in the film, but in 2000 when it came out I had no interest in a movie about Ballet. So what’s changed? I still have no interest in Ballet, I have never been to a ballet (although I do own a couple of records of ballet music). I have now seen The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Swan (2010) that paint a darker and more interesting picture on the subject. In other words I am a little more open minded. Billy Elliot

Northeast England, Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is the eleven year old son of a coal miner during the 1984 strike. When the strike forces the local ballet class to share a hall with his boxing club Billy soon discovers he is more interested in dancing than fighting. Torn between his love of dancing a the gritty realism of daily life Billy is given direction by his ballet teacher (Julie Walters ) who sees something in him and encourages him to pursue greater things.

 The film is perfectly setup in the first scene, it possibly tells us all we need to know and all we will know at the end of the film:

Boucing on bed playing “I Love to Boogie” by T-Rex – Billy likes dancing
Billy caring for grandmother – One of his parents is missing
Riot Police on the hill in the background – Social unrest
Shares bedroom with much older brother –Social deprivation

Further into the movie Billy reads a letter from his late mother telling him to “Always be yourself”. this is the real story of the film. First Billy has to find himself before he can be himself, however he is family and the community what to keep him and everyone else in their place, in their box. This box is beautifully realised by Billy literally breaking out of the outdoor toilet. He is the angry young man we have seen countless times before, but he is an angry young man with an outlet. When Billy is given a pair of ballet shoes, he hides them under his mattress, the place in movies where adolescent boys hide porn! This perfectly demonstrates the conflict and embarrassment he feels about his dancing. He knows there is nothing wrong with it but he can’t share it with his family who won’t understand. The era is perfectly realised in the events and the look of the film. The background of the miners strike is gives it an extra dimension but doesn’t dwell on it. The coming out of a classmate plays well against the Billy’s constant explanation that dancers aren’t “puff’s”. A lot of the music is from the 70’s not the 80’s but fits perfectly. The glam of T-Rex against the anger of The Jam and The Clash not only sets the tone for the movie but also highlights the contrasts.billy elliot julie walters

What sets the film apart and makes it work is the heart, the humour and the realism. These are characters we believe in and more importantly and that care for. This is because of the faultless direction, but more importantly the actors playing them. At the heart of the movie is Jamie Bell in the title role, he deservedly won the Best Actor BAFTA beating Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas and Geoffrey Rush (all Oscar winners). Looking back now knowing what a great actor he has become this is no surprise, but we have to remember this was his debut film. Julie Walters (Oscar nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) is fantastic as the ballet teacher, a mixture of Mr. Miyagi, Dr. Frank Bryant, John Keating and Mickey Goldmill in equal parts. The first and still possibly the most significant movie from director Stephen Daldry, but again looking back this is no great surprise. The notable thing about all his subsequent movies has been the acting.

The emotion of the film never feels forced or contrived, neither does the comedy.  But we have seen these things many times before.  the remakable simplicity and perfection of the story is the arc of the characters.  Not Billy, but the supporting characters he drags along for the ride.  for the change in attitudes to not be out of place in the context of the story and the setting is a great triumph from Daldry and for screenwriter Lee Hall.  billy elliot jamie bell

A very British film. Looking back it tells the story of a significant time in British history that wasn’t that long ago, but equally it was stepping stone in the rejuvenation of the British film industry. The film always falls more on the side of uplifting than grim social realism, this certainly helped the box-office, but surprisingly doesn’t devalue the film, it just makes it more accessible. I’m sorry I waited so long.

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