Friday, 30 March 2012

Silly Symphony #45: The Wise Little Hen (Wilfred Jackson, 1934)

"The Wise Little Hen"


The final Silly Symphony up for discussion revolves around the appearance of another Classic Disney creation - Donald Duck. This is indeed his first appearance and, despite Walt Disney focussing very-much on the First Animated Feature Film, you can see that he still could ensure characters had real emotion and, in Donald's case, real attitude. There are slight differences in the first-appearance - a slightly longer beak for example - but on the whole, he is very much intact. A little of his attitude is clearly coming through - but this is not overt until his next film: Orphans Benefit.

Donald's Future

Interestingly, though not here, Donald in The Band Concert shows him playing the song 'Turkey in the Straw' - a song used in Mickey's debut: Steamboat Willie. As mentioned previously, Mickey's 'mean' characteristics were almost erased - but it seems that Donald may have taken on his mean-streak and offered the Disney animators a chance to keep a certain meanness through a not-so main character. Without exploring every other Disney character, Goofy appeared first in a Mickey Mouse short: Mickey Revue but rather than named as 'Goofy', he was called Dippy Dawg. Pluto on the other hand appeared very early on in a Silly Symphony titled Just Dogs in 1932.

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Thursday, 29 March 2012

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

"This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off"


The LAMBcast recently discussed the Alien Franchise and the conversation clung to two 'views' on the franchise. The one perspective supports Aliens as the stronger film - a stronger arc for Ripley creating her 'alien' family, with more aliens and more guns. The other perspective, which I stand-by, is supporting Alien as the strongest entry in the franchise. Everything that stregthened the franchise began in Alien. Ripley and her relationship with the creatures, crucially began in this film. The designs for the creatures began with H.R. Giger's involvment on this film. Even the world inhabited by all the crews, within a capitalist world, was created and controlled by Weyland-Yutani (featuring in the Viral campaign for Prometheus) began in this film. Like a flower, it blossomed and with each following film, the world expanded and, for better or worse, the franchise as a whole cannot be ignored.
John Carpenter's Dark Star
Setting the Stage for the Alien

August 1970. Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter created a student film - that is packaged and sold on - and named Dark Star. This film, about four astronauts on a spaceship explores lonliness and features an alien killed by a character named Pinback (played by O'Bannon himself). The lack of credit O'Bannon receives on the film prompts him to write his own script ... which sits on the shelf for many years until a little film called Star Wars comes along. 20th Century Fox, owing to the success of Star Wars is keen to release any Sci-Fi alternative, knowing that a huge audience has an appetite for space. Indeed, the Nostromo, throughout the reveal of the city-like surface in the films opening clearly imitates the Death Star. Even before Dark Star, in 1969, the art-house 2001: A Space Odyssey proved that a Sci-Fi film does not have to adhere to the guns-and-goo nature of a B-Movie and so the stars had aligned and Alien had been green-lit.

Features from 2001: A Space Odyssey littered the Alien story - a sinister character in 'MU-TH-UR' and the design of the white-walled interiors of the ship. Though, akin to the rebels in Star Wars, this was not clean and completely well-lit. Maybe the sleeping-chamber had a cleanliness and white-ness that evoked Kubrick, but the truckers-nature and the well-worn clothing of characters such as Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) clearly imitated the rebel Han Solo in the bar on Tatooine.

The script originally depicted a group of men which then changed to include two female characters - Lambert (veronica Cartwright) and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). The range of characters gave the impression that this was a world whereby your gender and race did not factor into your job - Weaver noted how she "imagined" Ripley had a child and Husband at home, but her glances toward Dallas (Tom Skeritt) gave the impression that a little flirting was not amiss. Only the carefully-dressed Ash (Ian Holm) seemed out-of-place - well-spoken, dressed smartly, his almost-affluent nature could be the threat - and we are clearly not expected to trust him.


As the franchise progresses, the Alien quartet explores capitalism further, and the subtlety in the first film is not to be ignored. Talk of the difference in pay between employees and, towards the final act, the expendable nature of the crew, clearly depicts a capitalist-economy. Ripley is the one employee, happy to state "negative quarantine" with regard to Kane's (John Hurt) accident outside the ship - but it is Ash who overruns her authority and opens the door. A central-point of Joel Bakan's documentary The Corporation reveals how modern-business practices show a "callous disregard for the feelings of other people, the incapacity to maintain human relationships, reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness, the incapacity to experience guilt, and the failure to conform to social norms and respect the law.". You could very easily look at Ash, who is representative of Weyland-Yutani's business practices, and apply the same logic.


I think the fact that Ripley, originally a role that a male-actor would play, was converted into a female role means that the only analysis to the film regarding feminity would be post-structural and specifically considering Sigourney Weaver's incredible depiction of the feminine and strong character we have all grown to know and love. Theories abound about how, serving the four-films as they stand, the romance - in a corrupted way - is between Ripley and the Alien. The Alien is dominant, dangerous and representing, in Giger's designs, the phallus and the man. Whilst Ripley, has clear feminine traits in her responsibilities in looking after Jonesy (a maternal "expectation"?) and her supportive and secondary role on the ship. Dallas is the Captain of the ship and, even when Dallas is off-ship and she is in the most senior-position, it is Ash who still supercedes her in opening the door despite her instructions to keep Kane quarantined. The irony, is in how Ripley defeats the Alien and how all the men lose their lives in the film - a comment perhaps on how this sexism is a destrauctive attitude in society?

Then again, it is worth noting the generic-twist that Alien adheres to. Quite definitively, the themes of aliens and spaceships would almost exclusively dictate the genre to remain Sci-Fi in it's nature - but I would even argue that the film adheres to the generic codes and conventions of a horror film. John Carpenter's Halloween uses shadows and crampt spaces effectively to hide the killer - and in the same way as Jamie Lee Curtis becomes the sole female figure to survive, Sigourney Weaver equally survives the 'killings' onboard the Nostromo. Add to this how both films end with the final 'scare', following a reveal of female nudity. Again, the true credit for the themes and stories written by Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter is unclear.

So Much More...

You could explore this film further, and this is a very brief way of highlighting the many facets to the masterpiece Ridley Scott created. Some other huge points could be raised - the war-like hand-held footage as Ripley runs through the corridors with Blitz-like sounding alarms and the controverisal rape-sequence as we can vividly see the Alien's tail between Lambert's legs before the most horrific scream is heard by Ripley. So much more could be discussed, analysed and researched ...

The film has gone on to influence so many more films too - off the top of my head, Sunshine and Moon clearly owes much of their spaceship designs to Alien. Sunshine specifically has a character named Pinbacker - maybe a nod in the direction of John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's Dark Star, whereby O'Bannons role was a character named Pinback? In terms of the alien itself, the 1980's provided a wealth of films which imitated the organic and horrific look of the creature - notably Galaxy of Terror and Creature. I am sure that Man I Love Films very-own Jason Soto is well aware of the influx of Alien-inspired films in the early 1980's.

As viewers, we know that no life is expendable - especially Jonesy the Cat. We also know how corrupt businesses can be in the modern-world. Alien remains a work of art that can be deconstructured and reconstructured in a number of ways to bring out different results. Artists of the world look in awe at the visual feast on the abandoned spacecraft holding a space-jockey. Story-tellers plunder the depths that discuss profound, global issues such as capitalism and gender within an exciting horror story. Film viewers and film fans simply watch and rewatch the film that spawned a franchise that we hope can always be explored further - much like space itself. I await with baited breath for Prometheus...

NB - Back in 2003, I was inspired by Alien myself by starring and joint-directing a little feature...
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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Silly Symphony #36; Three Little Pigs (Burt Gillett, 1933)

"Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? The Big Bad Wolf, the Big Bad Wolf..."


As the Silly Symphonies continued, it was Symphony #36 which propelled Disney further onto the worldwide stage. Burt Gillett's direction of the classic children's fairytale cast the characters as Practical Pig, Fiddler Pig and Fifer Pig. It won the Animated Short category at the Academy Awards and showed a lean, tight structure that showed real characters in both the pigs and the big bad Wolf - a character which would appear again in the Disney shorts, including another fairytale based on Little Red Riding Hood. The short also features the voice of Pinto Colvig - a voice-actor who became truly memorable as the voice behind Goofy. Colvig would become important to the Disney story as the actor supplied voices for Sleepy and Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

A Timeless Song

As mentioned in a previous post, Carl Stalling had already left Disney, only to be replaced by Frank Churchill. Churchill, with additional lyrics by Ann Ronell, composed and wrote what became the most successful song at the time: Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? This song, I am sure everyone can remember, but it's success led to this particular film to continue screening well-after the expected run. Before his suicide shortly after Bambi, Frank Churchill composed some of the most memorable songs in the early Disney films - most notably Someday My Prince Will Come, Whistle While You Work and winning Oscars for his work on Dumbo and posthumously for Bambi.

Though children loved the film, adults could see how the short could be used as a parrallel to the great Depression - though Walt Disney always claimed it was purely entertainment. It had a couple of racist jokes (A 'Jewish' stereotype begging for money) but other than slight slip-up, the film still stands as a testement to the incredible characterisation and combination of music and animation that Walt Disney was capable. Animators included Art Babbitt (Animation Director on Dumbo), Norman Ferguson (Directing Animator working with Disney right up until Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland), Dick Lundy (Animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) and Fred Moore (Animator on Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia).

One year later, in 1934, Walt became involved in a little idea that had been nagging him since one of the first films he saw in Kansas City - he had watched a silent, black-and-white version of Snow White ...

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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Steamboat Willie (Walt Disney/Ub Iwerks, 1928)

Disney Cartoons present a Mickey Mouse Cartoon ...


It is not right to explore the Silly Symphonies and, specifically, Flowers and Trees and The Skeleton Dance without providing a bit of background to the first huge success for Disney, notably Steamboat Willie. It has been parodied many times (an Itchy and Scratchy reference in The Simpsons is my personal favourite), but it is interesting to consider where the actual idea came from. Prior to Mickey, Disney had created a character called Oswald the Rabbit. Oswald was created under a one-year contract for Charles Mintz and Margaret Winkler and, towards the end of the contract, Mintz called Walt to New York to inform him that they would reduce the costs in creating Oswald. Disney could never accept the deal realising that Mintz was simply going out of his way to repossess Oswald - and squeezing out Walt. Rumour has it that, as Disney returned from this meeting, he created Mickey on the train between New York and California.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
From Oswald to Mickey ...

Oswald, a completely Disney creation, is very similar to Mickey. It is assumed that it was Ub Iwerks who made Mickey a more "compact" version of Oswald. It was the underhanded manner of Mintz that possibly forced Disney to provide the voice to Mickey himself, whilst the characteristics of Mickey could be attributed to Charlie Chaplin. Steamboat Willie would not fully exploit all these aspects to Mickey - but, there is a little 'knowing' glance to camera towards the end which I believe is very-much Chaplin-esque, whilst the cruelty to the animals: squeezing and pulling tails o animals, etc were characteristics that would soon enough disappear from Mickey.

Like Chaplin's 'Tramp', Mickey would soon enough become likeable and a character we can sympathise - rather than a character who hurts and abuses animals in the attempt of woo-ing a fellow mouse: Minnie. But, what a great start - even now, it shows such clear character to Mickey and it is so likeable you would be hard-pressed to imagine someone not impressed with this cartoon way back in 1928.

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Monday, 26 March 2012

Silly Symphony #29: Flowers and Trees (Burt Gillett, 1932)

Mickey Mouse Presents... A Walt Disney Silly Symphony...


In 1930, two huge losses hit the Walt Disney studio - notably Carl Stalling and Ub Iwerks left the studio to work for Warner Bros and set-up their own studio respectively. Famously, Iwerks animated Mickey Mouse himself in Steamboat Willie whilst Stalling, as we know, is credited with the creation of the Silly Symphonies in the first place. The beginning of sound is what made Disney become incredibly successful when Mickey Mouse arrived. The use of music and, crucially, the perfect timing it had alongside dancing animated-characters and musical instruments - be it skulls or rib cages - is what further catapulted the Walt Disney brand further. Two major brands in Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies ensured Disney's continued success. Despite the loss of Iwerks and Stalling, Disney began hiring animators from New York and composers who had worked in the orchestra-pits during the silent-days ... and, looking to the future, Walt Disney gained exclusive-rights for two-years for the use of a three-colour process, via a company called Technicolour, in animation. Now Disney had sound and colour and the first film to use this? Flowers and Trees in 1932.

Nature Finds A Way

The film won an Academy Award for Animated Short Subject and, personally, shows the depth of imagination available. You see how such a wide variety of plants are anthropomorphised and how the characters are much much fleshed out - specifically the 'evil' tree with the creature inside his mouth and the small belly-button hole which forces him to laugh mid-fight. A really great example as to how the cartoons were developing further. Uncredited director Burt Gillett, also directed Three Little Pigs and Babes in the Woods, whilst among the animators were David Hand and Les Clark, both of which, worked o Snow White and the Seven Dwarves five years later...

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Sunday, 25 March 2012

Silly Symphony #1: The Skeleton Dance (Walt Disney, 1929)

"Disney Cartoons Present A Silly Symphony..."


I continue to read and watch classic Disney filmmaking, and The Skeleton Dance remains a crucial turning point in the History of Disney. At the time, Oswald the Rabbit - an idea Disney created - had been professionally-stolen from him and Mickey Mouse had now been established after the success of Steamboat Willie in 1928. What was so important at this period was not only the animation itself, but the use of sound. The Jazz Singer in 1927 confirmed the future of cinema was not silent, and Disney - despite having two silent Mickey films in the can - put the two films on hold until Steamboat Willie was created. It was a huge success and, consequently, the two films which were originally silent - Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho - now had to be turned into sound-cartoons.

Bring out Carl Stalling

But now the entire issue of sound had to be extremely professional. Walt brought in Carl Stalling, a friend from Kansas City. Stalling and Disney would attend the regular meetings and arguments would beging between the two - Walt claiming that the music should follow the action on screen, whilst Stalling would argue the music comes first and the action second. "Another series would be launched in which the action would be keyed to the music". This became the Silly Symphonies.

Animated by legend Ub Iwerks, the sequence presents four skeletons who - when they are not in the grave of the deceased - they leap up and dance the night away, playing rib-cages like xylophones and fixing their bones together akin to the Sedlec Ossuary in Prague. Much like the Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin posts before, again, we have a film easily available and it can be viewed here. (Nb - It has been incorrectly claimed that the skeletons dance to the Danse Macabre, when in fact it is Grieg's March of the Dwarves that is played.

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Thursday, 15 March 2012

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut , 1959)

"Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I'd tell them the truth and they still wouldn't believe me, so I prefer to lie."


We know about the 'French New Wave'. We may even know the main contributors - Jean Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Originally it was a movement breeding from a group of film critics during the 1950's which moved from criticism and into filmmaking - the movement inspired Hollywood in films including Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy and in directors such as Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. When I first moved to London in 2008, the BFI had a book-signing event. I visited and, swept up in the moment, I approached the author Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and purchased the signed-copy of his book titled Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960's. I had only seen Breathless by this point and asked 'what would be the best film to start off with if I wanted to understand the French New Wave'. With a friend beside him, the two discussed the question before replying with 'Truffaut's The 400 Blows'. Both nodding in agreement, clearly content in their choice. Almost 5-years later, I managed to watch the film.

First in a Five-Film Series

Based loosely on Truffaut's own childhood, The 400 Blows  is the first film charting the life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). In the current age of sequels, prequels and franchises, it is strange to know how a character born within an art-house movement managed to spawn a further four films: Antoine and Collette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board and Love on the Run. Antoine is a reckless teenager - in school he graffiti's on the wall, truants from school and regularly gets into 'slugging' fights. Though he is reckless, we also see how his attractive Mum (Claire Maurier) is having an affair - witnessed by Antoine. The family live in a very small flat, whereby Antoine is designated the family-member to take out the rubbish in the evening. The bills are difficult to pay - the threat of the gas-man hovers over the family whilst both parents work, often leaving Antoine to fend for himself.

The opening credits appear over tracking-shots of the Eiffel Tower, as seen through houses, factories and trees. Almost to say how France is often seen through these areas of society. Many sequences in the film celebrate Paris, as Antoine truanting from school shows him running around Mont Marte and he observes the city-lights through the back of a police-van. Maybe the true Paris can only be accessed by the elite few - and not by everyone. The majority simply see it in the background to their daily lives.

Truffaut's Truth

Much like Antoine, Truffaut was very close to his Grandmother until she died when he was 10-years old. Within The 400 Blows, his relationship with his Grandmother is unseen, but Antoine relays a story about how he stole from his Grandmother. Truffaut acknowledged how his love of music and books stemmed from his Grandmother - so he may be hinting at how he 'stole' this love from her when she passed. Antoine and Truffaut both moved in with their parents later in their childhood and both had best friends. In The 400 Blows, Antoine is best friends with René Bigey (Patrick Auffay) whilst Truffaut remained close-friends with Robert Lachenay - Lachenay is equally credited as the main inspiration for Bigey as Truffaut would often spend nights with Lachenays family. Lachenay and Truffaut remained friends thoughout their lives - with Lachenay working on-set with Trauffaut throughout his career.

Crucially, Truffaut truanted from the four-schools he attended - visiting the cinema multiple times during this period. At 14, he was expelled from a school and decided to be self-taught - setting himself the 'goals' to watch three films a day, and read three books a week. If you consider the final shot of The 400 Blows, you see Antoine look straight-to-camera - he is almost 14 and I imagine that at that very moment, Antoine would become self-reliant, after running away from his family and education. Question is - where does he go next?

The Beginning of Something New

David Sterritt writes about how "The 400 Blows abounds with the spirit of personal filmmaking that Truffaut had celebrated as a critic". This combined with Le Beau Serge directed by Claude Chabrol in 1958 were the two films which began the French New Wave movement - they captured youth and a carefree attitude. Characters who rebelled against the system - it was unclear if we were to cheer on or despise the characters. In fairness, I know that despite the gangster-traits of Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless and the truanting nature of little Antoine in The 400 Blows, the guys crave freedom and, in the case of Belmondo, look very smooth, suave and slick in the process.

Vittorio De Sica, in 1948, directed the Italian Neo-Realist Bicycle Thieves, whereby a Father - to support his family - steals a Bicycle in the final act. His Son, who clearly looks up to his Father witnesses the theft - and therein lies the tragedy. The 400 Blows portrays the child steal a typewriter - his parents both work and live in a small crampt apartment. The Mother has an affair, which the Father is unaware of. Antoine doesn't look up to these central figures in his life and yet it clearly depicts the argument that nurture is stronger than nature, as his actions are connected to his family surroundings. Whilst Bicycle Thieves portrays the tragedy as the child witnesses the sins of his Father, in The 400 Blows, the children are growing up - and those sins affect the children...

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Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Contraband (Baltasar Kormákur, 2012)

"I've got to try and fix this. Trust me, I know what I'm doing"


Mark Wahlberg, following The Departed and The Fighter had began to establish a much-more respectable and credible career as a lead actor - especially how these roles were alongside his successful comedy straight-guy roles in The Other Guys and Date Night. A far cry from Max Payne and The Happening. Unfortunately, Contraband seems to fall into the 'generic-action-film' category. It is convuluted and seems to try too hard in gaining your interest and attention. Everything seems to be at stake and he can't trust anyone - and yet, he does trust others and those stakes are easily surpassed. Through luck and coincidence, we can rest assured that our lead-man will 'save the day'. But I don't think anyone by the end of the film really believes it matters.

The 'Smuggling' Story

Contraband is an action-thriller starring - alongside Mark Wahlberg - Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Foster. Wahlberg is Chris Farraday, an expert in the field of smuggling, who left the profession for the sake of his family. But he was pulled back in by his brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), when Andy screws-up a job for drug-dealer and smuggler Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi).

In 2008, director-of-Contraband Baltasar Kormákur starred in Reykjavik-Rotterdam. Successful in Iceland, Kormákur realised the film would work exceptionally well by transferring the story from Iceland to America. I have not seen the original, but I would like to think that the plot had a little bit more tension. By moving the film to 'the ports' in Louisiana, it seems like the film has been modelled on the look and feel of the second season of The Wire. Huge crates and sly-bribes ensure that you can control what is coming in and out if you have the authority and power.

As the film rests solely on the success or failure of the 'job', it is important to be very clear on the reasons why Chris Farraday believes it is neccessary to get back into the smuggling trade int he first place. Is he close to his brother-in-law? Does he owe his brother-in-law any type of debt? To both questions, the answer is 'no'. Brother-in-law Andy, played by young-actor Caleb Landry Jones (who portrayed Banshee in X-Men: First Class), has been told - by Farraday - to get out of the illegal business many times but Andy ignored him. Halfway into the job, Andy risks everyones life for the sake of a drug-score. Personally, I think Chris Farraday should've taken Andy to the police and left him there. Tim Briggs, though dangerous and violent, didn't appear to be the type of character who was paying off the cops - not to mention how if Andy testified against Briggs in court, he would surely get a shorter jail-term. But no, Chris 'needs' to risk everything for this little brat. This is the story we're dealt and this is what we run with - no realism, nothing to relate to and no clear purpose. Just a series of action sequences that we hope will cover the gaping holes in the plot. You know this is true by the final act, as suddenly everything goes a little crazy - twists that were obvious from the outset apparently 'raise' the stakes, tongue-in-cheek jokes conclude storylines which we were invested in and it seems that people remain 'dead' until the perfect moment whereby Wahlberg can take responsibility for 'saving them'.

Stylish without Substance

In fairness, new-director Baltasar Kormákur is not the problem here. The way he shoots the scenes is often handheld and, in something I have not seen as often in a mainstream Hollywood film, he will comfortably zoom-in at poignant moments, whilst remaining handheld. On the one hand, he adds a unique flair and stylish edge - on the other hand, it can take a while to get used to and can take you out of the moment, focussing your attention on the way the scene is shot rather than what is important to the story.

But we know already how weak the story is. I checked my twitter-feed for #Contraband shortly after viewing the film and someone noted how the film is very similar to Dominic Sena's Gone in Sixty Seconds. Personally, I loved Gone in Sixty Seconds so the comparison seemed unfair. Contraband has the same "pulled-back-in due to a foolish-brother/brother-in-law" narrative which, coincidentally the brother is played by Giovanni Ribisi in Gone in Sixty Seconds. Ribisi was youthful and foolish, but as a viewer, you liked him and it was great to see the dynamic between Ribisi and Nicholas Cage. There is no such chemistry in Contraband between Wahlberg and Caleb Landry Jones. The 'team' who were stealing the cars in Gone in Sixty Seconds were likable and interesting to watch - Vinnie Jones cast as the mute professional (good choice on the 'mute'-ness) and Donny (Chi McBride) specifically stood out. Then you have the comparative 'villain' - Christopher Eccleston's wood-obsessed villain against Ribisi's murderous druggie. Again, there is no contest - crazy-wood-guy wins everytime. Bottom line is - stylish cars in LA trump counterfeit-money-on-boats in New Orleans any day. The list could go on - and I haven't even mentioned the underused Kate Beckinsale in Contraband.

Contraband has one saving grace with an almost-cameo appearance from Diego Luna, but when that is over, it really is back to the convuluted plot. A good effort on Kormákur's part, but a bad move on Wahlberg's - lets hope that this isn't the start of a generic-action-movie trend for Marky Mark.

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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Best Episode of The Simpsons? Season 5: $pringfield (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling)

In an attempt to get completely up-to-date on one of my favourite TV-series The Simpsons, after I watch each season, I will choose my favourite episode...

Season 5 has many memorable episodes ('Cape Feare', 'Rosebud') and rarely have I seen this episode mentioned as 'one of the best'. Despite some great references to Howard Hughes and Stanley Kubrick alongside a story that breaks down Marge's do-gooder image by portraying her as a addictive-gambler, this truly is my favourite of the fifth season. As a film-fan, it is always the film references that I love - almost as if the creators of the show and I are sharing a private-joke.

In this episode, there is a laugh-out loud moment when the episode references Rain Man. The characters portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise visit the Burns Casino and, as in the film, Hoffman's Raymond Babbit reacts uncontrollably when at the black-jack table ... but this time Homer responds in the same fashion, shouting and screaming in the exact same manner. Furthermore, the episode completely changes Mr Burns character into a Howard Hughes obsessive. We see his crazed cleanliness and obsessed attitude over ideas - such as a plane called the 'Spruce Moose'. It was a whole decade later that Leonardo DiCaprio would portray Howard Hughes in the Oscar-nominated The Aviator.

Anyway, my favourite joke refers to the second picture I have chosen, whereby Homer reflects on the town-meeting ...

Marge: Hi Homey.
Homer: Hey Marge, after your big tantrum against legalised gambling, I bet it feels pretty weird to be in a casino.
Marge: I was for the casino.
Homer: Strike three, Marge!  I remember that meeting and I have a photographic memory.
[In Homer's memory, Marge wears a blue dress and has green hair [See Above] . She holds a rolling pin. Homer's arms are massive]
Marge: Legalised gambling is a bad idea.  You can build a casino over my dead body.  Blah blah blah blah blah.  Blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah.
Man: For you: it's the President.  [tentacle hands Homer a phone]
Homer: Y'ello?
[back to reality] And then I said to the President -- get this
-- Marge?  Marge?

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Friday, 9 March 2012

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)

"It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms"


Last week I noted how Stanley Kubrick seemed to be a theme in these articles, well it seems that Alec Guinness is additionally becoming a bit of a focus point with Great Expectations, The Ladykillers, and now, Kind Hearts and Coronets all starring the unforgettable actor. As all three films were released between 1946 and 1955, they all deal with issues of class and social difference. Additionally, alongside If..., all four films feature in the Top 13 BFI British Films. Its seems that we Brits have issues about social class.

As discussed previously, Great Expectations portrays Pip supported by finances that are not his, whilst The Ladykillers portrays an educated 'Professeur' conduct a bank-robbery. Kind Hearts and Coronets is much more direct. Our lead character Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) has been cut-out of his inheritance due to his Mothers choice to marry a "poor" singer - opposed to marrying someone from money. Louis' father dies when he is born and Mother and Son struggle to cope financially - constantly asking for support from their relatives but to no avail. So Louis takes matters into his own hands and, one-by-one, kills off each of the family so that he will become the next member of the family to inherit the estate of the D'Ascoyne's.

Re-released in 2011

Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian, on the films re-release, stated how this film shows how "the Ealing genre reached utter perfection". Akin to Alfred Hitchcocks' upper-class thrillers such as Rope, Dial M For Murder and Suspicion (if the film had the original ending), the story portrays a serial killer who is intelligent, arrogant and expects life to always go to plan. Louis is quite comfortable in the murder of each family-member, with no regret or remorse - only the frustration at the end that he was sentenced to a crime he did not commit.

Unlike many Ealing Comedies, this film was dramatically changed when originally released in America. As I understand, the US Criterion collection has released a double-disc set with both versions of the film. Crucially, what was originally a highly-ambiguous ending became clear cut as the Hays Office clarified Louis' arrest - opposed to an ending to the film that hints at the threat of his arrest, without showing it.

Chalfont and the D'Ascoyne's

In a similar way to Sleuth, the castle and estate which Louis desperately seeks, clearly shows how much is at stake. The castle is, in fact, Leeds Castle, in Kent, and dating back to 1119, like Sleuth and Great Expectations it is clear that location represents the old idealogies and what has changed. Like Michael Caine's Italian roots, Mazzini has the same paternal background and, as the younger generation, they are replacing the older generations traditions. At one, very telling point, the upper-class love-interest of Edith D'Ascoyne states how the D'Ascoyne's know much about "The rights of nobility and little of its duty".

This sentiment may be true, but it is clear that the successor in Louis Mazzini assumes he has a 'right' to the financial wealth and believes it so much that he will murder others for it. His duty is corrupted as he gains more power in the family and assumes control of their assets and businesses.

Alec the Chameleon

If someone was asked to name an actor who played multiple roles in a single film, the first three that many may consider are Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professer, Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future Part II and Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove. I can only stress how incredible Guinness is in Kind Hearts and Coronets as he portrays eight different characters - from Captains who go down with their ship to Lady Agatha, a womens-rights activist, shot down in an air balloon. Each role is barely recognisable if you didn't pay attention to his thin-lips and distinctive nose - his mannerisms, accents and attitude is completely different between each character. It comes as no suprise that Alec Guinness would go on to become an international film star working alongside David Lean in The Bridge on the River Kwai and on Lucas' Star Wars. But if you were ever unsure about whether he could 'do' comedy, it is clear here that he can.

The super-suave serial killer Louis Mazzini and multi-role-playing of Alec Guinness are not the only aspects to take away from the film. The photography was directed by Douglas Slocombe, who had worked on multiple Ealing comedies including The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit - both of which featured Alec Guinness. But Spielberg fans will recognise him more from his later credits in the first-three Indiana Jones adventures - in fact, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is his last film credit in 1989.

You can see from Kind Hearts and Coronets that the Ealing Studios clearly had something very special - stories with social and political talking points whilst casting actors who could not only play the required role, but also bring a personal touch that effortlessly ensures that the film remains timeless. I am sure that you could further explore the duality between the two love-interests of Louis Mazzini and clarify how the women may represent different social-classes - and the unique position Louis Mazzini is in as someone raised in poverty and yet, how he is desperately ambitious to work his way back into the family he had been removed from - but that would take the fun away from the sheer joy of watching the events play out to a finale that raises more questions than it answers.

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Monday, 5 March 2012

Steady Increase

Just a quick post ...

A really great example of the support I have received over the last year. Crucially, the far right-side is the hit from yesterday.

I'm not about quick-hits for downloading screen-shots, I'm all about analysis and conversation and the decent page-view times has added to this fact

Thank you to my readers and, to all my new readers, remember there is much more analysis on many, many more films on the left-side bars so please have a look around!

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Sunday, 4 March 2012

Best Episode of The Simpsons? Season 4: Whacking Day

In an attempt to get completely up-to-date on one of my favourite TV-series The Simpsons, after I watch each season, I will choose my favourite episode...

Well, you won't see many of these posts any more. I am currently mid-season 5 and slowing down with episode-viewing. At any rate, having recently watched all of season four, I can safely say my favourite episode is 'Whacking Day'.

Funnily enough, Sarah and I didn't feel that Season 4 was as strong as the previous three seasons. Maybe we had watched too many, maybe we simply seek something different from The Simpsons, but reading articles revolving around the 500th episode, many critics claim their favourite episodes are within season four. Namely 'Marge VS the Monorail' and 'Homer the Heretic'. I know, prior to rewatching 'Whacking Day', I considered 'Brother from the Same Planet', but ultimately settled on' Whacking Day' for the pure surrealist element in the celebration - to act like Jebediah, residents of Springfield chase snakes (???) into the centre of town and 'whack' them to death.

Barry White is the cameo role - purely for his deep voice as it apparently lures the snakes away from the centre and two safety at The Simpsons house. I think I'm right in saying that the training-sequence as Homer smashes the wooden-snakes is from Enter The Dragon, but I could be wrong. One of the best parodies is an Itchy and Scratchy episode 'directed by Oliver Stone' whereby the episode pokes fun at his film JFK. The very idea of Itchy and Scratchy suddenly in prestige-picture mode was laugh-out-loud funny.

A brilliant episode with such a strange event taking place - by the time Barry is singing "Can't get enough of your love..." it feels like you are cheering the snakes on - willing them to win.

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Olympics 2012 Poster - No, no, no...

I keep seeing this poster for Olympics 2012 merchandise on the London Underground. In a 'Where's Wally' style, I have found the following:

Who is the most Pathetic Person in thic 'Cafe'?

This guy has bought a cap, t-shirt and look at the bag crammed full of Olympic merchandise and, to make matters that much more pathetic, he is reading a book on the Olympics. Who on earth would ever consider looking like such a twit.

Of course, he is sitting alone and with a olympic mug, he sits waiting. You can only imagine how he cries himself to sleep in the evening.

Which group is the most pathetic?

This group of girls, laughing and joking have bought two crammed-full bags of Olympic merchandise. They all wear Olympic T-shirts, whilst gathered around coffees and teas. What on earth could they be laughing about? What is the conversation? "Hey, I look like a fool!", "Yeah, me too".

What type of place is this?

The only group who look vaguely normal are the construction workers at the back. They only seem to be wearing t-shirts - probably second-hand - which due to the nature of their construction job means that they are well-aware of the disposable value of this merchandise. Thye will wear it and let the t-shirt rip and get scuffed over the many years ahead.

But they must be embarressed to even be sitting in a place like this.

If I go to any coffee shop during August and this is the state of the room, I will be mortified and leave very quickly.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

"The gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and hero-worshipped..."


So far on the 'Classic Columb' I have analysed Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and Dr Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Loved The Bomb. So it seems no suprise that I now analyse a third Kubrick film in The Killing. Thematically, it follows on nicely from last weeks heist-caper The Ladykillers, as The Killing is a heist film itself. My ongoing attempts to convert film-lovers "who-don't like-black-and-white-films/old-films" should be interested further when it is noted that The Killing was clearly an influence on Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Though the majority of movie-buffs will happily acknowledge Michael Mann's Heat as the primary influence for the heists in The Dark Knight, the choice of clown-mask worn by The Joker (Heath Ledger) is also the only mask used in The Killing, and it is worn by lead-protaganist Johnny (Sterling Hayden) as he holds-up the back-office of a race track. Clearly much more than a passing coincidence. Then we have Tarantino who equally acknowledges The Killing's influence on Reservoir Dogs.

The Classic Heist

Like Reservoir Dogs, the film is short (Roughly 80 mins) and told in a non-linear fashion. From the very start we are thrown into the heist at the race-track before moving to a time before the heist. One of the films major unique attributes is how the narrative jumps between different times and moments for the sake of the characters. Sterling Hayden plays Johnny, an ex-con who has recently been released from prison. He has organised a gang to rob a racetrack to the tune of $2,000,000. Every single facet is considered and, on the take, gang-members include bar-tenders and window-tellers who work for the racetrack, corrupt-cops who assist in moving the money from one-spot-to-another, sharp-shooters and fighters who can cause a distraction. Johnny is responsible for the hold-up itself - and it is when we see him hold up the bookies that he uses the infamous Dark-Knight-Clown Mask.

The characters themselves all have different motives for assisting - window-teller George (Elisha Cook Jr) is hoping to rob the money so that his ever-mocking wife will love him more whilst Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer), the bartender, is trying to gain the finances to pay doctors to assist his wife. With all these different characters, all with different motives, weaknesses and strengths, as an audience we are left to simply guess what will go wrong - and if anything will go wrong, because Johnny is the Danny Ocean of the group and he clearly knows exactly what he is doing.

The Socio-Political 'Edge'

With my previous posts on Stanley Kubrick, it is easy to wax-lyrical about the subtext in the films. Paths of Glory and the anti-war stance it holds, Dr Strangelove and it's satire-on-government edge. The Killing does not have such depth. This is a heist film that expertly creates characters and dynamics that keep you on the edge of your seat.

Michael Douglas in Paths of Glory has very little background - a lawyer in the Army. He serves his purpose to get Kubricks point across - War-crimes are comitted by the governments who sanction the war itself. In The Killing, Johnny has been released from prison and this heist is a chance to gain a huge sum of money and fly-off with his girlfriend to live the rest of his life in peace. We are rooting for this character on this basis alone - and no moral compass, or deeper 'socio-political edge', is laid out. This is not to say that there is no depth whatsoever (see 'The Herd & Self-Reflexiveness' by David Gerrard), Gerrard highlights how a very minor character Maurice (Kola Kwariani) emphasises Kubrick's ideologies. But it is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it situation and something which would inevitably be appreciated on multiple viewings.

Technically Telling

The non-linear structure, at the time, was uncommon. To the point that test-screenings found the film difficult to follow - and forcing the studio to push for a narration-track. Kubrick hated the narration, but conisdering the initially bad reception the fim garnered at the box-office, this seems to be a case of the studios being in the right ... whilst Kubrick was hugely ahead of his time.

The use of camera is efficient and effective. By showing the same 'seventh race' from different perspectives, you can see that much of the race-track footage is re-used and the production is also limited to very few set-pieces. Kubrick said himself, about his production with James Harris, that "We want to make good movies, and make them cheap. The two are not incompatible". This is a sentiment that is clear amongst filmmakers on their debut films; think about the limited production on Reservoir Dogs; the 'choice' of camera used for break-out films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project; the low-quality and limited locations of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead.

There are still sequences that remain memorable due to their execution by Kubrick - most notably when the money is nearly stolen in the final act - the dead bodies lie strewn across the floor and the camera, handheld, hovers above the corpses as if we see the horror from the perspective of the lone survivor. Only recently, on 24's final season, amongst the final few episodes, the same technique is used as we are shown a massacre Jack Bauer is responsible for within the Russian embassey. The combination of handheld camera-work amongst static shots reveal the brave techniques Kubrick was employing very early in his career.

The Bag of Money

Like all cult-films, The Killing ends on an extrodinary note. Like The Ladykillers and Oceans Eleven, despite a few mishaps, the heist goes to plan. It is within the final reel that things change. How it happens is flippant and almost tongue-in-cheek. To reference my article last-week regarding The Ladykillers, The Killing ends on an ambiguous note. No 'human element' is responsible for the loss-of-money- simply bad luck. In the same way that it was simply bad-luck that this film did not recieve such positive praise on its initial release. Personally, this is one of my favourite Kubrick films and I would hope that - again - if you don't often watch fifties films, you will hunt this one down.

C'mon, 80 minutes long - just whack it on, on a lazy Sunday afternoon. You won't regret it.