The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin (Cuba, 1967)

Zany Cuban postmodern satire!

Zany Cuban postmodern satire!

This is bonkers: from the ‘spaghetti western’ opening to the keystone cops chases. We see Christ on the cross announcing, just after dying, that there’ll be another performance later. It’s fascinating to see ‘swinging sixties’ ‘anything goes’ aesthetics recycled in Castro’s Cuba even if it’s often difficult to work out what’s going.

Roy’s done the legwork on the background here.

Milk (US, 2008)

A hero of his time

A hero of his time

I’m ambivalent about this film: Sean Penn is fabulous (but then he normally is) but I almost fell asleep at one point. It might have been Gus van Sant’s functional direction that made me soporific or it could be the constraints of the biopic genre. To portray a life in two hours you obviously have to focus on key moments. Anyone with knowledge of Milk’s life would know what should be included; this immediately limits scriptwriters: events must be included regardless of their dramatic potential or cohesiveness. For me the story wasn’t gripping until Milk took on the Religious Right.

That said, Milk’s is an important tale as he fought successfully against bigotry. He seemed the ideal politician in that he decided to get elected to San Francisco’s Board of Representatives for a reason (Gay rights) and not for power. But Gus van Sant can’t resist sentimentalising Milk’s death (I haven’t given that away, that’s obvious from the start) with a long drawn out scene that even Penn struggles to make convincing.

It’s great to see ‘pretty boy’ James Franco embracing the role as Milk’s lover. It wasn’t long ago that Will Smith was advised (for Six Degrees of Separation, 1993, I think) not to engage in a ‘gay kiss’ as it would ruin his career. Hollywood remains homophobic but progress has been made.

24 Hour Party People (UK, 2002)

the sould of 'Madchester'

Tony Wilson: the soul of 'Madchester'

‘Postmodern playfulness’ is usually simply irritating but with a scene where Tony Wilson’s wife is having revenge sex in a toilet (Tony points out he only got a blow job but that’s full penetration) with Howard Devoto, of the Buzzcocks, and the real Howard Devoto is a playing a cleaner who comments ‘I don’t remember that’ and Steve Coogan’s voice over narration is quoting John Ford about ‘printing the legend’… you know this film is going to be fun.

Such ‘confusion’ is ideal to portray the ‘mad’ Manchester of the ’80s. The film focuses of Tony Wilson who was the catalyst for Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub; both important cultural events. The film’s brilliant at showing the often surreal quality of life: Ian Curtis’ epileptic fit whilst National Front bastards are rioting; Wilson’s invited into a brothel in the back of a car; the ‘sheepdog’ duck he reports upon in his day job for Granada Reports and so on.

One blogger complains that as a ‘docu-drama’ (presumably he meant dramadoc) it doesn’t show enough of the bands. That’s not the point of the film, although Tony Wilson says ‘this film’s not about me’ it obviously is. Watch Control (2007) for a fantastic portrayal of Joy Division (the scene where Ian Curtis visits Wilson’s home occurs in both) but watch this for a taste of what it might have been like at the time to be involved with Wilson.

Teeth (US, 2007)

Don't look now

Don't look now

Exploitation movies have a long history; basically films that seek primarily to titillate and shock cheaply whilst extracting maximum money from thrill-seeking youngsters. They became (more or less) mainstream in the late ’50s, along with the growth of the teen market; producer-directors such as Roger Corman churned out tons of movies independently of Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, they were usually horror movies. The premise of Teeth, a young girl has teeth in her vagina (vagina dentata) sits it squarely in this tradition and, just in case we didn’t notice it, characters are seen watching The Black Scorpion (1957) and The Gorgon (1964).

However, this is more than a thrill-seeker’s delight (though it is debateble whether males would actually get a thrill from the you-know-what’s-going-to-happen in this film), writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein has made a terrific film that delves into Freud, sexual politics, ethical questions and black humour; and it’s also a great exploitation movie.

The protagonist is a ‘silver-ring-thing’ character who has pledged to remain a virgin until marriage. The first half hour or so deals with the sexual repression involved in such an undertaking and pokes fun at such ‘moral minority’ campaigns. Of course, sex and violence must follow in this genre and there’s a wonderful uneasiness between ‘wanting to see and not see’ what’s going to  happen. The film reclaims the conflicted spectator who’s been jaded by seeing too much in post-censorship film culture. Watch it if you dare.

Eureka (UK-US, 1983)

Overblown drama?

Overblown drama?

British director Nic Roeg made the classic Don’t Look Now (1973) and followed up with a few interesting films. At the time I thought Eureka was one of them; now… I barely got to the end. What happened?

Films obviously can ‘date’; what looks fresh can go stale in comparison with films that follow. The social context changes, hence the idea of ‘timeless’ classics that are ‘universal’ and so speak to any age (and, allegedly, culture), and so the film’s relevance can be lost. The spectator changes, so 26 years later I am not the same person as the student-Nick Lacey in the early ’80s. As a youngster, for those with an open mind at least, you have an enormous amount of films to get through (all those Hitchcocks you haven’t seen!) so there’s a ‘cornucopia of delights’. Critical judgement is unhoned (though not necessarily wrong).

Having watched most of those ‘delights’, 20 years later, my minds full of movies (and 26 years of life) and so what seemed brilliant may now look irrelevant. Why’s Eureka crap now? I find the ’70s’ predilection for the zoom irritating (yes, I know this film was made a decade later), it simply draws attention to the filmmaking (but not in a Brechtian way) and the moral of the tale (greed is soulless) trite. So, maybe, it’s combination: the film style’s dated and the simple (if true) moral, while attractive to a youngster, has been seen too many times by an oldster.

Key films update

I’ve just gotten around to update the key films list which has been languishing at 2005 for a few years. It’s an attempt to list the best films, and most influential films (which may be merely a box office phenomenon), in each year. I haven’t seen them all. Let me know if you think anything should be included (or excluded) and I’ll consider your suggestions.

Stop-loss (US, 2008)

No way out

No way out

Another Hollywood Iraq movie that did very little business; this one from MTV films. Focusing on the use of the ‘stop-loss’ clause that effectively drafted soldiers about to leave the army back to Iraq, this is not obviously commercial fodder. It’s not Hollywood’s fault, or the film-makers’, but the audience’s, that issue-driven films are rarely made – they don’t make enough money.

Kimberly Peirce is an interesting director for a project as she was successful with the issue-based Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and shows enough skill for a tense, action-driven opening in Iraq. The rest of the film focused on the problems of returning vets and places it in the genre with numerous post-World War II movies and some Vietnam films of the 1970s. I’m not sure Ryan Phillipe has enough weight for the lead, he has to be both thoughtful and macho, and there’s far too many fist-fights (though not enough for MTV’s target audience maybe). However, the material’s handled very well until the last 15 minutes where, I think, the film loses its way. Terrific cinematography from Chris Menges, by the way.

Although the opening is gripping (an ambush in Tikrit) the representation of the Iraqis is depressingly one-dimensional. I guess there was no ‘room’ in the film to explain their motivation but the film is definitely anti-war/Bush, not just anti-stop-loss.

Timothy Olyphant is telling in his role of the commanding officer; we need to see more of him.

American Graffiti (US, 1973)

Driving around in my car

Driving around in my car

How many films have ‘American’ in the title? I don’t know but I’d bet more than any other nation. Is it that Americans believe that they are so distinctive from the rest of us that they need to distinguish between them and us? To be fair, the ‘American’ in George Lucas’ second feature is valid as which other nation’s youth had so many cars?

Set in ’62 the film’s a teen movie that covers the final night before leaving for college. The music’s great but I did get bored of watching teens drive around in their cars. Lucas then went on to make Star Wars which, with a 3D version in the offing, he’s still doing.

Incidentally, Richard Dreyfuss (then about 25) plays a very credible teen; two years later he was the  grizzled scientist in Jaws!

Slumdog Millionaire (UK-US, 2008)

Money for anyone

Money for anyone

At the time of writing Slumdog Millionaire has taken $37m at the North American box office – great news for a UK film. This success looks to be replicated in the UK; an opening weekend of nearly £2m. For a film that’s set in India, includes subtitles for some scenes, and depicts the horrendous poverty that many children experience in Mumbai, this is very good business. Of course, there is the feel-good romance too.

In North America the film benefited from a platform release: it opened on 10 screens, gradually building up to 600 after five weeks. This allows word of mouth to build and avoids the costs associated with wide releases.

I loved the first three quarters: Danny Boyle’s invigorating direction (unusual angles; canted frames; ‘music video’ editing for chases); great narrative device, using the Who wants to be a millionaire? questions to tell the protagonist’s tale; unblinking depictions of poverty and violence. By the end, the schmaltz takes over but the film can be forgiven this price of commercial success, as no doubt many people have learned about the inequalities of the Indian economic miracle.

The Death of Klinghoffer (UK, 2003)

Reasons for evil

Reasons for evil

Klinghoffer was a victim of Palestinean hijackers (a cruise liner the Achille Lauro) in 1985 and this is a film of John Adams opera. Mainly it’s shot in a realist fashion, with handheld camera, interspersing news footage and library footage. Well, ‘realist’ as far as opera can ever be realist.

I love Adams’ music, and the performances are terrific (particularly Christopher Maltman as the cruise liner’s captain – the moral centre), so I was always going to enjoy that. In the past I’ve found filmed opera unsuccessful, preferring filmed versions of stage performances, but Penny Woolcock’s direction is great.

The opera was controversial in America, accused by some of being anti-Semitic; this suggests that it would be, at the least, even-handed and that proves to be the case. The killing of Klinghoffer is clearly evil but the opera contextualises the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with scenes from 1948 and the creation of the Israeli state (and Britain’s role in this). So we understand why the Palestinians are being ‘terrorists’; Israeli’s attitudes are not neglected: the Nazi persecution of Jews is included. The opera manages to represent the (macro) politics without neglecting the individual’s (Klinghoffer’s wife) grief.

If everyone watched this film then understanding of this conflict in the Middle East would be much better understood and condemnation of Israel’s actions much more widespread.