Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dom's Top Eleven Favourite Movies : Part Two

Top Eleven Favourite movies in the order they come to me as I look at my DVD collection

Part Two

SO!! I totally intended to get this done yesterday but vile events conspired against me.

This is the next five in my TOP ELEVEN FAVES for the time being!!!

( yes, the next five! There's one more still to come!!! )

Valhalla Rising

Directed by : Nicholas Winding Refn

Starring : Mads Mikkelsen, Gary Lewis, a slew of actors who crop in loads of viking movies and why wouldn't they? LOOK AT THEM!!!! They ARE Vikings.

Plot : Ostensibly a Viking movie, “Rising” follows Mikkelsen as the mute “One-Eye”, a captured thug in 1000 AD. One Eye, a silent warrior of supernatural strength, has been held prisoner by the Norse chieftain Barde. Aided by Are, a boy slave, One Eye slays his captor and together he and Are escape, beginning a journey into the heart of darkness. On their flight, One Eye and Are board a Viking vessel, but the ship is soon engulfed by an endless fog that clears only as the crew sights an unknown land. As the new world reveals its secrets and the Vikings confront their terrible and bloody fate, One Eye discovers his true self. 
( Lazily taken from IMDB; I totally have to learn the skill of plot-summary )

Why? : If you like “Drive” then you are not necessarily a fan of Danish director and cinematic enfant terrible, Nicholas Winding Refn. But you do like his style, and as a result if it wasn't for the infuriatingly oblique nature of some of his movies, you would probably already be a fan. He's like that.

For such an amazingly populist and popular movie, however, it's interesting to note that if you are a fan of Refn, you still probably adore “Drive” and would even go so far as to class it, alongside the searingly brilliant “Bronson” as his best movie. This is not always the case with us fanboys – we fanboys tend to tear apart anything the populist mainstream takes to its heart. Score one for our fanboy acceptance!

“Valhalla Rising” is probably not his best movie but it's my favourite nonetheless ( and in fact, is Refn's current favourite too! ) Pretentious, beautiful, flawed, sometimes horrifically violent, it is is essentially an almost plotless mood piece, musing on the nature of existence, spiritualism, and man. Quite the pinch to squeeze into an almost silent ninety minute movie that spends much of it's time looking at clouds or water. Sometimes both.

But it's the way Refn shoots and edits this film, shooting on digital in quite dreadful conditions in the mountains and grasslands of Scotland, and grading and editing his film into a slowly unfurling acid-fuelled dream, that makes this such a unique beast.

There is a consistent otherworldly undercurrent to this “viking” movie that hints at more going on than we are being shown, in particular with One-Eye's oddly symbiotic and seemingly telepathic relationship with Are, the boy.

Citing Heart of Darkness in the summary above is interesting, and fairly accurate. This does have a certain comparable quality with Joseph Conrad's original novel – less so Coppola's film adaptation, Apocalypse Now” - in that it follows a tightly wound soldier/warrior on a river-bound journey surrounded by slowly maddened men, towards the unknown, ultimately encountering the dangerous indigenous population of an unknown isle.

Where it differs is that the foe waiting at the end of the journey in “Rising” is existential; One-Eye must ultimately face himself.

Mikkelson – who was apparently happy to take on the role for a director with whom he'd already twice worked with, in the first two “Pusher” movies, because he thought it would be an easy gig – is a revelation in this movie. With no dialogue, and only one eye, he manages to quietly express motivation and emotion ( though the character's emotion rarely varies from quizzical, pensive, or simply volent – necessarily so given his status in life at the beginning of the movie ). He is immensely charismatic, with a fierce, lean, muscled body, never afraid to get down, dirty and ugly where necessary.

His final acceptance of what must be at the end is brilliantly portrayed and makes this film worthy of revisiting, along with Refn's striking direction and the film's unique mood.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Directed by : Tom Stoppard

Starring : Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Richard Dreyfuss

Plot : Based on Stoppard's first, and possibly most popular play, and taking it's cue from “Hamlet”, the story revolves around the perpetually confused main characters as they stumble around the outskirts of the main play, trying to figure out their names, their status, and ultimately their purpose.

Why? : A lot of reasons, but let's just start with the obvious – Gary Oldman and Tim Roth together in a movie where neither one of them are over the top, shrieking villains and are in fact closer to a Laurel and Hardy double act. Or perhaps a better comparison would be Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their road-movie phase, with Richard Dreyfuss in the Jane Russel role!

That's it, that should be enough.

Oh you want more? Fine.

So let's be upfront and state that this is a bit of a niche movie, really. It's not entirely well-directed, it's a little sluggish, one might even say indulgent at times. This was Tom Stoppard's first – and if I'm right, only – feature film. A rightfully respected stage director and writer, it was a wise decision to let the man who knew this play inside out adapt and stretch it for the big ( really, the small – like who actually went to see this in the cinema flickers? ) screen, but from time to time his lack of experience, and his theatrical background shows.

But I don't think this is a bad thing. In fact I'm not sure anyone else could have attempted this film and pulled it off with as much genuine charm as Stoppard managed. His naeivity in film-making translates into the naeivity of his characters and god damn it if it don't friggin work. The only other person I would trust with this material, would be my boy Kenneth Branagh.

The main draw is seeing Oldman and Roth bounce off each other with Stoppard's incredibly rich and funny dialogue. They are perfectly cast ( though interestingly, and rather in keeping with the nature of their characters, they were both initially cast in the opposite roles to which they ended up ), and create memorable and likeable characters, Oldman sweet, naive and curious, Roth rough, impatient, and smart.

Beyond that is the way in which Stoppard plays with the themes of “Hamlet”, and filters his own themes of identity, status, and purpose throughout. Though surprisingly frothy, there is a strain of darkness running throughout, the inevitability of the title drawing ever near.

For a film filled to the brim with yabbering characters, there are some strong visual set-pieces in the film, from the beautifully choreographed, silent and masked re-enactment of the murder of Hamlet's father, to Oldman's consistent curiosity leading to invention and discovery, inevitability dashed by Roth's impatience.

I first saw this movie when I was around seventeen. I think it works better for an adult audience who has had a little life experience, and a little time to absorb Shakespeare outside of school.

But I fell in love with it then, so I don't see why other's won't now.

Dead Man's Shoes

Directed by : Shane Meadows

Starring : Paddy Considine, Toby Kebbell several of Shane Meadow's pals

Plot : A disaffected soldier (Considine) returns to his hometown to get even with the thugs who brutalized his mentally-challenged brother (Kebbell) years ago.

Why? : Look at the plot summary above. It seems really quite straight-forward, don't it. Straight forward and familiar. Right?

As with “Valhalla Rising” however, there is so much more going on here. And as with “Valhalla Rising” it is often quite hauntingly spiritual.

As per the summary, the beauty of this movie is in it's spareness. Nothing is wasted, no shot, no pluck of music, no moment of character building.

Devised through work-shopping his actors, Meadows ( and Considine ) created a bare-bones script around which to pin the action. Allowing his, sometimes first-time actors to improvise on-screen creates a nervous, naturalistic energy entirely at odds with Considine's precise, committed darkness. It's the conflict between these two styles, and the characters they draw, that brings this angry film alive.

Paddy Considine is absolutely searing in this, perhaps the best he has ever been – controlled yet vicious, blank yet bubbling with emotion, and in each of his confrontation scenes with the various thugs involved in his brother's brutalization, utterly, compellingly terrifying.

He is an angel of death and the audience is never entirely comfortable being on his side, in no small part down to Meadow's choice to slowly reveal the extent of each thug's involvement in the incident that traumatised the soldier's brother rather than show it up front to give the audience an excuse to justify and enjoy the brutality. The violence, though creative, is never glamourised.

There is catharsis in the violence, but Meadow's and Considine work very hard to show the consequence too. These are not your average grunting cinema thugs, the actors have each breathed life into their characters and in some cases make them genuinely likable.

The film was shot on digital, in three weeks. It often looks it, grainy, wobbly, and just a hair's breadth off. But this adds immeasurably to the grimy feel of what is essentially a slasher movie, with Considine's soldier sometimes casually, sometimes brutally, always inventively picking the thugs off one by one.

As with all Meadow's films a rich vein of Northern humour permeates the film, but this slowly drains out as the almost biblical final act crawls in and the reality of what happened to the soldier's brother is finally revealed.

Toby Kebbell deserves special mention – a character actor usually more at home with brash, charismatic loudmouths ( see Rocknrolla – so, seriously, it really ain't that bad! ) - for his incredibly subtle, emotive performance as the soldier's mentally-challenged younger brother. Soft, gentle, and child-like, his is the heart of the movie, and the antithesis to the violence.

A brilliant, dark, funny, scary movie, Meadow's and Considine's fiercest and finest work to date.

For a few dollars more

Directed by : Sergio Leone

Starring : Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Moria Volonte

Plot : When Volontes sleazy, whacked out Bandit is broken out of prison with plans to rob the most highly protected safe in Mexico, he is hunted down separately, and later begrudgingly together by two bounty killers : the tricky and youthful Monco ( Clint ) and the older, experienced Colonel Mortimer ( Van Cleef ). Forming a fraught, untrustworthy alliance the two men chase the bandit and his men down, double-crossing each other as they go, before a final reveal leads to a showdown between Mortimer and the bandit.

Why? : Returning as Joe, the man with no name, Clint Eastwood portrays Monco in this brilliant follow-up to Leone's surprise hit, “A Fistful of Dollars”. Where that film replayed Akira Kurosawa's “Yojimbo” in a wild west setting, however, “More” expands into a new, twistier, stranger world, inhabited by drug-addicted, violent, yet strangely rueful villains and a far deeper emotion than it's predecessor.

The stars of the movie are, of course, Leone's incredible, widescreen direction, Morricone's rich score, the three lead performances. It goes without saying that Eastwood is the epitome of cool in this flick ( although he adds shades and a very palpable maturity to his character by the end of the movie ), and that Lee Van Cleef can pull of a pipe-smoke filled “naturally” will charisma and world-weary charm. But the actor who stands out in this for me is Gian Moria Volonte as the lead bandit, El Indio.

Returning to Leone's world from a smaller, blunter role in “Dollars”, Volonte is wonderful in this movie, hauntingly moving in one moment then braking viciously the next, he plays his role as a man possessed, and the surprisingly emotional resonance at the heart of the conflict between El Indio and Mortimer
plays consistently across his face in quiet moments.

The film is less concerned with violence in this movie, all though it has it's fair share of kicks, punches, and bullets to the head, and more concerned with legacy and consequence. There is a fairytale quality that oozes through it, thanks in no small amount to the lullaby-esque music that tinkles throughout.

All the criticism levelled at this movie by non-believers are true – it is flawed. The plot often feels like they were making it up as they went along ( they probably were ), Leone has a big old Italian attitude to women that often borders on misogyny ( see Once Upon a Time in America for the zenith of this attitude ), it's a hell of a long movie, and the dubbing is at times hilariously awful.

To me, these are all obvious and charming in their own way. But the epic style, complex characters, increasingly bleak mood, wry humour, and balls-out cool of the movie far outweigh those flaws.

People might ask me ( I don't know, is anyone reading down this far? Did you give up at NEDS and my Tarantinoesque claim to being a part of that world? ) why did I choose this than the technically superior “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Hard to explain, I guess. I love that movie to bits and in fact it forms a part of my childhood movie awakening in much the same way as Star Wars did.

In the end though, I think I love this movie for it's personality, and it's personal touches. Yes, “The Good...” is bigger, brighter, better. But “For a few Dollars More” is rougher, quirkier, and less bogged down in it's big themes.

It also has an AWESOME final shootout that combines cool, static violence with genuine emotion. ( Warning spoilers contained in this clip - but god damn it it's worth watching!! )

Beat that Tarantino, you hack.

Beautiful Girls

Directed by : Ted Demme

Starring : Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly, Uma Thurman and that guy who ever since he played the back-stabbing best friend in The Truman Show has essentially been typecast forever more.

Plot : In this romantic drama a group of high school buddies reunite for their high school reunion in the small town where they grew up. They deal with the life challenges of finding women to love and be loved by, committing to a relationship, and getting past their childhood dreams and desires to deal with reality and appreciate life. ( Totally stole this from IMDB again, but bear with me – there's a reason )

Why? : This is a very small movie that occupies a certain niche in movies. A gathering of old friend's lives are changed by the one returning guy who got out of their small town and found success. Hell, I've written a version of this story myself.

So the above summary, and the bizarrely jovial trailer, are technically correct and is good enough to stick on the back of a DVD cover, I guess. But it's not a romantic comedy by any stretch of the imagination, in many ways it's anti-romantic, dealing with relationships as it does in a very bittersweet, mature manner.

Nor is it about a group of high-school buddies getting together and suddenly having to deal with all these new things in their lives. What I love about this film is that their lives are being lived, and we simply drop into them just as Timothy Hutton's jazz-pianist and Uma Thurman's sexy cousin do.

The heart of the story is the return of Hutton to his family home, a home filled with a terrible and quiet sadness as Hutton's father and younger brother are still coping with the loss of Hutton's mother. Lonliess and loss permeates these characters, as two men at the opposite ends of the spectrum who relied excessively on the only female in their lives, deal with the everyday things she used to do.

Stretching out from this, Hutton acts as our guide into the world of the friends he left behind, a funny, sometimes embittered group of men getting by day to day, and in much the same way as Hutton's family, keeping their heads in the sand about the way their lives are going.

The film benefits from several things – the sadly late Ted Demme is a terrific director of actors, and juggles the cast, their quandaries, and the larger canvas around them with quiet confidence. Scott Rosenberg's pithy, bittersweet script refuses to ignore the emotion behind these characters, yet rounds each of them into real, and rounded people. He is not afraid to push a little darkness into the script, as shown by the ravaging effects Matt Dillon's affair with his high-school sweetheart is having on his family, and the people around him; and in particular in Hutton's self-aware attraction to the thirteen year old Natalie Portman ( brilliant in this, capitalising on her strength as a child actress but adding depth and maturity. ) The acting from every single performer is pitch perfect, from Hutton's cool confidence, Thurman's self-awareness, and in particular the quirky and loveable Max Perlich ( whom fanboys will recognise from Buffy ).

What is truly wonderful about this movie, however, is the treatment of women as more than just sex-objects, or – as the summary seems to hint – romantic objects of affection. They are rounded both by Rosenberg's treatment of them as people, not just “women”, and by the terrific performances of the cast. They embody real emotion and character, as opposed to Hollywood emotions, even as within this world, it is obvious that they are almost all in a pedestal in some way, be it Uma Thurman's sensuality, or the lost mother.

There is romance in this movie, and a lovely subplot involving Hutton and his out of town girlfriend, as Hutton questions his loyalty to her. But this movie is not so much a romantic drama, as an anti-romance dramedy.

So hey, you made it to the end!!!! Awesome for sure!!!

This particular article was written in bed over a lazy, and frankly smelly Saturday afternoon, afraid to get out of the covers in case several pot-shots were taken at me by some particularly nasty individuals ( don't worry, there'll be a particularly angry blog charting my current experiences, once it dies down a little. It will be a true inside-the-war correspondence ).

But I have decided to let myself wallow and dwell over the last movie, and perhaps watch it again to really soak it up.

So until the next time,

ciao for now


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