Film #108: Rebecca (1940)

film 108 rebecca

Rating: 3.5/5

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Based almost entirely faithfully on Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name, this film adaptation of Rebecca is such a quintessentially classical Hollywood film – directed by Alfred Hitchcock, produced by David O Selznick, starring Laurence Olivier, shot in brooding, beautiful, gothic black and white. Its direction is impeccable, the acting equally so, and it deservedly won two academy awards (best picture and best cinematography) out of the eleven it was nominated for. My quibble is not with any the technical aspects of the film, but with a seemingly small change in the narrative – the result of the stringent Hollywood Production Code at the time, which stated that the murder of a spouse must be punished. Consequently (spoiler alert!), the whole point of du Maurier’s story is undermined: whereas in the novel Maxim de Winter is a murderer, shooting his first wife, here Olivier’s de Winter only thinks about doing so, and her death is an accident. These small detail changes the entire relationship between Maxim and his young new wife who, in du Maurier’s world, doesn’t care that her husband is a murderer. Instead, here Maxim becomes a version of Hitchcock’s classic “wronged men” – haunted by a memory and, later on, accused of a murder he didn’t really commit. It’s a shame, really, because Hitchcock was very adept at drawing out the more tortured side of his male leads – he brought out a darkness in everyman James Stewart, for example, and some of that actor’s finest roles were under Hitch’s direction. If anyone could play a ruthless, cold-hearted murderer and still be believably attractive, it’s Olivier, so it’s a shame that such a crucial plot point had to be watered down.

In contrast to Olivier’s roguish, charming Maxim, Joan Fontaine is superbly unassuming as the second Mrs de Winter. This poor girl (for she is young – visibly much younger than her husband) doesn’t even have a name of her own: first introduced as the paid companion of an older society woman, she is quickly smitten by Maxim’s charms (and who wouldn’t be?!) and, after a whirlwind romance, the pair return to Manderley, a vast, ominous manor house near the Cornish coast. Suddenly thrust into a world far beyond her station, the new Mrs de Winter has to not only adapt to her new social status, but try to fill the shoes of the seemingly perfect Rebecca – a figure so important that both the novel and film take her name, despite not even being shown in a picture or portrait. Rebecca is so dominant that her presence is felt throughout the film – the long corridors and vast, opulent spaces of Manderley seem filled with her, and Hitchcock approaches the story as though it were a true ghost tale. In many ways, of course, it is – the new Mrs de Winter is haunted by the spectre of Rebecca, this beautiful, perfect, urban, witty woman who, it appears, Maxim has never gotten over. Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) definitely hasn’t, and makes sure to remind Mrs de Winter of her inadequacies (as many other characters do) frequently.

It is here that the film makes a further deviation from its source novel: while du Maurier imagined Mrs Danvers as having a maternal bond with Rebecca, here it is implicitly a romantic fixation. Mrs Danvers, prim, proper and utterly intimidating in her strict black dress, has evidently fetishised the memory of Rebecca – the scene in which she takes Mrs de Winter into Rebecca’s old bedroom and points out all the luxury has distinctively erotic undertones: “Did you ever see anything so delicate?” she asks, showing off Rebecca’s sheer negligee. “Look, you can see my hand through it!” Fittingly, all three actors mentioned received Oscar nominations for their roles – Olivier brings a darkness to his role as the charming Maxim, Anderson is rather terrifying as the cold, cruel Mrs Danvers, while Fontaine epitomises innocence and naivety. While Fontaine is undoubtedly beautiful, here she really seems plain – quite an achievement, considering. When Maxim finally reveals what he believes is the truth regarding Rebecca’s death (that it was his actions that killed her), Fontaine is superb. All she hears in this shocking confession is what she wants to: “You never loved her,” she breathlessly repeats, relief all over her face. In all that he has said, that’s the only thing that matters to this smitten, tormented woman.

Although the alterations to the narrative do mean that the power of the story is somewhat reduced, I cannot fault the film itself. The stage production is wonderful – the sets, particularly Manderley’s halls and rooms – are beautiful, expensive and expansive, while the music perfectly complements the visual elements. The score, by Franz Waxman, brings an eerie, gothic quality to the film, emphasising the horror and tension perfectly. Olivier et al are supported by a solid cast, including the delightfully caddish George Sanders, who injects some life into the film’s final third. It’s not all doom, gloom and atmospheric anxiety though – Hitchcock wisely brings some black humour into the narrative by way of some of the smaller roles. Just moments before one of the most devastatingly simple yet brutal cruelties imposed upon poor Mrs de Winter, for example, Maxim’s sister and brother-in-law parade around in ludicrous outfits, highlighting even further the nastiness that follows. As is now expected of Hitchcock, the director demonstrates his mastery of creating tension and, also, revelling in cruelty – yet it is Fontaine’s performance that truly demonstrates the consequences of such cruelty. The devastation is etched all over her face, her torment and agony clear throughout. It’s impressive, really, that we can still empathise with a woman who is such a shell of a person herself – in the end, we still don’t really know anything about her except that she is Maxim’s devoted wife.

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Films #92-95: Ed Wood Marathon

film 92 93 94 95 ed woodathon

Ratings: The Violent Years (1956), 2.5/5; Night of the Ghouls (1959), 3/5; The Sinister Urge (1960), 2.5/5; Ed Wood (1994), 5/5

“I look at this slush and I try to remember, at one time I made good pictures.” – Johnny Ryde, The Sinister Urge

Edward D Wood Jr is a fascinating character; those who have heard of him will probably already know all the famously quirky anecdotes surrounding him – he was a transvestite, he was the worst director of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film of all time. He is best known for three movies: his debut feature Glen or Glenda; mad scientist movie Bride of the Monster; and sci-fi/ horror hybrid Plan 9 (it’s also these three films that feature in Tim Burton’s big budget biopic). The films I watched for this Woodathon represent some of his lesser known features. Arguably none of them are as “bad” as his better known films, and probably none are as entertaining as a result. What is important to remember is that being known as the “worst director of all time” doesn’t mean that there can’t be moments that work – Night of the Ghouls in particular, while obviously low budget, actually suggests the writer-director-editor-actor-producer wasn’t entirely oblivious to his previous films’ failings. But more on that later.

First up, The Violent Years. Written by Wood, this juvenile delinquency movie is directed by William Morgan, better known as an editor (his work includes several episodes of Lassie, and Portrait of Jennie). While the language is clearly Woodian, the picture itself is a far more gloomy affair: particularly in later years, with long-time collaborator William Thompson working as Director of Photography, Wood’s films were visually sparse, but crisp, and this sharpnesss is missing from this movie. The plot itself is fairly unremarkable – a judge introduces the story (to add gravitas) of a young girl who, not receiving any attention from her parents, turns to a life of crime with her girlfriends. It’s a typical kind of movie for the time, with a typical kind of conclusion not dissimilar from the earlier exploitation pictures – it serves both as titillation (girl gangs, guns, fights, lots of smooching, and even the implied rape of a young man by the gang) and as a warning against considering such a lifestyle, cheekily justifying the presentation of such titillation in the first place. Jean Moorhead is good as Paula Perkins, the leader of the gang; the rest of the girls are non-distinct. Poor Mr and Mrs Perkins get all the blame – at barely an hour in length, oddly the “violent years” themselves are notably brief and Wood’s script gets significantly more preachy as it progresses, with the judge berating the parents and, oddly, claiming that a return to religion would fix this ghastly teenage problem. An interesting, short little curio, the film is largely unremarkable, though undoubtedly benefits from the Wood connection.

Next, Night of the Ghouls. This is Wood’s best known later film and, at the risk of sounding controversial, one of his most interesting movies. It’s his most light-hearted picture, and his most self-aware; it’s also his first feature film not to star Bela Lugosi. This is a shame, because Dr Acula (yes, you’ve read that correctly) is in many ways a role made for Lugosi, initially at least – Kenne Duncan, a legitimate actor with over 270 credited roles, does bring some authenticity to the performance, and seems to be having fun with the ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek premise.

After a strange introduction from legendary hack psychic Criswell, appearing as himself, which includes some vague social commentary about the youth of today (over footage of Ed Wood himself and Wood regular Conrad Brooks having a fight outside an icecream parlour before a car spins wildly out of control and careens down a cliff) Night of the Ghouls starts properly. Despite this introduction, the film is actually about a fake medium, Dr Acula (aka Carl), who preys on mourners for monetary gain. It’s also a kind-of sequel to Bride of the Monster – Acula’s home is built on the ground of the house on Willows Lake, and characters specifically refer to the events of that film. Lobo (Tor Johnson) also features here, having apparently survived the atomic blast that ended Bride of the Monster; so too does Kelton the Cop (Paul Marco), who confuses matters even more by lamenting his latest assignment: his remarks of “Monsters! Space people! Mad doctors!” implicitly also refers to this characters’ appearance in Plan 9 as well.

And there’s more: there’s a crude “Wanted” poster on the wall of the police station, with a headshot of Wood himself below. The lieutenant (Duke Moore, another acting veteran) does his entire investigation wearing a top hat and tails, most probably so that Wood could include a whole section of the short film Final Curtain in this production (legend has it that Lugosi was reading the script for Final Curtain when he died). But most interesting are Acula’s methods of conning his victims. His seances, which take place in barely constructed sets (lots of curtains, bits of carpet lining parts of the floor), include some particularly shoddy effects – a trumpet floats, with the strings holding it up clearly visible in the shadow; a person wearing a sheet (yes, really) crab-walks across the frame; a cup and saucer bob around in front of yet another curtain. These effects are terrible, yet no worse than the UFOs in Plan 9, but – and here’s the point, they are revealed to be fake. On first viewing, knowing the infamy of Wood’s previous films, it’s easy to revel in the ridiculousness of his effects, but the joke is on us in the end. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it’s easy to do with Wood’s movies), but surely the fact that he actually includes a flying (cup and) saucer is a deliberate nod to his previous film’s inadequacies?

Night of the Ghouls, for whatever reason, has never received as much notoriety as Wood’s earlier movies – it’s best known for being the movie that remained unreleased for twenty-three years due to the director being unable to pay the lab processing fees. Perhaps part of the reason it is not as cherished as Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda is that, quite simply, it lacks the naivety of these badfilm classics. It seems as though Wood is having fun here, but also that he is at least somewhat aware of his limitations and, importantly, he’s intentionally playing with the audience’s expectations. In the realm of badfilm, even the weakest attempts at self-awareness are not particularly embraced – it’s the innocence and unintentional badness that captivates people, and with Wood in particular no one wants to believe that he was ever anything other than enthusiastic, but hopeless.

Next, The Sinister Urge. This film serves as a warning against pornography and “smut” pictures, taking on a similar format to The Violent Years. Ironically, it is the last feature film Wood made before his descent into pornography (see One Million AC/DC as one of the last surviving Wood pictures). Much like The Violent Years, it is neither a particularly good movie, nor is it bad enough to be considered one of Wood’s “masterpieces” – as much as people may not want to admit it, his later films did contain significantly more acceptable filmmaking standards, suggesting that the man was learning and developing his technique. The Sinister Urge is fairly unmemorable, save a few moments: one includes an entirely unrelated fight that takes place in an icecream shop – yes, that’s Wood and Brooks grappling around in the sand, with the scene taken from Night of the Ghouls. In typical Wood fashion, there are some winks to the Wood-universe: posters for his previous films line the walls of one of the smut directors, who says they are “made by friends of mine.” There’s also a large subplot about a girl arriving in Hollywood from a small town that is repeated in (or taken from) Hollywood Rat Race, a truly fascinating book written by Wood on how to “succeed in Hollywood.” Other than that, the film is generally unremarkable – there’s a brief moment of actual nudity, which is unusual, and there’s a fun game to be had in seeing just how many outfits Jean Fontaine’s porn-kingpin wears over the seventy minutes, but it’s a fairly dry movie, with too much time spent in the police station and, for a film all about the porn business, not half enough nudity.

Interestingly, none of these films are mentioned in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s fanboy biopic. It’s a wonderful film nonetheless, inspired by Rudolf Grey’s excellent biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy, with Johnny Depp bringing a wonderful, boyish energy to the enigmatic director. Yet it’s as much a film about Lugosi as it is about Wood – Martin Landau is superb as the former star, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance (ironically Lugosi never received such acclaim). The film emphasises the friendship between the director and star – and, by all accounts, they truly were friends, with a mutual respect and admiration at the core of their relationship. It is, of course, a highly stylised biopic, with plenty of liberties taken; whole sections are fabricated, including an important pep-talk Wood receives from his (real) hero Orson Welles – so too is the way in which Plan 9 is finally shown to the world. Yet all the strangest, weirdest bits are true: the stolen octopus and its missing motor; the entire cast and crew getting baptised in a swimming pool so that Plan 9 would get its funding; the reasons for Bride of the Monster ending with a nuclear bomb… And there are parts that may or may not be true – not even Grey manages to establish the “truth” in his biography, with personal anecdotes contradicting each other and Wood himself reiterating myths and legends.

Burton’s biopic, as loving and inoffensive as possible, glosses over the darker side of Wood – the film ends with Plan 9‘s first screening, and only alludes to the filmmaker’s troubles after that – and is arguably as instrumental as the Medveds in establishing the cult of Ed Wood. Shot in black and white, it’s ironically a big budget, expertly shot, well crafted movie, one that pays homage to Wood but never makes fun of him, presenting him as always optimistic, charismatic and handsome, filled with enthusiasm, surrounded by a random assortment of Hollywood rejects (portrayed with aplomb by the likes of Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones and, in a particular coup, bona fide wrestling legend George “the Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson) yet always upbeat and prepared for success that somehow never quite materialises.

I always wonder how Wood would have felt about his films being considered some of the “worst of all time.” He died two years before the Medveds’ readers voted him worst director, a bloated, homeless alcoholic. While today his fans like to think he would be pleased at his films’ current popularity, surely it would sting just a little to know the reasons for their fame? As he said, in Hollywood Rat Race: “It’s terrible to hear someone say about someone else’s work, ‘Ahh, that stinks.’ Yet the critic probably couldn’t ink his way out of a paper bag. You put it on paper. Good, bad, or indifferent. At least you had the guts to put it there.”

Film #69: Mary and Max (2009)

film 69 mary and max

Rating: 5/5

“When I was young, I invented an invisible friend called Mr Ravioli. My psychiatrist says I don’t need him anymore, so he just sits in the corner and reads.”

I remember Mary and Max showing at Edinburgh International Film Festival a few years ago, where it received very positive reviews. Unfortunately, trying to market a stop motion, mostly narrated film about two pen-pals is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, yet despite its limited cinematic release it’s still managed to enter into IMDB’s top 250 films – quite an achievement, all things considered, and a testament to writer-director Adam Elliot, who has created a movie that is both heart-warming and utterly devastating, desperately sad yet very funny.

Mary and Max is almost entirely narrated by Barry Humphries, whose matter-of-fact, warm tone is perfect to tell the two characters’ stories. He tells the tale much as one would read a children’s book, but the contents are far darker and more adult than any kid’s story; the bleak upbringing that Mary endures and the isolation surrounding Max are somewhat tempered by the calm, straight-forward language and Humphries’ voice. The two lonely souls meet by chance, when eight year old Mary, living in the Melbourne suburbs with a rarely-seen father and an alcoholic mother, picks a name out of an American phone book at random so she can write and ask where American babies come from (her mother has told her that Australian babies are found in the bottom of pints of beer). The name she selects turns out to be that of Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a morbidly obese, awkward man living in New York. The two bond through their correspondence – two kindred spirits, living on opposite sides of the world.

Central to the film is the ways in which Mary and Max help each other – she views the world as a child does, and he responds to that in much the same way. While Max’s awkwardness is obvious from the outset, the extent of his problems are far more subtly introduced. It’s not until perhaps half way through the movie that mental illness is specifically mentioned, and his eventual diagnosis will come as no surprise. Yet it’s beautifully handled; the filmmakers’ never ask their viewers to take pity on the characters and, instead, it’s the friendship, and the ways in which that friendship both helps and challenges each character, that is most important.

Visually, Mary and Max is a treat – a wonderfully realised stop motion world with oddly maudlin-looking people. Mary’s world, the Australian suburbs, comprises of various warm brown tones; Max, living in an old tenement flat in New York, is surrounded by a monochrome city – the only splashes of colour in the film, and in their lives, are sporadic dots of red (the flirtatious lips of a woman at Max’s “over-eaters anonymous” group; a pompom Mary sends Max). The colour scheme perfectly reflects the tone of the film and the emotions of its central characters, who are further complemented by the beautiful animation, which is easily as distinctive and polished as Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s stop-motion, and as humorous as Aardman’s (Selick’s Coraline, a nightmarish, wonderful film released in the same year as this, garnered an Oscar nomination; despite Elliot’s previous Academy success for short film Harvie Krumpet in 2003, Mary and Max enjoyed no such recognition).

While it is Humphries’ voice that carries us through the years, as Mary grows older and Max grows wider, both Toni Collette (as the older Mary) and Hoffman should be commended – Hoffman in particular brings Max to life. The voice-over narration, initially disconcerting, adds to the lyrical, story-book style of the film, carefully commenting on the visuals at times, bringing a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek irony to the story. It is, by the way, inspired by Elliot’s own pen-pal correspondence; he has invented Mary (who shares more than a little with the title character in Muriel’s Wedding, also starring Toni Collette) but the friendship at the centre of the film is genuine. Like Mary, Elliot has yet to meet his pen-pal. It is perhaps this real-life inspiration that has ensured such humanity and warmth to the film, despite its rather bleak subject matter. Elliot’s script, with its moments of black humour and its often childlike response to events and situations, delicately ensures that the depressing elements of the story are lightened by some much needed comedy that never threatens to compromise the overall tone of the film. I laughed and giggled, then spent a substantial amount of time crying. Yet although it’s heartbreaking, Mary and Max is, in the end, full of hope – it’s a cliché to say “life-affirming,” but despite my tears, I found my faith in humanity restored.

Film #65: The Artist (2011)

film 65 the artist

Rating: 5/5

“………”

There’s so much to love about The Artist. It had so much working against it – not only is it black and white and French, but it’s silent – yet this little movie charmed everyone that saw it, and went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Watching it at home is, admittedly, not the same as seeing it at the cinema – to get the best out of this movie, you really need to allow yourself to become completely immersed in it, without any distractions, yet it is still a delight from start to finish.

What is perhaps most impressive about writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s film is how clever it really is. It opens with a deception; the image of a man screaming, with no voice heard. Yet it soon transpires that this is not “real life”, but is in fact a silent movie within a silent movie. It’s only when we don’t hear the audience’s reaction, but instead see the faces of the stars, hidden behind the cinema screen, as they hear the riotous applause from the auditorium, that The Artist‘s lack of sound really becomes evident. And it’s clever from start to finish – this is a silent film all about sound – but it never threatens to become overwhelmed by subtext or showing off. Hazanavicius has created something that feels natural, utterly believable, and entirely engaging – not because of its intelligence, but because of the beauty of the story, and the characters within it.

Knowing something about the history of cinema helps when watching The Artist, though it’s not a requirement. Set during arguably the most turbulent time in film history, the late 1920s, it follows silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and rising starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, who I first saw getting massacred by wild boar in French horror movie Prey), whose careers are both affected by each other, and by the introduction of sound. Whereas Peppy embraces sound, George refuses to accept it – his thoughts echo many who believed sound compromised the purity of cinema – and his inability to move with the times is to be his downfall (although, as is revealed in the film’s final moments, there is a reason no one wants to hear George speak). So as Peppy triumphs as the new face of the studio’s talkie pictures, George becomes a dinosaur, no longer relevant and no longer wanted.

While the film is clearly a love letter to cinema, the performances are central to its success. Dujardin, who deservedly won an Oscar for his role, is perfect – I can’t imagine anyone else playing George so beautifully. He looks the part completely, with his Errol Flynn good looks and delightfully expressive face; the star quality is instantly evident. He oozes charisma (it’s no wonder all the females are so impressed with him) and even in his more arrogant moments, he’s always endearing. He reveals a darkness as the film progresses, and it’s devastating to watch this handsome, charming man so tormented by how his life has turned out.

This effortless charm is not necessarily mirrored by Bejo’s Peppy, whose name suits the character; she’s at times a bit flippant, sometimes slightly overly-emphatic – of all the performances, hers is the only one that seems to be occasionally overcompensating for the lack of sound. Still, this is a minor quibble, and it is perhaps more to do with the strength of Dujardin’s performance, than the weakness of Bejo’s. They share the screen with a wonderful assortment of cameos by mostly American actors with great faces: John Goodman, Joel Murray (God Bless America), James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell. Of course, the other star of the film – perhaps the biggest star of them all – is George’s dog. In a true story of rags to riches, Uggie went from being a rescue dog to an award-winning acting dog – he won the coveted Palme Dog for his role, and regularly steals the show.

Crucial, also, to The Artist‘s success, is the score that accompanies it. The original score by Ludovic Bource perfectly captures the emotion and tone of the film; the upbeat, jaunty tunes in the opening moments gradually giving way to more sombre orchestral scores. The decision to use a section of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo in a later scene, while met with disgust by that film’s star Kim Novak, was a brilliant one – it’s poignant, heartbreaking, and is so well integrated that it could have been written specifically for this film. Why Novak was so emphatically upset about the inclusion is a mystery – for a film all about cinema, it’s hardly an insult to pay homage to the film recently voted the best ever made.

There are so many wonderful moments in The Artist that it would be easy to gush. It looks beautiful, shot in crisp monochrome – a romantic snapshot of 1920s Hollywood. The story is simple, but wonderfully told. By combining the classical style with very modern editing techniques, it never seems to drag, and I think this is really the key to its mainstream appeal. Yet what most impresses me is how easy it is to accept its format – and its success indicates that this was felt not only by critics, but by regular cinemagoers. In fact, it’s such a quickly acceptable style that when a “real” sound is heard (in a brilliantly executed nightmare sequence) it’s horribly unsettling. And here is the true beauty of The Artist; you don’t have to be a cinephile or a film buff to appreciate it. It’s a joyous experience, funny, heartfelt, nostalgic… I challenge anyone to watch it and not have a huge, slightly teary, smile on their face at the end.

Film #54: Man on Wire (2008)

film 54 man on wire

Rating: 5/5

“If I die, what a beautiful death!”

In 2009, James Marsh’s superb film Man on Wire won Best Documentary at the Oscars. In any other year, I would have been happy, but I must admit this win was tinged with sadness for me, because it beat Encounters at the End of the World. Yet general consensus quietly agrees that the latter was included predominantly because Werner Herzog’s previous documentary, Grizzly Man, had failed to even secure a nomination in 2006, and this was the Academy’s way of putting right an egregious wrong. So, as biased as I am towards Herzog, whose films have (sadly) yet to be picked out of the bag, even I must concede that if he had to lose out (again) at the Oscars, at least he lost out to a worthy opponent – and, to be honest, I doubt that the director himself actually cares at all. Man on Wire is fantastic, make no mistake – an exhilarating memoir disguised as a heist film, it gathers you up and pulls you into Phillipe Petit’s obsessed world until, finally, you are rewarded with an unforgettable moment: it’s a moment of lunacy, undoubtedly, but it’s also beautiful, serene, magical.

Based on a book by Petit, Man on Wire recounts the Frenchman’s efforts to achieve his dream – to walk along a tight rope between the Twin Towers in New York. It was an obsession that haunted him from the moment he first discovered the skyscrapers were being built in the early 1960s. It wouldn’t be until 1974 that he would finally have the opportunity, carrying out the “artistic crime of the century” with the help of a band of people who had been caught up in his wake and dragged along for this delirious ride.

The film’s style brings to mind that of acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris, combining the traditional talking heads – a perfunctory inclusion that generally lacks visual dynamism – with monochrome re-enactments. Yet Petit in particular is such an engaging character that even his interview segments are filled with excitement and vitality – he is spry and hyperactive, expressive with not just his face but his whole body. It’s easy to see how he persuaded the motley crew of friends, associates, and virtual strangers to help him on what could so easily have been a suicide mission. The re-enactments, in contrast, are muted in colour and slightly grainy, yet no less engaging: Marsh cleverly creates his heist caper here, as Petit recalls the almost slapstick manner by which they broke into the Twin Towers, with their vast quantities of rigging and equipment. Were it not for the reiteration of his story by his co-conspirators, it would be easy to dismiss his version of events as fanciful and highly exaggerated: having to hide under tarpaulin while the security guards smoked cigarettes, the near-misses and ridiculous situations they managed to get themselves into. The good humour and often hilarious descriptions mask, or at least undermine, the criminality of their actions, not to mention the hugely dangerous potential of his dream, so that Man on Wire remains eternally optimistic and invigorating.

Alongside these talking head interviews and re-enactment segments, Marsh’s film undoubtedly benefits from an impressive wealth of existing footage of Petit’s various exploits. From his jaunt across the Sydney Harbour bridge, to small, tender moments shared between friends, the combination of photos and film footage nostalgically capture the decade just as they capture the closeness of this group of friends. They are an inviting bunch; if there were fights and disagreements, they are hidden away – what matters, it is implied, was the fun. For this period of time, the group lived, breathed, slept and dreamed Petit’s dream; they vicariously lived his obsession, which he had infected each and every one of them with. And, in the end, it was his life at risk, but they all reaped the rewards of his actions, as they helped him achieve something that was insane, of course, but somehow life-changing for them all. Just listening to his former girlfriend as she recalls watching him from the streets below, and you get the sense that there was something utterly profound about his actions; this was an experience shared by friends and strangers alike, one that would never be forgotten. Yet there is a somewhat bittersweet element here, emphasised in the film’s final moments as the group discuss what happened after they had finally achieved Petit’s dream. After all those years of planning, the obsessive detailing and meticulous (or not) preparation, what is left afterwards? It’s a poignant end to a beautiful, and ultimately very human film.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing James Marsh twice over the years, and you can read both interviews here:
Citizen Nim
Subdued Suspense

My Progress So Far: Films #1-50

First time viewings: 14
Repeat viewings: 36
Vetoes: 0
Films still to watch: 673

Seeing as I’ve hit the first major milestone, it seemed a good time to consider the success (or failure) of Movie Lottery as a concept, and to briefly look back at some of the best – and the worst – films watched so far.

First: it is safe to say that Movie Lottery has been a success. Yes, there have been films picked that have been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm (and there are many more to come), but I only have myself to blame – serves me right for being less discerning about what movies to add to my collection. This does make me wonder, however, whether others have experienced a similar situation: with films now available to buy brand new for only a few pounds (surely I’m not alone when I say there are probably only a handful of movies in my collection that I spent more than £6 on), it’s all too easy to translate previous rental standards to purchasing. I’d love to say that all the films covering my shelves were bought because they came with high recommendations, or because they had great reviews, or because they were guilty pleasures, but it’s not true. There are some that were bought simply because I had some spare coins in my pocket, and they were cheap and in front of me. Several films already watched fall into this category – A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Turn It Up, and Mr Ice-Cream Man were all impulse buys, and none made any particular impression on me (although the former’s title is still one of the best in my collection).

One of the things that has come to my attention through Movie Lottery is the difficulty in assigning star ratings to films. Actually, it’s not that challenging on an individual basis, but the results are slightly strange when viewed as a whole. For example, four stars have been allocated to a selection that includes Braindead, Thirteen, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and Scanners – films that, on the surface, share little in common. Similarly, low scorers range from low-budget drive-in teen pics (Horror of Party Beach) to contemporary genre failures (Children of the Living Dead) to pretentious art concepts (Waking Life), but although these films all garnered the same rating (2/5), my enjoyment of them varied wildly. Were I to attempt a rating specifically considering my personal appreciation for a film, the stars would be allocated as follows: Children of the Living Dead, 5/5; Horror of Party Beach, 4/5; Waking Life, 1/5. Instead, what my star ratings represent is a more evaluative judgement as to the success or failure of each individual film in its own terms – whether it achieves its goals. It’s because of this that a gorefest like Braindead sits so comfortably alongside the subtle, beautifully acted indie drama What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

So, my favourite films to date. I was pleasantly surprised by both The Omega Man and The Time Machine, two classic sci-fi adaptations that, while showing their age, capture some complex and intriguing concepts that more than stand up among contemporary examples of the genre. As guilty pleasures go, the Twiathalon has got to win hands down – although, as I argued in my review, why this series has become such a reviled and ridiculed franchise is problematic to say the least, and I will remind you right now that I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed of my enjoyment of these movies. Similarly, of all the films to be picked, I was perhaps most excited to re-watch High School Musical 3: Senior Year, and it didn’t disappoint.

While I’m on the subject of guilty pleasures, what has become clear to me – something I had not expected to emerge so quickly – is the seemingly disproportionate amount of genre films (particularly sci-fi and horror) that are in my collection. Rest assured, it’s not that I don’t have a bunch of Werner Herzog films, a reasonable collection of classical Hollywood movies from directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, big MGM musicals, silent films, and foreign language movies, because I do. They just haven’t been picked yet.

What has become clear during the last few months is that some of the most rewarding viewing experiences have come from films that, although I know received great reviews, would never have actually been watched were it not for the randomised selection. Films that are perhaps not the easiest to watch, like Waltz With Bashir, serious Oscar winners like A Beautiful Mind and Pan’s Labyrinth, or even daft little short animations like The Wrong Trousers were viewed only because they came out of the hat, and would have sat languishing on our shelves forever more were it not for Movie Lottery. All of these have been given some of the highest ratings, and it’s these films, more than the guilty pleasures, that remind me the value of this project. For every Slacker or Step Up, there’s a Donnie Darko, District 9, or a Looper to remind me that at least some of the movies in my collection have actual, bona fide merits. Now I just have to watch the rest…

Film #35: Beginners (2010)

film 35 beginners

Rating: 4/5

“Well, let’s say that since you were little, you always dreamed of getting a lion. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait but the lion doesn’t come. And along comes a giraffe. You can be alone, or you can be with the giraffe.”

Beginners is partly autobiographical, based on writer-director Mike Mills’ experiences when, following his mother’s death, his father came out as gay. It is, perhaps, a slightly more idealised version of real events – Oliver (Ewan McGregor) accepts this revelation, and his father’s subsequent lifestyle changes, without hesitation, and there is little indication as to any sense of emotional or personal conflict. Despite this, however, the film’s most effective, and most heartfelt, moments are those shared between Oliver and Hal (Christopher Plummer) – although, at the risk of sounding twee, they are closely matched by those in which Oliver and Arthur, Hal’s Jack Russell, feature.

Beginners begins somewhere in the middle, and flits between past and present. We first see Oliver packing up his father’s home after his death. It’s 2003; Oliver’s mother had passed away five years earlier, and shortly after this, Hal admits he’s gay. He embraces his new lease on life; his style changes, he enjoys the inviting company of other gay men, and gets a young boyfriend (Goran Visnjic). He refuses to let terminal cancer get in the way of this second chance that finally allows him to be the person he’s always known he was. Hal is stubborn, pragmatic, and kind – Plummer embodies the role to perfection, and deservedly won Best Supporting Actor (amongst other awards) at the Oscars for it. Of all the characters, Hal is the most complete; Oliver is sympathetic, but bland, while quirky love interest Anna (Mélanie Laurent) is kooky and cute, but at times threatens to become an indie cliché.

This is, however, an indie film, and unapologetically so. Oliver, a graphic designer, illustrates his voice-over with rapid montages, showing photographs and advertising campaigns from the 1950s, when his parents first met, in contrast with similar contemporary images. He amends his memories and reveals his emotional state through his art; simple doodle-like drawings depicting sadness and an almost self-indulgent sense of grief. Yet it works, and neatly retains the pacing of the film’s temporal meandering. There are some subtleties at play too: while this is essentially about a father and son’s relationship, and the son’s attempts to cope with his father’s death, flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood omit Hal entirely, suggesting there is an unexplored complexity to their relationship, despite their closeness in later years.

As a film about relationships (the title indicating not only Hal’s new beginnings, but the fledgling romance between Oliver and Anna, neither of whom seem to be ideally equipped to deal with such a situation), it is perhaps inevitable that some work better than others. As tender and poignant as Hal and Oliver’s is – and, it must be said, Hal and his young beau display a similar effortlessness and authenticity in their few scenes together – there is something very sweet about Oliver’s relationship with Arthur, who silently, loyally follows his former owner’s son everywhere like a shadow. Arthur allows Oliver to retain a connection to his father, and both human and dog need each other in a way that pet owners in particular will understand as both genuine and entirely valid. Mills’ exploits Arthur’s cuteness, channelling Oliver’s thoughts into the dog by way of subtitled responses, adding both humour and an unusual source of insight into the film.

Beginners is heartfelt and funny – not an out-and-out comedy, but ultimately uplifting. Mills’ provides a largely romanticised view; arguments are literally muted and briefly dotted into broader montage sequences, and there is little conflict, even during Oliver and Anna’s on-off relationship. It works, however, because of Hal as a character and Plummer’s portrayal of him, which is consistently sincere and utterly authentic. No doubt the autobiographical nature of Mills’ screenplay encourages this authenticity, and there is a deftness of touch and a sense of consideration and care present in the scenes focused on Oliver and Hal’s relationship that is less visible in other scenes. It is an intimate portrait of a father and son and, when it concentrates on this aspect of the story, Beginners is both understated and tender.