Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 Dies!

Well, that was the year of The Penciltonian.  What an exciting time!  What a world of adventures!  What!  Why?

I had hoped never to watch another film again, but the bright lights and colours have drawn me back.  Since the official end of the project and the blog, I've found myself compelled to watch the following motion pictures, which I report here in order to wrap up the year:

Iron Sky (2012)

This is actually a far more appropriate end to The Penciltonian than whatever the actual end was: an exciting Finnish/German/Australian/kinda-American film, riffing on a lot of the German movies I've been watching (even 1943's 'Münchausen', which I'd thought pretty obscure) and slathered in modern-style Wagner.  An action comedy about space-Nazis, an enjoyable and necessarily broad satire, which didn't end as I expected.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

On St Christmas Eve's Day, I actually saw a movie on the BIG SCREEN, something I had failed to achieve through the body of the year.  It's an excellent telling of the story, and is pretty close to being a perfect film.  Attractive, exciting, amusing and moving, and the muppets work surprisingly well alongside human actors, without seeming unduly ridiculous.  I'm sure I had more to say about it, but Christmas.

Witchfinder General (1968)

What a jerk!  I've always liked the Puritan style, and have seen photos from the film and admired Matthew Hopkins' hat and fine array, but he was a horrid fellow.  This film sits neatly alongside 'Häxan' (1922) and 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) as a tale of misidentified witches being beaten up by unchristian Christians - and it joins my beloved 'Winstanley' in being an inspiration for 2013's surprise hit 'A Field in England'.  This is a film of really horrible, hard-to-watch violence (which seems entirely appropriate, given the subject matter), and Pertwee-era-style crash zooms (which seem less appropriate).  Vincent Price IS the Witchfinder General.

War and Peace (1956)

I watched the first hour of this, but became immensely irritated.  It wasn't terrible, but it was slow and unexciting, and I'm no longer obliged to watch slow, unexciting films.  I have the liberty to escape such things.  I also grew aware that the film was not at all the best way to take this particular story.  As much as a massive, massive book is daunting, a film that boils a massive, massive story down to a few hours and makes it feel like any other romance, is a less appealing and less helpful prospect.

A borrowed and wearying cat on me, and upon you all.
So, what does 2014 bring?  I tried to make a list of my predictions, but the list started out frighteningly bleak and full of catastrophe (which celebrities will die, this year?), before becoming a sequence of portents of doom and stars of ill-omen, so I stopped making the list and wondered whatever was wrong with me.  2014 will be very lovely.  Amen.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The End of the Penciltonian

Well, that was The Penciltonian.  A hundred films from a hundred years, 1913-2013 - and a few besides.  There were a number of other criteria I ventured for those wishing to play along at home, and of these I believe I also managed a film from each letter of the alphabet.

The viewing and the blogging have encompassed:
130 films in total
25 British films
54 American films
16 German films
7 French films
19 silent films
28 crime films
28 comedy films
14 horror films
21 films about war
7 films about revolution, which I found to be the most interesting through-line

I failed in my attempt to watch a film from each continent - I only managed a couple from the whole of Asia, and neglected to watch any at all from Africa, South America, Antarctica or The Moon, so I certainly can't claim to have encompassed anything beyond Western, Minority-World cinema.  African cinema, in particular, sounds to be artistically and philosophically different from the sorts of things I ended up watching, and its absence is probably the single greatest deficiency in this Penciltonian project.  I also managed to find terribly few films by female directors, yet must have watched half a dozen with entirely male casts.

The 1920s and the 1940s seemed much the most enjoyable decades, with almost all their films garnering great praise, but I thought the 1910s were a bit rubbish, perhaps because of their lack of later cinematic techniques - I've ventured elsewhere that the decade's lack of close-ups left the performances feeling rather distant, meaning the actors were only able to convey rather crude emotions, lacking nuance.

I expect there will be a handful of additional updates to The Penciltonian, though on a less regular basis.  Wherever I see something startling, or unfairly neglected, I'll try to make mention of it.  But I won't renew a commitment to a century in a year, or two films a week - the costs in time and funds were too high.

I guess I'd hoped I could sum up more victoriously, and tell tales of a project completed, which had led to some great, personal revelation, some spiritual refreshment, or revitalisation of character.  I have watched a hundred films - a goal any of you could achieve inside two months.  It's not especially impressive, only a tribute to obsessive list-making, and to materialism.  My main achievement here was to sit on my ass all year watching movies, which really oughtn't to be something to shout about.

The End.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Rounding out the nineties, we have this excellent sci-fi satire, an anti-war-film disguised simply as a war film.  It drifted into my mind a couple of months ago when I watched 'All Quiet on the Western Front' (1930).  The stories follow similar patterns: in each, a school-teacher inspires our hero to join the army, the better to be a patriot, and both films show a gruelling period of training under a hostile drill-sergeant, which nonetheless leaves the cadets unprepared for the real horrors of battle.  The war drags on for far longer than expected, and the hero watches all his peers perish in agony.  I can believe there are plenty of other anti-war films that follow the same pattern, but these are the two I know, and despite their similarity in plot and purpose, they use very different methods.

'Starship Troopers' is subtler, or at least, it credits its viewer with more intelligence.  It drops the occasional hint that humanity are the real aggressors, and that the 'bugs' whose planets they are invading are only defending their territory, but it makes the aliens ugly enough, and the battles exciting enough, that one could watch the film without realising the cruelty of the heroes, the sarcasm of the jingoism.  'All Quiet on the Western Front' opens and closes with clear anti-war statements, and its hero loses faith in the struggle, speaking openly against its futility - but the horrors experienced by Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) in 'Starship Troopers' leave him all the more committed to the bugs' extermination.  He's a true citizen.  'All Quiet on the Western Front' makes its point with tragedy, but 'Starship Troopers' gives us a happy ending, a triumph for the surviving characters.  Its far more bitter, and terribly unfair.

It's an attractive, fun and thrilling film.  If you can put the grim moral aside, it's highly entertaining, something you can watch a lot of times.  The film was fortunate to be made at exactly the right time, in 1997 special effects had become so good that they still impress today, with CGI 'bugs' and ships looking both real and solid.  Made a few years earlier, I suspect this would have aged poorly.  Five years later, I doubt the film could have been made at all, as the extremely negative portrayals of propaganda and American-style extreme patriotism would, post-9/11, have rankled against the public mood.

I'm told the film is extremely different to Robert A. Heinlein's novel on which it was based, and that the book, published in 1959, plays the war far straighter, with the monsters utterly evil, the heroes justified in their crusade.  It sounds considerably less interesting than the motion picture; the world needs the occasional warning about the evils of imperialism.  I always prefer sci-fi that doesn't advocate for national churlishness.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Two British films I was told were Indian films (2008, 2012)

A few months ago I bemoaned how white, how British and American the films I'd been looking at were - not that those facets are problematic in themselves, but that the films I was selecting lacked diversity.  The original plan for the blog was to see 20th Century cinema from all angles, but in the end I watched very few films from outside Western Europe and the States.  I put out a request for recommendations from less familiar nations, saying "these should be films conceived and made within the continent concerned," and, after seeing the American-Canadian film 'Life of Pi' (2012), I expressed an interest in some real Indian films, as opposed to films set in India but made for Western consumption.

The two I was lent were 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008) and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' (2012), and neither is really what I was after.  These are British-funded films with white British writers and directors (indeed the former is directed by Danny Boyle, surely the most famously British director there is, after his Olympic triumph).  They're both set in India, but have largely English dialogue, so they're Indian films to about the same extent that 'Das Herz der Königin' (1940) is a Scottish film or 'Shaft in Africa' (1973) is an Ethiopian film.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) under interrogation
'Slumdog Millionaire' regards Indian characters, and is based on a novel by an Indian author, so comes rather closer to being what I was after.  It's the tale of a man from the slums of Mumbai who lives an exciting and difficult life and makes his way onto 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire', with each question causing him to recall some part of his hectic youth.  'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is about elderly white folks moving to India.  Dev Patel (who stars in both films) is its Indian lead, but he's the eighth billed on the poster after a catalogue of honkeys, and gets by far the smallest picture.

I was concerned that this film would show India only as an 'exotic' background, a colourful holiday location rather than a real nation of real people.  Thankfully the screenplay isn't so blinkered as I feared, and gives a rather more complex picture of India.  It's a mite more optimistic than 'Slumdog Millionaire', which tells of a nation rife with poverty and crime, while 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is set in a country in which one can live without a door and yet have no fear of burglary.

Dame Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, and plenty of other stars,
old enough to have earnt their great fame.
Both films end cheerfully, with 'Slumdog Millionaire' turning either on either coincidence or destiny, and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' giving an eyebrow-raising conclusion in which one of the British characters (Maggie Smith as Muriel) turns out to be more competent than Dev Patel's Sonny and relieves him of his responsibilities, so bringing prosperity and order to the white ghetto.  She starts the film as a disabled working class racist, and ends as a lovely able-bodied middle-class lady, and the film ties her moral transformation to a process of healing and rising from the wheelchair.  Alas, this is something one can find in a lot of fiction, the lingering implication being that one's impairment is a curse to be escaped through good deeds or a contrite heart.  It's a well-known trope, which upholds disability's massive stigma.  See also 'The Little Mermaid', 'What Katy Did', 'Avatar', and plenty more.

So, I still haven't seen any Indian films, at least by the criteria that I, and Wikipedia, like to judge these things.  These two were both enjoyable, well-made films, and present complementary pictures of modern India ('Slumdog Millionaire' giving us Mumbai on the coast and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' showing Jaipur in the North), which I'm happy to put together with 'The Jewel in the Crown' (Granada television, 1984) to give a richer understanding, but I can't help feeling my knowledge of the life in the Indian subcontinent is very much tinged by Western interpretations.

The only other recommendation I've had for Indian cinema is 'how about some Bollywood'; would I just be embracing a stereotype?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Unreported films

There have been a number of films I've watched during the period of the blog which for one reason or another I haven't written up for you.  They all duplicate (and in some cases triplicate) years I've covered with other films, but for reasons of completism, here's a brief run-down.

Vertigo (1958)

A third James-Stewart-starring Hitchcock movie, after my posts on 'Rope' (1948) and 'Rear Window' (1954).  Of the three, only this one isn't confined to a single room, meaning it can roam up and down the steep San Francisco hills, mainly down.  I was very taken by this film when I first watched it, as there's a point when it rather alarmingly reveals that it isn't in the genre you expected.  Rewatching, I was surprised, and not pleasantly, at what a sinister jerk the hero becomes toward the end.  And Kim Novak's eyebrows are strange and confusing throughout.

Bucket of Blood (1959)

I watched this and wrote it up for you, but then I watched it again.  It's good, it's short, and much of it is imitable.  I made a page of notes the second time, but apparently I've lost it.

The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)

This is an absurd comedy written and directed by Marty Feldman, and it's a real pity it isn't better known.  It feels like a British Mel Brooks film, or a sillier and wider-ranging 'The Bed Sitting Room' (1969).  It's either an adaptation of a classic novel, or (as the title suggests) a remake of the 1926, 1939 and 1966 films, which ignores the original's lack of laughs and somehow comes out with a more interesting and satisfying resolution than any of those versions managed.  It stars Marty Feldman, Michael York and Peter Ustinov, and features (among many others) a memorable performance from James Earl Jones, who plays an Arab in the style of Terry Thomas.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

I picked up a copy of this film during the 2012 olympics.  I didn't watch any of the sport, but the opening ceremony had impressed me, and a rendition of the theme from Chariots of Fire stirred something within me.  It's music I've always associated with running in slow-motion, so I'd long held at least a little interest in watching the film.  Besides, it got the oscar for Best Screenplay, which tends to mean a film is worth a look in.  It's a fine thing, and well worth the attention given to it at the time, and isn't at all the film I'd expected.

Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988)

My cousin Alice recommended me this film, and I sought out a copy the following day.  I had meant to write it up for 1988, but somehow 'The Last Temptation of Christ', 'Akira' and 'A Short Film About Killing' all got in the way.  The occasion of my viewing is now eleven months ago, so I can't recall a great deal, except that the film struck me as extremely Italian, and felt much more like the stereotype I had in mind of European films than any of the German, French or Scandinavian films I'd seen.  It has a Summery, somewhat Catholic feel to it, like 'Cavalleria Rusticana'.  I meant at the time to watch the Director's Cut version, which came in the same set, that I might have a fuller idea of the film before writing it up.  Still not gotten around to that, but I imagine it'll happen eventually.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

After watching 'Ghostbusters' (1984) this was inevitable.  It's a mite less sweary than the original, but otherwise very similar in style, humour and production, and amply enjoyable.  It's a mystery to me why this sequel isn't held in the same regard as the original.

The Baby of Mâcon (1993)

Long-term readers will know I have a love of Peter Greenaway films.  Like so many of his movies, this fascinated me with its ideas and dazzled me with its beautiful cinematography by Sacha Vierny.  Its events show a play within a play - a vast audience, all dressed splendidly in what I'd count as an 18th century style, watching, and joining in with, a play about an ostensibly virgin birth and a tiny, all-powerful baby.  There's a lot of colour and blood and nudity, and it's quite astounding to behold.  The ending, though, was too unpleasant, and represented the first and only time I watched a film for The Penciltonian and resolved not to write it up for reasons of censorship.  If Peter Greenaway has ever gone too far, it was with the resolution to this film, which made for extremely uncomfortable viewing.

Hackers (1995)

1995 was an exciting year for movies, with 'Tank Girl', 'Toy Story', 'Goldeneye', 'Nixon' and 'Jumanji' (the latter of which is a film everybody saw, but nobody now speaks about) all in cinemas.  Saskia is a great advocate for the dream of nineties, so I turned to her for a recommendation, and was shown both 'Empire Records', which got a post of its own, and 'Hackers', an exciting story about the 1337 h@xX0r5, 7H05e co0l kiD$ wH0 C0UlD 7Urn c0mpu73r$ t0 tH3Ir pURp0$35, CH@Ng3 7H3Ir GR@des 0N $Ch00l coMpU73r5, $73@l m0n3y FR0m 8@nK5 (0n @ WhIM) @Nd dR355 iN 0U7l@NDI5h 0u7fI7s, HaPPy n07 70 C0nF0rM.

A Night at the Roxbury (1998)

An enjoyable, though often-scorned bromance, regarding two jiving brothers (Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan) who yearn to escape their jobs at their father's fake-flower shop and make it big in the dance club scene.  I'm not surprised it's less popular and less well-known than other Saturday Night Live movies as it lacks much of a hook to draw audiences in and keep 'em, but it seemed quite enjoyable enough, and an antidote to some of the heavier films I'd been watching.

Shaft (2000)

Having watched 'Shaft' (1971) and its two sequels, it was inevitable I'd get to this year 2000 remake, starring Samuel L Jackson.  It's a fair action movie - and is as explosive and slick as you might hope for, but it's not as incisive as the original, which seemed edgier and more dangerous.  I liked the soundtrack, which is by David Arnold who composed the music for the nineties and noughties Bond movies, and who revisits the original 'Shaft''s funky sound in his own glossy style.  I'm not so sure I can get behind the film's apparent glorification of police brutality, in which John Shaft, a cop, achieves what he needs to be beating people up and pistol-whipping unarmed suspects into respecting him.  We're meant to like the cops who turn a blind eye to these antics.  I guess it gets the job done, but not every violent police officer is so good at heart as John Shaft.  Noughties Shaft seems to have much less sex than the seventies Shaft did, too; perhaps it fell out of fashion.

Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

An inevitable watch, after 'A Night at the Roxbury' (1998).  A bizarre and pleasing picture of the newsrooms of the 1970s.  Ron Burgundy's jazz-flute recital is a fantastic thing to witness.  The film goes for the old, slightly annoying convention of making all the male characters extremely amusing, but all female characters serious straight-man types who make no attempt to amuse.  Are there any films that reverse this trope?

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

It turned out I had absolutely the wrong idea about the Fast and the Furious movies.  I'd expected tales of car-theft, homicide, drive-by shootings and gritty America.  What I find instead, in this, the third in the series, is an extremely clean film about young racers, challenging one another to drive better and faster to win women.  Saskia described the films as chav-magnets, which might be a fair stab at the core audience.  Like 'The Transporter' (), the film reads like a story-board, each shot clinically chosen, rather than looking like a record of real events caught on camera.  It's an artificial style, but very efficient, very economical.  The script is tight and well-structured (as are, I understand, the others in the series), meaning that the story is well-paced and the protagonist's story engaging and satisfying.  Alas, the core of the film is that old, uncomfortable idea that the white man can go out to a foreign country and in a few short weeks become better than any native at whatever it is the foreign culture supposedly excels in.  See also 'Avatar' (2009) and, I suspect, 'The Last Samurai' (2003).

Das Weiße Band (2009)

I have as many Toms in my entourage as Mary Queen of Scots had Marys (which is to say, about four of them), and one such Tom urged me to seek out films by director Michael Haneke.  The very next day, 'Das Weiße Band' popped up the BBC iPlayer.  It's set in Germany in the early 1910s, and so neatly plugs the gap in my knowledge of 20th Century Germany that's so well filled by 'Heimat' 1-3, Fritz Lang's Weimar Berlin crime films (1922, 1931, 1933), 'Das Boot' (1981), 'Downfall' (2004), 'Der Baader Meinhof Komplex' (2008) and 'Goodbye Lenin!' (2003).  It's a rather unpleasant crime film, subtitled 'A German Children's Story', in which the children are known by name but the adults only by occupation.  Despite being set slightly before the First World War, the film has its mind on the second war, when these children will be running the country based on the lessons learnt in infancy.  Despite a pretty poor special effect of a horse falling over, this is a good film, if rather grim.  It's in black-and-white, too, meaning I have a wholly or largely monochrome film in every decade but the nineties.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Having watched 'Metropolis' (1927) and 'Persepolis' (2008), 'Cosmopolis' had to follow.  This is a story about a businessman in a car going to get his hair cut.  It looks like a blockbuster but is actually an art film, or something of the kind.  There's a wonderful artificiality to his limo's interior, and a daunting and real dirtiness to everything that happens outside it.  I really liked the vast majority of 'Cosmopolis', but wanted it to have a blunter ending.  The final confrontation felt too much like a final confrontation, and the film seemed to lose some of its fascinating individuality.  I'm told the book is deeper and more interesting.

Ted (2012)

I'd almost forgotten that I'd seen this during the course of the project, so long ago was it.  I'd initially meant to write this up, but, in a moment of belief that The Penciltonian was wholesome family reading, I censored this and 'The Baby of Mâcon' out of having their own posts.  Anyway, 'Ted' seemed just the thing to watch while visiting Big Dave in London, where we had been to a fine crêperie/crémerie combo for good pancakes.  The film is plainly from the mind of Seth MacFarlane, creator of 'Family Guy' and its ilk, and I know their comedy is fairly divisive, but it's a style I can enjoy, and which is used well here.  The film put me in mind of one I'd made and then destroyed, 'The Death of Pencilton' about an owl puppet which is obviously a puppet but which is nonetheless treated as being alive.  This did it better.

The Hunger Games (2012)

I enjoyed this, but wondered whether I would have liked the book more - not because the film was deficient, but because I thought prose might have afforded more intimacy to the actual Game part of the story.  A book could give an insight to Katniss's thoughts that was lacking here.  Her predicament might have been more genuinely daunting from her point of view.  As it was, I knew she'd be out of danger inside two hours and back for a sequel or two.  Nonetheless, I look forward to the next film, which I understand to be in cinemas now, but I can't think when I'll get to see it.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Run Lola Run! (1998)

Since my Penciltonian project is nearing its completion, I've been looking over the list of films I've watched this year, and I realised that the 1990s was almost the only decade to be made up entirely of English-language films.  (The other decade lacking foreign-language cinema was the 2010s, but I have another 6 years to rectify that particular omission).  I knew immediately what I'd like to watch: 'Lola Rennt', or 'Run Lola Run', a sassy German film which pleased and excited me when I saw it half a decade ago, and which I'd very happily recommend to anybody who hasn't tried foreign cinema before.

As you might expect, it regards Lola, running.

Lola (Franka Potente) has exactly twenty minutes to rustle up 100,000 German marks to save the life of her jerk boyfriend Manni, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, who went on to play, with a more competent criminality, Andreas Baader in 'Der Baader Meinhof Komplex' (2008).  Lola has an excellent rage, a shock of red hair of the most enviable character, and a capacity to scream with such determination that glass and other weak things must shatter.

Lola Rennt!
The events of the film last just over twenty minutes, but the film is almost an hour and a half in length.  We see multiple attempts by Lola to find and deliver the money, and when she fails she goes back to the beginning and starts again, like a video-game character trying new ways to beat a level.  Which way she goes, and what happens to each of the characters, depends entirely upon her timing: it isn't that she makes different decisions in the same situations, but rather that the situations are different when she gets there.  It all hinges on how quickly she makes it down some (animated) steps at the start.  A difference of a single second is all it takes to change many lives.

I'll certainly keep an eye out for more films from writer/director Tom Tykwer, who works with an attractive energy and flair, and casts even the smallest parts memorably.  I don't know why I haven't watched this film more often.  It's a cool, stylish movie, and a good drama.  It's colourful, it's attractive, has good characters, a pleasing techno soundtrack, and a lot of fun.  If it was in English, you'd all have seen it by now.