Toy Story (1995)
Director: John Lasseter
Actors: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles
Synopsis: Woody (Tom Hanks) is a toy cowboy belonging to a young child, Andy. Woody is the nominal leader of the boy’s other toys when ever Andy is out of the room. For Andy’s birthday, he gets given a toy astronaut, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) – who refuses to believe he’s merely a toy, and soon Woody and Buzz are forced to team up to return themselves to Andy’s toy collection when they get lost out on a trip to a pizza restaurant.
Review: OK, so I may be almost twenty years late to the party, but what the heck – here’s my two pennies’ worth on Toy Story – “the film that launched a thousand animated pictures” and turned Pixar into a household name.
Obviously being the world’s first feature-length digital animation film, its historical and technological significance have become the prime auspices through which to view the film – and in that sense, I’m marginally agnostic. Adding extra-dimensionality and sensory layers to the film’s surface obviously creates something spectacular and visceral (particularly relevant to its largely young, tactile target audience), although I lament that its huge financial and critical success led to a near-systematic jettisoning of classical hand-drawn animation from the Hollywood slate from this point on.
Where I will side with the good press on the film is in its inventive commentary on its own fantasy/artifice subject matter. Some of the most important films and filmmakers concern themselves with the thematisation of their own ‘apparatus’ (take the great Michael Haneke for example whose serious arthouse works always in some way deconstruct spectator theory). Having Woody and Buzz as polar opposites of the whole reality/fantasy spectrum really works (Woody is toy who subscribes totally to the hegemony of humans, where as Buzz believes that his superstar get-up is reality in its own right, not just a vehicle for a boy’s own fancy – until the illusion is heartbreakingly ended in a startlingly intelligent Lacanian moment where Buzz catches the TV screen advertising his own figure). All great animated films (certainly those aimed at youngsters) seem to subtly lament the transience of the magic of childhood, and Toy Story certainly fits in that lineage – although its ultra-polished sheen, and its neat, three-act ‘chase’ structure is a tad too industrial for my liking. (September 2014)
The Guard (2011)
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Actors: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham
Synopsis: Co. Galway copper Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), finds his regular working-life turned upside down when murders and a huge international drug deal come to his sleepy corner of Ireland. Boyle begrudgingly works with FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to get to the bottom of the conspiracy….
Review: The Guard comes very much in the lineage of the work of John Michael McDonagh’s brother Martin, and his brand of scabrous, witty genre pastiches (think In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths). While hardly covering new ground or offering up any surprises, it’s hard to deny The Guard’s simple unpretentious aim to provide a right good rollocking laugh, and standing right at the centre of all that is good about the film is the solid, genial presence of Brendan Gleeson in the lead role. It’s hard to recall a more utterly assured, concentrically-rounded comic character performance of recent years in the cinema.
What’s so effective about The Guard is how on the one hand it has just enough of a narrative trajectory to keep it from feeling entirely like a sketch-show, but never at any point are we allowed to forget the simple artifice and general air of bemused irreverence as a classic Hollywood-style cop scenario descends into the unlikely environs and canvas of western Ireland. It’s probably the silliness of it all that I like the most, particularly the moment where Liam Cunningham’s key drug kingpin threatens Gleeson’s cop in a garish American diner, leaving Gleeson seemingly fraught with his head in his hands, only for him to reveal he’s suffering from nothing worse than an ice cream headache! It’s stupid, there’s no real conceit there – yet somehow it’s an exquisite gag. Special mention also to the great Mark Strong – who turns in a lovely performance as a world-weary, inquisitive and uncommonly philosophical London thug. (September 2014)
American Beauty (1999)
Director: Sam Mendes
Actors: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Wes Bentley
Synopsis: Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a forty-something family man, acts out a subversive ‘awakening’ as rebellion against the sterility of his office job and suburban lifestyle in general. This rebellion plays out against the backdrop of the troubled internal lives of the many family members, friends and neighbours around him….
Review: It’s always an interesting process to go back and reappraise highly garlanded films, and to attempt to assess their true value away from the hyperbole and potentially unreliable swell of critical consensus that envelops these works on their release.
American Beauty is such a phenomenon – sweeping the boards during its awards season run in early 2000, yet rarely mentioned now as any type of enduring classic of American cinema. Very loosely, I see American Beauty as a work of two polar effects. It’s underrated as a visual work and a valid form of technical, studied, theatrical cinema, yet arguably overrated (not poor per se, just relatively unrevelatory) in its deconstruction of the ethos of so many things that underpin ‘American’ socio-culture – the valorisation of Capital values and the chronic dysfunction of home/family/community institutions.
To cover the positives first, I admire the inventiveness of Sam Mendes’ rhetorical assault on his audience. We too often associate cinematography with the qualities of photography (beauty of image alone), when in reality good cinematography is about framing, composition and playing with depth of focus – and this is one area where Sam Mendes (in conjunction with DP Conrad Hall) really excelled. For a film that is in many respects a gothic, theatrical tragi-farce, Mendes and Hall conjure numerous ironic tableaux, and also multiple, subtly changing frames of reference to inflect the action and three-dimensionalise the narrative and characters arcs – from Lester’s post-mortem voiceover, to sudden unannounced cuts to Ricky’s unnerving home video perspective, the overall distanced, ominiscient view of proceedings, and Lester’s own outlandish, seductive dream sequences.
The satirical leaning of the piece feels the weakest element to me in retrosepct. The army veteran/catatonic wife subplot is a little obvious (particularly when there’s a late, convenient revelation over what the veteran’s been suppressing), and as heretic as it may sound, I actually find the Spacey/Bening performances (or perhaps more accurately, the Lester/Carolyn characterisations) the least interesting aspect of the film. Although I know it’s an intentionally arch film, registering a good couple of removes from reality, both Lester and Carolyn never escape the sense that they’re ciphers, in service to the manoeuvrings of a storyteller(s). Now I love Annette Bening, but it’s either a bad performance or more likely a trap of a stereotypically shrill, ‘woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ caricature, as some of her scenes are unwatchable and extremely unsubtle. Equally, Kevin Spacey almost seems too clever an actor for Lester Burnham. Perhaps the problem is that we never really see the downtrodden nature of Burnham’s life pre-awakening, we just take it as a given from Burnham’s own sarcastic narration, but all I see is a very confident man almost over-selling and over-rhetoricising Burnham’s sardonic revolution. Again, I know the work has a knowing theatricality to it, but I can’t help but feel the poignant and profound ending it strives for is contradicted by the lack of sincerity in some of the storytelling that has come before it. (September 2014)
Legends of the Fall (1994)
Director: Edward Zwick
Actors: Brad Pitt, Julia Ormond, Aidan Quinn
Synopsis: Colonel Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) relocates to the wilds of Montana with his three young sons. As those boys grow older, the fortunes of the family ebb and flow, caused in no small part by the young British woman, Susannah (Julia Ormond), who comes between them…
Review: What a magnificent piece of old tosh Legends of the Fall is! Playing extremely close to genius pastiche of the melodrama genre, you really do have to be a hardened soul not to relax into and enjoy the sheer unadulterated sweep/nonsense (take your pick) of this epic American drama.
And ‘American’ really is the prism through which to understand the film – for it really seems to be going ‘all guns blazing’ to create a grandiose American classic, from the gorging on the epic Montana landscape, to the drama being perpetually accompanied by James Horner’s obtrusive musical score, to the whistlestop tour through American history (Indian territorial wars, settling out West, American isolation, the tragedy of the First World War, the Prohibition years, general Native American folklore). There’s even a portentous, biblical, Cain and Abel-esque slant to the interaction between the three brothers, as each of them has their ill-fated dalliance with the cultured British woman who is conveniently shoe-horned into a position as permanent fixture in the Ludlow household.
If nothing else, Legends of the Fall is carried off with an unapologetic gusto that’s hard to deny. It’s well acted by its starry ensemble, and was a reminder of a time when the young, smouldering Brad Pitt was blazing a trail through Hollywood, when having Anthony Hopkins in your cast was a sure-fire way of fasttracking your production to an extra level of gravitas, and Julia Ormond had a brief stint as bankable A-list romantic lead actress. Admittedly, the film is easy to send up. Brad Pitt’s epically-posited hero gets not one, nor two, but three heroic, horse-riding returns to the family fold, and the clumsy way of tacking his character’s trajectory onto a Native American ‘spiritual’ subplot (he extracts the heart from everything dead he comes across, and he has a fated connection with a bear he came across in his youth) can’t help but appear a little hackneyed and patronising. (September 2014)
“A cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator”. Tom Gunning on the ‘Cinema of Attraction’
Cinema to me is not only a medium of moving images and filmed ‘stories’, but moreover a visceral spectacle, an occasion, a pilgrimage, and uncanny marker for my own trajectory through this thing called life. Just as people often say pop music acts as sensory sonar into our personal and collective nostalgia, so cinema – especially the actual experiencing of films in an auditorium – has always performed a similar function for me. Casting my mind back over the years, here’s a half-dozen memorable screenings I recall – not necessarily for the quality of the films themselves, but for what they signified in my genesis as not only a cinephile but a citizen of life…
Madame Bovary (dir: Claude Chabrol) – South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell, March 1995
Being dragged to the local arts centre (merci Mme Martin!) to watch an austere French literary adaptation probably wasn’t this schoolboy’s best idea of a fun way to spend a Monday evening, but in retrospect – what genius from my teacher, taking me to see Madame Bovary by Claude Chabrol, and featuring the great Isabelle Huppert. I’m absolutely certain that the visit had a subliminal, formative impact on the future cinephile in me. Being screened in a gorgeous little bijou cinema in a grand arts centre, it created a certain ‘mystique’ over arthouse cinema, and an early exalted veneration for subtitles and French cinema (something I have since grown out of, unlike many bourgeois middle-Englanders). It also helped implant a certain mnemonic link between foreign cinema and my curiosity for all things travel and culture-related – something Giuliana Bruno was to explore in greater depth in her seminal ‘The Atlas of Emotion’.
Good Will Hunting (dir: Gus van Sant) – Miami International Mall, Miami, March 1998
Prior to this screening, films were just another pastime – not of any more resonance than watching a game of football or reading a great book. Incredibly gauche though it now is to admit (check out the adult corrective I’ve written to the film here: http://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/good-will-hunting/), Good Will Hunting was something of a cinematic ‘Lacanian’ moment for me. Staring back at me from the screen was a reflection (or possibly a ‘projection’?) of myself. I don’t mean figuratively in the character of Will Hunting, but more in the way that the sensibility of the main character and the evident aspirations behind Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s whole conception of this feelgood fable, chimed so much with my own late-teenage sense of identity and yearning (as well as happily gorging on the romantic myth that you can be handsome, macho, a genius, as well as a vulnerable, wronged bad boy all in one!)
The Thin Red Line (dir: Terrence Malick) – Showcase Winnersh, Reading, April 1999
If Good Will Hunting marked my sentimental attachment to cinema, then The Thin Red Line signalled my awareness of the transcendent emotional and artistic power of the medium. I particularly remember the screening of The Thin Red Line because it so easily might not have happened. By now I was following cinema much more zealously, and I’d been hearing about an amazing Second World War movie (the “thinking man’s Saving Private Ryan” apparently) from this cult American directorial genius, Terrence Malick. So when I saw there was a single showing of The Thin Red Line at one of the local multiplexes, I managed to lobby less cinematically-inclined pals into coming with me. I recall waiting irritatedly at the front door of my parents’ house for one of my blasé friends to come and pick me up. The film was due to start in ten minutes, the cinema was a good fifteen minutes away, and I hate missing even the first frame of a movie. In the end we arrived bang on time, and Terrence Malick’s colossal, achingly beautiful film had me hooked from the off – especially the mysterious pictoral and musical cut from a portentous looking crocodile to an idyllic shaft of sunlight cascading through a dense rainforest. I particularly recall being mesmerised by Jim Caviezel’s graceful lead turn, and still to this day consider it to be one of the greatest and most effective male performances seen on screen.
American Pie 2 (dir: Chris Weitz) – UCI Bracknell, Bracknell, October 2001
There’s a two-fold memory to going to see the otherwise forgettable American Pie 2 at a concrete New Town multiplex cinema on an unassuming Friday evening in dank October. The first is that the film print caught fire halfway through the screening (we momentarily thought it might be part of some leftfield meta-cinematic joke on behalf of the filmmakers before realising this was the ultra-calibrated American Pie 2), but also this visit marked a time when most of my hometown school buddies (myself included) were in the hinterland of our early 20s, still living at home, yet to branch out from uni graduation into more concrete personal and professional commitments, so we tended to visit the local multiplex most weekends as a means of alleviating the inertia. Also, although the American Pie movie series is hardly a direct template for how my group passed our juvenile years – its theme of stunted male maturity (masked by an underlying camaraderie/sentimentality) seemed to chime with where we were in our lives at that precious juncture in time.
Irréversible (dir: Gaspar Noé) – Curzon Soho, London, February 2003
I always remember stumbling out of a shift in some mediocre junior office job in the West End of London on a wet and rainy February evening in 2003, and wanting to catch a film (preferably a classy, thought-provoking one) to recalibrate my brain. Irréversible was playing at the Curzon Soho and I recall it had been the scandalous ‘talk of the town’ at all the recent film festivals – so I thought why not? Well, if I wanted awakening from my white-collar drudgery this was it – a pure, propulsive shock of electric, experiential cinema. I know the film has a questionable politique (and I don’t want to get into that here), but I must confess I thought it was absolutely fantastic – a complete antidote to the increasing numbness I felt over the predominant literary appropriation of the cinematic medium. In many ways, this screening acted as harbinger for my cinematic tastes moving forward – I gorge on poetic, immersive cinema (read the following piece where I’ve written more about it tangentially – http://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/08/09/the-lack-of-female-directors-the-deeper-injustice/) and I suppose I have in some small part the dark imagination of Gaspar Noé to thank for that.
Skyfall (dir: Sam Mendes) – CineSAS Sucre, Bolivia, November 2012
Backpacking solo through South America was an incredibly fulfilling – though sometimes, incredibly attritional – experience. The majority of South America makes little concession to those of an Anglophone/Anglocentric disposition (and all the better for it might I add), although by the time I was three hard months in, and had snaked my way right around from Argentina/Uruguay on the River Plate, through the heartland of Argentina, up through Chile, into the wild mountains and deserts of Bolivia – I was in need of some respite. Sucre, the gorgeous judicial capital of Bolivia, provided that, and I remember finding myself a cracking, upmarket hostel where I planned to lie low for a week and recharge my batteries before the next charge northwards into upper Bolivia and Peru. Strolling out of my hostel and into the centre of Sucre, I was immediate drawn to the cinema at the far end of the Plaza 25 de Mayo, and going over there I saw that Skyfall – the latest movie in the Bond series was currently playing there. Now those that know me well will remember that I used to obsess over the Bond movies as a youngster, and although I had grown more agnostic and ‘sniffy’ over the series during the Brosnan era, I’d always retained a soft spot for it, and fancied delving into it for a bit of youthful, Anglo nostalgia. It was to my surprise then that I was genuinely quite impressed and galvanised by the experience of watching Skyfall. This feeling was no doubt heightened by a slight sense of homesickness and the unusual juxtaposition between the glamour of the Bond brand and the DIY travails of my South American journeying. However, in a strange way this viewing crystallised so much of why I had gone travelling (as well as the obvious – seeing an amazing continent and learning Spanish, I also wanted a significant career break and the mental space and inspiration to really honour my writing and film aspirations). It’s difficult to explain, but to see that someone had turned my ‘guilty pleasure’ – the boy’s own Bond brand – into a cerebral endeavour got my creative juices whirring, and by the time I had left Sucre a week later, I had written two screenplays (one a recreational 007 treatment), rekindled my love of the Bond franchise, and was one stage clearer on my own future.
Center Stage (2000)
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Actors: Amanda Schull, Susan May Pratt, Zoë Saldana
Synopsis: Young hopefuls join the American Ballet Academy in New York, and spend a semester gearing up for the all important dance workshop which will dictate who graduates to become members of the company.
Review: This unintentionally hilarious variant on the time-old high school/college/’Fame’ staple features some of the most rote storytelling and characterisation going, and if it wasn’t for the admittedly visceral and watchable ballet/jazz dance sequences it would be an irredeemable movie turkey.
Within ten minutes of the film’s opening, you’ve pretty much garnered the assortment of characters and how their likely trajectory will play out: there’s the young starry ingenue with confidence issues, there’s the sassy, sarcastic best friend who needs to take her profession seriously, there’s the highly strung perfectionist with the pushy parent, the ‘bad boy’ lothario star dancer, the ‘boy next door’ hunk who will ultimately prove the object of affection for the ingenue, and the token gay, unthreatening sidekick. In itself, those stock characterisations are all well and good, if only some of the politicking wasn’t so crass and unintentionally offensive. Shoehorning in a bulimia subplot for the perfectionist doesn’t work and stereotypes the condition, and Zoë Saldana’s Afro-Latina ‘outsider’ is a complete cipher, not accorded the backstory or romantic arc of other characters, and her little ‘epiphany’ at the end would have been that much more moving if the film had probed at why she had that terse exterior in the first place (a defence mechanism due to her class/race in such an elite institution?)
The film does attempt to add some depth to its bland concoction by the end (the vain star dancer may not get the girl, but he is unquestionably championed as an expert choreographer who spices up the ballet world), but it never really obscures just how blandly mainstream Center Stage‘s aspirations are. (August 2014)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Actors: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Synopsis: A shower of debris from failed a Russian missile strike on one of its own satellites careers into the shuttle and workstation of Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). This leaves them floating aimlessly through Space, desperately trying to concoct a plan for survival.
Review: Gravity‘s trapped/action/contingency hook is straight out of the Classical Hollywood storytelling template and comes laced with the sort of sentimental character development common across many American movie genres. In particular, some of the dialogue and characterisation is gooey and bordering on the irredeemably unrealistic (particularly how chaotically ‘unprofessional’ Sandra Bullock’s Astronaut Stone appears to be, and how George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski resembles little more than a cipher of a relaxed, calm astronaut to counterbalance Stone).
Those quibbles aside, Gravity is unquestionably a unique, one-off viewing spectacle, and if nothing else, I was on the edge of my seat for the entire eighty-five minute running time. To say it’s an “impressive” feat of filmmaking is perhaps a slippery notion, as evidently a huge amount of money and work from an army of skilled technicians has gone into the making of this. To use an architectural analogy, what’s the better achievement, a state-of-the-art, modern monolith funded by the infinitesimal pockets of rich benefactors, or the ingenuity shown by one person in devising and building something from scratch (a filmic example would be Drake Doremus’ proficient Like Crazy made on a $2k camera)?
It’s hard to deny the spectatorial awe that Alfonso Cuarón has engendered by the story’s end as the film’s very title (and theme) of ‘Gravity’ reaches a moving and emotional conclusion – but in terms of Gravity‘s sci-fi IQ, it’s not really a patch on masterworks of the genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solyaris. (August 2014)