Saturday 13 April 2013

A to Z - The King's Speech

At first glance, The King's Speech might not look like my 'kind of film'. Having said that, I will give most genres a try at least once (within reason, I still loathe musicals) and the presence of Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter, Guy Pearce and Geoffrey Rush swayed me into going to see this. Sufficeth to say, I absolutely loved it. It's the kind of heartwarming tale that you can't help but like, and that's in part due to the stellar performances by the extremely talented cast.

Colin "Mr Darcy" Firth plays George VI, or 'Bertie', the stammering Duke of York whose attempts at overcoming his problem just aren't working. Helena Bonham-Carter plays his wife, who went on to become the Queen Mother, who eventually enlists the help of Lionel Logue (Rush), an Australian chap whose methods have come highly recommended. His unorthodox approach breaks down the class boundary between him and Bertie, and you get a sense of a real camaraderie between the two. The entire film drives towards the big showdown, in which Bertie's final confrontation is essentially with himself as he faces giving his first wartime speech to the nation.

I had a lisp as a youngster, so I always find it easy to sympathise with characters who suffer from speech impediments (with the exception of Kripke in The Big Bang Theory - but I think he's supposed to be insufferable). But would I have sympathise with just anyone with a problem? I don't think so. Firth plays Bertie as being very human, subject to workplace anxieties and stress. Sure, not all of us have to deal with the problems associated with being a member of the Royal Family, but Bertie is in a position in which all the wealth and privilege in the world just won't help. In fact, I found I almost sympathised with him more for being a prince rather than having a speech impediment. We might look at the Royal Family and consider them everything from "idle scroungers" to whatever other epithet seems to be most offensive at the time, but imagine being born into an existence in which your life is not really your own, and you're not free to pursue the same dreams as everyone else. I'd hate it.

I've been a fan of Firth's since 1995, and that adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, and I always enjoy watching Bonham-Carter. It's particularly nice to watch her in a non-Burton role, where she actually gets to act instead of stomping around with big hair, screeching and emoting all over the place, and her likeness to the Queen Mother is unnerving. But really, the real star of the film is Rush, whose homely chatter and refusal to be cowed by Bertie's status is possibly what gets through to Bertie in the first place. Logue doesn't treat Bertie like a prince, so Bertie doesn't have to feel the weight of responsibility within Logue's office. He can just be Bertie. I was pleased to see at the end of the film that even when he became King, he remained friends with Logue. Just like he stole Pirates of the Caribbean from under the nose of Johnny Depp, so Geoffrey Rush steals The King's Speech.

Sure, it doesn't have monsters or fairytale creatures, but The King's Speech is a lovely little film, telling the story of one man's desire to overcome a simple, and very human, problem. I'll leave you with a clip of that magnificent speech.

Friday 12 April 2013

#FridayFlash - Ghost Town

Up until Google came along, Pocklebridge didn't appear on any maps. We took down the signs during the war to confuse the Germans and we never put them back up, so our station remained anonymous, tucked away on a side spur that trains rarely use. We don't have many amenities so road signs only appear within about a mile or so of the village green, when you're too close to turn back. The village hid from the world, and we were happy with that.

But even we couldn't hide from a satellite, and eventually, Pocklebridge appeared on maps. Sat navs could find it through its post codes. People still had no reason to come here, so for a time, it didn't really matter. We kept on with our little quiet ways, and everything seemed fine. But word of mouth is a powerful thing, and it spreads faster than most viruses. After all, how many places do you know of that don't just have a haunted house, they have a whole street of them?

It started off with Eiderdown Cottage, the first house on the left in Willow Street. Its elderly owner died, a lovely old thing named Edith Crabtree, and she left her tiny place to a niece from London. The niece arrived, and soon started complaining of noises in the night, strange lights at the windows, and all manner of disturbances. I can't say any of us were surprised. Then No.3 Willow Street was next, left empty by the death of its owner, gap-toothed old Freda Smacksmith, and again the house was inherited away to a cousin from Birmingham. More disturbances were reported, including ghostly whispering over the back fence at midday. No.12, all the way down at the end of the lane, right where the street turns into scrap ground, was next. So it went on for months - the old folk died, leaving their houses to long lost relatives, who soon complained that things were going bump in the night. Eleven months after Mrs Crabtree died in Eiderdown Cottage, every resident in Willow Street was talking about ghosts - even the hard-nosed physicist who scoffed that they even exist. He soon changed his mind, I can tell you.

Of course, the internet found out, as the infernal thing always does. People began to visit Pocklebridge to see the haunted houses, bringing cameras and picnics. Tourists would loiter in the gardens, listening to the whispered conversations over the fence. The family in no.6 discovered that their resident ghost liked to rearrange the linen cupboard according to threadcount and people started paying a fee to come and see it. We even had TV crews come in, letting their hysterical hosts loose in the houses with thermometers and infra red. The ghosts stopped being pests, and became more like pets, pottering about the house playing with the furniture. The families that moved in started to see just why you wouldn't want to leave Pocklebridge.

That's the thing, you see. People don't move to Pocklebridge, and they don't move out. No one ever leaves. And let me tell you, we've got twenty more houses in the area with ageing occupants. That's twenty more houses to be left in wills, and inherited by outsiders. Twenty more houses just waiting for newcomers. Twenty more houses with phantom footsteps, flickering lights and knocking in the walls.

This's becoming like a ghost town.

Thursday 11 April 2013

A to Z - Jurassic Park

I was really tempted for J to put down Jumanji, but the more I thought about it, the more I just had to put down Jurassic Park. After all, who doesn't love dinosaurs? I've loved them since I was little, and went through the phase of wanting to be a palaeontologist. Now I'm going through a phase of wishing I'd done forensic anthropology but more on that another time.

I remember going to see Jurassic Park at the cinema, and I've since read the source novel by Michael Crichton, and I think it's one of those rare occasions (along with Fight Club, previously discussed) where the film is actually more successful at telling the story than the book. The basic plot is simple - rich guy John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has managed to clone dinosaurs from DNA found inside those mosquitoes preserved in amber, and wants to open a theme park to display them. In order to test everything before it opens, he invites along various people to give it a try, including Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and his two grandchildren. Things go wrong, the dinosaurs get out, and with the group split up around the island, they have to get off before they become dinner.

Given I like Sam Neill AND Jeff Goldblum, it would be hard for me to dislike Jurassic Park. It's hard to believe it's twenty years old, but I think part of its success lies in the use of animatronics alongside CGI to render the dinosaurs. It's difficult for decent animatronics to age badly since they actually exist as part of the film's misè-en-scene, unlike CGI which can look like it was added at a later date by a toddler with access to Photoshop. Most people found the shot in which the jeeps see the herd of brachiosaurs for the first time to be the real Money Shot, but I always did like the first sight of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. They might have tiny baby arms but they still look cool.

I did, and still do, have problems with Jurassic Park. The size of a Triceratops is wrong, for one thing, along with the fact that a Velociraptor was only around a couple of feet tall, meaning the dinosaurs the film calls raptors are closer to the Deinonychus. Even as a youngster, I couldn't work out how they could possibly determine all of the types of DNA within the bodies of the mosquitoes in order to ensure they weren't creating a triceratops/T-rex hybrid, and I wasn't entirely sure that adding the DNA of an amphibian to the DNA of a reptile would make a lot of sense. Of course, the dinosaurs have been genetically bred to be female and they need the gender-switching DNA of a frog in order to be able to breed, but couldn't they have found a reptile that did that? Still, these are nitpicky details in what is otherwise an enjoyable adventure film if you switch your brain off.

I leave you with the scene in which Alan and the kids get a bit more up close and personal with the Gallimimus than they might like...

Wednesday 10 April 2013

A to Z - It's A Wonderful Life

I think most people might have expected me to choose something like Inception or I, Robot for this letter, but I couldn't really not choose It's A Wonderful Life. It's a film that I actually hated for a long time, but after watching it again during my first film degree, I actually found a depth in it that I'd previously missed. It's also a film whose central tenet I utterly refute, and I ignore its sentimental ending in favour of sympathy for our hapless hero, George Bailey.

George (James Stewart) is one of cinema's Nice Guys. He grows up in Bedford Falls, a perfect little town that only seems to exist on celluloid, but he's a young man with an itch, a desire to explore, to see the world. Sadly, this particular itch is to go unscratched. While his brother gets to go to war, George stays behind to run the family business, the Building & Loan that helps the people of the town with their housing needs. He marries his high school sweetheart, a lovely lady named Mary (Donna Reed), and has four kids. But it's not enough. He feels hemmed in, and when his useless uncle puts his business in jeopardy, George snaps. He wishes he'd never been born.

Wishing in films is a risky business, and his guardian angel, an odd little man named Clarence (Henry Travers), pops up to show him what life would have been like if he hadn't been born. George gets that rare glimpse into the effect one person can have in a community, and it turns out that pretty little Bedford Falls would have become a seedy dump named Pottersville, rife with prostitution and poverty, without him. Without George, his brother would have died in a childhood accident, Mary becomes a spinster librarian (who inexplicably needs glasses in the alternate world - apparently his presence also cures her short sightedness), and the world is out of kilter. With this new appreciation for life, he gets to return to his normal existence, cheered by the spirit of charity, and full of love.

I know I probably shouldn't, but I do love the film. I think humans are obsessed with the idea of "What if?", and it's easy to idly wonder how different the timeline would be without us in it. I suppose the film also wants us to realise that it's the little things we do that matter, and any intercession on our behalf can have a ripple effect further down the line. In a way, I guess it's saying "Be a good person and do good things" since a ripple effect from positive actions is more likely to spread positivity (after all, look at the ripple effect caused by the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents) and I'm always fascinated by 'alternate universe' stories. The idea of guardian angels is even more fascinating, particularly when we assume they're always going to be these elegant beings, and Clarence turns out to be a socially awkward little man with a fondness for mulled wine.

But George still never gets to leave Bedford Falls. That's the crux of my problem with the film. Sure, he gets to realise just how important he is to the world which gives him a new appreciation for what he has as opposed to what he doesn't have (which ends up being a little egocentric for my liking, but never mind), but he still never gets to leave - the poor guy doesn't even get to have a holiday, unless that happens after the credits stop rolling. Just as Shark Tale did its damnedest to convince its viewers never to strive to rise about their station in life, so It's A Wonderful Life takes up the refrain of The Wizard of Oz - there's no place like home...

Anyway, I give you George, proving just why he's the guy to run the Building & Loan...

Tuesday 9 April 2013

A to Z - The Haunting

My movie-themed A-Z continues apace with Robert Wise's 1963 ghostly classic, The Haunting. Based on the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House, the film tells the story of a group of paranormal investigators who find more than they bargained for when they go hunting for ghosts. Dr Markway (Richard Johnson) wants to investigate the notorious Hill House, a house described as having been "born bad", and to do so, he enlists the help of a group of people who his research indicates have been involved with the paranormal in some way. In the end, only two end up arriving, Theo (Claire Bloom) and Nell (Julie Harris), and accompanied by the guy who'll eventually inherit the house, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), they start their investigation.

Trouble is, Nell has issues with her "nerves" and soon Hill House is bringing out the worst in her - or is she bringing out the worst in Hill House? In Dale Bailey's book-length study, American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, he posits the idea that Shirley Jackson was the first author to remove the ghosts from the haunted house, and to make the house itself an evil entity - Hill House, in his words, was the first house to be "born bad". This is something the film plays with, and as Nell regresses into her bad memories surrounding the death of her mother and her subsequent guilt about the part she played in it, so the disturbances in the house increase.

I firmly believe The Haunting is a masterclass in representing a haunting, since the film relies on shadow, suggestion and sound to make its point. Whereas the utter balls-up of a remake in 1999 relied on poorly rendered CGI and an idiotic plot to tells its story, thereby removing all semblance of fear or suspense, the original builds up the suspense through a careful use of structure, and implication to make you imagine what could possibly be going on. It's not surprising - director Robert Wise cut his teeth working with producer Val Lewton at RKO in the 1940s, working on a series of films notorious for their use of shadow and suggestion over prosthetics and gore. Val Lewton even described their process, saying that if you made a screen dark enough, people will read things into that darkness, and Robert Wise does the same - and more.

You have to remember that horror in the 1960s was different from the derivative torture-porn crap that it is today. Psycho had just revolutionised the genre by proving that not even your top billed star was safe from the chop, and both Hammer and Roger Corman were revelling in the possibilities afforded by Technicolor for lush period pieces starring Christopher Lee or Vincent Price. The Haunting isn't an anomaly by any stretch, but it does make an effort to engage with character on a deeper level than most. It also starts to fully explore the possibilities of setting, turning Hill House itself into the fifth character in the film.

I don't want to say too much because I really want you to go and watch this, if you haven't already, but two of the scariest scenes in the film rely on sound. You see nothing - but by gumdrops, you hear plenty. What do you hear? No one actually knows - it's as much up to you to interpret the sound as it is the characters within the film. Whatever I might imagine will be totally different to whatever you imagine - and that's the key. Monsters just are not scary - look at the monsters from the 1930s, they've become pop culture icons. But something you can't see, and can only imagine? Brrrr....

I'll leave you with this clip, from near the end of the film. Dr Markway, Luke, Nell and Theo have taken refuge downstairs, only something wants to join them...

Monday 8 April 2013

A - Z - Ghostbusters

Hands up if you thought I could possibly feature any film BUT Ghostbusters for G? Sure, there are lots of other great movies beginning with G, but none of them are Ghostbusters. I remember how you could always expect to hear the theme tune at school discos (even though the film had been out about eight years by the time I ever went to one), and the cartoon series would be on after school. Ah, those were the days.

For those of you who have never seen Ghostbusters, and I sincerely hope there are none in this category, the film revolves around three parapsychology professors (plus Winston Zedmore (Ernie Hudson), a dude who just wants the paycheck) who form a company to rid New York of its resident spectres. For a fee, of course. The brainchild of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), the Ghostbusters enterprise takes up residence in an old fire station, and what looks suspiciously like a hearse is pressed into service as Ecto 1, their means of transport. Sigourney Weaver's Dana brings in a new case, in which she thinks she's seen an old Babylonian god in her fridge, and the boys set to work trying to figure it out. Turns out her apartment building was built by an occult-obsessed architect, and it was designed as a portal to another realm. You don't see that type of dwelling on these property makeover shows, do you? Anyway, the Ghostbusters have to try and avert an apocalypse, part of which involves destroying a giant marshmallow man. As you do.

Ghostbusters came out in 1984, and it's true that the visual effects look their age. Thing is, it doesn't matter. I don't need my ghosts to look real - I just want them to look cool, even if they are dated. Whether the Ghostbusters are chasing Slimer around an upscale New York hotel (named the Sedgewick, pity the name's got an extra letter), or using their proton packs, the ropey CGI just adds to the film's charm. And what charm it has! It's highly quotable (indeed, Ray Stanz's line, "Listen, can you smell something?" became a regular fixture when I used to do paranormal investigations), it's funny, and it's got Rick Moranis in it. Triple win.

I've tried really hard to provide intelligent commentary or some sort of discussion about the films I've chosen thus far, but Ghostbusters is the kind of film that just provokes childish fangirl glee in me. So sorry about that.

Sunday 7 April 2013

A to Z - Fight Club

I was a little bit stuck between films for 'F', as I usually am, but I decided on Fight Club since it's one of those films I can watch again and again, never tiring of it (which is one of my personal criteria regarding whether or not a film can be considered a 'favourite').

In a nutshell, the film stars Edward Norton, who plays the unnamed protagonist but who is often referred to be commentators as 'Jack', and Brad Pitt, who plays delightfully anarchic Tyler Durden, as well as Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, a support group junkie who becomes involved with, well, both of them. Jack and Durden strike up a friendship after Jack's apartment is trashed in a freak explosion, and soon they've begun an underground boxing group, the Fight Club. Things escalate, and soon Durden is running an anarchy organisation, Project Mayhem, hell bent on bringing down the establishments that fence in society.

Fight Club is notable as being the first film in which I ever saw Brad Pitt, and while I'd often dismissed him as nothing but a 'pretty boy', it became fairly obvious within about forty minutes of this film that the guy knows what he's doing. Durden is seductive in his chaotic ways, and Jack doesn't even seem to realise that he's swapped one routine for another; the former might be the way of capitalism and materialism, while the latter proposes itself as liberation, but they're both essentially routines. I once read a review which posited Jack as a 'misery vampire', due to his predilection for attending support groups for conditions he doesn't have, but in some ways, it is Durden who is the vampire, preying on the weak (Jack, Marla, the whole host of men that he turns into footsoldiers).

The film was originally touted as featuring 'subliminal' messages, due to the flashes of words and images during incongruous shots, but I refute that suggestion, since anything that appears on screen for long enough to be processed by the brain cannot be considered subliminal, and anything that appears for less than that doesn't get processed at all. No, Fight Club is extremely upfront about what it's trying to do. I actually don't see it as being a progressive statement in favour of individual freedom and an overthrow of the establishment - if that were the case, then Durden wouldn't need to turn the attendees of Fight Club, and later the drones of Project Mayhem, into automatons. They'd all follow him for the strength of the message alone. Instead, I can't help wondering if the film is trying to say that people need a leader.

I've since read Chuck Palahniuk's original novel, Fight Club, and I think the film is one of those rare instances where the film is more successful than the book. The characters feel more rounded in the film, more than just mouthpieces for what Palahniuk wants to say, and as a result the whole thing feels more plausible, which is extremely unsettling in a way.

The film became famous for its "rules", and really, I've broken the first two by talking about it, but I think it's equally quotable elsewhere. I've actually lost count of the number of times I've seen those "sunshine and pixie dust" life quotes on Facebook, and thought "You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else". But then that might just be me and my cynicism. It's also full of "Is that true?" moments, like the discussion about making soap - and how by adding a few household ingredients, you can make said soap a bit more...dramatic.

Anyway, I'll leave you with this clip, in which Durden really cranks up the crazy...