JFK

Director: Oliver Stone

1991

I’ve been known to be a little bit of a conspiracy theory believer – sometimes just to wind up my mum who still staunchly believes that man landed on the moon – but there are a couple that I really believe and fascinate me (Kurt Cobain never committed suicide but don’t get me started on that!) and one of those is the assassination of the 35th President of America, John F. Kennedy. I’ve also been on a bit of a JFK fix at the moment, reading the Stephen King book 11.22.63, in preparation for watching the recent television programme of the same name. “Never a stranger to controversy, Oliver Stone followed up his powerful post-Vietnam movie, Born on the Fourth of July (1989) with a film that angered and amazed people in equal measure – his questioning, overwhelming, urgent conspiracy movie JFK.” (791, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

jfk-1991-picture-mov_202d5c37_b“Although many people have debated whether more than one person pulled the trigger that day, Stone went one further and committed some of the many theories to celluloid, and in doing so delivers a fascinating film that raises more questions than it answers.” (791) To say JFK had an impact on the american public is a bit on an understatement. The film and the questions it raised partly resulted in the creation of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. Those papers should be due for release next year – but whether they will be is anyone’s guess. JFK is a mammoth film with a 3 hour run time – and a run time that actually feels as long as it is – but every single moment is compelling. And it asks some very uncomfortable questions. There’s something about the Kennedy assassination that has never sat well with me – it just does not seem plausible that one man could have caused as much damage as he did, and I guess the subsequent assassination of Bobby Kennedy only added weight to the conspiracy theory in my opinion – I mean really why did both Kennedy’s need to be removed? What was it about them that was so threatening?

“Using documentary footage – including the infamous home movie shot by Abraham Zapruder – as well as flashbacks, reconstructions, quick editing, and a skillful use of words and music, Stone weaves many ideas and theories together using the huge mountain of evidence and witness testimony without ever confusing or hoodwinking his audience. We don’t get a result by the time the end credits roll three breathtaking hours later, but we do know – as if there was any doubt in our minds previously – that it was impossible for Lee Harvey Oswald to have acted alone.” (791) I went into JFK already questioning the official version of the truth. And the film that Stone pulled together just reinforced all of the questions I had about that supposed truth. He pulls together an extremely compelling and convincing film that while never providing a conclusive answer gives you more than enough evidence to begin forming your own opinions of that historic event. The more I watched the more it reinforced the absurdity of the theory of a single shooter.

“He would not succeed in getting us to care so completely about this search for the truth without a strong central performance from Costner, who holds your attention throughout the film despite the numerous heavyweight actors who stroll in and out playing small roles – from Tommy Lee Jones as suspect Clay Shaw to Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman (as Oswald), Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and Sissy Spacek, all of whom are superb.” (791) The cast is immense – it’s a veritable who’s who of Hollywood and as Joanna Berry says the majority of them appear in small supporting roles. Costner is magnetic as Jim Garrison, a man who has become somewhat lost to history. Sure everyone knows Kennedy was assassinated but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that there was someone who looked into the official report of the version of events and publically questioned it, at great personal cost to himself. Now I’m not naive – I studied film and television studies – so I know that every director controls exactly what story they want the viewer to see through their choices in editing and therefore every single thing you watch has its own agenda behind it. Even if you think that the single bullet theory is the truth, JFK is a compelling watch and who knows you may even come out of it with a different view on such an iconic event that shocked the world to its core. I cannot recommend JFK strongly enough.

The Princess Bride

Director: Rob Reiner

1987

“Rob Reiner’s friendly fairy-tale adventure The Princess Bride delicately mines the irony inherent in its make-believe without ever undermining the effectiveness of the fantasy.” (739, Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

The Princess BrideNow The Princess Bride has an enormous cult following but it is one of those films (much like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986, John Hughes) that I ever really understood the appeal of. I have given it a number of tries across the years and it just does not appeal to me. You would think that a fantasy film from the 1980s would be right up my street but this one really isn’t. The humor is reminiscent of the Monty Python films, which as you may know I am equally ambivalent of. It’s not the sort of humor that makes me laugh, I think it is base and juvenile and it just does not seem funny to me in the slightest.

“The colorful characters and adventures are, at their best, like live-action equivalents of Disney animated features, with lots of other fond Hollywood memories thrown in.” (739) The characters may be live-action equivalents of Disney animated features but they do not translate very well. Animation gives the directors and writers the leeway to do things that would appear completely ridiculous in a live-action movie. The Princess Bride attempts to make these larger than live characters fit in the real world but falls short in my opinion. I’m not saying that it cannot be done because it can – but it is nominally done most successfully by Disney (the most recent success that jumps to mind is Enchanted, 2007, Kevin Lima) There has to be a subtlety to the performance that results in a successful film, which seems to be severely lacking in The Princess Bride.

“Not even the crude ethnic humor [-…-] pricks the dream bubble, and the spirited cast has a field day.” (739) They certainly do go for it – overacting seems to be the watch word. While I guess the mood Reiner was going for was very much a tongue-in-cheek one but it just doesn’t wash with me. There isn’t really anything that made any sort of positive impression on me. But please by no means let my opinion colour your perception of the film – watch it for yourself and come to your own conclusion. After all that’s what makes cinema, and the arts in general, so interesting – everybody has their own opinions and one person’s masterpiece can be another person’s disaster.

Aileen Wuornos: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Director: Nick Bloomfield & Joan Churchill

2003

“A project that began ten years earlier with Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer  (1993), Broomfield and Churchill’s follow-up is a powerful and profound statement against the death penalty, and raises disturbing questions of about executing the mentality incapacitated.”(899, Jason Wood, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Aileen WuornosAileen Wuornos is notorious for being one of America’s most infamous female serial killers, and has as such been subject of numerous film and television projects – most recently the inclusion of her character in American Horror Story: Hotel (2015, Brad Falchuck) Probably one of the most well-known portrayals of Wuornos is in Monster (2003, Patty Jenkins) which resulted in an Academy Award for Charlize Theron. I didn’t really know very much about Aileen Wuornos aside from the fact that she was a serial killer and I’d seen her ‘mug-shot’ but that was kind of all.

“Broomfield’s resulting film examines her wretched childhood, which was filled with unrelenting abuse and violence that continued into her years as a hitchhiking prostitute.” (899) Broomfield’s documentary opened up the story of Wuornos in a somewhat disturbing way. Now I don’t mean disturbing due to her crimes but more so because it shows a woman who is clearly in some sort of crisis, one that gets worse throughout the film. It does call into question the legal system of America and the death penalty, something that I have been increasingly interested in since watching Making a Murderer (2015, Moira Demos). Despite the fact that Wuornos’ mental health seems to be rapidly declining during the process of the filming there is something really quite compelling about the film. Her story fluctuates between protesting self-defence and cold-blooded murder with increasing inconsistencies so you are left with questions at the film’s conclusion. The film not only tackles the American justice system and the death penalty but also the subject of nature versus nurture. By examining her questionable childhood and all the travesties that were supposedly reaped upon her during her formative years Bloomfield is asking the audience to question whether Aileen would have ended up on death row if she had lived a different live – was she a product of her environment or was she always destined to become the woman she was at the end?

I did find the documentary became increasingly uncomfortable to watch as Wuornos becomes more and more unstable. By the final interview Bloomfield holds with her, Aileen is almost bug-eyed and accusing the prison guards of all sort of atrocities. It is difficult watching someone who is not quite in her right mind, especially when you know that not long after this she was executed. I was left asking questions about whether she should have been put to death when it is obvious that she is in crisis. Should she have been receiving treatment for a mental condition instead? It’s an interesting documentary even if it does leave an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth afterwards.

“A resolutely non-sensationalist work, Aileen Wuornos calls to account the travesties of the American justice system and provides a sympathetic insight into a deeply troubled soul.” (899)

Toy Story Trilogy

Director: John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich

1995, 1999, 2010

“A Hollywood film franchise that heralded a new era in animation, the Toy Story trilogy irrevocably changed the cinematic landscape when the series’ first instalment arrived in the mid-1990s.” (844, Jo Taylor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I do remember Toy Story coming out and being immediately taken with the idea that my toys had an entire life of their own when I wasn’t playing with them – it was magical in a way that only Disney Pixar could be. And I did indeed grow up with the trilogy – I’m not entirely sure how I feel about there being a fourth instalment imminent, as I really felt that the whole story arc was finished perfectly in Toy Story 3. 

Toy StoryWoody and Buzz are brilliant characters, well they all are really – I love Rex being a complete scaredy cat and that Mr Potato Head would not be out-of-place in the Bronx. Buzz is wonderfully naive in the first film, entirely convinced that he really is a space ranger which is counterbalanced by the cynicism of Woody. Tom Hanks is awesome as the self-confessed hero of the trilogy. Supposedly he provided so much improvised material during the recording of the first film that the animators are still using that material in the upcoming fourth instalment.

“And if the first two films detailed the wondrous adventures and occasional travails of infancy and youth, the third instalment tackled the bittersweet reality of growing up.” (844) Toy Story deftly set up the franchise and introduced the core group of characters and while I would have been happy to continue watching their adventures the addition of new characters in Toy Story 2 only added to the fun of watching these films. Joan Cusack as the rowdy cowgirl Jessie was a brilliant addition to the little family that Pixar had created. And Bullseye, a horse who acts like a loyal dog, is adorable. And then we get to Toy Story 3, with even more new characters, although unlike before these adorable cuddly additions are not always as good as they first appear. Mr Pricklepants is brilliant with his delusions of grandeur, ably voiced by Timothy Dalton.Toy Story 3

I think part of the joy of watching Toy Story is that there are toys in the films, even if only in the background action, that I remember playing with during my childhood, especially the chatty phone and the etch-a-sketch. The humor of Toy Story is very much two-fold which allows the franchise to grow and expand beyond being simply a children’s film. On the one hand there is the obvious humor that appeals to children and then there is the more subtle humor that will ensure the adults are equally as interested. It’s this second level of humor that allows me to continue returning to the films as I grow up and still find something new or funny each time. There are also numerous pop-culture references littering the trilogy with the most obvious one being the relationship between Buzz and Zod that echoes the iconic relationship of Luke and Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)

“Two scenes heighten Toy Story 3‘s gravitas and emotional heft: the near-oblivion encounter faced by the toys when they are almost pulled into a furnace, and Andy’s realisation that he must let go of his youth and pass on his toys to a more appreciative and understanding child. It is these moments, interspersed among the usual banter and knockabout scenes, which saw the film resonate strongly among an adult audience.” (844) I remember the hype surrounding the release of the third instalment of the wonderful Toy Story series and how I thought that the reactions couldn’t possibly be as strong as they were suggesting – grown men crying in the cinema over the fate of some fictional animated toys, surely not? And then I watched it and I was beyond choked up at the two scenes mentioned by Jo Taylor above. There was a very palpable sense of peril for the toys that we had come to know and love over the length of this series that really did cause some real emotion.

“The Toy Story series realized the emotional depth that could be invested in animation, recalling earlier Disney successes, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942), and highlighted how much had been lost among the less adventurous traditional animated features of recent decades.” (844) I’m not sure I totally agree with this as the Disney films of the early 90s, Beauty and the Beast (1991, Gary Trousdale), Aladdin (1992, Ron Clements), and The Lion King (1994, Roger Allers) were very much the films of my childhood and I will always count them as my favourite Disney films, although I can recognise just how much Toy Story shaped the studio as well as the face of animated films to come. If there are any people out there who have yet to see any of the Toy Story films (and if there are then what have they been doing with themselves?!) I cannot recommend this trilogy strongly enough – you’ll laugh, and you’ll cry and you will feel incredibly attached to some wonderful toys and you’ll feel happier for it. Toy Story reinvigorated Disney and launched its sister company, Pixar resulting in some brilliant films.

And see how easily Tom Hanks can still slip into the persona of Woody in the clip below. 

District 9

Director: Neill Blomkamp

2009

District 9District 9 is a smart political allegory that puts emotion, humour, and incredible visuals to fluid and accomplished use.” (913, Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You DieDistrict 9 was an interesting movie for me to watch, not just because the visual effects are really quite brilliant, but because it was a film that made me somewhat ashamed to be part of the human race. And now since finding out that “[t]his acclaimed science-fiction invasion thriller was inspired by events that took place in District Six, Cape Town, during apartheid.” (913) I feel even more disgusted with what people are capable of. It’s kind of a palpable feeling for me when I watched District 9 – humans do not come out well in this film. I have way more empathy for the ‘Prawns’, as the aliens are known.

“Documentary-style filmmaking gives the movie an air of authenticity that helps the audience connect on a human level with the plight of the alien population. As our hero Wikus is infected with a disease and slowly starts to turn alien himself, our empathy grows.” (913) I hope that Wikus, and his plight, resonates with some viewers. Wikus starts out as an officious government official in a relatively low level job who is given the unpleasant task of relocating, forcibly, the population of Prawns residing in District 9, and rather than see the inherent issues with this he is proud of his role and the responsibility that has been afforded him. And then it all goes wrong and Wikus begins to understand, first hand, how his close-mindedness has a direct impact on an entire race of sentient beings.

District 9 is a wonderfully subtle commentary of the fallible nature of us as humans and the seemingly ingrained distrust of anyone or thing that looks different to us. I definitely came away from watching District 9 with a renewed sense of how important it is to look past any surface differences and try and see things from every side before coming to any sort of conclusion. The only criticism I have of District 9 is that it is much too long for the story it is telling. However I would definitely suggest watching it.

Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle

2014

“The pouring sweat, dripping blood, and relentless emotional battering of Whiplash’s gladiatorial combat takes place in an esteemed New York music academy.” (941, Leigh Singer, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) There was such hype surrounding Whiplash that I eagerly went out and watched the film … and was actually pretty disappointed. There is no denying that the drumming is intense and at times pretty insane but other than that not much really actually happens. It turns out that I like a narrative that actually progresses and has something to say. This doesn’t do that and feels much more like a character study rather than a narrative. The film is wonderfully lit in warm colours which are actually at odds with J. K. Simmons’ performance as Fletcher – he is anything but a warm or nurturing character.

tn_gnp_et_1011_whiplash“Though Fletcher convinces Andrew of his warped Darwinism, Chapelle isn’t so easily swayed, laying bare both men’s macho arrogance and power games. He’s rewarded with two standout performances. Simmons’ sadistic Fletcher is a career peak for this consistently fine character actor. He’s matched beat for beat by Teller, regularly performing his own drumming.” (941) J. K. Simmons is one of those actors that you know you’ve seen in loads of films but can’t always place him when asked what he’s been in. There’s not really anything liable about him in this film. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that at times his approach towards his students could amount to abuse – a thread picked up in the narrative (such that it is) of the film. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant person and in my opinion the worst sort of teacher there is, but that doesn’t stop his performance from being magnetic.

Miles Teller is quickly rising in my estimation of him. From playing the rather vile Peter in the Divergent series to Mr Fantastic himself, Reed Richards, in the unneeded reboot of the Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015) Teller is fast becoming one of those actors that will capture and hold my attention in anything he is in. There is a scene in this which must have taken some guts to film having read about how he got the noticeable scars on his face so kudos to him for giving it his all. And the fact that he did the vast majority of the drumming himself just makes his performance all the more visceral to watch.

“With a cinematic crescendo, Whiplash exploits jazz drumming the way Raging Bull (1980) did boxing: as an arena to viscerally explore and explode male vanity, insecurity, and obsession.” (941) It may be because I’m a girl, though as a girl I’m loathe to say that, but I just didn’t get this film. Yeah the drumming is incredible but really why go through all that pain, both physical and emotional, for someone who doesn’t respect you. In the end, for me, it just didn’t live up to the hype, sadly.

Roman Holiday

Director: William Wyler

1953

As I may have mentioned before I tend to have something against things that are considered classics. It doesn’t matter what medium it is, books (Jane Austen – turgid romance), music (The Beatles and Elvis – both vastly overrated), film (Citizen Kane – don’t even get me started on this rant, it’s in the book so it is on the cards), or even iconic people (John Lennon – nobody can be that pure and good its just nauseating), you can pretty much guarantee that I will either take an extreme dislike to it or out and out despise it. This seems to be the case with Audrey Hepburn I’m afraid. I’m not disputing that she was a beautiful woman because she really was stunning (throughout her life, not just her time in front of the camera as Hollywood royalty) but for me she just doesn’t really inspire me in the same way that she seems to for others when it comes to her films. Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) was a perfectly pleasant film but was not life changing like so many people imply it has been for them. The same can be said for Roman Holiday.

As Joshua Klein says, “Roman Holiday itself actually presents the flip side to the Cinderella fable.” (282, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Hepburn’s Princess Ann escapes her ever constant minders and goes off to explore the city where she meets and, consequently, falls in love with Gregory Peck’s American journalist – all to no avail due to their relative positions in life making the relationship completely untenable. It’s a simple little movie with some glorious scenery thanks to Wyler shooting on location in Rome and it was a great way to spend a miserable winter’s afternoon but it’s not an essential part of my movie collection by any means.Roman_Holiday_1

“Peck and Hepburn are excellent as the two mismatched lovers, and Eddie Albert is perfect as Peck’s eager tagalong cameraman.” (282) I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with Klein’s opinion here, although Eddie Albert is memorable as the cameraman and provided a number of laughs. I just think rather a lot of credence has been given to both Peck and Hepburn as the film becomes older. There’s almost a sense of rose-tinted glasses when it comes to Audrey Hepburn, especially. By all means however watch Roman Holiday – it was a lovely film and the footage of Rome is fantastic and certainly made me want to visit. I can’t say that I’m any more enamoured of Hepburn than I was before and my favourite of her roles will continue to be as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964)

“She’d be cast as the ingenue many more times over in her career, but it was this film that officially and auspiciously marked her arrival.” (282)