Rear Window

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

1954

“A fascinating study of obsession and voyeurism – Rear Window combines a perfect cast, a perfect screenplay, and particularly a perfect set for a movie – that’s even better than the sum of its parts.” (288-289, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) James Stewart and Grace Kelly are stunning in this film as the wheelchair bound L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies and his long-suffering and under appreciated girlfriend, Lisa. And it was so important that the cast be brilliant in order to carry the film and hold the attention of the viewers given that the entire narrative takes place within a very narrow landscape. Likewise Thelma Ritter’s put-upon housekeeper, Stella, is the perfect foil to Stewart’s obsessive photographer.

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“Rear Window, the film, is constructed every bit as thoroughly as its elaborate set. Watching it is like watching a living, breathing ecosystem with the added thrill of a murder mystery thrown in for good measure.” (288-289) The set for Rear Window is definitely ambitious but makes perfect sense for practical reasons. By building an entire block Hitchcock ensured that he had complete control over every aspect of the action taking place. However, as brilliant as the set is, it does feel like it is completely enclosed within the four walls of a sound stage which creates a sense of claustrophobia. Then again, knowing Hitchcock this was probably by design and added to Jeff’s feeling of being trapped and ultimately helpless. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be stuck in the same room for weeks on end – I go a little bit mad over the holiday period when I’m not needed at work and have to escape my house on a regular basis – but watching Jeff become more and more fixated on the exploits of those around him gives a tiny bit of insight.

“Hitchcock relishes the film’s particularly postmodern scenario: we, the viewers, are entranced by the actions of these characters, who are in turn entranced by the actions of still other characters. It’s a vicious circle of obsession laced with black humor and a dash of sexiness.” (288-289) While eventually the murder mystery, admittedly the main drive of the narrative, is solved there are so many other mini stories that take place alongside the big event … and although we, as viewers, get invested in these as well there isn’t the same sense of resolution to them. As usual with a Hitchcock movie you are left with an ever so slight feeling of dissatisfaction. There’s always that question of “what happened to …” in the back of your mind.

It seems to be a bit of a theme with me today that the films I am posting about have been remade at a later date – or rather reimagined and modernised and Rear Window is no exception. In 2007 it became the basis for the Shia LaBeouf movie Disturbia (D.J. Caruso) – brought up to date and with a younger cast. DisturbiaAgain though there is that sense of claustrophobia due to having an extremely limited landscape (this time a house and his neighbours) and the increasing obsession with the actions of those around him. Rear Window is much more of a slower burn and much more psychological which you would expect from a director like Hitchcock whereas Disturbia has considerably more action in it (partly due to the decision to have Shia’s character hindered by an ankle monitor rather than an injury) but both have their selling points.

I think I actually prefer Rear Window to Psycho – there is less of a macabre feeling to it which makes for easier viewing for me. Plus Jimmy Stewart really is a magnetic actor to watch.

 

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Batman

Director: Tim Burton

1989

Batman“In this blockbuster movie version of Bob Kane’s classic comic, director Tim Burton reimagines eponymous superhero Batman (last seen on screen in the campy 1960s TV incarnation) as a dark and conflicted character.” (767, Joanna Berry 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Not only am I a massive Tim Burton fan but I’m also a comic and superhero fan and my introduction to the cinematic visions of the classic superheroes (I was already a massive fan of the X-Men cartoons on TV) was through this movie so it will always hold a special place in my heart. While it was a much darker re-imaginging of the ‘Caped Crusader’, especially when held up against the camp Adam West incarnation, I’m not sure that it really holds up all that well when you take into consideration the multitude of Batman movies that have now graced the silver screen – each one seemingly getter darker and more brutal than the one before. When I watched this recently I realised that there is a much more heightened fantastical element to this version of the DC hero than in say Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or even the more recent reboot featuring Ben Affleck in the titular role. There is a camp, almost cartoony, feel to this Batman that was not there in the same way when it first came out and for me that takes something away from it as a film.

Every aspect of this film screams Tim Burton, from the highly stylised sets and costumes to the insane parade through Gotham with enormous inflatable balloons. batmanfloat3.2817And it is very much situated in the era of its creation – namely the 1980s. Big hair, big shoulders, big songs … just everything in excess. For me Michael Keaton, as Batman, was something of a revelation as I had only really seen him in Bettlejuice (1988, Tim Burton) where he is almost unrecognisable as the manic title character. It was great to see him take on a more serious, conflicted and emotional role. Joanna Berry has got it completely right when she says, “[W]hile Burton gives his Caped Crusader depth, darkness, and even romance (in the form of Vicki), the show is almost stolen from his hero by the villain of the piece, the Joker, played with gusto by Jack Nicholson. Resplendent in purple suit and clown-like makeup, dancing to the Prince songs that pepper the soundtrack, he was surely the most enjoyably unlikable bad guy to hit the screen in a long time.” (767) Jack Nicholson was outstanding as Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. tim-burton-batmanHe’s maniacal while at the same time being anarchical. And he just roars onto the screen in his extraordinarily bright costume – an instant icon! There is a charm to him as well though – you can’t help but be drawn in to his personality. And yet for me the ultimate Joker, as I said before in my post on The Dark Knight (2006, Christopher Nolan) will always be Heath Ledger. While Jack is clearly insane there seems to be more of a sense of innocence or jokiness about his antics – yes he’s out to cause chaos but he does it in a humorous way that doesn’t involve much maliciousness or even bodily harm. The same cannot be said of Ledger’s Joker – he’s all about the hurt and really does want to see the world burn. There is a more visceral and realistic feel to Ledger’s Joker than Nicholson’s. However it cannot be denied that Nicholson did indeed pave the way for all following cinematic incarnations of arguably the most recognisable bad guy in the DC universe.

I would say that Burton’s Batman has now become one of the best films to introduce kids to the world of Batman and Gotham as it is, retrospectively, light-hearted enough not to cause any issues. It’s definitely still a great film to watch – you just have to approach it with an expectation that it now reads as rather tongue-in-cheek.

Dangerous Liaisons

Director: Stephen Frears

1988

“Frears leads us into the boudoirs and drawing rooms of the wealthy aristocracy, each one dripping with elegance and wickedness in equal measure.” (763, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I actually came to Dangerous Liaisons fairly late in the game – and more importantly after having seen the modernised remake that is Cruel Intentions (1999, Roger Kumble) What remained with me is how close the two films actually are. However if I was to choose one to watch it would always be Cruel Intentions. dangerous_liaisons_nbt_270Now that’s not to say that Dangerous Liaisons isn’t any good. Far from it. Dangerous Liaisons is sumptuous and rich, full on intrigue and questionable morals, coupled with absolutely gorgeous period costumes. Throw in a stellar cast and you have the perfect recipe for an enjoyable film.

“Glenn Close steals the show as the vicious and vindictive Marquise de Merteuil, whose main enjoyment in her bored, rich life is to conspire with the equally cynical Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich).” (763) gefaehrliche-liebschaften-dangerous-liaisons-glenn-close-john-malkovich-D1K58NThe companionship of Glenn Close and John Malkovich is only heightened and strengthened by their competitive nature. They’re continually trying to one up each other, which with their complete lack of compassion for other people just makes for an interesting narrative. Michelle Pfeiffer is the perfect mixture of naivety and backbone to avoid becoming nauseatingly simpering – something that could have too easily happened with her character. There is something about the combination of the aristocracy and their callous nature that is fascinating to watch – you don’t like these characters but you can’t help but watch their machinations with a sense of both disgust and admiration for their gall to behave in that way.

I know I mentioned it earlier and technically it isn’t in the book but I couldn’t leave a review of Dangerous Liaisons without doing a quick comparison to Cruel Intentions. I don’t know if it is because I watched Cruel Intentions first or if it is the more modern setting of the story but I can connect more with Cruel Intentions than Dangerous Liaisons. The setting is modern-day New York city although admittedly still situated within the upper classes. Gone are the lavish period costumes and the ballroom settings to be replaced with the effortless elegance than seems to be synonymous with wealth. 74OOkCoNbMb5bDg1AVXQxmGUTexThe characters are much younger allowing the narrative to be moved into the tumultuous setting of a high school. Despite some significant changes the thing that struck me is that so much of dialogue remains the same. And yet it is these significant changes that make the remake much more approachable for me as a viewer. The lavish nature of Dangerous Liaisons actually makes it much more fantastical, and therefore far more removed from my experiences. I also found the characters more forgiving and more relatable than their original counterparts. And let’s face it Ryan Philippe, Resse Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar are excellent in their roles, particularly Sarah which is such a departure from her role as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (arguably her most famous role, certainly at the time of this film!)

“A handsome look at lust, betrayal, and guilt, Dangerous Liaisons is both lavishly mounted and beautifully portrayed.” (763) As much as I enjoy Cruel Intentions I would still recommend Dangerous Liaisons as it is a stunning visual experience and the play between Glenn Close and John Malkovich is wonderful to watch. And then go watch Cruel Intentions and see how they compare.

Taxi Driver

Director: Martin Scorsese

1976

“Portraits of urban malaise and anomie don’t come any darker, bleaker, or more claustrophobic than Taxi Driver.” (606, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Like so many of the films included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (certainly the latter part of the book) Taxi Driver is one of those icon films that sort of pervades popular culture – Bickle continues to be referenced in multiple movies such as Bad Neighbours (2014, Nicholas Stoller) when Zac Efron’s character goes to a fancy dress party as him.Screen-Shot-2015-01-13-at-11.46.02-AM But I must confess it’s not a film that I would say particularly caught my attention.

“The film has some nourish elements – Bickle’s voice-over, Bernard Herrman’s haunting, jazzy score – but veers sharply when it comes to the actual storytelling.” (606) I found it a bit of a nothing film to be honest. There storytelling is meandering and doesn’t actually resolve anything come the culmination of the film, to the point that I wouldn’t be able to tell you what happens in it aside from Jodie Foster being a very, very young (and still controversial) prostitute. jodie_foster_31Despite the controversy of that role, Foster is indeed mesmerizing but nothing can take away from the dirty feeling that watching her scenes causes due to the age of both her character and her in real life at the time of filming.

“For the film’s duration we’re stuck viewing the city from Bickle’s relentlessly isolated perspective, with few peripheral glimmers of hope taking us out of his deranged head.” (606) I think it is this aspect of the film that most confounded me – it’s very insular and contained. So much of the wonderful city that the story is set in becomes lost because Travis doesn’t see it. It becomes a bit overwhelming being constantly subjected to Bickle’s very limited viewpoint. I know I found it difficult to connect with this film on any level and I wonder whether that is because I have a completely different outlook on life and personality to Travis Bickle. I’m just not a depressive person in the slightest and have a tendency to get fed up of people who constantly see the worst of things, which Bickle definitely does. Klein has got it spot on when he describes the film as claustrophobic – it did leave me feeling somewhat uncomfortable and with an urge to go and stretch my legs.

The bit that left me the most confused was Bickle’s failed attempt, or rather lack of attempt, to assassinate a popular presidential candidate. I was a little bit like ‘What just happened and what was the actual point of that part of the story,’ which is overall what I felt about the film as a whole. Despite my rather lacklustre feelings towards the narrative there is no denying that De Niro puts forward a stunning and powerful performance, as does Foster. Unfortunately they were the only two people who made any sort of impression on me and just weren’t enough to make this film a must see. I’m glad I can say that I have seen it because it’s always a good feeling for me to have seen something that is so pervasive in popular culture but it isn’t a film that I’m likely to watch again.taxi-driver-feat-e1460128509960

 

Cabaret

Director: Bob Fosse

1972

Cabaret is not one of my favourite musicals (either on stage or screen) so I didn’t really know the story very well. And the one song I did know, that I spent all movie waiting for, never appeared because it is only in the stage show which was a bit disappointing.

It’s an odd movie for me. There is a frenetic energy to the whole thing which I guess you could say reflects the time frame the movie was set in – 1930s Berlin amidst Hitler’s rise to power and the beginning of the Second World War. For me however it was a little overpowering – there wasn’t enough balance to make the movie a relaxing experience for me.

Cabaret“The film’s sharp, shine musical numbers and incisive cuts between the doom-laden tale of misconceived love and ambition amid the rise of Nazism, while Joel Grey’s sinister club emcee is brilliant.” (539, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Errigo is right, Joel Grey’s emcee is wonderfully sinister with a sleazy edge to him. And this seems to be something of a trait with him as I have a very clear memory of him being a sinister character, Doc, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003, Joss Whedon) which I took into Cabaret. He looks a little too much like a ventriloquist’s dummy for my comfort (another stupid phobia of mine!) I also felt that the whole thing was over exaggerated and resulted in an unrealistic air.

There is no denying that Cabaret is a supremely iconic movie that propelled Liza into the realm of cultural icon and it is true that “[…] ultimately the film belongs to Liza Minnelli, who brought desperate-to-please nervous energy to sad, wild-eyed Sally Bowles with her feverish vitality and feigned depravity, giving warmth and frailty to a masterpiece of menace and show-stopping tunes.” (539) However, for me, it was that iconic nature of the movie that I think disappointed me. There were elements of the movie that despite never having seen it before were immediately familiar to me and while this should have been a comfort it didn’t turn out that way. Rather I didn’t feel that there was enough of a narrative to tie together these vignettes and created something that was quite disjointed. Cabaret lizaEqually there is no denying that Liza looks absolutely stunning as Sally Bowles in that infamous costume but it was a little bit more style over substance. Ultimately I found that Cabaret was just somewhat of a disappointment but then that’s my personal opinion and I know there will be hoards of fans who will not agree with me. Give it a go – who knows maybe it will win you over where it failed to do so for me.

 

Boyhood

Director: Richard Linklater

2014

I am neither a Richard Linklater fan nor an Ethan Hawke fan, as some of you may remember from my blog on Before Midnight (2013), and unfortunately for me they are one of those frequent collaborative pairings that you often find in Hollywood.

It’s fairly safe to say that I approached Boyhood with some already preconceived notions based on my previous experiences with the Linklater/Hawke pairing so I wasn’t really expecting much. Then there was my additional issue with films that seem to attract an annoying level of hype and praise before they even hit the cinemas in their general release (like Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens but more on that at a later date!) – so rarely do these types of film actually live up to the hype that I have learnt to temper my expectations. I guess this is in part why I avoid reviews as much as possible. Ironic I know, given that I am in the very process of doing exactly that and writing a review.

With Boyhood my reluctance to watch the film was not just the inordinate amount of hype surrounding the film, or the unfavourable pairing (at least in my eyes) but also the very concept of the film. Growing up is a hard thing to do in the first place without the added pressure of doing it on camera … and let’s face it Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record of looking after it’s young stars now does it? So to me the idea of filming someone going through what could arguably be the most awkward period of their life, over a prolonged period, seems massively self-indulgent on Linklater’s part.

“The actors age before us, though it is the evolution of Ellar Coltrane (who plays the boy, Mason) and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter, playing Mason’s sister) that has the most resonance.” (931, Mick McAloon, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

BoyhoodWhile it is kind of fascinating to watch Ellar Coltrane grow up I was never entirely comfortable with the film and couldn’t quite ignore my feeling that it’s somewhat exploitative. There doesn’t actually appear to be that much of a narrative but rather relies on the gimmick of watching the cast age across the period of 12 years. It’s a massive undertaking on all parts, which I do definitely recognise, but in the main just ends up strengthening my view that the film is much more about Linklater’s overweening arrogance. In recognising Linklater’s achievement I am never the less left with a faint sense of voyeurism that never really sat very well with me.

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Director: George Roy Hill

1969

“The iconic teaming of Paul Newman and Robert Redford was so magical – and so profitable, scoring the year’s biggest hit – that this offbeat character study/action comedy in Western trappings and bathed in cinematographer Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning sepia hues has been a touchstone for bickering buddy pictures ever since.” (494, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

I went through a period where I watched films in genres or by directors that normally bore me to tears and discovered that actually there were a few I enjoyed, such as Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). And it turns out that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is, so far, the only Western film I’ve watched that hasn’t bored me silly. But then I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it strictly as a western. It may have a number of the western tropes but in reality it is much more character driven. It’s really about these two men and their friendship that just so happens to take place against a western backdrop. And this is precisely why I found it entertaining rather than turgid like so many other films in the western genre.

There is lots of humour and having watched a number of buddy movies it’s clear that a lot of them have been influenced by this movie. The core trio of Butch (Paul Newman), Sundance (Robert Redford) and Etta (Katherine Ross) are brilliant, and in some ways remind me a little bit of the ‘golden trio’ from Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling) – they work best as a trio, each complimenting and at times reigning each other in. I actually really enjoyed watching Newman and Redford in their prime. Paul Newman is often held up as one of the truly brilliant actors of recent Hollywood and yet he is an actor whose work I have really not seen very much of so it was interesting to see him working his magic on-screen. They make a handsome pair of bandits as well it can’t be denied.

“[But] the film is immortal for its final image of the pair, freeze-framed as they run out into a shoot-’em-up with an army.” (494) Having never seen the film I had still been aware of this iconic final image. Now I have the context behind it and it makes the image so much more powerful.

butchButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an utterly disarming combination of smart, original screenwriting, handsome visual treatment, and star power. With all the jokes and poses, there is still real interest in the well-defined, contrasting characters.” (494) I couldn’t agree more with Errigo. If it had been otherwise there is a high chance I would have been writing yet another blog about how dreary and tedious I find western movies so this was a nice surprise. However apologies for the crapness of this post – I’m pretty tired and clearly my brain isn’t working all that well. Don’t let my inarticulate ramblings dissuade you from watching the film because it really is so much more than I have touched upon in this update.