Philadelphia

Director: Jonathan Demme

1993

Sadly the underlying topic and themes (homophobia and misunderstanding of the disease AIDS) are still relevant today nearly 20 years later.

Joanna Berry says “Some may argue that Demme sanitizes the ravages AIDS inflicts on a person in the film, but Hank’s sympathetic, passionate performance more than makes up for any attempts at softening the subject for a mainstream audience” and I totally agree! It’s important to remember that the subject of AIDS was still fairly taboo in the early 90s and not really understood as a disease so it isn’t really surprising that the movie is not as explicit as it could be. The scenes in the hospital where they are all receiving their treatment are subtly moving – and reminiscent of chemotherapy rooms – as any degenerative disease is when witnessed. The film shows that AIDS affects the lives of more than just the sick individual and has some extremely touching moments.

Tom Hank’s performance as Andrew Bennett is stoic and beautifully moving and well worthy of the Oscar win. I love the relationship that Andrew has with his family – they are accepting and supportive of his lifestyle and consequently his disease. Joe Miller’s (Denzel Washington) initial views seem massively outdated especially given what we now know about AIDS. I admire Andrew’s bravery in the face of such blatant discrimination and his unwillingness to allow anyone to put him down – I think this is what Miller sees (in the library) that leads to his decision to put aside his own prejudices and help Bennett.

The relationship between Miller and Bennett is obviously the central focus point – indeed it is the development of this relationship that leads Miller to realize that gay people are people too and not just an infection to avoid. Hank’s portrayal of Andrew Bennett humanizes the gay community! Bennett’s final moments are heart wrenching – made all the more moving by his ultimate demise so soon after the verdict. Ending the film on home movies reminds us that Andrew was so much more than his sexuality or the disease that beat him!

I remember watching this in my early teens at school (in R.E. though the reason why escapes me!) and knowing that it was important but not really connecting with it. Now as I am more sure of who I am as a person and the ideals I have I know without a doubt that this is one of the most important movies I have ever seen and one everyone should see for the sympathetic representation of how a life plunged into extreme prejudice can be lived with dignity despite all that you are forced to contend with.

Demme and the cast have created a film that unashamedly says that everyone deserves rights no matter who they are or what their circumstances are!

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Gladiator

Director: Ridley Scott

2000

I seem to have this irrationally intense dislike of Russell Crowe and as such have avoided his film like the plague (I don’t know how I’m going to reconcile myself to the fact he is Javert in the upcoming Les Miserables film) Gladiator was the only set film that I didn’t watch during my degree! At the very least working my way through 1001 Movie You  Must See Before You Die is challenging my viewing habits by forcing me to watch films I have previously had no desire to watch.

You can pretty much guarantee that the film will be beautifully constructed and shot when you have Ridley Scott at the helm. And Gladiator is no exception – the film is visually rich and epic in every sense from the story to the set pieces, very fitting considering it’s backdrop is the Roman Empire. Joanna Berry says Gladiator is “Hollywood’s first true Roman epic in over three decades.” The success seems to have begun a slow trickle of films concerning past empires with films such as 300 (Zack Snyder, 2006), Alexander (Oliver Stone, 2004), Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier, 2010), The Immortals (Tarsem Singh, 2011) and the most recent Roman epic, The Eagle (Kevin Macdonald, 2011) to come out in the last decade.

I can hear echoes of Pirates of the Caribbean (Gore Verbinski, 2003) in the soundtrack (or rather echoes of Gladiator in the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack as Gladiator came first!) but then that is hardly surprising as Hans Zimmer is the composer on each film. In fact whole musical sections have been lifted out of Gladiator and inserted into Pirates of the Caribbean. There is the inevitable question attached to war films – and this starts out as a war film – as to why they are there and what they are fighting for.

Joaquin Phoenix as the jealous and ambitious Commodus is cast very much as the baddie of the piece and has few, if any, redeemable qualities. A bit of an incestuous vibe from Commodus in his affections towards his sister. An unpopular ruler he rules as a tyrant. A weak, emotional, whiney and sickly looking man, it is obvious why Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) wanted Maximus as his successor rather than his own son. Oliver Reed, as Proximo, is still as menacing and powerful a figure as he was when playing Bill Sikes in Oliver! (Carol Reed, 1968) all those years ago. And still instantly recognizable as Bill Sikes! Crowe cuts a brooding figure as Maximus. You get the sense of a tightly controlled violence lurking just under the surface at all times. It is hard for me to not see all the makings of Dumbledore in Richard Harris’ Aurelius (he was the real embodiment of Dumbledore in my eyes, not Michael Gambon, but I digress!)

Scott captures the brutality of the gladiatorial fights well without neglecting the spectacle of them – he embraces the spectacle with elaborate costumes, or rather armor, of the more established gladiators. The gladiatorial fight scenes are especially well choreographed flowing beautifully. The Colosseum is magnificent – returned to all its former glory thanks to the wonder of technology. There are moments when it is obvious that a computer generated background has been inserted which alerts you to the artificial nature of the film. Having said that the computer graphics used to ensure that Reed could finish his role of Proximo despite his untimely death during filming is absolutely flawless – I cannot tell which scenes are really him and which are the stand-in with a c-g face.

Despite everything I found myself rooting for Maximus – Commodus is just so vile he needs to be removed! And even I have to admit that Crowe is commanding as Maximus (something I never thought I would say!) I’m feeling more comfortable in is casting as Javert in Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2013), despite not having heard him sing yet.

I finally get round to talking about the Oscars …

It’s been such a hectic week that I am only now finding the time to put my views on the Oscars wins out there into the blogosphere. Without further ado here are said thought and views on the winners of the 84th Academy Awards. (Oh and at the end there will be the final reviews of a couple of the nominated films!)

This year the winners really divided me – there were some that I thought really deserved the award and then there were others awards that should have gone to more deserving films/people.

I am so glad Rango won the Best Animated Feature Film as it really was the best animated film on offer this year – and it is just hilarious. I’m delighted for Meryl Streep and Octavia Spencer on their awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, as they both produced stunning performances and it was lovely to see their hard work recognized and rewarded. Bot their Oscars were throughly deserved. The Iron Lady was the rightful recipient of the Oscar for Achievement in Make-Up as the transformation into Maggie Thatcher was remarkable. I begrudgingly agree with The Artist picking up the Achievement in Music and Costume Design as both of those elements were stunning in the film (though just about the only things that were). Indeed the music is such a central element in The Artist as it drives the entire narrative, and it was beautifully executed.

However they are the only 2 Oscars taken home on the night by The Artist that I agree with! George Clooney was robbed! He totally should have taken the Oscar for Best Actor instead of Jean Dujardin. The Academy was clearly completely under The Artist‘s spell … I don’t think that it was worthy of the Best Picture Oscar at all. There were much more deserving films in that category … especially The Help and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyThe Artist has made history by being only the second silent film to win the Best Picture Oscar since 1928 but in my opinion it isn’t an entirely silent film thanks to the final 15 minutes.

In terms of the Best Screenplay from Original Material I think that the Academy was seduced by Woody Allen’s name rather than the actual content of the script. Midnight In Paris is meandering, far-fetched and far to self indulgent – there were much better screenplays in that category that could have taken the Oscar home. I was disappointed but not too surprised that Harry Potter didn’t pick up any awards … it is too British a franchise (I can’t think of a single American involved with the films).

Now I have spewed forth my views on the results of the 84th Academy Awards I will go onto the final couple of nominations that I didn’t manage to post before the ceremony last Sunday.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Director: Tomas Alfredson

So many of the films nominated at the Oscar’s this year (in various categories) have extraordinary casts and this film is definitely up the top. What makes it more of an exciting cast for me is that it is made up of some of Britain’s most talented actors, like John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth and of course Gary Oldman (with a plethora of awards and nominations held between them!)

A spy movie that isn’t actually about spies – according the esteemed Dr Mark Kermode and I kind of get what he means. The spying in this film, set during the Cold War, seems more mundane and everyday rather than the epic chases, gun shoot outs and an abundance of high-tech gadgets that are associated with the spy films, or rather franchises, of Bond and Bourne. Indeed Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is much slower and less frenetic than the Bond and Bourne franchises and offers a less glamorized ideal of life as a spy. It is a return to a simpler time and way of doing something. And it seems to me to actually be more of a psychological thriller than a spy film, as the focus becomes the growing paranoia of each character.

The music is wonderfully evocative and really creates the right emotions especially the tension of the piece. The narrative moves along at a leisurely pace and at times feels quite disjointed. However this doesn’t take anything away from it and could be seen as representative of the paranoia that is at the heart of the film. The narrative jumps around in time with no distinctive separation of the two time frames. The only way to figure out if it is a flashback (for lack of a better word) is if certain characters are still around or not. The event in Budapest at the beginning of the film appears to be the catalyst for all the events following it. It ha a muted and neutral colour palette – lots of grey, brown and orange – which gives it a drab, murky and fairly grimy feel, despite some of the opulent settings. It also situated the film very much in the time period of the 1970s.

Gary Oldman provides a strong, silent and thoughtful performance as George Smiley. It is nearly 20 minutes before he speaks for the first time. He is one of those characters who sits back and lets others talk while observing everything, the ideal personality for someone entrusted with discovering the identity of a mole. Benedict Cumberbatch really is magnificent as Peter Guillam. As with all spy films there is a focus on the minutia – noticing the little things like someone sweating too much or the out-of-place elements in ones surroundings. There are lots of significant looks and a large portion of meaning is transmitted without any dialogue, ensuring the viewer must pay close attention lest they miss an important exchange. I love seeing the office through the window in the documents lift as it offers an interesting perspective. Many of the shots are seen through windows creating a voyeuristic tone to the film. Murder, mystery, deception, sex and intrigue – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has it all but then these are necessary elements for any spy film!

I really enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s a spy movie striped back to basics and to me proved that you don’t have to have flashy cars, gadgets and girls to be an intriguing and imaginative spy film.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director: David Fincher

I had previously managed to avoid The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both the original film trilogy in Swedish and the books, partly due to not wanting to become caught up in the hype surrounding it. Now having seen the American remake I have succumbed and brought the first book (though I have yet to read it!) and will no doubt find myself watching the original trilogy in the near future. I don’t like this current trend of remaking foreign films into English less than  year after the initial release as I think it underestimates cinema goers. We are capable of watching, understanding and enjoying films with subtitles!! And in some ways it just feels lazy. Now I know I probably come across as hypocritical saying all this while not having watched the original Swedish film but the only reason I have seen the English version is due to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being nominated in several categories at this year’s Oscars, most notably Best Actress for Rooney Mara.

The film has a very distinctive style but then that is typical for a David Fincher film. And this distinctive style continues in the sound utilized in the film creating a very atmospheric environment. The colour palette is very cold with lots of blues and greens reflecting the icy landscape of Sweden in the winter. I wasn’t quite sold on the Swedish names and locations with quite an English sounding cast as it didn’t quite gel together.

Mara’s Lisbeth is similar to Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth and yet different enough to leave her own mark on the character. A very strong performance from a relatively unknown actress. Every member of the cast gives a great performance in a film very much driven by Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. The film has an extremely visceral and violent energy to it and is graphic in that violence. While I liked the film I am now determined to see the original films before the subsequent English remakes come out.

The Tree of Life

Director: Terrance Malick

I’m not entirely sure what to make of The Tree of Life. It’s an impressionistic … and therefore more independent … film with lots of images woven together. Short frames all pieced together to form a disjointed whole made up of current times and remembrances. Many of the shots are from unusual or different perspectives or focus on different aspects within the frame. There are lots of close-ups of hands, the sky and trees (usually looking up from the base).

The narrative has theological concerns as Jack (Sean Penn) questions why and how we came to be and ideas of faith. The images are beautiful and stunning with some extraordinary shots. While I appreciate the visuals (and the accompanying music) there doesn’t seem to be a cohesive narrative driving the film along. It wouldn’t be out-of-place in an art gallery. It’s a very bold choice in terms of its nominations within the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Its Cinematography nomination is well deserved as the cinematography is truly outstanding. Much of the dialogue is delivered offscreen in a whisper just on the edge of hearing requiring a certain amount of focus.

I’ve said it before but I’m going to say it again, there is no denying the beauty of The Tree of Life and I guess in the right context it would work yet I wouldn’t have paid to see it in the cinema. And I was massively confused by the appearance of dinosaurs!!