Independence Day

Director: Roland Emmerich

1996

Right from the off the film is crammed with iconic images. First you get space, the moon landing in particular with the infamous “We come in peace for all mankind”, followed by the raising of the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima and the Statue of Liberty. In these three images we see America as an explorer, a warrior and the land of the free.

“Director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin pack their movie with humorous actors – Will Smith, Robert Loggia, Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein – playing the action with tongue planted firmly in cheek, though the real star here is not any of the actors, but the brilliant special effects.” (858, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Emmerich is something of a pro at engaging disaster movies following up Independence Day with The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Will Smith is epic as Captain Steven Hiller. He captures the balance of humor and action perfectly and it’s not surprising that this was the film that launched him as a blockbuster actor. I love Judd Hirsch as David’s father – he is just so very Jewish! Jeff Goldblum is surprisingly sedate as the scientist David.

Bill Paxton is commanding as the President. He’s a smart leader, one who is willing to listen to scientists as well as, and most of the time instead of, his military advisers. All the more surprisingly when you think that his character is himself a military man. I also really enjoy Adam Baldwin’s performance but then he is a Joss Whedon regular and as a self-confessed Whedonite I am kind of predisposed to like anything he does. Emmerich makes all the female characters throughout the film extremely strong and capable in their own right. Ultimately it is the useless drunk who ends up being the hero of the piece, sacrificing himself for the greater good and somewhat redeeming himself in his son’s eyes.

The plot moves at a fast pace with the whole of America descending rapidly into panic and organized chaos on the military front. Their first response to the appearance of the ships is one I found surprising. Instead of shooting or attacking the ships their first action is to send a “Welcome Wagon” echoing the plaque on the moon, “We come in peace for all mankind.” I found it surprising watching it post 9/11 where it seems as though relations are not so readily friendly. It wouldn’t seem strange if their first response now would be to shoot first and ask questions later. “From alien spaceships reminiscent of the cult television series V, to the attacks on Earth (almost too realistic), we watch in horror as once great landmarks – the Empire State Building and the White House – are reduced to piles of smoking rubble.” (858) The initial attacks are mind-blowing; the special effects still hold up now and have lost none of their intensity. If anything they have gained added intensity when viewed through post 9/11 eyes. It’s an extraordinary thing watching iconic buildings being decimated. You can’t help but recall the all too real events of that fateful day in September and the devastation that followed. Although the images presented in Independence Day are engineered in a computer there are plausible links between the two, the imaginary and (sadly) the reality.

The links established between the core group of characters is done well allowing all the separate parties to converge throughout the film with one purpose – to unite in one final grand affront to defeat the aliens at the climax of the film. The children create an opportunity for emotional scenes as well as forming a similarity between the President, the most important man in the country (and depending on where you live the world) and a lowly soldier, Hiller. The downfall of an entire alien invasion is something as delightfully simple as a common cold.

The colours of the alien spacecraft are gorgeous blues and greens and completely at odds with the tone which actually makes them more sinister. You associate blues and greens with calm, peace and serenity (at least I do) and therefore expect the aliens to be peaceful … which they’re really not.

And then of course you have the slightly saccharine moment of “Didn’t I promise you fireworks?” and the whole Happy 4th July stuff which I have to say as a Brit kind of passes me by. However all in all Independence Day is an enjoyable romp and a lovely way to spend Friday night with the family when television lets you down.

 

The Lion King

Director:Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff

1994

The Lion King […] not only improved on the standards set by Beauty [and the Beast, 1991, Gary Trousdale] but also instantly became a Disney classic, to be ranked alongside other tearjerkers like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and of course Bambi (1942).” (830, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The animation as expected, is top-notch, with beautiful rendering of not only the animals but also the African Savannah.

The Lion King along with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (1992, Ron Clements & John Musker) are my all time favourite Disney films. they are the films from my childhood that I continue to love. One of my earliest memories of going to the cinema is seeing The Lion King (I must have been about 7 when it came out). It is a very spiritual movie which deals explicitly with the facts of life and death most wonderfully explained in the idea of the Circle of Life. Simba’s reaction to Mufasa’s death is heartbreaking. I can’t cope when he curls up beside his father after having tried unsuccessfully to wake him up.

The music is incredible – one of the most memorable scores to any Disney film which is saying something as music is such a key element in the magic of Disney. I love the African influence on the music, even more so since having done an amateur production of the  musical (it’s not an easy score to learn let me tell you!) It seems to me to be one of those films where everything just works ad comes together in perfect harmony creating an instant classic, much like the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 – 2003, Peter Jackson)and the Harry Potter series. “This animated adventure works so well because it has all the elements of a terrific movie and plenty of action and adventure.” (830)

Scar is delightfully acerbic as the ambitious and manipulative baddie – predictably voiced by a Brit, Jeremy Irons (clearly we Brits have excellent voices for baddies!) While the film is surprisingly sad and incredibly moving, especially at the beginning, it is also filled with hilarious moments provided by the characters of Timon, Pumba, Zazu and the hyenas, all voiced by well-known comic actors. Oh and Rafiki of course, the wise, sage and ever so slightly insane soothsayer. “Luckily the voice talents of [Nathan] Lane, Rowan Atkinson (as wisecracking bird Zazu), Cheech Martin, and Whoopi Goldberg (as cackling hyenas) are on hand for some side-splitting light relief.”  (830)

The relationship between Simba and his father Mufasa is endearing although I am now always waiting for Mufasa to say “I am your father” what with him being voiced magnificently by James Earl Jones, Darth Vader himself (a fact that has become more recognizable as I’ve gotten older). Rowan Atkinson is brilliant as the put upon and self-important Zazu, the King’s Major Domo as he is so fond of reminding everyone. He takes on much the same role as Sebastian in The Little Mermaid (1989, Ron Clements & John Musker) becoming a rather reluctant chaperone to their young ward.

The hyenas are genius, especially Ed. Disney are really very good at creating memorable characters that don’t say a word. While providing comic interludes they also have some of the scariest moments in the film where they are lit sinisterly in deep red, vivid green and smoke. Pride Rock is such an iconic image (we once recreated it on a group holiday in Wales to hilarious effects!!) The pride land is drastically changed … and not for the good … under Scar’s rule. It becomes almost unrecognizable from the lush and light country Mufasa rules. It’s also a massive contrast to the jungle Simba grows up in.

The challenge between Simba and Scar is the ultimate show down and an epic conclusion to the story. And then in keeping with the theme of the circle of life we end the film as we started it, with the introduction of a new cub, the future king and the new generation.

Timon and Pumba are some of the most beloved creatures to come out of the Disney studio. They are the ultimate comic duo bouncing off one another effortlessly; the perfect foil for each other. And they have the best songs in the film – who can resist singing along to Hakuna Matata? And there is a little nod to De Niro and Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese) for the adults with Pumba saying the classic “Are you talkin’ to me?” Not that you really need to put anything in for the adults as the film easily appeals to all ages. I may be in my mid 20s now but I will never be too old for Disney movies, they will stay with me always and are some of my most watched dvds!

 

Withnail And I

Director: Bruce Robinson

1987

Withnail and I is more or less a one-off, its representation of a story (“I” eventually sees the error of Withnail’s eternally irresponsible ways and moves on toward a grown-up career) taking second place to the very funny verbal and visual gags, the oh-so-slightly grotesque exaggeration that underpins the comic remembrance of things past, and reveling in (revulsion for?) the colorful characters.” (746, Geoff Andrew, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) It is very much a British film, especially in terms of the humour. It’s clever humour that relies more on sarcasm and verbal with than the sometimes crass visual humor so often favoured by Americans (No disrespect to any readers from across the pond, I enjoy a good old-fashioned crass visual gag filled film like The Hangover [2009, Todd Phillips] or Bridesmaids [2011, Paul Feig], just like anyone else)

They have such a fantastically bizarre relationship, Withnail and I, feeding off one another in their paranoia. “Richard Grant is appropriately and hilariously acerbic and theatrical as Withnail, the upper-middle-class reprobate slumming it while (vainly and not very often) trying to find work as an actor.” (746) He is wonderfully eccentric as Withnail and I hold it as one of his best performances ever. Withnail is a character of extremes with impressive highs, eliciting a crazy glint in his eyes, and momentous lows. Prone to melodrama, especially when sobering up. McGann is the more practical one of the pair, the one who spends slightly more time living in reality rather than in their own little bubble. Richard Griffiths does a brilliant job as Uncle Monty – the fact that e has vegetables decorating his living room rather than the more conventional flowers, and wears a radish in his jacket, highlights the sort of character he is. And his car is absolutely gorgeous!

The kitchen is just so gross and yet at the same time their failed attempt to investigate the washing up situation is hysterical. As suggested by the title we see the film predominantly from the viewpoint of Paul McGann’s character, the eponymous I, with him narrating the film. Both Grant and McGann are almost painfully thin and haggard with red rimmed eyes – the result of their reliance on mood altering substances. The costumes reflect the film the film is set, the culmination of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s.

Their antics become even more hilarious when they swap the relative safety of Camden for the middle of nowhere in the country where we see “[…] the impoverished, booze-and-drug obsessed pair find themselves bemused, bewildered, and even besieged by country ways and avuncular lusts.” (746) They can barely survive in the city with home comforts like running water and central heating and yet they’re foolish enough to go on holiday to a country cottage with a wood burning stove. They are marvelously charismatic and you cannot help but marvel at their ridiculous antics.

The film meanders a bit from one incident to another and yet every moment is joyful to behold, despite the numerous cringe worthy situations their behaviour elicits. I felt more and more for McGann as he becomes increasingly caught up in Withanil’s and Monty’s mad cap ways – especially Monty’s very much unwanted advances. It is a bitter-sweet parting with the dissolution of Withnail’s and I’s friendship. I love Withnail’s final bitter rendition of “What A Piece of Work is Man” but then that’s probably because I adore the 2009 Broadway revival of HAIR!!

The Piano

Director:Jane Campion

1993

The Piano in a similar vein to The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski) relies heavily on the soundtrack or rather the music that is so integral to the make up of the protagonist. Music is their lifeline and in the case of Ada it is her main form of communication with the world. The music is exquisite but then you’d expect nothing less given the title of the film.

The scenery is luscious but then the film is set in New Zealand and as you all know from my Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003, Peter Jackson) post I have an enormous love affair with the country. The Maori are wonderful even if portrayed as a primitive people. I especially love the two who mimic both Ada and Alisdair.

The scenes between Ada and Alisdair (played by Holly Hunter and Sam Neill) are delightfully awkward, not only at the start of the film but all the way through. Holly Hunter is mesmerizing as the beautiful yet mute Ada. Her big dark eyes are so emotive. The scenes between her and her daughter Flora (a very young Anna Paquin) are often silent, with the two communicating through sign language. They often mirror each other in their actions. Not only are there scenes where silence predominates but also scenes conducted in Maori, devoid of subtitles. However I think this just adds to the richness of sound within the film as Maori is such a musical and beautiful language. The film starts and ends with a voice over by Ada, her internal voice at any rate, given that she is mute, which gives the film a sense of completion, of coming full circle.

Harvey Keitel’s George Baines appears a man of two worlds dressed as a white man and yet living as a native with the Maoris. His facial Ta Moko is something of a rarity as his is not of Maori blood. It’s a bizarre kind of film becoming somewhat erotic once Ada begins teaching George.  The piano is so much more than an instrument for Ada, it’s a part of her, an extension if you will. George seems to understand this about her, which Alisdair does not. Ultimately she forms a closer relationship, albeit an unusual one, with George than she does her husband. The piano and Ada become almost a fetish for George. There is also a voyeuristic element with Alisdair watching George and Ada.

I found I had far more sympathy for George than I did Alisdair. I mean Alisdair cuts off Ada’s finger, harming her not only physically but emotionally as well by rendering her unable to play her beloved piano, and then almost rapes her, all out of love supposedly. it’s a dramatic ending with Ada almost dying. However it does end with a happily ever after. What may have started out as a fetish becomes something much deeper and leads to Ada and George building a life together.

“Setting out to be politically correct, erotic, and romantic at the same time, The Piano inevitably bite off more than it can possibly chew, but winds up stimulating passionate feelings nonetheless.” (823, Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Piano but I think that ultimately I liked it. I can definitely say that my favourite aspect was the Maori people, especially when they are singing towards the end.

The 39 Steps

 Director:Alfred Hitchcock

1935

First of all apologies for my absence from the blogosphere – my stupid Mac died on me (I was most bereft) but my daddy came to the rescue and it is now all fixed and everything is shiny!

Despite being a film graduate, and of course a film fanatic, I have watched surprisingly few Hitchcock films. In fact I don’t think we watched any while studying.

“In traditional Hitchcock fashion, the revelation of what “the 39 Steps” actually are – and indeed the entire spy plot – is almost peripheral to the flirtatious interplay between the two leads.” (122, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)  Almost immediately Hannay gets entangled up with a mysterious and high maintenance woman, Annabella, and yet he takes it all in his stride, acquiescing to all her strange requests with minimal questions. Annabella, a rather chatty spy, introduces the idea of “the 39 Steps” early on before her untimely yet predictable death. And what a melodramatic death it is!

The flashbacks to information she gave Hannay take on a robotic tone, as though a recording, with her face a shadow superimposed over the other shots. Gorgeous art deco decorations in Hannay’s building. Shot artistically in black and white, however there is a very contained feel to the film which comes from being shot in a studio. Pamela is often lit with the soft diffuse lighting that is so common of the films shot during the 1930s.

It’s actually a pretty quiet film with no soundtrack to speak of. The only sound is that captured in the camera. I found it quite uncomfortable as I’m so used to having some sort of sound in every second of a film now-a-days. And yet literally just after writing about the lack of soundtrack, music is introduced during a chase scene. It’s a long time before the main female character, Pamela, appears which ultimately “morphs [the film] from an espionage thriller into the unlikeliest of love stories.” (122) Hannay bumbles from one episode to another even inadvertently speaking at a political meeting.

“After several tentative early steps and a few small breakthroughs, The 39 Steps was the first clear creative peak in Alfred Hitchcock’s British period and arguably marked the first fully successful film in the director’s rapidly deepening oeuvre.” (122) The 39 Steps is not as polished as Hitchcock’s later work. I found it a tad anticlimactic and not nearly as thrilling as the few Hitchcock’s I have actually seen. Although at least you do find out what “the 39 Steps” actually are.

Jurassic Park

Director: Steven Spielberg

1993

“Part monster movie and part disaster movie as the island is thrashed by a storm and the assembled characters find there is nowhere to hide from the giant rampaging (and, one assumes, hungry) prehistoric creatures, Jurassic park is packed with so many thrills and jaw-dropping dino effects it isn’t hard to see why the movie went on to gross over $900 million worldwide.” (822, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The film starts off explosively with the dramatic death of a park worker, made all the more dramatic by having no idea what the cause of death was. The workers have a kind of comedy feel to them with their grey uniforms and hard hats; however I think that has more to do with the subsequent parodies in films like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, 1997) It was so exciting seeing the dinosaurs for the first time – especially after waiting nearly 25 minutes or so. And despite having seen Jurassic park a number of times over the years that excitement hasn’t faded. Once the storm hits the island the film becomes an action packed roller-coaster of events.

“Cleverly building up to the revelation of the “monsters” by stunning us with the visual treat of cuddly, friendly, vegetarian dinosaurs first, when we do finally meet the ass-kicking T. Rex it is one of the movie’s fabulous set pieces.” (822) I remember watching Jurassic Park with my best friend on video, which we had snuck off to watch having been told we were too young still, when we were about 7 and being absolutely terrified! Like we literally screamed out loud when we first saw T. Rex – admittedly the most bad ass of all dinosaurs. The T. Rex is outstanding and despite having the slightly clunky movements of an animatronic still elicits terror in the audience.

And while he still cuts an impressive figure watching it now I think that the velociraptor are actually far scarier. There’s a deadly intelligence to them and a pack mentality. They herd their prey and that is vastly scarier to me than the brute force employed by the T. Rex. I realized while watching Jurassic Park again that i am still scared at all the same points as I was when I watched this as a child. But also that as I have grown up my fear of the velociraptor has increased.

The island is incredible with resplendent images (and not just the dinosaurs). The initial descent of the group in the helicopter against the backdrop of a glorious waterfall is particularly spectacular. The cgi is stunning and still holds up remarkably well nearly 20 years later. The soundtrack, once again provided by John Williams, is not only quintessentially Spielberg but also automatically recognizable as Williams’ masterful work.

The performances are all top-notch and yet as Berry says “the true stars of the film are computer generated.” (822) Richard Attenborough is delightful as the eccentric millionaire John Hammond, who has the audacity to bring dinosaurs back from extinction. He always reminds me of Santa Claus … and not just because he went onto play said character the following year in Les Mayfield’s re-make of Miracle on 34th Street. Jeff Goldblum is once again suitably maniacal with a crazy glint in his eye. And yet he is the most outspoken voice of reason in the film; the one who sees the problems that come with genetic manipulation – “Your scientists were so preoccupied with if they could that they didn’t stop to think whether they should”. There is a cautionary tale within Jurassic Park – respect nature and don’t mess with things you have no right to be messing with. It’s the classic story of man striving for too much and not really considering the consequences of his actions.

“The same year that saw his “grown-up” war drama Schindler’s List win vast critical acclaim, Steven Spielberg also delivered the kind of movie we had come to expect from the director of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – a rip-roaring adventure of dinosaurs and disaster based on Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, Jurassic Park.” (822) Spielberg taps into the universal fascination we still have with these enormous and extinct creatures. He is a genius at capturing that child like wonder that most of us seem to lose along the way. There is a magical element to the majority of Spielberg’s movies but it is especially evident in this remarkable film. I mean he brought dinosaurs to life – dinosaurs!! That is never gonna get old! Yes I’m aware that I am currently geeking out but I have always been fascinated with dinosaurs ever since I was a child.

I had forgotten how much I enjoy Jurassic Park and can’t actually think of a better way to spend an average autumn afternoon. I have also come to the conclusion that it has many elements that would not be out-of-place in a horror film, and therefore probably counts as the first horror film I ever watched at the tender age of 7 years old.

Bad Day at Black Rock

Director: John  Sturges

1955

“Set in an arid western landscape, to which the film’s CinemaScope ratio gives full value, and shot in color, mostly in blinding sunlight, Bad Day at Black Rock is sandwiched between a number of notable Sturges Westerns, including Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). Yet despite its look, Bad Day at Black Rock is really more of a film noir, with its story of dark secrets in the past.” (308, Edward Buscombe, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The vistas are vast and bleak which is expected when the film is set in a desert landscape. The colours are bright and vivid which are at odds with the film noir tone of Black Rock. You expect a film noir to be in black and white with extremes of light and dark reflecting the tumultuous nature of the story.

It’s almost as if Black Rock can’t decide what type of film it wants to be. While it’s set in the desert and is awash with cowboys that’s about as far as it goes in terms of a Western. “There’s little action and hardly any gunplay” (308) two tropes that identify a Western film. It’s easier to list what elements of Film Noir Black Rock eschews than those it holds to. There is no femme fatale – in fact the film is almost exclusively male with only one female character in the entire town. And as I mentioned before no extremes between light and shadow.

Bad Day at Black Rock is […] a taut, expertly acted and directed thriller that pushes a fairly straight forward message about racial tolerance.” (308) The film highlights the views many Americans had towards the Japanese following Pearl Harbor. The inhabitants are unable to separate race from nationality – they cannot get past the fact that Kamoko was Japanese despite him living and working in America, and as we discover later having a son fighting for America in the War. This inability to overlook Kamoko’s Japanese heritage has disastrous effects and results in the whole narrative of the film.

The tension ratchets up as the inhabitants of Black Rock become increasingly uncomfortable about Macreedy’s (Spencer Tracy) presence in the town and his rather innocent snooping. And yet rather than allow him to go on his was way they instead force him to remain in the town. The craziness occurs because the men follow the dominant personality of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan). They become pretty secular and are intent on protecting their dirty little secret by any means necessary, often resorting to bully like tactics, the sort you find in high school (and should really stay there!) Macreedy is unshakeable and, with the exception of one rather impressive fight, remains above all the petty tactics aimed in his direction.

I do not like Westerns, never have and I doubt I ever will. It’s the one genre that I have never really engaged with. I find Westerns boring and always overly long. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl and the Western is very much a male genre – it’s telling that the only Westerns I like are Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953) which is a musical and Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) and let’s face it, that’s more of a Romance. Black Rock was not a film that succeeded in holding my attention for the entirety of the film, and that’s not really a ringing endorsement for the film under an hour and a half.