Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Director: Howard Hawks

1953

I had previously never seen a Marilyn Monroe film before and yet due to her iconic status I could name most of them and was very aware of her life. In some ways I wish I had never heard of Marilyn but then I ‘d either have to be much older than I am or have spent most of my life living under a rock. That same iconic status made it difficult to look past Marilyn and see the character, Lorelei.

There is no denying that Monroe is beautiful and talented. She is all doe-eyed innocence while being a master at manipulating the opposite sex. That innocence and naivety are bellied by her every movement from the sway of her hips to her breathy pouty voice. There was an initial interest in Lorelei but I found it was quickly dispelled when it became hard to separate the character from the actor.

 “Russell’s persona brings together raunchiness and practicality; Monroe is a potent mixture of slinky eroticism and childlike guilelessness, laced with a hint of savvy manipulation.” (283, Adrian Martin, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Instead I found Jane Russell‘s character, Dorothy (Lorelei’s best friend), much more interesting to watch. She is a more likable character due to her more forgiving nature. Lorelei is shallow and a bit vapid, only interested in money and status unlike Dorothy who falls in love at the drop of a at regardless of the man’s circumstances.

The majority of the film takes place aboard a trans-atlantic cruise ship which also happens to be transporting the USA Olympic Team, opening up the way for a whole slew of musical numbers utilizing their talents. It also allows for the slightly disturbing scene featuring the athletes in extremely tight, almost nude colored short shorts during one of Dorothy’s numbers. The costumes are just gorgeous and so glamorous!

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Marilyn Monroe Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend“Typical of the 1950s, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an acerbic comedy about gold digging, unafraid to mix sentimental dreams with brittle sarcasm, glamorous magic with a materialist sense of what a girl must do to get by – a set of merry contradictions immortalized in Monroe’s oft-imitated “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend“. (283) There isn’t much of a plot – the film appears more a vehicle for its two stars, Monroe and Russell rather than being narratively driven. Due to the lack of plot the film plods along at a fairly slow pace, interspersed with musical numbers. It only really gains any real momentum in the final 15 minutes or so when Dorothy masquerades as the flighty Lorelei at a court appearance.  Watching Russell adopt all the things that made Monroe the pin-up she was during her lifetime and the icon she is now was the most enjoyable bit of the film for me. As Martin says, “the comic highpoint comes when the roles swap for Dorothy’s brash courtroom imitation of Lorelei.” (283) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Jane Russell Marilyn Monroe

 

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Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

2006

“It’s 1984 and ‘glasnost is nowhere in sight'” (910, Tim Evans)

The Lives of Others is set during an incredibly intriguing time during Europe’s recent history. As Tim Evans says “the callousness of Cold War East Germany is chillingly conveyed.” (910) and he is right. it’s this obsessive desire to monitor the people of East Germany (or the GDR as it was at that time) in every single aspect of their lives that provides the backdrop to one of the most compelling films I have seen that deals with life on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Goodbye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003) was good and fun to watch but The Lives of Others delves into the underhand tactics of the Stassi and the way they ruled a nation.

Lives Of OthersWhile the film centers on Dreyman, a director, and consequently those people in his life, including his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria, they are not the most interesting aspect of this film. The most interesting character by far is Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) as Tim Evans says  he “finds himself growing fascinated by the urbane Dreyman’s domestic life with his beautiful actress lover Christa-Maria.” (910) and this is where the beauty of the film comes in.

Tasked with monitoring Dreyman for the purely selfish reasons of the Culture Minister (naturally he is after Dreyman’s girlfriend) leads to a surprising insight into what one government worker, Wiesler, does as a result of this dubious mission. Wiesler fascinates me. He’s an expressionless, almost emotionless grey little man, very much a part of the machine that forms the controlling government of the GDR. And yet over the course of the film he becomes slightly more human, even pushing aside his  natural instinct to gather the name of a boy’s father for voicing an opinion against the Stassi. “Pushed out of the comfort zone of government-sanctioned spying, the expressionless Wiesler is shunted in directions he is profoundly unfamiliar with.” (910) He takes a number of risks to protect Dreyman, or rather more accurately Christa-Maria, risks that ultimately have dire consequences for him and fatal consequences for her.

The film is rather drab and dreary but then it is in-keeping with the style of that era and place. The ending is sweetly sentimental and very fitting. I actually enjoy watching films with subtitles as it forces me to pay attention to what I am watching rather than having a film playing in the background and only being half aware of what is happening.

The Lives of Others is an intriguing film and definitely worth watching particularly for Mühe’s performance and it’s insight into a totalitarian government.Ulrich Muhe Wiesler

 

Slumdog Millionaire

Director: Danny Boyle

2008

I’m a Danny Boyle fan and have been since I discovered him through Trainspotting (1996) in my early teens. Most people laud Slumdog Millionaire as being one of his best films, behind the seminal Trainspotting of course. For me however I think this is his weakest film, or rather his least memorable. Now I’m not saying that it’s a bad film because it isn’t, it’s just if I had to sit down and choose a Danny Boyle film to watch, Slumdog Millionaire would be way down near the bottom of the list.

“The arc of the story is shaped by Jamal’s ability to answer the toughest questions set by the show’s antagonistic host, and the reason he knows these obscure questions forms the spine of the story and a history of his remarkable life.” (918, Karen Krizanovich, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I do like the concept and the way Boyle provides Jamal’s history through the portal of answering questions on the Indian “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” An unusual life full of random extraordinary events leads Jamal on his way to win a life changing amount of money.

The film is vibrant and full of color eve when Jamal and Salim are living either in the slums or on the streets. This gives the film a beauty of sorts, and there are a number of shots that take your breath away like when Jamal and Salim end up at the Taj Mahal.

As with all Boyle films there is a darkness to Slumdog. Jamal is surrounded by some extremely unsavory characters from very early on in his life. And sadly these include his older brother (and only surviving family member) Salim who should do everything in his power to protect his family. At times Slumdog becomes difficult to watch especially when our young trio, our three musketeers, are taken in by an orphanage and I use that word in the loosest possible term. They become part of a rag-tag group of “orphans working for a Fagin-like [Maman] character who creates blind, singing beggars from healthy sighted children.” (918) I found it particularly hard to watch a young orphan being blinded in order to increase profits because as Jamal says “everyone knows blind singers get paid double.”

The narrative jumps backwards and forwards through time but there are three distinct strands which gradually become two. You have Jamal on the show which is the very recent past and Jamal being questioned (using some dubious methods) by the police – the present – which merge into one as the film draws towards the end. And then there is the past where we see Jamal, Salim and Latika grow up, providing not only the history of the main trio but also all the information Jamal needs to make history and become a millionaire. It was this section that I found the most interesting to watch.

The group of young actors who play the trio throughout their childhood (3 per character) are outstanding. They make the transitions between each age smoothly and retain the essence of the character perfectly. Dev Patel is remarkable as the adult Jamal. He has a really expressive face and you can read all his hope and faith in his eyes. Equally however, thanks to a life living on his wits and conning people out of necessity, he is a master at putting on a facade and keeping people of their toes.

“The film’s strong visuals and direction are truly cinematic. Slumdog Millionaire‘s Western narrative and Indian soul mesh to tell a story worthy of any recitation.” (918) At its heart Slumdog is a romance, a love story that takes on epic proportions between Jamal and Latika. I think it’s Boyle’s most sentimental film which is possibly why I wasn’t really feeling it. To me it seems a bit out of character for him.220px-Slumdog_millionaire_ver2

 

Paranormal Activity

Director: Oren Peli

2007

Paranormal Activity Oren PeliWatching Paranormal Activity during a thunderstorm was probably not one of my better ideas it has to be said. Cooper Penner says, “for the first few nights, the camera records almost nothing: a door moves a little, the blankets flutter for a split second. In this way the audience is lulled into a false sense of security, so that when chandeliers start swinging and Ouija boards start igniting, the impact is genuinely shocking” (912, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) which I don’t think is strictly true. In fact I think the opposite, which is not to say the film isn’t scary because I certainly found it so.

The stylistic choices of Peli condition the viewer to expect some sort of otherworldly action. Every time we switch to the night-vision mode and the time stamp appears in the bottom right of the screen my whole body tensed up in anticipation o whatever the unknown entity was going to do on that occasion. Yes the occurrences become more extreme throughout the course of the film culminating in the terrifying climax, and in some ways they become more disturbing once they begin during the day.

I do agree wholeheartedly with Penner when e says, “the night-vision scope through which most of the movie is seen adds an interesting depth to the movie. With no color to distract from everything that is going on, our eyes are drawn immediately to even the slightest movement” (912) as you do notice every single movement, however small it may be, when watching the scenes in the bedroom.

Katie is played exceptionally well and I find her strong, despite at times becoming hysterical, mainly for putting up with her idiot boyfriend. She has an understanding of the entity due to the prolonged period of time being haunted by it unlike Micah. Micah is an idiot and I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with him as the movie went on. He starts out as a skeptic and doesn’t really believe Katie or put much stock in her story. However once he has proof, through his incessant filming, rather than being supportive of her plight he becomes a bit of a jerk. He openly taunts the entity (which everyone knows is the worst possible thing to do!) and goes against Katie’s express wishes, especially with the Ouija board, all of which creates tension and discord between them and allows the entities actions to escalate.

Props to Peli for creating such a tension filled horror movie, especially as he shot it in his own house … how does he continue to sleep there?! It seems you can’t mention Paranormal Activity without the size of the budget coming up. Yes it was a small budget but I think the horror genre, and especially this new breed of horror movies, lends itself well to low-budget stories and by setting it in the microcosm of the house … the only exterior shots we have are from within the garden … Peli reduced the need for a large budget. And the very nature of the ‘monster’ in this lends itself to this almost guerilla style of filmmaking.

Paranormal Activity is at the cusp of a new breed of horror movies: those that don’t have whatever it is that is supposed to be scary jumping out from behind you or hiding underneath your bed.” (912) I had previously avoided Paranormal Activity, as I do with most films that have a surplus amount of hype surrounding them, and didn’t think it could be as scary as everyone was making it out to be but it turns out they were right. It’s one of the scariest films I have watched recently because of the lack of a corporeal monster. How can you fight something you can’t even see? Having said that I don’t think I will watch any of the sequels because horror sequels are rarely as good as the original let alone exceed it.

Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors Blue)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

1993

Blue, the first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, may be inspired by the meaning of the first color in the French flag (liberty), but the irascible director would never be so literal.” (823, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies To See Before You Die)

Trois Couleurs: Bleu Juliette BinocheFrom the very first frame you realize that sound in general and music in particular play an important role in Trois Couleurs: Bleu. And of equal importance, as the very title itself suggests, is the color blue!

Trois Couleurs: Bleu most definitely has that art house feel and is much less polished than your standard Hollywood fare. Kieslowski chooses fantastically interesting and intriguing visual shots and frames which make the film a joy to watch. All his decisions are precise and chosen with care in order to focus the viewer’s eye on just the right thing, evidenced early on when the frame is pulled tight on a dripping brake line with Anna returning in soft focus in the background. Clearly this little detail is one we need to be aware of and remembered. “Kieslowski creates a film whose richness and honesty offer a glimpse into the enigmatic workings of the soul.” (823)

He employs extreme close-ups regularly to great visual effect, as well as the soft focus which helps the audience identify with Julie, played magnificently by Juliette Binoche, as she attempts to move on past the horrific events at the start of the film.

The film is not a happy one and has a melancholy feel to it so the color blue fits it perfectly. At the same time the blue enhances the emotional tone of the film. The color blue suffuses the entirety of the film from subtle ways like a hint of blue tint to lighting scenes exclusively with blue light. There is always an element of the color in every scene.Three Colors Blue

Music is linked to her grief and just like grief hits her at the most unexpected time. It’s an unusual tactic but one I rather like – instead of showing Julie breaking down and crying the music swells and it fades to black.

There’s a numbness to Julie that doesn’t really diminish over time. Rather it’s like one day she just comes to accept her loss which in turn allows her to begin the process of moving on.

While the film may be one of sadness it is also one about strength and re-growth. Joshua Klein sums up the film best when he says “he fills every frame of Blue with meaning, enhanced and accented in no small part by Binoche’s brave and powerful performance, which hinges on subtle tics and other physical nuances in its depiction of a broken spirit slowly pulling herself back together.” (823)

Halloween

Director: John Carpenter

1978

Halloween John CarpenterI first encountered Michael Myers when I watched Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later (1998, Steve Miner) which is like the 7th film in the Halloween franchise. Yes it was scary when I watched it but having now watched the original I realize how much more terrifying the John Carpenter film is. Halloween H2O is a much more polished product than Halloween which I think is a bit of a hinderance to the scary nature of the story. There is something rawer and more dingy to Carpenter’s Halloween which I think makes the unhinged nature of his killer more pronounced.

“Throughout the film, someone is always watching, be it predator, or prey.” (642, Kathryn Bergeron, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) As with all horror films there is a sense of voyeurism but with Halloween Carpenter immediately situates the viewer in that role by opening the film the way he does. As Bergeron says, “the film’s opening is itself a radiantly executed point-of-view take, peering through the eyes of the then-six-year-old killer.” (642) The age at which Michael first kills sets him apart from the other iconic serial killers established during the 1970s and 1980s. The only other character close to his age in this genre is Damien (The Omen, 1976, Richard Donner) and he isn’t so much a serial killer as the Antichrist. And then to add to the horror of watching a six-year-old’s first kill he has to be dressed as a clown which adds a whole other level of terror … everyone knows clowns are some of the scariest things around!

“The intensity of Carpenter and Debra Hill’s screenplay lies in situating the terror in the calm visage of suburbia, where one would (or at least used to) assume children were safe and sound.” (642) I did find for all that the title itself suggests Halloween, there is very little evidence to situate the narrative in an iconic holiday. Even the weather throws you off as nobody appears to need a jumper let alone a coat despite it being the very end of October. There’s a rather substantial lack of any Halloween decorations in this sleepy little area of suburbia as well as next to nobody out trick-or-treating. Now this wouldn’t have been all that out-of-place had it been in England as Halloween is a rather lack luster affair over here but it’s a pretty big deal over in the States.

“No director since Alfred Hitchcock has managed to capture the delicious voyeurism of horror as well as John Carpenter in Halloween, a film so entrenched with our primordial anxieties that it continues to define the genre several decades later.” (642) There are numerous nods towards the established grand-daddy of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. None more so than casting Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of the lone virginal survivor, Laurie. Who better to be the star in a film that so obviously pays homage to the ‘master of suspense’ than the daughter of one of the most famous Hitchcock leading ladies, Janet Leigh?!

Jamie Lee Curtis is every bit the female horror protagonist. She’s flighty yet has a steely core of determination and the will to fight against a seemingly invincible foe. And of course it’s her virtue that is her saving grace, underscoring that common theme across the horror genre that being a virgin will ultimately save your life.

Nothing is really resolved by the climax of the film (as we know from the 7 subsequent films … plus the 2 remakes from Rob Zombie in 2007 and 2009) which adds to the terror of the overall story. As Bergeron says, “in the end, we are left to wonder uncomfortably about the thread of separation between fact and fiction.” (642) It is this sense of questioning our own eyes that for me makes the film all the more memorable – as does Myers disturbing mask (an extremely dodgy likeness, or rather attempt, of William Shatner)Michael Myers Halloween

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

1956

The Man Who Knew Too Much Alfred Hitchcock“Hitchcock’s only remake of one of his own films raises the issue of the superiority of his American work to his British productions. Though the original 1934 version is witty, the remake is more lavish and expert, with some of Hitchcock’s most powerful scenes.” (325, BP, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I am coming to the conclusion that I am not much of a Hitchcock fan. Sure he may be the ‘Master of Suspense’ and have created many of the forms now used in thrillers or suspense movies, not to mention in the horror genre, but I just don’t find his films all that remarkable. In all honesty I prefer films based on his works like Disturbia (D.J. Caruso, 2007) which is a re-make, I suppose you could say, of Rear Window (1954).

Doris Day is the obvious Hitchcock blonde. She is much more capable than anyone gives her credit for, even her husband played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. As BP says, “Stewart indeed “knows too much”, not valuing his wife’s (Doris Day) capabilities.” (325) Indeed she is the one thinking clearly enough to discover the true location of her kidnapped son as well as where the ultimate set piece takes place in the stunning Royal Albert Hall, “one of Hitchcock’s best-ever set pieces.” (325)

I found the ending to be somewhat of a disappointment – the entire film careens towards the rescue of little Hank, finally culminating in the successful rescue and yet the final scene is lack luster with the family returning to their hotel room to discover the guests they so abruptly left behind sound asleep. The set pieces do keep the film ticking along and retained my attention just enough to be interested in the outcome. I particularly enjoyed Stewart climbing out of the church he has been locked in by the church bell rope which is both daring and amusing at the same time.

The soundtrack heightens the tension – all the classic elements of a suspense movie. There were times however when the sound was heightened unbelievably such as the immensely loud echoing steps as Stewart hurries down the road in search of Ambroise Chappell. It annoyed me and took me out of the story albeit briefly.

As I said at the start I’m now pretty sure that I am not a Hitchcock fan but we’ll see if that changes as there are a fair number of Hitchcock films included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.