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

 

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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.

 

Alien

Director: Ridley Scott

1979

Alien Ridley ScottI really don’t agree with the majority of what Angela Errigo says about Alien. I first watched Alien while doing my media studies A-Level as part of a comparison into strong women in science fiction or the depiction of women in science fiction (I can’t remember exactly what one) and was bored the first time I watched it, let alone the multiple times over in order to fully analyze the film. My opinion hasn’t changed very much.

“Defying the Star Wars (1977) craze, Ridley Scott resurrected the cheap genre of scary monsters from space, introduced it to exquisite, high-budget visuals, and created an arresting, nerve-wracking, adult-oriented science-fiction horror film.” (643, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I find Alien dull and it’s now a very dated film with cheap special effects that make it feel more like a B-Movie than the fare of Hollywood. Aside from the actual alien I wouldn’t consider the visuals ‘high-budget’ And it’s about as far from nerve-wracking as you can get – instead of capturing (and more importantly, holding) my attention I find Alien a bit of a snooze-fest. The film takes forever to get going and when it finally does most of the action is hard to see thanks to the dimly lit corridors of the ship.

I get the whole idea that suggestion is always scarier than actually seeing something but Alien really makes the audience work at filling in and piecing together the narrative. Aside from the fact that Alien takes place on a spaceship it is very much a horror film conforming to all the genre specific conventions, especially being set in a secluded location (after all “In space no one can hear you scream”) and the power being cut resulting in the afore-mentioned dim corridors.

“[…] the sparingly glimpsed alien designed by artist H. R. Gieger, its terrible beauty given a startling grace by statuesque Masai dancer Bolaji Badejo.” (643) About the only comment Errigo made that I agree with is that the alien is truly a marvel of artistic creation and collaboration. Gieger’s design is beautiful in its own terrible way and has rightly become one of horror’s most iconic monsters.

“Weaver became a star and icon overnight as gutsy survivor Ripley, making her stand in skimpy vest and panties. She was actually set to film the ending naked, emphasizing the frailty of the human against the perfect killing machine, but 20th Century Fox forbade it, anxious to secure an R rating.” (643) Now my real issue with Alien (besides it being tear-inducingly boring!) is the above quote. Let’s just take a moment to think of the massive inequality summed up by this quote. It’s rare that I get on my feminist high-horse (mainly because vehement feminists only really serve to give women a bad name) but this really, really gets on my nerves. And it’s not just Alien but the whole genre especially and the entire industry to a lesser extent. Women are massively objectified and expected to be okay doing things that would never have been considered of their male counterparts.

Was it really necessary and integral to the plot for Ripley to make her last stand in only her underwear? It would have been interesting to know if that scene would have been the same when Ripley was originally meant to be a man or only added in once the decision to make Ripley female had happened. Would he also have been naked in order to ’emphasize the frailty of the human against the perfect killing machine’? I rather think not and not just because apparently 20th Century Fox didn’t want any nudity. It’s a glaringly obvious inequality in Hollywood’s expectations of its actors and actresses, especially in a time when actresses are becoming increasingly vocal about the subject, and for me takes away from the supposed strength Ripley is meant to embody.

The Muppet Movie

Director: James Frawley

1979

The Muppet Movie 1979“Although placing such ‘stars’ as Kermit the Frog, Fozzy Bear, Ralph the Dog and Miss Piggy in the real world (as opposed to the soundstage of “The Muppet Show”) robs them of some of their magic, The Muppet Movie still has plenty of magic to go around.” (649, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I must admit that I was underwhelmed by The Muppet Movie (and the reboot of The Muppets, 2011, James Bobin, now I come to think of it) Now don’t get me wrong I like the Muppets as much as the next person and they are definitely good for a laugh but I think they work better in the TV format – short, sharp bursts of puppetry mayhem.

The only Muppet film I like, well love actually, is The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, Brian Henson) which has long since been watched every Christmas Eve as tradition demands. I think the big difference is that there was already a fixed narrative that they slotted themselves into.

The Muppet Movie is an origins story of sorts chronicling Kermit’s journey out of the swamp all the way to Hollywood. Along the way he picks up key characters such as Fozzy Bear, Gonzo and Claudia, and of course Miss Piggy. Naturally the journey is far from an easy one and full of various high-jinks, including a dastardly villain intent on using Kermit for his own nefarious means. I never realized how much Fozzy Bear and his inane catchphrase “Waka Waka” grated on me before watching this film. And Animal remains my favorite Muppet although I do have a soft spot for the Swedish Chef too.

The Muppet Movie is a very meta film. It’s entirely aware of itself making numerous references to the fact that it is a film – even producing the screenplay at one point – but then that self-awareness is a key characteristic of anything the Muppets do. “And, of course, silliness, because Muppets don’t always agree with the laws of logic, let alone physics.” (649)

Another key element of the Muppets is the multitude of celebrity cameos they manage to cram in – all actors very much of the time the film was made. The only cameo I actually recognized was Steve Martin in an absurd waiters costume. Although I did love the brief appearance of Big Bird on his way to New York to break into television, but then I grew up with Sesame Street being a permanent fixture in my house. “But the plot comes a distant second to the songs and numerous celebrity cameos (some of them Muppets as well), culminating in an encounter with Orson Welles.” (649)

American Graffiti

Director: George Lucas

1973

American GraffitiIf I didn’t know that American Graffiti was a George Lucas film before watching it then I would never have attributed it to him. It’s fair to say that Lucas made his name with the Star Wars franchise – indeed his name is synonymous with the space epic. As such the expectation when you hear Lucas’ name attached to a film is that somewhere along the line there will be aliens of some kind. And American Graffiti is so very different to the exact thing that has made George Lucas such an iconic, some would say cult, director.

“[…] this hugely entertaining, perceptive coming-of-age ensemble piece of high school graduates cruising through one eventful summer’s night in 1962 was inspired by 1950s teen pics but set the style – often imitated, never surpassed in hilarity, penetration, or technical virtuosity – for a hundred and one rites of passage comedies played out in classic cars to a vintage rocking soundtrack.” (556, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) There are no aliens, spaceships, weapons or indeed space in American Graffiti and it’s very much grounded on Earth – early 1960s America to be exact. It’s about as different to Star Wars as you can get. There’s a wonderful nostalgia to American Graffiti that I really enjoyed.

American Graffiti carsThe cars – which are without doubt the central driving force (no pun intended) of the film – are spectacular. Colorful, loud and an unabashed statement of the owners’ personality, they are as individual as the people driving them. There’s a simplicity to the premise of American Graffiti if not to the actual events of the film. The core of the film is the final night for a group of friends before they go their separate ways for university. The charm of the film comes from the hilarity that ensues as the group scatters throughout the city and the night, each having their own unique (and sometimes unbelievable) experience. As Angela Errigo says “in what was only his second feature, Lucas demonstrated a charm and warmth not found in his cool, futuristic debt, the Orwellian THX 1138 (1971)” (556)

 Even in what is only his second feature film Lucas is bringing in people who will become familiar faces in is body of work with the inclusion of a young Harrison Ford as an out of town challenger to the title of Drag Race champion. There is a definite nod towards the original ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ James Dean in Paul Le Mat’s portrayal of John, the current Drag Race champion. Each character forms some new and unlikely connections during their escapades and it’s lovely to watch the original group of friends expand.

The soundtrack is indeed one of vintage rock which just increases in nostalgic feeling the older the film gets. While the performances are brilliant and very funny for me it is definitely the cars and music that stay with me after watching American Graffiti.

It seems that Lucas hit on the winning formula in his third feature (Star Wars) by combining the cool, futuristic feel of THX 1138 with the charm and warmth that permeates American Graffiti. “Shot in just twenty-eight nights for well under a million dollars, American Graffiti not only became a box-office smash, one of the most profitable pictures of all time, but it also received critical kudos and five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Director, a triumph that enabled Lucas to make an even more phenomenal mark with his next film, Star Wars (1977)” (556)

While I love Star Wars (even the much maligned prequel trilogy!) American Graffiti is a pleasant departure from Lucas’ usual fare and as such is worth watching. It showcases his ability to direct a film without having any tricks or special effects to hide behind, and makes me respect him that little bit more, which is a delightful change of pace. American Graffiti is a gem, one worth the time spent discovering it.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Director: Mel Stuart

1971

On the whole I enjoy Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but there are some aspects which drive me to distraction. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may be able to guess which aspects bother me – the children! While all of the children are repellent only one child really infuriates me and that unfortunately is Charlie Bucket. He is a wet drip of a child with a washed out feel to him, not helped by the poverty he is living in. It’s always a shame when you don’t connect with the lead character as your enjoyment of the film as a whole suffers for it. On the other hand I just love Grandpa Joe so at least there is someone to keep me engaged with the story through to the end as the list of characters declines.

“Although most children’s movies are saccharine, if not silly, Mel Stuart’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s novel is a happy exception. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a juvenile black comedy replete with flash visuals, engaging songs, and an over-the-top performance by Gene Wilder as the title character, whose claim to fame is being the world’s greatest candy maker.” (521, R. Barton Palmer, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) To some extent I agree with R. Barton Palmer as Willy Wonka is far less saccharine than many other family films – a great achievement when the whole film revolves around the creation of sweets and candy. It certainly has it’s dark moments – I remember being terrified of the almost psychedelic flashing images played across the walls of the tunnel during the journey down the chocolate river, especially coupled with the slightly creepy song Gene Wilder sings. But for the most part they kind of gloss over the other more bleak aspects of Wonka’s somewhat damaged personality.

I watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with my mum the other day and about a third of the way through she said that she preferred the more recent remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) by Tim Burton, which naturally set us off on a comparison of the two.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate FactoryThere are elements of the story that Burton was able to capture more believably thanks to the improvements in the world of special effects, most noticeably the chocolate river. It’s luxuriously thick and creamy in Burton’s version as opposed to looking like dirty brown water in Willy Wonka. Having said that the rest of the edible elements of the chocolate factory are far more appealing to the lingering inner child within me. To this day whenever I watch Willy Wonka I am filled with envy that I am unable to run amok amongst so many strange and wonderful edible things.

The songs are infinitely more memorable in the original and seem a more natural fit than those employed by Burton. Though I do enjoy the fact that you see the aftermath of the mishaps brought upon the children thanks to their despicable behavior in Burton’s version – one aspect that makes the film a more faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s original story.

“Like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Will Wonka is full of strange creatures, artificial sets, and lively song and dance numbers.”(521) My favorite part of Willy Wonka remains the ludicrous Oompa Loompas – so much better than the creepy incarnation Burton thought up. They have become a cultural icon and whenever I see someone with that trademark orange face and green wig I cannot help but be instantly transported back to the wonderfully sublime and silly world of Will Wonka and consequentially my childhood.

There are flaws to Willy Wonka, which I think are only noticeable because there is something to compare it to in the form of Burton’s remake but overall they can be overlooked and I am quite content to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory whenever it happens to be on television.

Life of Brian

Director: Terry Jones

1979

“While trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid accusations of blasphemy by clearly establishing that Graham Chapman’s Brian is “not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy,” Life of Brian plays fast and loose with New Testament characters, and along the way makes both satirical and moral points.” (641, Karen Krizanovich, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Of all the Python’s the one that I would actually choose to watch would be Life of Brian, and on top of that I also find it funny unlike the others.

“Although, the movie, like all the other Python films is essentially a collection of surreal, violent, and very funny sketches held together with a loose narrative thread, this one has – for obvious reasons – a strong story.” (641) It feels more cohesive and put together than Holy Grail, which is most likely because there is a stronger sense of narrative. Life of Brian clearly benefits from having one director this time round, resulting in a more singular vision. In the capable hands of Terry Jones there is a much stronger sense of visual aesthetic – and none of the crazy, if wonderfully crafted, animation elements that Gilliam bought to Holy Grail.

Life of Brian is wonderfully satirical with the signature dry humor Python bring to their most memorable sketches. And thankfully less of the puerile humor that I just don’t see the point of.

Graham Chapman is once again the unwitting hapless hero though a more engaging one than Arthur on Holy Grail. There are some very memorable and clever sequences in Life of Brian – particularly the brilliant ‘Well what did the Roman’s ever do for us’ speech. The stoning scene highlights the oft-times irrational attitudes towards the subject of religion in general, and blasphemy in particular.

Despite it’s extremely silly nature I love the fact that Caesar cannot say his r’s, along with a friend named Bigus Dickus – who also has a speech impediment when he appears. I was practically crying with laughter during that scene.

If I ever have to recommend a Monty Python film to someone still naïve in the knowledge of the comedy troupe it would definitely be Life of Brian – mainly because it is the only one of their films that I actually find comical and therefore their best work in my opinion.Life of Brian