Sunday, 12 December 2010

15 Directors Who Went Outside Their Comfort Zone (and Succeeded)

Ah, the inevitable sequel. I felt my list of 15 directors who went outside their comfort zone (and failed) gave off a far too negative message. After all, if directors never went outside their comfort zones, our film history would be far less rich. The 15 directors that failed are at least to be commended for trying something different, rather than sticking to what they know with every new film (a topic that will be covered in a future post). But for every spectacular failure there is a success story and plenty of directors have taken a voyage into the unknown and emerged clean at the other side. Here are 15 that pulled it off.

Danny Boyle

The Film: Slumdog Millionaire

Throughout Danny Boyle's career he has proven he can cut it attempting a variety of different genres. Having burst into the public consciousness with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, Boyle widened his scope, enjoying critical, but not necessarily commercial success with films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine. With Slumdog however, Boyle took things to the next level, creating an epic feel-good tale whilst retaining the harsh reality and brutality he has displayed in his previous films. Working with a limited budget, a cast of relative unknowns and in unfamiliar territory, Boyle took a risk with Slumdog Millionaire but it paid off massively.

Alfonso Cuarón

The Film: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

This is a strange one. Compared with his other work, Harry Potter seems a step down for Cuarón; it will most likely not be remembered as one of his great works and it is indeed the most lightweight film on this list. Similarities could be drawn with his work on The Little Princess but it seemed a strange choice for Cuarón to do a Harry Potter movie after Y Tu Mamá También. However, he emerged from it with his head held high. The step up in quality for this film compared to previous Potters is obvious, and it is purely because, no disrespect to Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron is a much more talented director who was able to put his own mark on what should have been a uniform family movie. Cuarón wisely left the franchise after this one movie but his brief diversion into big budget family films still stands up well.

David Fincher

The Film: The Social Network

There was a time when The Social Network was being looked upon with very sceptical eyes. Despite the presence of Aaron Sorkin, there was still a perception that this would just be Facebook: The Movie with very little substance. That was until Fincher came on board. David Fincher has built a career on dark themes such as murder, anarchy and obsession and whilst he had made a slight change in direction with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he seemed an odd fit for a tale about the bloke who invented Facebook. However, the themes that emerge from the film such as Zuckerberg's obsession, ruthlessness and betrayal were perfect for Fincher. He may not have been dealing with serial killers but the Social Network is still an intense study of human actions. Its core story may have been a world away from what we've seen from Fincher before, but he still found the perfect tone and atmosphere for this film.

Mel Gibson

The Film: Apocalypto

Mel Gibson's career may well be on life support at the moment, but somewhere between enraging a bunch of people with The Passion of the Christ and enraging even more people with revelations about his private life, Mel Gibson made a very good film. Apocalypto managed to enrage its fair share of people too but Gibson managed to combine his experience with historical epics and his experiments with making films in authentic languages to present us with a very different kind of action movie. A brutal and bloody Mayan epic using unknown actors, the history is a bit off in typical Gibson style but he presented us with a culture and era we've seen very little of on screen. We knew Gibson can do historical epics, sure, but with Apocalypto he took a risk and gave us something that's a long way from your typical historical action movies. Whilst other directors were playing it safe with sword and sandal movies, Gibson made something unique. He should have built on Apocalypto, but instead he went into self-destruct mode. It's a shame because on his day, Gibson is a very talented director.

Terry Gilliam

The Film: Brazil

Brazil changed everything for Gilliam. His talent was undoubted and as a director he was incredibly imaginative but his post-Python efforts still relied heavily on the troupes glorious comic style. Time Bandits, fun and unique as it was, seemed a lot like a more family friendly version of Python for example. Then came Brazil. Yes, Michael Palin showed up in it, but this was a clean break. Terry Gilliam was showing what he could do as a director with an enormous amount of vision. His sense of humour was still alive and well but Brazil is a great sci-fi film on its own merit. Without it, Gilliam would not have gone on to make the likes of Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was the moment where a director said a fond farewell to his past and went it alone.

Peter Jackson

The Films: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Now that he is one of the biggest names on the circuit, it is quite easy to forget what a big step into the unknown Peter Jackson made when he got the job making The Lord of the Rings. Up until that point, Jackson could best be described as a cult director, his most mainstream film being the 1996 effort The Frighteners. He was talented, there was no doubt about that, but there were more than a few eyebrows raised when he was tasked with making such a tricky and expensive trilogy. It was Jackson's passion and vision for the project that helped get it made however, and what resulted was a success that producers could not have dreamed of.

Stanley Kubrick

The Film: Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In my introduction to the article on directors who had failed when going outside their comfort zone, I marked out Kubrick as an example of someone who did it constantly and succeeded. Dr. Strangelove is perhaps the finest example of this. Kubrick had made some great films before this (Paths of Glory, The Killing etc.) but with Strangelove he took a step into the unknown. He was hardly known for comedy and was often regarded as quite detached and Peter Sellers, genius though he was, was a difficult actor to work with. But Kubrick made one of the finest comedies ever made and certainly the finest satire we are yet to see. From this point on, Kubrick's career began to be remarkably varied and he excelled in almost everything he tried his hand at.

John Landis

The Film: An American Werewolf in London

John Landis was on a roll when he made this film. Coming off the back of the zany energy of Animal House and the Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London was something a bit different but still one of Landis' best films. The humour was still there, although much blacker, but the horror and romance elements of the film worked just as well as the comic side of the story. In truth, Landis had been planning the film long before Animal House or the Blues Brothers but the film was still a big risk and financiers initially baulked at a film that was not a good fit for the comedy or horror genre conventions. Landis managed to create a great atmosphere for the film, which he would go on to recreate for Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

Ang Lee

The Film: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was the film that introduced many people to the modern Chinese martial arts movie and made Ang Lee a true household name. However, it was vastly different from Lee's previous work. The likes of Sense and Sensibility and the Ice Storm were much more intimate character studies and though Ride With The Devil had a bigger scope and budget, Crouching Tiger was a big step up. What we got was a thing of beauty. Made for a fairly small budget, Lee created a classic martial arts film. The action scenes were as graceful as they were kinetic but Lee never abandons story for the sake of action. A return to the genre would be very welcome.

Spike Lee

The Film: Inside Man

Spike Lee does mainstream, and Spike Lee does it well. Inside Man is a very solid film. It's not a classic but it's a smart bank heist film. Of course, Lee couldn't make the film without bringing some racial politics into it but the usually very vocal messages of his films are toned down considerably to make a well crafted popcorn thriller. It was a very interesting experiment for Lee, perhaps something he wouldn't want to make a career out of but he proved there was a lot more to him than meets the eye. The directing of Inside Man is exemplary and if Spike Lee ever wants to make another movie to appeal to the masses, he is more than welcome to.

Christopher Nolan

The Film: Inception

It's strange to think of this as a director going outside his comfort zone when he has constantly displayed an unrivalled level of creative vision in his previous works. However, you have to remember that it took his huge success with his Batman reboot for producers to take a punt on this work. Inception is Nolan's first work since Following that was not adapted from any other material and to create such a high concept, ambitious project from scratch for such a huge budget is the mark of an extremely confident director and studio striding out of their comfort zone. Batman already had a huge fan base, and there was much less to lose with The Prestige and Memento but for Inception, Nolan took a risk and followed his vision. What resulted was a box office success and the film of the year, proving more directors and studios need to take the plunge and go into the unknown.

Bryan Singer

The Films: X-Men and X-Men 2

Bryan Singer was no action director when he stepped in to make X-Men. The Usual Suspects had proved he could craft a great story and it was comforting that the project was being taken seriously with a talented director on board but Singer came with no guarantee he could give the popcorn crowd what they wanted. The first X-Men film was solid but cautious; after all, the comic book movie boom was yet to take off so it always felt like Singer was holding back a little. With X-Men 2 however, Singer made a classic in the genre. His lack of action movie experience never seemed to be an issue but the strength of the film lies in Singer's understanding of key central themes such as isolation and stigmatisation. Singer was regarded as such a sure hand with the comic book movie genre that he was tasked with rebooting Superman. It didn't exactly go to plan but it was evidence that Singer had carved out a new niche for himself as a big budget genre director.

Paul Verhoeven

The Film: Black Book

in the late 80's and 90's you knew what to expect with Paul Verhoeven. His films didn't hold back. They were highly sexual, relentlessly violent and very much in your face. When he got things right, they went very right (Total Recall, Robocop). When things went wrong, they went very wrong (Showgirls). Then, all of a sudden, everything went quiet. Verhoeven didn't make a film for 6 years after the relative disaster that was The Hollow Man, but when a new film did show up, it was a very different side of Verhoeven. Returning to his native Holland, it hardly showed Verhoven becoming a shrinking violent, but the tone was much more serious, dealing with war and Nazi occupation in admirable fashion. It was Verhoeven's best film for years.

Martin Scorsese

The Film: The Last Temptation of Christ

This was not the last time Scorsese would make a film you wouldn't expect (see The Age of Innocence), but having built a career on lowlifes, gangsters and psychopaths, Jesus Christ seemed an unlikely next target for Scorsese. Naturally his take on the matter was hugely controversial, and like the novel, it presented ideas that vary quite a bit from Biblical interpretations but Martin Scorsese has never shied away from controversy. Scorsese had always wanted to make a movie based on Jesus, and though it was a departure from his previous work he did exactly that. What we got was one of the better acted and more intriguing interpretations of the life of Jesus.

Alfred Hitchcock

The Film: Rebecca

We all know Alfred Hitchcock as the master of suspense, but he was a master of a few others things besides that. Adapting much loved novels proved to be one of them, and Rebecca, Hitchcock's first Hollywood film, is a classic quite unlike any he had made before or since. It feels so different from Hitchcock's other output partly because Hitchcock was kept on a much tighter leash for this adaptation. Producer David O. Selznick wanted a faithful adaptation so Hitchcock had less freedom to display his revolutionary tricks and plot devices. Nevertheless, despite working within tighter constraints and beginning a voyage into Hollywood film-making that would change cinema forever, Rebecca is a beautifully made and crafted adaptation. It proved that no matter what situation Hitchcock found himself in he could deliver the goods.

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Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Joys of the Small Town Cinema

Ask most people to describe their cinema-going experiences and quite often you'll be met with a raft of negativity. Ticket prices are too high, you have to re-mortgage your house and book yourself in for a heart bypass to get snacks and there's always someone or something to distract you from your viewing experience. The cinema industry, somehow baffled as to why people are put off going to the movies have been attempting to get bigger and better to entice punters. 3D films, comfier seating, giant screens, ear-splitting surround sound, multiple screens and full scale meals have become the norm at the cinema. It all seems a long way from the smoky local cinemas we used to see.

They do however, still exist, only minus the smoke. Whilst multiplexes get bigger and bigger and seemingly more and more uniform, there are an ever declining army of independent cinemas catering for towns deemed not big enough for Odeons or CineWorlds. These cinemas are far smaller, have much less choice, and probably won't be able to screen 3D films for another 30 years but they provide a valuable service to those that cannot always travel to the next town to catch a recent blockbuster.

I live in Swanage, a small town in the south of England with a population of around 9000 people. The nearest multiplex is a 30 minute drive away, and, as you may have noticed on my post on in flight movies, I don't always get round to see the latest must-see movies in the cinema. Swanage does have a local cinema, but I have tended to avoid it as the viewing experience is little better than watching a film on TV and it does not always show the films I am desperate to see. However, having missed the chance to see The Social Network on its initial run, I decided to bite the bullet and see the film at my local cinema, and it is there that I rediscovered the charms it can offer.

The cinema in question is called the Mowlem, an independently run theatre housed in a desperately ugly building in bad need of renovation. Upon entering I am greeted by stares of bemusement and borderline hostility. The elderly usher sighs and mutters "I guess we'll have to open up after all." Despite arriving late, it turns out I am the first customer to arrive for the screening. Apparently the film has not had more than 5 people viewing it each night since it started showing at the cinema. It seems the people of Swanage are unimpressed by The Social Network's rave reviews.

I am joined by a couple and we are led up to the cinema. "I'm not bothering to open up the main doors so you'll have to come round the side," barks the usher. We oblige and sit down wherever the hell we want on the horribly uncomfortable and worn seats. The trailers are shown on a screen that seems little bigger than a 40" television with a far murkier picture and the projection doesn't quite fit where it's meant to be.

Then there's the intermission. Remember them? The film hasn't even started but the lights go up, cheesy music begins to play and the usher shouts "does anyone want any ice cream because you'll have to come downstairs for it." The couple want ice cream and I wait patiently while the usher leads them out the cinema and down the stairs.

Eventually the film starts. The picture is murky, the sound is awful but The Social Network is a great film and I am satisfied.

So what did I learn from my horrible viewing experience? Well, despite everything I was charmed. The people that run the cinema work with very little money and judging by the amount of people in attendance, they're hardly raking in profits. The cinema remains open, however, and it is done for the love of film.

You go there and you don't know what to expect; a few years ago my sister went to see Titanic and the projector broke down just as the ship began to sink. You don't know if you'll be the only person in the cinema or if the whole town will turn up. Despite all the faults and the inability to compete with the viewing experience at the big multiplexes, these small town cinemas have heart and soul. The people that work there aren't teenagers earning minimum wage for their Saturday jobs, they are people that genuinely love the place, even if they act offended when you turn up.

If the multiplexes pitched up in every small town and these cinemas began to die out, it would be a real shame. These theatres hark back to a simpler time, when going to the cinema was about the film you were going to see, not the cinema itself.

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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

15 Directors Who Went Outside Their Comfort Zone (and Failed)

What makes a great director? Ultimately it comes down to output; great directors make great films. But there is an extra quality that truly marks out the best; range. Take Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick transcended genres and excelled in every new style he attempted. He made classics in horror, comedy and sci-fi, while all the time keeping his own personal stamp on his work. Kubrick wasn't afraid to try something new and different, and that's what made him the best.

Most directors know what they're best at, but a lot also realise that if they stick to that for their whole career people will begin to question their talent. It takes stepping outside of your comfort zone to prove yourself. Often it means less talented directors biting off more than they can chew but sometimes even the best, and there are some fine directors on this list, can try something new and ultimately fail. This list charts 15 directors that went outside their comfort zone, but misfired.

Kevin Smith

The Film: Cop Out

Kevin Smith is cinema marmite. He has adoring fans and hate filled critics. One thing you can't argue with is that Smith's early films were extremely personal; based on his life and with a script written by Smith that he staunchly refused to change. Kevin Smith movies were all about Kevin Smith. For a while this was successful, but after Clerks and Chasing Amy, the noughties were less kind. For Cop Out, Smith tried something new; making a buddy action movie from a script that wasn't his own. What we got was incredibly generic and bland. It hasn't stopped Smith branching out; his next film, Red State, is a contemporary horror film, but only time will tell if he can cut it away from the chummy pop culture referencing tone of his early work.

M. Night Shyamalan

The Film: The Last Airbender

Shyamalan needed a change. His films were becoming a joke, and he was increasingly gaining a reputation as a one trick pony. Shyamalan needed to move away from the gimmicky plot twist movies that had defined his career and went all out with a big budget cartoon adaptation. It failed, miserably. Poor acting, bad decisions and murky cinematography made this the worst blockbuster of the summer and proved that M. Night's name could no longer act as a box office draw. One struggles to see how he can restore his reputation from here. Unbreakable 2 anyone?

Brett Ratner

The Film: X-Men: The Last Stand

This may not seen like too much of a departure for Ratner; he'd done action before, albeit a very different kind of action. However the jump in quality required for X-Men: The Last Stand was just too much for Ratner. The X-Men series may have been 'just' comic book movies but they were built on very solid foundations; previous director Bryan Singer had approached the movies very seriously and produced two great films but it was always going to end badly when handing the series finale to a less talented director. A lot of the blame has to lie with Singer himself, and the script, but Ratner's directing was messy and confused and he has not been trusted with a major franchise since.

Michael Bay

The Film: Pearl Harbor

As much as it will pain people to admit, Michael Bay is good at what he does. His movies are generally explosive and cheesy and completely lacking in substance but that's all you expect from him. That lacking in substance bit is important though, because you need substance when asked to make a film about the deadliest attack on American soil in the 20th century. Pearl Harbor needed to be handled sensitively and subtly; instead we got a fist-pumping action movie with insincere emotion.

Robert Altman

The Film: Popeye

Proving that it can happen to the best of us, Robert Altman, director of The Player, Short Cuts, and M.A.S.H was given the prestigious job of adapting a spinach eating cartoon sailor to the big screen. Whether anyone actually wanted a live-action Popeye starring Robin Williams is a pretty important question but Altman should have known to steer well clear of this. Even the best couldn't make a good film out of this material.

Marc Forster

The Film: Quantum of Solace

I've made this point before but I'll make it again. Marc Forster is a fine director who has made good films, but to give a director with no experience in the action genre the job of directing the new film in a reinvigorated James Bond franchise was wrong. Yes, new Bond has a stronger emphasis on character and plot, which are Forster's strengths, but at the end of the day James Bond is about the action sequences and Forster directed them poorly, taking too big a leaf out of Paul Greengrass' book and giving us dizzying and rather confusing car chases.

Peter Jackson

The Film: The Lovely Bones

Peter Jackson hasn't always been a genre director. While his roots are in horror, and his stardom comes from fantasy, his work on Heavenly Creatures showed he had a gentler touch. He wasn't right for The Lovely Bones though. If anything, Jackson tried too hard, laying on spectacular imagery where it wasn't necessarily needed and valuing visuals over story. Jackson has evolved into a director of big films, and he does that very well, but for a film as emotional and personal as The Lovely Bones, more subtlety was needed.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

The Film: Alien: Resurrection

Jeunet is my favourite director purely for his absolute unique style. His films inhabit their own little world of big characters and whimsy. This meant he was a strange choice to revive a big franchise with its own world and back story. In truth, he didn't do a particularly bad job of it, but his own unique directing quirks and style just looked out of place in an Alien movie. Each Alien movie has very much acted as a showcase for the director's own style but while it worked perfectly for Ridley Scott and James Cameron, the glove just didn't fit for Jeunet and David Fincher. Jeunet has not made a Hollywood film since.

Ang Lee

The Film: Hulk

Ang Lee makes thoughtful and intelligent movies and his Hulk adaptation was thoughtful, and to some extent it was intelligent, but for the most part it was just dull. It's easy to see why Lee was chosen, especially after Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but if you go back and watch it you'd see Dragon is actually something of a slow burner. Hulk is very much a slow burner and while Lee's efforts to delve deep into Bruce Banner are admirable, at the end of the day Hulk is a comic book movie about a big green dude smashing things. It didn't help that the action sequences, when they finally came, were laughably bad. Lee will not jump so easily into Hollywood blockbusters again.

David Lynch

The Film: Dune

David Lynch is absolutely bonkers. David Lynch makes absolutely bonkers films. But the genius about David Lynch is that when he is left to his own devises he makes bonkers films that are really very good. When given a lot of money to work on a big sci-fi adaptation, David Lynch isn't really left to his own devises and instead we get a film that shows Lynch's mad style but limited by the confines of the genre and budget. Audiences just didn't take to Lynch in the mainstream, and Dune became a famous flop.

Roman Polanski

The Film: Pirates!

Polanski did his fair share of hopping between genres but his attempt to make a swashbuckling pirate movie was an unmitigated disaster. Polanski has always thrown up surprises with his work, and he was convinced he could make a great pirate movie, but the material just wasn't right for a man who's directing style has never been a good fit for an action-adventure. Pirates! flopped badly, and effectively killed off the pirate movie until Johnny Depp and co. revived it.

Guy Ritchie

The Film: Swept Away

You can blame Madonna all you want, but Guy Ritchie still made a terrible film and has only himself to blame. Ritchie has always been accused of being a one trick pony and while it is clear that he is most at home with mockney gangster films, you have to wonder how his one time wife ever convinced him to make Swept Away. The jump from gangster caper to island romance is a pretty big one to take and needless to say Ritchie failed miserably. It didn't help that Madonna was atrocious in it, but it must be difficult to tell your lead actress that when she's your wife.

Jim Sheridan

The Film: Get Rich or Die Tryin'

Sheridan was a bizarre choice for 50 Cent's self congratulatory disaster. Sure, I can see the logic on getting a respected director in, especially as Eminem had Curtis Hanson for 8 Mile but this film was such a long way from anything Sheridan had done before it just seemed way out of left field. The transition from powerful Daniel Day Lewis dramas to the tales of a rapper's rise from the mean streets was not smooth and it didn't help that 50 Cent lacked Eminem's charisma. Needless to say, it was no 8 Mile.

Sylvester Stallone

The Film: Staying Alive

It's easy to forget that Stallone is an Oscar nominated screenwriter and when he directs himself in his strongest franchises (Rocky, Rambo) the results aren't too bad. Stallone is more than just an action hero but he should stick to what he knows. What he was doing writing, directing and producing a sequel to Saturday Night Fever is anyone's guess. Stallone has proved he can write, he has proved he can direct, but only with the right vehicle. Staying Alive was a long way from being the right vehicle and was extremely damaging to Stallone's reputation behind the camera.

Chris Weitz

The Film: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass should have been a sure thing; a beloved children's book, in many ways better than the Potter franchise, with an epic quality that everyone wanted post-Lord of the Rings. Weitz, however, managed to kill the franchise before it even got going. Weitz had done very little to prove he had earned the right to direct a major franchise; American Pie was good but just a teen comedy and About a Boy was fairly diverting but little more than that. In more experienced hands, The Golden Compass could have started a major money-spinning franchise, instead it just reflected the mediocrity of the director.

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Monday, 29 November 2010

Some Classic Leslie Nielsen Lines

As you have no doubt already heard, legendary comic actor Leslie Nielsen died today at the age of 84. A master of the deadpan delivery, his roles in Airplane! and the Naked Gun series will go down in comedy history. I figured the best way to pay tribute to him was to repeat some of his best movie lines. They're even funnier if you read it to yourself in Nielsen's voice...

Airplane! (Dr. Rumack)

Rumack: You'd better tell the Captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine Dickinson : A hospital? What is it?
Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.

Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.

Rumack: What was it we had for dinner tonight?
Elaine Dickinson: Well, we had a choice of steak or fish.
Rumack: Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagna.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (Frank Drebin)

Frank: It's the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girls dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.
Jane: Goodyear?
Frank: No, the worst.

Frank: It's true what they say: Cops and women don't mix. It's like eating a spoonful of Drano; sure, it'll clean you out, but it'll leave you hollow inside.

Frank: Jane, since I've met you, I've noticed things that I never knew were there before... birds singing, dew glistening on a newly formed leaf, stoplights.

Frank: I'd known her for years. We used to go to all the police functions together. Ah, how I loved her, but she had her music. I think she had her music. She'd hang out with the Chicago Male Chorus and Symphony. I don't recall her playing an instrument or being able to carry a tune. Yet she was on the road 300 days of the year. In fact, I bought her a harp for Christmas. She asked me what it was.

The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (Frank Drebin)

Lt. Frank Drebin: Now, Jane, what can you tell us about the man you saw last night?
Jane Spencer: He's Caucasian.
Ed Hocken: Caucasian?
Jane Spencer: Yeah, you know, a white guy. A moustache. About six-foot-three.
Lt. Frank Drebin: Awfully big moustache.

Lt. Frank Drebin: I'm single! I love being single! I haven't had this much sex since I was a Boy Scout leader!
Lt. Frank Drebin: I mean at the time I was dating a lot.

President George Bush: Frank, please consider filling a post I'm creating. It may mean long hours and dangerous nights, surrounded by some of the scummiest elements in our society.
Lt. Frank Drebin: You want me to be in your cabinet?

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (Frank Drebin)

Tanya Peters: What are you doing?
Frank Drebin: Oh! I was, uh, just conjugating my next move.
Tanya Peters: Your bishop's exposed.
Frank Drebin: It's these pants.

Frank Drebin: Cheer up, Ed. This is not goodbye. It's just I won't ever see you again.

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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

10 Minor Characters Given Overly Dramatic Death Scenes

So you're an actor and you're struggling to get your big break. Your agent calls and they've got you a part in a big new Hollywood film. The only problem is that you only have a handful of lines of dialogue and have barely any influence on the main plot. However, the director wants a tacked on, emotional scene to give a false sense of pathos. Your character gets to die and you get to make tragic faces despite the audience knowing barely anything about who you're playing. It's win-win.

Welcome to the world of the overly dramatic death scenes for minor characters. Here are some of the most notable:

Haldir in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

For the climatic battle of Helm's Deep, Peter Jackson and co. had a problem. Aragorn and friends were facing a battle against overwhelming odds but, as fans of reading will know, no-one particularly important was going to die. How are we meant to get our emotional kick when the only one's dying are a few grizzled peasants? Craig Parker, that's how.

Some genius remembered the character of Haldir, played by Parker for all of two minutes in the first film in the trilogy and decided it would be a great idea to bring him back and swiftly kill him, just so the audience has something to be sad about. Said genius probably didn't stop to think that the audience might not really care too deeply for that elf that was in Lothlorien for a bit. So, Haldir returns to honour an allegiance between men and elves and then dies in a way that is something of a running theme in this list; fighting heroically until his last breath and passing away in the hero's arms. Absolutely no-one was upset about this.

Mifune in The Matrix Revolutions

Having killed off most of the poorly fleshed out supporting characters in the first film, the producer's of the Matrix sequels decided to introduce thousands more supporting players to be poorly fleshed out, but this time with with stupider names like Ballard or Sparks. One of the characters to get a better deal was Mifune (Nathaniel Lees). Not only did he get to make a rousing speech, he got a pretty good death too. Not from the character's point of view of course; having your face cut up by Sentinal tentacles must sting, but Nathaniel Lees must have loved the opportunity to show off his range of facial expressions, which vary from 'stern' to 'angry.'

Needless to say, Mifune dies fighting heroically until his last breath, only this time he doesn't die in the hero's arms but in the arms of the tedious kid that no-one likes.

Hagen in Gladiator

Having failed to turn the phrase "Hagen dies" into some sort of joke involving ice cream, I'll cut straight to the point; Hagen (Ralf Moeller) was doomed from the start. Hagen is a classic bad-ass with a good heart. At first he gives Russell Crowe a good kicking and the audience thinks he's kind of a dick but then he turns out to be a good guy and a fierce warrior. He's willing to fight with Maximus to the death, and, as with a lot of characters willing to fight with the main character to the death, he dies. Hagen defends Proximo's Gladiator school as Maximus attempts to escape, showing how much of a bad-ass he is along the way before ultimately dying fighting heroically until his last breath. Again.

Ben Hayes in King Kong (2005)

This was never going to end well. Peter Jackson had shown in The Two Towers that he would never be happy with just letting faceless expendables die so one or two of the not-so-important supporting players were doomed the minute they set foot on Skull Island. Jack Black's film crew got a pretty unfair deal but it was Ben Hayes (Evan Parke) who was there to pack an emotional punch. A wise and weary mentor and father figure to Jamie Bell's Jimmy, the audience was instantly made aware of him being a good guy because he knew stuff about books.

Having established this bond between Hayes and Jimmy, Jackson proceeds to kill Hayes in a horrifying way; first being crushed by King Kong and then thrown to a bottom of a canyon. Needless to say, Hayes died heroica...well you know the rest.

Tommy Ryan in Titanic

Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry) DID NOT die heroically fighting until his last breath, thus making this list less monotonous.

Having established himself as a man of good character based purely on the fact that he was Irish, Ryan epitomised the fun and exciting ethic diversity of steerage class and how far it was removed from the evil and boring rich people. He was doomed, however, along with his partner in crime Fabrizio, who suffered death by funnel.

It was a tall order for Tommy Ryan to have a distinctively tragic death in a film full of tragic deaths but being shot by 1st Officer Murdoch in the scuffle for survival is pretty tragic. Murdoch shooting himself afterwards didn't help either.

The Not-So-Important Jedi in Revenge of the Sith

There's nothing like a good montage of mass murder to tug on the heartstrings. George Lucas even went one step further and decided to get younglings involved. But for the actors who had endured hours in make-up to play background Jedi with only the occasional cool looking lightsaber kill to show for it, this was their moment in the sun. Order 66 is executed and the Clone Troopers turn on the Jedi and kill them one by one in a series of cowardly ways. We don't know anything about these characters, but it's kind of sad in a way. Well, a bit. But not much.

Rest in peace pointy headed beard man and kind-of-hot blue woman. Rest in peace.

Dr. Satnam Tsurutani in 2012

Remember when Jimi Mistry was going to be the next big thing in Hollywood after he made East is East and set off to make the god-awful The Guru? Well this is where he ended up. Tsurutani is pretty much responsible for finding out the world is going to end. He has a nice family too. Chiwetel Ejiofor really wants to save him but he encounters the evils of bureaucracy and doesn't. Thus, Tsurutani, nice family and all, dies with everyone else, leaving the many dislikeable and undeserving characters to survive on the arks.

Frank Harris in The Day After Tomorrow

While we're on the issue of Roland Emmerich disaster movies, we best cover The Day After Tomorrow. What Emmerich really, really, likes to do is take a small character, give him the slightest hint of emotional depth and pathos, and have him die in a sad yet contrived situation and expect the audience to feel bad about this. We saw this with Satnam Tsurutani and we saw it with Frank Harris (Jay O. Sanders).

Harris is a grizzled old timer, loyal to the end to Dennis Quaid. We know very little about him, but he's a good guy. So when he falls through glass and is left dangling high above a shopping centre and threatens to pull his colleagues to their doom with him, he cuts the rope and falls to his death to save them. Note the variation from the common theme; Harris sacrifices himself heroically, rather than fighting heroically.

Stan Olber in Volcano

Staying on the theme of heroic sacrifices, Stan Olber (John Carroll Lynch) saves a bunch of people from a subway train being consumed by lava (for those that haven't seen it, Volcano is about a volcano erupting in down town L.A., for some reason). As a reward for his valiant efforts, he slowly burns to death after jumping into a pool of lava. You can't help thinking that Stan should have made a better job of his jump but this scene has the distinction of being one of the only memorable things in Volcano. Thus a small character is transformed into a tiny redeeming feature of an otherwise terrible, terrible movie.

Ivan Dubov in Face/Off

The character of Dubov is instantly rendered cooler by the fact that he's played by Frank Subotka from The Wire (Chris Bauer). His role is small, but important to the plot and featuring an impressive amount of drool. Dubov is an enemy of Nic Cage's (except Nic Cage isn't really Nic Cage, of course) but when the idea is suggested that they work together on a escape, he come's around to the idea pretty quickly and all of a sudden Cage and Bauer are best buds. Dubov does most of the hard work in helping Cage escape, but is thrown off a walk-way and dangles over a big drop with only a gun and Cage's hand between him and falling. Naturally, he falls and Cage is briefly sad before forgetting about him completely.

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Confessions of a Film Fan

Forgive me film world for I have sinned. Not since I admitted to enjoying Alien 3 has such a wave of guilt washed over me. But the truth must out.

So here goes; my confession, or to be more precise, confessions.

Confession Number One: Until last week I had not seen Inception or Toy Story 3.

Confession Number Two: When I did finally see them, I saw them on a plane.

On top of the shame of committing such a mortal sin, I actually managed to rationalise my decision. I had suffered the misfortune of not getting the chance to see two of the best reviewed films of the year in cinemas over the summer. Don't ask me how this happened, or how exactly I managed to catch mediocre fare like Prince of Persia and miss these gems, but I did. So when I heard that both films would be showing on my British Airways flight to Dubai, I let my excitement get the better of me. Sure the DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the films were only weeks (and in the case of Toy Story 3, days) away but I was finally getting my chance to see two films that I had completely failed to see in their rightful place on the big screen.

After all, I have a long-standing theory about great movies. They should be great, no matter how you view them. If you have a film that is great in 3D on an IMAX screen but is actually kind of dull when you stick it in a DVD player (Avatar) then it is not great film. Inception and Toy Story 3 are great films; they hold up entirely on their own merits. But now I wish I'd seen them in the way they should have been seen.

I have no problem with in-flight movies. If I am going to be sitting in one place for 7 and a half hours with barely any room to move I'm going to want something to watch. What's more, it's great that technology has moved on in recent years and you can actually choose what film you want to watch on a screen right in front of you. No more craning your neck because you're so bored you actually decided to watch the Katherine Heigl film that's on a monitor 8 rows in front of you. But, if I have learned one thing, it is NEVER watch an in-flight movie if you actually have high expectations for it.

During my flight, I found myself watching two amazing films on a 7 inch screen with a brightness adjuster that ranged between "pitch black" and "brighter than the sun" with nothing in between. My viewing experience was hampered by the rather large lady in the seat in front with a remarkable resemblance to Meatloaf who decided to recline fully and place her hands on the back of her seat, which just happened to be where my TV screen was. The sound was either whisper quiet or ear-bleedingly loud and the already quite difficult to understand Ken Watanabe was completely indecipherable. Important plot points or emotional scenes were routinely interrupted by bad food or somebody trying to sell me cheap booze.

Of course, I knew my viewing experience would be like this. I've been on a plane before. But somehow, I cheated my brain into thinking this was the best way to see these films, even Inception, which requires a lot of concentration at the best of times. I also happened to catch tedious crap-fests The A-Team and Predators on this flight, and I had no problem with seeing them there. Heck I missed Laurence Fishburne's entire appearance in Predators because I was distracted by a muffin the cabin crew had given me. I didn't care; the films were bad and I expected them to be bad so seeing them on a plane didn't matter.

Inception and Toy Story 3, on the other hand, are a different case. First chance I get I'm getting hold of them on Blu-Ray and finding the biggest TV I can. It's the least I can do to atone for my sins.

Oh, and while I'm getting things off my chest:

I've never seen Citizen Kane.

I'll go now.

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Friday, 12 November 2010

Ealing Studios is a Monument to Great British Cinema

So I've just arrived back from a stopover in Ealing. It's a great part of London to visit, not least for a chance to walk past one of the most legendary studios of them all. For an outsider there's not an awful lot of see, just a building with the iconic "Ealing Studios" logo on its front, but you can't help but think of the legendary films that have been made there and, for me at least, it sends a shiver down my spine.

Ealing Studios is truly something Britain should be proud of. It is, after all, the oldest continuously working film studio in the world. That's an impressive record, but more impressive has been the level of quality of its output. In recent years there have been lapses; the St. Trinians revival was unnecessary and the recent Burke and Hara was not well received considering the talent it boasted, but for a time in the late 40's and early 50's, Ealing Studios arguably produced some of the most unique and witty films around.

The Ealing comedies such as The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers seem just as sharp and infused with bitingly black humour today as they were more than 50 years ago. They were showcases for perfect writing, pushed boundaries and superb acting. Watching the Ealing comedies you can understand why Alec Guinness was so appalled that he became remembered chiefly for the Star Wars films. His performances in some of these films (memorably playing 8 roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets) were some of the best that Britain has seen.

If you're ever in Ealing and you have some time to kill, make sure you stop by to have a glance at the studios. To still be making films today is remarkable, but the history and quality of output of these studios make it a monument to truly admire.

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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Birdsong film edges ever closer.

Sebastian Faulks ever-popular 1993 novel Birdsong has had a bit of a troublesome time in making its inevitable appearance on the big screen. The rights were sold not long after the book was published but still we have not yet seen a finished product. There's been plenty of aborted attempts, but the Birdsong film has found it as difficult to be made as other troubled adaptations such as Watchmen and Don Quixote.

This did, however, look set to end when Rupert Wyatt, director of the excellent Brit prison escape flick The Escapist took the reigns. Michael Fassbender and Paddy Considine became attached to the project and there was even talk of the cast beginning to flesh out. But things have fallen eerily silent. Birdsong's IMDb page no longer lists the director or stars as being involved with the project, however it does still list a tentative release date of 2012. This seems optimistic.

As this excellent Independent article documents, this could be yet another one of Birdsong's false starts. However, progress is being made in other mediums. In September, a stage adaptation of the novel began a run at the Comedy Theatre in London, starring Ben Barnes (of Prince Caspian fame) as the novel's protagonist Stephen Wraysford. Reviews have been fairly mixed, but if the novel can be adapted for the stage, there is hope it can be adapted for the screen.

It will be a challenge to make, there is no question about that. To shift from the erotically charged first 100 pages of the novel to the horrors of the First World War requires no small amount of subtlety. Some of the book will of course have to be trimmed to make it manageable to movie audiences, but which bits? Will the producers, for instance, choose to skip over the story of Elizabeth Benson, the 1970's woman looking for clues about her grandfather's time in the war?

Then there is the war itself. The intensity and fear of the Battle of the Somme, described in Faulks book could well be adapted into an epic portrait of war, in the right hands, but the book is extremely graphic in its detail. Will this be toned down for today's audiences? If so, will the film be able to do justice to the horrors of war and the sacrifices made?

It's been many years since a great First World War film was made. A good adaptation of Birdsong could not only be a fine story, but could serve as intense portrait of what people went through in the war. It will make it to the big screen one day, but for the moment we are still waiting.

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Thursday, 4 November 2010

A.I: A Fascinating Mess.

It's fair to say, that if you wanted one director to make a film Stanley Kubrick wanted to make, then Steven Spielberg wouldn't be an ideal choice. Sure, Spielberg is probably second only to Kubrick himself when it comes to his track record but their styles were completely different. Some say Kubrick's films are cold and even heartless, I would say they are detached. Spielberg's biggest fault is his sentimentality that despite his best efforts, he has never completely been able to reign in. As such, the directed-by-Spielberg, imagined-by-Kubrick A.I. Artificial Intelligence was always going to be a clash of two schools of thought.

The result is a mess. But it is a fascinating mess. I hate to sound harsh but the faults most people find with this film do seem to stem from Spielberg's own flaws. The completely needless tacked on ending, the overly cute teddy bear sidekick - things you wouldn't see in a Kubrick film. But it's not as if Spielberg made a hash of things; his flair for visuals and emotion shine through, arguably showing a side that Kubrick could not.

At the centre of the film is Haley Joel Osment's David, a truly underrated performance that, whilst bordering on annoying hits the uncanny valley of portraying an imitation of the real thing. The best way to think of it is like the creepy motion capture characters in Robert Zemeckis films; impressively real, but not quite human. Osment nails this.

Other characters are not so great. Jude Law's Gigolo Joe is apparently far removed from what Kubrick conceived. I am not surprised. His light hearted, cartoonish nature just doesn't seem to fit into Kubrick's conception of this world. Robin Williams cameo as the holographic Dr. Know is more distracting then it is engaging.

So how did a film with great visuals, an interesting concept and input from two of the greatest directors of all time turn out to be such a mess? Well, simply that; it was born of two directors. This film could have been Kubrick's last hurrah, an epic story of what it means to be 'human.' It could also have been an upbeat Spielberg fairytale, minus the darkness and menace that Kubrick would have wanted. Simply put, this film could have worked if it had been the baby of either of these two great men alone, but with Spielberg trying to carry on Kubrick's legacy it does not. It will still always be a fascinating lesson in what happens when two very different directing style clash.

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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The 10 best Nicolas Cage films.

Nicolas Cage isn't exactly the most popular actor to ever make it big. Sure, he's appealing enough to land big budget roles, but there are plenty of people who'd much rather be forced to wear a helmet full of bees than sit through one of his movies (especially The Wicker Man).

Nic Cage is marmite. He's eccentric, he's weird, his hair is a bird, and he doesn't help himself by making some terrible, terrible film choices. I must admit it would be much easier to make a list of the 10 worst Nic Cage movies, but I won't, because in the last year or so Cage has made two films to help restore his reputation. They're in this list so I won't mention them here but they served to remind us that when he picks the right role (which he hadn't done for a very, VERY long time), Cage can be a damn good actor.

Over the years, he's had the mid-life crisis, made big budget duds (which despite a return to form, he is still doing), but in a career spanning over 20 years he has had his fair share of good movies. Below are 10 of his best:

10. Face/Off (1997)

Absolutely ridiculous. This is literally one of the most unbelievable plots an action movie has ever produced. Yet it is the best film John Woo made in a rather ill-fated spell in Hollywood, purely because it is an awful lot of fun.

Cage and Travolta are given the opportunity to ham it up and they take it with relish, producing cartoonish performances as a heroic cop and demonic villain who trade faces in a top secret undercover operation. It all gets very complicated but there are some genuinely good action sequences (Cage's prison escape is a highlight) and for a man who's made some pretty bad action movies, this is easily one of the better ones.

9. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Will not be the film Martin Scorsese will be remembered for, nor Nic Cage for that matter, but this film definitely had it's moments. Cage plays a paramedic haunted by visions of the people he's tried to save. Moody and atmospheric, it was a welcome change of pace for Cage, who was well into a string of ridiculous movies at this point. It gave him an opportunity to flex his acting muscles, resulting in one of his better performances.

8. The Rock (1996)

Probably the film that created Cage the action star, for better or worse, The Rock is an over the top Michael Bay film that came before Bay really lost it. After 81 tourists are taken hostage on Alcatraz island, Cage, a biochemist, must get to the site to disarm some stolen gas warheads, but he needs help. The interplay between Cage and Sean Connery in this film is great, and The Rock just works as a boombastic and entertaining action movie; a formula Cage would struggle to find in future movies.

7. Matchstick Men (2003)

Once again, a film that finds Cage working with a top director for a smaller, less spectacular film. What Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men lacks in big budget excess it makes up for in charm and wit. Cage is perfectly cast as an obsessive compulsive con-man, playing up to his trademark quirks and neurotic style. The twist is somewhat disappointing, but Matchstick Men makes for an entertaining and diverting conman movie that works well because it plays to Cage's strengths, offering great support from Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman.

6. Lord of War (2005)

A film that is arguably best remembered for its inventive opening credits sequence if anything else, Lord of War may have glossed over a serious issue, but it certainly left the viewer with something to think about. Cage gleefully plays an amoral arms dealer, charting his pursuit by an interpol agent, his family relationships and the inner conflicts of his job. At times both funny and haunting, it's an entertaining way at confronting an issue that is at the forefront of modern conflict.

5. Kick-Ass (2010)

The first of the redeeming films I mentioned earlier, this is Cage demonstrating he has a sense of humour, and moving away from the overly serious roles that almost led to him becoming something of a self-parody. In a film with so many great bits in it, Cage is one of the best. The Adam West-style voice he uses in his Big Daddy alter-ego is hilarious and his bizarre relationship with his daughter is as touching as it is twisted. This is exactly the sort of role Cage needed to help restore a damaged reputation with the movie going public.

4. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

The second of the redeeming films. This is Nic Cage at his crazy best. Too easily dismissed as an unnecessary remake of a not-that-brilliant film, it actually shares little in common with the Harvey Keitel original. Cage makes the role of the bad lieutenant his own; a drug addicted weirdo with a very loose sense of morals. The crucial thing is that he remains likeable, with a shred of decency that shines through and keeps you rooting for Cage's character. It's the strangest role Cage has taken since Adaptation, which is a shame because nobody does strange better than Nicolas Cage.

3. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

The film that won Cage an Oscar. It's depressing, often heartbreaking, and a difficult watch but features powerful performances, with Cage putting in a career-best performance as an alcoholic screenwriter looking to drink himself to death. Darker and more personal than anything Cage had done before or since, the chemistry between Cage and Elizabeth Shue is great and Cage was deserving of the recognition he received for a very challenging role.

2. Adaptation (2002)

The film for which Cage received his second Oscar nomination, it marked a brief return to form after a mid-career slump. The famously complicated and highly unique plot charts screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's (Cage) failed attempts to adapt a Susan Orlean's 'The Orchid Thief' into a screenplay. The film features a wonderfully offbeat performance from Cage, playing a meek and uncertain man, and getting the opportunity to act against himself as Kaufman's (fictional) brother. The most original film Cage has starred in, with Nic at his oddball best.

1. Raising Arizona (1987)

Whether there is something to be said about the fact that Cage's best film came out 23 years ago is up to you but it is one of the Coen Brother's best and certainly Cage's funniest performance. Cage and Holly Hunter but in wonderful performances as an ex-con and ex-cop who steal a baby. The chemistry between the two actors is superb and despite their twisted actions, there is something very sweet at the heart of this movie. It's the kind of role Cage needs to be in again at some point, but with a Ghost Rider sequel in the works (who asked for that!?) we might need to hold our breath.

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Thursday, 9 September 2010

Classic Performances: Robert Shaw in Jaws

Jaws has a fairly unique position in cinema history in that it helped create a mythic fear of a creature that endures till this day. Sure, people were aware of the stories of man-eating sharks but for most they were rarely regarded as a direct threat. However, after seeing Jaws, an awful lot of people became hesitant to go back in the water. Steven Spielberg had given us the ultimate movie monster; powerful, relentless, remorseless, and a significant threat to human beings.

I, like most youngsters upon first viewing Jaws, was captivated by it. But unlike many, the shark was never the star for me. I saw Robert Shaw's Quint as the best thing about the film, and I still do till this day.

The character has plenty of critics; Quint is often viewed as too much of a caricature, a character to be parodied. It's true that he was a part of the film that perhaps required a further stretch of the imagination than for the shark itself, but for me he was such a charismatic and menacing character that I was fascinated by him.

Many would suggest that Quint wasn't too much of a stretch for Robert Shaw. His grizzled and temperamental attitude was something that Shaw had made a career out of, playing similar characters to Quint before and after Jaws. But Robert Shaw was a brilliant actor, and demonstrated it in a single speech which, to me, was the most memorable thing about the film;

Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We'd just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes.

Didn't see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know, was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin' by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. It was sorta like you see in the calendars, you know the infantry squares in the old calendars like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark come to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and sometimes that shark he go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away.

Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn't even seem to be livin'... 'til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin' and your hollerin' those sharks come in and... they rip you to pieces.

You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don't know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin', Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson's mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he'd been bitten in half below the waist.

At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot, lot younger than Mr. Hooper here, anyway he spotted us and a few hours later a big ol' fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.

Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

This speech is rightly viewed as one of the greatest in cinema history. The intensity with which it is delivered is mesmerising and it is one of the academy's great mistakes that Robert Shaw was not even nominated for an Oscar; he should have got one based on the strength of the delivery of this speech alone. It contributed so much to the depth of Quint's character; a complicated, often dangerous man bordering on obsession who has experienced the true horror of his aquatic enemy.

Jaws is fundamentally a horror film; the shark is not too far removed from slashers like Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers, but one of the reasons it rises so far above these genre conventions is the strength of its main characters; Chief Brody's cautious heroism, Hooper's boy-like enthusiasm, and most of all, Quint's maniacal intensity. It will always be one of my greatest film performances.

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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

8 Memorable Movie River Trips

Sometimes the movie road trip gets too much credit. It's one of cinema's great clichés; the voyage of discovery or bonding experience that comes from taking a drive. It's not the only way to travel though, and some of cinema's great journeys have been taken down (or up) river, and it's time they got their moment in the limelight. This is a list of 8 great movie river trips. It's by no means definitive; I chose to leave out great scenes that take place on rivers (The Deer Hunter) or indeed great scenes of crossing rivers (Temple of Doom) but instead focus on journeys, whether by boat, canoe or even paddle steamer. This is simply 8 films that use a journey on a river to great effect:

Deliverance (1972)

Burt Reynolds leads a group of friends on a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River in a determined effort to experience it one last time before it gets turned into a giant lake. It doesn't exactly go to plan.

For its time this was a truly provocative film and even today it has the capacity to shock. Along the way Reynolds, Voight and co. experience raging rapids, jagged rocks and a group of back-country yokels that set the standard for stereotypical, backwards Southern folk that most horror movies can't even come close to. The tension rises as the group make increasingly unwise decisions about how to deal with the problems that befall them, leading to an edgy finale of nervous glances and suspicious questions.

Although "dueling banjos" and the infamous rape scene will be the ones that stick in people's minds, one of the true stars of the show is the river itself. Filmed on location on the Chattooga River in Georgia, the rapid scenes are beautifully shot and bring about a real sense of excitement. Of all the journeys on this list, its probably the one you'd least want to go on. Except, maybe for....

Apocalypse Now (1979)

During the Vietnam war, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a dangerous journey up river to Cambodia to assassinate the dangerous and charismatic Colonel Kurtz.

This is one boat trip you don't want to go on. As Willard and his crew head "75 klicks above the Do Long bridge," they encounter the full horror and insanity of war, and that's before Willard encounters Kurtz at the end of his journey. Along the way they encounter the eccentric Colonel Kilgore and his interesting appreciation of certain scents, negotiate the natural perils of the jungle, and come under attack from the locals. Not only do the crew experience the horrors of war, they even commit atrocious acts themselves. The entire journey is an escalating descent into madness, with a destination that will top it all...

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) has a dream of building an opera house in Iquitos in Peru. To do this he needs money. To get money, he needs rubber. Fitzgerald buys a paddle steamer and enlists a crew to reach an unclaimed patch on the Ucayali River. Its unclaimed for a reason though, and getting there is easier said than done.

In a way, this feels like a cheat. Sure this is a movie about a man trying to reach a place on a river, but the most impressive, and most memorable, part of the journey is Fitzgerald's attempt to physically pull the steamer over a hill to reach the inaccessible Ucayali River. Its a study into obsession, made all the more fascinating by the infamous on set difficulties and the conflict between director Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski (one of the native extras famously offered to kill Kinski for Herzog). The film shows an increasingly inconceivable attempt to overcome the obstacles of nature in pursuit of the ultimate dream. Likewise, the film was an ambitious project that had to overcome numerous obstacles to get made.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

As Willy Wonka takes the five lucky golden ticket winners on a tour of his extraordinary chocolate factory. The best way to get around the factory is by boat, and Willy Wonka takes the group on a psychedelic and thrilling ride along a chocolate river.

"There's no earthly way of knowing, which direction we are going."

This may well be the creepiest song ever sung in a children's film, and the journey's a little bit intimidating too. A seemingly relaxing and docile trip along a chocolate river (as you do) descends into a dark and fast roller-coaster ride with multicoloured lights adding increasing menace to Gene Wilder's face. Demented images with no place in a children's film flash up, as the increasingly nervous group begin to question Willy Wonka's sanity. It's creepy as hell, but it's one of the reasons why this adaptation of a very dark children's book is such a classic.

The World is Not Enough (1999)

Or, if you'd rather, Live and Let Die (1973)

In an explosive opening sequence, James Bond uses a prototype MI6 speed boat to chase an assassin along the Thames, taking in London's biggest landmarks, soaking the odd traffic warden, and destroying a few things along the way.

Let's get one thing straight, The World is Not Enough is not a great film. In fact, it's one of Bond's worst outings. But the opening sequence promised so much. The scene was an attempt to make Bond a bit more up to date, accounting for the climax of the chase taking place against the backdrop of the Millennium Dome. The action's some of the most exciting we've seen in the modern Bond era and, as always, London provides the perfect cinematic backdrop, especially for such an iconic British character.

Special mention has to go to the swamp chase in Live and Let Die, but it loses out because of the presence of Sheriff J.W. Pepper; to date the most annoying character to appear in the Bond universe.

The African Queen (1951)

Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) persuades a grizzled riverboat captain (Humphrey Bogart) to attack an enemy warship in WW1 era Africa.

An all time classic. The interplay between Hepburn and Bogart is the real star of the show, and the film is classic movie example of mutual hate turning to love. However, the thing that drives the film is the treacherous trip down the Ulanga River. The African Queen is a rust bucket, but its trustworthy and negotiates Hepburn and Bogart through rapids, jagged rocks and dangerous animals. At the end of the journey there's the biggest challenge of all; the Louisa, the warship they are determined to sink. This is one of cinema's truly great journeys.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Having left Lothlorian, the remaining members of the fellowship set off down the River Anduin towards Parth Galen, where they will eventually part.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy did a pretty good job of leaving impressive and epic images in you head. The Two Towers and Return of the King would take this to the next level with their vast battle scenes but one of the most impressive and memorable visions from the first film happens as the group rides down the River Anduin. The fellowship passes huge statues of past kings of Gondor, showcasing impressive CGI and creating one of the defining images of the trilogy.

The river would also be the setting for the breaking of the fellowship and the site for Boromir's final farewell. All in all, a pretty important part of the journey.

Into the Wild (2007)

During his voyage of self discovery around America, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) takes a kayak trip down the Colorado River, disobeying the orders of park rangers, and encounters two of the many eccentrics he meets on his travels.

Depending on who you ask, Into the Wild is either massively overrated or massively underrated. Either way, its hard to deny that the film takes in some impressive scenery along the way. The journey down the Colorado River not only showcases its beauty but also provides an important insight into McCandless' character; impulsive, often reckless, and determined to live out his dreams regardless of the consequences. Along the way, we also meet a quirky Danish couple, which naturally means nudity. They're not the most important people that McCandless will meet on his journey, but at least they're not Vince Vaughn...

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