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Yearly Archives: 2004
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is a permanent trace of an impermanent form: the live television anthology show. In the early fifties, the US networks produced several anthology programs in which new original dramatic plays would be performed live to air. By their nature these programs were destined to fade from memory: the form had been replaced by more conventional filmed (ie not live) dramas by the end of the fifties, and few of the programs were preserved. Yet they retain a fascination for those, like myself, who never saw them. Live anthology programs challenge the post-fifties conception of what the television medium is about: instead of being a poor cousin of cinema (which, despite all the great TV out there, is what I think most of us still subconsciously accept TV as), these shows took much of the best of live theatre and cinema to create a unique hybrid medium. The anthology shows attracted talented writers and created genuinely prestige programs. The Best Picture winner for 1956, Marty, was based on a Paddy Chayefsky-scripted episode of Philco’s Television Playhouse, while 12 Angry Men, an adaptation of a 1954 episode of Studio One, was nominated for the same award in 1958. Try to imagine an episode from even the best of today’s television shows being adapted into an Oscar winning film only a few years after airing on television and you’ll have an idea of how far TV has fallen in the cultural stakes. No wonder Hollywood feared it.
Dr No (Terence Young, 1962)
(Note: This review started out as part one of a planned seven-part essay on the 1960s Bond films, consisting of an essay on each film and a seventh part that would explore Bond’s journey since the 1960s. That project became so overwhelming that I have had to move onto other things, but I thought the first part would be of interest. It was republished in the 007 Magazine Archive Files, pictured at right, in May 2011.)
It’s hard to watch Dr No and not see it as the start of something. This isn’t just a product of hindsight – the popularity of the Bond novels meant the film was understood as the first of a series even on its initial release. As a result, it is usually discussed more as a template than a movie. Analysis of it tends to either emphasise those aspects of the film that foreshadow the series to come, or those aspects of this first entry that appear aberrant in light of the later entries. Such an approach is valid, and I won’t avoid it either. Yet Dr No, paradoxically, works as the originator of a series because it stands so well on its own. It was in the sixties that the best Bond movies were film classics in their own right.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004)
One of the reasons that Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s study of the American gun culture, was so wildly successful was that for the most part it renounced the faults of his other work. Columbine was a thoughtful, complex film that avoided the oversimplifications or falsehoods that tended to blemish his earlier films and books. It deservedly catapulted Moore into the public awareness after years as a fringe figure known mainly to left wing political observers, documentary fans, and media buffs. With this new attention coming to Moore during the extremely conservative presidency of George W. Bush, it should not be surprising that Moore would attempt to use his new popularity to launch a concerted attack on the US president. The danger was always that in the resulting film, Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s hubris and overzealousness would cause him to lapse back into old habits.
Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, 2004)
Every so often, when the accolades and box office seem to overrate the merits of a film, I find myself suffering a backlash against a movie despite having liked it. For example, Dreamworks / PDI’s original Shrek was a slick, fast, funny film, and I enjoyed it immensely, but from some of the reviews of it, you’d think nobody had made a send-up of fairy tales or Disney movies before. Shrek was, of course, far from the first such movie: it is the latest in a very long counter-Disney tradition that goes back at least to Tex Avery. And despite the reflexive assumption that the Disney studio could never make such a film, it came only the year after Disney’s manic The Emperor’s New Groove, a film I think is superior as a straight-out comedy. Indeed, there are many recent animated films I would rate above Shrek: the aforementioned Groove, most of Pixar’s films, The Iron Giant, even PDI’s earlier film Antz.
The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004)
One of the principles I try to hold to when reviewing films is to avoid simply savaging a film. The smugness of smart-arsed critics who can do nothing but pick apart a movie always irritates me. Which isn’t to say that bad movies shouldn’t be criticised. It’s just that the best reviews of bad films are those that also stop to note the good points amongst the bad. Likewise, most classic films have their share of flaws, and defining why these films succeed despite their problems is often difficult. Critics need to appreciate the elusiveness of the strange alchemy that makes a good film. As they say, nobody sets out to make a bad movie.
Nobody, that is, except Roland Emmerich.
Kill Bill: Volume II (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
When I reviewed the first part of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, I concluded with a rhetorical question: would anyone have enjoyed just the first half of Once Upon a Time in the West? My point was that it was difficult to assess Volume 1 prior to the release of Volume 2, since it was bound to end up as an empty exercise in style if it could never reach any conclusion. Sergio Leone’s classic sprung to mind as an example of a perfectly rounded film by a master of film technique that wouldn’t amount to anything if you showed just part of it. Having seen Volume 2 of Kill Bill, however, I can see that the example was all wrong. Once Upon a Time in the West is a film with purity of purpose that stands as a supremely executed single entity. Kill Bill, by contrast, makes perfect sense as two movies. Not only is each volume an anthology, constructed out of a series of episodes that add up to a larger whole, but each volume is starkly different in overall purpose and tone. I’m now convinced Tarantino intended for the film to be split in half all along, and I’m not one of those who hankers for Tarantino’s promised single movie version (I can see it being schizophrenic and unsatisfying, like From Dusk Till Dawn).
Mike Moore winning the Palme D’Or? It seems so bizarre that it is hardly surprising that in all the stories about Fahrenheit 9/11 preceding the festival, nobody had really suggested this as a possibility, despite the film being in competition. I can’t wait to see the film: I loved Bowling for Columbine, and am sympathetic to all but the most outrageous of Moore’s politics. Yet I also fear it may be terrible. Columbine I thought stood head and shoulders above Moore’s other work because he successfully reigned in many of his worst impulses. Moore has a weakness for hyperbole and half-truths that has brought down many of his other films and books, but despite the best attempts of the right to discredit Columbine, nobody really poked any serious holes in it. There is plenty of scope for a really devastating attack on George W. Bush without bending the truth, but I fear Moore’s anger and the praise heaped on him post-Columbine may have gone to his head. I can see Fahrenheit 9/11 descending into hysteria, conspiracy theories and factual error. Let’s hope I’m wrong: for all his faults, Moore popularises the left and has the kind of cross-cultural reach that usually only the right can achieve.
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
It’s ironic that Francis Ford Coppola made his name as arguably the leading director of the 1970s on the back of The Godfather. Just when Hollywood was embracing a new wave of film school educated directors, and financing lots of offbeat, low-budget “youth” pictures trying to recapture the success of Easy Rider, Coppola broke through with a very classical studio picture. It really is, as Leonard Maltin’s guide puts it, “the 1970’s answer to Gone with the Wind:” in other words, an epic but conventional adaptation of a lengthy source novel. Later, with Apocalypse Now, Coppola would try for a more highbrow art project that better justified his “auteur” status, but here – superficially at least – Coppola’s triumph is simply one of expert stewardship. The Godfather is, first and foremost, a perfectly wrought interpretation of Mario Puzo’s novel. People sometimes cite The Godfather as an example of a film masterpiece springing from a trashy book, but I think this is unfair to Puzo. The qualities that make the film great are mostly present in the novel: if we ascribe greater value to the film version, it’s because we are more willing to surrender to the experience of pulp fiction in the cinema than in print.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
There’s a sequence late in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich where two characters chase each other through the subconscious of actor John Malkovich. The deepest recesses of memory – such as childhood and teenage humiliations – are literalised as little mini-dramas that the characters can barge into and interrupt. The sequence lasts only a couple of minutes, but it’s easy to see it as the genesis for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the latest film based upon a script by Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. This time the mind we rummage through is that of Joel (Jim Carrey): a forlorn, withdrawn man whose relationship with the extroverted and impetuous Clementine (Kate Winslet) is in disarray. The central gimmick is that Joel and Clementine stumble across Lacuna, a company offering erasure of unwanted memories. Joel seizes on the chance to put the relationship literally out of mind, and the central portion of the film sees Joel wandering through his own mind and exploring his memories of the relationship even as they are extinguished one by one.