Seldom Said

Sunday, January 29, 2006

This is a must see!

I recently enjoyed Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in State and Main, which is a clever and unexpectedly heart-warming comedy by David Mamet, so I'm looking forward to checking him out in the title role of Capote when it comes out over here. After reading about the latter film in the paper this weekend, I was reminded of where I first came across the ever-dependable Hoffman, in the painfully black comedy Happiness.

Happiness is one of those films that I was completely blown away by in the cinema, but which I have never quite managed to watch again, despite having a copy on DVD. Although I'm sure that I'll admire it every bit as much on a second viewing, my memories of the unflinchingly squirm-worthy subject matter always gives me pause. Other examples of this phenomenon include Barton Fink (which two friends that I saw it with utterly reviled, but which I still think is magnificent) and Lost In Translation (which I'm beginning to suspect was never as good as I thought it was after all).

This started me pondering: what it is that makes me really enthusiastic about particular films? And, in a related but quite distinct vein: what makes me want to watch certain films again and again? Now, it's quite rare that you'll hear me telling you how much I hated a film. It's not, as one friend has remarked, that I think absolutely everything is wonderful. Admittedly, I do find it very easy to like films and I'm not at all hesitant when it comes to waxing lyrical about the ones that catch my fancy. I don't often take a strong dislike to films, but when a film really offends I have been known to walk down the street afterwards angrily denouncing it. If it doesn't do much for me, I just don't talk about it.

There are other films in which I have found much to admire, but which I ultimately didn't really like at all and can find no good reason to see again. I'm thinking here mostly of The Man Who Wasn't There, which will probably ensure that my otherwise fairly comprehensive Coen Brothers collection will remain forever incomplete. This is a powerful and immaculately constructed film, but it succeeds so well in its portrayal of the irredeemably cold central character that I was left without any feelings of affection for it. Then there are those highly praised films whose tone or subject matter (or perhaps sheer perversity on my part) means that I have never even managed to watch them even once, notably The Godfather and Schindler's List, which for all the plaudits that they have received still don't quite manage to conjure up the requisite enthusiasm.

It's not that I'm completely obsessed with feel-good films, you understand, even if I must admit to watching When Harry Met Sally on an increasingly regular basis. Granted, the films that I'm likely to think of first in a list of favourites- Strictly Ballroom, The Hudsucker Proxy, Almost Famous, Royal Tenenbaums and Amelie - do tend to be romantic, even sentimental, but I think that these titles spring to mind because they are the type of film that I never grow tired of watching. If I sat down and made a considered list of my all-time top 100 (shudder at the thought), these would still top the bill, but they would undoubtedly be in more diverse company.

So, what is it that makes me really love a film, as distinct from just liking or admiring it? Humour and whimsy certainly seem to feature prominently, but I also like quirky characters, visual inventiveness, emotional resonance, clever plots... well, you get the idea. I've always rated Terry Gilliam's dark whimsies very highly (although the lighter and unfairly maligned Adventures of Baron Munchausen is my favourite) and anything by the Coen Brothers (with the previously mentioned exception) is pretty much guaranteed consideration. I also wouldn't hesitate to include both Bill and Ted movies in my list of favourites, not to mention LA Confidential, Leon and The Usual Suspects. And then there's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Oh and Moulin Rouge and...

I'd best stop there before I get carried away.

Notice anything missing? Yup, that's right: I haven't mentioned Peter Jackson or the Wachowski Brothers, and I certainly haven't mentioned George Lucas. This is where my effort to stick to my original objective become unstuck, you see. Because, while The Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies (but probably not either of the Star Wars ones) would make it into my top 50, they somehow feel like a different art-form altogether. Indiana Jones, on the other hand... No, no, no: enough already! The same applies to the animated masterpieces of Pixar, as well as Disney's finer moments: I love 'em to bits, but it's hard to know how to compare them with the likes of Casablanca or even Star Wars. Ah, but Spirited Away though...

Where am I going with this? If I'm not prepared to compare rom-coms with blockbusters or quirky indies with animated films, then how can I ever compose a definitive list of my favourite movies? Well, that's simple: I can't. It's a dumb idea. I'm sure I'm not the first person to whinge about this, but I don't care: it's worth saying again. Top ten films to watch when you're feeling a bit glum? No problem. Top five films I've watched in the last six months? Easy-peasy. Favourite Coen Brothers film? You already have that one. Compiling a list of the best of the best, however, always seems like an exercise in futility.

Which brings me back to where I started: enthusiasm. Lists of favourite movies and the ubiquitous five star ratings are all very well, but find it much more interesting to read about why someone loves a particular film, rather than how they rank it in their all-time greatest list of the Best Movies In The World... Ever! One of the reasons that I continue to read Empire (in spite of its obsession with lists) is for the in-depth reviews, but I am frequently irritated by the way that the text of the review seem to be at odds with the rating. It makes me happy that I read the online version of the Guardian's Friday Review section: for some reason, they still haven't managed to transfer the star ratings from the paper copy to the PDF, so I am happily forced to read the actual text of the review.

So, how can we counter the insidious effects of these relentless ratings and rankings? Easy. If someone tells you that a film is fabulous and a must-see, demand to know why. When you're scanning the film reviews, don't just look at the star rating: read the review. The next time you rent a DVD, resist the temptation to pick one from the 'best' list; seek out those hidden gems instead. And since revolution always starts at home, I'll set the ball rolling over the next few weeks by telling you why I love some of the films that I've mentioned here.

Reviews not rankings! Opinions not scores! Down with consensus! This has been a partly political broadcast. Do not adjust your set. That is all.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Running rewards

One of my resolutions for 2006 (in addition to writing this) is to run in at least three 10km+ road races. The increasingly popular Great Manchester Run, which I've done every year since its inception in 2003, is the only one I've entered so far, but I also have my eye on the Trafford 10K in March. Anyway, it's certainly high time I started training, so after wimping out earlier in the week I met up with my friend and colleague Sean for a run on Saturday.

He took us on a predictably long (11.5km) route, involving lots and lots of lovely mud, but we kept a leisurely pace so I didn't feel too bad afterwards. As an added bonus I found myself running alongside a kingfisher for a few wonderful moments on my way back along Chorlton Brook. Alice and I have previously caught tantalisingly brief glimpses of this elusive local resident whilst out walking, but on this occasion I was privileged to watch it gliding along for several seconds as it followed the snaking path of the brook. Magical.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Does whatever a...

OK, so the next film that we watched wasn't quite such a revelation, but it was a reasonably pleasant surprise nevertheless. Low expectations can really give film a boost, don't you think?

Not entirely sure what to expect from the man of steel's imminent return, but surely dear dependable Bryan can't go that far wrong, can he? Uh-oh, famous last words...

Saturday, January 07, 2006

An unexpected find

Just finished watching The Fog of War on DVD, which Alice ordered by mistake from LoveFilm. I'm so glad she did.

This commendable feature-length documentary is a fascinating retrospective of the life of Robert S McNamara, who was (amongst other things) the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. The film's's sub-title indicates it's basic structure: "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara". These lessons are drawn from an extended interview with the man himself (now in his late 80s), which is interwoven with a wealth of historical footage and accompanied by an original score by Philip Glass.

The most obvious focus is McNamara's frank analysis of the Vietnam War and the lessons that should have been learned from it, but the preceding accounts of his experiences during the Second World War (including his role in the decision to fire-bomb Tokyo and more than 60 other Japanese cities) and the Cuban Missile Crisis are no less compelling. I was left with a powerful impression of a sensitive and intelligent man, who, given a tremendous burden of responsibility and called upon to make monumentally difficult decisions, faced up to the challenge to the best of his abilities.

Apparently the interview was originally supposed to last for just an hour, but McNamara ended up talking for 8 hours and then stayed to carry on the next day, and came back again a couple of months later. Watching the emotions playing over his face as he talks about his experiences it seemed clear that this was a tremendously cathartic experience for him.

Even if you're not that keen on documentaries, I'd recommend this film: it presents an engaging (if at times chilling) narrative and McNamara is a very arresting central character. His "lessons" also have an unmistakable contemporary relevance that should be difficult to ignore.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Humble beginnings

Ladybower reflection

Yesterday saw our first proper walk of the new year: an extended (19km) ramble in the Peak District along the rock-strewn heights of Derwent Edge and beside the Derwent and Ladybower reservoirs.

The weather forecast delivered on its promise of little wind, excellent visibility and no precipitation, but there was a distinct chill in the air neverthelless. The sun also had a hard time burning through the clouds, which meant that the otherwise magnificent views were rather dimly lit for most of the day. The sun was setting by the time we descended to the lake, colouring the clouds and illuminating the mirror-calm waters of Ladybower. Alice was feeling the cold by this stage, so I wasn't allowed to linger for too long over my photography, but I did manage to capture a few choice shots of the wonderful reflections, including the image above.

Just as we pulled out of the car park it started to drizzle. Immaculate timing, I thought.

Inconsequential thoughts rarely worth muttering out loud