Classic movies you’ve never seen, but should really watch.

Don’t worry – it’s not a diatribe…rather more of a request.

Talking to my brother tonight on the phone, he mentioned having ticked The Graduate off the list of films he should have seen some time ago, but simply hadn’t.  I saw it years and years ago, long before any comparison between Ben and Ross from Friends could have been made (but oh, so very apt – except Ben doesn’t visibly swell as the movie proceeds, oil-sheened skin distending glossily with the pressure of impossible real world riches), and honestly don’t remember the balance of it – but as I recall it’d be a better use of my time to just watch Marathon Man again instead.

So, I started thinking about movies that I should have seen, but just haven’t, and decided to follow that line of thought by inviting the world to suggest ones that I (or indeed my brother) might have missed.  My Lovefilm queue needs a bit of padding out, if we’re going to be honest, and I don’t think Lisa would smile too kindly on me popping the entire collection of Best of the Best movies on there just for the sake of numbers.

One of the first I’ve added tonight is Five Easy Pieces.  It’s a classic piece of 70’s cinema, a story about identity that resonated with the era of it’s creation – a difficult story of frustration and resentment that offers up no Hollywood-style resolution to the question of Dupea’s ill-at-ease rebellion – and yet I’ve never seen it.  I’ve even quoted one of the most memorable scenes – “I want you to hold it between your knees” – and I’ve never watched the bloody film.

Well, that’s easily fixed.

So – what else should I queue up?

True Grit

Lisa isn’t a massive fan of Westerns.  I know this chiefly because I’ve made her sit through more than a couple in the past, trying to get her to at least appreciate them on the grounds of thematic and cinematographic merit, and every time it has resulted in her boredom alarm (in the form of a world – or, at least, boyfriend – weary sigh) going off every ten minutes.

Since I had used up all my good viewing graces (banked sitting through the slew of rom-coms that found their way onto our Lovefilm listings) on The Assassination of Jesse James and Appaloosa, I decided it was best not to push my luck and went to see True Grit by myself.

Continue reading “True Grit”

New Wordpunk post.

I’ve decided to start cross-posting links, simply because I don’t think I advertise my own ramblings nearly enough to satisfy the cravings of my nigh-insatiable ego.

Say that after four pints!

Anyway, there’s a new post up at Wordpunk by yours truly.  It’s about remakes, and the sad panda feelings they evoke in my fragile heart.


Extreme Athiesm Woooo!

So, it’s been a while since I posted, but I have an excuse. Lots of work suddenly cropped up, and I had to do it.

I know, I know.  Cool story, right?

Anyway, we’ve been filling what little spare time we have with running round the garden making enthusiastic noises at the chickens (they ignore us, they still go mad for raisins) and watching our LoveFilm movies.  Have to use up our monthly allowance, or it’s not worth having!

I know it’s had good reviews and people have been recommending it to me, but I wasn’t bowled over by Moon.  Sam Rockwell, who I normally love irrespective of what he’s doing (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is great, and you should go watch it), didn’t look particularly comfortable in his role. It felt more like someone repeating lines by rote than actually acting and the fairly slim running time (about 90 mins) felt more like a solid two-and-a-bit hour slog.

Wow. Linking that paragraph up, I’ve just seen the IMDB changes.  When did that happen?  It looks like the iPhone app version of IMDB now…is that a good thing?  I can’t tell.  Being human, I instinctively loathe change and want to kick off about how great the old IMDB template was, but the more sensible portion of me says I should give it a chance.  It'[s not like I use it for anything other than cross-referencing actors whenever Lisa asks me, “oh, what else has that guy been in?” and I can’t answer her.

We also watched The Lake House, which I have actually seen before and yet still managed to sit through a second time.  It’s not a desperately bad movie by any stretch of the imagination.  If you turn off your brain it’s a reasonably produced movie, albeit a touch unsatisfying – the dramatic punches are heavily telegraphed and rather weak compared to things like The Notebook, a movie Lisa refuses to watch because she knows it will make her cry.

Finally, we saw Stranger than Fiction, which I was so sure I had posted about that I had to search the blog twice to make sure I hadn’t already.  Have I posted about it somewhere else? I just don’t know. I can’t find it, so I apparently haven’t…and yet it feels like I’ve written everything I’m about to write already.

Anyway. It’s a Will Ferrell movie, in which Ferrell is the surprisingly restrained straight man, a dopy, plodding-through-life numbers geek who doesn’t see anything beyond the next day’s work at the office.  Obviously he can’t go on this way, and fate takes a hand by linking his life with the ongoing work of a famous author, played by Emma Thompson.  Unfortunately, she writes tragedies, and Ferrell is apparently doomed to an imminent death by an implacable narrator who he can suddenly hear.

Will Ferrell isn’t a great actor.  He’s good, with the odd moments that verge on great within a fairly limited range, and it’s a wise decision on the part of the writer and the director to keep him well away from Thompson, who seems hell-bent on acting the living shit out of what screen time she gets.  As disparate as their talents are, it works on the screen, with Ferrell’s deadpan demeanour slowly cracking as he embraces a life he did know know existed.  Thompson’s journey is a little less direct, but she’s more than capable of ping-ponging believably between highs and lows, between mania and depression – and the director is wise enough to treat them with a light touch.  One pivotal point for her character occurs off-screen, and the scene begins with a stoically bemused Queen Latifah picking her way through the debris of the tantrum it has precipitated.

I could go on about it for ages. It really is good, and worth renting along with …Dangerous Mind.

Right. That’s enough waffling for today.  I’ll post tomorrow or Saturday about the Great North Run.

I have geek oozing out of every pore.

Tonight we sat down and watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford.*

Lisa was firmly of the opinion that the movie, weighing in at two hours and forty minutes (approximately the same amount of time it takes to write the title out longhand), was a good hour too long for the actual amount of story there was.

Normally I’d agree, in that any movie that drags out a fairly thin slice of narrative past the two hour mark will start to make me itchy all over and I’ll have to take a break from it (someday I’m going to write a huge blog post on why the cinema is shit and you’re all going to hate me forever).  However, in this particular case I was captivated by it.

The movie is composed almost completely of silence and stillness.  The palette is muted, the cinematography flattened and obscured.  We see characters in the distance, at rest, hidden or distorted through lenses and the thick, puddling glass of roughly-cut windowpanes, we see them in mirrors, or through their own viewpoints.  There’s not a great deal of gunplay, or action, and when the violence comes it, too, is heavily cut-down – a thick-palmed slap of furious motion, then the long, drawn-out consequences that follow.

And even though there’s not a great deal of dialogue, not much being said out loud, the film is absolutely drenched in drama.  The acting, from Casey Affleck especially, is superb.  The camera lingers on each character’s face for far longer than any normal filmmaker would dare, and for a time you can barely bring yourself as a viewer to meet Ford’s eyes: his frustration, that simmering, impotent rage that turns over in his belly is right there in those heavy-lidded glances, and the bitter, oily twist of his grin.

Pitt, too, is very good in his role, although he gets less room to show his skills. James, iconic and enigmatic, remains largely so throughout the movie, and it’s only through the aid of narration and a couple of tiny moments that we actually begin to see a little more of the character coming to life.  It’s a shame we don’t get more of him, given the running time, but he is a legend in American history, and legends are perhaps best left painted only as an outline.

We know the ending from the beginning, of course, and it’s almost too easy to fall into the trap of seeing Pitt as a good man – even though the narrative paints him quite readily as a thief and a murderer – and Affleck as the twitching, baleful Ephialtes figure who betrays his leader.  By the climax, though, things are not so clear-cut, and we’re left swimming in a muddy world where no one figure stands out as right or wrong, and the motivations of the characters are less satisfying from a Hollywood perspective, but so much more from the perspective of humanity.  The players are capricious, and this gives the story much-needed tension.  As we build to the climactic assassination, there’s a palpable feeling of nervousness, of what if, because although we know how the story ends it feels like at any moment the situation could turn and history could be rewritten in just a single second of celluloid flicker.

That alone makes the movie worth watching.  Add to that a well-chosen supporting cast – a few big names in there but none that lumber onto the screen and jar your suspension of disbelief too strongly – and a brilliantly-paced epilogue, this is a great movie to spend an evening with if you’re up for something a little more heavyweight than the norm.

In other news, I got a Kuru Toga mechanical pencil! It has a tiny clutch just behind the nib that rotates the lead to keep the wear uniform across it, reducing breakages and improving the feel when writing.  So far, thumbs up!

*Obvious porn title – The Ass-Assassination of…you get the picture.

Meme, with relish, with movies.

So I fell into the meme trap a little while ago, courtesy of Twitter, and since it’s early and I can’t think of much else to write, I thought I’d do it again but this time with films.

That’s not true, really. When I was doing the book one I actually thought “I should do this with films” but decided against doing it immediately after because that seemed a bit cheap in terms of trying to think up my own content. Maybe it still is cheap? What the hell, it means I get to link up some great (and not-so-great) movies.

Here’s the jump.

Continue reading “Meme, with relish, with movies.”

Come see the violence inherent in the system!

I was thinking about the Mongoliad earlier.  I’ve mentioned it before, but I thought the topic was worth revisiting for another roundabout session of musings.  On BoingBoing, it says about the creative team:

Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and several very talented friends (including one of the neatest hackers I know and somene whom I’m reliably assured could lay claim to the title of “World’s Greatest Swordsman”)

From a CNET news story about it:

Stephenson came up with the idea for what became “The Mongoliad” after writing some sword fighting scenes in the novels that made up his so-called “Baroque Cycle.” The problem, Bornstein said, was that Stephenson worried that the way he’d written the scenes wasn’t true to how medieval sword fights in Europe actually looked and felt. From that humble beginning, the project grew into a collaboration between Stephenson, Bear, and a group of people with experience in martial arts. They wanted to re-enact the sword fights and build a new novel around them.

Now, I’m not sure if it was the intention, but all the things I read about the group of martial artists, the swordplay, the fight re-enactments, etc is the implication that writing from the perspective of an expert swordsman results in a better swordfight than that written by an amateur, or indeed someone with only a scant knowledge of the martial arts.

I’d argue the opposite.  I’d say that there are some brilliant fight scenes out there that have little to no basis in the reality of fighting whatsoever, and they are made brilliant by the skill of the author.  The pace of the writing, the character’s development up to that point, the brush strokes of action that paint the outlines of the scene and allow the fertile mind to fill in the gaps – these are the essential elements of great fight descriptions.

While familiarity with the mechanics of any expertise-based skill, be it swordfighting, farming, knitting or baking, can add verisimilitude to the act in describing it, experience in the skill itself is not really necessary.  In fact, I’d argue that if the practitioner and author is too eager, excessive knowledge can be a hindrance.

In the first case, the jargon that becomes commonplace to a skilled person is esoteric to anyone outside that group.  You might describe your hero’s beautifully-timed liement in seconde that counters their opponent’s thrust, but a lay reader would have to look long and hard to find an explanation of what that is,* and what it actually means.  A lay observer’s description (albeit one observing in bullet time, the real-time effect being lunge, CLANG, urgh, dead) of how the defender seems to brush the blade away with apparent ease and turns the assault on his attacker is much more suited to the audience in general.

In the second, there’s a limit to how realistic you can make things and still have them be any fun.  Martial engagements are notoriously short, nasty and brutal affairs.  People who get shot fall over, go into shock and require immediate medical attention.  People who get stabbed, likewise.  Actual fights in bars or in the street are typically over before you even notice they’ve started.

Even competitive sport fights can be zero fun.  Watch pretty much any high level sabre championship and prepare to marvel in disgust as two people skip forward, all form forgotten, to slap each other with their blades and then roar their heads off simultaneously as they both claim a touch.  A seriously large portion of the fight time is spent gesticulating wildly at the judge in the hope of gaining favour, a pantomime which puts me immediately in mind of high-level footballers diving onto their faces to try and get a free kick.

People tell me it’s what you have to do at that level, that everyone does it and it’s acceptable behaviour, but I don’t see the entertainment value in it.  And for someone interested in character and character development, I don’t see anything honourable or defensible in it.

This is all just my opinion, of course, and thus not worth worrying about.  I know that the opposite opinion is widely held, most commonly among practitioners of whatever skill is being described in prose.  I know this is a  cinematic example, but it’s pretty much the same argument – feel free to split hairs if you disagree – this is the internet after all.

I remember having a conversation with a fencer about the famous (and brilliant) fight scene in The Princess Bride between the dread pirate Roberts and Inigo Montoya.  She scoffed as she told me how disappointing it was.  “Watch the bit where Westley (spoilers!) changes hands,” she said.  “The other guy could easily go for the face, but he doesn’t.  It’s not fencing.”

She was absolutely right.  It’s not really fencing at all. A fencer responding to such a low attack could indeed step back to protect the leg  and attack the head.  The fight would be short, nasty, and brutal – and far, far less fun to watch.

*the attacking blade is engaged in quatre; pronating the hand and dropping the tip of the defending blade into seconde, the bind and change of line opens an opportunity to press the defending blade into attack…or something like that.

Is it so wrong?

I love The Mask of Zorro.  I know that it’s an incredibly cheesy film, and I should really know better, but still it manages to satisfy my cravings for a bit of dumb adventure.

Certainly it provided a suitable antidote after watching Babylon A.D., which we added to our LoveFilm list out of a egalitarian desire to give it as good a chance as every other movie that we list.

Big mistake. While it was pretty easy to work out what the story was, the clumsy writing and direction meant that I spent the entire film trying not to snap my remote control in two.  I don’t know if they meant it to be a twist, or some sort of astonishing reveal when they explain the girl’s backstory, but it was just horribly mishandled.  The ending was terrible, and Vin Diesel’s glib one-liner to camera that closes things up feels almost ad-libbed; like he’s sick of the movie too, and wants the viewer to know how ridiculous he’s finding it.


I bought a hand-driven lawnmower at the weekend, and spent an afternoon pushing it round the lawn in a parody of actual gardening.  While I was out there, I made a new friend.


Lisa was overjoyed, as she adores frogs, and a happy ten minutes was spent staring at him before I decided it was probably in his best interests to be chased back into the shade.  Oddly enough, ten minutes was long enough for him to stop being petrified of the insanely massive giants, and getting him to go away from where I was mowing was tasking work.

I didn’t dare tell Lisa how many spiders there are in our garden.  She’d never set foot out there if she knew.