12 Dumbo

Director: Ben Sharpsteen (Supervising director)
Writer: Joe Grant & Dick Huemer
Year: 1941
Length: 64 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Colour: Colour (Technicolour)

Dumbo is the fourth animated feature film from Walt Disney Studios. It came about as an attempt to recoup the losses made from the financial failures (despite critical successes) or its previous two features Pinocchio and Fantasia. They were both rather expensive to make, Pinocchio for the lavish detail in the animation, Fantasia for its use of popular classical music. However both were made and released during the first 2 years of the Second World War and the public just weren’t interested. This bit of background information helps to understand why Dumbo (as a film) is what it is, mainly why it’s very short compared to previous Disney features, and why it’s much less detailed in its animation that the others.

The story follows the journey of Dumbo an elephant born with very large ears. When being protected by his mother results in her being sent away, he is mocked by the other elephants for being different. His friendship with a Timothy Mouse, leads him to discover that he can use the ears like wings and fly.

This is my personal favourite of all the classic Disney animated features, probably because it was the one I watched most as a child. This is probably due to the film’s length, clocking in at just over an hour, Dumbo doesn’t mess around. It’s quick and to the point, taking us from one set piece to another at an alarming rate. In fact, the pauses (normally allowing for some moments of drama) are filled in with songs. And what songs they are too! Casey Jnr, Look Out For Mr Stork, When I See An Elephant Fly plus two standout songs/moments in Pink Elephants on Parade (a fantastic bit of animation) and Baby Mine (he who does not cry during this song, surely has a heart of stone…).

The voice cast is perfectly suited to the characters, the jokes are funny, the heart wrenching moment is certainly that, the nightmareish sequence (during the song Pink Elephants on Parade) is genuinely frightening and the animation is stunning. Despite the lack of detail in the animation I mentioned before, it is beautiful to look at. The animators decided that the backgrounds should be as simple as possible to allow for more time to be spent on the ‘acting’ of the characters and the animal motions. A good decision if you ask me.

The early period of Disney animation feature films should be compulsory watching for any human.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

11 The Curious Case of Benjamin BUtton

Director: David Fincher
Writer: Eric Roth
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
Year: 2008
Length: 166 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Colour: Colour

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an oddity. It is an almost 3 hour film based on a short story (obviously the producers didn’t feel the need to make a trilogy out of it…), it’s directed by a man who normally directed action and thriller films (Alien 3, Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club, to name a few), it’s acted well, directed well, looks absolutely stunning and yet, at the end of it’s 166 minute running time, nothing has really happened. Well I mean a bunch of things happen, but nothing actually happens…

It’s a story of a man who is born old and ages backwards. This in itself is flawed from the get go, as my dad pointed out (as did several other critics when the film was released) that if this were true, he would’ve been about 5ft 1 at the time of birth which must’ve been very painful for someone. Instead, he is born as a very wrinkly baby. I suppose that kind of gets round that issue. Maybe. I’m not sure.

The film chronicles Benjamin Button, as he gets younger whilst everyone else gets older. No one appears to be questioning this, or even noticing. Oh well.

He encounters various people, including passing characters played by Tilda Swinton and Jared Harris, but the one consistent character is played mostly by Cate Blanchett. They meet when he is old and she is a child. They spark up a friendship and over time they part, meet again, part again and eventually end up when both of them look absolutely fabulous. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Brad Pitt does a fantastic job in the title role, enhanced by CGI for his ‘very old’ and ‘very young’ scenes. He gets a lot of flack for things, but I do think that he is a great actor.

Now, all this does make it sound as if I didn’t like the film. On the contrary, I wasn’t bored for a second. In fact I rather enjoyed it whilst it was on. It was directed extremely well and looked stunning. Not surprising when it won the Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects.

I was constantly interested, entertained and (almost) moved by it. But I’m not entirely sure that this film actually meant anything, and I’m still not sure why David Fincher agreed to direct it…

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Get Carter

10 Get CarterDirector: Mike Hodges
Writer: Mike Hodges
Starring: Michael Caine
Year: 1971
Length: 112 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Colour: Colour (Metrocolor)

Having only seen this film once before about 8 years ago (and that was when it was shown to us in A level Film Studies, in chunks so I never saw the film in one go), I was very pleased to be able to revisit it. And what a brilliant film it is too.

This gangster film may be quite slow by today’s standards, but I found it riveting. Expertly directed by first time director Mike Hodges, Get Carter is an exceptional movie about Jack Carter who upon hearing of his brother’s ‘accidental’ death, travels back to his hometown of Newcastle to find out what really happened and to avenge his brother’s death.

Michael Caine is great as the eponymous anti-hero, playing against type as a rather unlikeable character. In fact the whole cast perform rather well. It’s also nice to see the debut performance of Alun Armstrong.

As a one time resident of Newcastle upon Tyne, I took great delight in recognising many of the locations that were used for the film. It’s a fantastic use of location work, the train station, the Swing Bridge, the Tyne Bridge. I was particularly pleased to see the small thin stepped passageway that leads from the Bridge Hotel down to the river, for I used that very same location in the photo shoot for my debut solo album Broom Abundance. Lovely!!!

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The Man From Laramie

09 The Man From Laramie

Director: Anthony Mann
Writer: Philip Yorden & Frank Burt
Starring: James Stewart
Year: 1955
Length: 104 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.55:1
Colour: Colour (Technicolor)

I’m very glad this film was next on the list as it begins to remedy something I have felt for a while, that I have not seen enough Westerns. And this is a great Western.

One of the first Westerns to be filmed in Cinemascope, The Man From Laramie does a fantastic job of capturing the vast and beautiful scenery of the American old west.

James Stewart stars in the title role as a man arrives in a town in search of the man who killed his brother and (after an altercation with the local boss’ sadistic son) decides to bring the local boss down at the same time. It’s a great plot fuelled initially by revenge but later by justice.

As I said earlier, this film looks absolutely stunning not just because of the use of Cinemascope but because it was also filmed in Technicolor. The landscape looks wonderful in contrasting greens, oranges and blues (blue being the sky…). What also makes it look good is the way in which everything you see on screen is actually there, there were no computers in those days meant that people had to actually do things. Those people riding horses in the distance are actually there. Nowadays they’d be drawn there by a computer, which loses some the appeal. There’s a real great (and practically lost, although it’s having a slight resurgence of late) art form of filmmaking in which people actually do things no matter how difficult.

James Stewart is great in one his last films to be directed by Anthony Mann. He looks right at home in this setting, on top of a horse, wearing the hat and the boots. Proper job!! Good theme song too, don’t get many of them any more either…

This is proper film making at its best. Well worth checking out.

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The Lady Eve

 08 The Lady EveDirector: Preston Sturges
Writer: Preston Sturges
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda
Year: 1941
Length: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Colour: Black & White

As with the last film in this blog series (My Man Godfrey) this film has a superbly sparkling script. I’d never seen anything written or directed by Preston Sturges before, and I’m now very glad that I have. Scripts are not this good anymore (not much anyway, there are always exceptions, usually where the name Joss Whedon is concerned), intelligent, witty, a rare combination. Even in action films and scenes, the script tends to rely on yet another cry of ‘come on!’ or something similar. If you can’t find anything to write, don’t write anything at all. In the case of Preston Sturges, he has lots to write and does so with vim and verve!

Barbara Stanwyck plays Jean a con artist who along with her father and his friend, decide to con millionaire Charles (played by Henry Fonda) out of a load of money. However things take a different turn when she begins to fall in love with him. A relatively common set up by today’s standards but not in 1941 I imagine…

The cons in this film are marvellous, most notably a fantastic card game and sensational con in which Jean changes her make-up and accent in order to get Charles to fall in love with her again (but he thinks it’s a different person). We, the audience, are in on the cons from the word go which makes for a splendid viewing experience. Although there is pleasure in not knowing, which makes the sudden moment of realisation all the more worthwhile, in this it is just a delight to watch it all happen from an all knowing viewpoint.

A great script needs a great cast and boy does this film get one. Stanwyck and Fonda are great, as are Charles Coburn as Jean’s father and Eugene Pallette as Charles’ father, a similar role to one that he played a year earlier in My Man Godfrey. It is also a pleasure to see the butler played by Robert Grieg who also played the butler 11 years earlier in The Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers.

Very funny, very engaging.

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07 Rebecca

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Philip MacDonald & Michael Hogan
Starring: Lawrence Olivier, Joan Fontaine & George Sanders
Year: 1940
Length: 130 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Colour: Black & White

Considering how great a director Hitchcock is, it was only a matter of time before a film of his turned up in my review blog series. This was his first film to be made in America, and it is an adaptation of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

The film looks fantastic in stark black and white, perfect for a film containing intrigue, suspense, seedy characters and dark passageways in large mansions.

The plot involves Joan Fontaine as an unnamed woman who falls in love with Lawrence Olivier’s troubled widower Maximilion de Winter. They get married and move back to his Cornwall country house, Manderlay. Whilst doing her best to settle in Fontaine’s character begins to suspect that something is wrong and it could have something to do with her new husband’s deceased ex-wife and… I shall say no more on the story.

Hitchcock does very well at bringing out the tension, as he has done in pretty much all his films before and since. He makes use of some great camera angles as well as getting great performances out of the two leads as well as juicy supporting parts for Judith Anderson and George Sanders.

This is very much a character piece and the narrative unfolds through people’s conversations rather than through action sequences. This does not make any less tense though, as superbly demonstrate by one scene in which Joan Fontaine is shown around a previously ‘out of bounds’ area of her new husband’s home. An excellent use of dialogue and visual tricks involving light and shade.

People familiar with the original book may (or may not) get annoyed with the ending of the film, but so what!

Cracking stuff from a director whose career was only just beginning to flourish at the time. Marvellous!!

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Run Lola Run

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Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Starring: Franka Potente
Year: 1998
Length: 81 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Colour: Black & White/Colour

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch Run Lola Run. I knew about all the hype surrounding it, I also knew about the main concept for the plot. What I didn’t know (or expect) was just how exciting it turned out to be.

Well directed and written by Tom Tykwer, this film concerns a young woman called Lola played by Franka Potente, who gets a phone call from her mob connected boyfriend who has lost a large sum of money that was meant to be delivered to his mob boss. They have 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 marks or else. That is the basic idea behind the plot. The film is then split into three parts and the story is told three times over, each happening slightly differently than the last.

That in itself is interesting enough to keep us going over 81 minutes. However the film then pelts us with visual array of cinematic tricks to keep us on our toes. The majority of the film is in colour, but there are short moments in black and white. We also get some great slow-motion shots and some animation also.

The soundtrack is very effective too, a nice selection of German (I imagine) Techno music, which accompanies Franka Potente as she spends over 50% of the film running at full speed.

An excellent film, easy to see why it became a surprise hit way back in 1998.

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My Man Godfrey

05 My Man Godfrey

Director: Gregory La Cava
Writers: Morrie Ryskind & Eric Hatch
Starring: William Powell & Carole Lombard
Year: 1936
Length: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Colour: Black & White

When I began doing this review series, I hoped that there would be some surprises, some films that I’d never heard of that turned out to be absolute gems. Well, this film is one of those. I had no knowledge of this film’s existence, and I feel much better knowing that it does.

A screwball comedy (such a wonderful, forgotten genre) from the 1936 in which a rich young woman hires a ‘forgotten man’ to be her family’s new butler, this is a film that should not be forgotten. Such an undeniably funny film, every line is an absolute gem and it’s not hard to see why when one of the script writers is Morrie Ryskind, a man who had a hand in writing three films for The Marx Brothers.

The film is beautifully acted, Powell and Lombard are the perfect foil for each other (interesting that they were married together for 2 years which ended in divorce 3 years prior to this film being made). Lombard and the rest of her onscreen family are wonderful as they act out the hilarious yet completely inane squabblings of a spoilt rich family. Of course the ‘forgotten man’ butler (and consequently, poor) played by Powell is the only one who talks sense and it is great to see him interacting with each of the family members in turn.

It is such a shame that this film is out of copyright which means that anyone can release a DVD copy of it no matter of the quality of the image and audio. This annoyingly means that it looks like there will never be a decent restoration done.

Required viewing for anyone who likes comedy.

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E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

04 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace & Drew Barrymore
Year: 1982
Length: 115 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Colour: Colour

It was a treat to see this film again as I hadn’t seen it for a long time. 33 years old and still as powerful as it ever was.

I am what some people refer to as a “big ol’ softie” when it comes to films and I am not ashamed to say that I cried pretty consistently for the final 6 or 7 minutes of E.T. It is full of raw emotion that I don’t think it’s possible not to… This is partly down to the fact that the film is so well written (hoorah for Melissa Mathison) that by the end of the film, we care a great deal for these characters and what happens at the end is not something we want. But then again that is the point of eliciting emotions in films – to show us what we need to see, not what we want to see.

However the main contributor is the music masterfully (as usual) composed by John Williams. I know quite a few people finally took umbrage with Mr Williams when War Horse came out moaning that his music is emotionally manipulative. I agree with the critic Mark Kermode in his response “…but isn’t that what film music is meant to do??” I have no problem whatsoever with John William’s music, his music has been some of the best film scores I’ve ever heard and E.T. is no exception, tugging on our heartstrings willy-nilly he gets the job done like a champ.

Onto the film itself, this is Spielberg at his best. I noticed various things that I’d missed in other viewings, like the way he shoots the film from the viewpoint of the children so that adult’s faces are never shown unless they are in direct contact with the children. Also a clever idea is to not show much of the creature itself. For the first half hour of the movie or so, we see E.T. through brushes, obscured in light and shadows, or just pair of alien hands creeping around a doorway. It’s an idea that he used to extremes in Jaws when he never showed the shark in full at all. Once the film is properly underway, we see the full creature, and it’s a marvel of puppetry that we end up caring so much for him.

Special mention to the child performers Henry Thomas and a very young Drew Barrymore, both completely natural in their roles and never once annoying in the way that so many child actors are.

A truly magical family film. One which includes my favourite ever insult, ask me about it sometime.

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The Kid Brother

03 The Kid BrotherDirector: Ted Wylde & J. A. Howe
Writer: Jed Grey, Ted Wylde & Tom Crizer
Starring: Harold Lloyd & Jobyna Ralston
Year: 1927
Length: 84 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Colour: Black & White

This film was made 88 years ago and it’s funnier by far than most of Hollywood’s current comedic output, The Kid Brother is a testament to the golden age of silent comedy.

Harold Lloyd stars as the youngest of the three Hickory brothers. He is meek, mild and timid, his two elder brothers are like their sheriff father; larger, stronger and tougher than he is. When a travelling medicine show arrives in town, the titular ‘kid brother’ falls for the women with the show. Meanwhile the men with the travelling show steal some money from the sheriff and it’s up to Lloyd and his brothers to find the thieves.

Harold Lloyd is up there with the greats such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. As with Keaton, Lloyd makes everything look effortless whether it’s climbing up a tree in one unbroken take, jumping to avoid being kicked, or hurling himself through tiny windows. Included in this film are a plethora of comedy elements such as your basic pratfalls of falling over or kicking someone on the backside. Also included are some wonderful sight gags involving animals, clothes and doors. Endlessly inventive is Lloyd’s use of doors, usually opening (accidentally and deliberately) at the exact moment to obscure someone or something from view. Believe it or not, it never gets old.

A particular highlight (for everyone who has seen the film, I imagine) is the shot in which Lloyd climbs a tree to keep the woman he’s in love with from disappearing from view as she walks away. In order to keep up with Lloyd as he climbs, the movie camera was place on a rising platform, highly innovative for its time. I also like it for the simple fact that it is clearly Lloyd himself climbing the tree. No trick shots, funny edits or stunt doubles like we get in this modern day and age. Proper filmmaking!!!!!

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