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Posts Tagged ‘Film’

Just a bit of stupid fun, in case you haven’t seen this floating around Facebook: The ‘List Challenges’ site gives you ‘The Top 250 Movies of All Time’, according to IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) - ‘as voted by our users’. Of course I disagree profoundly with the list, but that’s the point of lists like this.

films

You mark the films you have seen as you scroll through, and then it gives you the total. I was disappointed not to get 50% – my score was 117 out of 250. However, I took the moral high ground and decided to exclude from my check list those films I have walked out of and not seen to the end. I think I would have got to 50% with them.

It’s strange what you remember: I can recall the scene, the cinema, and just about the very place I was sitting of almost every film I have ever walked out from. As if the existential anxiety of cutting one’s losses and choosing to leave the ‘hallowed space’ of the cinema puts an indelible mark on the soul.

The first ‘walk out’ I remember was Fatal Attraction. This was when I was an undergraduate, in the old cinema near Parker’s Piece in Cambridge in about 1988, which has since been converted into a Weatherspoons pub on the ground floor and the new Arts Cinema on the first floor.

So you can do the list here. And do put your results in the comment box; and if you have had any particularly significant ‘walking out’ moments, do share them!

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There was an extraordinary moment in the evolution of human consciousness and the sociology of cinema etiquette last week. Perhaps it was the first time it had ever taken place – and I was there as a witness! Like being there in 1903 when the Wright brothers flew their way into history; or sitting in the space capsule as Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the surface of the moon.

754px-The_Wright_Brothers_First_Heavier-than-air_Flight_-_GPN-2002-000128

So I’m sitting in the Cineworld Fulham Road last week as the trailers take place before the new Start Trek film (disappointing: 6/10). The guy next to me takes out his mobile phone, checks for messages, leaves it on, and then – this is the Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment – he places it in the moulded plastic fizzy drinks holder attached to the front of the arm rest between us. No self-consciousness; no shame. The bottom of the phone comes forward, towards him; the back leans against the upper edge of the drinks holder; so the phone is at a perfect 37 degree tilt from the vertical for him to see. And he’s watching the film as he is glancing up and down at his incoming messages – like a driver with the TomTom in the edge of vision.

I was too awestruck at the audacity of this technological leap to be shocked. It’s the kind of unforseen improvisation that delights and appalls me at the same time. I bet you big money that within two years there will be dedicated and beautifully designed mobile phone holders on the arm of every cinema seat, but this time just above the fizzy drinks holder. What would my friend have done if he had had a 6 litre carton of coke as well? [Just for the record: This is my idea, and I hold the patent...]

Is this the end of civilisation or the beginning? Is this common in London or New York or Shanghai and I’ve just never witnessed if before?

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The best film of the year? Go and see The Place Beyond the Pines. I know, it’s not even May, and this may be a bit premature. But it’s certainly the best film of my last twelve months, and I’d put good money on it remaining in the top slot until 31 December.

I absolutely cannot tell you any plot, and please don’t read any reviews or watch any trailers, because there were some beautiful moments of revelation that would have been destroyed if I had known what was coming. All I’ll say is this: it’s perhaps the most profound study of fatherhood I’ve ever seen on film. And if there is a topic that needs real consideration in our culture today it is this.

This isn’t meant to be a reflective post, just an advert! If you want to see a serious, thought-provoking, beautiful and thrilling piece of film-making, go and see this before it disappears onto the small screen.

I managed to find a YouTube clip that is not a trailer. Take a look at this bravura extended-take opening scene. The film is much more than this; but what a way to start!

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oblivion Tom Cruise movie by bubbletea1

Oblivion. It’s a good film.

The cinematography is outstanding. Not showy (in fact the first half is minimalist, almost art-house), but clean, crisp, with a breathtaking integration of natural landscape and CGI. It’s way beyond Avatar. And part of the reason is because it is not 3D; how much the director must have fought the pressure from the studio to ‘upgrade’.

The plot rehashes the best elements of 17 sci-fi classics. I won’t even name them, in case you start predicting the twists. There is nothing original here, but it works, it’s well-crafted, and there are only a couple of niggles when you start saying, ‘Hang on a minute…!’ I’d like to spend an evening with a few sci-fi buffs trying to spot the references. You can do this in the comments if you have some spare time.

And Tom Cruise manages to avoid being Tom Cruise. For most of the film I forgot he was Tom Cruise. He was almost the Everyman Hero Figure of Richard Dreyfuss and Matt Damon. What’s his secret in this film? He didn’t try to smile or to look serious; he just got on with the job. And so the Tom Cruise smirk and the Tom Cruise furrowed-brow was kept at bay.

I was going to embed one of the trailers for the film for your delectation, but I can’t in conscience do that. I’ve just watched two official trailers, and they both give away almost all of the most significant plot twists – the ‘aaaahhhh…’ moments that make cinema worthwhile. It’s baffling. I made a point of avoiding every review before I saw the film, and it was worth it.

If you are not into sci-fi, don’t bother. But it’s a beautifully shot and satisfying film.

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It’s good to be ambitious in a film. It takes a lot of courage to deal with sickness, mortality, bereavement, love, friendship, marriage, parenting, creativity, culture, fame, failure – oh, and Beethoven – in under two hours.

An acclaimed New York string quartet have been playing together for twenty-five years. The cellist is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And with this unexpected crisis everything else starts to unravel – the music, the relationships, even the past.

Most of this works. There are some powerful scenes. But somehow it didn’t quite fit together for me; I didn’t quite believe in the characters. It felt contrived.

Now surely this is an unfair criticism. The whole point of a chamber piece like this is that it is contrived: five characters (there is a daughter too), on stage before us for two hours, everything as carefully constructed as Beethoven’s quartet itself (op. 131).

It made me wonder about what was missing. Why is it that in a classic Woody Allen film (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, etc), however extraordinary the characters, and however overwrought the plot, you still believe that they have an existence beyond the film, that you are stepping into their life rather than seeing a life momentarily created for your entertainment?

Why does the willing suspension of disbelief sometimes work and sometimes not? I think this was too actorly, in a self-conscious way; verging on the melodramatic; and simply not as funny as Allen. And without the ragged edges that allow the film in front of you to fade into an imagined reality behind the screen. All of this, somehow, takes away from the authenticity that is the mark of a great film.

So it’s a good film! Go and see it. But with something missing…

Here is the Beethoven:

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I broke my vow – again. It must be four years since I vowed never, ever to see another 3D film at the cinema; and two or three times I have been lured back by simple curiosity, or by the shallow desire to see the ‘unmissable’ film that everyone else is seeing (a playground fear of being left out), or by the reassurances of a friend that this really is worth it.

There are some beautiful images in Life of Pi. It wasn’t actually the visual effects that struck me most, but the fluid cinematography of the first half hour – India in pastel colours rather than the usual primary ones; and a fairy-tale glow about the zoo, the swimming pool, the family dining table. But as a film, it doesn’t work. It’s a series of short stories rather than a novel; some of them fun, some of them deadly dull. The spirituality is too syncretistic to have any bite.

Now and then, when a film is getting high percentages on Rotten Tomatoes (in this case 89%), and in my humble opinion it doesn’t deserve them, I delight in searching through the bad reviews – conveniently flagged up by the splattered green tomatoes – for confirmation of my artistic discernment. Peter Bradshaw says everything that needs saying in a single paragraph:

No one can doubt the technical brilliance of Ang Lee‘s new film, an adaptation of Yann Martel‘s Booker-winning bestseller from 2001, a widely acclaimed book that I should say I have yet to read. The effects are stunning, more impressive than anything in the new hi-tech Hobbit, and on that score, Peter Jackson can eat his heart out. But for the film itself, despite some lovely images and those eyepopping effects, it is a shallow and self-important shaggy-dog story – or shaggy-tiger story – and I am bemused by the saucer-eyed critical responses it’s been getting.

The last line of the review is a classic version of ‘damning with clear but carefully targeted praise’:

This is an awards-season movie if ever there was one. It deserves every technical prize going.

There was, however, one fascinating theological scene. Pi, from a Hindu family, is dared by his brother to go into a Catholic church and drink the holy water from the font by the door. He rushes in, drinks, and then stops and gazes around the interior of the church. We are led to believe that he hasn’t been in a church before, or that he hasn’t ever taken the time to look properly.

When he sees an image of Jesus, he is transfixed. A priest comes through the church and talks to him. Pi asks (I’m paraphrasing from memory): Is it true that God became a human being like us? And why? And the priest answers: Yes, he became one like us. He became small so that we would not be frightened by him. He became our brother so that we would be able to approach him. He died for us so that nothing, not even death, would keep us apart from him. Pi, the Hindu boy, announces that he wishes to be baptised.

It’s a simple, un-ironic presentation of the Christian message, and of a child in all innocence discovering a life-changing spiritual truth. It doesn’t happen very often in cinema.

(Then, just a few moments later, he announces that he wants to be a Muslim as well as a Christian, and at the same time to remain a Hindu; it’s very confusing in the film – perhaps it makes more sense in the book, which I haven’t read. This is why I called it syncretistic!)

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Classy film-making: Argo

Argo: directed by Ben Affleck.

I’ve nothing deep to say – it’s just a great, great film. Assured directing; confident, underplayed acting; a plot that keeps moving; incredible tension in the set-pieces. Craftsmanship. Everything a thriller should be. And it’s true! Go see…

The best review I can find so far is by Robbie Collin here.

The screenplay is based on a Wired article which you can read here.

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OK, the reviewers were right, Total Recall is verging on the truly terrible. [Warning: Plot spoilers to follow] They even had the nerve to steal one of the best scenes from the first Bourne film (you could hardly call it a homage), when a man without a memory finds a code that leads him to a safe deposit box that happens to be full of passports, cash, and lots of other secret and mysterious stuff about his secret and mysterious former identity. I had to see it, of course, because I have an inability to not see (forgive the grammar) any new film involving time-travel or implanted memory. It’s a childhood thing. (See my Five Greatest Time Travel Films of All Time post).

But the great thing about even a terrible sci-fi film is that it still makes you think; in the way that a terrible Western or rom-com or road movie is simply terrible full stop. In case you don’t know the story, Colin Farrell is a guy who may or may not have had his memory completely erased and replaced by another set of artificial memories, making him unsure about his true identity; and this whole ‘who am I’ identity crisis, which is most of the film, may be taking place in the ‘real world’ (whatever that is), or it may be an artificially implanted memory created by an amusement company called Rekall to ease the boredom of his mundane life – a freely chosen escapist fantasy.

This is all very familiar, but I still find it fascinating! And the final scene, despite being so predictable, sent a shiver down my spine – when we think we are in the real world, at the end of a moderately satisfying drama, but we see Farrell catching a glimpse of a poster advertising Rekall, and we wonder whether anything real has happened at all.

So it raises the obvious questions, that have been raised a hundred times in sci-fi short stories: Is there a ‘true self’? Does it matter whether our ideas and memories about the past, and especially our experiences and personal identity, are true or not? Does it change the person we are today if we discover that something we thought was true turns out to be false, or if something we never knew or imagined turns out to be true? There is a nice moment when the baddie asks Farrell: why can’t you just accept who you are in the present, without worrying about who you might have been in the past?

Part of me is attracted to this. The whole notion of human freedom, and conscience, demands that in some sense we are not completely determined by the past, however much it influences us. We can to some extent remake ourselves, re-invent ourselves, make a new start, experience a conversion.

But here is the rub: there is no such thing as the pure present. We are always moving from a past to a future, making sense of the present and future in terms of the past, even if it is a conscious repudiation of that past. But there is no such thing as ‘no past’, because even ignorance or forgetfulness colours how we experience the past, and how we understand our identity.

All of us have moments of remembering things we have forgotten, or finding out that some powerful experience didn’t happen in quite the way we remembered it. Some of us have powerful, liberating, or terrifying moments when we are brought face to face with a truth from the past that so disorientates our world that we are unsure who we are any more. Our identity is fractured and even fragmented, our understanding of ourselves is transformed. This is often the case with deep and dark family secrets, and it’s why – as I understand it – the present philosophy within social work is to let adopted children know that they are adopted, rather than hiding it from them, or springing it on them later in life.

There is something about faith here as well. Part of coming to know God is discovering, perhaps for the first time, that what you thought was your beginning, your identity, is not the whole story. You are not just a random evolutionary product, or the fruit of a human relationship, but child of God, created by him out of love, cared for within his loving providence, and destined for a life with him for all eternity. Baptism is not, like Rekall, the implanting of false memories; it is the uncovering of memories much deeper than our own, and then the creation – through the grace of the sacrament – of a new identity. And this new baptismal identity is not imposed like an ill-fitting mask or a forged passport that has no connection with our former self, it is the fulfilment of that former self, the raising up to new life of a life that was always secretly longing for it.

If you want to see a really good movie about these themes, get hold of Moon, which I saw over the summer for the first time. (Just to make a contemporary London connection, this is by director Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie from his first marriage, who – David Bowie – is the subject of a retrospective at the V&A which is just opening.)

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I was sad to hear that Tony Scott has died, and even sadder to discover that he seems to have taken his own life by jumping from a bridge in Los Angeles. May he rest in peace.

He was one of my favourite directors, and in my mind a much better film maker than his brother Ridley. Recent highlights include Unstoppable and Deja Vu; there are classic thrillers like Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide; and of course it all started in 1986 with top Gun. I’ve never seen True Romance – it was the Tarantino connection that put me off, and I think it would be too violent for my taste.

Why do I like him as a director? Because he knew, like Hitchcock and David Mamet, that film is film; that the point is to take you somewhere within the film. A good plot does not need to have a profound external meaning, but it does need to keep you moving forward within the parameters of the set-up, with your heart and mind and senses fully engaged and desperate to know where it is all going.

He’s dismissed for making films that are merely entertaining, and criticised for being at heart just an ad man – as if his skill lies in creating flashy images and cutting between them quicker than anyone else. Yes, he created some of the flashiest images on screen – what wonderful cinematographers he had, together with his penchant for hyper-saturated colours. But it’s the nature of the cut that counts, not the speed. And he was a master.

He could create incredible tension, and beauty, by cutting from one shot to the next, and thus allowing the viewer’s heart and mind to travel an infinite distance that could never be conveyed with a panning shot. This is film as film. It’s Eisenstein, it’s Hitchcock. It’s all in David Mamet’s seminal book On Directing Film (which is more easily available in this collection).

He also knew that every element of plot had to fit together into a satisfying whole at the final denouement; and that we don’t care how ridiculous it is as long as it makes sense in its own terms. How few scriptwriters and directors seem to know this! The obituary in Tuesday’s Telegraph gets it completely wrong when it says he was all external sheen without a grasp of narrative.

Not everyone is into Sci-Fi, but if you want to get a taste of pure Tony Scott then get hold of the DVD of Deja Vu.

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Great news for Hitchcock fans: a massive retrospective at the British Film Institute this summer.

Mark Brown reports:

Alfred Hitchcock is to be celebrated like never before this summer, with a retrospective of all his surviving films and the premieres of his newly restored silent films – including Blackmail, which will be shown outside the British Museum.

The BFI on Tuesday announced details of its biggest ever project: celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.”

One of the highlights of the season will be the culmination of a three-year project to fully restore nine of the director’s silent films. It will involve The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock’s first, being shown at Wilton’s Music Hall; The Ring at Hackney Empire, and Blackmail outside the British Museum, where the film’s climactic chase scene was filmed in 1929, both inside the building and on the roof.

For me, the excitement is not really about the restorations, it’s simply about seeing all the classics on the big screen. Can you believe that I have only ever seen Rear Window on DVD?

Between August and October the BFI will show all 58 surviving Hitchcock films including his many films made in the UK – The 39 Steps, for example, and The Lady Vanishes – and those from his Hollywood years, from Rebecca in 1940 to Vertigo in 1957, The Birds in 1963 and his penultimate film, Frenzy, in 1972.

And Psycho, of course. “Psycho is a great work of modern art,” said Stewart. “Who hasn’t stood in the shower and had a little moment.”

Special guests during the Genius of Hitchcock season will include Tippi Hedren, the hapless victim of bird attacks in the film of the same name, and Bruce Dern who starred with Hedren in Marnie

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I’ve just seen Audrey Tautou’s latest film Delicacy (6/10). The highlight of the trip, however, was to discover that after an experimental period of about three months, Cineworld have finally put the not-so-cheap-but-nevertheless-cheerful pick’n’nix sweet selection back in the foyer.

They made two fundamental mistakes: they went posh, and they went healthy. Instead of the cola bottles, jelly babies, strawberry bonbons, fake-chocolate-covered raisins, pink shrimps, non-Cornish-non-dairy fudge (perhaps this post is getting a bit too confessional for a blog), they created a beautifully displayed posh nuts and healthy dried fruit pick’n’mix counter.

Can you believe it? What a complete misreading of the psychology of cinema, which is about comfort food, returning to the childhood wonder of our first cinematic experiences, eating what is bad for you not just because you like it but because of the added frisson of guilt associated with the transgression itself, the surging highs of an industrially produced sugar hit and the corresponding lows just seven minutes later, the knowledge that you are paying so vastly over the odds per gram of plastic liquorice that you just have to savour it for all it’s worth, and the sheer gastronomic delight of chomping through the panoply of artificial flavours and colours, or of making a single piece of ‘fudge-that-isn’t-really-fudge’ last through the whole of the first act of Citizen Kane.

As if we were going to pay £1.78 for 100 grams of hand-hatched pecan nuts and beach-dried mango strips.

Anyway, the people have spoken, Cineworld has listened, the fruit and nuts have gone, and the technicolour junk is back. The guy at the till told me that no-one was buying them. End of story.

It was worth it as an experiment though. Why? Because it means they finally had to clear out the five-year old sweets that had been sitting at the bottom of the buckets and rising to the top now and then, ready to break your teeth. It’s a sad moment when you relax back into your cinema seat and the purple jelly baby is as hard as a gobstopper and the foam shrimp snaps in your mouth like melba toast. Never again! Well, that’s a bit too hopeful. What I mean is, we’ve got a few months now before the new stock starts to deteriorate again.

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I finally saw The Artist at the weekend. It’s great fun – I came out smiling. But I wouldn’t say it’s a great film. The two central characters are just not interesting enough to carry the film. I’m not sure if this is intentional. Maybe they are symbols of all the silent-movie characters who had to emote and over-act and gesticulate, but couldn’t reveal any emotional depth. I think it’s probably just a weakness in the screenplay: the lead male, especially, was basically a spoilt teenager; and the resolution [minor plot spoiler coming up...] was just him getting his toys back. I’m not complaining, just reflecting!

But the psychological experience of watching a silent film for the first time in years was interesting. I was more detached as an observer. I was more aware of my own experience of watching the film, as if there was a kind of veil between me and the situation on the screen in front of me. I was less caught up in the imaginary reality of the story, but enjoying it just as much.

It made me realise that in a normal cinema experience, it’s as if I am inside the world being portrayed in the film – lost in it. But in this silent experience, it was as if the film was in my head, and I was conscious of myself watching it, and of the film becoming a part of me – but not taking over. Put it another way, I didn’t lose my self-consciousness; or my ‘consciousness-of-self’ as the French put it (because they don’t have the reflexive use of ‘self’). Interesting.

What did you think of the film?

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Rotten Tomatoes is still my favourite site for film reviews. You get a percentage score for each film, a summary of each review, and – most importantly – a link to the original reviews themselves.

But every now and then it drives me mad. It scores each movie solely on the basis of how many positive reviews it has, but it doesn’t give any weighting to each review. So if 100/100 reviewers quite like a film (and give it say 3 stars out of 5), it gets the same score – 100% – as it would if 100/100 reviewers absolutely adore the film (and give it say 5 stars out of 5). So a bland, unprovocative film that managed to mildly please most critics would get a very high score.

This is what set me off last week: I went to see Moneyball partly on the basis that it got 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, it’s a well-made and thought-provoking film; but it’s also boring, over-long, and not half as funny or intelligent as it should be. This is what the Rotten Tomatoes scoring system can do.

(Maybe I am unjustifiably taking it out on this innocent website. It still got a staggering 87% on Metacritic. Maybe, in this case, it’s the critics themselves who are almost universally wrong. How can Robbie Collin at the Daily Telegraph call it ‘an accomplished, bracingly intelligent film that scores points on all fronts…’?!)

The solution to this problem? Do what Metacritic does. Instead of just adding up the number of positive reviews a film gets, give a certain weighting to each review according to how positive the reviewer was. They also (I’ve just found out) give some reviewers greater weight – as if they trust their judgment more than others. And, it has to be said, the site is really crisp and beautiful – unlike the Rotten Tomatoes site.

Here is the explanation:

A peek behind the curtain

Creating our proprietary Metascores is a complicated process. We carefully curate a large group of the world’s most respected critics, assign scores to their reviews, and apply a weighted average to summarize the range of their opinions. The result is a single number that captures the essence of critical opinion in one Metascore. Each movie, game, television show and album featured on Metacritic gets a Metascore when we’ve collected at least four critics’ reviews.

Why the term “weighted average” matters

Metascore is a weighted average in that we assign more importance, or weight, to some critics and publications than others, based on their quality and overall stature. In addition, for music and movies, we also normalize the resulting scores (akin to “grading on a curve” in college), which prevents scores from clumping together.

How to interpret a Metascore

Metascores range from 0-100, with higher scores indicating better overall reviews. We highlight Metascores in three colors so that you can instantly compare: green scores for favorable reviews, yellow scores for mixed reviews, and red scores for unfavorable reviews.

Why do I stay with Rotten Tomatoes? Simply because the UK site gives you reviews from the UK press, which Metacritic doesn’t, and lists the films under their UK launch date – so you can see what is out this week. If there were a UK Metacritic I would switch to it immediately. And if I had time I’d set about developing one. Maybe there is some money to be made here…

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Here is my review of Nanni Moretti’s new film We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam), which was first published on the Independent Catholic News site:

The Pope is dead. The Conclave is assembled in the Sistine Chapel. Three heavyweight cardinals, the bookies’ favourites, surge ahead in the first few ballots of the ensuing election – only to fall into a deadlock. When a compromise candidate is eventually chosen from the backbenches he steps forward with a humble heart and a nervous smile. But his courage fails him, and just as he is invited onto the balcony to greet the waiting world, he runs back to his room in terror, and eventually escapes into the city to contemplate the strange turn of events that has brought him to this point.

It’s an unusual theme for Italian director Nanni Moretti, a self-professed atheist. Many viewers might have expected him to put together a hard-hitting expose of ecclesiastical corruption, or at least to take a few easy swipes at the Catholic Church. Instead, we get a light-comedy that treats its ecclesiastical protagonists with amused curiosity and uncritical affection.

It’s an entertaining two hours, but it never really opens up the central question of how a man gets chosen for this high office, or why this particular man finds it impossible to bear. Veteran actor Michel Piccoli brings out the dignity and vulnerability of the avuncular Pontiff; but we don’t get any sense of what this inner struggle means to him.

There are some great scenes. Moretti himself plays a secular psychoanalyst brought into the Vatican to help the Pope overcome his paralysis. Their first session takes place before the assembled cardinals, and the visiting therapist is told he is free to explore any areas of the Pope’s life, apart from… his relationships, his childhood, his mother, etc. Moretti, dumfounded, ploughs on. The clash of cultures, of mentalities – religious and secular, classical and post-Freudian – is illustrated with such gentleness and humour.

We see a particularly corpulent Swiss guard being led into the papal apartments, and realise he is the Pope’s stand-in, charged with opening the curtains in the morning and switching off the lights at night. On the second day he discovers a penchant for method acting and feels obliged to polish off the lavish Pontifical breakfast; and by the third day he can’t resist the flourish of a papal blessing, raising his hand in benediction from behind the net curtains.

And when the Vatican spokesperson is asked why the new Pope has not appeared and what this unprecedented event means for the wider Church, he responds “It’s perfectly normal for a Holy Father to seek some space for prayer and reflection as he prepares for his new responsibilities” – the kind of pious flannel that so easily becomes a substitute for an uncomfortable truth.

The ending, which I won’t give away, is unsatisfactory. It doesn’t make dramatic sense of what’s come before, and it highlights the fact that the film is a collection of amusing vignettes rather than a coherent whole. We Have a Pope provokes a few reflections about vocation, the yawning gap between office and person, and the relationship between priesthood and acting, but it fails to make any deep impressions. It’s not tough enough or funny enough to avoid falling into whimsy. Directors like Woody Allen and Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) are somehow able to mix light comedy and even slapstick with themes of profound seriousness; I wish Moretti had managed to do the same.

[Two stars out of five]

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I’m a great fan of Don DeLillo, and his Underworld is one of my all-time favourite novels, but Point Omega is a bit disappointing.

 

There is, however, a lovely passage about staying in cinema to watch the credits rolling. Here it is:

I used to sit through the credits, all of them, when I went to the movies. It was a practice that worked against intuition and common sense. I was in my early twenties, unaffiliated in every respect, and I never left my seat until the full run of names and titles was completed. The titles were a language out of some ancient war. Clapper, armorer, boom operator, crowd costumes.

I felt compelled to sit and read. There was a sense that I was capitulating to some moral failing. The starkest case of this occurred after the final shot of a major Hollywood production when the credits began to roll, a process that lasted five, ten, fifteen minutes and included hundreds of names, a thousand names. It was the decline and fall, a spectacle of excess nearly equal to the movie itself, but I didn’t want it to end.

It was part of the experience, everything mattered, absorb it, endure it, stunt driving, set dressing, payroll accounting. I read the names, all of them, most of them, real people, who were they, why so many, names that haunted me in the dark. By the time the credits ended I was alone in the theater, maybe an old woman sitting somewhere, widowed, children never call.

I’m not quite this obsessive; but nearly…

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Very nearly a masterpiece – if you have any doubts about the power of cinema or whether film is the highest form of civilisation known to humankind, you need to see the re-released version of Apocalypse Now on a very large screen straight away.

I kept thinking, ‘How did he do this?’ The cinematography; the set pieces; the editing; the music. It’s breathtaking. It’s a long time since I have giggled with sheer delight at the audacity of  someone’s film-making.

What’s it about? War in general? The Vietnam war in particular? Madness? Morality? The risk of playing at God and thinking someone to be God and knowing that someone is not God? Possibly. Especially in Brando’s speech about the power that lies in the hands of those who are willing to dispense with moral scruples. Or is it about film itself?

This would have been Hitchcock’s answer: Film is not about anything – it’s not the content or meaning that matters – it’s the involvement of the viewer in the unfolding of the film itself, the momentum of desire and longing, the desperate need to know and arrive, and the delayed gratification of a story that is constantly twisting out of view.

It’s only the last half-hour that doesn’t quite work – too slow and too introspective. But then I’m not sure where else Coppola could have gone.

Do see this film on the big screen. It won’t be around for long. Here are the London listings for the next week.

PS – It was a joy to see this at Screen 1 of the Cineworld, Haymarket, just down from Piccadilly Circus, which is a huge old-fashioned screen with its proscenium arch still standing – such a change from the local multiplex.

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How could someone lie about the films they have seen? How could someone pretend to have seen a film that comes up in the dinner-table conversation and expect to get away with it?

I’m not being self-righteous here; I’m not even talking about the ethics of lying. I just wouldn’t have the courage to start nodding my head as someone describes some breathtaking scene from a recent movie, in the knowledge that they might ask me what I thought, or what happened next, or what colour the wallpaper was. Basically, I’m not a good liar, and the terror of being found out overcomes the terror of facing the consequences of telling the truth.

Yet, it seems, four out of five people lie about the films they have seen in order to impress others; and one in three of us claims to have seen the Godfather when the nearest we’ve been to the film is hearing the theme tune in a lift. Ben Child reports about the lovefilm.com research.

Second on the list is the 1942 Humphrey Bogart tearjerker Casablanca, which perhaps explains why so many people seem to be confused about its most famous line. More than one in 10 said they had fabricated a viewing.

In third place was Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver, from 1976. Eleven per cent of people said they had lied about having seen the director’s drama about a mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran. Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs rounded out the poll’s top five.

Lovefilm editor Helen Cowley said: “Whether it is a small white lie about having seen a cult classic or nodding along to friends as they recount the infamous horse head scene in The Godfather, there are some films that we just do not want to admit we have not watched.”

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It’s not a great film. And, despite what the reviewers say, the 3D cinematography doesn’t work – the images lose their sharpness, the focus of the eyes never quite stabilises, and you constantly feel that you are in a cinema struggling to see the screen rather than in a French cave dancing with your paleolithic ancestors. (See my previous rant about 3D cinema and the decline of human civilisation.)

But Werner Herzog’s new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still a wonderful way of experiencing the Chauvet paintings ‘at first hand’. I think I’ve seen reproductions of them before (although perhaps I’m muddling them up with the images from Lascaux). They are astonishingly beautiful. The YouTube trailer above gives you some good glimpses of the main walls – and without the 3D!

What struck me in the film was their size. They are huge! The fact that there was no space to hide the film crew actually helped, because you kept being reminded of the scale of the paintings – the sound man bobbing in and out of the images with his boom like the stone-age hunters with their spears.

In one sense it’s breathtaking that the images are so old. That’s what makes them interesting - beyond their artistic merit alone. This is just one manifestation of ‘the cognitive leap’, when modern human beings ‘emerged’ (whatever that means) onto the scene, and began to paint, decorate, adorn themselves, make musical instruments, honour their dead, and carve those well-known Venus figurines.

Yet in another sense, why should it astonish us? It seems to be the beginnings of what we would call civilisation, or modern human culture, but as far as we know these Cro-Magnons, these Early Modern Humans, were just like us – the same species, the same human nature. And human beings paint.

So the fact that you walk into a cave hidden for 30,000 years and discover a painting of a horse that looks just like one of Franz Marc’s (one of my favourite painters) shouldn’t surprise us. But it does. And they are astonishing. As is Franz Marc.

Children's interpretations of Franz Marc

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Did you know that one of the 6,404 people who vote for the Oscars is a Roman Catholic nun? Dolores Hart, who stole a kiss from Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Loving You, retired from the film business and became a nun at the Benedictine abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut – but not before she had entered the inner sanctum and won the right to vote. She’s now 72, and continues to vote when the review copies are sent to her monastery each year.

In case you are not sure, it's Woody Allen

I’d never quite understood who gets to vote for the Oscars, and how the whole process works. Tom Shone explains everything:

There are 6,404 of them, mostly living in the Los Angeles area, with further pockets in northern California, New York City and London. They are, by a small majority, male. Their average age is about 57. Rupert Murdoch is one, as are Pedro Almódovar and Sasha Baron Cohen. George Lucas, Woody Allen and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are not. And on 27 February they will announce to an audience of more than 30 million people the results of a secret ballot that will determine the course of careers, cause corporate stock prices to rocket, and induce howls of outrage in office pools and viewing parties around the world.

“They”, of course, are the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group of entertainment industry professionals responsible for handing out the Oscars every year. The Academy’s headquarters are housed in an impassive, mirrored-glass structure on Wilshire Boulevard, suggestive of the fact that Ampas does not like to reveal much about its inner workings. Membership is by invitation only, requiring sponsorship by two existing members and the approval of a board of governors; but once in, you’re in for life, a fact that has been used by the organisation’s critics to conjure up an image of doddering retirees, too entangled in their oxygen tanks to fill out their ballots. When Henry Fonda and James Garner admitted their wives filled out their ballots for them, there was uproar.

Ann Thompson is a columnist with the Indiewire website, who recently attended the governor’s ball thrown by the Academy in honour of Jean-Luc Godard. “One of the things I noticed is there’s a huge bubble of baby boomers at the Academy. They’re all very knowledgeable. They’re very liberal. They’re over 50 for the most part, but it’s a fairly hip demo[graphic]. It’s that group of people who grew up in the 70s and were shaped by a film-maker like Godard. They voted for Silence of the Lambs for best picture, they voted for Traffic, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it’s not a monolithic body. You can almost track the fate of any one film by tracking its course through the different branches.”

The Academy comprises 15 branches, of which the biggest and most powerful voting bloc is the actors, with 1,205 members, 22% of the total; they are the ones who ensured a win for The Hurt Locker last year, after they remained unconvinced the blue people in Avatar were delivering real performances. They are closely followed by the producers (452 members) and executives (437) who, together with the publicists (368), says Thompson, trend “a little more to the mainstream, for movies such as The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat. They’re the group Harvey Weinstein knows how to play to.”

Finally you have the various crafts guilds – sound, effects, sets, costumes and so on – who tend to get more male and red-blooded the further down the credits you go. Thompson calls them the “steak-eaters”: the set-builders and property-masters who are attracted to “large-scale solid narratives such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, The Town, True Grit. Even Inception plays to the steak-eaters. It’s a big group. It probably describes most of the Academy.” It’s this group that bailed on Ang Lee’s gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain in 2006, thus ensuring a win for Crash – one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history – and this year helped keep the nominations for Lisa Cholodenko’s same-sex marriage drama, The Kids Are All Right, down to a minimum.

“The steak-eaters are the reason Annette Bening keeps losing,” says Jeffrey Wells, who runs the Hollywood Elsewhere website. “Call it the steak-eater vote, call it the old geezer vote, call it the babe vote. They always vote for the babes.” More recently, though, Wells has detected signs of a fresher breeze sweeping through the Academy’s ranks. “For most of the history of the Academy, going back to 1927, the film that wins best picture tends to be the one that makes you cry. That gets you where you live. It says something that’s true and recognisable about the state of our lives that gets you on an emotional level. But [Ampas president] Tom Sherak has been aggressively bringing in newer members, and over the last few years the emotional gut-punch movies have not been winning. Except when Brokeback Mountain lost: that was the last surge, the last stand of what I call the ‘geezer vote’. That was basically the people like Tony Curtis, the 70-plus crowd who couldn’t abide the idea of two sheep-herders getting it on. That was the last time.”

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What is the MacGuffin? You have to read to the end to find out!

In my last post I wrote about the psychology of desire and projection in the experience of cinemagoing. It’s not this particular object that matters to the person watching the film (the treasure, the secret files, the briefcase) – it’s the fact that this object becomes a symbolic representation of a deeper longing. The plot, if it’s a good one, allows us both to acknowledge that longing, and to have a sense of moving towards its fulfilment.

Searching for the hidden treasure!

Alfred Hitchcock is the master in this regard. He doesn’t just create ‘suspense’ (a very weak work); he opens up the hidden currents of longing that lie within the human soul – and attaches them to the most ordinary and sometimes absurd objects.

How? With the MacGuffin! What’s the MacGuffin? This is his answer from an interview he gave with Oriana Fallaci in 1963:

You must know that when I’m making a movie, the story isn’t important to me. What’s important is how I tell the story. For example, in a movie about espionage what the spy is looking for isn’t important, it’s how he looks for it. Yet I have to say what he’s looking for. It doesn’t matter to me, but it matters a great deal to the public, and most of all it matters to the character of the movie. Why should the character go to so much trouble? Why does the government pay him to go to so much trouble? Is he looking for a bomb, a secret? This secret, this bomb, is for me the MacGuffin, a word that comes from an old Scottish story. Should I tell you the story? Is there enough tape?

Well, two men are traveling in a train, and one says to the other, “What’s that parcel on the luggage rack?” “That? It’s the MacGuffin,” says the other. “And what’s the MacGuffin?” asks the first man. “The MacGuffin is a device for catching lions in Scotland,” the other replies. “But there aren’t any lions in Scotland,” says the first man. “Then it isn’t the MacGuffin,” answers the other…

[From Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, Ed. Sidney Gottlieb, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003, p62]

And in the formal structure of this blog-post itself, in the plot of these few hundred words, what is the MacGuffin? It’s the answer to the question “What is the MacGuffin?”

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There is a boom in documentary film-making. It’s not just because of the availability of cheap technology. It’s connected with a new way of seeking truth.

Hussain Currimbhoy is curator of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Britain’s premier showcase for new documentaries from around the world. He speaks to Sean O’Hagan.

There is definitely a new energy out there. We are living in a moment when film-makers, and young film-makers in particular, are increasingly turning towards documentary as a way to make sense of the world they live in. They are more alert about, and suspicious of, the mainstream media and eager for a form that talks to them about real events in a real way, even if that form is often rough or even low-key. It’s a very exciting and ground-breaking time for the documentary.

British director Lucy Walker shares the enthusiasm.

I really do think we are living in a golden age of documentary film-making. There is a frustration with traditional media and a hunger for documentaries that have the stamp of integrity. The week it opened, my film [Waste Land] was number one at the box office in terms of what they call ‘per-screen average attendance’. Of all the movies playing in America, a Portuguese-language documentary about the lives of people living on a garbage dump in South America had the highest per-screen average across America. That tells me that people are looking for bigger truths about the way we live now, truths they are not getting from Hollywood or the traditional media.

Walker thinks people are looking for bigger truths. But it may also be that they are looking for smaller truths – as film-maker Adam Curtis explains:

There is a sense that the grand narratives are gone and that people are now living in an age of uncertainty, and documentary increasingly reflects that. Traditionally, documentaries were part of a progressive tradition, a progressive machine. They provoked us or inspired us to do something. I would contend that, when politicians turned into managers, that system did not work any more and even big budget, well-meaning, measured documentaries, like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, leave us perplexed and helpless rather than angry and politically energised. At the other extreme, you have films like Catfish that noodle about with the intimacy of feelings. Here, people know the grammar of feelings, they know how to act on camera and how to emote formally, while real feelings, which are of course messy and complicated, are hidden.

O’Hagan finishes the article by quoting director Kevin MacDonald.

 “But documentary is a generous basket that can hold a lot of different things. If you think about it, journalism, letter-writing, memoir, satire – they all qualify as non-fiction, so why can’t the same loose rules apply to documentary?”

To this end, MacDonald is currently working on the first feature-length documentary made entirely of user-generated content shot in a single day and then uploaded on to YouTube. Called Life In A Day, the impressionistic film is currently being edited down by MacDonald from 5,000 hours of footage from 190 countries. It will premiere as a three-hour documentary at next year’s Sundance festival.

“It’s amateur film-making on a grand scale,” says MacDonald. “But, because the participants are often showing such incredibly intimate things that you could not get in a traditional documentary unless you spent months filming, it is also ground-breaking in ways that we did not expect.”

In the end, says MacDonald, it all comes down to great storytelling. “The irony is that, when I make a documentary, I always feel like I am taking all this real material and trying to tell a story almost as if it was a fictional narrative. When I make a fictional film, I do the opposite.”

Documentary, as MacDonald reminds us, is essentially structured reality. “The only real breaking point,” he adds, “is when documentary actually becomes fiction, but more often than not, as many great documentaries testify, real life does often turn out to be a hell of a lot stranger than anything you could make up.”

That is perhaps the reason why its boundaries are currently being stretched – to keep up with the increasing unreality of the real world.

I’m dying to see this Life in a Day. The idea reminds me of what was perhaps the best ‘exhibit’ at the Millennium Dome – a huge collage of photographs of ordinary life in Britain, pieced together to make it look like one single image, hung around the curving walls of one of the main rooms. I haven’t seen any reproductions of it since. Do let me know if you can remember what it was called or whether it still hangs somewhere.

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I won’t apologise for publicising another ‘greatest films of all time’ list. I’ve discovered that I have an extremely rare condition that makes it psychologically and physically impossible for me not to post about lists that contain any or all of the words ‘greatest’, ‘best’ or ‘most popular’ in combination with any or all of the words ‘films’, ‘movies’ and ‘directors’, whether of not they are followed by any or all of the phrases ‘of the decade’ or ‘of all time’ or ‘ever’. I’m feeling strangely liberated by this new piece of self-knowledge.

 

Film director Andrei Tarkovsky

 

The Guardian is in the middle of a film season. Each day for the last week the Guardian/Observer critics have selected their 25 favourites films in seven genres. (I’ve managed to refrain from posting about these each day because my debilitating affliction does not extend to genre lists.)

You can click on each of the links below to see the individual genre lists.

The best romance films
The best horror films
The best crime films
The best comedy films
The best action and war films
The best sci-fi and fantasy films
The best drama and art films

And then from the seven winners in each category, the same critics decided to give the ‘Best Film Ever‘ award to: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Mmm…

I got some small personal satisfaction from having seen and loved every one of the seven contenders (apart from Chinatown, which I saw but didn’t manage to love), which shows how un-arty the selection is compared to most of the lists that have been concocted by critics rather than paying punters.

Here are the seven, in the Guardian/Observer order:

1) Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

=2) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

=2) Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

4) Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1976)

5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

6) Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

7) Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

And here is my revised order:

1) Andrei Rublev

2) Annie Hall

3) 2001: A Space Odyssey

4) Psycho

5) Brief Encounter

6) Apocalypse Now

7) Chinatown

Chinatown definitely comes last.

 

Detail from The Old Testament Trinity by Andrei Rublev

 

Instead of dwelling on Chinatown, here are a few paragraphs from Steve Rose’s reflection on Andrei Rublev:

Viewers and critics always have their personal favourites, but some films achieve a masterpiece status that becomes unanimously agreed upon – something that’s undoubtedly true of Andrei Rublev, even though it’s a film that people often feel they don’t, or won’t get. It is 205 minutes long (in its fullest version), in Russian, and in black and white. Few characters are clearly identified, little actually happens, and what does happen isn’t necessarily in chronological order. Its subject is a 15th-century icon painter and national hero, yet we never see him paint, nor does he do anything heroic. In many of the film’s episodes, he is not present at all, and in the latter stages, he takes a vow of silence. But in a sense, there is nothing to “get” about Andrei Rublev. It is not a film that needs to be processed or even understood, only experienced and wondered at.

From the first scene, following the flight of a rudimentary hot air balloon, we’re whisked away by silken camera moves and stark compositions to a time and place where we’re no less confused, amazed or terrified than Rublev himself. For the next three hours, we’re down in the muck and chaos of medieval Russia, carried along on the tide of history through gruesome Tartar raids, bizarre pagan rituals, famine, torture and physical hardship. We experience life on every scale, from raindrops falling on a river to armies ransacking a town, often within the same, unbroken shot.

With Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky was consciously crafting a language that owed nothing to literature, and it’s a pity so few others followed him. In today’s cinema, we’re still served up linear, cause-and-effect biographies of artists as if, by doing so, we’ll understand the person and be able to make sense of their art. Andrei Rublev operates according to a different understanding of time and history. It asks questions about the relationship between the artist, their society and their spiritual beliefs and doesn’t seek to answer them. “In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought,” wrote Tarkovsky in 1962.

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When I posted a film quiz back in April it flushed out all the nerdy cinephiles from my list of readers, people who have spent more time in darkened auditoria than is good for them.

Berenike not only guessed film #1 (‘The Double Life of Veronique’), but also gave me the Polish language title, with accents (although for all I know it could mean anything). And Radha and Martin Boland somehow managed to jump from my vague clues to the more obscure masterpieces of Winterbottom, Huston and the Taviani Brothers.

This time, I’m just linking to a beautiful animation from the Guardian, which suggests 26 movie titles, with varying degrees of subtlety, in a seamless montage.

You can watch the film embedded here. If you feel confident and want to enter the Guardian competition to win all 26 DVDs, then click here for the entry form. 

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I can’t resist linking to this provocative list of ‘the best movies’ of the Noughties. There will be thousands of such lists over the next seven weeks as we see the decade out, but anyone who knows me just a little bit will know that I would rather argue about films than most other things. [And I'm now adding another list here: Time Out's 101 Films of the Decade.]

It’s great to see first place taken by Austrian auteur Michael Haneke (for Hidden), and second place by Paul Greengrass (for his two populist Bourne thrillers) – as if to say that both Hollywood and the arthouse can achieve cinematic greatness.

Scene couple of hours after the Bourne Ultimatum premiere in London's Leicester Square by Alan in Belfast.

But it’s hard to take the list seriously when one of the worst films of the decade – Bond’s relaunch in Casino Royale – comes in at number eight…

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