Romeo + Juliet (1996)

When I was at secondary school I had to write an essay for English about whether Romeo and Juliet were “victims of Fate or their own foolishness”.

For some reason that phrase always comes to mind when I watch Baz Luhrmann’s (The Great Gatsby, Strictly Ballroom) interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. There are, of course, arguments both ways.

For those of you who have managed to, somehow, miss this story of woe here’s a brief summary. 6a01543409ba67970c01a511aaf4ac970c

Romeo Montague (Leonardo DiCaprio) is love sick  until his best friends persuade him to attend a masquerade party where he meets Juliet (Clare Danes). Unfortunately, Juliet is a Capulet, the sworn enemies of the Montagues, and the party is celebrating her engagement to Paris (Paul Rudd). Then Tybalt (John Leguizamo), Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) and a friar (Pete Postlethwaite) all get involved and people start dying.

Lurhmann takes this story, places it firmly in the modern day while leaving Shakespeare’s prose untouched. Obviously this alters meanings, but for the most part it leaves the Bard’s work reasonably unscathed. At least more so than some modern “reimagining”s. I’m looking at you Gnomeo and Juliet.

This, I imag2016think, is what pushes that essay title to the front of my mind. Luhrmann’s adaptation shines lights on both angles.

If we consider Fate to be synonymous with religious deity, this film is marinated in it. Every possible religious aspect of this feature is highlighted in gaudy neon. There is no doubting the role that Fate plays in the lives of the citizens of this fictitious Verona. Or at least the importance they place on it. As you can see from the photo on the left, it is not subtle.

So it makes sense. These two young fools fall in love, and Fate punishes them for going against the wishes of their family.

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Ot does it make sense? They are clearly idealists and Romantics (the capital R again!). They are also teenagers. Baby-faced DiCaprio demonstrates this perfectly during his first scene when he is mourning the loss of the beautiful Rosaline as a love interest. And what happens next? His friends take him to party where he gets drunk (and high) and promptly forgets the supposed love of his life.

Poor Rosaline is replaced by the youthfully innocent face of Juliet who spends much of the film dressed like an angel. Is this more religious imagery (Romeo defiled an angel and now he must pay), foreshadowing of a future not yet written or a demonstration of her naivety? Perhaps all three or a combination of them.

As if this wasn’t proof enough, Romeo then breaks in to the back garden of his beloved and romps around in her swimming pool to avoid being caught by her father (that sentence was meant as an innuendo). These are not the actions of a sophisticated romantic, slighted by circumstance. This is a drunk teenager.

But whatever you think. Whether you think they are the epitome of romance or merely a pair of excitable teens this is still a story that transcends time and place, and this adaptation is testament to that. It was nominated for an Oscar for its art direction, and as always with Luhrmann, the visuals are striking. Watch out for his signature billboard.

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Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

Believe it or not, this film is a sophisticated satire. Although you would be forgiven for not realising it. 

Starring Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, with cameos from Noel Coward, Tony Curtis and Marlene Dietrich, it plays like a romantic farce.

Gabrielle Simpson (Hepburn) is a typist sent to the hotel room of acclaimed screenwriter Richard Benson (Holden) to type up the pages of his latest masterpiece. The problem is that he hasn’t started writing it yet and only has three days to get it written and delivered to the producer.

George Axelrod (Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Seven Year Itch, The Manchurian Candidate) penned the screenplay and it was directed by Richard Quine (Sex And The Single Girl, How To Murder Your Wife).

The key to understanding the genius of this film, comes with understanding the changes Hollywood was going through at the time. So here is a brief history of the Classical Hollywood era.

When Hollywood started making films, the rating system that we are all familiar with did not exist. There was censorship or sense of filtering audiences by a film’s content. By the end of the 1920s, Hollywood was getting a reputation as a hotbed of sin and debauchery. Extra-marital affairs were rife and well recorded in the national and international press and there were even a couple of high profile rapes and murders.

In an attempt to restore the at least the appearance of a moral code, the studios hired Presbyterian Elder William Hays who, in 1930, brought out the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC also known as the Hays Code). The MPPC laid out a series of rule that filmmakers had to abide by, including banning the “use of profanity”, “ridicule of the clergy” and “sex relationships between white and black races”, and cautioning “special care” around “sympathy for criminals”, “men and women in bed together” and “the institution of marriage”. These rules applied to all American filmmaking until 1968 when the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system was put in place, however from the 1950s onwards American filmmakers pushed back against these restrictions.

By the end of 1950s a new style of filmmaking was coming out of Europe, christened French New Wave. Directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Agnes Varda took a free-form approach to filmmaking, seeing it as a form of artistic expression rather than commercial storytelling. This flew very much in the face of Hollywood’s ethos, which was (and still is) very much the movie “Business”.

This is the period of change that Axelrod was writing in, and that he tapped into when writing this clever little film. His characters write a screenplay that not only jumps from genre to genre but pushes and pulls at the MPPC as well as poking fun at French New Wave.

In a scene within the fictitious film that takes place in the bedroom, Benson comments on the risqué nature of the scene. Miss Simpson responds “You might take that view, but I believe they are playing Parcheesi”, gently prodding the MPPC’s allowances of insinuation. Also within the film within a film, Gaby gets caught up with a French New Wave actor (played by Tony Curtis) who’s involved in a fictitious film about Bastille Day called No Dancing In The Streets because “in this version it, like, rains”.

So watch this film, but when you do, look beyond the farcical romantic comedy and try to see the brilliantly executed satire that lies beneath.

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

Opening Title: Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause the beast shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s open sesame: “Once upon a time…”

Before the Disney version was ever dreamt of, Jean Cocteau wrote and directed his own version of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s classic tale of magic, romance and identity.

Between 1899 and 1913 it had been adapted five times, but Cocteau was the first to make a feature out of it.

Josette Day (Les Parents Terribles) and Jean Marais (Orpheus) star as Belle who sacrifices her freedom for that of her father and the Beast who keeps her locked up in his neglected but magical castle.

This film is sublime in ways that I cannot even begin to do justice to in words. It captures the heart of the fairytale; the humour, the romance, the sinister undercurrent and above all the beauty which is so tantalising and keeps us wanting more. Perhaps unsurprisingly based on his work here, cinematographer Henri Alekan went on to be nominated for an Oscar for his work on Roman Holiday (1953).

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Initially, writer and director Cocteau and Alekan clashed over the visual aspects of the film. Cocteau favoured a hard-edged style while Alekan preferred soft-focus. As director, Cocteau had the final say and after a rough first couple of days Alekan came around to his way of thinking. The look and feel of the film is heavily influenced by the work of Gustave Doré and his illustrations of the nineteenth century French edition of Don Quixote (see right).

To play the part of the Beast, Marais spent five hours getting into his outfit every morning which included being covered in animal hair and wearing fangs that could not be removed until the end of the days shoot. This meant that he could not eat anything more than mulch during the day to avoid damaging the fangs. Marais had quite strong opinions on what the Beast should look like. Supporting Beaumont’s original story, he felt that the Beast should have a head that resembled a stag, with antlers, to draw upon the image of Cernunnos, the Celtic stag-headed god of the woods. However, as with Alekan, Cocteau’s vision won out and the image of the Beast as he is now recognised in Disney’s version was born.

Beauty and the Beast and Belle et la Bete
Beauty and the Beast and Belle et la Bete

I know I have already used the words beautiful and magical to describe this film, but it really is. If you haven’t seen it, you absolutely must! I saw it for the first time at Bath Film Festival and was completely moved.

In case you still had doubts, here is the trailer:

Boy Meets Girl (2014)

it is so refreshing to watch a film starring a transgender woman who is treated like a human, and not one who is mentally ill or comic relief.

When I first sat down to watch this I was expecting a soppy romance that I could have on in the background while I sorted through my emails; something with a couple of laughs, a misunderstanding, a “but they’re meant for each other” moment and most likely a chase sequence ending in a romantic embrace. In a way I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t expecting to be genuinely moved.

Boy Meets Girl focuses around Ricky (Michelle Handley) who lives with her father and little brother Sam (Joseph Ricci). Best friends with Robbie (Michael Welch), the film opens with her working in a coffee shop, moaning to him about the lack of romantic interest in her life. But, as with all good Rom-Coms, that is all about to change.

The film, while focused on the present, dips in and out of the past with a YouTube video that Ricky made as a youngster, explaining and expanding an already complex and complete character.

Written and directed by Eric Schaeffer, it’s a well put together film with a cast that really holds its own. While it does play in to some of those Romantic Comedy cliches and has the feel of an independent, it embraces itself for what it is and encourages its audience to do the same.

I have asked myself whether if this was a heteronormative storyline whether I would have enjoyed it so much. Honestly I don’t think I would have. Much of its charm lies in the fact that it is tackling issues that are usually found in serious dramas or late night TV documentaries where they are handled with far less care. Far too often the end result is either that of freaks or clowns. This films brings transgender out of the circus and into the real world where it belongs.

Ricky is a strong confident woman, who knows who she is, who she wants to be and what she has to do to get from one to the other. She has a sharp tongue and a determination to match. She is flawed only in that she is human; no more so than the next person. While her gender and sexuality (two very different things) play central roles in the film, neither is something she is blamed for. She is never portrayed as indecisive, attention seeking, mentally ill or as someone to make fun of.

In an ideal world this would not be worthy of note, but I can honestly say this is the first film I have seen that manages this. Even TransAmerica (2005) found humour in Bree (Felicity Huffman). The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) came close with Terence Stamp as Bernadette, but that’s about it. Here’s hoping it will not be the last.

Goodfellas – Films Don’t Have A Gender

Recently, a friend sent me a link to an article in the TPM referencing a New York Post Critic, Kyle Smith, and how “women are not capable of understanding Goodfellas“.

I honestly don’t know where to begin. Should I first handle the obviously ludicrous implication that 52% of the population are the same because they were lucky enough to be born with a uterus, or the idiotic idea that gender dictates taste, intelligence or capability to understand popular culture?

Having spent the best part of my life watching films which are generally considered “masculine” I can tell the difference between the good, the bad and the down-right ugly.

(While I’m on the subject, why is it that films with a female lead are considered “feminine” or “girly” and therefore not to be taken seriously? I asked a friend recently if he had seen Bridesmaids, to which his response was a laughing “it’s a girls film”, as if that was reason enough! “Chick flick” is such a degrading phrase. Why isn’t there a male equivalent? Could “dick flicks” be a thing? I know there are “bromances” but they’re not quite the same thing, are they? Obviously, films starring male comedians are fun for all the family, but as soon as you place women in the starring role they are not suitable for men. Here was me thinking that a sense of humour transcended gender. Anyway, where was I…)

I like Goodfellas. As is often the case with Martin Scorsese’s work, it is a well constructed story full of three-dimensional characters which is beautifully shot. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are perfect in their roles, indeed Pesci won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. But beyond this, it is bloody brilliant. It is full of suspense, violence and humour and, for those of us who are not part of the mafia, allows us to escape and experience another world.

But this is all beside the point. It doesn’t matter that I am a woman. I do not speak for all women, I would not dare to. In the same way that I would not presume that Kyle Smith speaks for all men, or all Americans or even all Goodfellas fans. I understand that critics are constantly looking for different angles from which to tackle their subject matter, and being controversial is an excellent way to get free publicity.

It’s a shame that this particular critic has decided to cross that line between controversial and idiotic. I hope for his sake that he doesn’t believe what he has written. Lines such as “What would “GoodFellas” be like if it were told by a woman?” and “women are the sensitivity police” show such a lack of understanding. To say that a film which managed to get to number 17 on the IMDb Top 250 Films isn’t beyond the comprehension of half the world is… well, I’m speechless.

It must be very difficult to live in such a polarised world. If Goodfellas and other Scorsese films have taught us nothing else, it’s that people are always more complicated than they appear.

It’s Not Just For Christmas; It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Famously known as one of the most tear inducing Christmas films ever made, I would like to fight for this to be an all-year-round feature.

Starring James Stewart (reason 1 to watch it all year round) as kind-hearted George Bailey, who finds himself out of money and luck, unable to support his family through the festive season. Thinking they would be better off without him, George tries to take his life (reason 2 – not exactly festive). Stopped by an angel called Clarence (Henry Travers), George is shown exactly what the world would be like if he had not been born. As a result, 80% of the film is not set at Christmas (reason3).

Without wanting to give too much away, Frank Capra’s award winning film (reason 4 – it was nominated for 5 Oscars, reason 5 – it’s number 26 in the top 250 films on IMDb) walks us through one man’s life and the ways in which his small acts of kindness rippled across everyone he met.

Released after the Second World War, it unsurprisingly features a lot of patriotism and army references (reason 6). George feels helpless for not being able to fight for his country, but is reassured that his work at home in small town America has held everything together. He is as important as the people who died fighting.

This is not a film about Christmas. This is about the aftermath of the Second World War, the people who were lost during it whose lives were not spent in vain and those who were left behind trying to find meaning after so much devastation.

Harvey (1950)

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Elwood P Dowd

I love Jimmy Stewart. I should get that out of the way to start.

So, it came as a surprise when I stumbled over this feature a couple of years ago that I hadn’t seen it sooner. Since first watching it, I have bought it for at least three separate friends and family members and am compiling a list of others I think need to see it.

Mr Stewart plays Elwood P Dowd, a well-liked man in a small town who happens to be best friends with Harvey, an invisible six-foot rabbit. Elwood describes Harvey as a Pooka, a creature from Celtic myth. Chaos ensues as Elwood’s eccentric sister worries about the affect of his actions on her daughter’s marriage prospects. His sanity is questioned and what follows is a farcical romp of a tale, with Elwood at it’s cool, calm centre.

Stewart is delightful in this role: being charming and introducing baffled family and friends to an acquaintance only he can see seems to be the part he was born to play. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, but was robbed by José Ferrer.

In 2008, this film was ranked number 8 in the American Film Institutes top ten list of fantasy films. Honestly, despite its stiff competition, I’m only surprised it didn’t come higher. This film is sublime.

Galaxy Quest (1999) – Quote-A-Long

I love sing-a-longs, so when I heard that the Sci-Fi convention I was attending would include a “Quote-A-Long” screening of Galaxy Quest, my excitement was beyond words.

Galaxy Quest, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is a joy to behold. It stars Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell and Sam Rockwell as the play the crew of the spaceship NSEA Protector on a TV which has since dried up, and are stuck on the comic-con circuit surrounded by the shows devoted fan-base (cue a cameo from a very baby-faced Justin Long). When an alien race who has mistaken their TV show for Earth’s “historical documents” teleports them to their spaceship, they find themselves in the midst of an intergalactic war.

This film is one of the funniest Sci-Fi comedies out there. Throughout the film there are huge hat tips to Star Trek and shows in the genre, but they do not detract from the storyline. Whether you are proud Trekky or have only seen half an episode once by mistake, you will be entertained.

The two major quote along lines (in the ilk of “Live Long and Prosper”) are “Never give up. Never surrender!” and “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged!”. I was anticipating that these would be shouted out with some gusto during the screening, but I was honestly not prepared for what followed. I have never felt more involved in a film. We were cheering for the crew of the NSEA Protector, we were boo-ing the locust-like aliens. It is something I am simply not used to, but I will definitely be trying at home. Admittedly, there will be some films that this doesn’t work with. I can’t imagine that films like Moon or V For Vendetta would be improved by this. But next time I watch an Arnie film, you better believe I’ll be yelling along!

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Never has a film that wasn’t a biopic haunted me more than last night’s Bath Film Festival preview screening of Birdman.

Emma Stone’s unforgiving eyes as she yells at her father about the inconsequential nature of their existence greeted me as I woke this morning. The deep dark voice of Birdman soliloquised at me on the power of the Blockbuster as I got ready for work. Later, as I logged on to my computer, Edward Norton smashed his way through my subconscious. And at quieter moments, I could hear the unabashed laughter of Zach Galifanakis and the wandering woeful words of Michael Keaton. 

But beyond every star turn, each Oscar worthy in its own right, and the spectacular and mesmerising cinematography (can I have the envelope, please) there something subtly disturbing which makes this simultaneously a work of genius and one I would be wary to recommend. 

The film is set up as one long tracking shot. The camera appears to simply move from scene to scene, allowing time to pass and following actors as and when it chooses to. For the most part there are no visible cuts. So, when some sequences don’t match up it leaves the audience feeling somehow out of place. A bar down the street from the theatre is several buildings further away on the journey out than it is on the return walk. 

This type of disjointed continuous shot is not uncommon in cinema. It was famously, or infamously, used by Kubrick in The Shining. In this adaptation of Stephen King’s best selling novel, a young boy on a tricycle is followed by the camera in one sequence along corridors and through rooms that have been established as being on separate floors of Overlook Hotel. 

As well as this impossible architecture, Birdman is full of impossible shots, like The Shining. It also features the same hexagonal carpet in several backstage sequences as this classic horror. 

This film is impossibly brilliant.