Review 29: Chicago (2002)

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As much as I’ve enjoyed the films I’ve reviewed recently, they have all admittedly been, for lack of a less crude expression,  sausage-fests. I can count on one hand the number of named female characters I’ve come across in recent viewing, and I won’t deny it was a nice change to watch a film where the x chromosome was well-represented. Rob Marshall’s ‘Chicago’ is a sizzling, sexy, stylish but probably totally overrated cinematic treat. People often disregard this though, too fixated on ogling those nifty little sequin outfits that leave just under enough to the imagination.

In case you were unaware, ‘Chicago’ is a musical about fame, murder and jazz…quite a seductive combo. It’s protagonist (if you permit my loose usage of that word) is Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), who desires nothing more than to be on stage, and more to the point, famous. One night, after a session of adulterous coitus with lover Fred, who apparently has links in showbiz, he reveals that actually he has been lying in order to, I quote, ‘get a piece of this’ before giving her ass one last demeaning tap and throwing her across the room. Unfortunately, his biggest-douchebag-on-earth-award is to be accepted posthumously, as in one of the most satisfying movie gun-killings since ‘Thelma and Louise’, Roxie blasts him full of lead in a fit of rage. Her doting, dim-witted and long, long suffering husband Amos has had it up to here with her antics and bails on covering for her, resulting in Roxie going to prison. Among her murderess cellmates is Queen of jazz cabaret Velma Kelly  (Catherine Zeta-Jones), her once idol but soon to be fame-rival. For you see, in Chicago, homicide is a spectacle and the courtroom is a circus. Ringmaster of this particular circus is hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), Roxie’s ticket to both getting her off the hook and getting her name on the front page. The latter is by far her main priority.

In terms of plot, that’s about it. Nothing of didactic substance could be squeezed out even if Marshall wanted there to be. But let’s face it, no one goes to see ‘Chicago’ -on stage or screen- for didactic substance anymore than they go to strip clubs to admire the lighting. It’s the songs and music that make this film, and they are  incredible. So incredible, they dazzled the academy to handing over the most prestigious award given at the Oscars.

Before I start ripping into this film’s best picture Oscar as a joke (which it is) , I should give credit where it’s deserved. I have to say the film’s execution of the musical sequences is pretty brilliant. Rather than have everyone burst into song spontaneously, like in ‘Oliver!’ or ‘The Sound of Music’, Marshall literally stages each number, each character getting a chance to have their moment and own personal set, while inter-cutting between the normal dialogue. The affect is original and well-fitting with the tone, as by giving each song such separate emphasis, the viewer is too captivated by the musical parts to give much of a care about thin plot. All the actors are very good excluding one (I’ll get to that in a moment). Catherine Zeta-Jones tends to steal the show for most people but my favourites are the supporting characters, namely Queen Latifah as Mama Morton, the nicest jail warden you’ll ever meet provided you slip her plenty of fifties, and John C Reilly as Amos, whose wonderful ‘Mr Cellophane’, contradictory to the song’s lyrics, is one of the most memorable numbers of the film (I think).

Furthermore, ‘Chicago’ actually did accomplish something notable. Here’s a challenge: name one prolific musical film that came out in the 80’s or 90’s (excluding Disney flicks). The best I can come up with is probably ‘South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut’. In short, at this point the musical genre was as dead as fried chicken. If  ‘Moulin Rouge’ managed to heal it, then ‘Chicago’ resurrected it for good. Over the last decade, musical films have enjoyed great success, and although this means we’ve had to endure a few suckers (‘Burlesque’, ‘Nine’), and some that think they’re a lot better than they are (‘Les Miserables’…Yeah. I went there.) It’s for a good part been a triumphant comeback.

Glad that’s over with, now on with the fun part.

The not-so-good aspects…

Richard Gere. Let’s talk about Richard Gere. It’s not the worst casting choice Hollywood ever made but it’s in the top twenty I reckon. Do I need to state the obvious that he’s really not a singer? Because he’s not…that’s really all one can say. More than that though is that he doesn’t quite fit the buoyant, playful tone of the film. I’ve got nothing against Richard Gere but the best way I can describe him is a well-dressed cardboard cut-out, and really that’s the only parts he can play really well. Case-in-point the millionaire in ‘Pretty Woman’, which was a great role for him. Billy Flynn is sleazy, slick and arrogant and frankly Gere is too nice (in the blandest sense of the word) to play him.

My main issue with this film winning best picture however is more to do with the other films that were nominated. I’ve not seen ‘Gangs of New York’ but have seen ‘The Pianist’, ‘The Hours’ and ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ and would definitely rank the former two at least above ‘Chicago’, especially ‘The Pianist’. One of the basic requirements of a best picture film is that it should change something – be it the scope of cinema or something intimate in the audience’s viewpoint. ‘Chicago’ doesn’t really do either of these things. It’s fabulous to look at and good fun, that’s as far as it goes. ‘The Pianist’ was Roman Polanski’s harrowing and deeply personal testament to the horrors of what his people endured in world war 2 and leaves one, at the very least, deeply moved if not devastated and changed. Seems a given what film deserved the award.

In fairness, Polanski did at least receive best director which frankly, I’m beginning to view as the more meaningful award. Not to say that the best picture award is not meaningful. It is, but in a different way. It reflects what film people chose to define a year for them. Regarding ‘Chicago’ winning, consider this: in 2002 the wounds from 9/11 were still extremely raw and the media had never been pumping its readers/watchers full of more fear. ‘The Pianist’ and ‘The Hours’ may be finer films but one was about the holocaust and the other features suicide as a prevalent theme. Maybe people had just had enough of doom and gloom and ‘Chicago’ was the shallow, glitzy escape they needed. The choice for best picture in this case, is very forgivable.

(And if I’m 100% honest, that phenomenal ‘Cell Block Tango’ sequence could have bought my forgiveness no matter how shit the rest of the film was).

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Review 28: Amadeus (1984)

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This is a film that appears on a lot of top 10 lists, including my mum’s actually. I’ve been intrigued to see it for a long time and having finally got around to it, am pleased to report this is one of those rare and lovely times my expectations for a film have been exceeded. It, quite fittingly, has all the complexity, beauty and intensity of the compositions of the man whose story is being told.

Saying that, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is not the main character, in spite of what the film’s title would have you think. The film begins with two servants pleading to be let in their master’s room, as he has locked himself away. They burst in, and to the audience’s surprise, the man they find sitting in a pool of blood is not Mozart. Oh, okay then. We then cut to an insane asylum, where a priest has come to visit a certain patient – ah, this must be Mozart,  it’s well known throughout his life the stress of genius took a toll on his mind. Wrong again. It’s the same elderly man we just saw.  This mysterious figure is Antonio Salieri, the narrator and main focus of our story. Mozart was his contemporary and rival, and he claims to be responsible for his death. The film is his confession, his story, his turn to be in the spotlight.

Or is it? Mozart is such an immense presence in the film due to Salieri’s obsession that he ends up overshadowing the narrative, one of the many touches of genius from director Milos Forman (who also directed the phenomenal ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’). The build-up to actually seeing Mozart results in a truly unbelievable unveiling. Unbelievable in the sense that this was really not what you expected. You can feel Salieri’s anticipation and nerves as he scans the room pondering whether such talent could be written on a persons face, can genius make a person instantly recognisable? Naturally the viewer can’t help but imagine what he/she will find. Now I speak only for myself, but what I pictured Mozart would be was a man of quiet brilliance, subtly eccentric and a little tortured. A reasonable idea but quite horribly mislead…

You know how in every high school class there’s a small, greasy kid that’s been effectively short-changed on puberty, and to compensate is constantly making really crude, infantile jokes and is tolerated by everyone as just “that immature asshole”…well that pretty much sums up Mozart in this film. Kudos to Tom Hulce (who you’ll recognise as the voice of Quasimodo in Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ ) as his portrayal makes it perfectly understandable to the viewer why Salieri finds him so deplorable.

Perhaps “deplorable” is a little too strong a word but the shock of what Mozart – or “the creature” as Salieri calls him – turns out to be takes a while to adjust to. Salieri’s agony stems from the injustice he feels God has caused. He, a dedicated, passionate, virtuous man who swore celibacy to ensure nothing distracted his musical aspirations, can only achieve mediocrity. Whereas Mozart, a conceited, frivolous, boorish man-child, can knock out a spectacular composition with minimal effort. Salieri is a devout man of God, praying constantly not for guidance but for help in his musical ambition, and it first it seems as though the Lord is obliging. But as Mozart continues to excel, and Salieri suffers more and more humiliations, he turns against God, believing him sadistically laughing at him through Mozart. It is this that drives him to his elaborate plan to destroy Mozart.

The revenge plot would seem the highlight of the film, but what really makes this film special is just the ongoing character arcs of the two main protagonists/antagonists. What is particularly marvelous is how this film divides its audience between the two rivals. I think depending on who you side with will tell you a lot about the kind of person you are. If you’re serious, determined, and perhaps have been a little screwed over by life, you’ll sympathise with Salieri’s plight. If you’re more the carefree, laid-back type, who perhaps has had it a little easier in life you’ll view Salieri as a jaded psycho who needs to get over himself. Which one are you? I know which side I’m on…

Incidentally, the title of the film is cleverer than you realise. The word Amadeus translates as ‘love of God’. It is this of course this that fuels and torments Salieri, so really the film’s title does refer to both of them. It reflects the film perfectly. Salieri is the substance, Mozart is the front.

Concentrating for minute on the look of the film, it is quite stunning. The art direction has a delicately modern touch that really illuminates the melodrama and extravagance without going into Baz Luhrmann territory (not that I don’t love Baz). I’d expect nothing less from Milos Forman and may even, dare I say, prefer this film to ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.

This film rightfully won a boatload of awards when it came out but it also generated a fair bit of controversy over an issue that’s cropped up several times on times blog: historical inaccuracy. Yes, the film is very likely skewing the truth but in honesty I can’t say I care – no disrespect meant if you do – it’s just for me, the film-making is too fine to criticise sources (or lack thereof). And to repeat what I said in my ‘Argo’ review:  it’s Hollywood. What do you expect?

‘Amadeus’ is a rare treat for the eyes, the ears and the mind. You’ll never be able to listen to Mozart quite the same way again.

You can follow me at the https://twitter.com/themoviebelle, otherwise it would be awesome if you left a comment. You can also send me a personal email at themoviebelle1@gmail.com. And please drop a like, it only takes a second but makes all the difference.

Review 27: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Very recently I reviewed what I assumed to be David Lean’s greatest film: ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I wish to retract that statement now. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ may be the best film under the genre of war I’ve ever seen. When it comes to creating a piece of art (be it a film, book or play) about something as big and widely addressed  as the theme of war, the key to making it exceptional  is finding a new angle in which to look at it. That perspective no other writer or director has glimpsed yet. That way, viewers do not have their time wasted with hackneyed messages such as ‘war is bad because people get hurt’. Of the countless films ever made on the subject of war, some have lazily fallen into the pitfalls of  cliché and condescension (‘Pearl Harbour’), some are quite to very good (‘Two Brothers’) and some rise above the others into a league of their own (‘Saving Private Ryan’)…’The Bridge on the River Kwai’ set the bar for that league.

I chose this film to review next partly as a continuation of my (half-assed) around-the-world theme. For two and a half hours, I was transported to a Japanese prisoner camp in Burma where captured British soldiers, under the rule of Colonel Saito, are demanded to build a railway bridge over the River Kwai. Co-operation is rewarded,  resistence is punished, he informs them. Right on cue an officer named Nicholson (Alec Guiness) steps forward and refuses to partake in manual construction as the Geneva Conventions (A collection of  treaties outlining rules of humanitarian conduct in warfare) forbids it. As a consequence he is taken to “the oven” to be locked in a metal container until he gives in. In the meantime, the workers do their best to work slowly and shoddily in a bid to sabotage the project. Realising the authority and instruction of Nicholson is needed, Saito releases him in one of the most beautifully triumphant scenes I’ve seen. Nicholson sees to it the bridge is built and built well, and a chilly comradery forms with his enemy captors.

Meanwhile, an american prisoner named Shears (William Holden) manages miraculously to escape. His intention is to lie on the beach for a bit then get a medical discharge but the British Major whom he is now under the care of (Jack Hawkins) has a different idea. He needs Shear’s help in blowing up the bridge, a plan unknown to anyone in the camp. Nicholson and Shears’s story strands begin to come together and end in a magnificent climax.

In the opening credits, Holden’s name appears before Guiness’s. I think this is maybe my one criticism of the film. Unquestionably it was Guiness who made this film so spectacular for me. I should point out that Holden was considered a real dreamboat in his time (hard to believe for anyone who’s seen ‘Network’ I know) and his casting would be a big draw. Focusing on Guiness: most consider his iconic role to of course be Obi-Wan Kenobi…understandable, it’s ‘Star Wars’ for heaven’s sake and he did rock that role…but for me personally, this is the definitive role of his career. Nicholson is a man of dignity and duty, a man whose constant insistence in doing the correct thing ends up ironically confusing his loyalties with disastrous consequences. Yet, when we trace his  character arc, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment he did anything wrong. All is very unfair in love and war.  One can only conclude what the medical officer does: it’s just  “madness.”

Although largely fictionalised, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai” succeeds in bringing to the surface themes in war that are comparatively ignored. Movies tend to focus on the battlefield, the violence, action and hate (for good reason). What is explored here is more the intricacies of war ‘etiquette’ if you will, the gray areas that have to have decisions made as though it were black and white. Doing what is correct vs doing what is good.

There’s certain classic films you’ll be recommended time and time again as just something you must see…’It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Citizen Kane’…you know the sort. And I suspect for more people than care to let on, the films are underwhelming or even disappointing. And that’s no one’s fault. I’ve studied reception theory at university and it simply comes down to what a film meant in its time is different to what it means in the present day. I’ll be honest, when I reviewed ‘Casablanca’ I gave it a better critique than I genuinely felt (it was the salad days of the blog and I didn’t want to rock the boat).  I’m admitting it now though: ‘Casablanca’ didn’t impress me that much (direct your hate mail to the email address below).

The point of this little tangent was that, amazingly, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is a rare classic that actually is just as good and meaningful as people will tell you. I think so anyway. If you like war films especially, I highly recommend you give this wonderful film a watch.

You can follow me at the https://twitter.com/themoviebelle, otherwise it would be awesome if you left a comment. You can also send me a personal email at themoviebelle1@gmail.com. And please drop a like, it only takes a second but makes all the difference.

Review 6: Forrest Gump (1994)

moviebelle:

As hard as it is to believe, this was released 20 years almost to the date. Originally reviewed last January

Originally posted on Moviebelle's Best Picture Blog:

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A few months ago I saw the one of the worst trailers I’ve seen in the cinema for a film titled “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. It was everything I hate: ridiculously long, self-indulgent and gave away the whole movie. Naturally, said film has thrived in cinemas. I have no intention of paying ten pounds to sit through two hours of watching Ben Stiller mug for an Oscar nomination (which he has not received). Memo to Hollywood: trying to convince me Ben Stiller was a comedian was enough of an affront, trying to convince me he’s an actor is downright insulting. This rant is relevant to the review by the way, bear with me.

Around ten minutes into the twenty minute trailer (yes that’s right. Twenty. Freaking. Minutes.) I reluctantly abandoned my search for matches and gasoline and just decided to watch it. Putting aside the hideous aspects of…

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Review 26: Argo (2012)

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I don’t get it. I’ve sat in front of the keyboard for about twenty minutes, unsure of where to begin, and finally decided to just be blunt. I. Don’t. Get. It.

I love films about politics. I love films about Hollywood. And I sure enjoyed this film. But best picture?…No, I’m afraid I don’t get it.

Perhaps the competition was weak. Let’s look at some of the line up…

  • ‘Django Unchained’
  • ‘Lincoln’
  • ‘Silver Linings Playbook’
  • ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Okay wow. Those are only the films I’ve seen from the list of nominees and ‘Argo’ is firmly in last place. I’ll say it once more for the last time. I don’t get it. While I attempt to collect my thoughts, here is a brief synopsis.

The year is 1979, and the Iranian revolution is in full swing. Enraged by the US refusing to return their tyrannical Shah to Iran where he can be tried and hanged by the people he exploited and abused, Iranian protesters charge the American Embassy, and six workers are made hostage.  The CIA  attempt to hatch a plan to get these people out the country and home safely, and their best strategy (you ready for this) is bikes. Wow, Baldric from ‘Blackadder’ has had “cunning plans” better than that. Thankfully, agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) has a marginally less stupid plan: a fake movie crew. He enlists the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who did exist in real life, and the help of producer Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin), who did not, and sets off to Iran. The plan though inventive is crazily risky and the rest of the film depicts the series of increasingly tense hurdles to get over before getting the hostages on that damn plane.

For those who really loved this film and resent the fact that I don’t, I should say that there’s quite a number of people as angry with this film as the hornet currently giving itself a concussion against my window. The IMDB discussion board is rife with criticism. Jimmypage195 asks the same question I am: “ok so why did this movie win best picture”. TheElroy is more demanding: “Give me one rational reason this movie won best picture”…believe me I’m trying. My personal favourite comes from thegodfatherofsoul, who remarks: “Should’ve been named ‘reacharound'”. I see your point sir and will explain in detail why I agree totally.

Before that though, I should say another thing about ‘Argo’ that seems to have really ruffled people’s feathers is its historical inaccuracy. If you type in “Argo is…” to the Google search engine, “Bullshit” is the second suggestion that comes up. Yeah, with the exception of Tarantino’s superlative ‘Inglourious Basterds’, movies re-writing history rarely goes down well. But what do you expect in a town build on fantasy and dreams? The Terminator was elected Governor twice for Christ’s sake. So while I do feel your pain, it’s not my main issue purely because I’ve come to accept history being twisted as a staple of Hollywood. Tinseltown’s perception of reality is as flimsy as the material in its nickname. And if it’s any consolation, you should see what Mel Gibson did to Scottish history in ‘Braveheart’.

(I forgive him though. That film made Scots look epic – which IS 100% accurate).

Redundant as it seems, my issue with ‘Argo’ is that it’s not that great of a film. I don’t hate it. I quite liked it even. It was a good political thriller, no more, no less. But it didn’t wow me in the sense of making me see or feel anything I’ve not before. And what was with that pointless subplot about Mendez being separated from his wife? Clichéd much? Gee, I’m so glad him and a woman I’m not even sure I learned the name of got back together. Whatever Ben. Frankly, the more I think about it, ‘Argo’ shouldn’t even have been a best picture nominee. So why was it?

Returning to thegodfatherofsoul’s amusing alternate title…the film definitely is rather…I’ll be kind…self-indulgent. It’s a nice little homage to when Hollywood came to the rescue and helped save the lives of American citizens, rather than ruined and/or consumed them (you’ll need to save my life personally Hollywood, before I forgive you for Happy Madison Productions). Two of the heroes are a producer and an Academy Award winner respectively. And considering the latter fact has nothing to do with the character’s role in the operation, it’s “casually” referenced more than a few times. Even Hollywood’s attempt at self-mockery feels a bit too nudge-nudge-wink-wink.

Chambers: So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot without actually doing anything.

Mendez: Yeah

Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

And didn’t we all have a great big guffaw at that. Hollywood acknowledged a truth about itself. Congratulations, you’re one millimetre closer to being part of the real world.

2012 was a controversial year for the Academy Awards. First of all: Seth MacFarlane. Do I need to say more? The ceremony should be renamed ‘A Million Ways for Comedy to Die in the Dolby Theatre’. That was funnier that anything he came out with that night. Another controversy however, was of course Affleck’s director snub. To be honest, I’d have been okay with him winning best director. He deserves the recognition for how far he’s come since ‘Daredevil’ and more importantly, because he’s a damn good director. I’m almost tempted to say his best picture win was the world’s most generous consolation prize. It’s like: sorry, we can’t give you your favourite flavour of ice cream, here’s a year’s supply of strawberry instead.

Final theory as to how ‘Argo’ won best picture: Bryan Cranston is in this movie. People seem physically unable to not throw awards in his direction.

For now, I’m closing the file on this one.

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Review 25: The Sound of Music (1965)

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It’s roughly halfway through July, Christmas is still a while away (although shops putting up Christmas displays is only about a month away), and while I’m sure everyone is very much is enjoying the summer, should anyone pine for that Christmas atmosphere, then this film is just that fix you need: three hours of sheer Christmas. The plot has nothing remotely to do with Christmas or even winter, but it has all the joy, all the love and all the music.

(I’m listening to the soundtrack as I type this and am genuinely fighting the urge to waltz around the room).

Initially I was debating whether to even bother typing out the synopsis as it was my natural assumption that everyone in the galaxy had seen this film. I was wrong however. My own lovely partner recently told me he has never had the viewing pleasure, something which I see as my girlfriendly duty to amend. Some people may gasp in outrage, but I’m more impressed. Seriously, anyone who has managed to avoid seeing this film, congratulations. It’s like…I don’t know…managing to go your whole life without seeing a tree.

So for you few sound-of-music-less souls…

Julie Andrews plays Maria, a woman whose free spirit and heart is preventing her from taking her vows as a nun. Although exasperating to the other sisters, she is equally lovable. Doubting her heart truly lies with the abbey, the wise Reverend mother sends her to be a governess for the Von Trapp family. The household is run by the widowed Captain Von Trapp (played by a ludicrously handsome Christopher Plummer), whose sense of compassion, fun and music died with his wife. His seven children (Liesl, Frederick, Louisa, Kurt, Briggitta, Marta and Gretl…did that without glancing at IMDB) are kept to a regimented routine, and all secretly cry out for his love again. Enter Maria, in her hideous dress, carrying a guitar and a song in heart, and soon the house is alive again. Although resented by the Captain at first, he soon realises what she has done for his home and gradually love blossoms between them. A small problem, he is already engaged to Baroness Schrader (Eleanor Parker). Consumed with guilt and mixed feelings of love, Maria flees back to the abbey…

End of act one…

I don’t want to spoil everything in the film so I’ll leave act two for readers to experience alone. All I’ll say as that as well as the love triangle story continuing, a new subplot emerges. The Nazis are marching into Austria and intend on recruiting the Captain. A proud and loyal Austrian, he resists, putting his family in danger.

The one thing that I could never get across in this review in any number of words is how wonderful the music is! I swear, there isn’t a single song I don’t like. There isn’t even a song I think is “just okay”. I don’t give a damn that some of the songs, such as “The Lonely Goatherd” do nothing to further the plot. They still feel completely necessary because…they’re just great songs! What was interesting is how I responded to the songs as an adult compared to when I was a child. Back then, I related more to the children so loved “My Favourite Things” and “Do-Re-Mi”, whereas now I’m older hence am more intrigued by the adult characters. “Climb Every Mountain” and Adelweiss” were the standout musical numbers for me in this viewing (not that I don’t still think the other songs marvellous).

There’s an even more peculiar group of people than those who have not seen this film. Those who have seen it but don’t like it. I’m not angry or judgmental (and film-lovers who do react like that when someone doesn’t like a film…get over it). I am however curious, and would be interested to hear why.

I suppose some may see it as overly schmaltzy. While I agree it’s a very warm and sweet film, I don’t think the “awws” cross the line into “ewws”. And I should clarify, I am not a schmaltz person. I play survival horror video games for fun, watch Tarantino films without flinching  and did not shed a tear at ‘Les Miserables’. Yet I adore this film. I understand that the film could have very easily been sickly sweet, but it’s so well executed in how it’s shot and how the characters develop it dodges that bullet with ease. Plus it has some mature themes. The Captain’s dedication to his country during the war and what it means to leave it behind is something never toned down (or rather toned up) in a child-like way. It’s subtle and pure. I’d even use the word powerful. Any film that can affect me physically – my lips smile uncontrollably and heart beat faster with emotion – has serious merit in my eyes.

Well that’s my two penny’s worth on this already universally loved film. Glad I could contribute. Until next time…so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.

You can follow me at the https://twitter.com/themoviebelle, otherwise it would be awesome if you left a comment and/or like. You can also send me a personal email at themoviebelle1@gmail.com

Review 24: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

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I first heard about this film in an episode of ‘Frasier’, when the title character is searching for it in a video store (yay for nostalgia). He ends up talking to the store assistant about it with such high praise that someone else in the shop overhears and rents it before he can. It’s hardly the greatest scene in the show but for some reason stuck with me and made me keen to watch the film too.

The film is set in an 19th century mining village in Wales. Now, full disclosure here: my relationship with Wales is somewhat rocky thanks to a disastrous family holiday.  It rained all the time, there was nothing for anyone to do, we fought constantly and while on a walk my family was almost killed by a herd of cows (that was weird day). I guess it wasn’t Wales’s fault per se. It would have greatly helped if I’d been of the legal drinking age and could have taken advantage of one of the forty-five pubs in the three mile radius.

Anyway…

‘How Green was my Valley’ is told through the eyes of a young boy named Huw, played by Roddy McDowell, who you may know from the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ film or because he was once briefly mentioned in an episode of ‘Friends’ (way too much of my own childhood was spent watching American sitcoms). The film starts when he’s a fairly small child and follows him until he’s a teenager, I think. Old enough to work in the mines anyway. It’s not so much a beginning, middle and end tale as just a recollection of chronological memories.

Huw’s father (Donald Crisp) and older brothers are all miners while his mother and sister take care of the house. They work hard and eat well. All in all he has an incredibly happy, warm home – until pay cuts provoke his older brothers to partake in union strikes and fall out with their father as a result. Huw has a near-drowning accident and loses the ability of his legs temporarily. He is coached into walking again by the valley’s new chaplain (Walter Pidgeon), a true and determined man of God who takes his duty to the valley very seriously and is much admired by Huw…and his older sister. The unrequited love between the Chaplain and Huw’s sister (Maureen O’Hara) is probably the most consistent plot thread in the film. Other stuff that happens include Huw’s sister marrying the son of the mine owner, thus allowing Huw to attend a much more high-profile school. The pupils make Draco Malfoy look like Milhouse Van Houten and the teacher is crueller than Umbridge. Yeah, that’s what I said. Despite the opportunities his education allows him, Huw surprisingly and movingly decides to work in the mine like his father does. Just so I don’t blow the whole picture for you, I’ll stop here, there’s little point in me listing all the “stuff” that happens.

So the verdict is…this is a very charming little film. It was directed by John Ford, who also made the film version of Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath”, so we’re in good directorial hands. It certainly takes you back to a simpler time when pleasure was found in a hot meal after a long shift down a dingy mine. It’s quite humbling really, when you think just how many conveniences we take for granted now that nobody even dreamed of back then.

There was something about the year of its release that rang a bell with me though. 1941…what happened in 1941? Ah yes, some other major film was released. One that changed the horizon of cinema forever, still wows people and tops a billion critics’ lists as the greatest film ever made. All together film-buffs and film-belles…’Citizen Kane’.

Hold the phone. Stop the car. Everyone sit the fuck down. Now we have something to talk about. A sweet little film about a boy’s memories of his Welsh village beat ‘Citizen Kane’ for best picture.

That’s a little surprising. And ‘Blurred Lines’ is a little misogynistic.

Why? Well, sadly, the answer has nothing to do with the film’s quality and more to do with the fact that Hollywood treated Orson Welles a lot like a classroom of conformist kids would treat the super-smart, borderline genius new kid. Welles was not the easiest person to work with and CK had its controversies but depriving him of his rightful Oscar was due to nothing more than petty jealousy. For shame, Hollywood.

I think we’re all in unanimous agreement the wrong film got the award this year. The Academy Awards is not always a joyous celebration of film (we all saw Seth MacFarlane hosting, right?). Bribery and pettiness is often a large part of who wins what.  My own attitude towards the ceremony has changed a lot over the years, but I’m still just as obsessed with it. I see it not so much as the beaming star on cinema’s calender but more a fascinating, extravagant window into the realms of Hollywood ideologies. Something that represents what is wrong with the film industry as much as what is great about it.

If a small positive is to be found, it’s that at least my wee blog would not have been responsible for another unnecessary ‘Citizen Kane’ review. There’s nothing left to say about it. And let’s face it, Welles won in the long run. Practically everyone’s heard of Kane’s story. Barely anyone knows of Huw’s.

This entry had me worried as I thought, given the film’s tame content, it might not be my most riveting review. How wrong I was, it’s led to some of my most intriguing reflections and observations. I think Wales and I can call a truce now.

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