Friday, 19 July 2013

Strangers on a Train - Alfred Hitchcock - 1951

Two strangers, each with a problematic person in their lives, meet by chance on a train and discover that with the perfect crime comes the perfect answer to all their problems. So starts Strangers on a Train, an incredibly tense thriller by the master of suspense that is probably the finest of his mid-career films. Farley Granger, returning to work for Hitch a second time after the experimental Rope, is possibly a little bland as put-upon hero Guy Haines which is unfortunate because the way is left clear for Robert Walker to walk off with the film as the charming stranger Guy meets on the train, the psychotic Bruno Anthony. Elegant, with a frisson of homoerotic flamboyance, Bruno is by turns menacing and ingratiating, equally at home flattering society ladies as he is strangling girls at fairgrounds, stealing every scene to become what must be the finest Hitchcock villain until the debut of Norman Bates. Hitch clearly loves both Bruno and Walker’s performance, surpassing himself to find extraordinary ways to indulge them with his camera; in one darkly funny shot Bruno stands out from a tennis crowd as the only one whose head doesn't move with the ball; whilst in an earlier moment a murder is seen only as a reflection in the victim’s fallen glasses. Memorable sequences like Bruno stalking his victim through the fairground and a climactic fight on board a runaway carousel are filled with so much thrilling tension that it’s easy to forget this was made over fifty years ago. If that wasn’t enough the black and white photography is unusually beautiful for a Hitchcock film, making incredible use of light and shadow over the faces of the duelling strangers that it almost attains the level of art. It might not be so well known as the later classics, but Strangers on a Train is without doubt one of Hitch's finest films and cinema’s most beautiful thrillers. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Elf - Jon Favreau - 2003

An amusing Christmas family comedy that marked the mainstream directorial debut of indie actor Jon Favreau, Elf tells the story of Buddy, a human who was raised as one of Santa's elves and goes on a quest to to find his true family in New York when it becomes clear he is just too big to be an elf any longer. Will Ferrell is perfect casting for man-child Buddy, channelling his manic energy to deliver a sweet and funny performance that doesn’t need to resort to the hysterics that occasionally blighted Anchorman. Buddy’s obsession with candy feels a little too relentlessly childish but otherwise Ferrell and Favreau play the fish-out-of-water concept of an elf in New York absolutely straight and thus Buddy’s quirks – a childish delight in revolving doors, wide eyed wonder at New York’s Christmas lights and some mean snowball skills – are all the more believable and adorable for that and the spirit of Christmas cheer that he awakens in those around him can’t fail to rub off on the audience. James Caan plays publisher Walter, Buddy’s Scrooge-like biological father, with good grace, gamely mugging along with Ferrell’s excesses as he predictably has his heart warmed, and Zooey Deschanel is as delightful ever as the slightly kooky love interest despite this being a role she has played with greater complexity many times since. Peter Dinklage makes a hilarious cameo as a children’s book diva at the apex of a publishing subplot that only really exists to ground Walter in a mundane reality but is successfully used by Favreau to ensure that the film has humour to play on all levels. Towards the end Favreau attempts a token action climax involving Santa's crashed sleigh and some bad guys on horseback (Central Park Rangers, really?) that doesn't really lift off, but ultimately the film is all about finding Christmas spirit which is a rather obvious message but welcome nevertheless and one that thanks to Ferrell, it has in spades.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Team America: World Police - Trey Parker & Matt Stone - 2004

After the phenomenal success of their low-tech lowbrow cartoon series South Park and its subsequent movie version South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, creative team Trey Parker and Matt Stone turned their malicious sense of humour towards Hollywood and bought us Team America: World Police. Attacking the idealised Hollywood vision of America as being the saviour of the free world with gleeful abandon, Parker and Stone squash all of the worst excesses of movie Americana into one epic film and in a single genius idea spin the whole concept on its head by casting it with… puppets. Thus all the things come across as patriotic and exciting – huge explosions, melodramatic romances, heroic last stands etc – but O so po-faced and serious when directed in a live action movie by say, Michael Bay, are shown up in all their glorious absurdity when performed by what are essentially Thunderbirds rip-offs. While this is of course a welcome breath of fresh air, the film's impact is sadly lessened by Parker and Stone’s scattershot sense of humour, which means that, as often been the case in their previous work, whilst some of the jokes hit home with a deliciously cruel accuracy that few would dare display, many others are wasted and fall flat under the pair’s relentless obsession with the crude and puerile. A running metaphor using dicks, pussys and assholes cleverly bridges the gap between toilet humour and satire and becomes bizarrely effective as a climactic crowd stirrer but the pair’s obsession with mocking famous actors quickly becomes boring. By turning the late Korean dictator Kim Jung Il into a lonely insane terrorist, Parker and Stone created one of the decade’s most memorable villains but Alec Baldwin? Sure the man is outspoken and occasionally bad tempered but of all the Hollywood elite to target (and a lot of them turn up in puppet format) why him? Having said that Parker and Stone should at least be applauded for sliding their subversive ideals into the mainstream; the film doesn’t have the wit or precision to last as a classic but for a long Team America are going to make it very hard to take Hollywood heroics seriously anymore. And woe betide anyone with a montage…