On…. Non-Asian Cinema

on

Now whilst this blog is primarily about Asian Cinema, I am actually a huge fan of cinema full stop.  I have tried very hard to keep the focus of the blog somewhat pure to this extent, but I have enjoyed doing these On….pieces (at the very least it means I can accentuate the positive), and maybe knowing what other films I enjoy might cast light onto why I feel how I do about Asian Cinema in general.  So here is a list of 8 films that I hold very dear to my heart.  Are they the best 8 films?  God no – that changes on a regular basis.

I have set myself a rule though – firstly a Director can only have one film in the list, although I will mention other works in my little rambles.  I have tried hard to spread around the genres a little, which I think will show what a wonderfully balanced individual I am.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I guess it will come as no surprise to long term readers that my first cinematic love has really been horror films.  I even managed to get a long essay on the subject into my final years work in my Degree (and I am a BSc, so imagine how hard that was).  The list of films I could have chosen in this category would have led to a new blog on its own.  So I got to thinking – what films actually scared me?  Not as in a repulsion at a disgusting image, or basic jumping out of my seat?  What film actually had me unable to sleep after seeing it, that had my mind racing and thinking, not as a child, but as an adult.

Then the choice was easy.  I remember one night I spent alone at my shared house during my final year at University.  I wasn’t travelling to see the girlfriend that weekend, and poverty had meant for some reason I had decided to stay in.  I went to the local video store, and picked up the colourised version of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”.  Now, I had actually seen the next two movies of his (then) trilogy, so my love of Zombies as a sub-genre was already established.  Why Zombies?  Well I think it is because they can work on so many levels – sure they work as shambling threats (and although not historically canon – the cannibalistic nature of the modern Zombie is creepy); but they also work well in looking at societal issues,

Originally shot in Black and White (way superior to the version I saw, which does have its charm), this is low budget, inventive horror.  A cast of unknowns, led by a fledgling Director, something about it just works.  I have a theory that Romero sometimes gets lucky in his themes – I am not sure the much lauded innovations of having a Black lead, or the downbeat ending were actually at the forefront of his mind when putting the film together, but they just add to the picture.

The opening scene (“They’re coming to get you Barbara!”) and the matricide are two moments that will always stay with me.  And even more powerful as they are achieved by camera angles and clever cutting.  They showed me you don’t need to be graphic to unsettle and scare.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

I could have chosen two or three Michael Powell movies (Black Narcissus was an inch away).  There is something about his work that always strikes a chord in me, and the fact he was able to mix up the genres just adds to my respect for him.  This is the one where RAF Pilot David Niven is shot down over the Channel in Wartime, but due to weather conditions, Heaven cannot find him.  He meets Kim Hunter, a USAAF radio dispatcher who talked him through his last moments, and they fall in love.  But then Heaven catches up with him, and he has to plead his case in a Heavenly Court.

Niven is just the epitome of that slightly upper class British actor of the 1940’s.  Handsome, debonair, a little rakish, but ultimately loveable.  Always watchable, but I think this is his best all-round performance.  But what really raises the film is the brilliant use of colour.  Our world is in its Technicolor glory, but Heaven is there in black and white.

What makes it even more special, is that it is actually a propaganda piece – proposed (but not funded) by the British Ministry of Defence as a way of fostering relations between the UK and the USA. But it transcends this, weaving in a love story, as well ask asking some brave and interesting questions.

Non-UK fans may find this film under its alternate title, “Stairway to Heaven”,

Vertigo

There has to be a Hitchcock.  There is something timeless and classic about the vast majority of his output that has always struck a chord with me.  In order to pick one, I decided to go with Vertigo – but it could so easily have been North by Northwest, The Birds, or Rear Window.  Or maybe some others.  But this one wins as I think it is probably his most complex and subtle film.  It never hurts that my favourite actor ever stars in it.

As usual with masterpieces it was pretty much ignored upon it’s original release, and I can see why.  It does not offer the scares and suspense of his other work in this period, and actually deals with some really interesting psychological issues around obsession.  John “Scottie” Ferguson is not your normal type of hero, not only crippled by a fear of heights, but also by a creeping and growing obsession with Kim Novak’s dual (kinda sorta) characters.  This is one of those films that really stretched Jimmy Stewart away from his usual all-American nice guy. 

The film is hypnotic, and surprisingly vast parts of the film are actually dialogue free.  The score by Bernard Herrman is one of the best ever.  Best of all, the film is actually based on a French novel, which apparently lets the final secret loose only in the final few pages.  Here we learn it long before, and I think the film becomes special and unique because of that.  Way back when I got my first DVD player, I made sure I could get it Multi-Regioned, as I knew the first DVD I wanted was the glorious remastered version.  I recommend it to you all.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Looking back through the films I have enjoyed in my Asian odyssey, I think it is quite obvious I would love this one.  Jimmy Stewart again, but this type playing that kind of role he excelled at.  It’s Frank Capra of course, so expect it to be over melodramatic.  Heck, it is a Christmas movie after all. 

But it is one of those films I just go back to regularly.  Who hasn’t wondered what the world would be like if they were not part of it?  George Bailey, on the brink of suicide (which might explain why this too was not a huge success upon release) finds out this via the work of a trainee Angel.  Bailey is obviously a good man to us the observer, but he becomes racked with doubts during the Great Depression, mixed with his feelings of disappointment about not being able to fight in World War 2.

It manages to be utterly romantic, George’s line to the girl he is courting always makes me smile broadly: “What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary […] Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see… and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair… am I talking too much?”.  I wish I could be half as erudite in that regard.

The real message of the film is summed up by our Angel, desperate to get his Wings: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”.  And that for me is the message of the entire film.

I’m a hopeless romantic.  But also one full of hope.  Sue me.

Starship Troopers

On the other hand, I know none of you (well maybe one person) saw this coming.  I am really not a huge fan of science fiction (I’m not against it, and indeed I like some of it very much, but it isn’t where I would lay my hat), but this one is just so clever.  Verhoeven has been responsible for a few stinkers in his time, but to be fair, he does have a lovely flair for the visual.  But it is so much more than that.

You see, it not only is a glorious B Movie, usually with its tongue buried deep in its cheek.  But it works on two levels.  By all means enjoy this as a big dumb film about the human race versus a bunch of icky space bugs.  But behind this there is another possibility – that really this is all manufactured by the Fascist World Government.

The film is populated by American Soap actors, quite deliberately to give the film that B- Movie feel, but it also manages to do some clever visual tricks (“Would you like to know more?”) that actually hold up really well nearly 15 years later.

The most important thing is that the film does not take itself too seriously, even if it is dealing with a quite weighty subject.  Every time I watch this, I just have a lot of fun with it.  Ignore the sequels though – not only are they crap, but they miss the point.

American Movie

I do love a good documentary, and this is one of the best.  Mark Borchardt is a young man with a mission – despite his poverty and dysfunctional family, he wants to make movies.  We follow his attempts to do so as a total amateur along with his friend Mike Schank.

The movie making is really only the meat on the bones of this.  What we are getting is a portrait of an America that is not so glamorous.  This was made in a time before anyone could get a reality show, and there is a refreshing honesty about all involved.  You know these are good people in a bad place.

At times it is side-splittingly hilarious (“But Dude… That just makes no sense”).  But often it is poignant and heartbreaking – like when Mark’s Mother and Mike are reduced to buying lottery scratch cards, convinced that they might win.

Even though the film is only a little more than 10 years old, it is interesting in retrospect to see how the world was so different then – would they have found things easier with the way technology has moved on – with YouTube and so on, maybe the struggle would have been different – but then again he would have been one voice amongst millions.

Sure, it’s voyeuristic, and most of the time you are laughing at the guys, and not with them.  But you know what? They are more honest than most people you meet, and you really want them to succeed.  Ironically, they did get a little bit of success out of this, and Mark is still trying to make his proper film.  I still wish him luck, 10 years after getting a glimpse of his life.  The DVD I think is deleted now, but if you get a chance to see it – I would suggest you make the time.

Manhattan

Woody Allen, another Director who could have gotten two or three in the list.  This was back from when he was really good.

From the opening credits of gorgeous grainy black and white shots of the great city itself, supported by a fantastic Gershwin score, this film grips me every time I see it.  Sure, it is very much an Allen film of the time – he is a rather ordinary guy in a rather unlikely relationship with a young girl.  His wife (now living with a woman) is going to expose his sex life in a book.  He falls for his best friend’s Mistress.  Yep, typical Allen there.

It looks fantastic, and has some brilliant lines.  The acting is top notch, including an early Meryl Streep.  I actually prefer it to “Annie Hall”, probably because of the cinematography and music, and the fact I think at least some of the characters are likeable.

Bit that does not include Allen’s character himself.  He is actually quite a repulsive little man, maybe even some kind of anti-hero.  Yet upon the film’s conclusion, you still feel pity for him.  It also has to be said it is a film of it’s time – I am not sure that you can be as sympathetic to the way some of the characters act in the modern world.  And there is still some discomfort as the reality about Allen and younger girls came to light years later.

But a classic is a classic.

The Odd Couple

To end up this first little foray (and I suspect there will be others, I thought I would include this little gem.  A razor sharp script, delivered by not only two of the greatest American actors of their generation in Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but also one of the most endearing partnerships.

Sure it belies its roots as a play, by the closed sets, extended scenes and only the slightest forays out of Matthau’s apartment, but the whole point of the piece is in the words.  Neil Simon scripts are always worth listening to, and this I think is one of his finest.  It is not only brilliantly hilarious, but also occasionally poignant.  I love the way the male friends are like real friends – all different, with different quirks, and whilst they do get on each others nerves, they also would work hard for each other.

Every scene manages to contain a laugh, even those uncomfortable early moments when Felix is considering suicide (you know, there are two other films on this little list that use suicide to motivate the plot, pure co-incidence I assure you).

And then there is that theme tune, certainly one of the catchiest ever, I assure you after watching this you will be humming it for days afterwards.

If it has a fault, it is that the female characters are on the whole only spoken about.  Sure, we have the two annoying English sisters, but I would like to have met Felix and Oscar’s wives, rather than only hear about them second hand and via difficult telephone conversations.

Ignore the sequels though.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Rachel says:

    A nice solid list of films my friend…except perhaps Starship Troopers (but at least you can admit you like it). Manhattan is amazing, Odd Couple is classic, Vertigo is monumental (same goes for N.O.T.L.D.). Anyways, finally a blog about movies I HAVE seen. Although, I am quite intrigued by The Banquet.

    Like

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