Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Last Five Films...#4

1. Dawn of the Dead (1979)

Shown in conjunction with A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss' excellent three-part series for BBC4, Dawn of the Dead is a classic despite its manifest flaws. The analogy I've come up with to explain this is the difference between Frank Sinatra's Songs For Swinging Lovers and Ramones by The Ramones. The first is the result of supremely talented people on the top of their game, Sinatra's voice and phrasing, Nelson Riddle's arrangements, the finest session musicians money could buy, not to mention The Great American Songbook of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. It's so evidently a high watermark of moden culture it doesn't need any special pleading.
The Ramones, on the other hand, the original three-cord punks, weren't even the best musicians in scummy New York dive CBGBs in 1975 (Television or Talking Heads if you're asking) and had only one basic idea, gonzo, speed-freak versions of 50s pop. But what an idea it was, especially when attacked with dumb-ass gusto on classics like Blitzkrieg Pop and Beat On The Brat.
The point is, taste and talent would never have given us this. Likewise, they would never have given us Dawn of the Dead. It took an instinctive amateur to go there. Romero's direction is borderline incompetent at times, especially with action sequences, and the actors are often all at sea, but there's no denying the moral intelligence behind it or the now-iconic images of zombies wandering through the shopping mall as cheery Muzak plays, filmmaking so savagely satirical and sweetly funny that no-one except maybe the Kubrick of Dr Strangelove would have dared go there.

2. The Quatermass Experiment (1955)

The Quatermass Experiment is a very effective early Hammer sci-fi/horror about a rocket ship returning to earth infected by a mysterious alien organism. Excellent location shooting and a haunting performance by Richard Wordsworth (as the only surviving astronaut slowly being taken over by this thing inside him), give this spin-off from a landmark TV series real bite. As maverick scientist Dr Quatermass, veteran American actor Brian Donlevy waltzes around 50s Britain like he owns it, ignoring or browbeating everyone from the military and the police to medical experts as if none of the rules apply to him (which may have been some kind of sly political statement of course).

3. Despicable Me (2010)

Another week another entertaining animated film. If only my kids realised what a golden age of childrens' cinema they're living through. Even sequel-fodder like Ice Age 3 offers more invention and wit than most adult films. In fact it's easy to take the visual flair and comic timing of a film like Despicable Me for granted. It may not be the latest ground-breaking animation from Pixar, criminal mastermind Gru may be a cross between Uncle Fester and Dr Evil, the plot a variation on The Grinch and the visual style half-inched from Henry Selick, but it doesn't matter. My kids loved it, the minions are funny and it manages the inevitable heartwarming ending with enough delicate skill to avoid mawkishness.

4. Army of Shadows (1969)

Superbly laconic account of the French Resistance showing how ordinary people became as ruthless as the enemy and as devious as criminals to survive the Occupation. There's an air of existential gloom over it all, from the closed, watchful faces, the dour overcast skies, the lonely sound of hard shoes on cobbled streets, the cowed eyes of men who know they're going to be killed. It's difficult to sympathise with anyone though, because the sense of honour and sacrifice is alien to us now, the idea of killing your own because they've betrayed you. It's hard to justify when they're just kids who made mistakes or women trying to protect their children. The film is unflinching in this and while the middle section in wartime London is a little unconvincing overall it's a compelling work.

5. Fool's Gold (2008)

I have a soft-spot for Matthew McConaughey (no not quicksand). I honestly think he could've been this generation's Errol Flynn if the roles had come his way. Only the enjoyable Sahara gave him a proper opportunity to show what a likeable wise-cracking hero he could be. Too often he's been tied down to lame rom-com plots opposite B-list actresses and Fool's Gold is no help; a half-baked treasure hunt plot shackled to contrived romantic fireworks opposite charisma-free Kate Hudson. Despite a few bright moments it doesn't work. And I really wanted to like it, I really did. But it just gets progressively worse as first Donald Sutherland and then Ray Winstone compete to see who can produce the worst accent in cinema history. Winstone wins by a nautical mile, his Southern-drawl-meets-East-London-snarl so toe-curlingly bad McConaughey should have taken it as a personal insult and challenged him to pistols at dawn and saved us all this witless waste of time.

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