Modern Times

Modern Times (1936)

Dir: Charlie Chaplin. Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

Chaplin getting swallowed by a machine

Last night I came to the glorious realisation that I could happily spend the rest of my days being entertained and inspired in equal measures by Charlie Chaplin films. The beauty of Modern Times is that the inimitable Chaplin manages to tell quite a serious, and prescient, story about men being enslaved by both machines and the powers that be, whilst managing to make you laugh in practically every scene. It’s a classic tale of an ordinary working man trying to make an honest living for himself but being thwarted at every turn.

Chaplin as The Tramp is not a tramp at the start of the film, but a factory worker who is almost killed by the constant modernisation of the production line. In one hilarious scene he is subjected to being a test case  on a contraption that would allow workers to carry on their production line tasks without having to stop for food, with the machine assaulting him with soup, cake and corn on the cob.  I haven’t laughed so much in ages, though, as with all clever comedy, you’re partly laughing at the sheer absurdity of the human condition.

Chaplin is then jobless, and when he picks up a red flag in the street is mistaken for a communist leader (the police evidently looking after the interests of the rich) and banged up in jail. Here, Chaplin inadvertently consumes some ‘nose powder’ (again, laugh out loud funny) and, with his extra bravado, ends up saving the prison from attack.

An honest man, Chaplin then struggles to hold down a job but does meet ‘the gamin’ (Goddard), a beautiful orphan on the run from the police, and the two try and struggle through life together, dreaming of a time when they will be able to enjoy a permanent roof over their heads and food on the table. When in the end they lose everything, there’s still a  sense of hope; an optimism that something good can come out of the unhappy state the world is in.

This film has everything – the honest, working man versus the wealthy factory owner; the de-humanising impact of excessive modernisation; the struggle people faced during the Depression; and all this with proper belly laughs along the way. Excellent.

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer PG (2007)

Dir: Tim Story; Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis

He's, err, the silver surfer

This was on the telly. I was tired and wanted to watch something mindless. What I actually wanted to watch was something with Harrison Ford in it, namely something like Patriot Games, or I could happily have gone for a Steven Segal classic. Under Siege was on but too late for my weary eyes, and so it was to be this dreary comic book non-event that sent me to bed. And it did send me to bed. On the sofa. The list of things that irritated me about this film is too long to mention, so I’ll just settle for Susan Storm (Alba).

Susan Storm is a super-hero but she’s actually just bothered about having a perfect wedding to Mr Fantastic. She’s whiny and annoying whereas he’s the scientific, rational one. If this tired dichotomy continues to be played out on our screens then how are we ever going to move on? I don’t care if it’s based on original source material.

As I was asleep for the end and even before that wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, I can’t offer much in way of plot summary. Something was trying to destroy the planet, anyway, that’s all you need to know, and it was up to the Fantastic Four to save it. Which they did, I think. And everyone learnt some valuable lessons along the way. Maybe. The only moderately good bit was Stan Lee’s cameo, but even that’s gotten a little bit tired. As am I, just thinking about this film. Yawn.

The Road

The Road 15 (2009)

Dir: John Hillcoat; Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron

"At least, it's not the end of the..." oh, wait, it is.

I can’t say I enjoyed this film. The end of the world isn’t on the Top Ten Topics of Enjoyable Conversation, but films and entertainment are a broad church and I tend to worship at the bleak, painful altar. Having said that, the film is not a depressing experience. Following the story of Man and Boy as they wander through a post-apocalyptic world trying to survive could be pretty awful, but The Road has humanity at its heart. This is humanity at both ends of the spectrum – what can happen to people when all hope is gone, from those who keep people starving in their basement so they have a ready supply of fresh meat to those who will offer some of their limited food supply to an old man. I’m not saying a film has to have light to complement the considerable shade but it’s welcome.

The film is also saved from being depressing because it is beautifully crafted piece of work. The colourless landscapes punctuated by forest fires or blood are extremely affecting. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are great as the Father and Son, driving to stay alive. The ‘happy’ ending works because it’s not truthfully a happy ending. Everybody is still going to die, it’s just a question of when. Oh no, maybe it is depressing after all…

The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)
Dir: William Friedkin; Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb

"Do you know what your c*nting daughter's done?"

There are some films that it’s considered a travesty not to have seen. The Exorcist is up there with The Godfather and Citizen Kane as one of the most seminal pieces of work every to have been committed to celluloid. Revolutionary, overwhelming brilliance. Groundbreaking, staggering works of genius. Eye-opening, inimitable game-changers. And I haven’t seen any of them. I know, I know, but I wasn’t brought up on films (I knew all that reading to the exclusion of all else would be detrimental) and I’m still working my way through everything that was produced before 1999. And so, the opportunity to see The Exorcist, Director’s Cut no less, on the big screen was not one I could pass up. Screened as part of Mark Kermode’s book tour, and introduced by the man himself as “the greatest film ever made”, the sense of excitement in the cinema was tangible.

The thing with ‘classics’ is that you can’t help but come to them with some kind of prior knowledge (unless you live in a cave with no access to other people, media or technology, and I’m pretty sure even Osama’s got internet access so that rules out everybody). And with prior knowledge comes pre-formed ideas about what to expect: I knew about that scene with the crucifix; I was aware of some of the special effects (the head spin, the levitation); I was ready for the streams of obscenities coming from Linda Blair’s mouth. I knew all of this, or at least thought I did, but I still found The Exorcist shocking, compelling and darn good fun.

What I didn’t already know was the extent of the religious context and the film’s implications, imagery and ideas, as we follow the story of 12 year old Regan (Blair), who is inexplicably possessed by Satan, and a Priest’s own internal battle with his religious beliefs as he works to save her. The seeds of fear to follow are sown in the opening scenes as Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin receives a disturbing omen whilst on an archaeological dig in Iraq, but it’s in Regan’s bedroom in a Georgetown house that the horror begins. It’s scary in an intense, slow-burning, quietly unrelenting kind of way, as sweet-faced Regan, to the shock of her increasingly desperate mother Chris (Burstyn), slowly but surely turns into a violent, filth-spewing monster. Chris turns first to medicine and psychiatry to try and cure her daughter but in the end seeks the help of world weary Priest, Father Karras (Miler) for an exorcism, which the experienced Father Merrin helps him perform.

With outstanding performances from the entire cast, particularly Blair, it’s a film that gets under your skin: you spend the whole film feeling uncomfortable and queasy. That there are no ‘logical’ or somatic explanations for Regan’s condition lead the audience and the characters to question the existence of higher powers, both good and evil. It’s a clever film because it doesn’t just throw the horror in your face; it makes you work for it, and is all the more scary disturbing because of it.

The Director’s Cut includes some deleted scenes, including Regan’s ‘Spiderwalk’ downstairs, which is one of the most frightening bits of the film, both for us and for poor Chris, as she sees for the first time something that cannot be explained by ‘reasonable’ thought.

That’s not to say I was terrified throughout, and I certainly didn’t stand up, vomit then pass out, as moviegoers did when the film was released. Bits of it were quite funny, but I can only imagine what it would have felt like to watch this film in 1973 with no prior experience of anything remotely resembling the horror it contains.


Millions PG (2004)

Dir: Danny Boyle; Starring: Alex Etel, Lewis McGibbon, James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan, Christopher Fulford, Pearce Quigley

The brothers before Millions get in the way

Every now and then I watch a film that makes me feel like I’m ten years old, curled up on the sofa at my mum’s house screeching at my brother to stop being an idiot whilst simultaneously laughing like a drain at his antics. Millions is one of those films. It’s sweet, funny and charming (granted, not the combination that usually works for weary old me), and made me feel all warm inside.

Damian (Etel) is a lovely little kid with an in depth knowledge of saints and a vivid imagination. Anthony (McGibbon) is his older, cynical brother with an in depth knowledge of finance and an unhealthy interest in money. They’re both dealing with the death of their mother whilst their likeable dad (Nesbitt, well he’s always likeable, that’s his thing), does his best to bring them up solo. When Damian finds a quarter of a million pounds from a heist, which he believes has been sent from God, a few days before England converts to the Euro, he goes about trying to give the money to poor people before it becomes worthless whilst his brother is more interested in a housing market investment. Add to that a hilarious turn from their local Community Support Officer (Quigley), Daisy Donovan as Nesbitt’s love interest and the original criminal mastermind on the lads’ tails trying to get the money back, and you have a great little film with an engaging plot and just the right amount of sentimentality.


Shopgirl 15 (2005)
Dir: Anand Tucker; Starring: Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman

Mirabelle and her silver fox

Firstly, Claire Danes holds a special place in my heart and for me can do no wrong. Just as Jared Leto was my teenage crush in My So-Called Life, Danes was the awkward, lonely girl that everyone identified with, and her gawky beauty was a refreshing change from your standard attractiveness. In Shopgirl, it’s her unusual good looks as Mirabelle that make Ray (Martin) fall for her over the superficial make-up counter beauties, and what follows is a sweet May-December romance which, whilst it’s hardly the weightiest of films is nonetheless enjoyable, if not a tiny bit irritating at times.

Mirabelle is the Shopgirl in question, working at Saks in LA on the glove counter and struggling with loneliness, isolation and unfulfilled artistic and romantic desires. She meets oddball Jeremy (Schwartzman) in a laundrette and  following an unsatisfying sexual encounter he heads off on the road with a band where he attempts to mature a little bit and she draws the eyes of Ray, a wealthy businessman who lavishes Mirabelle with all kinds of attention but keeps her at arms length.

It’s a nice little film with some beautiful shots, particularly Danes in her little green apartment, and you can’t help but feel for her as she wonders where her romance with this charming older man is headed. The only thing slightly grating is the cheesy voiceovers that try too hard to ape Amelie with their ‘star-crossed lovers’ and various other twee metaphors.

Sweet, light, romantic. Just what you want on a Sunday night.

Up in the Air

Up in the Air 15 (2009)

Dir: Jason Reitman; Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick

What a man

The only reason I went to see this film was to finally visit the Cottage Road Cinema, one of the oldest cinemas in the country, showing films since 1912. As much as I’m not really into their programme, I appreciate that they offer what your local cinema used to – mainstream crowd-pleasers, not too taxing on the mind – and if the entertainment is woeful at least you can switch off and start thinking about your surroundings and all the classics that have graced the screen.

Up in the Air is not a classic, thus the cinema reminiscences came in very handy, and I’m absolutely gob smacked that it’s up for an Oscar. Applauded for capturing the mood of the zeitgeist, which I can only assume means an increasing fear of life becoming detached from intimate relationships and an over-reliance on technology to do our bidding, it follows the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a smooth-talking high flyer who travels around America 52 weeks of the year firing people. To cut a long, arduous story short, a young ‘go-getter’ (never a more horrible phrase existed), Natalie (Kendrick), comes up with the idea of firing people via webcam, thus meaning Ryan might have to face up to a life not Up in the Air, but first he takes her out in the field to show her how it’s done, develops a relationship with an irritating woman called Alex (Farmiga), everybody learns some valuable life lessons, and Ryan gets to keep flying anyway.

It moves awkwardly between an attempt at satire and Hollywood sentimentality, the message being too overly rammed down our throats to come off as anything remotely clever. I laughed twice – some of the dialogue is relatively entertaining, but at times this made it feel like it was trying to be a cool, indie flick when it’s clearly not. Let me end by saying I enjoyed it less than Avatar – which is really saying something.