The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

THE ITALIAN JOB (1969)


What can you say about The Italian Job that hasn’t already been said? There are so many good things about this marvellous British film that it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s Michael Caine in another of his iconic roles as Charlie Croker, Noel Coward as the behind bars sophisticated career criminal Mr Bridger, Tony Beckley as Camp Freddy and the wonderful Benny Hill as Professor Peach who likes big women. There’s great comic cameos from Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier and Bill Fraser. There’s the preparation for the robbery and the robbery itself, the fantastic car chase through the streets of Turin that follows and the sublimely brilliant ending. And then there’s the endlessly quotable dialogue.
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-ip2X5ljkVM4/T0lk41ELJ1I/AAAAAAAAAh0/xjkB3ak0Ghw/s1600/italian%2Bjob.jpg
The original poster for The Italian Job
 

When one of Mr Bridger’s lackeys tells him that Charlie is going to do a job in Italy, Bridger replies, “Well I hope he likes spaghetti. They serve it four times a day in the Italian prisons.” When Charlie picks up his car from storage he tells the manager that he’s just back from India shooting tigers. “There’s a bounty for shooting tigers, you know,” he tells him – then when the manager notices the large amount of money in his wallet and says, “You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, sir,” Charlie responds: “Yes, I used a machine gun.”

It seems that everyone in Britain, no matter what age they are, love this film. Kids who weren’t even born when the film was released can do an impression of Michael Caine saying the line for which he will always be remembered, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” And my son, William, has got a new pair of glasses of which he is particularly fond because – he says – they make him look like a young Michael Caine.

My son William as Michael Caine
 
I remember going to see the film on its original release and walking out of the cinema, like everyone else who saw it that day, with a huge smile on my face. All I wanted to do after I’d seen it was see it again and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched it since then.

The fast moving and funny screenplay was by Troy Kennedy Martin, who had written several episodes of the TV series Z-Cars and would later go on to script Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and the terrific six-part conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkness (1985) for the BBC. The Italian Job was directed with great flair by Peter Collinson, who had directed two successful British films – The Long Day’s Dying and Up The Junction – the previous year. And to cap it all the music was by Quincy Jones.

It’s a film that gets better and better with subsequent viewings and you go along with it even though you know the outcome and can quote most of the dialogue verbatim, especially that final optimistic line from Charlie, “Hang on a minute, lads – I’ve got a great idea.”

The Italian Job is a film that is so embedded in our national psyche, that when it was discovered that it was being remade – by Hollywood – it was greeted by the British public with derision and horror. It was as if an American at a party at Buckingham Palace had announced that he was going to assassinate the Queen. How dare they even consider remaking a national treasure like The Italian Job that was so quintessentially British? But Hollywood has never had any qualms about plundering great European films and remaking inferior dumbed down versions of the originals. Whilst I’ll admit there’s been some good remakes – True Lies (French original: La Totale!), The Departed (Hong Kong original: Infernal Affairs) and Let Me In (Swedish original: Let the Right One In) there have also been even more truly terrible ones – three that spring immediately to mind are Luc Besson’s kinetic French thriller La Femme Nikita (1990) which was remade into the thoroughly forgettable The Assassin (1993); George Sluizer’s atmospheric Dutch psychological drama Spoorloos (1988) became the limp The Vanishing (1993) and Francois Veber’s wonderfully funny French comedy Le Dîner de Cons (1998) was made into the awful Dinner for Schmucks (2010), which was twenty-four minutes longer than the original and about a million times less funny.

When the remake of The Italian Job was eventually released in 2003 it – not surprisingly – didn’t do good business in Britain. I was one of many thousands of cinema goers who steered clear of the film because I thought it was a disgrace that America should take such a revered British classic and Hollywoodize it. I didn’t go and see it because I knew that I would hate it, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is a shame because it’s actually a pretty good film.

It’s got a great cast – Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Mos Def and the excellent Edward Norton. It’s well directed by F. Gary Gray and it has a great script by Donna and Wayne Powers. But the thing is, and this is what I like about it most – it’s not a remake. It’s an homage or – to use the current epithet – a reimagining. When Charlie (Mark Wahlberg) and his team decide to get their ill-gotten earnings back after being double-crossed by Steve (Edward Norton), Charlie quite clearly states, “Let’s do it like The Italian Job.” Mind you, the film would have quite obviously been better received in Britain if it hadn’t been called The Italian Job, but the powers-that-be in Hollywood must have thought differently. And for those who have put aside their prejudices and seen the film watch it again and try and spot Spider-man running through the crowd – it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, so you have to pay attention.

Although it has its humorous moments it has a more serious air about it than the original. There’s no gunplay in the original, and no-one gets killed. There’s no villain apart from the villains who carry out the job and its laddish cockney characters are almost blueprints for the likes of Soap, Eddy, Bacon and Winston in Guy Ritchie’s stylised comedy noir Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998. It doesn’t have the memorable dialogue and quotable lines that original had in abundance. And it didn’t have Michael Caine.

Despite struggling for a few years with minor parts Michael Caine hasn’t stopped working since his debut as a leading man in the three films that made his name – Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966). He’s also not averse to doing the odd popcorn movie and he’s honest enough to say that he did such-and-such a film in order to buy his mum a house. I read an interview that Richard Harris gave in the Sunday Times Magazine many years ago where he was highly critical of Michael Caine’s success and was virtually accusing him of prostituting his art for financial gain. Now, I happen to think Richard Harris was an exemplary actor who took on difficult roles in such films as Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), Ken Hughes’ Cromwell (1970), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and Randa Haines’ Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993). But let’s not forget he also did The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1983) and Strike Commando 2 (1988) as well as playing Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films before his untimely death in 2002.

As Michael Caine has grown older he has taken on a whole raft of diverse characters – as the vicious Mortwell in Mona Lisa (1986), the clapped out show-biz agent Ray Say in Little Voice (1998), the ether addicted Dr Wilbur Larch in The Cider House Rules (1999), the protective butler Alfred Pennyworth in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) and the loyal magician’s assistant Cutter in the outstanding The Prestige (2006), also directed by Christopher Nolan.

But I think that it’s his eternally optimistic Charlie Croker that he’ll be forever remembered. It’s a classic performance in a classic British film.

But is The Italian Job the best British film ever made? I don’t think so – that honour belongs to Carol Reed’s superb version of Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1949).

But I have to say that The Italian Job is definitely the most entertaining.

And what is there left to say after that except, “Hang on a minute, lads – I’ve got a great idea.”

Friday, 4 July 2014

BLADE RUNNER (1982)


When word got around that Ridley Scott was releasing a director’s cut of his seminal noir science-fiction film Blade Runner I was thrown into a frenzy of excitement. I saw the film on its original release in 1982 and it has remained my favourite film of all time since then. In 1996 I was living in Winchester and I discovered that it was being shown at the Arts Cinema in Southampton. I’d already seen the director’s cut on its release in 1992, but this was an opportunity to see it again.

I was part of a group of people from all walks of life who met in the Hyde Tavern and each evening we would drink beer and talk bollocks to each other until we either left or were asked to leave. When I suggested that we all go to Southampton and see the director’s cut of Blade Runner everyone was in agreement – well everyone except Graham.

“I’ve already seen it,” he said.

“Well come and see it again.”

“I don’t watch films twice.”

“But this is Blade Runner!”

As with all groups of youngish to middle aged single blokes we had perfected the art of talking shite for long periods at a time. We talked about all kinds of things – from religion to politics, by way of history, geography, books, television and movies.  I found that the subjects we spoke about often took a cyclical nature - conversations that we had on a Monday would often be repeated the following Monday, although it would of course be slightly different owing to the behavior known as deterministic chaos, which was summarized by Edward Lorenz as: ‘when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.’

Years before the Chaos Theory was given a name the great philosopher of science fiction, Philip K. Dick, was writing about it. He also predicted the development of androids, virtual reality, high-tech surveillance, ecological collapse, pre-crime technology and the existence of parallel universes.

So, before I get around to talking about the most influential science-fiction film of all time I just want to say a few words about the most influential science-fiction writer of all time – Philip K. Dick. (From here on – to save time – I will refer to him as PKD).

PKD was no ordinary man. He liked drugs. He had visions. He was paranoid about government interference into his life. Where most people would almost inevitably end up dribbling down their strait jackets in some loony bin, PKD channelled these things into his writing and created some of the most visionary and original novels of the 20th century.

In his 1963 Hugo Award winning novel The Man in the High Castle, PKD writes about daily life in 1962 under totalitarian fascist imperialist rule. It takes place fifteen years after the end of the Second World War and the victorious Axis powers are conducting intrigues against each other in the former United States. His 1969 novel Ubik flicks between a number of plausible realities in which the ‘real’ reality is a state of half-life and manipulated realities – a concept that was later used in the films The Matrix (1999) and Surrogates (2009).  His most famous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), which formed the basis for Blade Runner asked the questions: what is real and what is fake and what factors define humanity as definitely alive as opposed to being alive in outward appearance only?

Original poster for Blade Runner
Original poster for Blade Runner
 
Blade Runner was the film that coined the term director’s cut and it is decidedly different to the plethora of director’s cuts that have been released since – rather than being longer than its original theatrical version it actually came in a few minutes shorter.

Just because a director’s cut is longer than the original theatrical version doesn’t mean in any way shape or form that it’s going to be better (or even as good as) the original. David Lean was made to cut 45 minutes from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in order to get more showings in cinemas. Lean’s film was improved with the restored footage in the 1989 director’s cut because that material should have been there in the first place. But Giuseppe Tornatore’s brilliant Cinema Paradiso (1988) was definitely not improved by a whopping 60 minutes of additional footage in 2002, which only served to slow the film down to a snail’s pace.

The first thing that went in the director’s cut of Blade Runner was Harrison Ford’s pointless voice-over which was only added because test screenings of the film revealed that American audiences couldn’t follow what was going on without being spoon-fed information. The other thing that went was the happy ending, where Rick and Rachael drive off into the sunset in a car not dissimilar to the car Jack Nicholson was driving when he was on his way to the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  As a matter of fact it was exactly the same car because the final scene in the original theatrical version of Blade Runner was actually an outtake from The Shining and was added without Ridley Scott’s consent because it was thought audiences wouldn’t like the original downbeat ending.

 

The only thing that was added to the director’s cut of Blade Runner was the unicorn scene, which makes it easier to make the connection with the origami unicorn left outside Deckard’s flat, indicating (for those that haven’t yet realised) that Deckard has pre-programmed dreams and is therefore a replicant himself. The amount of photographs in his flat is also a clue as to what he really is and there’s also the fact that some replicants don’t realise that they are replicants. That was the whole point of Philip K. Dick’s original story – who is human and who is not? And if you are an android with implanted memories and pre-programmed dreams what is stop you (and other humans) from fully believing that you are human? It’s that blurred line between reality and un-reality that Philip K. Dick liked to write about so much.

Unfortunately PKD was not around to see the success of Blade Runner because he died just a few months before its completion and release, but his influence and that of Blade Runner can be measured by the films that were in turn influenced by them. The term ‘Dickian’ can be applied to the following: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dark City, The Truman Show, Gattaca, Twelve Monkeys, Oblivion, Open Your Eyes, Donnie Darko, Inception and countless others.

Despite all the acclaim that he received PKD spent almost his entire life on the breadline. Blade Runner was the first of many successful posthumous adaptations of his work that include: Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Next, Impostor, Screamers, Paycheck and The Adjustment Bureau. In 2007 he was the first (and only, as far as I’m aware) science-fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.

Today, his books sell in the millions and he is rightly acclaimed as the most influential science-fiction writer of the 20th century. Not only that his books appeal to people who don’t read science-fiction because of their philosophical nature. A friend of mine who told me that she never read science-fiction had a complete collection of books by PKD.

“I thought you didn’t like science-fiction,” I said to her.

“I don’t,” she replied.

“Well, what about all these then?” I asked, indicating the shelf full of PKD books.

“Oh, them,” she said, “I don’t regard them as science-fiction – even though they are – because he wrote about what it is to be human. That makes all the difference.”

And do you know what? It does.

Blade Runner was by no means an instant hit. It suffered the same fate that John Carpenter’s The Thing suffered, in that it came out in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s dreadful ET. But like The Thing, Blade Runner became (what’s now known as) a sleeper hit – a film that got a whole new audience that appreciated its intelligence and complexity through video and then DVD sales.

It was Ridley Scott’s third film after the critical successes of The Duellists (1977) and Alien (1979) and it shows a director in full control of his art. He has since gone on to amaze audiences with such films as Thelma and Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001) Prometheus (2012) and is currently planning a film based on Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. The photography, set designs and special effects on Blade Runner are spectacular and even after more than thirty years and it looks like it could have been made yesterday. The special effects are as good as – if not better – than the majority of science-fiction films released today. But it’s the story that drives the film. The screenplay was written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples (who also scripted Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven), and unlike the brainless sci-fi adventure that was Star Wars, Blade Runner is a thoughtful and thought provoking film about the nature of humanity and how it feels to be not quite human.

It’s the story of Rick Deckard who is forced out of retirement to retire (kill) a group of replicants (advanced forms of androids) that have escaped from an off-world colony and have illegally returned to Earth. There’s great performances from Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, William Sanderson and Joe Turkel. And Harrison Ford is perfect as the weary, cynical and disillusioned eponymous Blade Runner (a sort of cop whose sole job is to retire rogue replicants).

But it’s Rutger Hauer who steals the show. In probably his finest performance, Hauer plays the replicant leader Roy Batty who resorts to extreme violence to achieve his ultimately unachievable goal. In his final scene, however, he elects to save Deckard’s life rather than let him die and in those final emotional moments his humanity surfaces as his four-year life span comes to an end. In his dying soliloquy (which Hauer wrote himself) Batty (according to Sidney Perkowitz in Hollywood Science) ‘underlines the replicant’s humanlike characteristics mixed with its artificial capabilities’. In his book Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick at the Movies Jason Vent states that ‘Hauer’s deft performance is heartbreaking in its gentle evocation of the memories, experiences and passions that have driven Batty’s short life’. True fans of the film can quote his soliloquy verbatim. For those of you who can’t here it is:

‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

It doesn’t get much better than that so I think I’ll just stop here.