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

Sunday, 28 September 2014

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (2005-2012)


In 1997 Batman was well and truly dead in the water. Joel Schumacher’s catastrophically abysmal Batman and Robin brought to an end to a film franchise that Tim Burton started so well with his 1989 Batman and its 1992 sequel Batman Returns. But then Joel Schumacher got his hands on it and directed the reasonable Batman Forever (1995), a film that was only saved by Jim Carrey’s manic and brilliant portrayal of The Riddler. After the awful Batman and Robin, however, it seemed that the Caped Crusader would be gone forever.

But then eight years later along came a talented and visionary British director and Batman fan called Christopher Nolan. He’d already directed three superb films – the twisting thriller Following (1998) made on a budget of $6000; the complex and highly original Memento (2000) starring the excellent Guy Pearce; and Insomnia, (a terrific remake of the Norwegian film of the same name and the only remake of a European film that actually surpasses the original) which features a show-stopping performance from Robin Williams as the murderer Walter Finch.

Before Christian Bale there had been seven actors who had taken on the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Lewis Wilson in Batman in 1943 and Robert Lowery in Batman and Robin in 1949 were the first two who starred in the Saturday morning movie serials that I remember watching in the Odeon in Blackpool in 1966 – they had been re-released to cash-in on the latest incarnation – Adam West, who played the role until 1968. I loved the TV series – it was campy and fun and the Batman comics at the time began to reflect the crazy air of the show. It worked because Adam West, a gifted comic actor with a great sense of timing, played the whole thing straight and the jokes in the show were pitched at the right level so that adults as well as children could enjoy it. There’s a great line in the first episode of the series. Batman and Robin are walking through a nightclub with Commissioner Gordon, who asks if they would like him to turn the lights on. “No,” replies Batman, “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”

After Adam West hung up the cape and cowl it would be twenty-one years before Tim Burton cast Michael Keaton in his version of Batman. This would be a harder-edged vision made with all of Burton’s customary flair. The real coup, however, was casting Jack Nicholson as The Joker, a role which he seemed born to play. Keaton returned to the role in 1992 in Batman Returns, which had an even darker tone than its predecessor and it’s a movie that some people find difficult to watch because of Danny DeVito’s repulsive, homicidal Penguin.

Then the rot began to set in. Tim Burton handed his successful franchise over to Joel Schumacher. The reason why Val Kilmer’s attempt at Batman is not a disaster is because Burton still had his hands on the reins – acting as producer, but the next one was most definitely Schumacher’s fault entirely. It was a film that tried to be as campy as the TV series but suffered in comparison through a complete lack of anything funny in the script. It was also totally miscast –and when George Clooney (as Batman) saw the end result he must have thought his film career was over before it had even started. Fortunately he was saved by the Coen Brothers when he gave a startlingly brilliant comic performance in their hilarious O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000).

Hopes were high for Bat-fans around the world when it was announced that Christopher Nolan would be directing a new Batman film with Christian Bale as The Dark Knight. They would not be disappointed because when Batman Begins was finally unleashed in 2005 it defied all expectations by being even better than the hype that surrounded it.
Original film poster for The Dark Knight Trilogy

Batman Begins – as the title suggests – is an origin story. It deals with Bruce Wayne’s transformation from scared kid (after watching his parents murdered in front of him) through his training with Raz Al Ghul and the League of Shadows (never mentioned in previous film incarnations) and finally to The Dark Knight of Gotham City. It’s steeped in authenticity and reverence to its original source – taking Bob Kane’s vigilante and rendering him big and bold onto our movie screens. It also benefitted from the fact that Batman doesn’t appear until at least an hour into the film, examining instead the psychology of a man driven firstly by revenge and eventually justice. Like Christopher Nolan’s previous films Batman Begins is complex and intelligent stuff, never once slipping into parody.

The cast is almost perfect. Christian Bale embodies the duality of Bruce Wayne/Batman; Liam Neeson nails Raz Al Ghul’s twisted sense of justice; Michael Caine captures the emotional heart of the film as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler and confidant; Cillian Murphy is suitably mad as the homicidal psychiatrist Jonathan Crane aka Scarecrow; Gary Oldman turns in another top notch performance as Batman’s only ally on the police force, Jim Gordon; and Morgan Freeman is as watchable as ever as Bruce Wayne’s loyal tech man, Lucious Fox. There’s great support from the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache and Ken Watanabe.  Only Katie Holmes fails to completely satisfy as Rachel Dawes – she looks much too young to be an Assistant District Attorney and this part was much better served by Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight. But that’s just small beer in a production that is both intelligent and exciting, with a superb script by David S. Goyer and Nolan himself; beautiful cinematography by Wally Pfister; and an amazing score by the most innovative of all film composers, Hans Zimmer.

The fact that Christopher Nolan grounded the whole thing in reality made the adaptations of Marvel’s comic book characters seem silly in comparison. Nolan took Joel Schumacher’s one-dimensional character out of the depths of stupidity and turned him into a three-dimensional, believable, fully rounded and functional human being.

How on earth, then, could Nolan attain these dizzy heights again with a sequel? Sequels are usually notoriously disappointing (with the obvious exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Part II), but somehow he not only managed to make a film as good as the original, he also massively improved on it.

The Dark Knight (2008) features a blisteringly brilliant performance by Heath Ledger. When you watch his portrayal of the mass murderer The Joker all memories of Jack Nicholson in the role evaporate into thin air.  Heath Ledger’s character study of a dangerously unhinged psychopath was as scary as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ almost literal adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men the previous year. Like Chigurh, The Joker was a terrifying villain with no redeeming features – but unlike Chigurh, he was not interested in money. All he wanted to do was create chaos – a world without rules, as he put it.

Heath Ledger dominates the entire film and his performance was worthy of the posthumous Oscar he received – in fact it’s so powerful and intense that I have no doubt whatsoever that even if he had lived he would have received the Oscar. That’s not meant to take anything away from the rest of the performances. The main cast from Batman Begins are still as strong as ever and as mentioned earlier Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement on Katie Holmes. Particular mention, though, must go to Aaron Eckhart for his portrayal of the tragic District Attorney Harvey Dent. It’s a superb study of a character who becomes split down the middle, who makes his decisions on the flip of a coin. Early on in the film he’s talking to Bruce Wayne about the future of Batman and unwittingly prophesises both their futures by saying, “You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.”

The ending of The Dark Knight is not a happy one and you leave the cinema wondering where it could go next.

In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the final (and for many people the best) part of the trilogy it explains where it does go next – and it’s completely unexpected. Batman has taken the blame for Harvey Dent’s death and is now a fugitive from justice. Bruce Wayne has taken this as an opportunity to stop donning the cape and cowl and has been in retirement as a recluse for seven years. Like Batman Begins you don’t see The Dark Knight until almost an hour into the film. There’s a thrilling start aboard a transport aircraft. Three new characters are introduced – Anne Hathaway is Selina Kyle who’s about as far removed from Michelle Pfieffer’s purring and illogical character in Batman Returns as Heath Ledger’s Joker was to Jack Nicholson. She is (like in the comics) a cat burglar, but the name Catwoman is never mentioned at all. Instead, she wears night vision googles which, when not in use and on top of her head, look like cat’s ears. There’s the great British actor Tom Hardy as the ruthless and terrifying mercenary Bane, Batman and Bruce Wayne’s nemesis who, apart from one short scene, spends the entire film behind a mask. It’s difficult for any actor to convey emotion behind a mask and only two other actors, as far as I’m aware have achieved this – Hugo Weaving as V in the Wachowski Bothers 2005 excellent adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Karl Urban as John Wagner and Carlos Esquerra’s creation, Judge Dredd, in the awesome Dredd. But Tom Hardy pulls it off with ease. Finally, there’s rising star and one of Christopher Nolan’s regulars, Joseph Gordon Levitt who gives a quietly understated performance as the ordinary cop Officer Blake, who along with Jim Gordon (probably Gary Oldman’s best performance in the trilogy) have to save Gotham City from destruction.

There are a number of twists in the tail of this (almost) three hour movie, which I won’t go into in case you haven’t seen it. On its release, however, there were a number of people who were disappointed with this final part of the trilogy. But it had been four years between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and people have short memories. It’s difficult, I admit, to watch this third outing for the Caped Crusader without thinking of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but seeing the three films as a whole – back-to-back – it’s a spectacularly brilliant experience and all three together tell one big story that has a satisfying and logical conclusion.

For me – as a lifelong fan of Batman in both comic, TV and movie form – it’s the best trilogy ever made. I know I may sound biased here, but I really don’t care. I think it’s better than Lord of the Rings which seemed to go on forever in its final hour, certainly better than Star Wars, and better than The Godfather, where the final part of the trilogy was a massive disappointment. 

As a whole The Dark Knight Trilogy is a spectacular achievement. And if you don’t agree with me, then you’re wrong.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979)


My mum never understood Monty Python’s Flying Circus when it was on television. She would let me stay up to watch it when my stepfather was on nights and would observe me with puzzlement as I laughed uncontrollably while she watched, stony-faced, unable to grasp what the hell I was laughing at. She didn’t find it funny at all and she was one of many parents throughout the country who didn’t get it. I found this odd because she was of the generation who listened to Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and the great Spike Milligan in The Goon Show. But then again, she didn’t find that funny either. My mum’s idea of a good comedy was the banal Terry and June Show and which, along with her preference for Cliff Richard over Elvis Presley, only served to reinforce my view that my mother had absolutely no taste whatsoever.

In 1975 I was in the Royal Air Force stationed at RAF Br├╝ggen in West Germany and the week she came out to stay with me just happened to coincide with the week that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was showing at the station cinema. The films that were shown there were only on for a week and then they disappeared and so it was with reluctance that I informed her that she would be accompanying me to the cinema to see it. The Astra cinema was packed full of Monty Python fans who could quote entire sketches from the TV programme. My mum, unsurprisingly, thought it was rubbish and while everyone around her were falling off their seats in laughter she sat blank-faced at what must have been the longest 85 minutes of her life.

In 1979 I was living in the fairly cosmopolitan town of Stafford – it had every type of restaurant you could think of; pubs within easy walking distance of other pubs; all the shops you could possibly wish for; a nightclub and a cinema that showed all the up-to-date films. There was one film, however, that it wouldn’t show. The cinema in Stafford was, like many of the cinemas around the country, banned from showing it by the County Council because it was considered to be the most blasphemous film ever made. They didn’t want to run the risk of upsetting the church and having hordes of rabid, lunatic protesters lining the streets. So, instead of watching the film in Stafford I travelled with a group of friends to Wolverhampton, where they didn’t bow to the ridiculous pressure inflicted by the church and its misguided, empty-headed followers.

The film I’m referring to is, of course, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. As we were queuing to buy our tickets we were assailed by groups of brain-washed idiots handing out leaflets explaining why we shouldn’t see the film. These morons had spent all their days consumed with so much hatred for this film that they hadn’t left themselves enough time to actually see it and to make up their own minds whether or not it was blasphemous. Free will – the ability to decide for ourselves whether we like something or not – is an amazing thing that we humans are possessed with, but it’s also something that the church at the time considered to be extremely dangerous and was only too keen to take away from us.
The original film poster for Life of Brian
 

The problem was – the more they carped on about it the more people went to see it and instead of its audience being comprised of die-hard Monty Python fans it became a worldwide smash hit and one of the highest grossing films of that year.

The final nail in the coffin came on 9 November 1979 when the professional Christian and hypocrite, Malcom Muggeridge, and Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark, appeared on the BBC chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning with Michael Palin and John Cleese. The show was hosted by Tim Rice who had himself been accused of blasphemy for writing the lyrics to Jesus Christ Superstar ten years earlier. The aim of the show was to have a serious discussion about the film but Muggeridge and the Bishop had other ideas. Their plan was to ambush the two members of Monty Python but (unlike the A-Team) their plan didn’t come together and their raving and ignorant attack made them look like idiotic out-of-touch nutcases next to the calm, considered and intelligent approach taken by Palin and Cleese and almost overnight public opinion and sympathy swung over to the Pythons.

If Muggeridge and his purple-cassocked crony had actually bothered to see the entire film instead of missing the first fifteen minutes (because they were too busy finishing off their lunch together) they might have had a different opinion of it – but I doubt it. Like all religious nutters their eyes were blinkered to the fact that Life of Brian was not blasphemous at all. It’s abundantly clear right from the start that the film is not poking fun at Jesus but at the easily manipulated simpletons who will blindly follow any religion no matter how nonsensical it may be – and I think it was that, more than anything, which made Muggeridge and the Bishop and their crazed supporters so angry.

But is Life of Brian any good?

Well, yes it is. In fact it’s a work of comic genius and far and away the funniest British film ever made.

There’s a scene early on in the film that perfectly illustrates the madness of organised religion and the illogical and ridiculous thought processes behind it. It’s a scene involving a group of women pretending to be men by wearing false beards so they join in with the stoning of a man accused of blasphemy because he uttered the name of Jehovah. It’s an incredibly funny scene that carries a serious message about how religion controls people’s lives and it’s as relevant today as it was when the film was made thirty-five years ago. Religion has always been the province of men, where women are side-lined into becoming less important or even second-class citizens. This is the case in one of today’s major religions, although I won’t say which one in case I find myself on the wrong end of a fatwa.

But it’s not just religion that Life of Brian pokes fun at – imperialism is another of its satirical targets – and you can substitute Imperial Roman for British or American imperialism throughout the film. The pointlessness of terrorism is also included, especially when different factions all believing in the same aims achieve nothing because they’re all fighting amongst each other.

“Are you the Judean People’s Front?”
“Fuck off.”
“What?”
“We’re the People’s Front of Judea. Judean People’s Front!”
“Wankers!”

Life of Brian is so funny all the way through that it’s hard to single out it’s anarchic set-pieces – but there’s the stoning (“She did it! She di – he did it! He did it!”); Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where the spectators at the back are mishearing what he’s saying (“Blessed are the cheese-makers”); the mob proclaiming that Brian is the Messiah (“I’m not the Messiah!” “Yes you are and I should know – I’ve followed a few!”); Brian’s Mum (“He’s not the Messiah – he’s a very naughty boy!”); Pontious Pilate’s speech defect and his lisping friend Biggus Dickus and “What have the Romans ever done for us?” I could go on, but I won’t.

The film also deals with the nature of miracles. After Brian has stood on the foot of someone who has been in enforced silence for thirty years causing him to cry out in pain, the mob that has been following him pronounce it a miracle and when they complain of being hungry Brian points them to a juniper bush and they proclaim that as a miracle too.

In his 2008 documentary film Religulous Bill Maher visited a man who ran a shop selling religious relics. He was told by the shop-owner that he had witnessed several miracles, but when he was asked to describe one he said that he couldn’t think of one off-hand. “Well, they couldn’t have been that miraculous if you can’t remember any of them,” replied Maher. Eventually the shop-owner described a time when he was at a party and wanted a drink of water. He held an empty glass out of the window and prayed to God for rain and it did indeed rain.

“That’s wasn’t a miracle,” said Maher, “that was the weather.”

And when Maher asked the shop-owner if he believed in Santa Claus he was given a cursory, “Of course not,” as an answer. “Yeah, I know,” Maher said, “big fat guy in a red suit delivering presents to all the children in the world in one night – it’s ridiculous. But an invisible guy in the sky listening to everyone’s thoughts at the same time – you buy that, don’t you.”

Is that blasphemy? Of course it isn’t. In our 21st century world where we’re allowed to criticise everything why is religion and faith the one area where people get nervous? Why can’t we say what we want without fear of retribution?

Monty Python touched a nerve back in 1979, criticising the very people behind religious intolerance – the lunatics, the nutters and the maniacs. Would other film-makers be able to get away with it today with fundamentalism rising throughout the Christian and Muslim world? I’m hopeful but I doubt it and therefore Monty Python’s Life of Brian should be cherished because it gave organised religion a massive kick up the arse.

And really, if God, as Christians are always saying, made us in his image then surely he must have a sense of humour and the ability to laugh at himself.

Life of Brian made me laugh out loud when it was released– and it still does.