Category Archives: Cinema

XL Popcorn – Orpheus

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 756/1007Title: Orphée (Orpheus)
Director: Jean Cocteau
Year: 1950
Country: France

Today is a landmark for this list. Due to the inclusion of trilogies on the 1001 list making it a bit more than 1001 entries, Orpheus marks the point where I have actually surpassed the 75% mark. Given that I was on film 418 when I started following the list as part of the blog, this really is an amazing piece of progress.

Orpheus was a really cool pick for this landmark and I have my husband to thank for that one. As much as I enjoyed the other Jean Cocteau film on the 1001 list (La Belle et la bête) for the dreamlike visuals, I think he really surpassed himself here. Maybe it’s because I grew up as a fan of Greek mythology or maybe it’s because I like watching films where you’re rewarded for noticing subtle detail, but I really loved Orpheus.

As the title shows, Orpheus is a modern retelling of the Greek myth when put through Cocteau’s lens. Everything from the original myth is still there, but given a greater degree of complexity with story threads of agents of death falling for humans and Orpheus becoming obsessed with lines of poetry being played through the radio of the car belonging to Death.

This all turns the character of Orpheus from being a talented poet who misses his dead wife into a man obsessed with his new creative inspiration and a love for the agent of death that claimed his rival and (through an act of jealousy) his wife. It also introduces the character of Heurtebise, who is a cross between an agent of death and a guardian angel. What’s interesting about this character is that recurs in other works by Cocteau, which might explain why I found him so likeable.

Story aside, where Orpheus really shines is in the special effects. Keeping in mind that this in 1950, the practical effects in this film are impressive. So good are they, that those that feel a bit clunky still help with the otherworldy aspect. There’s an incredible impressive bit towards the end where a dead Orpheus descends into the underworld with Heurtebise and they move against invisible winds and tumble along walls. There are also a lot of cool effects using windows and mirrors – which makes sense in world seeing how mirrors are portals to the world of the dead.

So here we are with just a quarter of the list to go. At this rate I’ll probably be finishing this off around the time that I turn 35, but there’s no need to rush things. With Orpheus being such a spellbinding was to christen the beginning of the march to the finish line, I’m excited to think of how many new favourites there are waiting for me on the remainder of the list.

📽️ Disney Time – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 34/58Title: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Year: 1996

I’m going to paraphrase the tagline of Lolita when I say: How did they make a children’s movie out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I mean, this is a French Gothic novel that is incredibly bleak and where most of the main characters either die or live the rest of their days in misery. With this as their source material, it sure makes a lot of sense when I say that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the darkest film in the Disney Animated Canon.

Looking back on when I saw this as a 6-year-old, I cannot have realised just how dark The Hunchback of Notre Dame actually is. After all, this is the second time that a murder is committed in a Disney animated film (the killing of Quasimodo’s mother by Frollo) and we are also treated to wholesome topics like genocide, attempted infanticide, homicidal lust and child abuse. None of these are topics that Disney films have attempted to cover before or really since… and I have to say that it’s a wonderful colour on them.

Not as wonderful though as that opening sequence. It’s probably second only to The Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’ opener, but that didn’t mix it’s goosebump inducing music with extremely well done exposition work. The entire ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ tells you a lot of what you need to know about the film and the motivations behind the key protagonist and antagonist, whilst also giving you amazing music and showing off a beautifully drawn Paris.

The rest of the music, with the exception of ‘A Guy Like You’ which is the ultimate in tonal inconsistency, is fantastic and matched by beautifully executed visuals… which is best exemplified by ‘Hellfire’. This is one of the best songs sung by a Disney villain, a true highlight of the film and shows just how much they tried to stretch the film rating with the censors. You have a song about a lust fuelled psychological torment which resolves in Frollo’s plan to execute the object of his desire for rejecting him… this is then paired with atmospheric chanting and animation featuring ominous shadows and Esmeralda rendered in fire and incense smoke. It’s just wonderful.

Going back to ‘A Guy Like You’ before wrapping up completely – let’s talk about the gargoyles. These are the only major characters injected into the film by Disney, which are done so in order to give us some comic relief. However, when I was watching it tonight, I realised something: these gargoyles are his imaginary friends. Other than a brief interaction between the pig gargoyle and Esmarelda’s goat, the only person who has even a hint of them being ambulatory is Quasimodo himself. If you watch this film with that in mind, it turns them from being weird sidekicks to symptoms of his psychological trauma at the hands of Frollo. Again, this is a very dark film.

Like with so many other Disney films, I really could write a few thousand words on this film. I haven’t touched on characterisation, the animation (which, whilst a bit angular, is stunning – especially the sequences where they infused the traditional animation with some CGI trickery) or the complaints that both fans of the book and the descendants of Victor Hugo himself had. However, I have another post to write and it’s gone midnight.

So, the next film in the chronology is Hercules, which has the weird distinction of being the final film that I saw in the cinema as a child, and the beginning of a 10 year period where I didn’t see any Disney films at the time of release. Also, the first time I remember seeing a film and having any concept of what makes a faithful adaptation… but I guess that’s a story for next time.

XL Popcorn – Hud

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 755/1007Title: Hud
Director: Martin Ritt
Year: 1963
Country: USA

I don’t know how many times I need to have this revelation before it sinks in properly: I appear to love a good western. Granted, the westerns that appear on the 1001 are pre-vetted and may not be completely representative of the highs and lows of the genre, but I really have been pleasantly surprised at the versatility at a genre. Especially when, on the surface, it would appear to be a rather constrained genre.

That leads me to Hud. It’s a drama within the trappings of a western – meaning we have cows, ranches and rural Texas as the setting of a story that could easily be adapted to another setting. At the heart of it, Hud is a story of inter-generational conflict between the titular Hud and his father Homer – with the grandson Lonnie and their housekeeper Alma being caught in the crossfire.

As films go, Hud is pretty bleak. We watch as the ranch loses all their cattle to foot-and-mouth disease due to a poor investment, Alma nearly being raped by a drunken Hud and the complete collapse of a family. All this, and this and it is still lighter than the source material.

It’s interesting to note that despite his actions as being a self-centred, violent, womanizing and attempted rapist, the public actually saw Paul Newman’s Hud as more of an anti-hero than an antagonist. This speaks to both Newman’s likeability as an actor shining through and to the rejection of the older generation’s by the book rule by the younger members of the audience.

Viewed through a lens nearly 60 years after the fact, Hud is a great example of the charming antagonist and Homer as a man who lived through the Great Depression and World War Two that just wants to keep his life as it is. It’s such an interesting dynamic between the two of them and how Lonnie (who is 17 in the film) ultimately rejects the self-centred capitalist way of his uncle in favour of the warm stability of his grandfather.

So yes, this is an interesting look into the changing views of the American populace who saw this film as depicting a capitalist anti-hero rather than the evils of capitalism winning over older community values. It’s anchored by four great performances (two Oscar winning and a further nomination) and beautiful black and white cinematography; and it further establishes, in my mind, all the great things that can be done with a western.

XL Popcorn – The Ear

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 754/1007Title: Ucho (The Ear)
Director: Karel Kachyňa
Year: 1970
Country: Czechoslovakia

When you look up Ucho in the 1001 book, you see a picture of a drunk woman wearing a newspaper hat and pointing to the side. It makes it seem like Ucho would be some sort of comedy (maybe not in the same vein as Daisiesbut still something mostly comedic), but that’s pretty far from the truth. Instead, Ucho is a film that combines the domestic battles of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the surveillance-based paranoia of The Lives Of Others.

It’s worth mentioning that this film about a couple cracking under the paranoia of their house potentially being bugged (to the point that they get physically violent with each other) was made behind the Iron Curtain in 1970 and was banned by the Czech government for 19 years. It wasn’t until the Cannes festival of 1990 that this film properly saw the light of day.

Maybe it’s because of this long censorship that Ucho really isn’t that well known, but it really should be on a bunch of to-watch lists. The way that this film ends up being a paranoia-laced pressure cooker with an insidious ending, well, it sticks with you.

What also sticks with you is how amazing the two leading performances are in, let’s just remember, a film that was pretty much destined to be banned. In real life the two actors really were marries, which explains the chemistry that gives real weight to the fights and makings up of this couple as they’re put through an emotional wringer. What’s even more spectacular about these performances is how convincing and seamless the changes in dynamics are, which leads to a number of allegiance changes by you as the viewer.

Adding to the sense of unease are the numerous flashbacks to a party for the ministers where Kachyňa carefully paces the reveals to keep the tension going whilst also ratcheting up some of the more surreal aspects of the movie. It makes for a watch that really exceeded my expectations and one I would really recommend.

📽️ Disney Time – Pocahontas

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 33/58Title: Pocahontas
Year: 1995

It’s easy for us to look back on on Pocahontas and feel a certain way. We have moved on so much in terms of ‘wokeness’, so there’s things in Pocahontas that we will now more readily realize as being problematic. However, I want to view this film as it was back then – the first Disney animated film with a woman of colour in a leading role that actually showed the settlers for being entitled murderers.

That’s where I’m going to leave the subject matter in terms of racial sensitivity. There’s more that could have been done, yes, and this is an utter mangling of history for profit, still yes, but let’s just look at this in terms of the Disney classics that preceded it.

Let’s start with the obvious, Pocahontas is one of the weak links in the Disney Renaissance chain. When the company you keep is The Lion King and Beauty & The Beast it is going to be hard to measure up. The fact that they thought this would be a great opportunity to go for another shot at the Best Picture nomination (and so fashioned this more on Beauty & The Beast idea rather than the more comedic Aladdin) makes some sense, but it is also the film’s undoing.

In the end, the script and storyline is just not up to snuff. It suffers a lot from time dilation issues, which leads to the fridge logic problem of “how did both sides understand each other’s language” and “how did they make a settlement so quickly”. Also, this does a disservice to an otherwise strong and brave female protagonist who ends up making a lot of her big decisions because she fell in love with a boy from the enemy side. Her ending makes up for it somewhat though.

Looking on the positives, let’s talk about the music. Alan Menken, once again, delivers as we have come to expect from him. This time, due to the untimely death of Howard Ashman, Menken is working with Stephen Schwartz (who most people my age will know from writing Wicked). ‘Colors of the Wind’ is a brilliant song and the whole sequence with Judy Kuhn’s amazing vocals and the beautiful nature imagery is the highlight of the movie.

I also have to say that I really enjoyed the light relief provided by Meeko the raccoon. So much of this film, like the whole ‘Savages’ sequence which is problematic (although, I really do believe was well-intended), has a heavy message to it. Thus the thieving antics of a very hungry raccoon, as well as his interactions with the pampered dog belonging to Radcliffe, really comes as a pleasant diversion.

The animation is still beautiful, but it shows the beginning the descent into a more angular style that is going to dominate for a very long time. Once it begins to bother me, which will probably be around Tarzan, I think I’ll have to go more into it. However, there’s little to fault in how they used the animation to bring life to the landscapes and some of the more spiritual elements of the film.

Next time in the Disney canon is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is possibly the weirdest choice of source material for a children’s film but also has one of the best opening sequences in animated cinema history. It’s one of the few films I can remember seeing in the cinema as a very young child (I was six) and is one that I have a bit of a soft spot for.

XL Popcorn – High School

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 753/1007Title: High School
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Year: 1968
Country: USA

There aren’t a lot of documentaries left on this list, so I’ll probably have to pace myself a bit in order to ensure that I don’t prematurely run out. Whilst I have come across a number of documentaries that I either didn’t get or was underwhelmed by, they’re always interesting to contemplate afterwards.

Anyway, so a few months ago I watched Chronicle of a Summer. This was an early experiment in a new style of documentary film-making that coined the term ‘cinema vérité’. With today’s film, High School, we see how a similar idea developed in America under the name ‘direct cinema’. This is by far not the first film to do that (for example, political documentary Primary pre-dates it by 8 years) but High School presents a rather interesting time capsule.

As I have noted in my 1001 songs playthrough, the time that High School was made was during a turning point in politics where students were beginning to rebel and protest. We see glimpses of it here in some of the interactions, whilst also noting just how old fashioned the school is in terms of the teaching and inflexibility. Something that really sticks in my mind is a scene where a student asks about clothing for the school formal dance and is told that there was a male student who won’t be going as he cannot afford the money for a tuxedo rental.

Coming from a teaching background I have had the awkward experience of enforcing arbitrary rules that I didn’t give two figs about because those were the rules of the school. One example was with regards to always taking off coats in the classroom no matter what. My room got freezing in winter and I would regularly put on my lab coat for extra warmth – but the students had no such choice (the one time I relaxed the rule was the time I was caught not enforcing the rule… which is always how it goes).

Anyway, something that really struck a chord with me (aside from how old-fashioned it was) was how bored the students and the teachers were. Also, in many ways, how education hasn’t changed too much when you see more modern documentaries set in schools. It brings a bit of Sisyphean futility to the proceedings, which makes the awkward laughs that the film induces all the more needed.

Being a piece of direct cinema, I do miss a narrator or an obvious sense of structure. However, as it is High School paints a picture that acts as a perfect (and almost unbiased) time capsule of the late 1960s.

📽️ Disney Time – The Lion King

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 32/58Title: The Lion King
Year: 1994

It’s weirdly fitting that today I would be posting the latest entry in my Disney challenge on the same day as the list gains a new entry: Frozen 2. It would have probably been more fitting if I had posted this around the time the CGI-remake of The Lion King was released… but I’ve been trying to forget that’s even a thing.

Now, going into this list – I was so adamant that Beauty and The Beast was my favourite Disney movie hands down and The Lion King placed second, but there was an almost clear division between the two. Now that I have re-watched both in quick succession, I must say that whilst this ranking remains intact, it’s a lot closer than I realised.

To be fair though, this is probably the first time that I have seen The Lion King in years and years and this might be one of those rare films that gives two completely different views depending on whether you’re an adult or a child. For example, child me would have never gotten the Nazi connotations from the whole ‘Be Prepared’ section or the sex eyes that Nala gives during ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight?’.

Since I brought up the musical sequence, let’s talk about the music as a whole. Firstly, there are few films out there that have a better opening sequence than the whole ‘Circle of Life’ piece. Maybe the montage in Up, but for drastically different reasons. From then on, the score and the songs are up there with some of the best in the history of cinema. Hans Zimmer’s score gives such emotional weight to the movie as a whole, but gives real goosebump moments to scenes related to the father-son relationship between Mufasa and Simba.

You also have to give huge credit to Elton John and Tim Rice for the sheer variety in the songs that have gone on to become classics. ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Circle of Life’ are both extreme high points (and, for me, should have won the Oscar over ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’), which both also help to showcase the results of all the research into different animal movements that the animators made.

It’s hard to believe, when watching this, that initially The Lion King was seen as the B-team movie compared to Pocahontas which received the A-team. I mean, given the two initial outlines it is probably easy to see why they figured the story of Pocahontas would end up doing better at the box office – especially when the last talking animal protagonists are from The Rescuers Down Under and Oliver & CompanyIn the end though they managed to spin cinematic history and as for Pocahontas… I guess that’s for next time.

So that’s it, the end of Disney’s Big Four and the decline towards the tail-end of the Disney Renaissance. There are still some great films on the horizon (like Zootopia and Lilo & Stitch), but it feels like the end of a incredible era of Disney film-making that will never be equalled. I guess I’m feeling a bit off about the whole thing because the next film in the list is Pocahontas, which will be… interesting.

XL Popcorn – Sansho the Bailiff

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 752/1007Title: Sanshō Dayū (Sansho the Bailiff)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Year: 1954
Country: Japan

Sansho the Bailiff is the third of three films my Kenji Mizoguchi on the list – as of the moment I have seen Ugestu and will probably be years before I watch The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. He is one of those directors that is very highly regarded by a lot of major critics, but most people outside of Japan will have probably never heard of. Now that I’ve seen a second film of his, I’m beginning to understand more about why he is rated as a director.

I mentioned that, for Ugestu, I felt there was a real handicap for non-Japanese watchers due to there being a reliance on some historical awareness. From the word go, Sancho the Bailiff immediately sets the scene and helps to give greater context into the series of tragedies that we watch unfurl. A noble governor is exiled, his wife kidnapped and sold into sex slavery whilst their two children are sold into regular slavery.

This story is a classical one in Japanese folklore with the central focal points being the siblings sold into slavery. We have some scenes with the mother alone as she tries to escape to find her children… only to have her Achilles tendon cut in punishment so she is no longer able to walk unaided. (I told you this film was tragic, at times it just plain bleak). It’s actually weird, therefore, that this story is named after the man who bought the children as slaves as he doesn’t appear all that much – but I am guessing that’s a relic from the original tale.

The cruelty and tragedy aside, Sansho the Bailiff is a really beautifully shot film with a strong moral core to it. The heroes here are those who wish to abolish slavery, the villains are those who kidnap, buy or mistreat slaves and those who have been sold into slavery or prostitution are so beaten down that their eventual freedom is all the more sweet.

There is a cost though (and it isn’t just the cutting that I mentioned earlier). One of the most affecting scenes involves a woman walking into a lake to commit suicide so that she won’t end up speaking under torture. It’s beautifully shot and it just stays with you, as does the final scene between the reunited mother and son.

Between this and The Phenix City Story it’s probably time for to watch a less tragic 1001 film for the next post. Considering the ending of this film, it isn’t going to be too difficult to find something lighter to watch next time.

📽️ Disney Time – Aladdin

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 31/57Title: Aladdin
Year: 1992

I have to say that with this current run of films, it feels like Disney is just spoiling their audience. The fact that in three films out of the last four we’ve got The Little MermaidBeauty & the Beast and now Aladdin (keeping in mind that the next film will be The Lion King), has to make this one of the best film runs in any studios history. Feels like they’ve come such a long way in the last 10 years – which makes it such a shame that this streak will be ending very soon.

Anyway, enough sadness about what’s to come – let’s talk Aladdin. 

This may be the first time that Disney made a great film that is primarily a comedy. I can’t think of a film in the previous thirty where the comedy is so at the forefront, but what else are you going to do when you have both Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried on the payroll? And thank God, because the Genie and Iago really do light up the screen.

By making this a comedy, Aladdin managed to stand on it’s own feet and outside the shadow of the more serious and traditional Beauty & the Beast. There are still elements of danger here, with Jafar’s megalomania and the references to throat-slittings and beheadings, but you are never too far away from something comedic.

You are also never too far away from a good song. Whilst they aren’t collectively quite up to the standards of Beauty & the Beast or The Little Mermaid, you still have some undeniably classic moments. The entire ‘A Whole New World’ sequence is beautiful (even if it engages in some serious travel time compression) and the visuals behind ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ really gives ‘Be Our Guest’ a run for its money.

What’s also really interesting to note is how understated Jafar is as a villain. Not since Cinderella‘s Lady Tremaine has an antagonist been able to get away with a quiet, self-assured and intelligent menace. It’s makes for an amazing contrast as so many other larger-than-life characters whilst also having his maniacal break at the film’s conclusion be all the more powerful.

In terms of animation Aladdin is on par with what Beauty & The Beast reached, but with an Arabian twist. This means that the animators are able to bring us architecture, landscapes and clothing that Disney had yet to attempt – and they do it beautifully. They also do a great job showcasing the shape-shifting antics and general magic of the Genie with traditional animation – not to mention how well they incorporated the magic carpet (one of the first computer animated Disney characters) with the rest of the film.

Next on the filmography is The Lion King, i.e. the favourite Disney film of most boys of my generation. I’m so looking forward to seeing this again and, seeing how it’s the second May bank holiday in a few days, I know I’m going to get to this sooner rather than later.

XL Popcorn – The Phenix City Story

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 751/1007Title: The Phenix City Story
Director: Phil Karlson
Year: 1955
Country: USA

It feels so good to be able to dive back into the 1950s after months playing catch-up with films from the 1960s and 1970s. It’ll be a few years before I am able to (statistically) cross off my next movie from the 1930s and 1940s, but at this point every film is helping me along the quest to eventually finish this list off.

For my first 1950s film in ages I went for one whose title has been irritating me for as long as I noticed it on the list. I mean I know that I am a bit of a pedant when it comes to spelling, but it’s difficult to not cringe when you see with a word that looks like such an error. Anyway, this is the name of the city and it doesn’t seem to be 100% agreed on where the name comes from, so I’m going to just leave it.

The Phenix City Story, as a film, is an interesting piece of sensationalism. It’s based on the true events (sufficiently gilded in order to be put on the silver screen) that happened during the previous year. So what we see moreorless happened in Phenix City, Alabama and was such a sensation that it warranted a speedy film adaptation in order to capitalize on it. Also worth noting is that the journalist who investigated this story ended up with a Pulitzer prize.

This is also a docudrama. The first 13 minutes is actual footage of people involved in the scandal, which then unfolds in a 90 minute dramatic reenactment. In essence, Phenix City was a city controlled by shady characters who use violence and vice to keep hold of the populace. When a local attorney, Albert Patterson, threatens to stand up to them in his run for political office – he ends up murdered which results in martial law and the town eventually being cleaned up.

It’s one of those films that goes about as dark as Hollywood could get in 1955, which is still pretty damned dark. However, there are some periods of elongated (and at times a bit dull) calm that gives the darker turns a greater impact. Still though, this film was rushed and it shows in some of the choices in the scripts and how whiter-than-white they paint the central father and son protagonists (the son who ended up becoming the Attorney General that fought against the desegregation of schools in Alabama).

Worth a watch because it’s an interesting almost-historical document of a specific problem had in a specific area of the American South. Had more time been spent on perfecting the script and shooting rather than it being rushed out to capitalize on the story The Phenix City Story could have been a classic rather than a curiosity.