The Longest Day (Annakin, Marton, Wicki, 1962): An epic, location-hopping account of D-Day that pays (roughly) equal attention to French, British, American and German forces, with directorial duties split three ways between Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki. A number of experts and others with first-hand experience of the various battles – including several cast members – were called upon to provide input, and the film certainly feels thoroughly-researched as a result. It’s at its very best when crane shots are employed to show the extent of fierce fighting on the beaches of Normandy and in nearby villages, but the interior scenes in German command centres are also compelling, and the hour-long build up has its moments too. An all-star cast includes the likes of Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, George Segal and Rod Steiger in a range of big and small parts. The American forces are led on the ground by John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, two men blessed with faces that looked as if they’d been hewn from rock. Of course they were going to win.
Mars Attacks (Burton, 1996): With a big, none-more-1990’s cast (Glenn Close! Martin Short! Michael J. Fox! Danny DeVito! Pam Grier! Lisa Marie! Pierce Brosnan! Christina Applegate!), Tim Burton’s homage to 1950’s flying saucer B-movies is also an effective satire on various aspects of American life and culture, though in truth the director spends as much time celebrating his country’s quirks as he does sniggering about them. It was overhyped at the time of release and I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I first caught it at the cinema, but either time has been kind or my own knowledge of the films that Burton was harking back to has improved in the interim; either way I preferred it the second time round, and liked a lot of the references to old sci-fi movies (e.g. Forbidden Planet, The Day The Earth Stood Still and even Ed Wood’s back catalogue) and satires like Dr. Strangelove. Mars Attacks! is undeniably full of energy, cutting quickly from one location to the next, and the film is edited in a way that ensures it just about hangs together. Jonathan Gems’ script is occasionally absurdly funny, while Danny Elfman’s score and the sound effects go some way to recreating the 1950’s atmosphere, too, even though the film is set 45 years later. However I guess the film is most notable for the character design of the bug-eyed, big-brained martians themselves, partly taken from the Topps card-trading game of the same name and partly created by Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders, who were initially employed as stop-motion supervisors before budgetary constraints forced Burton to use digital effects. Overall it’s hard to argue against the accusations that the film’s patchy, but I respect anyone who manages to assemble such a big (largely A-list) cast before subsequently getting so many of them to play generally-unlikeable characters and systematically killing them off one-by-one (or indeed grafting their heads onto the bodies of dogs). Burton’s film flies in the face of conventional blockbuster practice but he also mimics the likes of Independence Day, lampooning that film’s ending while also incorporating his own wonky take on the destruction of cities and landmarks. Disposable…but good fun.
A Walk In The Woods (Kwapis, 2015): A slow, easy-going film based on Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, which details the author’s hike along the Appalachian Trail, with Robert Redford as the popular writer and Nick Nolte as his gravel-voiced travelling companion Katz. There are sporadic moments in which Bryson’s droll sarcasm raises a laugh, but a few more chuckles in Michael Arndt’s script wouldn’t have gone amiss; it certainly doesn’t help matters when you can only make out around 20% of Nolte’s lines, though. It’s also a shame that the screenplay largely ignores Bryson’s broad interest in nature and history, and disappointing that the likes of Kristen Schaal, Emma Thompson and Mary Steenburgen have to make do with small parts, particularly when all three appear in amusing or warmly-played scenes with Redford. The film has a certain amount of knockabout charm, but it often feels as if the two men at the heart of it are walking around in ever-decreasing circles, as opposed to actually getting somewhere.
Silent Running (Trumbull, 1972): Long before Matt Damon pretended to be a plant expert in The Martian there was this ecologically-themed love story about a botanist marooned in space (with just a few trees to hug and some robots to lust after). Bruce Dern plays Lowell, an astronaut tending to the Earth’s last few remaining bits of flora and fauna, which are contained within several geosidic domes attached to a spaceship. He had a tough job here, considering that he had to play opposite three silent drones (nicknamed Huey, Dewey and Louie) for much of the film, though you could argue the harder task was performing alongside the trio of distinctly average actors who appear in earlier scenes. Director Douglas Trumbull – previously a special effects whizz who worked on The Andromeda Strain and 2001: A Space Odyssey – makes a good fist of humanising the little buckets of bolts, but despite the fact Silent Running has a lot of heart the story is a little too simple and the constant attempts to manipulate the viewer’s emotions begin to grate after a while. The occasional Joan Baez folk number on the soundtrack feels completely out of place, too, particularly when one song is used in close proximity to a scene in which two men are trying to beat each other to death with a shovel. In front of a squirrel. Right by one of Saturn’s rings.
Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess) (Lubitsch, 1919): An amusing Ernst Lubitsch silent picture that gleefully takes the mickey out of pampered rich people, with strong performances by the four principal cast members. We have Victor Janson as Mr. Quaker, a businessman; the entertaining Ossi Oswalda as his spoilt daughter, Ossi; Harry Liedtke as the drunkard suitor Prince Lucki; and Julius Falkenstein as Josef, Nucki’s friend. Two start out rich and two start out on the breadline, but all four are excessive consumers, living extravagantly and mainly acting in self-interest, yet their antics are funny and we like them as a result. The Oyster Princess is far more sophisticated than other comedies from the era that I’ve seen of late, although somewhat conversely my favourite bit was the silly foxtrot interlude in the middle, in which members of an orchestra can be seen slapping one another, firing guns and sawing through instruments. The sets are impressive, and there’s a madcap energy to the film that ensures its 61 minutes seem to fly by.
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) (Lumière, Lumière, 1896): One of the most celebrated early pieces of film, in which a train arrives at a station in a coastal town. Interesting to see the fashions of the day, and interesting to ponder the reaction of viewers at the time, even if the legend surrounding its first public screening (probably) isn’t true.
Roundhay Garden Scene (Le Prince, 1888): Believed to be the oldest film in existence, made by Louis Le Prince, and less than three seconds long; it shows a few people in a garden. Sarah Whitley, who appears on the right-hand-side of the frame walking backwards, died just ten days after it was made. Le Prince vanished in mysterious circumstances two years later, and the point has been regularly made since that the lack of public screenings of his films means that his thunder was stolen by others.
Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (Le Prince, 1888): Another short, early piece of film by Le Prince, which looks down on Leeds Bridge from above. Though it’s brief the images are clearer than those in Roundhay Garden Scene and we can see that the director has thought about camera placement and the angle of the shot, presumably because it’s a sunny day but perhaps for other aesthetic reasons.
Accordion Player (Le Prince, 1888): Just a couple of seconds, again, though intriguing all the same. A man on the left of the frame dances while playing his accordion. This is Adolphe Le Prince, who also appeared in Roundhay Garden Scene. Such a shame we can’t hear him play.
Man Walking Around A Corner (Le Prince, 1887): The first ever film, so it’s claimed, though what you can actually see online today is a recreation using scans made in 1930 of the original frames. It’s damaged, but fascinating to think of it as a seed from which everything cinema-related has grown. Fred Astaire…Akira Kurosowa…Adam Sandler…
Under The Skin (Glazer, 2013): (This was another re-watch; my original, longer review is here.) A couple of years after first being impressed by Under The Skin on the big screen, I’m pleased to report that Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi/horror stands up to a repeat viewing at home. Part of the allure of the film is that it’s so mysterious and yet also at the same time so rooted in a recognisable, realistic Scotland: Glazer and his small crew filmed guerilla-style on the streets, focusing initially on the shopping centres, nightclubs, typical houses and main roads of Glasgow, with several non-professional actors without any prior acting experience appearing alongside Scarlett Johansson, who plays a predatory alien. It makes for a disconcerting, unusual work of science fiction, with the star’s presence underlining just how far removed everything else is – tone, plot, conceit, imagery, sound design, score, freewheeling nature, setting, accents, lack of immediate answers – from the usual big budget genre piece. The weirder, extended first act is the strongest part, with the film tailing off ever-so-slightly as Glazer gradually turns the tables on the alien; at first she lures unsuspecting men to their oily, black fate, but as the narrative progresses her physical and mental vulnerability increases. Her loss of strength and control makes the alien a less interesting antihero than she initially appears, and male domination duly follows: the motorcycle rider who seems to be her alien superior (the book the film is loosely based on is more specific on this) inspects her as if she’s a piece of meat, then her van is attacked by a gang of neds on a housing estate, before a final, unprovoked and extremely violent act of cruelty unceremoniously provides the film with a full stop. Still, it’s memorable, open to interpretation and occasionally very creepy indeed, while the irony that Johansson plays a character named ‘Black Widow’ in the most successful movie franchise of all time – at the time of writing – isn’t lost.