The cultured teenager

the best of literature, film and music, shown through my rather short-sighted eyes

Must-see film #10: Withnail and I

A first glance, a plot synopsis of Withnail and I makes for pretty disappointing viewing, since it can essentially be summarised in a single sentence: in 1969, two unemployed actors (played by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann) escape the squalor of their Camden flat for a week in the country. Yet to dismiss Withnail’s wafer-thin plot is to miss the point of Bruce Robinson’s brilliant and very British 1987 black comedy. Intelligent, hilarious and surprisingly moving, Withnail and I achieves that rare comedic balance of offering belly laughs whilst remaining clever and biting at the same time.

Three key areas make the film so appealing for me. Simply put, better dialogue than Robinson’s is rarely heard in cinema. Profane, yet darkly witty, Robinson never goes for easy laughs, avoiding pratfalls and silly sight gags (the chicken scene is a notable, and well-executed exception) and simply relying on killer dialogue that encompasses a vast array of styles from the bonkers (” Hairs are your aerials. they pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly to the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight) to the snappy (“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here and we want them now!”) and ultimately the profound as Monty (Richard Griffiths) confronts his hopeless adoration fro Marwood (McGann) with “I must have you, even if it means burglary”. Even Robinson’s directors notes are suitably biting-“Dostoyevsky described hell as a room with a chair in it. This room contains several chairs.” However, brilliant though the dialogue is, Robinson has found the perfect actors to bring it to life and Grant’s alcoholic, cowardly and bitter Withnail is a truly unique comic creation. McGann, as the comparatively straight and anxious Marwood, makes an effective foil as just about the only sane person in the piece. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Richard Griffiths avoids making the flamboyantly gay Monty a caricature and instead a genuinely sympathetic and even tragic character. Ralph Brown nearly steals the show as the drugged-out hippy Danny. 

And finally what makes Withnail and I so memorable is the unrelenting squalor of the locations. Robinson draws a lot of black humour from the fact that his Britain is an absolute shit-hole, at the beginning the characters are afraid to do the washing up because “There’s a tea bag growing!” But there is a peculiar kind of poetry to the country locations that create a sense of nostalgia for lost friendships and a bygone Britain at the end of a decade where the nation is uncertain of itself. Witnail and I  remains that rare thing-a comedy of class.

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Must-see film #9: Saving Private Ryan

A 2008 Channel 4 voters poll placed Steven Spielberg’s WW2 drama Saving Private Ryan as the best war movie ever made. I have a problem with this. The film, which follows Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad on a mission to rescue a soldier trapped behind enemy lines whose three brothers have been killed in action, is undoubtedly excellent and few films, before or since, can match it for the sheer carnage of its battle scenes, but that’s just it. War movies should not be about battle scenes but should be focused on how human beings endeavour to cope with the evil effects of war, and Saving Private Ryan’s human element is too much of an afterthought. It is therefore a film with A-grade production values and a couple of obvious flaws that can probably be regarded as a B+.

Nevertheless, nothing can match the film for the sheer visceral power of its battle scenes. Masterfully handled by Spielberg, the director and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski pioneered techniques that are now staples of combat pictures: adjustment of the shutter 90 degrees to increase realism, an image shaker used to approximate the impact of explosions and the shooting of the action from the infantryman’s view point. The results are astonishing and are best showed in two scenes. Firstly, as Miller crawls onto Omaha Beach, temporarily deafened by an explosion, he stares limply at the devastation around him : the sea literally runs red, a soldier searches for his own severed arm and burning men desperately try to escape the flames of their landing craft. No sound, no dialogue. Spielberg simply lets the sickening sights do the talking. Secondly, witness the sheer terror, as Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg)-machine-gun destroyed, rifle empty and his comrade bleeding to death on the floor-desperately engages an SS trooper in a savage fist fight to save his own life. Gone are any notions of the ennobling effect of war. It boils down to survival, pure and simple, and the fact that Mellish is stabbed to death with his own knife, gives the scene a real visceral kick. Away from the action, Hanks delivers a fine performance as Miller, a man desperately trying to complete his mission and maintain his sanity, whilst the strong supporting cast (including Edward Burns, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore) flesh out the admittedly stereotypical characters presented to them and help make Saving Private Ryan a jolting, unforgettable experience.

However, I have two main gripes against this film. Firstly, the coda in the graveyard is regrettably a mawkish, overly-sentimental mess. The second is less to do with the workings of the film and more the overall message. The concluding battle at Ramelle, while just as the brutal as the Omaha Beach sequences, is regrettably relegated to a simple good-versus-evil confrontation, as the outnumbered Americans desperately try defend a bridge against overwhelming enemy forces. The film’s supposed anti-war message is weakened by the underlying jingoism and the idea that “War is hell, but at least WW2 was a good war”. Saving Private Ryan is an excellent war film. But the best war movie ever made? I don’t think so.

Must-see film #8: The Shawshank Redemption

I am going to approach this review in a completely unbiased and unprejudiced way; The Shawshank Redemption is my favourite film and I will not hear a word said against it. Yet, what the hell is great about it? It does not equal the cult levels of Star Wars, nor the disturbing intensity of Apocalypse Now. For serious, fact-based drama, Schindler’s List comes out on top, while for sheer zest and playfulness Pulp Fiction reigns supreme. So what is so great about this film, a film that garnered a (relatively) puny $28 million at the US box office and failed to win in any of its seven Oscar nominated categories? Simply put, Frank Darabont’s film goes back to the basics of cinema in breath-taking fashion. If you give great actors a great script and great direction, then you get a great film. Simple.

In 1947, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly accused of murdering his wife and sentenced to life imprisonment in Shawshank State Prison. Vulnerable to all of the horrors of prison life, his position initially seems unbearable; beatings, rape and above all hopelessness constitute the daily routine. “They send you here for life” comments Red (Morgan Freeman) “That’s exactly what they take“. But through his friendship with Red and his steady determination, Andy maintains his dignity and courage to rise above the degradation of his surroundings and find, ultimately, redemption. This is a conclusion the film does not easily reach, with cruelty piling on cruelty, and the film’s uplifting conclusion comes as a relief, serving as a testament to the indomitable human spirit, as well as being a real tear jerker. Andy is not superhuman but an ordinary man who found within himself unexpected depths and the spark of hope that could not be dimmed. Darabont executes his story in brilliant fashion. The dialogue is outstanding, raging from the brilliantly profane-“You fat barrel of monkey spunk!” to the simply iconic- “ I guess it boils down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying”. The Gothic setting of the prison augments the bleakness of Andy’s situation and serves as an effective metaphor for people who allow themselves to be trapped in their own minds and do not achieve their full potential. And don’t get me started on the performances. Robbins’ delivers a masterclass in quiet dignity, whilst Freeman’s turn as Red is surely the defining role of his career. And let’s not neglect the outstanding supporting cast. Clancy Brown excels as the brutish Captain Hadley, James Whitmore is heart-breaking as the tragic Brooks (the scene where he carves his name above the stair rail before hanging himself is one of the most poignant I have ever seen watching films), whilst Bob Gunton as the icy, hypocritical Warden Norton is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated villains in movie history. That’s the secret of Shawshank. No parlour tricks. No fancy pop soundtrack. Just a brilliant testimony to the human spirit that many films try to emulate but few can match. The Shawshank Redemption is the best movie ever. F*** off. Will Hunter

Ok, I completely get Will’s point and no sane person could possibly argue against the fact it is an outstanding film, but the best film ever? I say no, not that I would find it easy to pick out another movie as being the best movie ever. Part of my argument against The Shawshank Redemption is just that in labeling one film as being better than all other films, what is the criteria that one has created in order to prove what makes a film the best ever made? Is the best film ever a film where every aspect is done as high a standard as possible, i.e. Shawshank, or is it a film which is far more artistic or, as the purpose of films is this, is far more entertaining and consuming. I personally would argue, that although it is a great film, with a change in director and everything kept the same, or a change in an actor, the film could be just as good, and if not, better. It is hence far easier to argue that maybe it has the best script, but it isn’t quite a perfect film, or has some great performances, but it isn’t alone in containing these factors. If I had to pick an alternative best film ever, my choice would be Pulp Fiction; I feel the narrative itself is just as clever, the script I would argue is better, though clearly of two styles difficult to compare, and, similarly, the acting is second to none. I have to say though, what I feel edges it over Shawshank was the viewing experience. I was impressed and moved by Shawshank but Pulp Fiction was one of the few films where I go, WOAH! How the f*** did someone make that?! Shawshank is perfect execution whereas Pulp Fiction is an unrivaled example of creativity, making it a film that could never be made again, or anything half as good a standard as Tarantino’s masterpiece. The characters have a brilliant realism and humanity in the most unlikely setting, as Tarantino is mocking the genre of Pulp Fiction, a genre in which realism, humanity and good acting, a far harder to achieve, than in a drama of the ilk of Shawshank. However, before I write a Pulp Fiction review, I better get back to the original topic. The Shawshank Redemption is one of the best films ever made, and would easily make my top 10, it’s brilliance lies in the emotional turmoil and emotional sincerity of the characters, particularly Andy Dufresne and Brooks Hatlen, and the superb acting which contributes to this. It is slow and ponderous but this gives a significant realism to the narrative, making the characters, not only believable, but also far easier characters to relate to and sympathise with than the ruffians more conventional in prison dramas. The film has innumerate undertones, many of which are interwoven, both subtle and integral to the tone of the film, such as incredibly clever word choice, for example, where the Warden holds a Bible, stating that “Salvation lies within”. One which many can morally sympathise with, but is utterly integral to Dufresne’s story. A truly brilliant film. Not the greatest, but great nonetheless. Henry Saker-Clark

Must-see film #7:Once Upon a Time in America

Unquestionably one of the most epic and powerful gangster movies ever made, Once Upon a Time in America stands proudly alongside The Godfather and Goodfellas at the forefront of the genre. But whilst The Godfather is a calculating study of the corrupting effects of power and Goodfellas provided an insight into the rough-and-tumble of mafia life, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece is something else; an epic account of the lives of two friends, played by Robert De Niro and James Woods, who happen to be gangsters.

Noodles (De Niro) is an ageing Jewish mobster who, lured by an anonymous invitation, returns to Manhattan where a botched robbery resulted in the deaths of his gang over thirty years ago. Who has sent this message and why? It is a mystery Leone proceeds to investigate, charting Noodles’ rise from ghetto kid to mafia kingpin right up to the ambiguous finale and in particular Noodles’ relationship with his partner and childhood friend Max (Woods). The story of the two men’s relationships, and the love, lust, greed, betrayal and revenge that surrounds it has the same qualities as the best of opera and ancient myth in its epic portrayal of status and human emotion. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a sentimental story. The characters, although fascinating, are not exactly likeable, possessing dangerous, sociopathic qualities. Yet what sets Noodles and Max apart is their mutual need for each other. Leone’s locations are wonderfully atmospheric, switching between the bleak inner-city ghettos that are the childhood location and the glitzy high society that symbolises fulfillment of the American Dream. The 1920s details and costumes are all impeccable, whilst Ennio Morricone’s score (arguably the greatest film composer of all time) is wonderfully apt, perfectly capturing the operatic tone of the film. As for the performances, De Niro delivers a beautifully nuanced performance as Noodles, a man seemingly unable to forget his past, whilst Woods, whose appearances on Family Guy often overshadow the fact that he is a fine actor, is outstanding as the intense and sociopathic Max. In my opinion Sergio Leone’s finest film, Once Upon a Time in America is a fitting epitaph to one of the all-time great directors. A saga of truly epic proportions.