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It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
It's A Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, an honest, hard-working resident of Bedford Falls who dreams of seeing the world. We learn in flashback how circumstance and his own good heart have prevented him from pursuing his dream until one Christmas Eve, when a dark night of the soul pushes George to the brink of suicide and he is saved by divine intervention. George gets the chance to see what life would be like in Bedford Falls if he had never been born and realizes the true importance of his life.
It would be easy for people to miss the true meaning of It's A Wonderful Life and dismiss the film as sentimental nonsense due to the corny opening scene and the appearance of a supernatural angel. However, it is hard to think of another film that examines the overwhelming complexity of one individual's life so deeply or questions how our choices affect the lives of others.
It's A Wonderful Life contains some of the most unforgettable moments in cinema. Once George is redeemed, we are treated to a moment of life-affirming splendor which suddenly lifts the spirits of the viewer after the relentless darkness and gloom that has preceded. The snow-storm that only hours earlier mirrored the bleakness of George's situation has now converted Bedford Falls into a winter-wonderland as George races through its streets with a renewed joy for life and all its miraculous beauty.
I don't think I will ever tire of seeing the truly heartwarming final scene in which George finally learns his reward for the sacrifices he has made in life. The best line of the film comes when Harry returns early and offers a toast (` to my big brother George - the richest man in Bedford Falls') recognizing the real treasure of the friends George has rather than the superficial treasure of material wealth. An impromptu and communal singing of `Auld Lang Syne' then swells into a euphoric crescendo to close the most perfectly crafted film ever committed to celluloid.
V Graham Norton (2002)
So not funny
This is British television at its worst. I have nothing against gay men or camp comedy but I do have a problem with Norton's puerile and predictable humour. I have probably never seen one of his shows in its entirety but every time I accidentally catch part of a show a sort of morbid curiosity compels to me to keep watching until I can eventually stomach no more.
A typical episode seems to consist of the following;
- a section where members of the audience voluntarily stand up and try to outdo each other with stories of their most outrageous acts - I once saw a man receive rapturous applause from a guffawing Norton and the studio audience for telling a story of how he was once caught using a frozen chicken as a masturbatory aid by his family.
- Norton producing a novelty dildo or sex-toy and demonstrating it to the approving crowd.
- Norton surfing the net to find an American with an obscure sexual perversion and phoning them live on TV in order to make fun of them.
- "interviews" with guests in which Norton will usually bring a once glamorous star down to his level and cram in as much innuendo and penis jokes as possible, accompanied by his annoying laugh.
His material would surely be considered unbroadcastable, offensive and politically incorrect in the hands of a straight comedian but, because it is delivered by a gay man who women don't feel threatened by, it's somehow hip and witty. In truth this is lowest-common-denominator humour whoever it comes from. Depressingly, this most unsophisticated form of humour is lapped up by a worryingly high proportion of 20-30 somethings and it seems as though Graham Norton will be around for a long time yet.
In the past, Channel 4 has been responsible for challenging the boundaries of entertainment and comedy with controversial yet thought-provoking programming. In granting Norton a vehicle to air his own brand of "outrageous" comedy five nights a week, it has merely succeeded in destroying its own credibility and the accolade of being Britain's premier comedy channel.
Shame on you Channel 4.
Brief Encounter (1945)
This is my all-time favourite British film. It is a story of the heartbreak and despair caused when two strangers are brought together by chance and embark on a doomed relationship. Brief Encounter superbly captures the mundanity of suburban middle-class life and yet somehow manages to create more emotional intensity than any other romantic film I have seen. The backdrop of dullness and every-day tedium only seems to enhance the violent and overpowering passions of the two central characters. Lean's subtle direction and the use of black-and-white cinematography are impressive and preferable to his work in later overblown epics whilst Rachmanioff's Second Piano Concerto fits the story perfectly. Trevor Howard is also faultless in his film debut but it's Celia Johnson's understated performance as the tragic Laura that lives in the memory. Her portrayal of the trapped housewife is without equal in modern cinema. This is a film full of soul and emotion and gets better with every viewing.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Mildly inspirational but ultimately overrated
My main problem with this film was the fact that I couldn't really sympathise with the two main characters. I thought Liddel, the Scottish sprinter who ran for God, lacked any real warmth or compassion and it was difficult to feel real pity for Harold Abrahams, the supposedly victimised English Jew, when the only repression he encountered was a few comments from upper-class twits whist living a life of luxury at Cambridge University. The way the film develops, you expect the two "rivals" to compete against each other at the end of the film to tie the two stories together. The fact that they don't is not really a criticism (it is afterall a true story), it just feels strange if you are used to Hollywood films. The famous opening and closing scenes are by far the best moments of this film although they serve no purpose in the plotline.
One of the finest films of The Sixties
Kubrik's version of Nabokov's tale of a middle-aged professor's self-destructive obsession with a young schoolgirl. Making a film that dealt with underage sex was considered impossible in 1962 due to the strict censorship regulations. Kubrik manages to get round this by merely alluding to sexual encounters and subtle wordplay and symbolism creeps into several scenes. He also raises the girl's age from 12 in the novel to 14 in the film. Lolita is also rich in Kubrik's trademark dark humour.
The three central characters of the novel are all portrayed more than adequately in the film; James Mason as the smitten professor, Shelley Winters as the suburban widow with pretensions of culture and Sue Lyons as the young nymphet. However, it is Sellars' performance as the creepy eccentric Clare Quilty (a relatively minor character in the book) that steals the show and, ultimately, makes the film. The opening scene (which is the ending of the film) is an outstanding testament to his talent and versatility. The said scene gives the film the same "circular structure" used by David Lean in "Brief Encounter".
My favourite moments include; Quilty's re-introduction to the film at the school's summer ball as the camera pans across the dancefloor and subtly reveals a look of comic ambivalence on his face as he dances with his lover, Humbert awkwardly trying to book the only remaining hotel-room at the police convention and Humbert again trying to teach the cynical Lolita the joys of Edgar Allen Poe's poetry.
I thoroughly recommend this film. My only complaint is the length - the final third seemed to drag a bit.
As fresh and bright and full of promise as moonlight in a martini
Perfect summer's evening viewing. As soon as Dean Martin's "That's Amore" played over the opening credits, this enchanting film had me in rom-com heaven.
One night the passions of various members of an Italian-American family in Brooklyn come alive as a huge full-moon casts its spell over them. The cast is almost faultless, the photography is perfect and the atmosphere just seems to sweep you along. Although the laughs aren't exactly frequent, Moonstruck has a lasting charm and never fails to captivate.
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Fairly entertaining, not particularly scary
Peter Cushing stars in the second Frankenstein film to churned out from the Hammer production-line. The Revenge of Frankenstein seems incredibly dated and gives you the impression that the entire film was thrown together in a week. However, it is saved by a fine script and good performances from the evergreen Cushing as well as Matthews and Gwynn in the other leading roles of Doctor Kleve and The Monster, making it a lot more enjoyable than the majority of horror films made in the last twenty years.
Although cheap, the set design of misty graveyards and underground laboratories containing colourful potions and brains kept in specimen jars creates an eerie atmosphere. Watch out for one of the worst choreographed fights in cinema history when the monster escapes to the lab - fantastic.
Hammer fans will not be disappointed.
Johnny Stecchino (1991)
I thoroughly recommend this film. Some jokes may go over the head of non-Italian speakers but it shouldn't really ruin your enjoyment of a classic Benigni film. My favourite scene was when "lo zio" (the uncle) was driving Dante back from Palermo train station and explaining the problems of Sicilian life to him - I nearly p*****d myself!
Straw Dogs (1971)
Thought-provoking study of violence and machismo
Hoffman contributes one of his finest performances and Peckinpah provides his usual intelligent direction. The violence is shocking but not as graphic as Kubrik's "A Clockwork Orange" from the same year (1971). Possibly the main reason that the film caused so much offence on its release (it was subsequently banned in the UK for 25 years) is its neolithic sexual politics - particularly the ambiguous "rape" scene.
Hoffman plays David Sumner, a quiet and passive mathematician locked in an intricate power struggle with his English wife Amy (Susan George). The couple have recently moved to the remote Cornish village where Amy was brought up, ironically to escape the potential for violence in America. During the first half of the film, we see the couple playing a series of chess games, which Peckinpah uses to symbolize the constant mind-games the couple are playing. Although playful, each "player" is intent on gaining the upper hand, with Amy seemingly winning each time.
David also has to contend with a group of local villagers who seem intent on making his life miserable and are responsible for a series of unpleasant acts designed to unsettle him. Perhaps the worst thing for David is that his wife seems to encourage the attentions of the group when they start leering at her. By the end of the film, the relentless provocation from all sides finally pushes David to breaking point as he embarks on an unforgettable spree of violence.
Sumner's transition from mild-mannered husband to ruthless murderer is sudden rather than gradual. His explosive outburst is simply the result of not being able to stand the frustration and humiliation welling up inside him any longer. Peckinpah's triumph is his manipulation of the audience to such an extent that even the most refined viewer is acquiesced to rooting for David as he is reduced to behaving in a way that goes against everything he (and a civilized society) stands for. No matter how much we think we have progressed, the primal instinct of violence is still buried somewhere inside every man.
The film is generally well-acted and Jerry Fielding was nominated for an Oscar for a compelling score. However, Straw Dogs is let down by a slow beginning and the lengthy final scene may be a bit too gratuitous for some people's tastes.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
No ordinary 1950s American sci-fi B-movie
CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS
On the surface, TISM tells the story of Scott Carey, a normal healthy American, who encounters a strange chemical cloud whilst on holiday with his wife. The film follows his plight as he slowly starts to shrink until eventually he can barely be seen at all, using some fairly amusing special effects along the way. However, during its final third, the film reveals deep existential undertones which culminate in Carey's memorable final monologue. Having come to terms with his emasculation, he begins to ponder the meaning of man's existence in a speech reminiscent of Sartre or Camus: "I was continuing to shrink, to become what? The infintessimal? What was I? Still a human being? To God there is no zero. I still exist."
Unfortunately this cult classic is only available on VHS in the USA and completely unavailable in the UK.