Earlier this year the Coen brothers released Hail, Caesar!, their ode to the romance of the classical Hollywood era. That film became part of a rich tradition of movies about the movies. From Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood to Michel Hazanavicius’ Best Picture winner The Artist, the cinema is one of the cinema’s favourite subjects. Some focus on the process of making a film, some simply immerse themselves in the world of the industry. Some tell true stories, some thinly veiled allusions, some straight up fantasy. But all of them reveal something, in their own way, about this industry, art form and cultural pastime that we love. Here are six of the best movies about the movies… Continue reading
Recently Warner Brothers and Guy Ritchie made the somewhat peculiar decision to adapt the 1960s television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to the big screen (read my review here). While Ritchie’s film wasn’t exactly a triumph, there have been a number of TV remakes which have been really good. Of course, there are also plenty which have been terrible (The Flintstones, The Smurfs, Lost in Space), but we are going to try and keep it positive here and look at six of the best TV remakes. To clarify, this is a list of the best TV remakes not just movies that have come from television shows. So I have chosen not to consider movies which feature the same cast as the television series which has disqualified films like The Naked Gun, all of the Muppets movies, Serenity, and films which originated as Saturday Night Live sketches like The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World. So let’s jump in… Continue reading
It was with great sadness that the world received the news that Robin Williams had been found dead, suspected of taking his own life. It is always a tragedy when someone commits suicide, but when it is someone who has brought so much joy and laughter and fun into the world, it is particularly sad.
As a comedic performer, Robin Williams was a force of nature. With his mouth going at a hundred miles an hour and still seemingly struggling to keep up with his mind, he was an explosion of physical and verbal energy. As his career progressed from stand-up comedian to sit-com star to screen actor, he began to show that in addition to his comedic talents he could really bring something to dramatic roles. When Williams reined in that energy and slowed himself down he had a powerful but calming screen presence. He would be nominated for three Best Actor Academy Awards, as well as winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
So in recognition of one of the great talents of my lifetime, I offer six of the best performances from Robin Williams.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Barry Levinson’s Good Morning,Vietnam was the film which first showed the world Robin Williams’ potential as an actor. As Adrian Cranauer, a disc-jockey for Armed Forces Radio, Williams is in comfortable territory playing a comedian and gets the opportunity to improvise around a script, kick that motor-mouth into gear and do what only he can do. But as hilarious as Williams is, the movie is not a comedy, and his character is placed in positions and situations which demand emotional depth from his performance. Good Morning, Vietnam is the perfect blending of Williams’ comedic and dramatic abilities and appropriately earned him his first Oscar nomination.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
In Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society Williams played John Keating, the teacher we all wish we could have had. Keating inspires in his students a passion not only for learning but for life, with his instruction to his students: “seize the day, make your lives extraordinary.” Williams effectively plays a young idealistic intellectual, marrying restraint with moments in which he still gets to riff – Keating’s impression of John Wayne doing Macbeth seems to be straight out of the Robin Williams saddlebag. While elements of the film are a bit thinly drawn, and this is Williams in full-blown sentimental mode, it is near impossible not get goosebumps as the students one by one stand up on their desks to declare their allegiance to their teacher: “O Captain, my Captain.”
Not quite as high profile as some of Williams other films, Awakenings was a real change of direction for him as an actor. He plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, an inexperienced, soft-spoken psychiatrist who finds himself working in a Bronx psychiatric hospital where a new drug is reviving patients who have been in a catatonic state for many years. What is interesting about this performance, is that for possibly the first time in his career, Williams did not play the dominant personality on the screen. As a patient revived after thirty years trapped in his own body, Robert De Niro has the more showy role. Williams’s role does not allow him to fall back on any of his usual shtick, but he rises to the occasion, holding his own opposite one of the all-time greats of screen acting.
The Genie in Disney’s Aladdin is the pure physical embodiment of Robin Williams’ imagination. At the moment he is released from the lamp, we finally get to see a character with the freedom of form to keep up with Williams’ mind. The Genie owns the movie, completely overshadowing all other characters, and it is hard to imagine that Aladdin would hold its place in the pantheon of great Disney animated features without Williams. Aladdin was also a game changer for movie animation. Where animation had previously been the realm of the professional voice actor, the overwhelming response to Williams’ Genie showed studios, for better or worse, the potential of big name stars in animated movies. Without this performance there is no Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz, no Eddie Murphy as Donkey, no Jack Black as Po.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Young screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck referred to the role of Sean Maguire in their screenplay of Good Will Hunting as the “Harvey Keitel part.” Like Keitel’s role in Reservoir Dogs, this was the role for an established star who could bring instant credibility to this small independent film. When Robin Williams committed to the role, all of a sudden it became much easier to get the film made. While Williams’ involvement was great for Damon and Affleck, it was pretty good for him too, finally earning him an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor. Playing a counselor to a brilliant but troubled young man, Williams took the fatherly persona he had employed in Dead Poets Society and gave it a harder edge. Sean Maguire was a man who had experienced loss, tragedy and hardship and Williams captured all of that beautifully.
One-Hour Photo (2002)
This is a slightly left-field call given its inclusion at the expense of an Oscar nominated performance in The Fisher King, but it warrants a mention because it shows another element of Williams’ versatility. In 2002 Williams made two films in which he played the villain; Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and Mark Romanek’s One-Hour Photo. Insomnia was the better film, but One-Hour Photo was the better Williams’ performance. Williams had done restrained before, he had done quiet before, but he had never done bland before. In becoming Seymour Parish, Williams entirely strips away the persona we associate with him to become so bland and beige that he is almost faceless, and in turn becomes incredibly unnerving, creepy and ultimately sinister.
By Duncan McLean
The Western is the great American cinematic form, a uniquely American genre. More than that, some have suggested that it stands alongside jazz as America’s great contribution to the arts. It is America’s equivalent of the Greek tragedy, where filmmakers replay and reimagine stories of America. The Western genre was at its height in Hollywood’s studio era, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Its conventional storylines and reusable sets and props made it one of the backbone genres of the mass production machine that was studio era Hollywood. Before World War II, at a time when the major studios were churning out approximately 500 films a year, B-grade Westerns accounted for 15% of all Hollywood production. As well as these quick and cheap B-movies the studio era gave us great Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), High Noon (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and the greatest of them all, The Searchers (1956). But by the 1960s the classical Western was starting to grow tired, audiences were growing tired of it, and the genre went out of fashion in Hollywood for a while in the 1970s and 1980s. While the Western has never quite re-established itself as a prominent genre in post-classical Hollywood, there have been a number of notable and interesting films that have employed the Western form. Here are six of the best of them…
George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a disarmingly likeable film, and possibly the greatest buddy movie ever. Butch and Sundance are part of the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, but are forced to go on the run after a botched train robbery. With an unshakeable posse on their tail, they head for South America to start afresh as Bolivian bandits. Butch and Sundance are the perfect pairing. Butch is a charismatic, smooth-talking, sharp-minded leader. Sundance is cool, quiet and deadly. Paul Newman and Robert Redford (who would again team up with Hill in 1973 for The Sting) give the film genuine star power, while William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay gives it its charm, humour and intelligence. The final freeze frame is one of the iconic shots in American film.
In addition to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969 saw the release of another film about the Hole in the Wall Gang, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and they could hardly have been more different. The Wild Bunch is a key film in the history of screen violence. Changes to American film censorship regulations in 1968, with a move from the all-encompassing Production Code to a ratings system, allowed for greater representations of violence on screen and Peckinpah took full advantage. The film is a masterpiece of excess and spectacle, with approximately 90,000 rounds of blanks fired in the production. The film’s final shootout is truly something to behold. But rather than spectacle for spectacle’s sake, violence penetrates this film at a thematic level. The Wild Bunch is a film about violence, about the passing on of violence from one generation to the next, as demonstrated through the evolving roll of children throughout the narrative.
Little Big Man is a comic Western saga which continued director Arthur Penn’s engagement with the strong counter-culture movement of the time. It tells the life story of 121 year old Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman. Having been captured by the Cheyenne as a child, Crabb spends his life jumping back and forth between living as a native American and as a frontiersman, and thus experiences both sides of a very transformative period in America’s history. Little Big Man provides a debunking of the classical Western myth, portraying the pacification of the West as an act of genocide. The Cheyenne people are shown to be a kind and peaceful people, and Penn’s dramatization of an attack on their camp by Custer’s Cavalry is an obvious commentary on the Vietnam War at a time before Hollywood films were ready to openly discuss the conflict.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the lowest point for the Western as a film genre, it was Clint Eastwood who almost single-handedly kept it alive. Unforgiven is both a love letter and farewell from actor-director Clint Eastwood to the genre that made him a star. Set in the 1880s, when the days of the frontier were fading and a new world was rising, William Munny is of the old world. A retired gunman and a widower with two children, he is coaxed to pick up his gun once more by his old friend Ned to go after a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey. Rather than a Wild West romp, Unforgiven is a dark and melancholy film. Where once Eastwood played a part in romanticising the West, here he shows it for its grim reality. Beautifully shot in Alberta, Canada, and featuring a tremendous cast including Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning performance as sheriff Little Bill. Eastwood dedicated the film to directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The second feature film from Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic Western with an almost art-film sensibility. The film uses the story of the final chapter of the life of one of the American West’s most iconic characters to show us the active process of the mythologising of the West. The young Robert Ford has grown up on the tales of the legendary exploits of Jesse James, so when he has the opportunity to join the James gang for their last robbery he idolises James. Theirs is a strange relationship built on Ford’s intense devotion, which can really only end one way. While this slow-paced, contemplative film is probably a bit longer than it needs to be, it is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins and features some very interesting performances from Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.
Adapted from Charles Portis’ novel, the story of True Grit has a beautiful simplicity to it which has been missing from the Western in recent decades. Despite this old-fashioned quality, the direction of the Coen brothers and the beautiful cinematography, again from Roger Deakins, gives the film a modern feel and aesthetic. Hailee Steinfeld’s debut performance as Mattie Ross, the young girl who sets out with a hired Marshall to catch her father’s murderer, is simply brilliant with the role being undoubtedly one of the great young female characters. When the story was previously brought to the screen in 1969, John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of the drunken US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, but rather than simply imitate Wayne’s performance, Jeff Bridges brings his own characterisation to the part.
It technically isn’t a movie so wasn’t included in the six but no conversation about the Western genre in recent years would be complete without…
Created by David Milch, for three 12 episode seasons HBO’s gritty series Deadwood was arguably the best show on television and the best single piece of work the Western genre had seen in decades. Set in the 1870s, the show followed the development of the town of Deadwood, annexed from the Dakota Territory, from a basic camp into a thriving, organised, but incredibly uncivilised and corrupt community. Marvellously written, the show’s dialogue was at the same time almost Shakespearean in its poetry and the most horrendously coarse thing you’ll ever hear. Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and puppet-master over the citizens of Deadwood, was one of the great television characters of that decade. Tragically the show was cut short after three seasons, and while there was talk of two television movies being made to complete the story they never eventuated.
By Duncan McLean
Known as ‘The Master of Suspense,’ Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first genuine superstar directors. As well as being a popular success, he is undoubtedly one of the true masters of the cinematic medium. Hitchcock was a central figure in the 1950s revaluation of the popular Hollywood cinema by the critics at Parisian film journal Cahiers du cinema who saw the potential for legitimate artistry in a commercial, studio context. With a career spanning six decades and transitioning from the UK to Hollywood, from silent film to sound, and from black and white to colour, Hitchcock has arguably done more than any other director to shape contemporary commercial filmmaking.
This 1940 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about a young bride living in the shadow of her husband’s deceased wife was Hithcock’s first American film and the only film he ever made to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. The film, brilliant as it is, is not as unmistakably Hitchcock as his work in the 1950s largely because his combination with producer David O. Selznik, hot off the heels of Gone With the Wind, meant there were two strong authorial presences on the film. Selznik’s influence results in a film with a much more typical classical Hollywood feel. A haunting piece of gothic cinema, George Barnes won an Oscar for his cinematography which featured strong use of deep focus photography a year before Orson Welles famously employed the technique in Citizen Kane. The way in which Hitchcock and Barnes shoot the De Winter mansion, Manderlay, was clearly an influence on Welles’ approach to shooting Xanadu in his masterwork.
Adaptations from the stage, particularly those which take place in a single setting, often have a tendency of feeling decidedly uncinematic. The fact that Hitchcock manages to avoid that stagey, theatrical feel in his adaptation of Frederick Knott’s play is in itself an impressive achievement. Already an excellent film, Dial M for Murder becomes an absolute masterpiece when you see it as it was intended to be seen, in 3D. Hitchcock’s inspired use of the 3D format brings the shot compositions to life and creates a real sense of the space and geography of the apartment in which the film almost exclusively takes place. It is a testament to his mastery as a filmmaker that his one 3D film, made 60 years ago, is still one of the finest examples of the potential of the format. Dial M for Murder was also the first of three films Hitchcock would make with Grace Kelly.
1954 was clearly a brilliant year for Hitchcock as he followed up Dial M for Murder with one of his most enduring masterpieces, Rear Window. The story of a photographer cooped up in his apartment while his broken leg heals with only watching his neighbours to keep him entertained embraces the voyeuristic appeal of the cinema like no other film before or since. The entire film is from a single point-of-view: that of L.B. Jeffries’ apartment window looking out into an incredible purpose-built New York tenement set. From his apartment we watch different lives unfold before us. More to the point we watch Jeffries watch. Through the like of Miss Lonelyheart, Miss Torso, the songwriter, the fire escape couple, the newlyweds and, of course, the suspicious Lars Thorwald, Hitchcock finds the perfect blend of suspense and comedy and captures the complete spectrum of the joy we take from voyeurism.
While it was not initially well-received critically, Vertigo has gone on the become Hitchcock’s most celebrated film. In fact, in 2012 the picture managed to unseat Citizen Kane from the number one position in Sight and Sound’s top ten poll for the first time in 50 years. An incredibly disturbing and unsettling film, it takes one of American cinema’s most loved and likeable figures in James Stewart and makes him disconcertingly maniacal. With Hitchcock being a director renowned for controlling relationships with his leading ladies, the manner in which Scotty seeks to mould, shape and control Judy as he tries to transform her into his dream woman can be read as representative of Hitchcock’s own relationship with women. On the stylistic front, the simultaneous zoom in and pan out used to such great effect in Vertigo has become a much imitated technique (see Jaws).
North by Northwest is the classic Hollywood blockbuster. It has big names, spectacle, action and thrills, and it exemplifies Hitchcock’s ability to turn out high-quality commercial fare. It is also the best film to come out of Hitchcock’s four-film, eighteen-year collaboration with Cary Grant. The story of an advertising executive who is mistaken for a spy, North by Northwest is one of the more extreme examples of Hitchcock’s fascination with the innocent protagonist swept up in a situation beyond his control. The film also provides some of the most iconic images not only of Hitchcock’s oeuvre but of Hollywood cinema, firstly with Cary Grant being swooped by a crop duster and secondly with the films climactic chase scene on the faces of Mount Rushmore.
With Psycho Hitchcock took a largely forgettable novel by Robert Bloch and transformed it into the most influential and imitated horror film ever made. Killing off a main character at any point is a bold move, but only a filmmaker of Hitchcock’s stature and self-assurance could get away with killing off his main character in the first third of the film. A masterstroke, it throws convention out the window, turns the movie on its head and tells the audience that anything is possible. To make sure audiences got the full effect, Hitchcock insisted that cinemas enforce a strict policy of not allowing people in once the film had started in case they missed Leigh’s appearance. While Jaws made people afraid to go in the water, Psycho made people afraid to have a shower.
By Duncan McLean
A three time Oscar winner, with a further nine nominations, Jack Nicholson is one of the American cinema’s most celebrated actors and a movie legend. Starting his career in the B cinema of Roger Corman, rising to prominence in the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s as one of the era’s most interesting new faces, and establishing himself as the very epitome of the Hollywood movie star, Nicholson is a big personality and a bigger talent. Trying to whittle this legendary career down to six roles requires some tough decision making, and as a result some brilliant roles which easily could have made the list miss out – chief among them Robert Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, Jack Torrence in The Shining and Frank Costello in The Departed – but here it goes…
Easy Rider (1969)
With 17 films already under his belt, it was his supporting role in Hopper and Fonda’s iconic road movie Easy Rider that made turned Nicholson into a star. As the alcoholic country lawyer George Hanson, Nicholson was the conduit through which the audience were able to relate to the skittish Billy and aloof Captain America. The performance earned him the first Academy Award nomination of his career and set him up to become one of the New Hollywood’s most important actors.
So proud was Nicholson of his work on the Polanski directed, Towne scripted Chinatown that he has not played another detective since. While drawing on the hard-boiled fiction of Chandler and Hammett, Nicholson’s Jake Gittes is a softer hero than those played by Humphrey Bogart. He is out of his depth, too innocent to deal with the magnitude of society’s corruption and incapable of solving the mystery until it is too late.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
If Easy Rider was the film that made Nicholson a star, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the film that made him an icon. Nicholson brings Ken Kesey’s anti-hero to life, drawing on his own counter-cultural anti-authority persona to make McMurphy a life-affirming force in a lifeless institution, and a worthy nemesis for Louise Fletcher’s chilling Nurse Ratched.
The deserved praise heaped on Heath Ledger for his performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight has seemingly resulted in many people forgetting just how good Nicholson was in the same role in Tim Burton’s Batman. Nicholson provides a different interpretation of the famous villain. Where Ledger’s Joker is a psychopath, Nicholson’s is a lunatic. Undoubtedly one of the great scene stealing performances in film history.
As Good as it Gets (1997)
Nicholson has enjoyed a very fruitful partnership with writer/director James L. Brooks, the high point of which was his Oscar winning performance as obsessive compulsive, romance novelist Melvin Udall in As Good as it Gets. Sharp, funny and at times vicious, Jack gets to be Jack. A character and a film that will put a smile on your face, and one of the best romantic comedies of the decade.
About Schmidt (2002)
Dipping his toe into independent cinema for the first time in decades with Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, Nicholson produces one of the most interesting and brave performances of his career. Putting aside the over-the-top, sharp-edged persona that had become the norm in recent years, Nicholson embraced his older age, playing a quiet, widower worn-down by life. A wonderful late career reminder of the incredible talent that was the foundation of his superstardom.
By Duncan McLean