Cinematic Advent Calendar #14 – Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral

For me Richard Curtis’ Four Weddings and a Funeral was the first time I thought to myself and recognised that there was a British film industry that could make great films. There were lots of films that echoed the success of Four Weddings, but though good in their own right, for me none compare to Four Weddings.

I think one of the reasons I like Four Weddings is that back in the early 1990s when the film was released I seemed to be attending a lot of weddings (and sadly a fair few funerals too). Some of the weddings I went to did seem very familiar to the weddings in the film. Similar experiences and characters.

If you have seen the film, you will probably remember the first wedding where the Hugh Grant character, Charles, and Charlotte Coleman’s Scarlet wake up late and speed down the motorway to get to the wedding in an underpowered mini. I remember going to one wedding, driving a Talbot Samba up to Rochdale. I wasn’t like the Hugh Grant character, I did set off in plenty of time, but what I hadn’t anticipated was traffic problems on the M6, just by Manchester, so there followed a frantic drive cross country, road atlas on my knees. Roaring into the car park by the church, running into the church and nearly knocking the bride over… Back in those days things were different. Today I have traffic reports sent to my phone and TomTom satnav not only helps me to get to my destination, but also gives me an expected time of arrival. How things have changed. Drinking in the hotel on the evening of that wedding was also reminiscent of some of the scenes in the film too.

I went to another film near Durham and the evening dancing was akin to the Scottish dancing scene at the third wedding. Lots of drunken people flinging themselves around the dance floor to fast folk music.

This was also the film that launched Hugh Grant’s career, not too many films he has made were as good as Four Weddings, even if he often seemed to play the same character as Charles. Charlotte Coleman was excellent as the dizzy Scarlet, what a shock when she died in 2001 at just 33.

Charlotte Coleman was excellent as the dizzy Scarlet

Simon Callow played the loud Gareth with aplomb and enthusiasm. I did feel, as did a lot of critics, the weakest performance in the film was by Andie MacDowell as the American love interest.

I can still watch and enjoy this film many years later, and as well as enjoying the film it reminds me of those weddings I attended back then.

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #13 – Field of Dreams

Another baseball movie…

Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams

I did mention Field of Dreams when I talked about A League of their Own. So not only a film about baseball, but also a film with Kevin Costner. Now it has to be said that not many people like Kevin Costner, but for me back in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were two films that I really enjoyed, one was Dances with Wolves the other was Field of Dreams.

Field of Dreams did not get a big release in the UK as it was about baseball and though popular in the US, probably wasn’t that popular in the UK. When it came out I was at University (in York) and one of the people in our shared house was an American, Jason. Now he was passionate about baseball and a fair few other things too. I have to thank him for not only introducing my to baseball, not as a sport, but as a catalyst for literature and cinema. He was also responsible for introducing me to Harry Chapin, but that’s another story.

I am pretty sure that I went to see Field of Dreams before reading W P Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe on which the film is based. The film, despite having ghosts and fantastical elements, isn’t your typical ghost story, it certainly couldn’t be described as scary. This is an emotional moving film, about family and the fulfilment of dreams.

I do think Kevin Coster gives a good performance, but is ably supported by great performances from Amy Madigan, Rau Liotta, James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster.

Ray Liotta in Field of Dreams

Even if you don’t know anything about baseball, the history of baseball, or even if you know you don’t like baseball, this film is still a lovely story and an enjoyable experience.

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #12 – A League of their Own

Last year I did a musical advent calendar that I posted to Google+ and a final summary on this blog. This year on a similar theme I will be posting a cinematic advent calendar of twenty four films. It is in no particular order and I make no apologies for the films that I am posting. These are films that I really like and have enjoyed at the cinema.

A League of their Own

A League of Their Own is one of those films that on the surface I really shouldn’t like, however it’s probably one of my favourite films of all time. I did write about this before on the blog, so apologies for a very similar post here.

It should be noted that I really don’t understand everything about baseball, but when this film came out in 1992 I was in a “baseball phase” I was watching baseball films and reading books about baseball. I went out and bought and read Shoeless Joe by W P Kinsella (it was made into the film Field of Dreams). In many ways baseball was the background to the stories, the stories themselves were not about baseball. You don’t need to understand baseball to understand the stories, there may be times when you need to understand the passion people have for sports such as baseball to grasp the motivation of certain characters in these stories.

The first time I watched it wasn’t at the cinema, I had rented it on VHS from my local corner shop where I use to rent films from, this was in the days before Blockbuster! When you think about that and how that market has shrunk or even disappeared. True there are places you can still rent DVDs from, but even that is a much smaller market thanks to services such as iPlayer, Sky+, Netflix and iTunes. I don’t actually like renting DVDs that much, mainly as I find too often they are badly scratched, as a result if I do want to rent, it’s usually iTunes or Google Play. Though at their prices I am more likely to buy.

I think another reason I picked and watched A League of their Own was that I had really enjoyed Tom Hanks in Big and he plays Jimmy Dugan in this film, an embittered coach who at first can’t believe he’s coaching a “girl” baseball team. Eventually he does come round to the fact that these women can play and can play well. What put me off slightly was that Madonna was in it, but in perspective this is one of her better performances.

Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan

There is no real plot to the film, there is no romantic core to the story. This is a story about a team of women coming together, working and playing together during a difficult time in history and making a difference.

There is humour and comedy, larger than life characters as well as some very emotional scenes. This is a moving story that is directed well. Historically there is a fair bit of poetic licence taken by the film with actual events and people. For example the film indicates that the games weren’t popular with the crowds until the teams introduced gimmicks (sliding splits). However in reality the games were popular from day one as people had been really missing live baseball games and as a result there were huge crowds at the games.

I like this film, it is a feel good movie and something that I would watch on a rainy sunday afternoon. There was something very clever about the story and the emotional journey that the women in the film were on. It reminds us that in the 1940s equality was a dirty word for many people and women at that time were nowhere in the same league as their male counterparts in both life, work and sport.

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #11 – Toy Story

When I heard about this film, I have to admit I didn’t think it would be my cup of tea. A computer generated cartoon, why would I go and see that?

Well how wrong I was, Pixar’s Toy Story was a wonderful creation, amusing, moving and a really great story. You know when it’s a good story when you forget it is a computer created film and focus on the characters and the plot. True in the first part of the film for the first time you look in awe at the work of those digital artists. Remember when this came out, there were very few computer animated films, it was incredible the amount of work that had gone into it. But in the end it was the story that made Toy Story a great film, not the animation. It’s a pity that not all film makers have realised that.

The characters of Woody and Buzz from Toy Story.

The characters of Woody and Buzz really made the film, but often it was the characterisation of “famous” toys such as Barbie and Etch-a-Sketch that made the film and provided many of the best moments. Despite the fact it was based in America, many of the toys were familiar to us in the UK, so not too alien for British audiences.

The story is quite simple, two toys who are initially rivals, but through adversity and adventures become friends. The story is dark in places, people often forget that though this is a film about toys, it was certificated PG and certainly some aspects are not suitable for very young children. However there is an appeal to children who may have always wondered if their toys came alive when they left the room or went to sleep, probably a similar appeal to adults who had similar wondering when they young. The film is also amusing on two levels, simple physical comedy, but also a layer of comic timing and jokes that will appeal to adults. it is a very clever film and I really enjoyed the story, the humour and I have to say the cleverness of the digital artists.

I also enjoyed the sequels and it’s not often that film makes can repeat the magic they created with their first films.

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #10 – The Shawshank Redemption

Cinematic Advent Calendar #10 - The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption was a film that when released didn’t do too well in the cinema. When you consider the outline story it is understandable why. This is a story of a bloke who gets imprisoned, spends time in prison, it’s not very nice in there, there is violence and corruption… well would you go and see a film about that?

The thing about The Shawshank Redemption is that it isn’t a story about prison, or even the brutality of prison life, it’s a story about hope and friendship. That is what makes it such a powerful film and compelling to watch through to the end. Superb direction by Frank Darabont makes this a great film.

This was the film that introduced me to Morgan Freeman, his powerful performance is one of the highlights of the film.

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #09 – Saving Private Ryan

 Saving Private Ryan

The first twenty minutes or so of Saving Private Ryan
is a raw horrific introduction what “modern” warfare is all about. This is no glorified Hollywood war film, this is what, according to many veterans, war is really like.

That opening sequence was brutal and extremely shocking. it is shocking as the violence is sudden, brutal and non-discriminating. You get to see not just the immediate impact of war, but also the brutal impact it has on individuals.

 Saving Private Ryan

It has to be said that though the rest of the film is not as powerful, not that, that is a bad thing, two hours of intense warfare would not make a good film. As a result there was a fair bit of criticism of the pace of the rest of the film. I actually think that the change in pace adds to the story.

I was very impressed with the way in which Spielberg shot and processed the film, very evocative of the colour films of the era of the movie. The beach sequence is very powerful, but I also think that the final scenes in the French village are also well done. The ruined buildings, which were all purpose built for the film and then “destroyed” to represent bombing and artillery really do look the part. If you look at photographs of the Normandy campaign you will see buildings in a similar destroyed state.

Ruined village in Saving Private Ryan

I remember first seeing Tom Hanks in Big and, apart from his more recent stuff have enjoyed his films. He certainly has played a diverse range of characters, think of Hanks, and you can think of Sleepless in Seattle, Toy Story, Apollo 13. I think he does a great job in Saving Private Ryan. He is well supported by an excellent cast.

Saving Private Ryan

As might be expected from a film that won five academy awards, what followed were many films in a similar vein, I did think that Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima were good films, not quite as good as Saving Private Ryan, but certainly well worth watching. Spielberg and Hanks of course went to TV with Band of Brothers (and more recently The Pacific). I didn’t get very far when I originally watched Band of Brothers on the TV, I think I saw two episodes. More recently I borrowed the DVD boxed set from a friend and watched the whole series. I did enjoy that though it was very similar in style to Ryan.

Many years ago I was tasked with testing some projectors for work, so I connected it to a VCR and played Saving Private Ryan against a blank wall. I was very impressed watching that opening sequence on my own big screen!

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #08 – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones on a horse

Indiana Jones is a film series which for many reasons should have failed. It was based on the 1930s adventure serials that were shown in the cinema at that time and into the 1950s. It was a retro adventure film, why would it have appealed to a modern audience? In many ways, despite the story, the quality of the filming and action sequences; I am sure the main reason that initially the film was successful was down to George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford.

George Lucas was well known for Star Wars, and had huge success. Steven Spielberg had made Jaws and Close Encounters and Harrison Ford had been the real star of Star Wars. This combination was going to attract an audience regardless of what the film was about. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a hit in 1981, it was obvious that there would be a sequel and The Temple of Doom followed in 1984. The Last Crusade came five years later in 1989.

This film choice was a bit of a tough one, in many ways the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a much more significant film, and really in some aspects probably a better film. However out of the first three Indiana Jones’ films, the one I like the most is the third one.

It’s probably for a range of reasons: I like the opening sequence from when Indy was a young lad. It’s nice to gain a better understanding of the motivations of the character and the origins of his trademark hat, whip and fear of snakes. There is Sean Connery playing Jones Senior. I do like films with Sean Connery and the relationship between dad and junior adds a fair bit of humour to the film.

Indiana Jones and Jones Senior

There is a scene in Venice and that is one of my favourite places in the world. It also features Petra and I really quite like that part of the story (no spoilers here).

Like a lot of people I wasn’t too impressed with the recent fourth Indy film, but I certainly didn’t hate it as some did. It’s an enjoyable romp, but is nowhere near the quality of the films from the 1980s.

I wonder with the purchase of Lucasfilms by Disney whether they will take the risk and do something with the franchise. Unlike Star Wars, the real draw these days with Indiana Jones is Harrison Ford, he is getting older and I don’t think he can play the part in the same way he did with the original three films. It will be a risk if they recast, but it could work. What do you think?

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #07 – The Eagle has Landed

There are quite a few films in this advent calendar that have significant memories over and above the film itself. Queuing for Star Wars was significant for example. With The Eagle has Landed I went to see it at the Aldeburgh cinema with my grandparents.

Aldeburgh Cinema

Looking back I was seven (maybe eight) when I went to see it, which when you consider the current certification of 15 was way too young! What I do remember was that whenever there was a scene with blood, my grandparents would say to me, that’s tomato ketchup! I think because I saw this film at the cinema that it is one of my favourite films and in this list.

The film covers an attack by German paratroopers on Winston Churchill. From the initial planning of the attack this film is a fast paced adventure.

Cinematic Advent Calendar #07 - The Eagle has Landed

There is a great cast, Michael Caine plays the lead role Colonel Steiner, and Donald Sutherland is perfect as the smooth talking Devlin.

Cinematic Advent Calendar #07 - The Eagle has Landed

I remember reading the book many years later, this as you may expect has much more detail than the film. What I did like about the book was the way in which it was written as though it was based on true accounts.

Unlike some other films of that era, I think this still stands up and is an enjoyable film despite the age.

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #06 – Pulp Fiction

Cinematic Advent Calendar #06 - Pulp Fiction

I am sure that most people who went to see Pulp Fiction had probably seen Reservoir Dogs first. I didn’t. I did see it after seeing Pulp Fiction and out of all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, the one i like the most is Pulp Fiction, much more so than Dogs or to be honest any of the stuff he has done later.

I love the storytelling approach that Tarantino takes with Pulp Fiction, it was extremely clever to intertwine the various stories in the way that he does. What I think was innovative was the way that the stories don’t follow a linear path. Before Pulp Fiction this would have been done through the flashback, what Tarantino does is to just tell the stories and ignores the fact that the stories aren’t told in order or in a linear fashion. This could be somewhat confusing, and in many ways a second viewing does help, but due to though the stories intertwine they are really individual isolated stories.

Pulp Fiction doesn’t hold back the punches, there is violence, there are drugs. This does however make it a very powerful film and at times uncomfortable to watch. I certainly feel that it doesn’t glorify the use of drugs, or even violence, it is shocking and I think it works well on that level.

In terms of cast, it is full of stars. At the time many of them were on a downward track, this is the film that helped many of them to be reinvented or refreshed.

Another facet I like about Pulp Fiction has to be the soundtrack and I suspect that this was a contributing factor to the success of the film.

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Cinematic Advent Calendar #05 – Leon

Cinematic Advent Calendar #05 - Leon

I have found when watching films there are a few that really showcase a director or an actor, as a result I make an effort to seek out other work they have done. To give you an example, after watching the Shawshank Redemption I did go our of my way to find films starring Morgan Freeman. Likewise Devil in a Blue Dress was the film that made me appreciate Denzel Washington as an actor.

Leon was awash with great actors, and Luc Besson is briilant as both director and writer. This was the film that made me find other films by Luc Besson and others starring Jean Reno. It was the also the film that made me appreciate what an excellent and versatile actor Gary Oldman is.

Leon is a hard violent film, but is also a very powerful story with a fair few amusing and thought provoking scenes. Jean Reno is in many ways typically Jean Reno, from his facial expressions, to the way he portrays the cold calculating killer, who over time is softened into a fatherly figure by Natalie Portman’s character.

Beautifully filmed, the film’s story is one of revenge and the cost that it has on people’s lives.

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