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Top Five(ish) Films
One of my top comedies has to be Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979), a comedy film that has me still wetting myself twenty years after first seeing it, even when I know all the jokes. Full of classically repeatable lines –
All together now: "You're all individuals!!! Yes, we're all individuals!!"
[Some other comedies I can still enjoy: Monty Python’s other movies, This is Spinal Tap, Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, The Importance of Being Earnest (with Michael Redgrave in the title role), The Birdcage.]
A film with a gorgeous soundtrack by two of this century’s master musicians - ebullient jazz composer Duke Ellington, and soundtrack maestro John Barry -Cotton Club (1984) just beats out the inspiring Amadeus as my favourite musical film.
One of the few films in which I find the supine Richard Gere to be watchable, Cotton Club integrates superb and high-spirited jazz with a story oozing conflict and drama, spiced with fabulous dance sequences, and tied together by Francis Ford Coppola in a wonderfully stylish package.
And once I put the soundtrack on it’s damned hard to get off, as my partner Carol can attest.
[Other (semi)musical faves: Amadeus, Buena Vista Social Club, Glenn Miller Story, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Quadrophenia.]
Another rationalistic restriction that SOLO’s headmaster has placed on my selection criteria is the confinement to films. For me The Prisoner and The Avengers TV shows portraying stylishly staunch heroes (and heroine) resisting the plans and plots of assorted villains (and villainesses) are richly deserving entrants on my list.
The Prisoner (1968) sets Patrick McGoohan in a bizarrely surreal ‘Village,’ surrounds him with other prisoners who "unlike me, will die here like rotten cabbages," and pits him against the Big Brother machinations of each weeks’ Number Two – the Village Boss. McGoohan, responsible for most of The Prisoner scripts, is Number Six – the start of each episode sees Number Six passionately proclaiming: "I am not a number, I am a free man!" and the responding derisive cackle of Number Two.
Who is Number One? McGoohan challenges the viewer to answer that for himself, and offers the clue that we often make prisoners of ourselves by becoming our own jailers.
My favourite episode is All For One, which debunks democracy as only McGoohan could do. I watch it again after every election!
The Avengers (from 1965 to 1967) showcases TV and film’s most gorgeous woman, Emma Peel. (There are people who watch Avengers series without Mrs Peel, but they should be shunned.) John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (played by the stunning Diana Rigg) battle weekly with perhaps the most bizarre set of villains ever to be conjured up from a fevered imagination, and do so in three piece, bowler, Bentley, and sword-cane (Steed), and cat-suit, leather, Lotus Elan, and charm – and the occasional karate kick (Mrs Peel).
Watch Diana Rigg in A Touch of Brimstone' and realise that brain and stunning beauty are here combined, in both the actress, and the series - for me the epitome of intelligent and sophisticated style in action.
"I don’t use a gun," said Macnee in an interview, "I use my brain."
It shows in this series. I can never get enough of it.
[Public Health Warning: Do not on any account be seduced into watching the recent Avengers remake – it’s a serious stinkeroo! But do be prepared to be seduced by The New Avengers series starring Joanna Lumley; her Purdie does provide a delightful replacement for Rigg, who the producers struggled to replace after she ran off to join James Bond On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.]
[The only ‘thrillers’ I have seen that comes close to the sophistication of these are The Thomas Crown Affair; The Spanish Prisoner; Lock, Stock and Three Smoking Barrels; Body Heat; The Usual Suspects; The Conversation; The Name of The Rose; Day of the Jackal.]
Aussie battler, tow-truck driver, and certified eccentric Darryl Kerrigan finds the ramshackle yet much-cherished house he has perched upon a toxic dump is about to be taken by the State government for an airport expansion. Darryl protests "It’s not a house – it’s a home," and takes them on.
The Castle (1997), the Kerrigan family’s story, is an uproariously hilarious, yet remarkably gentle account of Darryl’s battle that should "go straight to the pool room." See Darryl tell the State Court he rests on "the law of common bloody sense"; see his suburban lawyer Dennis De Nuto tell the Appeals Court: It’s the constitution, it’s Mabo … it’s the vibe!" (and thus give untold lawyers everywhere access to the new ‘De Nuto Defence’) and find yourself doubled over like I am at this hilarious yet warm (yes, warm, Eeek!) film that asks us to laugh at Darryl’s many well-meant miscues - "power lines are a reminder of man's ability to generate electricity" - while never actually laughing at him.
Only Australians seem to do ‘feel-good’ movies quite like this one. It avoids the cloying saccharine-ness of many feel-good films, delivering instead the ‘feel-sore’ of split sides and a tear-stained face from laughing too much.
And does the airport get to take the Kerrigan house? Nah! They were dreaming!
[Similarly ‘feel-good’ stories that skilfully avoid the schmaltz - but don’t necessarily try for the aching sides: Smoke, The Gods Must be Crazy, The Dinner Game, Malcolm, Bull Durham, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Shakespeare in Love, In the Heat of the Night, Educating Rita.]
Two Edward Woodward films grouped together allow me to almost squeeze into the Headmaster’s ‘top five’ rule. Woodward is known in the States mostly for the flawed TV series The Equalizer, and in most countries in the former British Empire for the gritty, infinitely superior spy drama, Callan.
Wicker Man (1975) is the only ‘horror’ film to which I give house room; partly because Britt Ekland gets her gear off; partly because of Woodward’s telling portrayal of a devoutly-religious, repressed Scottish mainland police sergeant; partly because of the gloriously watchable Christopher Lee and his entourage ("I trust the sight of the young people refreshes you…"), but mostly because of the masterfully woven atmosphere of … well, if I tell you I’ll spoil the climax. It’s not a horror film of darkened alleys and grunge-filled ordure, but a sunlit (albeit, Scottish sun) horror film of the mind.
Suffice to say that I always enjoy watching Woodward’s Christian policeman arrive at small Scottish island Summerisle to investigate a missing child, only to find himself in the middle of a pagan fertility cult where local school children dance the maypole around a giant phallus, and in which villagers prepare for the Mayday festival ("the day of death and re-birth") by donning animal masks, watering graves, and holding naked, moonlight dances over small fires. All the while the close-knit locals resist the policeman’s questions about the missing child. They don’t want to find Rowan Morrison, and Woodward soon finds out why!!
It’s a striking lesson about gods, both old and new, and the sacrifices they demand.
Breaker Morant (1980) sets Woodward in the Boer War, on court martial for killing prisoners of war.
On trial for their lives, he and his fellow defendants (Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitzgerald) face being put to death to ‘protect the honour of the British Empire’; an Empire dismayed at the conditions of war forced upon Woodward and his men by the tactics of Boer guerrillas (a theme many American directors would explore less expertly in a slightly different context some years later). It is the story of honourable men adjusting themselves to meet the imminent twentieth century collapse of values, only to find themselves buried by the stodgily conservative values of nineteenth century colonial satraps.
Woodward’s character shines, resolute in his certainty that the Boer prisoners were shot "under rule 303!" and deserved everything they got, but disturbed about what that decision has done to his own humanity.
A little known masterpiece.
[Other war films I value highly: The Deer Hunter, Dam Busters, The Longest Day, Braveheart (of course), Battle of Britain, Spartacus, Das Boot, and Gallipoli. In the ‘horror’ genre, I can say I also much-enjoyed Ian McKellen’s recent and chilling Richard III.]
Oh, and I must mention my favourite New Zealand film, Quiet Earth (1985).
The late Bruno Lawrence is almost the only actor in this sci-fi fantasy (which manages to be subtle and apocalyptic at the same time) in which he wakes to find himself the only one alive on earth. I love watching Bruno’s character, Zac Hobson, as he discovers and faces his predicament, struggles against inevitable mental collapse, and recovers himself through his own will and resourcefulness.
Grasping his situation, he is by turns euphoric as he ransacks a mall for toys, and bereft as he struggles without human companionship. He stumbles through the country to its major city, taking up residence in a grand home which he inhabits with cardboard characters – including Adolph Hitler, Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon and the Pope ("you had your chance" he tells ‘Hitler’) - and a sound system that allows the cut-outs to ‘applaud’ his every utterance. He attacks a church in an attempt to oust God – "If you don’t come out, I’ll shoot the kid," he yells, pointing his shotgun at the crucifix.
A later US movie, Leaving Las Vegas, has to my mind a similarly well drawn and honest examination of a man who is in deep distress; both films for the most part show the resolute courage of a man who refuses to fake his situation, despite the tragedy of the situation they are in (in the case of Leaving Las Vegas, the situation Nicholas Cage’s character has chosen to be in).
Zac does eventually find two other human beings, setting up a unique love triangle - "I wouldn’t sleep with you if you were the last man on earth," Alison Routledge tells Bruno’s rival; "I’m working on it!" he throws back - that stumbles onto the cause of the disaster, and a risky repair they can attempt to prevent further disaster.
Despite slights smacks of ludditery, and large chunks of anti-Americanism, its quiet power shows it as a remarkably developed film of a familiar science fiction theme that Bruno Lawrence and director Geoff Murphy (also responsible for the excellent No Way Out) lift by the power of their craft. Bruno is superb as a resourceful and thoughtful man who must come to terms with the tragedy of his situation; Donaldson’s imagery is arrestingly powerful in his depiction of Zac’s struggle.
His final scene grabs me every time.
[Other sci-fi faves: Apollo 13, the first Mad Max, Blade Runner. Other tales of individual struggle and redemption I watch and re-watch: Shawshank Redemption, Chariots of Fire, Leaving Las Vegas, Malcolm X, The Unforgiven, Dead Poets Society (of course), Winslow Boy, Last Temptation of Christ, Ben Hur, A Fistful of Dollars, Twelve Angry Men, Jean de Florette, Witness, Michael Collins.]
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