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Welcome to my blog. Here you will find details of my progress towards watching all films in the IMDB Top 250 List along with other random film musings. Enjoy!

Monday, 30 May 2011

IMDB Review #249: Ip Man


One of my aims when commencing my IMDB top 250 challenge was to broaden my horizons and experience different film genres which I wouldn’t normally chose to watch. One such example is the martial arts genre to which Ip Man belongs. I can honestly say that, apart from the Karate Kid movies, I have never watched a martial arts film, nor have I ever had the desire to watch one. Ip Man has, however, gone someway to destroying my bias against Kung-Fu as it is a highly entertaining film which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Ip Man is a loose biopic of Grandmaster Ip Man, founder of the Wing Chung branch of martial arts and mentor to Bruce Lee. The film is set in the 1930s and focuses on Ip Man’s early life in Foshan, China, where he is a wealthy man and part of upper class society. Upon the Japanese invasion in 1937, Ip Man, like most other inhabitants of Foshan, is driven from his home and forced to live a meagre existence under Japanese rule. The film documents Ip Man’s struggle to provide for his family and his quest to protect Chinese honour in the face of atrocities committed by the occupying Japanese forces.


The film is well paced and I, for one, was gripped throughout. Donnie Yen, in the role of Ip Man, gives a great performance and is a powerful presence on screen. The supporting cast are also very good, particularly the two Japanese antagonists who provide a real sense of danger to the people of Foshan. The film also features some spectacular production design which really brings to life the 1930s Chinese setting. The contrast in living conditions before and after the Japanese invasion is lovingly rendered on screen and adds to the authenticity of the film. 

As this is at heart an action film, the fight scenes are particularly important and it is no surprise that they are beautifully choreographed and demonstrate some outstanding skill from the lead actors. The film manages to display enough violence to give the fight scenes authenticity but manages to avoid descending into a display of gratuitous violence at the expense of plot development.

At the heart of the film is an interesting theme of the modern vs the ancient. The skilful, hand to hand combat, which is at the heart of the martial arts demonstrated in the film is, in several scenes, contrasted to the more mechanical use of modern weaponry. This is an interesting juxtaposition which raises the question of whether the technological advancements which have created modern weapons, has resulted in a loss of honour in our humanity. 

 
Sure, the film is not without its flaws. The dialogue is clunky places (although I suspect that has something to do with the English translation) and there are some glaring plot holes which you could drive a Japanese tank through. In one scene, Ip Man teaches the entire workforce of a local factory how to defend themselves from local bandits and, whilst entertaining, it is a stretch of imagination too far. 

The story also lacks the ring of truth, and after some brief research into the real Ip Man, it becomes clear that this is a highly fictionalised account of the man, with the focus very much on the creation of a good story rather than historical accuracy. The film is also a heavily biased representation of the Sino-Japanese war, presenting the Chinese as honourable people and the Japanese as a savage race, reliant on their weaponry. 

These are, however, relatively minor complaints in a film which is hugely entertaining and a fine example to Hollywood of how to make a traditional blockbuster which is reliant on acting, direction and choreography instead of special effects. It may not be fine art but, as Saturday night entertainment, this is an excellent film.

Rating 8/10

Friday, 27 May 2011

IMDB Review #250: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

And so the challenge begins…


 There have been many films released over the past few years which have environmental undertones; Avatar, The Road and Wall-E to name a few. Whilst these films have mainly used the environmental theme to create the setting for a story, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (the second film by Hayao Miyazaki) fully embraces environmentalism, creating a story which has as its central theme the relationship between humanity and the earth. 

The film is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth’s ecosystem has been destroyed in what is referred to as The Seven Day War. The central character is Nausicaa, a Princess of the Valley of the Wind, which is one of the last few habitable places on earth. Large swathes of the earth are now covered by a ‘Toxic Jungle’ which is guarded by a variety of giant insects, the most deadly of which are known as Ohms. 

War breaks out when a rival race, known as the Tolmekians, invade and destroy the rival city of Pejite in order to obtain the embryo of a Great Warrior (the creature who is thought to have destroyed the earth) which recently been discovered. On transporting the embryo back to Tolmekia, the Tolmekian airship crashes in the Valley of the Wind, prompting the Tolmekians to invade the Valley in order to retake the embryo.

The Tolmekians believe that in order for earth to survive, the Toxic Jungle must be destroyed and so plan to use the Giant Warrior to destroy the Toxic Jungle and all other people who stand in their way. However, Princess Nausicaa has discovered that it is not the plants of the toxic forest that are polluted, but rather the soil and water in which they grow. The plants themselves are actually slowly cleansing the planet so that it will be clean once more. When Nausicaa discovers the Tolmekian plan, she, along with Prince Asbel of Pejite, sets off on a mission to stop them in order to save the planet and all of the creatures and people who inhabit it.


 One of the first things that struck me when watching the film was that it was incredibly ahead of its time. Originally released in 1984, the environmental theme of the film is very relevant to the modern day and Nausicaa has to be one of the few films which may be more relevant now than when originally released.

Another thing which I thought interesting, was that Nausicaa contains that rarity in modern day cinema; a strong female lead character. Too often in animation and often in live action films, the lead female character (if indeed there can be said to be one) is the stereotypical damsel in distress. In fact, if you look closely at the Disney Pixar Films, not one of them even has a strong female character (the closest Pixar comes is Mrs Incredible in The Incredibles). It is therefore refreshing that Nausicaa bucks the contemporary trend and not only has a female as its lead character, but a strong female warrior who is not afraid to risk her life to protect all other species on the planet, be it good or evil.

The animation is lovingly rendered and each frame incredibly detailed resulting in a visual experience which doesn’t feel out of place when compared to more recent examples of traditional animation. The world in which the film takes place is exceptionally complex and is comparable to the worlds which exist in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Avatar. Some of the different races and transportation which is used in the film clearly reference Star Wars and it is clearly one of the main inspirations behind the film.

Whilst the detail of the setting adds to the richness of the film, it also creates some complexity in the story. The last half hour of the film is chock full of different locations and tribes of people (such as the Tolmekians, the Pejite and the people of the valley). As the story nears its conclusion we constantly jump from one event to another, many of which often happening simultaneously, and this leads to a bit of conclusion in the plot.

Overall, whilst I enjoyed this film, I didn’t love it. I didn’t ever feel that emotional connection with the main characters which I need in order to truly fall in love with a film. Despite that I think there are enough interesting aspects of this film to warrant a repeat viewing, however I do not think its status as one of the top 250 films is really justified.

Rating 7/10

1 down, 249 to go…

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Lists about Lists

Well, the first batch of DVDs has finally arrived and the first film will be prised from its shiny cellophane wrapper this evening and placed with loving care into my DVD player. The first on the List is ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’ – the first of five Hayao Miyazaki films which I am looking forward to. Watch out for the review tomorrow.
In the meantime, I really can’t resist fusing my working life and my passion for film together. In day to day life, I am very much a numbers man. I enjoy nothing more than getting my hands on a set of statistics or a juicy spreadsheet and therefore my natural instincts tell me that I need to perform some sort of statistical analysis on the IMDB Top 250.
At first I tried to refrain from my urges as I felt that a film blogger should fit a certain stereotype; that they should be spontaneous, arty and abstract. I thought that if I stated I was a numbers person then I wouldn’t really fit in with that image as ‘numbers people’ come with their own stereotype; that they are meticulous, systematic and boring, but this stereotype is something which has bugged me for years, as I know from experience that such stereotypes don’t exist in practice.
In every walk of life, there is great variety of people who share the same occupation, share the same hobbies or share the same values.  Therefore, why should I let the fear of a stereotype impact on my interests?
In the end, I decided to add a new tab at the top of my blog headed ‘Lists about Lists’. On this page I will post some analysis of the IMDB Top 250 to try and give a flavour of the variety of films, actors, and directors etc which appear in the IMDB Top 250. I don’t proclaim to be a statistical genius, nor do I expect many people to be interested in detailed statistical analysis, therefore I will limit my analysis to lists, such as a list of the most common directors in the IMDB Top 250, which is the first list I have posted. I hope that this will be as interesting to others as it is to me, although maybe that is an example of high hopes.
I’ll finish with a quote from a man of great wisdom:
‘People can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that.’
(Homer J Simpson)

Monday, 23 May 2011

Wet and Anticipating


Anyone who hails from the same small patch of land as I do will understand when I say that the weather today has been atrocious. With gale force winds of up to 100 mph and rain falling faster than a footballer can say superinjunction, the travel conditions were pretty tough to say the least. After battling my way through the wind and rain to the train station, you can imagine my displeasure to find that all of the trains out of Glasgow were cancelled indefinitely.

So there I found myself, standing in the rain with no place to go and I couldn’t stop my mind from drifting onto my Top 250 challenge which should be starting any day now (just as soon as those little treats from HMV drop onto my doormat). I realised that there are so many new film experiences to come which I am looking forward to, that there is scope to dedicate a whole blog post to my Top 5 experiences to come. Therefore, In no particular order, the top five things I am anticipating are:

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki
Often described as a Japanese Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki has been at the forefront of Japanese animation for many years. To date, I have never seen any of Miyazaki’s work but with five films in the IMDB top 250 (only Hitchcock, Pixar, Kubrick, Scorsese and Wilder have more), it looks like I will be pretty familiar with his work by the end of the challenge. One of the reasons I wanted to embark on the Top 250 challenge was to expand my film knowledge and this is one such expansion which I am very much looking forward to.

Silent Cinema
On a similar note, I have never seen any of the classic films of the silent cinema era. Silent cinema is represented in the IMDB list by two true legends; Charlie Chaplin (5 films) and Buster Keaton (2 films). I believe that anyone who wants to truly attempt to understand cinema must do so with a full awareness as to how cinema has changed over the decades in line with the technological advancements that we as a society have made. Silent cinema is the very origin of contemporary cinema as we know it and I am really looking forward to experiencing a form of cinema which relies on expression and movement to tell a story, as opposed to the verbal dialogue which is overused in contemporary cinema. 

The Films of Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa is commonly listed as one of the greatest directors of all time. His work has inspired many other films, from The Usual Suspects to The Magnificent Seven, and referenced in many facets of popular culture, such as the mention of Rashomon on The Simpsons. Kurosawa clearly has been an inspirational force in contemporary cinema and I find it a travesty that I have only ever managed to watch one of his films (the superb Rashomon), despite owning several others in my DVD collection. This is one deficiency of knowledge which I look forward to remedying with great anticipation.

European Cinema and Directors
I have read quite a few books on film history and each one touches quite heavily on the influence of the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, two movements in film which I have never studied in detail. I am glad that some of the film’s in the IMDB Top 250 are related to both of these movements (The 400 Blows by Truffaut and three films by Fellini) although perhaps slightly surprised that there are not more films on the list which originate from these movements (there are a few other movements which are criminally missing lacking representation, such as the Romanian New Wave, but perhaps that is for the subject of a separate blog post).

Despite this, I am more than looking forward to experiencing the films that are in the Top 250 list from this era, as well as the films of other great European director’s such as Bergman, Clouzot and Leone.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock
The man who is represented most on the IMDB Top 250 List, and justifiably so in my opinion is Alfred Hitchcock with 9 separate entries. Admittedly, I have seen many of Hitchcock’s finest films many times before, however, with each viewing the films appear to become richer and richer. From Vertigo and Rear Window through to the classic horror of Psycho, Hitchcock created some of the finest films ever made, and all this from a man who I think was underrated in his time. He was the true master of suspense and I look forward to revisiting some of my favourite films (despite The 39 Steps being inexplicably missing from the list).

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Rating System

I have often pondered whether it is right to give films a grade, for example a mark out of 10 or a ‘star’ rating system.  In my opinion, giving films a grade is a very crude way of saying whether a film is good or bad and does not always sufficiently differentiate between the quality of two different films. For example, two films which are both given a four star rating are unlikely to be equally as good – one film may just be scraping a four star rating, whilst the other may be just below what is considered a five star film. 

The criteria upon which an individual rates films will also have a big impact the rating which a film is eventually given. The biggest paradigm, in my opinion, is whether to rate a film based on its artistic merits or its entertainment value. For example, I really enjoyed the film Unstoppable and thought it was fantastic entertainment. On the other hand, there was not much in the film that was particularly intelligent or artistic. On that basis, I would rate it as five stars for entertainment value but maybe only two stars for its artistic value. But how do you get this across in a single rating? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

These are all criticisms of rating systems and many film magazines (for example Sight and Sound magazine) do not adopt a rating system for, I assume, some of these reasons.

However, it would be na├»ve of me to think that every person who comes across my blog would be interested in reading every review which I write in order to establish my views on film. A rating would, in these circumstances, provide a crude guide as to whether I thought a film was good, bad or just mediocre. It is for that reason that I have decided to adopt a ‘mark out of ten’ rating system when reviewing the films in the IMDB Top 250.

The ratings may be flawed and may not accurately represent the true quality of a film but they will at least provide a quick point of reference for my opinion of a film.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Prologue

This blog was inspired by two things; my love of film and the film ‘Julie and Julia’. Anyone who has seen Julie and Julia will likely agree that whilst it is enjoyable enough fare with some decent performances, overall it is a quite unremarkable film, the memory of which shouldn’t linger long after the credits roll. That was my immediate reaction after spending a pleasant enough afternoon with my wife in front of the TV.

However, here I am several months later writing about how that very film has inspired me. What has stayed with me after all of this time is the central premise of the film; the creation of a blog to document the progress towards achieving an individual goal. In the film, the goal was to cook every recipe in a particular cookbook within one year. I liked the idea that this challenge gave a sense of purpose to someone’s life by doing something that they enjoyed – a hobby with an end goal if you like. I therefore pondered (for several months) whether there was some challenge which I would like to embark upon from which I would obtain a sense of personal gratification.

The result of my ponderings is the challenge which I will document on this blog; to watch and review every film in the IMDB Top 250 films of all time. Why did I choose this challenge? Well firstly, I can’t be arsed learning how to cook so replicating the film was a no go. Secondly, the reason I was watching Julie and Julia in the first place is that I have a burning passion for film and a (very unrealistic) longing to watch every film which is released (unless it stars Adam Sandler). I therefore wanted to set myself a goal which would enable me to expand my knowledge of film by exploring a variety of different genres. Finally, I would someday like to earn a living (likely a meagre one) by being a writer; either a screenwriter or a film journalist. This challenge therefore gives me the opportunity to hone my writing skills whilst simultaneously building up knowledge in my chosen subject.

Some may also ask why I have chosen to use the IMDB Top 250 list as opposed to some other list (for example the Empire 500 list or the Guardian list) and, to be honest, there is no reasoned answer to that question. The only benefit to be derived from the IMDB list is that it is constantly updated and will therefore include the most recent films. Apart from that it is also one of the most recognisable ‘best of’ lists and therefore will likely be familiar to most people.

The IMDB Top 250 list does have its flaws and I feel it is necessary to document these in advance of commencing my challenge. As the list is based on user generated reviews, it has been claimed that it is more of a popularity contest for film rather than a critical compilation. In addition, many films when they are first released debut quite high up the list, for example The Dark Knight was once up at number 2 or 3) before subsequently falling down the list (The Dark Knight is now at number 10). This constant changing does present a problem as some films which I have watched may have dropped off the list before I complete my goal. On that basis, I have decided to fix the list as at today and have published the 250 movies I aim to watch below. Upon completion of my task, I will publish a comparison of the IMDB Top 250 list at the completion date and compare it to the list as at today. This may provide an interesting insight into how public opinion changes over a period of time.

I do not intend to set a time constraint for my challenge but I will aim to watch at least two films per week on average. I feel that committing to more than two films per week would be foolish as it could result in ‘film fatigue’ and may adversely impact in the quality and depth of my writing. Good films should be savoured and enjoyed; not everyone takes time to savour a film after it has been enjoyed.

My aim is to go through the IMDB Top 250 list in reverse order. It may not be possible to stick rigidly to that order given that some of the films on the IMDB list are relatively rare to come across on DVD, Blu-ray or on TV. As a result I may have to look for alternative viewing formats to complete my challenge, which may result in an inevitable delay to viewing certain films. Instead of letting any such delay hold up my progress, I feel it would be more beneficial to move on and fill in any gaps at a later date.

Finally, there is one important question which I feel I need to address; who am I doing this for? In the past I have sought to write various blogs on film but have never managed to get past a few weeks. This is partly because I did not make the time to write blog entries but also because I was writing the blog with the aim of establishing an online following. As I am not the most patient of people, my interest quickly waned when I realised that you cannot establish an internet following overnight. As a result, I am writing this blog solely for my own benefit. It is a personal journal of my voyage through some of the best films of all time which I write solely for my own satisfaction. My only hope is that maybe one day my children may find it of interest.  That is not to discourage readership of this blog. If there is anyone else out there who is interested in joining me on this journey – you are more than welcome.

On that note, let the challenge commence!

P.S. Sadly Julie and Julia does not feature in the IMDB Top 250 list…