Moulin Rouge! (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #63

Truth — Beauty — Freedom — Love

Country: USA & Australia
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 16th May 2001 (L.A., USA)
UK Release: 7th September 2001
First Seen: DVD, 2002

Stars
Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut, The Hours)
Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros., Land of the Dead)
Jim Broadbent (Iris, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
Richard Roxburgh (Mission: Impossible II, Van Helsing)

Director
Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Australia)

Screenwriters
Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, The Great Gatsby)
Craig Pearce (Romeo + Juliet, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud)

Music by
Craig Armstrong (Love Actually, The Great Gatsby)

The Story
Paris, 1899: while pitching a show to the owner of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, writer Christian falls for the venue’s leading lady, Satine. Despite her mutual attraction, Satine has been promised to the Duke of Monroth in exchange for his investment in the cabaret. As preparations for the show continue, Christian and Satine’s love blossoms nonetheless. Will true love conquer commerce?

Our Heroes
Christian is just a poor, miserable poet living among Bohemians in turn-of-the-century Paris, until he meets and falls in love with Satine, the Moulin Rouge’s star act and courtesan.

Our Villain
Unfortunately for Christian, Satine has been promised to the Duke of Monroth, a nasty piece of work who will have his way or have Christian killed.

Best Supporting Character
The Moulin Rouge’s exuberant owner, Harold Zidler, is prepared to essentially sell Satine for investment in his establishment. Which makes him sound like a horrible so-and-so, but actually he cares for her deeply.

Memorable Quote
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” — Christian

Memorable Scene
Zidler convinces Satine that she must tell Christian she doesn’t love him, to save his life from the murderous intentions of the Duke. As she leaves the Moulin Rouge to break Christian’s heart, Zidler delivers an emotional rendition of Queen’s The Show Must Go On.

Best Song
The film is packed with interesting reinterpretations of modern pop hits. Personally, I love a reimagined cover version, so picking just one is bloody tough. There are a couple of mash-ups that work particularly well: the big number when Christian & friends first arrive at the eponymous establishment, which crashes Lady Marmalade against Smells Like Teen Spirit; and the Elephant Love Medley, which wittily re-appropriates lyrics from a gaggle of love songs (eight, to be precise) into one number. However, the best of all may be a reimagining of the Police’s Roxanne as a dramatic dance number, El Tango de Roxanne.

Technical Wizardry
One of the most controversial aspects of what is a love-it-or-hate-it film anyway is its editing style. Eschewing the familiar trappings of Hollywood musicals, Luhrmann has the entire film shot (by Donald M. McAlpine) and edited (by Jill Bilcock) as if it were a modern music video. In total, there are just shy of 3,600 shots in the film (according to this analysis), which gives it an Average Shot Length (ASL) of just 2 seconds. For comparison, the mean ASL for US films released the same year was around 5 seconds. Even now, over a decade later, the ASL for English-language films sits at about 2.5 seconds.

Making of
It’s now quite well known that musicals need to contain a brand-new song to be eligible for the Best Song Oscar. Obviously this is normally relevant to adaptations of stage musicals, but naturally it applies to Moulin Rouge, too. The film’s one new song is Come What May, but it was ruled ineligible for the Oscar because it was actually written for Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, even though it wasn’t used in that film. The music arm of the Academy really are a tricky bunch.

Previously on…
Moulin Rouge is the third part of Baz Luhrmann’s thematically-linked Red Curtain Trilogy, following Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or
2 Oscars (Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actress (Nicole Kidman), Cinematography, Editing, Makeup, Sound)
3 BAFTAs (Supporting Actor (Jim Broadbent), Music, Sound)
9 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Editing, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
5 Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards (Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Costume Design, Production Design)
5 AFI nominations (Film, Director, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Nicole Kidman), Supporting Actor (Richard Roxburgh))
3 World Soundtrack Awards (including Most Creative Use of Existing Material on a Soundtrack)
2 World Soundtrack Awards nominations (including Best Original Score of the Year Not Released on an Album)

What the Critics Said
“The time, the effort and the sweat are all up there on the screen in this opulent, no-holds-barred and multilayered movie. [It] is wrapped up in such an audacious mix of traditional and contemporary song — including David Bowie, Elton John, Madonna and Nirvana — and staged with a near-insane visual ambition, you will either fall in love with every camp flourish, or find yourself exhausted after 20 minutes. It’s a singular achievement either way.” — Andrew Collins, Radio Times

Score: 76%

What the Public Say
“one of the great movie spectacles of this generation, an undertaking of vast scope made all the more fascinating by how it transforms commonplace undercurrents into rich sensations […] There is a sense that these concepts are simplified for the sake of basic comprehension, but the picture doesn’t so much strip them of complexities as it penetrates to the core of their meaning. That creates a scenario where the story simply observes the indulgences that manifest in the rhythms, the music, the dance moves, the vocals, the dialogue, the facial expressions and the daydreams that inhabit the characters. It seeks no more profound a purpose. Some find the implication startlingly straightforward in an endeavor where the technical achievements are such a subversive triumph, but I applaud it; how frequently has any ambitious Hollywood production been willing to see past the varnish of a formula and deal directly with the ideals[?]” — David M. Keyes, Cinemaphile

Verdict

These days there are plenty of musicals appearing on the big screen, and they’re often contending for the top gongs come awards season. This wasn’t the case back in 2001 — Moulin Rouge, divisive as it is, changed all that (it was the first musical nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in a decade, and the previous one was a Disney animation). Baz Luhrmann’s injection of modern MTV style gave the genre a kick up the arse, which isn’t necessarily to the taste of classic musical fans but certainly brought the genre renewed mainstream attention. Mixing in his theatrical storytelling, melodramatic emotions, and vibrant and extravagant costumes and sets, Luhrmann created a heady film designed to give modern audiences a sense of how visiting the Moulin Rouge would’ve felt in 1899 (well, it’s certainly not the literal experience!) It’s clearly not a film that meets all tastes, but if you’re on its wavelength then it’s magnificent.

The first half of Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series, The Get Down, was released on Friday, which is a neat coincidence.

#64 will be… a lot of fuss over very little.

Dogville (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #25

A quiet little town not far from here.

Full Title: The film “Dogville” as told in nine chapters and a prologue

Country: Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, Germany & the Netherlands
Language: English
Runtime: 178 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st May 2003 (Belgium, Switzerland & France)
UK Release: 13th February 2004
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!, Stoker)
Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Priest)
Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep, The Shootist)
Stellan Skarsgård (Insomnia, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
John Hurt (The Tigger Movie, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer)

Director
Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Antichrist)

Screenwriter
Lars Von Trier (The Idiots, Melancholia)

The Story
On the run from the mob, Grace arrives in the remote town of Dogville. Its residents agree to shelter her in order to prove their community values, though in return she must do chores for them. As the search for the missing woman repeatedly visits the town, the people’s demands for recompense for the risk they are taking intensifies…

Our Hero
Grace is a sweet, desperate young woman, happy to work for the good Christian people of Dogville in payment for their kindness. As her good nature is gradually worn down, she becomes enslaved by them — though it may turn out there’s more to her than meets the eye…

Our Villains
Of course there aren’t any villains in the town of Dogville — everyone’s a morally upstanding citizen.

Best Supporting Character
Not technically a character, but the Narrator is a palpable presence in the film. The material Von Trier has written for him is just the right side of verbose, and John Hurt delivers it with inestimable class.

Memorable Quote
“Whether Grace left Dogville, or on the contrary Dogville had left her — and the world in general — is a question of a more artful nature that few would benefit from by asking, and even fewer by providing an answer. And nor indeed will it be answered here.” — Narrator

Memorable Scene
The scenes that stick in the mind from Dogville — aside from the opening shot I shall discuss next — are either harrowing, spoilersome, or both, and so don’t merit discussion in a format potentially perused by neophytes.

Technical Wizardry
The famous bare set — a black soundstage with chalk markings on the floor to represent the houses, and minimal other features or props — was inspired by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht; as was the film’s plot, so it’s rather apt. The set (or lack thereof) seems like a very “art house” idea, and a distancing one for the viewer, but it’s surprising how quickly you forget and accept it.

Making of
The opening bird’s-eye shot of the town: physically impossible, because the studio’s roof wasn’t high enough, so the final result is actually 156 separate shots stitched together.

Next time…
Supposedly the first part of a trilogy called “USA: Land of Opportunities”. The second part, Manderlay, was released in 2005, starring Bryce Dallas Howard in Kidman’s role. The concluding part, Wasington, seems to have fallen out of Von Trier’s interest.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or.
Won the Palm Dog.

What the Critics Said
“Von Trier’s detractors – and there are many – will argue that this is nothing more than filmed theatre. […] But Anthony Dod Mantle’s digital video camera isn’t simply documenting a performance. It restlessly and fearlessly intrudes into this place and into these lives. Its close-ups – capturing key emotions as they flicker across the characters’ faces – are vital to describing the moral arc of the story. This is something that can only be achieved cinematically, an intensity that’s impossible to render elsewhere, not even from the front row of a playhouse’s stalls.” — Alan Morrison, Empire

Score: 70%

What the American Critics Said
“what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. […] now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie” — Karl Pfeiffer
(That piece goes on to be a very interesting analysis of the film, by-the-way, particularly with regards to it being an allegory for Christianity.)

What the Public Say
“Lars, despite his ever intrusive camera, keeps us at a distance from his characters. This is not a criticism nor do I think this is unintentional. I think he does this to make sure we don’t lose sight of the message he is trying to share with us. He wants us to look at ourselves through these people, not get lost in their drama. The message of Dogville is a pessimistic one: At humanity’s core, we are bad people who will turn on our brother to protect ourselves. Altruism does not exist. Americans are smugly self-righteous. And even those of us who deem ourselves most pure are never above revenge.” — Cineaste

Verdict

It’s no surprise that Lars Von Trier would be responsible for such a provocative, difficult, divisive film — indeed, that’s what all his films are, aren’t they? Whether that works or not is often down to the individual, with each of his films being hailed as masterpieces by some and condemned as drivel by others. Dogville is no different. A three-hour movie that takes place in a black-box theatrical-style environment may sound tough, but engrossing performances and a symbolic storyline with a cathartic ending keep it… not enjoyable, exactly, but fascinating.

#26 will be… 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds from the end.

Paddington (2014)

2015 #182
Paul King | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | PG / PG

The signs weren’t good for Paddington as it geared up for release: its star voice actor, Colin Firth, pulled out late in production; on posters, the CGI lead character looked like the personification of the uncanny valley; and the BBFC rating that cited “sex references” made it sound like it had entirely the wrong tone for an adaptation of a beloved classic children’s book. But these portents were quickly consigned to history when the film received an adulatory response from critics and audiences alike.

The story follows young bear Paddington (in the end voiced by Ben Whishaw) as he leaves his native Peru in search of a new home in London. There he temporarily falls in with the Brown family: reluctant father Henry (Hugh Bonneville), hippyish mum Mary (Sally Hawkins), moody teenage daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), keen son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and their barmy housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters). As they try to find Paddington a permanent home, he comes to the attention of museum taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman), who wants to add him to her permanent collection…

Paddington is a fine example of why you can’t judge a film by its marketing, because the critics were right: this is a joyous, funny movie; a delight for all ages. It also shows that sometimes euphemistic PR phrases like “creative differences” or “we agreed he wasn’t right for the part” aren’t actually euphemistic at all: Firth would’ve been all wrong for Paddington, at least as he’s realised here, and so his departure was a wise move for the sake of the character. Whishaw, on the other hand, nails it, his boyish tones being resolutely character-appropriate.

The rest of the cast are all very safe pairs of hands, meaning viewers can rest easy that, if there is a weak link, it won’t come from the performances. This is further cemented by supporting turns from the likes of (in order of appearance) Geoffrey Palmer, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Matt Lucas, Peter Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent, plus a host of faces viewers may recognise from British TV comedy.

Fortunately, the screenplay (by director Paul King) is no slouch either. The film mixes various styles of comedy, as verbal humour rubs shoulders with pure slapstick, sight gags sit alongside witty spoofery, and there’s even a spot of pantomime-esque cross-dressing. This isn’t a case of “throw everything at the screen and see what sticks”, though. There’s a resolutely good-natured tone that’s liable to keep a smile on your face, and perhaps even win over more sceptical audience members — just as the initially-grumpier members of the Brown clan are too.

Inevitably a sequel is in development, but King is reportedly being given as much time as he feels he needs to get it right — always a good thing. Whenever it rolls around, I suspect it will be met with considerably fewer doubts. Not pandering to the criticisms of its pre-release hype, Paddington emerges with a sure-handed approach and material that merits such confidence. A delightful movie for viewers of any age.

4 out of 5

Stoker (2013)

2015 #162
Park Chan-wook | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Director Chan-wook “Oldboy” Park makes his English-language debut with this modern-Gothic thriller from the pen of Wentworth “yes, the guy from Prison Break” Miller.

When well-to-do architect Richard Stoker dies on his daughter’s 18th birthday, he leaves said insular daughter India (Mia “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Wasikowska) stuck in their Tennessee mansion with her unbeloved mother (Nicole “the face behind the nose” Kidman). At the wake, both are surprised by the arrival of Charlie (Matthew “Ozymandias” Goode), Richard’s brother who Evelyn has never met and India has never even heard of. Nonetheless, he’s all charm and good manners, though when he moves into their home he begins to build up a slightly creepy relationship with Evelyn, and essentially stalks India. The Stokers’ housekeeper clearly knowns something about him, but then she disappears; and Richard and Charles’ Aunt Gwendolyn turns up wanting a word with Evelyn. Just what is going on with Uncle Charlie that everyone apart from India seems to know about?

And I’ve already said too much, maybe. Stoker isn’t all about its mystery and its twists — it’s at least as much about its carefully constructed Gothic mood; but part of that is the mystery, so, y’know. Indeed, it’s so moody and atmospheric that it seems to turn some viewers off. It’s certainly not thrill-a-minute, and it has a very particular pace and tone. I’m going to keep coming back to the word Gothic, because that really is the best word for it; whether that should be “modern Gothic” or “neo-Gothic” or “Southern Gothic” or what, I don’t know, but it’s definitely Gothic — with little more than cosmetic changes, I’m sure the story could be shunted back to a crumbling pile in 19th Century England. So precise is the mood of this secluded household, it’s kind of weird when, a little while in, we get to see India’s place of education: a typical US high school. In another film I might call this sudden change of locale a misstep, a breaker of tone, but in the world Park has created it just feels like a point of contrast.

Visually, Stoker is peerless. It doesn’t scream “beauty” at you, but the shot composition, Chung-hoon Chung’s photography, and Nicolas De Toth’s editing are all exceptional. The sound design is incredible too, with judicious use of ultra-heightened effects to imitate India’s skill for hearing small things others maybe miss. Finally, the music is perfection. A piano duet composed by Philip Glass is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, but Clint Mansell offers a doom-laden score, of a piece with his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (both of which I think I’ve written of my admiration for sometime previously), and there are some choice songs too: I’d never heard Summer Wine by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood before, but it fits the film like a glove, as well as being fantastic in its own right; and Emily Wells’ Becomes the Color slugs in with a kind of perfect dissonance to the musical style to that point. A comment on iCheckMovies used the word “sumptuous” for all of this, and that seems apt.

I have a feeling “not for everyone” may be one of the most overused phrases on this blog, but, if so, I think that’s for good reason: some of the best movies are “not for everyone”. We may not agree on what those movies are, but that’s kind of the point: they fit our own individual tastes, not “everyone’s”. Stoker undoubtedly doesn’t have easy mass appeal — it’s got a 6.9 on IMDb — and even some people open to its charms deem it to only be style over substance. I don’t think it’s wholly lacking in the latter, though if you’re looking for some Significance then I don’t know if you’ll find it — it’s an artistically-made Gothic thriller, not a soul-bearing artistic portrait of humanity. And as for the style… well, I’ve already talked about that. Whether you can have “style” for style’s sake, or whether it needs to be in aid of something, is a debate for another day. Here, it is in aid of something: amping up the Gothicism of the inherently Gothic story, which in other hands could have just became any-old present-day-set family thriller.

Describing something as “an acquired taste” might well be another phase I’ve used often, especially as it’s essentially a synonym for “not for everyone”. Nonetheless, that’s what I’ll go for here. Stoker will most decidedly not appeal to all palates, but for the right viewer, it’s a dark, moody, sensuous, Gothic delight.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Stoker is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 30th, at 9pm.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Happy Feet (2006)

2007 #40
George Miller | 104 mins | DVD | U / PG

Happy FeetWhile it might not be in quite the same league as The Incredibles or Finding Nemo, this year’s Animated Oscar-winner does have a few things going for it.

There are a couple of enjoyable songs, a few exciting action sequences, and even some bits that actually make you laugh. Couple this with a positive (if improbable) pro-environment message, and an even better anti-religious one that’s only half-hidden, and you have an entertaining film for kids that grown-ups will find something in too.

4 out of 5

On Channel 5 today, Sunday 27th July 2014, at 4:55pm.