Sunday, April 19, 2009

Top 10 Movie Sequels Better* Than Originals

Film sequels usually get a bad rap. 'Not as good as the original' is the oft-quoted disappointed response after watching sequel number 2, 3, 4 or 5. However, it's not always the case as these classics testify:

1. The Godfather II (though III was terrible)
2. Dawn of the Dead (though III was terrible)
3. The Empire Strikes Back (though III was terrible)
4. Aliens (though III and IV were terrible)
5. Terminator II (though III and IV were terrible)
6. Toy Story II
7. Mad Mad II (though III was terrible)
8. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn
9. French Connection II
10. Back to the Future II (though III was great too!)

* Or just as good as

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bedlam: The Art of Madness

The word bedlam – meaning chaos and confusion – takes it name from the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem mental institution in London (Bedlam is a variant of its original name). The oldest of its kind in the world, it is still a psychiatric hospital, though the original building, location and name has changed several times. It is now known as the Bethlem Royal Hospital and is located near Bromley in south east London. In the 19th century it was located in Southwark, where the Imperial War Museum is now housed; before then Bishopsgate – Liverpool Street station now stands where it was (and the legacy of madness lives on in the daily commute).

Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh are famous to the point of cliché for their madness. Two lesser known British Victorian artists РRichard Dadd and Louis Wain Рboth spent time at Bedlam institution, and produced some of their greatest imaginative work whilst there.

Richard Dadd (1817-1886) was merely a competent painter before entering. He first became ill whilst travelling in Egypt in 1842. On his return, he killed his father, convinced he was the devil. Yes, Richard Dadd killed his dad. Possibly being paranoid schizophrenic or bi-polar, he was taken to Bedlam hospital where he produced highly detailed and imaginative works, such as Fairy Fellers' Master-Stroke. Dadd spent twenty years at Bedlam before being moved to Broadmoor, where he lived for another twenty years before dying in 1886, aged 68.

Louis Wain's (1860-1939) famous depictions of cats led fan HG Wells to comment, 'He has made the cat his own'. His charming and humorous drawings and watercolours of cats became massively popular through their reproduction on postcards, greetings cards, prints and magazines in the late 1800s. However, Wain made little money and having no real business sense, was exploited by his publishers. He also had a family to look after, including mother and sisters. When his mother died Wain started showing signs of schizophrenia (though it may have been Asperger's). He was committed to Springfield mental ward in 1924 by his sisters. He stayed there a year before personalities including HG Wells and the then Prime Minister intervened on his behalf and he was transferred to Bethlem. It was there that he started his psychedelic cat paintings – wide-eyed cats with colourful swirling abstract patterns behind them.

Ater five years at Bethlem he was moved to Napsbury hospital near St Albans where he lived the remaining of his fifteen years in relative comfort. It helped that the hospital had a lot of cats.

Works from both artists – and other less-known mentally disturbed artists – can be seen in the tiny gallery at Bethlem Royal Hospital museum. When I visited there weren't any Louis Wain on display. I asked about them and was kindly taken to the store room where hundreds of paintings and drawings are kept and rotated. I was shown about a dozen Louis Wain paintings and drawings.

Some months ago I picked up an 'original' Louis Wain painting from a car boot sale for £10. I mentioned this to the museum curator and asked if it was likely to be an original. He said probably not. Everyone fakes Louis Wain apparently (more than Louis Vuitton). Even his sisters did. I asked if one painted by his sisters would be more valuable. No, he said.

The gallery plans to expand next year into larger premises which will do justice to the fine collection of deranged art they have.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hollywood-Greek Films: the Worst 5

1. My Big Fat Greek Wedding*
2. Mamma Mia
3. Captain Corelli's Mandolin
4. Shirley Valentine
5. Zorba the Greek**

*The top entry is the only film ever that I haven't managed to watch to the end – it's that bad. This could also make it my worst film of all time. In my book it panders to broad stereotypes and racist notions of Greeks and Greece. And it's just dreadfully, embarrassingly unfunny, unconvincing, superficial and made me want to vomit. Needless to say, it was hugely popular.

**I know, I know, it's not so bad, I just ran out of any others.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Top 10 Movie Soundtracks

There are two types of film soundtrack. One is where original music is specifically composed for the film, and the other, largely since films such as Easy Rider (1969) and American Graffiti (1973), where pre-existing songs are used to match the tone of the film.

If the latter sounds (sorry) easier than the former, that's because it probably is, but it can be tricky matching the right song to the right scene. But when it works, it can be mesmerising. Watch the start of Mean Streets (1973) when The Ronettes' Be My Baby starts up. Or Notting Hill (1999) when Elvis Costello's She kicks in (I'm joking! I'm joking!). Watching McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), you wouldn't believe Leonard Cohen's melancholy songs weren't written specifically for Altman's bleak winter western. But they weren't: they just work so well together.

1. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973): Bob Dylan
He can't act, he can't sing, but he sure can write a tune.
2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): Ennio Morricone
Morricone is the giant of movie soundtracks, having scored some 500+ films, many of them relatively unknown Italian films, a handful of brilliant Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, as well as The Battle of Algiers, The Mission and The Thing.
3. Paris, Texas (1984): Ry Cooder
Another western landscape, but this time modern (well, 1984). And Harry Dean Stanton sings too (and was in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid).
4. The Jungle Book (1967): The Sherman Brothers
I should really have another list for children's films as this one tends to jar somewhat against the others listed, but what the heck, the songs are great. Bare necessities, anyone? I've written about the Sherman brothers previously, here.
5. Taxi Driver (1976): Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrman's partnership with Alfred Hitchcock gave us the soundtracks to Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Marnie (amongst others). He scored around fifty films altogether, including Citizen Kane (the best film ever made?). However, Taxi Driver, Herrmann's last score before his death, is probably the only one I can listen to independent of the film.
6. Performance (1970): Mick Jagger, Ry Cooder etc.
Jack Nitzsche produced soundtrack with haunting vocals by Merry Clayton, bottleneck guitar by Ry Cooder (sounding suspiciously like Paris, Texas, or is it vice versa?), oh and a great Mick Jagger song.
7. A Zed and Two Noughts (1985): Michael Nyman
After the made in heaven sound and image pairings of Leone/Morricone and Hitchcock/Herrmann, Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman may well come third. Nyman's cold, repetitive, hypnotic sounds perfectly complement Greenaway's cold, abstract, yet visually stunning films. And, believe it or not, the only music that would sooth my daughter to sleep in the first few months after her birth.
8. Lift to the Scaffold (1958): Miles Davis
Or, as they say in France: Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud. Miles Davis also did a great OST (that's Original Soundtrack) for the movie Jack Johnson (1971).
9. The Harder they Come (1972): Various Artists
Generally, I love a soundtrack partly because it reminds me of, or complements the film in question. In this case it does neither, as the film is instantly forgettable – but the songs, by Jimmy Cliff (who also starred in the film), Desmond Dekker and Toots and The Maytals, are brilliant.
10. Blade Runner (1982): Vangelis
Movie dialogue usually spoils a soundtrack (the travesty of characters talking over Dylan's You Belong To Me – only known version of the song – on the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers being a case in point, as are the excessive expletives and obligatory gun fire featured on all Quentin Tarantino's soundtracks), but on Blade Runner it's Rutger Hauer's end of film speech I most look forward to:
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tan Hauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die."

Just below the top ten were: Shaft (1971): Issac Hayes; A Clockwork Orange (1971): Various Artists; Trainspotting (1996): Various Artists; Dirty Dancing (1987): Various Artists; Betty Blue (1986): Gabriel Yared; Star Wars (1977): John Williams

Thursday, April 02, 2009