Monday, 21 May 2007

Robert Duffin reviews his ten favourite films, Part 1

France 2001
Director: Jean Pierre Jeunet
Screenwriters: Jean Pierre Jeunet & Guillaume Laurant
Runtime: 122 mins
Certificate: 15
DVD Distributor: Momentum Home Entertainment

Jean Pierre Jeunet collected anecdotes, noted intriguing moments and sketched characters from nearly twenty years of his life in a dusty little notebook. He returned to it in the dawn of the new Millennium after an unsuccessful spell in Hollywood and used it to construct the magical world of Amelie Poulain. “Magic” has long been a byword in the film world for the sickly sweet sentiment of childhood wonder, strangled by the corporations and squeezed into the worst of animation and special effect blockbusters. Yet Amelie is true magic.

The Paris of Jeunet’s world is a fairytale city, made colourful, airy and vibrant by Bruno Delbonnel’s photography. The first twenty minutes move at a dizzying breakneck pace, like a mash up of an anarchic early Disney animation and an opulent musical, and the skewered humour of the narration wins me over every time. The film is also filled with little charms; Amelie’s gnome nabbing escapades, the return of the old man’s childhood treasures and the Rube Goldberg-esque plots Amelie employs to bring happiness to the lives of others.

Cinema is often about the exploration of darker themes, a plunge into the depths of society and psyche. Yet Jeunet wisely considers happiness and joy finally worthy of an artistic celebration. I love films that can lift my spirits and leave me with a grin on my face and Amelie is the best at that job. Jeunet’s life-affirming message is clear, embrace the idiosyncrasies of yourself and make the most of the life you’re given. Amelie, like cracking the crystallised caramel on top of a Crème Brûlée, is one of life’s little pleasures.

Taxi Driver
USA 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Runtime: 109 mins
Certificate: 18
DVD Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Martin Scorsese had to be on the list, but ask me again in a week and it might have been Raging Bull, King of Comedy or Goodfellas. For now however, it is Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s treatise on alienation, loneliness, misery and violence. In the opening scene, as Travis Bickle’s taxi materializes from the red smoke you would be forgiven for thinking he is emerging from hell. It is the viewer who is entering Bickle’s hell; the streets of 1970s New York awash with criminals, prostitutes and other such “scum”.

The excellence of the film lies in the poetic correlation between Scorsese’s direction and Robert DeNiro’s performance. The early scene of DeNiro watching a headache tablet dissolve in water is a perfect moment that reflects the building rage inside DeNiro’s deranged character. The camera focuses in as the sizzling sound of the tablet drowns out the conversation around the transfixed Bickle. Scorsese’s vision of New York is borderline apocalyptic, with gaseous clouds of steam and red neon lighting, and his direction brings us crashing into this eerie world. His camera sometimes finds it hard to stay attached to the perturbed Bickle, such as when he pans away to focus on an empty corridor during his awkward morning after phone call to Betsy, whom he took to a porn theatre on a date.

The script and score, by Paul Schrader and Bernard Hermann respectively, also deserves credit in creating the descent of Bickle. Schrader’s scenes and Hermann’s velvety jazz score echo performance and direction in their slow build and eventual
explosion. Above everything perhaps the greatest achievement is the ability the film has to align your feelings with a certifiable psychotic, and forces you to ask if it is really crazy to be so detached in a world that is sadly, so recognizably ours.

Read Part 2 tomorrow!

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