Category Archives: Film

North by Northwest – Hitchcock’s Magnum Opus

While I love his tense psychological thrillers like Vertigo, the humour and tension of Rear Window and the horror of Psycho, there’s a special place in my heart for the heady mix of action, thriller and comedy that is North by Northwest. A better writer than me could certainly write an entire book about this film. I’ll limit myself to a few observations as to what I consider to be its most important qualities.

Visually, North by Northwest is stunning. Its opening titles, overlaid (allegedly) in a diagonal pointing NNW over an aerial shot of Manhattan skyscrapers is the first feature use of ‘kinetic typography’. The titles were created by Saul Bass – the master of 50s and 60s movie titles. North by Northwest might well be his best work. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that the aesthetic of the film, including Cary Grant’s suits (and Madison Avenue profession), the sets and furniture are the inspiration for arguably the best designed television series in history – Mad Men [of which we’re about to finish our second run through. It’s all about Don and Roger’s friendship, n’est-ce pas?].

Camera angles and shots

Even more important are the camera angles and techniques used in the film. These range from the striking straight-down camera perched high up on the United Nations building, which makes the building’s entrance look like a diorama, as Roger Thornhill flees – to the awe-inspiring crop duster scene, with its jaw dropping 61 camera angles and shots. This scene still impresses today – for a film from 1959, it feels remarkably realistic and seems to confirm the opinion that skilled cinematography, acting and direction can deliver better results than computer generated imagery in the hands of a dullard (cf: most adventure films released in the last 25 years or so).

The soundtrack is also noteworthy. Composed by Bernard Herrmann, it establishes drama instantly with a sinister expression consisting of only two notes: down-up, down-up – it was certainly good enough for John Williams to rip off for Jaws 16 years later. To my ear, the theme itself has something of Shostakovitch about it, but I’m no musicologist. Herrmann and Shostakovitch did collaborate much later, but that could just be coincidental.

Cary Grant is Cary Grant at his best in North by Northwest – suave, permatanned, confident and witty. He’s terrified at times but always manages to brush it off. Eva Marie Saint is a classic Hitchcock blonde – superficially beautiful with a modern, liberal outlook fitting the turn of the decade when the film was released. James Mason is perfect as a genteel baddie – backed up by more physically threatening henchmen.

Crop Duster scene

I suppose that in the end, what makes North by Northwest so much fun is that it’s clearly unreal, yet realised for the audience in a way that we can really enjoy it. The film is a fantasy piece, heavy on fun and light on symbolism, which frees it from the need for a more realistic or explicable plot line. The film’s set pieces, particularly the crop duster scene, are iconic and clearly had a huge impact on future action thrillers. I know I get a hint of a thrill from any film which shows one of those near-abandoned prairie crossroads and I strain to hear the sound of an aircraft. Just in case.

North by Northwest is certainly one of my favourite movies, up there with The Big Lebowski (another absurd fantasy, incidentally, though obviously a screwball comedy rather than a thriller). You’ve seen it plenty of times. Watch it again. I know I will.


If you’ve read this far, I’m promising now to do a bit more on here, mainly about films, books, music and food. So, see you next year.

On the big screen

The closure of Club Coliseum, one of Barcelona’s last ‘full size’ cinemas was one of the smaller news stories in the city this week. Even though I never went there, I feel that it’s a shame. I’m sure there are plenty of lazy sods like me who feel the same way and yet never went to see a film there. But who has the time, right?

Given that your cinema-going experience will soon be limited to tiny salas with small screens and digital projectors, why not just save yourself the hassle and set one up at home? You don’t even need to dedicate a room : a retractable screen and a projector fixed to the ceiling don’t take up much space.

So that’s what I did. In our spare room, used approximately 3 times a year, I’ve installed a screen and an Epson projector. And it’s fantastic. Such good fun. Seriously, every home should have one.

Thoughts and musings

Consider this the blog equivalent of several tweets about not really connected subjects. Or a kind of old-style journal blog entry.

Firstly, two observations about culture: 1 – there is a certain generation of Catalan, Valencian and Balearic singing guitar men who are basically just one man. I know they’re technically different people and that their guitar styles vary and that the poetry they sing is of differing quality. But whenever any of them pops up on TV3 (their spiritual home is the short bit about yesterday’s concert that no one went to), I just see the same man. They come from a time when singing in Catalan was protest enough so they didn’t really need to worry about the rest of their politics. Now they strike me as being a deeply conservative and negative influence on the culture: their sub-Cohen witterings are so deeply uncool that we can hardly blame the youth for not wanting to create much protest music during the banking crisis. And 2 – I quite like that Basque comedy show on channel 7.

Yesterday, we watched the Blu-ray edition of Cavalcanti’s propaganda masterpiece, Went The Day Well?. Included on the disc was Yellow Caesar, a short by the same director about Mussolini. This second film was really amusing and effective. I’d love to see the BFI collect all the quality propaganda films it has in its archives and release them on Blu-ray. A few weeks back we watched Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Was this really a propaganda film which sought to justify torture? I didn’t really think so. In a sense, I feel that Bigelow was never going to have an easy ride with this film. Had she not mentioned the torture, she’d have quite rightly been accused of convenient forgetfulness. Her last film, The Hurt Locker, was atrociously bad and certainly felt like a work of propaganda. Zero Dark Thirty managed, I thought, to capture some of the fist pumping of America’s 2000s without actually joining in. Or maybe I’m the apologist?

More movie reviews

We’ve seen quite a few movies recently, including some old favourites and even a couple of classics I’d not seen before. Here is a quick binary review of the ones I can remember.

Casablanca – 1/1 – Shamefully late to see this for the first time. Good fun, nicely filmed and quite exciting.

The Men Who Stare At Goats – 0/1 – Perplexingly pointless, utterly without direction, basically crap. Did not finish.

Hulk (2003) – 1/1 – Epically misunderstood, awesome on Blu-ray and far better than the shoddy 2008 remake. More on this another time.

Brief Encounter – 0/1 – Couldn’t watch this without waiting for the punchline for a joke that never came. A victim of the many excellent parodies that followed it.

Up – 1/1 – Not as good as Wall-E but still v enjoyable. Loved the tearjerker opening sequence. Forgivable schmaltz.

Looking For Eric – 1/1 – Heartwarming comedy about workers’ solidarity and Eric Cantona.

Let The Right One In – 1/1 – Swedish film about friendship by way of vampirism. Not too vampirous.

Avatar: Is this what we’ve come to?

Last night, Gemma, Jon and I went to see James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar. I don’t usually go to see big-budget blockbusters at the cinema but with all the hype that had built up around this film (pernicious hype!), I’d started to think that if I didn’t see it on the big screen, I might regret it in years to come. It is, after all, far better to regret that you wasted time doing something than it is to regret sitting on your arse at home, reading a good book and drinking some good red wine. Or something like that.

We saw Avatar at the Yelmo Cineplex Icària, near the Ciutadella metro stop. The Icària cinema is one of those awful new-style multiplex joints with 15 fairly small screens. Nowhere near as atmospheric or impressive as the Odeon or Cannon of my youth in Plymouth. But the seats are more comfortable. The tickets cost €10.50 (Estafadors!), apparently because the film was popular. We were each given a pair of heavy, highly tinted sunglasses as we took our seats: these would make the 3-D work.

Yes, that’s right: Avatar is a movie which employs that most current of fads: pretend 3-D. Touted by many idiots in the film industry as being ‘as important as colour!’, pretend 3-D essentially makes the background a bit blurry while whichever character is in the foreground looks a bit shiny. More on this later.

The film itself is incredibly bad. Everything about it is bad. That is to say, it has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The storyline is basically Pocahontas with more explosions. The script is unbelievably explanatory – at no point was the viewer able to question what might be happening, because everything had been clumsily foreshadowed in the first 25 minutes. The acting was melodramatic and amateurish. The ‘goodies’ were flawlessly ‘good’, the baddies seemed like they were involved in some sort of excruciating self-parody. Except they weren’t. There wasn’t a single moment of intended humour, soul or suspense – all in a film that lasted three hours. Three long, dull hours.


As I mentioned, the story is effectively Pocahontas: invading outsider meets beautiful warrior princess, they fight then become friends, she introduces him to her dad (the king), and her betrothed one (a warrior); no one likes the invader but he proves himself by undergoing their initiation rites; invader has sex with princess; invader’s fellow invaders turn up, intent on killing everyone; invader decides to be warrior, fights on the side of the tribe, big battle ensues, invader and princess survive, FIN.

Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that: it’s an old story which, when done properly, can be very moving. The problem with Avatar is that James Cameron failed to do anything about the fact that we already know this story. So nothing happened that you couldn’t predict from the beginning.

The film has been praised in other reviews for the richness of its visuals and the lush imaginary landscapes which Cameron invented for the land of Pandora (yes, Pandora). Actually, the visuals were not particularly stunning and watching the Blu-ray of the BBC’s Planet Earth allows you to experience stunningly beautiful and far more detailed landscapes and forests… and it’s all real!

Other annoying aspects of the film include: the annoying American insistence on rousing speeches just before a confrontation (cf. Independence Day, a movie that at least had some humour) – the main character’s pre-battle speech in Avatar wouldn’t have sounded out of place had it been barked by George W. Bush. Sigourney Weaver, who I once thought was a great actress, proves that like most actors she’s actually not that bright and prefers $$$ to quality. Near-constant music. Action scenes that lack any excitement. 3-D.


The very idea of making films in ‘3-D’ is flawed. As has been pointed out, we are not dogs. As humans, most of us are capable of seeing a flat image and perceiving depth. It’s why we have films in the first place. And anyway, 3-D in films isn’t 3-D at all. It’s 2-D with an effect applied to it. It can’t touch you and it is no more ‘realistic’ or thrilling than standard 2-D. As well as these systematic flaws, Cameron clearly didn’t want to be accused of just employing a gimmick, giving the audience cheap thrills by making objects jump out of the screen at them. So he didn’t have any of that in the film. Surely, if 3-D is to have a point, it’s to make stuff jump out of the screen at you?!

Instead, the pretend 3-D in Avatar is done more ‘subtly’, making characters in the foreground appear more defined than what’s going on in the background. What this means is that the cheap trick of messing with depth of field in order to stop the viewer from seeing into the distance, finds its zenith in Avatar. At no point are you really able to enjoy the visuals. At no point does the ‘camera’ slow down enough to take in any of the allegedly stunning vistas. What’s worse is that because you’re forced to wear these heavy, uncomfortable corrective spectacles all the way through the film (I took mine off quite a lot, though, as it seemed to have little effect on my enjoyment), there are plenty of parts of the film that are actually not 3-D at all. When you see these scenes through the glasses, what you see is a hell of a lot of shimmering and glitching that simply should be there.

And that’s the funniest thing about Avatar: the film that was supposed to bring 3-D to life for cinema audiences, like Gone With The Wind or the Wizard Of Oz did for colour, actually confirms 3-D to be a technology that doesn’t look great and that we don’t need. I doubt that I’ll ever watch another film in 3-D – at least, not if I can help it.’s binary review: Avatar – 2009 – Dir. James Cameron. 0/1

Adam Curtis: It Felt Like A Kiss

I’ll be writing a post soon about the last ten years and the effect they’ve had on me. One of the very many things I have to be grateful for during this decade is discovering the films of Adam Curtis.

Curtis’s documentaries focus on the political and social history of the 20th century, criticising much of the psychological methods of power employed during those years. In The Power of Nightmares, Curtis illustrated how governments learned that the best way they could explain their worth to us in a post-cold war world was by building a new culture of fear directed at enemies which could never be defeated. The Trap investigates the various definitions of freedom and how these contrary views impacted on societies.


It Felt Like A Kiss is instantly recognisable as a Curtis film (the Helvetica typeface, the often shocking archive footage, the powerful soundtrack). But it is significantly different to those I mentioned above. Detailing “how power really works in the world”, IFLAK eschews any narration beyond occasional visual prompts. The film is instead a tapestry of powerful images played over a soundtrack of some fantastic music from the 50s through to the 90s. Like some kind of amazing, extra-long pop video.

And in It Felt Like A Kiss, it’s the music that I most adore. Ranging from Roy Orbison to the Velvet Underground to the Phil Spector-produced title song, Curtis selects a phenomenal playlist of well known and more obscure pieces. The soundtrack reminded me of how much I loved some long-neglected albums, and finally got me to listen to a ton of ‘Wall of Sound’ records, many of which are of unimpeachable quality and beauty, however mad their producer is.


The film cannot currently be obtained legally, so you’ll have to download it. I’m hoping that Curtis will release his documentaries on DVD some time soon (a box set of those would be fantastic). If you’d rather not download a film illegally, you can listen to much of the soundtrack on this Spotify playlist.

GordoMeme: The Obama DVD set

Just seen this on Tom Harris’s blog (via about 7 others).

Apparently, Barack Obama gave Gordon Brown a set of DVDs as a kind gift recently. The game is simple: you get 2 points for each that you own and have watched, 1 point for those you’ve seen but don’t own, 1 point for those you own but have never watched* and no points for those you’ve never seen and don’t own (even if you intend to watch them this evening). My standing:

Own and have seen:

The Godfather, Raging Bull, Lawrence Of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, Psycho, Chinatown, Some Like It Hot, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. (18 points)

Seen but don’t own:

Citizen Kane, Singin’ In The rain, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, Star Wars Episode IV, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Graduate, On The Waterfront, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Grapes Of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird. (11 points)

Own but haven’t seen:

Casablanca. (1 point)

Neither own nor seen:

City Lights, The Searchers, Sunset Boulevard, The General.

Although I wasn’t ‘tagged’ to play this game, I don’t really care about the rules. So I’m going to customise the rules and pass it on.

*In my opinion, if you own one of the DVDs but haven’t watched it, you should actually be docked 1 point. So my final score is 28 points. My other new rule is that each person should add one DVD to the list. My choice is: No Country For Old Men.

Though I wasn’t passed this game by anyone involved, I’m willing to start a new chain and send it on to:
Graeme, Trevor, Jon, Katie, Andrew and Elena.