A Trip to the Moon (1902)

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Director: Georges Méliès Cast: uncredited

A group of astronomers take a trip to the moon. (Who would have guessed from the title?)

Bit of a weird one this, but bear with me. In the numerous coffee-table books on films that I’ve collected, this is pretty much always the first one on the list of ones to watch. This 1902 short film (12 minutes, and it’s on YouTube) is generally credited as being one of the first popular films. It brought special effects into the mainstream, and despite its length manages a substantial plot and even some anti-imperialist satire.

It definitely helped to watch this film with my 1902 Edwardian-era hat on, in order to appreciate the film in the way that it would have been appreciated at the time. I was actually really surprised at how good the effects were for the time. For example, the aliens that live on the moon suddenly vanish in a flash of smoke, and it doesn’t look clunky by any means. The face on the moon (which admittedly is the stuff of nightmares) is cleverly superimposed- I didn’t even know they could do that as early as then. It’s also interesting to remember that no one had actually been to the moon at that time- so it really was just science fiction for people to travel there from Earth.

This, clearly, is a film you’d watch to study and appreciate the history of film, and not for settling into the sofa with a bowl of popcorn. Definitely recommended for discussing at dinner parties to make you seem sophisticated and erudite.

Hard to rate this one… 3 stars?

12 Angry Men (1957)

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Director: Sidney Lumet Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam

Twelve jurors are tasked with deciding on the case of a young boy who is accused of murdering his father. While eleven are confident of his guilt, one doesn’t think the evidence is enough to convict the boy for sure, and it’s up to him to convince the others.

As I’m gradually ticking off films in IMDb’s top 250, 12 Angry Men was next on my list. I had to build myself up to watch it, because I knew it was one of those films with lots of talking that requires attention throughout- and finally got around to it on a relaxed Sunday evening.

Actually, it turned out not to be as much of a difficult watch as I’d thought. It didn’t feel too long (after all it is only about an hour and a half), and as the jurors changed their mind one by one there were clear pointers to show the plot moving on. With it being a group of twelve middle-aged white men, and the film in black and white, it started off slightly difficult to identify certain characters individually. However as the film progresses each juror shows their particular personalities, and fairly soon I was able to pick out who was still saying guilty or not guilty. The script is obviously split up between twelve different people so each character doesn’t necessarily get many lines, but still the writing allows for their different personalities to come through.

The issue I did have- and this may well be just me- was that once one person picks a hole in the prosecution’s argument, there’s clearly an element of doubt and so they have to go for not guilty. The main character’s points were enough for me to doubt the guilt of the accused, but it took more than that to sway the other jurors. Not having ever been a juror myself, I can’t say how realistic this would be. Having said that, some of the characters (notably the last one to sway to not guilty) had personal reasons for starting off with a guilty verdict, however unreasonable, which adds to the characterisation and so gives the film some depth.

As I say, this is a thinking person’s film and there’s a lot of dialogue, so don’t watch it when you’re tired or looking for something to watch lightly. If you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s easy to follow and enjoyable. Definitely one to watch to examine different characters and how a script can build up characterisation.

4 stars

The Great Dictator (1940)

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Director: Charlie Chaplin Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell

After spending years in a hospital recovering from memory loss brought on from an accident in the First World War, a Jewish barber returns to his old neighbourhood to find it is suffering persecution under the rule of a new dictator. Meanwhile the dictator himself struggles to assert his new authority.

I think the most interesting aspect of the film is putting it into the context of when it was made- 1940, as the Second World War was really starting to get underway. Post-war films have often struggled about how to portray Hitler and the persecution of the Jewish people, and for many years film-makers avoided it altogether, not wanting to provoke controversy. However The Great Dictator is both an amusing satire that successfully pokes fun at Hitler and the politics of the time, as well as a poignant and powerful portrayal of what was then the present-day reality of Germany under the Nazi regime. The film was made before the full extent of the atrocities in Europe were known, and so perhaps benefitted from not having the pressure to consider the extreme aspects of the Second World War that we now know.

Subject matter aside, the film (which was Chaplin’s first “talkie”) is pleasantly amusing. There’s plenty of Chaplin’s signature slapstick, as well as some clever satire which is still funny almost 80 years later. One particular scene in which Hynkel and Napaloni (Chaplin’s portrayals of Hitler and Mussolini respectively) can’t work out whether to shake hands or salute had me reminiscing about a Dad’s Army style of humour.

While I wouldn’t say that the film is light, it’s certainly not your usual intense Second World War drama (no Das Boot levels of tension here). It’s enjoyable, but quite clearly makes its points about fascism. It’s also considered a classic on a number of levels, so certainly worth a watch.

5 stars

The Third Man (1949)

Third Man

Director: Carol Reed Cast: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee

A man travels to post-war Vienna to visit an old friend, whom upon arrival he discovers to be dead. However, after a little digging the man thinks there’s more to his friend’s death than meets the eye. A classic film-noir thriller.

The Third Man is a great film to watch from a cinematographic point of view. The film has a really eerie and haunting feel due to the debris all across post-war Vienna, which is accentuated by the black and white shadows. The film certainly wouldn’t have the same impact if it were filmed in colour, especially the moment when we first see Orson Welles’ character, which is made hugely dramatic by the use of darkness to hide his face followed by light for the big reveal. The shadow make the buildings appear grand and looming, which makes the famous chase scene towards the end feel suitably disorientating.

In terms of plot, it’s a good story and I like the characters being morally ambiguous. However, I did figure out the plot almost immediately- even my mum worked it out, and that is saying something. I think this detracted away a little from the “thrilling” aspect of this classic thriller, as I wasn’t really on the edge of my seat. However, the story covers a number of interesting political and historical aspects, such as post-war corruption in the defeated nations such as Austria, the uncertainty of post-war Europe, and what it means to be “moral”. The following line sums up nicely the film’s mixture of black humour and thought-provoking messages: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

This is definitely a film for adults, not because of any inappropriate content but rather because its messages which might be easily missed. The plot also builds slowly so it’s not for those who want fast-paced action from start to finish, plus there’s a lot of dialogue which I found required a lot of concentration. The obvious storyline loses it a star from my perspective, but visually it’s a lovely film to watch and appreciate.

4 stars