A-Z Film Challenge: My conclusion

It is all over now. Almost a month of posts on one main subject, and two additional posts by way of an epilogue. I set this challenge to myself, and it was the only one I have ever taken on, in five years of blogging. I chose Films and Cinema because that subject has been the love of my (long) life so far. The only alternatives were History and Photography, but I had a feeling that films would attract more interest, and I was right.

So, my considered thoughts. It’s hard work, harder than I expected. For every word typed on the posts, many more were discarded. For every film mentioned or featured, ten more had to be left out. For a lover of films, it was sheer torture. The research was hard too. Even though I have seen so many films, and had most posts already worked out, I still had to remind myself of dates, casts, and other small details. Twenty-six days of being accurate, making difficult decisions, and presenting posts worth reading was a challenge indeed. (Even though I got a ‘day off’ with ‘X’!)

What about the positives? Well, they were many. New followers, engagement on posts, a huge number of comments, and a real sense of camaraderie too. All my previous followers, and those new ones, pitched in with some great ideas and suggestions, numerous re-blogs, re-tweets on Twitter, and their own thoughts and conclusions. Despite the work, I can honestly say that I have never had a happier or more positive blogging experience. Daily views and visits were, by my standards, quite phenomenal. Even when some letters attracted less interest, others kept up the encouraging averages. In case anyone was wondering, the most popular letter as far as views were concerned was ‘S’, with the troublesome ‘X’ being the least viewed.

Tips from me? If you are thinking of doing anything like this, then here are some guidelines.

1) Make written notes as you go along. Otherwise, you might well forget your choices, and those original thoughts.
2) Write some posts in advance, as many as you can. You can always edit them later, and it takes the pressure off of having to make sure you come up with one each day.
3) Answer comments, even if you don’t agree with them. Doing something like this is all about involvement in a community. If you cannot be bothered to reply, then why should anyone comment in the first place?
4) Set time aside. It takes a lot of thought, and a fair bit of time and effort too. Make sure you have that time available to give it your best shot. If you are not sure, then don’t start it.

But it was never about stats, rewarding though they may be. It was about fun, interest, engagement, and good friendship. That’s what blogging is about for me, and I could not be more delighted.
It will be strange to go back to ‘normal’ blogging, that’s for sure.

Would I do it again? The jury is out on that one.

A-Z Film Challenge: Day 27 (Numbers)

No letters left, and nothing from me to add today. You may have noticed that I avoided films with numbers in the titles? (For example, ‘127 Hours’ (2010) )

That was because I now have a challenge for you!

I would like you to let me know what your favourite ‘numbers’ film is. Please reply in the comments below, and no cheating! 🙂

Thanks once again to everyone who played along, and contributed so much to this enjoyable series. It was made possible by your engagement, and the comments you made. I will be posting a conclusion tomorrow, to let everybody know my thoughts about taking on such a long and arduous challenge, and what it meant to me as a blogger.

My sincere best wishes to you all. Pete.

A-Z Challenge: Day 26

So, the final day, and ‘Z’. Look out for not only my extra post, Day 27, but also my blogging challenge conclusion, which follows that.

‘Z’ is a little lacking for titles. I will leave out the Costa-Gravas film, ‘Z’, as too obvious, and go with my own few picks for this letter. I will also be omitting the terrible, ‘Zardoz’, not one of Connery’s finest hours. Feel free to mention it, if you like it.

Just a few then, and a pretty obvious top pick, if you have worked out my taste so far.

I could never have left out ‘Zulu’ (1964). This famous epic not only launched the career of Michael Caine, it covered one of the great moments in British colonial history so well. A small detachment of defenders must hold the mission station at Rourke’s Drift against the attacks of almost 3,000 Zulu warriors, in 1879. A superb cast recreates this real event so well, it is still amazing to behold, in 2017. Not only that, it gives due credit to the Zulu warriors, brave men all. Magnificent.

The ‘Son of Sam’ murders are famous in contemporary American history. So too are the unsolved ‘Zodiac’ murders, that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s, in the area around San Francisco. David Fincher’s excellent procedural film, ‘Zodiac’ (2007) follows those murders, and the prolonged police investigation and journalistic campaign surrounding them. A superb cast recreates that investigation in fascinating detail, ably assisted by Fincher’s tight and assured direction. Not only Jake Gyllenhall, but also Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jnr, and Brian Cox put real flesh on the many characters involved. Detailed and absorbing, this one will have you frustrated at the end.

Peter Greenaway has long divided the opinion of audiences. It seems that you either love his work, or hate it. I am firmly in his fan club, so his unusual film, ‘A Zed and Two Noughts'(1985) features here.
Hard to describe, this film about identical twins who are studying animal behaviour at a zoo, has to be seen to be appreciated. Without spoiling the plot, all I can say it that is both surreal, and bizarre in the extreme. Not for everyone, for sure, but undeniably inventive.

I think we can all recognise the music from this next film. Just a few chords will cast us back to memories of other times. Mikis Theodorakis supplied some memorable soundtrack music to the film, ‘Zorba The Greek’ (1964). One of Anthony Quinn’s finest and most memorable performances, as the peasant musician Zorba, who changes the life of the traveller, Basil. (Alan Bates) The story of a failed mine, and some of life’s values, is incidental to the wonderful scenery, and the real heart in the performances of all involved. And you get Irene Papas too. Legendary.

Well, another Japanese film takes my final choice today. No Kurosawa or Mifune, but something just as enjoyable. Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano) is well-known in modern Japanese Cinema. Many will have seen him in ‘Battle Royale’, or ‘Violent Cop’. In ‘Zatoichi’ (2003), he returns to the familiar theme of the ‘blind samurai’, and delivers a truly delightful performance. Defending villagers from extortion at the hands of gangsters, his blind samurai includes excellent set pieces, plot twists and turns, some really great humour, and a heartwarming central performance. And there is a terrific ending too, over the closing credits. One to enjoy over again, and a top recommendation from me.

A-Z Film Challenge: Day 25

I had a top pick in mind for ‘Y’. Some readers have already guessed it, and others might well suspect what it might be. You will be pleased to know that you are right, and it will be the one you thought.

On the way there, I had some real problems with this letter. I could only scrape up three more to feature, and they are mostly well-known. Well maybe not this first one…
‘Yol’ (1982) is a film made in Turkey by Yilmaz Guney. Amazingly, he was in prison when the film was made using his instructions, and unable to edit it for showing until he escaped to Paris. Because of his opposition to the government, Guney’s film was banned in his home country for many years. This powerful and often touching film follows the travels of a group of prisoners They are allowed out of prison on leave to visit their families, and we see the story of each one unfold on screen. Often tragic, examining family issues, cultural problems, and with some hard themes, this is film-making of the highest order.

A comedy by contrast, and one of Mel Brooks’ fine spoofs. ‘Young Frankenstein’ (1974) rips into the horror genre with gusto, and delivers in every scene. With Gene Wilder as the young doctor, Peter Boyle as the monster, and great support as always from Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Terri Garr, this is still as funny as when I first watched it. “Pardon me, boy. Is this the Transylvania Station?”

Mel Gibson doesn’t usually deliver thoughtful and restrained performances. Not these days, anyway. Back in 1982, he managed a convincing turn as the young journalist, in Peter Weir’s excellent drama, ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’. Set in turbulent times in Indonesia, in 1965, this thriller sees Gibson’s character embroiled in the coup attempt that happened at the time. Always exciting, with convincing performances, this is something of an overlooked classic that deserves more praise. If you don’t care for Gibson, don’t worry. You also get some stalwart Australian character actors, Sigourney Weaver, and the Oscar-winning performance from Linda Hunt. The diminutive Hunt actually plays an Asian man in this film. She completely steals it, and really deserved the Best-Supporting Oscar.

Before ‘The Magnificent Seven’, there was ‘The Seven Samurai’. Before ‘Star Wars’, there was ‘The Hidden Fortress’. The influence of Japanese cinema on later western productions is undeniable. Another example of this, and my top pick for ‘Y’, is ‘Yojimbo’ (1961). Kurosawa once again directs the flawless Toshiro Mifune, in an historical tale of a traveling samurai warrior who plays one side against the other in a dramatic yet often amusing film that is a sheer delight. Arriving at a town torn apart by two warring gangs, he sells his skills to one group, before changing allegiance to the other. Or does he? Mifune is perfect for the role, and the set pieces are a sight to behold too.
This may remind you of the story-line of a later film, and that’s because it is. Sergio Leone ripped off the idea for his film ‘A Fistful of Dollars'(1964). Transferring the action to the wild west, he set in motion one of the most successful film franchises ever seen, and made an international star of Clint Eastwood. Leone later had to pay for his plagiarism, but he had cash to spare…

Yojimbo is much better though. believe me.

A-Z Film Challenge: Day 23

‘W’ is a real treasure trove of great titles. My original list was up to more than forty, when I decided to once again to stick with mostly little-known titles, and to leave it wide open for your comments. My top pick is quite famous, but I had already decided to go with it.

I will start with two well known epics that have always worked for me. Sergei Bondarchuk is involved with both, and the Russian director knew his stuff. ‘War and Peace’ (1966) is a detailed adaptation of the Tolstoy novel, lovingly recreated in over seven hours of film. It is so long, it was originally shown in instalments. You can still get the multi-disc original on DVD. It is magnificent.
In 1970, the same director brought his skill to the film ‘Waterloo’. With Rod Steiger as Napoleon, and Christopher Plummer as the perfect Wellington, this wonderfully accurate recreation of the battle of Waterloo in 1815 is one of the best epics ever filmed, and a must for history fans too.

Dark and disturbing British drama, with the taboo theme of incest and family betrayal. That doesn’t sound like an easy watch, and it isn’t. But if you want to see a British cast including Tilda Swinton and Ray Winstone at the top of their game, then look no further than ‘The War Zone’ (1999).

A sexy and erotic thriller, with delicious twists and turns, and a screen populated by eye candy that can also act? Not that many films can live up to that idea, but ‘Wild Things’ (1998) is a hugely enjoyable modern film noir, with a great cast too. Denise Richards and Neve Campbell pile on the steam, as Kevin Bacon and Matt Dillon offer strong support. Perhaps a ‘guilty pleasure’, but one of the best of those.

One of my favourite Almodovar films, and a perfect examination of the daily life of a put-upon woman in modern Spain. ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ (1984) has some truly marvellous performances, not least from Carmen Maura in the lead. Poignant, often very funny, and acutely well-observed, we also get a brilliant turn from Chus Lampreave into the bargain. Nobody does ‘old lady’ better than her.

So many left out, but one more before the top pick.

I caught this film on TV some years ago, and was very impressed at the time. Since then, I have never seen it mentioned, so thought I would promote it here. Most people regard Susan Sarandon to be a very good actress, and rightly so. I also have a lot of time for James Spader, though he failed to really exploit his brat-pack stardom. The two come together in the thougthful romantic drama, ‘White Palace’ (1990). The plot is simple enough, and has familiar origins. Rich upper-class widower aged 27 meets a waitress from the other side of the tracks, and falls for her. She is a lot older, at 43, so it is a far from easy basis on which to form a relationship. What could have been a very ordinary film is elevated by a good script, and sensitive performances from the leads. One to watch.

Today’s choice was always going to be the one for ‘W’. I watched Nic Roeg’s film ‘Walkabaout’ (1971) when I was just 19 years old. I had never seen anything like it, and thought it was fantastic. I still do. This story of a teenage school girl and her brother (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) lost in the Australian outback, is something to behold. Great scenery and perfect cinematography picture their wanderings in a surreal landscape, alien to city-dwellers. They are saved when they encounter a young Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) who is on his tribal ritual of ‘Walkabout’. This is a fascinating interaction between the young urban children, and the boy who exists in the natural world. Stunning.

A-Z Film Challenge: Day 22

I was looking forward to ‘V’, as I had a top pick chosen well in advance. Quite a lot to choose from here, so there should be plenty left for you to comment on.

David Cronenberg has made some very unusual films in his career. They can be visually challenging, and often contain a message about society too. James Woods is a competent actor who has also played some controversial roles, and is known for giving 100% to every part he plays, however small. Put these two together, and you get the fascinating ‘Videodrome’ (1983). This is a comment on modern television, and the potential excesses it can sink to. Add some stunning ‘body horror’ effects, and you are left with a unique and unforgettable film, in an uncertain genre. And Debby Harry is in it too!

Vampire horror is a subject that film makers keep returning to. There have been some outstanding examples made, as far back as the days of silent films. ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) is arguably the best of them all, with the creepiest Dracula I have ever seen. But Carl Dreyer’s 1932 film ‘Vampyr’ deserves a mention. Despite its uneven soundtrack, the surreal imagery and dream-like production make this a memorable addition to the genre.

Two very different French films next. ‘Les Visiteurs’ (1993) was a huge comedy hit in Europe. The hilarious antics of a time travelling medieval knight and his grubby servant are simply delightful. They are transported into the future, where he attacks cars with his sword, and believes a toilet bowl is a magical water fountain. Jean Reno triumphs as the fish out of water knight, with a deliciously dotty performance from Valerie Lemercier as his distant relative. I loved this one.
There is no doubt that Marion Cotillard is a great actress, and she was never better than when she starred as Edith Piaf in the 2007 biopic, ‘La Vie En Rose’. This Oscar-winning film is a complete triumph, covering almost the whole life and career of Edith Piaf, the one-time darling of the French musical scene. With a strong supporting cast including Gerard Depardieu, flawless costume and historical detail, this is one to remember, believe me.

A very different historical drama next, featuring a powerful leading performance from Mads Mikkelsen. ‘Valhalla Rising’ (2009) is a bleak look back to the early days of Christianity in Europe. Mikklesen’s character One-Eye is held captive by a Norse chieftain, and forced to fight others to the death, while his master gambles on the outcome. He escapes in the company of a young boy, and they join a ragtag band of Crusaders, men intent on going to the Holy Land to fight. After a difficult journey, they believe they have reached their goal, only to discover that it is not at all what it seems. This is filmed in breathtaking locations in Scotland, and contains some brutal fight scenes too. But the solid cast delivers a memorable film, one that is stunning to behold.

Before my top choice for ‘V’, another Spanish film from the prolific Pedro Almodovar. ‘Volver’ (2006) stars the wonderful Carmen Maura, an Almodovar favourite, alongside the lovely Penelope Cruz. This delightful family drama also has moments of real comedy, and assured performances from the mainly female cast. There are some twists and turns in the plot, and you can also feel the personal touch from Almodovar’s own life experiences too. You may see this film described as a film about death. To a large extent it is, but it is also so much more, so don’t be put off. It was nominated for both Oscars and Baftas, and should have won at least one, in my opinion.

Please do not mistake the awful American remake for my top choice today. If you decide to see it, be certain that you are watching the original foreign language film, and not that terrible corruption.

Many European films do not settle for happy endings just to please audiences, and this is one of them.
I cannot praise this film highly enough. Rarely have I left a cinema being drained by a viewing experience in the same way, and impressed by the performances of actors I hardly knew. Perhaps because it is a scenario we can all identify with, it makes you aware of how it could happen to almost anyone. You are on holiday abroad, driving in the car. You stop for fuel at a busy French service station. Your wife goes inside, to buy drinks and snacks. She doesn’t return.
What happens next in ‘The Vanishing’ (1998), is a chilling story with real drama, and edge of the seat tension. Incredible performances, tragedy and despair, and a simply unforgettable ending. One of the best ever.