While we all love a good proper feature film containing one continuous narrative, the anthology or portmanteau film has thrown up some fine cinematic entertainment over the years. Generally, an anthology film can be described as a collection of works with a linked theme, genre, style and author etc.
Thus, in my occasional Six of the Best series I have decided to pick some favourite ones. To make it more interesting I have chosen them from different genres. Otherwise, I would have just chosen all horror films. So, here are six of the film anthology films worth watching.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) – WESTERN
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a mischievous alchemy of stories. Here, the Coen Brothers reach into their cinematic bag of tricks to deliver an entertaining and memorable collection of characters, songs, bloody death, jokes, pathos, landscapes, snappy dialogue, dark humour and action. Coen’s films often improve with each viewing as their work is so full of stylish depth and this is no different. Quite often, you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance which is occurring in many of these fine stories.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) – HORROR
It seems sacrilege not to include the likes of George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) or one of Amicus’ unhinged collections such as Dr Terror’s House of Horror (1965). But, having watched this classic recently I can certainly say it has some brilliant and scary stories which stand the test of time. Full to the brim with the cream of British acting, writing and directing talent, the standout tale is Michael Redgrave’s troubled ventriloquist, although the whole film is a nightmarish treat for horror fans.
FANTASIA (1940) – ANIMATION
With the current trend for Disney to remake their back catalogue as “live” action films in mind, I very much doubt they will doing this with Fantasia. Conceived as a short to re-invigorate the slowing career of Mickey Mouse, the film is unlike any other Disney have made. It consists of experimental, non-narrative and hallucinogenic vignettes mainly set to wondrous classical music. A masterpiece of hand-drawn animation, style, colour and design, it’s certainly not just for kids. I recall many images giving me nightmares when saw it as a child and it remains a powerful cinematic work to this day.
NIGHT ON EARTH (1991) – COMEDY
I was going to choose Woody Allen’s erotic sketch film, Everything You Wanted to Ask About Sex but were Afraid to Ask (1972), for the comedy section. However, I decided to select a more deadpan and character oriented film. What better then, than a Jim Jarmusch curiosity. I love the concept of the film as Jarmusch sets several themes and parameters in place. There are five slice-of-life vignettes set on the same night in the cities of Helsinki, New York, Rome, Paris and Los Angeles, all starring some of Jarmusch’s favourite actors. Relationships and quirky interactions between cab driver and passenger are explored in the filmmakers’ inimitable style.
PULP FICTION (1994) – CRIME
Quentin Tarantino’s second feature film remains a fresh masterpiece of colliding gangsters, uber-cool hitmen, fixers, boxers, sexual deviants, femme fatales, drug addicts and general criminal types. With an over-lapping timeline that kind of does a figure of eight, we get stories ranging from a couple robbing a diner; a boxer double-crossing a crime boss; and an employee almost killing his boss’s wife. Tarantino breathes life into the crime genre and the stock pulp characters with one of the greatest screenplays ever written; full of incredible dialogue, startling twists and a brilliant ensemble cast.
WILD TALES (2014) – DRAMA
Damián Szifron conjures up a delectable and devilish set of stories mostly based around the themes of obsession and revenge. It opens with a breath-taking little prologue featuring a horrific incident on a plane and culminates in arguably the wildest tale when the Bride goes on the rampage at her wedding. Everyone’s favourite Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin pops up in the middle as an explosives expert who enacts revenge on City Parking fascists. I love the whole thing as the film delivers a full deck of twists that master of the macabre Roald Dahl would be proud of.
We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. . . It becomes a substitute for experience. (Larry Law, Images and Everyday Life)
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
Life is all about managing expectations. I mean we don’t why we’re here on this planet and we don’t know why we’re alive. Is there a point to life? Perhaps there is no point? If that’s the case then why carry on living? Why not kill yourself or go berserk and do what the hell you want and be damned to the consequences. Well, it doesn’t really bear thinking about does it? Thus, generally, we block out such existential questions – well I do – by filling our life and times with things we enjoy doing, seeing, feeling, and eating, hearing and experiencing.
One of the major things I use to distract me from the inquisitions of life is going to the cinema. I am obsessed with films. I could perhaps, rather than watch films, raise a people’s army and seize control of the state? But what system would I put into place instead of the necessary evil of capitalism? I could eschew society and live off the land growing my own vegetables; but whose land? All land is now owned by some person, persons or shadowy corporations. I could become a criminal and finagle the law in order to avoid the punch-clock drudgery of life; but I’d like to sleep guilt-free at night and hurting others does not sit well with me. I could train a pack of ants to perform tricks for money in an Ant Circus; but that would just be silly. I could go on…
What I am saying is films and television are helpful in drawing a big thick line between the sane and insane shit in life. They are a big deal for me. Not as bigger deal as my loved ones but pretty close. So, when a new series of a current show I love such as Doctor Who or South Park or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Game of Thrones is released I am very happy. Life is good. That thing called hope rear its head and says, “Hi, it’s me again!” The same goes with film releases from my favourite directors or movie franchises or series. It happened at the fag-end of the 90s with the new Star Wars trilogy and also when the new Indiana Jones film was released; hope came a knocking and expectations were raised. Unfortunately the Lucas’ space opera prequels were pretty bad and least said about Indiana Clones and The Kingdom of Crystal Dulls the better!
So, what I am saying is, AND I realise this is a sad thing to admit, A JAMES BOND FILM IS A BIG DEAL TO ME! I know Karl Marx, Guy Debord and Edward Bernays are all correct in that the media is corrupting the proletariat, BUT WHO CARES – IT IS JAMES BOND and CHRISTOPH WALTZ IS THE BAD GUY! I got my hopes up! I was really looking forward to it! It stopped me from thinking about reality! I failed to lower my expectations. So, what I am saying is I liked Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Bond but not as much as I’d hoped. I shall explain why.
I have seen Spectre twice now and it is very entertaining. Was it was good film? Yes – it was fine. Was it a good Bond film though? Yes and no I would say. I should qualify this by saying I thought Skyfall (2012) was a cracking film in its own right; a fantastic action thriller with fine characterisation and a formidably nasty, yet playful, villain in Javier Bardem. Thematically it was very strong with Bond’s orphan background and relationship with M (other) providing a fulcrum to the narrative. Skyfall was also lusciously shot with fantastic set-pieces and direction but it wasn’t necessarily a great Bond espionage adventure like From Russia With Love (1963) or The Living Daylights (1987) or a combustible boy’s own adventure like Casino Royale (2006). It was an Oedipal soap opera with explosions and the past destroying the present. Spectre is very similar in fact although the destruction is much larger in scale.
I would also compare Spectre to Quantum of Solace (2008) in the context that it is a kind of sequel to the previous outing and links back to Bond’s past. The main difference is Spectre is over fifty minutes longer than Quantum of Solace and certainly feels slow in places. I’m aware that Quantum of Solace is not rated highly in the Bond canon. However, I feel there are some incredible action sequences in there; notably the Opera shootout, great Plane chase and explosive desert hotel/hide-out denouement. While the villain was weak and it failed in terms of narrative, Quantum of Solace succeeded for me as a spectacle and by tying up the loose ends from Casino Royale.
Similarly, Spectre has some breathtakingly cinematic moments. Indeed, the first hour was sensational in terms of pace, action, mood and atmosphere. It’s a film about death and the past and opening at the massive Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City was a masterstroke in symbolism. Bond is an assassin; a hired killer used by the British government to take out the bad guys and where better to do it at a carnival celebrating those that have kicked the bucket. The opening chase, building demolition and helicopter fight is classic Bond and really kicks the film off in style. A spurious plot twist then gets Bond to Rome where he then meets – in the shadows – his nemesis, and the childhood ‘friend’ he thought dead, Franz Oberhauser played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz is one of my favourite actors but is criminally underused in Spectre. Aside from one particularly brilliant torture scene he is not allowed to express that wicked wit and devilish smile witnessed so adroitly in Django Unchained (2012) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).
The Oberhauser backstory does offer an interesting subplot to the main action and a very fun Bond revelation; however, it is similar to the Skyfall revenge-plot with touches of Cain and Abel thrown in. Arguably too it doesn’t quite gel alongside other aspects of the script such as the global “Big Brother” programme to connect ALL the security and CCTV systems across the world which would make the 007 programme obsolete. So, with Bond under threat physically, emotionally AND politically we have an ambitious story with a thin plot that gets soggy at times. Thematically Spectre is strong but Bond feels very reactive in some respects and not always making the decisions. Indeed, there is a scene where a RAT assists him; not torture or cunning or sheer violence but an actual rodent. This moment and the anorexic characterisation of Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux) were very much weaknesses in the script.
Sam Mendes and his production team have produced much for Bond fans to revel in. The opening credit sequence is stunning and I loved the Octopus imagery and motifs throughout. It also manages to mask the soporific non-entity which is Sam Smith’s theme song Writing on the Wall. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is a brute of a henchmen and his Rome car chase, Austrian snow pursuit and train punch-up were all brilliant action set-plays. Q (Ben Wishaw), M (Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) all brought fine dramatic and comedic qualities to the film although, again, with SO many characters involved it took away screen time from Christoph Waltz. Finally, the “ticking-time” bomb denouement was well-executed but the film had run out of steam a bit by then.
Spectre is a technical tour-de-force and in Daniel Craig we have an actor who absolutely nails the role. He rocks the action, driving, shooting, running, falling, crashing with a coolness, toughness and insouciance which will be a hard act to follow. Indeed, the way they tied in the strands from previous films tells me this is probably his final Bond. Overall, the first hour-and-a-half of Spectre writes a spectacular cheque the final act cannot quite cash. The big-bad-wolf reveal is not as surprising as I would have hoped and the Orwellian supporting story didn’t feel that deadly to me. And while our villain’s revenge on James was believable I didn’t quite buy the fact that Oberhauser was the architect of ALL Bond’s woes in the previous three films.
I realise it is a very big responsibility to maintain quality in a big movie franchise and Spectre does so but the long running time does it no favours. Paradoxically too by trying to give it more depth in respect of the familial backstory it again lost the espionage stuff I love. We do indeed live in the Society of the Spectacle and this film offered up some solace away from the daily grind. But I must learn to manage expectations and perhaps stop living my life by proxy through fictitious cinematic spies and face the spectre of existence a bit more realistically. (Mark: 008 out of 11)