Films seen July

Baby Driver (2017 – Edgar Wright)

 

One of those films that gets inordinately over-praised because it is an ‘original idea’, Baby Driver had a few decent car chases (but don’t get carried away – these weren’t anything special) and a jukebox, almost musical, feel to the soundtrack.  But aside from Jamie Foxx, the film struggled to find a single decent, engaging performance.  Kevin Spacey sleep-walked, John Hamm was woefully out-of-his-depth (the man is little more than a small-screen actor) and Lily James took a role that could have been performed by any one of the attractive, capable performers that flood into Hollywood.  But most egregious was the central performance from… christ, I can’t remember his name.  And I am tempted to google it – as I have been tempted to research as to why exactly he was foisted upon us, given that I have never seen him before (is he on telly or something?) – but I can’t find the willpower, given how irritating his performance was.  Much is made out of the fact that ‘Baby’ doesn’t talk much, but the reality of the film was that he wouldn’t shut up.  His performance was needy and inhuman, so committed was he to dancing and prancing and posing in any conceivable situation.

In short; there was a much better film here if only there had been a decent cast.

 

Seen on a large screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £11 or so.

 

 

Song to Song (2017 – Terrence Malick)

 

In the UK this film has only been released for a two-week engagement on one solitary screen in London… so of course I went to see it.

By now, the critics have turned on Malick, and with the same level of predictability, a few lone voices have rushed to his defence.  Both groups are as frustrating as the other, because this was a moderately engaging film that seemed to explore two ideas with a degree of inscrutable intensity.  Firstly, that it takes an awful long time to figure out who you are, what your values are, and how you want to live in the modern world.  And that secondly, during this process of figuring yourself out, you will make some compromises that you will live to regret.

Now, neither of those ideas are particularly earth-shattering.  Nor are they permissible by those who see themselves surrounded by a generation of fecklessly indulgent millennials getting very passionate about various meaningless ideals (foremost of which are their own identities.  Second of which is Buffy feminist?).  But they are truthful (if not particularly honest) ideas, and this film, clearly suffering from Malick’s usual affectations, excavated them within a non-linear, but easily pieced together, narrative.  I liked it.

(Plus, I took the day off work to see it, and movies are always better when you are playing truant.)

 

Seen on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £4.50.

 

 

The Road Warrior (1981 – George Miller)

 

There’s only so much exploitation I can handle in my life, and Ozploitation can’t quite reach the upper echelons of my interest.  I think it’s something to do with the insincerity of the accent.  But this sequel becomes something radiant; a sweaty, almost impossible car chase that is littered with leaking petroleum and mangled carburettors.  It presents the utter hopelessness of dystopia; where the last remaining semblances of dignity and compassion have been abandoned, and only the survival instinct remains.

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost about £8.50.  35mm screening – a lovely print (that called it Mad Max 2)

 

 

The Warriors (1979 – Walter Hill)

 

Wonderful to see, not least because I’d only ever seen Walter Hill’s very silly director’s cut before.  The heightened horror of New York City felt more and more perverse on the big screen… though I can’t help but feel that the ending just comes out of nowhere.  It almost feels like the budget just ran out at some point.  It doesn’t hold the same passion for me as some of Hill’s contemporaneous works, but it was still a delightful hour-and-a-half.

 

Seen immediately after the above on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £8.50, though why this wasn’t a double bill, I don’t know.  35mm screening and a lovely print.

 

 

The Beguiled (2017 – Sofia Coppola)

 

I had, rather shamefully, put an awful lot of hope into this film, such was my mealy-minded dismissal of some of the sexual politics at play in Don Seigel’s version of the same film.  But those criticisms (available here) were shallow in their thinking, and susceptible to the quick condemnation of art that plagues my generation.

Because those hopes were ultimately misguided.  This was a beautiful film, and full of some rich performances, but it was a superficial affair.  Coppola displayed little inclination to examine any of the sexual (or indeed, racial) politics that are inherent to the set-up.  Moments of heighted tension in the original film, such as the visit from the confederate soldiers and the destruction of the tortoise, seemed limp and lacklustre in this version.  A beautiful waste.

 

Seen on one of the small, but still bigger than most, screens at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

Dune (1984 – David Lynch)

 

You’re struck by just how fully realised the world the Lynch created on screen.  It may be a little ridiculous in places, but you never feel that any performance or detail of set design is drawing attention to the unreality of it all.  Everyone is fully committed to the world; a world that is clearly as much of a nightmare as the one presented in Eraserhead (1977 – David Lynch).  This is not true of most science-fiction.  These kinds of stories rely on an almost biblical sense of prophecy and world-building, and Dune is no exception.  So much time is spent establishing the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, that his ultimate fulfilment of his potential seems a little rushed.  It’s a film that makes you pine for a series of increasingly desperate sequels.

 

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £11.  70mm screening!

 

 

Eyes Wide Shut (1999 – Stanley Kubrick)

 

I was very hungover when I saw this.

(Which is to say that it remains my favourite Kubrick, but the uncomfortable exploration of sexual desire that haunts this film was lost on me as I fell asleep on several occasions whilst watching the film.  What I will say is that the quickly issued dismissals of certain affected aspects of Kubrick’s style, such as his use of rear projection, were almost unnoticeable when viewed on a big screen from a celluloid projection.  It’s one of those many instances where the clarity of home viewing, and the easily accessible pause button, do no favours to a film.)

 

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £8 or so.  35mm screening – lovely print.

 

 

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017 – Matt Reeves)

 

Planet = good

Beneath = brilliant lunacy

Escape = bit dull

Conquest = oooh, this is really quite good

Battle = yawn

Planet = affection for, given this is the first one I saw in the cinema

Rise = much, much better than it deserved to be

Dawn = awful hideous mess

And now War which was pretty decent, but no matter how good the CGI gets, and no matter how manipulative the plots of these movies are, I can’t help but get distracted by the fact that I am watching a bunch of cartoon monkeys on screen.  I suppose that at the end of the day I am going to root for a drunk, malicious Woody Harrelson over a bunch of anthropomorphic pixels.  He’s a better special effect at the end of the day.

 

Seen on a medium-sized screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost 6.50.

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017 – Roger Michell)

Another film dampened by a particularly wet performance – this time from some overpromoted posh boy actor (whose name is also not worth looking up) – who struggles to bring any shade to his character.  This is all that more pathetic when you consider that he essentially wants to sleep with his mum.  It is the weakness of the film that his character is placed at its centre, when the interesting person is Rachel Weisz’s eponymous cousin Rachel.  Indeed, Roger Michell’s (an above average director who always includes at least one breath-taking sequence in each of his films) direction only comes to life when she is on the screen.  Beyond that, the film is little more than the extreme competence of mumbling yokels and lavish production design that comes with any British costume drama.

 

Seen on the small, but adequate screen at the Panton St. Odeon.  Ticket cost £6.50.

 

 

Unstoppable (2010 – Tony Scott)

 

I just get really sad when I see a Tony Scott film.  Because it just breaks my heart that I’ll never have a new one to see.  He was (and is) my absolute favourite director, and…  it’s really difficult to get this down.

Like, I accept that there will be a lot of art that I will never get on top of.  I will never read all the books that I should read, or want to read.  I get that there will be James Bond films made long after I die, and therefore, there will be Bond films I don’t get to see.  But Tony Scott is finished.  His work is accomplished.  And there is part of me that desperately wants it to be unmanageable.

Because Unstoppable was so full of life and so focussed that you feel things would have started to turn around for him.  The critical establishment (which had been very sniffy about the last decade of his work) would have been presented with a series of deliberate, spectacular thrillers.  It felt like we were just about to enter a new phase of his work, that would have been as distinct as his 2000s work was from his nineties work.

The painterly exploration of image and editing had been mastered.  And what strikes you when you see these films on the screen is how controlled the shots he uses are.  He’s not cut-cut-cutting in that way that we simplify his style to; instead he only brings in the multiple camera presentation at moments of high tension, where he uses them to draw out the suspense and prolong the nervousness we feel whilst we watch the spectacle on screen.

And the film contains everything we love about him.  The texture of celluloid.  The verisimilitude of exact details within the production design and script.  The dedication to practical effects.  The central performance of such charm and charisma from Denzel Washington.  It makes you wonder how some films still manage to be good without any of those ingredients.

Unstoppable is Scott’s exploration of how competence is something essential that we don’t value enough.  We’re all looking for people with flair, but the reality is that it is the people who can get the job done, without fuss or arrogance, are the ones who ultimately prove to be exceptional.

Seeing this film made me go home and watch several other Tony Scott movies.  Hell, I watched Man on Fire (2004) twice in two days.  It’s that good.  He was that good.

And god, I miss him.

 

Seen at the NFT screen 1 at the BFI Southbank.  Ticket cost £8.  35mm screening – beautiful print.

Films seen June

In the Cut (2003 – Jane Campion)

 

Campion’s deeply sexy neo-noir is one of those films that was initially glimpsed whilst flicking through the channels on late night television.  It’s a film whose reputation preceded it, so inextricably linked to the collapse of Meg Ryan’s stardom following some rather minor indiscretions and awkward Michael Parkinson interviews.  On that initial viewing, it was quite breath-taking, so rich was the texture of the impasto cinematography.  Over the years, the pleasure has only grown.  There’s a bitter-sweet intensity to finally seeing it on the big-screen (on celluloid no less) knowing that the colours, the shadow and depth of sensation is unlikely to ever be as vivid as it was on this night.  It is unpatronising, considered and features an extraordinary central performance from Ryan.  Until this point she was not a naturalistic performer, but here, not only is she acting with a high degree of realism, she also effectively presents a barrier between herself as a performer and the audience.  We are never entirely sure of her thoughts, never certain of her intentions, and as such, it is utterly beguiling to watch her.

 

Seen on Screen 1 at the Curzon Soho.  Ticket was a fairly hefty £17.  35mm presentation (absolutely beautiful print!) by the Misc. Films collective followed by a fascinating Q&A by Jane Campion.  Highlights included: her utter generosity when answering heavily loaded questions from the audience, a hilarious mix-up between Tinder and Kinder and a standing a few feet away when she was asked to dinner by a complete stranger in the audience.  Good times!

 

 

Wonder Woman (2017 – Patty Jenkins)

 

So it’s a very important movie for a lot of people, and I enjoyed it an awful lot.  There are moments – such as the exposition heavy recap of the history of the Amazonians – which are presented with a grace that is rare in big-budget cinema.  And the emotional honesty – the non-patronising affection Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor displays for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (a superb mix of naivety and elegance) – is quite brilliant.  These DC movies are so good, and so much better than their Marvel equivalents, because they reframe human emotion into fantastical settings.  The Marvel movies are just a bit basic in comparison.  And they’ve ploughed this very modern idea of superheroes having no obligation to save humanity to an admirable extent.  I accept that I will never find this movie as powerful as others do because I have never wanted for cinematic role-models, but we just need to get to the stage where this is everyday, rather than uncustomary.

 

A huge screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket only cost £6 or so because I was able to go on a Monday.

 

 

The Mummy (2017 – Alex Kurtzman)

 

I mean, look, it’s a Tom Cruise film.  I’m going to see it on its opening weekend.  And, y’know… um… this was not a good film.  I laughed out loud when I saw their ‘Dark Universe’ logo and it was downhill from there.  (and Jesus… ‘Dark Universe’… because I get it, every fucking film needs to be a franchise nowadays, but if your solution to bring together a number of steadfast properties as Frankenstein and Dracula – all of which have managed to sustain dozens of films over the history of cinema – is to create literally the dullest secret society imagined, you need to take a long step back from making movies.)

The appeal of a latter-day Tom Cruise film is his absolute dedication to performing a stunt or sequence that is innovative and breathtaking.  And there are good moments in this film – there’s an underwater sequence that is particularly engaging – but they aren’t anything special.  For the first time in forever I feel I watched a Tom Cruise film that was just treading water.

  • By my count this is the third out of his previous four films that was filmed in part in England.
  • Jake Johnson as a sarcastic haunting is a brilliant idea… that is just dropped. Why would you choose to negate the most charismatic idea within your movie?
  • Annabelle Wallis brings little to the movie, other than an underwhelming ability to repeatedly utter the dialogue ‘Nick?’ about fourteen-thousand times.
  • Russell Crowe manages to do two bad English accents in this movie – his standard cod-Shakespearean accent as imitated by Chris Hemsworth in his Thor appearances, and his new working-class-cockney voice.

 

A good-sized screen at the Bexleyheath Cineworld.  Ticket cost £11 or so.

 

 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017 – David Bowers)

 

There are tonnes of these fairly worthless kids films in cinemas all over the land, and if you’re a parent, you probably see them all the time.  I’m not.  But I’ve been showing the kids I work with Harold Lloyd movies over the past few weeks and it’s completely blown their minds.  I mean, they scream and laugh as they watch them and then immediately want to see more.  They can name Safety Last (1923) and Feet First (1930).  I don’t really have a point to this, other than to say, can’t we just aspire to something more.  Why do we insist that children’s movies have to be safe and patronising and sentimental?

 

A medium-sized screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  On the plus side, it was free as I took fifty eleven-year-olds to see it.  On the down side, I spent 30 minutes trying to get to the bottom of who hit who in a fight that broke out before the film.

 

 

Streets of Fire (1984 – Walter Hill)

 

I’m going to write about this film at considerable length in the months to come.  Suffice to say, it is an all-time favourite.

 

Seen on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  35mm showing – every reel of the film was in a different condition – some looking pretty good, some were neon pink.  That’s the joy of these celluloid screenings; watching a film on Blu-Ray will ensure the experience is consistent.  On celluloid, it is vibrant and alive and will be truly different each time you see it.  I had a shitty day at work, but the audience were really into the film and I loved every minute.  Ticket cost £11, but came with a beer and a slice of pizza.

 

 

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017 – Michael Bay)

 

Which is a beautiful mess.  Because for a lot of the running time you’re trying to figure out what is going on (and who is voicing the violently obsequious robot British butler), but it doesn’t really matter, because every thirty seconds you’re blown away by a shot of absolute breath-taking beauty.  It’s that construction, that deliberate location of shot following shot to overwhelm and outstand the viewer that is the signature of Bay’s artistry.  Anthony Hopkins has been going around on the press tour calling Bay a true master of the medium, and most interviewers have treated these statements as nigh-senile ramblings, but he’s not wrong.  Bay is propelling cinema forward, forcing the viewer to become more active, more engaged in what they are watching, and despite the speed of his editing, he is still composing highly-classically beautiful shots.  We will talk about Bay in the terms we reserve for Hitchcock in the years to come.

It’s a brilliant film because there is a short sequence where a homicidal Transformer annihilates a horde of Nazis during the Second World War…FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER.  And, love it or hate it, that is movies at its best.

 

Seen on a huge screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £11.40.

 

 

Aliens (1986 – James Cameron)

The traditional view of Aliens is that Cameron took Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror and turned it into a sci-fi action picture.  I don’t think I’ve ever questioned this opinion, but seeing it for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how limited a reading this is.  Not only is there far less shoot-em-up action than you remember, the majority of the film is a deliberate reflection of Scott’s entry (some shots are deliberately paralleled).  The creeping tension of an incoming unstoppable killing creature intent on destroying you is as prevalent here as it was in the first film, and the sadistic corruption of pregnancy perpetuated by the xenomorph stand in contrast to Ripley’s essential nurturing nature.

70mm showing of the theatrical cut on the downstairs screen at The Prince Charles Cinema.  The experience carried a certain bittersweetness whenever Bill Paxton appeared – he really was an extraordinary screen presence.

 

(I was also due to see The Beguiled (1971 – Don Siegel) on 35mm at the Prince Charles, but it was during the heat-wave and melting points caused the trains to go up the spout and I didn’t make it in time.  Disappointing.)

Films seen May

Mindhorn (2017 – Sean Foley)

 

Which is a film that is not Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013 – Declan Lowney).  It’s a film that repeats many of that much better film’s beats, but you just don’t care here.  Without a history of multiple television series, Richard Thorncroft is just another man, and only the broadest of jokes land.  And there’s a point where the plot just takes over from silliness and jokes, which in all these films, Alpha Papa included, feels sluggish and wearisome.  At the end of the day, you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve wasted your time watching this film.

 

On the weirdly shaped Screen 1 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Good sized screen.  Ticket cost £10.50.

 

 

A Canterbury Tale (1944 – Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

 

For a large part of the film you forget quite why you love it so.  It’s all a bit aimless, and beyond the pleasure of seeing the part of the country you live in and around as it was during the war.  And then you remember as the final twenty minutes are this elegiac journey of recovery for our four protagonists.  It is such a perfect sense of grace… one that is ever-so-slightly bittersweet with the foreknowledge that many of these characters may be dead within a few months.

There was a moment watching this film, as the black and white beams of light shone through a half empty theatre on a grey Saturday afternoon that I felt a similar sense of grace.  For a few moments I felt I gained an insight into what cinema must have meant in 1944; how essential it was to wisdom and comfort and calm.

I reminded me why movies are my religion and cinema is my cathedral.

 

The screening was meant to be in 35mm, but got switched to digital.  Almost didn’t go as a consequence, but I was up in town anyway.  Screened on the lovely NFT 2 at the BFI Southbank.  Ticket cost £12 or something.  Shown w/ Westward Ho! (1940 – Thorold Dickinson) – a short film about the evacuation of children during the war.  Got a little frustrated when I got the BFI as it was heaving… later I realised Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were all there for a screening, so I retrospectively forgave everyone.

 

 

Alien: Covenant (2017 – Ridley Scott)

 

The film breaks down into four sections:

  1. The opening receive-a-distress-call-and-decide-to-investigate section, which when the film is over, you can’t quite believe you had to sit through. It takes half-an-hour to do what Alien (1979 – Scott) did in five minutes.  Characters are drawn with the thinnest of personalities (Danny McBride wears a hat…) and James Franco’s cameo is entirely distracting (I hadn’t realised it was him being burned up in the cryogenic pod at the start, and I saw it on a screen as big as a house.)

  1. The second section sees the crew land on a planet and investigate the crashed engineer ship from Prometheus (2012 – Scott). Visually it’s quite beautiful, and it’s bringing a woodland aesthetic to a series that had never explored this terrain before.  There’s a growing (if somewhat obvious) sense of unease and a fantastic attack in a wheatfield.

  1. A section set in the engineer’s city where Michael Fassbender hams it up as David – which feels as if it is drawn from Vincent Ward’s abandoned version of Alien3. It’s easy to denigrate this section as slightly flaccid, but it relies on the understanding that:
  • David was the morally uneasy protagonist of Prometheus rather than Noomi Rapace.
  • All Alien films depend upon a nightmare logic, where characters make terrible, and stupid, decisions in the face of danger.

David is clearly coded as H. R. Giger, fantastical and slightly psychopathic, but it’s hard to believe in a sincere conflict between him and Fassbender’s dual portrayal of Walter, who is a blanker slate.

  1. The final section plays as a hyped-up hybrid of the Alien hunting scenes from Alien and the final conflict in Aliens (1986 – James Cameron). It is wearisome on reflection.

So Alien: Covenant feels like a meal reheated in a microwave, and the opening and closing half hours lack any real invention.  But… but… I liked it.  I just have to accept that I adore these films in the way that some people adore Marvel movies.  Was it better than Prometheus?  Yes, but I quite liked Prometheus?  Do I really need gaps in narratives filled in?  No; I’d prefer a more original idea that uses the Alien.  Was this film initially overpraised in some quarters and then over-criticised by others in reaction?  Yes, but isn’t that true of all cultural commentary nowadays.

What you’re left with is a film that is the fourth or fifth best entry in a very good film series.

 

Treated myself to the IMAX screen at Bluewater Showcase.  It’s not the biggest IMAX screen in the world, but it’ll do.  Ticket cost £15.

 

 

Malcolm X (1992 – Spike Lee)

 

Which is a long film and I’m not convinced by how much time is spent exploring Malcolm X’s childhood and early adulthood.  But I get why Lee did it.  The thrust of the narrative is that for a man who was mostly presented as aggressive and obstinate, Malcolm X responded greatly to the world around him, and would regularly modify his views.

I’d seen it before, but was glad to luxuriate in the big screen.  This film feels most alive when Lee indulges in his visual inventiveness, tracking shots and extraordinary Nelson Mandela cameo conclusion in particular.

 

Shown on 35mm on the Sigourney Weaver screen at The Picturehouse Central – beautiful screen.  Ticket cost £8 and they helpfully changed my seating when requested.  It was an organised event and there was a panel discussion afterwards, but I couldn’t hang around as I had to go see…

 

 

Brainstorm (1983 – Douglas Trumbull)

 

So it’s a pretty silly movie, and one where the main appeal stems from the ‘directed by Douglas Trumbull’ credit.  Which seems appealing, until you remember that he only really directed one other film, Silent Running (1972), and that’s a film that rarely rises above ‘okay’.  And you remember, it’s his effects work that you love.

Brainstorm doesn’t feature half as much effects work as you’d like.

But it is enjoyable, and having only seen it on a letterboxed blu-ray previously, it was revelatory seeing it in 70mm.  The aspect ratio changes are so integral to the plot (and you notice on the big screen the moments where Trumbull makes reality break down in a way you never could on telly), and when it is fully anamorphic, it is astonishing.  One of those cinematic experiences I’m really glad I had, and one where seeing a film in a cinema really deepened my appreciation of the film

I have a lot of 70mm showings booked for the next few months.  Excited!

 

On 70mm on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  New seats; very comfy but you can’t sink into them in the way you used to.  Ticket cost about £10 (I’m going to get membership soon).

 

 

Colossal (2017 – Nacho Vigalondo)

 

I think this was one of the ones we were meant to be excited about, revelatory performance from Anne Hathaway and all that.  But Christ.  It was dull.  And seemed to work to its own very specific logic for creating an avatar, which was kind of baffling.  I liked it for its deconstruction of two ‘nice’ guys, both out to save a woman whose only major fault was an itchy head.  But when those two guys are played by Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens, you are only waiting for them to be physically injured.  And it was a tedious wait for that to happen.

See, I wasn’t desperate for an Anne Hathaway renaissance.  I’ve being saying she was good in Rachel Getting Married (2008 – Jonathan Demme) for nearly a decade now.  And she was good in this film… it’s just it was so monotonous, that makes me doubt my feelings towards that film.  Colossal undermined my very certainty in my established critical opinion.  Just not in a good way.

 

Screen 4 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Ticket only cost £6.50.

 

 

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 – Lewis Gilbert)

For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen)

 

When watching the two of them back-to-back, it’s clear the latter is a better film, but the former is more enjoyable.  There’s a seriousness to For Your Eyes Only that predicates the most satisfying entries in the series, such as the Timothy Dalton and first two Daniel Craig films.  But after nearly four hours of Bond in action, the comedy Maggie Thatcher scene killed.  The Spy Who Loved Me is sillier and rife with uncomfortable sexual and racial politics, but indicative of the real strengths of the Moore Bonds; the effortlessness with which they entertain an audience.  There is no ambition to bring ‘depth’, no unsatisfying attempt to delve into backstory, just a particular mix of ambitious stunt work, a winningly charming central role, and a sense of humour that captures the whole audience.

(One thing I did notice that the two films share is that Bond is definitively a widower in both movies.  Strange that nearly ten years later, and with an entirely different lead actor (twice) they were still dwelling on plot points from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969 – Peter R. Hunt))

 

Charity double bill at the Odeon Covent Garden Screen 1 in memory of Sir Roger Moore.  New 4K transfers.  Ticket only cost £7 (for two films!).  Enthusiastic audience too!

Films seen April

Life (2017 – Daniel Espinosa)

Which people try to disparage as an Alien rip-off.  As if that’s a bad thing?

A lovely (though completely faked) single-shot sequence opens a film follows the standard formula of a likeable crew (Reynolds, Wilson, Gyllenhaal) being murdered one by one.  So what – it’s a nominal plot?  There are fascinations of my childhood – dinosaurs, space travel, steam trains – that remain with me to this day.  I love them, regardless of the context.  The conviction of the cast in this film and the claustrophobia of a zero-gravity space station adds a level of true hostility to the proceedings; we rarely get to see utter terror in our lives, so it is exhilarating to see it performed.  But the ending – a glorious, defeatist conclusion, which dooms both our heroes and the whole of humanity – pushes this film into something quite thrilling.  I could do with one of these films a month.

A tiny, shitty screen with broken chairs and an obnoxious audience at the Cineworld Leicester Square (formerly the Empire).  If I wasn’t in a good mood, I’d have properly resented the experience.  Ticket was about £12.

Free Fire (2017 – Ben Wheatley)

 

Six films in, and he’s no closer to a masterpiece.  The breadth of Wheatley’s career is more something to admire than love (Steven Soderbergh suffers from the same affliction).  There is an almost desperate, and quite cynical, tendency within his films to create something ‘cult’.  He is a poseur trying to be alternative.  Every moment of Free Fire seems designed to be regurgitated by some inexperienced nineteen-year-old in a university halls of residence; and maybe it will be.  But there is nothing in this film that is even remotely dangerous or surprising.  It is an utterly safe film.  It is a tedious trawl through an approximation of ‘interesting’; actors little more than E.R. guest-stars perform paper-thin characters spouting dialogue that is not once amusing or quotable.

I think there is nothing more dull in modern cinema than the choice to ironically re-appropriate a popular, if slightly naff, pop song.  Ben Wheatley probably considers it to be an ‘edgy’ choice.

 

A small screen at the Bluewater Showcase… which was completely deserted of anyone other than myself.  I suspect they released it on too many screens following the relative success of High Rise (2016).  I’m not sure how the BFI can justify financially supporting a release on this level.  I can never work out in these situations (and for the record, it’s happened twice before – at Ponyo (2008 – Hayao Miyazaki) and Much Ado About Nothing (2012 – Joss Whedon)), whether I’m essentially in a private screening or very, very lonely.  Ticket cost £9 or so.

 

 

Raw (2016 – Julia Ducournau)

 

Which is one of those films where I spent a significant part of its run-time not actually looking at the screen, such was the unpleasantness on display.  That’s not a criticism – I find the deliberate ambiguity that drowns modern art-house cinema far more distasteful than any depiction of cannibalism.  But I can’t love a film like this – all effect, and little substance.

 

Screen 3 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Ticket cost £10.

 

 

Grindhouse (2007 – Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez)

 

We never got the chance to see this movie as originally intended in the U.K. and I occasionally claim that Death Proof is one of my favourite films ever, so the chance to see all three hours or so of this film was most welcome.

 

Seeing it with an audience was thrilling, and it’s fair to say that for many there the fake trailers were the highlight of the evening.  The ‘missing reel’ moment in Planet Terror absolutely killed; when Tarantino tries the same effect in Death Proof it seems muted and diluted.

 

Rodriguez and Tarantino were reaching for different things in their movies.  Rodriguez saw it as an opportunity to indulge in his trashy impulses, whilst Tarantino, always more concerned with his own auteurship, directed a new project, albeit one which took some of his textural indulgences (black + white sections, chaptered storytelling etc.) to an extreme.  The latter is a better film – not unsurprisingly – but its pleasures are less obvious, and in the double-bill format, the audience is exhausted by the time the final thrilling car chase erupts onto the screen.  You could feel the fatigue in the room.

Sold out showing on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  Fantastic audience.  Ticket cost £8 (I think…).  35mm showing – though it’s hard to notice here, given the deliberate grottiness of the image.

 

 

The Fate of the Furious (2017 – F. Gary Gray)

 

As I’m currently serialising a series on The Fast and the Furious films, I’ll reserve the majority of my thoughts until I publish the piece in June.

But suffice to say, it was the weakest instalment of an occasionally extraordinary franchise.

 

Huge screen at the Bluewater Showcase, slightly dampened by the fact that I had a killer migraine whilst watching it.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

The Red Shoes (1948 – Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

 

Which I often claim to be my favourite film.  I’m not sure I feel that way right now; like most favourite films, the allegiance towards a director usually means affection shifts from one film to another as time goes by.  Once upon a time, Raging Bull (1980) was my favourite Martin Scorsese film; nowadays Taxi Driver (1976) is more affecting.  I suspect that one day I will find The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) or The Small Back Room (1949) to be more compelling pictures than this.

But for now, The Red Shoes remains one of the most important pieces of art in my life.  To watch it is to understand part of my soul in a way I find quite hard to vocalise.  The same applies for some Tony Scott and Michael Mann films.

And like all art that affects us, like all truly great movies, every time I watch it I find something new within in it.  This time, I seemed to experience it as some great queer masterpiece; Lermontov, with his noticeably highly feminine sunglasses, is a great camp queen.  His interest in Vicky is not sexual; it is ascetic, a temptation to reject the limited satisfaction offered by the heteronormative existence with Julian, and share in his indulgence of the creativity of talent and art.  You can read the closing sequence as a mythical re-enactment of Hans Christian Andersen’s story or the suicide of a woman torn between two men, neither who can satisfy her, and who both want to control and limit her ambitions.  But this time, it was an act of freedom, a passionate moment of emotion, from a woman who was so close to choosing to never experience it again.  Few films are this powerful.

 

Upstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Slightly sniffy audience, including one douche who sniggered at any display of emotion in an attempt to prove how sophisticated he is.  There is a special circle in hell for the smug cunts who come to these screenings.  Ticket cost £8.  35mm showing of the most recent restoration.

 

 

Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)

 

And another all-time favourite film, seen on the big-screen for the first time.  It is a relentless and horrifying and a masterpiece of design, performance and escalating tension.

If we’re talking about the new things we see in beloved pieces of art – for me this viewing converged the mutual obsession of this film, and that of Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock).  Ripley’s pleading with Mother recalls Norman Bates’ fractured psyche; there is no reasoning with this destructive impulse.  It will dominate our existence.  In this regard, the xenomorph is an inhuman extension of Bates; simultaneously masculine and feminine, unfeeling and relentlessly homicidal.

 

Seen on the Sigourney Weaver screen at the Picturehouse Central.  It was an extraordinary 70mm print – speaking to the staff afterwards, the quality of the print was almost neon when they got it, but the projectionist team were able to show it as something beautiful.  Truly one of the best cinematic experiences of my life.  Ticket only cost £8.

 

 

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015 – George Miller)

Aware that when I first saw this film I was massively hungover, but still loved it (it was my favourite film of 2015), I jumped at the chance to see this again on the big screen.

Now I’m all for arbitrary indulges in movies.  I adore alternate cuts, franchises with different chronologies to production order – you name it, I will go there.  I’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 – Steven Spielberg) in black and white because Steven Soderbergh told us to, I’ve watched all three different versions of Legend (1985 – Ridley Scott) for the sheer hell of it.  So I went to see the Black and Chrome version of this film.

But a huge part of the appeal of this film was the extraordinarily vivid colour palate.  It seems masochistic to deny ourselves that appeal.

Downstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  Ticket cost £10.  Despite my misgivings about the visuals, the soundtrack sounded phenomenal – they really have an excellent audio set-up down there.

Win it All (2017 – Joe Swanberg)

 

I think it goes without saying that anything I watch at home is going to have less impact than something I see on screen.  There’s too many distractions, too many opportunities to look away from the visuals, and turn to the phone or laptop.  The cinema is my church; home is my prayer (the mind wanders from what it is meant to do.)

… but I really liked the onscreen text of this film.

 

Watched on Netflix.

Films seen March

Logan (2017 – James Mangold)

 

Probably the best superhero movie.  Which isn’t saying much, given the tepid product that that genre produces.  So it’s fine.  And there’s nothing much more to say about it other than it becomes one of those films that you have to over-exaggerate your enjoyment of in order to appease people in polite conversation.  But you can’t really stand at a photocopier and say “…well I liked it more than X-Men: Apocalypse, I suppose…” or “…it kind of made its point in the first five minutes, and then repeated it for two hours…”.  Nobody wants to hear that.

 

A large screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9, but half of that was covered by a voucher.

 

 

Elle (2016 – Paul Verhoeven)

 

Featuring the best movie cat since Nymphomaniac (2013 – Lars von Trier).

Somehow this film managed to be both a perfect depiction of how misogyny and rape are a part of the everyday for women, but also an apologetic for a cinematic fantasy of women ‘coping’ with trauma.  I loved how uneasy it was.  The film was brutal and funny and fierce and featured a deliriously good performance from Isabelle Huppert.  Proper, serious filmmaking.

 

Screen three at the Odeon Covent Garden.  A good screen, a good showing, a little ruined by the house lights not being completely switched-off.  I am very close to becoming a person who complains about that.  Ticket cost £10.95

 

 

Personal Shopper (2016 – Olivier Assayas)

 

I’m going to write about this film at length in the coming weeks, but suffice to say, I loved it.  This film has crawled under my skin in a way that only the best films do.

 

Screen three at Curzon Soho – the screens other than screen one at that cinema are bullshit, but this screen isn’t too bad if you sit right at the front.  Ticket cost fifteen-fucking-quid!

 

 

The Lost City of Z (2017 – James Gray)

 

At what point did Christian Bale turn down a part in this film?  Because you can’t quite escape the feeling that watching a film with Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson in is a cheap knock-off of some potentially better film.  They are actors who perpetually feel like your four or fifth choice for a part.  James Gray makes a lot of very good films, but none that you love, and The Lost City of Z continues his proficient, if somewhat emotionally distant streak.  It’s magnificently beautiful in places (and actually in cinemas, which is somewhat of a miracle given his past form), but frigid and unmemorable in others.

However, no one is able to match Gray for final shots.  Here, it is extraordinary.

 

Screen one at the Greenwich Picturehouse.  You can’t sit right at the front as you have to crane your head a little too much, but a few rows back is perfect.  Ticket was free because of some promotional thing!  I would have made a point of seeing it in 35mm when it is released, but you can’t argue with a free screening.

 

 

Get Out (2017 – Jordan Peele)

You can keep your perfect blend of horror movie tropes and racial politics, for me the most horrifying aspect of this movie was the Microsoft product placement.  They use bing as a search engine!  What nightmare are they living in!

It’s an extraordinary film that makes me feel like I’m committing cultural appropriation by even liking it.  But the opening sequence and last few minutes (when the ‘police’ car turns up) were stunning moments of recasting the true horror of our modern world.  It made me catch my breath.  The eventual explanation of what is going on is truly inane, but it’s a terrifying, interesting and funny film.  One we’re probably going to talk about for years to come

 

The studio cinema at the Bluewater Showcase.  Good sized screen which used to be very chic, but now is looking a little shabby.  Plenty of leg-room though, and it still feels like a treat.  Ticket cost £9.

Films seen February

After Hours (1985 – Martin Scorsese)

 

My monthly cinema treat was a showing of this on 35mm at the BFI.  It’s one of my favourite Scorseses – his immediately lightweight, Hitchcockian one man’s descent into unreality film made in the wake of the collapse of his initial Aiden Quinn/Sting version of The Last Temptation of Christ.  It’s a delightful film, one that explores how fear, sex and prejudice can cause people to do very strange things and its always been quite refreshing to watch a movie that says you shouldn’t step out of your comfort zone.  You shouldn’t be impulsive and disrupt your carefully constructed life.

 

35mm screening at the BFI in NFT 1 – which is a pretty crappy theatre for what it is.  Ticket cost about £11 and was preceded by his early short What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963)

 

 

Prevenge (2016 – Alice Lowe)

 

Written about, in a round-a-bout way here: https://asidesteps.com/2017/02/22/a-new-england/

 

Seen on Screen 1 – a perfectly decent small screen – at the Odeon Panton Street.  Ticket cost £11.  Someone needs to write a book about the stinky old bad ladies that come into London screenings and eat curries.

 

 

Moonlight (2016 – Barry Jenkins)

 

It was a wonderful film, but I can understand why it is not loved in the same way that La La Land appears to be.

Much of this had to do with having three different actors play the lead role, ensuring that we didn’t build a connection to the film in the way that we could have.  Most independent cinema doesn’t always appreciate the value of charismatic central performances.  And everyone is quite correct when they say that Naomie Harris’ performance is a bit out of sync with everything else going around it.  There were cheers from the crowd when the bully was hit with the chair.  It is also a film completely directed by a heterosexual man, such is the passivity and tastefulness of the sex act.  We needed a blow-job at the very least…

But (and I have tried to check my privilege on this) I think this is a film not about homosexual and black experience, but of childhood trauma.  The repression (both verbally and sexually) that the character experiences later in life, stems from the abuse and lack of acceptance that he suffered when he was young.  2/3 of the film portray him as a child; quite why this element has been drowned out in all the chattering, I’m not sure.

 

Seen in a packed screen at the Odeon Covent Garden – it’s one of my favourite London cinemas as the screens are all of a good size and the tickets often only cost – as they did here – £6.

 

 

John Wick Chapter 2 (2017 – Chad Stahelski)

 

Keanu Reeves is in this film doing a performance that is almost note-for-note the same as Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.  Except with more guns.  Only one of them was nominated for an Oscar…

By that, I mean he is a highly traumatised individual completely out of touch with those around him.  Reeves is always an intense screen presence, relying on small emotions and inflections to convey meaning, but here he is deliberately offset against campy, stylised actors such as Lawrence Fishburne.

The action scenes were terrific, especially once we passed the 1 hour mark, where it was moment after moment of unrelenting pressure.  The film moved away from the electro-synth pop of the first film, which suitably complementing the neon lit, pitch black lighting scheme it employed, and the opening car chase was a bit weak, but generally this was a thrilling experience and it made me genuinely excited for a third entry.  This is the new Fast & Furious – and initially dismissed action movie that ultimately becomes one of the most thrilling franchises on the screen.

 

Seen on a huge screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9, but I had a voucher.

 

 

Fences (2016 – Denzel Washington)

 

Which never lets you forget that it is a play – even the blocking of scenes (hushed whispers in corners) seem to have had little embellishment from a bettered wooden floor in some creaky theatre.  Washington wisely employs a strong use of close-up, knowing that this is one advantage this medium has over the other, and it goes without saying that the performances are whole-heartedly excellent.  Washington is perhaps more adventurous on the stage that on the screen in his choice of characterisation – his patter, charm and arrogance are the same, but he is playing a thoroughly unlikable character here in a way he would never do in most movies.

But it is long, and the final scene (which lasts 20mins) seems superfluous in any other context than the generosity as Washington as a performer to allow his fellow actors time to demonstrate their ability.  But his final moments are powerful, and a bolder, more selfish director would have ended the movie there.

 

Seen on a decent screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9, but I had a voucher.

 

 

Network (1976 – Sidney Lumet)

 

Christine (2016 – Antonio Campos)

 

There was a time when Network was one of my favourite films.  Which is to say, that it is one of those pictures that I have lived with a long time now – and like all good films of that nature, you notice new aspects on each viewing.  This time, it was the revelation of just how many outstanding monologues there are in this film, far more than just Peter Finch’s and Barbara Straight’s and Ned Beatty’s…

I’ve long moved past the point at which I believed this to be a stunningly prescient insight into the role of the media (Aaron Sorkin has never managed to move beyond that insight.  But then what should we expect from a man who includes the most basic of email circulars in his dialogue.)  Instead, I see it as a deconstruction of the selfishness with which we behave, the way we flit into other people’s lives for work, and sex and approval.  Television has always been so desperate because it chases those fickle gods without pausing for breath.  The film is exceptional, genuinely funny, and treats its audience with a degree of respect.

 

Rebecca Hall’s performance in Christine is superb, and the one desperate moment where she berates her mother for not accepting her with her weak mental health is superb, and speaks so truthfully to the complete lack of understanding that many display during these periods of ill-health.  Crazy that it hasn’t got more recognition than it has.  Too many good movies around at the moment

 

Double-bill at the Regent St. Cinema – a really lovely screen.  Ticket cost £16.  Which was all good, but the screening of Network was projected from a Blu-Ray… which was a shame, and I’m not really sure why I should pay for that privilege.

 

 

Patriot’s Day (2016 – Peter Berg)

 

It’s a film you can’t help but be caught up in, such is its celebration of the industriousness and ability of ordinary working people in the face of catastrophe.  And it moves at a fair pace (as did Berg’s film last year Deepwater Horizon).  Like all great adaptations of true life events, it revels in the moments that never made headlines – murderers popping out to get milk, police chiefs hurdling fences to tackle terrorists.  Which of course makes any moment with Mark Wahlberg’s basic, overly emotive and completely fictional character seem all that more absurd in this context.

 

Seen on a huge screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9, but I had a voucher.

Films seen January:

Silence (2016 – Martin Scorsese)

 

Written about, in a round-about kind of way, here:

https://asidesteps.com/2017/01/03/great-american-directors-martin-scorsese/#more-1019

 

Largest screen at the Greenwich Picturehouse.  Ticket cost £11.  A great start to the year.

 

 

Charley Varrick (1973 – Don Siegel)

 

Pulp Fiction (1994 – Quentin Tarantino)

 

I’m not sure behind the pairing of these two films in a double-bill, but I like both of them, and I haven’t watched Charley Varrick for about a decade.  There was a good forty minutes of the film where I began to doubt I had ever seen it, my memory repressing most of its mid-section.  It’s a greasy, burrowing, enjoyable heist of a movie, which satisfies those parts of me that enjoys the thrillers of Richard Stark, Ross Macdonald et. al.

It’s also a Don Siegel film from the seventies, so its sexual politics are completely queasy, and the audience loudly laughed at these scenes to show how ‘woke’ they were.  It’s always a risk seeing these films in public.

 

More people showed up for Pulp Fiction, including a top-knotted couple in front of me, one who danced in her chair and the other who leant so far back that his chair came out of its fittings and crushed my knees.  Pulp Fiction is good; its charms are immediate and I know I will never love it the way that I loved it when I was fifteen.  Tarantino has gone on to produce work with greater tension and a more subtle love of cinema, that this.  But it is a thrilling experience and great to see with a crowd.

 

Double-Bill on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  Ticket cost £7.50!!!  35mm showing.

 

 

Manchester by the Sea (2016 – Kenneth Lonergan)

 

Which everyone else says is devastating and I say isn’t miserable enough.  I loved seeing a film that didn’t seek easy answers and presented trauma for what it is… something you can never recover from.  The utter devastation that hangs in the air of this film and the complete horror of having to revisit a life you had abandoned and repressed is a totally draining viewing experience.  It also presents teenagers for what they truly are; unknowable, strange creatures who perform in a way that seems alien to us.  Sexual harasser Casey Affleck is superb, but Michelle Williams destroys in her small moments on screen creating a person who is carrying as many ghosts with her as him.  We all knew she was this good when we watched her on Dawson’s Creek…

 

Small cinema, but decent sized screen, at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £11.25, but I was given a large number of vouchers for the cinema for Christmas, so technically, it was free…

 

 

La La Land (2016 – Damien Chazelle)

 

After that fucking opening number on the motorway I was ready to storm out.  ‘Bullshit,’ I thought, ‘Complete bullshit.’  But my inability to ever take a stand for anything I feel dominated, and so I settled down in my chair to endure the next two hours.

And it won me over.  For no truly radical reason – the faults of the film are there on the surface.  Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds can’t sing or dance with any great deal of proficiency.  Part of the problem is, along with the inevitable over-praise, that this is a film designed to be churned out rather than become prestigious.  It is a factory formula musicals, but the factories have closed, and no one wants to see even the one or two musicals that come out each year (except when we do and its Moulin Rouge or Mamma Mia…).  This film is meant to be everyday populist cinema in the way that those ruddy Marvel movies are sold to us.  So we lack the leading men and women who would be trained to carry off these films.  Stone, particularly seems to realise this, and works her hardest to charm the screen (flirting along to eighties cover bands by the pool) and add weight to moments that would be pedestrian otherwise (breaking up over dinner.)

But it’s a film about the paths not taken and the romantic dreams we have of those relationships that never reached fruition.  It’s a nostalgia we can only indulge in when we are young, so few are the moments of our lives.  But it would be dishonest to say that the film didn’t affect me deeply, and gave me a melancholia that hung over me for the rest of the weekend.

 

Large screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket was £9.50/free.

 

 

Hacksaw Ridge (2016 – Mel Gibson)

 

Which is the cinematic equivalent of a Coldplay concert… shallow, occasionally amateurish, but ultimately able to push the right buttons.

I mean, I hate Andrew Garfield.  Hate.  Too earnest.  No charm.  Very ordinary.  And here I am having seen two films of his in a month.  In which I thought he was good.  Acting is important because wisdom is the recognition and understanding of another soul, and acting, along with literature, are one of the few synthetic things that can evoke that wisdom.  Garfield is beginning to display that quality of great actors – the ability to convince you of a person who is utterly unlike you.

A day later, and the memory of the music has faded and I can see the film for what it is.  It is an unsanctimonious, honest depiction of how war turns boys into murderers, and what it must take to mentally resist that indoctrination.  A far cry from the sanctimonious condemnation of Gibson, such is the lack of sympathy for those in recovery that inures our society.  Morals are easy when they’re held at a distance…

 

Medium-sized screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket was £11.25/free.

Great American Directors – Martin Scorsese

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Every now and then I check in on Quentin Tarantino’s career.  He is, after all, a man who likes to talk about his career (in highly self-aware terms) as much as he likes to make movies.  Every month or so, an article appears on some inane movie website where Tarantino has once again claimed that he is only going to make ten films (he uses a tricksy piece of maths where the Kill Bill films – which I definitely paid to see twice – counts as one film.)  His rationale is that directors do not make good films when they are old.  Broadly speaking, there’s an element of truth to it, but specifically (and by specifically I mean look at the late period careers of Bresson, Malick, Kurosawa et. al. who were all producing some of the most interesting work as they got older) it’s a limited argument.  And no place is it more limited than in the career of the director who Tarantino owes the most to (violent, masculine, camera movement, populist auteur)… Martin Scorsese.

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