J. J. Abrams as director 3 – Super 8 (2011)

super8

When I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016 – Dan Trachtenberg) I really liked it.  It had fantastic central performances and it genuinely kept me guessing up until the final fifteen minutes.  The tediousness of the final sequence almost, almost, ruins what has gone before.  So why feature them at all.  Why is there a need to tie an enjoyable movie so tenuously to a forgettable film from the previous decade?  Are we that desperate that everything has to be a franchise.

 

J. Abrams produced 10 Cloverfield Lane. He made the decision to tie a standalone spec script called The Cellar into an established property in order to increase its chances of box-office success. It’s a mercenary move.  Similarly, Super 8 was the result of shmushing together an alien invasion movie and an idea about children making home movies into one film.  This is the reason why Abrams is a powerful player in Hollywood and not just another script doctor.

Because as a writer, he’s okay.  He has a good grasp of character, and there is the necessary tidiness of plot that comes from mainstream filmmaking.  His themes are digestible.  But Abrams is a writer who is witty rather than funny.  Anyone half-decent can write a witty line; movies are full of characters who sound the same and have razor sharp back-and-forths with each other.  But funny?  Funny, as in it goes beyond language funny… that’s another thing.  This isn’t a slight; he’s a talented writer, miles better than many of his contemporaries.  But there is no desire in him to write anything in the slightest bit dangerous.

(He is also susceptible to one of my least favourite tropes of script writing, the geek getting the hot girl.  These are symptoms of the writer revealed.  The geeks, often frustratingly, but safely awkward, are typically ‘nice’ guys, but in Hollywood, quite unlike real life, they end up with a considerably more attractive partner.  And I get it.  Because it’s true for these screenwriters.  They were nerds in school who moved to Hollywood and married a beautiful actress.  But it doesn’t quite ring true for a wider society.)

Despite opening on an image that could easily be the start of an episode of The Simpsons, Super 8 is a narratively comfortable story of childhood friendships.  It is heavily indebted to, and nostalgic for, the films directed and produced by Steven Spielberg in the eighties.  The only slight difference being that Abrams wants to explore our relationships with our fathers in a way that Spielberg had no interest in.  By his third film, Abrams has a more sedate approach to directing.  There still is an awful lot of needlessly intrusive lens flare, but Abrams is more content to pull back the camera, focus on long shots, and allow the dialogue sequences to play out within a landscape.  Until the action scenes, where his habitual Dutch angles and swooping field of vision come into play.

But after three of these films, it becomes apparent that Abrams just doesn’t trust us as an audience.  There are scenes in the film that move away from the children’s point-of-view, allowing us to clearly understand certain motives.  It ensures we have easily identifiable bad-guys.  There is no space in these movies for our imagination; everything has to be explained to us.  It’s and unsubtle, and slightly insulting approach to movie making and makes us feel less like a communicant in cinema and more like a customer.  Movies are meant to be magical.  They’re meant to evoke semi-religious feelings inside us, as we participate in a whole other life, world or perspective.  Abrams has little interest in this, and is content to spoon-feed us brief moments of enjoyment.

As I watch his films I do appreciate the gifts that he has.  He is not a hack.  But his movies are safe and contained.  They never play in the theatre of our minds.  Children ran out and played The Goonies (1985 – Richard Donner) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982 – Steven Spielberg) in their back gardens and local parks.  No one could, even if they wanted to, play Super 8.  There’s no space for imagining.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004 – Alexander Witt)

Twice in the last twelve months have my energy bills gone up, and this is with no significant change in oil wholesale prices.  I moan about this, because it highlights the cruelty corporations will inflict upon working people in order to make profit for its major shareholders.  Housing is not a luxury; it is a necessity.  The fact that this necessity is exploited, and that individuals rarely even complain or resist such exploitation, is significant.  Most people choose to blame society’s ills upon those people living off benefits.  It strikes me that we have lost a degree of humanity when we choose to attack another human being rather than a faceless corporation.  It’s an argument that not all people appreciate at the photocopier at 8:30am on a Monday morning…

Resident Evil: Apocalypse pushes the insidious Umbrella Corporation to the forefront; they are clearly responsible for monetarising healthcare and denying ordinary civilians health, security and justice.  As such, the zombies become positioned as easy targets – they are people, nominally like us, yet different in small, but significant, ways.  George Romero’s greatest strength in his zombie films, particularly in the abandoned second trilogy that began in Diary of the Dead (2007), was to accept that the zombies were a unique lifeform in and of themselves.  He began to explore the consequences of humanity sharing this planet with another lifeform, albeit one that was predatory.  There is little such exploration in the Resident Evil films, the series instead choosing to present a streaming mass of villains, as a hostile ‘other’.  They become the ignorance of man; our inability to understand the ‘other’ and subsequently treat them as fodder.

Apocalypse moves away from the sterile, almost futuristic laboratory setting of the first film and into more traditional landscapes.  This is a horror/action picture set in abandoned churches and schools and graveyards.  It is a safer terrain; a less intimidating aesthetic to an audience primed on an endless stream of horror movies.  There are a few nods made to the videogame origins of the series – such as some fairly pedestrian first-person visuals – but largely, this is a fairly standard piece of genre filmmaking.  It lacks the visual strangeness that Paul W. S. Anderson brought to his instalment.

  • At this point the series begins to position Milla Jovovich as iconic. From now on, the franchise will take every opportunity to show her, legs astride, arms locked out in front, two pistols in hand.
  • Frustratingly, this film has more tedious endings that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003 – Peter Jackson).

Resident Evil rankings:

 

  1. Resident Evil
  2. Resident Evil: Apocalypse

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.

Stallone as director 3: Rocky III (1982)

Rocky III

In between fight scenes on Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone would feel light-headed.  At this point he was subsisting on twenty-five cups of coffee a day, a few scoops of tunafish and a kind of oatmeal biscuit made from brown rice.  It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving on such a small level of food whilst at the same time performing a physically arduous role AND directing a huge blockbuster motion picture.  You have to return to the days of silent movie making to find directors who pursued physical perfection alongside artistic intent.  For that alone, Stallone should command respect.

Within his body of work, Rocky III stands as a picture of interest as it chronicles a performer wallowing in hubris.  Balboa has become convinced of his own talent; he becomes a shill for cheap products and lazily challenges unworthy competitors in the ring.  It is a document of the excess that comes with the ‘new’ money of the eighties.  The parallels between Balboa and Stallone can be easily drawn.  For Stallone, the only guarantee of legitimacy and glory is to return to your roots and conquer your own demon of self-loathing.  It’s a chronicled deconstruction of himself; a rejection of a simplistic vision of masculinity and denial of any intrinsic value of adulation.  It is a path of forensically detailed self-examination that he would deny himself in the years to come.  Balboa has always been an avatar for Stallone; an opportunity for his to explore his hopes and his fears.

Equally, he turned this perceptiveness onto the supporting cast.  He began to respond to the representation of black culture in the previous instalments.  Where previously the African-American members of the cast were presented at best as an alien ‘other’ and at worst, the villain, he begins to show how other cultures share as much in the struggle of survival in America as working-class Italian immigrants.  Both Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang are presented as more deserving holders of the title belt; their determination and sacrifice are shown to be greater than Balboa’s.  They understand the struggle you have to face to gain and maintain success; Balboa takes it, as most white people do, for granted.

Many of Stallone’s visual prompts come into play.  There are low angled shots at the beginning of the film.  Dialogue scenes are framed in close-up.  There are freeze frames and slow-motion employed during moments of tension or suspense.  Heavy shadow is used to show internal anguish.  Sepia flashbacks are used to recall an earlier time.  These are fairly superficial devices to be used.  But Stallone is a workmanlike director.  His priority is direct storytelling.  He seeks to visually represent internal conflict; this results in a pure aesthetic effectiveness.

But Stallone was determined to push cinema into a new decade.  He is pioneering in this regard as he sought to reject the dour reality of seventies American cinema and replace it with a dynamic, glowing attractiveness.  The colours become heightened, and he regularly employed soft focus to create a dreamlike haze to scenes (the transfer on the BLU-RAY reveals the gauze applied to the lens in order to achieve this effect.  Rather than appear distracting, if gives the scenes an almost pop art, Lichtenstein quality).  Stallone escalated his use of montage; no longer restricted to training scenes, it became a narrative device used throughout the movie.  Inspired by the burgeoning music video movement that sprung up with the rise of MTV, Stallone set these sequences to dynamic music, most notably here, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.  Stallone was determined to move direction along with his audience; he understood that their aesthetic was changing, and there was no need to deny them this in cinema.

Despite the gruelling diet, Stallone has never appeared more beautiful.  The lumpy awkwardness of his youth has been replaced by a lean grace.  His lack of body fat ensured his slightly exaggerated bone structure came to the forefront.  Coupled with an almost feather like haircut, he became a figure of elegance and desire.  Few actors put as much effort into the physicality of their part as Stallone; Balboa is almost an entirely different person to John Rambo as Rambo is a physically distinct person to Cobra.

With its focussed runtime, aesthetic inventiveness and intelligent skewering of conventional masculinity, Rocky III represents the high point of the franchise, and a towering achievement in regards to physical magnificence on the part of Stallone.

F2.5: Los Bandoleros (2009 – Vin Diesel)

Letty

The next film produced in the series was Justin Lin’s first contribution, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), but gluttony, and a love of Sung Kang’s Han Seoul-Oh character, meant that the following film in the franchise (which featured the return of Vin Diesel), was set chronologically before it.  It gets increasingly entertaining to see the various heavy-handed mentions of Han going to Tokyo as they began to fit more and more films into this gap.  It’s a bit like Narnia in the regard.  Because I’m a masochist, I’ve decided to watch the series in chronological order, rather than production order.

 

But before we reach the next entry… a short film directed by Vin Diesel! 

So Dom goes to the Dom(inican Republican).  For a star who has relied on his racial ambiguity, it is curious that Los Bandoleros begins to tie Vin Diesel to a specific heritage.  It doesn’t end there; the small touches of previous films begin to be reasserted as character traits.  Meal times (a hugely pleasurable thing to watch – Hollywood neglects the vicarious thrill of watching people eat because of its industrial-strength eating disorders), Catholicism, the family unit, are all promoted to the forefront.  At the same time, the series begins to recede in its use of its initial hook, that of street racing.  Much like how the series has re-orientated characters in the past, it now begins to re-orientate the very texture of the film itself.

Eradicated from the previous movie, Los Bandoleros exists to reintroduce Vin Diesel’s superiority within the franchise.  The twenty minute runtime is little more than an extended visual bon-mot for Toretto.  Whilst Dom is sexualised (he openly flirts with several women) in a way that is quite unbecoming of his character, he is ultimately reigned in (and outshone in performance) by Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty.  Little more than a supporting character in the first film, Los Bandoleros recognises the captivating intelligence of Rodriguez – one of the great, occasionally dangerous, screen presences of the modern era. The Fast and the Furious franchise relies on subtle shifts in character; histories are constantly rewritten and fresh explanations for behaviour are given for actions in each film.  Dom and Letty become a wild, passionate romance… for no reason other than they are two attractive, compelling stars.

With his leap into directing, and his assertive dominance over the franchise through his role as a producer, Vin Diesel moves closer to adopting the career of Sylvester Stallone.  Like Stallone, Diesel is a hyper-naturalistic, gravelly-voiced actor who relies on the sweaty thrill of the audience gazing at his body.  Diesel begins to create a cinematic identity that is similar to Stallone’s too; conforming to a very specific paternal form of masculinity, where his character is unquestionably adored by the supporting cast.

Whilst the short films in the franchise have always been more visually adventurous than the main series, Los Bandoleros has some pretensions of documentary realism… if that documentary was some Jamie Oliver food tourism nonsense.  Admirably, the dialogue is subtitled for much of the running time, but ultimately the short film is an elaborate set-up for the next entry in the series, with some rather reductive arthouse pretensions.

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. The Fast and the Furious
  2. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  3. Los Bandoleros
  4. Turbo Charged Prelude

Shyamalan 8: After Earth (2013)

or, they tried everything to get you to see this film.

 

after-earth-jaden-smith-will-smith
We feel the same way Will…

One of the more amusing aspects of Hollywood is observing the enormous disparity between how a star sees themselves and how we see them.  I am convinced that Ben Affleck thinks he is charming; we all know that his appeal comes from his inherent sleaziness.  Johnny Depp believes he is versatile.  Ben Stiller sees himself as funny…  True success only comes once you embrace your inner appeal – see how much more successful Alec Baldwin is since he denied his false heroism and embraced his inner malevolence.

Because being a star is a very specific thing.  It’s absolutely not about having a broad range, it’s about an engagement of presence in scenes even when you are still, and a series of vocal performances and physical actions that charm your audience regardless of the role.  We rely on our stars; they are the reasons we visit the cinema again and again (fuck auterism).  In Tom Cruise we trust…

Will Smith could be one of those people.  He is an almost effortlessly charming actor, and the affection the world has for him – in large part (and I mean this with no derision) for the joy of The Fresh Prince of Bell Air (part of the extraordinary post 6pm BBC2 line up of years gone by… The Simpsons, Buffy, Thunderbirds, the stuff dreams are made of.  Oh, and the genius (and I mean genius, even if I don’t believe in the concept) of Big Willie Style.  Right now, I am convinced there is no greater song in the universe than Miami (deal with it Bohemian Rhapsody and/or Imagine).  Those two things give him a lifetime pass.

But Will Smith, the movie star, is singularly disinterested in exploiting that charm.  Not since Hitch (2006 – Andy Tennant) has Will Smith been fully concerned with engaging the audience with Will Smith.  Since then he has appeared in a stream of tedious, self-important, profoundly dull films.  After Earth is no exception to this.

It is a sad day when an actor’s appearance on a chat show to publicise a film is more engaging than the film itself.

I hated this film.  Hated… to the extent where I started swearing out loud at the screen during the inane final fifteen minutes.  It was a profoundly dull film more concerned with providing endless exposition of a universe with a tedious history.  And if Will Smith is a wilfully charmless performer in this film, Jaden Smith is impotently charmless.  He speaks with the most un-placeable accent I’ve heard on screen since Shia LeBeouf’s cockney/Glaswegian/New York hybrid in Nymphomaniac (2013 – Lars Von Trier).

 

Shyamalan rankings:

 

  1. The Village
  2. The Sixth Sense
  3. The Happening
  4. Lady in the Water
  5. Signs
  6. Unbreakable
  7. The Last Airbender
  8. After Earth

The ASIDESTEPS CANON – no Jaws sequels – vol. IV

Sequels, prequels and remakes.  One of the greatest pleasures of movie obsession is seeing the films you love reimagined, seeing how different directors bring their own peccadillos to the proceedings.  Remaking movies is as old as cinema itself, so quite why the concept is so frowned upon nowadays, I have no idea.  Anyways.  These are my personal favourites (though it bears underlining that in nearly every case the original movie is superior.)  No Jaws (1975 – Steven Spielberg) sequels though because they’re all terrible.

41.Mission: Impossible II (2000 – John Woo)

 

Sequel to Mission: Impossible (1996 – Brian De Palma)

 

Somewhat maligned, John Woo’s deliriously hazy action movie downplays the paranoid interactions of De Palma’s opening entry but ramps up the action.  It represents the moment that Tom Cruise chose to become an action star; up until this point he was content to work with as many ‘great’ directors as possible, but he saw that come the new millennium, auteur theory was an irrelevance, and the only way to stay alive was to remain number one at the box office.  It’s a preposterous spectacle, but a spectacle nonetheless, with Cruise determined to punish his body within the red/green light of Woo’s fantasy milieu.

Mission: Impossible III (2006) has its moments, but like all J. J. Abrams’ films, one that trades on the half-remembered successes of other, better directors.

 

42. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011 – Brad Bird)

 

Fourth in the Mission: Impossible series

A film that succeeds largely with the confidence in which it defines its space.  Car parks, motorways, skyscrapers are tangible locations – fully realised, they allow the body (Cruise’s lithe frame stretching with age) to presented compulsively with danger, largely the risk of falling from a great height.  Cinema screens are so tall, it is strange that they rarely exploit the fear of falling.  In a world of quick-cut, incomprehensible punch-ups, the film becomes a treasure, a rare jewel… something coherent.

43. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015 – Christopher McQuarrie)

 

Fifth in the Mission: Impossible series

The series’ endearing commitment to employing different directors for each entry ensures a distinct identity for each film.  McQuarrie chooses to push the series as close to Bond as it can go, tuxedos, ballgowns and astonishing car chases.  The Mission: Impossible series has never crept into the hostile misogyny that creeps within every entry in their canon – despite some skeevy bikini shots, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is a fully realised woman, with agency and ability.  Limited only by the supporting cast lack of range (shouting is the only way to convey emotion apparently) it is an intensely gripping blockbuster.

44. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 – Irvin Kershner)

 

Sequel to Star Wars (1977 – George Lucas) and fifth in the Star Wars series

One of the most dispiriting waves of recent cinephilia has been the glee with which the new Star Wars films have been greeted – the pleasure with which the homogenized, micro-managed Disney product is presented as having been saved from the inanity of George Lucas.

Yet Lucas is a visionary.  A pioneer of new technology, a disciple of space and form that harkens back the days of silent cinema, and a true iconoclast.  Never again will we see independent films made free from studio interference with blockbuster budgets.  The films are painfully personal – the hope of the initial entry is replaced with the disdain of the sequel once his marriage to Marcia Lucas breaks down (an individual who is key to the success of these first few films).  The later prequel series present a man fully aware of powerful economic forces and how they can control and degrade an individual.  They reduce performance to its broadest strokes, choosing instead to focus on classical movements of image, combining model shots, CGI, and reality against each other to create fully realised worlds.  It was an unpopular vision (though unsurprising – Mark Hamill is hardly a charismatic screen presence), and whilst the now annual visit to the Star Wars universe is entertaining, it will never again be visionary, and thus of limited interest outside the simplistic guttural pleasures that come from the multiplex.

It is particularly pedestrian to state that Empire Strikes Back (or Star Wars II as I sometimes like to call it when feeling particularly contrary) is the strongest entry, but please don’t write those prequels off… they’re obsolete enough as it is.

45. Psycho II (1983 – Richard Franklin)

 

Sequel to Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock)

 

With some particularly fantastic kills, and a genuinely unsettling insight into a psychopath, Psycho II is a delight, not least for the very pure pleasure of Anthony Perkins reprising his role as cinema’s most likeable serial killer (suck it Hopkins!).  Taking the intrinsic sympathy we felt for Bates as he discussed his mother with Janet Leigh over sandwiches, milk and taxidermy to its limit, we are forced to occasionally believe that this man was maybe the victim after all.  Maybe that final scene in the basement in Psycho wasn’t real?  Maybe that ridiculous explanation for his behaviour given in the parent film was a lie?  Rare that it is that a sequel so confounds our expectations for the entirety of its running time.

 

 46. Psycho III (1986 – Anthony Perkins)

 

Third in the Psycho series

Imagining living as an icon who wasn’t you.  Typecasting is increasingly an irrelevance, so desperately we adore even the most minor of a celebrity, but in the past, some actors suffered in the shadow of one good role.  Here, Perkins refuses to make it a millstone, and acts and directs in a dynamic exploration of living in the detritus of both his legendary role, and the director who begat his whole career.

47. Psycho (1998 – Gus Van Sant)

 

Remake of Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock)

 

Van Sant’s colour cover version remains interesting for the ways in which it deviates from its source text as much as follows it.  Where Psycho is a queer film made by a heterosexual (disgustingly so as it appears) filmmaker, this is a heteronormative film made by a gay filmmaker, and as such, a more accurate depiction of the reality of murder within our world.  The flashes of blue sky within the infamous shower scene underline the power of the Saul Bass structured cuts and emphasise the universality of women being destroyed by men.

 

 48. Aliens (1986 – James Cameron)

 

Sequel to Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)

 

Cameron explores the emotional depravity that comes from returning to trauma, yet provides catharsis in the sublimation of this trauma when presented with the maternal instinct.  The Alien, the ultimate expression of both penile and vaginal horror overwhelms any construct of society, as if sex is unstoppable.  The need to procreate is necessary and instinctive and no intellectual (or religious artificial construct of asceticism found in the next film in the series) can escape it.  Cameron transforms the deliberate horror of the first film into a glorious, visceral survival story.

 

 49. Alien3 (1992 – David Fincher)

 

Third in the Alien franchise

There is a great pleasure is seeing Hollywood’s one pessimist David Fincher destroy the peace provided by its ultimate optimist (Cameron) explored in the previous film in the series. Until this point the Alien films had explored the fear of sex that many secretly feel.  So naturally a film has to come along and impose a religious doctrine upon it.  The sex/death drive is ultimately stronger than the imaginative drive that fuels religion – it occurs later in our evolutionary development as a species.  But the semi-monastic ramblings of the penal colony are unable to dominate, and even the fiery crucifixion of Ripley cannot provide atonement.

50. Prometheus (2012 – Ridley Scott)

 

Prequel to Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott has little interest in scripts.  He takes them as they come, choosing to focus on the images he can construct for the big screen.  He is a master co-ordinator, and able to produce a big budget film at nearly 80 years of age.  As such, his films show little thematic consistency – the overt (and nauseous) Christianity of Prometheus, sits against the timid atheism of Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).  The banal explorations of faith are peculiar within a film that features the ultimate expression of a cruel, senseless universe that seeks to kill lesser beings in the form of the Alien.  Despite this, the film has moments of extra-ordinary body horror, portrayed by a range of fine character actors.  And Noomi Rapace.