I’ve never owned a games console. And really, apart from some vague memories of Vice City and multi-player Halo from my first year at university, I can’t really remember a time when computer games had any kind of impact upon my life. It’s not that I don’t find them appealing. If anything, I find them too appealing, and I am just self-aware enough to realise that if I bought a MegaDrive or whatever, entire evenings would be wasted in front of it. (This logic does not extend to watching black and white Italian movies.)
Which is to say that there are aspects of this film – boss-level baddies, relentless hordes of zombies to mow down – that I recognise, but have no affection for. Like videogames, there is an ease with which these films employ gunfire; there is rare consideration given to the number of bullets than can be held in a clip. At one point, a computer within the narrative demands murder, and that seems to be the point of these movies – that at a certain point, the level of unreality we are exposed to dehumanises ourselves.
It’s been acknowledged that the anger we feel towards other drivers largely stems from the fact that we can’t recognise apologetic facial expressions in our fellow drivers. Whilst we know that another human being is driving the vehicle, we don’t always appreciate this. Similarly, the bile that is spewed on the internet seems to derive from an inability to recognise avatars and handles as aspects of humanity. Much of the modern world, with its endless stream of misinformation, seems designed to prevent us from recognising the common decency in others.
Resident Evil plays upon this symptom of modern, interactive life. Computer games allow us to find murder easy. I have a friend who trains armed police officers – when he is sent on training exercises he says they feel like heightened rounds of Quasar. They seem designed to prevent us recognising that the figure at the end of the barrel is another soul, as equal to our own. There are studies (that are somewhat disputed) that talk about how soldiers would often fire above their enemies’ heads in earlier conflicts, such as WWII, such that it was that they recognised their enemy as another human. It is a feature that is disappearing in modern warfare, and whilst this may be due to the difference between conscripted and enlisted warriors, perhaps the ubiquity of computer games allow us to pull that trigger easier.
Zombies represent the ultimate fantasy of this trigger-happy approach to warfare. There can be no guilt, no shame, in murdering a zombie. They have only the appearance of humanity. It is only a superficial masquerade; they are driven by an insatiable appetite. They are all-consuming. All they great monsters represent our most potent sins; vampires are lust, Godzilla is wrath and zombies are gluttony. At this point, Anderson is not dwelling on driving that point home. His use of zombies represent no great metaphor in the way that George Romero employed them. There is no consideration that they were once a human, or that they may be an entirely new species, one that unfortunately feeds om human flesh. But as a representation of some of our basest instincts, the wilful destruction of them is an act of self-loathing. It is a destruction of the mirror that we avoid looking in; our furious, selfish appetite for meat.
- There is some fairly cheap CGI employed within the film. It’s an easy thing to mock, but it’s at the point now where we have to forgive the limits of this technology in the way we forgive matte paintings and model shots. At least here, the CGI is used to present images that could not be completed in any other medium.
- Anderson employs every trick in the book to get the scares out of the audience. There are false scares where animals jump out and clanging noises in the background employed on several occasions.
- The film very much operates on a puzzle logic – at times it feels like those irritating side-puzzles in a computer game where you have to unlock a door or something. It is a film where they aim is to escape, rather than survive.
- The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Michelle Rodriguez’ performance – a terrifyingly compelling actress who I adore in every film I see her in… and who, because of the vagrancies of her work, I have absolutely no desire to explore her back catalogue.
Resident Evil rankings:
- Resident Evil
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.
Whilst the other entries have been written after viewing the films a number of times, I’m writing this entry on the evening after seeing The Fate of the Furious, based on the notes I typed on my phone in the half-light of the cinema.
The Fate of the Furious is more than just a bad movie… it also spends a lot of the goodwill we have built up towards the series over the past decade or so. Whilst there are spectacular action sequences, they now feel like sequences, shoehorned into the plot. Gray directs with a freneticism that on occasions borders on incoherence; even the most pleasurable sequence in the film – Jason Statham shooting his way out of an aeroplane whilst carrying a baby – is hampered by a camera that does everything it can to lessen the impact of a punch. It seems to be constantly cutting away just at the most vital time. Later, Gray’s awkward camera causes the film to come to a complete standstill on two separate occasions whilst flashbacks show what actually transpired in previous scenes.
To some extent, the introduction of the aforementioned baby completes Dom Toretto’s quest to atone for letting down his father through his actions; now he is a father himself, with all the responsibility that comes with it. But the circumstances that the child is introduced are pretty appalling. The product of Dom’s brief affair with Elsa Pataky’s Elena Neves, her character is reintroduced halfway through the film. For one moment, you think the series is compensating for the causal cruelness with which it discarded her character after it chose to reintroduce Michelle Rodriguez; however, she is promptly and needlessly murdered. And to add insult to injury, her death is as quickly forgotten as any of Toretto’s sins. The whole affair is quite sickening; she is removed of any agency and capability, and reduced to a simple plot device.
The core of the film rests upon Toretto’s seeming slip back into criminality (the next in a series of comic book clichés that the series has adopted – the good guy gone bad.) But despite the franchise’s continued rewriting of its characters, this never quite rings true. Whilst Dom was a criminal, he was never bad. His most vicious act – the beating that landed him in jail – is still tinged with honour, such was his intention to defend his father. Rewriting a child into his past is a small act for this franchise, but putting such an unconvincing plot development at the heart of the film, robs it of any significant investment on our part. There is no doubt in our minds that Dom will make things right.
In Dom’s absence, a number of characters are brought to the fore. Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs slips easily into the de facto leader role; Hobbs was always a thinly drawn operative, but Johnson goes to distinct lengths to imbibe his character with a decency and integrity regardless of his surroundings. It also takes great glee is his unique brand of physical combat, full of body slams and throwing opponents around that remind you of his wrestling days. He is the true leading man of the series (and bitchily shares a negligible amount of screen time with Diesel) – so much so, that he is clearly written out at the end of the movies. He has outgrown the franchise by this stage. In addition, he is ably supported by Jason Statham (and rumours abound of a spin-off featuring the two). There are fewer greater pleasures in cinema than watching Jason Statham run (he is second only to Tom Cruise in the cinematic talent) and the series find plenty of space to cast him as a gleeful antihero – though this perhaps is the greatest instance of the series rewriting its own past. He is very quickly forgiven by the crew.
Charlize Theron distinguishes herself as the villain Cipher; her dreadlocked appearance marks her out as an active proponent of cultural appropriation – the only true crime in such a multicultural series. It’s clear though that she was only around for a short amount of time – most of her scenes are on constructed sets talking to Diesel. And it’s always a pleasure to watch Kurt Russell regardless of what he is in. Michelle Rodriguez continues to bring a greater depth to Letty than the script provides, performing an almost post-traumatic response to seeing Dom.
But Nathalie Emmanuel is appalling. And Scott Eastwood, whilst heavily-handedly positioned as an O’Conner to Hobbs, is an actor of… limited charisma. There is a bizarre choice to allow the characters to hear each other speaking coherently within their cars during chase scenes; cars that are clearly making a lot of noise. With its messy direction (Gray chooses far too often to show close-ups of the actors behind the wheels of the car, only underlining the fact that these shots are filmed on some soundstage somewhere) and bloated runtime, The Fate of the Furious at times seems to undo all the good of the past three movies. But by now, eight movies into a ten movie franchise, it can handle it. Every franchise as its pretty rotten entries, and this is just our one.
Fast & Furious rankings:
- Fast & Furious 6
- Fast Five
- The Fast and the Furious
- Furious 7
- 2 Fast 2 Furious
- Fast & Furious
- The Fate of the Furious
- Los Bandoleros
- Turbo Charged Prelude
Heavy handed references to Paul Walker:
One, where he is quickly referenced as a solution to Dom’s issues (quickly discarded, though Mia and Brian would have raced to the scene if their brother was behaving this way) and a second where, quite sweetly, Dom’s baby is called Brian.
Looming over this movie is the shadow of Paul Walker’s death midway through filming. We can attempt to read the film dispassionately, and pretend that the route the Brian takes is the one that was always intended to be made, but honestly, his death corrupted the picture. His performance is an amalgamation of pre-shot footage, deleted scenes from previous movies and a CGI composite of his face placed on two of his brother’s bodies. The fact that they still manage to give character development to O’Conner amongst such trauma is extraordinary, but the temptation when watching this film is to morbidly try to spot when we are and aren’t seeing Walker on screen. It’s occasionally distracting.
Narratively, the film was retooled as a consequence of his premature death. Few details have emerged of the original intended movie, but most of the incomplete footage seems to have been material set in Los Angeles. We can suppose that the film had a darker thrust, with Deckard Shaw eliminating the team one by one. I have no evidence of this, but I always assumed that something was meant to happen to Mia; an idea possibly abandoned after one real-life tragedy – though she is clearly sidelined from the narrative. It’s a shame – the series has often been at its most vital when it has featured its couples working together, Dom/Letty, Brian/Mia, Han/Giselle have all been terrific to watch. But it couldn’t be helped in this instance, and we have to accept, that even at its best, we’re watching a diluted version of an original intention. A shadow of an original film.
After working through the comic-book style trope of ‘the evil alternate team’, Furious 7 adopts the single, all powerful opponent villain that fuels so many tedious comic crossovers. Continuing the approach of employing established action stars (see also Tony Jaa, Kurt Russell and Ronda Rousey), Jason Statham storms into the franchise like an absolute star. His Deckard Shaw is hilariously incongruous, a man who uses a sledgehammer to crack open a peanut, but equally, a terrifying opposition to the established family. But quickly, the movie shies away from making him a true foe, and places him in an anti-hero role, flitting in and out of the narrative. He is no ‘big bad’. It’s almost as if his stardom was too great to play the prototypical Limey bad guy.
The title itself recalls the revenge crews of The Magnificent Seven (1960 – John Sturges) or The Dirty Dozen (1967 – Robert Aldrich), though the film bizarrely avoids the essential narrative of the whole crew hunting down Shaw in preference of another instalment in a Bondian, globetrotting action adventure series (this instalment even puts our working-class street heroes into tuxedos and ballgowns). Kurt Russell is even established as a kind-of M simulacra in the form of Mr. Nobody, an easy resource to stop the series tying itself in knots in its attempts to make the crew ‘good guys’. Russell is clearly playing this role as the early nineties Nick Fury movie he never got to make. To incorporate so many new individuals, some established heroes have to be put to one side. Dwayne Johnson is incapacitated for much of the film (as much a product of Johnson being a far busier movie star than anyone else in the cast), but when he returns toward the end of the film, legs-astride shooting helicopters clear from the sky, he is defined as an absolute icon, a character who has outgrown the series.
James Wan takes over from Justin Lin and does little to change the feel of the series. He maintains an emphasis on physical action (they actually chucked cars out of a plane for one sequence), though he perhaps employs even more aerial shots of action, and is quicker to root his characters in CGI environments (though this may be a product of having an absent lead character). Dom is given a more rebellious streak – at times he seems hellbent on recreating the final moments of Thelma and Louise (1991 – Ridley Scott), but his character progression becomes intimately entwined with Letty, as the series performs another one of its retcons in establishing the two of them as married. Once again, the franchise draws upon its ballooning history – here Lucas Black pops up again as Sean Boswell, his hairline receding significantly in between two scenes that in continuity happen minutes apart.
But the film belongs to Paul Walker. His Brian O’Conner is located as the true hero of the film. He is hilarious in portraying the frustrations of a thrill-seeker coming to terms with school runs and people carriers and stars in the two stand-out combat scenes against Tony Jaa. O’Conner’s fear of screwing up, of letting down his family, feels less like the slightly jarring character transitions he has been through in previous instalments, though it places him contextually closer to Dom, a man who was always driven by a fear of slipping up. The final scenes, as Diesel grunts his way through a saccharine, anodyne voiceover are profoundly moving, such is the loss we feel of an easy-going, highly physical performer. I have no shame in admitting I well up at the very thought of that final car race.
Fast & Furious rankings:
- Fast & Furious 6
- Fast Five
- The Fast and the Furious
- Furious 7
- 2 Fast 2 Furious
- Fast & Furious
- Los Bandoleros
- Turbo Charged Prelude
Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:
Dom: IIII (I’m declaring the final scene a draw… which ends the series on a tie-break. Quite sweet actually.)
‘Wrong. Double Alpha.’ Tyrese excels at self-delusion.