Films seen August

Dunkirk (2017 – Christopher Nolan)

 

There was a lot of talk about this film, but really, when it came down to it, it was utterly thrilling.  I was completely gripped by the whole thing.  Easily Nolan’s most proficient film by a considerable distance, Dunkirk seemed to capture a nostalgia and dignity for a time that only exists in the most patriotic fantasists.  The brutality of war and the hopelessness of survival were buried under a British reserve.  But this all seems far away… thought the deliberate refusal to refer to Germany or Italy or any other of the Axis powers in the opening crawl did seem to suggest that all-consuming capitalism and the fear of offending these potential markets has managed to trump an antiquated notion of decency.

But there is moment where Tom Hardy looks at his fuel gage and realises he now has to choose whether to turn back home or stay in the air and defend British ships in the Channel.  And there is fear and deliberation and finally resolve… all performed solely with his eyes.  It is the most exquisite piece of acting I have seen for many years.  The best special effect in cinematic history.

 

Seen on 15/70mm at the BFI IMAX.  Ticket cost £18 or something like that.  There was a typical backlash against the fetishisation of release formats that accompanied the release of this film, but it really did benefit from being seen on this huge, all-encompassing screen with extraordinary sound.  The experience was slightly let down by my neighbour referring to me as ‘middle-aged’ though!

 

 

The Conversation (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola)

 

I don’t think I knew that the dream sequence in this movie was the result of an abandoned waking chase scene that Coppola didn’t have the time to shoot completely before he began shooting The Godfather: Part II (1974).  I mean, I probably did know it once, but had forgotten it.  My memory sometimes feels like a cinematic dream sequence, desperately clutching onto thoughts and images that have some meaning.

I don’t think I understood Harry Caul’s paranoia the last time/first time I saw this movie.  I certainly didn’t know the solitude he had imposed on himself.  But as I get older, the dislocation he senses within himself towards the surrounding world feels more profound.  It is a deeply unsettling film; one that masterfully indicates how our own perceptions shape our senses and a film that technically anticipates the digital revolution a few decades before it arrived.

 

Seen on 35mm on the main screen at the Curzon Soho followed by a gracious and intelligent Q&A with Walter Murch.  Without any justification, the fact that the film was projected from 35mm was described as being inherently better by the event’s organiser… a statement slightly deflated by Murch’s stated wariness of film projection a few minutes later!  Ticket cost £18.

 

 

A Ghost Story (2017 – David Lowery)

 

I liked it at the time, but I can’t remember much of it now.  I think I wanted a nastier ghost.  Or a ghost that didn’t experience all that silly going forward and backward in time towards the end (that felt like a little too ‘narrative clever, clever’ where an early moment of confusion is later revealed to be the action of a character we see on screen.  It’s a little too pretentious and tidy for my liking.  And not very impressive anymore.)

But I wish I never found out that Rooney Mara had never eaten pie before her traumatic gluttony.  It’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard.  Who goes their life without eating pie?  What miserable, self-denial of happiness convinced her that that was an acceptable life choice?

Can I recommend a good steak and kidney Rooney?  It’s what I turn to in moments of grief/boredom/Tuesdays.

 

Seen at the Curzon Soho on the large screen.  Ticket cost £10.50.

 

 

Big Wednesday (1978 – John Milius)

 

Meditative and full of the lost highways and broken relationships that are scattered about our lives, it’s easy to see why Spielberg and Lucas thought that Milius was the real deal in comparison to them.  From the start, Milius imprints himself upon the film; you wonder whether he realised the brokenness of his central characters and the substantial limits they place upon their existence.  The violence is ridiculous, the draft-dodging scene is offensively hilarious and the surfing shots are beautiful.  A great, contemplative movie.

 

Projected from 35mm at the BFI Southbank on Screen 3.  Like all screenings in London, there was a homeless man in the audience.  Ticket cost £8.

 

 

Atomic Blonde (2017 – David Leitch)

 

It’s such a boring movie revolving around such tediously predictable spy tropes (the MacGuffin is a list of undercover agents for Pete’s sake)… which becomes understandable once you realise that the film is an adaptation of a comic book.  And it was probably one of those lowest common denominator comic books that was made solely for the purpose of selling off some film+TV rights.  The shallowness of it all is only underlined by some of the most basic music cues committed to celluloid.

But, in the middle of this film is the most extraordinary fight scene I have seen for many years.  Shot to simulate a single take, it is a thrillingly brutal scene of Charlize Theron murdering henchmen in a stairwell.  It is everything you want in a fight scene.  It has verisimilitude, stacked odds and amazing choreographed performances from a stunt team.

And so you’re left with a boring movie with one exceptional scene.  And you have to ask yourself… is it worth it?

 

Seen on the decent-sized Screen 3 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Ticket cost £6.50

.

 

Love Streams (1984 – John Cassavetes)

 

It’s just a film with such empathy.  And two profoundly different portrayals of individuals suffering from mental health issues – Cassavettes all crashing and burning  and chequebooks and pens and Rowlands nervy and impulsive.  There’s an extraordinary couple of dream sequences – an amazing car crash and a dance on stage that may or may not have been directed by peter Bogdanovich in a desperate attempt to save himself from his depression.  I love how you feel they only figured out that they were siblings after several weeks of shooting.  It’s delightful to spend time amongst the clutter of their house, so familiar it is to us from their previous movies.  It’s immediate – Cassavetes’ desire for truth sees him include shots where camera crews that are visible.  And it’s utterly hilarious – the scene where Rowlands tries to get home whilst abroad is possibly the funniest thing ever.

It contains pretty much everything I have ever loved about movies.

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Projected from 35mm.  Had a migraine, but still enjoyed myself.  Ticket cost £4.50.

 

 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974 – Tobe Hooper)

 

Throughout the runtime of this film there was a man sitting behind me laughing every thirty seconds.  The Prince Charles is an amazing cinema, but it does frustratingly encourage this behaviour with its knowingly ironic screenings.  And I gave this dude the half-turn… and then the turn, but it had no impact.  I’m not the most intimidating fella.

And as I walked out I heard him turn to his friends.  ‘You see’ he sneered ‘I think it’s meant to be funny.’

Well, it’s not you absolute cockhead.  It’s a horrifying movie.  The soundtrack of the second half of the film is a never-ending cacophony of guttural screams and the grinding a whirring of a chainsaw.  That in itself is as unsettling as cinema ever got, and that’s before you mention the inevitable dread of the hitchhiker, or the sudden violation of the metal kitchen door slamming shut out of nowehere, or the…. I could go on.

It’s a terrifying movie.  It’s not a comedy.  And you are not worthy of watching it.

 

Projected from 35mm on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Print seemed to originate in France.  Beautiful condition.  Ticket cost £6 or thereabouts.  Obviously a screening that gained some retrospective poignancy after Hooper’s recent death.

 

Tom of Finland (2017 – Dome Karukoski)

 

Which is an ‘18’ for some reason.  Someone needs to let the BBFC know that we can all cope with seeing a few drawings of penises.  Because it deserves a wider audience.  It’s a joyous film that encountered much of the gay experience of the second half of the twentieth century; repression, violence, S&M, the gradual slipping out from the closet, desire and HIV.  A lovely little film.

 

Seen on one of those awful little small screens at the Curzon Bloomsbury and I had to pay £10.50 for the privilege.

 

 

Out of Sight (1998 – Steven Soderbergh)

 

About half an hour into the film, there was a moment where I suddenly became profoundly aware of how much I was enjoying myself.  It’s a great, big pleasure of a movie, and more and more, I realise what a rarity that is.

I’ve been thinking of the nineties quite a lot recently – the decade in which my burgeoning cinephillia blossomed – and a time when we were all told that The Usual Suspects (1995 – Bryan Singer) was an important film.  And a little bit pathetically, I feel nostalgic for it, remembering how surprising it must have been to hear the Coen Bros. for the first time.  But there are real mainstream gems from that era, and Out of Sight is at the forefront of that, so drowning in acting talent is it.  I don’t think I’d ever realised that Albert Brooks is a major part of this film!

 

Projected from 35mm on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £4.50.

 

 

Logan Lucky (2017 – Steven Soderbergh)

 

Which I watched with a huge smile on my face.  It was just wonderful to watch all those modern actors who I actually like – Tatum, Keogh, Waterson etc. – in something enjoyable for once.  A real favourite already (which as I type I realise isn’t as a powerful statement to make… in September!)

 

Seen on a big screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

American Made (2017 – Doug Liman)

 

It’s just Tom Cruise and I love Tom Cruise and this is Tom Cruise in a comedic twist on a sub-Goodfellas (1990 – Martin Scorsese) fall-from-grace.  I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again – hell, I barely remember any of it now – but I loved every minute of watching it.  Great stuff.

 

Seen on a pretty big screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

Detroit (2017 – Kathryn Bigelow)

 

It was a surprisingly tame film… which seemed to only make the case even more convincing for a more ethnically diverse directorial landscape within mainstream cinema.  Because this film seemed to pull its punches, in a way that made me suspect that it was fearful of being perceived a racist itself.  And I get it… no-one wants to have the dodgy racial politics of Quentin Tarantino, but it was a horrific moment in history, and it needed to be horrific, not unpleasant.

And this only adds to the case that John Krasinski is not a movie star.  He totally derails the final half-hour of the movie.  What is it with Bigelow and her desire to cast mediocre television stars in her films.  John chuffing Barrowman is in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) for christssake.

Seen on a huge screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £6.50.

J. J. Abrams as director 4 – Star Trek into Darkness (2013)

fight-stid

By his fourth film, Abrams directorial style has calmed down.  Whilst the lens-flare and low-to-the-ground shots remain, there is a far more sedate approach to editing, and the camera remains on a fixed point for most of the film.  Abrams had moved further into the mainstream – by this stage, he was constructing entertainments that had a laser-accurate construction.  Every moment was designed to relate to our shared cultural memories; films we had glimpsed as a child on the telly whilst we were stuck inside on damp autumn Sunday afternoon.  Narrative simplicity had become so important for the Bad Robot company (and more than any other of his films, this feels like one that was constructed by a team rather than an auteur), that entire plots were recycled wholesale from previous movies.

Because, for the most part, Star Trek into Darkness is a retread of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982 – Nicholas Meyer), just with less charismatic actors and a nagging sensation of déjà vu.  Abrams is deliberate in his decision.  He seeks to use the framework of established narratives to develop new visual sequences and a degree of character development.  It’s an idea of limited appeal.  Because the reality is that you sit in front of a screen, constantly reminded of a better film.  There was a genuine pathos to Nimoy Spock’s sacrifice, such was the shock of the confession of emotion displayed towards Shatner Kirk.  Pine and Quinto can’t hope to compete, so… diluted is their relationship in contrast.  There is no emotional investment in the proceedings, even less so given the typical hyperactivity that defines an Abram’s joint.

Additionally, Abrams sought to undermine his film by acquiescing to popular movements in cinema.  Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor without charm, or indeed a modicum of intelligence or wit, was cast as a pale (in every sense) reflection of Ricardo Montalban’s Kahn.  Where the original Kahn’s arrogance and oppressive masculinity dominated our protagonists, Cumberbatch flounders in the shallow end of villainy.  (and if Martin Sheen had to change his name to get a career, surely there’s no excuse for Cumberbatch).  Furthermore, Abrams resorts to blowing up London in the first act of the movie, a cinematic cliché for Americans when they wish to present large scale destruction.  London, in their eyes, contains white people, and thus gets automatic sympathy when it is ruined. There is a gratuity to this violence that is only matched by the unnecessary shots of Alice Eve in her knickers.

There are nice moments.  The opening sequence hints at a series of adventures that recalls a weekly television show that an occasional film series cannot hope to recreate.  And many of the performances, particularly Karl Urban’s McCoy, are endearing.  But by and large, this is Abrams on autopilot.  We can offer two redemptive readings; one, Abrams was focussed on developing the franchise he was actually interested in, or two, the rule of every-other-Trek-being-bad was true all along.  Neither excuse is particularly convincing though…

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.

J. J. Abrams as director 2 – Star Trek (2009)

star-trek-into-darkness-lens-flares-internet-meme

When I saw this in the cinema, I was sitting next to a middle-aged man and his wife.  For the entire duration of the film, the man cried.  Not floods-of-tears crying, but a constant, low-level sob.  I am obsessed with trying to figure out what was upsetting him so much?  The best solution I can come up with (and this may speak to my own spectacular lack of imagination) is that he was profoundly moved by the sight of a decent Star Trek film.  I wanted to speak to him and say ‘I get it – Star Trek means a lot to me too.  I’ve been waiting since 1982 too!’

But I’m English, so I didn’t.  I studiously ignored him.  Plus, I’m sure it would have led to a discussion where he would have pointed out that actually, he’d only been waiting since 1991.  Or 1996.  One of the two.

Because, Star Trek is a good Star Trek film.  And that is no mean feat.  It’s the only Star Trek film which my sisters will watch and enjoy (and I used to make them whoosh around the living room pretending to be the Enterprise…)  And it occurs to me that Abrams can’t be all that bad, if he can take a moribund, vastly over-inflated, tired old franchise and make something decent out of it.

Because the world was sick of Star Trek in 2009.  Since 1987, the franchise had been around for six films and twenty-five separate series of television.  And if you’re on board those franchises, there is a world of difference between your Worfs and Odos and Neelixes.  But to anyone else, they were just dudes in silly make-up spouting incomprehensible nonsense.  Star Trek as a franchise studiously ignores vast swathes of human emotion that drive most narrative storytelling.  There is little greed, or envy, or jealousy or lust in the Star Trek universe.  As such, it can seem frigid to much of the intended audience.  Enterprise had sought to bring a little vigour back to universe… by giving the series a Russell Watson theme tune.  It didn’t work (though this film makes the odd choice to keep that show, that one show, within continuity).

So when Abrams came on board to helm a Star Trek reboot, he was working against a huge prejudice towards the series.  And he overcame it by injecting the film with a level of energy that the franchise had never experienced before.  Star Trek, despite its interstellar setting, was a franchise mainly about people standing about in rooms talking at one another.  Moment of tension were indicated largely through the use of the same three pieces of incidental music.  Abrams turned this up on its head.  Nothing is ever simple in his Star Trek – characters race down corridors and even the most stationary of actions – teleportation – becomes momentous, as characters end up in water flumes, fighting for their life.  This restlessness, this constant need to keep moving, is utterly alien when compared to anything presented within the franchise before.

The restlessness can be exhausting, and the movie suffers from a feature that drains the life out of all modern action pictures: the mid-movie superfluous action sequence.  These are sequences designed to bring a spark of life to a second act, where movies are often killing time as they build to a final confrontation.  They often involve doing little more than pressing a button; but somehow this will be a massively inconvenient task.  The prime example of this is the moment in The Avengers (2012 – Joss Whedon) where the eponymous Avengers have to kick-start the hellicarrier; it is a tedious moment of false tension, feeling like it is designed for little more than the videogame tie-in.  Here, there is a point where Kirk, Sulu and some anonymous redshirt skydive to switch off a drill.  It exists.  It is moderately thrilling.  But it exists solely to enliven fifteen minutes of the film where the audience is assumed to switch off.

This isn’t a situation where Abrams has suddenly discovered a clear visual palate.  Whilst the editing is slightly less kinetic here than on Mission: Impossible III (2006), many of Abrams’ twee visual cues remain in play.  There is lens flare all over the place – including in places where there is NO LIGHT SOURCE!  There is a tendency to over-explain plot points.  Where previously flashbacks were used to drive home narrative developments, here the opening half hour of the film takes place in four or five different points in time.  As a viewer, we have to be told everything.  We are not allowed to fill in any gaps ourselves.  This is a frustrating point of modern franchises; the first film in every series is now an origin story… which are often the least interesting moments in these character’s lives.  We didn’t fall in love with Indiana Jones by being tediously lectured as to why he is terrified of snakes.

But Star Trek does allow Abrams to demonstrate one of his greatest strengths; his ability to create well-drafted characters.  M:I III suffered from the blank slate of Ethan Hunt at the heart of its narrative; here, Kirk, Spock, Bones and all are introduced, developed and each given moments to shine.  Now, he does paint them with the broadest of brushes, preferring to draw on the cultural memory of these characters rather than the reality.  Kirk is tremendously horny in this film; in reality, most of the women presented in the original series were ex-girlfriends, with whom he had secure relationships that he wasn’t able to maintain due to his career.  And the daddy-issues that are superimposed onto the character are not exactly transformative.  But there are moments, such as when Spock accepts Kirk’s logic for the first time, that bristle with a secure understanding of who each person is.  When Abrams finds a performance that works, such as Karl Urban’s festering, grouchy McCoy, he gives them the space to shine in his cluttered narrative.

Abrams does want to have it all.  As much as this is a reboot, it goes to great pains to ensure that it is legitimate.  The Romulan villains could be straight out of the previous entry in the series, the overblown Star Trek: Nemesis (2002 – Stuart Baird), and Leonard Nimoy’s version of Spock follows cleanly on from Unification.  But his grasp of character, his fetishisation of the camera as a physical object as it swoops around our heroes and gets covered in snow and sun, and his ability to take moribund properties and refresh them in the eyes of the audience, shows some talent.  Or maybe, that his work will always seem more attractive when it follows on from Jonathan Frakes rather than Brian DePalma or John Woo.

It remained to be seen whether the same energy could be applied to an original idea.