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!

Avatar (2009 – James Cameron) [Extended Collector’s Edition]

‘Upon the foundation of an entirely invented biosystem, Avatar is a brilliant synthesis of mythic tropes, with debts to Lévi-Strauss and Frazier’s The Golden Bough. It soars because, simply, it stones and transports you.’

  • Michael Mann in his entry for the 2012 Sight & Sound greatest films of all time poll.

 

And that should be enough for most people.  But the intervening years has seen Avatar’s reputation trampled and dismissed.   There’s no appetite or enthusiasm for the inevitable upcoming sequels.  We’ve forgotten the thrill that we all experienced back in December 2009, when for one of few times in our lives, we went to the cinema and saw something we had never seen before.  I think that denial is on us; perhaps we’re suffering from some collective shame at the realisation that we didn’t learn the lessons of Avatar.  We were presented with a vision of cinema where its vast resources and capabilities were given to an artist in order to create a movie of enormous creativity and imagination.  And we rejected this, and its place we got a cinematic landscape dominated by Benedict Cumberbatch playing Doctor Strange.  We can’t deal with this, we’re ashamed by it, and thus we turn on Avatar and write it off as some simplistic, moralising Pocahontas paradigm.

Because, aside from the unique visual pleasures of the movie (and these are plentiful – Cameron’s distinct use of colour is extraordinary in and of itself) Avatar is vital because it presents one of the most profound pieces of progressive art in mainstream cinema.  It is a contemplation on the need for ecological responsibility.  An unsubtle polemic for veganism.  And a profound riposte to the violence and horror of the action movie genre.

The final point is of course essential, given Cameron’s stature within this field.  But it is hard to read Avatar as anything other than a response to the wanton collateral damage that dominates the genre.  Aliens (1986) is a masterpiece; but the destruction issued within it is specific and not universal.  The film was no advertisement for the necessity of utterly annihilating a hostile force.  It is no coincidence that at the film’s conclusion Colonel Quaritch – a space marine, no less – is placed within a mecha-suit similar to the one used at the conclusion of Aliens.  His subsequent destruction repurposes that act.  For in that film, Ripley was facing a specific horror – the desperate, unfeeling black mass of the xenomorph.  It is a horror that is utterly inhuman.  It has no pity or remorse or compassion, and Ripley’s turn to violence (she is largely pacifistic in Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)) is a necessity to protect an innocent.

But Hollywood did not recognise this, and made their heroes irresponsible mass-murderers.  Avatar seeks to bring responsibility to the genre, by repurposing the lessons of Ripley.  It is essential to note that Sigourney Weaver repudiates any use of a mecha-suit in this film (in itself, a crude mechanical ‘avatar’) and instead transposes herself onto an alien lifeform – a superior ‘alternative’ body to the one used by the military.

In as much as this film is a response to violence of the action genre, Avatar also positions itself as a counter-point to the repressive masculinity that dominates the form.  Cameron has an essential history of positioning the central characters of his movies as strong women with agency and capability, and Avatar is no exception, despite its rather bland male lead (though Worthington is affecting in his portrayal of a man unable to atone for the waste of his life).  Zoe Saldana is the only actor to truly shine through her motion capture performance, such is her hulking physicality and prowling movement, and Michelle Rodriguez positions herself as the de-facto star, spitting out quips and making the audience love her.  But more profoundly, Cameron presents the idealised society of the Na’vi as one that does not suffer from gender imbalance (though it is still gendered – would it be possible for an individual to enter the avatar of an opposite sex?) and the film is profoundly female friendly, particularly in its representation of sex.  Cameron choose to make the demonstrated physical act as one of intimacy and foreplay and emotional connection – a move that stands in direct contrast to the sweaty presentation that is found in most action films where it is shown to be solely about the male gratification of penetration.

For an already long film, Avatar actually benefits from being even longer.  The majority of the extended edition’s additional runtime comes from a prequel set on Earth.  It underlines the necessity of Pandora; how it is a world quite unlike the overpopulated, mundane environment that Jake inhabits.  It is a world where nature is manipulated and controlled; endangered animals are brought back to life via cloning.  It underlines the great compromises we make as a species – we protect and preserve creatures, but in zoological centres and wildlife reserves.  We contain and constrain it, and continue to assert our dominance over the rest of the planet.  Pandora, with its interconnected biological wildlife, provides a necessary counterpoint to this – you can bulldoze as many trees as you like, and the ecological system will prevail.  It’s a fantasy of living which is profoundly appealing, and one that helps us understand why Jake would willingly give up his identity and physicality for it.

Whilst the ecological issues raised by Avatar can seem heavy handed, they remain essential.  The biodiversity of Earth has become almost negligible, such is the dominance of the few species that humankind deign to eat.  The world is dominated by millions of pigs, and cows and chickens… and not much else, certainly not when placed in comparison with other epochs of our history.  Avatar is an interesting exploration of evolution; as a species we had grown to the point where we shape our environment to suit our needs, and any possible progress (that does not consider the more likely outcome of mutually assured destruction) indicates an evolution where flesh and blood are fused with technology, computational hive minds and artificially engineered body parts.  The Na’vi experience no such future.  Whilst they may be technologically primitive, they gained a greater understanding of the need for responsible living at a far earlier point in their development.  The Na’vi seem to miss the capacity for gluttony that resides in our species; where our hunting of animals goes from necessity to survive, into the luxury of sport.  This would understandably lead to a far smaller population of the supposed dominant species as seen within the film

It is this attention to detail that demonstrates the true mastery of the form that Cameron is capable of.  He is intensely focussed on details and excruciatingly demanding of others.  This ensures that Avatar suffers a lot less from the weak physicality and incoherent rendering that is seen in most CGI-dominated films.  The move away from physical effects and into the computational realm has only diminished the capacity of cinema to amaze.  If you can make anything nowadays in a computer, your anything must have life.  The CGI bollocks that passes in most films is ill-defined and unphysical; it holds no perceived weight in the environment in which it takes place.  It requires a visionary of Cameron’s stature to ensure that CGI shots are returned to and perfected; few other films take the same care over their effects, only John Carter (2012 – Andrew Stanton) and Pacific Rim (2013 – Guillermo del Toro) spring to mind, and those films are similarly problematic in places that led to them being lazily dismissed.  Cameron often slows down the action during his CGI sequences, giving a verisimilitude to the proceedings.  Few directors are as confident in their effects shots, and will use rapid-editing to cover up their weaknesses.

Cameron’s world building is extraordinary.  Barely mentioned reference to conflicts in Venezuela and Nigeria paint pictures in the audience’s minds of an Earth riddled in war.  He creates an ecological world which is more alive than most movies set in America that reminds us of our own personal responsibility.  And he has created an action movie that stands alone against the testosterone-fuelled nonsense that dominates the genre.  Maybe these were just a few too many successes for us to admit to in one movie.

(Footnote: look I’ve tried to engage with the text as much as possible, but the great sin of Avatar exists outside its position as a work of commerce: that it almost single-handedly led to the death of film projection.  And I have my doubts about the extent to which that was a crime; outside of the rarefied, metropolitan cineaste circles, film projection meant limited choice in blockbusters, and I can remember the number of films I saw with shoddy picture, and dropped out or crackly sound.  Nowadays, we’ve recast those experiences in a nostalgic light, but they were fucking annoying at the time.  But film should be projected from the format it was shot on, and every time I travel up to London to see something in 35mm or 70mm, I’m reminded what a special experience that is, when done right.  Avatar killed it off, in its quest for murky 3D faddish projection.  There’s probably is sickening metaphor to be made comparing the Na’vi to celluloid…)

Top Five – James Cameron Films

It’s a little bit perverse to write a Top Five for someone with such a small filmography, but I’ve been thinking about him a lot recently, and James Cameron 1984 – 1994 is one of those great classic, flawless runs of cinema that a few directors have (I’m thinking of Walter Hill 1978 – 1984, John Carpenter 1976 – 1988 etc.)  So something like The Abyss (1989) is only left off this list because of my arbitrary numbering system, and not because of any concerns about its quality.

avatar

  1. Avatar (2009)

The closest precedent we have to Cameron in cinema is the career of Stanley Kubrick.  They’re both detail-obsessed, technically proficient directors who began their careers producing a number of big-budget films before slowing down their output rate.  In the twenty years since Titanic (1997) Cameron has only produced one film.  It is likely that his career will be capped by the now almost mythical Avatar sequels – sequels who have been close to filming for a decade now.  There are mutterings on the internet that these are sequels that nobody wants, and that the cinematic landscape has moved on since Cameron released what was, once again, the most successful film ever made.  But memories are short; these mutterings were happening before True Lies, Titanic and Avatar, and were proved to be incorrect then.  Also, are we really not wanting to see a sequel from the man who made both Aliens and T2?

Which is not to say that the frustrations of Avatar are irrelevant.  It was not a film I liked when I first saw it.  But the achievements of the film have only grown in my mind in the intervening years.  It is an ecologically progressive action adventure story.  It is the pinnacle of one of the main reasons we go to the cinema – for the opportunity to visit other places and peoples and worlds and see things we would not otherwise get to see.  And it is an obsessive masterpiece from a visionary director; the lessons of Avatar (give a director free reign to create something special) were not learnt, and cinema became bogged down in easy, creatively bankrupt, retrospectively 3D’d superhero films.  Their action sequences are incomprehensible and their CGI is lazy.  Avatar’s sequels will become our last stand if we want to have a still vital, interesting populist cinema scene.

truelies2arnold

  1. True Lies (1994)

In For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen), Ernst Stavros Blofeld is dropped down a chimney shaft from a helicopter.  In Spectre (2015 – Sam Mendes), he is James Bond’s adoptive brother who has been plotting for years to bring about his downfall.  There is a perception in contemporary cinema that the latter is better; that convoluted cod-psychological origin stories are somehow more interesting than spectacle.  But funny, family-friendly big budget action cinema is essential (of which the Roger Moore Bond films are canonical), and it is increasingly neglected in the cinematic landscape.  Part of the appeal of James Cameron is that he stands in opposition to these prevailing winds.  True Lies has some extremely shabby racial and sexual politics, but is a gloriously entertaining synthesis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action and comedy careers.

 terminator_-_h_-_1984

  1. The Terminator (1984)

When we talk about the great car chases in cinema, we forget to ever talk about the one in The Terminator, largely because it is only one small accomplishment in an exquisitely designed love story that made a ridiculous Austrian bodybuilder the biggest star on the planet.  And it is a love story, regardless of the thrill of the gunfights and apocalyptic futures – one where a man risks his life to travel back in time to meet a woman he fell in love with when he saw her in a photograph.  It is a Vertigo (1958 – Alfred Hitchcock) level of obsession, and one that grounds the film amidst the horror movie thrill of watching innocents flee from an unstoppable killing machine.

 Sigourney-Weaver-as-Ripley-in-James-Camerons-Aliens

  1. Aliens (1986)

I consider Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott) to be an almost perfect film.  It certainly is one of my favourites.  I have a library of books on the making of the film, posters of it on my wall.  I have bought and rebought the film many times over.  It is quite extraordinary in the way that very few films are.  And every now and then I think of Aliens, and remember a film that is so different and one that satisfies a whole different part of my brain.  How can Alien be so good, when there is a sequel that is just as good, yet in such a different way?

To take on Ridley Scott in his prime and in some ways surpass him is an extraordinary feat, and yet it is just another achievement we can add to a man who has done almost everything.  Here he takes the creeping psychological horror of Alien and transforms it into thrilling spectacle.  Cameron knew that sequels had to have a purpose; for him, they were a chance for his protagonists to return to a site of trauma.  For Ripley, the film is a tunnelling exploration of motherhood; the loss of her own child, destruction of the malevolent mirror image Alien Queen, and eventual adoption of Newt.  Within this journey, she will reject the patriarchal frameworks of industry and military power, and come to peace with the perpetual walking nightmare that seeks to impregnate all.  She will operate alongside a memorably diverse supporting cast, who provide some relief from what would otherwise be an emotionally testing film.  If only all sequels were all like this.

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  1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

 

After making one of the most astonishing sequels ever made… he went and did it again!  T2 is a wonderful film, that takes the love story of the first film and shifts it into a more mature exploration of a constructed family.  This transfiguration was reflected in the physique of Linda Hamilton.  Cameron has quietly created a body of work where women are strong and capable as many of the men they share the screen with (if not more so!)  And yet, the muscle and attitude protects a woman struggling deeply with trauma – the moment where she sees the T-800 for the first time in 11 years is a moment of almost transcendental horror captured on celluloid.  It is here that we see Schwarzenegger as an icon; an awkward behemoth capable of pummelling through anything in front of him.  For the first time, Cameron was free to revel in spectacle; without boundaries, he crafted a picture of almost relentless drive, where the only possible hope of survival was to keep moving.

Alien3 (1992 – David Fincher) [Assembly Cut]

ALIEN3_DISC_1-34

“The hardships and grief left behind.”

 

Life has no purpose.  No meaning.  The Alien, a black, hollow mixture of technology and organic matter, is a walking nothingness.  It is relentless, indiscriminate its murder.  It is death; the only certainty we face.  The looming fear we desperately try to hold off.  Ripley is both fascinated and repulsed by death (in the way a devout Christian is both fascinated and repulsed by sex).  The Alien is her death drive, the overwhelming urge to throw yourself off a bridge onto a motorway, even though life is going well.

Continue reading “Alien3 (1992 – David Fincher) [Assembly Cut]”