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.)

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.

The ASIDESTEPS CANON – no Jaws sequels – vol. V

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. Predator 2 (1990 – Stephen Hopkins)

 

Sequel to Predator (1987 – John McTiernan)

 

Danny Glover does an admirable job anchoring this film given that previously, the only thing capable of defeating the Predator was the epitome of human physicality.  His charisma and ongoing narration colour a darkly claustrophobic viewing experience.  Transforming the implicit danger of the first film where it feels as if the world itself is attacking Schwarzenegger and co., Predator 2 chooses to make its antagonist a much more present and realised threat.  Urban fears are quite different after all.

42. Another 48 Hrs. (1990 – Walter Hill)

 

Sequel to 48 Hrs. (1982 – Walter Hill)

 

Following the original buddy-cop film, Another 48 Hrs. maintains the explicit threat of a highly charismatic black man overwhelming the social order maintained by the white man.  Eddie Murphy would replicate the thrill of this across Beverly Hills Cop (1984 – Martin Brest) and its subsequent sequels, but they lacked the mountainous Caucasian hostility found in Nick Nolte.  The genuinely terrifying interplay between the two releases itself in the laughter of the audience.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of laughing at a funeral for ninety minutes.

 

 43. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron)

 

Sequel to The Terminator (1984 – James Cameron)

 

Directed by the master of sequels himself, T2 is a hint of the apocalypse itself.  Disaster upon disaster as machinery simultaneously fails and dominated humanity.  The ability to adapt (as homo sapien had to do as it spread across the primitive world) is essential – if only to compete with the fluid, mutative T-1000.  Cameron is obsessed with how the human form will need to change – the machine hybridisation of these films will be superseded with the virtual reality avatars of… um… Avatar (2009).  The moment when Sarah Connor sees the T-800 once again is a moment of sheer, exhilarating terror.

It’s easy to dismiss the non-Cameron sequels, but I find each of them to be engrossing, and each of them feature some grounded action sequences.  They lack that populist touch, that playful approach to chase sequences, and the genuinely therapeutic attitude towards the characters that Cameron brings to each of his films.  Filmmaking is only worthwhile if it’s obsessive.

 

 44. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990 – Renny Harlin)

 

Sequel to Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan)

 

Appealingly throwing John McClane into the plot of another pulp paperback, Die Hard 2 plays upon the overwhelming and occasionally baffling geography of an airport.  Films often operate within identifiable landmarks, but the real appeal is when we get to see behind those doors we’re not allowed to step across.  Real appeal is also found in very big explosions, of which this film has many.

45. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995 – John McTiernan)

 

Third in the Die Hard series

 

For years Samuel L. Jackson popped up in supporting roles in movies (he’s much older than you think), but by the mid-nineties he was becoming the main appeal of many films, and was best used when he was presented as a disruptive force.  Film with an appealing widescreen sense of scale by McTiernan, this third entry seeks to present a highly cinematic New York as defined a location as the skyscraper and airport of the previous entries.  It’s not entirely successful in this regard, but it maintains a sense of momentum the pummels the film along.

We won’t talk about the subsequent films in the series that followed.

 

 46. Lethal Weapon 3 (1992 – Richard Donner)

 

Third in the Lethal Weapon series

The Lethal Weapon series is one of rapidly diminishing returns as the rough edges of the first film (particularly in regard to Riggs) are sanded down.  But the films have a unique approach to sound design as Donner places babbling, seemingly improvised dialogue low in the mix against effects and music.  The series ultimately benefitted from the addition of the manic energy of Joe Pesci, but it would have been preferable if he had brought some of the sense of danger that he brought to other roles – ultimately, the films had become just a little too safe at this point.

47. Rocky III (1982 – Sylvester Stallone)

 

Third in the Rocky series

It’s extraordinary to think of the achievement made by Stallone in the production of this film – leading a huge cast & crew, setting up multiple cameras and getting hit repeatedly by Mr. T. whilst at the same time subsisting on only half a dozen egg yolks and burnt toast every day.  But’s Stallone’s endearing honesty comes to the forefront as he explores the consequences of a hero beginning to believe his hype and losing himself in the vagaries of fame.  It also explores Stallone’s most conscientious choice of direction – his use of montage.  Here he reduces cinema to its broadest strokes – motion and energy are processed at great speed by the viewer’s mind whilst at the same time the filmmaker maintains absolute control over the unravelling of time.  It amounts to a manipulated sense of fatigue as we gain an understanding of the exhaustion that Balboa feels.

48. Rocky IV (1985 – Sylvester Stallone)

 

Fourth in the Rocky series

Underrated as a writer, Stallone is dedicated to exploring the frailty of the human form and mind – it’s easy to forget that “We fill each other’s gaps,” is the most honest account of the necessity of love ever expressed.  Here, Stallone delves into the weight we sometimes feel, when others project their hopes onto our own lives, and the duty with which we endure this vicarious desire.  Dolph Lundgren remains the most hostile opponent Balboa had to face, and few films capture the bizarre nationalistic hubris that envelops America.

Rocky V (1990 – John G. Avildsen) remains the only film in this series not worth watching; its attempts to pass on to the next generation failing.  The Rocky series depends on the scrutiny of Balboa’s life.

49. Rocky Balboa (2006 – Sylvester Stallone)

 

Sixth in the Rocky series

After some years of experiencing a stagnant film career, Stallone returned to the role that made him – and in turn, cemented Balboa as an almost documentarian character study.  Bereaved, bereft and broken, Balboa has become a shadow, subsisting on stories and faded glories.  Whilst there is a deftness of motion to the fight scenes, the real delight of this film is found in the simple passion of Balboa – no man has ever purely expressed the determination to just keep living in the face of such brutality, brutality that will take everything you love from you.

50. Creed (2015 – Ryan Coogler)

 

Seventh in the Rocky series

Despite its depiction of a determinedly individualistic sport, the Rocky series has always stressed the importance of allowing others into your life.  Creed move the series into new arenas, shifting the series’ focus on the immigrant experience away from the Italian-American to the African-American it depicts the struggle to define identify within a relatively short history.  This shifting of focus is reflected in the incidental music, where the brass of previous entries is mixed with more contemporary beats and rhythms.  And the fight scenes are extraordinary, modern technology allowing them to be seemingly filmed without cuts.  You never give up.  Never give in.

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.

The Last Days – Chapter II – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron)

Terminator_2_poster

For seven years the money sat waiting to be taken.  It’s unimaginable today that a successful film failed to be followed up for seven years.  In a world where sequels can follow annually, that they took the time for James Cameron to be ready is extraordinary.

James Cameron has waited seven years (and counting) to shoot a sequel to Avatar (2009).

Continue reading “The Last Days – Chapter II – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron)”