Films seen July

Baby Driver (2017 – Edgar Wright)

 

One of those films that gets inordinately over-praised because it is an ‘original idea’, Baby Driver had a few decent car chases (but don’t get carried away – these weren’t anything special) and a jukebox, almost musical, feel to the soundtrack.  But aside from Jamie Foxx, the film struggled to find a single decent, engaging performance.  Kevin Spacey sleep-walked, John Hamm was woefully out-of-his-depth (the man is little more than a small-screen actor) and Lily James took a role that could have been performed by any one of the attractive, capable performers that flood into Hollywood.  But most egregious was the central performance from… christ, I can’t remember his name.  And I am tempted to google it – as I have been tempted to research as to why exactly he was foisted upon us, given that I have never seen him before (is he on telly or something?) – but I can’t find the willpower, given how irritating his performance was.  Much is made out of the fact that ‘Baby’ doesn’t talk much, but the reality of the film was that he wouldn’t shut up.  His performance was needy and inhuman, so committed was he to dancing and prancing and posing in any conceivable situation.

In short; there was a much better film here if only there had been a decent cast.

 

Seen on a large screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £11 or so.

 

 

Song to Song (2017 – Terrence Malick)

 

In the UK this film has only been released for a two-week engagement on one solitary screen in London… so of course I went to see it.

By now, the critics have turned on Malick, and with the same level of predictability, a few lone voices have rushed to his defence.  Both groups are as frustrating as the other, because this was a moderately engaging film that seemed to explore two ideas with a degree of inscrutable intensity.  Firstly, that it takes an awful long time to figure out who you are, what your values are, and how you want to live in the modern world.  And that secondly, during this process of figuring yourself out, you will make some compromises that you will live to regret.

Now, neither of those ideas are particularly earth-shattering.  Nor are they permissible by those who see themselves surrounded by a generation of fecklessly indulgent millennials getting very passionate about various meaningless ideals (foremost of which are their own identities.  Second of which is Buffy feminist?).  But they are truthful (if not particularly honest) ideas, and this film, clearly suffering from Malick’s usual affectations, excavated them within a non-linear, but easily pieced together, narrative.  I liked it.

(Plus, I took the day off work to see it, and movies are always better when you are playing truant.)

 

Seen on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £4.50.

 

 

The Road Warrior (1981 – George Miller)

 

There’s only so much exploitation I can handle in my life, and Ozploitation can’t quite reach the upper echelons of my interest.  I think it’s something to do with the insincerity of the accent.  But this sequel becomes something radiant; a sweaty, almost impossible car chase that is littered with leaking petroleum and mangled carburettors.  It presents the utter hopelessness of dystopia; where the last remaining semblances of dignity and compassion have been abandoned, and only the survival instinct remains.

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost about £8.50.  35mm screening – a lovely print (that called it Mad Max 2)

 

 

The Warriors (1979 – Walter Hill)

 

Wonderful to see, not least because I’d only ever seen Walter Hill’s very silly director’s cut before.  The heightened horror of New York City felt more and more perverse on the big screen… though I can’t help but feel that the ending just comes out of nowhere.  It almost feels like the budget just ran out at some point.  It doesn’t hold the same passion for me as some of Hill’s contemporaneous works, but it was still a delightful hour-and-a-half.

 

Seen immediately after the above on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £8.50, though why this wasn’t a double bill, I don’t know.  35mm screening and a lovely print.

 

 

The Beguiled (2017 – Sofia Coppola)

 

I had, rather shamefully, put an awful lot of hope into this film, such was my mealy-minded dismissal of some of the sexual politics at play in Don Seigel’s version of the same film.  But those criticisms (available here) were shallow in their thinking, and susceptible to the quick condemnation of art that plagues my generation.

Because those hopes were ultimately misguided.  This was a beautiful film, and full of some rich performances, but it was a superficial affair.  Coppola displayed little inclination to examine any of the sexual (or indeed, racial) politics that are inherent to the set-up.  Moments of heighted tension in the original film, such as the visit from the confederate soldiers and the destruction of the tortoise, seemed limp and lacklustre in this version.  A beautiful waste.

 

Seen on one of the small, but still bigger than most, screens at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

Dune (1984 – David Lynch)

 

You’re struck by just how fully realised the world the Lynch created on screen.  It may be a little ridiculous in places, but you never feel that any performance or detail of set design is drawing attention to the unreality of it all.  Everyone is fully committed to the world; a world that is clearly as much of a nightmare as the one presented in Eraserhead (1977 – David Lynch).  This is not true of most science-fiction.  These kinds of stories rely on an almost biblical sense of prophecy and world-building, and Dune is no exception.  So much time is spent establishing the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, that his ultimate fulfilment of his potential seems a little rushed.  It’s a film that makes you pine for a series of increasingly desperate sequels.

 

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £11.  70mm screening!

 

 

Eyes Wide Shut (1999 – Stanley Kubrick)

 

I was very hungover when I saw this.

(Which is to say that it remains my favourite Kubrick, but the uncomfortable exploration of sexual desire that haunts this film was lost on me as I fell asleep on several occasions whilst watching the film.  What I will say is that the quickly issued dismissals of certain affected aspects of Kubrick’s style, such as his use of rear projection, were almost unnoticeable when viewed on a big screen from a celluloid projection.  It’s one of those many instances where the clarity of home viewing, and the easily accessible pause button, do no favours to a film.)

 

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £8 or so.  35mm screening – lovely print.

 

 

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017 – Matt Reeves)

 

Planet = good

Beneath = brilliant lunacy

Escape = bit dull

Conquest = oooh, this is really quite good

Battle = yawn

Planet = affection for, given this is the first one I saw in the cinema

Rise = much, much better than it deserved to be

Dawn = awful hideous mess

And now War which was pretty decent, but no matter how good the CGI gets, and no matter how manipulative the plots of these movies are, I can’t help but get distracted by the fact that I am watching a bunch of cartoon monkeys on screen.  I suppose that at the end of the day I am going to root for a drunk, malicious Woody Harrelson over a bunch of anthropomorphic pixels.  He’s a better special effect at the end of the day.

 

Seen on a medium-sized screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost 6.50.

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017 – Roger Michell)

Another film dampened by a particularly wet performance – this time from some overpromoted posh boy actor (whose name is also not worth looking up) – who struggles to bring any shade to his character.  This is all that more pathetic when you consider that he essentially wants to sleep with his mum.  It is the weakness of the film that his character is placed at its centre, when the interesting person is Rachel Weisz’s eponymous cousin Rachel.  Indeed, Roger Michell’s (an above average director who always includes at least one breath-taking sequence in each of his films) direction only comes to life when she is on the screen.  Beyond that, the film is little more than the extreme competence of mumbling yokels and lavish production design that comes with any British costume drama.

 

Seen on the small, but adequate screen at the Panton St. Odeon.  Ticket cost £6.50.

 

 

Unstoppable (2010 – Tony Scott)

 

I just get really sad when I see a Tony Scott film.  Because it just breaks my heart that I’ll never have a new one to see.  He was (and is) my absolute favourite director, and…  it’s really difficult to get this down.

Like, I accept that there will be a lot of art that I will never get on top of.  I will never read all the books that I should read, or want to read.  I get that there will be James Bond films made long after I die, and therefore, there will be Bond films I don’t get to see.  But Tony Scott is finished.  His work is accomplished.  And there is part of me that desperately wants it to be unmanageable.

Because Unstoppable was so full of life and so focussed that you feel things would have started to turn around for him.  The critical establishment (which had been very sniffy about the last decade of his work) would have been presented with a series of deliberate, spectacular thrillers.  It felt like we were just about to enter a new phase of his work, that would have been as distinct as his 2000s work was from his nineties work.

The painterly exploration of image and editing had been mastered.  And what strikes you when you see these films on the screen is how controlled the shots he uses are.  He’s not cut-cut-cutting in that way that we simplify his style to; instead he only brings in the multiple camera presentation at moments of high tension, where he uses them to draw out the suspense and prolong the nervousness we feel whilst we watch the spectacle on screen.

And the film contains everything we love about him.  The texture of celluloid.  The verisimilitude of exact details within the production design and script.  The dedication to practical effects.  The central performance of such charm and charisma from Denzel Washington.  It makes you wonder how some films still manage to be good without any of those ingredients.

Unstoppable is Scott’s exploration of how competence is something essential that we don’t value enough.  We’re all looking for people with flair, but the reality is that it is the people who can get the job done, without fuss or arrogance, are the ones who ultimately prove to be exceptional.

Seeing this film made me go home and watch several other Tony Scott movies.  Hell, I watched Man on Fire (2004) twice in two days.  It’s that good.  He was that good.

And god, I miss him.

 

Seen at the NFT screen 1 at the BFI Southbank.  Ticket cost £8.  35mm screening – beautiful print.

Films seen April

Life (2017 – Daniel Espinosa)

Which people try to disparage as an Alien rip-off.  As if that’s a bad thing?

A lovely (though completely faked) single-shot sequence opens a film follows the standard formula of a likeable crew (Reynolds, Wilson, Gyllenhaal) being murdered one by one.  So what – it’s a nominal plot?  There are fascinations of my childhood – dinosaurs, space travel, steam trains – that remain with me to this day.  I love them, regardless of the context.  The conviction of the cast in this film and the claustrophobia of a zero-gravity space station adds a level of true hostility to the proceedings; we rarely get to see utter terror in our lives, so it is exhilarating to see it performed.  But the ending – a glorious, defeatist conclusion, which dooms both our heroes and the whole of humanity – pushes this film into something quite thrilling.  I could do with one of these films a month.

A tiny, shitty screen with broken chairs and an obnoxious audience at the Cineworld Leicester Square (formerly the Empire).  If I wasn’t in a good mood, I’d have properly resented the experience.  Ticket was about £12.

Free Fire (2017 – Ben Wheatley)

 

Six films in, and he’s no closer to a masterpiece.  The breadth of Wheatley’s career is more something to admire than love (Steven Soderbergh suffers from the same affliction).  There is an almost desperate, and quite cynical, tendency within his films to create something ‘cult’.  He is a poseur trying to be alternative.  Every moment of Free Fire seems designed to be regurgitated by some inexperienced nineteen-year-old in a university halls of residence; and maybe it will be.  But there is nothing in this film that is even remotely dangerous or surprising.  It is an utterly safe film.  It is a tedious trawl through an approximation of ‘interesting’; actors little more than E.R. guest-stars perform paper-thin characters spouting dialogue that is not once amusing or quotable.

I think there is nothing more dull in modern cinema than the choice to ironically re-appropriate a popular, if slightly naff, pop song.  Ben Wheatley probably considers it to be an ‘edgy’ choice.

 

A small screen at the Bluewater Showcase… which was completely deserted of anyone other than myself.  I suspect they released it on too many screens following the relative success of High Rise (2016).  I’m not sure how the BFI can justify financially supporting a release on this level.  I can never work out in these situations (and for the record, it’s happened twice before – at Ponyo (2008 – Hayao Miyazaki) and Much Ado About Nothing (2012 – Joss Whedon)), whether I’m essentially in a private screening or very, very lonely.  Ticket cost £9 or so.

 

 

Raw (2016 – Julia Ducournau)

 

Which is one of those films where I spent a significant part of its run-time not actually looking at the screen, such was the unpleasantness on display.  That’s not a criticism – I find the deliberate ambiguity that drowns modern art-house cinema far more distasteful than any depiction of cannibalism.  But I can’t love a film like this – all effect, and little substance.

 

Screen 3 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Ticket cost £10.

 

 

Grindhouse (2007 – Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez)

 

We never got the chance to see this movie as originally intended in the U.K. and I occasionally claim that Death Proof is one of my favourite films ever, so the chance to see all three hours or so of this film was most welcome.

 

Seeing it with an audience was thrilling, and it’s fair to say that for many there the fake trailers were the highlight of the evening.  The ‘missing reel’ moment in Planet Terror absolutely killed; when Tarantino tries the same effect in Death Proof it seems muted and diluted.

 

Rodriguez and Tarantino were reaching for different things in their movies.  Rodriguez saw it as an opportunity to indulge in his trashy impulses, whilst Tarantino, always more concerned with his own auteurship, directed a new project, albeit one which took some of his textural indulgences (black + white sections, chaptered storytelling etc.) to an extreme.  The latter is a better film – not unsurprisingly – but its pleasures are less obvious, and in the double-bill format, the audience is exhausted by the time the final thrilling car chase erupts onto the screen.  You could feel the fatigue in the room.

Sold out showing on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  Fantastic audience.  Ticket cost £8 (I think…).  35mm showing – though it’s hard to notice here, given the deliberate grottiness of the image.

 

 

The Fate of the Furious (2017 – F. Gary Gray)

 

As I’m currently serialising a series on The Fast and the Furious films, I’ll reserve the majority of my thoughts until I publish the piece in June.

But suffice to say, it was the weakest instalment of an occasionally extraordinary franchise.

 

Huge screen at the Bluewater Showcase, slightly dampened by the fact that I had a killer migraine whilst watching it.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

The Red Shoes (1948 – Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

 

Which I often claim to be my favourite film.  I’m not sure I feel that way right now; like most favourite films, the allegiance towards a director usually means affection shifts from one film to another as time goes by.  Once upon a time, Raging Bull (1980) was my favourite Martin Scorsese film; nowadays Taxi Driver (1976) is more affecting.  I suspect that one day I will find The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) or The Small Back Room (1949) to be more compelling pictures than this.

But for now, The Red Shoes remains one of the most important pieces of art in my life.  To watch it is to understand part of my soul in a way I find quite hard to vocalise.  The same applies for some Tony Scott and Michael Mann films.

And like all art that affects us, like all truly great movies, every time I watch it I find something new within in it.  This time, I seemed to experience it as some great queer masterpiece; Lermontov, with his noticeably highly feminine sunglasses, is a great camp queen.  His interest in Vicky is not sexual; it is ascetic, a temptation to reject the limited satisfaction offered by the heteronormative existence with Julian, and share in his indulgence of the creativity of talent and art.  You can read the closing sequence as a mythical re-enactment of Hans Christian Andersen’s story or the suicide of a woman torn between two men, neither who can satisfy her, and who both want to control and limit her ambitions.  But this time, it was an act of freedom, a passionate moment of emotion, from a woman who was so close to choosing to never experience it again.  Few films are this powerful.

 

Upstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Slightly sniffy audience, including one douche who sniggered at any display of emotion in an attempt to prove how sophisticated he is.  There is a special circle in hell for the smug cunts who come to these screenings.  Ticket cost £8.  35mm showing of the most recent restoration.

 

 

Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)

 

And another all-time favourite film, seen on the big-screen for the first time.  It is a relentless and horrifying and a masterpiece of design, performance and escalating tension.

If we’re talking about the new things we see in beloved pieces of art – for me this viewing converged the mutual obsession of this film, and that of Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock).  Ripley’s pleading with Mother recalls Norman Bates’ fractured psyche; there is no reasoning with this destructive impulse.  It will dominate our existence.  In this regard, the xenomorph is an inhuman extension of Bates; simultaneously masculine and feminine, unfeeling and relentlessly homicidal.

 

Seen on the Sigourney Weaver screen at the Picturehouse Central.  It was an extraordinary 70mm print – speaking to the staff afterwards, the quality of the print was almost neon when they got it, but the projectionist team were able to show it as something beautiful.  Truly one of the best cinematic experiences of my life.  Ticket only cost £8.

 

 

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015 – George Miller)

Aware that when I first saw this film I was massively hungover, but still loved it (it was my favourite film of 2015), I jumped at the chance to see this again on the big screen.

Now I’m all for arbitrary indulges in movies.  I adore alternate cuts, franchises with different chronologies to production order – you name it, I will go there.  I’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 – Steven Spielberg) in black and white because Steven Soderbergh told us to, I’ve watched all three different versions of Legend (1985 – Ridley Scott) for the sheer hell of it.  So I went to see the Black and Chrome version of this film.

But a huge part of the appeal of this film was the extraordinarily vivid colour palate.  It seems masochistic to deny ourselves that appeal.

Downstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  Ticket cost £10.  Despite my misgivings about the visuals, the soundtrack sounded phenomenal – they really have an excellent audio set-up down there.

Win it All (2017 – Joe Swanberg)

 

I think it goes without saying that anything I watch at home is going to have less impact than something I see on screen.  There’s too many distractions, too many opportunities to look away from the visuals, and turn to the phone or laptop.  The cinema is my church; home is my prayer (the mind wanders from what it is meant to do.)

… but I really liked the onscreen text of this film.

 

Watched on Netflix.

The ASIDESTEPS CANON – no Jaws sequels – vol. VII

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.

61. Scars of Dracula (1970 – Roy Ward Baker)

 

Sixth film in the Hammer Dracula series

Nominally, much of the appeal of the Hammer Dracula series depends upon the erudite interplay between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but they appeared apart in the series as much as they appeared together.  The films have a provincial charm, and speak to a very British tradition of ghost stories and theatrical tradition.  With three walled, almost stagey sets, the film seems as much a product of a long-forgotten method of filming, that of British television in the sixties and seventies, long before it became just crap movies.  This film is a memory of wet Sunday afternoons, with nothing to worry about except the adventure unfolding in front of us.  A later entry in the series, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974 – Roy Ward Baker & Chang Cheh), loses Lee, but regains Cushing, and becomes a wonderful blend of the vividly-colourful Hammer tradition and delightful charm of seventies kung-fu movies.

62. Dawn of the Dead (1978 – George A. Romero)

 

Semi-sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968 – George A. Romero)

 

Moving away from the claustrophobic, racially charged initial film, Romero widens his eye to a larger canvas.  Here, his target is commercialism, which he confronts in a fairly blunt way.  Subtlety is not something you can afford when using zombies.  By setting his movie in a shopping centre, he preys upon the idle fantasies we indulge whilst spending money we’re worked far too long for; that a mall, with its plethora of distractions and sugary treats, could be just a little more dangerous and a little more real.

63. Day of the Dead (1985 – George A. Romero)

 

Third in Romero’s zombie film series

Difficulties meant that the third film in the series couldn’t make the canvas broader, but instead reduce the series back to a base-under-siege type story.  But the film benefits from it significantly, and Romero ensure that the reality of sexual violence is as pronounced as any zombie threat.  Romero stands apart from the mindless use of zombies by most creators in his insistence of treating the walking dead as a new kind of lifeform, with burgeoning intelligence and infantile attempts at culture.  It ensures a more textured reality than the ones presented in the majority of films.

64. Diary of the Dead (2007 – George A. Romero)

 

Fifth in Romero’s zombie film series

 

But zombies remained popular, and by the turn of the millennium, money was readily available for him to extend his trilogy by making another zombie picture.  Land of the Dead (2005) is a too glossy, too star-filled entry to be valuable to his ongoing series, but the following film – nominally the first entry in what was a forsaken second trilogy – is thoroughly enjoyable.  Using the ‘found-footage’ schema that prevails in modern horror films, Romero created a whole world, one where safety was never possible.  Every moment of respite, every potential new ally, led to further death.  The zombies are lumbering and plainly stupid, but they are relentless, and there is no hope of escape, only the possibility of delaying it.

The following film, Survival of the Dead (2009) continued some of the ideas in this film by exploring how an isolated society would cope amongst the zombie pandemic, but it lacks the escalating tension that drives this film.  It remains to be seen whether a further entry will ever be made.

 

65. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981 – George Miller)

 

Sequel to Mad Max (1979 – George Romero)

 

There’s only so much exploitation I can handle in my life, and Ozploitation can’t quite reach the upper echelons of my interest.  I think it’s something to do with the insincerity of the accent.  But this sequel becomes something radiant; a sweaty, almost impossible car chase that is littered with leaking petroleum and mangled carburettors.  It presents the utter hopelessness of dystopia; where the last remaining semblances of dignity and compassion have been abandoned, and only the survival instinct remains.

 

66. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015 – George Miller)

 

Fourth in the Mad Max film series

Thirty(!) years after the third entry in the series (the faintly preposterous Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985 – George Miller & George Ogilvie)) Miller returned to his malfeasant film series.  It was a sequel that had existed in rumours and mutterings, and I didn’t quite believe it when it finally came out.  Using the template of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, it played as an extended, thoroughly brutal chase sequence.  But the vivid intensity of the colours, and the clattering of the soundtrack elevated this film into something quite spectacular.  A black and white version is available.

67. Before Sunset (2004 – Richard Linklater)

 

Sequel to Before Sunrise (1995 – Richard Linklater)

 

The appeal of Before Sunrise depends largely on your openness to romanticism and your tolerance of self-indulgent twenty-somethings.  But the sequel sweetly recognises the missed opportunities of youth and the desperation with which some people will strive to in order to capture a potential glimmer of hope and escape from their lives.  We all live with our abandoned relationships and regret and the words not said.  This film’s brilliance lies in the openness of its ending, where we never are quite sure whether they will throw everything away in the chance to build something on a neglected potentiality.  Will he get on the plane?

68. Before Midnight (2013 – Richard Linklater)

 

Sequel to Before Sunset (2004 – Richard Linklater)

 

Well, it turned out he didn’t get on the plane, and this subsequent sequel deals with the fall out when you casually destroy a life you once built.  The film delays the simmering mutual hostility of its central couple, before exploding in a near forty minute argument.  Here, the self-indugence starts to creep back in the series, but never quite dominates due to the texture and depth of the frame of their argument.  The success of the film is evident in the potential sequels you begin to dream of in your mind.  I’ll see you, Ethan, Julie and Richard, in 2022.

 

69. Staying Alive (1983 – Sylvester Stallone)

 

Sequel to Saturday Night Fever (1977 – John Badham)

Sylvester Stallone continued his exploration of the immigrant experience in Staying Alive, the only film he directed that he didn’t star in.  Transposing the rhythm of his boxing movies onto the equally physical movement of dance, Stallone applied montage, light and quick editing to create a movie dependent on the tension of achieving a perfectly executed jump.  Whilst the male form is fetishized and fantasised, this film offers a glimpse into the unapologetic sexism of Tony Manero, who shares the needy, goofy humour of Rocky Balboa, but stands in opposition to him through his inability to view women as anything other than objects.

 

70. Army of Darkness (1992 – Sam Raimi)

Sequel to Evil Dead II (1987 – Sam Raimi)

The third entry in the series plays down the horror elements of the series, but replaces it with an action-adventure ethos that is utterly engrossing.  Working on a wider canvas than the previous films, it is an essential entry in the populist, humorous, action-adventure stunt-heavy cinema that began with the Roger Moore Bond films and really only exists nowadays in the work of Edgar Wright.