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.)
I saw the poster for this movie long before I saw the film itself. Sitting for forty minutes on a bus each way to-and-from school ensured that the smallest change in the landscape became an event in and of itself. Advertising was scrutinised from a distance whilst we waited for red lights to change. Movie posters were the best… imagining what pleasure were in store once I could eventually see the film. The cinema was, as it is now, a treat, and trailers and posters and articles in Empire magazine only built the anticipation and developed that treat.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why Nicolas Cage’s name was above Sean Connery’s head though…
My dad’s favourite film is Sliding Doors (1998 – Peter Howitt). I don’t know why, because he finds Gwyneth Paltrow as insufferable as the rest of us, but he adores it (I resist the inner arsehole in me that wants to tell him about Blind Chance (1987 – Krysztof Kiewslowski)). Sometimes, our love of a film has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather the people we saw it with, childhood friends, first dates, our dads. I wonder if this is the case for him. I should ask him.
So much of the appeal of an action movie can come from sitting there beside your father whilst watching it. It’s a kind of paternal imprimatur that defines a sense of masculinity. Which is so unhelpful for anyone sitting outside the most basic definition of a man. So many of these types of films are grounded in a pathetic conventional denotation, that the movie stars that exist outside this – for us this has most clearly been Keanu Reeves (others may find it in the nerdy, sexually-ambiguous determination of Tom Cruise) – that their mere presence on screen becomes something essential. They stand in opposition to a preening, overwhelmingly narrow idea of gender roles, and move queerly within worlds defined by the most toxic causalities of the male ego, namely violence, both physical and sexual.
Nicolas Cage is one these essential movies stars.
In recent years, Liam Neeson has become one of western action cinema’s cornerstones. His shambling, lumbering, haunted frame looms onto our screens once or twice a year in some cheaply made vaguely European action thriller. His move away from what is traditionally called ‘serious’ acting into a more pulpy genre has often been lazily presented as a reaction to the sudden death of his wife and the realisation that existence is meaningless. It’s an attractive idea (and only really psychically manifests itself Joe Carnahan’s 2011 masterpiece The Grey) and one that speaks to an admission of purposeless existence that we are quick to deny ourselves. But the casual sidesteps between action cinema and other less enjoyable forms of acting, have been made by numerous actors. Sylvester Stallone, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, and Nic Cage, all have as many Oscar-bait pictures to their name as they do action flicks. But Nic Cage stands apart from them as a unique screen presence and a pioneer of a new style of screen acting.
Rather simplistically, the first screen performers were often fighting against the technical limitations that surrounded them and were thus forced into a heightened, expressionistic style of performance – one that clearly held its roots in the theatre (I can’t be alone in finding every trip to the theatre profoundly embarrassing… It’s unbearable to know that the ridiculous, artificial acts on stage are being performed by an actual person.) As sound entered the frame, and movies stopped moving, the dominant mode of performance was an unnaturalistic rapid-fire rattling of dialogue. In the fifties, movie performance began to shift towards naturalism, which was often convincing, and often dull. British actors rarely succumbed to the artificial stammering and bizarre speech-rhythms that even the laziest American television actor is capable of bringing to a part. Across every decade, movie stars relied on the same bag of highly charismatic quirks and moments that they would bring to every part, whether they were playing a poet, priest or politician.
Alongside the movie stars, were the less attractive actors. They played best friends. And below them, the ordinary looking people. They were (and are) by physical definition, known as character actors. No less quirky than the stars, they just employed a slightly wider range of moments and tics across their roles. By the eighties, a number of up-and-coming actors were trying to blend a movie star career with character actor performances. Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp and Nic Cage can all clearly be lumped together in this sub-genre of acting. But where Hanks and Deep provide clear demarcation between their ‘straight’ and ‘performance’ movies, Cage refused to do so. He would often perform both within the same scene.
Cage is a singular screen presence. He is magnetic and maniacal and entirely concerned with moments. He has little interest in creating fully-rounded roles and instead ensures that he is as interesting and engaging as possible in every second he is on screen. As such, his parts don’t often make sense – in The Rock alone he plays a violent, Beatle-loving, supposedly stream-of-conscious spouting chemical scientist, who sits in pants for no reason; one of these traits alone would be enough for most actors. But because of this, he is never anything less than interesting. He has an utter conviction to his performance that most screen actors lazily refuse to explore, such is their preciousness towards their ego.
Fairly early in his career, Cage played the part of a literary agent (one of those jobs people only have in movies – Jeremy Piven’s ‘obituary writer’ in Serendipity (2001 – Peter Chelsom) is a personal favourite) in Vampire’s Kiss (1989 – Robert Bierman) who begins to lose his sanity. An insanity that manifests itself in his character’s conviction that he has become a vampire. A sister-piece to writer Joseph Minion’s After Hours (1985 – Martin Scorsese), it is the story of an ordinary man drowning in bizarre, only slightly-off key characters and situations that are only found in the movies. The film does not readily present what is reality and what is a delusion of Cage’s character. Most actors would let the audience know, primarily to illicit sympathy from them. Cage has no such qualms, instead walking the fine line of conviction, hysteria and violence with a dedication and energy that belies his talent. He is a joy to watch and utterly compelling in every strange, nostril-flaring moment that he has conjured up.
As such, Cage was pioneering a whole new style of acting. One that had little interest in naturalism or stage theory. It harkened back to the earliest days of cinema; it is expressionistic. Entirely formed from subjective reactions to isolated moments and scenes, it is heightened and defiant and one of the greatest special effects the world has ever seen.
It has, of course, been completely rejected by the vast majority of other actors. The humourless wankers.
There’s a tendency to reduce action films to elevator pitches – where plot is boiled down into one-sentence, high-concept ideas. It’s a frustrating punishment for action cinema, which so often relies on tone, mood and framing to create its identity. The Rock, can be simply described as ‘a scientist and an aging James Bond break into Alcatraz.’ We’ve seen how ‘scientist’ utterly fails to describe the mania of a Nic Cage performance, but the fact that he is an ordinary working man, clearly puts this movie in the tradition of Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan), whereby an everyday, albeit habitually wise-cracking, man is placed into a thoroughly dangerous circumstance.
An ‘aging James Bond’ is a more difficult position. Clearly, John Mason is an elderly version of the Connery Bond – he’s a snobbish thug, who was explicitly incarcerated for being a spy and makes a series of asides and double-entendres. Whilst he lacks Bond’s naval background, his complete disregard for authority marks him out as the same man. This is a Bond who was disowned by the officers who replace Bernard Lee’s M, and he is filled with nothing but contempt for the order of things.
The James Bond films have often been cornerstones of action cinema. The nasty, quick-cutting violence of From Russia with Love (1963 – Terence Young) proved highly influential. Never again would a karate-chop to a shoulder suffice. In the seventies, the Roger Moore Bond films pioneered the family-friendly, humorous and spectacular action film tradition that The Rock clearly belongs to. By the time the series had reached the eighties, Moore and Connery, returning to the role in Never Say Never Again (1983 – Irvin Kershner), ensured that audience believed that Bond would always be an old man – a tired remnant of the British Empire.
But in 1996, the series had managed to have one of its regular ‘return-to-forms’. Pierce Brosnan had become Bond’s latest regeneration in GoldenEye (1995 – Martin Campbell) – a glorious, unravelling of tattered British and Russian Empires that led to betrayal, explosions and sex. Whilst the remaining Brosnan Bonds were to become some of the most tedious entries in the series, Brosnan himself was being hailed as the best-Bond-since-Connery. In that regard, The Rock can be clearly seen as a defiant marking of territory. Despite his difficult relationship with the role that made him famous, he had returned to it twice before, and The Rock is his way of showing that even as an old man, and wearing another one of his preposterous hairpieces, he was still a more engaging, charismatic screen presence than the breathy interloper who was beginning to get good reviews.
‘Alcatraz’ is a whole other prospect. Films set in San Francisco occupy a special place in the cinematic canon. The surrounding sea and immediate weather patterns give it an openness within its urban spaces that no other cinematic American metropolitan area can propose. The acceptance of the local community has proven ripe for direct contrast with some of the most sickening aspects of society. And the steeply hilled streets have been responsible for – directly echoed in The Rock – of some of the most thrilling, dangerous car chases in the history of cinema. It’s close enough to L.A. to be neighbours, but far away enough to be a world apart.
By setting his film in and around San Francisco, Bay has sought to tie it into the pervy obsession of Vertigo (1958 – Alfred Hitchcock), Out of the Past (1947 – Jacques Tourneur) and Basic Instinct (1992 – Paul Verhoeven); the seedy, dystopian nothingness of Point Blank (1967 – John Boorman), Bullitt (1968 – Peter Yates) and The Conversation (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola); the dark underside and brutality of Dirty Harry (1971 – Don Seigel) and The Game (1997 – David Fincher); the action adventure of Big Trouble in Little China (1986 – John Carpenter) and the fevered desperation of Escape from Alcatraz (1979 – Don Seigel). His creates a cinematic landscape within which his movie can play, drawing upon the beauty of the landscape and the weight of image to lend tension to his film. Ultimately, we are more invested when we care about what is going to be destroyed.
For an action director, Michael Bay rarely employs monsters. He refrains from using the snivelling, often British, traditional villains that dominate the genre, and has rarely resorted to the CGI nonsense that is found when someone like Alan Rickman or Jonathan Pryce isn’t available (the Transformers films are a notable exception to this.) Bay will always seek to make the antagonist of the piece an individual with at least some reasonable motivation. The military are often presented as failures within his films – and resourcefulness comes not from institutions, but from the work of individuals. Which presents a quandary for Bay in this movie; he wants us to sympathise with Ed Harris, but at the same time understand the misguided cruelty of his actions. To achieve this, he first places Harris as working alongside/against unscrupulous mercenaries, and then by placing him in direct opposition to Bay’s biggest enemy… politicians. Those working in politics are unfailingly presented as pathetically self-aggrandising and intellectually weak. It’s hard to disagree with this presentation.
As much as Bay has sought to place this film within a long tradition of San Francisco movies, he also seeks to use the cinematic shorthand of placing characters and moments within other films in order to elicit understanding from the audience. There are the car chases from Bullitt, an aging James Bond, cart chases from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984 – Steven Spielberg), and heart-piercing from Pulp Fiction (1994 – Quentin Tarantino). These references allow Bay to use a broader canvas than the frame allows. Whilst he is not fully in in his quick-cutting, multiple camera, different format style of shooting, he still relies on an audience working quicker than 24 frames a second. Similarly, this film lacks the soft-rock ballad that would come to play a part in his style of filmmaking over the next few years. The formula is not quite complete.
This referencing shorthand, and non-traditional framing of movies has led many to dismiss Bay. There are legitimate reasons to criticise him – the presence of a few too many angry black people in minor roles is uncomfortable viewing – but what is rarely appreciated is how Bay is a director who treats his audience with respect. He knows that we can make quick connections as spectacle unfolds in front of us, and that subtext should be as visual as it is textual in cinema.
What is rarely commented upon though, is how much Bay uses talented actors to lend real weight to the unfolding action. He ensures that throwaway lines, quick gags written by uncredited punch-up writers, and nonsense exposition are as engaging as any special effect. In addition to Cage, Connery and Harris, The Rock features John Spencer, William Forsyth, Michael Biehn, John C. MicGinley, Philip Baker Hall, Xander Berkeley and Tony Todd in supporting roles. Any one of these actors is enough to light up the screen. The fact that Bay spends so much of his budget on employing such talent in minor parts should not be neglected. It is impossible to find a Michael Bay movie tedious; the reason we have stars is because we don’t want to ever be bored in the cinema – Bay promises us that even in the moments the stars aren’t on screen, we will have an image lit up by prominent character actors spitting out dialogue far beneath them.
The movie lacks any significant female presence – only nineties babe Claire Forlani pops up to reduce the alarming levels of testosterone dominating the screen. But Bay ensures that his men are defined as being in opposition to traditional masculine structures. Nic Cage is regularly belittled in the movie, and denigrated by his inability to perform essential male roles, such as ejaculating a gun. By ensuring that his hero is a strange, socially awkward man, and one defined by his intellect and not his physical prowess, he ensures that his presentation of gender is more nuanced than the movie poster would have you believe. The ideal man is heroic, but not essentially violent. Equally, his heroes will often be outsiders due to their class or race. Heroism is an outcome, not a character trait, a distinction rarely qualified within action cinema.
In many ways, Bay was the perfect director for Cage – both were concerned with immediacy above all else. Towards the end of the movie, when Bay shoots a desperate Cage silhouetted against a setting sun, he has little concern as to whether this aesthetically aligns with the shadow and blue of the rest of the movie; no, it is a beautiful image and thus one worthy of putting on screen. Complete coherence is not a priority. Bay’s tendency towards this would only grow as he widened his use of multiple camera set-ups using different film stocks – ultimately mixing formats completely when digital video gained primacy over traditional film. What worked in the moment, worked in the moment.
The Rock is often belittled by contemporary cinephiliacs for its status as one of the early releases from the Criterion Collection. But its use of cinematic shorthand, non-conventional presentation of masculinity and sheer visual pleasure ensure that it rightly deserves to be canonised. After all, no-one like Vertigo when it came out…
We’ll continue Nicolas Cage’s career in Chapter VIII.
Broadly speaking, directors who came to prominence in the sixties made their name in television (Altman, Lumet etc.). In the seventies they became known for their student films (Carpenter, De Palma, Scorsese). In the eighties it was for their work in advertising (Ridley Scott) and in the nineties it was for their work on music videos (David Fincher). Bay was firmly in the latter group, and his early motion pictures cemented him as a key figure in the future of action cinema. Previously, we have looked at the figures who achieved success initially in the eighties (McTiernan, Cameron), or directors whose impact was limited (Woo), but now we were starting to glimpse the future.
Bay would begin by making the Spielbergian move into producing. This is often an act of folly by most directors – their energy is spent wasted on support lesser filmmakers or tossing-off half-arsed ideas that have little appeal – but allows certain directors to cement their dominance in the market. By creating the Platinum Dunes studio he moved himself into a brand. The films produced by the studio are of limited appeal, and broadly consist of accessible remakes of seventies horror classics – is the A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010 – Samuel Bayer) significantly more interesting for using CGI effects rather than practical effects, or for making Freddy Krueger’s paedophilia explicit?
Bay himself would forge an interesting, if somewhat inconsistent career. His success was cemented in Armageddon (1998), a preposterous but spectacular affair where he would cast blank male leads surrounded by a plethora of talented character actors to work their way through some nonsense plot. A soft-AOR song would soundtrack the blandest of heteronormative relationships. But it seemed like a successful formula, and Bay was determined to repeat it.
Pearl Harbor (2001), isn’t quite as bad as any lazy internet joke would have you believe, but it’s a long way from being good. In the most part it suffers because the climax of the movie, the veritable attack on Pearl Harbor, comes at the centre of the film’s running time. Which of course, as an isolated incident, was a failure for America. Familiarity with the victory of history was not enough for cinema’s audience, so Bay adds a further hour or so to the film’s length to ensure that there is a significant act of revenge for Ben Affleck. It leads to a disjointed, arrhythmic movie.
The most enjoyable movies Bay has made since this presumptuous disaster are the more personal, non-franchise projects. The Island (2005) and Pain & Gain (2013) are crass, colourful and employ a unique visual style. Bay has delighted in placing cameras in any number of bizarre places, ensuring his movies are full of shots that no-one has ever seen before. Developments in technology have only aided this interest. He employs a rapid-editing style, with cameras largely placed low to the ground. Exceptions to this are his rapid crane work shots, where the image will soar in and around the actors. This style comes alive in the wonderful car chases he makes sure he includes in every film. He has maintained an integrity of physical performance and stunt work when most of cinema has denigrated into CGI slush. He has a specific sense of place, and the Miami of Bad Boys II (2003) is as real as the San Francisco of The Rock.
Even in the dross that passes for the Transformers movies he is capable of producing work of sublime beauty. Mark Kermode, a critic paid largely by an inescapable tax to repeat the same opinions across a number of media outlets, has called these films ‘the death of narrative cinema,’ which only seems to be an insult if you believe that narrative cinema deserves to be the dominant use of the form. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) is complete sensory experience produced (as is explicitly referenced in the film) during the dying days of physical form. Using nine different recording mediums, Bay crafted a story of visual wonder, where the very nature of reality was questioned. The films no longer sought to present a threat to the real world, instead subversively documented an imagined world where hostility was an everyday experience. Within this, his usual plethora of talented actors grounded the film against the extraordinary stereoscopic action scenes that were unfolding in front of our eyes.
Bay, and by consequence The Rock, began to point the way forward. Action stars could also be some of the most talented, interesting actors of their generation, not just muscle-bound freaks of nature. Physical performance and stuntwork would still have a major role to play. But equally, he moved action cinema towards a space where it would rely on a safe formula than one where a director’s vision reigned supreme. Women would continue to be pushed towards the margins, a he would present a visual style that was easily misunderstood, ensuring a legion of incoherent images would smudge he screen in years to come.
Bay was the last director to get in through the door; he should have left it further ajar.
January. The time when the prestigious films of the previous year in Hollywood get released in the UK. There can be several releases each week, all of which are desperate for acclaim and praise. It can be hard to navigate this bounty and identify the films that have any worth, rather than the bland, desperate fare that clogs up the cinema screens. I do love that challenge (as I love the wealth of choices I have available to me), and this is what I ended up with. Brief reviews recorded for posterity.