Films seen June

In the Cut (2003 – Jane Campion)

 

Campion’s deeply sexy neo-noir is one of those films that was initially glimpsed whilst flicking through the channels on late night television.  It’s a film whose reputation preceded it, so inextricably linked to the collapse of Meg Ryan’s stardom following some rather minor indiscretions and awkward Michael Parkinson interviews.  On that initial viewing, it was quite breath-taking, so rich was the texture of the impasto cinematography.  Over the years, the pleasure has only grown.  There’s a bitter-sweet intensity to finally seeing it on the big-screen (on celluloid no less) knowing that the colours, the shadow and depth of sensation is unlikely to ever be as vivid as it was on this night.  It is unpatronising, considered and features an extraordinary central performance from Ryan.  Until this point she was not a naturalistic performer, but here, not only is she acting with a high degree of realism, she also effectively presents a barrier between herself as a performer and the audience.  We are never entirely sure of her thoughts, never certain of her intentions, and as such, it is utterly beguiling to watch her.

 

Seen on Screen 1 at the Curzon Soho.  Ticket was a fairly hefty £17.  35mm presentation (absolutely beautiful print!) by the Misc. Films collective followed by a fascinating Q&A by Jane Campion.  Highlights included: her utter generosity when answering heavily loaded questions from the audience, a hilarious mix-up between Tinder and Kinder and a standing a few feet away when she was asked to dinner by a complete stranger in the audience.  Good times!

 

 

Wonder Woman (2017 – Patty Jenkins)

 

So it’s a very important movie for a lot of people, and I enjoyed it an awful lot.  There are moments – such as the exposition heavy recap of the history of the Amazonians – which are presented with a grace that is rare in big-budget cinema.  And the emotional honesty – the non-patronising affection Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor displays for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (a superb mix of naivety and elegance) – is quite brilliant.  These DC movies are so good, and so much better than their Marvel equivalents, because they reframe human emotion into fantastical settings.  The Marvel movies are just a bit basic in comparison.  And they’ve ploughed this very modern idea of superheroes having no obligation to save humanity to an admirable extent.  I accept that I will never find this movie as powerful as others do because I have never wanted for cinematic role-models, but we just need to get to the stage where this is everyday, rather than uncustomary.

 

A huge screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket only cost £6 or so because I was able to go on a Monday.

 

 

The Mummy (2017 – Alex Kurtzman)

 

I mean, look, it’s a Tom Cruise film.  I’m going to see it on its opening weekend.  And, y’know… um… this was not a good film.  I laughed out loud when I saw their ‘Dark Universe’ logo and it was downhill from there.  (and Jesus… ‘Dark Universe’… because I get it, every fucking film needs to be a franchise nowadays, but if your solution to bring together a number of steadfast properties as Frankenstein and Dracula – all of which have managed to sustain dozens of films over the history of cinema – is to create literally the dullest secret society imagined, you need to take a long step back from making movies.)

The appeal of a latter-day Tom Cruise film is his absolute dedication to performing a stunt or sequence that is innovative and breathtaking.  And there are good moments in this film – there’s an underwater sequence that is particularly engaging – but they aren’t anything special.  For the first time in forever I feel I watched a Tom Cruise film that was just treading water.

  • By my count this is the third out of his previous four films that was filmed in part in England.
  • Jake Johnson as a sarcastic haunting is a brilliant idea… that is just dropped. Why would you choose to negate the most charismatic idea within your movie?
  • Annabelle Wallis brings little to the movie, other than an underwhelming ability to repeatedly utter the dialogue ‘Nick?’ about fourteen-thousand times.
  • Russell Crowe manages to do two bad English accents in this movie – his standard cod-Shakespearean accent as imitated by Chris Hemsworth in his Thor appearances, and his new working-class-cockney voice.

 

A good-sized screen at the Bexleyheath Cineworld.  Ticket cost £11 or so.

 

 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017 – David Bowers)

 

There are tonnes of these fairly worthless kids films in cinemas all over the land, and if you’re a parent, you probably see them all the time.  I’m not.  But I’ve been showing the kids I work with Harold Lloyd movies over the past few weeks and it’s completely blown their minds.  I mean, they scream and laugh as they watch them and then immediately want to see more.  They can name Safety Last (1923) and Feet First (1930).  I don’t really have a point to this, other than to say, can’t we just aspire to something more.  Why do we insist that children’s movies have to be safe and patronising and sentimental?

 

A medium-sized screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  On the plus side, it was free as I took fifty eleven-year-olds to see it.  On the down side, I spent 30 minutes trying to get to the bottom of who hit who in a fight that broke out before the film.

 

 

Streets of Fire (1984 – Walter Hill)

 

I’m going to write about this film at considerable length in the months to come.  Suffice to say, it is an all-time favourite.

 

Seen on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  35mm showing – every reel of the film was in a different condition – some looking pretty good, some were neon pink.  That’s the joy of these celluloid screenings; watching a film on Blu-Ray will ensure the experience is consistent.  On celluloid, it is vibrant and alive and will be truly different each time you see it.  I had a shitty day at work, but the audience were really into the film and I loved every minute.  Ticket cost £11, but came with a beer and a slice of pizza.

 

 

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017 – Michael Bay)

 

Which is a beautiful mess.  Because for a lot of the running time you’re trying to figure out what is going on (and who is voicing the violently obsequious robot British butler), but it doesn’t really matter, because every thirty seconds you’re blown away by a shot of absolute breath-taking beauty.  It’s that construction, that deliberate location of shot following shot to overwhelm and outstand the viewer that is the signature of Bay’s artistry.  Anthony Hopkins has been going around on the press tour calling Bay a true master of the medium, and most interviewers have treated these statements as nigh-senile ramblings, but he’s not wrong.  Bay is propelling cinema forward, forcing the viewer to become more active, more engaged in what they are watching, and despite the speed of his editing, he is still composing highly-classically beautiful shots.  We will talk about Bay in the terms we reserve for Hitchcock in the years to come.

It’s a brilliant film because there is a short sequence where a homicidal Transformer annihilates a horde of Nazis during the Second World War…FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER.  And, love it or hate it, that is movies at its best.

 

Seen on a huge screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £11.40.

 

 

Aliens (1986 – James Cameron)

The traditional view of Aliens is that Cameron took Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror and turned it into a sci-fi action picture.  I don’t think I’ve ever questioned this opinion, but seeing it for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how limited a reading this is.  Not only is there far less shoot-em-up action than you remember, the majority of the film is a deliberate reflection of Scott’s entry (some shots are deliberately paralleled).  The creeping tension of an incoming unstoppable killing creature intent on destroying you is as prevalent here as it was in the first film, and the sadistic corruption of pregnancy perpetuated by the xenomorph stand in contrast to Ripley’s essential nurturing nature.

70mm showing of the theatrical cut on the downstairs screen at The Prince Charles Cinema.  The experience carried a certain bittersweetness whenever Bill Paxton appeared – he really was an extraordinary screen presence.

 

(I was also due to see The Beguiled (1971 – Don Siegel) on 35mm at the Prince Charles, but it was during the heat-wave and melting points caused the trains to go up the spout and I didn’t make it in time.  Disappointing.)

Films seen 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.

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…)

Films seen March

Logan (2017 – James Mangold)

 

Probably the best superhero movie.  Which isn’t saying much, given the tepid product that that genre produces.  So it’s fine.  And there’s nothing much more to say about it other than it becomes one of those films that you have to over-exaggerate your enjoyment of in order to appease people in polite conversation.  But you can’t really stand at a photocopier and say “…well I liked it more than X-Men: Apocalypse, I suppose…” or “…it kind of made its point in the first five minutes, and then repeated it for two hours…”.  Nobody wants to hear that.

 

A large screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9, but half of that was covered by a voucher.

 

 

Elle (2016 – Paul Verhoeven)

 

Featuring the best movie cat since Nymphomaniac (2013 – Lars von Trier).

Somehow this film managed to be both a perfect depiction of how misogyny and rape are a part of the everyday for women, but also an apologetic for a cinematic fantasy of women ‘coping’ with trauma.  I loved how uneasy it was.  The film was brutal and funny and fierce and featured a deliriously good performance from Isabelle Huppert.  Proper, serious filmmaking.

 

Screen three at the Odeon Covent Garden.  A good screen, a good showing, a little ruined by the house lights not being completely switched-off.  I am very close to becoming a person who complains about that.  Ticket cost £10.95

 

 

Personal Shopper (2016 – Olivier Assayas)

 

I’m going to write about this film at length in the coming weeks, but suffice to say, I loved it.  This film has crawled under my skin in a way that only the best films do.

 

Screen three at Curzon Soho – the screens other than screen one at that cinema are bullshit, but this screen isn’t too bad if you sit right at the front.  Ticket cost fifteen-fucking-quid!

 

 

The Lost City of Z (2017 – James Gray)

 

At what point did Christian Bale turn down a part in this film?  Because you can’t quite escape the feeling that watching a film with Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson in is a cheap knock-off of some potentially better film.  They are actors who perpetually feel like your four or fifth choice for a part.  James Gray makes a lot of very good films, but none that you love, and The Lost City of Z continues his proficient, if somewhat emotionally distant streak.  It’s magnificently beautiful in places (and actually in cinemas, which is somewhat of a miracle given his past form), but frigid and unmemorable in others.

However, no one is able to match Gray for final shots.  Here, it is extraordinary.

 

Screen one at the Greenwich Picturehouse.  You can’t sit right at the front as you have to crane your head a little too much, but a few rows back is perfect.  Ticket was free because of some promotional thing!  I would have made a point of seeing it in 35mm when it is released, but you can’t argue with a free screening.

 

 

Get Out (2017 – Jordan Peele)

You can keep your perfect blend of horror movie tropes and racial politics, for me the most horrifying aspect of this movie was the Microsoft product placement.  They use bing as a search engine!  What nightmare are they living in!

It’s an extraordinary film that makes me feel like I’m committing cultural appropriation by even liking it.  But the opening sequence and last few minutes (when the ‘police’ car turns up) were stunning moments of recasting the true horror of our modern world.  It made me catch my breath.  The eventual explanation of what is going on is truly inane, but it’s a terrifying, interesting and funny film.  One we’re probably going to talk about for years to come

 

The studio cinema at the Bluewater Showcase.  Good sized screen which used to be very chic, but now is looking a little shabby.  Plenty of leg-room though, and it still feels like a treat.  Ticket cost £9.

Dressed to Kill (1980 – Brian De Palma)

dressed to kill 03

A woman we love is sliced apart in an enclosed space by another woman, whom we will later discover is not all she seems.  The flash cutting and peculiar angles of the camera only add to the anxiety we feel when we watch.  Ultimately, we see her, lifeless and bloody, slumped in an almost inhuman manner.  The grimness of the scene forces our sympathy to dissipate, and we now see her as a limp piece of meat.  The narrative of the film will continue beyond her death, and any life that the character had will be forgotten as we switch protagonists.  By the end of the movie, her life, her death, will be an irrelevance.

And no, we’re not watching Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock).

There’s no shame in the cinematic shorthand that De Palma employs within his riff on a Hitchcockian moment.  And yet, De Palma has been so often denigrated for doing so.  Too often, he has been presented as a filmic cover band, hashing out Hitchcock’s plots and style in a sleazy, crass manner.  Ignoring the great appeal of sleaze, this tarring of a true master ignores the great weight of other directors who have made their own Hitchcockian thrillers without the belittling that De Palma has experienced.  Martin Scorsese in After Hours (1985), Paul Verhoeven in Basic Instinct (1992), Roman Polanski in Frantic (1988), Terence Young in From Russia with Love (1963), Clint Eastwood in Play Misty for Me (1971) and whole swathes of Curtis Hanson’s, Dario Argento’s, John Woo’s and David Lynch’s careers are heavily indebted to Hitchcock.  Even Stanley Kubrick, a cinematic visionary within his own right, made profoundly Hitchcockian movie in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  None of these figures have be ridiculed for their cover versions, so why should De Palma?  Not only that, but Jean-Luc Godard (in is early films), Nic Roeg, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jules Dassin, Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Hawks have proved to be just as substantial an influence upon De Palma, yet these are never given the same scrutiny.

What is also ignored is how De Palma develops and extends the theme and style of his progenitor.  The heist in Mission: Impossible (1996) is more engaging than the similarly staged version it rips off in Topkapi (1964 – Jules Dassin) because it includes the stronger possibility of a human discovering the crime.  Significantly, he vastly improves the plot of Psycho by making the protagonist of the second half of the movie a witness to the murder of the first protagonist.  This removes the narrative lag that Psycho experiences once Marion Crane has been murdered.  In both Dressed to Kill and Sisters (1973), the film has an energy and drive that ensures we sympathise fully with our new protagonists, in direct opposition to the way that we struggle to relate to the blankness of Lila Crane.  By being a Hitchcock acolyte, he was able to develop the master’s films and clear up the weaknesses he found.

So not only has De Palma’s obsession with Hitchcock allowed him to narratively develop his plots, he also has extended the thematic constructs used.  De Palma is one of the great mainstream queer filmmakers, largely (and perhaps counter-intuitively) because he has denied us the blank sexuality of Hitchcock’s texts.  There is a strangeness to Hitchcock’s films; how they are utterly obsessed with sex, and frigid in any exploration of it.  Norman Bates sees Marion Crane through a peephole… and does not touch himself.  Now, that is interesting in and of itself, but the continuing awkwardness (and abusiveness) around sex – think of Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964) – allows for audiences to make excuses for his male protagonist’s obsession and sexual violence.  The Birds (1963) is entirely about how one woman’s sexual agency disrupts the very balance of nature.  A quick glance at Tippi Hedren’s autobiography will reveal how the distasteful, obsessive, and yet somehow undemonstrative sexual harassment found in the films was reflected by his behaviour in real life.

De Palma does not allow the audience the ability to deny the realities of sexual obsession.  His explicitness – think of Body Double (1984) here – ensures that we see voyeurism and stalking and exposure to be as unpleasant for women as they really are.  He ensures that heteronormative couples are presented with messy ends (the murder of Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill is not an attack on women, but an attack on normative sex), and the heroes of all his movies shy away from conventional representations of sexuality – the ambivalence of Jennifer Salt in Sisters, the incestuous love of Obsession (1976).

His explicitness of these sexual matters, particularly in his portrayal of women, has led many to accuse him of misogyny.  It’s not an unfair accusation, and one that De Palma makes a gleefully idiosyncratic defence of in De Palma (2016 – Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow) by claiming that he loves shooting ‘beautiful things’. But, and this may be the most measly defence ever (made by a man no less), De Palma is not misogynist, just sexist.  Certainly, the explicit misogyny of Scorsese’s work (women are nearly always objects of violence in his films, and it is hard to escape the memory of his terrifyingly abusive performance in Taxi Driver (1976) here) has not been confronted in the same way.  Women are lead characters, with agency and independence, in a large number of his movies, not least in Dressed to Kill.  So whilst he will often photograph them in states of undress, and make their occupations those of individuals working in the sex industry, he will give them a life and vitality that few women experience in most movies.

Which is a roundabout way of coming to the conclusion that De Palma is not just a Hitchcock acolyte and his portrayal of sex and women is more complex than any easy, reductive reading.  For sure, the opprobrium made against him is not shared fairly with his contemporaries.

The opening overture of Dressed to Kill is the deliberate fantasies of someone with little exposure to sex… perhaps Angie Dickinson is a feminised version of Hitchcock himself.  Certainly, she shares some of the same obsessions – art galleries and the sound of her own voice.   The parts of sex she is preoccupied with (grabbing arses) are so pedestrian.  The ruffled sheets (an unseen penetration) of her sexual encounter, and the pathetic hand-written notes show someone ill-at-ease with navigating the sexual waters of the world.  Hitchcock, similarly was a man obsessed with sex, and yet unable to do anything about it, except dance around the issues in his art.

The film plays as an expansion of the nonsensical explanation given by the psychologist in the final moments of Psycho – the insanity of Michael Caine’s character here is a deliberate explication of Hitchcock’s poor understanding of transgender issues, suggesting that is somehow leads to unreal (though highly cinematic) concept of multiple personalities.  Dressing him as the villain of Family Plot (1976) – a failed Psycho – shows how this is designed to be a confrontational statement made against the master of suspense.  What if De Palma was not worshiping Hitchcock all these years?  What if he was seeking to undermine Hitchcock’s limited thinking, unhealthy attitude to sex and unpleasant personal relationships.

De Palma’s greatest skill in this movie is not the split-diopter shots, nor the extended chase sequences, but his careful use of showing characters looking carefully out of the frame and into the audience.  We are free to ascribe whatever emotions we imagine to these moments – something we share in everyday life, the way we perceive lust in small glances, entire lives in static, lifeless paintings.  This romanticism, obsession and perversion all lie with us, the audience.  De Palma is confrontational in his presentation towards us – there is no such thing as a passive audience in a De Palma film.

Dressed to Kill makes some broad (but utterly basic) discussion of gender reassignment surgery.  I think we are meant to find it unsatisfying.  Its presentation is not only an affront to Hitchcock, but to all the ignorance surrounding the issues.  The film shows violence of women upon women, who later are revealed to be men.  We often seek to deny the safeness and security entitled by all people (but necessary to transgendered individuals) by pointing to isolated incidents – a single account of a man pretending to be a woman in order to attack an ex-partner – as an argument to deny transgender-friendly bathrooms, and how some ‘feminists’ use these isolated incidents to deny these rights of other women women – rights that are the product of biological needs.  Dressed to Kill ensures that these arguments are unhelpful, and that safety, from violent individuals, abusive family members and hostile police officers, is essential.

Not bad for a shameless Psycho rip-off.

A New England

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An A-Z of Sightseers (2012 – Ben Wheatley), Aaaaaaaah! (2015 – Steve Oram), and Prevenge (2017 – Alice Lowe).

 

A is for the academy ratio:

Aaaaaaaah! is filmed in the academy ratio.  This gives it a grounding in historical British television, but it has also become an increasingly popular choice for contemporary filmmakers – Andrea Arnold’s employment of it in Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights (2011) is particularly affecting.  It has two major benefits: firstly, it can appear to heighten the frame, giving a sense of scale and space, and contradictorily, it can appear to entrap the actors in the image by boxing them in.

 

B is for balls:

Both Aaaaaaaah! and Prevenge feature moments of castration in their films; they acknowledge that for half of the audience, it will be a greater fear than death itself.  Testicles are themselves funny; colloquially referred to as ‘balls’ they take an everyday word and transpose it onto something discreet and forbidden.  The word itself becomes something powerful – particularly in the rhyme about Hitler’s reproductive organs that was taught to children.  By mocking the Fuhrer’s absence of genitalia, power was snatched from his presence.  In these comedy films, the castration emphasises the apparent weakness of the male victims.

 

C is for communication:

All three films play with the English language – easily recognised in Aaaaaaaah! in its use of guttural grunts, but Sightseers and Prevenge both choose to disembody dialogue over other images, often seen in the form of montage.  It is an affront to the traditional British worship of the writer, and a powerful underlining of the visual nature of the medium in which they are working.

 

D is for dogging:

There is a moment in Sightseers where the lead characters are observed shagging in their caravan in a wet Yorkshire lay-by.  Aren’t we all prone to dogging as we watch actors fuck on screen?  If we’re being pretentious, we’d call it ‘voyeurism’ or ‘the male gaze’, but really… it’s dogging isn’t it?  The vicarious thrill of it all…

E is for elderly:

If the death drive dominates the narrative of the three films, then the truest horror exists in old age, for this is the moment upon which we teeter on the precipice of oblivion.  The elderly are consistently presented within Sightseers and Prevenge as objects of abuse and loneliness.  They cling to meaning and purpose with a fragile tenacity, but the narrative will ultimately neglect them, and they become the detritus of cinema – glorified cameos.

F is for Frankie Goes to Hollywood:

Sightseers and Prevenge heavily draw on musical references to semi-kitsch tunes from the 1980’s – Prevenge slightly less so, perhaps due to budgetary restrictions.  By using ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in Sightseers’ climax they draw on a tradition of repurposing of the sacred for the secular.  The three films heavily dwell upon pagan and Christian locations, grounding them in the mystical sense of geography that populates the British Isles.  Frankie Goes to Hollywood were never shy from dealing with essential issues – sex, war, religion – and queering them through their chaotic eye.  Similarly, our three films draw on the psychogeography of their settings, and present them through the neglectful eye of tourism, whereby places of outstanding personal, political and spiritual significance become gift shops.

Prevenge also uses music cues heavily influenced by the scores of John Carpenter.  As such, it ties itself to the swathe of modern horror that draw upon his subtly-unfolding, widescreen sense of dread.  The Guest (2014 – Adam Wingard) and It Follows (2014 – David Robert Mitchell) are key examples.

 

G is for guilelessness:

All three films are populated by innocents.  In every case, they are exposed to cruelty, and resort to violence (of both physicality and language).  Their naivete is not enough to help them function in the world, and unnaturally, the unremarkable nature of their clothes and hobbies and demeanour is wittily countered by the extremity of their actions.

 

H is for horror:

Whilst British movie horror has been traditionally represented by the technicolour, lavish Hammer corpus, the films hold a keener relationship with the horror of rural concerns, found primarily in The Wicker Man (1973 – Robin Hardy) and the work of M. R. James, whose stories were traditionally adapted at Christmastime.  They portray innocents enraptured by the local customs and hidden secrets of the ancient English countryside.  In their explicit representations of gore, the films also draw upon a more American tradition of horror (at its best found in the work of George Romero), perhaps indicating the gradual Americanisation of British culture, as we rapidly consume their films, television and pop music.

I is for ‘in England’ (a field):

The closest film in Ben Wheatley’s canon to the work of Lowe and Oram is A Field in England (2013), a similarly psychotic rural movie.  It delves into man’s descent into violence and speaks to the unique leylines of mysticism that cobweb our landscape.  It is however, a less successful film than Sightseers, feeling too forced, too deliberately ‘midnight-movie’ than the obsessive eccentricity that defines that genre of filmmaking.

J is for Jerusalem:

The first consensual murder in Sightseers is soundtracked by a recitation of ‘Jerusalem’ by the late John Hurt.  ‘Jerusalem’ a patriotic fantasy of England; a revision of history where Christ (a living fiction) walks with sandaled feet through the faded greens and fallen leaves of England rather than the dust and heat of Palestine.  In doing so, it firmly recasts the son-of-god away from a Jewish personage and into the white-skinned, great-abs vision of Christ perpetrated by middle England.  England has always had an issue with Jewishness, from the medieval pogroms, expulsion of 1290, and anti-Semitic work of Chaucer and his contemporaneous Mystery Plays.  By employing Blake’s mystical, visionary poem, Wheatley speaks to England’s greater sense of itself, one which would seek to eradicate the prominence of an entire race in order to better define its own ambivalent identify.  Patriotism only exists in the minds of fascists and football fans.

John Hurt provides a premonition of pregnancy.  He is responsible for performing the other great cinematic moment of foetal horror – that of the Giger-phallus erupting from his stomach in Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott).  By spoofing this profound performance in Spaceballs (1987 – Mel Brooks) he underlined the vital links in creating tension between body horror and comedy.

K is for kookiness:

In 2016 Alice Lowe played a supporting role in Adult Life Skills (Rachel Tunnard) – an instantly forgettable, deeply twee film.  Cinema has often sought to simplify and inoculate poor mental health by present it as ‘kookiness’.  Trauma causes characters to have little quirks and habits (like burger-phones) rather than genuine peculiarities and troubles.  The three films seek to recast this cinematic trope by ensuring that their lead characters are specifically unsettling and utterly strange.  They are unsafe films as a consequence.

 

L is for Louise:

The ending of Sightseers seems to explicitly reference the great ambiguous finale of Thelma and Louise (1991 – Ridley Scott) – a film similarly about innocents who simultaneously pursue murder and companionship on a road trip.  Wheatley shares a lot with Scott; both highly visual filmmakers who have actively sought to escape the social-realist drama that dominates (and ruins) the British cinema scene.  Deciding to explicitly reference The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974 – Tobe Hooper) in one murder (backlit sunsets and creeping steadicam), Wheatley further develops this link; this was, after all, the film that Ridley Scott screened repeatedly in his preparation for shooting Alien.

M is for The Mighty Boosh:

Best described as fairytales for grown-ups, this imaginatively preposterous television series represents an abandoned version of television comedy.  Both Lowe and Oram performed in guest spots on their series, and it stands out, alongside the shows directed by Steve Bendelack (The League of Gentlemen) and Edgar Wright (Spaced) as TV programmes with any sense of visual style (Bendelack directed the pilot version of Boosh and it is a substantially different beast of insane close-ups and dynamic performances loomingly made to camera).  Paul King directed the main series The Mighty Boosh with a degree of wit; action was shot at a distance and cheapness was celebrated, particularly in his use of rear-projection.  These stylish tics have continued, regardless of an increase in budget, into his feature film work Bunny and the Bull (2009) and Paddington (2014).

But The Mighty Boosh is a lost era, a stump on the tree of British television comedy.  The comedy scene became dominated by blokeish, safe stand-up comedians, and any celebration of the strange moved off our television screens and into the cinema.

 

N is for Nuts in May:

Sightseers most obvious precedent comes in the form of Nuts in May, a television play by Mike Leigh from 1975.  It similarly explores the repression of the British when placed in situations of social anxiety.  Keith and Candice Marie in Nuts in May share the same myopias as Chris and Tina in Sightseers, and their disproportional hatred for the behaviour of others manifests itself in furious, though less violent, outbursts. By so heavily drawing on the work of Mike Leigh, they become an affront to traditional British creativity.  TV and cinema in Britain has its roots in the theatre, and thus has placed far too much emphasis on the importance of a script, and by consequence, the role of the writer.  Leigh, with his heavily improvised, actor-focussed approach, defies the prevailing ‘way-of-doing-things’ and asserts the primacy of the director.  Lowe and Oram have incorporated a level of improvisation into their working method, and thus forged a distinct auteurist body of work; one that even defies established directors such as Wheatley.

O is for online:

Most of Lowe’s filmmaking is found online.  Simultaneously, this has both allowed it to have a wider audience than any silent 8mm film could traditionally have had, but also ensure that it gets lost in the mix.  The appetite for online video seems primarily to be vlogs – this is not to denigrate them, anyone under the age of 20 loves them and considers them vital, but they are essentially lightweight and ephemeral.  This allows the feature film (Prevenge) to gain significance; its cinema release, supported by a publicly-funded body, ensures that her ‘voice’ can be heard further and louder.

P is for Partridge (Alan):

The history of British comedy films largely exists in adaptations of TV sitcoms.  The relatively small size of the TV and film industry ensures that crossover between the two mediums is easily achieved.  It is not always backed up with a creativity or imagination, with the majority of films feeling little more than episodes of a television series with a slightly larger budget.  For every The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005 – Steve Bendelack), there are a dozen The Inbetweeners Movie (2011 – Ben Palmer).  Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013 – Declan Lowney) firmly falls into the latter camp.  Steve Coogan’s Partridge, whom Lowe and Oram supported (with some filler sketches that were met with little more than nervous laughter at the Hammersmith Odeon) on the ‘Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and other less successful characters’ 2008 tour, is a carefully composed study of little-England concerns in a socially-oblivious middle-aged man.  Oram and Lowe’s characters often mine the same vein.

Their filmic work therefore moves distinctly away from a traditional British comedy skein, and into a more universal cinematic presentation.  The closest precedent, though far more populist, is Shaun of the Dead (2004 – Edgar Wright).  Wright was an executive producer of Sightseers, and his movie blended the curiously British mix of comedy, horror and social anxiety that our trilogy pursue.  Though we’ve all forgotten now that our initial reaction to Shaun of the Dead was disappointment – it didn’t seem to be as good as Spaced.  Oram and Lowe, with their background in more supporting roles, didn’t have the same high expectations, and thus their cinematic work can be met with less prejudice.

Q is for Q:

Most of British surrealist comedy stretches back to Spike Milligan.  His absurdist blend of ridiculousness and death seems particularly relevant to our survey.  He also aggressively believed in over-population, meaning he may have found some affection for the actions of our protagonists.

R is for Richard Ayoade:

The filmmakers’ closest contemporary is Richard Ayoade, who directed Lowe in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.  His debut film, Submarine (2010), is a genuinely sweet coming-of-age tale that delicately navigates the self-aggrandisement and naivety of a teenage boy.  Ayoade is a more explicitly European filmmaker, and his aesthetic, alongside his apparent inability to work with lower budgets, means his directorial career seems to be stalling.  He currently languishes as a panel show contestant and host, and his statements on cinema, found within his deeply ironic Ayoade on Ayoade book, would serve him better if they seemed more sincere.

S is Stiffy:

Lowe was able to make Prevenge for a tiny budget over a protracted 11-day shoot because her cinematic training came via making a series of ultra-low budget short films for over ten years.  Often directed by Jacqueline Wright, they demonstrate a variety of performance and form that speak to the creativity of their cast and crew.  Shot in 2005, Stiffy (Jacqueline Wright) is the story of a man falling in love with a corpse.  The roles are played by Oram and Lowe.  The film is shot on 8mm, and provides a portent for the cruel mix of death and empty emotion that will dominate their feature work.

The films efficiency, experimentation and narrative imagination stem from the freedom provided by a negligible budget.

 

T is for Two Thousand and One: A Space Odyssey:

The other clear cinematic moment of simian interest is the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 – Stanley Kubrick).  The apes are similarly violent and territorial and whilst the protagonists in Aaaaaaaah! are more technologically advanced (and indeed much of the humour comes from their primitive behaviour clashing with modern life), they both represent how much of modern life is simply covering up our most base instincts.  Oram deliberately references the framing of 2001: A Space Odyssey in his film’s most brutal moment, where an arm is savagely ripped off a corpse.  It is held totemically as the bone/space station is seen in Kubrick’s film.  But where for Kubrick this totem is a symbol of advancement (albeit advancement that is instigated by outside, alien influences), Oram’s totem is one of savagery.  All three films underline the descent of ordinary citizens into violence, as if the only way to navigate society is through the physical dominance of others.

U is for underclass:

The films overtly draw on the worst tendencies of small-minded Englishness, and this is no more evident than in the overwhelming whiteness of the cast.  Whilst both Aaaaaaaah! and Prevenge are more urban in outlook (and thus should be far more representative – Kayvan Vovak is a notable exception), even the Yorkshire of Sightseers is a more ethnically diverse environment than what we see on screen.  The films have a curious attitude towards class as well; the homes of the protagonists are clearly lower middle-class, but many of the spheres in which they move (shitty pubs, caravans, pasta sauces) are associated with ‘lower’ classes.  The whiteness and preoccupations link them with the British underclass; white, working-class people, tied to local communities, seeing industry leave them and fearful of change.  None of the protagonists in the films are identified as having a career, and Chris in Sightseers is explicitly unemployed.

The movement within these occupations show performers who have a degree of understanding of social mobility – Lowe’s exposure to the refined world of Cambridge may be partly responsible for this.

V is for violence:

All three films rely on violence as a source of comedy.  Fundamentally, this is because it is a proudly transgressive act, and a natural response to the tension built by such an act is to laugh.  There is a similar trick pulled with the use of extreme language.  Whilst the use of the word ‘cunt’ is more acceptable in England that in other Western countries, it still holds a power that many epithets have lost due to its denigration of the female reproductive organ.  An immediate response of swearing can almost always guarantee a laugh; as such some writers, such as Graham Linehan, see it as an easy trick, and refrains from using it frequently.

 

W is for Wheatley, Ben:

Ben Wheatley has a career that is similar to Steven Soderbergh’s; they are eclectic filmmakers, never content to sit within genre, and yet the breadth of their respective careers amounts to more the individual films.  Despite his American outlook towards content and form, he is producing a deep excavation of British storytelling.  He has delved into the repression and familial tensions of suburbia, the hostility of rural England, and the saturated Ballardian concrete horror of the growing urban landscape.  He has explored the comedy and crime genres – the cornerstones of British storytelling.  He has even directed episodes of the great living fiction of the twentieth century, television’s Doctor Who.

 

X is for experimentation:

The foundation of these films lie in their roadtesting on comedy stages.  They are not produced by beardy men sitting on laptops in Costa.  There is a strange dichotomy in comedy; that the words spoken must be the product of a unique perspective on events, but simultaneously relatable to the assembled audience.  Comedy aspires to be populist; if it is not initially so, the comedian will draw upon their strength of character to turn the audience around to agree with their perspective.  It is a failure if nobody laughs.  This is evident to anyone watching.  Therefore, experimentation in the filmmaking will work within a narrow spectrum – that of what people find amusing.  Modern American comedy films are almost entirely improvised; British films have a far narrower margin in which to operate.

Y is for the y chromosome (or lack thereof):

Prevenge seems a natural extension of Sightseers in that it moves the woman to the centre of the narrative.  Their relative traumas have escalated; the death of a dog has been superseded by the death of a boyfriend.  It is ultimately removing the male influence of the narrative, and a knowing subversion of the cinematic trope of male cinematic stars suffering from the death of a woman in their life as both motivation and personality.

This shift in ownership (it is not unimportant that Lowe writes, directs and stars in Prevenge) is naturally not reflected in the real world.  Even an article in The Guardian conducted at the time of Lowe’s aborted BBC3 series Lifespam (the station has now been aborted itself) refers dismissively to the length of her skirt.

Z is for trailerZ:

I watched the trailer for Sightseers and loved the use of “The Power of Love”; in that moment I truly hoped that it would be used in the film itself.  It was.  In fact, not only did the trailer use the music cues from the film itself, it used nearly the entire narrative of whole movie bar the last few minutes of screen time.  Most cinema trailers rely on oblique images of the stars within it soundtracked by slowed-down acoustic covers of Johnny Cash songs, but when you have no stars you can only rely on the film itself.

Zodiac (2007 – David Fincher)

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Zodiac (2007 – David Fincher)  Not pictured: the jars of piss Downey Jr. left around the set when Fincher refused him toilet breaks.

I’ve never owned a games console.  Never.  Not a Game Boy, MegaDrive, N64, Playstation or any of those other machines I loved when I went over my friends’ houses.  I know what would happen.  I know how obsessed I would become.  I know how much time in my life I’ve wasted on the game that Windows calls Solitaire and the rest of the world calls Patience.

I don’t think that it has been the biggest waste of time I’ve spent in front of a computer.  That would be the hours I’ve spent reading about serial killers on Wikipedia.  One harmless Google search leads to whole days drifting by, an almost impossible number of tabs open on screen as I click and click and click, and a dark sensation at the back of my mind.  Down the rabbit hole of psychopathy.  There are truly terrible and also fascinating things in the world.

Zodiac is that instinct taken to an extreme.  It’s about how the darkest recesses of human nature are so utterly fascinating.  The impulse to follow these recesses means we can dedicate our lives to identifying a mystery serial killer… or watch a film that’s nearly three hours long.  It’s a fairly reductive statement to note that Fincher equates the Zodiac investigation with filmmaking, such is the dedication and isolated perseverance required to make a film of individual statement within the studio system, but movie making never has to convince you.  Movies are not polemic, they’re suggestions, and very little relies on their success beyond immediate employment for a few fairly well compensated stars.

The last sentence uses about as broad a brushstroke as I am prepared to use (and I am well aware that my privilege allows me to use very broad brushstrokes).  But true crime has always used very broad brushes in the movies.  A few clicks on Wikipedia, and you realise what evidence hasn’t been presented, and what narrative jumps were made.

It’s the way in which we all edit our own histories – rewriting the bad bits, skipping the boring parts, simplifying the motivations of everyone else.  Memory exists as an internal Avid machine.  Serial killers are this control we play over our own lives taken to an extreme degree.  The fact that the Zodiac is still unknown ensures that the snips and cuts are more demanding.  They also allow for an obsessive search for an identity, one that neglects a wife and child, to be presented as heroic.  Profoundly, his heroism is presented as non-conventional masculinity.  He is isolated, denigrated by his co-workers, demeaned by the blandly conformative police force, and he draws for a living.  In the same way that women have conducted huge amounts of manual exercise in human labour, from farming to sweatshops, and yet it still be presented as a masculine pursuit, drawing is seen as a feminine trait.

Harry Callahan, the most conventionally masculine cinema icon, got to shoot his Zodiac killer in the face.  Graysmith can’t even speak to his in a shop.  Seeing the two films (the other being Don Seigel’s 1971 Dirty Harry) you begin to feel that Callahan is an absent-minded doodle that Graysmith drew whilst fantasising about confronting the killer he was after.  In the movie’s most telling moment, Graysmith has no issue with telling someone that he has only smoked once in high school – he identifies as an outsider in the masculine world he is moving in – an outsider status that also applies to the suspects he investigate.

Fincher explicitly links suspected serial killers (and if they’re not, they’re seriously creepy individuals) to movie buffs.  Despite his prestigious status in the industry, Fincher is a true misanthrope.  His films demonstrate a singularly depressing picture of humanity, where darkness and selfishness and greed are at the fringes of every interaction.  Coming out of a decade that sought to confront darkness with irony (and has ended up losing spectacularly) Zodiac represents an indulgence of obsessive dedication as a not-very convincing alternative to murder.  Humanity’s every ideology appears to be a denial of our own enormous capability for destruction – as if progress and hope somehow represent an alternative to our mutually assured destruction.  Christianity, the obsessive religion of America – and a fairly contemptible enslavement ideology in and of itself – encounters some of this darkness in its concept of sin, but chickens out when it presents a saviour.  There is no saviour.  The horror of 2016 only seemed to shock those people who believed in any goodness in our nature.  To those who had made their peace with the fact that people are garbage, the world just seemed transparent.

Fincher has been fictionalising this world for his whole career.  Fascinatingly, he never shies away from turning his despicable eye back on himself.  By presenting movie buffs as weirdos, he hates the only people who ascribe status to his output.  It’s a bitter humanity within his films, and one that we can only hope to survive by communication.  The failure of capturing the Zodiac killer comes largely from the failure (based on invented legal technicalities) of law enforcement agencies to talk and share evidence and question suspects.  The obsessiveness of Graysmith seeks to navigate these partisan waters, but often fails.  We often have good ideas… until we express them and then the ignorance and apathy and intolerance of others shrinks us into cowardice.

Zodiac is somewhat of an apotheosis because his not only sums up Fincher’s misanthropy, but seeks to resolve it.  Unfortunately, the resolution is agnosticism.  Despite the point of view shots, there is no serious resolution or identification of the dark heart of our society.  There are explicitly no easy answers in the narrative.  No stories of killing animals for fun during childhood.  The murders are schizophrenic in approach.  They encompass taunting phone calls (‘gooood-bye’) and impenetrable codes.  Killing lovers and later a taxi driver.  Murders in different states.  The film removes itself from the easy narrative ascribed to those films where the killer is caught.  It’s a deliberately open narrative.  We could identify every impulse and motivation for murder in society, and seek to contain them, and fail utterly.  Murder would still exist.  It is undeniable.  It is a mirror in which we see ourselves for the way we truly are and not the illusion we have created for ourselves.  We are ambiguous and selfish and capable of great cruelty.  Writing letters may be our only chance of survival…

 

The Last Days – Chapter VIII – Face/Off (1997 – John Woo)

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At the end of 2016, I can’t help but think about the inevitable death of some of our most favourite actors.  What on Earth is the world going to be like when Tom Hanks dies (and will we ever truly appreciate him?)  Seeing an internet filled with lazy, gold-bikini studded tributes to Carrie Fisher, I dread to think what will happen once Michael Douglas passes… just lazy references to sex addiction I suppose.  Yet Douglas is a hero, a phenomenal actor (including in the much-derided genre of erotic thrillers) and broadly unheralded producer of some extraordinary movies.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975 – Milos Forman) and Starman (1984 – John Carpenter) both exist successfully due to the nurture he gave to these projects.

So too, was Face/Off

 

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The history of Hollywood is littered with talent magpied from the rest of the world.  When cinema was silent (the great leveller) directors were able to operate universally.  F. W. Murnau came to Hollywood in the twenties and directed Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) a sweetly expressionistic exploration of how community and physical space can impact a relationship.  Following the outbreak of World War Two, many directors fled to the U.S., anglicised their names, and continued to operate within the studio system.  Would the history of British cinema be more widely regarded if Selznick hadn’t tempted Hitchcock in the forties?  Actors also were continually repackaged, remade and domesticated, up to and including the great hero of this book, Schwarzenegger himself.

With this in mind, John Woo can seem like another name on a list.  But his almost absolute failure to produce anything of high regard in America defies an assumed career projection.

Why is that?  Why do we hold Woo’s American films with utter disregard?  When his Cantonese films snuck onto western screens they were met with unbridled enthusiasm.  A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990) are visceral, imaginative films.  They feature balletic gunfights and enveloping first-person camera angles.  These films arrived at the start of true gaming culture, as computers sought to immerse the players within the action.  There has always been a hint of snobbery when watching ‘foreign’ films – dreadful dialogue is easier to forgive when delivered in an alien tongue.  But who, other than (retch) Aaron Sorkin, gives a toss about dialogue?  In the late eighties, the goofy humour of his Hong Kong films is well placed alongside the populist comedic action-adventure films riding slipshod over the multiplex (to squeeze in Michael Douglas again, Romancing the Stone (1984 – Robert Zemeckis) is a clear example of this).  By the nineties, cinema was moving into a more serious zone.

Ultimately, it comes down to the difference between doves and pigeons.

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Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target (1993 – John Woo)

Hard Target (1993) was Woo’s American debut.  It features Jean-Claude Van Damme as a preposterously hairstyled merchant seaman who kicks a lot.  Van Damme is ostensibly a cut-price Schwarzenegger rip-off, all muscles and outrageous accents, but Van Damme was a mobile, lithe athlete capable of performing some extraordinary stunts.  He is also a talented actor – he injects all his characters with an air of sorrow, as if he knows that they shouldn’t have ended up living with the level of violence that they do.  Filmed with a roaming, zooming Scorsese-like camera, it begins as a fairly pedestrian presentation of Van Damme as a samurai-like loner protecting the weak, before moving into a far more entertaining man-hunt (and it is presented as an actual hunt) in the second half.

Woo liked to use slow motion in his fight scenes.  This was a regular tool used by action filmmakers since the days of The Wild Bunch (1969 – Sam Peckinpah).  It would ramp up tension by stretching out moments of pain or terror to an extreme.  Woo would underline the hazy, phantasmagorical nature of these moments by releasing doves on the screen, whose wings would slow to a flutter.  But in Hard Target, he releases pigeons.  The truth was, despite Woo’s clear status and talent, in Hollywood he was a nobody, and as such he was only being provided with vermin.

Which brings us to John Travolta.

Which is a crass introduction… but few actors sum up the waste of potential than Travolta.  A remarkable talent, he has thrown it all away on vain mediocrity not once, but twice.  Like rats and pigeons he is a thing once removed from beauty.  After becoming a star with some beautiful performances covering up a simmering undercurrent of danger (most purely seen in Saturday Night Fever (1977 – John Badham) and Blow Out (1981 – Brian De Palma)) Travolta fell out of favour.  In 1994, Quentin Tarantino chose him to star in Pulp Fiction, as one of his first ‘career resurgence’ actors that would come to populate his oeuvre.   Once again, Travolta was a star, and we all remembered why we loved him – he was chilled and sarcastic and he moved like an angel.  But even by 1997, the rot was beginning to creep back in.

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Nic Cage in Face/Off (1997 – John Woo)

There’s a book to be written somewhere about the history of those bad mustard yellow shirts that people seemed to wear in the nineties (maybe that’s what I should be doing instead of this…)  They’re as distinct as Cages’ acting style – vulgar.  Cage does everything he can in the opening sequence of the film to distract us from his charisma.  He serially indecently assaults (and murders) women and children and generally behaves in an appalling manner.  His acting style stands in stark contrast to Travolta – Travolta has always been about moments of thoughtfulness and the quiet reflection within everyday life.  Here, Travolta, is given the same origin story as The Punisher, but instead of vigilantism, Travolta is quite clearly struggling with mental health issues whilst going about his demanding job.

Why are some heroes given families?  Are they an extension of the layer of heteronormative conventionality that is applied to our action stars to distract for the queer lust that permeates these films?  It can’t quite be that – parenthood is quite separate and distinct from this lust.  Used with the standard lack of imagination that prevails in Hollywood, they are another tool for motivation in the way that women are – the hero must save someone they love, or avenge the death of a loved one.  But children represent the inherent contradictions of humanity.  In the same way that we can love (and not actually like) someone, children represent both the absolute devotion of one soul to another, and the growing understanding that you have created something that will replace you, and quite possibly hate you.  They are every technological advancement – something initially useful that will grow to overthrow you with attitudes and actions that will seem utterly alien to your understanding of the world.

With perhaps a slight sense of knowing wit, Face/Off underlines the essential interchangeability of movie stars.  When Brad Pitt appears in World War Z (2013 – Marc Forster) it is easy to imagine almost any other individual playing the role.  Fantasy recasting is a popular act of cinemagoing (this will be particularly important when we reach Chapter X).  Stars have to give the perception that they are valuable to the success of this movie, that their talent is distinct.  Denzel Washington has a type of part that he likes – faithful, noble, the slightest hint of charm – but his utter conviction and ability to command attention means he can seem irreplaceable, when on paper, anyone could have led The Equalizer (2014 – Antoine Fuqua).  Tom Cruise has an underappreciated ability to command a frame, even when silent and motionless, that means he seems invaluable.  Arnie seems unique, largely because of his bizarre frame and outrageous accent.

Travolta was unable to maintain his success because he could not capitalise upon his natural ability.  Cage is such a mercurial talent that he appears idiosyncratic.  Despite the interchangeability of the plot, Face/Off weirdly underlines that these two actors are not the same.  Cage is a more compelling watch than Travolta, and is cast, despite the opening sequence, in the more conventional part of our hero.  How much more exciting would the film be if we could watch him as Castor Troy for the whole film?  The inability of the filmmakers to comprehend what the potential appeal of the movie could be is what leads to an air of tone-deafness.  This is also seen in the underlying incestuousness of some scenes – it can’t help but be perceived as utterly misguided when it is not commented upon.

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Travolta and Cage in Face/Off (1997 – John Woo)

The only regard in which we can understand how these two actors can swap roles is that they both seem to be individuals of extraordinary talent, who do not seem to have fully capitalised on it, and in some regards, squandered it on movies that did not engage them and their abilities.

But Face/Off is interesting in its exploration of identity.  To a greater or lesser extent, we all wear different faces to cope in life.  We are different person at work, at home, with love.  We are enormously contradictory and complex individuals.  Face/Off takes this an extreme, and turns it into a nightmare scenario – what if the person we are at work (crass, violent, domineering) came home one day?  What if those around us began to see through the masks?  What if we could not recognise which person we were meant to be?  Ultimately Face/Off is frustrating, because it returns to conformity – the safe, suburban family life is seen to be the dream – but the way it hints at these broader questions is effective.

Woo is director with pneumatic energy.  He does like to return to the same settings again and again though.  Gunfights surrounded by smashed mirrors and dove in darkened spaces was seen in Hard Target.  The (admittedly spectacular) final chase sequence and squabble on a beach will be repeated in Mission: Impossible II (2000).  This is not a distinct a feature as some have made it out to be – Michael Bay has been reusing the same car sequence from Bad Boys II (2003) for over a decade now – but it became another tool with which Woo could be diminished.  He never quite grasped the illusion of innovation that is essential to surviving within Hollywood.  Like the heroes of this film, he was unable to define his identity beyond the visual pleasures of his work.  Retreat was going to be the only option.

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John went on to direct Mission: Impossible II (2000) where he replaced Brian De Palma’s tricksy identity politics and precise scenes of extraordinary tension with a pummelling Notorious (1946 – Alfred Hitchcock) spin that delivered his usual visual energy.  Its pleasures are peripheral.  It was the highest grossing film of the year… but still led to no greater respect.  He would follow this by reuniting with Nic Cage for Windtalkers (2002).

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It’s the same film… Ben Affleck in Paycheck (2003 – John Woo)

His (apparently) final Western film is Paycheck (2003).  Eschewing his usual visual pyrotechnics but continuing his wronged man riff (Woo is one of the forgotten Hitchcockians), Paycheck is an unpretentious thriller that plays precisely with time.  The joy of experiencing it comes in how it uses everyday objects to escape from seemingly impossible circumstances.  However, it starred an actor of limited appeal in the form of Ben Affleck.  It’s not that Affleck is hateable, it’s just that he has never been unable to escape the awful stench of smugness that surrounds his movies.  There is a great disconnect between him and the audience, the one thing that stops him being a star (who trade on a perceived intimacy with the viewing public), and he seems utterly unaware of this.  He is an undeniably smart man, but would benefit from knowing that he needs to spend a good few hours in front of a mirror practising how to smile, rather than smirk.

Once again, Woo had cast a pigeon when he needed a dove.  Even, the modicum of respect that had existed in Hollywood, and he retreated to China, where he makes epic historical films.  They’re very long, and I haven’t seen them.

Nic Cage’s career seems to have gained sentience; it is the living embodiment of his approach to acting.  It careers from sense to nonsense, it is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, it makes no accommodation for the environment it is being produced within.  He will be Oscar nominated and mocked.  And because of his innovative approach, he will be misunderstood and ignored and rejected.  All pioneers are.  But here are eight films from the following years that feature Cage in his manic, compelling glory, and that demonstrate how excitingly fearless an actor he truly is:

  1. Snake Eyes (1998 – Brian De Palma) – where he is nervy and alive within De Palma’s meticulously long take shots.
  2. Bringing Out the Dead (1999 – Martin Scorsese) – where he is burnt out and subjugated by a city.
  3. Adaptation (2002 – Spike Jonze) – where he plays dual roles of barely fictional brothers.
  4. Matchstick Men (2003 – Ridley Scott) – Scott’s underappreciated black comedy sees Cage isolated and alone and desperate for affection
  5. The Wicker Man (2006 – Neil LaBute) – will always be ignored when taken in regard to its progenitor, but Cage embodies true terror within the film.
  6. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009 – Werner Herzog) – Cage is hypnotising as a man on edge of losing himself to himself.
  7. Joe (2013 – David Gordon Green) – is an atmospheric drama where Cage always seems on the edge of violence.
  8. Dog Eat Dog (2016 – Paul Schrader) – Cage shines in Schrader’s manic, imaginative late-period masterpiece.
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Nic Cage is the best Face/Off (1997 – John Woo)

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Cage and Woo could not be contained by Hollywood.  Their energy was too much for most people.  It seemed that audiences wanted their heroes to be far more conservative…

Films seen November – December (and a Top Ten for 2016)

The final straight.  A few end of year blockbusters are released, but in England we have to wait for all the awards films till the new year.  And then there’s the films I watch to catch up on before the inevitable end-of-year list… which can’t be done until the year is over.

Continue reading “Films seen November – December (and a Top Ten for 2016)”