Films seen August

Dunkirk (2017 – Christopher Nolan)

 

There was a lot of talk about this film, but really, when it came down to it, it was utterly thrilling.  I was completely gripped by the whole thing.  Easily Nolan’s most proficient film by a considerable distance, Dunkirk seemed to capture a nostalgia and dignity for a time that only exists in the most patriotic fantasists.  The brutality of war and the hopelessness of survival were buried under a British reserve.  But this all seems far away… thought the deliberate refusal to refer to Germany or Italy or any other of the Axis powers in the opening crawl did seem to suggest that all-consuming capitalism and the fear of offending these potential markets has managed to trump an antiquated notion of decency.

But there is moment where Tom Hardy looks at his fuel gage and realises he now has to choose whether to turn back home or stay in the air and defend British ships in the Channel.  And there is fear and deliberation and finally resolve… all performed solely with his eyes.  It is the most exquisite piece of acting I have seen for many years.  The best special effect in cinematic history.

 

Seen on 15/70mm at the BFI IMAX.  Ticket cost £18 or something like that.  There was a typical backlash against the fetishisation of release formats that accompanied the release of this film, but it really did benefit from being seen on this huge, all-encompassing screen with extraordinary sound.  The experience was slightly let down by my neighbour referring to me as ‘middle-aged’ though!

 

 

The Conversation (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola)

 

I don’t think I knew that the dream sequence in this movie was the result of an abandoned waking chase scene that Coppola didn’t have the time to shoot completely before he began shooting The Godfather: Part II (1974).  I mean, I probably did know it once, but had forgotten it.  My memory sometimes feels like a cinematic dream sequence, desperately clutching onto thoughts and images that have some meaning.

I don’t think I understood Harry Caul’s paranoia the last time/first time I saw this movie.  I certainly didn’t know the solitude he had imposed on himself.  But as I get older, the dislocation he senses within himself towards the surrounding world feels more profound.  It is a deeply unsettling film; one that masterfully indicates how our own perceptions shape our senses and a film that technically anticipates the digital revolution a few decades before it arrived.

 

Seen on 35mm on the main screen at the Curzon Soho followed by a gracious and intelligent Q&A with Walter Murch.  Without any justification, the fact that the film was projected from 35mm was described as being inherently better by the event’s organiser… a statement slightly deflated by Murch’s stated wariness of film projection a few minutes later!  Ticket cost £18.

 

 

A Ghost Story (2017 – David Lowery)

 

I liked it at the time, but I can’t remember much of it now.  I think I wanted a nastier ghost.  Or a ghost that didn’t experience all that silly going forward and backward in time towards the end (that felt like a little too ‘narrative clever, clever’ where an early moment of confusion is later revealed to be the action of a character we see on screen.  It’s a little too pretentious and tidy for my liking.  And not very impressive anymore.)

But I wish I never found out that Rooney Mara had never eaten pie before her traumatic gluttony.  It’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard.  Who goes their life without eating pie?  What miserable, self-denial of happiness convinced her that that was an acceptable life choice?

Can I recommend a good steak and kidney Rooney?  It’s what I turn to in moments of grief/boredom/Tuesdays.

 

Seen at the Curzon Soho on the large screen.  Ticket cost £10.50.

 

 

Big Wednesday (1978 – John Milius)

 

Meditative and full of the lost highways and broken relationships that are scattered about our lives, it’s easy to see why Spielberg and Lucas thought that Milius was the real deal in comparison to them.  From the start, Milius imprints himself upon the film; you wonder whether he realised the brokenness of his central characters and the substantial limits they place upon their existence.  The violence is ridiculous, the draft-dodging scene is offensively hilarious and the surfing shots are beautiful.  A great, contemplative movie.

 

Projected from 35mm at the BFI Southbank on Screen 3.  Like all screenings in London, there was a homeless man in the audience.  Ticket cost £8.

 

 

Atomic Blonde (2017 – David Leitch)

 

It’s such a boring movie revolving around such tediously predictable spy tropes (the MacGuffin is a list of undercover agents for Pete’s sake)… which becomes understandable once you realise that the film is an adaptation of a comic book.  And it was probably one of those lowest common denominator comic books that was made solely for the purpose of selling off some film+TV rights.  The shallowness of it all is only underlined by some of the most basic music cues committed to celluloid.

But, in the middle of this film is the most extraordinary fight scene I have seen for many years.  Shot to simulate a single take, it is a thrillingly brutal scene of Charlize Theron murdering henchmen in a stairwell.  It is everything you want in a fight scene.  It has verisimilitude, stacked odds and amazing choreographed performances from a stunt team.

And so you’re left with a boring movie with one exceptional scene.  And you have to ask yourself… is it worth it?

 

Seen on the decent-sized Screen 3 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Ticket cost £6.50

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Love Streams (1984 – John Cassavetes)

 

It’s just a film with such empathy.  And two profoundly different portrayals of individuals suffering from mental health issues – Cassavettes all crashing and burning  and chequebooks and pens and Rowlands nervy and impulsive.  There’s an extraordinary couple of dream sequences – an amazing car crash and a dance on stage that may or may not have been directed by peter Bogdanovich in a desperate attempt to save himself from his depression.  I love how you feel they only figured out that they were siblings after several weeks of shooting.  It’s delightful to spend time amongst the clutter of their house, so familiar it is to us from their previous movies.  It’s immediate – Cassavetes’ desire for truth sees him include shots where camera crews that are visible.  And it’s utterly hilarious – the scene where Rowlands tries to get home whilst abroad is possibly the funniest thing ever.

It contains pretty much everything I have ever loved about movies.

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Projected from 35mm.  Had a migraine, but still enjoyed myself.  Ticket cost £4.50.

 

 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974 – Tobe Hooper)

 

Throughout the runtime of this film there was a man sitting behind me laughing every thirty seconds.  The Prince Charles is an amazing cinema, but it does frustratingly encourage this behaviour with its knowingly ironic screenings.  And I gave this dude the half-turn… and then the turn, but it had no impact.  I’m not the most intimidating fella.

And as I walked out I heard him turn to his friends.  ‘You see’ he sneered ‘I think it’s meant to be funny.’

Well, it’s not you absolute cockhead.  It’s a horrifying movie.  The soundtrack of the second half of the film is a never-ending cacophony of guttural screams and the grinding a whirring of a chainsaw.  That in itself is as unsettling as cinema ever got, and that’s before you mention the inevitable dread of the hitchhiker, or the sudden violation of the metal kitchen door slamming shut out of nowehere, or the…. I could go on.

It’s a terrifying movie.  It’s not a comedy.  And you are not worthy of watching it.

 

Projected from 35mm on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Print seemed to originate in France.  Beautiful condition.  Ticket cost £6 or thereabouts.  Obviously a screening that gained some retrospective poignancy after Hooper’s recent death.

 

Tom of Finland (2017 – Dome Karukoski)

 

Which is an ‘18’ for some reason.  Someone needs to let the BBFC know that we can all cope with seeing a few drawings of penises.  Because it deserves a wider audience.  It’s a joyous film that encountered much of the gay experience of the second half of the twentieth century; repression, violence, S&M, the gradual slipping out from the closet, desire and HIV.  A lovely little film.

 

Seen on one of those awful little small screens at the Curzon Bloomsbury and I had to pay £10.50 for the privilege.

 

 

Out of Sight (1998 – Steven Soderbergh)

 

About half an hour into the film, there was a moment where I suddenly became profoundly aware of how much I was enjoying myself.  It’s a great, big pleasure of a movie, and more and more, I realise what a rarity that is.

I’ve been thinking of the nineties quite a lot recently – the decade in which my burgeoning cinephillia blossomed – and a time when we were all told that The Usual Suspects (1995 – Bryan Singer) was an important film.  And a little bit pathetically, I feel nostalgic for it, remembering how surprising it must have been to hear the Coen Bros. for the first time.  But there are real mainstream gems from that era, and Out of Sight is at the forefront of that, so drowning in acting talent is it.  I don’t think I’d ever realised that Albert Brooks is a major part of this film!

 

Projected from 35mm on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £4.50.

 

 

Logan Lucky (2017 – Steven Soderbergh)

 

Which I watched with a huge smile on my face.  It was just wonderful to watch all those modern actors who I actually like – Tatum, Keogh, Waterson etc. – in something enjoyable for once.  A real favourite already (which as I type I realise isn’t as a powerful statement to make… in September!)

 

Seen on a big screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

American Made (2017 – Doug Liman)

 

It’s just Tom Cruise and I love Tom Cruise and this is Tom Cruise in a comedic twist on a sub-Goodfellas (1990 – Martin Scorsese) fall-from-grace.  I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again – hell, I barely remember any of it now – but I loved every minute of watching it.  Great stuff.

 

Seen on a pretty big screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

Detroit (2017 – Kathryn Bigelow)

 

It was a surprisingly tame film… which seemed to only make the case even more convincing for a more ethnically diverse directorial landscape within mainstream cinema.  Because this film seemed to pull its punches, in a way that made me suspect that it was fearful of being perceived a racist itself.  And I get it… no-one wants to have the dodgy racial politics of Quentin Tarantino, but it was a horrific moment in history, and it needed to be horrific, not unpleasant.

And this only adds to the case that John Krasinski is not a movie star.  He totally derails the final half-hour of the movie.  What is it with Bigelow and her desire to cast mediocre television stars in her films.  John chuffing Barrowman is in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) for christssake.

Seen on a huge screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £6.50.

Double Bill: Solaris (2002 – Steven Soderbergh) and Haywire (2012 – Steven Soderbergh)

There’s something about large filmographies that forces filmmakers to become cover bands.  The rush to provide new material once (or twice) a year forces the director to continually make their version of a ‘type’ of film.  Writers become less and less important.  Directors like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott used to have identifiable movies; their fingerprints smothered the work they built up from the ground.  Now, whilst masters of the form, their work moves further into solid genre exercises.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but that little ‘magic’ that used to make them spectacular has gone.  No one else could have made Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); anyone could have made Bridge of Spies (2015).

Both Spielberg and Scott reached points in their careers where they deliberately and significantly increased the rate of their output (this occurred in 1981 for the former and 2000 for the latter).  It’s almost as if they realised that their body of work would be of a Kubrickian magnitude unless they increased their workload.  Nowadays, their professionalism and efficiency mark them as extraordinary blockbuster directors; a remarkable feat given their ages.

Steven Soderbergh came to a similar realisation at one point in his career, though some of his reasoning differed.  Soderbergh became enraptured with the idea of inventiveness –  that the trap of every new feature being an exercise in form, genre and storytelling becoming a deliberate strength, rather than necessity.  He also had fallen out with the idea of being a writer; his kind-of-diary book ‘Getting Away with It: Or – Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard you Ever Saw’ details his immense frustration with writing and creating.  After the palate-cleanser of Schizopolis (1996), Soderbergh never wrote a script again.

(Interestingly, he developed his exploration of editing as true authorship of a movie instead; not only in his own work – under the pseudonymous Mary Ann Bernard – but also in his cuts of other people’s movies.  See his released edit of Keane (2004 – Lodge Kerrigan) and his bootleg cut ‘Psychos’ (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock/1998 – Gus Van Sant), ‘Heaven’s Gate: The Butcher’s Cut’ (1980 – Michael Cimino) and the speechless, black and white edit of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981 – Steven Spielberg))

After this period, his work superficially moves closer to the cover versions.  For example:

  • Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is his classical, beautiful big-budget entertainment
  • The Good German (2006) is his post war film noir
  • Side Effects (2013) is his Adrian Lyne style erotic thriller

And Solaris is his sci-fi thriller and Haywire, his James Bond action flick.  There’s no denigration in calling these genre exercises; they are the work of an artist desperate to stimulate himself.  There’s an easy tendency to praise the body of work as a whole over the worth of individual pictures, but dig into the filmography and there’s so much pleasure to be found.

There’s a profound difference between the two movies in the use of their lead actors.  Solaris is a film clearly sold on the premise that George Clooney is more appealing to watch than any CGI space station.  The film is in love with his face.  It stares out into the audience as we project upon it our desires and hopes.  Haywire treats its star as far more disposable… in all likelihood because Gina Carano is no star.  But curiously, and given the sleaze (particularly against women) that promulgates spy films, Carano’s body is rarely objectified, instead it is crushed and splintered and smothered in greasepaint.  Whereas Clooney’s arse is repeatedly shown on screen.  For Carano’s character, sex is an unintimate act; it is professional and necessary and completely impersonal.  Contrastingly, Clooney is explicitly dripping with desire, and the narrative depends on his lust for a creature who both is and isn’t his wife.  In a sense, it doesn’t matter to him, such is his desire to taste his forgotten spouse.

 

As he extended his career, Soderbergh became more and more concerned with the representation of memory on screen.  He is obsessed with depicting how the art of editing is the closest thing we have to describing the enormous complexity of our minds.  Heavily influenced by the work of Nic Roeg, and in particular Don’t Look Now (1973), his films became more and more non-linear; at times this was playful, at other necessary and at others yet, superfluous.  He employed dislocated sounds and images that contrasted with each other, extended flashbacks and highly colour-co-ordinated scenes to demonstrate the muddle of moments that can pop up within our heads.  One of the more powerful moments in Solaris comes from the lingering looks Clooney and McElhone give each other in a lift; it underlines how we are all capable of transposing entire hopes onto the microgestures of others, and how we replay these moments again and again in our minds.

Both films depict intrusions into space.  In Haywire this is the violence that breaks out in nominally safe places (such as houses and hotel rooms) and explosions that end the foreplay of whispered conversations in coffee shops.  There is a sense of restlessness, where movement is necessary in order to survive.  Solaris is more static, but delves deeper into the disruption that communities experience once an outsider violates their established sanctuary.  The professionals upon the space station have built a functioning coterie, regardless of the strangeness of their experiences.  Clooney brings on board chaos; he is the smoking gun, the smashed window.  He is the trauma that the other characters will never recover from.

Despite their wildly varying settings of location and time period, both films are economical in their establishment of a sense of space.  Haywire depends upon a refined use of real-life locations, all corner-shops and decaying factories.  With its futuristic setting, the expectancy would be that Solaris has a more manufactured arena in which it operates, which is of course true for the atmospheric space station scenes, but the essential moments on Earth use the Alphaville (1965 – Jean-Luc Godard) method of depicting the future by reframing and repurposing it through the present.  Cinematic visions of the future too often feature overwhelming production design, whereby entire settings are built in a single time periodThe reality of existence, as any wander through a metropolis reveals, is that the past sits right up aside the present, and Solaris accurately and vividly represents this.  Similarly, Haywire moves from the backstreets of Barcelona and Dublin to an ultra-modernist home in New Mexico, once she can no longer evade the full force of government and institution.

There is a tension in the air in both films; the seduction of violence in Haywire is sticky and sweet.  What would ordinarily be meet/cutes become scenes wet with anticipation, end in the eruption of physical damage.  Whilst the violence in less obvious in Solaris, it is just a present.  Death is inflicted upon the simulacra, in a way that totally is at odds with the willingness to seduce it.  It is easy to both fuck and murder someone if you don’t value them in any way.  As a result, both Clooney and Carano suffer from extreme myopia, whereby they view the others around them as things, and largely obstacles in their way.  Her dominance of others is evident in her strangling of men using her crotch; the female genitalia, usually hidden and abused, becomes supreme.  It is undeniable.  As such, we see her prove herself again and again, and maintain a dignity that directly contrasts against the insufferable sliminess of the men in her film.

Both films depict the fragility of loyalty.  Soderbergh was always concerned with political expediency, but this only became pronounced after his experience of Che (2008), where his experience of art and political discipline was met with indifference.  His latter period feature individuals who have a determined moral code operating in the face of utter shallow callousness.  A lesser man would refer to these as avatars.  Haywire is particularly pronounced in its depiction of an individual who is better than everyone around her, but has nowhere to go.  It’s as if that mastery of direction, cinematography and editing led nowhere.  It’s as if pioneering the new medium of digital cinema turned out to be dismissed by many around you.  As if the working across all those genres proved futile.

The ASIDESTEPS Canon – b-sides vol. IV

The Canon.  One hundred films with nothing from the top 250 Sight & Sound poll.  These are the b-sides; un-canonised, free from decades of perception and discussion, but great films in their own right.  No apologies, no pretensions.

repulsion

  1. Repulsion (1965 – Roman Polanski)

 

Because movies help you understand other souls.

Because movies are littered with beautiful people, and they involve us actively watching them, part of our viewing experience involves fantasising about their precious existence.  So Polanski takes that, takes a stunning icon of the sixties, and puts her through true terror.  The mind is a fragile thing when you are left to your own devices.  Even the bright and beautiful struggle to stay alive.  It speaks to the daily horror that women are subjected to – their bodies objectified, their minds denied, their friendship perverted into attraction.

 

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  1. Prince of Darkness (1987 – John Carpenter)

 

Because the second draft is better than the first.

 

In John Carpenter’s great run of movies, The Fog (1980) is a picture that I have always struggled with.  I like the creeping horror, but the fact that it attacks on so many fronts leads to a splintered viewing process, with multiple cliffhangers occurring at once.  Prince of Darkness refines the scenario, causing multiple threats to strike, but within a contained environment.  A cinematic exploration of the supposedly ‘separate spheres’ of science and religion.

 

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  1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974 – Sam Peckinpah)

 

Because all films end.

 

Sometimes you’re just watching the running time, mentally calculating how much longer there is to go.  Some great films adopt that into their text, where the ending is inevitable, and the plot of the film is a desperate attempt to avoid it.  And with Peckinpah, the ending would always be an explosion of violence.  A sleazy, shameless delight of a film, you feel the sweat and dirt dripping off the celluloid.  And it has the greatest title given to a film ever.

 

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  1. Possession (1981 – Andrzej Zulawski)

 

Because this is true horror.

 

The history of horror movies is one of men doing horrible things to women (as the real world is too.)  Within these narratives, women have been able to escape these misogynistic structures, or turn violence against their oppressors.  Actors can escape by producing performances of strength and charm that endear them to the audience.  Or they can do what Isabelle Adjani does, and give a performance of such extraordinary terror and conviction, that you never feel safe.  You cannot grasp what she is achieving, performing multiple roles and exposing her body to such possession.  The greatest special effects are performances and this is one of the greatest of all.

 

 opening-night

  1. Opening Night (1977 – John Cassavetes)

 

Because I still have nightmares about not knowing my lines.

 

Acting is such a peculiar profession – pretending to be someone else for entertainment – that we forget the craft involved when it is done well.  Opening Night features some extraordinary moments of performances (staged?  Improvised? Rehearsed?) that are beguiling and shattering and electric.  It is acting at its most vulnerable and most intriguing.

 

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  1. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957 – Frank Tashlin)

 

Because sometimes movies see the future.

 

It’s easy to contain films – to limit them to times and nationalities.  To judge them on their superficial qualities.  To focus on troublesome qualities and deny the remaining pleasures.  But films breakout from these constrictions, and sometimes present intriguing glimpses into the world ahead of them.  Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? anticipates our obsession with celebrity, our reliance on advertising to feel good, and the rise of corporations in limiting our abilities to change our lives.  And it features some of the greatest trolling of television ever.  TV sucks.  Long live movies!

 

 mccabe

  1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971 – Robert Altman)

 

Because movies are the great American artform.

 

Here Altman plots the birth of commercialism in America and indicates how it will dominate everything, including the individual (and even religion – see how the church burns down in the final reel of the film.)  It features some delirious cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond, who almost ‘washed out’ the film to ensure that every moment was heavy with a sense of history, despite the multi-levelled soundtrack work that was occurring onscreen

 

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  1. Schizopolis (1996 – Steven Soderbergh)

 

Idea missing.

 

(Soderbergh begins his career with a bang, and then spends years trying to figure out what he is.  Ultimately he realises he is not a writer, and spends a decade or so attempting a wide variety of projects that amount to a great deal as a whole, and more often than not, not very much on their own.  Schizopolis is his palate-cleanser, his self-starring, frenetic surreal piece of comedy filmmaking.)

 

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  1. The Color Wheel (2011 – Alex Ross Perry)

 

Because movies are horrendously surprising.

 

Filmed in high contrast, high grain black-and-white, The Color Wheel features about eighty minutes of some highly repellent individuals being toxic to those around them and deluded about themselves.  As we all are.  And then comes an ending which is so surprising, so compelling and so perfect that you never quite believe it happened.  Extraordinary.

 

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  1. Strange Days (1995 – Kathryn Bigelow)

Because you need to see things in a different light.

Bigelow takes the very idea of cinema – the experience of watching another perspective – and incorporates it into the narrative of a science-fiction thriller.  Featuring moments of extraordinary spectacle, she confronts us with our complicity in watching horrible things happen to other people, and the delight we so often feel when we do so.