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Guardians Of The Galaxy: So serene on the screen

August 8, 2014

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I saw Guardians Of The Galaxy this week. That was an excellent decision. I saw it late, in a huge, nearly empty theatre, and once it started the film had a momentum that didn’t slip. I sat thinking about how much I was enjoying Chris Pratt, like I always do but more because someone had the sense and money to put him at the front of a film this big, and about how the film caught something of the 1980s past the obvious references, something in spirit and style. It was, I thought, the kind of sharp, joyous action sci-fi I haven’t seen since, oh, about 2005.

Yes, this is about Serenity.

I feel like Serenity is a story that’s tried to tell itself several times. As Dune and Blade Runner fans know, all the best sci-fi worlds exist in fragmented, tantalising pieces, and Joss Whedon’s wistfully remembered space western is no different. It existed in 2002 as the Fox television show Firefly until, after 11 of its 14 episodes aired, it didn’t any more. Then it existed as the Universal movie in 2005, which wasn’t seen by enough people to become the Universal franchise.

And perhaps it existed even before that, as early as 1997. Re-watch Alien: Resurrection, the Alien sequel written by Whedon, and the scavenger crew propping up the stretched Ripley plot are a close, dark parallel of their future incarnations aboard Serenity. Someone even mentioned the similarity to Whedon.

…it just stopped me in my tracks. I was like “Yes, my pony did its trick again!” I really never thought of it until somebody pointed it out to me. But the irony goes further than I could have imagined because we shot it on the same stages at Fox as they shot Alien: Resurrection. In fact, Serenity was built over the pit they dug for Alien: Resurrection, for the underwater sequence.

I love this quote, because it strikes at how ideas work, circling and charming before manifesting in ways sometimes the thinker doesn’t see, and because it acknowledges how ideas also have to be reconciled to a system of production and an industry, and how the two often invisibly together to make things.

This relationship lurks behind the other thought I had in my empty theatre, as I watched Peter Quill imperfectly, unconventionally stride through a cosmopolitan cosmos wearing a long brown coat and backed by a mismatched set of mercenaries: just as Serenity existed in Alien: Resurrection it exists now, too, in Guardians of The Galaxy. Except because I’m still furious about Firefly being cancelled like everyone else who’s ever been on the internet, what I actually thought was: why does this get to exist, and not just to exist but to thrive and explode, when Serenity failed?

I don’t think Guardians is a hit because of the Marvel tag, or the Disney marketing dollars. I’m also not a moron and I don’t think these things hurt, but Guardians doesn’t star long-established heroes and this isn’t a typical Marvel world, it’s one that feels like original sci-fi. It feels instead as though the cultural momentum of comic book storytelling has shifted the orientation of mainstream audiences to the point where Guardians can be – and Serenity could have been – embraced.

This shift was gradual. When I got to university 15 years ago even I, who grew up playing video games, reading shelves of Tolkien derivatives and loving cinema, felt that comics were still a nerd-step too far. And then ten years ago, during the period when Firefly failed and Serenity missed its audience, the studios were releasing Daredevil, Catwoman, The Fantastic Four – awkward missteps of a system that saw the potential in comics, saw the vast source material that lay beyond Spider-Man and the X-Men, but just didn’t get it.

So they hired people who did. One of the striking things about Marvel’s recent run of success is who is in charge of their biggest movies. Whedon himself, his pony still doing tricks, wrote and directed The Avengers. Shane Black brought a similar levity and humour to Iron Man 3. And James Gunn, who gave Nathan Fillion so many of his post-Serenity roles, came in to make Guardians Of The Galaxy. The work of these people has grounded the potentially fly-away Marvel universe, and their films adhere to the essential rules Whedon laid out for Firefly: “…don’t be arch, don’t be sweeping. Be found, be rough and tumble, and docu and you-are-there.”

So depending on how you look at it the answer to my question – why Guardians gets to exist when Serenity failed – is either the triumph of the nerds, or the vast appropriation of niche culture by the maw of Hollywood. And of course it’s both, it’s ideas and industry, and how the two often work invisibly together. And that’s why the success of Guardians, which is the same seed of an idea as Serenity even though it’s an excellent thing all of its own in a hundred other ways, leaves me both thrilled and a little thoughtful, in that way tantalisingly fragmented universes make us think. They really are the best ones.

Past worlds and other places

August 1, 2014

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I moved house a year ago, almost exactly, and this is the story of how I nearly wrote something about it, and then didn’t.

Preparing to leave the house we’d occupied for six years made me think about the other buildings in which I’d lived – flats and terraces, rooms and walls – and about the way a home embeds itself in memory. As I was packing and laying bare the hard geometry of the house, it seemed obvious that a home is more than just the location in which the things you remember unfold, that there’s something in the physicality of lived-in space and the textured processes of recall that make those rooms and walls part of the fabric of remembrance.

One of the things that interests me about games is their use of location. Not just the construction of virtual realities, but how these other places (to steal Andy Kelly’s dead-on phrase) can be as real and important to us as the solid ones outside the screen. There have always been unreal locations that are as familiar to me as any of the physical ones I pass through on my to access them, locations I can explore mentally in the same way I remember old schools or bedrooms. And so I came up with an idea for something to write that would explore these things.

The idea was that in moving house I was finally clearing out a lot of things I didn’t need (it’s glib, but Palahniuk’s line from Fight Club about the way the things you own end up owning you does describe the tug of illogical reticence at tossing clinging objects). One of these things was my Mega Drive – or rather, our Mega Drive, as I shared it with my brother – and I would give it an appropriate send-off by playing through the same games and exploring the same places with my children as my dad did with my brother and me. I was (and am) struck by the image of my Mega Drive and its games packed and ready to move: a series of virtual worlds collapsed into plastic cases, crammed and stacked into one of the many boxes that were themselves crammed and stacked in the non-virtual world of my house. An excerpt from the vague but upbeat pitch.

As an industry we talk about how games are still a young form, but it struck me that, in my family at least, they’ve touched three generations, helped bond and shape relationships, form memories.

The piece would be about those memories – about revisiting the locations of the most important ones from my childhood with my kids to see what they think and how we enjoy it together.

It’s about how games can be positive, shared, imaginative experiences, and about how there’s more permanence to the medium than the arms race of consoles and PCs would have us believe. It’s a sign of an established culture that games from 20 years ago – the good ones, anyway – can still inspire and bring a family together.

The response was a yes and then, thanks to work needed to un-vague the ideas and the issue of me having overlooked the fact that moving house is more stressful than performing eye surgery on yourself, I didn’t write it. Although that’s not quite true – I wrote some of it, I just didn’t finish. It went like this.

“Shall I set it up? Does it have HDMI?”

My son is peering quizzically at the back of the Mega Drive that I’ve had, it strikes me suddenly, for twice as long as I’ve had him. I tell him that, no, it doesn’t have HDMI, or even a SCART connection, “Just, well, an aerial.” He looks dubious until I switch the power on and NHL 94 announces itself with the abrupt, grunting EA Sports intro that he recognises from FIFA. “S’IN THE GAME”

We’re on the verge of moving house, and in my current state of mind this kind of consistency seems impressive. Twenty years of the same bulldozing branding, a connecting thread between my son’s childhood and my own.

Moving house has made me reflective. I’ve been thinking about space, and the time we spend in it. I’ve also been thinking that the next space I move into won’t be big enough for the Mega Drive, and that after all these years, it’s time to pass it along.

Which is fine. Maybe it would have been fine. But I felt it was getting away from the things I really wanted to write about. It was only after a recent visit to some of the homes and houses from my very early childhood that I felt the urge to take another look.

What were the things I really wanted to write about? One of them was about playing Doom for the first time in over a decade, and how the fluent thrill of running automatically through corridors and killboxes impressed on my memory through endless repetition was interrupted by a sudden, wordless urge not to approach a specific doorway. As the memory was excavated and solidified, as surrounding shapes and landmarks oriented themselves into forgotten familiarity, I knew there was something hidden behind the door. The feeling stayed with me because, I thought, it seemed so much like walking into a real childhood scene, a once-inherent geography that lights up dormant corners of memory and belonging. And that’s exactly how it did feel, when we reached my grandma’s old flat in the Stockwell Park Estate: it wasn’t clear which block was hers, and then it suddenly was, it was this way, under this bridge and above this car park. (An aside: the walkways and mazey levels of the Stockwell Park Estate would make for a bastard good custom Doom WAD).

md02I also wanted to write about the fact I found a PS2 memory card during the move, and how the game saves trapped inside struck me as a series of interrupted lives taking place in different imagined worlds that I would probably never visit again. And how opening the black plastic boxes containing my Mega Drive cartridges I’d found slips of paper with long strings of numbers written on them. Most Mega Drive games didn’t have a regular save function (they were, my replays with my increasingly inattentive children showed, so short – that shifting scale of age which makes the looming environments of youth impossibly small seems also to extend to time) and so as an alternative games would often generate complex passwords which would recreate the game exactly as you left it. There is a code written in my dad’s angular blue handwriting which unlocks a game of Battlemaster that one day, over 20 years ago, we played together for the last time.

And maybe that is why when my son and I started to play one of my old favourite games, Arcus Odyssey – an action RPG none of my friends owned, an American import bought from Software Plus on Gillingham high street – I was so determined to get to the end. We wrote down codes at the end of each level just like the ones we found in the box. We played for hours, because it was longer than Sonic, longer than Streets Of Rage II. During the later levels I had to convince him to carry on, to leave FIFA for a few more hours and see this through. And eventually we did – the boss fell, the credits rolled, and I realised I had seen this before, after all. I’d just forgotten.

 

P.S. I did not get rid of the Mega Drive. Of course I didn’t. I’ve still never completed The Immortal.

P.P.S. You should probably listen to the intro music from Streets Of Rage II, it’s timeless.

“One chants out between two worlds…” – Twin Peaks, cinema and television

July 30, 2014

Twin Peaks

I reviewed the latest release of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks for Total Film this month. The review isn’t online but I’d like to share this paragraph, which covers my reaction to watching the original Twin Peaks series in high definition.

What it leaves us with is an excellent, clean transfer, but also, perhaps unexpectedly, a sense of loss. There’s something about the fuzzy 1:33 image of old broadcasts and DVD releases that works silently with the character and history of the show. Twin Peaks is Lynch on television, which stands consciously distinct from his theatrical work because it is a format about which he’s often been skeptical and an institution with which he’s endured an agonising, antagonistic relationship. It’s that tension, between Lynch’s cinematic ambition and the square, glowing limitations of TV sets as they were 25 years ago, that shaped Twin Peaks. It was a journey through the tube into a world of the uncanny and the idiosyncratic, facilitated by that soft-edged glow. Something intangible, something more than nostalgia, has been cleaned up along with the image.

I had limited room to be extravagantly self-indulgent in the magazine, so I couldn’t mention the various things I was also thinking as I wrote this. But they include Lynch’s quote about Blue Velvet – “It’s a song, and a texture” – and the fact that Twin Peaks, like all his work, feels textured, like a humming cathode-ray tube. And they also include the quote in the headline above, from Twin Peaks’ sinister poem recited by Mike the One-Armed Man, which catches something of Lynch himself, and his career-long oscillation between cinema and television. I thought of how Blue Velvet pre-figured Twin Peaks, how Mulholland Dr was planned as another ABC series and then warped and wrangled into a prismatic self-contained cinematic whole.

I guess this strikes at what I enjoy about Lynch, or more specifically, what I find rich and consistently rewarding about his work. His career comes packaged with a sense of contortion: from the prolonged, penniless production of Eraserhead, through the daily death of blockbuster pressure on Dune, and on to the formal convolutions of network television. What’s struggling to emerge in each instance, what persists throughout, are ideas. To quote Lynch again (and it really is best if you read it in his voice, full of ’50s deliberateness and emphases)

I always say ideas are the most important thing, and the idea tells you everything. The idea is like a seed. The tree is in the seed, but it doesn’t look like the tree. So, when you finally see the tree, you might make some changes, but when you get an idea you really do see the whole tree, but it’s in an abstract form.

I’ve long since stopped searching for solid, dirt-in-hand meaning in Lynch’s films. Instead what I think is more beautiful is that his ideas – sometimes a texture, sometimes a feeling – emerge from a just-so arrangement of image and sound and surrounding. And the form, as he says, is mutable, abstract. The idea is the whole thing.

Next up: an exploration of why, despite how much I enjoy Lynch’s films, nothing I ever write about them makes them seem fun in any way.

 

 

 

A short stride and a head turn ago

July 29, 2014

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I recently visited the small part of South London in which my family – one brother, two years older, mum, dad and I – lived until I was five.

It was an odd and deliberate unpacking of things: mum wanted to take us back, my brother and I, our own children and families, walking along Kennington Park Road with photographs of us in these places, three decades earlier.

Until now I’ve had a fragmentary hold on these places and images, a swirl of memories from my earliest years of being in London, and another five or so years’ worth from driving up the A2 and visiting at weekends. My parents both grew up in the city, but their families, and our reasons for visiting, dispersed as I reached adolescence, so my grasp of all those images has always been jammed at childlike. A school hall. A new TV.  A concrete ship.

One of the surprising things about aging that I’m enjoying is the feeling of stretching far enough away from places I’ve been and things I’ve done that I feel as though they were visited and done by a totally different person, a person who’s also definitely me. I remember worrying – idiotically, as someone good at education but probably not learning – that I would run out of exciting new things to watch as I raced through the big-name cinema at my University video library (let’s laugh at that guy, because he was stupid, and feel bad, because he is me). Now I’m regularly surprised by how much I’ve forgotten, how much I missed, and how differently the other mes, drifting behind somewhere unreachable but still connected by a thin cord of remembering and responsibility, thought about everything. The idiots.

IMG_20140712_114850I guess what I’m saying is that without the ability to smooth these earliest impressions into an adult understanding of location and relativity, this bit of the past, and all of London, has always felt ungraspable. So being able to walk in a line for 30 minutes and see everything connected, buildings and parks I can concretely identify and have often recalled sat a short stride or a head turn from arrangements and impressions that ping on the deep radar of subconscious, was so extraordinary I should count myself lucky not to have had a Proustian stroke. (And Kennington now looks just the place to have one of these – with microbreweries and fixie cycle shops and a farmer’s market. A couple of guys walked past us with peacoats and jeans cropped just above the ankle and I bet one of them was having a Proustian stroke right then).

So the walk was up Kennington Park Road, past the first house we lived in, and then into the park where I remembered the big, round bird bath. I raced my kids on the white painted running track, then mum passed around photos of her running on the same track against the other parents at a school sports day. She was still cross at losing. Then we walked past the Oval to my brother’s first school, and then down Clapham Road – this bit was more familiar, my daily traipse home from nursery – to Liberty Street, the first place I can remember living. IMG_20140712_132135The things I remember in this flat include an impossible litter of puppies, throwing all of my toys out of the window even though I knew it was wrong, and – still me, still thinking about memory – the first thought I had about a thought forgotten, a very clear memory of getting out of a car and approaching my door with the intention of doing something inside, only to have the buzz of purpose slip unrecoverably from my mind.

From there we cut through to Brixton Road, down to the Stockwell Park Estate where mum had lived with her mum, and then where her mum had lived alone. The grassy square and play area the flat used to overlook has been cut into haphazard gardens, I guess during the council property sell-off, and I was sad that this idea of communal living, even if it sometimes seemed nightmarish and I was scared of the rubbish chutes and their big iron jaws, had fallen into fences and privacy. And then at the back of the block, on the small ramp we used to park on when we were only dropping in quickly, when sometimes my brother and I would even stay in the car, the thin layer of tarmac was potted and underneath was a hexagonal pattern that felt, as soon as I saw it, like something imprinted physically somewhere, in such a way that looking at it also felt like running the tips of my fingers over it: a half-submerged image resurfacing, a metaphor for the visit and all it made me feel that’s so dead-on it’s embarrassing, but also too good not to mention.IMG_20140712_141303

I often wonder whether London constantly reveals itself to people who live there in this same way, or if the way I knew it and then didn’t is behind my impression of the city. I wonder what my children will make of the images and impressions gathered from this visit – a hand-stand in Hyde Park, a frozen yoghurt on the South Bank – and whether they, the best reason Sarah and I have for not living in London, will ever move there themselves. And, though it definitely too late to make this collection of ideas really mean anything particularly to anyone but me, I think about how just a short stride or a head turn ago mum was like me, and I like my children, and how quickly it all happens.

Monty Python – A night at the circus

July 8, 2014

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I saw Monty Python at the weekend. This is something I never thought I would do – years ago because the chances of them reforming seemed remote, and much more recently because the idea of a Python reunion at this stage, with the remaining five at 70 and unconvincingly trying to rustle up some of the old verve on Graham Norton’s sofa, seemed a doddering folly.

That I was wrong, and that I enjoyed the show, isn’t really what I want to write about, although they’re both true. It’s the way I enjoyed the show that I’d like to catch, if I can, and hold up to the light. This is an essentially personal response, although I can’t help thinking it has also has something to do with age, and the drab tendency to let joy ebb out of things. I find it hard to describe myself as a “fan” of anything anymore, in as much as I don’t feel carried off by excitement at the thought of hearing, seeing, or doing things in the same way I once did.

I need to interrupt myself before things get any more Notes From Underground to say that seeing Python was a jolting reminder of things I used to love, and more than that, of the act of loving things, and throwing yourself into that love in order to belong and to make sense of everything. And it really was a jolt – I had forgotten. I’d forgotten not just that I know the words to everything, as became clear during the opening Four Yorkshiremen sketch, but that I know the rhythms and variations of the old Drury Lane, Hollywood Bowl and Secret Policeman’s Ball performances that I used to fall asleep listening to during what was quite obviously an utterly sexless adolescence.

So in the beginning I was laughing. I laughed partly out of relief that the Pythons were actually sharp and lively, partly out of a warm sense of familiarity, and partly because the Four Yorkshireman sketch is really funny. A little later when Idle sang the final line of The Universe Song – a wry rhyming favourite that always catches me half off-guard – I wiped away a tear of something else. And then, at a point I can’t remember, tears were sort of leaking from my face in a constant stream I couldn’t explain, even though I tried, both to myself at the time and then later in conversation with my wife, as the tears continued to stream on the underground as we travelled away from the O2.

What played a part was certainly that vertiginous rush of remembering how integral these people were to my earliest conceptions of myself, to the humour and skepticism that still lights my way dimly through the world. And there is an incoherent swirl of sensitive things best marked simply as “the past” which were also involved, along with that occasional, cascading sense of how completely in our possession and also completely lost to us the past is.

But mostly – and this is hopefully the point at which this becomes not just about some things I felt – it was being struck by the joy of enjoying. I’m not sure there is a sweeping exit to rescue these paragraphs of self-indulgence, but I do feel that cynicism is easy, and I have reached a point through work and life where never being disappointed often seems worth the cost of never getting excited. It was nice to be reminded that I don’t really believe that.

Also, fucking hell but I love Michael Palin.

The Oscars 2014: What Do They Tell Us?

March 3, 2014

The Oscars are happening! Hooray for the Oscars, especially this year because all of the films are enjoyable on at least some level and none of them are Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which in a precise display of why the awards and everything about them are empty and stupid – including posts like this – really did get nominated for best picture just two years ago.

The Oscars are happening! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, one of them is a black and white film about what it’s like to be confused and old and the average running time is three and half weeks because the Academy regularly conflates length with importance. I have, and since the Oscars is above everything else an interesting way to gauge how Hollywood thinks about itself, here’s a short look at what we might be able to learn from the inclusion of each nominee.

American Hustle

In which we learn: That the Academy still feels bad about Goodfellas missing out on the 1990 best picture award in favour of fucking Dances With Wolves.

Christian Bale;Amy AdamsAlthough of course that’s not entirely true – Hollywood is easily swayed by tales of period glamour and wig-wearing swazz, but American Hustle deserves a spot among the nominees for an extraordinary ensemble performance if nothing else. And, really, there’s not that much else – the film has it’s own sleazy, romance-slanted spin but it’s working very closely to a Scorsese formula of East coast underworld presented with urgent cameras and contextualising voiceover to the pace-shifting rhythms of a pop soundtrack. This is fine filmmaking, but it’s also another O Russell echo of a real classic: just like The Fighter felt like the best boxing film people who’d never watched Raging Bull had ever seen, to my miserable eyes there’s little going on here that Sharon Stone didn’t do already in Casino.

Captain Phillips

In which we learn: That Tom Hanks could probably star in a biscuit and it would still get nominated for an Oscar, although maybe in the short film category.

Tom HanksThis is not a bad film – it makes a serious attempt at balance and is covered in Greengrass’ remarkable and grounding eye for detail in the apparently mundane. At the same time, that balance essentially boils down to “having a bit with subtitles for a minute” rather than any real examination of the lives of the hijackers, and a rolling tank of unsubtlety clears a path three awards cabinets wide through the middle of the movie to give Hanks the space required to be heroic in a middle-aged way that makes the Academy hard and to do a bit of crying.

Dallas Buyers Club

In which we learn: That issues movies and – this year more than any – true-life stories are catnip for Hollywood.

AMF_7277 (341 of 376).NEFPerhaps that’s an unfair thing to pin on Dallas Buyers Club, because aside from getting almost transparently thin Matthew McConaughey is more importantly also charming, desperate and furiously alive, continuing a run of form that seems to be confusing people who remember him mostly from EDtv and all those times he took his top off, which is a lot of fucking times.

Still, it’s mad to ignore the fact that the Academy enjoys watching things that make the movies look important. Second only to movies about the movies are movies about Important True Things. Dallas Buyers Club deals with AIDS, social injustice, abuses of corporate power and homophobia, all with a sprinkle of truth that transforms that pleasure of having watched a good story into a moral affirmation of somehow having been involved in a righteous, moving or momentous event. I can see why this would be an attractive feeling for people who’ve given their lives to the film industry.

Gravity

In which we learn: Hollywood is just fine with women over 40, so long as they’re among the most successful actors of the last 20 years and their film is a technical masterpiece.

GravityI guess what Gravity really shows is that Hollywood is still making a genre of movie recently declared extinct: the adult drama. Gravity has no love interest, no alien creatures, and no antagonist to speak of, barring the enveloping blackness of forever that waits for us all behind autumn clouds. In a field dominated by true stories and the easy significance conferred upon them, Gravity does something I’d argue is more important – it delivers us to an environment and a situation that none of us will ever experience, thrillingly removed from our terrestrial plodding, pinned to meticulous practicalities, and with a sense of scale and spectacle that only cinema can offer.

Her

In which we learn: That Spike Jonze has made the best film of the year and it will not win the Oscar.

HerAnd that’s okay – I don’t even want it to win, even though I like it best. Her pulls into focus the fact that it can be hard to distinguish between the excellence of a film and the significance of its subject matter, which is particularly confusing in a nominee field like this where lots of films about important, contentious, heartbreaking issues also happen to be really fucking good films.

But not, if you are me and live in my brain, as good as Her. It rebels against testimonial storytelling not unlike Gravity – while Cuarón’s film shows us the mercilessness of orbit, Her smartly conjures and then refuses to boringly shout about a near future smartly extrapolated from our own. This future might look like one built on the pop-tech concerns of young affluent men – one of videogames, mobile computers and hipster waistlines – but really it’s one designed to stage a perceptive story about loneliness and the emotional legitimacy of our relationships with things.

It’s really good.

Nebraska

In which we learn :That Alexander Payne has somehow become an auteur of leftfield road movies starring sad men and dysfunctional old people.

NEBRASKAIt’s also better than The Descendants, which was nominated in 2012, although it deals with the same intractables (the flat mundanity of aging, the restlessness of regret) with the same wry, unremarkable eye. His films are sad, in an understated way that suggests everything is sad, but we’ll carry on anyway for the times it seems less so. It refuses to be glib and, as part of an unusual general trend for treating older characters as real people, features two excellent comic actors in Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk but gives all its really funny lines to Bruce Dern and the utterly fucking luminous June Squibb.

Philomena

In which we learn: That Harvey Weinstein could get a biscuit starring Tom Hanks nominated for best picture, if the biscuit was gay, catholic, or had been given an X rating.

philomena05It’s not that Philomena is a bad film, it’s just that it’s one perfectly – if unintentionally – engineered for a Weinstein push: the treasured British thesp, the dash of European intellectualism, the emotive issue underpinning a narrative of warming character growth. Films about the Catholic church, about unlikely friendships, and about charmingly written class clashes have been bread and butter for Weinstein for nearly three decades – he understands the value of these elements to specialist audiences in exactly the same way he understands the value of an Oscar nomination to the same, self-identified-rarefied crowd. That’s why he got this nominated, and why it has no chance of winning.

(You know, probably).

12 Years A Slave

In which we learn: That cinema continues to usefully and vividly recreate the atrocities we often forget in order to carry on feeling human.

12 Years A SlaveWhich is to say that 12 Years A Slave is a terrifically powerful film about a shameful and recent period of history, a period so recent that it’s difficult to pass off as the uncivilised misstep of a prior shape of man and which, in the typical run of things, it’s more comfortable to forget we were ever capable of. I hope it wins.

The Wolf Of Wall Street

In which we learn: That Martin Scorsese never fucking lost it.

Film Fall PreviewI mean, of course he didn’t. But The Wolf Of Wall Street offers lurching, lurid proof, with a subject matter that seems to have piqued Scorsese’s fascination with greed and evil like nothing since Goodfellas (which really should have won that Oscar), and a star in the shape of Leonardo DiCaprio who is no longer standing in for De Niro, but filling the screen and powering the exhausting three-hour tirade in a way that can stand unapologetically alongside the previous efforts of both De Niro and Ray Liotta.

A Savagely Partial Look At The Films Of 2013

December 31, 2013

In what threatens to become a tradition, today is another big day for those who enjoy the imperfectly glimpsed and almost certainly incorrectly processed – welcome to a review of the year in film which is limited to the things I have been able to see as a human man who moved house, changed jobs and ate enough to stay alive during the 12 months constituting 2013.

The-Last-StandJanuary was its regular self, an overflow pipe of awards season self-flattery which started spectacularly when I accidentally saw the numb sub-De Palma hattery of Gangster Squad instead of catching up on last year’s The Master. Then a procession of grovelling worth – Les Misérables included a moment of face-smudging emotion from Anne Hathaway but was dominated by Russell Crowe looking like a bearded pastry and the camera leaning at every fucking angle except level, and Lincoln was hattery on a languid, self-important scale that can’t be described as bad, but can’t be described as interesting or fun either. Django Unchained made a nice pairing with Inglourious Basterds of films exploring controversial moments of history with all the sensitivity of a brick with its cock out, while also proving Tarantino still has the untouchable urgency that forged Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, though he may never have the discipline to make anything that good again. Zero Dark Thirty was a furiously myopic account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden that span the propaganda machine in reverse in order to not have any opinions about anything, and the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger in knockabout modern western The Last Stand fractured the robot-skeleton invincibility of my generation’s thick Austrian-accented John Wayne by being rubbish. Above all January shall be remembered for crimes against Hugh Jackman: for every lash of fortune that fell upon him in Les Mis, nothing beats stitching a pair of CGI bollocks to his throat in the worst film I only managed 10 minutes of in 2013, Movie 43.

cloud-atlas03In February Sylvester Stallone provided the sinewy correlative to Arnie’s stiffening dotage, appearing in uneven revenge thriller Bullet To The Head as an angry pink tangle of veins in a laudable but presumably exhausting rejection of both softness and time. Hitchcock was a kinder look at director Alfred’s reputed trouser-rubbing than the BBC’s The Girl but also a ridiculous exercise in unperforming in which a prosthetic-swathed Anthony Hopkins seemed to leave all the actual work to his silhouette. Wreck-it Ralph almost said something really interesting about the lasting value of design over the sheen of technology but then didn’t, A Good Day To Die Hard demonstrated a bewilderment with genetics by creating John McClane’s son as a miniature of the hairless action lump Bruce Willis has become rather than the charismatic smirker he once was, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was at least more insistently violent than the suffocating cycle of PG-13 horrors Hollywood has fallen into. The best film of the month was Cloud Atlas, which was preposterous in a dozen easy ways but extraordinary in dozens more, and dared to dream a little bigger even if that dream was sometimes Tom Hanks doing a terrible accent.

good_vibIn March Mark Wahlberg wrestled invisibly with Russell Crowe to see who could be the most boring in un-thriller Broken City and they both won. Or rather they tied with Jason Statham even though he was in a different but equally unremarkable film, Parker, in which the most exciting thing that happens is that Statham wears a hat for a little bit and then takes it off. The month saw fairy tales take their turn occupying the hole in Hollywood’s brain where originality used to live, with Oz The Great And Powerful so busy nodding vigorously towards the original Oz it forgot to not have James Franco in or to be any good, and the rather better Jack The Giant Slayer proving to be ‘diverting’, which is another way of saying “this film exists in a tough to describe critical space where I could have gone for a walk and thought about the emotional complexity of dogs instead of watching it and my life wouldn’t be any better or worse”. Steven Soderbergh released the floaty pharmaceutical mystery Side Effects which was compelling but also a good example of the speed-over-precision priorities which have made his last decade of work distant and difficult to love. Forming a monstrous Channing Tatum double-bill with Side Effects was the delayed GI Joe: Retaliation, which refused to be the disaster everyone insisted it should be despite ditching its entire principal cast (including Tatum) like toys it was bored of playing with, confirming something Fast And Furious has already told us about how the rules of Hollywood sequels – especially featuring The Rock – have changed forever. To finish the month James McAvoy had his own double-bill of nasty London noir Welcome To The Punch and amnesiac art thriller Trance – the films were fine, he was fantastic – and then everything was made better by the release of Good Vibrations, a story of the punk scene in Belfast during the Troubles which was good enough to catch the energy of the movement and let its political significance speak for itself.

PLACE BEYOND THE PINESTwo of the worst things currently happening in cinema manifested themselves during April. Firstly Jason Blum took his extraordinarily successful microbudget formula (“make a shit horror film for 12p and sell like it’s powdered Jesus”) and made the almost-identical-to-everything-else-he’s-made-even-though-it’s-science-fiction Dark Skies. And then Harmony Korine not only continued to exist but made a film called Spring Breakers with James Franco who attempted a savage satirical assault on the vacuousness of Mickey Mouse culture by wearing gold teeth and threatening to put a gun up his bottom. Everything else mankind has ever done that was this stupid has resulted in instant death. Adding to the pile of unnecessary waste, Evil Dead attempted to remake Sam Raimi’s classic apparently without realising it was a comedy as well as a horror, leading to unleavened unpleasantness posing as entertainment. If The Place Beyond The Pines had been 90 minutes of Ryan Gosling riding a motorcycle set to this music it would have been a triumph, but it reached for the epic with unnecessarily length and complication and is the lesser for it. Oblivion set the tone for original science fiction in 2013 – there was a lot of it, and it was striking but flawed – before Olympus Has Fallen set the tone for Die Hard derivatives set in the White House for 2013 – there were two of them, and they were rubbish. The month was rounded out by Iron Man 3, a blockbuster of range and character directed by Shane Black that, like last year’s Avengers, gets the people and the words right and lets the action take care of itself.

Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_HD_Cast-CopyFor my birthday in May I got lots of parties but none of them were real and mostly they were awful. The Hangover Part III was avarice burnt onto celluloid, a hollow mechanical reflex lacking the memory-recovering structure of the earlier films, any kind of hangover, or indeed any reason to exist except money and the momentum of greed. Predictably the best bits of The Great Gatsby were when Tobey Maguire was reading directly from Fitzgerald and the worst bits were the overwhelming use of CG sets which made everything look smaller when it was trying to look bigger. 21 And Over was a generic Hangover-lite about ending college that did at least prove, as Pitch Perfect initially suggested, that Skylar Astin is very watchable, and that’s more credit than can be given to The Purge, a Jason Blum-produced thriller that has a Carpenter-esque hook but no budget to see it through (there’s enough coherence to cut a good trailer, which I suspect might have been precisely the aim). For different reasons I enjoyed Epic, a story as much about dads and daughters as it is about tiny leaf warriors, and Star Trek Into Darkness, although if I look at them too closely I’ll find Epic’s use of decay as a villainous force ecologically unsound and Star Trek empty aside from the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, so I won’t do that.

behind-the-candelabra-facebookThere were loads of films in June. The Will and Jaden Smith-starring After Earth continued the flawed sci-fi theme except with extra flaws, not least of which was their spaceship seemed to be made of pasta and Jaden isn’t very good at acting. Steven Soderbergh said goodbye and really meant it this time with Behind The Candelabra, which struck an awkward balance between flamboyantly funny and emotionally earnest, while Tina Gharavi’s I Am Nasrine was a quietly effective drama of immigration and integration. Man Of Steel went big on Superman’s sci-fi side, which meant Russell Crowe flew a big space bird (he still had a head like a fucking savoury palmier, mind) and our hero’s journey of self-discovery was difficult to engage with, something not helped by the fact I would take Christopher Reeve fumbling for his glasses over Henry Cavill’s lumberjack shirt and tits forever and ever. Snitch and Despicable Me 2 were both films about fatherhood, only one was a minor social issues drama given unexpected (and literal) weight by Dwayne Johnson, the second was an animated sequel that was good but also relied on small yellow clowns above story and character in a way that suggests Despicable Me 3 won’t be nearly as much fun. This Is The End was an apocalyptic comedy set in what by this point in the year seemed the suitably hellish location of James fucking Franco’s house, although happily it was stupid and likeable and the actor seems very nice when he’s pretending to be himself. Finally the world ended again in World War Z, a film which robbed us of another anticipated fiasco in favour of being starkly shot and quite good (even if, like 28 Weeks Later, its opening sequence would stand alone as a far stronger short film).

a-field-in-englandJuly was really good, partly because everyone watched Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England on television and enjoyed not having a fucking clue what it meant together (whatever else, it had something to do with Wheatley’s ability to amplify the dread thrum of English midland banality). Pacific Rim caught flack for being a stupid expensive film about robots, which it was, but it also had a sophisticated sense of humanity thanks to Guillermo del Toro that’s totally alien to the likes of Transformers (plus those robots kicked ass). Pegg, Frost and Wright reunited for The World’s End, which couldn’t stitch genre film scenario to character drama as successfully as the mighty Shaun Of The Dead, and Hugh Jackman returned without a second pair of bollocks for The Wolverine, a film which if nothing else proved the ruthless appetite for superhero movies as I was sure this one had already been made once. Two female-led comedies saw the month out – The Heat was by-the-numbers buddy cop nothing given guilty pleasure substance by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, and Frances Ha was, quietly, one of the best films of the year, a neurotic Manhattan tangle of awkward youth stumbling into whatever comes next.

Upastream ColorIn August Only God Forgives came as a shock to people who presumably thought Nicolas Winding Refn only made films about cool guys in shiny jackets and had forgotten the one he made about vikings staring at hills for two fucking hours – which is to say it was interesting in an obstinate way but also casts doubt on Refn’s ability to tell stories that don’t involve men looking at stuff and then punching the stuff. More enjoyable – and, honestly, a sharper study of masculinity – was Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which was as tightly focused and minutely observed as The Lone Ranger was a big fucking bollocks.Getting worse before we get better, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain was an emotionally illiterate flex of ego and ugliness, hesitantly, clumsily presenting real-life murders and extortions as a comic grab at the American dream, delivering empty tastelessness where it aims for profundity. Perhaps its worst crime was wasting both The Rock and Mark Wahlberg, both physical stars at their best being funny, as Wahlberg got to show in the otherwise nonsense 2 Guns later in the month. Also largely nonsense were Kick-Ass 2, sequel to a film which had already said its piece and exhausted its controversy, even if Hit Girl – and Chloë Grace Moretz – are still amazing, and The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, which wasted a Neil Gaiman-ish supernatural underworld on tedious infatuation with a pretty boy and reminded me that I was annoyed nobody’s made a film of the far superior Mortal Engines books yet. Three very different film round out the month – Elysium brought us back to Neill Blomkamp’s wonderfully tactile vision of how fucked up we’re eventually going to make everything, even if this time he told us a lesser story than he had with District 9. I enjoyed One Direction: This Is Us as a study of instant fame, and was surprised by both the awareness of the boys and the touching interviews with their parents, who were adjusting to the loss of success even as the band were contemplating the end of it. Finally, there was Upstream Color, which was carefully elliptical and meaningfully fragmented, apparently allegorical but defiantly, bizarrely coherent, and a film about which I am still not sure what I think, but sure I like because at least I am still thinking.

ain-t-them-bodies-saints01Luckily from September onwards I didn’t see very much, and I began with Riddick, which showed an understanding of its hero by returning him to the wilderness, and then comic misunderstanding of what you Earthlings call ‘women’ with Katy Sackhoff’s terribly written, awkwardly objectified, unnecessarily naked space lesbian. Thank every shade of fuck, then, for Casey Affleck, who is brilliant in everything and especially in dark southern crime dramas like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which was shot like an accomplished Terrence Malick forgery and was rather fine besides. Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty was excellent, a good approximation of what Fellini might have made of Berlusconi’s Italy, and it was just as well because all the rest of the month had was horror: White House Down, which was a replay of Olympus Has Fallen only with a car chase sequence on the lawn where it’s entirely possible I did the fucking effects myself; RIPD, which on paper was a strong Men In Black-style effects comedy with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds which onscreen became unending death; and The Call, which gains points for reminding me very slightly of the Judge Reinhold TV movie Runaway Car, but then loses them all again for being Rear Window on wheels meets rubbish revenge porn.

GRAVITYI saw nothing at all in October, and just two more films all year. In November, Gravity made me grateful all over again that I’m not a shrinking white speck spinning away from Earth and into the cosmos, and did so by tethering us to detail and magnifying the importance of process and practicality. It’s meticulous, and earns its sentimentality with a long hard look into the abyss. Finally, in December I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, which I somehow enjoyed less than last year’s Hobbit even though I’m sure it’s the better film. I’ll be honest here because I can and say my compass is shot when it comes to these movies – I suspect it’ll be years before their actual worth separates itself from the expectations set by the Rings trilogy and my joy that they’re being made at all.

And that’s everything. The things I feel stupidest for not seeing are Before Midnight and American Hustle, and the best film I’ve caught up on is Night Of The Hunter. The most fun I had seeing movies this year was a Lynch all-nighter at the Prince Charles Cinema, because even (especially) with Lynch seeing a film with a crowd is a different experience altogether: The Elephant Man is unbearably sad, Blue Velvet shocked me after all these years, and Wild At heart might be fucking terrible.

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