Monday, 31 October 2016

Walken on sunshine

First of all, apologies for the radio silence, I went on holiday to sunny Menorca for a couple of weeks and have only recently returned. Don't worry, this won't turn into a holiday blog, although I have currently lost my big plan of what I was going to write about over the next few months so this is an emergency blog post.

And when I say "big plan", what I mean is the scrap of paper that had loads of ideas scribbled in biro. So this one is off the cuff (even more so than usual), and it concerns one of my all-time favourite actors: Christopher Walken.

The eyes have it.
Why Walken?

I can't remember the first time Walken came into my world, but what I do know is that I can't recall a time when I wasn't aware of him. I would have been far too young to watch any of his films as a child, even in the days before age classification came into force (or, the gold old days as they are commonly referred to). I can tell you this though, once you've looked into that man's eyes, and heard his voice, you're hooked.

He has a stare very few actors can match, it's like looking into two glaciers that have been detached from the mainland as the first touches of global warming set them free. Sure, De Niro does a great tough guy stare, but Walked has a strange mirth behind it. As if he knows a joke that he's not going to share with you, but knows you would find really funny.

Annie Hall! I just remembered, the first movie I saw Walken in was Annie Hall. He played the younger brother of Diane Keaton and did the most fantastic detached estrangement: "Sometimes, when I'm driving alone at night, I see the headlights coming down the road and wonder what it would be like just to drive into them", or words to that effect.

And the voice. God, I wish I could impersonate Walken. I would genuinely die a happy man. If it was a toss up between walking my daughter down the aisle or getting a spot on Walken, well, I can't say that I'd side with my fatherly duties. But this holiday (it's not a holiday blog, I promise) I got so close, and even managed to get my kids to try. We visited a town called Mao, where my son almost stepped on a dead mouse, which then saw us all stretching the word "Mao" to "mouse" and it's the closest I've ever got to going full-Walken. You're trying it now aren't you? I cannot describe the joy I had listening to my kids impersonating Walken.

Still looks harder than you.
The films.

Walken is definitely one of the few actors who transcends his roles. There's no point trying to ask him to impersonate someone, he's just who is he is. And he's so good at it that the films work around him. I've compiled a list of my favourite Walken films, I imagine you've watched some of them, and they all mean different things to me (in no specific order):

The Deer Hunter (harrowing)
The King of New York (proper gangster)
The Dead Zone (just chilling)
View To a Kill (best Bond villain ever)
Heavens Gate (best death scene in a burning cabin, being shot by cowboys whilst holding a table ever)

The cameos

Yes, he's done a couple of cameos that everyone loves (Pulp Fiction and True Romance) but there's a stand-out performance that seems to have gone under the radar and I feel it my duty to bring it to everyone's attention. Many years ago my friend Jim and I went to the cinema to watch the family film Mouse-Hunt. It's a pretty good movie in an old-fashioned slapstick kind of way. We were the only people there who didn't have kids (we were students, so we naturally went to the midday showing) and for some time it would be fair to say that people wondered what we were doing there. That is until the mouse hunter turned up. Imagine that Walken's character from The Deer Hunter stayed alive (sorry for the spoiler) and took up a profession hunting mice. That's what you end up with. I'll be honest, I think the genius of this cameo was lost on the majority of the audience, save for Jim and myself. If you haven't seen it, make sure you do. If you've got kids it's one of the few Walken movies you can watch with them, and you will find yourself trying to say "you've gotta get inside. The mind. of the. Mao-use".
Mouse Hunt Walken

Hopefully by next week I'll find my list of actual blog content. In the meantime I'd love to know what your favourite Walken movies are.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Book him Dommo.

A month in and I thought I should show a bit of leg. Just a bit, after all I've got to keep you coming back.

I recently moved house and as I packed (and then unpacked) all of the family stuff I found a couple of books that reminded me of some of the things that got me interested in films and film making in the first place.

I've always enjoyed films, I can't quite put a date on when I realised that I liked them but they've always been there. I can clearly remember watching Star Wars for the first time. I can recall with absolute clarity watching the opening of Akira with my jaw on the floor. And I have fond memories of watching Zulu and Bridge on the River Kwai with my father when he made one of his infrequent visits.

In fact, despite there not being half as much opportunity to watch films back then as there is now (in the dark days before the interweb, streaming and Netflix) I think I watched an awful lot, and a large variety of genres. From my no doubt rose tinted perspective television showed an awful lot of old movies at decent times (I have 6pm on BBC2 on a Monday evening lodged in my brain for some reason). So I grew up watching loads of old movies and, without really understanding it at the time, learning an awful lot about film history.

So, as I said at the top, I've always been interested in films. And it was when I did a bit on unpacking that I found a few books that I've kept hold of, which I can see now are milestones in my understanding of the movies.

Film-making on a budget.

The best film-making book I've ever read. That's a Dom fact.
I was told about the film El Mariachi by a friend of a friend. So I went on a mission to find it. It was a proper low budget classic and I eventually managed to track a copy down on VHS. It was one of the most inspiring movies I've ever seen as it completely stripped away all of the illusions that film-making was complex, expensive and hard to do. Along with Peter Jackson and Shane Meadows' early films, it was this that made me want to have a go myself. I managed to find a copy of the film diary too which rapidly became my go to book for film-making. When I was in my first year at university I made a terrible movie called "Karate Cops". Thankfully the tapes have been lost in time but this book was my bible, I think it was in my student bag for the best part of three years and it's definitely one of my most read books.

How Europe made Hollywood great.

It's got Robocop on the cover. That should be enough for anyone.

This is probably the first "proper" book I read about film history and, to an extent, film theory. As mentioned further up I grew up watching a lot of old movies and this book used a lot of films I'd seen to talk about the relationship between European film-making and the growth of Hollywood, particularly in the post-war years. There's a great deal that binds both together, especially when you consider that the Film Noir movement was massively driven by directors who had fled Europe at the onset of the rise of Hitler. This highlights the struggle countries have to keep hold of their own culture in the face of globalisation and mass markets, whilst at the same time acknowledging that they both feed each other. This was No Logo before I read No Logo.

The big one.

Best. Movie. Ever.
So I like Blade Runner. Quite a lot. Which one's my favourite? Probably the Final Cut, closely followed by the Director's Cut. Why do I like it? Without sounding too pretentious it's because this is the closest example of where film meets art. Yep, that was still pretentious! Sod it, I'm not going to be able to get across all the where's and why-fors of why this film means so much to me. I bought this book when I was at university and it answered every question I ever had about Blade Runner. All of them. Even the replicant thing. It's a fantastic combination of behind the scenes documentation, timeline of the film, warts and all struggles of production and retrospective. It is still a book that I can read and be surprised at the content. I've read a lot on Blade Runner and this book is by far the best (in my opinion).

It's also worth noting that I bought this as a US import copy from a back alley film shop in Stoke on Trent in 1997. Eat that hipsters!

Monday, 3 October 2016

We could be heroes... just for one film

There's a lot of science fiction and superhero movies about right now. It's like they've always been there, creeping around the edge of cinema and suddenly we're surrounded by them. Like some sort of slow zombie invasion I find myself in the midst of a slew of films which are threatening to overwhelm me.

I'm not sure when this all happened but now that I've noticed it I see it everywhere. Almost every sci-fi/superhero movie seems to be part of a franchise. It's the cinematic equivalent of the modern fantasy novel: why write one book when we could have a trilogy (or more).

I get the reasons this happens, I'm not naive. If you make one good film it follows that people will pay for another. It's not new, Rocky and Rambo ploughed this furrow for years (as did the Herbie movies, and probably many others before that). But it seems as if this is now a default for film-making. Almost as if the franchise is thought up before the movie.

That's not to say franchises are terrible, but they seem to be treated as a magic bullet for cinema irrespective of the quality. Done well and they can create fantastic stories and characters. The Avengers series is probably the shining example of a studio pretty much nailing the franchise. Great characters, played by actors who fit the roles, in a series of engaging stories that build to a bigger narrative. Yes, there are a couple of clunky stand-alone movies (Iron Man 2 & 3 spring to mind) but they work to build a body of work greater than the sum of its parts.

But then there's the other side (or the "DC problem" as I like to refer to it). There's no plan evident with these movies, it feels like film-making by committee. Put aside Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and you're not left with a hell of a lot. The reinventions of Batman and Superman have managed to make two of the greatest superheroes of all time dull. And that's a pretty hard thing to do.

Part of the issue I personally find with DC is that once you get past Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman the rest of the heroes aren't a particularly big draw (I've probably insulted some comic book fans at this point who will tell me that Green Lantern is the greatest of all the superheroes don'tchaknow). But now DC are locked into trying to build a franchise to rival Marvel. Which, from my perspective, may not be the best idea.

And with these two I understand why. Sales of comic books hit a massive downturn some years ago and Marvel had the foresight to get into films quick smart as they knew that this would provide a brand new revenue stream, attract new audiences, and allow them to tell their stories to a wider audience. It is a completely sound business plan, but ultimately it feels as if the big franchises are squeezing out the one-off movies.

I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a great movie, brilliantly cast and plotted. It was a breath of fresh air to the superhero genre. And then I heard it was film number one in a potential series. And thematically part of the Marvel superhero universe which means one day Starlord may share screen time with Tony Stark. I cannot express my disapointment. Just let me have one movie that's not part of a bigger story arc. Just give me a one-off that won't be sullied by however many duller sequels. Let's allow a movie to live long in the memory and be remembered with love and affection rather than how I remember The Matrix.

There is no sequel.

Ah, The Matrix. I remember seeing that in the cinema for the first time and, insert expletive here, it blew me away. An unbelievable example of the power of cinema to combine storytelling and technology to stunning effect. The first time you saw the lobby scene? I guarantee you won't forget that. Absolutely astonishing.

But what do I remember now? The flaccid sequels, the horrible feelings I had when the words "prophecy", "chosen one" and "council" were used. They tried to turn a fantastic sci-fi movie into a killer franchise and ended up killing all the love that the original had.

The playground of ideas.

Science fiction, and that includes superhero movies, should be the playground of ideas. A place where you can do anything. With the amount of movies that are interlinked and franchised it seems to me that this is becoming a more limiting than liberating factor. More and more, films have to work alongside established canon or overly explain why things have been reinvented. I want fresh ideas when I watch these types of films. It's why I loved Kick-Ass (the first one), and Super, and Moon, and Oblivion.

I would love to see more great one-off movies full of ideas rather than just the next in an ongoing story arc that has been defined by audience share before a camera has even started filming.

*And yes, I know the symbol in the picture would better suit Superman, but I prefer drawing Batman.