Monday, 21 August 2017

Cruise Control: Film Heroes part 2

Tom Cruise.

Close your eyes and say it again.

Tom Cruise.

I'll go out on a limb here and guess that a fair few of you are picturing Maverick, all Aviator shades and white-toothed grin.

Take a moment here. Think about it for a second. We are living in a time when we have a grade A film star making movies. There are many actors, many better actors, but there are few, if any, bigger or better film stars. I'm just going to put it out there, Tom Cruise is fantastic. Tom Cruise is why films are amazing. Tom Cruise is a force for good in cinema.

Welcome then, to the second in my irregular series looking at my film heroes.

The Scientology shaped Elephant in the room.

I'm going to get this out the way really fast. I don't care that Tom Cruise is a Scientologist. I don't care. Not a bit. He believes in something that appears utterly ludicrous, but then so do many people. I'll judge him on his films thanks, and leave his beliefs in the foyer.

The most '80's photo ever?

Early years.

I started getting into films at around the time when young Tom started breaking through, and this left an indelible impression on me. Top Gun, Risky Business, The Colour of Money, Legend, Cocktail, and Rainman are all stellar movies. And then he went and made Born on the Fourth of July. Oliver Stone was a fantastic director in his prime, he even convinced people that Charlie Sheen could have a future as a serious actor. So here Tom was, a product of youthful, exuberant movies changing up a gear and starring in a scathing film about the post-conflict effects of a generation of soldiers from Vietnam (both physical and psychological). He was a long way from Maverick.

Credit where it's due.

But he went back to Maverick in a way with the release of Days of Thunder. A great film? Nope. A terrible film? Definitely not. But the hype train was all about getting the Top Gun team back together and the reviews weren't forgiving.

And maybe there's something from this that influenced this period. The mid-nineties saw the Cruise move away from the popcorn roles and move into meatier parts. A Few Good Men ("I want the truth"... you fill in the rest), Interview With A Vampire, Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut, and Magnolia all point to someone who wanted to expand his range as well as his audience. And then he got involved in Mission: Impossible (that's the franchise box ticked then).

Maybe it's to do with his name, or the money that he's pulled in during his career but Tom Cruise doesn't get the credit he's due for his acting ability. Look at his filmography, it's insane how many different roles he's acted, let alone genres he's starred in, let alone box office successes. There's not too many turkeys in there (just don't mention Vanilla Sky).

Money where his mouth is.

There's one area where I think Tom Cruise beats everyone. Science Fiction. In a time where almost every sci-fi film is trying to start a franchise, Tom is busy putting out super high quality one-off sci-fi movies. Minority Report, War of The Worlds, Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow are all great films that fly in the face of the reliance on franchises to to the business. And yes, he has made 5 Mission: Impossible films (with a sixth coming soon), but I'll let him have those because he never went back to Top Gun.

And in a post-Taken world he is clearly enjoying the status of middle-aged action hero, and doing a much better take on it than almost anyone else. I cannot wait for American Made. It looks great fun. Here we have a film star who clearly doesn't take himself too seriously which is massively refreshing in these days of po-faced actorly types.

And talking of comedy, he absolutely lit up Tropic Thunder. What can I say, Tom Cruise is a phenomenon. I'll just leave this here....

Monday, 31 July 2017

That's the spirit

The unthinkable happened recently, Rachel and I managed to get to the cinema together minus the children. This doesn't happen very often, we normally have to book a day off work together while the kids are at school and sit in an almost empty cinema watching a random movie (assuming there's one we like the look of).

We were down in Reading for a friend's birthday and had a couple of hours to kill, so it was a simple choice between a rainy Reading town centre and the chance for us both to watch Christopher Nolan's latest in the cinema (the best place to watch his movies).

For my money, Christopher Nolan has yet to make a bad film. I've liked them all. His films have the air of touring theatre insofar as he seems to use a small cast across a variety of movies, with Tom Hardy being his current favoured actor.

And I didn't know what to expect. I'd only seen the one trailer and a handful of movie poster quotes, this more due to my lack of time to research now that I have a family than anything else. So in we went with a genuine sense of intrigue and lack of preconceptions.

And we were blown away.

One of the greatest British war movies.

There's no point waiting for the end of this blog to find out if this is a good movie. It's not. It's a great movie. I'd say it may come to be regarded as one of the greatest British war films ever made. It's right up there. It brings a classic feel to modern film making and will have a huge resonance with anyone who grew up watching classic British war movies. This is as much a maritime film as it is about the stranded soldiers on the beach of Dunkirk, it reminds us of a time when we were a nation of sailors, when we had to make a stand against one of the worst threats in living memory, and had to recover from the hammer blow of being driven from mainland Europe by the German war machine.

And it is soaring in its emotional weight, whether it's the thrill of seeing a trio of Spitfires racing overhead from the point of view of a civilian boat (that engine noise makes the heart leap), or not knowing how to count the lives lost when another British vessel is sunk by the Luftwaffe.

And here's the thing, in these days of limitless possibilities thanks to advances in CGI, and so many films hammering your senses with soundtracks, dialogue, action and explosions, this film is astonishingly minimalist.

From the opening shot you hardly see one German soldier (if any until the last scene), but you know they are there and you know they are a genuine threat. The sound design on this film is incredible, whether it be the effects of gunfire offscreen or the soundtrack itself. Everything serves to ramp up the tension. Rachel commented that it was the tensest she's ever felt in a cinema and it's hard to argue. Even the smallest issues became potential life and death fights, whether it was getting soldiers out of the sea before an oil leak caught fire, or the pilot attempting to work the landing gear on the Spitfire by hand.

It's a very different style of war movie. There isn't any bombast, the opening scene almost feels as if Nolan has consciously decided to go as far away from the opening of Saving Private Ryan as possible. It contains a completely different pace and focusses entirely on character, intensity and a very British sense of sacrifice.

No more holidays on the Isle of Wight.

And this is what most surprised me: despite the subject matter and the genre this film has an exceptionally small and personal feel. We are treated to 3 separate storylines that intertwine brilliantly. Nolan interweaves the different narratives and their respective timings like a master, and when it all comes together the outcome is breathtaking. And heartbreaking. This is a story about people and the impact of war on normal lives. He tells a story that everyone can relate to.

The considered soundtrack and lack of dialogue is made even stronger when you realise you are watching a film made by a truly visual storyteller. The confidence evident in this is striking. In most cases you are reacting to things you can't see (such as the Germans), made fearful from off-camera events or sharing the same claustrophobia as the characters. To say the scenes of soldiers aboard sinking ships are terrifying would be understating it. I may never go on the Isle of Wight ferry again.

If that wasn't enough, the film switches tack to something akin to euphoria in the scenes of aerial dogfights. You watch through gritted teeth as you hope against all hope that the RAF pilots will take down their Luftwaffe opponents and almost punch the air when they vanquish their foes. It's exhilarating cinema of the highest order.

But what of the acting? It's first rate across the board (yes, even Harry Styles). Not one actor stands out, there are no virtuoso performances, everyone is in it for the team. Each actor is wonderfully matter of fact and understated, no doubt something to do with the classic British reserve. This isn't a film that needs the hero to stand on the beach and rally the troops. This is a film about the human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, and it's all the better for it.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Who's who?

Yesterday the interweb decided to split itself in two, draw state lines and decide to go to war. "What about Dom? It must have been pretty serious, after all we are living in a time when the Syrian crisis hasn't been resolved, North Korea has nuclear capability, we have a clown in the White house, and the Conservative Party are attempting to build a Death Star (almost)".

For those who haven't been watching the downfall of the modern world, I'll fill you in: Dr Who is soon to be played by a woman...


...deep breath...

...hold it for effect...

Yep. I don't give a shit.

Really. I don't. For a proportion of people (mostly angry white men as far as I can tell) this seems to be a big issue. Somehow a fantastical, time hopping space lord/lady cannot be a woman. It can't happen. It's not allowed. "The world's crazy" they cry. "It's political correctness gone mad". "What next, Jane Bond"?

My answer to all this? It's about bloody time. And let me be absolutely clear here, I am no fan of Dr Who. It's too twee for me, it's not to my taste, it certainly isn't reflective of what I enjoy about sci-fi. Now, if someone was to serialise William Gibson's sprawl trilogy I'd be there with bells on. But it got me thinking, not about the ranting and raving of a bunch of people on the internet, but rather about some of my favourite films that have female leads. And I realised that I don't love these films because they have women in lead roles, I just love them as films which happen to have women in lead roles. Because ultimately a film lives and dies by its story and characters.

If Dr Who, or any film, TV show or play, decides to cast a man, woman or cat in the lead role and they base it on the ability of the actor then there is no issue. This became really clear to me a while back when there was a theatre production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and they cast Noma Dumezweni in the role of Hermione Granger. If you didn't know, she's black, and there was quite the backlash. My perspective on this was really simple, the films feature Emma Watson and the play is a different interpretation of the story and characters. This basically allows directors to interpret the source material as they see fit. And as for the whole "political correctness gone mad" argument, well if the odds have been stacked purely in the favour of white male actors to such an extent for so many years it should be a good thing to draw in new audiences if there is an opportunity (and as long as the actors are suitable for the production).

So what are some of my favourite movies that feature strong female leads? Well since you asked, here's a few:

La Femme Nikita - probably one of my all time favourite movies, despite Anna Parrilaud murdering a song about gondolas.
Mad Max Fury Road - a film about women that happens to have a man named Max in it.
The Fifth Element - Leeloo Dallas. Multipass (I'll stop with Luc Besson films here).
The entire Aliens franchise - Sigourney Weaver shows everyone who's boss.
Terminator 2 - Linda Hamilton is a badass.

Worth noting that I've just realised these are all action movies and no, I don't have a problem with that!

And in that vein, I can't wait for Atomic Blonde which is out very soon.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Right in the feels.

This is a blog I wanted to write about a while ago but wasn't sure how to approach it. Truth be told, I was a bit afraid of both confronting it and what people's reactions may be as I don't find talking about myself in any depth something that comes easily. This weekend was Father's Day in the UK and it seemed that I owed it to myself to write this. Firstly for myself, and maybe you'll enjoy it too. We'll see how that goes!

I've always been amazed at cinema's capacity to move people. To create emotion in an audience, whether en masse, or to an individual. And I'm usually pretty well prepared for this. With many films you can see the what's coming before it happens, and prepare yourself if necessary. It's worth noting here, I'm an emotional guy. I'm not your stalwart granite block of masculinity, the simplest things can get my bottom lip quivering. Since having kids this is basically anything that makes me consider what could happen to my own children, or anything that uncovers deep seated issues about fatherhood that have been with me since childhood.

So here's a bit of context: I'm the youngest of four children, from a single parent family. The only boy in fact. To make this a bit clearer I grew up with a mum, 3 sisters, a great aunt and a female dog. I have cousins, yep you guessed it, both girls. So the fact that I'm not wearing a princess dress still amazes me. My father left when I was four and was an intermittent presence in my life. He came, he went, he remarried, he went again, and some years ago he died. Inbetween whiles I cut him out of my life completely and when it was too late to do anything about it I realised there was an awful lot of things that I wish I'd told him. Not your mawkish huggable stuff, basically I wanted to tell him just how much of a letdown he'd been and that I felt I was much better off without his influence. But that lack of presence has influenced me nonetheless.

From downtown.

Okay Dom, so how does this relate to films? Well, recently I got absolutely side-swiped at the cinema. I didn't see it coming and the whole thing hit me like a ton of bricks. As I said above, I can usually see this sort of thing coming and put up some sort of mental barrier.

This must have been a really serious movie with grounded themes and a resonance with the harsh realities of life then? Right?

Er.... not quite.

The film that gave me a psychological left hook was Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Yep, you read that right. Come back. Stop laughing at me. I'm completely serious. And I was as surprised as you were.

I thought I was watching a knockabout sci-fi action movie, wholly unprepared for any level of actual thinking. And I was. Well, up to a point. The whole plot line of Peter Quill reunited with his father drew me in, I started getting nervous once Kurt Russell and Chris Pratt came to blows, with the God-like father figure leaving his family behind with no further thought for them. The idea of a young Quill idealising this man for years struck a chord, as did their initial meeting and thoughts that everything would turn out great. And then, spoiler alert, things changed. Kurt Russell's natural tendencies took over leaving Quill devastated. At this point I was getting a bit worried. I did the usual thing and tried to think of something else, which is pretty hard when you're in front of a 20 foot wide cinema screen complete with bombastic surround sound. There was no escaping bar heading for the fire exit.

And then the decisive blow came. In the midst of a spectacular space fight, Quill is told "He was your father but never your dad". Boom. That one knocked me down. It's exactly the same line that one of my sisters said to me shortly after my own fathers funeral, and it's always stuck with me.

Apologies to Scot.

The film ended and I bumped into my mate Scot in the foyer who offered me a lift home but I mumbled something about having a walk and bobbed off down the road to sort my head out. He said later that he just thought I was a bit drunk. Upon getting home my partner Rachel asked how the film was and I said everything here. She gave me that look. The "really?" look. The look that is at once massively sympathetic and at the same time trying to work out how on earth I have got to this place while watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2.

So there you have it. I'm continually amazed by cinemas ability to hit you right in the feels when you're least expecting it. And screw you Chris Pratt, I wasn't expecting that!

Did not see that coming.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Soundtrack of my life

A great soundtrack makes a difference. It can change the feeling of a scene, or even an entire film. The great ones manage to imbue a greater emotional depth and draw the viewer in. You could argue that in some cases they are as important as the cinematography in creating feeling in the audience.

This isn't new. Film scores have been a vital part of cinema since the earliest movies, when silent films were accompanied by music (oftentimes played live in the cinema) to heighten key parts of the plot, where there was no luxury to be had in hearing the characters actually talk, and where action scenes were often accompanied by increasingly fervent music. That damsel in distress tied to the railway tracks wouldn't have felt half as threatened if the pianist had been playing a slow waltz.

Nothing to see. No panic here.

So when did I start noticing music in films? I could pretend that it was something to do with a particularly interesting period of fascination with Czech arthouse cinema, but I'd be lying. The first soundtrack that had a real impact on me was that of Flash Gordon. You know the one, it made Star Wars look like a documentary. The biggest, brashest, not brilliantly acted, but most fantastic of science fiction films. Brian Blessed wearing pants and wings, Max Von Sydow chewing more scenery than Al Pacino in his prime, and Timothy Dalton killing Peter Duncan (take that Blue Peter). There was only one possible way to score that movie, and that was to get Queen to do the honours. Quick confession here: I'm a massive fan of Queen. Anyway, it worked. The melody of the title tune chugged along in the background throughout, punctuated by the odd explosive guitar solo or piece of music that fitted each scene perfectly. Football Fight is still probably the best piece of music to accompany a futuristic game of quasi American Football ever.

Go Flash Go!

And from here something was born. I started taking more of an interest in the music that accompanied the films I loved. And I've divided them up into types to make it easy for you.

The big hitters.
Some films are epic and they need a statement soundtrack. I'm talking about John Williams levels of sonic assault here. Growing up there was Star Wars, Close Encounters, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Superman, Bond and a fair few more besides. Event movies got their own style of music. There was no way anyone was going to be allowed to get through a film without being completely guided as to what to think at any given moment. Is the hero upset? Of course he is, can't you hear the haunting strings and oboes? Are the bad guys winning? I dunno, but there seems to be some sort of Nuremberg-esque military number going on. Has good triumphed over evil? By jimminy they have sunshine, I've never heard so many trumpets!

The complete opposite of the big budget, bombastic, blockbuster. It's a brave move to produce a minimalistic soundtrack. Done well, you're guiding the viewer through the film rather than grasping them by the hand and pointing out how they should feel at any given moment. There's one film that really stands out for me: Psycho. Despite all the attached connotations this film now has it's a study in understatement and horror, and the soundtrack is pivotal. Everything in the first act leads to the fateful shower scene of which the music is pitched perfectly. The rest of the film becomes more investigative and the music is so well judged as to almost not be there. There are few films that can match the combination of script, direction, dialogue and music so well.

John Carpenter.
He is his own category. There is minimalist and there is John Carpenter. Go and watch his earlier films and you'll see what I mean. There are few directors who can craft atmosphere from such a small musical range. Somehow he creates emptiness, fear, dread and a myriad other emotions from a really small musical palette. The stripped back nature of his soundtracks works perfectly with the low budget, hard edged films that he made his name with. My favourite soundtracks of his are Dark Star, Escape From New York, and The Thing. Go watch them.

Go Easy John, you've already used four chords.

Pop culture.
Film soundtracks used to be the preserve of composers. Not so anymore. Quentin Tarantino's use of music he loved to fit a scene became de rigour for a while back in the '90's. It was probably mimicked too much back then but has now become a standard way of scoring a movie. And when it's done well it transforms both the scenes and the songs. Stuck In The Middle With You is synonymous with Michael Madsen dancing whilst torturing a cop, whilst Guardians of the Galaxy took an entire decade of music and matched it so perfectly to the film that it added a whole new dimension to the script.

There are loads of great soundtracks that have elevated films beyond just the visuals. Too many to count to be honest. I rate pretty much anything that Kevin Shields has scored; the Natural Born Killers soundtrack by Trent Reznor is still electrifying; and Anton Karas' accompaniment in The Third Man still leaves tingles down my spine.

And you'll notice I haven't gone near Disney soundtracks. You're Welcome.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Sub-standard movies.

I went back into work today after a lovely week off to find that my office colleagues Davydd and Ian had been having a very productive conversation last week with the following question:

Has there ever been a bad submarine film?

The thoughts in the office are that, no, there hasn't. I'm not convinced I agree with this as I was unfortunate enough to have paid good money to watch U-571, and if you've you've seen Jon Bon Jovi in any movies you'll know how well that one plays out. But that aside, it's a sub-genre (see what I did there?) that has a very high hit rate of great movies attached to it.

Not even Harvey and Bill could save this one.

Maybe it's something about the inherent tension in films where the inhabitants are constantly in peril, where every move could spell disaster. Where silent running is as important as action, and where there's no end to the tense enjoyment gleaned from watching close-ups of sweating men staring upwards praying that water won't pour through a crack in the ceiling at any moment.

Films with submarines are tense enough at the best of times. And what elevates these films to greater status is the addition of a bit of conflict. If you combine submarines and war then you've pretty much got a nail-biter of a movie on your hands. There's something delightfully terrifying about listening to the pings of a sonar readout as the shadow of an enemy battleship passes overhead. And when the external threat gets too much, well there's little better than working out if there is a saboteur onboard who could scupper it all at any moment.

Full-on hipsters.

And the beards. By God the beards! It's not a submarine movie if the entire crew haven't got a face full of fuzz by the end of the first act. There's always that one radio operator who somehow manages to stay clean shaven, but the rest of the crew look like they decamped to Shoreditch for the duration of the movie. Combine that with roll-neck sweaters and pea jackets and you're suddenly watching a film that is bang on trend and giving you inspiration for your latest winter fashion look-book on Pinterest.

Here's Jurgen knocking the autumn-winter collection out of the park.

Dive! Dive!

And then there's the camaraderie. Submarine war films all have a subtext. Men, in an enclosed space, working together against the odds with nothing but their ingenuity to get them through. Cut off from the rest of the world they fight a shadow war from beneath the waves. In the best examples this is turned into a noble dignity where the submarines and their crews resemble sharks beneath the ocean picking off their unsuspecting prey. Coming up for air every so often risks being attacked by hunting packs of battleships and frigates.

Sub quality films...

If you do a quick Google search there have been hundreds of submarine movies. Below are my favourites, and they're not all war films.

  • Crimson Tide - It's Gene "born old" Hackman versus Denzel "never been in a bad movie yet" Washington in an ego driven undersea drama. Minus points for the "You have to be my Scotty" moment (thanks very much Tarantino).
  • The Hunt For Red October - Sean Connery plays a Scots/Russian submarine commander attempting to defect to the west. Or is he? Only Alec Baldwin can find out.
  • Das Boot - Jurgen Prochnow has the beard, the jumper, the pea coat and the hat (because he's the Captain).
  • The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - Wes Anderson and Bill Murray team up again in surreal submarine movie.
  • The Abyss - James Cameron's underatted classic. Close Encounters of the underwater kind. 

We all live in a...

There is one film that was mentioned to me today by Davydd that could take this genre off the charts. It's called The Atomic Submarine. No-one has seen it but judging by the poster it looks amazing. Submarines and UFO's? That's got to be a winner right?

Sub vs UFO. Sub wins!
Let me know if there's a submarine movie you think I've overlooked. I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Final Fantasy?

Whatever happened to His Dark Materials?

The film, not the books. I feel as though I may have had a dream a few years ago because I'm pretty sure a version of the first book (The Golden Compass) was made into a film with all sorts of fanfare. I recall watching it in an actual cinema, waiting with baited breath as the trailers made way for the main event and then settled down for two hours of massive disappointment.

Let me just put this in perspective for a moment. The Philip Pullman novels are some of my favourite books. Aimed at children/young adults but containing themes that resonate even as a grown up. They are simply fantastic, a great example of the art of storytelling. Starting in a skewed version of reality they soon expand to describe a fantasy setting that takes the reader on an astonishing journey.

The lead character of Lyra is wonderful, both inquisitive and vulnerable, and always resourceful. The adults in the book, whilst apparently in charge are as flawed as anyone, and frequently upstaged by the younger protagonists. Whilst the added dimension of alternate realities enables the story to shift it's pitch and create unforeseen adventures.

So back to the film.

Daniel Craig. With a beard!
Budget blown on actors.

What happened? It had a pretty good cast. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig took the lead adult roles, supported by the voice of Ian McKellan and Ian McShane, Sam Elliott played Lee Scorseby (a Cowboy, no surprises there) and Christopher Lee even got in on the act.

They cast a relative unknown in the lead role, and Dakota Blue Richards did a pretty decent job. But the film missed all the marks of the book. It was a case of all surface and no feeling. Yes, it looked sumptuous but they rattled through the story at breakneck speed, evidently worried that dwelling on the characters, their relationships and their motivations would get in the way of the next piece of epic fantasy.

Epic wide shot.

And it served to make everything formulaic. This felt like a cynical attempt to mirror the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (both this and The Golden Compass were produced by New Line Cinema). Almost every other scene opened with an "Epic Wide Shot". Stirring music wailed as the camera flew between mountains, city roofs, or down rivers before alighting on a party of adventurers. Cue close-up to pivotal lead actor; wide shot to the group; close-up of another party member; over shoulder shot of "insert important speech"; camera whizzes around; cut to next scene.

And this all served to miss the point of the books. The characters and their interplay where the things that glued the story together. The fantasy was the backdrop (important, but there to support the development of the protagonists). The film seems to want to serve this up the other way round. For all the money spent on CGI (which looked lovely by the way) you end up wishing more of it could have been spent on a script doctor.

And the worst part is there was no attempt made to finish the trilogy. It was left behind without a word. Almost as if the filmmakers were embarrassed to carry on. No doubt it didn't make the money it needed to. And this is the worst part, as a fan of the books it would've been great to see if they could have turned this around. But instead they chose to leave the series alone, and leave a potential audience behind.

After the grand success of The Lord of The Rings trilogy I fully expected the reawakening of the fantasy genre in cinema. But it never happened. Maybe audiences weren't ready. Maybe their aren't actually that many great fantasy series' that would make it into decent films (television seems to have cornered this market today). But His Dark Materials was worth a shot. Hell, it had flying boats, armoured bears and daemons in it. It's just a shame that it seemed to succumb to derivative film making, and totally failed to do justice to the books.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Oldboy Murray

Things have changed since I was a lad.

Way back when it was all about VHS. I fondly remember trying to program a VCR to record many a film only to find the last twenty minutes hadn't made it, or I had totally the wrong programme set up. I'm not going to pretend I had a Betamax player, I didn't and wouldn't have appreciated the quality difference either way as I was far too young to know any better. Having said that, my mate Gav's dad had one and I think the only film we watched on it was the Ralph Bakshi version of The Lord of The Rings.

Later on DVD's came along and that was that, or so we were told. Best format ever. Indestructible. All lies! There was Blu-Ray, laser discs and a few other formats that I didn't bother with which pretty much brings me to the current age.

"Fine grain", check out the quality.
Stream on.

In the digital age I now have access to a stupidly large amount of movies. So many in fact, that I am spoilt by the sheer range of choice. And as a result I find my viewing habits have changed. I used to take pride in the fact that I'd never walked out of a film at the cinema, and watched even bad DVD's till the end, and that the whole thing was worth watching no matter how ropey it may be. After all, I'd paid my money and there was a certain satisfaction about how seeing a bad movie will play out. Nowadays, if the film's not entertaining me I can happily stop watching it and flick to something else, all without moving from my couch. I've become a really lazy viewer.

And I think it's down to a couple of things.

The (lack of) English Patience.

I love Netflix, but one of the issues is that with so much to watch there is always the feeling that with time at a premium it should be spent watching things are really worth it. And this is one of the reasons that has made me an impatient viewer. Why bother watching a film that is only just holding my interest when I could watch something really good instead? There are many times when both Rachel and myself have just stopped watching. And this has even happened part way through a TV series. We were 6 episodes into Designated Survivor and looked at each other and agreed that we just couldn't be bothered watching the rest of it (after a 6 hour commitment).

Asda's bargain basement DVD shelf.

Sometimes the issue is the wealth of choice on hand. I frequently catch myself in browse mode. This is the part of the evening when I decide I'm going to watch something but fail to make a choice as I keep looking for something slightly better. And before I know it, I've disappeared down a rabbit hole of random movies, like some breadcrumb trail leading me into a forest of films (apologies for the mixed metaphors here).

Before I know it half an hour has passed by and I decide to watch a Jason Statham movie because at this point anything is better than nothing. And this must have occurred a lot because now, when I see a Jason Statham film advertised on Netflix, I seem to know that I have watched it without actually recalling when that happened (although to be fair that could have something to do with him continually playing the same character in every film, and with the same plot).

But maybe none of this is an issue. Today there is greater choice. There is no reason to feel obliged to sit through something that you're not engaged with. It goes back to the stories of record television ratings, the people talk of the good old days when the whole nation would watch the same thing: when you only have a limited choice you tend to put up with it. Once your horizons are broadened there is a tendency to be more choosy about what you watch.

And with that, I'm off to watch Citizen Kane (or the Transporter 3).

This could be interesting...

Monday, 27 February 2017

Game over man!

Bill Paxton is one of my favourite ever actors.

I was shocked to hear that he'd passed away yesterday. I was walking past my radio when I heard the words "Bill Paxton", "61", "complications". And I stopped dead, listened hard and then repeated it. No way, not Bill. Not Hudson. 

I'm not one to fill my social media feed with sorrow when a celebrity dies but this feels different. I can't put my finger on why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Bill Paxton wasn't a leading man, was never a top billed film star, and for whatever reason never seemed to get the public credit I think his acting deserved. What he did was turn up in films and out act pretty much everyone else. He created characters that stayed with you and could be funny, charming, frightening and downright entertaining. And because of all this, I somehow felt he was something of a secret that only I was privy to. Having talked with friends today it turns out that they feel the same. Somehow, people who loved his films had a personal connection that made it feel as if they knew about this great actor that no-one else really noticed despite him being in some massive films.

Scorsese had De Niro.

When you look at the relationship he had with James Cameron, it feels as if this is an actor that the director kept coming back to time and again. Whether it be the young punk in Terminator, Hudson in Aliens, or turning up in Titanic and True Lies, there was certainly a bond between the pair. And it's some testament to him that he almost entirely stole Aliens. His turn as Hudson is brilliant, and doesn't dim despite how many times you watch it. In turn cowardly, whinging, mealy-mouthed and cynical, he eventually shows he is all Colonial Marine when he goes out in a blaze of glory taking as many Aliens with him as possible. The most quotable moments in that film are all his. And he makes a potentially one-note space marine into something much deeper.

He even made Navy Seals worth watching.

He is one of those actors who adds a lustre to bad movies. I can't wait for his scenes, hell, I can't wait for his minor roles either. Whenever I watch Commando not only do I get a thrill from classic Arnie, but I get a warm glow whenever I know the radio operator is about to get a line (because it's Bill in an early role). Ridiculous? Definitely. But I suppose that's fandom for you.

And yes, Navy Seals was appalling. But in the opening scene a Seal under heavy fire calls out "God"? And whilst you're thinking he's after divine intervention the film cuts to a close-up of Bill in a tower, with a sniper rifle, who responds with "God here" and dispatches the foe with Old Testament justice. I think I did an air punch when I first saw that!

Too many great roles.

For my money, Aliens is still his best role. Or rather, it's the one that has had the biggest impact on me. But then he also came close to stealing True Lies with his turn as a not so secret agent; One False Move saw him play the stalwart local sheriff; in Near Dark (or Aliens Reunited as I like to think of it) he played an unhinged Texan vampire; The Lords of Discipline saw him play a thoroughly unlikeable character brilliantly; Tombstone added real grit to an already impressive range; and Weird Science has to get a nod as one of the best performances of a complete jock duschbag.

So it's sad to think that there won't be any more films starring Bill Paxton. 61 is no age to go. But I'll always have a soft spot for Hudson. 

Or was it Hicks?

Hudson remembering that he is actually a Colonial Marine.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Warning, may contain spoilers.

Fair warning, this one could be a rant. I've wondered how I should approach this for a while as I have very fixed views which differ from quite a few people I know, and as such I've been conscious that I may appear as massively judgemental. But sod it, nothing ventured...

I'm intrigued when parents actively let their children watch films that are too old for them. And by this I mean letting children watch films that are certificated very plainly above their current age range. I'm not talking about teenagers, I'm talking about kids under ten years old.

I'm of the view that films have certificates for a reason. They are there to help viewers understand, at a glance, how suitable a movie is for watching.

You'll love it.

What I've observed comes down to one major factor: I see an awful lot of parents of my age who really want their kids to be interested in the films they love. These are mostly the films or comics that we grew up with in the 1980's, and that have been brought bang up to date with modern interpretations. The difference is that these films often cater to a more mature audience than we were when we watched them as kids. There is a tonal difference in these films that has been reflected by the certificate on the film.

My personal example is Star Wars. My son loves Star Wars. And I love that he loves Star Wars but he hasn't watched Revenge of the Sith (certificate 12 and featuring the decapitation of Dooku as well as the pain-wracked almost burnt alive death of Anakin). I know what you're thinking, "calm down Dom, they're just Star Wars movies". Whilst I'm happy for my seven year old to watch space battles, light sabers and ewoks, I don't believe he need to watch a grim-themed science fiction universe for an audience five years ahead of him.

Can I go home daddy?

There was another example of this when I went to see Avengers Age of Ultron at the cinema. A parent in the audience had turned up with two children, one probably about eight and the other around four. The four year old definitely didn't want to be there but dad was insistent that he wanted to watch this film. And here's what annoyed me: if he was really are desperate to watch the film,  he should go and watch it. But at least make an informed choice as to whether it's suitable for his children. Don't take them without understanding if the film is even suitable. Whilst Age of Ultron is fantasy violence (a wonderful phrase if ever I heard one) it's an unremitting slugfest from start to finish. Which really can only start a conversation about overexposure to this sort of thing and the eventual effects of desensitisation.

If you let one through...

The other side of this is that if you let your children watch films that are beyond their age you can't go back. First of all, they can't unwatch something. Second, you haven't got a leg to stand on if a film comes around that you don't want them to watch ("but you let me watch the other one"). My example, possibly a bit extreme, is this: The Dark Knight was a 12 certificate (should've been a 15, but we'll let that slide). Imagine you've let your under ten watch a 12 certificate movie. Would you then let them watch The Dark Knight? Would you be comfortable letting them watch the Joker go crazy in Gotham, or Batman beating him to a pulp in an interrogation room? I'd hope your immediate answer is no.

Best birthday ever.

Films are certificated for a variety of reasons, sometimes due to underlying themes, or language, or violence. But they are certificated for a reason. I can't wait to watch Alien with my kids (when they're old enough, just to be clear I'm not a complete hypocrite!) but I'm in no rush. There are plenty of great movies they can watch right now. The purpose of my parenting isn't to enforce the things I love onto my kids. In time I'm sure some of my interests will influence them, but that will come in time. My son has a joke with me that his twelfth birthday is going to be great because he'll be able to watch all the new Star Wars films and the second half of the Harry Potter franchise. And if that happens, that could be one of the best days we spend together.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Great Scott! Film heroes part 1.

There are certain films, film-makers and actors that have had a profound impact on me over the years. I figured that I'd share some of this from time to time, so to start off this I'm leading with the big guy. A titan of cinema. Ridley Scott.

This isn't a film-by-film account of what he's done, rather it's about how I choose to remember him. For me, Ridley Scott was the first great visual film-maker that I encountered and his visions have influenced me massively. Specifically, I don't think there's a director whose first 4 films have been so affecting. In case you aren't up to speed on his early works here's the opening films of a stunning career:

1977 - The Duellists. Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine play the eponymous duo, playing a game of cat and mouse across the backdrop of the Napoleonic era.
1979 - Alien. One of the greatest science fiction movies ever made (just ahead of Dark Star).
1982 - Blade Runner. The greatest science fiction movie ever made (two places above Dark Star).
1985 - Legend. A stunning fantasy movie that bears all the hallmarks of an Arthur Rackham painting brought to life.

Two men fighting. Yesterday.
What brings all of these together, and why they had such an impact on me is the stunning level of detail and craft that went into creating the worlds these films inhabit. Everything is believable, whether its the computers on the Nostromo, the kitchens beneath the demons layer, or the cold that  seeps into your bones when watching the retreat from the Russian front. You can almost reach out and touch it and imagine it's real.

There's a direct correlation between the film-maker and the artist in all of these films, a sense that set design and the flow of a movie is vital to breathing life into a script in order that it becomes more than just telling a story. In Alien you are brought into a horror movie in a completely alien environment (no pun intended), but it's so rooted in reality that the science fiction elements become even more believable. Eschewing a bright science fiction aesthetic for a more industrial look, Alien essentially put a cast of truckers into space. William Gibson cites it as a major influence on the birth of cyberpunk as, with such a high level of technology permeating the film, the main characters were wandering round in overalls and beaten up sneakers. And this sense of place was carried over into Blade Runner (along with quite a lot of the original sets by all accounts). The Los Angeles of the future is a living, breathing place that on the one hand is futuristic, yet on the other wholly familiar.

Still scares the crap out of me.
With regard to Legend, this is the sort of dark fairytale that we don't see much of in cinema. It's got a really mythological, northern European feel, and such a distinction between the darkness and the light. The only film in this genre I can compare it to is John Boorman's Excalibur (more on that gem in the future). This feels like an exercise in mood, where the film starts with innocence it quickly turns this ideal on its head. The performance of Tim Curry reminds us that once upon a time he was an actor of rare presence and character.

All film posters should be this good.
And yes, Ridley Scott's more hit and miss these days. He's made some films that don't live up to these early movies. But for every White Squall, there's a Gladiator. He'll pull Black Hawk Down out of nowhere. And even though he has become the director of choice for overblown historical epics (I'm looking at you Kingdom of Heaven) they are still full to the gunnels of jaw dropping visuals and set-pieces that can leave you breathless.

So with new Alien and Blade Runner films due for release this year, go back and have a look at this man's work and you'll see just how much they have to live up to.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Silence is golden

I recently showed my children some old movies. And by old I mean really old. Silent movies in fact. Pre-war in some cases (World War 2, not Iraq). I decided to do it because I wanted them to see some of the films I grew up with. And perhaps more so, I was interested in whether they'd even be entertained (yes, it was an experiment of sorts).

I took it carefully, explained that back in the day films had no sound, were black and white, and picked some of the most knockabout, slapstick, plank in the face stuff I could find. And they loved it. We started with some Laurel and Hardy and by the time those two had significantly failed to get a piano up a flight of stairs the kids were crying with laughter.

Encouraged by this we scoured YouTube for more old movies. We decided Harold Lloyd would be fun as he had glasses (like daddy) and once I explained that in Safety Last he climbed the side of a building and almost fell off the kids were sold on the idea. And so we must have watched Harold climbing that building 5 times in a row, there were gasps as he hung from the clock face, deep breaths as he swung from a rope, and screams as he fell out of a window.

Health and safety nightmare.
And as we continued to watch compilations of the greatest exponents in slapstick comedy and genuinely dangerous stunts I realised that not once did the children worry about the lack of sound or colour, or whether the special effects were up to much (which is lucky as there were no special effects to speak of). They were drawn into films that relied on visual storytelling. Strikingly, both children understood what was happening through a combination of expressive acting, and really clear film language.

I think most people have a good understanding of film language, and for the most part it's unconscious. You know when you've watched a good film, and equally when a film's a clunker you can tell what's coming with almost inhuman foresight. And this is part of the appeal of cinema, and how it came to be America's biggest form of entertainment. In the early 20th Century America took in huge numbers of immigrants and early cinema provided somewhere they could all congregate, irrespective of language, and be entertained. The fact that films had no sound was a huge boon to a burgeoning industry as there were no barriers to entry. And from this film-makers rapidly learnt what worked and what didn't, what stories resonated, which techniques they could use for maximum dramatic effect. And over time, many of these lessons have been honed rather than rewritten.

Clearly Buster was crazy.
Cinema today still relies on the same visual language of story-telling. Yes, there are more effects than ever before, and sound design has become an additional way to add mood and develop stories. But the initial lessons learnt in the early days still resonate today.

I'd recommend discovering (or rediscovering) those old movies and find out what you've been missing.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Gods alive!

Guilty pleasure's. Apparently they're a thing. I don't really subscribe to this as a concept, as I believe you either like something and stand by it or you don't. If it's guilty that implies you are somehow ashamed of it which means you are embarrassed to acknowledge a certain part of yourself in wider society.

In my previous blog I mentioned that I have a love of classic old musicals and would have loved to have learnt to dance like Gene Kelly. There is no guilt in this, I'm not worried about different ideals of masculinity as for me being a man does not revolve around having the most bulgingest biceps, or toting a gun better than your rival (which is lucky as I can do neither). But I digress, I was talking about guilty pleasures, which brings me to.....

Crap films.
I love crap films. Some people live in the mistaken belief that as a fan of film I can't switch my brain off and enjoy some car crash movies. Well, I can. If it helps, I could also break them down in a variety of readings and discuss theories on a variety of topics. But if needed, I can quite happily watch utter drivel and thoroughly enjoy it.

Deep down everyone has a few favourite bad movies. And I don't mean "so bad they're good". I mean "so bad they're bad". Not the camp classics like Flash Gordon, or the Charlie Sheen comedy action movie genre (Terminal Velocity is still the best sky-diving movie ever made), I'm talking about irredeemable drivel.

Fanning the flames of mediocrity.
These are the sort of films that are only truly enjoyed with close friends. Rachel (my other half and the brains in our relationship) takes no enjoyment in watching such films. She sees them as a waste of time and will only tolerate watching them if she is taking complete pity on me.

Which is where my friends come in.

Back in my younger days my friends and I would watch crappy Chinese martial arts movies and the entire back catalogue of Rutger Hauer that we'd bought on VHS from the local flea market.

At university we'd raid the HMV sales and pick up all sorts of tat for a quid each.

Think of the money Rutger.
Nowadays, I go round Gary's house and with him, Jamie and Mal we end up watching utter garbage while we talk crap and put the world to rights. And I mean this in the most endearing, fantastic way. These are the sort of films that make you stop what you're doing because you can't believe how bad they are. I'm talking about Sharknado levels of cinematic awfulness. The sort of films where the highest paid star is famous for being a supporting actor from a mid-nineties sit-com.

I'd cite Cockney's versus Zombies in this bracket, yet somehow Honour Blackman, the fella who played Bricktop in Snatch and Richard Briers (RICHARD BRIERS!) were coerced into appearing in it. I think this was Richard Briers' last piece of acting, and if that's true that completely outdoes Raul Julia's final appearance in Street Fighter the Movie. What a way to be remembered. Although he does manage to pull off an escape from a zombie by shuffling along on a zimmer frame, which is genius.

Up to this point in my life I thought this level of film was squarely levelled off as a straight to DVD release, or only appearing on Dave at midnight. Turns out I was wrong.

Because I recently watched Gods of Egypt.

Yea Gods!
I'd heard it was bad. I'd heard it was a turkey. I'd heard it was one of the biggest flops of 2016. And it's all of those things. It's cataclysmic in it's turdishness. It has all the charm of one of those bad mid-nineties CGI movies where everything looks fake. It's got good actors acting badly. Bad actors acting worse. Geoffrey Rush eats the scenery. Gerard Butler turns up thinking he's still in 300 and channels the spirit of Sean Connery in Highlander (that other famous Scottish Egyptian). It features a really annoying lead character. Jamie Lannister turns up with one eye. It's got appalling dialogue and a terrible plot that you could work out by the end of the opening credits. Despite being a fantasy movie it manages to recast the entire Egyptian race as white, apart from the slaves who are somehow mostly black. And the subservient women are all kohl-eyes and push-up bras.

This is Cairo!
In short, it's amazing. This is exactly the sort of movie I can fall in love with. Is it on a par with the Seven Samurai? No way. It's not even on a par with Anaconda 3. But this is part of the joy of watching films, you can't pigeon-hole yourself or others into one type of film genre. We're just not made that way.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Don't fail me now 2017...

So 2017 is now a thing and by all popular opinion 2016 was a bit of a year to forget. It certainly wasn't all bad but if you look at the amount of unforseen deaths, Brexit happening and Trump getting his hands on the nuclear codes that's a pretty big set of hurdles to get over. 

I've decided to look ahead to a few things that I'm looking forward to in the forthcoming year.

Trainspotting 2
Choose sequels. Choose revisiting a modern classic. Choose inspiring an entire generation. This better be good, and with the cast all coming back it's got every chance. I'll be there with my fingers and toes crossed, along with a cinema full of 40-somethings who are desperately hoping against hope that this is the best British film of the year.

More musicals
I love musicals. Specifically, I love old Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies. I wish I'd bothered to learn to dance (it worked for Patrick Swayze) because watching Gene and Fred cruise through their films with class, elegance and their own take on masculinity is one of life's pleasures. The release of La La Land has given me hope. More music please Hollywood and less explosions.

And talking of explosions...

Franchise burnout
Less reliance on non-stop, ongoing, over bearing, fan pleasing, self-loving bloat-fests please. Yep, as good as some of these films are can we dial down the reliance on everything being a fecking franchise. There are tons of great standalone films out there that get swamped by the juggernauts of marketing hype. I get that film companies need to make money but have more faith in the one-off films.

Kids films
Please everyone, carry on making great kids films. I wish I had the quality of films that I've seen in the last year when I was growing up. I love watching films with my children and there is an astonishing amount of great work being done nowadays. And there is always something for the grown-ups. I still laugh out loud when I watch the Breaking Bad reference in Zootopia. More please 2017.

Blade Runner 2049
I have quite a simple request for this one: Don't fuck it up. You've been warned Denis Villeneuve.

And finally...
I'd like to ask Death to have a rest for a while this year. I don't personally do the outpouring of online grief for celebrities as I don't know them, only saw a fraction of who they were via a handful of films, and understand that death is inevitable for all of us. But it's a big deal when they die as they hold huge cultural import for millions of people. If someone could make sure Death is distracted with a long game of chess this year, that'd do fine.

Your move. Take your time.