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.