Category Archives: Movies

Change, Please

Nerdly shut down last month due to some Google Adsense bobbins that is far too dumb and arbitrary to go into here. Short version is…don’t feature pictures from gory horror movies on your horror/genre blog, I guess?

The first review I wrote for them was a review of Warren Ellis’ novel Gun MachineThe last was a piece on the Criterion edition of It Happened One Night. Technically I started writing for the site in 2009 when it was Blogomatic 3000, but I don’t have access to the archives so you’ll just have to use your imagination until I get my hands on those old (maybe terrible?) pieces.

I’m considering starting a side-blog exclusively for my writing on film. This place has been cluttered with stray notions and cobwebs for a while now, and I might even be able to maintain something with a single focus far better than this brain dump.

[Though, of course, now I’ve mentioned that it may be doomed never to happen.]

A panel from Plutona #5, written by Jeff Lemire & illustrated by Emi Lenox

In the meantime, like any good scavenger I went looking for other places to ply my wares and found Flickering Myth, where I’m doing comic and movie reviews for the foreseeable future.

So far I’ve covered new issues of East of West, Cry Havoc, the brutal finale of Plutona and the promising first installment of conspiracy thriller Throwaways. The pay is peanuts and I know that “hey, free comics and movies isn’t a bad deal” is a chump’s line, but deadlines keep me working and – for now – it’s far better than not writing.

In other news, my dad died two months ago today. I wrote something about that on Medium; grief and learning and realising he was probably not the man he presented to me for 25 years.

I turned 26 two weeks ago. I just connected those dots and realised I’m now in a post-dad era. Numerically speaking, anyway. Well, I had him for a quarter century. My guess is that people who get a hundred years tell you it’s still not enough time.

Speaking of time constraints, I and my friends Dave & Alice went on a [THOUGHT BUBBLES] hiatus almost a year ago. Yesterday our first new episode since September 2015 went live, and it’s a doozy. This one’s a departure in many ways that I’ll go into in a later post, but I’m pretty thrilled with how it turned out (but mostly just that we’re making these things again. I’d recommend short bursts of creation to absolutely everyone) so yeah, go and watch it.

Alice, the musical side of the project, creates beautiful, dreamy synth pop under the name Mayshe-Mayshe. You can listen to one of her tracks above. I’m biased but I think Alice is great; she’s putting out two EPs and going on tour in the next couple of months so you’ll have plenty of chances to judge for yourself.

I’m going to update this blog more frequently. I know I say that every time and then you don’t hear from me for three months but I’m trying out this whole “discipline” thing and I think it might stick.

The current state of British politics

Oh, and my country’s about to collapse under the weight of its own apathy and xenophobia, the economy’s in freefall and the British political arena is looking more and more like Thunderdome every day.

Plus I’m quitting my job and leaving my flat within the span of two days in August so I might have some spare time on my hands. Gulp.

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High-Rise is a deliciously cynical elevator ride through hell

[This review was originally posted at Nerdly as part of my London Film Festival coverage.]

First we’re given a glimpse of the end: Tom Hiddleston’s neurosurgeon Robert Laing calmly sifting through the filth-strewn hallways of his tower block, encountering a dead man with a TV smashed over his head…and cooking a dog’s leg. This is director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump’s subtle way of telling us that this isn’t where we’re going as a society, despite High-Rise ostensibly being a period piece; it’s where we are right now, and we better get comfortable.

Discomfort is the main order of the day, though, as Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s dystopian novel about climbing the social ladder is given to mayhem from pretty early on without order. Upon moving into the titular tower block, the reserved but disciplined Dr. Laing is quickly introduced to the hierarchy of the building by Sienna Miller’s neighbour Charlotte: the obscenely wealthy live at the top, throwing decadent parties, riding horses and maintaining gardens; the middle classes are in the centre, their sizable apartments half-filled and hallways becoming venues for petty squabbles about rubbish disposal; and the poorer residents occupy the bottom, trying to scrape a living to support their children and afford service charges for power that is often switched off at a whim.

Initially wanting only to keep himself to himself, Laing quickly becomes entangled in the politics of his building. The two main ideologies at war are represented by Luke Evans’ philandering filmmaker, perpetually drunk and rowdy, and Jeremy Irons’ architect Royal, who built the blocks that now pepper the skyline and hopes they will act as a catalyst for change. The only problem is that, living on the roof of the building as he and his nostalgia-obsessed wife (Keeley Hawes as both peacock and caged bird) are, he’s oblivious as to what kind of change will actually happen.

After a number of ugly incidents mar the uneasy peace between the different levels, a full-on gang war breaks out between rich and poor (and eventually, when food grows scarce, between everyone), though Laing attempts to stay apart from the madness. Hiddleston plays him with a masterful restraint that steadily cracks to reveal both his distaste for the hedonistic upper classes and undeniable desire to be on top. Most other characters don’t try so hard to mask their feelings: Charlotte casually ends a sexual encounter with Hiddleston after he tells her he “thought we were doing this” by saying, “we’ve already done it”; Ann Royal calls Laing a dilettante to his face after he arrives at her powdered-wigs costume party in black tie. Though High-Rise offers obvious villains, its archetypes are completely intentional, the escalating debauchery (and, more shocking, acceptance) of everyone’s actions all serves to illustrate a black-tongued, comical critique of society and is all the more intoxicating for its directness.

All of this is filmed in claustrophobic close-ups by Wheatley & co., especially in the corridors where most of the anarchy takes place. Flats are havens for the characters like the elite, who relax in orgiastic ignorance while the distant angles and classical versions of pop songs (shout out to Abba’s SOS, which receives two hilariously subversive covers) serve to separate them from the reality beneath their feet.

But Laing’s home, too, is his sanctum santorum, one which he devotes a disturbing amount of time and energy to decorating. He’s trying to achieve material perfection, right down to the clothes he wears (and insists he must keep on, even after having sex with Elisabeth Moss’s heavily pregnant Helen), and by the end it could be argued that he’s achieved just that. One great success of Wheatley’s direction is to make Laing a compelling lead without becoming hero or villain – in a film where almost everyone commits ugly acts, the man who stands and waits for the dust to settle is both the smartest, coldest and dangerous person you could hope to meet.

High-Rise is out in UK cinemas today.

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Murderotica

Sex and death are the gin and vodka of spy movies, especially since James Bond punned his way onto the scene. Their connection is mostly slight and subtextual, the suggestion being that the (usually male) protagonist is always teetering on the brink of their mortality and has to make the most of what little life they might have left. By cheesily coercing some naive girl or gleefully sadistic warrior woman into shagging them, naturally.

In Spectre, Daniel Craig’s Bond has sex with two women immediately after killing one or more dangerous men:

  1. The first is Monica Bellucci as Lucia, a grieving widow having returned home from her husband’s funeral. Bond quickly dispatches the men without blinking, to which Lucia tells him that he’s scarcely bought her five minutes.
    “Just enough time for a drink, then,” he sleazes. They barely manage a sip of champagne before he’s all over her, and the next scene shows Craig getting dressed after the two have had sex. He doesn’t have much interest in her now, which is nothing new.
  2. The next is Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann, a supposedly brilliant psychiatrist who still decides to attach herself to a professional killer. She had initially pre-empted Bond’s advances, but he didn’t actually seem all that interested.However, after she and 007 manage to throw a burly henchman off a train, they lay on the floor, trying to catch their breath after the fight. In a moment that wouldn’t be out of step with a Zucker Bros. movie, she turns to Bond and asks, “What do we do now?” before the film cuts to the pair of them rolling around in their cabin.

“Same old Bond,” you might think. But contrast this with the opening scene, in which he accompanies a woman, Estrella, to her bedroom where she takes to the bed, expecting him to join her. Instead James is out the window with a machine gun, skipping along the Mexico City roofs like he’s got a date with destiny. He even tells Estrella he “won’t be long” when she asks where he’s going. Scant minutes later he’s taken out several baddies(not to mention a couple of buildings too) and is happily chucking pilots out of helicopters.

Bond’s carnal desires have nothing to do with his sexuality any more. It’s not about women or men; it’s about murder. He has so entangled the processes of killing and screwing that he literally can’t have one without the other. That’s what gets his blood up: to him, killing is sex (to quote Mason Lang from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles: “every scene is a sex scene”), and the shag is a post-coital cigarette.

He isn’t interested in Estrella because he hasn’t gotten off yet.

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The 10 best movies of 2015, as voted by my friends and colleagues

There are always far too many films out every year to make any kind of sweeping judgement on the perceived quality of the work released in that arbitrary period.

Yet as winter rolls around, out come the end-of-year lists to fit 2015 into a neatly-cut box and let everyone know just how great our tastes are. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but this year I thought it might be fun to try something different.

Instead of listing my 10 favourite movies from 2015, I polled a number of friends, colleagues, filmmakers and critics for their top ten lists and compiled a Sight & Sound-esque “definitive” ranking from the results. You’ll see these after the jump, along with comments from some of the contributors and myself.

[A note for pedants: “films from 2015” in this instance means films that were released theatrically in the United Kingdom between 1 January and 31 December this year.]

This is a people’s vote, not a cinephile senate, which means that blockbuster fare ended up occupying more of the top spots than I anticipated. While there is some overlap with S&S‘s end-of-year list, it’s interesting to note that many of the films missing from ours will likely never be seen by some of the pollsters.

Myself? I want to see everything from the arthouse to Roadhouse – and I don’t believe that the final goal of a film should always be to entertain – but I can totally appreciate the populist escapism for which most audiences go to the movies, and I think the following list reflects that…

…While also managing to slip a couple of modern masterpieces in there. Continue reading

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Letterboxing: Silver Bullets

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of an ongoing effort to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

Joe Swanberg & Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets [via]

Maybe my favourite Swanberg picture yet, though perhaps that’s why the star rating is so high. None of his films have blown me away, but Silver Bullets (along with, say, Hannah Takes the Stairs) feels like the writer-director’s articulating exactly what he wants to say with both economy and honesty.

Or, in the case of Silver Bullets‘ characters, dishonesty. No-one wants to hurt anyone else, but they’re not going to purposefully avoid hurting them, either, and the core relationship (between Swanberg’s filmmaker and Kate Lyn Sheil’s rising star) is punctuated by long silences after which discussion of the tensions between them are tossed aside in favour of spontaneous lovemaking.

I admire Swanberg’s commitment to these moments, scored by skittish strings that aptly reflect the high anxiety clearly playing out in both characters’ minds, along with his willingness to play with formats and let the filmmaking speak as much as his characters. The subtext in this movie isn’t very deeply hidden, but it’s still rooted in enough human drama (and ironic conversations about ‘art’) that it’s still effective.

All of the director’s films feel intensely autobiographical (often uncomfortably so), but Silver Bullets feels like the most authentic reflection of his opinion of himself. Which is not to say that he’s playing himself but the version of himself he sees, which is far more interesting. Not to mention rather unflattering. This movie’s Swanberg is someone who can only truly experience life through a lens, a screen or a pre-fabricated conflict, often remaining perfectly still as he witnesses (more than participates in) these moments. This contrasts wonderfully with Sheil’s constantly shifting actor who takes on different personas based on the whims of the person she’s with. When she finally does decide to act upon her own impulses, she’s rejected, which is something of a pessimistic metaphor when applied to film actors as a whole.

But Swanberg’s always going for some kind of melancholy, and in Silver Bullets he keeps that from overwhelming the narrative with sentimentality more than other outings. We’re left feeling the same way as the characters in a brief epilogue: wondering who was really to blame, whether there was anything they could have done to fix things and, most importantly, if these failed relationships are doomed to repeat themselves.

Which, now that I think about it, is really the meta-narrative of all Joe Swanberg films.

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Letterboxing: Trainwreck

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of an ongoing effort to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

[via Collider]

I really expected more. Trainwreck is a conventional rom-com dressed up in the edgy honesty of Amy Schumer’s humour and the obscuring improv of Judd Apatow, and neither of them does either of those as well as they should.

Any film over two hours long needs to fight for your attention more than others, but Apatow (directing from Schumer’s first feature script) lets most scenes run far longer than they should and the result is often tedious. If you’re going to have a scene in which tertiary characters are the only ones speaking, at least make it semi-relevant to the story, maybe?

Schumer is fine in her first leading role (and it is incredibly refreshing to see a woman of her body type as the romantic lead. She’s not particularly strange or different, other than the fact that she looks like a real friggin’ woman) but brings little her stand-up material doesn’t already exhibit.

For the record, I think she’s a great comedian, but her script is a real sheep in wolf’s clothing. She starts out a confident, independent character (albeit an alcoholic one) and finishes up compromising pretty much her entire way of life for one man. The film takes the archaic stance that ONLY MONOGAMY CAN WORK and anyone who takes multiple partners must be either morally bankrupt or have serious character flaws based largely in daddy issues.

I love Brie Larson – she’s steadily becoming one of my favourite working actresses – but in this she’s simply reduced to an oasis of morality: get a husband! Have a kid! Paint your next kid’s room pink BECAUSE THAT’S HOW WE KNOW SHE’S A GIRL! (That particular piece of heteronormativity was eye-rollingly outdated.) She does well with the material as does her husband played by Mike Birbiglia, who gets to perform some of the rare moments of genuine discomfort in the film. These are what makes it worth watching; moments when characters butt heads about what is and isn’t socially acceptable.

Unfortunately this makes up very little of Trainwreck as Schumer’s character (conveniently also named Amy) lets most everyone force their morality upon her. It’s not about what Amy will do with her life; it’s about when she’ll fall in line with everyone else’s.

Yes, I did laugh a few times, because, well – have you seen the cast? – but I grimaced a hell of a lot more.

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Letterboxing: Nights And Weekends

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of an ongoing effort to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

How much you enjoy Nights and Weekends will largely depend on your tolerance for quirky facial tics, soul patches and clumsy nudity.

The more Joe Swanberg films I see, the harder it is to categorise exactly what it is he’s doing in each one. This time he shares directing and starring duties with sometime co-writer Greta Gerwig, who brings a languorous approach to the teasing out of insecurities and cracks in the lead couple’s long-distance relationship.

It’s very much a film of two halves, which is to say that I enjoyed the latter half much more the latter. Exploring the Not Long Before and Quite Long After of a break-up, Nights and Weekends rarely shows Swanberg and Gerwig apart, despite the fact that they live in different cities, and it’s a good choice; the forced intimacy of such an arrangement results in sometimes stilted conversation, petty fights and occasional shafts of brutal honesty breaking out of the relaxed facades of the leads.

There’s plenty of emotional wretchedness to be found here – especially in the excruciating pauses where both leads are clearly silently deciding whether or not to keep fighting for the doomed relationship – but there’s also a fair amount of tedium. I’ve recently been on a voyage of mumblecore discovery so I’m no stranger to the appearance of dullness in a film like this, but I usually have more patience for it. This may be due to the fact that there are almost no secondary characters so I couldn’t wonder about what they might be doing while Gerwig and Swanberg talk about whether or not they’re going to shower together, and the film becomes a chamber piece that just doesn’t have enough narrative momentum to carry you all the way through readily.

I found the second half of the film, in which the former couple reunite, first as friends and then almost as lovers, much more engaging, though more perhaps due to my own personal identification with that situation than anything else. That still counts, mind, and it was impressive to see Swanberg and Gerwig’s willingness to display the absurd dance former romantic partners do for all its naked (both figuratively and very literally) self-deceit, discomfort and ultimately sadness.

…Shit. I’ve just turned over those two scenes of Gerwig and Swanberg crying on their own in my head. (In the latter Gerwig’s present, but she was done mourning this relationship a while before he will be.) There’s a lot of truth in those moments – when a relationship ends, you don’t get that shoulder to cry on any more. You’re alone, even when the person you used to care for is right there. Greta Gerwig can run the full emotional spectrum in a single take without ever seeming insincere or contrived (or, rather, her myriad contrivances make her that much more real), and as a result I identified far more with her than Swanberg’s character. She wants to believe things can go back to the way they used to be, but she’s nowhere near optimistic or dumb enough to think that things could ever last.

A sympathetic anti-romance and an interesting curiosity for both directors’ careers (especially Gerwig, considering I just saw the luminous Mistress America which she co-wrote with current beau Noah Baumbach), Nights and Weekends nevertheless fails to hit hard where it wants to and by the end can’t muster a thematic statement stronger than Sometimes Love Doesn’t Work.

Which is true, but that doesn’t make it poignant.

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Letterboxing: How I Live Now

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of my ongoing efforts to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

I was very much on board with this semi-apocalyptic YA fable in the beginning. The story follows an isolated American teen moving in with her English cousins for the summer and gradually coming out of her hardened shell while the world starts falling down around their ears. There’s some romance too (of the is-it-incest-oh-well-it’s-the-end-of-the-world-so-never-mind variety), but that’s not the focus for the first 40 minutes or so, and that’s the chunk of movie I was most interested in.

Firstly, Saorsie Ronan is in the lead and I could watch her in anything. She has a real gift for burrowing into a character’s vulnerabilities and displaying them without making a show of it; she doesn’t want you to know she’s hurting, and is there a more endearing trait for a hero to have? She’s also perpetually tenacious, and it’s hard not to root for characters who never give up, even when they’re abrasive and unfriendly.

Unfortunately we don’t get to explore Ronan’s character as much as I’d like, as the story takes us on a whistlestop tour of fascist procedures and the horrors of war while our heroine looks for the family she was separated from. As a coming-of-age story it’s surprisingly bold and brutal at times, and doesn’t shy away from the grim realities and bloodshed that other YA properties might. (I like The Hunger Games as much as anyone, but there’s something that rings so false – and frankly disturbing – about a 12-rated war movie with no blood.)

How I Live Now is a potent metaphor for female puberty, rather smartly using the trauma, confusion and violence of war as the melting pot in which Ronan’s character will forge her true identity and emerge as a stronger, more assured person. Also she has sex in the movie which is probably where I got the puberty thing from.

Alas, the final stretch of the film goes in a happier, slightly less believable direction than I’d hoped for and, while the story remains thematically true to itself, the happy ending it delivers ends up being somewhat underwhelming. This disappointment is lessened by the gorgeous cinematography and stellar Jon Hopkins soundtrack. Ultimately I guess I wasn’t the intended audience for this movie so it’s unsurprising that I was looking for something other than what it gave me. What is surprising, however, is that more young adult-oriented movies aren’t brave enough to show what pain, struggle and fear – all unfortunate but very real aspects of adult life, especially for women – really look like. For that alone, How I Live Now deserves teenagers’ attention far more than Hollywood’s bleached-clean teen dreams.

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Letterboxing: 22 Jump Street

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of my ongoing efforts to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

As a dramatic device, The Bromance is fairly limited. There’ isn’t a whole lot you can do with a platonic relationship between two heterosexual men once you’ve established them as BFFs.

Unless, of course, your name is Phil Lord (or, um, Christopher Miller. Or both? Wow, this went sideways real fast). In which case you can have Cate Blanchett to do whatever comes to your hyperactive, joyfully imaginative mind(s) and push the concept of the bromance to – and beyond – its logical limits. The relationship between Shcmidt and Jenko is pitch perfect, not least because of the a-game performances from Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. This is a big-budget, balls-out and downright hilarious Hollywood romance between two guys that cherishes the value of characters you understand and care about. And for a movie about undercover cops at college who shoot people and blow things up for a living, I’m as surprised as anyone that it works as well as it does.

But that’s the magic of Lord & Miller: they can take the goofiest, most soulless concepts and fill them with heart and humour because they so clearly love telling entertaining stories. Shout-outs are clearly due to the 5+ screenwriters who worked on the script, but you can bet your sweet ass that the directors were all up in that thing too.

What about specifics? Well, for a a sequel that spends so much of its first act thinly veiling jibes about how rubbish and full of unnecessary spectacle most sequels are, 22 Jump Street pulls off both making things bigger for the sake of an inflated budget and telling a story with the same characters that isn’t just a greatest hits of the first movie. That’s a tough job, but they pull it off with aplomb.

But the real question you, unknown but probably attractive reader, really want answered: is it better than the first movie? Well…no. 22 couldn’t beat 21 largely because it didn’t have the surprise factor a Jump Street reboot actually working the original had. That said? In my book, 22 Jump Street is exactly as good as the first movie. My life won’t ever be changed by either of them and I’ll never experience any profound revelations regarding friendship (or, for that matter, police work) from watching these movies, but they’re such good company that I love them all the same.

[Actually, I might have regained some respect for Ice Cube as an artist purely because of that facial expression he delivers to Jonah Hill’s character in one delicious scene.]

Oh, and it should go without saying that this film contains about 18 of the best credits gags in movie history. (But I said it anyway.)

Can’t wait for 2121 Jump Street.

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Whitewashed Films & White Guilt

(via)

I’ve been terrible at blogging lately. I aim to rectify this, starting now. A good number of people have followed this blog after viewing the [THOUGHT BUBBLES] site, and I feel a mounting sense of guilt with each new cheery notification.

So as both catch-up and potted introduction to how things work around here, I present you with some reviews I’ve written for Nerdly in July:

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

If there’s anything that connects the Mission: Impossible films in my head, it’s that I consistently come out of each new installment wondering what the hell happened.

The Gallows

Despite his main function being to pretend to carry a camera around, Ryan voices his unwanted and abrasive opinions at every possible opportunity, from telling the lead actress Pfeifer that his best bud Reese (her opposite number and, incidentally, terrible) has the hots for her to talking to himself about how much he hates acting. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to want Ryan to eat it immediately, but a scene in which he prangs a stereotypical drama nerd with a football cemented my desire to see him strung up IF ONLY JUST TO MAKE HIM STOP TALKING PLEASE JUST STOP

Ant-Man

Another Marvel movie, another bad – and bald – industrialist trying to weaponize something cool. They have their formula and they’re sticking with it, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play with their  own tropes. After the first forty-five minutes of exposition Lang is finally given the Ant-Man suit and discovers (along with the film) a whole new world of possibilities. Instead of being seen as an unreliable crook with a lot of potential but no options, Scott chooses to disappear altogether, becoming a catalyst for Hank and Hope’s damaged relationship to repair itself and learning how to be a hero – through a series of training montages, natch. Rudd’s character arc is nicely underplayed if somewhat baffling; he goes from being unable to make a fellow prisoner flinch to taking down an Avenger in a scant hour, but the lead is so much damn fun to be with it’s easy to forgive most of the film’s minor flaws.

There are a couple of other reviews in the pipeline – I saw Pixels the other day and British council-flat horror Containment last night – and I’m literally just now seeing that the summer of 2015 promises to be the blandest yet in terms of blockbuster fare. Though if those are the only kinds of movie you’re seeing I don’t have a whole load of sympathy. That’s like having McDonald’s three meals a day.

Ah well. At least Dear White People finally got released in the UK:

If you’re in London or near a Picturehouse that’s showing DWP, I would urge you to see it. The film’s not as incisive as I would have hoped, and there’s a real lack of punch to its ending, but it’s a gorgeous, mostly-honest piece of entertainment that’s actually about something. And, if you’re white, makes you realise just how racist you might be.

And you know how much I like punishing myself, right?

More soon. You’re the best.

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