Tag Archives: cinema

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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The Room/Kissing The Sky

I’m sat in an ostensibly Hendrix-themed bar in Crouch End that is far more about soft candlelight and even softer pop-rock than it is about beads and wicked Napoleonic jackets, but that’s cool because the wi-fi is free and they have wasabi peas. I just picked up a set of fish-eye lens camera prints that I took last September and dropped off in January, so I’m experiencing some weird time-warping right now. Most of the photos I have distinct recollections of, except for one shirtless picture of myself in a bed I don’t know if I ought to recognise or not. Probably best not to worry (or post that picture online), right? Right.

So yeah, this is the kind of thing I do on a Saturday in the big city. I don’t have a routine of sorts and I’m still behind on my daily film viewings so I’ve just been flitting around Soho trying to soak up as much culture as I can while fitting in downloaded movies on the long bus journeys between. (Getting from my place to central London takes about five minutes longer than the train between Scarborough and York, which I find strangely comforting.)

I squeezed in Broken, a BFI-funded kitchen sink drama about modern suburbia and how everyone comes of age in different ways, over two such journeys courtesy of BBC’s iplayer app. Don’t tell me I’m a bad person because I watch movies on my phone, please. I wrote a little bit about it on Letterboxd.

Last Saturday I saw this mythical figure (let’s not lessen his mystique by referring to him as a man) live on stage at the Prince Charles Cinema:

In case you're wondering: yes, he is wearing branded underwear with his name on.

In case you’re wondering: yes, he is wearing branded underwear with his name on.

Tommy Wiseau hosted a midnight screening of his masterwork (and only feature film to date), The Room, and just barely answered some questions the audience had. He claimed to be 200 years old, was proud to announce that he was wearing five belts and if you don’t know anything more about the enigmatic Mr. Wiseau then I suggest you watch The Room immediately. Like right now.

It was a magical experience, but not one I’m entirely certain I have the gumption to sit through ever again. Spoons were thrown, catchphrases were bellowed and brains were accordingly fried.

I should have comic news but I don’t; maybe next time. Thanks for reading.

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Trailer Porn

I wrote some more things about Stoker for Blogomatic 3000. They might be interesting to you, if you’re interested in interesting things. Don’t know what I’m talking about? This movie, that’s what:

For contrast’s sake, here’s a trailer for the director’s last movie:

Thirst is quite, quite brilliant, and I’m interested to see how much overlap there is between the two movies when I rewatch it tonight. Really smart, inventive vampire movies are few and far between these days, alas.

Dumb realisation that just hit me: Park Chan-Wook made a vampire movie and followed it with one called Stoker. I’m sure it’s coincidence, but that might just make it more interesting. Psychic connections and all that.

Oh, and one thing I left out of my Stoker review: Nicole Kidman was great playing an uptight high society wife simmering with repressed sexuality, but through conversations with Tariq we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s largely due to the fact that she’s been playing that character for a while now (see: Eyes Wide Shut, The Others, etc.).

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The D Is Violent

Quentin, you infuriating cur. You’ve only gone and started making good movies again, haven’t you?

Yes, that means I’ve seen Django Unchained, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but of course – this is Tarantino we’re talking about here – with exceptions.

I’d previously fallen out of love with QT after tiring of the exhaustive references of Kill Bill and Death Proof and positively loathing not only the “fuck history” approach to Inglourious Basterds but also its lazy effort to garner sympathy for our heroes by simply stating their race rather than actually making them fully rounded, interesting characters. I’m of the Kermodian school of thought that Tarantino’s career peaked at Jackie Brown and he’s never reached similar heights in crafting three dimensional characters, a compelling narrative and a certain maturity.

And, well…I guess you could hardly call Django Unchained mature, despite its heavy themes of American slavery and revenge. But for 160+ minutes, boy is it compelling.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the whole story, so here are the cliff notes: dentist-bounty hunter King Schultz (the ever-eloquent Christoph Waltz, pulling off genial barbs and wordplay with aplomb) frees the eponymous slave (Jamie Foxx, enigmatic and curiously tight-lipped for a QT protagonist) so they can save Django’s bride Broomhilda from moustache-twirling cotton plantation owner Calvin Candie (a spectacularly hammy Leo DiCaprio) and kill some nasty white folks along the way. Oh, and it’s 1858.

I’m not going to write a full essay about the film, but I’ll mention the things that stood out to me. First and foremost is the fact that Tarantino seems to have made a movie that (for the most part) values its characters and story above the director’s love of genre and need to reference EVERY. SINGLE. MOVIE. EVER. The references are there, of course, but you can ignore them if you want. Or rather the reverse: you don’t need to have seen every western made between 1966-1971 in order to get the  joke, whereas in Kill Bill and Death Proof the experience was more akin to standing in front of a door that could only be unlocked with a tsunami of nerdy trivia, all the while hearing childish sniggers from within.

No, Django is less of a cartoon than its predecessors – not in its glorious use of ultraviolence, of course, but if you’re going to make a spaghetti western, you better be prepared to spill some bolognaise – and is all the better for letting us see King and Django’s relationship develop over the course of the movie. Some have said that it’s overlong, and I’m certain I can pinpoint the scene where most start to weary (hint: QT cameo + interminable Aussie accent), but I can honestly say that there was no part of the film where I got itchy feet. Not bad for almost three hours. The fights were raucous, the jokes were funny and the parts meant to make you uncomfortable made me very bloody uncomfortable indeed.

[Speaking of uncomfortable, Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as indoctrinated slave Stephen is one of the most disturbing I’ve seen in some time, and I mean that as the highest compliment.]

One of my favourite things about the film is Dicaprio’s teeth. Discoloured and falling apart, they represent what kind of man he is as clear as day: sugary in name and surface demeanour, but he’s rotten to the core, and if you get too much of him yourself you’ll start to rot too. We start to see this a little with Django himself, who plays a role he abhors a little too well, showing the true grey in his own soul.

It’s not all great, though these are minor quibbles: Kerry Washington’s imprisoned lover Broomhilda is never not helpless, rather disappointing for a movie that’s trying to shake things up, and Calvin’s sister – the only other major female role – seems to exist solely to hint at the villain’s incestuous leanings and, well, get shot. One prejudice at a time, thanks, Quentin. And Tarantino’s cameo may well be awful enough to unseat people from their enjoyment of the flick, but I just found it hilarious, though likely for reasons that’ll make me a hypocrite – I figured QT’s realised he’s no actor and decided to play up his performance as a nod to the frequently dodgy dubbing of Italian and Spanish actors in Sergio Leone movies.

But perhaps I’ve become a little too forgiving in my old age. I don’t think that’s it, because all I’ve ever asked from the cinema is to be entertained – if I’m given more than that, I’ll take that as a gift – but if I walk out smiling, that’s enough. I’m never going to learn any important lessons from Django Unchained (despite Tarantino’s apparent belief that he’s opening people’s eyes to the fact that SLAVERY FUCKING HAPPENED, MAN) but I can certainly say I won’t see anything else like it this year.

…er, unless I watch a bunch of westerns from the 1960s, that is.

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Nashville, North Yorkshire

For some reason, this scene from Robert Altman’s Nashville is really speaking to me at the moment:

It pretty simply summates people’s personal (mis)appropriation of music – and, hell, let’s just say art in general – and makes me think of basically every time I’ve been in a night club for one reason or another. Everybody in the room believing they’re having an experience no-one else is, perhaps.

And, you know, Lily Tomlin is just sublime. I mean, have you seen Short Cuts?

Nashville‘s 160 minutes long and features approximately a metric ton of country music, so I can see why it might be overlooked or seen as bloated and boring by a casual audience. But even when the only thing happening is some old-world hick crooner belting them out for four minutes at a time – it’s Altman. There’s always  about eight or nine other things going on.

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I saw Looper tonight and thought some things

The first 45 minutes are pretty astounding. The rest I have to make my mind up about. Two things are for certain:

1. I was pretty satisfied coming out of the theatre, a sensation which is unfortunately all too rare these days, and

2. It’s most definitely a thinker. ALWAYS a good thing. [Except with most other Bruce Willis movies.]

So yeah, go see it and we’ll talk some.

I’ll be mulling over this one for a good couple of weeks yet, especially if I go to another screening and listen to the in-cinema commentary(!) by writer-director Rian Johnson. I could’ve sworn I was  talking about the possibility of this kind of thing a couple of weeks ago. Looks like Johnson was way ahead of me.

Worth the price of another ticket, though? Guess we’ll find out.

No wonder everyone thinks I never do any work. What hardworking person has time to go see the same movie twice – with the soundtrack drowned out for one – in the same week?

God only knows, but you sure won’t find him here.

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The Bravery Of The Long Take

I find that one sign of bravery in filmmakers is their willingness to hold on shots or scenes – usually towards the end of a film – that, had they not kept the camera rolling, would have resulted in an entirely different meaning.

Usually these result in uncomfortable realisations for the audience…and the studio execs too.

Jonathan Pryce as doomed hero Sam in Brazil.

Just look at Brazil‘s ending-within-an-ending: our hero Sam manages to escape the Orwellian bureaucratic nightmare he’s been trapped in for most of the movie – and with his romantic interest happily by his side to boot – only for us to be pulled out of what’s revealed as a dream and shown that Sam never escaped anything, except perhaps reality.

It’s tough to swallow and very pessimistic, and that’s why the studio wanted to lop off the ‘downer’ ending and just have folks believe that Sam got away and lived happily ever after. Which kinda would have killed the point of it, which is heartbreaking and incredibly poetic. The director Terry Gilliam had to fight to keep his ending in, and rightly so; that kind of last-second curtain pull might seem vaguely cheap, but it can be used as a phenomenally powerful tool to make an audience rethink the last 90 minutes, and often encapsulates a film’s themes within a single image.

I wish people would do it more, but I don’t recall seeing it in any film that’s been released since I’ve been alive.

Jump back 40-odd years and we have the infamous last scene of Carol Reed’s exceptional postwar mystery The Third Man, where Joseph Cotten’s hack writer-cum-detective Holly decides to go out on a limb and see if he’s got a chance with Alida Valli’s emotionally bruised actress Anna.

(It’s worth noting that they’ve just come from Anna’s former lover (Orson Welles)’s second funeral.)

In a gorgeous wide shot, Holly stands off-centre near the foreground as Anna walks from the far distance straight towards the camera. Surely once she reaches him, she’ll stop, maybe take a cigarette and smile as he light it for her? Surely:

The anticipation just kills you, doesn’t it? It’s a wonderful ending that can be looked at in endless ways, but for me it’s the best kind of anti-romance; things don’t wrap up nicely for Holly like in one of his cheap Western novels, no matter how much he thinks himself the hero in this story. To Anna, he ended up being the villain.

By leaving us wondering what will happen for so long – a good minute, which can be an eon in the cinema – we’re afforded the time to really consider what the ending means. Letting the audience figure things out for themselves shouldn’t have to be praised for being brave, but in a time when movie plots are spoon-fed to viewers, they kind of do.

Finally, the last scene of The Graduate, which is often considered as one of the films central to ushering in the New Hollywood era in the late 1960s, is one of my favourite slow-burner shots and packs a hell of an emotional punch.

For those that don’t know, the Holden Caulfield-esque Dustin Hoffman has just saved the supposed love of his life Katharine Ross from her wedding, which most of the congregation aren’t too happy with. They escape the church and board a bus together, happy as clams. And then, well…it’s easier if I just show you:

That’s got to be one of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema. And you can bet there were some nervous execs in 1967 who wanted the movie to end just twenty seconds sooner. Thankfully for us it didn’t.

I suppose some of the power of the lingering finale would be lost were it to become common practice, but I do wish some filmmakers would realise what an opportunity it affords them – to be able to say exactly what you mean, to set aside all the bullshit happy endings and actually tell the truth for one raw moment, to leave the audience actually thinking when the credits roll and they leave their seats.

Of course, some films manage that kind of honesty earlier – sometimes at the very beginning – and a very small few keep it up for most of  the runtime, but the end’s always going to be the most effective place to utilise that opportunity.

It’s just so rarely seen in my experience – that eye-opener you get when ambiguity turns into stomach-churning certainty, or when one moment becomes its antithesis in less than a second.

If I ever create something that replicates that feeling for even one other person, I’ll know I’ve made something worthwhile.

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