Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

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Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XV

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

There’s, uh, just not enough Goldblum available to meet the existing demand

That at least is what I’ve taken from the Lighthouse’s third Jeff GoldBLUMSDAY two weeks ago. The internet of the 2010s really has made Goldblum latterly a much bigger deal than he actually was in his pomp. This year the Lighthouse’s three films were Thor: Ragnarok, Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park: The Lost World; that is to say one leading role, one major supporting role, and one highly amusing but basically glorified cameo – as a spin on his own web-enhanced persona. Last year was The Big Chill, Independence Day, Thor: Ragnarok (again), The Fly, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension; that is to say (arguably) two lead roles, two major supporting roles, and the same glorified cameo. But what else can you screen? You have to commit to showing the likes of The Tall Guy, Deep Cover, and Into the Night if you want more lead roles, or for major support Silverado, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Nine Months, or for memorable small turns The Right Stuff, Igby Goes Down, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Otherwise you will find yourself recycling the same handful of 1980s cult films, 1990s blockbusters, and 2010s ironic nods every year.

Alas, poor Robert Downey Jr, a man of infinite jest

Writing an Icon piece for the University Observer about Keanu Reeves 15 years ago I noted that their 40s was the decade when a star had both the clout and the maturity to make the films they would be remembered for. Robert Downey Jr had an infinitely more financially successful 40s than Keanu Reeves; just compare Iron Man 1-3, The Avengers, Sherlock Holmes 1&2, Due Date, and Tropic Thunder, to The Day The Earth Stood Still, Constantine, The Lake House, 47 Ronin, and John Wick; but artistically speaking I fear he has wasted his peak years. Whereas Keanu was clearly on a downward slope at the box office after The Matrix Reloaded, which compromised his ability to make big projects, RDJ hit the big time with Iron Man, giving him clout when he was at the peak of his powers.  Having got clean and sober RDJ was making really interesting stuff: Good Night, and Good Luck, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, Charlie Bartlett, and Tropic Thunder. And then after the success of Iron Man he used his muscle to make … Sherlock Holmes and The Soloist. Then there was Due Date, Sherlock Holmes 2, and, following in the footsteps of The Soloist, another painfully belaboured and failed attempt to win an Oscar with The Judge. He remembered who he used to be for Chef, but 2014 was the last time he played any part but Tony Stark. What really galls is that Downey Jr was not allowed any more Iron Man movies because it would have been too lucrative for him rather than Disney, so instead he was inserted into Spider-Man and Captain America movies, and more Avengers sequels. There is only so many times any actor can go to the well before they (a) find nothing there (b) discover that like Eugene O’Neill Senior they have ruined their range and can now only play one part. Robert Downey Jr is now 54 years old, and, finally free of Marvel, he’s, unbelievably, making Sherlock Holmes 3, but first another remake of Doctor Dolittle. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard: What happened to you, man? You used to be beautiful…

Mean Girls – 22nd August Lighthouse cinema

The Lighthouse remembers the Wonder Years

The Lighthouse is following up Keanurama with a rambling two month season entitled Wonder Years – Films to grow up with. The entire 8 movie Harry Potter series is the cornerstone of the films screening from 6th July to 13th September.  I’ve never really understood the critical love affair with coming-of-age narratives. It was entirely predictable that Mark Kermode in his semi-disastrous Secrets of Cinema series chose coming-of-age as one of the four cardinal genres. If you would ask me what Almost Famous is about I’d say music, journalism, first love, family, and disillusionment, but I’d never say ‘coming of age’. Wordsworth declared that poetry took its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. One might say that coming of age films are the nostalgic or acerbic recollections of thirtysomethings about their early teenage years. An even greater distancing than that between twentysomething musicians making music for fans a decade younger. The great paradox of coming of age films is that they cannot be watched by the people they are about. Even when they could, half the time they wouldn’t; my class at national school would have committed hara-kiri rather than watch My Girl. The audience is adults, and immediately there is a sort of instant nostalgia, even if none is intended, simply by locating the story in a past recognisable by cultural totems. Christopher Nolan rightly said people discover films thru Spielberg not Godard. I think lived reality is the putting away of childish things and the struggle to embrace adult things that are beyond you; moving straight from comic-books to PG Wodehouse; not wallowing for seven years in a cocoon of teenage material produced for teenagers by thirtysomethings – that which in secondary school my class rebelled against reading because we didn’t want to be patronised, we chose Nineteen Eighty-Four and rejected Buddy. And none of us grew up watching supernatural Japanese anime, just as outside the bubble of film criticism/film studies/film-making I have never heard anyone even mention the endlessly valorised Cinema Paradiso. But then as Charles noted in Brideshead Revisited everyone tinkers with the markers on their youth to give them the sophistication they wished they’d had.

MY GIRL

(From 6th July 2019)

HARRY POTTER 1

(From 7th July 2019)

CINEMA PARADISO

(From 10th July 2019)

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO [DUBBED]

(From 13th July 2019)

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (SUBTITLED)

(From 13th July 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 2

(From 14th July 2019)

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

(From 17th July 2019)

SPIRITED AWAY (DUBBED)

(From 20th July 2019)

SPIRITED AWAY (SUBTITLED)

(From 20th July 2019)

BOYZ N THE HOOD

(From 20th July 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 3

(From 21st July 2019)

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

(From 24th July 2019)

HARRY POTTER 4

(From 28th July 2019)

STAND BY ME

(From 1st August 2019)

KES

(From 8th August 2019)

 

MOONLIGHT

(From 10th August 2019)

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN

(From 10th August 2019)

DEAD POETS SOCIETY

(From 11th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 5

(From 11th August 2019)

MARIE ANTOINETTE

(From 14th August 2019)

 

RAW

(From 17th August 2019)

MOONRISE KINGDOM

(From 17th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 6

(From 18th August 2019)

MEAN GIRLS

(From 22nd August 2019)

INSIDE OUT

(From 24th August 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 7

(From 25th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 8

(From 27th August 2019)

SING STREET

(From 28th August 2019)

LADY BIRD

(From 29th August 2019)

BOYHOOD

(From 31st August 2019)

 

IT

(From 5th September 2019)

It: Chapter Two arrives in cinemas on September 6th.

November 20, 2014

Carte Noire IFI French Film Festival: 10 Films

blueroom1_2914190b

Les Combattants

Thursday 20th 18.30

Teenager Arnaud (Kevin Azais) meets surly Madeleine (Adele Haenel) during his summer holidays. His summer job of building garden sheds soon takes a back seat to falling in with her strange ambition to join a elite commando unit, as director Thomas Cailley mashes up the unlikely genre combination of rom-com, teen movie, and survivalist thriller.

The Blue Room

Friday 21st 19.15

Monday 24th 18.30

Mathieu Amalric directs himself as Julien in an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel co-written with his co-star Stephanie Cleau. A taut 76 minutes sees Julien’s affair with Esther (Cleau) lead to his arrest, and Amalric will do a Q&A after the Friday screening of his spare, stylish and mysterious noir.

Two in the Wave

Friday 21st 20.30

Emmanuel Laurent and Antoine de Baecque direct this feature documentary exploring the fractured friendship of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. They meet in 1950, work together in Cahiers du Cinema, collaborate on A Bout de Souffle, and part in 1968 over the necessity of engage: almost a politico-cultural history of the 5th Republic?

Mississippi Mermaid

Saturday 22nd 13.30

Francois Truffaut directs Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Denueve in a 1969 film that met a hostile reaction. Set on Reunion Island, the romantic thriller of the plot begins to take a back seat to Truffaut’s fascination with shooting Belmondo with the male gaze usually reserved for women, before latterly haring off in even stranger directions…

LoveIsThePerfectCrime

Bird People

Saturday 22nd 18.15

Director Pascale Ferran will do a Q&A after the screening of a film that mixes the highly unusual influences of Peter Pan and The Host. Josh Charles stars as an American businessman who encounters chambermaid Anais Demoustier at Roissy Airport’s Hilton. Their unexpected connection inspires two chapters: one avowedly socially realistic, the other gleefully fantastical.

Love is the Perfect Crime

Saturday 22nd 21.00

College professor and renowned lecher Marc (Mathieu Amalric) lives with his sister Marianne (Karin Viard) next to his striking university in Lausanne. When his most recent student conquest disappears her mother Anna (Maiwenn) arrives to find her. Amalric will do a Q&A about the Brothers Larrieu unsettling comedy-thriller of amnesia and romance.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her

Sunday 23rd 16.30

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 spectacle sees actors and actresses, including Marina Vlady, act with his direction echoing in their earpieces while he comments in voiceover on the scenes he’s shooting, and also on what he’s been reading, thinking, and feeling generally… So, a barmier(!) companion piece to Belle de Jour.

hiroshima-mon-amour-1

Diplomacy

Sunday 23rd 20.15

Director Volker Schlondorff oversees a veritable acting duel between A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in this adaptation of Cyril Gely’s play. General von Choltitz (Arestrup) has mined Paris at Hitler’s orders, and Swedish Consul General Nordling (Dussollier) secretly tries to dissuade him from carrying out his diabolical orders to wantonly destroy France’s cultural heritage.

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles

Saturday 29th 18.00

Director Cecile Telerman will do a Q&A about her serious comedy starring Emanuelle Beart as a spoilt Parisian, Iris. Iris lives on her husband’s fortune, but her penurious sister Josephine (Un Secret’s Julie Depardieu) has been abandoned for crocodiles by her husband; to her woes are added writing Iris’ touted novel.

Hiroshima mon amour

Sunday 30th 16.00

Before Marienbad there was Hiroshima mon amour, in which Alain Resnais left documentaries behind for this 1959 attempt to speculate on the fate of Hiroshima. Following after Night and Fog he still incorporated documentary footage but asked novelist Marguerite Duras to provide him with a story exploring despair and the impossibility of knowing apocalypse.

February 27, 2014

Mugged by Gravity

I’ve watched with increasing bewilderment and growing horror as Gravity has started to outshine 12 Years a Slave at the endless bacchanalias of awards season.

20131003_gravity_featurettethehumanexperience

I saw Gravity in 3-D, you see, and I didn’t want to see Gravity at all… I regard Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter instalment as the most soulful of the trilogy, but I find it hard to think of Children of Men as anything other than a film concerned with its own shooting style above all else. Gravity, as a ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’, seemed bound to ramp up that element of his work to the obliteration of emotional depth. But I knew that if I skipped Gravity in cinemas, and then said it wasn’t very good, after watching it on a 2-D small screen, I’d be hopped on by a certain type of critic for not having seen it in 3-D, and therefore not being entitled to deliver any valid judgement on it. If you were told there was a great play on in the West End, and you said you’d catch it when it came to the Grand Canal Theatre, only to be told that no, it wouldn’t be great then, you had to see it in the original West End production to get its true greatness – you’d have to reply that it couldn’t be a great play then, merely a great originating cast perhaps, but not something that you should get excited about as a play on a historical level of epic greatness. And yet, isn’t that exactly what the reception of Gravity is all about? If you don’t see it in cinemas, you miss the ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’. But realistically most people, over the course of Gravity’s lifetime of being seen, will not see it as it was intended to be seen – for an exorbitant ticket price in a cinema. And if it doesn’t stand up outside of that original format, then it doesn’t stand up at all.

And it doesn’t stand up… I am mystified by the critical valorisation of what is a profoundly empty FX film. It’s as if a portion of Sunshine were taken by itself and blown into a full movie, but with poorer actors – Sandra Bullock is not the world’s most expressive actress if you’re casting for a one-woman show. Her presence highlights that Gravity, despite the critical cachet of its director, is really not that far removed from Roland Emmerich’s most cornball moments. Bullock with luck that would break Vegas survives two catastrophic space disasters, self-generates an improbable House epiphany, and manages to cling to a vessel as it begins re-entry, after she, without any ill effects, opened the door to the space station with an explosive rush that should have either catapulted her into space or broken her wrist. And the script is not salvaged by its visualisation: the sequence inside the space station possess a ghastly unreality as everything around Bullock looks CGI, while the 3-D only truly impresses when it cheats – Cuaron throws splintering pieces of space station at the camera and all over the world audiences jump, because those splinters literally appear from nowhere instead of arriving from an observable flight-path. And needless to say Gravity does not, as has been claimed, replicate in its direction a camera free-floating in space. The camera always artfully ends up at just the right place to observe big moments, rather than weightlessly freewheeling through another badly timed glimpse of the cosmos.

Children of Men had a large degree of practical difficulty in its trademark long-takes of action sequences, even with the helpful aid of CGI compositing of separate shots together. But the idea that Gravity deserves laudatory and exceptional praise for its camerawork, and its 13 minute unbroken opening shot in particular, is nothing other than praise for a veritable vestigial limb of critical reactions to film-making. What exactly are we meant to be praising? Long takes were a hallmark of greatness because they were practically difficult to pull off and therefore a sign of audacity, ambition, and tremendous determination by directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Godard who achieved them. Spielberg pulled off a wildly OTT action sequence in Tintin, in one long take, but even as you watched it, nodding your head at its ‘ingenuity’, you realised its meaninglessness – there was no difficulty to be overcome: an animated character was not about to forget his lines, neither was an animated background about to suffer an annoying change of lighting from a passing cloud. Cuaron can spend all day shooting the same long-take green-screen sequence without ever reloading film, why should he be given a medal for doing what’s now easy?

I’m annoyed by Gravity, because I feel I was mugged for my money, purely to have the sort of empty experience I feared it would be – but empty in 3-D.

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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