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.

May 5, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXX

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirtieth portmanteau post on television of course!

The night is always darkest just before it’s totally black

Game of Thrones‘ latest episode has garnered much criticism for being less an adaptation of the work of George RR Martin and more that of Matthew Arnold:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

But it made me think about Robert Elswit’s work on Velvet Buzzsaw, not least because of its cinematographer’s curious defence. Fabian Wagner, as reported by Variety, blamed the poor saps who shelled out a cable premium to watch this underlit farrago. It’s all down to “viewers’ home devices, which he says aren’t fit for the show’s cinematic filming. ‘A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly, ‘ he said … ‘Personally I don’t have to always see what’s going on because it’s more about the emotional impact. Game of Thrones is a cinematic show and therefore you have to watch it like you’re at a cinema: in a darkened room. If you watch a night scene in a brightly-lit room then that won’t help you see the image properly.'” But but but Fabian, this is a TV show, you’re not meant to light it as if it was a movie, because people can’t watch it as if it was a movie. I loved Bradford Young’s work on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but I completely understood the objections of some critics about its sepulchral lighting.  I have never seen it on television, and I can imagine it would lose much impact and become quite frustrating on the small screen because, and pay attention here Fabian, it was lit for cinema viewing – which doesn’t just mean that you watch it in the dark, but that you watch it on a big screen in the dark. A BIG screen, hence Roger Moore’s disquisition on the value of a raised eyebrow because it shoots up about 12 feet on a proper cinema screen. [As for the idea that you don’t need to see what’s going on because it’s about the emotional impact of what’s going on that you can’t see – arrant nonsense.] I had the very odd sensation watching Velvet Buzzsaw that something was off about Robert Elswit’s normally glorious cinematography; and I felt he’d got caught in an existential crisis. Here he was working on something that Netflix wants everyone (especially the Oscars and film critics) to accept is a proper movie damn it, and yet aware that this might be shown at a single film festival and then watched by nearly all of its (usually undisclosed number of) viewers on a small screen. If a movie is made to be watched on the small screen, and not to be watched in a cinema on a big screen, then what makes it different from a Hallmark TV movie other than its star power, budget, and attendant style?

Yes, Renault, I smoke, there’s no need to be so shocked about it.

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there

The BBC has got my goat in the past few days with their irritating nonsense. Multiple times on Friday night’s tribute to Jazz 625 we were treated like small impressionable children with no more free will than a Pavlovian dog by being warned that footage of the original 1960s show would contain people – gasp – smoking – clasp your pearls in horror, there’s worse to come – indoors -gasp for breath as if your lungs were being filled with secondhand smoke from a 1960s image and fall to the floor writhing in agony! Thank you Auntie, but I am capable of realising that the 1960s is not the 2010s.  But there was worse on Thursday night when Janina Ramirez warned us that footage of Alan Yentob talking about Leonardo Da Vinci in 2003 would contain Yentob – gasp – smoking – clasp your pearls in horror, there’s worse to come – indoors – gasp for breath as if your lungs were being filled with secondhand smoke from a 2000s image and fall to the floor writhing in agony! Oh for Christ’s sake…. The repetition of the phrase ‘it was a different time’ clearly means this is some sort of policy at the BBC to lecture the audience at every opportunity, but as so often with this kind of approach it was counterproductive because Yentob simply had a half-smoked cigarette in one hand while he spread out notebooks by Da Vinci on a bar counter. I would not have noticed the cigarette if my attention had not been drawn to it, if I had seen it at all I might have mistaken it for a short pencil. Well done, BBC, well done. This is the kind of policing impulse that shares a mindset with the fools who want all old movies rated 18s because they feature smoking, and it both cases it betrays a mind that wishes to excoriate when it doesn’t forget the past in order to smugly bask in the wonderful nature of the present. Oblivious to the fact that the present will no doubt be excoriated in similar manner in the future, most likely for what it is most smug about right now.

November 5, 2018

From the Archives: Quantum of Solace

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up from the depths Daniel Craig’s pointlessly reviled outing; whose problems derive from the strike everybody knew about but affected not to.

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in Quantum of Solace, which features a lot more action than Casino Royale. It doesn’t quite measure up to its mighty predecessor, but it does offer an intriguing re-invention of Bond’s 1960s foes.

The opening establishes that this is less the talk-talk-bang-bang formula of Casino Royale and more bang-bang-bang-BANG! The opening sequence is an incredibly frantic car-chase, after which we have to put up with the godawful Jack White song and sleazy silhouettes of naked ladies, but then it’s straight into the interrogation of Mr White, the villain Bond caught in the final scene of the last film. This scene features a shock so good it took me 20 minutes to get over it. 20 minutes of action as Bond travels to the Caribbean for a vicious Bourne style fist fight in a bathroom and a boat-chase. It really is surprising just how much action Marc Forster, the director best known for Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland, has crammed in here. He only comes unstuck with an aerial dogfight which comes perilously close to returning the franchise to Roger Moore style campiness but just avoids doing so, and only displays art-house leanings with a silent shootout in Vienna wonderfully sound-tracked only by the opera the characters have been attending.

The sheer preponderance of action over meaty drama though makes this film feel like a victim of the writers’ strike. Paul Haggis’ rewrite of the script was infamously delivered mere minutes before the strike began last year and it could have used more character beats, even though there are great unexpected moments throughout. There is an absolutely priceless gag involving Bond’s distaste for cheap accommodation amid many other quotable lines. The CIA is depicted as morally bankrupt, willing to turn a blind eye to any right-wing dictatorship’s human rights abuses if there’s a plentiful supply of cheap oil to be had, while a high-ranking member of the British Government is revealed as a member of Quantum, Haggis’ reinvention of super-villain organisation Spectre. The rights to Spectre are owned by Irish writer/producer Kevin McClory so Haggis has re-imagined Bond’s 1960s foe as a network of ex-spooks and shady businessmen and politicians. This film pays further homage to the 1960s with the death of a major character, a score which evokes the softer, and more sinister, moments of John Barry’s scores, and a desert lair in Bolivia which is pure Ken Adam in its set design.

Mathieu Amalric, a god of French cinema, is slightly underwritten as Quantum villain Dominic Greene but makes his ‘environmental philanthropist’, who’s secretly plotting to seize control of the natural resources of Bolivia, a worthy foe for Bond. Olga Kurylenko, who graduated from taking her top off in French films (Le Serpent) to taking her top off in Hollywood films (Hitman), miserably fails to escape the shadow of Eva Green’s Vesper. Her character has an intriguing back-story but the parallels between her search for vengeance and Bond’s search for closure evaporate due to her inert screen presence.  The best relationship is between M and Bond who develop almost a fraught mother/son bond by the end. Craig is once again magnificent as Bond; physical, but also offering glimpses of the inconsolable grief behind his driven pursuit of Mr Greene. This is a good film and well worth seeing, and the consistently brutal action combined with some clever conceits left unresolved suggest that Craig’s next Bond film may surpass Casino Royale.

3/5

January 31, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part VII

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.

Dead Sparrow

When a movie has its release date shifted repeatedly, when its trailers shout about how many Oscar nominations and actual Oscars its cast and crew have, and when its studio eventually abandons it in the betwixt Oscars and between blockbusters wastelands of March you can draw your own conclusions. Jennifer Lawrence could really use a hit about now, after Passengers and mother!, to prove she can top the box office when not Katniss, and it looks like this creepily hyper-sexualised retread of Nikita is not going to be it. So, far from her deigning to return for another X-Men movie in November, as it initially appeared, it now looks a lot more like the X-Men are doing her a solid by putting her in a big movie guaranteed to achieve a review-proof basic level of box office gold.

 

“You should pick a name that is not my company”

It’s hard to get very excited about the commercials for summer blockbusters that used to be such an attraction of the Superbowl. Too much CGI, too many comic-book movies, too many remakes, reboots, and spin-offs. But if like us you are less interested in the football than in seeing if Justin Timberlake does or does not do a Prince tribute in the Mini Apple, there is one bizarre series of ads this year that will be right up your alley. Check out Keanu Reeves advertising website builder Squarespace via the emotional rollercoaster of creating the website for his own motorcycle company, Arch Motorcycle. Click through for the longer version: https://www.maxim.com/entertainment/keanue-reeves-super-bowl-commercial-2018-1

 

“It’s meant to be ironic” “Excuse me, you need to go back to grad school”

Just over a month after a lengthy piece hereabouts on the Roger Moore Bond movies, occasioned by ITV 4’s absurdist week of nightly 007 outings, comes depressing news. Netflix has put up the Bond back catalogue and the snowflakes, or Generation Wuss as Bret Easton Ellis dubbed them, are not impressed. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5315501/Millennials-watching-old-James-Bond-not-impressed.html) So of course they are performing their displeasure in public, online, as always. I’m not tackling those comments here, but the flap instantly made me think of this scene in Donnie Darko, and how those of us who grew up watching Bond and didn’t turn out moral monsters are now in the role of Drew Barrymore; being hectored not by an uncomprehending older generation, but by youngsters. The ‘you need to go back to grad school’ jibe is also strangely relevant, as these hurlers on the ditch utilise a Newspeak of academic jargon to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with them. Poor old 007…

December 22, 2017

More Moore, Roger Moore!

ITV 4’s recent decision to screen all 7 of Roger Moore’s Bond movies in prime time from Monday to Sunday as a dementedly late in the year tribute has been a fascinating exercise in nostalgia and re-evaluation.

The great paradox is that while Moore is remembered as the supremely nonchalant Bond, the films in which he appeared were themselves supremely lacking in confidence. Live and Let Die tries to cash in on blaxploitation, The Man with the Golden Gun tries to cash in on kung fu, The Spy Who Loved Me desperately tries to remake You Only Live Twice with added megalomania, Moonraker tries to cash in on Star Wars, and A View to a Kill shamelessly recycles the ‘criminal mastermind uses explosion in San Andreas fault line to contrive earthquake’ plot of Superman. And then there’s the music. Coming across Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me on the same Sunday that A View to a Kill aired it was very noticeable that Jay Roach and Mike Myers were plundering John Barry’s 1960s Bond scores for their parodic purposes. Barry sat out a number of Moore’s films, and even when he was there he seems to have been on autopilot.

Watching The Avengers on ITV 4 recently it was hard to miss their plundering of Barry’s 1960s Bond sound to a point where you expected Steed and Mrs Peel to have start fending off Eon process servers. Yet the Moore era witness a weird degeneration from being so confident that other peopled copied you to being so insecure all you do is copy instead. Marvin Hamlisch quoted Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme in The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker sees John Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind five tone melody appropriated, and ‘California Girls’ takes over the soundtrack for comedic purposes in A View to a Kill, while the 1970s scores are awash with funky wah-wah music and then disco beats in a desperate attempt to sound like the hit parade. The SPECTRE themes of the 1960s are entirely absent, Barry’s dashing secondary Bond theme only appears in Moonraker, and there is no readily identifiable Moore signature music whereas Connery’s body of work has at least five recognisable suites of music. Indeed when the music improves in Moore’s final outing, it is because Barry has wheeled out a reworking of a 1960s idea with brassier instrumentation than his string-drenched Octopussy compositions.

My mother’s contention that action sequences could be transposed from Moore movie to Moore movie without affecting coherence overly is strengthened when you realise that not only do Moore’s film bring back characters between films simply to observe mayhem and be gobsmacked by it, and begin a tradition of random hopping about the globe compared to the more located Connery films, but also Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me; simply switching out start a nuclear war, kill everyone, and live underwater for bomb the earth from space, kill everyone, and live in space. This becomes funnier and ever more meta when you consider that their shared ur-text You Only Live Twice was itself a self-confessed rehash of Dr No by a desperate Roald Dahl who had little to fill his blank screenplay pages other than the setting of Japan and an instruction to have three Bond girls: a bad one who dies, a good one who dies, and a good one who lives.

 

October 22, 2015

Getting Back to Back to the Future

Watching the Back to the Future trilogy yesterday for ‘Back to the Future Day’ made me think again about the Films You’d Love Your Kids To See season in the Lighthouse cinema this past summer.

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Back to the Future of course featured in that season. Time travel has never, ever been as much fun as 1980s teenager Marty McFly’s jaunt back to 1950s Hill Valley where he must ensure his teenage parents meet and fall in love to ensure his own future existence. Watching all three films you realised anew what a great double-act Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd were as Marty and Doc Brown, how stirring Alan Silvestri’s score was, the incredible 1980s-ness of everything, and just how sharp a script Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote. Watching the waves of nostalgia washing over ITV 2 yesterday you also wondered if the 1980s really was a golden age for kid’s films or if it’s just the generation that grew up with them wallowing in nostalgia for their own childhood rather than the films.

Back in the summer I wrote about the paradox of the Lighthouse encouraging adults to take their children to see films they had enjoyed as children. Your children cannot have the same childhood you had because films are part of a cultural matrix. You can’t separate them from the culture surrounding them. Observe Huey Lewis, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Star Wars, Star Trek and Japanese corporations in the Back to the Future trilogy. These are films of the 1980s, with all that means for politics, music, fashion, television, and on and on and on… To remember originally experiencing Back to the Future involves comics and annuals that accompanied it, which tied it together with a whole complex of movies; Ghostbusters, Short Circuit, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Goonies, E.T., The Karate Kid, Roger Moore’s Bonds; and television; Doctor Who, The Real Ghostbusters, Thundercats, Transformers, Mask, ALF, Family Ties, MacGyver, The A-Team, Knightrider. That’s some fearsome nostalgia.

But in a smartphone age there is something retro not just about making children experience movies with hundreds of people who have all ditched their phones to unite as an audience and groan as one at Indy being served monkey brains but also in showing them movies shot in such an old-fashioned way as Back to the Future. Robert Zemeckis recently said vis a vis The Walk that spectacle doesn’t just mean CGI. A close-up is cinematic spectacle, because close-ups don’t happen in reality. Look at all the moments in Back to the Future when Silvestri’s score tells you how to read a scene while Zemeckis moves the camera as outrageously as Hitchcock to draw your attention to something, convey importance, or just dazzle you. When Zemeckis unleashes the train pushing a DeLorean finale of Back to the Future: Part III it shames today’s blockbusters. This summer saw many action sequences that were neither choreographed nor legible, but simply CGI edited in a frenzy to create an impression of thrilling action. Zemeckis’ train finale by contrast, is so perfectly constructed, shot by shot, that a 1910s audience would comprehend it and thrill to it as Guido Silvestri hammered his piano.

Twitter went crazy because Back to the Future: Part II’s future day had arrived, but watching that 2015 sequence yesterday it was striking just how much of its vista of hoverboards and flying cars was realised practically. To say nothing of how the earliest cinema pioneers would have smiled approvingly at the lo-fi trick Zemeckis employed in the sequels to have multiple versions of Fox and Lloyd interacting with each other onscreen. And watching Zemeckis’ inspired writing partner Bob Gale effortlessly handle the parallel timelines chaos of Back to the Future: Part II’s time-travel antics you couldn’t help but sigh, remembering just how insultingly nonsensical Terminator: Genisys was. Zemeckis and Gale are no doubt appreciative of how beloved their work is, but Zemeckis probably wishes people would go see the movie he released last month instead of hyping one he made thirty years ago. Perhaps the takeaway from ‘Back to the Future Day’ is we get the movies we deserve.

Zemeckis & Gale had a horrible time getting their script greenlighted in the 1980s. But the idea that anybody would touch it with a bargepole now is fantasy. It’s not a sequel, it’s not based on a comic book, or a toy, or a TV show, or a YA novel, it is simply an original idea that happens to be cinematic lightning in a bottle. If we want films now that will be as beloved in 2045 as Back to the Future is now then we need to put our foot down: we want sharp scripts and properly choreographed action.

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