Tag Archives: movies

The 10 films that changed my life

21 Apr

the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1975I was asked to do this Facebook thing of “In no particular order, list 10 all time favourite films, which really made an impact on you. Post the poster and nominate a new person each day.” But a) I’ll only forget each day and b) I imagine it all started as a way to harvest data on sharing and friends. So here it is as a blog instead.

NOTE: this about impact, not objective quality. The dates are when I saw these films, not always when they were released. Inevitably, they are concentrated in my formative years. I have seen many brilliant films since, but nothing can rock your world and change your life like films you see in your youth.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). When I won a scholarship to Winchester, my dad said he would take me to London, where I could do or have anything I wanted. I chose to see this. I had never laughed as much. But mostly, it’s here for the father-son bonding thing. And the Black Knight. And the questions three. And the shrubbery. And the farting in your general direction.

Star Wars (1977). Blew my head clean off and made me swear to be involved with film in some way for the rest of my life (leading me to Time Out, and later to write shorts of my own).

Aguirre: Wrath of God (1979). My first art-house film in a rep cinema. Realised belatedly there was a whole world of film out there, which I spent my uni years devouring.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1979). Any film you’ve seen 40+ times has got to be on this list. This was in the early days of call-and-response and dressing up at midnight screenings. I’ve shown it to people since, and they’re like, “Nice songs, quite fun, but what’s the big deal?” People forget, now, how liberating and transgressive and attitude-changing the film was at the time. I’ve since been sung to by both Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn (now Lady Stephens) 😊

Apocalypse now posterApocalypse Now (1980). I saw this loads of times at the Towne Cinema midnight screenings in Ottawa, with bongs being passed up and down the aisles. Epic sweep that never loses touch with the human drama; very much of the drug culture but with a coherent plot; horrifying and hilarious and equal measure.

Napoleon (1983). I saw the restored version at the Barbican with, if memory serves, triptych screens and a live orchestra. I’ve seen it in cinemas twice since, as well as on TV. I studied the French Revolution for my degree, but more than that, it is astonishingly modern for a film made in 1929 – and started me off on a whole silent movie kick.

Blue Velvet (1986): Because obviously. I mean, imagine seeing it on first release, with no expectations or preconceptions about what David Lynch was capable of. It was, to quote Colonel Kurtz above, “like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”

Akira (1988). My gateway to the astonishing world of anime.

The Lion King (1994). It amuses me that the plot is filched from Hamlet, but really this is here because it makes me think of my boys. I took Theo to the premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square when he was seven months old! Start ‘em out young. He slept through much of it, but we watched it a gazillion times subsequently on DVD. My mum would take me to films when I was young, and I’ve extended this to the next generation. Sam’s even made two excellent shorts of his own, one a nominee for student film of the year.

animalcharm-posterAnimal Charm (2012). The idea for this 20-minute featurette came to me in a flash in the gym: a fading fur fashion designer kidnapped by animal rights activists, with a grand guignol horror twist ending. Sadie Frost and Sally Phillips starred, with Michael “Ugly Betty” Urie and Boy George in small roles. It was really good. Kate Moss came to the premiere the W Hotel and sat in the aisle as there were no seats left. Director Ben Charles Edwards (who also co-wrote) has since gone on to make two feature films, while I have gone back into paid journalism, but it was still the culmination of a life-long dream to see something of mine up on the big screen. Thanks, Ben. You’re an extraordinary film-maker.

 

 

How not to wrestle a pig: Batman v Superman review

26 Mar
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Cape expectations: Batman v Superman

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has received a bit of a kicking in the fan press, resulting in this cringily hilarious video of Ben Affleck undergoing an existential crisis in interview. It doesn’t deserve that degree of opprobrium, but the kindest verdict one can give is that it’s “adequate”. It both lacks the lighter touch of rival Marvel films, and the real grit of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films whose style it mimics in the most superficial manner.

Part of the problem is the inherent mismatch between Batman and Superman. Not in the fight stakes (obvs Superman could win, but then he wouldn’t want to kill, plus there’s the matter of his green Achilles Heel), but in tone. Batman lives mostly in a skewed version of the real world, his fantastical villains lacking superpowers; shoehorning him into Superman’s sci-fi universe feels wrong, just as giving Superman darkness and grit is like trying to turn the Coke logo blue.

The whole enterprise needs a director with a sure touch and some intellectual heft. Zack Snyder attacks it with a sledgehammer. Despite the lip-service paid to the conflict between “god and man”, there is no genuine attempt to engage philosophically, intellectually or emotionally with what it would really mean to have an all-powerful being walk on Earth. No lessons have been learned from Alan Moore, who mined this seam in The Watchmen, Miracle/Marvelman and even in Superman (the brilliant For the Man Who Has Everything imagines the clash between two superpowers: “Their enmity can only be measured in the skipped beats of distant seismographs. Both indestructible, each damages the other. Both irresistible, each finds himself thwarted”).

You also know you have problems when the script is so unengaging, the director feels the need to add dream sequences in which more exciting shit goes down. Batman has no less than three of these. Explicable, at least, given that he’s a troubled soul. But then Superman goes and gets one of his own, too.

The cast do their best, and Gal Gadot in her brief fight scene makes a convincingly Amazonian Wonder Woman, but they’re given nothing to work with: no real conflict beyond “My god I have to save him/her before they are killed”; no real emotion; no line of dialogue that speaks to their inner character. The sole exception is the always brilliant Holly Hunter as a senator hostile to Superman, but still not willing to play ball with Lex Luthor. “I grew up on a farm,” she tells the evil mastermind after another of his veiled threats. “I know how to wrestle a pig.”

If only you could say the same of Zack Snyder.

A flight of films: eight recent reviews from Chappie to X+Y

5 Jul

I love travelling. It’s not so much the exotic food, the stunning landscapes, the interesting people – it’s the seven hours of uninterrupted films on the flight, with even more time now that airlines have started allowing the in-flight entertainment to run before take-off and after landing. I’m just back from Canada with British Airways, which allowed me to catch up on several movies I missed at the cinema. Here’s what’s worth your time – and what’s not:

chappieChappie ***: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was pretty awesome, coming seemingly out of nowhere; Elysium a lot less so. Chappie falls somewhere in the middle. A police robot is given an AI programme and becomes sentient, sadly with a cutesy baby voice at first and some annoyingly twee attempts at learning about human life from the low-rent gangstas who co-opt him into a heist. But though it lays on the sentiment with a builder’s trowel, enough of it sticks to get to you in the end.

ex-machina-movieEx Machina ****: All those years of writing for Danny Boyle have paid off for Alex Garland in his directorial debut: Ex Machina is not just a thoughtful and intelligently written addition to the AI canon, but the performances are first-rate. Like Moon or Her, Ex Machina is a sci-fi film of ideas rather than action scenes and explosions – it shows you what Garland’s Sunshine could have been like without the stupid tacked-on climax.

ExodusExodus: Gods and Kings **: Watching this big-screen spectacle on a seat-back screen, there’s really very little left to enjoy in Ridley Scott’s epic. Christian Bale, as too often these days, seems to have no handle on what kind of movie he’s in. After an hour, I found I was distracting myself by imagining the cast breaking into a song-and-dance of “Moses supposes his toeses are roses/ But Moses supposes erroneously/ For nobody’s toeses are poses of roses/ As Moses supposes his toeses to be”. I switched it off then.

The GamblerThe Gambler **: I love films about gambling. In theory. But in practice, with the odd honourable exception such as Rounders, most of them are witless and clichéd (yes, Runner Runner, I’m looking at you; and Focus, you scrape a “C” on the leads’ charm alone). Sadly this Mark Wahlberg movie, though reaching for something metaphorical, falls into the latter camp. And how can you watch a guy who doubles in Blackjack on 18? And then hits a 3?

gethaGet Hard *: Will Ferrell as a privileged rich white financier being trained by Kevin Hart to withstand being everyone’s bitch in a maximum-security prison? This actually sounded like good brainless airplane fun to me, and I fired up a couple of Bloody Marys in expectation.  It is so, so not. Fun, that is. Brainless, yes. Also abandoned after an hour.

insideInside Out ****: Pixar have done it again. Directed by Pete Docter, the man behind Up, this takes a hackneyed conceit – there are mini-people inside our brains controlling our actions, like in the comic strip The Numbskulls – and gives it heart. There are, apparently, five key emotions warring for supremacy: foremost among them, in a young girl’s life so far, is Joy. When the girl reaches hard times in her teens, Joy discovers that Sadness also has its place, and is better embraced than shunned. Simultaneously simple and deep.

while we we're youngWhile We’re Young ***: I wasn’t sure I liked this for most of the film, but it improves as it goes. A fortysomething couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, both less annoying here than they can be) meet an arty-party young couple who turn their lives upside down. Along the way, it becomes an interesting meditation on truth in life and art. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach.

X+YX+Y ***: A lovely little film about an autistic teen savant who enters the Maths Olympiad. When I say Sally Hawkins plays the mother, you’ll know exactly what kind of film it will be. Asa Butterfield, who was so watchable in Ender’s Game, plays the troubled young genius who finds the trickiest equation of all to solve is love.

Opposites attract: a spoiler-free comment on Avengers: Age of Ultron

24 Apr

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“Just one ticket?” I could hear the surprise in her voice. Seeing that I had heard it, she looked embarrassed. But I got that the ticket girl wasn’t saying “you sad man, seeing a film on your own” – if Ritzy staff can’t understand the joys of solo film appreciation, who can? – but rather, “you don’t have a child in tow? I mean, you do know this is a superhero movie?”

Lady, I was inhaling this superhero shit before yo’ mamma was born.

I’m sure I was more excited than the kids in the row behind me. At least, I didn’t see them bouncing in their seat the moment the Marvel logo came up on the big screen.

So does Avengers: Age of Ultron live up to expectations? Yeah. Not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as Avengers Assemble, a little less cohesive in terms of plot, a little too CGI-tastic, but still huge fun and an incredible feat in juggling ten lead characters and giving them all a distinct voice. Joss Whedon won me over right from the outset: there’s this big chase and battle scene, and it’s all motorbikes and tanks and guns and flying shields and mystic hammers, and I’m like woah, too fast, too jerky, I can’t see, and Whedon knew we’d be thinking that, because that’s the moment he slo-moed everything way down, practically freeze-frame, for this beautifully choreographed comic-panel shot of the whole Avengers team flying or leaping through the air in their own individual styles.

I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot. Why spoil the anticipation? But I will say, in terms of script-writing lessons, look for how Whedon uses opposites to powerful effect. Stark vs his metal twin; peace-loving Banner vs ragenik Hulk; sentimental Natasha vs assassin Romanoff; peace vs war; saving life vs extinguishing it; even, at the climax, going up vs coming down. It’s an effective technique, and elaborated on brilliantly by BBC script guru John Yorke in his recent Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why we Tell Them. (Writers: buy it.)

If this is how the blockbuster summer begins, I’m all for it. Now roll on Mad Max.

10 Ways Hollywood Looks After Loved Ones — From The Afterlife

7 Feb

ghost_640

At last! I’ve been asked to write a sequel. Not of one of my film scripts, admittedly, but of an article. Hot on the heels of The 11 Best Films About Life Insurance comes 10 Ways Hollywood Provides For Loved Ones From The Afterlife.

You wouldn’t have thought there was a whole sub-genre of Hollywood films that feature dead people belatedly caring for their families, but from Always to Ghost via PS I Love You there were way more than ten – I had to leave some out (many thanks to my friends in the Facebook hive mind for suggestions). It even includes Oscar nominee Michael Keaton in a film he must be hoping Academy members have forgotten – have you?

Click here to read the top ten.

The 2015 Oscar nominations: Brit hits and Whiplash wit

16 Jan
"Whaddya mean I should be happy with my Golden Globe? I'm going for an Oscar, dammit!" JK Simmons shows his less cuddly side in Whiplash

“Whaddya mean I should be happy with my Golden Globe? I’m going for an Oscar, dammit!” JK Simmons shows his less cuddly side in Whiplash

Congratulations to Whiplash, which I blogged about last Friday as “The little film that could”, for its four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It opens today in the UK: read my articles about the making of it here.

The noms are a great haul for the Brits, with eight for The Imitation Game and five for The Theory of Everything, plus a deserved nod to Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl. Mr Turner managed four, which is actually not bad going for a slow film about a long-dead British artist who communicates largely through grunts. The stunning cinematography that recreates Turner’s paintings, light and all, must surely be a strong contender in that category. It is disappointing that neither Timothy Spall nor Mike Leigh were recognised for what is probably their finest work, but not as flat-out outrageous as their snub from the BAFTAs.

For the first time since 1998, there is not a single black actor among the nominees, though Selma gets a nod in the Best Picture category. That’s not yet out in the UK, so I can’t comment on whether David Oyelowo was unfairly overlooked. But the nominations are a reminder that this was a fine year for cinema, and an innovative one to boot. Boyhood was filmed over a period of 12 years; Birdman was shot in one single continuous take; The Grand Budapest Hotel was a delirious artifice; and Whiplash was a little indie film shot in 19 days that somehow muscled through to be nominated for Best Picture.

Much as critics may bemoan the blockbusterisation of cinema (and actually, even the blockbusters are a lot more competent, coherent and fun than they used to be), there’s life in the old Hollywood dog yet.

For the official Oscars site with the full list of nominees, click here.

The 11 best films about life insurance

12 Dec
Ned Ryerson, life insurance salesman, in Groundhog Day. So good I could watch it again, and again, and again...

Ned Ryerson, life insurance salesman, in Groundhog Day. So good I could watch it again, and again, and again…

Who knew life insurance could be so fascinating? I didn’t, until I was asked by The Guardian to compile a list of the top 11 movies about life insurance. It has provided the engine for many a film noir, but also featured in comedies such as Groundhog Day and Terry Gilliam’s brilliant short film.

Read the surprisingly interesting top 11 on the Guardian website.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival: 10 amazing seminars in one handy guide

10 Dec
London Screenwriters' Festival founder and director, the inspirational Chris Jones, takes to the stage

London Screenwriters’ Festival founder and director, the inspirational Chris Jones, takes to the stage

The London Screenwriters’ Festival is the largest of its kind in the world. That’s right, the biggest and best event for screenwriters happens not in LA, not in New York, but right here. London, Hollywood indeed. I’ve written up all the best talks, screenings and seminars I attended at this year’s: that’s ten blog posts. Read ’em, one by one. You’ll laugh! You’ll learn!

Behind The Scenes

The Silence of the Lambs, with screenwriter Ted Tally. Discover the secrets of the famous jail scene between Clarice and Hannibal, how Jodie Foster got the part, and whose head is really in the jar. Part one, click here; part two, click here.

Finding Nemo, with co-writer David Reynolds. Find out: Why is the vegetarian shark called “Bruce”? How did Sean Penn narrowly miss being in the film? And why did Pixar have to make their animation, in parts, deliberately bad?

The Lost Boys, with director Joel Schumacher. Find out: How was Rambo an influence on the movie? How you do you get maggots to act? Why must Surf Nazis die? Where did Kiefer Sutherland go in full vampire make-up?

Great talkers

Joel Schumacher. The veteran director explains how Woody Allen changed his life, how the studio took fright at Falling Down with Michael Douglas, and how “if I can do this, you can do this too”.

Lynda La Plante. The writer of Prime Suspect, who is currently working on the prequel, tells how she made it as a screenwriter. Find out why her key tip is to “write like a transvestite trucker”.

Tony Jordan. The creator of Life on Mars and the forthcoming Dickensian talks about his long, illustrious and surprisingly accidental career. He explains how he nearly gave up after just a few episodes of EastEnders (he went on to write 250), and how Life on Mars came about.

Charlie Brooker. The sweet, avuncular, cuddly uncle of screenwriting – just kidding! – trains his bile on blockbusters (“like staring into a washing machine full of cars and robots and things all smashing together”) and writing itself (“I love having written, but I hate the process of writing”), and talks about the Black Mirror Christmas special.

Writers’ guides

Beyond The Chick Flick: Writing The Female-Driven Screenplay, with Pilar Alessandra. Sigourney Weaver’s part in Alien was originally written for a man. But though it can be useful to ask yourself “what would a man typically do?” when writing for women, you’re missing out on a whole lot of depth if that’s all you do…

The Art & Craft of Dialogue, with Claudia Myers. She outlines the five pillars of what makes a good scene, and the four pillars of what makes good dialogue within that scene. Learn how even the way you address someone can matter: “In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sleeping together, but he’s still calling her ‘Mrs.Robinson’.”

Bonus section: last year’s highlights

A whole lotta Joe Eszterhas: The straight-talking author of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, who used to be paid $4 million for a script, was so entertaining and larger-than-life he could not possibly fit into one blog. So I posted several, including a, ahem, blow-by-blow account of Basic Instinct, his troubles with Mel Gibson, and his tips on writing.

Creating Character, with Pilar Alessandra. How to brainstorm a film structure from scratch, based solely on character (fascinating!); plus the three dimensions to character, and how to introduce a character in a script.

The Epic Spec: How To Explode Onto The Hollywood Scene, with Stuart Hazeldine. “Sometimes, to get noticed, you have to take your clothes off and run in the traffic.”

Steve Pemberton. One of the League Of Gentlemen team gives a local talk for local people. Discover, too, how a director he didn’t previously know persuaded him to act, for free, in his short film, as a cannibalistic serial killer with agoraphobia.

Graham Linehan. Absolutely one of the top TV comedy writers working today: the man behind Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd reveals how Robert McKee screwed him up, and what the Three Moments rule is for TV comedy.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival 2015 is pre-registering now, and already 37% sold out. Find out more here.

Gone Girl, and a blog about spoilers. With no spoilers

13 Oct
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck star in Gone Girl -- which is all I will say

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck star in Gone Girl — which is all I will say

I enjoyed Gone Girl enormously, and expect it to be a serious Oscar contender, though it’s mildly annoying a) for being basically a silly idea, brilliantly executed and b) because said silly idea is one I had independently dreamed up and filed in my “movie premises” folder and which now, obviously, I can’t use, grrr (see also Looper).

But I’m not going to review it or tell you about it, because the movie has already been written about too much. And that brings me onto the Extremely Annoying Thing about Gone Girl: that so many newspapers and websites have given the game away.

Movies have long relied on the element of surprise, and critics have a duty to safeguard their readers’ enjoyment. Hitchcock turned the secrecy over Psycho’s twist into a marketing campaign. So, too, did Miramax with The Crying Game: when I attended previews, we critics were handed a document forbidding us to divulge the twist that turned it into an unlikely Stateside hit. I worried about spoilers so much when editing Time Out that I would argue with the Theatre Editor over discussing the ending of Hamlet. It may be four centuries old, but some readers would be seeing it for the first time.

Editors, bloggers and even the odd critic seem to have forsaken this public duty in the race for circulation/clicks. With Gone Girl, even though I deliberately avoided the reviews before seeing it, the style magazine headlines alone were enough to tell me the big reveal.

So a plea, and a promise. Please, editors, don’t reveal too much, or your readers might stop consuming reviews altogether. And readers, you can trust me, in this blog, to be extra-careful about spoilers, as I always have been.

As to how this blog ends… well, I’d better not say.

Shock around the Troc: Picturehouse announces huge Trocadero development

19 Sep
Trocadero rooftop

Rooftop bar planned for the new Picturehouse Trocadero

Wow. Today’s online Standard has broken the news that Picturehouse cinemas will be taking over the Trocadero Centre on Piccadilly Circus, and from the drawings and plans, it looks ace. I particularly like the rooftop bar, with a view of the London Eye and Houses of Parliament.

The cinema that was there before was a Cineworld multiplex. It was unloved and dilapidated, with ViewLondon reviews complaining of mice (always a problem in cinemas, mind you, with spilt popcorn etc – that’s why rep cinemas always used to have a cat).

Picturehouses, on the other hand, I love. I live five minutes from the Brixton Ritzy, my favourite cinema ever since I moved to London three decades ago (at least after the Scala closed down). As an Oxford student, I used to haunt the Phoenix and the Penultimate Picture Palace, also both now Picturehouse Cinemas. They cater to an artier, hipper crowd, who (lucratively, from the chain’s point of view) are happy to sit around in the bar afterwards discussing the movie. They have an ace loyalty card that gives you discounted beer and food as well as discounted film tickets.

(Less happily, the Ritzy have a workforce who had been striking, since not enough of that beer money was flowing back to them. Last Friday, staff finally accepted a deal which, while it fell short of the London Living Wage they sought, offered 26% pay rise over the next three years. Just in time for the opening of the miners’ strike film Pride, aptly enough.)

Picturehouse Trocadero

Yet more bar space at the Picturehouse Trocadero

The Trocadero deal is a funny old thing, though. Since 2012, as the Standard strangely did not point out, Picturehouse Cinemas have been owned by Cineworld. So really, the new Trocadero complex is less a grand new development, than a grand new rebranding. With a lot of funky bar space thrown in for those hipster movie discussions.

When the buy-out happened, movie fans were concerned that Cineworld would tarnish the Picturehouse brand, turn these quirky indie-feel cinemas into soulless corporates. On the evidence of the Trocadero development, however, the opposite may be the case. If so, hurrah. A movie example might be when Disney bought out Pixar – but rather than ruining Pixar, installed its supremo John Lasseter as creative head of both.

If all multiplexes could become a little bit more Picturehouse, I’d drink to that. Preferably in a rooftop hipster bar.