Monday, 5 October 2015

Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to the intriguing Blue Ruin continues his series of Films With Misleadingly Soothing Colours In The Title in typically unsoothing style. Taking that film's blackly comic revenge-led theme to its next logical step, Green Room borders on horror with its wince-inducing violence and genuinely unpredictable death toll.

Patrick Stewart becomes Saulnier's first big name, kindly bestowing a small portion of his big bag of gravitas upon the role of Darcy, a horrible racist shitbag who runs a thrash metal bar for boots 'n' braces types in the backwards backwoods of middle America. Into this venue step naive punks The Ain't Rights, a fledgling band of teens who obviously haven't seen enough horror movies to know when not to enter a cabin in the woods full of white supremacist mentalists. Needless to say, something unpleasant happens, which causes a lot more unpleasant things to happen, and very few people live happily ever after.

Saulnier is slowly ploughing a furrow of mildly amusing thrillers full of unspeakable acts, and Green Room, like Blue Ruin, rarely lets up in its shark-like race to the end credits with as much carnage inflicted as possible. But it's let down by a handful of improbably convenient plot developments and a dearth of likeable characters, and as the film reaches its obvious conclusion it runs out of steam and tosses off a climax that needed more satisfying emotional heft. Stewart never gets the chance to be as bastardly as he should, and the imperilled protagonists are too under-developed to care about which of them might be next for the chop.

There's a great genre film in Jeremy Saulnier somewhere, and it's worth sticking with him to watch as he works it out. But until he does, Green Room is destined to be little more than a lesser version of the masterpiece to come.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 4:
Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

We reach the guaranteed nadir of BlogalongaStarWars with this upsetting exercise in fanboy childhood molestation: a film which, because I am a Star Wars fan and an idiot, I have seen maybe fifteen times now, and each viewing has been less enjoyable than the last. After watching it for this ill-judged exercise in blogwaffling, I promised myself this would be the final time. Life is too short to fill rewatching a small boy repeatedly shouting "yippee" at high volume and cinema's most teeth-grindingly irritating character being a cackhanded cunt. No more, George. No more.
Hard to believe this wouldn't quite work

It's taken me a long time to learn to actively dislike The Phantom Menace. In 1999 I was just happy to have a new Star Wars film, and I embraced it, bought merchandise and happily paid for it on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray in the following decade-and-a-bit. I actually called myself an apologist for a while, although if pressed I would have struggled to articulate exactly why every print shouldn't be sealed in a vat of acid and fired into the sun. Now, though, I find it impossible to defend. It has one great scene (for which you must first sit through over a hundred minutes of bad ones), a fantastic score and a handful of fun touches, but otherwise stands as a rusting monument to one man's misplaced self-belief and calamitously poor judgement as a writer and director.

The Phantom Menace's flaws are legion, so where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose. The opening crawl, with its coma-inducing talk of trade routes and the unwelcome news that, in the old days, Jedi knights were in the business of solving tax disputes like some kind of intergalactic ombudsman, sets the sludgy tone perfectly. Before long Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are delivering George Lucas' undeliverable dialogue as if they're playing a joke on him, never dreaming for a moment that these would be the actual takes he'd end up using.

Within minutes we literally run into Jar Jar Binks, and immediately wonder if he will do anything useful or, indeed, watchable in the next couple of hours. The answer is no. His sole impact on the plot is to take the Jedi to the Gungans, who will later do a spectacularly shit job at helping fight off the invading droid army. They don't even beat the bad guys: on the point of defeat and the verge of sweet, blessed execution, an 8-year-old who can barely see through his fringe does that for them from hundreds of miles away. So Binks' contribution is purely to bumble around as the least successful comic relief character in history, tagging along like the kid nobody likes and getting bits of himself stuck in things with disappointingly non-fatal results.
Please just fuck absolutely and utterly off

Enough about that bastard though. Lucas' script is arguably more offensive, its core padded with emptiness like a memory card packaged by Amazon in a sofa-sized cardboard box full of bubble wrap. The Jedi are attacked by an underwater monster which is eaten by a bigger monster, thereby saving them; minutes later they are attacked by an underwater monster again, which is eaten by a bigger monster again, thereby saving them again, as if Lucas forgot he literally just did that. Those two huge CGI sequences do precisely nothing to advance the plot or affect the characters, and The Phantom Menace is full of scenes like them. Later on, fifteen minutes - 12% of the film's running time - will be spent on the podrace, which may be a cracking workout for your home cinema system but otherwise exists only to tell us that Anakin is a good pilot. You may recall learning the same about Luke Skywalker in A New Hope when it mattered, i.e. during the climactic battle.

Then there's the shoehorning in of C-3P0 and R2-D2, who were such well-conceived and executed guides through the adventure of A New Hope but who don't seem entirely sure why they've been invited to appear in The Phantom Menace. R2, for one, keeps looking around nervously like that poor bugger who turned up at the BBC for a job interview and inadvertently found himself on air talking about Apple Corps vs Apple Computer. And those midichlorians, ugh, what even? It's almost as if Qui-Gon knew he was talking into a lady's razor so just said something appropriately absurd. Also, while we're talking about that scene, how did Anakin get that massive and convenient gash on his arm that allows Qui-Gon an excuse to steal his blood? IT DOESN'T MATTER LOOK AT THE PRETTY CG BACKGROUND

As if all this wasn't enough, and on top of howling honkers like "Are you an angel?" and "Always remember... your focus determines your reality" (LITERALLY WHAT THE FUCK), what we're dealing with here is a film populated entirely by supporting characters. NOBODY wants to step forward and have this film be about them, and who can blame them? Where's this film's Han Solo? Its Princess Leia? Hell, even its Luke Skywalker? Top billing goes to Neeson and McGregor, who play two of the lowest-key heroes in science fiction, taking the Jedi code of never showing emotion to its entertainment-unfriendly extreme; the villain is vague and intangible, like some kind of phantom menace, and the one character we're actually meant to be interested in is manifested as a mop-headed brat too annoying to care about and too cute to hate. Well, almost.
Wait, don't go! We're just getting to the good bit! Oh there it was.

Eventually the finale arrives, like the cool guest at a dreadful dinner party who rocks up during dessert, shags the hostess on the table and fucks off. Again displaying selective amnesia, Lucas repeats Return Of The Jedi's three-way climax with an awesome lightsabre fight (the main reason why people still admit to this film's existence), a space battle (this one a a dull retread of Episodes IV and VI) and an unlikely face-off between the bad guys and the indigenous twats on the surface below, which here is just embarrassing. And then, thank Yoda, it's over. Five minutes of story spread expensively over two hours, like those soul-destroying meetings that should only ever have been an email.

Why Lucas felt his prequel trilogy needed to be entirely Anakin-based is a mystery. The whole father-son / Anakin-Luke thing is fine, but the parallels are too thin on the ground to justify six hours. The storyline concerning Palpatine's machinations and the long-game overthrowing of the Republic are far more interesting, and I'd happily have had Baby Vader's journey to the dark side told as a subplot rather than the other way round. But then where would the hilarious Jar Jar Binks fit in?

John Williams' score

John Williams' score is great.

Darth Maul
Darth Maul is great.

This shot
This shot with the battle droids being unpacked is good. I like the way they rock back and forth.

That's it

That's literally it

What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss

Monday, 7 September 2015


It's worth bearing in mind, as you settle in to watch Brian Helgeland's take on the story of the Kray twins, that it's called Legend. It's also worth bearing in mind one of Google's convenient definitions of the word 'legend':
"a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated"
Because a warts-and-all documentary about London's best-known villains this is not, and nor does it claim to be. Glossy as a magazine cover and as sharply-suited as a Bond film, Legend is entertaining enough but is so concerned with evoking a picture-postcard East End populated by gangsters, geezers and good-time girls that the cold, ruthless evil at its heart is buried under a thick veneer of slick camerawork and gorgeous lighting.
Tom Hardy, as you will be aware unless you live at the bottom of the Thames in a pair of concrete boots, plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, with enormously watchable results. Hardy's Ron is a tremendous screen monster: his permanently frustrated, furious face, with its nose, lips and teeth all apparently fighting to get as far away from each other as possible, is frequently shot in leering close up. Hardy does a remarkable job of pulling Ron back from the brink of pantomime, despite some of Helgeland's best efforts to push him over.

Reg, on the other hand, is less successful. Written and played as a lovable rogue with the flawless good looks of a 21st century movie star, the character's resemblance to the Reggie Kray you've read about or seen in documentaries is barely there. Here, he's a cheeky chappie with an occasional violent streak you'd forgive him for every time he flashes you a smile. It's a morally questionable direction for the film to take, but there's a reason for it: Legend is told mostly from the point of view of Frances Shea, Reg's short-term wife, as he woos her by shinning up her drainpipe (not a euphemism) and looking like Tom Hardy. If we're to believe that she'd fall in love with Reg, we have to fall in love with him too, and there are few better ways to ensure that than to have him played by someone whose place near the top of various 'Sexiest Men Alive' lists is virtually assured for the rest of his life.
Spot the difference

Emily Browning is excellent as Frances, but the decision to tell the Krays' story through her eyes sidelines arguably more interesting narrative threads, like Christopher Eccleston's copper "Nipper" Read's dogged pursuit of the twins, and softens the story's least pleasant elements to a troubling degree. Working from this brief, cinematographer Dick Pope paints an undeniably stunning picture of 1960s London, but all that lustre means that when the horror comes, it's too unreal to feel.

The Krays were, let's not forget, bad guys. I don't doubt they loved each other and their dear old mum, but to romanticise their story to such extremes is a disservice to anyone who suffered at their hands. In a crucial scene, Reg snaps and viciously murders an associate; the camera lingers on the act as if forcing us to face the horror, but by this point we're immune to it. The scene is as stylised as everything else we've seen so far and is rendered toothless by its own technical proficiency. Tellingly, the most unpleasant scene in the film - which involves Reg and Frances in a particularly rough patch of their marriage - occurs offscreen, and is all the more necessarily repulsive for it.

Still, if you don't mind your legends painted in broad but undeniably entertaining strokes, there's a lot to enjoy here. The costumes, production design and score - which all contribute to the romanticism - are as shimmeringly glamorous as the cinematography. Helgeland and Pope pull off indisputable magic with Hardy's double role, and toss off shots like the lengthy, Goodfellas-esque swagger through a pub that pointedly takes in casual violence and tender courting with apparently effortless style. But much of the nuts and bolts of the Krays' story is hurried along to make way for more improbable dialogue: the twins' escape from conviction in the Lord Boothby case is a crucial ingredient in their rise to power, but it's treated brusquely by Helgeland's script - a script which, nevertheless, finds enough time for Frances to spout fantasy guff like "Love is a witness... Reggie sees me, and I see him", as if anyone in the history of the universe ever spoke like that.
So Legend ensures the legend remains a legend, and the Krays' reputation as celebrities to be impressed by remains intact, if not stronger, as a result of Helgeland's film. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence out there to restore the balance, but none of it has Tom Hardy in a beautiful tailored wool suit with a knicker-dampening glint in his eye, so which version of events you'd prefer to swallow is up to you. I guess there's room for both; I'm just not sure how happy I am about it.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Six films I'll be giving a shit about in


I'm hoping so hard that this is the first in a series of five films whose titles consist almost entirely of repeated vowels. (4th)


Looks lovely, like Boursin risotto. (4th)


So Tom Hardy reckons he's as good as BOTH Kemp brothers, does he? Well we'll see about that. (9th)


The story of how a group of brave men experienced such debilitating extremes of cold that they set up a double glazing company to keep it out for good. (18th)

"Michael Shannon magnetises all eyes" says Time Magazine, somewhat improbably. Great news for everyone yearning for the alignment of their positive and negative ocular particles, but I can't help thinking it'll be hard to enjoy the film with bits of metal stuck to your peepers. (25th)


Having repeatedly read that this trailer contains spoilers, I refuse to watch it. Although if the spoiler is just that it's yet another disappointing Ridley Scott film, that doesn't count, I guessed that already. (30th)

Friday, 28 August 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 3:
Star Wars: Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi

Phase One of the Star Wars Cinematic Universe comes to a close with Return Of The Jedi, a film which, by necessity, must be all payoff for the two-hour setup of The Empire Strikes Back. And pay off it does, in ruddy great space-spades: Jedi delivers on an increasingly huge scale, even as its supporting characters become increasingly smaller.

The first point of order is obviously to rescue Han Solo from his cryogenic slumber (during which he seems to have miraculously put on a few pounds), and it's to George Lucas' and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan's credit that they devote the entire first act to the heist. It's a fun, extended opener that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the story, but it needs to take up that first half hour because we were so invested in Han's sacrifice in Empire. If you've spent three years waiting to find out how he's going to get defrosted, you don't want the explanation tossed off in the first five minutes.

A quick Dagobah diversion acts as a weird aside where we're reminded of all the important stuff that needs resolving before the credits roll, and in all honesty much of it is a little baffling. We're told that Luke needs to face Vader to truly become a Jedi, but didn't he just do that at the end of Empire? I mean, fair play for raising the emotional stakes of their final father / son chit-chat, but there's a suspicion that Lucas may have put that dialogue in as a placeholder and forgotten to finish it. Then Yoda struggles to squeeze out the words "There........ is...... a................. nother ........................................... Sky............................................... walk........................................................................................ er" before wheezing his last, apparently unaware that "Leia is your sister" has fewer syllables. He's only being vague so we can get the full story from see-through Obi-wan, who gets the short straw of having to explain why everything he said in Star Wars was bullshit. The sense that Lucas is retroactively rewriting his story as he goes along is palpable, but it's a canny move to give Alec Guinness the role of Basil Exposition here; the character's wisdom and eccentricity just about allow him to carry off the bollocks he's spouting.

The team outing to Endor is where the Star Wars machine finally starts to come unstuck, thanks in no small part to a bunch of short furry twats. The Ewoks represent Lucas' wish to have the gargantuan, technologically advanced Empire defeated by a smaller, underestimated foe, forgetting that he'd already done that at the end of Star Wars, and so the pointy sticks and small rocks lobbed by dwarf children in fluffy onesies pierce the armour of Stormtroopers more used to laser bolts, and it all gets a bit silly. Frankly I began to doubt the integrity of the Ewoks as a viable narrative device the moment they provided a complete fitted outfit for the decidedly non-Ewok-shaped Princess Leia with no notice whatsoever.
Maybe it's from the plus-size range

Fortunately there's the mother of all space battles going on concurrently, as well as the apocalyptically epic climax of Luke and Vader's story, the intimacy of which feels weightier than anything going on in Teletubbyland. John Williams' accompaniment to the duel is monstrously doom-laden, and Luke's final, furious attack on Vader - prompted by the old man's threat to recruit Luke's "sissssstaaa" - is gloriously ferocious. The masterful crosscutting between the three simultaneous finales stops you getting bored of any one scene without becoming jarring, and Vader's final sacrifice is the perfect conclusion. Well done, Star Wars Trilogy, you done good.

However. Something's not quite right. Something's changed. The edge has gone. All the interesting character work that continues to set the first two films apart from almost every other sci-fi epic seems to have gone missing; the moment Han and Leia's unresolved sexual tension resolved itself, they stopped being the cool older kids and became your parents. Even Han's belief that everything he says is cool or funny reminds you of your dad. The Ewoks are cute and cuddly with the specific intention of selling toys to small children, and Vader's revealed face is more "favourite uncle" than "evil, twisted warlord". They're all small things, but they add up to a lesser film than their predecessors, which is an undeniable shame.

Still, it's the final Star Wars film, so at least they can't get any worse, right?

Darth Vader is really pointy
Notable by their absence from the prequel trilogy are any scenes in which Shmi Skywalker teaches little Ani that it's rude to point. Decades later, Darth Vader can barely get a word out without his forefinger jabbing around like a sleeping teenager's cock. Put it away, man!

The Death Star II
Once again, production design is totally on point in the Star Wars universe. Like some kind of hideously deformed Pac-Man floating in space, the semi-constructed new Death Star is another terrifically iconic work of art, regardless of the practicalities involved in its actual construction. I mean how come nobody there seems to be doing any actual building work, and why didn't they cover it up with a lifesize painting of the original Death Star, like they do when they're renovating old buildings?

C-3PO is a shit translator
For someone who bangs on incessantly about being fluent in over six million forms of communication, you'd think 3PO might put on an accent every now and again. He always just sounds like a posh Englishman abroad reading loudly from a phrasebook.

Jabba The Hutt
I love this guy. Look at his flabby, fleshy folds and just imagine what he keeps inside them. He's so spectacularly disgusting, with his roly-poly tuba theme tune and his shot-from-below, Sydney Greenstreet stylings and his amazing collection of gloopy mucus, I just want to give him a big fat hug.

Leia is a bit mean
Determined not to be all soppy and girly about being in love with Han Solo because she's an independent woman of the '80s, Leia rescues her fella from the carbonite but stands there while he falls out of it and faceplants himself firmly in the concrete floor of Jabba's palace. That woman's gonna be hard work.

What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Advertorial: Selling my soul to
Backyard Cinema for a burger and a beer

Londoners would be hard pressed to make it home from work this summer without inadvertently wandering into an open-air cinema screening, so prolific are they at this stage. They're happening literally everywhere: in fields, on rooftops, in markets, in ladies' changing rooms, underwater, in bowls of soup, in space and in the space between spaces.

But only one of the brands currently peddling their wall-and-ceiling-free movie shows has had the foresight to bung The Incredible Suit a free ticket, burger and two drinks, so they're currently the only ones enjoying the unfathomable reach of a promotional post on this narrowly-read film blog. I suspect they were hoping I wouldn't be writing this quite so far into their season, but I have been quite busy so owt's better than nowt at this stage.

Anyway, Backyard Cinema is at Camden Lock until September 4th, boasting two screens, a load of deckchairs, some bean bags and the very real chance of eating an amazing burger. And despite the fact that I was more or less paid to write this, I can happily confirm that Backyard Cinema is actually one of the better outdoor screening events out there. Their partnership with Honest Burger makes them very special in my eyes, because Honest Burgers are my current burgers du jour, so any opportunity to sink my teeth into one of their juicy cholesterol sandwiches is welcome.
Further information can be found here, including the story of how Backyard Cinema's founder started with screenings in - yes! - his back yard, which is interesting because I showed Top Gun to a bunch of friends in my garden a few years ago yet somehow I do not now have an Honest Burger franchise on my patio. I have a greenhouse, a table and some stupid chickens. Anyway that's not important right now. What is is that you go and investigate Backyard Cinema so they get their money's worth out of the goodies they gave me.

If you have an outdoor screening you'd like to see treated with similar reverence - or indeed any product that I might enjoy and be unashamed to pimp with my pixels - then do get in touch, particularly if you work for Tom Ford menswear.