Friday, 21 April 2017

James Bond will return, maybe,
who knows, whatever

The future of the James Bond films hangs in the balance. Sony's distribution deal has ended, so MGM and EoN are currently jiggling Bond in front of a selection of suitors, all of whom are desperate for the rights while simultaneously nervous that Daniel Craig might not stay on board to guarantee boffo box office for the next film. It's a delicate situation, and one which could affect the very DNA of the franchise for the foreseeable future. And I, a lifelong Bond fan, couldn't give a hoot.

This is a problem. Mainly for me, to be fair, unless Barbara Broccoli is overly concerned about my devotion to her baby, in which case it's her problem too. But it's emblematic of how I've been feeling about the Bond films since Spectre dribbled onto screens nearly eighteen months ago (in that time I have rewatched maybe three Bond films, which is a dangerously low level of Bondery in my house), and I need to address it in the form of a rambling blog post, if only for my own mental wellbeing.

It seems inevitable that Babs will hand distribution rights for Bond 25 back to Sony, if only because she and Michael G Wilson seem to fear change right now (although Sony's pitch, apparently held on a recreated set from Dr. No, would have sold them to me in the time it takes Sean Connery to order a black man to fetch his shoes). The sooner that happens, the more likely Craig is to get back in the tux, and Christoph Waltz and Léa Seydoux can clear their schedules for Spectre II: Blofeld Boogaloo. Well, sorry if my enthusiasm isn't so much brimming over as struggling to fill a martini glass.
Don't get me wrong, I love Daniel Craig. He's made two Bond films I absolutely adore and one that I - and about three other people - like very much. And he's easily the best thing in Spectre, despite the fact that he still can't fit into his bloody suits. But his excitement levels for another outing seem about as high as mine are right now - obviously I can't read his mind, but my biggest fear for a fifth Craig film is that he snoozes through it like Connery did in the autumn of his Bond years. Compare his performances in Casino Royale and Spectre: the former boasts a wired, barely concealed hunger to make the role his own (partly fuelled by the epically stupid press campaign against him), while the latter has him mumbling monosyllabic retorts and reacting to cinema's biggest explosion as if a cat had broken wind in the distance.

Then there's the Purvis & Wade factor. I firmly believe the writers' contribution to the last six Bond films has been mostly brilliant - even Die Another Day's kitesurfing scene probably looked good on paper - but when they were revealed as the architects of Bond 25 my heart sank. More of the same looms large, and an entire generation of daring, brilliant writers has grown up while they've been at the helm. Casino Royale was a tremendous surprise - as was Skyfall, to some extent - but it feels like Bond needs to regenerate again to stay relevant.

I despise articles called things like "Here's What We Think Should Happen In The Next Bond Film" with an unquenchable passion, but Here's What I Think Should Happen In The Next Bond Film: Play around. Fuck about. Mix it up. Do a period Bond film set in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, like when Michael Fassbender skulked around Argentina in X-Men: First Class, only for fuck's sake don't let Matthew Vaughn direct it. Do an Old Bond story, with Timothy Dalton (as we all know, the best James Bond) as a 70-year-old 007 who might just be losing the edge he's maintained for years because he doesn't know how not to (watch 2015's criminally underrated Mr. Holmes to see how to do something new and self-reflexive with a pop culture legend). Do an anthology film of three faithful adaptations of Fleming's short stories in tonally diverse styles. Just do something unexpected, for fuck's sake (but not so weird that I don't like it, that would be terrible. Don't forget this is all about me).
I don't know, maybe Purvis and Wade are currently beavering away at exactly one of these things, but I doubt it, because despite the evidence of successful franchises splintering off in unexpected directions (the MCU, Star Wars) it feels like Bond would never dare. I'm not saying the series has to become an entirely different beast forever - God knows its familiarity is the comfiest of comfort blankets at times - but there are 24 near-identical films that everyone can watch at the drop of a steel-rimmed bowler hat if they want to; would a couple of experiments be that bad for the series?

As a tediously vocal proponent of Serious Bond (Licence To Kill is still the best, don't fucking @ me) I'm going to sound like a massive hypocrite now, but you know what I also really want from the next Bond film? A bloody good laugh. An air-punching, howlingly brilliant stunt that's almost - but not quite - too outrageous for Bond. The other evening I drank a bit too much gin and began tearily reminiscing over Brosnan-era daftness like the time he rode a motorbike off a cliff and freefell into a falling plane. I'll never forget my reaction to that the first time I watched GoldenEye: my heart leapt out of my chest and I had to look around to confirm that everyone else in the cinema had seen what I'd just seen. I even miss things as potentially terrible as a smash cut to Brosnan in a Hawaiian shirt strolling through some Spanish backwater while David Arnold tosses off an almost culturally insulting salsa riff and a caption says "Havana, Cuba", because Brosnan looks amazing in a Hawaiian shirt and that salsa riff is KICKING and it's all just so wonderfully silly. I miss silly Bond. I think the Fast & Furious movies might have stolen him.
People who know me as The Boring Bond Guy are always asking me who I think should replace Daniel Craig, but what they don't understand is that I know far more about people who have already been Bond than I do about people who haven't but might. Glancing at random articles speculating on the next 007 fills me with the fear because I haven't even heard of half the names, and if I have I wouldn't know some of them if I fell over them in the street. Jack Huston? No idea. James Norton? Isn't he a TV chef? And you can fuck right off with your Toms Hardy and Hiddleston: the last thing a new Bond needs is baggage. If cornered, I will vigorously fly the flag for Dan Stevens, and anyone who disagrees needs to watch The Guest on a weekly basis like I do. He can do lean and mean, he doesn't take himself too seriously and anyone who doesn't have special thoughts about him is emotionally dead.

So that's what's going on with me right now. I'm a bit sad about Bond and I don't know if it's because the last one was upsettingly bad, or if I'm still recovering from two years of self-imposed watching, thinking and writing about Bond for no other reason than to see if I could, or if I'm just getting old and grumpy. But spunking all this self-indulgent bollocks onto the internet might help, although not as much as if Barbara Broccoli reads my spunk and fertilises her Bond egg with it and we make the perfect Bond baby together. Though frankly that's unlikely, not to mention worryingly inappropriately phrased. Anyway, my apologies if you've got this far expecting there to be some informed critical thinking, or at least the merest hint of a point, because there are none of those things to be found here. Just a picture of Roger Moore having his nose adjusted to remind us how much worse it could be.

Monday, 6 March 2017

I.T., aka Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot
t Dot Greater Than Underscore

It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to announce that Pierce Brosnan's remarkable run of incomprehensibly bad films continues with alarming implacability. This week sees the unwelcome incursion into selected cinemas (fingers crossed yours isn't one of them) and VOD platforms of cyberturkey I.T., or - if we are to follow the widely accepted convention of referring to films by their on-screen title cards - Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore.
Directed, in a way, by A Good Day To Die Hard's John Moore, Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore is a '90s home invasion thriller with a 21st century upgrade, which is that the bad guy is one of those new-fangled Computer Hackers. We know this because, in one of cinema's most nuanced depictions of Computer Hackers, he lives in a dimly-lit tech dungeon with an enormous bank of monitors and spends his time listening to deafening EDM while green text is projected onto his naked torso as he ogles pictures of sexy waitresses which he took on his technologically advanced mobile phone which - wait for it - is also a camera.

But more about him later. Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore's notional hero, Mike Regan (a peculiarly-accented Brosnan, although there appears to be no other type of Brosnan these days), is a self-made aviation tycoon about to release an app allowing the super-rich to hire private jets in much the same way that lower lifeforms use Uber. None of this is remotely relevant; all that matters is that Regan is rich enough to own a house kitted out with top-of-the-range smart technology although he himself is a complete luddite, as is explained in an early scene which sees him outwitted by his own coffee machine.
Even the mere proximity of data cables gives Bronhom the heebie-jeebies

When the launch of Regan's app is beset by a technical glitch, temp I.T. guy and closet EDM-loving, tech-dungeon-dwelling psychopath Ed Porter (James Frecheville, unrecognisable from 2010's Animal Kingdom, which is probably in his best interests) steps in to fix things. By way of thanks Regan immediately gives Porter a permanent job and, naturally, invites him to his home to fix his wifi despite a) having only just met him and b) describing himself as a man who values his privacy above all else. From there it is but a few short and inanely written steps to Porter overstepping the boundaries of polite social interaction and targeting Regan and his family for a prolonged campaign of aggravation via the aforementioned smarthouse system.

Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore initially balances out its improbable character behaviour, gaping plot holes and unlikely story developments with a series of unintentionally hilarious scenes in which Frecheville seems unsure whether his one-dimensional maniac is a cool, calculated home invader like Michael Keaton in Pacific Heights, or a scenery-chewing loon like Cape Fear's Max Cady. John Moore doesn't appear to know either, so we get a sequence for the ages in which Porter - having been booted out of a Regan family party - conveys his rage in the time-honoured fashion of driving home while screaming, heavily exhaling and angrily miming to 1982 new wave non-chart-topper Words by Missing Persons. Later on Moore will display further depths to Porter's madness by showing him lifting weights in his tech dungeon in between abstract shots of a rotating pill and a drop of blood trickling past an Instagram logo on a smartphone. One can only hope there is still a chance for the Academy to change their mind about this year's Best Picture one more time.
Makes u think

What drags Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore down from mildly entertaining two-star trash to offensive one-star bullshit is its explanation for Porter's actions, which I am about to wilfully spoil because I'm hoping that by now I've dissuaded you from watching the film. Did Regan do some terrible wrong to Porter or his family, for which vengeance must be sought? Nope. Is there a sly commentary on the politics of wealth, who's really in control or the inherent dangers of technology? Nah. Porter's problem, according to Michael Nyqvist's character (a ludicrous combination of a tech-savvy Leon from Leon and Psycho's exposition-dealing psychiatrist), is that he has "mental health issues" and is "a bad man". That's literally it. So having squeezed every last drop out of the already bone-dry cliché of socially awkward IT guys, Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore puts the boot right in by asserting that being the reckless millionaire CEO of an environmentally catastrophic multinational company qualifies you as A Good Guy, while being mentally ill means you are A Bad Man. Quick reminder: it is 2017.

All of which means it doesn't matter a jot whether anyone in Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore is any good (clue: Brosnan's angry face - with which I am painfully familiar - gets an extended workout here, with predictable results) or whether the script is in any way laudable (clue: Regan's wife, played by Anna Friel, chastises their daughter for consorting with a man eleven years her senior; a bizarre stance given that Friel is 23 years younger than Brosnan). All that matters is that the film is ignored by audiences and forgotten by the world as swiftly as possible. Let's just all agree never to mention the name Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore ever again.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Bill Paxton

"That's it, man. Game over, man, game over!"
- Private First Class William L. Hudson, Aliens

Friday, 27 January 2017


Mica Levi's score opens Jackie with a plaintive, wailing glissando that sounds like both the world falling apart and a global reaction to it. It's the soundtrack of today, but only by coincidence; in its intended context it conveys Jackie Kennedy's state of mind as she tries to cope with life in the days after her husband's assassination. You'll struggle to find many more contemporary parallels in Pablo Larraín's film, thank Christ, but you won't have any trouble recalling Levi's music because it blasts out of the film almost constantly, as if overcompensating for something missing in Natalie Portman's almost comically Oscar-baiting performance.

Portman certainly gives it her all here: with guttural sobs wracking her body in unforgivable close up, she couldn't play more to the Academy if she was wearing a Meryl Streep mask. It's one of those gigs where the ACTING is so foregrounded - the crying, the voice, the walk - that it's impossible not to notice how hard she's working. But at no point during Jackie did I ever forget that I was watching Natalie Portman ACTING. She does a reasonable job of imitating the former First Lady's weird Long Island accent, and has clearly studied the film of her guided tour of the White House (forensically recreated here) to within an inch of its life, but the performance is so mannered that it refused to let me immerse myself in the film.

So severe was this condition that it spread like a virus to the rest of the topline cast, and before long I was marvelling at what an excellent job Greta Gerwig, Richard E Grant, Peter Sarsgaard and John Hurt were doing when all I really wanted was to find out a bit more about Jackie Kennedy. It seems crackers to complain about actors being in a film and acting, but perhaps what Jackie needed was more actors and fewer stars, because on the whole it's a reasonably compelling study of bereavement and widowhood; of a person trying to keep it together, remain dignified and honour their deceased loved one while the world hastily moves on.

The inconvenience of people doing their jobs well notwithstanding, Larraín's film is otherwise fine. It's a character study, so there's very little drama to be had, and the short timespan of events covered makes it feel like an episode of an expensive miniseries which I'd probably rather see. But it's classy, elegiac and austere, and its grainy, Instagram-filtered aesthetic (I'm thinking Valencia, possibly Sierra) lends it a nostalgic authenticity that feels obvious but works well. Refreshingly free from the shackles of Stars 'n' Stripes-waving patriotism (such stories are often best told by foreigners, it seems), it can concentrate on telling the universal story of a human being with human problems, albeit problems magnified enormously by circumstance. Or at least it could if Natalie Portman's ACTING didn't keep getting in the way.

Friday, 13 January 2017

From Duel to Dahl:
The feature films of Steven Spielberg
reviewed and ranked

Lukewarm on the heels of my all-consuming Alfred Hitchcock project, I spent much of 2016 rewatching (and, in some cases, having my first go on) the films of bearded genius and double-denim advocate Steven Spielberg. The Berg's first official theatrical release, The Sugarland Express, came out the year I was born, so it logically follows that he's been making films specifically for me for my whole life, and for that I am eternally grateful.

It's impossible to underestimate the impact Stevo has made on both the global cinematic landscape and on me as a tedious film nerd; anyone who grew up in the cinema in the '80s will know that he was always there, whether directing or producing, presenting you with an invaluable gift or two each year by which you would come to define your childhood. And having reeled us in as kids and teens with aliens, archaeologists and dinosaurs, he ensured an in-built audience for his grown-up tales of war, slavery and terrorism.

Watching his thirty features, it wasn't how few duffers (let's say eight for the sake of argument) or works of sheer genius (seven) he's directed that struck me, so much as the other half of his output in between: a rock-solid brick wall of beautifully-crafted, endlessly engaging stories, any one of which most directors would kill to have created in their career. These are the films it's hardest to rank, suggesting that this entire exercise might have just been a complete waste of time ahahahahaha.

So here goes, and don't @ me because I've included Duel; despite being made for TV it did eventually get a theatrical release, and besides it's precisely one spillion times more cinematic than most telly was in the early '70s. OK? Good. Let's Bergolate!

If further proof were required of just how awful 2016 was, then the fact that it vomited up Steven Spielberg's worst film is it. Both Sophie and BFG lack any of the charisma with which Roald Dahl imbued them, the giants are all lifelong residents of the uncanny valley, and the innovation and inspiration of E.T. or Tintin - this film's closest cousins - have utterly eluded Spielberg here. It's a limp, lifeless slog through scenes that drag on for days without any sense of urgency or aim, and the absence of any kind of momentum is deeply concerning. And like Hook and War Horse before it, The BFG dishes up another example of Spielberg's comically romanticised, chocolate-box idea of England, making you wonder why Sophie would ever want to leave it to live with a man whose bogeys are bigger than she is.

This is Spielberg's third film tinkering around the edges of World War II, as if he's gently prodding the beast before plucking up the courage to launch the full-scale assaults of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan on it. He hasn't quite worked out his plan of attack yet though, and Empire Of The Sun fails to adequately convey both the geopolitical situation of Japanese-occupied China and the microcosmic story of JG Ballard's own personal war. A disjointed, uncertain and consequently dull meander through Ballard's memoirs, it hinges on the performance of young Christian Bale, who - while never bad - is largely unlikeable and annoying. Spielberg lets his visual metaphors get out of hand too, many of them feeling more at home in a soft rock music video than a wartime drama.

Exhausting levels of visual carnage and prolonged shouting characterise this blip in Spielberg's otherwise solid run of early films. The lightness of touch he usually combines with megabudget spectacle evades him on this occasion, and while watching an entire house fall off a cliff (for example) might be fun, it's not necessarily funny. The dance hall sequence is a blast though, and while it's hard to identify with most of the characters, I can, at least, fully appreciate the appeal of getting Nancy Allen into an aeroplane.

It isn't that Harrison Ford's too old for this shit, it's that this shit's too old for Harrison Ford. There's enough charm in the franchise and fizz in Spielberg's bottle to make this work if only the script wasn't so dumb and overwritten: the trail of the crystal skull is needlessly complicated, both Mutt and Mac are dead weights to the plot, and there's more than one unnecessary set-piece that ends with our heroes exactly where they were when it began. Spielberg's comic-strip compositions rekindle a little of the magic, but he loses his touch in the drawn-out jeep chase and his over-reliance on CGI. CG gophers are one thing, but CG scorpions, CG ants, CG monkeys and - most egregiously - CG fucking aliens make you yearn for the spiders, bugs and snakes of what I fear we may soon be referring to as The Original Trilogy.

After the breathless excitement of Tintin it only seems logical that Spielberg might want to spend half an hour showing a bloody horse ploughing a bloody field, but personally I could have done without it. Everything post-plough marathon is fine though, provided you're an incredibly patient under-12-year-old; as the equine Forrest Gump leads us through a bloodless first world war, carrying us from one syrupy tale of human kindness to another, only the cynicism-free innocence of a child could stand the amount of cheese that flows from every frame. Tremendous to see Hiddleston and Cumberbatch go head-to-head, but otherwise I could cheerily boil this down for glue.

There's magic sprinkled all over the place here, from the riotous production design to John Williams' swashbuckling score, but even the happiest thoughts can't make Hook fly. Its middle is as flabby as Peter Banning's (A HUNDRED MINUTES elapse before Peter fully Pans out) and Robin Williams is miscast, looking understandably uncomfortable in those tights. Hoffman gives good sneer though, Julia Roberts is delightful, and it's fun to see the genesis of Jurassic Park's lawyer-munching scene in Captain Hook's death-by-croc-from-above.

Part 1 of Spielberg's The Trouble With Slavery double bill is an even lower-key affair than Lincoln, to the point of being bone dry for much of its running time. A harrowing flashback at the mid-point injects some much-needed emotional fuel, and from then on Amistad becomes a semi-gripping depiction of the neverending fight for justice in the face of entrenched bigotry. Perhaps for the first time in his career, Spielberg's Spielbergery is kept to a respectful minimum, the performances (notwithstanding Anthony Hopkins' hammed-up, accent-ambivalent John Quincy Adams) doing the talking instead. Worthy, but lacking the watchability of the equally noble Schindler's List.

This Chaplinesque oddity begins well, before descending into an overstretched 'What if...?' scenario that can't satisfactorily answer its own question. What could have been an incisive allegory for the immigrant experience (particularly post-9/11) gets bogged down in a tedious romantic subplot and an unsustainable personal war between The Little Guy and The Man. Tom Hanks handles the physical comedy well but his casting as an Eastern European outsider is uncomfortable, reminding you that Spielberg is often risk-averse with his leading roles (he's never cast a person of colour as the lead in a film that isn't specifically about people of colour). Still, nice to see Zoë Saldana as a Trekkie, five years before she played Uhura.

A rickety, insubstantial machine powered by the twin engines of Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter at their most lovable, Always is Spielberg's barely-concealed dream of working in Hollywood's golden age come true. Unashamedly romantic and absolutely awash with cheese, it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny (Dreyfuss' replacement in Hunter's affections, Brad Johnson, is a charisma vacuum; Marg Helgenberger disappears mid-movie) but is as good a way as any to spend a couple of hours having your heartstrings tugged at by a master heartstring-tugger.

There's as much daftness in Jurassic Park as there is in its unfairly-overlooked sequel, it's just hidden less well here. Granted, the story doesn't take us anywhere new (barring the misjudged San Diego excursion), but the darker tone - which matches Spielberg's only other Part 2, Temple Of Doom - and the masterful execution of the set pieces are enough to warrant the film's existence. Jeff Goldblum makes for a refreshing anti-action hero, arguably underwritten but magnetic enough not to be overshadowed by the CG spectacle surrounding him.

Spielberg's first men-on-a-mission movie is, of course, not a men-on-a-mission movie at all, but a real-individual-human-beings-with-lives-dreams-and-mothers-on-a-mission movie. Like Captain Miller's quest to find one man among tens of thousands of soldiers, though, the script's search for the individual among the many is worthy but beset with hurdles. Every cross in that Normandy graveyard is a person, Spielberg says, but it's tough to identify with any of them bar Jeremy Davies' Corporal "they don't like it" Upham, and a quarter of the film is over before we're plucked from Miller's safe (if shaky) arms and handed over to the one character who reacts like most of us would in a warzone.

The battle scenes are an undeniably visceral cinematic achievement, but without a consistent pair of eyes to see them through or any characters to truly cling to, Saving Private Ryan is ultimately "just" a very well-made war film. Without any disrespect to Davies, a 25-year-old Tom Hanks as Upham and a 45-year-old hardass like, say, Clint Eastwood as Miller, might have put this a step closer to achieving its mission.

There's an exceptional murder-mystery-slash-chase-movie with a futuristic spin screaming to be set free from the shackles of a Tom Cruise summer blockbuster here. Cruise's presence (and, in fairness, his ownership of the rights to the story) undoubtedly got the film made - and made by Steven Spielberg - but a couple of the set-pieces are blatantly crowbarred in to please plot-phobic audience members and sell a few videogames. Still, the world-building is flawless, the eye motif is fun and Colin Farrell's angry palm-punching is never not hilarious. I could have done without the aggressively twee coda (success and happiness can only be achieved with a complete family unit), and any commentary about the saturation of advertising in the future is self-defeating when it requires intrusive product placement (Nokia are doing surprisingly well in 2054), but it's great to see Spielberg find his fun mojo again after the sentimentality of Saving Private Ryan and A.I..

So dry and bewildering for its first hour that it virtually challenges you to keep watching (I've gone into both my viewings armed with this invaluable primer), Lincoln's rewards for the tenacious are plentiful. Not the least of these, naturally, is Daniel Day-Lewis' mesmerising performance, even if he often seems to be performing a deeply earnest one-man show while Tommy Lee Jones is providing the bulk of the entertainment elsewhere. Every frame feels so steeped in authenticity that watching the 13th Amendment being passed genuinely feels like witnessing history in the making, and the despondency of emerging from an age of hard-won social progress into the cold reality of Planet Trump is tough to bear.

A low-key but perfectly-crafted Cold War drama, Bridge Of Spies often feels more like Janusz Kaminski's film than Steven Spielberg's. While it's hard to fault any of Kaminski's work with The Berg, every frame of this is impressionistic eyeball sex of the most arousing order. It helps that the costume and set design are equally classy; the deep blues and expensive mahoganies of the early scenes - in sharp contrast to the cold greys of the Berlin sections - are divine to behold. Meanwhile Spielberg turns out another lesson in the importance of liberal values at a time when the world needs them more than ever, and sure enough, the world completely ignored him. Just imagine if it hadn't: Trump would've gone away and we'd all be wearing sensible cardigans like Tom Hanks does.

It's more successful as a lyrical but lightweight story about extraterrestrial contact than a study of obsession (and it seems to want to be both), but CE3K sure looks purty and sounds incredible; the early sightings are beautifully eerie while the third act is a full-on John Williams operagasm. I would love to see a special feature in which Vilmos Zsigmond presents his receipt for lightbulbs to Columbia for reimbursement.

Spielberg's (eventual) theatrical debut, a Hitchcockian Twilight Zone episode teased out to feature length, sees the 25-year-old director already letting rip with a fearlessly kinetic camera and lughole-troubling sound design. You can see him experimenting with lenses to remarkable effect, and his natural eye for a shot is, at this stage, an unhoned but powerful tool. To me (although Spielberg and writer Richard Matheson say otherwise), Duel is a hugely unsubtle metaphor about threatened masculinity, with the beefy, macho truck being the first of Spielberg's unstoppable forces (cf. sharks, dinosaurs, Nazis) to be overcome if man - or, in this case, Mann - is going to win back his place in the world. A little overlong and repetitive in places, but it's still the best film to feature a roadside gas-station-slash-herpetarium.

The Bergomeister finds a new twist for his dysfunctional family motif in the tale of a boy running away from one father into the arms of another, albeit somewhat circuitously (if only Tom Hanks' Carl Hanratty and Christopher Walken's Frank Abagnale Sr had just moved in together, this could have been Spielberg's own My Two Dads). Frank Jr's unwitting search for a new family floats on a breeze of effortless storytelling here, punctuated by adoring snapshots of '60s pop culture and the slickly deceptive luxury escapism found in the Pan Am and James Bond brands. Arguably a better film now than on release thanks to the 26-year-old in pigtails and braces who went on to become Amy Adams.

Goldie Hawn is off-the-scale adorable in this deceptively charming road trip caper, with William Atherton a revelation for those of us (i.e. me) who only know him as a pompous prick from the likes of Ghostbusters and Die Hard. Sugarland's trump card, though, is its cast of supporting characters: a menagerie of sharply-crafted bit players, each given a rich vignette or two to enhance the overall comedy. The film's rep has suffered in the shadow of Spielberg's higher-concept fare, but it's obvious that in lesser hands this would have been even more forgotten by now.

Kubrickian pessimism and Spielbergian optimism blend surprisingly well in this worryingly just-about-believable vision of what will happen when Apple finally get around to the iChild. Moral and ethical quandaries taint Spielbrick's uncannily realised world with an eerie discomfort about what we're capable of, matched only by the freaky weirdness conjured up by Haley Joel Osment (surely Stan Winston's greatest animatronic creation). A beautiful film but also a touching tribute to a friend; if anyone was going to bring Stanley Kubrick back to life for a heartbreakingly brief amount of time, it was Steven Spielberg.

Inevitably simplifying a complex operation which took place against an unfathomably bewildering political background, Munich is easily accused of boiling its delicate subject matter down to Eurotrip for amateur assassins. But Spielberg's grown-up dramas have always been about the situation in microcosm; conflict internalised in small groups or individuals. It's his way of humanising the inhuman, and although it's not very subtle here, it is very effective. Personal morals and ethics are stirred into the alphabet soup of international agencies until they dissolve completely, leaving behind only the acrid taste of paranoia.

Even without the presence of one James Bond and two Bond villains (Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric - playing father and son, no less), Munich would be a fascinating alternative view of government-sponsored killers inhabiting "a world of intersecting secrecies". The futility of knocking off a bad guy only for two more to take his place, combined with the reality of never truly knowing why you're doing the job, fosters the kind of existential crisis that would have driven Bond insane years ago. Spielberg's depressingly obvious conclusion that state-sanctioned violence is eternally self-perpetuating is hauntingly conveyed in the film's final shot, and reveals a bleak despair that suggests his more fun films are as much escapism for him as they are for us.

An exceptionally-crafted disaster movie with jaw-dropping scenes of destruction and carnage, War Of The Worlds - cannily appropriating HG Wells' double meaning of the title to subtly nod at ideological as well as interplanetary conflict - also functions as one of the smartest post-9/11 films to come out of Hollywood. Under attack from malevolent, unimaginably patient and calculating metaphors, humanity's survival instinct is laid bare in its best and worst forms, and Spielberg frequently confronts us with actions of barbaric selfishness with which we cannot help but empathise.

The script stumbles slightly in abandoning the hero's reactionary, gung-ho son once he's fulfilled his symbolic purpose, but given that the remarkable 11-year-old Dakota Fanning is doing all the heavy lifting he isn't missed. And, as with Minority Report, Tom Cruise's presence is a necessity born of the fact that he brought the project to Spielberg but highlights the sense that a better, lesser-known actor might have pulled us further into the film's world.

After a three-year gap to let the stench of Crystal Skull dissipate, Spielberg's comeback was everything Indy used to be: breathless, air-punching adventure from beginning to end. The performance-capture format was a bold move but there's simply no other way this could have worked, and you can feel The Berg's excitement at its possibilities in every frame (not least in that glorious 152-second shot that crowns the tremendous escape from Bagghar). The wait for a sequel continues to rank as one of the worst experiences mankind has ever faced.

A few too many misfiring gags in the first half and an overdependence on getting to another set piece as soon as possible still can't cancel out the winning charm of Lucas, Spielberg and Ford's timeless creation. Casting James Bond as Indiana Jones' Dad is inspired, and more than makes up for the weak villain and villainess. Vic Armstrong's incredible stunt work and the mighty John Williams help make Last Crusade eternally re-watchable, but it's the most dated of the original trilogy. See, I told you we'd all be calling it that soon.

Spielberg's inner child was never more visible than in this tale of a young boy and his intergalactic alcoholic botanist chum. Like the best kids' films, it deals with the misery of growing up: the magical twilight of the first half, with its faceless grown-ups (except for Mom) and literal wide-eyed optimism, gives way to a harshly-lit second full of mean adults, death and loss. Spielberg never forgets the simple innocence of children though, and sees it in every three-quarter lit profile shot of their faces.

As incredible an achievement as this simple tale of a hungry, tuba-playing fish is, I've always felt it loses momentum when it heads out to sea to become Alien on a boat. I miss the island-based tension, the pig-headedness of Mayor Vaughn (the film's true villain), Spielberg's impeccable deep staging and the terror that comes from never seeing the shark. That said, John Williams' score more than makes up for any of Jaws' second-half deficiencies, plugging the gaps where the director's catastrophically unreliable mechanical star let him down. For some reason we still appear to be waiting for Jaws Origins: Quint; this doesn't count.

Welcome... to peak Spielberg: the grand convergence of all the director's talents in one glorious, toothy package. Everything he ever did well, he does perfectly here, demonstrating the finest control over audiences since Alfred J Hitchcock popped his chubby clogs. If the exposition's a little clunky and the plot occasionally nonsense, it simply doesn't matter: Spielberg conducts a symphony of across-the-board technical excellence (of which Gary Rydstrom's eviscerating sound design deserves top billing) that drowns out any flaws in an opus of peerless entertainment. Having said all that, he still made four films that are even better.

I suppose you have to take the questionable ethnic representations and woefully underserved female character in the spirit of the serials and adventures that inspired the Indy films, lest they overshadow what is a breathlessly exciting and gleefully dark se/prequel. Every fight and stunt matters, every set-piece is seared into action cinema lore and the script (barring Screamin' Willie Scott's near-constant wailing) is emblematic of the wit that characterises the Golden Age of Spielberg. Temple Of Doom is Raiders' evil twin, and anyone who prefers Last Crusade is an unbearable goody-goody.

Whoopi Goldberg is terrific in her first screen role as punchbag and doormat to a hardscrabble existence in early 20th century Georgia. Spielberg transforms the gobby New York stand-up into a shy, downtrodden housewife who just about keeps a slender grip on her pride in the director’s first “grown up” film, retaining his effortless visual storytelling tics and necessary sense of humour despite the bleak subject matter. The Colo(u)r Purple wrings joy from small kindnesses, lacing a potentially crushing experience with the sweet potential of hope, but despite all that I definitely did not cry. (I definitely did)

Twelve years after Raiders Of The Lost Ark, SS takes on the SS again - and this time it's war. Schindler's List is a masterclass in balancing tone under the trickiest conditions: it effortlessly shifts from heartbreaking poignancy to unflinching brutality, even finding time for some refreshing LOLs along the way (some of Spielberg's best visual gags can be found in the first hour of this otherwise sombre epic). There's a sense that, in Spielberg's vision, the necessarily horrific depictions of the ghetto liquidation and Płaszów concentration camp took precedence over really understanding Oskar Schindler, but it hardly matters; few directors in the history of cinema have been in a position to adequately convey such inexplicable evil to a mass audience. Spielberg recognises and respects his awesome responsibility, and the result is a devastating lesson in the consequences of intolerance that, tragically, is no less relevant now than it was then.

I've spent my life digging around in this movie for that most elusive of artefacts: a flaw. I'm calling off the search now though, because Raiders is the perfect film - not just my favourite Spielberg, but probably my favourite film ever. Never have a character and actor been so impeccably matched as Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford; John Williams and Douglas Slocombe are right at the top of their considerable games, and Lawrence Kasdan's script is as loving a tribute to its inspirations in serial film as is possible. Tying all this and more together with unlimited invention, charm and wit, Spielberg makes up for previous disaster 1941 and earns himself a Get Out Of Jail Free card for every future indiscretion. Roll on Indy 5! (*crosses everything*)

Thanks to Christian Annyas and Movie Screencaps for the title cards.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Incredible Suit's Top 10 Films Of 2016

I haven't got anything nice to say about 2016 but here are some films it produced which were less awful than most of the other things it produced.

Where most Tortured Genius Biopics take you by the hand and gently lead you through a precision-calculated series of emotional switches, Miles Ahead sticks a gun in your hand, throws you into a speeding car and lets you work it out for yourself. Don Cheadle parps new life into a tired genre with this mad, zippy adventure through Miles Davis' psyche, and it's a lot more fun place to be than you'd imagine.

Dexter Fletcher nails the sporting underdog movie, drenching his tale of a hyperopic buffoon bumbling his way into the hearts of millions in true Olympian spirit. The addition of Hugh Jackman tips the film further into fiction than it purports to be, but he and Taron Egerton are so overburdened with charm it just doesn't matter. If Eddie Edwards was completely fictional this could have been the beginning of a tremendous franchise for its director and leads, but sadly it appears that Eddie The Eagle 2: Gymnastic Boogaloo remains nothing more than a sweet dream. Review

The stunning animation and coruscating political allegory aren't quite enough to shove Zootropolis into the upper echelons of this list, but they are two perfectly good reasons to sit your cute little future intolerant xenophobes in front of it every day for the rest of their childhoods. Only the faintly disappointing noirish plot lets it down, but even then there are still the DMV sloths, the greatest supporting characters of any film this year. Co-director and Simpsons alumnus Rich Moore, sandwiching this between the excellent Wreck-It Ralph and its eagerly-awaited sequel, is officially in my good books.  Review

Nostalgia, fantasy, wish-fulfilment, vinyl records, '80s fashion disasters and Duran Duran: everything I ever wanted in a feelgood musical comedy is present by the bucketload in John Carney's delightful toe-tapper. It even has one of my most favourite things in films ever: a heart-burstingly enjoyable stage show (cf. Back To The Future, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Napoleon Dynamite), although I'm docking a point for this one because it's a dream sequence. Nevertheless, Sing Street is ruddy essential for anyone who, while at school, wanted to a) be in a band, b) get off with a hot older girl, and c) wear a hat. Review

JJ Abrams expands his Cloververse with this pleasingly compact and contained potboiler; a semi-successful scriptwriting exercise where the setups are subtle enough but exist only to be paid off later rather than to be neatly integrated into the plot. Still, Dan Trachtenberg is an expert tension-ratcheter, and the final act is a gift to genre fans for the claustrophobic experience they've just been through. If we get one of these a year I'll be quite happy thank you very much.

An Expanded Universe entry brought to knicker-dampening life, Rogue One adequately fulfils its remit to tide us over until Episode VIII. It trips over its own shoelaces in the third act, but precious little has been as much fun at the cinema this year as watching Gareth Edwards conduct some of the greatest space-based carnage the Star Wars series has seen. Review

Granted, it's almost as much of an ordeal to watch as that experienced by Leo's bear-hugging trapper, but sweet baby jeebus does it look incredible. Iñárritu flings his camera through the melee of that first attack like a possessed demon, pulling off physics-defying moves unlike anything since, well, Iñárritu's last film. The bitter, unimaginable cold seeps from the frame so convincingly that you're inclined to climb inside a gutted horse to fend off frostbite, and the sheer determination and indescribable botheration that DiCaprio's Hugh Glass endures is awe-inspiring as both folk tale and modern acting triumph.

It's unlikely I'd place Victoria this highly had it been shot traditionally, but that's not to say the 138-minute single shot format is merely an impressive gimmick. Sebastian Schipper's decision to never cut away is an immersive technique that goes beyond anything 3D could ever do: you're an accomplice every step of the way and you just can't get away. Watching the final scenes knowing the actors haven't stopped for two hours drives home just what an achievement this is for cinema, making all those Hollywood phonies with their fifteen-second takes look like bumbling amateurs. Review

Denis Villeneuve's stunning alien-invasion-meets-linguistic-theory ponderer (War Of The Words, if you will) plays out like a worthy thinkpiece on the healing power of communication for the most part, and just when you're about to scroll down to see how long's left he smacks you upside the head with one of the cleverest metatextual surprises you're ever likely to see in a film starring Jeremy Renner. Technically clinical and intellectually rich, it's the second sci-fi in two years (after 2015's Coherence) to do Christopher Nolan better than Christopher Nolan. Review

A bunch of dickish jocks spend three days trying to find their place in the world and fail miserably. That's it, and it's absolutely wonderful. Richard Linklater is so good at these coming-of-age corkers now that he's just showing off; where someone like Michael Bay wanks out spectacular but unwatchable CG sequences, Linklater just ejaculates charm, tossing off one example of heartwarming bromance after another. There's no plot to speak of but the message is written between the scenes: there's a time in life when it's OK - nay, mandatory - to simply not give a fuck, and it doesn't last long so make the most of it. And if that time is way in your past, well, Linklater has made Everybody Wants Some!! so you can relive it for a couple of hours. Review


Edit: I saw 41 more films from 2016, and this list - including the #1 film - is now woefully out of date. The current version can be found here.