Monday, 21 August 2017

Cruise Control: Film Heroes part 2

Tom Cruise.

Close your eyes and say it again.

Tom Cruise.

I'll go out on a limb here and guess that a fair few of you are picturing Maverick, all Aviator shades and white-toothed grin.

Take a moment here. Think about it for a second. We are living in a time when we have a grade A film star making movies. There are many actors, many better actors, but there are few, if any, bigger or better film stars. I'm just going to put it out there, Tom Cruise is fantastic. Tom Cruise is why films are amazing. Tom Cruise is a force for good in cinema.

Welcome then, to the second in my irregular series looking at my film heroes.

The Scientology shaped Elephant in the room.

I'm going to get this out the way really fast. I don't care that Tom Cruise is a Scientologist. I don't care. Not a bit. He believes in something that appears utterly ludicrous, but then so do many people. I'll judge him on his films thanks, and leave his beliefs in the foyer.

The most '80's photo ever?

Early years.

I started getting into films at around the time when young Tom started breaking through, and this left an indelible impression on me. Top Gun, Risky Business, The Colour of Money, Legend, Cocktail, and Rainman are all stellar movies. And then he went and made Born on the Fourth of July. Oliver Stone was a fantastic director in his prime, he even convinced people that Charlie Sheen could have a future as a serious actor. So here Tom was, a product of youthful, exuberant movies changing up a gear and starring in a scathing film about the post-conflict effects of a generation of soldiers from Vietnam (both physical and psychological). He was a long way from Maverick.

Credit where it's due.

But he went back to Maverick in a way with the release of Days of Thunder. A great film? Nope. A terrible film? Definitely not. But the hype train was all about getting the Top Gun team back together and the reviews weren't forgiving.

And maybe there's something from this that influenced this period. The mid-nineties saw the Cruise move away from the popcorn roles and move into meatier parts. A Few Good Men ("I want the truth"... you fill in the rest), Interview With A Vampire, Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut, and Magnolia all point to someone who wanted to expand his range as well as his audience. And then he got involved in Mission: Impossible (that's the franchise box ticked then).

Maybe it's to do with his name, or the money that he's pulled in during his career but Tom Cruise doesn't get the credit he's due for his acting ability. Look at his filmography, it's insane how many different roles he's acted, let alone genres he's starred in, let alone box office successes. There's not too many turkeys in there (just don't mention Vanilla Sky).

Money where his mouth is.

There's one area where I think Tom Cruise beats everyone. Science Fiction. In a time where almost every sci-fi film is trying to start a franchise, Tom is busy putting out super high quality one-off sci-fi movies. Minority Report, War of The Worlds, Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow are all great films that fly in the face of the reliance on franchises to to the business. And yes, he has made 5 Mission: Impossible films (with a sixth coming soon), but I'll let him have those because he never went back to Top Gun.

And in a post-Taken world he is clearly enjoying the status of middle-aged action hero, and doing a much better take on it than almost anyone else. I cannot wait for American Made. It looks great fun. Here we have a film star who clearly doesn't take himself too seriously which is massively refreshing in these days of po-faced actorly types.

And talking of comedy, he absolutely lit up Tropic Thunder. What can I say, Tom Cruise is a phenomenon. I'll just leave this here....

Monday, 31 July 2017

That's the spirit

The unthinkable happened recently, Rachel and I managed to get to the cinema together minus the children. This doesn't happen very often, we normally have to book a day off work together while the kids are at school and sit in an almost empty cinema watching a random movie (assuming there's one we like the look of).

We were down in Reading for a friend's birthday and had a couple of hours to kill, so it was a simple choice between a rainy Reading town centre and the chance for us both to watch Christopher Nolan's latest in the cinema (the best place to watch his movies).

For my money, Christopher Nolan has yet to make a bad film. I've liked them all. His films have the air of touring theatre insofar as he seems to use a small cast across a variety of movies, with Tom Hardy being his current favoured actor.

And I didn't know what to expect. I'd only seen the one trailer and a handful of movie poster quotes, this more due to my lack of time to research now that I have a family than anything else. So in we went with a genuine sense of intrigue and lack of preconceptions.

And we were blown away.

One of the greatest British war movies.

There's no point waiting for the end of this blog to find out if this is a good movie. It's not. It's a great movie. I'd say it may come to be regarded as one of the greatest British war films ever made. It's right up there. It brings a classic feel to modern film making and will have a huge resonance with anyone who grew up watching classic British war movies. This is as much a maritime film as it is about the stranded soldiers on the beach of Dunkirk, it reminds us of a time when we were a nation of sailors, when we had to make a stand against one of the worst threats in living memory, and had to recover from the hammer blow of being driven from mainland Europe by the German war machine.

And it is soaring in its emotional weight, whether it's the thrill of seeing a trio of Spitfires racing overhead from the point of view of a civilian boat (that engine noise makes the heart leap), or not knowing how to count the lives lost when another British vessel is sunk by the Luftwaffe.

And here's the thing, in these days of limitless possibilities thanks to advances in CGI, and so many films hammering your senses with soundtracks, dialogue, action and explosions, this film is astonishingly minimalist.

From the opening shot you hardly see one German soldier (if any until the last scene), but you know they are there and you know they are a genuine threat. The sound design on this film is incredible, whether it be the effects of gunfire offscreen or the soundtrack itself. Everything serves to ramp up the tension. Rachel commented that it was the tensest she's ever felt in a cinema and it's hard to argue. Even the smallest issues became potential life and death fights, whether it was getting soldiers out of the sea before an oil leak caught fire, or the pilot attempting to work the landing gear on the Spitfire by hand.

It's a very different style of war movie. There isn't any bombast, the opening scene almost feels as if Nolan has consciously decided to go as far away from the opening of Saving Private Ryan as possible. It contains a completely different pace and focusses entirely on character, intensity and a very British sense of sacrifice.

No more holidays on the Isle of Wight.

And this is what most surprised me: despite the subject matter and the genre this film has an exceptionally small and personal feel. We are treated to 3 separate storylines that intertwine brilliantly. Nolan interweaves the different narratives and their respective timings like a master, and when it all comes together the outcome is breathtaking. And heartbreaking. This is a story about people and the impact of war on normal lives. He tells a story that everyone can relate to.

The considered soundtrack and lack of dialogue is made even stronger when you realise you are watching a film made by a truly visual storyteller. The confidence evident in this is striking. In most cases you are reacting to things you can't see (such as the Germans), made fearful from off-camera events or sharing the same claustrophobia as the characters. To say the scenes of soldiers aboard sinking ships are terrifying would be understating it. I may never go on the Isle of Wight ferry again.

If that wasn't enough, the film switches tack to something akin to euphoria in the scenes of aerial dogfights. You watch through gritted teeth as you hope against all hope that the RAF pilots will take down their Luftwaffe opponents and almost punch the air when they vanquish their foes. It's exhilarating cinema of the highest order.

But what of the acting? It's first rate across the board (yes, even Harry Styles). Not one actor stands out, there are no virtuoso performances, everyone is in it for the team. Each actor is wonderfully matter of fact and understated, no doubt something to do with the classic British reserve. This isn't a film that needs the hero to stand on the beach and rally the troops. This is a film about the human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, and it's all the better for it.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Who's who?

Yesterday the interweb decided to split itself in two, draw state lines and decide to go to war. "What about Dom? It must have been pretty serious, after all we are living in a time when the Syrian crisis hasn't been resolved, North Korea has nuclear capability, we have a clown in the White house, and the Conservative Party are attempting to build a Death Star (almost)".

For those who haven't been watching the downfall of the modern world, I'll fill you in: Dr Who is soon to be played by a woman...


...deep breath...

...hold it for effect...

Yep. I don't give a shit.

Really. I don't. For a proportion of people (mostly angry white men as far as I can tell) this seems to be a big issue. Somehow a fantastical, time hopping space lord/lady cannot be a woman. It can't happen. It's not allowed. "The world's crazy" they cry. "It's political correctness gone mad". "What next, Jane Bond"?

My answer to all this? It's about bloody time. And let me be absolutely clear here, I am no fan of Dr Who. It's too twee for me, it's not to my taste, it certainly isn't reflective of what I enjoy about sci-fi. Now, if someone was to serialise William Gibson's sprawl trilogy I'd be there with bells on. But it got me thinking, not about the ranting and raving of a bunch of people on the internet, but rather about some of my favourite films that have female leads. And I realised that I don't love these films because they have women in lead roles, I just love them as films which happen to have women in lead roles. Because ultimately a film lives and dies by its story and characters.

If Dr Who, or any film, TV show or play, decides to cast a man, woman or cat in the lead role and they base it on the ability of the actor then there is no issue. This became really clear to me a while back when there was a theatre production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and they cast Noma Dumezweni in the role of Hermione Granger. If you didn't know, she's black, and there was quite the backlash. My perspective on this was really simple, the films feature Emma Watson and the play is a different interpretation of the story and characters. This basically allows directors to interpret the source material as they see fit. And as for the whole "political correctness gone mad" argument, well if the odds have been stacked purely in the favour of white male actors to such an extent for so many years it should be a good thing to draw in new audiences if there is an opportunity (and as long as the actors are suitable for the production).

So what are some of my favourite movies that feature strong female leads? Well since you asked, here's a few:

La Femme Nikita - probably one of my all time favourite movies, despite Anna Parrilaud murdering a song about gondolas.
Mad Max Fury Road - a film about women that happens to have a man named Max in it.
The Fifth Element - Leeloo Dallas. Multipass (I'll stop with Luc Besson films here).
The entire Aliens franchise - Sigourney Weaver shows everyone who's boss.
Terminator 2 - Linda Hamilton is a badass.

Worth noting that I've just realised these are all action movies and no, I don't have a problem with that!

And in that vein, I can't wait for Atomic Blonde which is out very soon.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Right in the feels.

This is a blog I wanted to write about a while ago but wasn't sure how to approach it. Truth be told, I was a bit afraid of both confronting it and what people's reactions may be as I don't find talking about myself in any depth something that comes easily. This weekend was Father's Day in the UK and it seemed that I owed it to myself to write this. Firstly for myself, and maybe you'll enjoy it too. We'll see how that goes!

I've always been amazed at cinema's capacity to move people. To create emotion in an audience, whether en masse, or to an individual. And I'm usually pretty well prepared for this. With many films you can see the what's coming before it happens, and prepare yourself if necessary. It's worth noting here, I'm an emotional guy. I'm not your stalwart granite block of masculinity, the simplest things can get my bottom lip quivering. Since having kids this is basically anything that makes me consider what could happen to my own children, or anything that uncovers deep seated issues about fatherhood that have been with me since childhood.

So here's a bit of context: I'm the youngest of four children, from a single parent family. The only boy in fact. To make this a bit clearer I grew up with a mum, 3 sisters, a great aunt and a female dog. I have cousins, yep you guessed it, both girls. So the fact that I'm not wearing a princess dress still amazes me. My father left when I was four and was an intermittent presence in my life. He came, he went, he remarried, he went again, and some years ago he died. Inbetween whiles I cut him out of my life completely and when it was too late to do anything about it I realised there was an awful lot of things that I wish I'd told him. Not your mawkish huggable stuff, basically I wanted to tell him just how much of a letdown he'd been and that I felt I was much better off without his influence. But that lack of presence has influenced me nonetheless.

From downtown.

Okay Dom, so how does this relate to films? Well, recently I got absolutely side-swiped at the cinema. I didn't see it coming and the whole thing hit me like a ton of bricks. As I said above, I can usually see this sort of thing coming and put up some sort of mental barrier.

This must have been a really serious movie with grounded themes and a resonance with the harsh realities of life then? Right?

Er.... not quite.

The film that gave me a psychological left hook was Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Yep, you read that right. Come back. Stop laughing at me. I'm completely serious. And I was as surprised as you were.

I thought I was watching a knockabout sci-fi action movie, wholly unprepared for any level of actual thinking. And I was. Well, up to a point. The whole plot line of Peter Quill reunited with his father drew me in, I started getting nervous once Kurt Russell and Chris Pratt came to blows, with the God-like father figure leaving his family behind with no further thought for them. The idea of a young Quill idealising this man for years struck a chord, as did their initial meeting and thoughts that everything would turn out great. And then, spoiler alert, things changed. Kurt Russell's natural tendencies took over leaving Quill devastated. At this point I was getting a bit worried. I did the usual thing and tried to think of something else, which is pretty hard when you're in front of a 20 foot wide cinema screen complete with bombastic surround sound. There was no escaping bar heading for the fire exit.

And then the decisive blow came. In the midst of a spectacular space fight, Quill is told "He was your father but never your dad". Boom. That one knocked me down. It's exactly the same line that one of my sisters said to me shortly after my own fathers funeral, and it's always stuck with me.

Apologies to Scot.

The film ended and I bumped into my mate Scot in the foyer who offered me a lift home but I mumbled something about having a walk and bobbed off down the road to sort my head out. He said later that he just thought I was a bit drunk. Upon getting home my partner Rachel asked how the film was and I said everything here. She gave me that look. The "really?" look. The look that is at once massively sympathetic and at the same time trying to work out how on earth I have got to this place while watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2.

So there you have it. I'm continually amazed by cinemas ability to hit you right in the feels when you're least expecting it. And screw you Chris Pratt, I wasn't expecting that!

Did not see that coming.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Soundtrack of my life

A great soundtrack makes a difference. It can change the feeling of a scene, or even an entire film. The great ones manage to imbue a greater emotional depth and draw the viewer in. You could argue that in some cases they are as important as the cinematography in creating feeling in the audience.

This isn't new. Film scores have been a vital part of cinema since the earliest movies, when silent films were accompanied by music (oftentimes played live in the cinema) to heighten key parts of the plot, where there was no luxury to be had in hearing the characters actually talk, and where action scenes were often accompanied by increasingly fervent music. That damsel in distress tied to the railway tracks wouldn't have felt half as threatened if the pianist had been playing a slow waltz.

Nothing to see. No panic here.

So when did I start noticing music in films? I could pretend that it was something to do with a particularly interesting period of fascination with Czech arthouse cinema, but I'd be lying. The first soundtrack that had a real impact on me was that of Flash Gordon. You know the one, it made Star Wars look like a documentary. The biggest, brashest, not brilliantly acted, but most fantastic of science fiction films. Brian Blessed wearing pants and wings, Max Von Sydow chewing more scenery than Al Pacino in his prime, and Timothy Dalton killing Peter Duncan (take that Blue Peter). There was only one possible way to score that movie, and that was to get Queen to do the honours. Quick confession here: I'm a massive fan of Queen. Anyway, it worked. The melody of the title tune chugged along in the background throughout, punctuated by the odd explosive guitar solo or piece of music that fitted each scene perfectly. Football Fight is still probably the best piece of music to accompany a futuristic game of quasi American Football ever.

Go Flash Go!

And from here something was born. I started taking more of an interest in the music that accompanied the films I loved. And I've divided them up into types to make it easy for you.

The big hitters.
Some films are epic and they need a statement soundtrack. I'm talking about John Williams levels of sonic assault here. Growing up there was Star Wars, Close Encounters, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Superman, Bond and a fair few more besides. Event movies got their own style of music. There was no way anyone was going to be allowed to get through a film without being completely guided as to what to think at any given moment. Is the hero upset? Of course he is, can't you hear the haunting strings and oboes? Are the bad guys winning? I dunno, but there seems to be some sort of Nuremberg-esque military number going on. Has good triumphed over evil? By jimminy they have sunshine, I've never heard so many trumpets!

The complete opposite of the big budget, bombastic, blockbuster. It's a brave move to produce a minimalistic soundtrack. Done well, you're guiding the viewer through the film rather than grasping them by the hand and pointing out how they should feel at any given moment. There's one film that really stands out for me: Psycho. Despite all the attached connotations this film now has it's a study in understatement and horror, and the soundtrack is pivotal. Everything in the first act leads to the fateful shower scene of which the music is pitched perfectly. The rest of the film becomes more investigative and the music is so well judged as to almost not be there. There are few films that can match the combination of script, direction, dialogue and music so well.

John Carpenter.
He is his own category. There is minimalist and there is John Carpenter. Go and watch his earlier films and you'll see what I mean. There are few directors who can craft atmosphere from such a small musical range. Somehow he creates emptiness, fear, dread and a myriad other emotions from a really small musical palette. The stripped back nature of his soundtracks works perfectly with the low budget, hard edged films that he made his name with. My favourite soundtracks of his are Dark Star, Escape From New York, and The Thing. Go watch them.

Go Easy John, you've already used four chords.

Pop culture.
Film soundtracks used to be the preserve of composers. Not so anymore. Quentin Tarantino's use of music he loved to fit a scene became de rigour for a while back in the '90's. It was probably mimicked too much back then but has now become a standard way of scoring a movie. And when it's done well it transforms both the scenes and the songs. Stuck In The Middle With You is synonymous with Michael Madsen dancing whilst torturing a cop, whilst Guardians of the Galaxy took an entire decade of music and matched it so perfectly to the film that it added a whole new dimension to the script.

There are loads of great soundtracks that have elevated films beyond just the visuals. Too many to count to be honest. I rate pretty much anything that Kevin Shields has scored; the Natural Born Killers soundtrack by Trent Reznor is still electrifying; and Anton Karas' accompaniment in The Third Man still leaves tingles down my spine.

And you'll notice I haven't gone near Disney soundtracks. You're Welcome.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Sub-standard movies.

I went back into work today after a lovely week off to find that my office colleagues Davydd and Ian had been having a very productive conversation last week with the following question:

Has there ever been a bad submarine film?

The thoughts in the office are that, no, there hasn't. I'm not convinced I agree with this as I was unfortunate enough to have paid good money to watch U-571, and if you've you've seen Jon Bon Jovi in any movies you'll know how well that one plays out. But that aside, it's a sub-genre (see what I did there?) that has a very high hit rate of great movies attached to it.

Not even Harvey and Bill could save this one.

Maybe it's something about the inherent tension in films where the inhabitants are constantly in peril, where every move could spell disaster. Where silent running is as important as action, and where there's no end to the tense enjoyment gleaned from watching close-ups of sweating men staring upwards praying that water won't pour through a crack in the ceiling at any moment.

Films with submarines are tense enough at the best of times. And what elevates these films to greater status is the addition of a bit of conflict. If you combine submarines and war then you've pretty much got a nail-biter of a movie on your hands. There's something delightfully terrifying about listening to the pings of a sonar readout as the shadow of an enemy battleship passes overhead. And when the external threat gets too much, well there's little better than working out if there is a saboteur onboard who could scupper it all at any moment.

Full-on hipsters.

And the beards. By God the beards! It's not a submarine movie if the entire crew haven't got a face full of fuzz by the end of the first act. There's always that one radio operator who somehow manages to stay clean shaven, but the rest of the crew look like they decamped to Shoreditch for the duration of the movie. Combine that with roll-neck sweaters and pea jackets and you're suddenly watching a film that is bang on trend and giving you inspiration for your latest winter fashion look-book on Pinterest.

Here's Jurgen knocking the autumn-winter collection out of the park.

Dive! Dive!

And then there's the camaraderie. Submarine war films all have a subtext. Men, in an enclosed space, working together against the odds with nothing but their ingenuity to get them through. Cut off from the rest of the world they fight a shadow war from beneath the waves. In the best examples this is turned into a noble dignity where the submarines and their crews resemble sharks beneath the ocean picking off their unsuspecting prey. Coming up for air every so often risks being attacked by hunting packs of battleships and frigates.

Sub quality films...

If you do a quick Google search there have been hundreds of submarine movies. Below are my favourites, and they're not all war films.

  • Crimson Tide - It's Gene "born old" Hackman versus Denzel "never been in a bad movie yet" Washington in an ego driven undersea drama. Minus points for the "You have to be my Scotty" moment (thanks very much Tarantino).
  • The Hunt For Red October - Sean Connery plays a Scots/Russian submarine commander attempting to defect to the west. Or is he? Only Alec Baldwin can find out.
  • Das Boot - Jurgen Prochnow has the beard, the jumper, the pea coat and the hat (because he's the Captain).
  • The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - Wes Anderson and Bill Murray team up again in surreal submarine movie.
  • The Abyss - James Cameron's underatted classic. Close Encounters of the underwater kind. 

We all live in a...

There is one film that was mentioned to me today by Davydd that could take this genre off the charts. It's called The Atomic Submarine. No-one has seen it but judging by the poster it looks amazing. Submarines and UFO's? That's got to be a winner right?

Sub vs UFO. Sub wins!
Let me know if there's a submarine movie you think I've overlooked. I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Final Fantasy?

Whatever happened to His Dark Materials?

The film, not the books. I feel as though I may have had a dream a few years ago because I'm pretty sure a version of the first book (The Golden Compass) was made into a film with all sorts of fanfare. I recall watching it in an actual cinema, waiting with baited breath as the trailers made way for the main event and then settled down for two hours of massive disappointment.

Let me just put this in perspective for a moment. The Philip Pullman novels are some of my favourite books. Aimed at children/young adults but containing themes that resonate even as a grown up. They are simply fantastic, a great example of the art of storytelling. Starting in a skewed version of reality they soon expand to describe a fantasy setting that takes the reader on an astonishing journey.

The lead character of Lyra is wonderful, both inquisitive and vulnerable, and always resourceful. The adults in the book, whilst apparently in charge are as flawed as anyone, and frequently upstaged by the younger protagonists. Whilst the added dimension of alternate realities enables the story to shift it's pitch and create unforeseen adventures.

So back to the film.

Daniel Craig. With a beard!
Budget blown on actors.

What happened? It had a pretty good cast. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig took the lead adult roles, supported by the voice of Ian McKellan and Ian McShane, Sam Elliott played Lee Scorseby (a Cowboy, no surprises there) and Christopher Lee even got in on the act.

They cast a relative unknown in the lead role, and Dakota Blue Richards did a pretty decent job. But the film missed all the marks of the book. It was a case of all surface and no feeling. Yes, it looked sumptuous but they rattled through the story at breakneck speed, evidently worried that dwelling on the characters, their relationships and their motivations would get in the way of the next piece of epic fantasy.

Epic wide shot.

And it served to make everything formulaic. This felt like a cynical attempt to mirror the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (both this and The Golden Compass were produced by New Line Cinema). Almost every other scene opened with an "Epic Wide Shot". Stirring music wailed as the camera flew between mountains, city roofs, or down rivers before alighting on a party of adventurers. Cue close-up to pivotal lead actor; wide shot to the group; close-up of another party member; over shoulder shot of "insert important speech"; camera whizzes around; cut to next scene.

And this all served to miss the point of the books. The characters and their interplay where the things that glued the story together. The fantasy was the backdrop (important, but there to support the development of the protagonists). The film seems to want to serve this up the other way round. For all the money spent on CGI (which looked lovely by the way) you end up wishing more of it could have been spent on a script doctor.

And the worst part is there was no attempt made to finish the trilogy. It was left behind without a word. Almost as if the filmmakers were embarrassed to carry on. No doubt it didn't make the money it needed to. And this is the worst part, as a fan of the books it would've been great to see if they could have turned this around. But instead they chose to leave the series alone, and leave a potential audience behind.

After the grand success of The Lord of The Rings trilogy I fully expected the reawakening of the fantasy genre in cinema. But it never happened. Maybe audiences weren't ready. Maybe their aren't actually that many great fantasy series' that would make it into decent films (television seems to have cornered this market today). But His Dark Materials was worth a shot. Hell, it had flying boats, armoured bears and daemons in it. It's just a shame that it seemed to succumb to derivative film making, and totally failed to do justice to the books.