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.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Oldboy Murray

Things have changed since I was a lad.

Way back when it was all about VHS. I fondly remember trying to program a VCR to record many a film only to find the last twenty minutes hadn't made it, or I had totally the wrong programme set up. I'm not going to pretend I had a Betamax player, I didn't and wouldn't have appreciated the quality difference either way as I was far too young to know any better. Having said that, my mate Gav's dad had one and I think the only film we watched on it was the Ralph Bakshi version of The Lord of The Rings.

Later on DVD's came along and that was that, or so we were told. Best format ever. Indestructible. All lies! There was Blu-Ray, laser discs and a few other formats that I didn't bother with which pretty much brings me to the current age.

"Fine grain", check out the quality.
Stream on.

In the digital age I now have access to a stupidly large amount of movies. So many in fact, that I am spoilt by the sheer range of choice. And as a result I find my viewing habits have changed. I used to take pride in the fact that I'd never walked out of a film at the cinema, and watched even bad DVD's till the end, and that the whole thing was worth watching no matter how ropey it may be. After all, I'd paid my money and there was a certain satisfaction about how seeing a bad movie will play out. Nowadays, if the film's not entertaining me I can happily stop watching it and flick to something else, all without moving from my couch. I've become a really lazy viewer.

And I think it's down to a couple of things.

The (lack of) English Patience.

I love Netflix, but one of the issues is that with so much to watch there is always the feeling that with time at a premium it should be spent watching things are really worth it. And this is one of the reasons that has made me an impatient viewer. Why bother watching a film that is only just holding my interest when I could watch something really good instead? There are many times when both Rachel and myself have just stopped watching. And this has even happened part way through a TV series. We were 6 episodes into Designated Survivor and looked at each other and agreed that we just couldn't be bothered watching the rest of it (after a 6 hour commitment).

Asda's bargain basement DVD shelf.

Sometimes the issue is the wealth of choice on hand. I frequently catch myself in browse mode. This is the part of the evening when I decide I'm going to watch something but fail to make a choice as I keep looking for something slightly better. And before I know it, I've disappeared down a rabbit hole of random movies, like some breadcrumb trail leading me into a forest of films (apologies for the mixed metaphors here).

Before I know it half an hour has passed by and I decide to watch a Jason Statham movie because at this point anything is better than nothing. And this must have occurred a lot because now, when I see a Jason Statham film advertised on Netflix, I seem to know that I have watched it without actually recalling when that happened (although to be fair that could have something to do with him continually playing the same character in every film, and with the same plot).

But maybe none of this is an issue. Today there is greater choice. There is no reason to feel obliged to sit through something that you're not engaged with. It goes back to the stories of record television ratings, the people talk of the good old days when the whole nation would watch the same thing: when you only have a limited choice you tend to put up with it. Once your horizons are broadened there is a tendency to be more choosy about what you watch.

And with that, I'm off to watch Citizen Kane (or the Transporter 3).

This could be interesting...

Monday, 27 February 2017

Game over man!

Bill Paxton is one of my favourite ever actors.

I was shocked to hear that he'd passed away yesterday. I was walking past my radio when I heard the words "Bill Paxton", "61", "complications". And I stopped dead, listened hard and then repeated it. No way, not Bill. Not Hudson. 

I'm not one to fill my social media feed with sorrow when a celebrity dies but this feels different. I can't put my finger on why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Bill Paxton wasn't a leading man, was never a top billed film star, and for whatever reason never seemed to get the public credit I think his acting deserved. What he did was turn up in films and out act pretty much everyone else. He created characters that stayed with you and could be funny, charming, frightening and downright entertaining. And because of all this, I somehow felt he was something of a secret that only I was privy to. Having talked with friends today it turns out that they feel the same. Somehow, people who loved his films had a personal connection that made it feel as if they knew about this great actor that no-one else really noticed despite him being in some massive films.

Scorsese had De Niro.

When you look at the relationship he had with James Cameron, it feels as if this is an actor that the director kept coming back to time and again. Whether it be the young punk in Terminator, Hudson in Aliens, or turning up in Titanic and True Lies, there was certainly a bond between the pair. And it's some testament to him that he almost entirely stole Aliens. His turn as Hudson is brilliant, and doesn't dim despite how many times you watch it. In turn cowardly, whinging, mealy-mouthed and cynical, he eventually shows he is all Colonial Marine when he goes out in a blaze of glory taking as many Aliens with him as possible. The most quotable moments in that film are all his. And he makes a potentially one-note space marine into something much deeper.

He even made Navy Seals worth watching.

He is one of those actors who adds a lustre to bad movies. I can't wait for his scenes, hell, I can't wait for his minor roles either. Whenever I watch Commando not only do I get a thrill from classic Arnie, but I get a warm glow whenever I know the radio operator is about to get a line (because it's Bill in an early role). Ridiculous? Definitely. But I suppose that's fandom for you.

And yes, Navy Seals was appalling. But in the opening scene a Seal under heavy fire calls out "God"? And whilst you're thinking he's after divine intervention the film cuts to a close-up of Bill in a tower, with a sniper rifle, who responds with "God here" and dispatches the foe with Old Testament justice. I think I did an air punch when I first saw that!

Too many great roles.

For my money, Aliens is still his best role. Or rather, it's the one that has had the biggest impact on me. But then he also came close to stealing True Lies with his turn as a not so secret agent; One False Move saw him play the stalwart local sheriff; in Near Dark (or Aliens Reunited as I like to think of it) he played an unhinged Texan vampire; The Lords of Discipline saw him play a thoroughly unlikeable character brilliantly; Tombstone added real grit to an already impressive range; and Weird Science has to get a nod as one of the best performances of a complete jock duschbag.

So it's sad to think that there won't be any more films starring Bill Paxton. 61 is no age to go. But I'll always have a soft spot for Hudson. 

Or was it Hicks?

Hudson remembering that he is actually a Colonial Marine.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Warning, may contain spoilers.

Fair warning, this one could be a rant. I've wondered how I should approach this for a while as I have very fixed views which differ from quite a few people I know, and as such I've been conscious that I may appear as massively judgemental. But sod it, nothing ventured...

I'm intrigued when parents actively let their children watch films that are too old for them. And by this I mean letting children watch films that are certificated very plainly above their current age range. I'm not talking about teenagers, I'm talking about kids under ten years old.

I'm of the view that films have certificates for a reason. They are there to help viewers understand, at a glance, how suitable a movie is for watching.

You'll love it.

What I've observed comes down to one major factor: I see an awful lot of parents of my age who really want their kids to be interested in the films they love. These are mostly the films or comics that we grew up with in the 1980's, and that have been brought bang up to date with modern interpretations. The difference is that these films often cater to a more mature audience than we were when we watched them as kids. There is a tonal difference in these films that has been reflected by the certificate on the film.

My personal example is Star Wars. My son loves Star Wars. And I love that he loves Star Wars but he hasn't watched Revenge of the Sith (certificate 12 and featuring the decapitation of Dooku as well as the pain-wracked almost burnt alive death of Anakin). I know what you're thinking, "calm down Dom, they're just Star Wars movies". Whilst I'm happy for my seven year old to watch space battles, light sabers and ewoks, I don't believe he need to watch a grim-themed science fiction universe for an audience five years ahead of him.

Can I go home daddy?

There was another example of this when I went to see Avengers Age of Ultron at the cinema. A parent in the audience had turned up with two children, one probably about eight and the other around four. The four year old definitely didn't want to be there but dad was insistent that he wanted to watch this film. And here's what annoyed me: if he was really are desperate to watch the film,  he should go and watch it. But at least make an informed choice as to whether it's suitable for his children. Don't take them without understanding if the film is even suitable. Whilst Age of Ultron is fantasy violence (a wonderful phrase if ever I heard one) it's an unremitting slugfest from start to finish. Which really can only start a conversation about overexposure to this sort of thing and the eventual effects of desensitisation.

If you let one through...

The other side of this is that if you let your children watch films that are beyond their age you can't go back. First of all, they can't unwatch something. Second, you haven't got a leg to stand on if a film comes around that you don't want them to watch ("but you let me watch the other one"). My example, possibly a bit extreme, is this: The Dark Knight was a 12 certificate (should've been a 15, but we'll let that slide). Imagine you've let your under ten watch a 12 certificate movie. Would you then let them watch The Dark Knight? Would you be comfortable letting them watch the Joker go crazy in Gotham, or Batman beating him to a pulp in an interrogation room? I'd hope your immediate answer is no.

Best birthday ever.

Films are certificated for a variety of reasons, sometimes due to underlying themes, or language, or violence. But they are certificated for a reason. I can't wait to watch Alien with my kids (when they're old enough, just to be clear I'm not a complete hypocrite!) but I'm in no rush. There are plenty of great movies they can watch right now. The purpose of my parenting isn't to enforce the things I love onto my kids. In time I'm sure some of my interests will influence them, but that will come in time. My son has a joke with me that his twelfth birthday is going to be great because he'll be able to watch all the new Star Wars films and the second half of the Harry Potter franchise. And if that happens, that could be one of the best days we spend together.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Great Scott! Film heroes part 1.

There are certain films, film-makers and actors that have had a profound impact on me over the years. I figured that I'd share some of this from time to time, so to start off this I'm leading with the big guy. A titan of cinema. Ridley Scott.

This isn't a film-by-film account of what he's done, rather it's about how I choose to remember him. For me, Ridley Scott was the first great visual film-maker that I encountered and his visions have influenced me massively. Specifically, I don't think there's a director whose first 4 films have been so affecting. In case you aren't up to speed on his early works here's the opening films of a stunning career:

1977 - The Duellists. Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine play the eponymous duo, playing a game of cat and mouse across the backdrop of the Napoleonic era.
1979 - Alien. One of the greatest science fiction movies ever made (just ahead of Dark Star).
1982 - Blade Runner. The greatest science fiction movie ever made (two places above Dark Star).
1985 - Legend. A stunning fantasy movie that bears all the hallmarks of an Arthur Rackham painting brought to life.

Two men fighting. Yesterday.
What brings all of these together, and why they had such an impact on me is the stunning level of detail and craft that went into creating the worlds these films inhabit. Everything is believable, whether its the computers on the Nostromo, the kitchens beneath the demons layer, or the cold that  seeps into your bones when watching the retreat from the Russian front. You can almost reach out and touch it and imagine it's real.

There's a direct correlation between the film-maker and the artist in all of these films, a sense that set design and the flow of a movie is vital to breathing life into a script in order that it becomes more than just telling a story. In Alien you are brought into a horror movie in a completely alien environment (no pun intended), but it's so rooted in reality that the science fiction elements become even more believable. Eschewing a bright science fiction aesthetic for a more industrial look, Alien essentially put a cast of truckers into space. William Gibson cites it as a major influence on the birth of cyberpunk as, with such a high level of technology permeating the film, the main characters were wandering round in overalls and beaten up sneakers. And this sense of place was carried over into Blade Runner (along with quite a lot of the original sets by all accounts). The Los Angeles of the future is a living, breathing place that on the one hand is futuristic, yet on the other wholly familiar.

Still scares the crap out of me.
With regard to Legend, this is the sort of dark fairytale that we don't see much of in cinema. It's got a really mythological, northern European feel, and such a distinction between the darkness and the light. The only film in this genre I can compare it to is John Boorman's Excalibur (more on that gem in the future). This feels like an exercise in mood, where the film starts with innocence it quickly turns this ideal on its head. The performance of Tim Curry reminds us that once upon a time he was an actor of rare presence and character.

All film posters should be this good.
And yes, Ridley Scott's more hit and miss these days. He's made some films that don't live up to these early movies. But for every White Squall, there's a Gladiator. He'll pull Black Hawk Down out of nowhere. And even though he has become the director of choice for overblown historical epics (I'm looking at you Kingdom of Heaven) they are still full to the gunnels of jaw dropping visuals and set-pieces that can leave you breathless.

So with new Alien and Blade Runner films due for release this year, go back and have a look at this man's work and you'll see just how much they have to live up to.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Silence is golden

I recently showed my children some old movies. And by old I mean really old. Silent movies in fact. Pre-war in some cases (World War 2, not Iraq). I decided to do it because I wanted them to see some of the films I grew up with. And perhaps more so, I was interested in whether they'd even be entertained (yes, it was an experiment of sorts).

I took it carefully, explained that back in the day films had no sound, were black and white, and picked some of the most knockabout, slapstick, plank in the face stuff I could find. And they loved it. We started with some Laurel and Hardy and by the time those two had significantly failed to get a piano up a flight of stairs the kids were crying with laughter.

Encouraged by this we scoured YouTube for more old movies. We decided Harold Lloyd would be fun as he had glasses (like daddy) and once I explained that in Safety Last he climbed the side of a building and almost fell off the kids were sold on the idea. And so we must have watched Harold climbing that building 5 times in a row, there were gasps as he hung from the clock face, deep breaths as he swung from a rope, and screams as he fell out of a window.

Health and safety nightmare.
And as we continued to watch compilations of the greatest exponents in slapstick comedy and genuinely dangerous stunts I realised that not once did the children worry about the lack of sound or colour, or whether the special effects were up to much (which is lucky as there were no special effects to speak of). They were drawn into films that relied on visual storytelling. Strikingly, both children understood what was happening through a combination of expressive acting, and really clear film language.

I think most people have a good understanding of film language, and for the most part it's unconscious. You know when you've watched a good film, and equally when a film's a clunker you can tell what's coming with almost inhuman foresight. And this is part of the appeal of cinema, and how it came to be America's biggest form of entertainment. In the early 20th Century America took in huge numbers of immigrants and early cinema provided somewhere they could all congregate, irrespective of language, and be entertained. The fact that films had no sound was a huge boon to a burgeoning industry as there were no barriers to entry. And from this film-makers rapidly learnt what worked and what didn't, what stories resonated, which techniques they could use for maximum dramatic effect. And over time, many of these lessons have been honed rather than rewritten.

Clearly Buster was crazy.
Cinema today still relies on the same visual language of story-telling. Yes, there are more effects than ever before, and sound design has become an additional way to add mood and develop stories. But the initial lessons learnt in the early days still resonate today.

I'd recommend discovering (or rediscovering) those old movies and find out what you've been missing.