Thursday, December 20, 2012

Listomania! My Favourite Films of 2012

Merry Listmas, Everyone! It’s time to unwrap my Top Eleven Films of 2012.

Compiling this list was incredibly easy. Every single one of the first ten films on this list was always going to have a spot from the minute I walked out of the cinema. And then there’s the eleventh. Which kind of snuck up on me. It’s the only film on the list that I really didn’t expect to have here at the end of the year. But here we are, and there it is. We’ll come back to that one later...

Some tedious disclaimers to nip any incipient reader pedantry in the bud: Yes, this is based on UK theatrical release dates. No, obviously I haven’t seen everything. Right. Let’s get on with it. In no particular order...It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights...

The Muppets
It is believed that the word "vaudeville" is originally derived from the expression "voix de ville" which roughly translates as "voice of the city" or "songs of the town", and the beginning of 2012 marked the triumphant return of Jim Henson’s merry band of anthropomorphic vaudevillians, replete with the finest voices and the catchiest songs. Scraping away all the barnacles that have become encrusted on their furry bottoms over the years, Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller and James Bobin distilled exactly what it was that we loved about The Muppet Show in the first place, reminding us how smart and dumb and satirical and anarchic and uplifting and downright lovable the Muppets always were at their very best. An exuberant riff on a well-worn "Let’s get the gang back together and put on a show!" story, The Muppets managed to be extremely funny, surprisingly moving and genuinely exhilarating, often all at once. We always missed them, we just never realised quite how much. All together now: Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh...

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Not all of Henson’s shaggy progeny were entertainers. Some of them were educators, and I come not to bury Kevin Clash, but to praise him. Being Elmo not only places Jim Henson’s natural successor squarely in the spotlight (which is remarkable considering how shy and modest Clash appears to be), but it also manages to tell a wider story about the history of one of television's finest achievements: Sesame Street. It would be a damn shame if this documentary now becomes a buried museum piece in the wake of allegations that have surfaced about Clash in recent months, but I’m no rumourmonger and I certainly have no intention of getting into all that mess here. On the basis of Being Elmo, however, it’s difficult to square the stories that have bubbled up from the fetid toilet bowl of gossip sites with the picture portrayed here of a man who genuinely loved Being Elmo, loved being a Muppeteer and loved putting a smile on the faces of everyone that saw the open arms, gaping smile, wide eyes and bright red fur of Sesame Street’s biggest star. If you haven’t already seen it, just watch it and judge for yourself. And as a companion piece, I highly recommend Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis.


21 Jump Street
"We're reviving a canceled undercover project from the '80s and revamping it for modern times. The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice." And with that defiant statement of intent, I was sold.

On paper, this movie sounds like a horrible idea. It even has an entire sequence showing people out of their minds on drugs and, as a rule, trippy scenes like that are almost always fist-gnawingly self-indulgent. Not here, though. 21 Jump Street is a glorious, shining example of how to do it right and, as an added bonus, it introduces "Fuck You, Science!" into the lexicon of eminently quotable movie lines. Channing Tatum is a revelation - the man has some serious comedy chops. But the real star of 21 Jump Street is screenwriter / alchemist Michael Bacall who took the lead dumped in his lap and turned it into a finely-honed chunk of comedy gold.


Dark Shadows
Some people think that the lack of a defining, signature auteur style is what makes a truly great director (Steven Soderbergh, for example). But as Russ Meyer taught us over the course of his career, sometimes mining, refining and returning to certain preoccupations can also be hallmarks of a world-class filmmaker. In this particular instance I’m thinking of Tim Burton, who snags two spots in my Top Eleven.

Dark Shadows often feels as if Burton picked up a Beetlejuice-like anti-hero and dumped him into the anarchic, picaresque mess of a Mars Attacks!, and yet it is still very much it’s own thing. I’m not blind to the fact that Dark Shadows is messy and undisciplined and lacking in focus, but I almost love it more for that. It picks up, drops and sometimes just throws away storylines and plot threads, but it is based on a long-running soap opera and it’s not uncommon for soap operas to do just that. In the spirit of Dark Shadows, here are some scattershot, unrelated reasons why I loved it:

Burton doesn’t soft-peddle the darker elements of Johnny Depp’s Barnabas Collins, yet you never stop rooting for him.

It doesn’t hurt that Curtis Mayfield appears on the soundtrack - I am powerless in the face of a sliver of Superfly.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shoots the hell out of it, nailing the grey washed out tones of daytime television circa 1972, whilst also managing to capture the deep blacks and reds of Burton’s gothic flourishes or the popping colours of the more blatantly kitsch retro sequences.

The shot of Collins cowering in the glare of McDonald’s golden arches is amongst my favourite images of the year.

It is frequently very funny indeed and if you’re still not sold after all of that unequivocal praise, check out the best thing I’ve read about Dark Shadows so far by The Film Doctor here.
 

Frankenweenie
Your second helping of Burton magic: A black-and-white animated valentine to old Universal and Hammer horror movies which celebrates inquisitive and creative children that play with dead things. Love, loss, friendship and mutated corpses, all wrapped up in a lush, evocative, bombastic Danny Elfman score and gorgeous visuals.



Serbuan maut (The Raid)
A moving picture that really, really moves. It always feels somehow inappropriate to try and encapsulate in words the visceral, breathless thrills of a truly great action movie. I should just be able to point you at it and tell you to see it yourself: Every vertiginous back-flip, every excruciating bone-snap, every gravity-defying physical contortion. I saw it in an auditorium where the cinema rumbled for the duration with sympathy-groans at every cracked skull and shattered kneecap. I remember the first time I saw Die Hard and Hard Boiled and Enter the Dragon. Watching The Raid for the first time was exactly the same. Extraordinary and exhilarating are only two of the inadequate superlatives that just don’t do it justice.



Killer Joe
On the junket circuit recently, Quentin Tarantino has been making a lot of noise about the importance of a filmmaker’s legacy and the sanctity of a solid filmography, arguing that directors in their later years lack the passion, potency and innovation present in their earlier work. He obviously hasn’t seen Killer Joe. Dark, playful, twisted and disarmingly funny, William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is the work of an old master refusing to go gently into that good night, with a blistering psychosexual thriller that shows he has every intention of continuing to burn and rave at close of day. It’s also worth pointing out that Friedkin and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel get some moody, bright and beautiful footage shooting digitally. (So don’t write off digital cameras just yet, Quentin).

Matthew McConaughey has always been big. It's the pictures that got small. After far too long in the multiplex wilderness, picking up pay cheques for smirks and shirt removal, McConaughey slides into the role of Killer Joe like one of those snug black leather gloves he seems so fond of, knowing that the only way to play the part is to go all the way over-the-top and into the darkness. Surrounded by incredibly strong support from Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and a particularly fearless turn from Gina Gershon, Killer Joe has the finest ensemble acting in any movie this year. My absolute favourite film of the year, and here comes my second favourite...



Berberian Sound Studio
"This is not a horror film – this is a Santini film!". Peter Strickland lingers lovingly on the obsolete audio technology of the recent past, the demolished innards of violated vegetables and the excruciating sounds of unseen giallo The Equestrian Vortex, as timid foley artist Tony Jones gets to grips (or is that loses his grip?) on the noises he has been tasked with making in the name of art. Slippery, sickly, gorgeous and with an unexpected streak of gallows humour - in particular the verbal descriptions of the action that is always just out of shot: "The dangerously aroused goblin prowls the dormitory". Very much looking forward to Strickland’s third feature The Duke of Burgundy, a dark melodrama that is currently in production with Ben Wheatley’s Rook Films.



Looper
Repeat after me: Time travel movies are not mathematical equations. They don’t have to fit together perfectly. They can’t fit together perfectly. If you spend all of your time trying to figure out how everything slots together seamlessly, you just won’t enjoy yourself. And if you don’t want to enjoy yourself, you have no business going to watch something as enjoyable, rich and multi-layered as Looper. That’s the true paradox of a time paradox film. Through his scrubby beard, Jeff Daniels warns the audience: "This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg..." You would do well to heed his words.

When Bruce Willis was 31, he was appearing in the Second Season of Moonlighting. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt was 31, he was playing a young Bruce Willis in Looper. I find this bit of trivia endlessly distracting now, especially when I look at Levitt’s prosthetic nose and wonder why he doesn’t look like David Addison...


Argo
The moment I saw that 70s-era Warner Brothers logo at the beginning of Argo, I had a feeling I was going to enjoy myself. Deliberately invoking an era of classic political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View is a ballsy, dangerous gambit, but Ben Affleck pulls it off. Argo is far pulpier than its forebears, and the final movement of the film certainly feels like it indulges in a hefty dollop of dramatic licence just to amp up the tension, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a confident, accomplished and compelling yarn about a largely unknown part of our recent secret history.



The Avengers
When I started thinking about this list, I wasn’t sure that it would make the cut. But I would be guilty of the worst kind of inverse snobbery if I didn’t find an eleventh spot on this list for The Avengers. Joss Whedon pulls together all the strands of the Marvel Universe that have been building towards this moment for years and ties it all together with spectacle, snappy banter and a handful of genuine punch-the-air crowd-pleasing moments. Unlike The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, The Avengers is not remotely embarrassed of its source material and wholeheartedly embraces it. Colourful, epic, just the right side of silly and heaps of fun. On top of that, Whedon does what no-one has been able to do since the days when Lou Ferrigno ruled the cathode ray: He not only made the Hulk work in a movie, he made him the star. Incredible and Smashing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Listomania! Prologue

It’s that time again.

As I start to look back over the last twelve months so that I can cobble together a list of my favourite films of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to look a little bit further than that to remind myself of the films that I had loved in previous years. And that’s when I realised that I hadn’t actually published any Year-End Favourite Lists for quite a few years running now. So, consider this a corrective.

A quick note: I don’t really do Top Tens. Ten seems like an incredibly arbitrary number, and I have absolutely no intention of adding or subtracting movies I love from a list just because of some meaningless, predefined “That’s What Everybody Else Does” rule. None of the lists below add up to ten. Feel free to draw your own conclusions. (At the moment, it looks like my 2012 list is going to feature eleven titles in total. I laugh in the face of your quaint, archaic Round Numbers!)

So. I present my favourites from the last three years in alphabetical order, without explanation or apology. Let’s do it:

2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord & Chris Miller)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Moon (Duncan Jones)
Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson)
White Lightnin’ (Dominic Murphy)

2010

Buried (Rodrigo Cortés)
Four Lions (Chris Morris)
Gentlemen Broncos (Jared Hess)
La nana (The Maid) (Sebastián Silva)
Madeo (Mother) (Joon-ho Bong)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)

2011

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
The Interrupters (Steve James)
Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Rango (Gore Verbinski)
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Popism

Online research is a minefield. You start off with the best of intentions, with a specific target in mind. And then you start to click. Click click click. Before you know it, the morning has evaporated, your browser is creaking under the weight of a slew of open tabs that are spawning at an unholy rate and you’ve forgotten what you were looking for in the first place. That’s not always such a bad thing, because if you kick enough rocks, you never know what you might find. For example...

I’ve never been a huge fan of Andy Warhol’s art, but I am a fan of his work ethic. Today’s indiscriminate clickery led me to this morsel of Warholia:

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Which is great. And true. And which, with a few more judicious keystrokes, led me this:

“They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” -- from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) (1975)

Preach on, Andy!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Deadly Sounds of Kung Fu



May you live in interesting times.

For quite a while now we’ve been living in an age where, if you can imagine it, someone else can make it. Or, at the very least, fake it. Technology makes it possible for visual storytellers to show us a convincing Middle Earth or a plausible Narnia. Robots turn into cars, aliens invade on a seasonal basis, and a raging green behemoth can punch a Norse demi-god across a room to rapturous applause. But the ability to realise anything on screen almost somehow makes it less impressive. I’m not dismissing these significant achievements in visual effects at all - I’m just saying that the extraordinary has become a little bit ordinary. The effects aren’t quite as special as they used to be - it’s just Standard Operating Procedure for another summer at the movies.

And so I tend to retreat from the uncanny valley and return to my beloved old-school bone-crunchers. The stuff you can’t fake. It may all be meticulously choreographed, but fists still connect with jaws and heads still collide with walls. Anyone who has ever sat through a Jackie Chan gag-reel knows that they are looking at real blood, real bruises and real teeth scattered on the ground in puddles of fresh mouth gore. I’ve been watching a lot of this stuff this year - my idea of comfort viewing is wincing in sympathy as someone gets kicked in the face. A cry of “Ow! My balls!” is a clarion call to attention for my jaded CGI-weary eyes. Whether it’s Gina Carano in Haywire, Iko Uwais in The Raid, Saoirse Ronan in Hanna or Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan in pretty much anything, nothing beats the primal thrills of two people artfully beating the ever-loving shit out of each other in the name of cinematic entertainment. As Werner Herzog once said: “Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung-fu film.” And it would be madness to disagree with Werner Herzog.

Which is an incredibly circuitous way of saying that I was watching the great Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow recently. The directorial debut of Chinese martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, starring Jackie Chan in his first breakout hit and co-starring the director’s father Yuen Siu-tien as Jackie’s sifu, if you’ve seen Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, then you know how magnificent the physical contortions on display are. But this isn’t a review. If you want that, I’d suggest clicking through to Robert Makin’s piece here.

As I was enjoying the original Chinese language print of the film, I was somewhat distracted by the incongruous sounds of Space’s Magic Fly over the opening titles. It sounds like this:


But that’s not all. There are more anachronistic synths in the form of Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygène (Part II) over a couple of training sequences later on in the film.


And so after the film, I decided to fire up the MagiGoogle Portal of Wisdom & Tax Avoidance to see what else I could find. And I discovered that there were a lot of other unusual music cues that I’d missed. (Credit where it's due: Most of the heavy-lifting here has been done thanks to the Martial Arts Music Wiki.) In addition to the original score by Chou Fu-liang, there were snippets of scores filched from Hollywood movies. This sort of musical pilfering was common in Hong Kong cinema back then. This is what I learned.

There are slivers of the epic bombast of John Williams from Star Wars dotted around at various points. (And when I say Star Wars, I mean what people now insist on tediously referring to as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. There are far too many colons in movie titles these days. Mumble grumble.)

So. Yeah. Star Wars. An excerpt of The Battle of Yavin appears in two places - at the end of the opening titles (which would mean at the end of the Space track, for those keeping track of all this stuff), and again just before a fight sequence towards the end of the film. (For people like me who don’t worship at the altar of the George Lucas Toy Factory, The Battle of Yavin is the bit when the Death Star blows up. If I’m wrong, no doubt someone will pop up in the comments to point out the error of my ways about something I don’t give a shit about).



What else? There’s supposed to be a bit of Ennio Morricone from A Fistful Of Dollars, but I can’t find it or where it appears. There’s a cue from Marvin Hamlisch’s The Tanker from The Spy Who Loved Me right after the opening credits. The “Something Dramatic is Happening!” music cue to denote things like character deaths in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is the piano crash at the start of Jerry Fielding’s The Rape from The Outlaw Josey Wales. (This piano crash right here).

The memorable and distinctively Bondian A Drop In The Ocean by John Barry from You Only Live Twice also crops up in one scene. (Side note: I did not know before now that John Barry's full name was John Barry Prendergast. This amuses me far more than it should):


There are also two Johnny Harris tracks from Bloomfield - Love Theme and Closing Love Theme. Nothing says “training sequence” like a love theme...(Also: was the name "John" a prerequisite for having your tunes pinched for inclusion in a kung fu movie back then?)


When the film was distributed in America in the 1980s as The Eagle’s Shadow, producer Serafim Karalexis ensured that it appeared with a new score to dodge the copyright pitfalls there would have been with the original unlicensed soundtrack, replete with a cover of the Space track amongst the library tracks thrown into the mix.

And I’m done. I willingly concede that I may be the only person remotely interested in this stuff. If you’ve read this far, you deserve some kind of reward. Here, have an amusing screengrab:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Doublethink


Prompted in no small part by a sprawling Twitter discussion I was having yesterday with Anton Bitel and Craig Skinner about the parlous state of film criticism, questionable ethics and pastries, there’s a terrific quote from George Orwell that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. If I only had the time or the mental real estate to spare, this would serve as a jumping-off point for a longer, no-holds-barred blogpost that would give me a chance to scratch beneath the 140-character surface and really tear into the meat of it. One day, one day...

But, until then...

“I must say, from experience of both trades, that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home, but has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry.” — George Orwell from Confessions of a Book Reviewer



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Short Controlled Bursts

Because you can never have enough Online Procrastination Tools, I can now be found over on Letterboxd. In their words, Letterboxd is “a social network for sharing your taste in film” and I find myself on there on a regular basis making lists, updating my viewing diary and, sometimes, throwing together little capsule reviews largely cobbled together from tweets I’ve hurled out into the void upon exiting a cinema. If you feel like disappearing down the rabbit hole of my viewing habits, my Letterboxd page is here and if you fancy trying it yourself, just holler - I’ve still got a couple of invites going spare if anyone wants one.

As a dedicated proponent of recycling, I’ve grabbed a handful of recent Letterboxd mini-reviews, buffed them up a bit, and I’m chucking them up here. Go on, have a read. They’re only short.

Berberian Sound Studio
If it weren’t for the family-that-slays-together-stays-together-but-not-for-long grime of Killer Joe, then Berberian Sound Studio just might have been my Film of the Year. Grungy, queasy, elliptical and really very beautiful. An aphrodisiac for obsolete tech fetishists. Those spools, those knobs...But won't someone think of the vegetables? Those poor, poor vegetables...

Ted
If you like the idea of Seth MacFarlane jerking off to Flash Gordon for 106 minutes, then Ted is the self-loathing Summer movie for you! Also, don't do an Airplane! homage in your piece-of-shit talking bear movie if you can't come up with at least one joke as good as that movie had, MacFarlane. Mean-spirited in a brazenly artificial, button-pushing way, and yet it doesn't even have the courage of its posturing convictions and pussies out for a happy Hollywood ending. Apparently, an earlier draft of the script contained a narrated framing sequence with Peter Falk, referencing The Princess Bride. This is the only (in)conceivable instance where it is acceptable to feel happy that Peter Falk is dead.

Due Date
The sheer fucking unwarranted hubris of Todd Phillips that he thought he could better (let alone equal) Planes, Trains & Automobiles. I laughed a total of two times - both times because Robert Downey Jr. pulled a facial expression that managed to rise above the pitiful slop of the script. (I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to sit down to watch this. Since my vitriolic screed about The Hangover everybody knows how much I despise the oeuvre of Todd Phillips by now, right?)

TRON: Legacy
I really didn't expect to enjoy TRON: Legacy at all. I’m not one of those people who gets a warm fuzzy nostalgic glow when I think about the original TRON - it hasn’t aged well at all. I’m not entirely convinced that it looked all that good to begin with. And there seems to be a little bit of revisionist history at play too - people seem to have forgotten that the double-whammy box-office failures of both TRON and The Black Hole scared Disney off live-action feature film production for a decade. It’s surprising that TRON: Legacy exists at all. But the irresistible soundtrack by Daft Punk (I can’t stop listening to the damn thing), the insanely camp performance by Michael Sheen, and Jeff Bridges going Full Hippie is a helluva lot of fun. I’ve watched it a few times now and I’m still enjoying the hell out of it. This would also make a fine double-bill of Neon Racing movies coupled with John Singleton’s anime-inflected 2 Fast 2 Furious. I’m not kidding. "Biodigital jazz, man."

Priest
The worst crime that the thuddingly dull Priest commits is having Mädchen Amick on screen for mere minutes before killing her off-screen. (I can’t be the only Twin Peaks aficionado who feels that way). Which is a damn shame, as I really enjoyed the previous Paul Bettany-Scott Charles Stewart collaboration, the diner-at-the-end-of-the-world angels-with-uzis Grand Guignol Legion.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Write Up My Alley

This is a sequel of sorts to a post I wrote a while back collecting words of wit and wisdom about writing, curated by me, a person deeply suspicious of One-Size-Fits-All writing advice. Nevertheless, occasionally a few choice observations manage to penetrate my thick carapace of scepticism to earn the AKA seal of approval. It’s no coincidence that all of the quotations below come from writers I admire. Here are some of my recent favourites:

"Anyone who says he wants to be a writer and isn’t writing, doesn’t."
Ernest Hemingway

"Write like everyone you know is dead. You can't please everyone, so don't try."
Joe R. Lansdale
(1) Write your nonsense stories out your system.
(2) Actually sit and write, treating it as a craft. FaceBook fighting is not writing.
(3) Take criticism as a criticism of your work and not you, despite how it feels. You are not perfect, everything can be improved. It will take someone other than yourself to usually find where you need to improve on that.
(4) Operate with realism not convenience, since the latter is detectable bullshit.
(5) Be aware of patterns in your writing.
Alex De Campi from this interview at 3quarksdaily. Also: Buy Her Comics! They're great.
"So put the work in and believe in yourself, believe in your ability to change yourself, if not the world, because changing the world does actually start with changing yourself."
Alan Moore from The Honest Alan Moore Interview - Part 3: On Comics, How to Break Into Comics, and Modern Culture
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
Mark Twain
It doesn't matter what time of day you work, but you have to work every day because creation, like life, is always slipping away from you. You must write every day, but there's no time limit on how long you have to write.

One day you might read over what you've done and think about it. You pick up the pencil or turn on the computer, but no new words come. That's fine. Sometimes you can't go further. Correct a misspelling, reread a perplexing paragraph, and then let it go. You have re-entered the dream of the work, and that's enough to keep the story alive for another 24 hours.

The next day you might write for hours; there's no way to tell. The goal is not a number of words or hours spent writing. All you need to do is to keep your heart and mind open to the work.
Walter Mosley
"If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough."
Warren Ellis from his excellent blogpost The Manfred Macx Media Diet

Friday, August 17, 2012

We Can Be Heroes Just For One Day

When I started this blog over eight years ago, many of the early posts were written in the stifling atmosphere of a former central London police station converted into rudimentary office space. Rumours persisted that it was one of the most haunted buildings in the UK, dating back to when a police officer had hung himself in one of the cells decades earlier. My desk wasn’t that far from the old cells...

Sitting opposite me for much of that time was Matt Phipps. We both sat there quietly despising our colleagues and tapping away on keyboards writing instead of doing what we were (poorly) paid to do. We both eventually got the fuck out of that job before it destroyed our souls, but we have kept in close touch ever since. The labyrinthine machinations of life will always ensure that the path ahead is strewn with people dumber than you, so you better make damn sure that when you meet people smarter than you, you hang on to them. And so I did.

A lot has happened in both our lives over the last eight years. Matt is now a father and writer living in São Paulo. We don’t see each other anywhere near as much as we would like (geography can be a motherfucker), but I suppose we are as close as two people separated by an equator can be. And I always like to keep tabs on anything and everything he writes, as he brings to bear a distinctive voice, an idiosyncratic curiosity and intellectual rigour to anything his mind alights on. And as an added bonus, there will often be dick jokes.

So when, a couple of weeks ago, he posted a blogpost partially inspired by the tragedy of the multiplex shootings in Aurora, Colorado, I paid attention. He mused that he “happened to be thinking about heroes a lot in the week before that night, in particular about how we keep returning to heroic narratives despite living in a decidedly unheroic world. Is it OK to like heroes? Or does it represent a failure to engage with reality? Worse, is it dangerous?”. His thoughts on Heroes are well-worth a read and I highly recommend clicking-through and digesting the lot.

His post started an email exchange in which I took his well-considered, thoughtful ideas as a jumping-off point and added my scattershot, half-baked witterings to the mix. Clearly, Matt thought that they had merit, as he has kindly requested that he could re-post my thoughts over on his blog. You can read my contribution to the debate here. We touch on cyphers, spandex, sonic screwdrivers and more. Go forth and read.

Matt can be found on Twitter here and you can read his wide-ranging array of blogposts here. There is also a light smattering of blatant Cliff Richard fetishism. So there’s something for everyone.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Kentucky Fried Friedkin

On Friday 22 June, I headed over to the BFI Southbank for a screening of Killer Joe followed by an on-stage Q&A with William Friedkin hosted by Mark Kermode. Unless something pretty astonishing and unforeseen comes down the pike in the next five months, Killer Joe is already a lock for my favourite film of the year, and it’s a joy to behold a film as raw, visceral and vibrant as this coming from a 76-year old filmmaker.

Regular readers of the blog should know my tastes by now. My cinematic appetites lean towards the pulpier end of the spectrum so, for me, the canon of All-Time Great Directors are masterful genre practitioners like Landis, Carpenter, Walter Hill and William Friedkin. (Let’s throw in Brian De Palma to make it a solid fistful of five filmmakers). So it goes without saying that I was vibrating with excitement at the prospect of hearing the great Billy Friedkin regaling an audience with his no-bullshit opinions. As expected, he didn’t pull his punches. He talked freely about things he didn’t like - “I hate 3D...who needs it?” and the things he loved (proclaiming Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba “the best horror film I’ve ever seen”). Friedkin also describes himself as a “Ripperologist” and he discussed his abortive attempt to bring James Maybrick’s Jack the Ripper diaries to the screen in a film that would have been called Battlecrease.

Here are some of the other conversational detours that I found particularly interesting.

On Alfred Hitchcock:

Following on from the success of his award-winning documentary The People vs. Paul Crump, the producer of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Norman Lloyd, invited him to direct the final episode of the show - the episode Off Season that aired on May 10th 1965. (Norman Lloyd may be better known as Hitchcock's Saboteur and, more recently, as Dr. Auschlander on St. Elsewhere). Here’s Friedkin on what happened next:

“One day Mr. Hitchcock came on the set, and he just came on the set in those days to read his introductions, he didn’t direct any more of the shows or even look at the scripts, but they brought him over, a phalanx of guys in very dark suits, these were the Black Suits of Black Rock, which was Universal Studios, and they came as a giant phalanx and in the centre of them was Mr. Hitchcock and they brought him over to me and Norman Lloyd introduced him to me and I was dressed not quite as good as I am now. And Hitchcock put out his hand - it looked like a dead fish - and I think he expected me to kiss it or something, but I took his hand and I said: “Oh, it’s really an honour to meet you, sir” and it was. And he said: “Mr. Friedkin, usually our directors wear ties”. And I thought he was kidding and I made some lame remark. I said: “Well, in my haste to get to the set, I left my...” and by the time I’d finished he’d gone.

And five years later, I won the Director’s Guild Award for The French Connection, and it’s done in a big ballroom with people having dinner and wine and all that and then you get up and they present these awards, and when I got up to accept my award, I saw right down in front of me at a table, in the front, Mr. Hitchcock and his entire family and his retinue of assistants and I was sort of distracted in my acceptance speech, but there were some steps leading right down, you weren’t supposed to take those steps, you were supposed to go off into the wings and be interviewed. I had a rented tuxedo on and one of those snap-on bow-ties and I went right down to Mr. Hitchcock’s table. I had this gigantic award and I snapped my tie at him, and I said: “How do you like the tie now, Hitch?” And of course, it was very disrespectful. But he simply stared at me, he had no memory of what I was referring to. Of course, I had carried it with me for five years, and it was only a cheap closure after five years.”

Nevertheless, Friedkin still referred to Hitchcock as the Master. “There are many others considered Masters, but I don’t think there’s ever been a director more influential than Mr Hitchcock.”
On Cruising:

The ratings board took forty minutes out of the film in order to get an R rating, which the studio had to have, and now recently that studio, which was United Artists that no longer exists, so Warner Brothers acquired the home video rights and they looked everywhere imaginable for the footage that was cut, anywhere that it might have been, and they couldn’t find it, or I would’ve put it back into the Blu-ray of Cruising which Warners released. I had to go back to the ratings board fifty times before they gave me an R rating. We just wore them down.

There were scenes that were not really S&M porn in the film that were also cut. The cuts to Cruising were draconian, and there’s the intimation at the end of the film that the Al Pacino character, who plays an undercover detective who goes into the S&M world to try and find a killer, there’s the intimation at the end that he may be one of several killers, that he may have flipped out and lost it and become one of the murderers, and I only discovered that in the cutting room. It’s not in the script. When the film was finished and I showed it to Pacino, he said: “You didn’t tell me that I might be one of the murderers!”. And I said: “What did you need to know for? I don’t know myself, it’s just an intimation”. And, really, films speak to you in the cutting room. They tell you things about themselves that you don’t know going in and I discovered that aspect of Cruising only in the cutting room.

Pacino was very difficult to work with, he was unprepared. That was part of his modus operandi. After the success of The Godfather, he felt that the way to make a film was to learn the lines just before you shot the scene and to go out and do it about twenty or thirty times until magic happened. And sometimes magic would happen, but by that time the other actors in the scene who were prepared were dead. They had lost their mojo. Pacino would get happy around Take Thirty. By the time I came to direct Killer Joe, I made it very clear to these actors that I was a one-take guy. I would only do Take Two if a light fell into the shot or the camera fell over or if an actor died and we had to replace him. I’m not interested in perfection in cinema. In the films that I make, and I haven’t done Shakespeare, I’m much more interested in spontaneity and I found when I made my first films, I would do twenty or thirty takes just like the next guy hoping for magic to happen, and I found when I got to the editing room that the take that I wound up using was the first printed take. That’s where the spontaneity was. All the rest were just repetitious. Long before I got to Killer Joe, I made it a point: No Second Takes. You have to approach this stuff like it’s live. So we never did more than two takes. If a shot was out-of-focus, and I even allowed some of out-of-focus shots into the film, because I thought the performances were good and I didn't reshoot them, but I believe in spontaneity over perfection.

On Drive:

There are a lot of films that owe a debt to To Live and Die in L.A.  Have you ever seen Lethal Weapon 3, where they did the same chase? And other films. The last Bourne film which I very much liked, I think it’s The Bourne Ultimatum, it did the wrong way chase, it was very well done. A lot of it was done with CGI. We had to do everything in the chase scenes that I filmed because that other stuff didn't exist. Drive was a film that I felt that I had seen before. I wasn't that impressed with it, to be honest with you. I met the young director before he did the film [Nicolas Winding Refn] and he gave me the DVD of To Live and Die in L.A. to sign. This was at Cannes when we ran Cruising [in the Director’s Fortnight in 2007]. I guess he’s a very talented young man, but I think I had seen Drive many times. I thought he owed a greater debt to that film Melville did with Alain Delon, Le Samouraï. I thought that the tone, the mood, the shots, the kind of laid back approach to it was much closer and owed a much deeper debt to the film Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville, a great timeless movie to me.

[It’s good to know that Friedkin’s opinion of Drive tallies with mine.]

On To Live and Die in L.A.:

I worked with the cinematographer who shot the chase in To Live and Die in L.A., not the rest of the film, that was Robby Müller, but the young man who shot the chase, I put him in charge of the cinematography for that because he was, though he had never been a Director of Photography, he was a Camera Operator, he was more comfortable shooting a chase scene than Robby Müller was. He really needed a perfect light to frame his shots, and when you’re doing a chase you’re shooting in all direction at all times, but the young cinematographer who shot the chase with me was a young fella named Bob Yeoman, who has now done all of Wes Anderson’s films including the most recent one, Moonrise Kingdom, and that was his first job and I felt he could do it. The production designer of To Live and Die in L.A. was a woman called Lilly Kilvert and I had made The French Connection which had a macho sort of a reputation, and I didn't want To Live and Die in L.A. to have that same sort of feeling. I didn’t want it to be quite so macho, I wanted it to be kind of sexually ambiguous and I chose women in very important roles in that film.

On 35mm vs digital:

Killer Joe was shot on a new camera called the Arriflex Alexa. It’s a digital camera, but Caleb Deschanel’s lighting is film-style lighting, and even with digital equipment, if you film the scenes like a film, it’s gonna look like a film, only you have more depth and more latitude in colour timing and in density, than you have with 35mm film. And, in any case, unfortunately and sadly, 35mm film is over. It’s a thing of the past.

The manufacture of a 35mm print was very, very difficult once the labs got rid of the three-strip process. It used to be three strips of film that would be combined to make a colour print. It was a yellow strip, a cyan print and a magenta print. These were the original negatives: yellow, cyan and magenta. And they have produced copies that are still magnificent, like the MGM musicals that were shot in the three-strip Technicolor process, and those films still look great today, but when the labs converted to single negative film, those films have a shelf-life and they fade. A couple of years ago, when Paramount wanted to make the new Blu-ray of The Godfather, which is their crown jewel, they went into the vault and the negative had completely faded. All those deep rich blacks that Gordon Willis had lit were gone and were the colour of milk. They had faded to milk and they had to spend close to $2 million to digitally restore the film to get what was ultimately a beautiful Blu-ray copy. But printing itself, in the one single negative process, had many flaws. For example, on The Exorcist, I would reject 25 or 30 reels to get one reel, and The Exorcist is twelve reels, and each reel is printed separately. Each reel is roughly 1,000 feet of film. You print them separately, and what happens when you print a reel of film in, for example, Technicolor in the San Fernando Valley outside of Hollywood, the chemistry in the water is constantly changing. The water that is the developer, the amoeba are constantly changing and the electricity that is going to the printer is constantly fluctuating, even unnoticeably, but it is fluctuating, and so a print would come off that was green, and the next roll was blue, and you’d have to go back, and they’d have to retool and compensate for the errors that the technology itself had built in. Now, that’s no longer the case with digital. Every single copy will and should look the same.

If you want to watch a little bit of the Q&A, some of the footage is available to view at the BFI website here.

Friday, July 06, 2012

A Life in Tweets

There was a time when Twitter wasn’t thought of so much as a social network, but more like a microblog. I certainly didn’t use it that much as a communication tool when I first started out. I just catalogued the minutiae of my life in 140-character increments. I sent my first tweet at 2.57pm on 25 May 2007. As of this blogpost, I have thrown 7,437 tweets out into the world. With an idle half-hour at my disposal, I decided to take a gentle stroll through my tweet archive. Tweets seem almost intentionally designed to be disposable, but very early on I got into the habit of keeping copies of all my tweets by doing an occasional cut-and-paste on my Twitter timeline. For my own amusement, I decided to zero in on tweets posted on this date, July the 6th, and I’m throwing them up here as an ephemeral snapshot of my life on this day over the last six years:

Started the day listening to the Beastie Boys' "Sure Shot" & killing zombies LIKE A BOSS.
10:01 AM - 6 Jul 12 via Twitter for iPhone
 
I want Frank Langella as Rupert Murdoch for a #NotW movie. "I'm saying that when News International does it, it's *not* illegal!"
06 July 2011 15:03:51 via Seesmic twhirl

All of this simmering hype for INCEPTION just makes me want to watch DREAMSCAPE again: http://bit.ly/cy8uSN
06 July 2010 09:46:44 via Seesmic

Working my way through the email account of a dead person is not my idea of a fun afternoon. Need a fucking break.
3:51 PM Jul 6th 2009 from web

DOCTOR WHO = 13 weeks of build-up to...a headache. That made no sense at all. Enjoyable? Yes. Bullshit? Also yes.
01:22 AM July 06, 2008 from web

Watching a guy running a Find The Lady card scam at the bus stop. Got the crowd eating out of his sleight-of-hand.
05:53 PM July 06, 2007 from txt 



Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Unwritten

And so, with my belated recollections of the John Landis Q&A from 2010, I think that I’ve now exhausted my cache of Unfinished Things that are Potentially Blogworthy. Half-formed ponderings that almost made the cut include:

A post bestowing lavish praise on Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, the finest piece of genre fiction on British Television since the 1980s (with the obvious exception of the indestructible Doctor Who. And, yes, I am getting impatient with excitement for the return of the mad man with a box. Not long now!)


Anyway, yes, Dead Set. Absolutely phenomenal. I rewatch the whole thing at least once a year. It is magnificent, and it’s probably a good thing that I never wrote about it in any great detail as it would have just been a post dripping with superlatives. Although I was going to go off on a tangent about the BBC’s revival of Terry Nation’s Survivors from 2008, going into all the reasons why it didn’t quite work when Dead Set did.

The original three-season, 38-episode iteration of Survivors from 1975 to 1977 was overwhelmingly white and middle-class (but, hey, that's the BBC in the Seventies for you) and it wasn’t always fun, and it had that peculiarly-BBC habit of defaulting to episodes based in rock quarries in the arsehole of nowhere every now and then (just like Doctor Who. All conversational roads lead to Doctor Who eventually). But it was, on balance, sufficiently compelling and bleak with a far higher success rate than, say, AMC’s The Walking Dead when it came to the nuts and bolts of “The world we know has gone. What the fuck do we do now?” post-apocalyptic fiction.

What else was I playing with? A valentine to Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh. As I get older, it occurs to me that Murtaugh was the true badass of the Lethal Weapon movies. That other guy with the wobbly accent, the dodgy mullet and the predilection for getting his arse out? Not so much. But it was just an idea. And ideas on their own ain't worth shit. But I stand by my assertion that Murtaugh, despite repeated protestations that he was getting too old for that shit, was The Man. Being crazy is easy. I'll take the reluctant, grizzled warrior with the six-shooter over that Every Single Time.

The only other thing of note I was tinkering with was a post picking apart The Cabin in the Woods. It basically boiled down to my opinion that, whilst it is clever, it is often too clever for its own good and yet never quite as clever as it thinks it is. At the same time, it is far too arch and knowing to ever be scary. And I say all this as someone who actually kind of enjoyed it. But I was never going to be able to top Sean Witzke’s blistering deconstruction of Goddard and Whedon’s meta-horror that kicked off his epic journey through 83 slasher movies. Go and read all of it.

So. Time to write new things instead of applying paddles to the corpses rotting on my hard drive. Next up: William Motherfucking Friedkin. Watch this space. It'll be finger-lickin' good.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

See You Next Wednesday - An Evening with John Landis

Once upon a time, there were two men called John, and they towered above all others in spraying fuel on the simmering embers of my nascent cinephilia. Back in 1994, I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A with John Carpenter at the National Film Theatre to accompany the world premiere of his wonderfully nuts Lovecraftian feverdream In The Mouth of Madness.

16 years later and, on Tuesday 16th March 2010, I finally caught up with John Landis on exactly the same stage at the now-renamed BFI Southbank. An unflagging bundle of enthusiasm, self-confessed film geek Landis came straight from a day's shooting on Burke and Hare at Ealing Studios and sat with the audience through a rare showing of his 2004 documentary Slasher before regaling us all with his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of movies for two hours, starting out by taking photos of the audience from the stage and wrapping it all up by exhorting us to go and watch Scott Pilgrim vs. The World when it arrived, directed by his friend Edgar Wright who was sitting amongst us.

The following is cobbled together from a bunch of notes I made over two years ago, so cut me some slack.
On his friendship with Alfred Hitchcock:

During their regular lunch dates, Hitchcock expressed his irritation that Dressed To Kill was frequently referred to as “Hitchcockian” by calling Brian DePalma “that boy that steals from me” to which Landis said:
"But Hitch, he’s not stealing from you, it's an homage."
"You mean fromage?"

On bad movies:

Landis unashamedly loves bad movies, in particular the oeuvre of Roland Emmerich, singling out the recent 2012 and the delirious absurdity of characters attempting to out-drive a natural disaster. He also pointed out that film is the only art form where you can experience the worst possible entertainment and still have a good time.

I’ve just discovered that Landis recently restated his affection for Emmerich’s logic-defying excesses on German TV as he wandered around London with Terry Gilliam:




On Coming To America:

During the making of Coming to America, Landis was made aware of comments by Spike Lee bemoaning a trend of “old Jewish guys pretending to be young black guys”. [Despite extensive research, I’m unable to locate the interview that Landis cited. However, Lee does have form for this sort of thing. For an example, see page 57 of Spike Lee: Interviews on Google Books for Lee’s remarks on the writing staff of In Living Color during a conversation with Elvis Mitchell from 1991].

Despite the well-documented acrimony between Landis and Murphy at this stage in their collaboration, Landis, knowing what an incredibly gifted mimic Eddie Murphy is, approached him about flipping this around by turning a young black guy into an old Jewish guy, which led to the creation of the character Saul. (This is the zenith of a relentless downward spiral that leads to Norbit - Coming to America marks the first time that Murphy played multiple characters in a movie, so maybe Landis has to shoulder a little bit of blame for kicking off that particularly unwelcome trend in Murphy’s career.)

On The Spy Who Loved Me:

Landis was one of many uncredited writers (along with Stirling Silliphant, Ronald Hardy, Anthony Burgess and Derek Marlowe) who worked on the script for Roger Moore’s third outing as James Bond, claiming that his major contribution was the downhill ski chase that opens the movie.

On Into the Night:

His first flop. Landis told an anecdote of being summoned to meet Jack Nicholson to discuss the project in a remote location (Aspen, perhaps?), that turned into an unusually treacherous trip due to the snow and icy conditions, just so that Nicholson could turn it down on the grounds that the Ed Okin character (eventually played by Jeff Goldblum) is passive and never actually does anything, spending the whole film being led around by Michelle Pfieffer's character. Nicholson softened the rejection by saying that he still thought that it would be a great movie and he looked forward to seeing it. Landis conceded that maybe Into the Night was just "too weird" for audiences. Personally, I think Into the Night ranks way up there with his finest work and the three-way knife fight between Carl Perkins, David Bowie and Jeff Goldblum in a darkened hotel room strewn with corpses whilst Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein plays in the background is just glorious:



On casting Burke and Hare:

Landis professed his love and admiration of Ronnie Corbett, saying that he was the only member of the cast he had to fight for to get him into the movie. He called him a great actor and a national treasure, acknowledging that “national treasure” in the UK means that you've been on TV for over 25 years.

On Hollywood today:

With a hint of amused irritation, Landis noted that some of the younger breed of Hollywood executives don't know their history, recollecting that he has been asked in meetings: “Did you ever see Animal House? That's what we want.” Understandably, he’s insulted and flattered at the same time.

There was so much more, and the event was recorded by the BFI, with selected highlights available to view here.

I went to see both Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Burke and Hare on the weekends they opened. The former ended up being one of my favourite films of 2010. The latter didn’t. But I confess that I just really enjoyed the fact that I could go and see a brand new John Landis movie on a big screen and, as always, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
When in Hollywood, Visit Universal Studios. Ask for Babs

Friday, June 22, 2012

It Came From The Archives! - Nic Balthazar’s Ben X

Still rooting around in neglected folders. Retooling unfinished pieces for publication here on the blog and briefly glancing at things that have been out there at some point in the past but are no longer available. I’m going to start recycling some of the latter here, otherwise all those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain....Here’s a review that originally appeared on the now-defunct Write on Film (Hi Marie!) back in August 2008.
The debut movie from Belgian filmmaker Nic Balthazar, Ben X unfolds from the perspective of Asperger's sufferer Ben, as he gets through his rigidly-structured daily routine by immersing himself in the lush pixelated landscapes of the MMORPG ArchLord (the one place where he feels truly in control) before the drudgery and discomfort of the real world encroaches on his virtual reality.

Very loosely based on real events (which I can't go into in any great depth without blowing the ending), Ben's story is interspersed with posthumous faux-documentary footage analysing the events of the film by most of the major players, as the narrative creeps little-by-little towards a teased and seemingly-inevitable tragic denouement.

As a diverting thriller, Ben X crackles along and is watchable enough, there are enough neat twists and reversals to keep an audience engaged and Greg Timmermans is excellent as the titular Ben, all barely-repressed tics and twitchy anxious movements as he struggles to function in a world that doesn't quite make sense to him.

But Balthazar seems less interested in what it means to live with Asperger's Syndrome - it just appears to be a plot-motor to tell a story about feckless teens and out-of-control bullying, and Ben's love of ArchLord, whilst interesting in illustrating the way in which he operates differently in distinct and yet not-quite-separate "worlds", teeters dangerously close to a flashy, over-used gimmick when the virtual environment of the MMORPG is overlaid with comparatively dreary Belgian suburbia to show how Ben retreats into his innerlife as a coping mechanism.

The final half-hour obliterates believability beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief, indulging in nonsensical narrative contortions just to get the story to where it wants to be. Nevertheless, there is a kind of emotional logic at play that almost let's Balthazar off the hook and up until that point the movie has built up sufficient viewer goodwill that makes it all slightly easier to forgive.

Balthazar has a striking visual style and an undoubted facility for spinning an entertaining story, and Ben X is certainly ambitious with much to recommend it, but now and then I had the nagging feeling that it was all an elaborate shaggy-dog story masquerading as a gritty teen thriller.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Quid Pro Quo, Douchebags

(Digging through a folder full of documents that I never did anything with for a variety of reasons, I found this. I can see why I left it alone for a couple of years. It’s a really angry, somewhat rambling screed on the hateful The Hangover. Re-reading it, I find that I’m still just as angry about it, but my powder is now suitably dry, and I felt like taking it out of mothballs and throwing it out into the world. So here it is. At the very least, it should make a nice change from people griping about Prometheus.)


"The most commonly reported characteristics of a hangover include headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, lethargy, dysphoria, diarrhea and thirst. A hangover may also induce psychological symptoms including heightened feelings of depression and anxiety."

Add feelings of uncontrollable rage, and that pretty much nails my feelings after enduring Todd Phillips' hit comedy / vile piece of shit The Hangover. For this particular tirade, I'm going to have to do two things that I usually try to avoid - I'm going to be overwhelmingly negative about something in writing (as I prefer to talk up the good stuff rather than expend energy trashing the shit); and I'm going to indulge in spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers. If you haven't seen The Hangover, you are incredibly fortunate and hopefully this will dissuade you.

There's a line of dialogue in The Hangover that encapsulates everything that's wrong with the film: "You know, everyone says Mike Tyson is such a badass, but I think he's kind of a sweetheart." Yes, this is a film that holds as part of its odious, twisted worldview the opinion that convicted rapist Mike Tyson is "kind of a sweetheart".

(For a more articulate evisceration of this horrific "hilarious" cameo appearance, read Jane Claire Bradley's Punch Drunk: On Rape Apologists and Hollywood Misogyny).

It's the way certain little details start to mount up that really, really aggravated me. Aside from the appearance of former Undisputed Heavyweight Champion and ear-chewing rapist Tyson, there's this:

All of the women in the film are either screeching emasculating bitches or ripe for the fucking. Except for "hooker with a heart of gold" Heather Graham who, in one of the film's most egregious moments, bares a breast to feed her child. Nothing wrong with that, you might say. And you'd be right. Not only is there absolutely nothing wrong with breast-feeding, but there's nothing wrong with showing it on film. So far, so good.

But context is everything, and here Phillips pops a breast on the screen for two reasons and two reasons only - for titillation and comedy. God knows, I'm no prude, and I certainly don't object to nudity in movies. But breasts are not inherently erotic, and yet here breast-feeding is overtly equated with something sexual. And the three gibbering lackwits at the centre of the film are supposed to be uncomfortable at this display of bare flesh, which is supposed, I assume, to generate a laugh. This is even more disingenuous when you get to the photos playing over the end titles and see the heinous shit they got up to over the course of that “lost” night.

To be clear: I don't have a problem with gratuitous nudity. (Some of my best friends are gratuitous nudists). I don't have a problem with bad taste comedies. It's All About Context.

Also: slamming a car door in a baby's face isn't inherently funny. It. Just. Isn’t.

Also also: Are camp oriental stereotypes really funny? Really? What the fuck is wrong with you?

If this weren't such a hugely popular film, and if I hadn't heard from so many people who kept telling me how fucking funny it is, it probably wouldn't stick in my craw so much, as such widespread adulation indicates something rotten not only in the worldview of the filmmakers, but of the audience as well. But let's put that to one side for a minute and shake our heads in confusion at the list of plaudits this festering shitcake has accrued. On January 17, 2010, The Hangover won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. It was also named one of the top ten movies of the year by the American Film Institute. The film won "Best Ensemble" from the Detroit Film Critics Society. The screenplay was nominated for a Writers Guild of America and BAFTA award.

Let's just consider that last one again. Screenplay award nominations. The screenplay may be sufficiently absorbent to work as passable toilet paper, but little more than that. The entire premise of the film hinges on a trio of morons piecing together the mysteries of the night before. And yet it all falls apart once you start poking away at it. For example, if the mouth-breathing arrested adolescents had stayed in their hotel room for five more minutes once they woke up, Heather Graham would have returned to explain it all to them.

Here’s another glaring unresolved plot thread - what about the chickens in the hotel room? They are never explained. Just another piece of the scaffolding of the film that collapses once you lean on it a bit with your brain. You remember brains, don't you? Those are the things that this film asks you to forget you own. (And I don’t want to hear a counter-argument of “You’re thinking about this too much. It’s just a joke!” This screenplay was nominated for awards! I don’t expect it to be a masterpiece of construction like Chinatown or Back to the Future, but it should be pretty damn close to bullet-proof.)

So. The Hangover was loved by most audiences and despised by me. Funnily enough, the criticisms I level at this mess that Todd Phillips curled out on to the screen are not entirely different from the ones sprayed at Observe and Report from many quarters - a film largely despised by audiences and loved by me. (Not just me. Kim Morgan and Anne Billson have also been vocal fans of Jody Hill’s pitch-black comedy).

The fundamental difference is one of worldview. The makers of Observe and Report know that Seth Rogen’s mallcop Ronnie Barnhardt is a monster. That changes everything. The odious fuckwits behind The Hangover think the objectionable shitheads are just regular guys having a fun weekend of sex and booze. After all, as Jeffrey Tambor keeps repeating with a knowing wink and smile throughout "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right guys? Heh heh heh." Oh fuck off, Jeffrey Tambor, for coming out with that hackneyed line as lazy shorthand to legitimise reprehensible behaviour as mere harmless, boyish fun. What makes this all the more galling is that Tambor played one of the great all-time screen fantasist monsters as Hank "Hey Know" Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, in a show that was both dark and funny and made us love the central characters without ever letting us forget how fallible and monstrous they could be.

"It's like my mom always said: you can polish a turd, but it's still a piece of shit." Brandi (Anna Faris) in Observe and Report

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pitch Slap


"One thing that always surprises me about career advice is how lousy most of the writing is. They say the same boring, formulaic ideas over again. They convince you that if you do this one thing, it will all work out for you. The worst thing they do is tell you to follow the rules. This is a terrible idea." - Susannah Breslin (How to Not Be Unemployed)

Here's an unassailable truth for ya: I have written a lot of different things for a lot of different people over the years. Magazines, blogs, books. Shorts, videos and documentaries. And not one of those writing gigs came about as the result of a pitch.

That's not to say that I haven't ever pitched an idea. Of course I have. Mountains of them. Pitches that I dashed off as half-arsed afterthoughts. Long, detailed, drawn-out pitches that I spent days tweaking, buffing and polishing until the monitor screen itself seemed to glisten. Not one fucking nibble. Nothing.

Any word that I've ever written that ended up in a pay cheque came about because someone approached me. Maybe they knew me personally or by reputation. Maybe I was a friend of a friend or a recommendation. Maybe they knew me from other things that I'd already written. There’s more than one way to skin a gig.

If you’re waiting for a point to all this, where I come up with a neat, tidy conclusion about what this means, then you’re shit out of a luck. I’m really not trying to say that pitching is a waste of time. Maybe it just means that pitching is an incredibly inefficient way of getting your stuff out there. At least, my experience certainly seems to bear that out.

(This also applies to any kind of job application - hundreds (if not thousands) of people applying for the same job in the same way. The odds are stacked against you, no matter how goddamn brilliant you are).

Maybe the point is this: it’s more fun when you want me more than I want you. Or maybe it just means that the only person I’m interested in competing with is myself. And that the best way to get stuff out into the world is to take the road less travelled. Not through the front door, crowded with noisy people queueing up for their shot. I prefer to sneak in the back window. I’ve never had a problem with working hard. Sometimes, it makes more sense to work smart instead.

Rambling (almost) over. I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit recently. I’m never short of things to write. I’m the King of Spec, and I’ll happily write stuff for my own amusement forever. But I find myself craving the benefits of collaboration again. Working with or for smart people with ideas that I haven’t thought of and perspectives that maybe I don’t have. Basically, I’m in the mood to shred my rule book and shower the place with confetti. And I'm starting to build bricks to smash through the back windows that no-one else seems to be looking at. Developing...