Wednesday, 30 December 2015

TV in 2015: Toast of London, Community, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead and more!

I've watched a hell of a lot of TV this year, especially for me! Getting Neflix might have something to do with it. Here's what I watched:

Utopia Series 1
This could and should have been brilliant. Stylish and violent, but fell a little short of what I was hoping for.

Toast of London Series 1, 2, 3
Surreal and silly, frequently juvenile sitcom starring Matt Berry. The best bits are always in the booth.

Green Wing Series 1 and 2
Re-watched this sitcom set in a hospital. Another surreal one. Still don't get why Mark Heap isn't a huge star.

House of Cards Series 1
This is a bloody slog. A bit too mature for me. That is until people start getting murdered. Then it see-saws into becoming too far-fetched. Picky bastard aren't I? Well, they're all bastards in the show as well. Drive me fucking nuts.

The Office Series 1-7
Had a go at the American version, despite not wanting to tarnish my memories of Ricky Gervais' Slough-set original. It's decent. But it's made me go back to the original again. Very difficult to decide if Dwight or Gareth is the better creation. I love them both so damn much. The worst thing about this is that just as I was getting close to finishing the entire show, Netflix removed it.

Better Call Saul Series 1

Not Breaking Bad. Fun enough, but I don't think this is ever going to get close to its big brother.

Community Series 1-5

Or the Amazing Adventures of Abed. Can't believe they span this out to five seasons. I raced through them. Sometimes it was very easy to switch off while watching. Whole episodes would go by and I'd feel as though I had seen nothing. But then other episodes were so full of creativity, imagination and excitement, that it makes the show all worthwhile. Was gutted when Troy left though.

Game of Thrones Series 5

A bit frustrating. Lots of changes from the book that felt unnecessary. I wish they would just slow down and draw this out. Allow George to get his books written so we can enjoy them first. And why the fuck have we not got a little lady named Stoneheart yet? Seriously? Why change that? Why?

The Walking Dead Series 6
Good so far. Alexandria has been action-packed and the whole Glenn thing was awesome. Also, Morgan's episode of backstory was brilliant. Excuse me while I go and sign up to an Aikido class.

This is England 90

Without doubt, my favourite TV show of the year. Such a brilliant end to a brilliant saga. Tragic, yet also hopeful and incredibly bittersweet. The best performances and direction of the year. I've just got the 86-90 boxset for Christmas so I'll be putting myself through it all again. Shane Meadows and his wonderful cast nailed it. I will miss these characters, but this is the way it has to end. As much as I'd love to see them return, This is England 90 was the perfect send-off.

What did you watch? Any recommendations for me this year?

Books of 2015: Found Footage, Film Studies for Dummies, Shock Value

I made a determined effort to read more film-related books this year. That started off very well with the first few books, but then petered out by the end of the year. This must also be the first year ever where every book I've read was non-fiction. Here's the books I read in 2015:

Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Just brilliant. Not many people are so devoted to studying these often very frustrating films. As I'm in the final year of my thesis on this subject, I read this at almost the perfect time. I managed to reference it a great deal in my thesis and I found it fascinating from cover to cover. I WISH I had read it before completing my book on The Blair Witch Project as Heller-Nicholas' analysis of that film would have given me a lot more to write about. The analysis of Paranormal Activity is also excellent and the detailing of how Highway Safety Films have influenced found footage was also something that I had not considered in my own thesis.

If you like found footage, or are just interested in its appeal, this is an absolute must read. Buy it here.

Film Studies for Dummies by Dr James Cateridge

I'd never read one of these 'for Dummies' books before and I thought that after 14 years of studying and teaching film studies, it would probably cover little that I didn't already know. Wow was I wrong. This book has been absolutely essential reading for me. It has clarified some of the most complex ideas in film studies, it has given me new ways to teach certain topics, it has broadened my knowledge of areas where I had little.

In short, it is a brilliant overview of the subject. I would recommend it for any student who is about to embark on Film Studies A level or a degree course. I think I learned more from this one book, than in much of my studies. Somehow it is perfectly pitched for both beginners and people who have been studying film for some time. Buy it here.

Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

Another must read for horror fans. Covers all the big classics from the 70s and the guys behind getting them made. It was especially timely to read this, as soon after I finished it, Wes Craven sadly passed away. Even though films like Texas Chainsaw, Halloween and The Exorcist have been written about to death already, Zinoman still manages to make this feel like a pretty fresh look at some of the greatest films ever to be unleashed from the genre. It would have been a good book to have around while writing my dissertation on the representation of the family in 70s horror. Buy it here.

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

I saw this in a shop for something like £3 and as it was my favourite film of 2014, had to pick it up. A quick read and well worth it, even if you have seen the film. There are many harrowing parts and a quite a few memorable moments that were not included in the film. Overall, a story that deserves to be told and retold and retold.

Revolution by Russell Brand

Just a massive brain-fart really. I like Russell Brand and I like his outlook, but this came across as hopelessly naive in places. Still, there's lots of good stuff here and I hope Brand continues his crusade to try and change the world. I'm still listening.

The Hell of it All by Charlie Brooker

A collection of Brooker's columns for The Guardian. I laughed out loud a lot. After a whole book of reading Brooker's miserable ramblings, it can get a bit much. But he's still a brilliant writer and a lot of fun to read.

I'm also half way through Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey which is frankly, just bonkers.

What did you read this year? Any recommendations?

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Before The Hateful Eight: A Quentin Tarantino Retrospective

No director in recent history deserves his name to become an adjective as much as Quentin Tarantino. One of the most controversial figures of modern American film emerged from video store geek to Sundance sensation with his both unique and familiar take on the crime film, and immediately ‘Tarantino-esque’ was coined as an exciting way to describe a slew of (often less than exciting) imitators influenced by the new director. Now Tarantino is back with what promises to be a bit of a return to his roots with The Hateful Eight looking a bit like a Western version of Reservoir Dogs.

Dabbling in genres from samurai and kung-fu flicks to historical war films, Tarantino has a definite style, numerous trademarks and a love of cult cinema that shines through in every screenplay. A writer and director often criticised for the levels of violence in his films, he is an auteur unafraid to court controversy. From sadistic bank robbers to sadistic Nazis, Tarantino’s movie worlds are littered with low-life scumbags that make life miserable for other characters.

Tarantino has been known to divide critics, filmmakers and audiences with his vicious violence, repeated racial epithets and the odd accusation of style over substance. Spike Lee called him ‘infatuated’ with the ‘N’ word after its regular use in Jackie Brown (1997) and notable uses in his previous two films. The BBFC decided to pass Reservoir Dogs (1992) uncut but only after much debate over an infamous torture scene. His later films like Death Proof (2007) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) have received somewhat less critical adulation than his earlier, more startling and fiercely independent works.

Reservoir Dogs, released in 1992 is the genre defying debut of an ambitious young video store geek burning to show his skills as both writer and director. It features a cool cast including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi, buckets of blood and in the middle of it all; joker Michael Madsen dancing, ear slicing and ensuring the film a place in cinematic history. Inspired by the likes of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and its colour coded criminal names, Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and its fractured narrative structure and from further afield Ringo Lam’s City of Fire (1987), whose final act it virtually steals wholesale; it breaks the fundamental convention of a heist film. By barely showing the actual robbery and only the fallout, it focuses on characters including Tim Roth’s undercover cop and Madsen’s cold blooded psychopath and fizzes with energy, wit and bloody sadistic violence.

Only two years later, Tarantino returned with Pulp Fiction (1994), his undisputed masterpiece. Borrowing liberally from French New Wave influences such as the films of Godard and Truffaut and telling three stories linked only by gangster Marcellus Wallace, it is a tour de force of film making; stylish, sexy, swear-y and sickening. Samuel L. Jackson makes his first appearance in a Tarantino film beginning a long collaboration that continues today. Never has Tarantino’s dialogue flowed as richly as between the similarly clad gangsters to Reservoir Dogs' characters, Jules and Vincent. And never have Tarantino’s monologues been so juicily delivered as Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic delivery of Ezekiel 25:17. The non-linear narrative, brutal violence and chapter titles crystallised, confirming Tarantino as a unique director, borrowing continually from his cinematic heroes and creating memorable and original works of crime fiction.

He then adapted Elmore Leonard’s novel Jackie Brown into an infinitely more mature, but less stylish and snappily scripted homage to Blaxploitation films of the 70s. It bears all the marks of a director comfortable in his new shoes as the king of independent cinema, constantly imitated but never bettered. There is less showing off here; no memorable monologues, a mostly linear structure and a move away from the regular appearances of Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi that had featured in Tarantino’s films so far. Pam Grier, Robert Forster and Robert De Niro all appear with Samuel L. Jackson returning as another ruthless criminal. It may bear less of the Tarantino-esque trademarks but it still stands as a classic crime caper, clever and assured filmmaking, and a wonderful homage to films that influenced Tarantino.

Kill Bill Volumes 1&2 (2003 and 2004) are the first of Tarantino's foolishly split double bills. Originally meant to be one film, a decision was made by Tarantino with most likely a great deal of input from Harvey Weinstein to cut the film down the middle and unfortunately turned one roaring rampage of revenge into two volumes that decreased in quality as a result. Kill Bill Vol. 3 might be alive and possible according to the most recent reports, no doubt due to the original films having a lot of fans with their samurai-flavoured, Shaw brothers inspired bloodletting. Owing a considerable debt to Lady Snowblood (1973) which provides a template for The Bride’s story of vengeance, it is filled with references to little known kung-fu films and proved that Tarantino was a director as comfortable with fight scenes as with dialogue. The pair of films also marked his second collaboration with his muse Uma Thurman after her iconic part as Marcellus Wallace’s moll in Pulp Fiction.

If Tarantino’s career could be divided up into chapters like one of his films, there would certainly be a chapter called “The Rodriguez Situation”. Best buddies Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez joined forces on iffy anthology Four Rooms (1995), directing separate episodes in the odd collection of stories centring on Tim Roth’s hotel bellhop. Tarantino later guest directed a scene in Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) before the pair officially collaborated on their Grindhouse (2007) double feature, directing one film each to be marketed and screened as one cinematic experience.

Tarantino’s Death Proof suffered in comparison next to the gloriously gory thrills of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror but still has Kurt Russell as a stunt driving psycho and a fierce car chase that puts stunt woman Zoe Bell (Uma’s stunt double in Kill Bill) right where she belongs; wriggling around on the bonnet of a speeding car being slammed by Kurt Russell's death machine. Death Proof deserves the style over substance accusation of many of Tarantino’s films but the physically scratched image is wonderfully grimy and though it is completely chronological, it still features plenty of typically Tarantino-esque dialogue. Americans got to see the double bill as intended complete with fake trailers in the middle. However Britain got shafted again by the money men with another terrible decision to release both films separately.

Inglourious Basterds was a serious return to form for Tarantino. It is another blood thirsty tale of revenge and the first of what could potentially become his historical trilogy. Mixing biggest-star-in-the-world Brad Pitt with up-and-coming actors like Michael Fassbender and introducing English speaking audiences to the majesty of Christoph Waltz, it is possibly Tarantino’s most brutal and bonkers creation. Waltz’s Colonel Landa is another of Tarantino’s ingenious creations, a smooth-talking sadist who is as comic as he is hideous, almost as over the top as the astonishingly violent cinema-set climax. Nazi’s hunt Jews, Jews hunt Nazi’s and Hitler appears only long enough for Tarantino to completely rewrite the history books.

Django Unchained is a typically brutal and sadistic look at slavery in the South. Samuel L. Jackson reappears, Tarantino takes another small role as in many of his previous films, and Leonardo DiCaprio joins Tarantino’s memorable list of sick and twisted nasty bastards. It's a tough watch; both funny, cathartic and occasionally unbearable.

Untouchable Tarantino can work with anybody he chooses. From the moment he caught Keitel for Reservoir Dogs to snatching John Travolta and Bruce Willis (at career low points) in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has a knack for canny casting. His collaborations with Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and most recently Christoph Waltz have proved that he is a dream director to work for, despite apparently strangling Diane Kruger on the set of Inglourious Basterds. Ticking off two of the biggest and best males stars in Pitt and DiCaprio, he has confirmed that he and Johnny Depp wish to work together one day in the future. Promising to retire at 60 after a couple more films, we must savour every drop of Tarantino that he has to offer, with or without Depp.

So what is Tarantino-esque and why has it become such a commonly used word for cool characters, cooler dialogue and quality filmmaking; both cult-inspired and mainstream-influencing? His soundtracks are slick hand-picked play lists; his casts revive the careers of has-beens and introduce bright new stars and his ripping off of obscure cult cinema creates fitting homage to little seen movies. His worlds are filled with furious revenge fantasies, sadistic violence and shot through with distinctive style. From out-of-the-trunk-of-car shots, non-linear narratives, occasional uses of black and white to his foot fetish and corpse eye view shots, Tarantino is recognizable from his films' stylistic flourishes as much as his monologues and often dazzling dialogue. His influences are many; he is a cinematic magpie, taking from what he pleases, unchained by genre conventions and creating something new from the old. His impending retirement is just another reason to revisit his cinematic oeuvre ahead of The Hateful Eight’s UK release on 8th January 2016.

28 Days Later: In the House, In a Heartbeat

London is a hectic place. Normally filled with more traffic and pedestrians than seems humanly possible, people crammed this close together tend to get edgy. What if a terrifying virus got unleashed that turns the inhabitants of the UK into rage fuelled running zombie monsters known as the ‘infected’? Before imagining the UK as a green and pleasant isle of wonder for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, Danny Boyle cleared the streets of London to envisage a truly shocking zombie apocalypse.

Recently roused from a coma, bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) checks himself out of a deserted hospital and finds London completely empty. The bustle of the city is dead, left only with an eerie stillness. This is what London will look like when the apocalypse comes. Desolate, forsaken and forgotten. The survivors are hiding out of sight. The Infected appear from nowhere like rabid dogs intent only on attack. The film later has Jim and other survivors shop in empty supermarkets and travel down empty motorways all in search of an army base that promises hope. But when the world goes to hell, is it really the army we should be turning to for help?

John Murphy’s entire soundtrack is a master class in atmospheric horror scoring, but as all hell breaks loose at the climax of 28 Days Later, his In the House, In a Heartbeat climbs to an explosive crescendo over six minutes of beautifully shot, visceral violence. 

Our three surviving characters (a man, a woman and a teen girl) have dodged death at the hands of rage infected super-zombies, only to find themselves in the ‘safety’ of an army base populated by aggressive male soldiers who have a scary attitude to women.

As hero Jim escapes the soldiers’ clutches and begins a rage-fuelled rampage with the help of some unleashed Infected, Murphy’s music builds and builds; quiet and calm at first with just two piano notes, then joined by mounting acoustic guitars and climaxing with drums crashing, electric guitar pounding and the visuals on screen becoming more and more terrifying as the deadly mixture of frightened soldiers, vicious Infected and one angry protagonist face off in the confines of the dark mansion. This is music to gouge out eyes to.


In the Heart of the Sea Review

Ron Howard gets right to the heart of the true story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Reteaming again after the success of Rush with Chris Hemsworth, and more importantly DOP Anthony Dod Mantle, Howard goes beyond Melville's story of man vs whale to reveal the harrowing tale of survival that followed the sinking of the whaling vessel Essex in the 1820s.

Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits an old Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last survivor of the Essex and offers him a wodge of cash in exchange for the full story on what went down in the middle of the ocean all those years ago. So begins Nickerson's version of events; a story of conflict between Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), as the two men hurl their ship across the oceans in pursuit of whales. Their quest for whale oil brings them into conflict with a giant monster of the sea; a white whale that won't even stop when it has destroyed the Essex itself.

Survival at sea has rarely looked so horrible, even after the likes of Life of Pi and Unbroken. The whale is the least of this crew's worries once the Essex goes down. Storms, sun, starvation; attack of the Hollywood skinniness. By the end, Hemsworth and his fellow survivors look like zombies as they resort to unspeakable actions in order to survive. You'll soon forget that you're watching Thor and the future Spider-Man Tom Holland face to face, as their eyes become sunken holes in their scrawny heads.

As the months aboard the Essex pass, there's a sense of excitement and adventure every time the crew find whales. But mixed with the majesty of the great creatures is the tragedy of their hunting, killing and butchering. Howard and Dod Mantle find the oily business grotesque and it shows in the inky, off-kilter cinematography. In fact, In the Heart of the Sea very clearly becomes Dod Mantle's film as it goes on. The shot choices become more bold and more stark as the situation for the crew gets more desperate.

In its heart, it’s a conflicted film. Hemsworth skips around the sails in typical hero style, but then the film mourns the first whale he manages to kill. He's clearly more cut out for the sea than his captain, who for the first half at least, is set up as the villain. But things get far more interesting once the monster whale turns up and cuts them all down to size. Howard does a decent job of making us sympathise with the men, investing just enough to make a few of the characters register above their blooming beards.

But the whale is the real heart of the sea. The tagline of Jaws: The Revenge said it best: This time it's personal. The incredible creatures might all be made of CGI, but that big white whale steals the show. Smashing, crashing and chasing his foes in payback for the family it has lost, it's a stark reminder of how nature can respond if men keep abusing the planet so arrogantly and recklessly.

In the Heart of the Sea is an epic odyssey of survival; much bigger, more emotional, and more exciting even than this year’s other great disaster story, Everest. 

Watch the trailer:

Seen it? Let me know what you thought in the comments or on Twitter @ilovethatfilm

Top 20 Films of 2015

I'm running out of 2015 pretty quickly, so it's time to reveal my top 20 films of the year. As always, I'm going by UK release dates, so if you're from any other country, you might be thinking that I'm mental calling some of these 2015 films. But they are, so there. Are you sitting comfortably?

20. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is an impressive feat; it might not fulfill tech geeks' desires to see more of the machines, but it certainly makes the man behind Apple a fascinatingly flawed character who is tricky to love, but very easy to watch.

19. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

A very sweet film about the joy of film making, and the utter shittiness of cancer.

18. Birdman

Unlike the superhero movies it rails against, Birdman is super-smart and requires way more than one sitting to fully appreciate its complexity.


 17. Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 

Mockingjay Part 2 is a fittingly dark end to the Hunger Games franchise, not as exciting perhaps as Catching Fire, but more politically charged. 

16. The Martian

The curious case of the science fiction survival drama that keeps getting labelled a comedy. It might not be as technically groundbreaking, but I enjoyed it more than Gravity.

 15. The Lobster

It loses its way a little in the second half, but for much of the running time, The Lobster is an absurd and highly inventive gem. 

14. Jurassic World

Whoever suggested the idea of setting the fourth film in the franchise at the park when it is now open to the public is a genius who needs a medal. Hugely entertaining, even with it's teeth-grinding sexism.

 13. Suffragette

Suffragette is a vital film, but feels like a strong start, rather than the definitive suffragette movie. More films on this movement would be most welcome, and for those dumb enough to think feminism is a dirty word; this is a timely reminder of its fundamental potential.

12. Testament of Youth

Alicia Vikander delivers a heart-breaking performance as Vera Brittain. From driven young woman to tragic heroine to fierce pacifist, Brittain endures incredible hardship and Vikander never puts a foot wrong even with the camera clamped to frequent close ups on her face.


 11. Monsters: Dark Continent

While its running time could have been trimmed slightly, Monsters: Dark Continent is thought provoking stuff. More Deer Hunter than Aliens, this is a heartfelt, angry film about the tragedy of ongoing modern warfare. 


10. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night features a wonderful cultural mishmash of music, arthouse and genre elements. It certainly marks Amirpour as a deliciously talented director to watch out for. Just hope that her take on the vampire lives on far longer than those (un)bloody Twilight movies. 

9. Red Army

Red Army exposes the strengths and the flaws of both capitalism and communism, all the while telling the deeply personal stories of some hockey legends. It is an absolutely fascinating documentary; heartfelt, hilarious and poignant. Charting the history of the Cold War and the rise and fall of the Red Army hockey team makes for a perfect combination of the personal and the political. Very proud to be quoted in the trailer for this film. 

8. Coherence

A little-seen gem. Sci-fi head-scratcher that starts off like a quiet little indie, but then goes to some brilliantly bonkers alternate reality places. I probably over-hyped this for anyone I spoke to about it, so all I'll say now is that I highly recommend it.

7. Ex Machina

Compelling, claustrophobic, cutting edge and clever, Ex Machina is as smart and satisfying as science fiction gets. Here's my interview with director Alex Garland.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Everything it should have been. Everything the prequels weren't. Everything the original trilogy promised. Exceeded my expectations, and that's f**king impressive. I wrote about The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back here.

5. Wild Tales

If there were awards for Best Fight or for Best Wedding, then this film would cream the competition. Szifrón dazzles with his direction and audacious storytelling. Wild Tales is one hell of a ride and a hilarious must-see.

4. Amy

For admirers of the singer, Amy is a definitive documentary chronicling the highs and lows of her short career. For everyone else, it is a chance to get to know the troubled woman behind the talent that was taken far too soon. 

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

Strap in, say goodbye to your fingernails and prepare for a white knuckle ride of epic proportions. Mad Max Fury Road is everything and more that you could hope for from an action film, and you'll be left shaken from its incredible levels of vehicular mayhem. Director George Miller may have taken twenty years to get this to the screen but his efforts have paid off with a film that rushes by in a breathless barrage of explosions and insane stunts. Check out my breakdown of the first scene where we meet Furiosa. Also, here's a Q&A with director George Miller. 

2. Inside Out

If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on inside someone’s head, Pixar have created a wonderfully inventive answer in Inside Out. Back at the absolute top of their game, Pixar’s latest is fresh, funny and positively bursting with emotions from joy to sadness. With its perfect blend of high concept idea with intimate themes, Inside Out is a new peak for Pixar. Bring tissues. 


1. White God

It's the dawn of the planet of the dogs in this exceptional Hungarian film from director Kornél Mundruczó. Featuring a cast of hundreds of canines and some striking imagery of the beasts unleashed and taking to the city streets, it effortlessly blends powerful and emotional social realism with an ultimately hilarious dog apocalypse. Furiously entertaining with a perfect ending, White God is like 280 Dogs Later; an underdog story with some serious bite. Check out my interview with the director and writer here.

What do you think? What was your favourite film of the year? Have I tempted you to see anything on this list? Please comment below or let me know on Twitter @ilovethatfilm And don't forget to share this with all your friends, imaginary or otherwise. RIP Bing Bong.