Thoughts on my cinematic journey

Not so long ago I came to the intriguing realisation that, this year at the cinema, I have seen more classic films than new ones. To be exact, 13 classics and 10 contemporary films. Such a feat is easily accomplished in London, where the herculean BFI and the Prince Charles Cinema show thousands of classics year upon year, often in original, well-scratched 35mm prints. Yet it still seems a remarkably unusual thing to have discovered; one which suggests certain truths about my personal relationship with cinema and of the films I cherish in particular.

The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema
The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema

What is a “classic”? The US Library of Congress, which selects up to twenty-five American films each year for preservation, claims that ‘culturally, aesthetically or historically significant” values are most important. American Graffiti (1973), Ben-Hur (1959), Groundhog Day (1993) and hundreds of others are thus granted an auspicious status that in many circles commands the use of the word “classic”. Or is a classic a far more subjective thing? To most who have seen it, the Russian film Andrei Rublev (1966) is an inevitable classic because of its masterful cinematography and compelling performances; a film that evokes Medieval spiritual life with astonishing panache. To a few dissenters, however, it is an episodic and loose monster in which not a lot happens at all, and so the honour of being a “classic” is disputed.

Andrei Rublev - classic or tragic?
Andrei Rublev – classic or tragic?

Shallow postmodern arguments aside, what does strike me is the fact that most of the films I’ve been seeing in cinemas this year are significantly old. The last screening I attended was The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film I’m most looking forward to this September is not something new; it’s Fritz Lang’s M, first shown in 1931 and about to be re-released. As my interest in cinema deepens, the further back my enquiries take me – back even to the early stages of the medium itself, with my recent discovery of George Méliès’ La Voyage Dans La Lune, a beautifully detailed science-fiction short released in 1902.

Many of my friends and peers who love cinema share this interest in “old” films, yet not many venture to the BFI or Prince Charles, preferring the ease of a DVD. This was evidenced frequently in my mid-teens, when I once found myself sitting in a screening of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) as the youngest audience member by some thirty years. Perhaps that was just a bad day for youthful representation. But sometimes I do wonder if my friends could gain something from taking their interest in “old” films right into the heart of the very places they were first shown: in a hushed screening room, pitch dark, the screen the only light source – a place where cinematic sorcery is experienced at its most thrilling and palpable. If you try hard enough, you can really imagine what those first audience members must have thought and felt. Seeing old films in the cinema emphatically makes a difference, and broadens your view of the medium’s possibilities.

La Voyage Dans La Lune - recognise this?
La Voyage Dans La Lune – recognise this?

There’s also the question of the character of contemporary cinema. It’s singularly useless to argue that filmmakers like Michael Bay and the endless train of sequels and remakes have rendered cinema dead, although it’s easy to think so. In fact, nationwide festivals, especially the London Film Festival, continue to grow year upon year in exhibiting serious-minded, artistically precise films. The Curzon and Picturehouse chains are great places to find the latest arthouse dramas and comedies from all over the world; both are opening new cinemas across the UK. Yet my status as a soon-to-be History student has influenced my thinking; I’m convinced that in order to better understand contemporary cinema, I have to journey back into the past to see exactly where it has been. The roots of most modern science-fiction films with pretensions to artistic merit can be traced back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Black Swan (2010) seems all the less significant when compared to The Red Shoes, which accomplished much of what Aronofsky’s film did, only sixty-two years prior. Every film has a precursor, and I’m fascinated by trying to find such films and assessing their formidable influence over time.

Looking at it this way, the surprise at having seen more classics than contemporary films really shouldn’t really exist. What’s more, it could be said that the “old” films I’m growingly obsessed with, with all their vibrant and diverse cinematic qualities, are in fact profoundly new.

The Wild Bunch - a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
The Wild Bunch – a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
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Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future

I first heard about Secret Cinema a long time ago. Stories of a mysterious organisation that exhibited films amidst participating actors, themed set design and live music – naturally, in a secret location – reverberated around the internet and in word of mouth. There had been a Secret Cinema production of Blade Runner, which featured acrobatic displays on vertical walls, mirroring the vertiginous struggle of Harrison Ford at the end of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. With a similar level of creative energy had come Bugsy Malone, set in a Prohibition-era nightclub concealed behind an outwardly harmless bookcase. The Red ShoesLawrence of ArabiaPrometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel had been given this dramatic treatment, amongst many others. The mere idea of ‘experiencing’ the world of some of the greatest films ever made – and Prometheus – seemed  for a long time infinitely appealing to me.

I left it for a long time, but finally felt that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future was the perfect way to experience Secret Cinema for the first time. I believe Back to the Future to be one of the greatest American films ever made, a tightly-scripted and magnificently entertaining piece with riffs on both the fifties and the eighties. The notion of wandering round a recreated Hill Valley, encountering small-town stereotypes and the characters from the film itself, did not seem kitsch by any stretch of the imagination; it was surely a necessity.

"Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you're gonna see some serious s-!"
“Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you’re gonna see some serious s-!”

 

When it finally came round to attending, there were a couple of worrying false starts; the first four events were cancelled due to “a number of issues that we have not experienced previously”. The backlash on social media was severe and, at times, somewhat overbearing; fans had come from as far as Cambodia, and a potential loss of trust in Secret Cinema wavered in the air.

It is thus all the more relieving and thrilling to announce that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future is a stunning success. Theatre, cinema and music combine in a glorious celebration of the 1985 film, 1950s culture, and the sheer exultant joy of being alive.

Spot the actor... or is there one?
Spot the actor… or is there one?

At around 5.10pm on Friday, August 1, I exited the train at Hackney Wick station and waited for the rest of my family to arrive. We had been vigorously encouraged through email to dress in fifties clothing. This was easy enough for me – rolled-up jeans, converses and braces for the style, and the brownest shirt I could find for the rustic farmland feel of small-town America. Across the station platform spewed forth a wave of like-minded people; I glimpsed everything from Marlon Brando leather jackets to a profusion of great, voluminous, flowery dresses.

We soon began the long walk to the Back to the Future site. Though it would be unfair to ruin its exact location, I will say that it was somewhere within the 2012 Olympic village, and that several prominent landmarks – including the Orbit – were clearly visible. If you kept your head down, though, it was hard to believe that you were even in the twentieth century.

Secret Cinema have built in the heart of East London a bustling Hill Valley that is meticulous in its detail and filled to boiling point with gaiety. Buildings from 1950s America are painstakingly re-constructed. The one-room suburban houses are littered with comics, radios, pin-up posters and books from the period; the Hill Valley High school features iconic metal lockers and noticeboards; the movie theater is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, a 1954 American western featuring Ronald Reagan in one of his later roles. The site even features an old-style ferris wheel and a profusion of vintage cars, as well as a yellow school bus.

Just another day in Hill Valley...
Just another day in Hill Valley…

Yet it is really the eighty-five actors within Hill Valley who best bring the world of Back to the Future to life. I was approached by an impressive variety of people from car mechanics to television salesmen; all (well, most) spouting a chirpy Californian drawl, conversing to convince. But they do more than speak to you. They purposefully draw you into their fictional existence, whether that be by carrying tires, pushing a broken-down car or playing pool. It is evident Secret Cinema offers everything for those who prefer not to be mere sedentary spectators.

A full list of everything I did in the three-hours or so I spent wandering around the town would be exhaustive, but I’ve condensed my favourite parts, very unprofessionally, into bullet points:

  • Sat in on a talk outside a suburban house where two people dressed like Mormons taught us methods to protect ourselves against the “plague” of homosexuality affecting the town. Never was homophobia so hilariously conceived.
  • Joined in as a group to sing a song about a hair salon, led by an ominously bearded guitarist and his female companion, who I promptly fell hopelessly in love with (the companion, not the guitarist).
  • Took part in a “scientific” experiment led by Doc Brown himself – or at least a very convincing likeness – by rubbing shoulders in a circle to produce static electricity. Doc Brown then announced after the experiment: ‘I now have your combined discharge. No, it’s not funny.’
  • Before the event every attendee was given an alternative identity and workplace, and was encouraged to bring certain items for that workplace. I assumed the guise of Emanuel Mathews, Proof Reader for the Hill Valley Telegraph. I carried with me three copies of an article I had written for the obviously fictional newspaper, with the headline: “UNCOVERED – – THE REASON BEHIND THE DELAYS TO THE HILL VALLEY FAIR.” I handed in the article to Rita, the editor of the newspaper – who stood in front of old-fashioned printing presses – and was later pronounced “Mr. Telegraph” for the quality of my work. Rita spoke at great length on the importance of producing news by the people for the people, and also tried to convince me that Mayor “Red” Thomas was secretly a communist.
  • I also spotted Fabien Riggall, the Founder and Creative Director of Secret Cinema, and gave him one of my articles. He stayed completely in character despite this illusion to the insidious delays that had taken place the week before, and accepted my handshake graciously.
hill valley 5
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ – Samuel Johnson

Such listing is perhaps crude but it hopefully gives you a sense of my relentless enjoyment of what Hill Valley had to offer, and also a sense of the immersive kind of experience Secret Cinema strives for. If you really make an effort, you get so much out of it. You even get to a point when, wandering round, you cannot always make the distinction between actor and spectator; the lines between fiction and reality can blur irrevocably. I even found myself trying to ape an American accent, though my success on that matter is probably best left to the imagination.

For an event with so much hype, there are bound to be disappointments. It must be said that the exhibition of the film was something of a mixed affair. After two false starts owing to technical problems, Back to the Future finally began, observed by a vast lawn of ticket-holders. During some of the more exciting parts of the film we were greeted with live-action replications of what was happening on-screen. The fog-shrouded, mass-hysteria-inducing entrance of the Delorean was an evident highlight; another was the sight of an actor dressed at Marty Mcfly skateboarding whilst holding onto a car, whizzing round the town square. This sometimes took attention away from the film itself, particularly towards the end. But it was really a few isolated members of the audience who proved most disruptive; I happened to be sitting next to a drunk person who insisted on standing during parts of the film and yelling something akin to Yuuueueuueeeaaaaaaaahhh!’ Such unwarranted exhibitionism somewhat undermined the family atmosphere Secret Cinema were clearly aiming for, what with the minimum attendance age being only 5. It could perhaps be concluded, with a great deal of irony, that most of the problems that occurred on the evening were caused by the audience, not by the organisers themselves.

You can't quite see the drunk guy from here...
You can’t quite see the drunk guy from here…

Overall, however, it was a totally enchanting experience, a celebration of the best elements of 1950s culture and of Back to the Future. It is only when you experience it for yourself that you realise how much ambition Secret Cinema has, and how its events can very occasionally go wrong as it did the week before. I will undoubtedly be back for more, whatever the film. The possible challenge for Secret Cinema – as put by the BBC’s Newsnight – must surely be to preserve some of the mystery that it first started with, to continue to cherish the unexpected in the face of widespread media coverage and the incessant mobile phone culture that was so blissfully suspended for the one evening that I was there. If it can do that, its artistic future remains secure.

9/10

Footnote – here’s the article I wrote for the Hill Valley Telegraph:

HVT 1HVT 2

My weekend at the London Film Festival – part 2

On Monday I treated you to my first blog post in seven months, and now I shall conclude that post with a review of the film that I saw on Sunday, Under the Skin. I managed to scrape the last remaining ticket to the screening, which was one of the most anticipated of the Official Film Competition. I had heard of many positive reviews, but also some astonishingly negative ones. Which side of the critical spectrum would I join? Well…

Under the Skin 13/10/13

Under the Skin
Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s third feature Under the Skin marks the first time he has used elements from the genre of science-fiction. But it cannot necessarily be described as a science-fiction film. Its central premise – an alien woman preying on males in the Scottish countryside – is about as far as it goes in terms of its relation to the genre. Under the Skin is in fact an elaborately constructed art film, a terrifying feast for the senses that is striking and stunning to watch. 

The film opens with a series of startling visual images, accompanied by a haunting sound design, which eventually collude to a close-up of a female eye. It is evident from the opening scenes that the idea of sight and seeing is an important part of the film. We follow an alien in the form of a beautiful young woman called Laura, played by Scarlett Johansson, as she drives around Scotland and stalks wandering males. We follow much of the action from her perspective as she observes – and tries to make sense of – human behaviour. When given the chance, she lures men back to her house, where they meet an untimely – and visually remarkable – end. Over time, however, Laura begins to doubt her role, and attempts to become more human – with difficult consequences.

It’s fairly evident from the trailer that the plot is not the main focus of the film. Glazer gives us both naturalistic scenes, which were shot with hidden cameras to observe Laura’s journey through Scotland, and more brooding, dark, frightening atmospheres as she captures and deals with her prey. Put simply, the cinematography is utterly outstanding. From its opening to its closing moments, Under the Skin is an aesthetic marvel, a film so beautifully shot that it almost distracts from the dark nature of the subject matter. It also sounds brilliant. The soundtrack is the first thing you notice, a deeply unsettling blend of alien noises and Mica Levi’s terrific score, her first for a feature film. Many key scenes play without diegetic sound, only adding to the alien nature of what is happening on screen.

But the film does not just excel on a technical level. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is, quite frankly, one of the best in her career. Having been confined to supporting roles in the last few years, here she takes centre stage, dominating the film. Her glazed look and unnatural movements when walking on the streets of Glasgow are very convincing. Yet the long periods of the film where she considers her identity are particularly striking, with mirrors becoming a visual motif in the latter half of the film – a kind of window onto her soul.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Virtually every scene has remained in my memory long after leaving the cinema. I would love to describe them, but I fear giving things away for those who may plan to see the film. All I will say is this – Under the Skin is by far the best film I’ve seen at the London Film Festival – and the standard this year has been very high. At the start of the end credits, I gazed at the screen in open-mouthed wonder, dumbly clapping my hands as the director ascended the stage for a Q+A. It is visually and aurally audacious, drawing you in under its hypnotic power. It is a monumental triumph for Scarlett Johansson, for British filmmaking and for arthouse cinema in general.

10/10

My weekend at the London Film Festival – part 1

I haven’t written anything on Jacobthehobnob since March of this year; please do feel at liberty to conclude that I am the worst blogger in the world. As the growing difficulty of my schoolwork and the pressure of university application took their toll over this summer, I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the world of film and to interact with it through writing. However, having finally sent off my application to read History at several UK universities, I feel that there is really no excuse not to contribute at least something to one of my most anticipated events of the year  – the BFI London Film Festival.

This is my second year attending, and if any of the five universities I’ve applied to go against their better judgement and offer me a place, it may be the last until I finish my degree. Last year I gained a very powerful impression of the atmosphere of a festival that is quite often absent from the general cinema visit. Every audience member, no matter the screening, cares deeply about film – most of them even more than I do. Much of this is evidenced in the general audience behaviour (mostly impeccable – no mobile phones). But it is also seen in the excited film discussions that reverberate around cinema walls before starting time, and in the frequent rounds of applause following the end credits. It is truly unique and only adds to the thrill of seeing new pieces of cinema before they are put on general release.

Computer Chess 11/10/13

Computer chess
Computer Chess

My weekend at the festival kicked off with a small independent film called Computer Chess that I saw at the ICA. Described affectionately by its director Andrew Bujalski as a  ‘period piece’, it takes place in the 1980s at a small tournament for chess software programmers. Over the course of a weekend the physically unremarkable contestants play their software against each other, chat philosophically about the future of computers, and possibly find love. Computer Chess is a real oddity, a film that straddles the genres of comedy, romance, mumblecore, and existential drama. One of its most impressive aspects is its quasi-documentary aesthetic; the film was shot on a clunky Sony camera that actually came from the period, giving a hazy, amateurish, televisual feel to the whole thing. It truly feels like a product of the time in which it is set. While not consistently comedic, I thought the film certainly had its moments, partly thanks to the performance of Patrick Riester as an introverted, expressionless young programmer. Riester comes into contact with the only girl in the competition and yet is unable to convey any feelings towards her; elsewhere, his encounter with a sexually indulgent older couple in the same hotel he is staying in is hilarious beyond recognition. Yet amongst the comedy there is a very experimental intention. The cinematography is the most obvious demonstration of this, with the picture inexplicably morphing into colour for a particular scene. But the director’s refusal make the viewing experience easy or conventional – there are plenty of open ends and unexplained phenomena – is incredibly bold and yet another example of what makes independent film so liberating and exciting.

Patrick Riester in Computer Chess
Patrick Riester in Computer Chess

The film’s producer Alex Lipschultz, who took part in a post-film Q+A, revealed that for the most part non-professional actors were employed, and that much of the dialogue was improvised. Indeed, there is a lingering casualness to the whole thing, and I found spending my afternoon with a group of socially challenged programmers not boring in the slightest; Computer Chess is extremely entertaining, funny, bold and inventive, and I cannot wait for my next viewing.

8/10

Like Father, Like Son 12/10/13

Like Father Like Son
Like Father Like Son

Last year 75% of the films I saw at the London Film Festival were Japanese. Admittedly I saw very few films, and only improved on the number this year by one. But that percentage is no accident. I have found that Japanese drama is some of the best produced anywhere in the world. Whether as an example you take Yôjirô Takita’s Departures (2008), or even Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi (1997), there is a warmth and humanity to much of Japan’s cinematic output that strikes me every time I witness it. Such is the case with Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu Koreeda’s meditation on what it means to be a father. I saw the film at the Odeon West End cinema and the director was present for a few brief questions. Listening to his discussion about his work, which was aided by an interpreter, my faith in the profundity of Japanese film increased exponentially.

The winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, Like Father, Like Son is the story of a successful businessman called Ryota who fathers his young boy, Keita, with great discipline. It soon emerges, however, that the hospital in which Keita was born six years ago made a fatal error; Keita is in fact the biological son of a different set of parents, who themselves have fathered Ryota’s real son. The film chronicles the efforts of these two sets of parents to decide on the upbringing of the young boys – specifically whether or not they should switch them – and more importantly follows the journey of Ryota in learning to be more affectionate to a child, no matter his background. I thought that the film on a thematic level was extremely well balanced and rather brilliant. In playing out on-screen the worst nightmare of every parent, Koreeda addresses issues that are very inherent in Japanese society, particularly the importance of the family patriarch and of blood lines. Ryota clearly feels it is important to bring up his biological child, and his parents encourage him on that front. But he comes into conflict with his wife, who has different feelings on the matter, and is far kinder and more forward-looking than her husband.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota
Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota

In terms of its characters, Like Father, Like Son isn’t particularly original. The two fathers in the film are fairly conventional types: the upper-class workaholic who can’t connect with his child versus the working-class father who is rapturously received by his offspring. But the note-perfect performances of the Japanese actors – both young and old – was striking, and I left the cinema with a deep smile across my face, optimistic for the future of the two families in the film.

8/10

So, that was the first two thirds of my London Film Festival weekend. Join me soon when I’ll be discussing Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin, something that left me deeply affected and moved, and was by far the best thing I’ve seen at the festival so far.

The advent of Christmas movies

It’s that time of year again, when people of all nations come together to eat gargantuan portions of food and win Academy Awards for present-opening reactions; a time when you can’t escape the ostentatious parade of brand names and possible presents; and, indeed, a time when the special edition of the Radio Times reliably informs us of all the Christmas movies on offer this season. But with everything from high-budgeted action to TV-film corniness, my question is: what are some of the best (and worst) Christmas movies, and do Christmas movies in general ever have a chance of surviving outside of their two-month slot?

It’s sad to say that over the Christmas period, quite often, I find it difficult to use the television, because it is often occupied with these horrible C-List American TV movies that are entirely devoid of charm but which certain members of my family insist on watching. Take, for example, the title-tells-you-all Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus, which stars Police Academy‘s Steve Guttenburg as a soon-to-be Santa who, er, happens to be seeking a Mrs. Claus. I caught five minutes of the atrocious ending and was genuinely terrified. Guttenburg, over the course of the movie, indeed finds his wife, but at the point I joined he had separated from her for some soap-opera reason or another (you know how it goes). But in the end… he returns! Though in a thoroughly disquieting fashion. As actress Crystal Bernard (who?) bounds down the steps to see what Santa has brought her son this year, she discovers Guttenburg – sitting in a chair in Santa suit, smiling eerily, as if he has been up all night, waiting for her to descend the stairs so he can pounce and sink his claws into her neck. I don’t know if it is just me but I thought that this scene was one of the finest examples of cinematic weirdness since David Lynch baffled us all with Mulholland Drive, and the image still haunts me to this day (safe to say, I haven’t watched the rest of the film).

I'm positively quaking...
I’m quaking…

Also occupying the less brilliant side of the scale of Christmas movies is Home Alone 2. Now, I’ll admit, I loved the original and its billion sequels a lot when I was younger, laughing gleefully at the slapstick humour and wit of its tiny protagonist, Kevin McAllister. I wondered after seeing Home Alone 2 on TV this afternoon just how strangely warped my child mind must have been to enjoy it. It wasn’t the silly sentimentality or even the unusual length of two hours that caused me to recoil this time round. Surprisingly, it was exactly what attracted me to the film in the first place, the final sequence, where the hapless and brainless Harry and Marv try to catch the young Kevin as he disappears into an unfinished house, only to be subjected to the various traps that have been laid out for them. So far, so good – except the traps in the first film were actually funny. Here, they are downright sadistic. That’s right, there’s brick-throwing, explosives, an overwhelming barrage of heavy objects being ceremoniously dumped on heads, electric shocks, and spillage of paint. If movies actually told the truth, then poor Harry and Marv would have been dead before they even got into the house. We eventually get to a point where we want the criminals to succeed, and for Kevin to either be thrown off the building or sent to a mental hospital where he’ll sit in a corner, deliriously hatching new plans, for the rest of his life, so he won’t ever appear in a film again and, crucially, won’t miss any more stupid planes.

Don't you just want to punch his little face?
The psychologists would have a field day…

Did I enjoy this Christmas fluff? Well, no. Would they bear viewing in, say, June? Certainly not. What then, are the best Christmas movies, the ones that are worth watching, and the ones that do bear viewing in any season? There may be many, but I just want to give two of my favourites to counteract the two already mentioned: Gremlins and Die Hard. 

First to Gremlins, which is a genuinely fantastic horror-comedy from director Joe Dante. If you haven’t seen the film, then you must have heard of the all-important rules regarding the initially cuddly creatures of which the young Billy is gifted early on in the film: 1. Don’t get it wet. 2. Keep it away from sunlight 3. Whatever you do, don’t ever, EVER feed it after Midnight. Unfortunately, Billy betrays all three of these rules and suddenly finds legions of malevolent monsters swarming the town. I love the way that the film utterly destroys the idyllic scene of small-town America as the cackling devils take over cars, invade bars and, every once in a while, actually kill someone. I also loved its ability to be both hilariously funny and unusually dark in places; there are laughs, but they are interspersed with crazy violence and one pretty depressing story related by one of the supporting characters that explains her dislike of the Christmas period. Watching that scene now almost makes me want to laugh. Perhaps that’s what I love best about Gremlins – it’s not just gloriously entertaining but it gleefully subverts typical ideas about a Christmas movie with a savagery not unlike that of the puppet monsters. (Incidentally, the puppetry is amazing, and the film is worth seeing for that alone.)

Who DOES go carol singing these days?
Who DOES go carol singing these days?

And now to Die Hard. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of how astonishingly good this film is is the fact that the first time I saw it was not at Christmas, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it better. In case you didn’t already know, it’s the explosive story of what happens when John McClane, a New York Police Officer, comes to visit his estranged wife in Los Angeles for a Christmas party; the colossal office building is taken over by European terrorists while John is in the bathroom, and it is up to him to thwart these foreign villains and rescue the hostages – even though he’s not even wearing shoes. Like GremlinsDie Hard benefits from its humour, but also from its terrific performances, particularly from Bruce Willis, the perfect deliverer of one-liners, and Alan Rickman, who could not be more charismatic as the leader of the operation. But what do we really watch Die Hard for? The action! There is only one location, and the filmmakers certainly make the most of it; the fact that the triumphant and massive explosion of the lower section of the building was carried out for real (not CGI) only adds to the sense of awe. But is it a Christmas movie? Well, it takes place over the season, and it is certainly a Christmas tradition in my house to watch Die Hard every December. After all, nothing spells out peace and goodwill to all men than a sweaty middle-aged man in a vest with a receding hairline firing round upon round at a group of Euro-villains.

John feels the squalor of student living after paying his tuition fees.
John feels the squalor of student living after paying his tuition fees.

There’s no question that there are some excellent films which use Christmas as an important plot device: It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, or any decent version of A Christmas Carol. But I think that many of the best Christmas movies really aren’t very much about Christmas. They could take place around the season, and therefore could be seen accordingly, but would be appreciated equally in any month of the year. So, if you ever feel weighed down by trashy movies this December that are designed to lift your spirits but do exactly the opposite, just remember that there is still hope – make sure you have DVDs of Gremlins and Die Hard just in case. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas indeed.

The act of cinema clapping

When the credits began to roll after the wonder of a film that was Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, the majority of the audience in Odeon Leicester Square joined in a spontaneous round of applause, accompanied by whoops and cheers. I heartily joined in with this at the expense of being shot bemused looks by the person sitting next to me. It doesn’t make sense. We shouldn’t really clap in a cinema. And yet we do.

It’s not as if we have the entire cast and crew enjoying our rapturous applause. It’s not a play, or a musical performance; no-one tangibly accepts our admiration. But many (me included) still do it. Why do I bring this up? Because I know there to be a certain section of cinemagoers who believe that such clapping is useless, and I can say confidently that they entirely miss the point.

‘They’re clapping! What do we do??!!’

Film is intended to be a social experience. The days of the picture palace are over; screens and audiences are smaller, and yet there is still something quite special about sitting in a packed West End or IMAX cinema waiting to watch the latest highly-anticipated addition to a popular franchise. Skyfall was hyped extensively, but it’s not another Prometheus. As I said in my review, it’s a confident and mature return to one of the most well-known series of films of all time that manages to assert its own artistic slant on the hero. The film is spectacular, the ending leaves you breathless. It demands applause.

Citizen Kane must have REALLY enjoyed Skyfall

Not that we should clap for every film. It is certainly true that a lot of stuff on offer at your local world of cine are not even worthy of the minutest indication of praise. And of course, in smaller cinemas, there is often the awkward moment when something claps loudly and is not joined by the rest of the audience. It happens. Yet there is something incredibly touching when, in a world where people are getting harder to impress in terms of what’s on the silver screen, a film like Skyfall that breaks away from the traditional Bond format (and uses very little noticeable CGI) has gotten such a response as to provoke applause.

Cinema clapping. It doesn’t work all the time, but when it does, don’t look down upon it.

Youthful wolves and a quasi-samurai

I was asked by someone the other day what I was going to be doing over the weekend. I answered cheerfully, ‘I’m going to a festival!’ ‘But Glastonbury isn’t until next year…’ was the response. After I had explained to him that I would actually be watching films in London with other cinephiles instead of trying out some illegal substances in a muddy field it dawned on me that, as of the start of this week, I have never experienced either a film or a music festival. The word ‘festival’ itself has always seemed quite mythic to me, the domain of people older than myself. Which is why the BFI London Film Festival has been so darned exciting, despite the fact that for me it is almost over.

Today I saw two films that I both thought were powerful, but in wildly different ways. The first was Wolf Children, directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who also did something called The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (which is supposed to be good, but I haven’t seen it). We follow a woman called Hana who falls in love with a wolfman, bears two children with him, and struggles to bring them up. As the children grow they begin to wonder what the future holds for them, as does Hana, who tries to shield them from the eyes of the neighbours. The whole wolf element seemed, certainly to me, to be almost secondary in terms of narrative to the depiction of motherhood. Hana faces not only the fact that her kids can turn into feral animals, but every part of normal motherhood too; the fear of your children leaving you, fights at school, and so on. As I actually took my mother to the film I was deeply moved, and the stunning visuals (with an amazing attention to detail) make this the best 2D-animated film I’ve seen for a long while.

Ame and Yuki – the Wolf Children

Right on the other end of the spectrum is The Samurai That Night, which focuses around an unstable iron worker (Nakamura) intent on avenging his late wife, leaving threatening notes at the killer’s home to prove it. It’s a very intense film that relies very much around the performances of the actors to invoke meaning (its stage-play origins are very clear). Masato Sakai, though I had seen him in Key of Life just two days earlier, was on a totally different plane; a brooding, sinister and thoroughly uncomfortable performance as the main character. I had reservations: I felt that the character of Kijima, the murderer, was too one-sided and lacked any sort of depth. Yet it was a film that provoked  a lot of discussion afterwards as to the motives of its lead; it was dark, psychological, tense and, perhaps, a little ambiguous.

The Samurai That Night