My review of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone for Little White Lies can be found here.
My feature “Toys on Film: A History of Play-things in Cinema” can be found here.
My review of Fire With Fire for Little White Lies can be found here.
My review of The Bay for Little White Lies can be found here.
My review of Reign of Assassins for Little White Lies can be found here.
The signs have already gone up outside HMV Watford, one of 66 branches earmarked for closure by Deloitte last week.
‘STORE CLOSING,’ they declare, obnoxiously. ‘ALL STOCK REDUCED!’ A brisk circuit round the premises confirms the position. The place looks strangely drunk and disorderly in that completely random ‘Primark’ kind of way. There are books strewn across the floor. Many of the shelves, once majestically awash with overpriced DVDs of films you may never watch, remain bare and unstocked. Practically everything’s stickered and up for grabs, ready for the big clear-out.
Weirdly, the emporium is teeming with prospective punters but few of them seem bothered about putting their hands in their pockets and actually buying something. It’s like the buffet at a funeral, mourners milling around the sandwiches, wondering who’ll be the first to break the politeness barrier and chow down.
I know why they’re not biting. The Amazing HMV Closing Down Retail Extravaganza (not the official title) is a sale that is not a sale. The clues are conspicuous, such as the signage declaring, menacingly and fascistically, that chart items are not – repeat, NOT – included as part of the current reductions. Pop junkies hungry for a deal on the new Paloma Faith will leave disappointed.
And at the front of the store, there’s a selection of DVD titles in a rack adorned with a big green sign that says “80% OFF.” Which would be completely amazing, except it’s not really 80% off. A closer look at the aforementioned big green sign reveals that what they actually mean is up to 80% off, and that’s against the RRP. So if you want to pick up a copy of Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists for the exact same price you’d pay for it elsewhere, only this time under the pretence of an 80% reduction against a price that no one’s ever charged, well, you’re quids in.
Elsewhere, a £20 copy of Dark Shadows on Blu-ray proudly takes its place on the shelf next to another, identical £10 copy of Dark Shadows on Blu-ray. Even in the store’s death throes, the pricing is almost gleefully erratic.
The demise of HMV was never going to be pretty. Perhaps the only surprise was just how long it took them to bite the administrative bullet and call in the receivers. It is a dinosaur. A relic of retail yore. Look at the way the management completely fumbled the firing of head office and distribution staff when the official Twitter account got hijacked by a disgruntled employee. A simple social media faux pas, for sure, but one that neatly sums up the company’s cockamamie approach to the twenty-first century.
Ok, so it’s easy to gloat. HMV were as clueless as everyone else in the record industry when the online revolution merrily toddled along and took a big, joyous dump on the face of physical media. But rather than clean up the mess and move with the times, HMV buried its head in the sand of bad business decisions. How else to explain the disparity between the prices on HMV.com versus in-store? And just what were they thinking by branching out into the live music business? Wasn’t that just ignoring the problem? The way the company completely ignored the potential of e-books and instead took a massively expensive, ultimately unsuccessful punt on Waterstones in the nineties perhaps sums it up best. Over the course of many years, HMV didn’t shoot themselves in the foot as much as they slowly chopped it off with a blunt spoon and fed it to the dog for breakfast. The store’s current business model, implemented in an opiate, post-Olympic haze, seems to revolve around selling gratuitously expensive headphones to morons, which is basically insane.
It’s interesting that when the company filed for administration last month, there was an almost immediate outpouring of grief on Twitter and Facebook and other outlets that HMV itself would struggle to comprehend. I completely get the nostalgia. HMV was where I bought my very first record when I was eight years old. It was a 7-inch copy of Always on my Mind by the Pet Shop Boys. I remember it vividly. All the Top 40 records were kept behind a counter, so you had to tell the store assistant which record you wanted to buy and they’d fetch it for you, and you’d only buy it once you’d checked it for scratches. ALSO it had a gorgeous plain white cover with a tiny still of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe from their film It Couldn’t Happen Here in the top-left corner of the sleeve.
Anyway, whatever. There was a definite sense online that with HMV effectively out of the picture, browsing would more or less come to an end, and that the salad days of impulse buys and random purchases made on a whim would somehow be superseded by a terrifying new world of online ‘wish lists’ and algorithmic shopping terror.
Well, there’s both good and bad news in that regard. The bad news is that, sure, with HMV gone, there will almost certainly be a black hole on the high street in terms of music, film and TV retail. The good news is, who cares? Browsing didn’t take a running jump. It evolved.
Take, for instance, the Apple TV. After a single month of use, I have no hesitation in declaring it one of my absolute favourite gadgets of all time. I plugged it in, signed up to Netflix, and now, night after night, I spend ages trying to figure out exactly what I’m going to watch. It’s nuts. Flicking through page after page on Netflix is, for me, a nerdy joy. Yes, the current selection’s pretty limited. But that will change. And when you can get 1080p HD quality film and television live streamed on demand straight into your TV via a HDMI, who needs DVDs or Blu-rays?
That ongoing question of delivery will pretty much sound the death rattle for HMV. Netflix will get more sophisticated. Lovefilm will continue to expand their selection of titles. Blinkbox will continue to deliver new releases on demand. And iTunes will do what iTunes does, which is to say, everything, albeit a little more expensive and perhaps ethically a bit more ‘ahem’ than the competition. If HMV is to have any chance of survival, it needs to teach that bloody dog to stop listening to the gramophone and learn some new tricks.
My review of Wreck-It Ralph for Little White Lies can be found here.
My review of The Man From Laramie for Letterboxd/#MannFest can be found here.
My feature about Why I Love Steven Spielberg for Virgin Movies can be found here.
My review of The King of Pigs for Little White Lies can be found here.
This is a post about water retention of the ocular kind.
Up and down the country there are reports of people are losing their shit over some Oscar-baiting costume shambles featuring things like “power ballads” belted out by Australians pretending to be French. The plot sounds ridiculous and the execution (so to speak) all rather crass, but nevertheless there is something about this particular film that seems to be genuinely affecting people in that way certain films have a tendency to do from time to time. Tears are being shed. Air is being punched. Audiences are coming together to celebrate the chintzy genius of musical theatre in a pre-meditated national fist-bump. It’s like Mamma Mia all over again.
I’ve not yet seen Tom Hooper’s saccharine extravaganza but have no doubt whatsoever that when I do, not only will my shit be well and truly lost, it will be carefully and lovingly buried at the bottom of a sea of pure feeling. And I know exactly how it’s going to go down. Just a few seconds of that Selina Kyle belting out Susan Boyle’s timeless hit “Dreamy Dream Dream”, and that’s all it will take. Bombs away, my tears will fly, ripping eyeholes asunder in an unforgiving blitzkrieg of elation.
Films make me cry. Some of them make me cry quite a lot. In particular, I’m a sucker for the sentimental. I’m completely fine with this. It’s okay to cry. Anyone who says otherwise is clearly a psychopath. Cold, clinical, maybe even a little dead inside. Or perhaps they’ve just never had the pleasure of watching Dumbo alone in the dark. Their loss. As Fred Willard will attest, there’s nothing quite like a little release in the cinema.
Take, for instance, Slumdog Millionaire. By the conclusion of the film’s Bollywood dance party finale, I was so overcome that I had no real option but to hang back until the very end of the credits and allow myself an opportunity to recover. Seriously, I was all over the shop. All I wanted was to gather my thoughts, wipe my eyes and refill the sandbags of my soul.
I don’t know why Danny Boyle’s picaresque poverty fable induced such ecstatic trauma. I’m not an orphan and I’ve never felt terribly compelled to dive headfirst into a vat of excrement for the sake of an autograph. Perhaps it was the cumulative impact of the hardships suffered by its central characters. Or simply the sheer manipulative force of a narrative that pushes the audience to a place where bawling your eyes out in the company of strangers seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Whatever it was doing, it worked. Later that night, my flat-mate asked me what I thought about the film. “Brilliant,” I said, before devolving into a pathetic, dewy-eyed, quasi-human sludge.
I had a similar experience with another Danny Boyle film, the bone-cracking survival porno 127 Hours. Rarely have I felt so happy to be alive as I did at the end of that damn thing. Boyle’s gruelling portrait of a man driven to the edge of endurance made me want to hotfoot it home, pick up the phone and reassure my Mum that, yes, I’d popped out to the cinema but I was still very much alive and everything was going to be alright. It’s the It’s A Wonderful Life of James Franco-related injury films.
Even War Horse had me reaching for the tissues, despite being so uncool it wears polyester slacks. Sure, the thought of engaging in an Equus-style tryst with Joey the Colt might well be more socially acceptable than publicly bigging up Steven Spielberg these days, but he really is the king of this stuff. The moment when a temporarily blinded Albert sounds the call that reunites him with his steel-hoofed buddy gets me every time. And yes, I’ve seen it more than once.
Crying at the movies is a relatively new phenemenon for me. Certainly as a kid I wouldn’t dare shed even the slightest tear at something as trivial as a film. But something happens when you hit your thirties. Suddenly everything is imbued with meaning. Revisiting E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as a thirty-three year old nostalgic idiot, for example, is a wholly different experience to watching it as a young, bright-eyed moron. Suddenly, it’s not just a film about childhood. It’s about YOUR childhood, and that changes everything.
One of my favourite films of last year, lest anyone accuse me of shying away from the arthouse juggernauts, was James Bobin’s joyful spin on The Muppets, a film about taking what was great about the past and somehow reinventing it for the present. Needless to say, I was a wreck. It could be one the finest children’s films of recent years, not just because of the jokes and the songs and the all-round glee that explodes out of every scene. The Muppets will endure because when the kids in the audience grow up, get a job, have kids and a mortgage and start dealing with all the other quandaries of modern life, they’ll look back at the time they first saw the incessant puppet film with the fart shoes and singing chickens, and they will cry.
Crying is good. We know this. And what’s more, so do the producers of Les bloody Miserables. If their all-singing rollercoaster of SHEER EMOTIVE INTENSITY fails to secure its place in tear-jerker history, then it won’t be for lack of trying. Like Beaches, Bambi or The Bridges of Madison County, Hooper’s Gallic epic seems calibrated for maximum possible impact on the waterworks. So what if it’s manipulative and sucralose? There’s little wrong with big, grotesque cinema that stirs the soul.
At least it’s honest.
My Jake Gyllenhaal feature for Virgin Movies can be found here.
My review of Paranormal Activity 4 for Little White Lies can be found here.
My review of Taken 2 for Little White Lies can be found here.
My review of Paranorman for Little White Lies can be found here.
You may not have heard of Richard Harding Gardner, but he’s a personal hero of mine, and for one simple reason: he directed perhaps the most dire film I’ve seen in recent years. It’s a film more deficient than Earth Vs. the Spider starring Dan Aykroyd, more abominable than Hardwired starring Cuba Gooding Jr and Val Kilmer, more incompetent than Boa starring Dean Cain. No, Gardner’s contribution to cinema eclipses them all. He’s the man behind Sherlock Bones: Undercover Dog, a film that’s nigh-on impossible to acquire for anything greater than a pound at any given retailer.
For my money, all one hundred pennies of it, Gardner’s low-rent poochstravaganza remains the ultimate in ethereal terribleness, and one of the most remarkable film experiences of my life. Something that not only transcends bad, it defecates in bad’s bag, sets it on fire and dumps it on the doorstep of disappointment.
It’s difficult to say exactly what makes Sherlock Bones such an extraordinary and calamitous failure. Where do you start with something so misjudged? The woeful acting? Or perhaps the anal-clenching awfulness of the screenplay? (Why does Sherlock have an eye-patch? What kind of heinous abuse has he suffered? Is he the Equus of investigative hounds? What exactly is going on? It’s never really explained.)
As you’d expect, the film’s production values are unintentionally risible. During the climactic chase sequence, for instance, one of the bad guys gets dragged around a harbour by a speedboat, except clearly it’s neither him nor a stunt man – it’s the world’s most rubbish mannequin, stapled to the side of the vessel, flimsy, flaccid and almost existentially unconvincing as it flaps its way through the water with rubbish abandon. Perhaps most bizarrely, there are jaw-dropping displays of animal cruelty. In one scene, the titular canine appears to be dragged across the floor by a wire. Is that even allowed? And more pertinently, couldn’t they have at least tried to cover it up?
For all these reasons and more, Sherlock Bones is the kind of film you can’t just watch. You have to let it wash all over you. Bathe in it. Drown in the eternal sunshine of its shittery. To this day it represents the only time I’ve ever suffered actual physical pain watching a film. I laughed so hard my ribs felt like they’d been crushed to dust.
And yet, no matter how ill-conceived, Gardner’s film is a delight. A completely satisfying entertainment, albeit for all the wrong reasons. It is hilarious in its ineptitude. Every single decision made during its conception and execution utterly incorrect. In other words, Sherlock Bones: Undercover Dog is so bad, it’s good.
Of course, a film like this only ever works in the context of a communal experience. It demands to be experienced with friends. Solo viewings only expose Sherlock Bones for what it really is – a turd, wrapped in a bow, made out of another turd. And that’s the thing about bad films. They create a shared sense of purpose, a communal schadenfreude. A film that would otherwise be left to rot on the scrap heap of cinematic misery can be elevated to legendary status just through the simple act of watching it together. And then bitching about it on the internet. There’s safety in numbers. As a collective, we can exert our moral superiority and decry “Dear God, what is that thing?” safe in the knowledge that despite wasting ninety minutes of our lives, at least we did it together.
Connoisseurs of the bad film will direct you towards Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, perhaps one of the biggest and baddest bad films around. It’s the exception that proves the rule, a bad film that’s so good it pays for itself. Every month at the Prince Charles Cinema, a couple of hundred of cinema-goers pay £10 per head to gather together and point and laugh at Wiseau’s cruddy opus.
With its melodramatic screenplay, unhinged direction and line delivery that borders on the mentally ill, The Room is a cacophony of balls. But what amazing balls. Wiseau has since tried to reposition his wonky epic as some kind of subversive black comedy. He’s an idiot. A more earnest, heartfelt attempt at creative seriousness you’d be hard-pushed to find. Unless, of course, that heartfelt attempt at creative seriousness is Tulpa.
Tulpa is the new giallo throwback from director Federico Zampaglione. The film recently received its World Premiere at Frightfest, the blood-soaked, gore-worshipping festival of the damned. It’s basically Christmas for genre nerds. The unveiling of Zampaglione’s film was an unusually (implausibly) glamorous affair for Frightfest. His ravishing leads were in attendance and the press were out in force. For the first time ever, Frightfest felt sort of sexy, more La Biennale di Venezia than the West End on a Saturday night.
Sadly, it was all an illusion, a seductive facade that collapsed within minutes of the film’s opening scene, a particularly grisly sequence in which a man’s genitalia gets severed from his bodice then casually tossed aside like a penile trinket. The atmosphere in the screening was equally neutered, like someone had made a slit in the forehead of the Empire Leicester Square itself and sucked out all the Botox.
Why? Put simply, Tulpa is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. A tawdry, ignominious disaster, Zampaglione’s film is not just a dog, it’s a dog within a dog. It’s basically The Thing (the actual “Thing”, not the film as a whole) and it should probably be burned. With its ludicrous characterisation, terrible dubbing, moronic plot twists, Tulpa isn’t so much the rebirth of giallo than it is the soft porn Tales of the Unexpected by way of Garth Marenghi. If Dario Argento’s film Tenebrae is a sexy Lamborghini, turbo-charged and ready for action, then Tulpa is a clapped-out Punto and the wheels have fallen off.
And it’s bloody brilliant. The perfect communal bad movie experience, in fact. From its dazzlingly dire screenplay to some of the most insane performances I’ve ever seen on screen (raise a glass to Michela Cescon, who plays Joanna, the world’s worst best friend and Queen of Wooden Delivery) Tulpa piles on the kitsch to dizzying effect. It’s a ham mountain. Just in case there was any doubt, the film even throws in several shots from the point of view of a snake. Tulpa really is that bad/amazing. (The “animal POV” shot is a classic “so bad, it’s good” trait. See also: “Crow Cam” in Robin Hardy’s extraordinary film The Wicker Tree.)
Tulpa also contains the following line of dialogue: “No one knows anything about him, except, they say, he’s a hermaphrodite.”
Oh, and this moving exchange: “My colleague committed suicide in very weird circumstances.”…”You’ll be alright.”
Not to mention: “Have you ever read books on the occult?”…”No, why?”…”Doesn’t matter.”…”Oh. Okay.”
My heart skipped a beat watching Tulpa. Like that first viewing of Sherlock Bones, there was something in the air, a feeling that perhaps I’d never get the chance to see something quite so ball-scrapingly awful ever again.I felt it during the John Barrowman vehicle Shark Attack 3, basically a Russian tax dodge famous for the immortal line, “I’m a little wired… what do you say I take you home and eat your pussy?” Ditto when I watched The Steam Experiment, a nasty piece of work starring Val Kilmer – he’s pretty much the king of these things nowadays – as a climate scientist scorned. You’re seeing and hearing things you’ve genuinely never experienced in a film before. The shock of the new.
It isn’t there anymore, the West Hartlepool College of Art. Not like it used to be. These days it’s called the Cleveland College of Art and Design and it’s just one part of a larger institution (there’s a sixth-form campus down the road in Middlesbrough.) To this day I feel a bit of a tingle every time I walk or drive past it with my parents during one of my all too rare visits back home to Hartlepool. Situated near the marina, and just around the corner from the local multiplex, the current curriculum covers everything from fashion to photography to, of course, film production. The college’s most famous alumni, Tony and Ridley Scott, still cast a shadow over the town. They’re heroes. Arty North Shields kids who took on the world. Tyneside moguls, straight out of Stockton.
I remember the first time I saw Crimson Tide as vividly as any screening I’ve ever attended. It was at the Showcase in Nottingham (I worked on the concession stand there when I was 16 for the princely sum of £2.30 an hour + free movies.) Like so much of Tony Scott’s work, it’s the kind of film that thrives on low expectations, a submarine thriller about the end of the world that doesn’t run silent or deep as much as it shouts at itself for two hours, its hand hovering over a big red button, waiting for the signal. I’ve rarely seen a packed, sold-out multiplex crowd as rapt as that performance – to this day, Crimson Tide remains one of the most tense blockbusters ever made, a juggernaut of sweaty-palmed, almost theatrical intensity, a B-movie with an A-grade screenplay and two of the finest leading actors of their respective generations going at each other like it’s Judgement Day. As the credits rolled, the sense of relief was palpable in the room, the words “directed by Tony Scott” our invitation to breathe.
I wonder how many of Hartlepool’s current intake of film students watched Crimson Tide, or True Romance, or The Last Boy Scout and thought “I want to do THAT.” Sure, he’s no Ingmar Bergman. But then again, Ingmar Bergman didn’t make Top Gun, the film that redefined the summer movie experience for a generation. More fool him. Tony Scott’s films are brash, efficient entertainments, – often glossy, occasionally nasty, unashamedly commercial. But they exhibit craftsmanship that transcends their genre, and they trust writers. His films really are state of the action-thriller art. His final film, Unstoppable, a blue-collar banger about a runaway train on a collision course with disaster, evidences this in spades. It’s a smart and visceral slice of blockbuster pie, executed to perfection.
There will be a lot of speculation and conjecture in the press over the coming days about what happened to Tony Scott and why he felt the need to do what he did. It probably won’t be useful. Neither will the sordid and unhelpful descriptions of the exact nature of his passing. None of that really matters right now. Tony Scott flipped cars like no one in the business. His career was a long, slow-motion, rolling ball of flame. He gave us a vampire Bowie and transformed Tom Cruise into the biggest star in the world. To all intents and purposes, he won.
There’s a scene towards the beginning of The Expendables 2 in which Dolph Lundgren quite literally sneezes into Einstein’s theory of relativity. Nothing sums up the film’s modus operandi more succinctly, or phlegmatically, for that matter. The second instalment of Sylvester Stallone’s rib-cracking, hip-replacing, geriatric men-on-a-mission franchise has little interest in reason or rationality, instead opting to celebrate bloodthirsty machismo and the art of the terrible one-liner above any sense of cosmic coherence.
Love him or loathe him, there’s little doubt that with his latest epic The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan has crafted one of the most ridiculous films of the year. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. After the sheer balls-to-the-wall absurdity of Inception, it would have been a crushing disappointment had Nolan failed to crank up the crazy with his next project. On that level, the new Batman film delivers. To its credit, the film rarely threatens the levels of preposterousness exhibited by something like Prometheus, but that’s not really saying much – Prometheus is a hallucinatory nightmare of a film that revels in its own insanity, and is only marginally less quixotic than a unicorn shitting diamonds into the mouth of a gremlin. Everything is relative. (I’m a Prometheus apologist btw. I come to this conclusion from a place of love.)