Chris vs The Guardian?

High 5!

It has been a long held ambition of mine to do some paid writing work.  I’m not kidding myself, I’m not good enough to do it full-time; but I think I have enough to say, and just enough style to say it with, that I might be able to do a bit on the side for some time to come.  Chris Vs Cinema has been the framework to improve my writing and after a speculative e-mail or two it has paid off.

Today, in a flurry of activity, an article I have written has been posted on The Guardian Film Blog credited to my internet sobriquet ‘SolidChris’. It’s one of the weekly posts they make accepting contributions from outside the main staff and I’m well chuffed that something I’ve written has been put up on the site.  So please, go have a read of it and add a comment and a suggestion of your own – essentially make me look popular.

You can read it here – Clip Joint: Chat-up lines.

I hope this isn’t a one-off, I hope that there is more where this lies because that would make me happy and slowly fulfil one of my major ambitions in life: to be able to put that I am a writer – and to be confident about saying it.

Long Live the King

2. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) #37 in the IMDB top 250

Finally, after a false start or two, I managed to get to Manchester’s IMAX screen and watch the super-sized money making juggernaut.  Informed criticism of Avatar is like firing a pea shooter at a rhino – you aren’t having any effect.  No, for the second time in his career James Cameron has stared down the prepared knives – heightened in their readiness by the poor ‘Avatar day’ promotion late last year – and he has won.  As I’m writing this he is going about winning in the best possible way.  People, if not critics, love Avatar.  And they seem to love it even with the myriad of flaws present.  A film of this size, scope and technical complexity was always going to have flaws – with Cameron in charge the flaws are more like badges of honour than shameful imperfections.  Yes, the story has been told before, the performances aren’t all pitch perfect and the pacing of the story is odd due to the split narrative.  But roughly 40 minutes into the film I wasn’t too bothered because I was enjoying it so much.  Avatar is fun, where Terminator: Salvation succeeded in sucking the fun out of Cameron’s baby his new toys have come to the party with quite some style.

I could ramble on, but you’ve doubtless read it elsewhere – the film is worth seeing on the biggest screen possible and in 3D if you can because it does add to the special feeling of the whole experience.  I don’t know if 3D is here to stay or not, I can’t predict the future long-term but I can tell you that the slate for the next couple of years is looking pretty heavily weighted in favour.  If it is a fad then it’ll be around until it proves financially unsound and with the sheer weight of cash being pulled in by Avatar I wouldn’t bank on that being for a while.  As for the effect of the 3D, it takes some getting used to – for fairly complicated reasons.  Your eyes have to, as much as possible, stay with the in focus portion of the screen.  Anything that is out of focus in the background or foreground is now out of focus but with added depth and so I found my eyes drawn to these objects and straining to focus on them.  After I got past that particular difficulty I found myself quite enjoying the effect, it definitely helped add to the weight, heft and texture of Avatars themselves.

In the final assessment Avatar is an event, a rare massive event in cinema.  It isn’t the game-changer we may have hoped for but it is important and it will have repercussions for what you end up seeing in cinemas over the next five years.

Tales of Woe [Book Review]

David Hughes’ Tales from Development Hell & The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made (Revised and Expanded)

David Hughes is a man very much after my own heart, he has written two volumes here that chronicle the stories that never got told about the movies that, for the most part, didn’t get made.  They are never anything less than an engrossing read.  A few years ago I stumbled across a copy of the original edition of The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made in Hillsborough public library and once I started reading I was totally engrossed.  For years I’ve been on and off researching the story behind one of my favourite films and I saw in Hughes’ book something I’ve always wanted to produce, the story behind the making of, or in his case the story of the nearly making of.

In Tales from Development Hell Hughes uncovers the stories behind the development process that sees millions of dollars spent on films that are never made.  Where brilliant ideas are tossed aside in favour of something more familiar or safer and scripts are re-written in order to please 8 different people before you sign a star, and they demand a re-write.  If you ever find yourself in the situation where you are sat watching a film and wondering ‘how or why did any group of humans come to think that it was a good idea to do that?’ then this book goes a long way to offering answers to those questions.  Chapters range from the aborted Total Recall sequel to  the lengthy gestation of Indiana Jones IV (the script was ready in 1995!) and even including the near miss of the various attempts to adapt Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Hughes’ research is thorough and is fortunately garnished by the experiences and insights of world class script writers like Steven de Souza and Gary Goldman.  One drawback about a book like this is that it makes you pine to see some of these films, these unproduced masterpieces.  One such is the Sly Stallone vehicle ISOBAR, described as being a bit like Alien on a futuristic train. To be directed by Ridley Scott with Joel Silver producing at the height of his late 90s powers and with production design by Scandinavian nightmare merchant HR Geiger it sounded like a strange but heady brew that could be potentially brilliant.  But it all fell through, as it so often does.

Hughes’ revised and expanded version of The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made addresses one of the key problems encountered since the original edition was published, some of the films got made!  Inevitably the stories of their tortured development continue the fine tradition of backstabbing, re-writing, lying and always throwing money at a problem until it goes away established in the earlier edition.  Included as extra are chapters on the aborted attempt to make a film adaptation of The Outer Limits and the outrageous sounding 1930s development of an oil painting animation of John Carter of Mars.  I’ve found a video online of the test animations done for John Carter of Mars, which I’ve stuck on the end of this entry.

I’m basically green with envy over David Hughes, he’s written books I’d like to have written but he’s done it much better than I ever could.  For movie fans these are great reads with mysterious characters, hateful villains and some fairly put-upon writers at the core. Read ‘em, and inside you’ll have a little cry for all the dreams that the factory manages to mangle.

One Hell of a Show

1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) #128 in IMDB Top 250

Reclining to watch the first film of the year is a pleasurable experience, late at night with the lights out, curtains drawn, a quiet house and a cup of tea steaming away.  With this in mind I thought I’d try and watch a film with a bit of substance about it so I went with an Academy Award winner.  And what a cracking way to start another years film watching it turned out to be.

Daniel Plainview is America. At least I think he represents a facet of what America is.  You see Plainview is an oil man, he first strikes in 1898 and by 1911 he is a successful oil entrepreneur with several drills when an opportunity to expand into California presents itself.  Here Plainview, buys out all the land he can and builds his oil empire.  Along the way he faces interference and distraction from the local church minister, a man purporting to be his brother and his son; rendered deaf by a gas explosion on an oil derrick.

Sumptuously shot by Robert Elswit (for which he deservedly go the Oscar) and delicately edited by Dylan Tichenor this is a technical masterpiece.  Essentially it is as aesthetically pleasing as any other film I can recall.  It’s just beautiful.  All of this is complemented by Jonny Greenwood’s excellent score which is as unique and fitting as the visuals demand.  And then there’s the performance, the single dominating, consuming performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Plainview grows from the silent hopeful of the opening sequence to the charismatic salesman entrepreneur and onto revealing his true sociopathic self.

Put simply, as I have above, this is a simple tale of one man’s all consuming ambition but putting it simply does absolutely no justice to the depth of Anderson’s creation.  This is a story that invites interpretation and infers much throughout the course of its running time.  I’d like to offer a very quick reading as an idea formulated whilst I enjoyed the film.  I think Daniel Plainview represents the corporation.  He begins life on screen as a prospector but he soon grows beyond that when he strikes oil, then he starts to collect assets such as his ‘son’ H.W. and his assistant, Fletcher.  As the film progresses Plainview displays a sociopathic focus on productivity, any act of kindness is only to forward his needs as a businessman – the promises to the townsfolk and the care of H.W. are prime examples.  With the commodity in question being oil the whole notion of corporate responsibility becomes a central theme for this film proving, above all else, a clear relevance in our current global political climate.  All this is based on the Joel Bakan theory of the corporation as a sociopathic/psychopathic entity – much as Plainview is in this film.  Plainview’s response on the occasions he is asked for money are telling.  He responds immediately or shortly afterwards with violence, destroying any obstacle that challenges his authority.

I think There Will Be Blood may well be the best film made in the last decade, how fitting to watch it at the opening of this new one.  It seems I am not alone in thinking THIS. I think that Bradshaw’s Citizen Kane parallel has legs, I think this is possibly the defining film of the modern era, I cannot praise it highly enough.

For anyone who had a few problems following the film, some wag produced this handy flowchart to help you…

Chris vs Cinema Review of 2009

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January 1st, New Years Day, 2009 – I watched six films and the seed of this blog challenge was born.  I’ve failed to achieve the main objective, but I think I’ve failed for all the right reasons.  This year has seen some fairly seismic shifts in my own life, not least the career change and birth of my son, Seth, which put a grinding halt to my blog writing exploits in September.  Factor in that it was an Ashes winning summer for the plucky England cricket team and I’ve had a pretty busy time of it.

What of the objectives though? Well I watched 206 films, some of them short films which I thought might be interesting or different and I tried to put a video embed or link on there for readers to try and watch them too.  The Hangover was the last film I watched before Seth was born and that numbered 186 on September 6th.  I was, at that point, managing over 22 films a month which is pretty strong going and I think 250 would have been easily achieved.  I’m fairly proud that I managed to write a fifty word review at least for each film, often a lot more than that.

If I were to pick one review that I was most proud of it would be the review of Cat’s Eye.  It is the kind of review that I’d like to read, not focusing purely on the film but on the nature of the creative process involved.  It’s not a co-incidence that that is the review that I spent the most time working on and researching.  By contrast the one I look back on with most regret is Let the Right One In.  I loved the film, one of the best I’ve watched all year, but the review doesn’t do it justice – I feel that I should have written more, said more about how brilliant it is.

What about the IMDB Top 250? At the start of the year I’d seen 134 of the films on the list.  Over the year I tried to watch as many as possible.  Due to the fluid nature of the list in some cases I’d watch a film that was on the list only for it to slide off as more people voted, Watchmen being a prime example.  Well, as of today (02/01/2010) I’ve seen 168 of the films in the list, leaving 82 to go.  Perhaps as of next year I’ll have reduced that by another 30 or so.  That’s not such bad going though and I’ve got a few of them on DVD ready and waiting.

That brings me to something else, my DVD collection has gone through the roof.  Not only through some judicious trading courtesy of the Sheffield branch of CEX but my birthday and Christmas have given me ample opportunity to build a bit of library of unwatched films.  Many thanks to the people who actually posted me films, lent copies and in some cases made copies of films for me.  You know who you are.

I even made a few appearances on the Sheffield Live! Film File podcast alongside my friend Jim Whiting and presenter Simon Thake, an experience I really enjoyed.  I made a guest appearance on Sarah Ditum’s Paperhouse blog and even made a few virtual blogosphere acquaintances, which sounds twatty but is actually quite a nice thing.  I even had a brief disagreement with Graham Linehan via Twitter over his opinions on Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (he liked it!).

What about the films themselves then? There’s been so many, so many really enjoyable experiences and a few disappointments.  I’ve done a quick list of some that I liked and didn’t below but special mentions have to go to the films that took me by surprise, Nimrod Antal’s moody underground thriller Kontroll, the light whimsy of Mediterraneo and pulsing tension of Bronson.  All three were films I expected little of and they surprised me with how much I just enjoyed watching them unfold. On the other hand the live blog review of Shaft displayed what a crocked mess it was but the prize winning turd of the year for me was Red Dawn. A train crash of a film, awful stuff.

What to do with the blog then? Chris vs Cinema as I have used it in 2009 is over.  No more challenge, no more staying up to ridiculous hours of the morning to finish watching a film I’m not really enjoying.  I’m going to remove the references to 365 films in a year, that’s done with.  But the blog will continue as I continue to watch new films, I’ll even try to review every new film that I watch.  That might be less than 100 this year though.  I’ll be reviewing some books and other things connected with cinema too.  Once I’ve revised the look of the site then things will continue.

Once again thanks for reading, it’s been fun.

Chris.

Note: I’ve popped the lists below – they aren’t comprehensive but then I find it very difficult to make lists like this.  That’s why I like reading other people’s.  I’ve not hyperlinked them but you can use the search function on the right if you fancy a reminder of my original comments.

The Good

Give ‘em Hell Malone

The Hangover

Kontroll

The Shock Doctrine

Roger Dodger

Once

Moon

Mediterraneo

The Killing Fields

The Constant Gardener

Bronson

[.REC]

Friday Night Lights

Diner

The Bad

Automaton Transfusion

What Just Happened?

Red Dawn

The Entity

Rollerball

Leprechaun in the Hood

Black and White

Terminator: Salvation

Shaft

Booze, Broads and Bullets

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206. Give ‘em Hell, Malone (Russell Mulcahy, 2009)

The last film of the year is one that I’ve been particularly excited about seeing.  I’d posted about the excellent looking trailers HERE and HEREGive ‘em Hell, Malone doesn’t disappoint as it plays out like the surly bastard child of Sin City and Dick Tracy achat rapide viagra.  Thomas Jane is Malone, the hard-bitten, hard drinking, hard as nails bagman who we see attempting to get hold of a briefcase in a brutal opening scene shootout.  Once he gets hold of the bag then the trouble starts.  There’s smoking dames, psychotic bad-guys, blood, guns and some of the wittiest tongue-in-cheek noir dialogue since Bogart sparkled with Bacall.

This a great slice of modern genre film-making, a comic-book palette meshes the neo-noir world that Malone inhabits with the real world outside which occasionally breaks through in humorous ways.  References are made to e-mails sent and modern cars are seen in traffic with Malone’s battered 40s saloon.  If I have a criticism it would be that the Mulcahy is a bit too hectic with the camera but that’s no major problem, easily overlooked with everything else good that is going on.  It’s a shame that a cinema release wasn’t a possibility but you should seek this film out – it makes a cracking bit of Friday night entertainment.

A full review of my brilliant year reviewing movies is forthcoming along with the changes that I’ll be making for the coming year.  Thanks for reading, commenting and sending films it has been great fun.

Fugeddaboudit

gomorrah_021

205. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008)

Sometimes a story is so large, so dense and multifaceted that a film can’t do it justice.  That’s the case with Gomorrah, it is a film which only has two hours to depict the Neopolitan organised crime family (the ‘Camorra’ what we might ordinarily know as the mafia) as documented by Roberto Saviano in his book.  The criminal element of this society is so huge that to attempt to cover it in two hours doesn’t really seem to do it justice, if that phrase can be used.  In a time when David Simon has made history with his depiction of drugs and crime in society with The Wire over the course of some 60 hours anything less is likely to seem superficial.  That is the only real flaw with the film, there is a sense that there is so much that goes untold – so much that could be added were the story told over the course of televised series.  To the credit of film-makers they have tried to do something slightly different.

Gomorrah shows the broad scope and influence of the Camorra over the social infrastructure of Napoli, from top to bottom, by weaving between five unconnected stories.  It’s a brave move because with any narrative separation you run the risk of having one thread that is more interesting than another.  Despite this unevenness Gomorrah is a film that grows as you watch it.  The first half is relatively unengaging but as it builds a larger picture it draws you further and further into the lives of these people.  Unfortunately the feeling at the conclusion is that I wanted to see something much more detailed and exploratory.  That isn’t the point of Gomorrah though, it’s a picture, a slice of a society wracked by a criminal organisation.  The stories are all ultimately expressions of the futility of any attempt to challenge the orthodoxy in this situation.  For this reason it’s not exactly cheerful but I have no reason to doubt its authenticity given the source material.  It certainly made me want to see more of this and I think an extended mini-series showing the connections between these stories would be an excellent endeavour.

As if the producers are actually listening.

Are they?

Hellooooo?

Make ’em Laugh

Singin

204. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952) #75 in IMDB top 250

Its brilliant, its special – the construction, the energy and the sheer joy is invigorating.  There’s problems with the film – notably the weird interpretive dance sequence that goes on for too long and doesn’t really gel with the rest of the film, but that is a minor quibble.  Gene Kelly is pure star material, he’s dynamite. Donald O’Connor sparks tirelessly alongside him and Jean Hagen squawks her way into cinema legend.  That’s the other thing about Singin’ in the Rain, it’s funny – actually genuinely funny.  This is the antithesis of Sunset Boulevard, the mirror image.  Dealing, as it does, with the advancement of sound into Hollywood production.

I’m no fan of musicals, I find them to be quite hard work but watching Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t hard work at all.  The song and dance sequences aren’t schmaltzy or slow – they’re quick, inventive and funny.  There’s the famous Singin’ in the rain sequence of course (lovingly lampooned by Morcambe and Wise) but my favourite is Donald O’Connor’s Make ‘em Laugh scene.  Such energy and verve is infective.  Like I say, I’m no expert but this strikes me as probably the pinnacle of the MGM musical, a deserved memento from a bygone age.

Note: Singin’ in the Rain is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Musicals’.