Of Birthdays and Other Time Slips
Woah, August really went and ran off, didn’t it. In my defence, I have been both very busy and very not busy at all… I did have a birthday though, which as most folk have noticed this year, feels rather odd. It was followed by two weeks of frantic work, which have been great but knackering. However, I’ve been levelled up to the noble heights of width and wisdom that forty-two bring, and that’s something I guess. My official ageing was preceded by celebrating twenty-two years with my other half, Marilyn! And that’s definitely a long time. We attempted celebration in these benighted times with our usual meal out and cinema combo, but inevitably that went quite poorly… Having misunderstood whether Nando’s was really open (it wasn’t), we ended up in a rather cramped Pizza Express being reminded of how awful it is being near other people and that their pizzas are defiantly OK. A bit stressful that. Not our most successful anniversary, but not our most disastrous, by a fairly long shot…
But it did bring us back to the cinema, which is probably the most ordinary thing that we’ve been missing since March. Having watched a few big Netflix movies on our TV, I got the definite feeling that we’d have enjoyed them more if we’d seen them on a screen larger than our house. That said, I’m on my third rewatch of the entire MCU, and they’re only getting better, so maybe Netflix just doesn’t make great films… We were a little concerned that like the pubs, cinemas would be filled with hugging crowds spitting over each other, but I’m perhaps more concerned that it’s the exact opposite. We’ve yet to be in a screening with more than ten other people, and that can’t be a good sign. Now, I should preface this series of half-arsed film reviews with the caveat that although I may seem to have hated all these films, I do like films, honest.
The New Era of Cinema
We followed an OK anniversary pizza with the last film that we missed as lockdown kicked in: Bloodshot. It’s, uh, not good. Alright, it’s perfectly fine but contains nothing of note. Looks increasingly like Vin Diesel is now always Dom Toretto, and therefore every movie in which looks exactly the same is in fact part of the Fast & Furious universe. I don’t believe there was anything in Bloodshot which rules this out. It’s got the usual super-soldier plot with a twist that isn’t so much surprising as utterly uninteresting. It’s quite fun watching Diesel shoot people in a tunnel while covered in flour, so it has that to recommend it. I guess I should summarise…
Diesel plays a US marine (or something, it honestly doesn’t matter which) who gets killed by a rather nasty piece of work who’s murdered Vin’s wife because Diesel may have seen something on his last job (I know this isn’t quite right, but almost no details about this movie have successfully penetrated my memory). He wakes up in a lab somewhere, newly constructed of amazing nanotech that can boost all of his capabilities and stitch him back together near-instantaneously. Incredible tech! In the same lab they’ve equipped another guy with robot legs, some dude a face made of cameras and lady with a robot lung. But only Diesel gets the nanotech. For reasons. Oh yeah, and the big twist? All his memories of how he died and the guy doing it are fake (there were no gasps in the audience of seven), and he’s being used as a memory-scrubbed assassin (like the Winter Soldier, but with more bass and less interest) to (I think…) kill off all the technological competition, or something. He goes rogue, obviously, probably kills everyone else except lung-woman, as they were right twats, and at the end goes off to build a family of cars. Alright, he doesn’t, but the last shot of the movie could easily have had him burbling about “family” and going off to commit family-supporting car crimes. I strongly recommend that we all watch this before The Fast & the Furious — I think it’ll add fascinating subtext to the series.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
On my birthday proper we saw the far better The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve only seen it on the big screen once, for the special edition releases in the 90s, and I’d forgotten how much fun it is on the big screen. This is still the special edition, which has the fewest dodgy Lucas tweaks – namely adding AT-STs for half a second during the battle for Hoth, and making Bespin enormous (which I think makes it much less plausible and confusing) – and so feels relatively untouched. It’s great fun, cheerily expanding on the Star Wars universe while giving us its bleakest ending (till The Last Jedi, obviously). I love pretty much everything in here, from the space worm to C-3P0 being toted around in a bag by Chewbacca.
I have a very nostalgic and romantic sense of this trilogy, inextricably bound up in my childhood and as I guess my core fandom, and it’s still only these three films that I feel when I think of Star Wars, though Rebels, Clone Wars and The Mandalorian are certainly getting some mindtime. As such, it’s important to try to watch these with a bit more of an adult eye, I think. Although they’re often touted or dismissed as “kids’ films”, there’s really nothing in here for children. No child characters at all, nothing fluffy that doesn’t either try to kill the characters or become a sleeping bag, no particularly inspiring acts of heroism. I suppose “Boy’s Own Adventure” covers it better – it’s war movie-lite. The acting is pretty wooden throughout, more so than I remember, and perhaps it’s this which truly unites all nine Star Wars movies.
The special effects are splendid though. The Hoth and asteroid field sequences still look pretty great, and the set design is cool and detailed. Seeing it on the big screen again I’ve finally spotted the famed “ice cream maker” that a guy is pegging it across Bespin with that turns up in The Mandalorian holding beskar, and re-noticed the very many snakes randomly draped across scenery on Dagobah.
Rewatching any of the original films serves to undermine all the connections they have with the other films, but then this is not a well-planned or thought out series, and trying to make them all fit together neatly fails quite horribly. I’m increasingly convinced that Darth Vader is not Anakin Skywalker. Partly because everything in The Clone Wars (I’m only partway through season 6, so there may be more thrills to come) suggests that Anakin simply is not that kind of tyrannical, space-racist genocidal child-murdering person. And I know the Sith just cannot do inter-personal relationships, but I just don’t believe how he treats his son in Empire and Jedi makes any sense. But I don’t to, because those films don’t seem to live in the same space in my head. I think I’m feeling them as multiple versions of the fairy tale, or something. More importantly, I still really enjoyed watching Empire on the big screen again.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – whaaaaat?!)
Our local Cineworld have been trying desperately to get up and running again, and after discovering that less than ten people attend each screening, we’ve felt pretty comfortable visiting more regularly again. I’m delighted that they’ve been showing “old” movies (which truly emphasised my own age) such as this 90s classic. I watched this quite a lot at uni, and have a lot of fondness for it. It hasn’t aged well, but it remains a lot of fun. The portentous voiceover has now been done so thoroughly to death in the sequels that it’s almost funny here. A lot of the particularly cringey stuff I remembered is from the special edition, all happily absent here, and leaves us free to enjoy the oddly charming T1000 murdering his way through poor young John Connor’s life. Connor’s relationship with Arnie’s T101 is the surprising heart of the film, all the more poignant since his mother, Sarah, is right there. I feel for her quite a lot, plus she’s absolutely badass and I’d forgotten what a shock change it is from The Terminator. Makes me want to rewatch Terminator Dark Fate, which I really liked at the cinema, partly because Sarah Connor is back, even if they do kill John right at the start… About half of the effects still look OK (not T1000…) as Stan Winston’s physical Terminator effects are delightful, especially the foot crushing a human skull at the beginning. The nuclear holocaust scenes are appropriately horrifying, and the overall mood and urgency still felt very present. It was really fun, and though it has dated quite badly in a lot of ways, I can still feel the amazing gear-change from the first film and my memory of being blown away the first few times still overrides my present criticisms.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Another irresistible cinematic offering. I’ve always enjoyed the nonsense of this film, but had never seen it on’t big screen. It doesn’t survive well… I can’t imagine seeing Star Wars in ’77 and then creating Flash Gordon a couple of years later, it’s staggering that this came out in the same year as Empire Strikes Back. Considering this was the 4K restoration, I’m given to understand that this is an improvement on what original audiences suffered through. It even has a “this film was made at a different time” warning at the beginning, though I’m not sure what that specifically refers to – presumably Ming’s Fu Manchu vibe and that they have little persons on chains. But all of its production values are essentially zero, with special effects that look worse than Buster Crabbe’s 1936 series. My personal favourites are the lizard people with eyes and mouths inside their Kermit the Frog costume mouths, the Mongo security guys with fuzzy felt plague doctor masks, and the abundance of beads on everything. Only Max von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde (Ming and Klytus) appear to be trying to act, everyone else is doing their level best with an abominable and nonsensical script, but their best will only come much later in their careers. Honorable mentions perhaps for Ornella Muti as Princess Aura and Mariangela Melato as General Kala, who at least hit the kind of menacing spacey sexiness that Flash Gordon is probably aiming for. From the wince-inducing football cheerleading while Flash knocks down Ming’s guards, to Brian Blessed’s cheeky winged-birdman, Prince Vultan, this thing is a complete mess. Even the famous Queen soundtrack only saves it a bit. And yet… I laughed through most of it and had a rather jolly time. I’d also forgotten that Flash Gordon has lots of (weirdly stretched) panels from the original comic strip through the opening credits (later perfected by Marvel), which I rather liked. See it on a very small screen while drunk.
I’m sure we’ve seen something else, but I’m damned if I can remember what… oh – we saw Tenet (yesterday!), hailed as the first big post-lockdown movie that will save the cinemas. I can only hope so. We were a quarter of the audience, which is really sad for a massive Hollywood movie in Cineworld’s second-largest screen. I’m not sure I have a lot to say about it… this is a knowingly paradoxical time travel movie based around a fun gimmick, “inversion”, in which causality is reversed for objects or people affected by a kind of radiation. It’s best not to dwell on it too much, they have a go in the film and hilariously abandon it. There’s the usual pop-culture physics and philosophy ideas about the grandfather effect and reversed entropy, which again they’re keen for audiences and the characters not to worry about too much “do you have a headache yet” asks one character while explaining how temporal paradoxes work, or rather don’t.
Oh yeah, the plot. With all the caveats above, that this is explicitly about causing paradoxes and creating a story which, by definition, can’t make sense, here goes… “We live in a twilight world” (a nice phrase, nicked from somewhere, I’m sure) in which a new, super-cold war is going on. The future is at war with us, sending these inverted objects, like bullets, back in time so that its stooges in the present can gather all the bits of a macguffin and assemble them with a big explosion to reverse entropy forever, which may, or may not, destroy everything. But it probably won’t, because that would also destroy the future, unless changes you make in the past don’t affect the future. But if that’s true, why bother trying to change the past… Etcetera. As I said, it literally can’t make sense, so it’s best not to worry about it. The present-day stooges are led by Kenneth Branagh’s Russian mobster (almost a parody performance of Russian mobster shtick), who’s amassed immense wealth by doing the future’s dirty work. The job is to first identify who he is, and then stop him.
The cast is fantastic, with really compelling performances, especially from John David Washington (as the awe-inspiringly irritatingly named “the Protagonist” as he refers to himself several times, in place of giving him a fucking name) and Robert Pattinson (turns out he’s not just an abusive vampire) as his kinda sidekick/partner, and Elizabeth Debicki as the wife of our Russian gangster, who seems to be pivotal in preventing the end of the world, but actually isn’t. The splendid supporting cast really rounds it all out, and is ultimately what carried me through the movie.
This is an odd film. There are a number of big action sequences, though not many till toward the end that really try to expand on the use of inversion other than in odd-looking fights, including a fun heist at an art repository for criminals held in the “free ports” between custom zones. I can’t now recall exactly why they go into one, as I recall their intention is to destroy a Goya drawing to remove Mr Russian oligarch’s control over his wife, but as he’s already taken it out, their mission was pointless, but it becomes necessary later for them to go back in time through the same spot to save his wife’s life. I do think a lot of it unravels when you start thinking about it, or, if you’re a massive Nolan fan, this is the genius and clever stuff of the movie, that all their failures are only failures in one direction, once inverted then they become successes. Yeah, I guess. I am not entirely convinced. But it is fun to watch a lot of people running backward, and seagulls flying in reverse and stuff is satisfyingly unnerving. Its quite long, but not excessively so, at two and a half hours, but I never had any sense of how far through the story we were (again, you can totally argue this intentional) or felt any particular tension, except at the end, which was quickly dispelled. As soon as you can fix it by going back in time, it does rather gut it of tension.
It’s also stupidly loud. The bass feels like it’s cranked up constantly to the point where it was unpleasant for long stretches of the film. Its effect is a little like that of the Michael Bay Transformers movies, where everything is made to feel as if it’s super-important, all the time and as a consequence you can’t really take any of it in or remember it properly afterward. If that’s the intention, cool, I guess. In some kind of conclusion, the performances are great in a film which purposely makes a little less sense than Inception, but successfully tricks you into thinking it’s super-clever while watching it.