Why I love films

I’ve been neglecting my film reviews a bit recently. Other writing has taken hold of me, and life has gotten in the way. But I wrote this, about why I love films and always will.

When you watch a really good film it’s like you live inside it for a while. You get to step outside your own life and into someone else’s. You don’t have to think about bills or washing or boys or girls or the horrible things happening in the world or that text from your mum you need to reply to. For those few hours, in a dark room with strangers, you can live through someone else. And I think that is the most wonderful thing in the world.

You come together, in a specific place at a specific time and you get to share something with a room full of people you have likely never met before and probably never will again. And all of these random people share the same emotions and stories and characters. That’s why it’s so wonderful when you say to someone ‘have you seen this film?’ and they reply with an emphatic yes, declare their undying love for it, and in that instant you have a connection with them through the film you have shared. You know you have likely laughed and cried at the same moments, your hearts have swelled at the same grand sweeps of score and you’ve both had your breath taken away at a twist in the tale.

And when you rewatch a film like this, one that made you forget everything else in the entire world, you know for sure you can return to that magic. When the lights go down in the cinema, when the adverts end, as the BBFC sign flashes up on screen and you hear the music for whichever production company the film belongs to – my heart honestly flutters every single time. Sometimes if I see an advert on TV that I’m used to seeing in the cinema (always Barclays) I get that little flutter then too.

And knowing about films makes it all so more exciting. Recognising actors, seeing them flourish in different roles and flop in others… seeing a director develop as time goes on, and doing it all backwards, so you’re watching early Tarantino three years after you watched Django Unchained, your first. So you learn, and develop as a film watcher.

Chloe Moretz once said of films – “Instead of getting drunk or doing drugs you can go see a movie for an hour and a half and escape and be someone else and live a different life, if only for a little while.”

And I think that is the most wonderful thing that films can do. They tell stories, on screen, in a visual and tactile way. They can make millions of people, across decades feel the same feelings and learn the same lessons. It means that sat in my bedroom in south London watching old films, I’m connected to so many more people that have gone before me, and that will continue long after me.

Bechdel Test Fest presents: Reclaim the Rom-com

I was lucky enough to get free tickets for the launching of the Bechdel Test Fest, hosted at the wonderful Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel by Corrina Antrobus. In the first of what looks like a great schedule coming up we examined the merits and pitfalls of romantic comedies as a genre, and questioned: can rom-coms ever be feminist? There is, inherent in the genre of rom-coms, feminist potential. A group of women go to the cinema together, to see these films, share these stories. Why then, can they not manage, on the whole, to match up to the real lives of the women going to see the films?

First up, a love note to Genesis Cinema.

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I believe that the kind of cinema you watch a film in has an impact on how you view a film; the customer service you receive, the environment inside, the price of a ticket. Genesis cinema has the feel of a cinema that truly loves film, with wonderful posters everywhere, coffee in abundance and a great bar area upstairs – where we were seated, ready and waiting to reclaim the rom-com.

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We started with Obvious Child, starring Jenny Slate as recently dumped stand-up comedian Donna, who finds herself pregnant after a one night stand with Max (Jake Lacy). It’s a very frank and open story of pregnancy and abortion, and feels like the most real film about abortion to come out of the world of cinema. But I hope that’s not the only thing that anyone viewing this film takes from it, because it shouldn’t just be defined by its wonderful depiction of abortion. As well as that, it’s genuinely laugh out loud funny with a great script, as well as having genuinely heartfelt moments. Jenny Slate is amazing and, fun fact, she really was a gigging stand-up when she was approached to star in the film. The film also manages to depict how a comic’s life affects their routine, and what baring your soul on stage in the name of comedy can do. Obvious Child is a love story, yes, but it’s also about learning to love yourself and allowing yourself to be loved at difficult times in your life, whether that be by your friends, lovers or parents.

It seems to subvert many rom-com tropes; Donna is the character who needs to grow up, prepare for commitment or love, whilst Max, the male love interest, is the one who seems to have his life together and is the character who pushes for more of a romantic relationship. Plus, post watching the film I have been listening to Paul Simon on repeat non-stop and dancing around in the endless hope I will become Jenny Slate.

Following the film was a discussion from a panel featuring film academics and journalists; Corrina Antrobus was joined by Chloe Angyal, Alice Guilluy and Simran Hans.

In case you’re unaware, the Bechdel Test was developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, as a joke about how the test for if movies ‘pass’ should be if they have two named female characters who have a conversation that isn’t about a man. It was created 30 years ago, and has, especially in recent years, become feminist film critic’s calling card. However the panel, whom I quite agree with, were keen to point out that the test is merely a starting point. It doesn’t mean a film is feminist and there are many feminist films which wouldn’t pass, like Gravity and 10 Things I Hate About You, that could still be considered feminist. It is, in the grand scheme of all things that go on in film making, a low bar to try and pass, and when films fail it highlights more than anything just how few female characters there are in movies.

Interestingly, it was pointed out that romantic comedies in general are some of the most belittled films in popular culture – because they are designed for women. Because of this they’re seen as low culture or ‘guilty pleasures’. This discrediting of culture for women is a sad trend, but films like Obvious Child suggest that genuinely great and funny movies can be made, not just for women, but about women. It seems it is thought that films about women are for women only, and men couldn’t possibly enjoy them, whilst all other films should be endured by men and women alike. It’s also a trope that you find in comedy, with female comics getting turned down for gigs because there’s already a woman on the bill, or being thought of as just funny to women – as though gender has an impact on what you find funny or not.

But, in 2015, we still have a sexist pop culture. This, the panel argued, means that the perfect feminist piece of film could not exist, because sexism is inherent in the film industry. A part of this problem of there not being one ‘perfect’ feminist rom com is that there is no one feminist. Not all women are the same is very much the point of feminism, but feminists get grouped together under one umbrella of set opinions, despite being composed of different women with different views, experiences, and opinions. What one woman might consider to be a piece of feminist cinema might be another’s worst nightmare. We are all human and taste is subjective; this is still true if you happen to believe that men and women should be equal.

And when we do get rom-coms that don’t appear to tick our feminist film boxes it seems to be more of an issue than when it happens with big blockbusters or action movies, as though only rom-coms should be put under the microscope; as to why this might be I’m afraid I have no answers. Perhaps because rom-coms are the one genre that focus more on women’s stories it shows all the more when these female characters are unbelievable, two dimensional or forever repeating the same blueprint.  

The second film shown was The Philadelphia Story, re-released in cinemas this week and starring the indomitable Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, a woman caught in a love triangle in the run up to her second wedding. Also featuring Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, the film was based on the Broadway musical of the same name and was released in 1940, at the height of the screwball comedy trend. It has great female characters who never stop matching the men in their wit or charm, such as the wise-cracking younger sister of Tracy played by Mary Nash, and the photographer working on a piece about the wedding, played by Ruth Hussey. These are all well developed and realistic female characters that you leave the film feeling like you know in a way that I don’t think you get from a lot of female characters in contemporary film.

The Bechdel Test Fest is going to go on and host more events, celebrating women on film and they’ve got some great events coming up. It’s a wonderful platform and I’m so pleased this is something that’s being discussed in a fun and entertaining way. Check out their Facebook and website.

The Bechdel Test asks that films have more than one named female character. All I ask from films is that they show me real women, in real situations, having real conversations. I want to see something recognisable on screen.

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’71

’71 tells the story of a young British soldier (Jack O’ Connell), part of a platoon deployed to Belfast on an emergency basis. After a failed raid he gets stuck on the wrong side of enemy lines, and becomes stranded far from his company. During his night of trying to get home he becomes a symbol in a war he has no real part in, fighting against friend and foe in attempt to get home.

O’ Connell shines in this gritty and real look at the troubles in Northern Ireland from an outside perspective. His performance is a very natural one, which works perfectly in a film where the troubles themselves are the real scene stealer. It is a credit to Yann Demange’s direction that the main character manages to be bypassed, and we see him as the symbol in the fighting that he is, and yet we care no less about him as a character.

Despite the inevitable politics of a story like this it’s still an action thriller, and there are no shortage of moments to make you gasp in shock or recoil in fear, the unsteady nature of life in Northern Ireland at that time embedded on screen throughout.

O’Connell recently won the Rising Star Award BAFTA, voted for by the public and demonstrative perhaps of a change in the sea of public school boy’s role in modern cinema (something I am in no way complaining about however, hello Tom Hiddleston). As well as this, ’71 is a film that seems at first to be from a British perspective, but in reality says so much more about the lives of the Irish people living through the troubles in 1971.

Under The Skin

I recently caught up with last year’s Under the Skin – it was heralded by many critics as one of the best films of the year, revolutionary, changing Scarlett Johansson’s role in cinema and science fiction. It’s the story of an alien in human guise (Scarlett Johansson), who drives around Glasgow in a white transit van, preying on young men by enticing them with the suggestion of sex before disposing of them, in a mystery house with magical qualities. Nothing is explained, there’s little dialogue, and what is really going on is never made clear.

Director Jonathan Glazer uses an almost guerrilla style of film making, with the scenes in which Johansson’s character drives around looking for her victims having a documentary like quality. In fact many of the ordinary people shown weren’t aware they were a part of the film until afterwards – perhaps a rather sad comment on lonely young men in Glasgow. It’s a piece of cinema that feels like an experience; storytelling is not what is key here – instead, the unnerving score from Mica Levi and the odd direction from Glazer combine to make something which feels more like an incredibly claustrophobic piece of art. Despite Johansson’s character being an alien it is her world view we share, as, thanks to Glazer’s careful direction, we see the world from an outside perspective, normal conversations and scenes unfolding before both us and this alien, that are unavoidably human.

This is certainly not a film that panders to its audience, and much is left unexplained and ambiguous. Whilst this is admirable and clearly key to the general feel of the film I’m not sure it’s a trait that’s enjoyable to watch. It’s unsettling, and made my skin crawl, surely the point, proving the effectiveness of the film. There are moments so raw that they are almost tender, and the vulnerability glows off the screen until you feel it within yourself as well.

The depiction of women in the film is interesting – arguably Johansson’s character is using the benefit of her beauty to control men, given tools of power in her looks. But still it feels exploitative and she continues to be controlled by men from afar, and is still in the position of a submissive woman in society. I think this is partly the point Glazer is attempting to make, and it is certainly one he does well.

At times it feels like an alien look at the world and yet it also feels like an intimate look at humanity. It’s intense and certainly gets under the skin – of those performing, of those creating and certainly of those watching.

Ex Machina

Directed by novelist and screen writer Alex Garland, Ex Machina raises questions about life, the rise of technology and what playing God can do to you. After Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) wins a staff lottery he gets the chance to spend the week in the company of his boss and expert hacker Nathan (Oscar Isaac), where he becomes part of an experiment. The pair attempt to test Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with artificial intelligence created by Nathan, through conversation, to see if she can pass for human. However who exactly is being tested soon becomes unclear, and throughout the film we see how the rise of artificial intelligence calls into question more about humanity itself.

This is a tense clever and incredibly close sci-fi thriller, where all of the action comes from the ethical issues raised, and the mood created by Garland’s stylish direction. Despite it being his debut, Garland doesn’t hold back, and it seems his years of scriptwriting allow him to understand the importance of the intricate relationship between screenplay and direction, of style and substance, something he balances perfectly throughout. The score perfectly plays on the increasingly creepy nature of the film as more about Nathan’s experiments are revealed, and we become more and more unsure about who to trust.

Vikander’s performance is a wonderful one, and although she’s technically playing the least human character of all, it is her who seems to display the most compassionately human characteristics of all. There is something very simple and beautiful about the scene in which she dresses herself, covering her intricate mechanical workings and mesh that make up her robot figure with a pretty dress and cardigan, until she looks almost completely human. Juxtaposed with Caleb’s confusion about his attraction to her and the strange jealousy emanating from Nathan about this, Garland manages to take pedestrian actions and explode them into something which asks all sorts of questions about what it means to be human.

Isaac is terrifyingly creepy as the genius who has a lot of personal issues but always keeps us on our toes, switching from chatty and engaging to a drunken angry mess in seconds. With a cast of essentially only three, the relationships and the dialogue are what make this film a great one, taking twists and turns constantly unexpected, with the audience never sure who to trust, just as good sci-fi should be.

As well as this, Garland’s script is not afraid to be funny, to laugh at the ludicrous situation it is showing us, with millionaires and robots and big fields and helicopters and luxurious wealth. And despite raising interesting questions, it never attempts to make a moral judgement.

For a directorial debut this is simply stunning, and the cast are all as excellent as each other. It’s creepy, intimate, and hugely enjoyable.

Foxcatcher

Heir to his family’s fortune John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) wants to use the ample money he has to create an environment where wrestlers, the stars of the sport he loves so much, can come and train. He secures Olympic gold medal winning Mike Shultz (Channing Tatum) as head trainer for the program he hopes will one day become the training ground for the Olympic wrestling team. Shultz leaves his training with his brother Dave (Ruffalo), and enters into a strangely intense friendship with the man who describes himself as his mentor and father figure, but who himself yearns for the approval of his distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave).

Director Bennett Miller is renowned for drawing career defining performances out of actors, from Jonah Hill in Moneyball to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. And indeed, it is the performances in Foxcatcher which seem to be gaining the most significant attention. Mark Ruffalo has long demonstrated he gives a good performance in everthing he is in, and Channing Tatum’s move away from romantic comedies to more serious character pieces (and also straight comedy as 21 Jump Street Showed) has in recent years made him an interesting casting choice, and this is certainly no end to that.

Carrell’s performance in Foxcatcher is a transformation. Inevitably when portraying someone that really existed and was in the public eye there is a sense of duty to capture a more personal element of them. Carrell is hardly recognisable in his dark portrayal of John Du Pont. Through prosthetics, make up, different skin tone, different face shape, Carrell not only looks the part but his entire demeanour is very different to that of the actor that many will recognise from Judd Apatow comedies and the US office. His entire way of holding himself, his entire celebrity identity disappears, no mean feat with a star of Carrell’s standing.

This is a film of immersive performances, something which only adds to the strange intensity which runs through its veins. The unsettling relationship between Mike Shultz and Du Pont is never overstated, never made explicit, but we still feel as though we are intruding on something incredibly intimate, almost to the point that you feel as though you want to leave the room, and leave them to it.  It’s a strange relationship to view in terms of wrestling, a sport not only viewed as very manly but which relies a lot on body contact. The film has an oddly muted feel. Everything is quiet, unsettling. You sense throughout that something is a bit off, but something unexplainable.

And although we are privy to the innermost aspects of Shultz and Du Pont, their character and their friendship, neither of them are people you necessarily want to spend time with. The most likable character is Mike’s brother Dave, whose care and devotion for his brother is, despite all the pent up emotion, the most heart-breaking part of the film.

I didn’t know anything about these real life events, or wrestling prior to seeing the film. Although, for me, this made following some of the wrestling matches a bit hard to follow, unsure who was winning when and what the rules are, I knew I had to take to care to stay out the way of spoilers. My top tip is you do the same.