Films

Netflix, Independent Cinema, and Hollywood’s New Business Model

The other day The Ringer published a piece about Netflix and their original movie strategy. The piece, entitled Netflix and Shrill listed the original movies that Netflix has already released in 2018 and challenged readers to see how many they recognised. For most people, the most familiar title will have been The Cloverfield Paradox. This was an $XXm space horror film that became part of the Cloverfield franchise. However the studio that made it, Paramount, got cold feet and decided to sell the thing to Netflix lock, stock and barrel. They promptly gave it a surprise release right after the Super Bowl, during which of course, they promoted it.

But what about the rest of the titles in Sean Fennessey’s piece? Well only three others on the list actually resonate with me at all – Mute, Kodachrome and Mercury 13. The former because it’s a Duncan Jones film, and the latter two because I just added both to my Netflix List.

Netflix gets films in a few different ways. It sometimes licences big name studio films either directly from the studios or via third party rights packages. That’s the way most of those familiar titles end up on the service. However, those titles are probably only licenced for a specific period of time. That’s why you get lists of movies that are coming off the service.

Then there are those it acquires at film festivals. The model for smaller independent titles has often been to scrap together funding from wherever, then pitch up somewhere like the Sundance Festival and try to get a distributor to take on the picture, getting it into theatres and, importantly, marketing it. The latter is expensive, and it’s the reason why titles sometimes end up unseen even though funding had been found to actually make them. Netflix’s preferred model is to buy the global rights and buy out the film in perpetuity. But sometimes that’s not possible because different territory’s rights may have been given up as part of the funding model. Furthermore residual rights for home release like Blu Ray or iTunes may reside with someone else.

Finally, there are Netlfix original productions – those that are put together on paper and then shot specifically for Netflix. These are labelled “Netflix Originals,” although confusingly, so are those acquired at places like Sundance. When Netflix owns the film in totality, they get to release it globally and own it in perpetuity on every platform. They control whether you can ever even see the film somewhere like iTunes.

What all this means is that the list at the top of The Ringer article only completely applies to the US. That said, when I checked, all but one of the films was also available in the UK.

I recently read a really good new book called The Big Picture by Wall Steet Journal reporter Ben Fritz, who has long covered the entertainment beat. The book goes through deep into the current Hollywood business model, because it has changed fundamentally inside the last ten years. You only have to look at the table in The Ringer piece.

Fennessey notes that the six major Hollywood studios have released a total of 25 films in the first 16 weeks of 2018. During that same period, Netflix has also released 25 films!

But there’s a reason for that. Hollywood has just dropped out of the middle market – those $30-$80m or more production films that weren’t based on franchises, relying instead on audiences turning out to see stars. They included thrillers, romantic comedies and more serious fare. Fritz’s book takes a really good look at the model that yet used to hold up Hollywood, because some of those titles in the past might have lost money, but others would have made decent cash.

However in the scheme of things, Hollywood was only make 10% and now for a studio like Disney it’s closer to 30%. That’s because they don’t these days make films that aren’t based on franchises or other known intellectual property.

Most famously Disney has Marvel. But they’ve also got Star Wars, their own animated back catalogue now being remade in live action, Pixar (who are perhaps the only real originators of new stories at the moment, even if they themselves are relying more than ever on franchises. Did we really need another Toy Story, or did the trilogy end perfectly before?), and coming soon Indiana Jones.

Fritz’s book looks closely at the travails of Sony. In part because they were the studio that were considered the most talent friendly in the past. Amy Pascal who led the studio had great rapport with the talent and was as a result Sony was home to lots of those kinds of mid-budget films, while only really having Spiderman as a top tier franchise.

The other reason the books uses Sony as a case study is because of the massive email hack. All those communications ended up online and viewable to all. These caused Sony enormous damage at the time, not least when studio heads bad-mouthed people in some of those emails. But Fritz uses them to illustrate some of the inside thinking at Sony as they realised that they desperately needed franchises, and at the same time were struggling with their most valuable asset in Spiderman. As long as they kept making new Spiderman movies on a semi-regular basis, Marvel wasn’t able to grab back arguably their biggest property.

This is all important in light of The Ringer piece because it explains why the number of studio releases this year equals the number released by Netflix. If it wasn’t for Netflix, it’s not clear how those movies would get released at all!

I’m not saying that some of them wouldn’t make it to our screens. In the US, Alex Garland’s highly regarded recent release, Annihilation, based on the Jeff Vandermeer novel, got a theatrical release. But the studio who made it – Paramount again – got slightly cold feet and sold the rights for the rest of the world to Netflix. So a film that was visually spectacular ended up going no a screen no bigger than our televisions, and no doubt for many people, no bigger than their phones. However, that’s another discussion for another day.

Had Netflix not existed, then yes, I suspect some kind of theatrical release would have happened for Annihilation – certainly in the UK. But I can’t see studios like Paramount continuing with this kind of strategy for long. Nor can I see Netflix wandering around picking up and endless succession of studio releases that the studios have suddenly got concerned about. While Annihilation is excellent, the same can’t be said of The Cloverfield Paradox which is decidedly the weakest in the somewhat contrived franchise.

The risk is that Netflix is perceived as the dumping ground for movies that have tested badly with the distributors. Of course Paramount and their ilk manage to avoid having a flop on their hands, and come out cash neutral, or perhaps with a small upside.

Meanwhile, I completely understand that filmmakers must be frustrated. They made these films to be shown on the big screen – that’s how they’re conceived and shot. You frame things differently for television. On the other hand, it has long been the case that far larger audiences will see films on television than will the big screen.

More and more, then, it’s going to continue to be Netflix and Amazon that become the homes of these medium and smaller films. What they perhaps struggle to do is sufficiently market those films.

A lot is made of Netflix’s algorithms that surface films that viewers will want to see with incredible accuracy. I don’t agree. I’ve long felt that Netflix (and Amazon) are woefully bad at surfacing their own titles. They think they know me, but they really don’t.

When Netflix emails me to alert me to a new Adam Sandler release, Netflix being the exclusive home of new Sandler releases these days (Fritz’s book details this deal), then Netflix has failed to grasp even the most basic understanding of my interests. Of course they only know what they know. They don’t know that I enjoy Westworld on Sky Atlantic; The City and the City and Howard’s End on the BBC; Endeavour on ITV. They don’t know that I saw nearly all the Oscar Best Picture shortlist at the cinema this year.

Furthermore, when big releases like Annihilation or that recent flawed Duncan Jones title, Mute are released, I have to really go searching to find them. Did either Kodachrome or Mercury 13 show up on the Netflix home page? No – I had to do a search.

Now these are titles that I’m actively aware of. What about others that I suspect I’d like if they were marketed properly? Well those are the titles that are disappearing into the depth of the platform.

It still seems remarkable to me that neither Netflix nor Amazon are able to replicate what a good physical store is able to do in showing me new titles. If I visit a branch of Fopp (about the only significant retailer of physical discs in the UK right now), I might browse at a display of films from the Criterion Collection, the BFI or Second Sight. In some instances, I simply won’t have heard of some of the titles, but I’ll still pick up discs and browse at them. I may actually buy them. The same is true in a good bookshop where as well as the latest bestsellers, the bookseller has perhaps contrived to display some thematically interesting books together on a table somewhere.

A properly released mid- budget or indie film will have press ads, posters, bus sides, and importantly, reviews. The latter is an area that Netflix and others need to work hard at. Most of the broadsheets have full time film reviewers, but in the main they don’t review streaming titles very well. The release medium seems to dictate what gets reviewed. In the past studios would “game” this. A release that was really “direct to DVD” would get a brief cinema release over a weekend just so they got notability before you spotted the title in the DVD aisle of Sainsburys the following week.

Somehow a movie poster can tell me more about a film than a small box with barely even a one line description of the title. Netflix has some incredible algorithms to test multiple images to find just the right one to appeal to me. Am I a fan of a particular actor? Then I see that actor in the image on the platform. You see something different to illustrate the same title. But beyond that, they need to work harder. Choosing to start a stream is a much more proactive choice than flicking through the channels on a remote control before settling on something.

So that’s the real reason why those movies have disappeared without me aware of them. That said, if you gave me a list of everything released at the cinema in the first few months of this, many of them too would be unfamiliar. There are a lot of films craving for attention, and only so much attention that they can be given.

I’m not going to criticise Netflix for their release strategy – but they do need to work harder on marketing of titles. Otherwise, yes, it can feel as though these films didn’t exist at all. An unfamiliar movie title in a long list remains just that. A consumer gets more excited when they seen a known property than an unknown one.

The Ringer piece notes forthcoming films from Paul Greengrass and Alfonso Cuarón, both of which I’m excited to see. Netflix will also be bringing Andrew Niccol’s new SF film, Anon (It’ll air on Sky Cinema in the UK). I’m always keen to see a new film from the man who brought us Gattaca. As long as Netflix does enough to raise the profile of these films rather them just at best appearing as a meaningless title that tells us nothing, then I’m excited for their future.

The studios, however, I’m more worried about. Their strategy of shifting to fewer and bigger films runs all kinds of risks in the longer term. The words ‘eggs’ and ‘baskets’ spring to mind.

Marvel may be unassailable at the moment, but it only takes one or two duff movies, and that success can begin to slip. In his book Fritz notes that the reduced number of releases affords movie executives more time to spend on the titles that they are releasing. They can give them the time that they need, delaying releases if necessary. That’s great in theory, but even Marvel films have dates to meet, particularly if the outcome of one film leads into the next Avengers title or whatever.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, as he says, the world’s highest budget TV series. Audiences go and see the new Marvel films regardless of the hero, a bit like watching your favourite TV shows week in and week out. Marvel tries to structure the films a little like a TV a procedural. You can basically watch each as a standalone, but of course there’s a larger story arc underlying the series. But as we know, even the biggest TV series juggernaut, eventually falls from grace eventually.

And will audiences continue to actually go to cinemas? They’re fighting the battle by laying on bigger and better seats that can sometimes be more akin to a business class seat on a long distance flight. They’re offering in-chair food and drinks service, and we’re seeing new formats like IMAX 3D and 4DX. Yet cinema ticket prices continue to rise ahead of inflation, and they become ever more hostile environments when they don’t ensure that patrons keep their phones switched off for example.

Disney’s answer to this potential uncertainty is to get skin into the streaming game as well. With its Disney Life app in the UK, and the forthcoming bigger offering that is coming in the US, they get to do their version of Netflix. Star Wars and Disney titles will soon disappear from Netflix as a previous deal expires. Don’t expect to see further expansions of the Netflix Marvel TV series featuring the likes of Jessica Jones and Daredevil, although I suspect the existing titles will continue, with the former having just been renewed for a third season.

Disney is claiming back its catalogue, and will no doubt look towards making its own Marvel TV series, and almost certainly, a live action Star Wars universe series. Who would bet against a reboot of the Young Indy series in the future too?

Will audiences get bored of superheroes? Are there enough franchises out there? How often can the same series be “rebooted”?

Who knows. But Hollywood is betting big time on them not running out any time soon.

Blade Runner 2049

Note: There will be spoiler elements to this. So if you’ve not yet seen Blade Runner 2049, and you plan on doing so, you may want to skip this piece.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for weeks now, having been both dreading and eagerly anticipating this film since I heard it was being made.

You should probably know from the outset, that the original Blade Runner is one of my favourite films of all time. Even though I first fell in love with it when it still came with the awful Harrison Ford voiceover, and an ending that used B-roll footage from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it was this film more than anything that

You do need to place the original Blade Runner in perspective. It came in the years following the massive success of the original Star Wars trilogy, and at the time, that set the tone for what life in a science fiction world would be like. Basically clean and lovely. You could also look to Star Trek or even Forbidden Planet for examples of this. Director Ridley Scott had added a lot of grunge to science fiction when he’d made Alien. No longer were spaceships brightly lit white corridors. Instead, we had an industrial setting, with dimly lit nights, steam, and echoing metallic clanging. It was more like a power station, and less like a hospital.

Then along came Blade Runner, and in a few opening shots, we had a fully featured world. Yes, there are flying cars, but everyone on earth who is able to, has already gone to one of the “off-world colonies.” Behind are left just those at the edges of society. This is inner-city science fiction. It’s also science fiction noir. Everything takes place at night – a heavy smog and near constant rain meaning that daylight really never shows its face. Androids and artificiality has taken over from nature. It’s a remarkable piece of world building, conjured up from Philip K Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

And Blade Runner is just beautiful. From the opening shot, as the camera reveals the Los Angeles 2019 skyline – a mix of skyscrapers and lights, with gas flares bursting high into the darkness, as a towering almost pyramidal Tyrell Corporation building is revealed.

When that scene was used in the recent V&A Postmodernism exhibition, it was perfectly placed.

Blade Runner changed how many film and television makers would envision the future. The dirty, grungy, neon-infused worlds that followed, all took their influence from Blade Runner. You could even argue that elements of the first part of the latest Star Wars trilogy takes influence from it. Think of those scenes depicting a crashed star destroyer on Jakku.

Blade Runner, then, made a massive impact on me. I didn’t see it in the cinema on release in 1982. Relatively few did, and in any case, I wasn’t old enough to see a AA film at that time. I think it was probably ITV’s first screening of the film in the mid eighties. It was a post News at Ten screening, and I recorded the broadcast – on cassette. I seem to remember that I knew I should be getting an early night because I had an exam the next day. But obviously I watched it all the way through to Rutger Hauer’s famous speech on the roof in the rain.

I quickly sought out the soundtrack; Vangelis’s music being a major part of the film. However, at the time, the only soundtrack available was a re-recorded version from a group called the New American Orchestra. This was an orchestral recording, eschewing the synthesisers actually used on the soundtrack. (It wouldn’t be until Themes, a Vangelis compilation album, that some actual cues from the film got released, followed by an official album in 1994 – 12 years after the film’s first release. A later 2007 release supplemented this with another 2 CDs’ worth of material).

By now the film had attained something of a cult status. I’d bought a VHS of the film shortly after I’d bought my first video cassette recorder. Later, I would re-buy the film on DVD, and then again on Blu-ray. Of course I’d read Philip K Dick’s novel, and I’d go on to read Paul M Sammon’s book, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. I went on to watch Mark Kermode’s Channel 4 documentary On the Edge of Blade Runner.

In 1992 we got the Director’s Cut. The different versions of Blade Runner get their own Wikipedia article, from original workprints through to The Final Cut in 2007. But the 1992 release was the first commercially available that removed the widely reviled voiceover that had been foisted on the film by the studio, as well as the excision of the so-called “happy ending.”

The Final Cut was more of a hands-on by Ridley Scott, and the five disc home release included both this, previous versions and a three and a half hour documentary called Dangerous Days.

I saw both the Director’s Cut and the Final Cut in cinemas – the latter at least twice. This was a long way from watching on a 15″ colour TV in my bedroom.

Blade Runner has been with me for much of my life then. And I was wary about the new film.

The good news was that Denis Villeneuve would be directing. He was on a great run of form turning out superb work including Sicario and then the near perfect Arrival. While Scott was to be an executive producer on the film, you worried how much attention he could really give it when he was at the same time working on his latest Alien film, while also being responsible for a wide range of other film and television projects.

For the most part I avoided anything about the film. I didn’t want to watch the trailer or even have any idea of what the story might be about. I did know that Harrison Ford was back for it, although it seemed to me that his wouldn’t be the largest role in the film.

And so it was that I eagerly headed out to see it on its opening weekend. Later, I would go back and see it again, this time at the BFI Imax (ie. “proper” Imax). I should also note that I certainly wasn’t bothering with 3D – on the basis that the film was not made in 3D with stereoscopic cameras.

It’s just fantastic.

I can’t easily convey how much I loved this film. It would have been so easy to have made an average or even bad sequel, but Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, Fancher having worked on the original film, have turned out something marvellous.

The film looks beautiful – a combination of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and some simply wonderful design and special effects. (It’s all beautifully captured in The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049.)

Years have passed since the original replicants were hunted down, and now K (Ryan Gosling), himself a next-generation replicant, is chasing down remaining escapees and retiring them. He finds Sapper Morton on a farm outside Los Angeles and after dealing with him realises that there are some bones buried under a dead tree. Thus we begin a story that opens a new chapter that is both independent of, and a sequel to the original film.

The beauty of the film is the way the story seamlessly dovetails into the original, while at the same time existing on its own terms. The Wallace Corporation has taken over from the Tyrell Corporation of the original film.

Although he’s a replicant, K is an interesting character. He’s despised wherever he goes – be it the LAPD or the people in his own apartment block. So he takes solace in an artificial intelligence holographic “bot” who can appear in projected form to him. This too is a product of the Wallace Corporation, with its eery Peter and the Wolf audio motif when it boots up.

The bones K has found lead others to believe that Tyrell may have made an incredible breakthrough before the company went bust. If the Wallace Corporation could get hold of it, they could build an army of slaves with even greater efficiency. They ruthlessly chase down the truth.

K meanwhile follows his nose, and in time, that eventually leads him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), holed up in an abandoned Las Vegas. The design work here is exceptionally stunning. However, others are on K and Deckard’s tail…

The film beautifully captures the ethos of the original. It’s languorous in places, and it is beautifully constructed with a carefully woven plot that holds together with repeat viewing – something many films don’t manage.

It’s good to see that miniatures as well as other kinds of effects were used, because pure digital doesn’t always work. The music is also to be admired. While Jóhann Jóhannsson was originally going to work with Villeneuve as he’d previously done on other films, it didn’t work out and Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch stepped in to work on a version that works well alongside Vangelis’ original score.

Do ignore all the nonsense about how intelligent science fiction can’t work, and the general glee there is in the press when this film didn’t make megabucks. It’s a delight. It may have cost a lot, but it was worth it, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it up again in the long run. While the place to see a film like this was always going to be the big screen, the home release should see the filmmakers get their money back, if not turn an enormous profit.

The other thing that many have talked about is the lack of female characters, and the depiction of some of those in the film. While there might seem to be merit in those criticisms, I think that some are missing the point of the [moral] decay of the society being depicted. In any case, some of the strongest characters are female, including Robin Wright’s police chief, and Sylvia Hoecks’ enforcer. And although the main characters are main, women are at the heart of the film.

I’ve now seen the film twice now, and I look forward to seeing it again.

A sidenote on the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack. As soon as I’d seen the film on the opening weekend, I knew I wanted the soundtrack. Now I still buy music as well as having succumbed to a streaming subscription. But because I may still give up that subscription at some point, I knew that I wanted to own the CD. Yet the a soundtrack was not made available to buy. I hunted around, and only a digital version of it seemed to be available.

There was some kind of limited edition CD soundtrack only available in the US, and limited to just 2049 copies. I went online, but the edition had sold out. However, there was now a second edition of another 2049 copies and I ordered one of these from the US. It wouldn’t ship for another 6 weeks or so, but there was a decent quality mp3 download made available for me to be getting on with.

While I understand music sales have plummeted in recent years, there still seems to be enough demand to warrant the duplication of CD soundtracks surely?

As it turns out, there was. While I was awaiting my limited edition CD, a regular CD release came along, and the album was now available on Amazon or over the counter in places like Fopp. Meanwhile, my CD got a nice customs surcharge as well as an £8 handling fee, which sent the cost of my limited edition CD sky rocketing.

I should have just waited a bit longer…

London Film Festival 2017

I went to a decent selection of films at this year’s London Film Festival, and overall was very impressed by the range and quality. There are obviously a stupidly large number of films that you can see, and while seeing some big hitters early is always nice, there’s also the opportunity to see films that might never get released in the UK at all.

One overall takeaway I had from this year’s festival is that film makers should be very careful in using non-English speaking actors to speak and converse in English. If an actor can’t really speak the language then it suddenly becomes very stilted and their acting qualities go out the window. Suddenly it’s enormously distracting.

Of course two characters may converse in English because that’s the only language that both speak. But a lot of the time you feel that it’s about producers hoping for better box offices down the line. And that’s a shame.

Anyway, with that little aside, and because I’ll forget what I saw unless I record my thoughts here, here are [relatively] brief reviews of the nine films I saw at the festival.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories ran on the London stage for years, although somehow I never quite got around to seeing it. Written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, this adaption changes some things but brings others into play.

While I didn’t see the stage version, I do know that it was presented in terms of a lecture to the audience. In this version, the construct is a character who has made his name in unveiling fakes on TV, investigating three inexplicable stories that he’s presented with by a mysterious character who disappeared from public view many years ago.

This framing narrative allows for a portmanteau structure of three different, yet linked, stories. Each of them is well constructed. We get Paul Whitehouse’s security guard, Martin Freeman’s obnoxious banker, and Alex Lawther’s teenager. All tell their tales, bringing with them plenty of shocks and frights that I won’t spoil here.

And of course, there is more to everything than there might at first seem to be. Great performances all around.

Rift

Rift is a nasty little Icelandic horror film, all shot in a remote region of the country. Gunnar heads off to a remote house, where his ex-partner has left a worrying phone message. Is he going to do something stupid.

It’s the lead-up to Christmas, and the two haven’t really been talking since the break-up. The message suggested that someone was trying to get in. Once in the house, there are strange and disturbing sounds from nearby. What’s real and what’s not?

The film is bleak, and told with a modern horror sensibility. That does mean that sounds are used a little too much to make you jump. But there’s plenty here that’s creepy enough. Figures appearing and disappearing. Knocks on the door in the middle of the night. Where is it going to end?

Our Time Will Come

Set during the war in occupied Hong Kong, Our Time Will Come is the story of a group of resistance fighters, trying to smuggle out those the Japanese are trying to intern or imprison, and disrupting the war effort.

It’s based on a true story, although with a good deal of added melodrama.

Zhou Xun plays Fang Lan, a teacher living with her mother, who also houses some academics. She gets involved with a resistance group led by Eddie Peng Yuyan’s “Blackie” Lau, who swashes more buckles than anyone in cinema since Errol Flynn. Sadly, this also means takes away from the film’s verisimilitude. Fang becomes ever more involved as the stakes get higher.

In the meantime, her boyfriend (Wallace Huo Chienhwa) has started working for the Japanese. Slowly, everyone gets deeper in their involvement, and the danger increases.

I really enjoyed the film, although I couldn’t quite get a handle on the pitch of it. At times it feels all too real, while at other times, it really doesn’t.

The parts of the film that really didn’t work are the faux documentary scenes surrounding the main film. Filmed in contemporary Hong Kong, but in black and white, we are to believe that some of these people were the protagonists of the action during WWII. While one child is explicitly said to be one of the adults, the rest too would have been children, or much older than they would appear here. I’m not sure the scenes add much.

That all said, this is a part of history I really know nothing about – maybe with the exception of wartime Shanghai as depicted in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. And the performances are excellent.

Call Me By Your Name

Just released properly last weekend, and like many other films getting a release over the next couple of months, attracting some Oscar “buzz”, this film from Luca Guadagnino is based on a novel of the same name. Set in the 80s, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is the son of liberal academic parents, and is largely bored throughout the long summer holidays in the beautiful part of Lombardy that he lives in.

He is sort of having a relationship with a French girl, but then the household is disrupted when a visiting academic, Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives for the summer. He’s literally freewheeling (borrowing a bike to get around), and instantly attracts the ladies – especially in a great scene in the local nightclub.

But the young Elio takes an especial interest in Oliver, and soon they are hanging around together a great deal. Elio is 17 and Oliver is older, but their relationship blossoms.

In some curious way, this reminds me a little of a TV series from the late eighties that I loved – Summer’s Lease (from a John Mortimer novel). And you could say too that it shares DNA with Stealing Beauty. All of those feature very middle class families, Italian idylls and coming of age stories.

There are heartbreaking moments in this, and some very funny moments as well. Not a film I think I’d have rushed to see, but one I’m glad I did see.

Winter Brothers

This is curious Icelandic film, although shot in Danish. The film opens in near darkness down a mine, men hard at work in light. Finally they emerge into the light, reaching the minehead. Then we’re introduced to the two brothers, Emil and Johan, and we begin to learn more about their lives.

They live in poor accommodation – perhaps some kind of camp associated with the mine – and there is clearly not much to do. But Emil has a sideline in producing some kind of homebrew spirit which he sells to colleagues. He’s also flirting with a girl in a nearby house. He’s also slightly obsessed with an VHS tape that teaches soldiers how to use their guns.

But one day someone who’s bought Emil’s homebrew collapses and is taken to hospital very ill. Suddenly, Emil’s life collapses around him.

This film is peculiar because it’s an experience as much as a story being told. The 16mm film it was shot on, the stark desaturated landscape, and the nothingness of the place. This might be set in Iceland, but it could be anywhere. At times this could be an experimental art film as much as film in the conventional sense. Yet it remains powerful.

Grain

Grain is something of an epic from Semih Kaplanoglu, set in a dystopian future in which crops no longer grow properly, and people live either within the confines of society, or outside it on the margins.

Jean-Marc Barr plays Erol, a scientist trying to find answers. He decides to go in search of Cemil (Ermin Bravo) who may have the secrets that can help.

The film is visually stunning, filmed in widescreen black and white in locales as distant as Detroit, Germany and Turkey. This is an allegorical film about a quest. Based in part on a chapter of the Koran, it has a philosophical tone throughout, and you are never quite sure where it is heading.

My only problem, as alluded to at the start of this piece, is that English is neither of the two leads’ native language, and it really shows. Perhaps the problem in part is that they’re being asked to speak using words with which they wouldn’t be comfortable in real life. Either way, it distracts from the film despite there being relatively little dialogue overall.

Most Beautiful Island

Ana Asensio has writes, directs and stars in this tale about life in the margins as an immigrant in New York. Luciana is from a non-specific Latin American country having to get by without having a social security number. She picks up various jobs when she can get them, but she’s about to be kicked out of her apartment by her roommate for unpaid rent, and her phone has no credit left. She meets up with a friend one day between babysitting gigs. Her friend Olga tells her that there’s a job on offer which will pay good money if she shows up in a smart dress.

Luciana is rightly reluctant, but in need of the cash to finagles a dress from a shop, and then has to follow a complicated series of instructions to be on time for the party she has to look pretty at.

We the audience are also beginning to get a little on edge. What kind of party is this? It can’t be good, with assignations below restaurants in Chinatown and back alley addresses. And I’m not about to tell you here either. But it’s clear that Olga has not been altogether honest about what’s required.

What this film does show, is perhaps a truer reflection of the diversity of life in New York City, and one that the TV cop shows set there tend to avoid. There are a lot of people in this film who don’t speak English natively, and as viewers, those conversations are not translated for us.

I really liked this film. It’s definitely uncomfortable, because you simply don’t know where it’s going to go. And while I’m not sure elements are a completely accurate reflection on life in the city, you can see how people desperate for money will do things that they mightn’t otherwise choose to do. Furthermore, others will prey on those people.

The Shape of Water

This is the new Guillermo del Toro film, and it’s a delight. We’re in fifties America, and Sally Hawkins is the mute Elisa, living above a cinema in an apartment that reminds me a little of Amelie. This may be the fifties, but Elisa is thoroughly modern even if her job is as a cleaner in a strange military site where strange undersea things are examined. She and her co-worker Zelda diligently go about mopping up the labs even as some kind of amphibious humanoid creature has been captured Michael Shannon’s evil Strickland.

Elisa begins to make friends with the creature, and she becomes more and more uncomfortable with how it’s being treated. The relationship is handled tremendously, Doug Jones playing the creature under layers of makeup. The relationship between them always feels real, even though the story runs perilously close to being silly. Yes – you have to buy into a world where this is possible. But it’s such a beautifully structured and believable world, that isn’t a simple one and has a seamier and nastier underside.

This is a lovely piece of work, and will be well worth watching when it gets a fuller release in a month or so.

Manhunt

This is the return of John Woo, the action director fondly remembered by many for films like A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled, before he went to the US for films like Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2. Of late he seems to have been making Chinese language potboilers, and this is his return to the action genre. Hanyu Zhang plays a Chinese lawyer working for a big pharmaceutical company in Osaka, Japan. He’s somehow embroiled in a plot from three years earlier in which he successfully covered something up. But now he’s wanted for a murder that he probably didn’t commit. The ingredients also include an evil boss and his son, two female assassins, a Japanese police inspector and his doting new assistant.

To be honest, this film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it took me a while to understand that. Yes, Woo’s big action set pieces have always been overly elaborate, but there was a certain serious world view in those earlier films. In this case, you hope, Woo has his tongue firmly in his cheek. But even then, the dialogue is as corny as hell, and it falls again into the trap of having people speak English when they really shouldn’t (the reasoning is communication between a Chinese and Japanese national). The plot is not even worth explaining, since it’s so corny.

There are a few good set pieces, with bad guys being killed in a range of inventive ways. And in one sequence where our two protagonists are handcuffed together (which goes right back to Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps), we are teased with a dovecote that we know will see the release of dozens of white doves.

The bigger issue for me was probably the video effects that make it feel at times it was a Chinese language soap opera. Freeze frames, and strange wipes, as well as corny video effects that we didn’t need to see. One shot appears to be been made with a consumer drone, and really looked bad on the big screen.

Action films have moved on since 1992, with Bourne and even Bond adapting. Sadly, it doesn’t feel as though Woo, now 71, has stayed up with it.

Thor: Ragnarok

I confess that I feel left behind by Marvel’s Cinematic Universe these days. The films come thick and fast, and I’ve not seen them all by any means. That has begun to instill in me a fear that I won’t actually fully understand a new film because I’ve missed things that happened in the last film.

I’ve not seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or Spiderman Homecoming. It’s like stopping watching Lost on TV after three seasons, suddenly realising they’re up to season seven, and not really wanting to watch 60 episodes to get caught up.

But I’d heard enough good things about Thor: Ragnarok to mean that I was happy to give it a watch. In any event, I’d seen Doctor Strange on TV, and that didn’t seem to require much previous knowledge.

Of course, a Marvel film is likely to be very popular. And that means lots of “code violations.” People just can’t keep off their phones (probably not helped by every superhero film being more than two hours meaning in places they can drag).

I had to go and tell one person sitting near the front, and therefore in full view of the entire auditorium, to turn off their phone which they’d been on a full five minutes into the film, on full brightness. Others felt they could WhatsApp with impunity throughout just because they’d turned their brightness down.

And then there were the younger kids. Now I get it. It’s a Marvel film, and lots of 7 and 8 year olds will want to see it. But the certificate is 12A. The BBFC says: “Frequent scenes of fantasy violence include fistfights, aerial dogfights, and use of lasers and bladed weapons. There are brief impalings, but with minimal blood and injury detail. In one comic sequence an alien is melted into liquid, but the scene does not dwell on detail.

“There are occasional mild sex references and innuendo, and occasional use of mild bad language.”

But the point is that it’s a 12A.

The BBFC says of 12A films: “Films classified 12A and video works classified 12 contain material that is not generally suitable for children aged under 12. No one younger than 12 may see a 12A film in a cinema unless accompanied by an adult. Adults planning to take a child under 12 to view a 12A film should consider whether the film is suitable for that child. To help them decide, we recommend that they check the BBFCinsight for that film in advance.” (My emphasis)

Some adults had definitely brought kids who found the film slightly too perilous. The clues are in things like trips to the loo, or shifting in seats.

But one mother and father had brought a toddler so young that the child still had a dummy in its mouth. I’d have said it was a maximum of three. The opening scene of Thor takes place with Thor captured by a hellish fire demon. The child instantly found this scary. It only got worse after that. At first the mother took the child to a seat well away from others at the front – I assume to minimise the disruption. But eventually she left the cinema.

I do think the BBFC needs to legislate that 12A films should not be seen by children under the age of, say 8, in any circumstances.

As for the film? Well it’s pretty decent. The film is directed by Taika Waititi, and it’s probably the funniest Marvel film I’ve seen (Waititi keeping many of the best gags for himself as Korg, a creature made of stones). Cate Blanchett is suitably villainous as Hela, Thor and Loki’s sister (although the costume designers seem a little too “inspired” by Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent). And Tessa Thompson is great as Valkyrie who manages to make a spectacular and very funny entrance. I’m unsure how much of The Hulk is actually motion capture of Mark Ruffalo and how much is simply animation, but Ruffalo’s few scenes are fine.

There’s just enough (but not too much) of Jeff Goldblum, while Tom Hiddlestone hams it up once more as Loki against Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. They too manage to play the comic moments very well.

You don’t really have to think too hard about the plot, but the film keeps up the pace despite its 130 minute runtime.

Obviously it’s full of CGI, and while there’s vast quantities of destruction at the end as is requisite in all superhero films, it’s less overt, and does somehow push the story forward a bit.

Overall, this is easily one of the better superhero films I’ve seen in a long time, and certainly the funniest. It also reminds me that I need to catch up with Hunt for the Wilderpeople (it’s on Netflix in the UK), Waititi’s last film as director. His sensibility really does carry through here.

Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is clearly one of this generation’s outstanding film makers. From Memento through to his Dark Knight trilogy, to Inception and Interstellar, he does something interesting every time. Not only are his films glorious to watch, shot with large-format film including IMAX for much of his latest, but his films are very successful at the box office. He’s one of the few directors working who can make a $100m+ film not based on a franchise.

Which brings us to Dunkirk – his telling of the story of the evacuation of over 300,000 troops from the beach, where they were pinned down by advancing German soldiers during WWII. This isn’t the first film telling the story of the rescue of so many soldiers against the odds. The 1958 Ealing Studios film was one of their most of expensive, and also one of their last, produced by the famed Michael Balcon. And perhaps the most memorable sequence of Joe Wright’s Atonement, features the lines of troops on a massive scale on Dunkirk beach.

Time is a key component of many of Nolan’s films, from the reversed timelines of Memento to the physics of space and time in Interstellar. In Dunkirk he plays with time once more. Captions reveal that we’re going to see three key stories over a week, a day and an hour.

We follow the troops on the beach across a week, as they are marshalled, amongst others, by Kenneth Brannagh’s naval commander onto the limited supply of vessels able to dock at “The Mole” a wooden pier that allows access to vessels that couldn’t otherwise come ashore.

Mark Rylance and his young crew, are leading a pleasure yacht across the Channel from Dorset, across a single day.

Finally there is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot who’s mission, limited by the amount of fuel he can carry, is limited to just an hour.

These three timelines are played out simultaneously, with the strands linking together at key points.

There’s not a lot of dialogue in this film, but there is a lot of music, much of which is layered within sound. Nolan has worked once again with Hans Zimmer, and even more than in his last two outings with Inception and Interstellar, the music is a vital part of the whole. This is music that is front and centre. And individual music cues run between the different timelines, making the film feel as a single piece. The limited dialogue means that music becomes ever more important. As Zimmer did with Inception, with its deconstruction of Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien, so he works skillfully with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

This is a 12A film, and that’s actually quite important. Saving Private Ryan, for example, is classified as a 15. That films heart-stopping opening changed war films forever, meaning that other films that came in its wake felt the need to mimic its blood soaked verisimilitude. The short shutter speed (actually a 45 degree or 90 degree shutter angle) led to a staccato experience for the viewer. The same effect has since been repeatedly used in large scale action sequences.

But I could never help feeling that Saving Private Ryan was two very different films glued together. That opening, and then a more by-the-numbers war film with a dubious over-arching premise. Band of Brothers, the HBO series that came directly in its wake, seemed to have a more cohesive narrative structure.

Dunkirk has a more even feel to the film as a whole. That’s not to say that you don’t truly believe that anyone could die at any moment. From the opening scene in which Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his fellow troops pluck a leaflet from the sky warning them that they are surrounded, the action rarely lets up.

The stoicism of Rylance as he heads into the unknown, with just burning ships on the horizon guiding him towards Dunkirk, and the bravery of the Spitfire pilots as they battle to protect ships in the Channel laden with men and being targeted by German bombers.

There have been complaints that the film doesn’t portray everything completely accurately. French troops are largely ignored despite the fact that many of them were holding up the Germany army while the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated. Then there’s the complaint that there are no faces of colour when there were significant numbers of Asian and East African troops serving. In fact, the film does include some black faces, but admittedly not very many. In the end, I would say that the film concentrates on a small handful of soldiers, and despite the scale of the film in places – thousands of extras lined up on the beach – we are mostly dealing with individual characters.

I was fortunate to be able to see Dunkirk in its IMAX film presentation at the BFI Waterloo. The majority of the film, including nearly all the action sequences, were shot on these enormous cameras. Only the very closest scenes – often below deck on ships – was shot on the “smaller” 70mm cameras. What this means is that the film’s aspect ratio is actually close to square for a lot of the film but on such a large scale that it just fills nearly all your peripheral vision. Then it’s “cropped” to a 70mm aspect ratio for some sequences. But strangely, you really don’t notice this except when you’re looking for it. (I recall seeing the final Dark Knight film in this manner, and there the jumps between formats were somehow much more noticeable). The key thing is that all the big set pieces are simply stunning to look at. The aerial combat scenes are some of the most fantastic I’ve seen. Exactly where real planes were employed and where CGI might have been used is impossible to tell. The credits reveal that they definitely did use real planes, and it does feel as though you’re in there with Tom Hardy as he tries to save the lives of troops, as all the while a lack of fuel means that he doesn’t have enough to return to England.

Similarly, when you see ships being attacked and sometimes sinking, they feel very real. I know that real ships were used on the production – lots of them. But we’ve moved to a point where CGI can make real things look very real indeed.

While the nature of Dunkirk means that we know what will happen in broad terms, that doesn’t apply for individual characters, and we are left on the edge of our seats throughout.

Overall a film that left me wanting to go back in and see it again, because seeing it on the big screen is essential – ideally from a film print. Essential.

The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD

The comic, 2000AD, was launched in 1977 when I was 7 years old. While I read a fair few comics when I was young, I can’t say that I was reading 2000AD from the very start. It was more about The Beano at that time, which I’d begin to buy with my pocket money on a semi-regular basis. I remember that the 1978 Beano Book was the first of their annuals that I owned. It would become very well thumbed, as would be the Summer Specials. Otherwise it might occasionally be the Dandy, or perhaps Whizzer & Chips.

As I got a little older, I progressed to Warlord. Quite why a comic full of Second World War stories was relatively popular in the late seventies isn’t entirely obvious to me now. But as kids we’d eat up Bank Holiday screenings of films like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape. At primary school we’d re-enact scenes from these films, throwing dirt around to create dust cloud “explosions.”

(Warlord, Wikipedia tells me, lasted all the way through until 1986. But perhaps more staggering is the ongoing publication of its DC Thomson stablemate Commando. These comics, in compact form, continue tell tales of derring-do from the second war, each book having a self-contained story.

While I understand that there’s a certain kitsch appeal, which was probably why some compilation books were published a few years ago, and could be seen in Waterstones up and down the country, I can only think that it’s readership now is fairly elderly. It reminds me that Bauer Media had to close down a magazine called Der Landser while it was completing the purchase of Absolute Radio in 2013. That magazine seemed to be aimed at an elderly audience who were proud of their military heritage, but were not – the publisher argued – Nazi sympathisers.

As of 2013, Commando was still selling nearly 10,000 copies a month.

And today DC Thomson is still publishing 4 issues a fortnight, and you can get digital downloads too!)

But back to 2000AD. I’d probably read a few copies of it here and there. My brother had started reading the relaunched Eagle. But sometime around 1984 I started to get into a bit more purposefully. I know it was around this time because the second part of a fantastic story – The Ballad of Halo Jones – was just starting to be published.

I’d missed part one, so I started to hunt it out. I made my first visits to Forbidden Planet, which was then hidden away off Denmark Street.

I started to catch up on Judge Dredd too. Because some of the older Dredd stories were being republished in US editions, I was picking up some of those and reading up on key stories like The Cursed Earth, the Judge Child, and The Apocalypse War. I queued to get a copy of the first compilation of Halo Jones stories signed by writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson, and I had a Halo Jones T-shirt.

By now I was buying plastic bags to put my comics in, because I knew that was the way that you needed to keep your comics pristine.

In the wider realm, I was playing role playing games with my friends, and I bought a copy of the Judge Dredd roleplaying game. You could buy metal figures (I note from my nephew’s models, that today it’s more likely that you’ll be painting plastic). I fashioned polystyrene boxes, found around the back of the local Currys and Laskys, into a section of Mega-City One. I bought the ZX Spectrum Judge Dredd game – although I don’t remember it as being any good.

2000AD got me into comics.

I was more of a British comic reader than anything. But I was aware that changes were afoot. I started to pick up copies of Swamp Thing because I knew Alan Moore was writing it. Then came things like The Dark Knight Returns, Hellblazer and Watchmen. I started to learn who Neil Gaiman was, and would look for Vertigo titles. It was a good time for comics. Forbidden Planet had moved to larger premises and I was visiting it and other comic shops in London more frequently.

My comic habit only really slowed down when I reached university. With less access to comics, and plenty of other things to do, it took a back seat. From then on I became an occasional comic reader – always wanting to know what was happening and who were the big names. But the choice was vast.

And that about sums up my comic reading today. I’ll pick up a graphic novel now and again, or a short run series. I still enjoy a wander around Forbidden Planet (still in roughly the same part of London, but in much bigger premises at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue). And I’m pleased to see that 2000AD still survives even though I’ve not read a copy for quite a while.

This is all a very long introduction to the fact that I’ve recently watched Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD. I’d known that this was coming since over the past 18 months or more, I’ve had a steady stream of emails alerting me to the various interviews that the producers had been carrying out. They really had trawled wide and deep for this definitive history of the comic.

I knew a little of the fact that Action comic had preceded it, and had ended up being shut down after it had created a scandal, but beyond that my knowledge came from years of reading the comic on and off. The documentary details how the comic was created and the lack of support they had from the publishers almost from the start, since this was doing things that other comics weren’t.

In many respects it changed the mold of British comics. Aside from the smart way it could talk to both a younger audience by giving them action and explosions, it also held an older audience with wry takes on the politics of the day. The documentary pretty accurately reflects that.

Some of the stories in the documentary, I vaguely knew. It was certainly unusual that 2000AD credited its writers and artists. But as the film shows, this did mean that the top talent could be poached relatively easily – especially when DC Comics came calling, literally setting up shop in a hotel suite and inviting everyone to come along to them. Of course those same people then led the US comic invasion that completely shook up US comics at the time.

Then there was the fact that lack of intellectual property began to become a much bigger issue. The single most painful part of the film for me was when Neil Gaiman related how Alan Moore had explained to him where future Halo Jones would take the series. The character’s entire life. But he didn’t own the rights – he’d signed these over to IPC (at the time) and if anyone profited from the characters it was the publishers. Moore, of course, had lots of run-ins with comic publishers, notably including DC Comics from whom he refuses to even cash cheques for films like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, when they got made into films. Interestingly, it’s not totally clear that even today, if you create a new story for 2000AD, that they don’t own the rights. More than one contributor said that they hold back their best stuff for a publisher like Image who will let them keep more ownership.

Alan Moore, incidentally, is probably the main person missing from the film which is a shame as he’s such an entertaining character. But this is a film about Pat Mills really – he holds the entire structure of the piece together having been there at the very start, and still contributing to this day.

If there’s one part of the story which is covered – although glossed over quite quickly – it was the late nineties. I’d certainly lost track of the comic at that time, but there seemed to have been an attempt to replicate “lads mags” in comic form. The film is fairly honest about this period, including significant contributions from then editor Dave Bishop, who was not universally liked.

In 2000, the title was sold by its then owners Fleetway, to Rebellion. Primarily a video games developer, they are portrayed – probably quite fairly – as the first owner of the title who really understood what it stood for. It certainly seems to have prospered in that time, and current editor Matt Smith has been editing the title since 2002 – a remarkable period of stability.

The documentary shows how the title continues to develop new writers. Indeed it makes the very valid point that aside from 2000AD, every other comic on UK bookshelves today are franchises meaning that there’s no room left for original characters.

Perhaps the one part of story that seems to be missing from the documentary is the effect it had on the wider comic scene in the UK. There was a period where other titles like Deadline (home of Tank Girl), Crisis and Revolver were being published. While none of these lasted that long, many of the same writers could found working for these titles too. It was an exciting period for British comics.

Overall the documentary really is very good and very even handed. It’s not all wonderful, and it leaves you thinking that perhaps some of the participants aren’t so enamoured of some of the other ones. But the film makes a strong case for 2000AD having strongly influenced vast swathes of what’s come since, up to and including the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And I came away thinking, I really do need to pick up a few recent copies of 2000AD as the comic reaches its 40th anniversary in 2017.

And if you’ve never read it, then I do recommend picking up a copy of The Ballad of Halo Jones, either in print or digitally. If you’ve ever been intrigued by the favicon I use for this site, it’ll at least explain my “inspiration.”

High Rise

Brunswick

I didn’t think about it until during the film, but could there be any more appropriate location to watch High Rise than the Curzon Bloomsbury (née Renoir cinema) in the Brunswick Centre?

In Ben Wheatley’s superb adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel, his production designer Mark Tildesley has created a modernist* marvel of building. The way that the apartments are tiered in the film is very reminiscent of the much lower Brunswick Centre has tiering for its apartments, all in that same modernist style. The Brunswick Centre was designed by Patrick Hodgkinson who died very recently, and for who the centre was his most famous piece of work, long in gestation before finally opening in the ’70s and getting a revamp in the ’00s.

Recently the below-ground Renoir cinema has been modernised and overhauled, becoming the Curzon Bloomsbury. Although the cinema reopened a year ago, this was the first time I’d been back inside. The main reason for holding off was that the previous cinema had featured two screens, but following the 10 month refurbishment, it now features six screens. It does not take a genius to work out that all the screens are therefore now smaller than they were before, and when I see a film on the big screen, I tend to like that screen to be, well, big!

That’s not to say that the cinema was especially good in its old format. It was originally designed as a single 490 seat screen at the time of the centre’s opening in 1972, but as with so many cinemas in the 1980s, it was converted to become a two-screen cinema – essentially splitting the cinema down the middle. That left each of the two neighbouring screens uneven, with more seats on one side than the other. There were also pillars that you obviously couldn’t sit behind.

Now under its new name, it features six screens, of which only the “Premium Screen” is of a decent size with 177 seats. The other regular screens all seat between 28 and 30, making them feel a little closer to a hi-fi dealership’s screening room rather than a full blown cinema. They’re certainly plushly appointed and the chain has named the screens after now re-branded or closed cinemas from around London (Lumiere, Plaza, Phoenix and Minema). The Bertha Dochouse screen is actually larger at 55 seats. It’s a screen devoted documentaries and supported by a number of groups.

I saw High Rise in the 30 seat “Plaza” screen, and while I have no problems with the cinema itself – aside from a couple of late patrons casting shadows on half the screen as they spent too long finding their seats (another consequence of small screening rooms), I do wonder why I’m paying a premium to see a film on the big screen if home cinema screens are getting close to the same size. I exaggerate a little, but it’s an issue of mine. The seats are comfortable, and there are bars throughout, but paying £15 plus a £1 booking fee for such a small screen experience is galling.

But what about the film?

Well it’s really excellent. If you don’t like JG Ballard, then it won’t be your cup of tea, because this one of his dystopian future novels, in a believable future from around the time they were published. High Rise came out in 1975, and begins with Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moving into his new apartment mid-way up a brand new apartment block. For him and his fellow aspirant middle-class tenants in the block, this is a self-contained world. They have their own supermarket, a gym and a swimming pool.

But there’s a very rigid hierarchy, within the block. The higher up in the building you are, the greater your social standing. On the very top, in the penthouse, is the project’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).

As Laing settles in, the high rise takes on a life of its own with an endless stream of parties to which you may or may not be invited. Laing befriends Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her son who live just above him. But below him are Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss). Wilder is something of playboy, his wife seemingly acquiescent.

Higher up are people like the gynaecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy), an actrees Ann Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) and Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) who manages to keep a sheep and a horse on the top of the building.

Slowly and surely chaos begins to ensue as rubbish chutes are jammed, power-cuts hit the lower floors, and finally there is no water. Raiding parties look out for their own areas, yet there’s still a weird normality as some continue to head out of the building each day, walking out across the enormous car park to head off to their jobs.

The chaos gets worse, and there are assaults and all manner of debauchery. Yet somehow the building contains all of this. There’s an amusing sequence when a police car pulls up and Royal assures the policeman (a cameo from Neil Maskell who previously appeared in Wheatley’s Kill List) that everything’s fine. Revolt is in the air, and it’s uncertain how things will play out. The script is both very much in keeping with Ballard’s novel, whilst not afraid to diverge from it. Invariably there is a lot of compression, and fewer characters on fewer floors. And the timeframe seems compressed compared with the novel.

The performances are all excellent with Hiddleston almost gliding through the film, as Laing does in the book. Irons is right the grumpy architect who sort of knows his designed society is all collapsing around him. It’s fun seeing Hawes in yet another very different role – she’s currently very different in both the third series of Line of Fire, and as the mother in ITV’s new version of The Durrells.

You can’t separate the film from the superb production design. As well as the amazing architecture conjured up in CG, there interiors are beautifully delivered. I especially enjoyed seeing the supermarket with all the carefully labelled products (There’s an excellent article in Creative Review detailing this work) and signs.

And Clint Mansell’s soundtrack is also incredibly important, adding layers to the film. Beyond that there is incidental music such as muzack version of Abba’s SOS, later reprised into a fully-fledged song from Portishead. Sadly, it’s not included on the soundtrack, and the band prefers that you hear the song in the context of the film.

Finally, you can’t ignore Amy Jump, Wheatley’s partner in crime. The film credits her equally at the end, her writing, and he directing – the pair of them editing. The film is very truthful to the book, but Ballard is not the easiest author to adapt – there’s a sensibility to his work.

I loved this film, and can’t wait to watch it again and soak up some of the details.

* Or should that be brutalist? I’m afraid architectural doctrines are a little beyond me.

London in B&W-14

Hail Caesar!

A new Coen brothers film is always a cause for celebration. That’s particularly the case when they adopt more of a screwball tone to their films.

Hail Caesar! is actually more of a group of sketches than a fully fledged film – the plot is slight. We follow the action from the perspective of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), actually a real person who was a “fixer” for MGM. Here he’s the fixer at the fictional Capitol Studios, and is called upon to sort out problems with the various stars Capitol has on contract. These include Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who has got himself kidnapped from the set of his biblical epic, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who’s trying to overcome an out of wedlock pregnancy while shooting her Esther Williams-style swimming picture, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who’s trying to break beyond the confines of his singing cowboy persona and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) who’s making a song and dance naval number!

How the whole story stitches together doesn’t really matter. This film is all about the set pieces. In the cinema where I saw the film, the biggest laughs came from Ehrenreich’s appearances as Hobie. There’s a wonderful scene played with gusto by Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz where Hobie is trying to transition to a melodrama but can’t lose his western twang. Later the scene is revisited via a cameo from Frances McDormand who’s editing the picture.

Meanwhile Tilda Swinton plays a twin role as gossip columnists for rival publications in the style of Hedda Hopper, last seen, of course, played by Helen Mirren in Trumbo with the same types of hats, but a very different tone of voice. In fact, the comparisons with Trumbo don’t end there, because the writers who form the group that kidnaps Whitlock, seem to be closely related to the Hollywood Ten. And there was an interesting interview with the Joel and Ethan Coen on Radio 4’s Film Programme last week which suggested that the left-leaning writers of the age really were smuggling in communist propaganda into their work.

While faith becomes a key theme of the film, for the most part the film is more of an excuse to have some fun. And for all the control that studios had when the studio system reigned supreme, the breadth of output must have been remarkable.

This isn’t the best Coen brothers film ever – you feel it could have been structured a little stronger in places. On the other hand, the characters are delightful, and the gentle mocking of the studio productions of the time is wonderful.

Now where can I get the eagle sound effect everytime someone mentions the mysterious events surrounding the movie “On Wings of Eagles”? (Stay until the end of the credits if you enjoy this gag).