The Canyons (2013)

Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’ Lifestyles of the Rich and Dangerous.

An underrated and frequently misunderstood exercise in surfaces and cosmetics. The Canyons feels like an episode of an LA reality TV show as seen through a shattered black mirror. Everything looks glacial: overlit and severe digital photography, locations frost-bitten with reflective surfaces – glass and mirrors at every turn – and actors cherry-picked from industries or controversies where looks and celebrity are the primary currency. It all feels so hollow, from the way the voices echo in Christian’s vacuous LA house to the empty silences in conversations on dinner dates or Hollywood boulevard. Notice how Schrader lets the sounds of the busy street or surrounding hustle bustle fill those silences to further enhance the void.

The performances too are pitched at a distance, at an odd disconnect. They’re intentionally performative, like performances found in porn movies or reality TV: actors trying to forge a believable human connection before something more visceral can take place – violence, sex, confrontation. From the casting choices, it’s clear that all of this is especially calculated. Schrader embraces the baggage that comes with Lindsay Lohan – an actress perceived to be broken and twisted by celebrity – and gives her a role in which to prove herself. Watching her performance is like watching a plastic doll find a pulse and break free of being a possession. She’s excellent. James Deen, while certainly a lesser actor, is used to effectively too, as the typically Bret Easton Ellis-esque trust-fund fuck-boy turned preening psychopath.

At one point Lohan’s Tara asks a movie producer, “Do you really like movies?” When the producer fails to recollect the last movie they went to see at the cinema, Schrader’s pointed montage of desolate and abandoned movie theatres at the film’s start suddenly comes into focus. Mirrors and surfaces have finally replaced the movie screen.

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Batman Returns (1992)

A masked ball-cum-circus/superhero freak show contained within a Halloween snow globe and wrapped in a black Christmas ribbon. One of the great examples of 90s studio/auteur hubris, which seemed to be a totally misjudged disaster upon release but now looks like one the of the ballsiest and brazenly artistic feats of IP vandalism.

Some of my earliest memories of watching movies includes seeing Batman Returns on VHS when I was way too young and feeling both excited and uncomfortable with its bombastic and severely violent gothic imagery. Burton’s aesthetic, Elfman’s score, the strange transgressive undercurrent flowing throughout – everything here was incredibly formative for me. I have no doubt this film played a big part in my falling in love with movies in the first place and why, to this day, the films I respond to most often feel like the beautiful nightmares of their creators. Perverted, grand, icky and majestic, this movie fucking rocks.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

The most in tune Tim Burton has been with a piece of material in years. There are dashings of imagination here, from full set-pieces to instances of scenic finesse, that see the famously design-orientated director fully engaged and present with the images he’s creating. There’s a gothic deep dive into a sunken ship, a monster that eats children’s eyeballs and the quirky ensemble of characters, even on a purely silhouette level, all look strikingly individual. Focusing on a gang of oddball kids, each with their own unique abilities and aesthetic identity, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is essentially Burton’s take on X-Men but it also makes you realise he would have made a terrific Harry Potter flick.

The film’s figurehead is Eva Green as the titular Miss, here perfectly at home in Burton’s world for the second time (following Dark Shadows). She’s the latest in the long line of Burton muses preceded by Winona Ryder, Lisa Marie and Helena Bonham Carter. He has anointed all of these actresses, at one point or another, into gothic royalty, each apparently chosen for their otherworldly aura, flowing raven hair and cheekbones that remind you there is a well-defined skull beneath all that porcelain skin. They are always the most interesting characters in Burton’s films and Green’s skewed, arch and wily Miss Peregrine is no different, though her young co stars certainly aren’t forgettable.

As per Burton’s MO, everyone and everything looks unreal. The big eyes from Big Eyes make a return in the form of Ella Purnell and the entire film is cloaked with a netherworld hue that transforms even Blackpool pier into a funhouse of ghoulish action. What makes this different from other recent Burton movies is that it has a pulse and heartbeat. This isn’t bogged down by corpse-like artificiality or a vomit of computer imagery which plagued Alice in Wonderland. Look at any number of director-for-hire Tim Burton movies and you can usually distil them down to one image that captured his imagination; the topps trading cards of Mars Attacks!, the paintings of Big Eyes and here it is Ransom Riggs’ novel, which took strange vernacular photos of eerie children and spun an entire young adult universe out of them. It proved to be a potent spark of the imagination for Burton, who transforms it into something distinctly his own, managing to inject visual nods to everything from Ray Harryhausen to Ed Wood.

Burton’s entire filmography has been a celebration of freaks, oddities and outcasts and this film feels like a catch-all culmination of his obsessions, held together by a warm and passionate hand. There’s care in this movie. You can imagine Edward Scissorhands or any number of sketches from his notebooks joining Miss Peregrine’s home and being welcomed with open arms. It’s the best Tim Burton film in a long time, and one of the few which feels more alive, not tiresome, for being totally Burton-esque.

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Set It Up (2018)

A delightfully old-school rom-com amplified by its quartet of charming and attractive leads and knowing screenplay. The fact it feels so bright and sitcommy keeps reminding you this was made for Netflix and not a proper big screen, but the film’s timeless outlook and thoroughly likeable tone means it is probably best soaked in while curled up on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon.

It takes more than a page out of the screwball playbook, with the characters in the film becoming quasi-filmmakers themselves as they attempt to orchestrate a romance between their respective bosses. Their entire understanding of love and happiness is apparently dictated by movies, at one point declaring “We need a meet cute!” It gives the film a self-aware tinge, but it also works as a double wink to the audience as the same characters are seemingly unaware that they too are in the throws of a perfect screwball romance set-up. Let’s not forget, this is a film called Set It Up.

Among the many funny bits of business, a highlight is a gag where the two drunk leads attempt the simple task of getting a pizza into an apartment which then turns into an extended farce tinged with the budding romance sparking between them. It’s a lovely little scene that lets both actors sell some physical comedy whilst also playing up the chemistry they share. This isn’t so much a “will they/won’t they” as a “when will they”. It isn’t going to change the world, but it will certainly warm a heart or two for the better part of two hours.

Watched on Netflix.

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Mandy (2018)

A psychotronic potion so committed to its own combination of high/low/trash/art aesthetics, it’s no wonder us carnivorous cinephiles eat this up like a hallucinogen-tinged three course dinner. Cosmatos’ loyalty to his own metronomic sense of drone pacing might turn a lot of genre-heads off, but it may also hypnotise a few into loving new types of film, where images overthrow narrative or basic viscera as primary stimulation. I can see Mandy being a big gateway drug for the right set of eyeballs, it’s the kind of singular experience that makes you ask, “Wait, you can make films like this?”

This is exactly the kind of heightened wizard’s spell of a movie Nicolas Cage is at home in. He syncs up so precisely with what Cosmatos is trying to do, it should come as no surprise to find that this has inspired a deluge of long overdue “Nicolas Cage is actually one of the greatest actors of his time” takes. As Red (surely named after the King Crimson album of the same name, no?) he is a hulking bear of a man, not far from his turn in David Gordon Green’s Joe, only if you took that character and dropped him into the seven circles of genre hell. This is one of the best performances of the year and, I suspect, one that will gain Cage a lot of added respect and understanding moving forward. Mandy takes you into the Nicolas Cage world of pain.

Like Cage, Cosmatos’ isn’t afraid of a good tightrope. He toes the line between pretension and absurdity with such confidence that you don’t care if his foot slips over too eagerly into one or the other here and there. The images are so potent that you’re actually glad for all the indulgences. Any extra time spent swimming in Cosmatos’ obsessions is a plus in my book. He knows restraint, when to let one frame tell the story but he also doesn’t deny you some good old fashioned face-melting and maximalist thrills should the occasion call for it. One hell of a movie, with hell visualised as a bad LSD trip filtered through a lava lamp and scored to slowcore prog sludge metal. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

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Batman (1989)

You don’t need me to tell you that comic book movies are a dime a dozen at the moment, but none of them look like Tim Burton’s Batman. Overwhelmingly physical in its environs and effects and visually uncomplicated; edited cleanly and held mostly in wide or mid-shots. This is pre-digital, pre-post production short cuts. It feels like a feat of cinematic architecture. Burton built a whole world here. His Gotham is a dark and grand germanic Metropolis which is also, yes, superbly goth and dressed up as a 40s noir. The sensibility of the material and the director line up wonderfully.

All the actors function as both characters and set-dressing, and any distance you feel is re-enforced by the emotional disconnect plaguing most of the characters. Danny Elfman’s boisterous score propels everything forward. His themes and Nicholson’s Joker, really, being the only two ingredients that let you have fun in this otherwise tortured and angsty underworld. They didn’t quite nail the Batman character (Keaton is still my favourite actor to play the role for what it’s worth) but they certainly nailed the tone.

A pretty incredible feat of production design and directorial handwriting, Batman might not get as much play in discussions of the comic book genre nowadays – its analogue foundations maybe dating it a bit too much – but it nevertheless continues to cast a shadow over its successors like a monolithic anvil. Year One, indeed.

Watched on blu-ray.

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

A terrific subterranean thriller with a primo cast of shaggy dog stars, the kind who seemed to go extinct once the 70s drew to a close. Owen Roizman’s moody photography is soaked in darkness and shadow, with striking anamorphic lens flares throughout. It looks beautiful. There’s also a fun “upstairs/downstairs” dynamic between the two leads; Walter Mathau’s working class stiff in the control room upstairs, Robert Shaw’s stone-faced crook calling the shots in the subway tunnels below, with a snivelling Marty Balsam by his side. Equal parts muscular and grizzled with a great heist plot to boot. Can’t say enough about that David Shire score either. One of those mid-tier 70s classics that never seems to disappear completely, and for good reason. It expertly bridges the best of the day’s genre cinema with the texture and finesse of the blossoming New Hollywood.

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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

This rewatch has been a long time coming. Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies that is so dense with information that it’s difficult to penetrate and engage with, especially on first viewing. It’s a slow-burning procedural which spans a decade, teething with terminology-heavy dialogue the film rarely stops to clarify. I remember liking the film, and certain sequences sat on my gut as they unfolded, but the main thing I took away was Jessica Chastain’s performance. After bursting onto the mainstream in 2011 this leading role was her victory lap, cementing her as a mainstay of contemporary leading ladies. Chastain was the heart and soul of the film. Even physically, her porcelain skin and flame coloured hair often feel like the only vibrancy in an otherwise desaturated, cold and masculine world. Whenever I think of Zero Dark Thirty, I think of Chastain’s character, Maya, alone, driven and deep in thought. It’s a great performance, that much I knew, the rest of the film sort of blurred together. Ever since 2012 I’ve been meaning to return to it and bring it back into focus, free of all the expectations that come with any Academy Awards frontrunner.

There’s a lot to be said about the ambition here, as well as Bigelow’s evolution as a filmmaker over the years. This is every bit the filmmaker who made Blue Steeltwenty two years previous but also, aesthetically, a million miles apart. Everything here is so controlled and tightly wound, by the time it culminates in the extended raid on Bin Laden’s compound – which audaciously leaves Maya off-screen for an extended period of time, yet her presence never fades – the weight of this mission and the need to see it completed has become almost unbearable. It’s a masterclass sequence, utilising night vision and walkie-talkie distorted whispers to instil tension and unease with the audio/visual remove of an alien invasion.

As for the ambition, a film like this pretty much has to dictate its own structure. It unfolds at its own pace, free of traditional act structure, obsessed with minutiae and unafraid of narrative repetition in order to accurately depict the kind of setbacks and tedious nature of a subject this complex. There’s a constant dump of information which you naturally just tune out of at a certain point. As in a film like Primer, you don’t need to understand everything the characters are taking about as long as you trust the characters themselves understand it. I got into the rhythms this time around, let it suck me in and worked hard with the film to stay with it. It’s certainly a chore, and not a film I feel the need to revisit again for a long time, but it’s an audacious and difficult work with unwieldy reach and told with impressive control. Chastain is even better the second time around.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Slice (2018)

Slice attempts to draw a high-concept universe that never really comes together. It feels indebted to EC comics as much as it does 80s horror-comedies like Ghostbusters which it cribs from freely. Weirdly though, it has a very cheap aesthetic with make-up effects and production design closer to those found on a haunted house ride in a rusty fairground than, say, Rick Baker or Rob Botin. It’s a rubber world, stretchy and plastic, where actors play “characters” who are there to be colourful and fun but end up lacking personality and gravitas in the process. There’s nothing to latch onto here, it’s all artifice and flat gags, the kind of thing that might work in a five minute music video but at 80 minutes with plot, feels off. All of these choices are intentional though, so it’s not exactly a failure, it just doesn’t work, though you can see what the film is trying to be at every turn. A haphazard comic-strip of a film which sadly gets lost in its own uncanny valley.

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

Nowhere near as classy or as deliberately shot as the first Sicario, which had a visual elegance to offset any iffy screenplay quibbles. In fact, that very style led it to being at the top of my favourite movies of 2015. Day of the Soldado, sans Deakins and Villenueve, is much more about boots on the ground, and unnecessarily goes into nastier territory, more interested in guts and guns, severely lacking the feminine soul that Emily Blunt brought to its predecessor.

Still, there’s a few highlights, including a shootout in the desert that genuinely left me with sweaty palms. Sheridan recycles the “B-plot that becomes relevant in the third act” schtick he used the first time around, but its way clunkier here with some coincidental plotting that unfortunately feels like fingers frantically bashing at a keyboard to get the draft locked in time. Del Toro and Brolin, both so well drawn in the original, are nowhere near as engaging which constantly serves as a reminder for you to ask the same question you uttered when this was first announced: “why the hell would they want to make a sequel to Sicario?”

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