It’s tricky to find films that my fifteen-year-old son will want to watch with his forty-something parents, but this seemed to sit in the sweet spot — surfing, armed robbers, a cocky young hero, skydiving, a love interest and lots of banter. I wanted to see how the film stood up twenty-five years after I saw it in the cinema, when it was first released. I remembered Patrick Swayze’s charisma and the adrenaline rush of the action sequences, but beyond that it was pretty vague. Intriguingly, it also had the highest rating on iTunes I had ever seen, 4.9/5 with 74 reviews. Impressive, because haters love to hate.
Basically, Johnny Utah wants to make his mark at the FBI and take down a crew of surfer armed robbers. He falls in bro-love with the crew's leader, Bhodi, who shows him the spiritual side of being a surfer. They fight over their clash of values and both manage to get their friends killed doing it, Bhodi through greed and Utah through poor communication skills. Utah gets his man, but lets Bhodi kill himself rather than go to jail. Utah walks away from the FBI to, presumably, be a surfer like Bhodi, except not robbing banks.
Utah becomes Bhodi. Isn't that what we want from all intense love affairs? To absorb and be absorbed by the other person? We project what we unconsciously desire or fear onto someone else and, if we do the work, over time we discover those things in ourselves and let the other person be who they really are, not who we think they are. We take back our projections. Utah wanted to be at peace with himself, less driven, happier. Bhodi didn't have the qualities Utah wanted, and in realising that he took him down, integrating the healthy aspects and discarding the unhealthy.
The film is fast-paced, the dialogue involving (if a little cheesy in places), and the main characters are not total cardboard cutouts. The camera loves the ocean, making the surf and surfers seem as mystical as the characters believe they are. It’s all very light. My son was impressed. Now I have to convince him to watch Robocop.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
This is a film about meat. The young people are slaughtered like cattle in a world where meat is life and livelihood. Bones are plentiful in the rural setting, made into art works, mashed together into new creatures. There is beauty in the horror of the lives these people, who are like bacteria, or maggots, stripping life to the bone because it’s all they have and all they know. It’s a type of hell.
Siblings Sally and Franklin come to a remote part of Texas to make sure their relatives remains haven’t been dug up from a local cemetery in a bizarre, gruesome local crime. But Franklin’s curiosity goes much further and he wants to visit the slaughterhouse and home their grandfather used to own. They are warned not to go there, but in time-honoured tradition, they go anyway. That transgression sets the film in motion. The film makes meat-eating seem like a similar sort of transgression, a breaking of natural laws, with the characters hung on hooks, frozen and buchered like animals. The rule seems to be that says we must leave people be in their homes, no matter what they do there — it’s none of our business. The film also seems to say that all sentient life is the same and should be treated with the same respect. It's a pro-vegetarianism film.
So many horror tropes either started here, or were constellated in such strong ways that they seem new. Young people are picked off one by one. A killer has a phallic, mechanical weapon. Rural communities are dangerous to outsiders who don't respect the old ways. There is a Final Girl (see Carol Clover, of course!).
But the thing that struck me most this time, ten years after first watching it, was the beautiful, dread-filled cinematography and art design, and the overarching intelligence of the script and direction. Almost forty-five years after its release, when it was vilified and banned, it’s now clear it’s a masterpiece.
This one lingers still in my mind. The married couple, D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick) have created their own emotional ecosystem, balancing intimacy and distance, in a big modernist house somewhere in Central London. She is an artist and he is an architect — both work at home, but in their own offices on different floors, talking to each other sporadically through an internal phone system. It’s an unusual setup that has worked for them for years, but comes under strain when they decide to move home.
Neither actor has acted before, which is remarkable to me, and makes sense given the naturalistic rendering of their relationship. They are completely believable as an averagely neurotic middle-aged couple. The house itself is the third character, representing the life they have created together. There are lots of beautifully framed shots of interiors and exteriors, the cinematographer making the most of the glass, concrete and minimalist shapes.
D hates going out and is afraid H will be hurt every time he steps outside. At the same time she lives a separate life in her office studio, performing for herself, using her reflection in the big glass windows, aware that she can also be partially seen through the carefully arranged blinds — if anyone was looking. She dreams about being really listened to and understood. The story hinges on this aspect of their relationship.
Anyone who has been married for a long time will see aspects of themselves in this film, I think. If they look.
A Ghost Story (2017)
I thought the film would be mostly Rooney Mara moving slowly around her house with the ghost of Casey Affleck watching her. I was wrong. Halfway through the film goes in a different direction and it really does become the ghost’s story. Once Mara leaves the film there's a long stretch where it’s just a person under a sheet and I was worried it wasn't going to recover from that, but it pulls something interesting and unexpected out of the bag in the final quarter.
There is a scene early on where we see Mara eat an entire pie that a friend has brought for her to eat because she is mourning and needs pie support. While she forks pieces of it straight from the tin into her mouth, sat on the floor with Affleck’s sheeted figure silently watching her, I started to cry, and I continued to cry for the entire scene. Eight minutes of pie eating and eight minutes of tears. That's never happened to me before.
I chose the film because I’m thinking about death a lot at the moment. It was the release I needed. A beautiful film, truly.
Still Night, Still Light (2016)
I signed up for Mubi to try and find a different approach to choosing what films I watch. Sophie Goyette’s Still Night, Still Light caught my eye because it promised dreams, a slow pace and something restorative. My mind felt blasted from years of pushing and pulling and grappling with all that is out there. I was hopeful for this film.
Before it, I watched two other shorts films on Mubi. Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor is a triptych of three-minute film portraits of three film artists. It was light viewing, spending time briefly with each person. More heavy was The Hymns of Muscovy, twenty minutes floating through an upside-down Moscow listening to electronic versions of the Russian national anthem. It was trippy, Inception-like in the way buildings seemed to hang from the sky, and a slow, slow procession.
Short films before a main film reminds me of how cinemas worked when I was a kid. Still Night, Still Light moved through three characters too, Éliane, Romes and his father Pablo. Éliane gets the most film time and is also the youngest. Romes gets less and his father the least. Each one has a dream and is compelled to act on it, changing their lives to accommodate the press of something inside themselves that needs to be expressed. It's beautifully shot, dream-like even when awake, the locations moving from Canada to Mexico to somewhere in Asia. The languages the characters speak are mixed together as they work to communicate with each other the best they can. Éliane is a musician. Romes is a photographer. They talk about the decisions made in the face of reality pushing you down a path you had not reckoned on. Creative ambitions are sacrificed for family, or put to one side to deal with trauma, or are dismissed out of fear of what choosing that path might mean.
It’s a raw subject for me and I’m pleased I chose it. It was exactly what I needed today.
Nostalgia. This film is forever linked to my childhood and watching it over and over again, recorded from TV on a battered VHS tape. I wanted to watch it with a 55" television in HD, to see what these old films look like now.
And it’s astonishing. The locations come to life in new ways, the actors faces sparkle and glisten — it’s like stepping back into the actual seventies. The water and sky, which are shot with great care, take on new life. It was always a classic story told in a dynamic new way, but the details HD throws up on a decent-sized screen, man, it's probably better quality than seeing it in the cinema in 1975. The score is smart, lifting the drama brilliantly but otherwise staying out of the way. It still feels modern. The shark special effects hold up. The script is simple and perfect. Awesome.
Norse Mythologies (2018)
I wrote a (very) long review of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane as part of my application to the MA I’ve just completed. This book is a different beast. It’s a collection of short stories, each taken from myths about Odin, Thor, Loki and other Norse gods.
There is something cartoonish about these stories. The writing is top notch and the style is an excellent fit for the material. I feel like the Marvel Avengers films have cursed my enjoyment a little by implanting Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston in my brain. I can’t unsee them.
I’m reminded, in reading this, how old these characters are, and how central to the human experience storytelling is. For short stories they carry a lot of narrative weight and a couple of them were unexpectedly moving. It gets tiring towards the end though, because the stories are so similar in tone and there is no overarching story to tie them all together — it feels like you’re reading variations of the same story over and over again.
I saw this book in a shop and didn't fancy it. Then it turned out to be the next book for a reading group I wanted to try out. I’m glad I read it. That’s one of the great things about reading lists that other people choose, I guess. That group meets tomorrow. I wonder what other people made of it?
The Ghoul (2017)
Okay, this is a new thing for me. I'm going to write my thoughts as if I'm saying them, like it’s a podcast, so I don’t get hung up on editing each sentence. Otherwise this becomes just another piece of work instead of a release.
So, the film The Ghoul has layers, which automatically makes it rare these days amongst the films I manage to watch. And it has psychotherapists in it, which is almost unheard of. And it’s a thriller of sorts, although being complicated I’m inclined not to try to put it in a box. As Patrick Swayze says, nobody puts Baby in a corner.
The protaganist, Chris, is babyish, in a way. At the start he’s a tough cop arriving in London to solve a tricky case, but this persona soon dissolves into the puddle of who he really is — a depressed, lost addict who stalks people, making them part of his inner fantasy life. He loves Kathleen, a university friend who he never told about his true feelings, who is now married to another friend of his. The ambiguity of this dynamic, as well as the mania and sociopathy of fellow therapy patient, Coulsen, gives the mystery a hard edge.
Chris is a sort of ghoul, as is Coulsen, and in a way, so are these therapists (all therapists?), at least in Chris’s imagination. His depression begins to consume him and his dissolution blurs boundaries of time and space.
This doesn't do it justice. It's worth seeing to see the mystery for yourself. I’m still thinking about it, which means it is a serious piece of art as far as I’m concerned.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
I was excited to see Avengers: Infinity War. Early online reviews seemed enthusiastic. The manager of the coffee shop I go to had a kind of glazed awe on his face when he spoke about watching it on the opening night in a full cinema, everyone laughing and gasping at the same points in the story. I enjoyed Black Panther, even if it had a heaviness to it that wasn't all the good type. Thor: Ragnorok was a lot of fun. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was surprisingly affecting. You get my drift. I'm reasonably invested in these characters.
I saw it at seven-thirty on a Friday night in the largest screen of the Darlington Vue. Because modern multiplexes have ten or more screens, some of them are actually rather small, which means it can be more like being in a rich friend's basement than being in a proper cinema. I don't have a rich friend, but in my imagination I do. Perhaps that's the same. Anyway, this wasn't like that. This was the big screen.
The film flies along, like you're on a roller coaster, and at no point did I want to get off. There was always something interesting to look at, even if only for a couple of seconds. The characters come and go, literally coming and going through portals and gateways of various descriptions, moving from spaceships to planets without much effort or reason.
I'm being facetious. Of course the characters have reasons, it's just it all feels jumbled up, the many individual films that have come before competing with each other for the audiences emotional investment. None really get it. When main characters die I don't care. But I wasn't bored. It's cinema junk food. I'll eat another one. It's something I watch with my son and he laps these films up. I just can't watch another for a while. I know what's good for me.
High-Rise, JG Ballard (1975)
High-Rise. Dir. Ben Wheatley, 2015.
I read several Ballard books in the late nineties — my mid-twenties — starting with short stories, before being entranced by the original shiny silver paperback cover of Super-Cannes, and then going back to his earlier work. When I saw there was a film of High-Rise being made I believed I’d read it, but when I bought a copy, apart from the general sense in most of Ballard’s stories of things being on the edge of primal chaos, I didn’t recognise the story or characters at all. I’d read so many of his book shop blurbs they had all blurred together. In my twenties I didn’t read with much real attention either so it was quite possible I had read it and just forgotten everything about it.
Robert Laing is a newly divorced medical academic who moves onto the 25th floor of a high-rise block hoping for a life of comfortable anonymity. Richard Wilder lives on the 2nd floor and makes television documentaries. Anthony Royal is the building’s architect and lives in the penthouse. These three characters are rotated by Ballard to tell the story of the building, which is seen as a mixture of designed technology and living organism. It’s a social experiment designed by Royal and embraced by every resident at every level. Where Laing is a social chameleon who wants to make a safe place for himself in the building, Wilder wants to conquer it and confront its maker.
If the high-rise is a living thing, a psyche, and Ballard its ultimate creator, the three protagonists could be different aspects of Ballard’s creative personality. Each man tries to make the building serve them in their own ways but it’s the women who ultimately make the place theirs. The prose mixes an omniscient point-of-view with that of the character Ballard is following in each chapter. It is only at the end, in the final confrontation between Royal and Wilder, that he moves between both characters point-of-view in the same chapter. The author’s omniscience could easily be the building’s point-of-view, but at the same time I found it a little irritating how characters revealed chunks of backstory in their thoughts. Having said that, the descriptions are brilliant and unnerving. Ballard is very aware of the spaces his characters inhabit and finds endless ways to show the collapse and degradation of their initially modern and comfortable environment.
I was nervous about watching the film. The book was so particular and the opinions I had read were mixed, but more than that, I didn’t want to subject myself to two hours of disgust and misery. Perhaps from this starting place I was always going to enjoy the film more than I expected but that is to do the film an injustice. It is an excellent story in its own right.
Directed by Ben Wheatley and adapted by his long-term screenwriting and editing partner Amy Jump the protagonist of the film is definitely Laing. Wilder and Royal are still important characters but Laing is given far more agency and the narrative is quite different. It feels like the book is honoured though, and I suspect that is because while Jump makes the story more dramatic and brings different characters to the fore, in particular the female ones, Wheatley’s direction creates the equivalent of Ballard’s prose style in the visuals and soundtrack. It’s an impressive feat.
As stimulating as the last two weeks have been for me in the world of High-Rise whatever I read next needs to be a palate cleanser. A nice rom-com perhaps. No roasted dogs.
It Follows (2014)
I avoided watching It Follows because the idea was so unsettling. Like most unpleasant things avoided, the reality was nothing like as bad as I imagined. It’s actually genius — a really great film. Not flawless, but an impressive mix of original ideas embedded in an extended homage to John Carpenter’s Halloween.
The characters are all on the cusp of adulthood, with the adults barely a presence in the film at all. Jay, the lead character, has sex with her new boyfriend and finds out he has passed on to her a curse that she can only get rid of by having sex with someone else. Once you have it, a dead person that only you can see is always walking towards you, every hour of every day. The shape-shifting, visible only to the cursed, but physically very real zombie people are all frightening in different ways. They are all ages, shapes and sizes, but always clearly dead, and often gross in some way.
The cinematography is wonderful, with lots of slow tracking shots, wide-angle views of urban and suburban Detroit, and spaces left for the viewer to look into. You are always searching to see where the It is going to come lumbering from next. The soundtrack is inspired by John Carpenter’s synth scores and serves the mood perfectly, changing gear as the story moves from the brooding, despairing wait for It to turn up, to the horror of trying to escape It when it eventually does.
Who knew a single zombie walking very slowly could be so scary?