Monday, 7 August 2017

A Ghost Story

Fresh off the scaly back of Disney behemoth Pete's Dragon, director David Lowery tossed off this tiny but cosmically breathtaking drama in roughly the amount of time it would have taken Weta to animate one of Elliot the dragon's footsteps. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a couple forced into somewhat difficult circumstances when Affleck suddenly becomes inconveniently dead, and his subsequent sheet-shrouded attempt to process this turn of events (while doomed to spend the afterlife stuck in his house) drives an exquisitely eerie and refreshingly original film right into the pit of your soul.

I'll be honest, I was ready to give my heart to A Ghost Story when I realised it was shot and presented in a vignetted 4:3 aspect ratio. Evoking the aesthetic of a movie shot via Instagram (suggested filter name: Spectral), Andrew Droz Palermo's cinematography beautifully captures the caged ennui of Casey Affleck's ghost, trapped for eternity in a single location and unable to escape the confines of the camera's restricted frame. Lowery takes the boldest of decisions with his image, too: one unforgettable, static shot lasts a full four minutes, during which almost nothing at all happens apart from the consumption of a large pie. It's wonderful.
Woooooo-ney Mara

The Pie Shot, as I suspect it will soon come to be known, epitomises A Ghost Story's narrative technique. It's a film with very little dialogue (besides an incongruously verbose key sequence in the middle), relying instead on Affleck and Mara's body language to convey much of the emotion. Daniel Hart's gorgeous score helps, constantly amplifying the sense of unease, but without ever telling you how to feel. And though Lowery tells his tale sedately, time becomes an irrelevance as the story progresses. The passage of time dilates and compresses to incomprehensible extents around Affleck's ghost - as haunted as he is haunting - and his featureless countenance (save for two impenetrably black eyeholes) becomes a literal blank canvas, on which you find yourself projecting your own feelings about what it might be like to be forevermore undead and helpless to do anything about it.

After a while the film's Big Question is posed in a slightly jarring monologue from a motormouth smartass credited only as 'Prognosticator', and Lowery's preoccupations become clear. What is it that endures when everything tangible crumbles into dust? Is it love? Is it hope? Is it art? Themes of mortality and the remorseless march of time coalesce around a poor dead bastard in a blanket, as such titanic achievements as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony are weighed up against the simplicity of a short, private message between lovers for their respective universal significance.

All the while, Casey Affleck sports one of the most simple but effective costume designs since Borat's mankini. The childlike sheet-with-eyeholes idea is bold but comes layered with meaning, and like all iconic costumes it even gets its own origin story. As the afterlife extends beyond all practical context, it seems that the sheet lengthens too, becoming an ever-more unbearable burden on the spook's shoulders, and even the eyeholes appear to elongate with sadness as infinity takes its toll.
That's the spirit

Lowery jokes that he pitched the film as Beetlejuice remade by Apichatpong Werathesakul; it brought to my mind an arthouse version of Ghost minus all the fucking pottery, but neither description does it justice. There are moments in A Ghost Story that will stay with me forever. Two of them occur during two separate conversations between two ghosts: tiny, fleeting instances of heartbreaking beauty that stunned me by quickly and surgically reaching inside me and flicking a switch that no other film has for years. Maybe it won't have the same effect on you, and if not then that's fine, but I'm sorry to report that you're as dead inside as Casey Affleck's wretched wraith.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Big Sick

If comedy and tragedy were people, they'd be the lead characters in The Big Sick. Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) (I'm not just repeating his name for the sake of it, he plays himself) is the stand-up comic whose life as a Pakistani immigrant in Chicago is a bottomless mine of hilarious cultural awkwardness, while therapist Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) is his foil: a pixie dream girl of the refreshingly non-manic variety for whom fate has Very Bad Things in store. Thrown together in an inevitable meet-cute, Kumail and Emily, in their guises as comedy and tragedy, enhance and feed off each other to create a romtragicom of surprising depth, pinpoint perception and deceptively powerful sweetness.

Nanjiani - who wrote The Big Sick with the real Emily, his wife Emily V. Gordon, about the turbulent first months of their relationship - understands the combined powers of comedy and tragedy better than most, and their script revels in the former for its first act before throwing an almighty spanner in the works and becoming something quite unexpected. When tragedy strikes, it isn't a cue for comedy to take a back seat but for it to evolve; to become a crutch, a unifier, a lubricant to ease the healing process.
The Big Sick isn't about comedy per se, but it uses it so deftly that its script deserves to be picked apart by future generations of comedians. Barely a joke goes by that's just there to provoke a laugh: every gag enriches the characters or wrings its context for added value. There's a 9/11 joke in there that would be amusing enough if you heard it at a gig, but delivered in the framework of the story it's possibly the funniest moment in cinema this year. And Judd Apatow's involvement as producer is barely noticeable in the best way: dick jokes, tedious fratpack back-slapping and shouting and swearing in place of actual humour are nowhere to be seen here (OK, there's shouting and swearing, but for once it's actually funny).

What it is about, quite shamelessly sentimentally, is family, and the intricate complexities thereof. The surreal nature of arranged marriages in Muslim culture is juxtaposed with the western ideal - which is laid bare as hardly any more likely to succeed - and the relaxed comfort of surrogate families, whether they're lifelong friends or just people thrown together by circumstance. That might all sound excruciatingly worthy and unfunny, but it really isn't: the supporting cast - including Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Four Lions' Adeel Akhtar and Bollywood legend Anupam Kher - all chip in note-perfect performances that add individual brands of lols without resorting to stereotypes.
If there's a bum note then it's in the improbable swiftness with which one of the staple elements of the romcom is executed, but it's necessary to move the plot on before the already troubling two-hour running time swells any further. The Big Sick never outstays its welcome though, comfortably riding a wave of charm, wit and old-fashioned feelgoodery to find itself one of the year's best comedies. And, for that matter, tragedies.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Dunkirk

To coincide with the release of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan curated a season of films at the BFI which influenced his WWII carnival of trauma. "Our season explores the mechanics and uses of suspense to modulate an audience's response to narrative," Nolan explained, and while he might have sounded like some kind of emotion-curious automaton, that declaration of intent - alongside the films he chose - reveals much about Dunkirk's provenance and objectives. Speed's 'Die Hard in a lift / on a bus / on a train' mission statement, for example, can be transposed to Dunkirk's 'Die Hard on the beach / in the sea / in the air' approach; the visual storytelling of silent classics Greed and Sunrise is a key tool in Nolan's dialogue-light, action-heavy movie, and the impact of the climactic plane crash in Hitchcock's tremendous Foreign Correspondent is also blindingly apparent - although for different reasons, Nolan could just as easily have picked Hitch's Lifeboat.

But despite the umbilical connections to all these cinematic progenitors, Dunkirk is first and foremost very much its own thing: a unique, bold, experimental film which - while probably not quite Nolan's greatest achievement - could only have been made by someone with his clout and ambition. And given that, for me, Christopher Nolan's ambition often outstrips his storytelling abilities (unpopular opinion: Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are all loaded with promise but trip over their own narrative shoelaces), it's a welcome relief that this time he's crafted more of an experience than a story. Virtually ditching characterisation and traditional notions of narrative, Dunkirk is less a movie than an ordeal. And I mean that, for the most part, in a good way.
Opening with the title in that familiar Univers Bold font and the sound of the director's own pocket watch ticking away with relentless urgency, Dunkirk is immediately and obviously a Christopher Nolan film. Tick-tick-tick mutates violently into a deafening rat-a-tat as a troop of British soldiers ambling through the deserted streets of Dunkirk are fired on by unseen German snipers, and there's no safety net in the casting to let you know who will or won't survive the attack: all these young men are anonymously similar. Most of the lead characters don't even get named - only in the end credits do we find out that one of our protagonists is wryly named Tommy, for whom ze var is most definitely not over.

That opening scene sets the tone for the next hundred minutes: tension, disorientation, a hidden enemy and extremely loud noises are very much the order of the day. A disparate bunch of unknowns spend the next week desperately trying to get the fuck out of France and back home in one piece while Nolan amusingly forces Big Names to stay in one place and do very little: Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy barely leaves the confines of his cockpit-set close-up, Cillian Murphy shivers with PTSD, Mark Rylance is stuck at the wheel of his fishing boat and Ken Branagh stands on a pier looking stoic. Even Michael Caine is relegated to a voice cameo.
The lack of complex characters might draw criticism from some, but it's a deliberate choice. Dunkirk is about the experience of survival, and Nolan strips away everything that might get in the way of us feeling on edge for the duration of the film. There are no moments of Spielbergian melodrama, no chances to get to know anyone's tragic backstory and certainly no attempts to show that hey, those guys trying to kill our boys are just flipsides of the same coin, man. We never cut to bloated generals pushing model planes around a map in Whitehall and we never see a single German face. Nolan isn't interested in war as a complex investigation of humanity, where the best and worst aspects of mankind can be found in the unlikeliest of places; for his soldiers, war is an endless, merciless death machine to be escaped from as quickly as possible, whatever the cost.

It's odd, then, that Dunkirk remains a bloodless affair. Nolan's decision to focus on suspense rather than the flying limbs and guts of, say, Saving Private Ryan's visceral opening and closing scenes lend it an incongruous air of false safety at odds with the thick seam of authenticity running through the rest of the film. It's a minor quibble, but the odd splash of claret could have upped the stakes even further. Instead, in an effort to heighten the tension, Nolan allows Hans Zimmer the freedom to carpet bomb the film with his most ludicrous, histrionic and distracting score yet. Barely a scene goes by without screaming strings or electronically enhanced horns blasting out at comically overblown volume, wilfully overlooking the dramatic effect that a well-placed moment of silence or two can bring.

Fortunately, Nolan's eye for a shot more or less makes up for his cloth ears. There are images in Dunkirk of such aching wonder - especially if witnessed on the appropriately majestic scale of an IMAX screen - that blow the mind. Dogfights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe are reminiscent of George Lucas' best X-wing moments (ironically, since Lucas shoved footage of WWII films into Star Wars before aerial sequences were finished), the beaches of Dunkirk stretch off into infinite bleakness and the scale of everything is brain-boggling. Tiny figures of men dot the vast expanses of sand, ridiculously tiddly fishing boats pootle across miles of unforgiving English Channel to aid the rescue, and even those Spitfires and Messerschmitts find themselves almost lost against the beauty of a clear, bright sky. The idea that all this is somehow cosmically futile is expressed with elegant awe.
Nolan lays all this out in typically tangled fashion, cutting between the week-long experience of the stranded soldiers, the day-long mission of the "little ships" that stepped in when the Navy was found lacking, and the hour-long airborne skirmish with a deliberate disregard for temporal sense. It's a technique that boosts the tension, but on a first viewing it's also unnecessarily confusing for too long, distracting attention from the story while your brain tries to hop between timelines. And while I'm nitpicking, I have no idea what the mechanics of Dunkirk's ostensibly climactic moment were: Nolan spends most of the film avoiding cliché, but then inserts a late flourish of heroic action which is unexpectedly directorially bungled.

Nevertheless, Dunkirk is quite an achievement even by Christopher Nolan's standards. It's a commendably original, ruthlessly effective sensory assault that pushes mainstream cinema further than anything else has for a long time, and that's not to be underestimated. It's also subtly patriotic without being jingoistic, especially in its treatment of the ordinary folks back home who risked their lives sailing their rickety tugboats across the Channel to pick up complete strangers in dire need. The Dunkirk spirit soaks through every frame, and it's a timely reminder that if we're so desperate to get away from Europe then we're going to need every drop of it.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Given the well-worn Hollywood maxim "If at first you more or less succeed, reboot and reboot again", it was only a matter of time before the barely-settled cobwebs were dusted off the Spider-Man property and ol' webhead was re-resurrected for Generation MCU. You know the drill by now: teenage boy (played, if possible, by someone whose teenage years are some distance behind them) with the proportional strength of a spider swings through New York, fighting technologically enhanced criminals while wearing a skintight onesie and struggling to get off with hot girls. You are familiar with this concept because since 1962 it has been laid out in comics, TV shows and - in the last fifteen years alone - five blockbuster films of alarmingly disparate calibre.

What's crucial to the success of Movie Spidey v3.1 is that, unlike its Andrew Garfield-shaped predecessor, it knows that you know this. Spider-Man: Homecoming features no radioactive spider-bite, no discovery of wall-crawling abilities and no cruel twists of fate leading to the deaths of platitude-spouting uncles. Peter Parker's superheroic origin is tossed off with delightfully casual indifference in the briefest of exchanges between him and awestruck best pal Ned, during which Peter's response to Ned's enquiry about the radioactive spider is simply "The spider's dead, Ned". And along with it, Spidey's cinematic past. Time to move on.
Not entirely sure about the new costume though tbh

Unshackled from all that baggage, everyone involved in Homecoming is free to do their own thing, trusting us not to sweat the details. It's enormously liberating to watch as a Spider-fan, and even when the film hooks up with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - as inevitably it must - it does so in the smartest of ways, allowing it to function effectively as a standalone piece but enhanced by the sardonic charm of Robert Downey Jr's wonderfully-executed surrogate uncle, Tony Stark.

The plot of Homecoming is flimsy and hardly worth mentioning, except that Peter's nemesis this time is Adrian Toomes (aka Vulture), reimagined from the comics' grouchy, slaphead OAP in the shape of Michael Keaton: part Batman, part Birdman. The script glosses over his transformation from salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar contractor to mad flying bastard, but it's in keeping with the best Spidey villains: ordinary Joes who find themselves pushed that little bit too far by bureaucracy or let down by an uncaring world. Keaton is so much fun to watch that it's a shame he wasn't allowed to explore his beef with society further, and once he dons the Vulture mask he disappears completely into anonymous pixels.

Fortunately we're left with Tom Holland, who might just be the actor to have finally nailed Peter Parker's youth, intelligence, awkwardness and unbridled glee at being able to swing through Manhattan's concrete canyons on ropes of wrist-jizz. Holland is delightful, occasionally reminiscent of a young Michael J Fox, and holds the screen remarkably despite all the necessary noisy fireworks that characterise the modern superhero movie. He revels, too, in Spidey's New York stand-up patter, of which Andrew Garfield made a fair fist and which all but eluded Tobey Maguire, and his scenes with the grown-ups (Stark, Toomes, Aunt May) portray Peter's teenage naivety as skilfully as those with his schoolmates demonstrate his growing confidence (unless the schoolmate happens to be intimidatingly sexy and intelligent).
And Ned is *very* sexy and intelligent

Where Homecoming really lands, though, is in its writing and direction. The script makes the most of its umbilical connection to the MCU, allowing Toomes to develop improbably advanced tech with minimal exposition, while simultaneously exploring the hitherto underinvestigated practicalities of being Spider-Man, such as how he might get from A to B without any convenient skyscrapers to swing from (the answer is hilariously prosaic). And it never forgets that we need to be as invested in Peter Parker's problems as we are in Spider-Man's - a situation which allows for the amusing motif of Peter repeatedly running away from terrifying encounters with girls to the much safer ground of battling murderous super-villains.

Enormous liberties are taken with the characterisations of the comics' stalwarts that might give fanboys the fear, but they feel like necessary updates for a progressive, multicultural, seen-it-all 21st century audience. Basically if the casting of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May upset you, you're going to need to forget everything you know about Flash Thompson, Betty Brant and even Mary Jane Watson. Jon Watts, meanwhile (literally, who?), directs with welcome clarity and satisfying reverence: one scene recreates a famous panel from issue 33 of The Amazing Spider-Man that brought all kinds of nostalgic feels to my usually stone cold heart.

It's a pity that Watts' CG Spidey seems to have taken a step back in quality from the relative success of Marc Webb's films towards the videogame awkwardness of Sam Raimi's first entry, and it also grates that yet another superhero film climax has to involve a one-on-one punch-up in the dark, but where these issues just exacerbate the problems of, say, the current DC films, here they survive as niggles in what is largely an enormously successful entry in the genre, hugely boosted by the fact that it's bags of fun and often riotously funny. Spider-Man is back, even if it felt like he never went away, and he's rediscovered his bite.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Sir Roger Moore
1927-2017

It sounds morbid, but I've been meaning to write an obituary for Roger Moore since 2013. I had the immense fortune to interview him for the Empire podcast in the previous October, and while it was everything you'd hope for from an interview with Roger Moore, it did strike me that he was a Very Old Man (he'd just turned 85 that week), and his delicate shuffle and hushed tones suggested that he might not be long for this world. Every now and again I wondered whether to make a start, but each time I put it off - partly because I'm lazy, but mostly because I didn't want to admit that he might not actually be immortal. He, too, evidently decided to put off dying until he'd written a few more books, performed a few more sell-out shows and generally enjoyed the absolute shit out of his ridiculously charmed life. Turns out James Bond is pretty goddamn hard to kill after all.

Still, the day when Twitter could at long last break out its "Roger no Moore" gag has finally arrived, so only now do I sit down to gather my thoughts about the first 007 to ascend to the great damp-fannied-Bond-girl-filled boudoir in the sky. This isn't going to be a biography (read his books for that, they're terrific), but it is going to be tediously personal, so please forgive me if I uncharacteristically go off on a boring ramble about James Bond and Roger Moore for once.
Like most people my age, I was introduced to Rog (and Bond) by my dad and ITV. I'm ashamed to say I can't remember which Bond film I first saw on the telly, but I do know that that's how Roger first exposed himself to me: unconvincingly beating up lesser-paid stuntmen without getting a hair out of place, before making a terrible quip, throwing back a goblet of fizz and sucking the face off an alarmingly young lady who would then probably try to kill him. It's a lifestyle to which eight-year-old me immediately aspired, and has disappointingly failed to achieve thus far. But then I'm not Roger Moore, and nor is anybody else - not least the three actors who took over his role but, for various reasons, chose not to emulate him.

Because how do you follow Roger Moore? You can't, so you don't. You wouldn't get away with it, partly because the world has mercifully moved on from finding sexism and racism funny (not that that was the backbone of Rog's humour, but it would be disingenuous to ignore it), but mostly because with the twinkle of a baby blue eye, the gentle elevation of a beautifully-coiffed eyebrow and a wry grin, Rog's Bond could get away with pretty much anything. I loved this about him when I was a kid, hated it when I became a dull Bond purist in my twenties and have now made peace with it for what it is: cinema history, for better or worse. 

It's easy to dismiss that mercurial run of films that somehow frequently defied quality control to keep James Bond afloat in the '70s and '80s despite increasingly fierce competition in the action movie market. Rog didn't single-handedly turn the franchise into self-parody, but his name and eyebrows were front and centre when Ian Fleming's cold, cruel secret agent glided past a double-taking pigeon in a hover-gondola or defused an atomic bomb while dressed as Bingo fucking Dimples the clown. You can groan all you like (and believe me, I have), but try and imagine any other Bond actor pulling that shit off. Moore turned the Bond films into Roger Moore films, and there's nothing wrong with that in a franchise which frequently needs its pomposity bubble bursting.
*pop*

Look closely at Rog's Bonds, though, and you'll find it wasn't all cringe-inducing misogyny and pensioners fucking Grace Jones. Occasionally that RADA training and twenty-odd years of pre-Bond acting experience paid off: witness the scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where Bond reveals to his female Russian counterpart that he murdered her lover with a flare-firing ski-pole, or watch him boot a villain off a clifftop in For Your Eyes Only as revenge for the death of a colleague - those are the moments where Fleming's Bond briefly comes alive, and incongruous as it seems it proves that Roger Moore was indeed capable of being somebody else other than Roger Moore.

But could he be somebody else other than James Bond? That's what I decided to investigate when I embarked on That's Rogertainment!, an ill-advised attempt to watch all of Rog's non-Bond films; a project which began in earnest and tailed off somewhat as life got in the way. But of all the actors in the world I wanted to watch more of, it was Moore. Something about his indefatigable attempts to keep plugging away at something he clearly wasn't very good at but which paid for those homes in Switzerland and Monaco made me hungry to see what else he'd achieved in his time. The answer is a fucking shitload, a mere fraction of which I've managed to catch. But I recommend all of it, no matter how bad: North Sea Hijack sees him as the comically-named Rufus Excalibur ffolkes, cat-loving head of an aquatic counter-terrorist unit; Shout At The Devil has him visibly attempting to keep up with a sozzled Lee Marvin before smearing gravy browning on his face and donning a turban; Bullseye is basically Moore and Michaels Caine and Winner having a supermassive megajolly on camera for 90 minutes regardless of literally everything else in the world. Embodying the term "movie star" (in stark contrast to the term "actor"), Rog deployed his overabundance of charisma at every turn to ensure that he at least was always watchable, even if his films were frequently quite the opposite.

But if you want to see the man at his best, check out 1970's madgasm The Man Who Haunted Himself, which I have yet to cover on That's Rogertainment! - a failing I hope to correct very soon. It's a film I love so much I screened it in a cinema on my thirty-tenth birthday, complete with an audio introduction recorded on request by the man himself. That's the kind of guy Roger Moore was: 100% aware of how much his work meant to his fans, no matter its quality, and frequently happy to accommodate those fans' requests. There are numerous stories on Twitter right now that people have told about how lovely Rog was when they met him; see how many equally enthusiastic tales you can dig up about his co-Bonds. Maybe they'd rather move on, but Roger's acceptance that fate dealt him a winning hand with 007 and his gratitude for that make his death that little bit harder for Bond fans.
So as much as I love his Bond (a love which, frankly, has seen peaks and troughs over the years), I consider myself one of the lucky ones whose memories of Roger Moore are enhanced by having spent a brief amount of time in his company, which is why I have to bookend these ramblings with that 2012 interview. I got to ask him about The Man Who Haunted Himself, I got to shake his hand and see up close and personal how immaculately turned out he was, and I got to make a cack-handed attempt to explain the plot of Inception to him. Throughout all of this he was an absolute joy; a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire who insisted we didn't call him 'sir', suggesting we could call him 'Charlie' if we liked. I've no idea why. They say never meet your heroes, but 'they' have obviously never met Roger Moore: a hero for the ages. Rest in peace, Charlie.

Friday, 21 April 2017

James Bond will return, maybe,
who knows, whatever

The future of the James Bond films hangs in the balance. Sony's distribution deal has ended, so MGM and EoN are currently jiggling Bond in front of a selection of suitors, all of whom are desperate for the rights while simultaneously nervous that Daniel Craig might not stay on board to guarantee boffo box office for the next film. It's a delicate situation, and one which could affect the very DNA of the franchise for the foreseeable future. And I, a lifelong Bond fan, couldn't give a hoot.

This is a problem. Mainly for me, to be fair, unless Barbara Broccoli is overly concerned about my devotion to her baby, in which case it's her problem too. But it's emblematic of how I've been feeling about the Bond films since Spectre dribbled onto screens nearly eighteen months ago (in that time I have rewatched maybe three Bond films, which is a dangerously low level of Bondery in my house), and I need to address it in the form of a rambling blog post, if only for my own mental wellbeing.

It seems inevitable that Babs will hand distribution rights for Bond 25 back to Sony, if only because she and Michael G Wilson seem to fear change right now (although Sony's pitch, apparently held on a recreated set from Dr. No, would have sold them to me in the time it takes Sean Connery to order a black man to fetch his shoes). The sooner that happens, the more likely Craig is to get back in the tux, and Christoph Waltz and Léa Seydoux can clear their schedules for Spectre II: Blofeld Boogaloo. Well, sorry if my enthusiasm isn't so much brimming over as struggling to fill a martini glass.
Don't get me wrong, I love Daniel Craig. He's made two Bond films I absolutely adore and one that I - and about three other people - like very much. And he's easily the best thing in Spectre, despite the fact that he still can't fit into his bloody suits. But his excitement levels for another outing seem about as high as mine are right now - obviously I can't read his mind, but my biggest fear for a fifth Craig film is that he snoozes through it like Connery did in the autumn of his Bond years. Compare his performances in Casino Royale and Spectre: the former boasts a wired, barely concealed hunger to make the role his own (partly fuelled by the epically stupid press campaign against him), while the latter has him mumbling monosyllabic retorts and reacting to cinema's biggest explosion as if a cat had broken wind in the distance.

Then there's the Purvis & Wade factor. I firmly believe the writers' contribution to the last six Bond films has been mostly brilliant - even Die Another Day's kitesurfing scene probably looked good on paper - but when they were revealed as the architects of Bond 25 my heart sank. More of the same looms large, and an entire generation of daring, brilliant writers has grown up while they've been at the helm. Casino Royale was a tremendous surprise - as was Skyfall, to some extent - but it feels like Bond needs to regenerate again to stay relevant.

I despise articles called things like "Here's What We Think Should Happen In The Next Bond Film" with an unquenchable passion, but Here's What I Think Should Happen In The Next Bond Film: Play around. Fuck about. Mix it up. Do a period Bond film set in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, like when Michael Fassbender skulked around Argentina in X-Men: First Class, only for fuck's sake don't let Matthew Vaughn direct it. Do an Old Bond story, with Timothy Dalton (as we all know, the best James Bond) as a 70-year-old 007 who might just be losing the edge he's maintained for years because he doesn't know how not to (watch 2015's criminally underrated Mr. Holmes to see how to do something new and self-reflexive with a pop culture legend). Do an anthology film of three faithful adaptations of Fleming's short stories in tonally diverse styles. Just do something unexpected, for fuck's sake (but not so weird that I don't like it, that would be terrible. Don't forget this is all about me).
I don't know, maybe Purvis and Wade are currently beavering away at exactly one of these things, but I doubt it, because despite the evidence of successful franchises splintering off in unexpected directions (the MCU, Star Wars) it feels like Bond would never dare. I'm not saying the series has to become an entirely different beast forever - God knows its familiarity is the comfiest of comfort blankets at times - but there are 24 near-identical films that everyone can watch at the drop of a steel-rimmed bowler hat if they want to; would a couple of experiments be that bad for the series?

As a tediously vocal proponent of Serious Bond (Licence To Kill is still the best, don't fucking @ me) I'm going to sound like a massive hypocrite now, but you know what I also really want from the next Bond film? A bloody good laugh. An air-punching, howlingly brilliant stunt that's almost - but not quite - too outrageous for Bond. The other evening I drank a bit too much gin and began tearily reminiscing over Brosnan-era daftness like the time he rode a motorbike off a cliff and freefell into a falling plane. I'll never forget my reaction to that the first time I watched GoldenEye: my heart leapt out of my chest and I had to look around to confirm that everyone else in the cinema had seen what I'd just seen. I even miss things as potentially terrible as a smash cut to Brosnan in a Hawaiian shirt strolling through some Spanish backwater while David Arnold tosses off an almost culturally insulting salsa riff and a caption says "Havana, Cuba", because Brosnan looks amazing in a Hawaiian shirt and that salsa riff is KICKING and it's all just so wonderfully silly. I miss silly Bond. I think the Fast & Furious movies might have stolen him.
People who know me as The Boring Bond Guy are always asking me who I think should replace Daniel Craig, but what they don't understand is that I know far more about people who have already been Bond than I do about people who haven't but might. Glancing at random articles speculating on the next 007 fills me with the fear because I haven't even heard of half the names, and if I have I wouldn't know some of them if I fell over them in the street. Jack Huston? No idea. James Norton? Isn't he a TV chef? And you can fuck right off with your Toms Hardy and Hiddleston: the last thing a new Bond needs is baggage. If cornered, I will vigorously fly the flag for Dan Stevens, and anyone who disagrees needs to watch The Guest on a weekly basis like I do. He can do lean and mean, he doesn't take himself too seriously and anyone who doesn't have special thoughts about him is emotionally dead.

So that's what's going on with me right now. I'm a bit sad about Bond and I don't know if it's because the last one was upsettingly bad, or if I'm still recovering from two years of self-imposed watching, thinking and writing about Bond for no other reason than to see if I could, or if I'm just getting old and grumpy. But spunking all this self-indulgent bollocks onto the internet might help, although not as much as if Barbara Broccoli reads my spunk and fertilises her Bond egg with it and we make the perfect Bond baby together. Though frankly that's unlikely, not to mention worryingly inappropriately phrased. Anyway, my apologies if you've got this far expecting there to be some informed critical thinking, or at least the merest hint of a point, because there are none of those things to be found here. Just a picture of Roger Moore having his nose adjusted to remind us how much worse it could be.

Monday, 6 March 2017

I.T., aka Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot
t Dot Greater Than Underscore

It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to announce that Pierce Brosnan's remarkable run of incomprehensibly bad films continues with alarming implacability. This week sees the unwelcome incursion into selected cinemas (fingers crossed yours isn't one of them) and VOD platforms of cyberturkey I.T., or - if we are to follow the widely accepted convention of referring to films by their on-screen title cards - Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore.
Directed, in a way, by A Good Day To Die Hard's John Moore, Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore is a '90s home invasion thriller with a 21st century upgrade, which is that the bad guy is one of those new-fangled Computer Hackers. We know this because, in one of cinema's most nuanced depictions of Computer Hackers, he lives in a dimly-lit tech dungeon with an enormous bank of monitors and spends his time listening to deafening EDM while green text is projected onto his naked torso as he ogles pictures of sexy waitresses which he took on his technologically advanced mobile phone which - wait for it - is also a camera.

But more about him later. Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore's notional hero, Mike Regan (a peculiarly-accented Brosnan, although there appears to be no other type of Brosnan these days), is a self-made aviation tycoon about to release an app allowing the super-rich to hire private jets in much the same way that lower lifeforms use Uber. None of this is remotely relevant; all that matters is that Regan is rich enough to own a house kitted out with top-of-the-range smart technology although he himself is a complete luddite, as is explained in an early scene which sees him outwitted by his own coffee machine.
Even the mere proximity of data cables gives Bronhom the heebie-jeebies

When the launch of Regan's app is beset by a technical glitch, temp I.T. guy and closet EDM-loving, tech-dungeon-dwelling psychopath Ed Porter (James Frecheville, unrecognisable from 2010's Animal Kingdom, which is probably in his best interests) steps in to fix things. By way of thanks Regan immediately gives Porter a permanent job and, naturally, invites him to his home to fix his wifi despite a) having only just met him and b) describing himself as a man who values his privacy above all else. From there it is but a few short and inanely written steps to Porter overstepping the boundaries of polite social interaction and targeting Regan and his family for a prolonged campaign of aggravation via the aforementioned smarthouse system.

Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore initially balances out its improbable character behaviour, gaping plot holes and unlikely story developments with a series of unintentionally hilarious scenes in which Frecheville seems unsure whether his one-dimensional maniac is a cool, calculated home invader like Michael Keaton in Pacific Heights, or a scenery-chewing loon like Cape Fear's Max Cady. John Moore doesn't appear to know either, so we get a sequence for the ages in which Porter - having been booted out of a Regan family party - conveys his rage in the time-honoured fashion of driving home while screaming, heavily exhaling and angrily miming to 1982 new wave non-chart-topper Words by Missing Persons. Later on Moore will display further depths to Porter's madness by showing him lifting weights in his tech dungeon in between abstract shots of a rotating pill and a drop of blood trickling past an Instagram logo on a smartphone. One can only hope there is still a chance for the Academy to change their mind about this year's Best Picture one more time.
Makes u think

What drags Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore down from mildly entertaining two-star trash to offensive one-star bullshit is its explanation for Porter's actions, which I am about to wilfully spoil because I'm hoping that by now I've dissuaded you from watching the film. Did Regan do some terrible wrong to Porter or his family, for which vengeance must be sought? Nope. Is there a sly commentary on the politics of wealth, who's really in control or the inherent dangers of technology? Nah. Porter's problem, according to Michael Nyqvist's character (a ludicrous combination of a tech-savvy Leon from Leon and Psycho's exposition-dealing psychiatrist), is that he has "mental health issues" and is "a bad man". That's literally it. So having squeezed every last drop out of the already bone-dry cliché of socially awkward IT guys, Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore puts the boot right in by asserting that being the reckless millionaire CEO of an environmentally catastrophic multinational company qualifies you as A Good Guy, while being mentally ill means you are A Bad Man. Quick reminder: it is 2017.

All of which means it doesn't matter a jot whether anyone in Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore is any good (clue: Brosnan's angry face - with which I am painfully familiar - gets an extended workout here, with predictable results) or whether the script is in any way laudable (clue: Regan's wife, played by Anna Friel, chastises their daughter for consorting with a man eleven years her senior; a bizarre stance given that Friel is 23 years younger than Brosnan). All that matters is that the film is ignored by audiences and forgotten by the world as swiftly as possible. Let's just all agree never to mention the name Colon Backslash Backslash i Dot t Dot Greater Than Underscore ever again.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Bill Paxton
1955-2017

"That's it, man. Game over, man, game over!"
- Private First Class William L. Hudson, Aliens

Friday, 27 January 2017

Jackie

Mica Levi's score opens Jackie with a plaintive, wailing glissando that sounds like both the world falling apart and a global reaction to it. It's the soundtrack of today, but only by coincidence; in its intended context it conveys Jackie Kennedy's state of mind as she tries to cope with life in the days after her husband's assassination. You'll struggle to find many more contemporary parallels in Pablo Larraín's film, thank Christ, but you won't have any trouble recalling Levi's music because it blasts out of the film almost constantly, as if overcompensating for something missing in Natalie Portman's almost comically Oscar-baiting performance.

Portman certainly gives it her all here: with guttural sobs wracking her body in unforgivable close up, she couldn't play more to the Academy if she was wearing a Meryl Streep mask. It's one of those gigs where the ACTING is so foregrounded - the crying, the voice, the walk - that it's impossible not to notice how hard she's working. But at no point during Jackie did I ever forget that I was watching Natalie Portman ACTING. She does a reasonable job of imitating the former First Lady's weird Long Island accent, and has clearly studied the film of her guided tour of the White House (forensically recreated here) to within an inch of its life, but the performance is so mannered that it refused to let me immerse myself in the film.

So severe was this condition that it spread like a virus to the rest of the topline cast, and before long I was marvelling at what an excellent job Greta Gerwig, Richard E Grant, Peter Sarsgaard and John Hurt were doing when all I really wanted was to find out a bit more about Jackie Kennedy. It seems crackers to complain about actors being in a film and acting, but perhaps what Jackie needed was more actors and fewer stars, because on the whole it's a reasonably compelling study of bereavement and widowhood; of a person trying to keep it together, remain dignified and honour their deceased loved one while the world hastily moves on.

The inconvenience of people doing their jobs well notwithstanding, Larraín's film is otherwise fine. It's a character study, so there's very little drama to be had, and the short timespan of events covered makes it feel like an episode of an expensive miniseries which I'd probably rather see. But it's classy, elegiac and austere, and its grainy, Instagram-filtered aesthetic (I'm thinking Valencia, possibly Sierra) lends it a nostalgic authenticity that feels obvious but works well. Refreshingly free from the shackles of Stars 'n' Stripes-waving patriotism (such stories are often best told by foreigners, it seems), it can concentrate on telling the universal story of a human being with human problems, albeit problems magnified enormously by circumstance. Or at least it could if Natalie Portman's ACTING didn't keep getting in the way.

Friday, 13 January 2017

From Duel to Dahl:
The feature films of Steven Spielberg
reviewed and ranked

Lukewarm on the heels of my all-consuming Alfred Hitchcock project, I spent much of 2016 rewatching (and, in some cases, having my first go on) the films of bearded genius and double-denim advocate Steven Spielberg. The Berg's first official theatrical release, The Sugarland Express, came out the year I was born, so it logically follows that he's been making films specifically for me for my whole life, and for that I am eternally grateful.

It's impossible to underestimate the impact Stevo has made on both the global cinematic landscape and on me as a tedious film nerd; anyone who grew up in the cinema in the '80s will know that he was always there, whether directing or producing, presenting you with an invaluable gift or two each year by which you would come to define your childhood. And having reeled us in as kids and teens with aliens, archaeologists and dinosaurs, he ensured an in-built audience for his grown-up tales of war, slavery and terrorism.

Watching his thirty features, it wasn't how few duffers (let's say eight for the sake of argument) or works of sheer genius (seven) he's directed that struck me, so much as the other half of his output in between: a rock-solid brick wall of beautifully-crafted, endlessly engaging stories, any one of which most directors would kill to have created in their career. These are the films it's hardest to rank, suggesting that this entire exercise might have just been a complete waste of time ahahahahaha.

So here goes, and don't @ me because I've included Duel; despite being made for TV it did eventually get a theatrical release, and besides it's precisely one spillion times more cinematic than most telly was in the early '70s. OK? Good. Let's Bergolate!

30.
2016
If further proof were required of just how awful 2016 was, then the fact that it vomited up Steven Spielberg's worst film is it. Both Sophie and BFG lack any of the charisma with which Roald Dahl imbued them, the giants are all lifelong residents of the uncanny valley, and the innovation and inspiration of E.T. or Tintin - this film's closest cousins - have utterly eluded Spielberg here. It's a limp, lifeless slog through scenes that drag on for days without any sense of urgency or aim, and the absence of any kind of momentum is deeply concerning. And like Hook and War Horse before it, The BFG dishes up another example of Spielberg's comically romanticised, chocolate-box idea of England, making you wonder why Sophie would ever want to leave it to live with a man whose bogeys are bigger than she is.

29.
1987
This is Spielberg's third film tinkering around the edges of World War II, as if he's gently prodding the beast before plucking up the courage to launch the full-scale assaults of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan on it. He hasn't quite worked out his plan of attack yet though, and Empire Of The Sun fails to adequately convey both the geopolitical situation of Japanese-occupied China and the microcosmic story of JG Ballard's own personal war. A disjointed, uncertain and consequently dull meander through Ballard's memoirs, it hinges on the performance of young Christian Bale, who - while never bad - is largely unlikeable and annoying. Spielberg lets his visual metaphors get out of hand too, many of them feeling more at home in a soft rock music video than a wartime drama.

28.
1979
Exhausting levels of visual carnage and prolonged shouting characterise this blip in Spielberg's otherwise solid run of early films. The lightness of touch he usually combines with megabudget spectacle evades him on this occasion, and while watching an entire house fall off a cliff (for example) might be fun, it's not necessarily funny. The dance hall sequence is a blast though, and while it's hard to identify with most of the characters, I can, at least, fully appreciate the appeal of getting Nancy Allen into an aeroplane.

27.
2008
It isn't that Harrison Ford's too old for this shit, it's that this shit's too old for Harrison Ford. There's enough charm in the franchise and fizz in Spielberg's bottle to make this work if only the script wasn't so dumb and overwritten: the trail of the crystal skull is needlessly complicated, both Mutt and Mac are dead weights to the plot, and there's more than one unnecessary set-piece that ends with our heroes exactly where they were when it began. Spielberg's comic-strip compositions rekindle a little of the magic, but he loses his touch in the drawn-out jeep chase and his over-reliance on CGI. CG gophers are one thing, but CG scorpions, CG ants, CG monkeys and - most egregiously - CG fucking aliens make you yearn for the spiders, bugs and snakes of what I fear we may soon be referring to as The Original Trilogy.

26.
2011
After the breathless excitement of Tintin it only seems logical that Spielberg might want to spend half an hour showing a bloody horse ploughing a bloody field, but personally I could have done without it. Everything post-plough marathon is fine though, provided you're an incredibly patient under-12-year-old; as the equine Forrest Gump leads us through a bloodless first world war, carrying us from one syrupy tale of human kindness to another, only the cynicism-free innocence of a child could stand the amount of cheese that flows from every frame. Tremendous to see Hiddleston and Cumberbatch go head-to-head, but otherwise I could cheerily boil this down for glue.

25.
1991
There's magic sprinkled all over the place here, from the riotous production design to John Williams' swashbuckling score, but even the happiest thoughts can't make Hook fly. Its middle is as flabby as Peter Banning's (A HUNDRED MINUTES elapse before Peter fully Pans out) and Robin Williams is miscast, looking understandably uncomfortable in those tights. Hoffman gives good sneer though, Julia Roberts is delightful, and it's fun to see the genesis of Jurassic Park's lawyer-munching scene in Captain Hook's death-by-croc-from-above.

24.
1997
Part 1 of Spielberg's The Trouble With Slavery double bill is an even lower-key affair than Lincoln, to the point of being bone dry for much of its running time. A harrowing flashback at the mid-point injects some much-needed emotional fuel, and from then on Amistad becomes a semi-gripping depiction of the neverending fight for justice in the face of entrenched bigotry. Perhaps for the first time in his career, Spielberg's Spielbergery is kept to a respectful minimum, the performances (notwithstanding Anthony Hopkins' hammed-up, accent-ambivalent John Quincy Adams) doing the talking instead. Worthy, but lacking the watchability of the equally noble Schindler's List.

23.
2004
This Chaplinesque oddity begins well, before descending into an overstretched 'What if...?' scenario that can't satisfactorily answer its own question. What could have been an incisive allegory for the immigrant experience (particularly post-9/11) gets bogged down in a tedious romantic subplot and an unsustainable personal war between The Little Guy and The Man. Tom Hanks handles the physical comedy well but his casting as an Eastern European outsider is uncomfortable, reminding you that Spielberg is often risk-averse with his leading roles (he's never cast a person of colour as the lead in a film that isn't specifically about people of colour). Still, nice to see Zoë Saldana as a Trekkie, five years before she played Uhura.

22.
1989
A rickety, insubstantial machine powered by the twin engines of Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter at their most lovable, Always is Spielberg's barely-concealed dream of working in Hollywood's golden age come true. Unashamedly romantic and absolutely awash with cheese, it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny (Dreyfuss' replacement in Hunter's affections, Brad Johnson, is a charisma vacuum; Marg Helgenberger disappears mid-movie) but is as good a way as any to spend a couple of hours having your heartstrings tugged at by a master heartstring-tugger.

21.
1997
There's as much daftness in Jurassic Park as there is in its unfairly-overlooked sequel, it's just hidden less well here. Granted, the story doesn't take us anywhere new (barring the misjudged San Diego excursion), but the darker tone - which matches Spielberg's only other Part 2, Temple Of Doom - and the masterful execution of the set pieces are enough to warrant the film's existence. Jeff Goldblum makes for a refreshing anti-action hero, arguably underwritten but magnetic enough not to be overshadowed by the CG spectacle surrounding him.

20.
1998
Spielberg's first men-on-a-mission movie is, of course, not a men-on-a-mission movie at all, but a real-individual-human-beings-with-lives-dreams-and-mothers-on-a-mission movie. Like Captain Miller's quest to find one man among tens of thousands of soldiers, though, the script's search for the individual among the many is worthy but beset with hurdles. Every cross in that Normandy graveyard is a person, Spielberg says, but it's tough to identify with any of them bar Jeremy Davies' Corporal "they don't like it" Upham, and a quarter of the film is over before we're plucked from Miller's safe (if shaky) arms and handed over to the one character who reacts like most of us would in a warzone.

The battle scenes are an undeniably visceral cinematic achievement, but without a consistent pair of eyes to see them through or any characters to truly cling to, Saving Private Ryan is ultimately "just" a very well-made war film. Without any disrespect to Davies, a 25-year-old Tom Hanks as Upham and a 45-year-old hardass like, say, Clint Eastwood as Miller, might have put this a step closer to achieving its mission.

19.
2002
There's an exceptional murder-mystery-slash-chase-movie with a futuristic spin screaming to be set free from the shackles of a Tom Cruise summer blockbuster here. Cruise's presence (and, in fairness, his ownership of the rights to the story) undoubtedly got the film made - and made by Steven Spielberg - but a couple of the set-pieces are blatantly crowbarred in to please plot-phobic audience members and sell a few videogames. Still, the world-building is flawless, the eye motif is fun and Colin Farrell's angry palm-punching is never not hilarious. I could have done without the aggressively twee coda (success and happiness can only be achieved with a complete family unit), and any commentary about the saturation of advertising in the future is self-defeating when it requires intrusive product placement (Nokia are doing surprisingly well in 2054), but it's great to see Spielberg find his fun mojo again after the sentimentality of Saving Private Ryan and A.I..

18.
2012
So dry and bewildering for its first hour that it virtually challenges you to keep watching (I've gone into both my viewings armed with this invaluable primer), Lincoln's rewards for the tenacious are plentiful. Not the least of these, naturally, is Daniel Day-Lewis' mesmerising performance, even if he often seems to be performing a deeply earnest one-man show while Tommy Lee Jones is providing the bulk of the entertainment elsewhere. Every frame feels so steeped in authenticity that watching the 13th Amendment being passed genuinely feels like witnessing history in the making, and the despondency of emerging from an age of hard-won social progress into the cold reality of Planet Trump is tough to bear.

17.
2015
A low-key but perfectly-crafted Cold War drama, Bridge Of Spies often feels more like Janusz Kaminski's film than Steven Spielberg's. While it's hard to fault any of Kaminski's work with The Berg, every frame of this is impressionistic eyeball sex of the most arousing order. It helps that the costume and set design are equally classy; the deep blues and expensive mahoganies of the early scenes - in sharp contrast to the cold greys of the Berlin sections - are divine to behold. Meanwhile Spielberg turns out another lesson in the importance of liberal values at a time when the world needs them more than ever, and sure enough, the world completely ignored him. Just imagine if it hadn't: Trump would've gone away and we'd all be wearing sensible cardigans like Tom Hanks does.

16.
1977
It's more successful as a lyrical but lightweight story about extraterrestrial contact than a study of obsession (and it seems to want to be both), but CE3K sure looks purty and sounds incredible; the early sightings are beautifully eerie while the third act is a full-on John Williams operagasm. I would love to see a special feature in which Vilmos Zsigmond presents his receipt for lightbulbs to Columbia for reimbursement.

15.
1971
Spielberg's (eventual) theatrical debut, a Hitchcockian Twilight Zone episode teased out to feature length, sees the 25-year-old director already letting rip with a fearlessly kinetic camera and lughole-troubling sound design. You can see him experimenting with lenses to remarkable effect, and his natural eye for a shot is, at this stage, an unhoned but powerful tool. To me (although Spielberg and writer Richard Matheson say otherwise), Duel is a hugely unsubtle metaphor about threatened masculinity, with the beefy, macho truck being the first of Spielberg's unstoppable forces (cf. sharks, dinosaurs, Nazis) to be overcome if man - or, in this case, Mann - is going to win back his place in the world. A little overlong and repetitive in places, but it's still the best film to feature a roadside gas-station-slash-herpetarium.

14.
2002
The Bergomeister finds a new twist for his dysfunctional family motif in the tale of a boy running away from one father into the arms of another, albeit somewhat circuitously (if only Tom Hanks' Carl Hanratty and Christopher Walken's Frank Abagnale Sr had just moved in together, this could have been Spielberg's own My Two Dads). Frank Jr's unwitting search for a new family floats on a breeze of effortless storytelling here, punctuated by adoring snapshots of '60s pop culture and the slickly deceptive luxury escapism found in the Pan Am and James Bond brands. Arguably a better film now than on release thanks to the 26-year-old in pigtails and braces who went on to become Amy Adams.

13.
1974
Goldie Hawn is off-the-scale adorable in this deceptively charming road trip caper, with William Atherton a revelation for those of us (i.e. me) who only know him as a pompous prick from the likes of Ghostbusters and Die Hard. Sugarland's trump card, though, is its cast of supporting characters: a menagerie of sharply-crafted bit players, each given a rich vignette or two to enhance the overall comedy. The film's rep has suffered in the shadow of Spielberg's higher-concept fare, but it's obvious that in lesser hands this would have been even more forgotten by now.

12.
2001
Kubrickian pessimism and Spielbergian optimism blend surprisingly well in this worryingly just-about-believable vision of what will happen when Apple finally get around to the iChild. Moral and ethical quandaries taint Spielbrick's uncannily realised world with an eerie discomfort about what we're capable of, matched only by the freaky weirdness conjured up by Haley Joel Osment (surely Stan Winston's greatest animatronic creation). A beautiful film but also a touching tribute to a friend; if anyone was going to bring Stanley Kubrick back to life for a heartbreakingly brief amount of time, it was Steven Spielberg.

11.
2005
Inevitably simplifying a complex operation which took place against an unfathomably bewildering political background, Munich is easily accused of boiling its delicate subject matter down to Eurotrip for amateur assassins. But Spielberg's grown-up dramas have always been about the situation in microcosm; conflict internalised in small groups or individuals. It's his way of humanising the inhuman, and although it's not very subtle here, it is very effective. Personal morals and ethics are stirred into the alphabet soup of international agencies until they dissolve completely, leaving behind only the acrid taste of paranoia.

Even without the presence of one James Bond and two Bond villains (Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric - playing father and son, no less), Munich would be a fascinating alternative view of government-sponsored killers inhabiting "a world of intersecting secrecies". The futility of knocking off a bad guy only for two more to take his place, combined with the reality of never truly knowing why you're doing the job, fosters the kind of existential crisis that would have driven Bond insane years ago. Spielberg's depressingly obvious conclusion that state-sanctioned violence is eternally self-perpetuating is hauntingly conveyed in the film's final shot, and reveals a bleak despair that suggests his more fun films are as much escapism for him as they are for us.

10.
2005
An exceptionally-crafted disaster movie with jaw-dropping scenes of destruction and carnage, War Of The Worlds - cannily appropriating HG Wells' double meaning of the title to subtly nod at ideological as well as interplanetary conflict - also functions as one of the smartest post-9/11 films to come out of Hollywood. Under attack from malevolent, unimaginably patient and calculating metaphors, humanity's survival instinct is laid bare in its best and worst forms, and Spielberg frequently confronts us with actions of barbaric selfishness with which we cannot help but empathise.

The script stumbles slightly in abandoning the hero's reactionary, gung-ho son once he's fulfilled his symbolic purpose, but given that the remarkable 11-year-old Dakota Fanning is doing all the heavy lifting he isn't missed. And, as with Minority Report, Tom Cruise's presence is a necessity born of the fact that he brought the project to Spielberg but highlights the sense that a better, lesser-known actor might have pulled us further into the film's world.

9.
2011
After a three-year gap to let the stench of Crystal Skull dissipate, Spielberg's comeback was everything Indy used to be: breathless, air-punching adventure from beginning to end. The performance-capture format was a bold move but there's simply no other way this could have worked, and you can feel The Berg's excitement at its possibilities in every frame (not least in that glorious 152-second shot that crowns the tremendous escape from Bagghar). The wait for a sequel continues to rank as one of the worst experiences mankind has ever faced.

8.
1989
A few too many misfiring gags in the first half and an overdependence on getting to another set piece as soon as possible still can't cancel out the winning charm of Lucas, Spielberg and Ford's timeless creation. Casting James Bond as Indiana Jones' Dad is inspired, and more than makes up for the weak villain and villainess. Vic Armstrong's incredible stunt work and the mighty John Williams help make Last Crusade eternally re-watchable, but it's the most dated of the original trilogy. See, I told you we'd all be calling it that soon.

7.
1982
Spielberg's inner child was never more visible than in this tale of a young boy and his intergalactic alcoholic botanist chum. Like the best kids' films, it deals with the misery of growing up: the magical twilight of the first half, with its faceless grown-ups (except for Mom) and literal wide-eyed optimism, gives way to a harshly-lit second full of mean adults, death and loss. Spielberg never forgets the simple innocence of children though, and sees it in every three-quarter lit profile shot of their faces.

6.
1975
As incredible an achievement as this simple tale of a hungry, tuba-playing fish is, I've always felt it loses momentum when it heads out to sea to become Alien on a boat. I miss the island-based tension, the pig-headedness of Mayor Vaughn (the film's true villain), Spielberg's impeccable deep staging and the terror that comes from never seeing the shark. That said, John Williams' score more than makes up for any of Jaws' second-half deficiencies, plugging the gaps where the director's catastrophically unreliable mechanical star let him down. For some reason we still appear to be waiting for Jaws Origins: Quint; this doesn't count.

5.
1993
Welcome... to peak Spielberg: the grand convergence of all the director's talents in one glorious, toothy package. Everything he ever did well, he does perfectly here, demonstrating the finest control over audiences since Alfred J Hitchcock popped his chubby clogs. If the exposition's a little clunky and the plot occasionally nonsense, it simply doesn't matter: Spielberg conducts a symphony of across-the-board technical excellence (of which Gary Rydstrom's eviscerating sound design deserves top billing) that drowns out any flaws in an opus of peerless entertainment. Having said all that, he still made four films that are even better.

4.
1984
I suppose you have to take the questionable ethnic representations and woefully underserved female character in the spirit of the serials and adventures that inspired the Indy films, lest they overshadow what is a breathlessly exciting and gleefully dark se/prequel. Every fight and stunt matters, every set-piece is seared into action cinema lore and the script (barring Screamin' Willie Scott's near-constant wailing) is emblematic of the wit that characterises the Golden Age of Spielberg. Temple Of Doom is Raiders' evil twin, and anyone who prefers Last Crusade is an unbearable goody-goody.

3.
1985
Whoopi Goldberg is terrific in her first screen role as punchbag and doormat to a hardscrabble existence in early 20th century Georgia. Spielberg transforms the gobby New York stand-up into a shy, downtrodden housewife who just about keeps a slender grip on her pride in the director’s first “grown up” film, retaining his effortless visual storytelling tics and necessary sense of humour despite the bleak subject matter. The Colo(u)r Purple wrings joy from small kindnesses, lacing a potentially crushing experience with the sweet potential of hope, but despite all that I definitely did not cry. (I definitely did)

2.
1993
Twelve years after Raiders Of The Lost Ark, SS takes on the SS again - and this time it's war. Schindler's List is a masterclass in balancing tone under the trickiest conditions: it effortlessly shifts from heartbreaking poignancy to unflinching brutality, even finding time for some refreshing LOLs along the way (some of Spielberg's best visual gags can be found in the first hour of this otherwise sombre epic). There's a sense that, in Spielberg's vision, the necessarily horrific depictions of the ghetto liquidation and Płaszów concentration camp took precedence over really understanding Oskar Schindler, but it hardly matters; few directors in the history of cinema have been in a position to adequately convey such inexplicable evil to a mass audience. Spielberg recognises and respects his awesome responsibility, and the result is a devastating lesson in the consequences of intolerance that, tragically, is no less relevant now than it was then.

1.
1981
I've spent my life digging around in this movie for that most elusive of artefacts: a flaw. I'm calling off the search now though, because Raiders is the perfect film - not just my favourite Spielberg, but probably my favourite film ever. Never have a character and actor been so impeccably matched as Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford; John Williams and Douglas Slocombe are right at the top of their considerable games, and Lawrence Kasdan's script is as loving a tribute to its inspirations in serial film as is possible. Tying all this and more together with unlimited invention, charm and wit, Spielberg makes up for previous disaster 1941 and earns himself a Get Out Of Jail Free card for every future indiscretion. Roll on Indy 5! (*crosses everything*)


Thanks to Christian Annyas and Movie Screencaps for the title cards.