Movie-Con / BIG SCREEN
Ever wondered where you’d go to if you could go back in time? Would you check out the Battle of Hastings? Take in the 1966 World Cup Final? Drop in on a stable in Bethlehem with some frankincense or myrrh? (Let’s be honest, if you’re going to take one of the gifts, cheap and practical’s always best. What’s a carpenter going to do with gold?) Maybe you’d take the Marty McFly route and check out a pivotal moment in your own life. If I was considering a trip back, it would come down to one of three moments.
There’s the time I attempted to overcome my fear of heights by attempting to drink half a pint of whisky and sliding down the death slide at the children’s playground behind my student house. If I timed it right I could give myself a big enough push to get me sliding and overcome my fear, rather than what I actually did, which was freak out, run two miles away, and then have to walk home very, very drunk. Maybe I’d go back to when I sent a girl I had a crush on a blank Valentine’s card and actually own up to sending it, rather than deny all knowledge then end up practically stalking her for a week. Or maybe just to reassure myself that she wasn’t The One, and not to panic, my soul mate was waiting just a bit further down life’s troubled road. Or possibly, I’d find myself on a Tube station platform on a Sunday morning, about two years ago, to try to get my past self not to ask a man about his shopping.
Cast your mind back a couple of years, then. I’d been writing this blog about three months when the annual Empire Magazine event Movie-Con rolled around, and the three day celebration of all things movie-related felt like an ideal way at the time to take it to the next level. It all seemed to be going so well at the time: I blogged ahead of the event about my struggle to get tickets, my sartorial choices, my expectations for the event, and in detail about the Friday and Saturday of the BFI-hosted event. I’d also managed to get my reviews of the films I’d seen posted, in record time, having written them on the Tube journey back to my car journey home. Friday was The Expendables, which initially led me to doubt my own critical faculties, enjoying it more than pretty much everyone else put together; Saturday was The Hole in 3D, a Joe Dante helmed disappointment which most others seemed to love, but not me. And then came Sunday. That fateful Sunday, where the advanced screening was announced as Scott Pilgrim vs The World, which had created that stampede for tickets in the first place. But looking back, one thing is conspicuous by its absence; I didn’t write up my Sunday experience.
If you weren’t at the event, you’d have no idea about the particular occasion that drove my shame to such an extent, a peculiar paralysis that somehow outstrips a fear of heights or even of asking a girl out. Empire’s website features detailed write-ups of the Q & A sessions that took place that day, and buried in the middle of one with Edgar Wright is this brief exchange:
What you wouldn’t know is the ten hours leading up to that particular point. Ten hours starting on an Underground platform, leading to the event where I sat on the back row and got increasingly hyped up. Two days of commuting to London and minimal sleep, coupled with the regular injections of caffeine needed to keep me going and the excitement of what had gone before had already gotten me to a state of wide-eyed euphoria by 10 a.m. Further Q & A sessions with the likes of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on their upcoming road movie Paul, and some impressive footage from Tron: Legacy (which turned out to be the only impressive footage from Tron: Legacy) had elevated me to an almost frantic level of expectation. By the time the lights went down for Scott Pilgrim seven hours later, I couldn’t have been more excited.
Oh wait, no, I could be even more excited exactly 112 minutes later. Scott Pilgrim finished, stamped its place as my favourite film of the year – a position it still held at the end of the year – and by now I was practically exploding in my seat. Not only a film which seemed to understand the true nature of love and relationships, but had overlaid with such a glorious sheen and continued Wright’s run of films built on geek references and in-jokes. And it had struck me during the closing credits that there was a question that must be asked during the following Q & A with him and comic book creator Bryan Lee O’Malley, a question befitting this director and his film but also the Empire hosts and which would charm them all and the audience. But how to give it the right context? And how to make sure, sat in a tiny corner on the back row, that the question got asked?
So I sat, waving my arm in the air frantically until I was finally given the microphone, at which point I blurted out something along the lines of:
“I’m sorry I don’t have a better question for you Mr O’Malley but Edgar, you’re about the same age as me and seem to have achieved so much, I feel I’ve kind of wasted my life and the only thing that will leave me something to hang on to is the thought that you no longer remain grounded in reality. So please answer me this one question: how much is a pint of milk?”
Ouch. Three days of caffiene, no sleep and excitement burbled into one almost incomprehensible question, but one at the end which got a knowing laugh from the rest of the audience. (If for any reason you’re reading this and don’t know the context, then How Much Is A Pint Of Milk? is one of Empire’s longest standing features, asking pointless questions of far from pointless film celebrities. Of course, the joke is never as good if you have to explain it.) And if I’d just left it there, that would probably have been it. But after giving the answer above, and fielding host Christ Hewitt’s follow-up question, the mic had left me and started its journey round the audience to the next participant. This didn’t stop me shouting out the answer to my own question. Yes, seemingly unsatisfied with Edgar’s own, perfectly reasonable answer to my question, I attempted to give the “correct” answer. Two years later, I can’t even remember what it was. It was something about the nature of love and how that relates to mammalian lactation retailing. I do know it got booed by an audience of geeks, many of whom probably thought it was a personal attack on their own love lives.
I was gutted. I’d ruined my own moment, hyped up to the point where I couldn’t stop my own stupidity. I slunk away from the Con at the end of the day, privately devastated that someone who had now become a film-making hero to me would now, for ever, think I was an idiot. (Not that he could probably even see me sat that far back, of course.) But what was the legacy of this moment of ineptitude? Pushed on by this, I felt driven to ask better questions at Q & A sessions, driven to ensure that at least the person asking the question didn’t think I was mad. I’ve learned that it’s not about the person asking the question, but the one answering it, and I’ve learned when not to ask the question if it’s just not worth it. I’ve actually hosted Q & A sessions myself at my local Picturehouse, the glorious Abbeygate in Bury St. Edmunds (and thanks to the team at the cinema, it’s always been a complete and utter pleasure) and I’ve even gotten my first actual director interview up on the blog earlier this year. And I also made a fantastic group of new friends, a group that talked the same language and loved movies at least as much as I did, and many of whom now get together regularly throughout the year for other screenings and general socialising. Not only that, two years later few if anyone remembers my question, thanks mainly to someone asking a much more inadvertently offensive question of Chloe Moretz the day before.
But still something felt wrong. Unfinished business. The Edgar Wright question still burned me at the back of my head, an irritating reminder of not only my own weakness, but also of his. 99p? Hewitt was right, I’m not even sure Hollywood cows are charging that much these days. Had he really lost touch with reality that much? Had the West Country lad who’d become a geek idol gone so far from his roots? Was it all worth it if that was the case, was fame, fortune and an enviable abundance of talent too much of a price to pay for losing track of the simple things in life? Then yesterday, on Twitter:
The Review: Chances are, even before you start reading this review, you’ve made your mind up about whether you’re going to see Red State, and probably even if you’re going to enjoy it. Because Kevin Smith makes a certain kind of film, with ripe dialogue that has an honesty that at its most extreme becomes a form of cinematic Asperger’s syndrome. Even when he’s diverged a little from his original themes and settings with the religious discourse of Dogma or the unlikely porno making-of Zack and Miri, pretty much those same dialogue staples and that same directorial style stay in place. The most adventurous camera work in any of his films up to now has probably been a dance number in Clerks 2, and even that wasn’t exactly revolutionary. Maybe it’s the feeling that his movies never surprised people that’s driven Smith to attempt something completely different, although after the critical beating handed to Cop Out you could forgive him for wanting to retreat back into his old style and to be as familiar as possible.
And for the first few minutes, that appears to be exactly what he’s done. A school setting, three young men discussing an unusual proposition, all of which appears to be very familiar, but it’s what that proposition leads to which is unfamiliar. The three (of whom Michael Angarano is probably the most familiar face) soon end up in the clutches of a Westboro Baptist Church-like group, having been lured in by Melissa Leo’s middle-aged stooge. She’s the wife of the group’s leader, Michael Parks, who has a very specific plan in mind for those who deviate from society’s norms, and even the intervention of the local law enforcement (led by Stephen Root’s cowardly sheriff) won’t get in his way.
Smith has advertised this as a horror movie, maybe as an attempt to distinguish it from his earlier efforts, but anyone expecting a gory slasher will be sadly disappointed. His interest here is in psychological horror, particularly in an extended early sequence where Parks’ preacher lays out his mission statement while his young captives await their fate. Audiences are likely to be divided into two groups at this point: those that buy into the psychological horror of the sequence and the youngsters’ potential demise, or those that are bored rigid for a man standing and preaching for a significant chunk of the running time. Anyone lost to the film at this point is unlikely to be redeemed by what follows, although it does stray away completely from the horror genre of any kind and most of the second half is more siege movie than anything else. Unlike some of his previous work, though, Smith is a little less judgemental here, using the religious devices purely to drive the plot, rather than to generate debate.
There’s a good cast assembled, who are all on form, and as well as Parks, Leo and Angarano there’s John Goodman and Kevin Pollak as a couple of ATF officers who quickly end up out of their depth. Despite the varied themes, Smith never completely releases his hold on his own particular writing style, and even to the end the dialogue and settings are unmistakeably Kevin Smith. What is a revelation here, though, is Kevin Smith the director. Shot with the RED digital camera system, the visual style is bleached out, the camera is more active than in any of his previous efforts, and the overall sense of composition and the action shots elevate the whole film at least a couple of notches. It’s a little rough around the edges, and maybe the digital technology allowed Smith to edit it a little too quickly, but this could be his best film since Dogma, and if it’s an example of what he’s still capable of, let’s hope that talk of his retirement is unfounded.
Why see it at the cinema: The stark digital photography and the dramatic siege sequences are worth hunting out on the big screen; it’s also worth being in the cinema for the ending, which is likely to surprise and amuse Smith fans in equal measure and will benefit greatly from a cinema with a good sound system.
The Score: 8/10
If you’ve been living on Mars for the last twenty-two years, you may not be aware that probably the most successful film magazine in print in the world is British, and it’s called Empire. (If you’ve been living on Mars, you’ve apparently got six arms and look like an extra from Attack Of The Clones, but more on that later.) Not only have the lovely staff at Empire Towers managed to put words and pretty pictures on paper for you twelve times a year for all of those past twenty-two years, but they’ve also branched out into other activities, and I don’t mean internets and Twitters and Chris Hewitt becoming slightly more famous. No, they’ve been hosting a well attended and publicly voted Movie Awards each spring and, for the past three years, a public event called Movie-Con at the BFI in London, with Hollywood stars in attendance and sneak previews of upcoming films.
Last year, one of those sneak previews was Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and when Edgar Wright casually announced this to the world on Twitter an unprecedented demand caused heavy over-subscription for the available tickets, and a meltdown of the BFI’s phone lines caused a lot of people to miss out. So the event had to grow, to be fair to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of fans disappointed last year. I had a mild coronary in the process of attempting to get tickets, as you may recall, but managed to get in and take another with me. Despite being on the back row and a host of other assorted dramas on the first day, I had an amazing time and have been counting down the days ever since like the rabid fanboy I so clearly am. Read the rest of this entry »
Regular readers of this blog will know that, two years ago, I set myself the task of watching 100 films in a year, simply to see if it could be done without going mad or incurring serious injury. Well, it turned out that it could, I did, seeing 107, and now non-regular readers know this too, as I’ve not stopped going on about it ever since.
Well this year, I had different aspirations. I just wanted to see as many good films as possible, plus a few indulgently bad ones and whatever my wife wanted to see. Starting to blog, though, has led me down lots of dark and dangerous paths, most of which have lovely warm cinemas at the end, so that’s all right, then. It sounds like the worst kind of modern reality TV cliché, but I have discovered this year that cinema really is as much about the experience as anything else, and sometimes you have to invest a little in that experience yourself to get the most out of it. So here is my unashamedly personal run-down of my ten best experiences in a cinema this year.
10. Discovering that there might be the odd person or two who is interested in what I think about movies
Well I haven’t been completely without readers, although the majority of people who’ve been to my blog have done so because I have the sixth most popular image of Peter Pan on Google. (Image search “peter pan” if you don’t believe me.) But to all who’ve braved this blog this year and possibly found something worth their time, I thank you. Fortunately I do write this for my own benefit to a certain extent, so readers aren’t essential, but they are nice, all the same.
9. Seeing some hard to find films in far flung locations
I’ve put the miles in this year. My nearest cinemas are all twenty miles away, in different directions, but I’ve also clocked up a few trips to London (coming up later) and some insane mileage to see some other movies I liked the look of, including 110 mile round trips to see a Date Night / Cemetery Junction double bill and also City Island, 126 miles to see MacGruber / Please Give and a titanic 134 mile round trip to catch Black Dynamite, having already seen another film somewhere else that day.
I was eleven when Back To The Future first burst onto cinema screens, and it was a time when the cinemas near where I lived were dying out, so VHS had become our only movie-viewing option at the time. I loved it, then, have fallen for it increasingly over the years, and a trip to see it on the big screen in October confirmed its place in my heart as my favourite of all time. I then wrote about 88 reasons why it was so great, which helped to put my blog into a review backlog from which it has never really recovered. Great Scott!
7. Seeing my first old classic in a packed house
I’ve also been more than a bit sniffy in the past about seeing older movies in the cinema, but came to the realisation that these should be cherished and appreciated as much, if not more so in many cases *cough* Michael Bay’s output *cough*. So while in London, meeting a friend I’d made on Twitter for the first time (another unique experience for 2010), we took in the showing of The Shop Around The Corner at the BFI, which played to a packed house, and got more laughs than anything else I saw all year.
For many years, my family have attempted to maintain that I blubbed my eyes out when watching E.T. at the cinema when younger, and I will still hear none of it. Other than a slight eye-related moistening when watching Babe in 1995, I had remained the dry eye in the house all the way up to last year, to Up in fact, when those Pixar bastards caused me to blub repeatedly like a little ginger baby (see left). It seems that the floodgates of my emotions have now been opened; Toy Story 3, Mary and Max, Winter’s Bone, Of Gods And Men, none of which made me cry, but at all of which I coincidentally seemed to have something in my eye. Sniff.
5. Getting to talk to Mark Cousins in an extended Q & A
I managed to catch Mark Cousins’ The First Movie when it was on tour in October, at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. The lovely people there got him to stay for a twenty minute Q & A afterwards, and then a second Q & A was organised, in a little meeting room upstairs at the back of the screens. About two dozen of us huddled in on a circle of chairs, like some kind of Cinemaholics Anonymous meeting, and grilled him for another forty-five minutes on his brilliant film, cinema in general and anything else we could think of. I never would have thought of opportunities such as this previously, but would consciously seek them out now, and would encourage you to do the same.
If you’ve never been to an IMAX showing, then you haven’t lived. Sadly there are only a dozen in this country, and half of those are sort of mini-IMAXes, which sort of defeats the object. But for a sound and vision experience unlike any other, then you need to get to one if you ever get the chance. I saw an opportunity earlier this year for a unique double bill, and saw Inception (for the second time) and Toy Story 3 (for the first) on the biggest screen in the country. It was an amazing experience, and the best sound (for the former) and picture (of the latter) of any films I saw this year.
3. Hosting my very first Q & A with a director
Not content with sitting in on Q & A sessions and attempting to hog all the questions, I also ended up actually hosting one, with director Richard Bracewell, who also wrote the Richard E. Grant / Tamsin Greig / Laura Fraser thriller Cuckoo that might just still be in a cinema near you. The chance to meet up and absorb that knowledge and enthusiasm was a real thrill, Richard was a delight and I was simply glad to be able to introduce him to an audience of fellow film lovers. This may not be the last you hear of me; I look forward to what 2011 has in store in that regard.
2. Attending my first film festival
I’ve lived in the Cambridgeshire area for three years now, and in that time had not, even once, ventured into the film festival, being a little unsure what to make of it all. Late last year I was flicking through the brochure and came to realise quite how many cinematic treats and early releases I’d missed out on, so resolved not to make the same mistake again.
So this year, I booked the week off work, warmed up the debit card and booked myself in for eighteen different screenings over the course of eleven days. An unfortunate ticket printing mix-up on the first evening meant that I then had seventeen of those tickets in a little pouch, which I carried round like a giant ginger Gollum for the next week and a half, but not going to see at least a film a day became a real culture shock at the end of the period. In the end I added in one more, for a final total of nineteen, and there wasn’t one in that I regretted seeing.
I also managed to get to three more Q & A sessions, talking to a fantastically diverse range of people, but my closest encounter came on the last day. Parking problems meant that I arrived at the cinema late for the start of my first screening, a fab Norwegian horror called Dark Souls, and as I opened the first of the two doors into the cinema a man greeted me and filled me in on the very brief amount of plot I’d missed. “Oh, and by the way, I’m the director,” he said. “Nice to meet you,” I replied. You wouldn’t get that at a normal screening.
1. Attending my first movie convention
But the undoubted highlight of my year was attending the BFI / Empire Movie-Con in London in August. Three days of fabulous previews, more Q & As (including where I got to ask Edgar Wright the price of a pint of milk, to a round of applause from my fellow Movie-conners, and then, bowled over as I was by his utterly amazing movie and caught up in the moment, attempted to tell him the philosophical, love conquers all answer, to a chorus of general boos. Oh well, can’t win ’em all) and constant drama. I blogged extensively at the time about the trials and tribulations of getting a ticket, then getting there at all, but it was worth every second of the drama and the agony.
It was the purest distillation imaginable of what makes cinema great; a fantastic venue (the BFI’s NFT1, where even my back row seat had an acceptable view), great sound and vision, Kim Newman’s Bastard Hard Film Quiz, where I got the Pixar tie-breaker all correct, but nowhere near enough other answers for that to be of any use, and even sat just behind a couple who got engaged on stage. I also made a great collection of new friends, all of whom were bonded through the adversity of just being there in the first place.
I’m already looking forward to Movie-Con IV, although I do plan to get my ticket in person this year to attempt to avoid that drama; I hope all of the drama will be on the screen and not in my life next year. Here’s to whatever the experience of cinema has to offer me next year.
6:30 a.m. Five hours since I got into bed, and about four and a half since I relaxed enough to think about sleep. Remind me why I’m doing this again? Not Movie-Con, which on its first night has already gone a long way to justifying the price of entry. No, what I’m wondering to myself is why I didn’t park up in a Travelodge on the south bank somewhere, rather than engaging in the world’s most pointless commute. Part of it is that nice guy attitude I continue to try to promote, that there are various jobs to do at home and I’m not just skiving off to watch movies, I am also pulling my weight at home (even though I wasn’t asked to), but I think there’s also a part that adds a sense of adventure.
Even that gets dulled slightly when I drive in the correct route down the M11 and onto the A12, realising that there’s another underground station nearer the junction, which is in all likelihood nearer my destination. So at least I get a slightly shorter journey in the following morning. Thankfully, all aspects of the journey are smooth, apart from me noticing the 50 mph speed cameras on the turn off of the North Circular (brake!), and I arrive at the BFI a little after 9. My initial concerns that they have once again started without me are eased when I see the array of geeks (for apparently, that is the collective noun), numbering over a dozen, in their Forumite badges thronged around the side entrance.
Friggatriskaidekaphobia. Also known as paraskevidekatriaphobia. Two ridiculously long words, one common condition; a fear of Friday the 13th. The powers that be, for reasons best known to themselves, had decided to start this year’s festivities on the Friday night, meaning that my one and only phobia was likely to get another outing. I don’t know what it is, it certainly isn’t rational, but although I don’t believe any supernatural force is acting to always make that day worse for me, something statistically speaking is out of whack in terms of my much higher propensity to bad luck on that day.
Certainly, the day arrived with an unexpected change. My draw winner, Fever Dog, had to drop out of the ticket he’d bought, resulting in a final week flurry of activity on the forum. Of the remaining three people in my draw, the next two had secured tickets and the last couldn’t make it at such short notice, which left only the Empire forum as a source of a replacement. Thankfully, there was a stag do of 1 that could become 2 thanks to my intervention, so HASHBROWN76 took on the role of Fever Dog for the weekend.
My plan, due to the need to be at home every night to do certain household jobs and also to sleep in my own bed, was in theory simple. I hired a car for the weekend at very low rates, which was upgraded to a Corsa free of charge (woo hoo!), and had the plan in place. Start work around 7 a.m., so I could then finish around three, drive down to Newbury Park tube station, park up the car for the very reasonable price of £2.70, then tube into London, possibly disembarking at Hoburn to allow me a casual stroll through London on a warm summer evening to arrive at the venue at around five for pre-con drinks and general socialising with all the lovely people from the forum, who had already collectively started calling themselves Forumites.
The Review: Cinema as a medium is threatened, if you believe the popular press. We now prefer to watch movies in our comfy home cinemas and IMAX and 3D are touted as the last hopes of cinema chains keeping people seeing movies where they were meant to be seen. But the thing that will actually keep people coming back is good storytelling, and what the great movies of 2010 are starting to show is that it’s the layers of depth of storytelling, and indeed of many other facets of the production, that will get people engaged and keep them returning.
Edgar Wright’s first two movies have had that feeling of layers, working so well at a broad level but also with the finest details polished and then joined together in often unexpected ways. Other than the obvious directorial touches, though, it’s been difficult to tell exactly who contributed what in the two Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg collaborations, so seamless has the join been. What’s now abundantly clear is that Wright can blend just as seamlessly with the right material of others as well, and has honed from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics something that actually feels a level up (if you’ll pardon the pun) from his first two movies, unlikely as that may seem. Wright’s had a slightly ADD directorial style at times, but one that still fit the vast majority of the material at hand, but here the flourishes are subtle, and ramped up over the course of the running time.
What’s truly inspiring about Scott Pilgrim is how many different cultural themes are composed into the greater structure. Where Shaun took references from the zombie / horror genres and Fuzz raided action movie lockers and thrillers (with a smidgen of horror thrown in), Pilgrim is a love story to video games, comic books and indie / rock music, among others. As Ang Lee’s Hulk proved, translating the visual style of a comic book directly to the screen can go wrong in the best of hands, but the comic book sensibility is retained very effectively, on-screen writing and captions giving a well-structured feel. Somehow, the video game aspects of the comic books form the basis for a visual frame of reference on top of that; as anyone who’s played them will know, keeping your interest is nigh on impossible if you can’t follow what’s happening, but the action is well staged, always clear and progresses effortlessly up through the gears.
Through it all, character development is weaved in effortlessly to the tightly plotted but flowing story, and of course O’Malley’s titanic contributions should not be understated here, having provided much of the meat, but the central pairing characters get to work through as many relationship issues and combinations as a whole Friends box-set, but in a way that feels refreshingly honest and ultimately powerfully cathartic for anyone that’s made any mistakes in the past – which, let’s be honest, should be most of us. That Pilgrim the movie covers so much ground in storytelling terms while successfully mining so many layers of modern culture is nothing short of breathtaking.
The cast, meanwhile are all pitch perfect and uniformly brilliant, but Cera, Winstead and Culkin should all be proud of what they’ve done here. Much is always made of Cera’s seemingly repetitive performances, but he continues the trend of Youth In Revolt of twisting that persona just a little further each time, to winning effect here. Of the exes, Brandon Routh is a twisted highlight but you’ll wish nearly all of them had about three times the amount of screen time, so enjoyable is the company of the characters and the performances. But more than the acting, Wright and his production team have assembled an embarrassment of riches in the craft departments; from musical collaborators including Nigel Godrich and Beck, through Brad Allen’s stunt coordination to Bill Pope’s cinematography, everyone has raised their game and the final product somehow manages to exceed expectations, which started pretty high.
It’s the emotional depth, though, that takes this all the way up to the classic level. By the end you’ll find yourself rooting for the characters and their eventual fates, and there’s a delicious irony that this movie is about growing up when the cultural fabric it’s woven from wants us to remain young at heart for ever. Overall, this is just another affirmation that Edgar Wright, in his own way, ranks alongside Christopher Nolan as one of the finest British directors of our times. Continue? Yes, please.
Why see it at the cinema: Despite all the above, there is one reservation; as with Shaun and Fuzz, there is probably an entry level for required knowledge to get from it as much as I did, in that knowing nothing about video games or comic books that aren’t Spider-Man could hamper your enjoyment here in the same way that not knowing something about zombies or action movie clichés may not allow you get the most from those other movies. But the game-mimicking aspect ratio shifts and extraordinary level of detail really do deserve to be seen on the big screen.
The Score: 10 / 10