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:
I’ve never really understood birthdays. Call me an old curmudgeon if you like, but I’ve somehow missed the point that our arbitrary calendar system, based on the distance round the giant glowy thing that our damp ball of rock has travelled, requires us to mark each revolution with some significance. Same applies to New Year – we have an odd and occasionally unhealthy fascination with running out of days in a particular year that requires us to spend ridiculous amounts of money to get drunk in public or stand around in the early hours of the morning singing a song that no one actually understands a word of. I’m not averse to a party, I can just think of better reasons.
Now lists, on the other hand, that’s something I can relate to. The need to obsessively collate and rank things in some sense of order, for no real point other than the satisfaction of having done it? Fantastic. I’m also absurdly competitive – get me in a pub with a pool cue or a set of darts in my hand and the demons appear from inside me and take over my brain. So if we have to mark the passing of the year, then I can think of no better way of doing it that with a purely arbitrary collection of a competitive nature, based around another damp-rock-glowy-thing-orbit.
Over the past few years I’ve become more and more of a cinema obsessive, which is why you’re reading this blog now. But this year has made me realise how truly lucky I am; a loving wife, two low maintenance rabbits and a slightly petulant cat, all my own hair and three quarters of my own teeth, the rest sadly rotted away on a diet of cinema popcorn and fizzy drinks when I was younger. But for the last three years, I’ve really expanded my horizons and seen the films that looked interesting, even if they didn’t look like they’d be especially popular. It seems I’m pretty much on my own in doing that, or at least sometimes it feels like it.
If you live in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, then you have my sympathy. But if you don’t, then you really should have been getting out this year to see more films like this. I see my job as to helping to encourage the masses on a similar journey to widen their horizons – thankfully, being able to write stuff like this on the internet saves me physically having to drag people off the street. (Although don’t think for one minute I haven’t given it serious consideration.) Next year, no excuses, and if you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, then I suggest going to see at least one film that looks like your kind of thing but that you wouldn’t normally make the effort for. To help you in your decision making process, here’s 10 you should have seen this year.
You have to feel sorry for Andy Garcia. He hawked himself round what passes for chat shows on British TV these days, from everything from Top Gear to Loose Women, and for what? His best performance in nearly 20 years, an excellent Italian-American modern day farce with a wonderful cast, and the showing I was at – on a Saturday night, in a major multiplex – had four other people in, all of whom left after 20 minutes. Whoever you are, you missed a treat.
I saw my first surprise film this year, at the Cambridge Film Festival, and listening to the buzz from the audience beforehand, you would have thought it would be anything from Despicable Me to The Social Network. It turned out to be a rather grown-up animation about jazz in the Forties and lost love, but it would seem that springing this on people as a surprise is not only the best way to get people to see this, it might well be the only way.
In a year when readers of Empire voted Die Hard as their favourite Christmas movie, it’s clear that modern audiences like something a bit different in their Christmas stockings. I can only hope that more of you got to see this than at the screening I attended, which was sparse to say the least – this is a real Christmas treat, but one for those who still embrace a little of the cynical Ebeneezer in themselves. When Christmas is as commercial as it has become, then a little Finnish horror satire goes down a treat.
Here’s a movie that fought like a tiny David against the Goliath of cinematic distribution, creeping into art houses for occasional screenings whenever it could and spreading as much as possible by word of mouth. When one of those mouths belonged to one of the supporting cast, the excellent Jason Isaacs (and hello to Jason Isaacs, by the way), you would have thought people would be keen to track down a genuinely satisfying slice of Britishness. Well done to the special few who did.
So many American comedies these days end up being just “meh” rather than “ha-ha-ha”, so when one comes along that is consistently laugh out loud funny, it’s just unfortunate that the fact it’s a blaxploitation spoof seems to mean it struggles to get an audience. It’s a key example of where keeping an open mind (mainly about the fact that you only need the most passing of familiarity with the source material to get pretty much all of the jokes) can open you up to new and worthwhile cinematic experiences.
This is a prime example of keeping your eyes peeled for special events coming up at your nearest flicks, because there are often some hidden gems. Mark Cousins toured his wonderful documentary of his visit to an Iraqi village and his introduction to the power of cinema for the local children. Over twenty cities around the country were lucky enough to get not only the film, but to quiz Mark after the screening, and to understand the true passion that cinema can drive. If he can go to Iraq to do it, then surely a trip to your local cinema isn’t too much to ask.
There was much consternation when this beat out both A Prophet and The White Ribbon to the Foreign Language Oscar last year, mainly from people who freely admitted they hadn’t seen it, but it’s easily fit to sit in the same company as those other two (even if, admittedly, I would have given the Oscar to Haneke. But I digress). It’s a murder mystery and a love story that span twenty five years, and has probably the most audacious single shot of any film in the past few years. I can only assume that most people had decided that A Prophet and The White Ribbon must be better, and decided not to bother. Shame on you, frankly.
Now here’s a prime example of a movie that’s a hard sell. It’s Greek, kind of a drama but kind of a comedy, it creates a world and then makes its own rules and then exploits the possibilities of those rules to the fullest extent. It’s completely bonkers, vaguely incestuous and an incredibly uplifting but also savagely violent ending, like a sadomasochistic Shawshank Redemption. I can tell you’re tempted just by reading that, aren’t you? Well, some things defy marketing (just look at the poster if you don’t believe me) but everyone I’ve spoken to or read who’s seen this thoroughly enjoyed it. So how do you get people to watch it?
This is where I get so utterly frustrated at the distribution model we have in this country, and how hard it is for quality product to get an audience. This is a movie that graced barely a dozen cinemas in this country – it got to my local, but for one showing only. That showing was sold out, and was packed full of people, like me, blubbing their eyes out at the end of this incredible Plasticine animation, which tackles the difficult subject of mental illness head on and combines humour and sadness to impeccable effect. At the time of writing, it’s sitting at number 218 in the IMDb Top 250. Of all time. So why is it such a struggle to get people to watch?
But you know, it’s not too late. You might still be seeing the poster for this in your local cinema. The poster with quotes including “beautifully told story of bravery” and “an outstanding ensemble cast” on it. The poster with the fact that it won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year slap bang in the middle of it. That poster is still in 31 cinemas around the country as we speak. If it’s in one near you, then don’t miss out. (It’s got the French bloke off of The Matrix and the bad guy from Moonraker in it, if that helps. No?)
If you’ve read this, then thank you. Now help to restore my faith in humanity – please comment if you’ve seen at least one of these movies this year in a cinema. If not, then you know what your resolution needs to be.
Regular readers of my blog (there must be at least a couple of you – surely?) will know that I’ve been running a feature at the start of each month called The Half Dozen, where I look at the upcoming releases for the month and pick out a selection of six trailers that have caught my eye. They may not necessarily be the best six, and I may not manage to see all of the movies they relate to, but it’s hopefully been a good guide for myself and anyone else as to what’s around in a given month. (Link at the top of this page if you’d like to see my previous picks.)
However, the Cambridge Film Festival is almost upon us, and having not been to a single movie at the festival in the entire time I’ve lived in this area (just over three years), I’m making up for it in spades this year. I’m having a particularly cinematic summer, and after a double bill at the BFI IMAX in July and a trip to the BFI / Empire Movie-Con in August, my September is taking things to another level.