The Italian Job is a classic British caper familiar to everyone who’s grown up in the UK, so often has it been shown on telly and so embedded in British culture is the iconography of the red, white and blue Minis, the chase through Turin, only being supposed to blow the bloody doors off, and of course, the cliffhanger. Even those who, like Mike, have never watched it from beginning to end, know and love it as an unimpeachable icon of British cinema.
Which may be curious, considering Mike’s dislike of a UK that has left the EU in a storm of angry little Englanderism and British exceptionalism, as that reliving-the-war, one-in-the-eye-for-the-Europeans attitude can be read throughout The Italian Job – but, José argues, it’s a film that conveys affection for the continent, too, in its globetrotting nature and the beautiful scenery it shows off; and after all, its release came just a few years before the UK joined the EEC, which would later become the EU, in 1973. So it’s not quite that simple.
The Italian Job‘s notion of national identity is also conveyed through class, which is clearly delineated here, particularly through its use of Michael Caine and Noël Coward, who each connote specific strata of the class system. Importantly, this is no tale of class warfare – everyone’s in it together for Queen and country, and the gold heist that everything’s leading towards is explicitly given a national purpose. All that gold isn’t being stolen just for fun: who it’s being stolen from and for are key.
While our heads swirl with all these issues and more – including whether the chase is a good as all that, and the sexism of the comedy delivered by Benny Hill’s character – we have a grand old time at The Electric seeing The Italian Job. It falls short of cinematic greatness, but it’s jolly good fun, and those iconic images and sequences, which might only have existed in your mind’s eye for years since you last chanced upon the film on TV, don’t disappoint when you see them once again.
Returning guest Celia joins us from Canada to discuss the 1970s Tyneside noir of Get Carter, a moody story of a man’s investigation into his brother’s death that’s today considered a classic of British cinema. We discuss its setting in Newcastle, Michael Caine’s stardom, the influence of its director, Mike Hodges, along with two other British directors, on Hollywood aethetics, its use of women, and more.
We finish off Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, the most entertaining and enjoyable of the three films. In a Gotham free of crime thanks to the draconian Dent Act, passed in the wake of Harvey Dent’s murder at, so the story goes, the hands of Batman, who hasn’t been seen since, the intriguing, intimidating, revolutionary figure of Bane arrives to terrorise and occupy the city. A recluse since the events of The Dark Knight, the threat of Bane gets Bruce Wayne back in his cowl, but he finds he’s met his match.
We again question the film’s politics, Mike arguing that its fascism isn’t so much particular to this series as a core component of Batman in principle, and that maybe the most a Batman story can do is ignore it, rather than fix it. Its aesthetics come back into focus too, in its cinematic style and militaristic sensibility, José taking issue with both, though he loves the opening set piece. He finds a new appreciation for Michael Caine, and we take pleasure in the new additions to the cast, particularly Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway, and we leave the series in agreement that no matter our problems, it ended on a fun note.
Having established a muted tone in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series receives a welcome injection of flair in Heath Ledger’s Joker, the villain and main attraction of 2008’s The Dark Knight. Ledger’s Joker captured imaginations and helped the film to a billion dollar box office gross, back when hitting that milestone was rare. José, as with Batman Begins, never got The Dark Knight, while Mike was so hyped for it that he saw it twice in IMAX before its official release. We discuss what holds up today and what doesn’t, what the appeal is, the 70mm IMAX cinematography, how and why the film became a cultural meme, and what ideologically drives it.
Planet Earth is dying, dust storms are wiping out crops, and all-American single dad, former NASA pilot and corn farmer Matthew McConaughey is our last hope for survival. A “ghost” appears in his daughter’s bedroom, appearing to communicate by affecting gravity, and decoding the messages leads our hero to discover the last remnants of NASA, their observations of a wormhole near Saturn, and their journeys through it to planets that might be able to sustain human life. Eventually convinced of the plan’s value and necessity, McConaughey agrees to lead a mission through the wormhole himself, leaving his family behind, but hoping to rescue them in the long term.
Mike was moved and surprised by Interstellar upon its release in 2014, but on this second viewing moves significantly towards José’s unimpressed response, wondering whether it was simply the novelty of seeing new things to which he responded so positively. He compliments the film’s scientific literacy, but complains that its dedication to incorporating scientific principles and registers can impede what should be dramatic developments, making them dry and clunky; José, who has no ear for science, finds that it’s an irrelevance, unable to tell what might be drawn from reality and what isn’t, and feeling that the film doesn’t dramatise it well.
Everything is rendered through the central family and in particular the father-daughter relationship, strained because of the father’s mission, and consistently the film’s most important consideration, a little simple considering the global nature of Earth’s problems and the countless other families the mission is intended to help. The mission’s revelations and problems affect the entire world, and are discussed as such in dialogue, but we feel only the impact on this family – Interstellar speaks of societal problems but doesn’t show or dramatise them. Mike argues, though, that that central connection is handled well, the most effective shot, in a film full of startling visuals, one of a father’s face looking at his children.
We think about the action, and what it lacks. There are plenty of high-concept set pieces, but all seem to miss something in the execution. And we discuss the black hole scene, the design of that space and what it means, and how, while Mike was totally swept up in it upon first viewing, it quickly falls apart.
We’re glad we’ve seen Interstellar again, and at the IMAX Digital, the best available screening outside of true IMAX – because our response can’t be blamed on watching it on a laptop. We saw it as it should be seen, and emerged disappointed. Oh well.
Cineworld’s reopening brings socially distanced screenings of past hits while the studios figure out their strategies for new releases, and with the highly anticipated and imminent release of Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi, Tenet, his previous blockbusters are once again showing. José chooses Batman Begins, hoping to understand what he didn’t get when he first saw it in 2005, and why it matters.
To Mike’s generation and demographic, Batman Begins is, if not a great film, an important one, as its muted aesthetic and attempt to render Batman and Gotham as plausible entities, capable of existing in the real world, signalled a significant difference from the outlandishness of both previous and contemporary comic book adaptations, and its tone conveyed a seriousness of purpose – how honestly or successfully is up for debate – that contributed to the idea that superhero films could begin to be taken seriously and even considered as Oscar contenders. And, although his previous three films had all been successful, Batman Begins was the first blockbuster of Nolan’s career, and the financial success and cultural impact of his work would only increase, making him a dominant figure in cinema for people like Mike.
But Nolan’s Batman trilogy has always left José feeling lost – something that might be true of Nolan’s work overall – and he’s keen to work out what he might be missing, whether it’s more than just a generational thing, or whether, indeed, it’s the children who are wrong.
We think through how Nolan reimagines Batman, and how differently Batman Begins feels now that it’s fifteen years old. Mike suggests that the benevolent billionaire figure of Thomas Wayne, Batman’s dad, is no longer believable, if indeed it ever should have been, and José turns a peeve about Nolan’s almost entirely European casting into a working theory about the Britishness of his film, and what that means for its fidelity to the themes and tone of the comic books on which it’s based.
We’ll be following this up with discussions of the two successive Dark Knight films, as well as Interstellar and Inception, in this impromptu Christopher Nolan season. It’s all thanks to finally being back at the cinema, where, as José loudly shouts in the face of everyone who think their big telly is great, all films are best seen – especially Christopher Nolan’s.
A heist movie for the twinkly wrinklies, with a nostalgic and homophobic angle we disliked. Based on the true story of the 2015 Hatton Garden burglary, King of Thieves features an all-star British cast and one joke: they’re all old.
Mike is keen to give the film credit for its charm early on, as well as its sensitive depiction of the sense of loss felt by Michael Caine’s recent widower. But the film is uninspiringly shot, incompetently and unwisely edited – it’s absolute mayhem – and when it swaps its charm for aggression after the heist, it loses all interest. Ray Winstone comes in for particular criticism from José, and Mike explains why he found The Theory of Everything wanting.
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Now You See Me: The Second Act (John M. Chu, 2016)
I rather liked Now You See Me; and I love caper films, magic, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Morgan Freeman. But all of that together didn’t add up to liking Now You See Me: The Second Act. Daniel Radcliffe is a very unsatisfactory villain; that he’s often paired with Michael Caine in the frame invites comparison and only highlights his shortcomings: one can see that Radcliffe is giving a performance that’s been thought through but Caine still squeezes more out of one tired look or the way he says ‘bastard’ than Radcliffe does from his whole frantic performance. Moreover, the camera woozes about all over the place. And the cons have to be painstakingly explained as an addendum at the finale. It wasn’t painful to watch. And there was a moment where one of the wonderful card-trick set-pieces was revealed, where the guy behind me said ‘Ooohh that’s so sexy’. But it could have been so much better. The inclusion of Chinese elements (language, location, casting) as a way of catering specifically for that market I have mixed feelings about: it could be enrichingly multicultural or it could seem a cheap commercial gimmick. Here it feels the latter. Too bad.
The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, 2016)
Will anyone care that The Legend of Tarzan is terrible?: Christoph Waltz is the villain and Alexander Skarsgard swings half-naked from trees on IMAX. The filmmakers have tried really hard to resolve issues of racial representation. It’s everywhere evident. But they’ve failed, again; and it might just be that they are insurmountable if one takes Edgar Rice Burrough’s world as a given. This is all a fight against the King of the Belgians enslaving the peoples of the Congo; so its got a historical basis which neatly creates a villain whilst leaving a history, not to mention an analysis, of British colonialism untouched and neatly off the hook: the racial politics are, at best, contorted. Margot Robbie is acceptable but doesn’t shine. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz is Waltz. Djimon Hounsou looks and acts better than both. But Hounsou’s performance and Alexander Skasgård swinging half-naked from a tree do not compensate: the film is terrible.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (Mandie Fletcher, 2016)
I loved Ab Fab the movie. It’s trashy, inconsequential, uneven but with great jokes and many real laugh-out-loud moments. Like the show, but with everyone looking 20 years older and the film making that it’s central issue. When discussing the film with friends, I was surprised that so many of them took issue with Jennifer Saunders. She’s shy and stiff and awkward and not a natural performer. But she makes that funny to me. This is the type of film where Joan Collins appears in multiple cameos as herself, all trying to look 25. If you can’t see the humour in that, or in the film actively responding to internet rumours that Patsy might really be Patrick, stay home. If you think Kate Moss drowning in the Thames might make front pages internationally and care about Jean-Paul Gaultier, this film is definitely for you.
Badlands (Terence Malick, 1973)
A real treat to be able to see Badlands again in a gorgeous print at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham: the landscapes, the tone, Sissy Spacek: all were better than I remembered; and Martin Sheen wasn’t as bad. I first saw it when I was a teen and then found it dull and unexciting. I have seen it since, but on a small screen, and the effect of the landscape also passed me by. It’s simply gorgeous in this print and on a big screen; it affects you viscerally in a way that it hadn’t me when seen on a TV monitor. I learned to appreciate it as I got older but didn’t really love it until now. It is definitely a serial killer road movie. Spacek not only looks the part so terrifically but she does tiny gestures, lovely, that flesh out a performance ever so beautifully and that are communicated clearly and powerfully on a big screen. I’m still uncertain about Sheen. Personally, I don’t find Spacek falling for him so quickly is credible: his tightly worked-out but pinched and slightly contorted body, his lack of height, which no careful staging can conceal; his age. Why he falls for her is clear; the reverse isn’t quite. I took it as a conceit of the film; something one simply decides to accept. Sheen is interesting because everything he does is good but I can imagine other people being more effective in that part (for some reason Jan-Michael Vincent, then a hot up-and-coming star but not nearly as good an actor, is the first to come to mind as better casting; someone with a real sexual threat that doesn’t need unexpectedly shooting people to convey it); a fascinating oral history of the film in GQmentions that Don Johnson and Robert De Niro were also mooted for the part. All then had the sexual threat and the charisma that Sheen lacks here. On the other hand, this is all speculative. Sheen is a wonderful actor and is better than good here. And really, it’s all quibbling. Badlands is a work of poetry and a truly great movie.