Dunkirk and Film Format Snobbery

I’ve been accused of being a film snob numerous times. Any time you disagree with someone about the merits of a film, particularly a blockbuster action film or comedy, you open yourself up to accusations of snobbery. In general I say, each to their own. We all like what we like, and hate with equal individuality and vigour. I reserve my right to prattle on about Footloose but turn my nose up at Step Brothers; there’s no accounting for taste.

The advance of digital filmmaking and projection has brought with it a new flavour of film snobbery; one that focusses on what format the film is projected in. This snobbery tends to favour 35mm film projection over digital and when Christopher Nolan gets involved it goes even further.

A few weeks back after the first press screenings of Nolan’s Dunkirk my Twitter feed was littered with critics and more successful bloggers tweeting about how everyone has to go see Dunkirk and more importantly how they must see it:

A. On the big screen

B. Projected on film

C. In 70mm

D. In IMAX

Seeing it in any other format simply will not suffice apparently.

I have lots of issues with this fetishisation of projection format. But first, some concessions. Yes, I have seen Nolan’s Interstellar projected in 70mm. Yes, Christopher Nolan does specifically use IMAX cameras because he ideally wants people to see the film that way. But… The fact is that not everybody can, nor should they.

If I want to see Dunkirk tonight I have the choice of heading to Waterloo for a 70mm IMAX screening and pay £18.50 or go down to the excellent Peckhamplex and pay £4.99. I will get different experiences at both and the IMAX isn’t necessarily the better. I would say roughly 70% of seat in an IMAX screen are in suboptimal positions that will result in a cricked neck or awkward viewing angle (this is not a scientific measure). Add to this the increase in cost and IMAX is simply too pricey for everyone to consider seeing the film in this format.

I suppose my real problem with the snobbery around film projection format is that it is inherently elitist. Suggesting that there is a proper, and more expensive, way to watch a film creates a strange hierarchy of viewers that only benefits the larger wallets. Let’s not forget that the critics, and sometimes little old me, have seen this film in their “best” format for free with the occasional glass of wine thrown in. They have also only seen the film in the one format so have no comparison to make.

I remain of the opinion that if a film is any good then it doesn’t matter how it is projected. A film that is beautiful and immersive should draw you in whether projected from celluloid of any size or whatever science happens inside a digital projector. So long as the format isn’t obstructing you then stop worrying about pixels or film grain, sit back, and enjoy the film.

Heck, Nolan himself doesn’t mind you streaming his films so long as they’ve had a chance in the cinema first.

Films are, and should remain, an accessible part of British culture. The obsession with 70mm over 35mm over digital may be grounded in truth but the most important consideration should be what film to watch, not what box it comes in.

Get to Know Jodie Whittaker in Four Hours or Less

Anyone not a fan of Wimbledon or Doctor Who may have missed the news that when Peter Capaldi regenerates at Christmas he will be taking the form of Jodie Whittaker. This news is particularly significant because this makes Whittaker the first woman to play the shape shifting, time travelling alien after a line of twelve men. This is either a major step forward or the biggest disaster since women thought they could bust ghosts depending on whether you pronounce it “feminism” or “feminazi”. I am not interested in debating that right now but will unapologetically eye-roll anyone arguing for the latter.

Fans of Broadchurch, the ITV crime drama created by Doctor Who‘s incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall, will recognise Whittaker as grieving mother Beth Latimer but she may be less known to some. In the following I highlight three other performances of hers that are easy to find online and don’t last for 24 episodes.

Attack the Block


Way back in 2011 I sat close to, but by no means with, Jodie Whittaker and her friends at a screening of Joe Cornish’s directorial debut Attack the Block at Somerset House the one year I managed to convince Film4 that I was a VIP.

Setting my bragging aside for a moment this film remains a great watch, particularly for anyone concerned about Whittaker’s alien battling skills. In Attack the Block Whittaker teams up with the young gang, led by a pre-fame John Boyega, who have mugged her to tackle an alien invasion on a South London estate. The film is a lot of fun and Whittaker is the audience’s emotional route through proceedings. And what is more Doctor Who than fighting aliens in London?

Attack the Block is available to stream on Amazon Instant Video.

Black Mirror – The Entire History of You

Finishing off the startling good first series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is this dark tale of obsession, jealousy, and tech. Like Doctor Who this series works best when it uses science fiction to explore very human ideas.

In The Entire History of You humans have an optional implant in their brains that allows them to record their every waking moment. Naturally this leaves people obsessing over every small detail of their day and replaying innocuous moments looking for deeper meaning. This particular episode is one of Black Mirror‘s finest and the whole episode pivots on intense scrutiny of Whittaker’s performance as we hunt for the subtext written on her face.

Black Mirror – The Entire History of You is available to stream on Netflix.

Adult Life Skills

This small independent comedy drama about a young woman stuck in arrested development crept in and out of cinemas this time last year. The film affords Whittaker a showcase for her skills and the one proper lead role I’ve seen her in.

Not enough people saw this film when it made it to the cinema and I don’t think many people even had a chance to so I suggest you seek it out now so that you can form an opinion of Whittaker beyond her gender. There are lots of silly jokes to distract you from the fact that the film is hitting you in the soft bits where your feelings live.

Plus… at various points she pretends her thumbs are two people travelling in a spaceship so there’s a tenuous Doctor Who link for you.

Adult Life Skills is available to stream on Amazon Instant Video.

Don’t Knock Twice – Film Review

Coco Chanel once advised that before leaving the house you should remove one thing. The point being that less is more and an overabundance of accessories can spoil an underlying aesthetic. In cinematic terms Don’t Knock Twice takes a simple creepy premise and drenches it in weird plot twists and the two solid central performances are overshadowed by an amateurish supporting cast.

Don’t Knock Twice follows two plot strands; one surrounding teen Chloe (Lucy Boynton) who knocks twice on a door that will apparently summon a witch if knocked on twice and the inevitable fallout from that decision, and a second following Chloe as she tries to reconnect with her estranged mother Jess (Katee Sackhoff). The two storylines intertwine and their relationship is tested by a battle against supernatural forces but the two strands don’t play off each other nicely. This isn’t The Babadook where the monster is a manifestation of the familial issues in the rest of the film.

Sackhoff and Boynton give the film’s only two convincing performances as two damaged souls hesitantly reunited while all hell breaks loose. There’s an decent movie hidden in here somewhere but they are hugely let down by their fellow actors who are in turn given little to work with. One character in particular was often being laughed at by the audience as a result of the bizarre behaviour she was forced to portray. In a horror you need to be able to put yourself into the character’s position and that’s hard when people aren’t behaving like any human you’ve ever met.

That’s not to say that Don’t Knock Twice isn’t effective at the scares though. The witch itself is fantastically realised and there were moments of real terror in the film. One fellow audience member embarrassed himself with the height at which he jumped from his seat, and for once that man wasn’t me. Sadly, as I’ve mentioned, by the end of the film those scares have been diluted by other less successful elements, and a final act that was needlessly complicated and inserted a twist where none was needed.

If Coco Chanel were here I’m sure she would advise taking off the unnecessary twist and the bulk of the weaker supporting players to reveal the well fitted, emotionally fulfilling and delightfully scary horror film about mother-daughter relationships underneath.

Won’t watch twice.

Data Driven Oscar Predictions 2017

Oscars 2017

I am back to try to predict the unpredictable. Can I guess tonight’s Oscar winners using just an Excel spreadsheet, some questionable mathematics, and seventeen years of award winners? In the past I vary from getting just over half right to getting nearly all predictions right. With that kind of accuracy it’s no wonder I haven’t yet made a fortune at the bookies.

For anyone with no more time to spare my predictions are below and for people who like the nitty-gritty I go into more detail afterwards.

Category
Predicted Winner
BEST PICTURE
La La Land
DIRECTING
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Viola Davis – Fences
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Manchester by the Sea
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Arrival
ANIMATED FEATURE
Zootopia
FOREIGN FILM
Toni Erdmann
DOCUMENTARY
OJ Made in America

To make my predictions I will be using 14 other awards ceremonies and looking back at how often the winners they chose have overlapped with the eventual Oscar winners since the year 2000. Using this I can see which awards are good at predicting the Oscars in which category and using the award winners so far this year I can see who will win on Sunday night.

DISCLAIMER: I’ve tried this three times before getting 10/11 right the first time, 6/11 the second, and 8/11 right the third; place your bets accordingly.

Best Picture

La La Land

Often a tricky one to predict with so many contenders in the race, this year the task isn’t so hard. La La Land has won a massive six predictor awards including the Producers’ Guild Award which has the highest accuracy at 59%. Moonlight is a distant second.

Chance of winning: 13%
Runner up: Moonlight (14%)
 

Best Director

Damien Chazelle
La La Land

The race for best director was a lot closer before I noticed a mistake in my spreadsheet. Now I see hat Damien Chazelle is well in the lead with Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins again taking silver. The Directors’ Guold award is right 81% of the time and it went to Chazelle this year.

Chance of winning: 50%
Runner up: Barry Jenkins – Moonlight(30%)
 

Actor in a Leading Role

Casey Affleck
Manchester by the Sea

The most predictable award of the evening goes to the younger Affleck brother. He’s won 8 of my predictor awards including three strong predictors. Nobody else is getting a look in.

Chance of winning: 79%
Runner up: Denzel Washington – Fences (8%)
 

Actress in a Leading Role

Isabelle Huppert
Elle

It all comes down to the Golden Globes. Huppert and Emma Stone both won best actress but Huppert won for drama and Stone for comedy. Drama lines up with the Oscar winner 69% of the time, and comedy just 19%. That said, I will be surprised if this prediction is right.

Chance of winning: 41%
Runner up: Emma Stone – La La Land (29%)
 

Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali
Moonlight

A much safer bet her for supporting actor. Mahershala Ali has won a handful of strong predictor award while two of his rivals have won one award each, and the remaining two have nothing.

Chance of winning: 61%
Runner up: Dev Patel – Lion (30%)
 

Actress in a Supporting Role

Viola Davis
Fences

I got this wrong last year but am convinced that Davis’ four wins at strong predictor ceremonies gives her a strong lead. He main contender is Naomie Harris who only has two wins and neither of those are strong predictors.

Chance of winning: 59%
Runner up: Naomie Harris – Moonlight (13%)
 

Original Screenplay

Manchester by the Sea

With six awards already above the fire I think the drama about grief will beat out the musical about love. None of the six awards are particularly predictive by their combined weight give this script the edge.

Chance of winning: 44%
Runner up: La La Land (22%)
 

Adapted Screenplay

Arrival

This is a bit of a guess more than anything as lots of award ceremonies only have one screenplay award and they gave their prize to Manchester by the Sea. Essentially I am lacking in data. That said Arrival did win the Writers’ Guild award which is right 75% of the time.

Chance of winning: 33%
Runner up: Lion (21%)
 

Animated Feature

Zootopia

A year with no Pixar nominee opens up this race a bit. Not a lot, but a bit. Zootopia has won five predictor awards putting it in first place but did not win the most predictive award of all; the BAFTA. Kubo and the Two Strings won the BAFTA and that is right 90% of the time.

Chance of winning: 65%
Runner up: Kubo and the Two Strings (18%)
 

Foreign Film

Toni Erdmann

Until last night this was almost too close to call but a win at the Spirit Awards has allowed Toni Erdmann to pull into a more confident first place.

Chance of Winning: 30%
Runner up: The Salesman (21%)
 

Documentary

OJ Made in America

This eight hour documentary about an American hero turned accused killer is set to take home a golden statue thanks to five predictor award wins. If you have the stamina this epic is available now on BBC iPlayer.

Chance of winning: 37%
Runner up: 13th (19%)
 

Top Ten Films of 2016

I want to write about all the good films that we’ve had already in the first few weeks of 2017 but I still need to put a line underneath 2016. As such here are my top ten films of last year, a by no means definitive list but hopefully a good representation of the quality year of cinema we had while the rest of the world burned.

If there’s one conclusion to be drawn from these films it is that women suffer and men cause nothing but trouble.

10: Notes on Blindness


In order to look suitably cultured it was important for me to include a documentary on this list and no other non-fiction film last year was so cinematic and immersive. The film takes the audio diaries of writer and theologian John Hull that he made as he lost his sight in the 1980s and put his words into the mouth of Dan Renton Skinner. The result is a surprisingly visual journey through the loss of vision as John philosophises about his changing world as his family grows and his senses reduce to four. A beautiful, dreamlike documentary.

9: Mustang


The first in a tragic triptych running through this list is a Turkish drama about five sisters who innocently flirt with a group of local boys and find themselves imprisoned in their home. Their family decides that homeschooling and arranged marriages will help to preserve the girls’ purity away from the temptation lying in the outside world. Trapped inside the girls fill their days by lounging around the house, making each other laugh, and plotting their brief escapes. Throughout the film we see the girls’ spirits slowly decline as they gradually accept their fates or give up entirely. Much like Sofia Coppola’s comparable Virgin Suicides this is a beautifully shot film about the tragedy of young girls’ lives being restricted as they blossom into women.

8: 10 Cloverfield Lane


Sticking with women in captivity we have Dan Trachtenberg’s genre-ambiguous bunker-dwelling marvel. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is this film’s hero who we meet chained up in a bomb shelter. Upon regaining consciousness Winstead meets her host, John Goodman, who she must try to decipher and identify as either her captor or her saviour. 10 Cloverfield Lane plays its card close to its chest and the result is a taut, tense, and tantalising puzzle that dials things up to 11 before revealing there’s a whole other set of gears. Marvellous fun.

7: Hell or High Water


It is rare for a crime drama to allow the audience to develop equal sympathy for both the criminals and the police who pursue them but in David Mackenzie’s modern Western both sides of the coin are given equal weight. We experience the thrills of two brothers robbing banks to save their family land and share the slow jovial investigations of the local Texas Rangers who patiently track their exploits. When the sides finally collide with unglamorous, brutal violence it is hard to know what side to choose and whether to cheer or cry. A timeless drama of crime and punishment.

6: A Bigger Splash


Luca Guadagnino’s English language interpretation of La Piscine came and went without much fanfare last year but when I saw it I adored it. A drama filled with sun, sex, and jealousy as a quartet of characters spend a few weeks on a small Italian island. Tilda Swinton is as captivating in her silent role as recovering rock star as Ralph Fiennes is as a bombastic, occasionally naked, dad-dancer. A big, bold, brash drama that really delivers.

5: Arrival


I still need to rewatch this idea-driven piece of science fiction as the true workings of the tale are only clear at the film’s ends. Watched for the first time the film is teetering at the high end of very good but would surely shoot up to great given a second viewing. Aliens land and they do not attack, instead they want to talk. It is up to Amy Adam’s linguist to figure out a method of communication before the army do what they do best and attack the interplanetary immigrants. A film for the mind and the heart assembled with beauty and brains.

4: Anomalisa


Though painstakingly made in stop-motion animation this human drama is not for kids; this is full frontal animation. Michael Stone is a walking mid-life crisis who is a big fish in the small pond of customer service. Staying at a hotel while he gives a keynote speech at a conference he picks the scab of an old love, contemplates a new love, and tries to ignore the love he has waiting for him at home. Michael is not a sympathetic man but he feels incredibly real despite his detachable face. The film as a whole is surreal and charming with a lot to say about the human condition.

3: Green Room


The sadly departed Anton Yelchin gave one of his final performances in this relentlessly nerve-shredding horror about a punk band trapped in a neo-Nazi club. Without hesitation this near perfect feature pulls its protagonists from one excruciating situation to another as their numbers slowly dwindle. The joy of the film is in its execution. An execution that holds nothing back and constantly surprises and horrifies. I gasped, I groaned, and I hid my face.

2: The Witch


Another horror here in the top three with a god-fearing family in 17th century New England being terrorised by a neighbouring witch. Forget broomsticks and cauldrons and instead think of old hags grinding the bones of a baby and you’re closer to the bone-deep terror that The Witch has to offer. The Witch is a pure, gimmick-free piece of cinema. It is delightfully terrifying and filled with an air of unrelenting fear and genuine horror. Don’t expect any sudden jumps just a consistent feeling that all is not well. It certainly isn’t.

1: Room


My personal favourite film of 2016 is not the most enjoyable to watch. At numerous positions on this list are women being persecuted and none more so than Joy as portrayed by Brie Larson. For years Joy is kept in captivity; initially alone and then with the gift and curse of a young son to keep her company. Room has affected me in numerous ways each time I have watched it, with three different types of tear running down my face. Often with films containing this level of bleakness the work is admirable but hard to actually recommend anyone see. Room is different. Room is an easy film to recommend. Room is devastating and uplifting and finally brought the talents of Brie Larson to the world’s attention. I could watch this film countless times and no doubt I will.