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.

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.

Check Yourself Before You Trainwreck Yourself

Trainwreck

I loved Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. It was painfully funny, genuinely moving, and featured an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton. There is so much to love and yet… and yet… Before I went to see Trainwreck someone mentioned that perhaps the film had a surprising number of jokes about race and sexuality for a romantic comedy about a straight white couple.

Just like that the seed was planted.

I have a confession to make. I am privileged. I took the quiz on CheckMyPrivilege.com and scored 170 earning myself the title of “Shitlord”. I am a white able-bodied heterosexual cis-male atheist who was born in a prosperous Western country and as time goes by I learn more and more how lucky that makes me. This means that I do often having to stop and think about aspects of media that would otherwise pass me by. The main result of this has been an exploration of feminism and learning to understand all sorts of new phrases like “patriarchy”, “the male gaze”, and “victim blaming”. It makes certain types of film a lot harder to enjoy but ultimately is a good thing.

Trainwreck is arguably a huge feminist success story. In the lead role is a woman who enjoys sex, has a decent job, and talks to other women about subjects other than men. Good stuff. We have a winner. Let’s move along now. Oh crap there’s still racism and homophobia to deal with.

Trainwreck 2

With my mind tainted by the idea that Trainwreck might not be completely kosher I couldn’t watch the film without each joke about race or sexuality sticking out. I kept a tally and reached a count of 16 jokes in total that boiled down to either “Ha! You’re gay!” or “Ha! You’re black!”. As I said before this is made all the more jarring considering the film was about a white woman falling in love with a white man. That’s not to say the cast is entirely white; Schumer’s love interest, played by Bill Hader, has a best friend who just happens to be black (and LeBron James) but the race jokes still find their way in.

Just to be clear I am not saying Trainwreck is ground zero for all racist and homophobic comedy. I’m not even saying that Trainwreck is either homophobic or racist. What am I saying then? I guess I am asking questions; I am wondering whether a comedy can exist that not only shows feminist qualities but does so without turning race or sexuality into cheap jokes. Does comedy need a target to be funny? Can you have a joke without someone being the butt? Amy Schumer is an excellent comedian and writer and has created a film bursting at the seams with jokes that will make you weep. Could it have done without those 16 jokes? I’d say so. Am I being over-sensitive? Perhaps.

Go and see Trainwreck and judge for yourself. It really is a magnificent comedy.

Priced Out of Indie Cinemas

Picturehouse Central

The Cineworld in London’s Trocadero near Leicester Square was a grim place; mice scuttled across the floor and every surface was sticky. When the lights went down and a film started to play it was a sweet release to be lost in a fictional world but when the final credits rolled the horror of the surroundings dragged you back to reality with a bump. A sticky, slightly squelchy, bump. Thankfully the dark days of the Trocadero Cineworld are behind us and the era of Picturehouse Central is here.

 

Picturehouse Central is a beautiful temple to cinema with exposed brickwork, a grand staircase, and an inefficient but effective use of light-bulbs. While the Cineworld was an ugly duckling the site has now grown into a gorgeous Picturehouse swan. What films do they show you ask? Why only the finest selection of mainstream and art house films of course! (And Ted 2.) So why did I go to book tickets last week and balk at the idea?

£18 a ticket is why.

This combined with a £1.50 booking fee makes the new Picturehouse Cinema more expensive (for a standard adult ticket) than going to the country’s biggest screen at the BFI IMAX. Admittedly a closer look at the ticket prices does reveal discounts for Picturehouse members and £8 tickets until 2016 for a select group of screenings including Picturehouse DOCS, Discover Tuesdays, Vintage Sundays and Culture Shock. Sadly no sign of the £7 tickets on a Monday as mentioned when the cinema first opened last month.

The independent cinema chains (an oxymoron surely?) do tend to be a bit pricier but even the Curzon Soho, just up the road from the Trocadero, only charges £14 and the truly independent, and truly spectacular, Price Charles Cinema clocks in at £11 at peak times.

I love films and I love Picturehouses, Greenwich and Hackney Picturehouses have been graced with my presence on multiple occasions, but I struggle to justify spending more than £15 on a single cinema ticket. Call me cheap or call me sane but prices this high will simply make most screenings at an otherwise fantastic cinema inaccessible to those below a certain salary band. My main point is that I really, really want to go to Picturehouse Central. I want to eat organic snacks in tastefully upholstered seating but don’t have enough disposable income to do so.

To put the £18 ticket fee in context, and to find a more affordable place to spend time in the dark, I have taken a look at all the cinemas you can find in central London to see how much they charge. I’ve even put them all on a map for you. Clicking on each cinema on the map shows the price of a single adult ticket for a Thursday evening 2D screening with no concessions or membership deals taken into account. Booking fees are shown in brackets where available.

If you are looking for a mainstream movie your best bet is to visit one of the not too sticky smaller Odeons and for smaller films the Prince Charles Cinema is always worth a look. When you’re feeling a bit more flush then maybe you’ll want to give Picturehouse Central a try. Take me with you when you go, I’ll buy dinner if you get the tickets.

For updates on events, offers, and openings in and around London sign up to The Slice from Metro.

Eurovision 2015 Scoring Spreadsheet

Eurovision 2015

Saturday night brings with it the annual European celebration of all things glittery. With David Cameron and Nigel Farage set to pull us out of the EU could this be our final year in the competition? Almost certainly not… Regardless the show is sure to be a mixture of bizarre and fantastical performances and something best watched with a group of friends voting on the countries they think have performed the best.

To help you enjoy yourselves I have once again put together a spreadsheet to help you recreate the Eurovision voting process in your own home. This is so that your party can better handle the mathematical part of the evening once all the songs have been sung and booze has been drunk. Two years ago we had that year’s version of this spreadsheet projected onto the wall and had a whale of a time. Without the spreadsheet how would we have known how to have fun?

Before you turn on BBC One at 8:00PM give everyone who will be voting some paper so they can make notes on each song against whatever metric they think is important to the Eurovision contest. For some it is singing talent that matters, for me it is all about being flamboyant. It is up to everyone to come up with their own top ten ranking out of all the performances.

xlsm-1758Once all songs have been performed everyone then makes sure they are happy with their personal ranking and perhaps hilariously messes up their neighbour’s notes/scraps of paper before apologising and blaming the drink. After this it is time to collate the votes. To the spreadsheet!! Click on the Excel symbol to the right and within moments you will have your very own Mild Concern Eurovision 2015 Party Score Collation Spreadsheet for Maximum Fun and Mathematical AccuracyTM.

It is all pretty self-explanatory, I hope, but here’s a quick guide. When you first open the spreadsheet make sure you have macros enabled. If you see a warning like this…
Macros…deal with it.

The first thing you see with be an empty white box. Type in the first voter’s name and hit Enter, then continue until you can see everyone’s name in the list. If someone goes to the loo at this point and is pretty forgettable they may be in trouble. Once you’re done click on the grey button.

Name Form

Now you are at the heart of the spreadsheet. The table to the left will show you which country is winning based on your party’s votes and the table on the right is where everyone enters their scores. When prompted each person should list their top ten countries to the group, preferably with reasons and a generic European accent, while the Spreadsheet MasterTM uses the drop-down lists to put these countries into the table. Once all ten are entered the voter should verify the list, salute the Spreadsheet MasterTM (optional), and they will hit the “Submit Scores” button which will… submit the scores (I told you it was self-explanatory).

Score Form

Once everyone has voted you will have your winner! What mathematically accurate fun we’ve all had in replicating the voting process of the Eurovision Song Contest. If only all parties had spreadsheets…