The Best Films of 2016

2016 sucked. “I know it. You know it. We all know it”, as the Orange Menace said. Prince died, Brexit happened, and a petulant 70 year-old man-baby won the U.S. presidential election by lying, harassing women and gluing his finger and thumb together when he spoke. Beneath this man-baby’s (very) thin skin lies another, smaller, version of himself. And another one beneath that. And another. And another… It’s a common trait among Russian toys.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”. God. Remember last year when it was literally an emoji with tears of joy? Those were the days. Now it’s Samsung’s screaming emoji with a ghost flying out of its mouth.

In our new post-truth world, experts are seen as “elitist”, Nazis are called the “alt-right”, and the dissemination of fake news is a legitimate, real-life problem and not just some ominous plotline from a George Orwell novel. (The latter case being partly due to many red baseball cap enthusiasts getting their “news” from – shall we say – non-traditional sources? You know… renowned sites like batshitcrazyrightwingpropaganda.com and hillaryclintonisthedevil-nolikeliterallythedevilwithhornsatailandeverything.org.)

But that’s 2016 for you. It may perhaps become short-hand for “terrible” for years to come: “Dear God, the Greek salad over at Trump Grill was just awful. I mean it was, like, 2016-bad.”

Movie-wise, this year was a little better. Although I don’t think it was an especially stellar year. Sure, there were good films here and there, but, rather aptly, many of the best films I’d seen this year were in fact originally released last year. They just didn’t get round to opening in the U.K. until this year. And, in the strange, elusive tradition of movie distribution, most of the films that critics are calling the best of 2016 won’t come out over here until… yes, 2017. Among them are “Moonlight”, “La La Land”, “Silence”, “Toni Erdmann”, “Elle”, “Jackie”, “Manchester by the Sea”, “I Am Not Your Negro”, “Cameraperson”, “The Fits” and “The Handmaiden”. All of which I haven’t seen. And it’s killing me.

To be honest, movie culture in general was a bit up and down this year. Well mostly down. Sort of like the pound ever since 23rd June. Back in January there was anger at the Oscar nominations for being whiter than Donald Trump’s electorate. Then, in the spring, a bunch of sad, moaning misogynists started bitching about talented women starring in a “Ghostbusters” remake. ‘It’s just that “Ghostbusters” was such an important part of my childhood,’ they cried, failing to see that they were still living it, having never actually grown up.

The summer didn’t fare too well either this year. The U.K.’s economy started plummeting, Theresa May became Prime Minister, and people started to wonder whether they’ll soon have to add the word “Supremacist” in between the words “White” and “House”.

Annoyingly, however, the summer movies weren’t much of a saviour. Sadly they were really rather poor – so poor in fact that, along with meagre box office turnouts, it prompted many to ask the question that gets mandatorily chucked around every couple of years or so: “Are movies dead?” Well I, for one, sincerely hope not. But then again, what with all the nifty work Death has been doing with celebrities these days, one cannot be too sure.

Nevertheless, that all isn’t to say that there weren’t some wonderful films over the past twelve months. There were; each one, in its own way, reminding me why I adore the movies. And there were one or two films that proved to be simply sensational. Here are a few films released in the U.K. and Ireland this year (in alphabetical order) that, for me, made 2016 a little more bearable and a little less rotten.

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A Bigger Splash

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

Sunshine, rock ‘n’ roll, sex and booze. Set in a picturesque volcanic island off the coast of Sicily, “A Bigger Splash” is about a mute rock star (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Matthias Schoenaerts) having to entertain two unexpected guests in their Italian resort. The guests: a very loquacious Ralph Fiennes and a very salacious Dakota Johnson. Swinton commands the screen with her raspy whispering and cool-as-hell eye shadow, while Fiennes frolics about naked and never shuts up. The scene in which he dances in the sun to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” is a particular highlight. It’s a cool, seductive quasi-thriller that reeks of the cool, seductive sensibilities of 1960s European cinema.

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Anomalisa

Dir: Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman is a master. He’s a sort of geographer of the mind. He explores the human condition like no other filmmaker and presents it on-screen in the most lyrical, idiosyncratic way imaginable. “Anomalisa” is his latest project – and it’s another treasure. It’s a bitter-sweet tale of loneliness and the banality of existence gorgeously brought to life by incredible, intricate puppetry and sophisticated computer trickery. It’s both deeply moving and very, very human. And any film that references “My Man Godfrey” with as much wit as Kaufman does here is a win in my books.

Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq

Dir: Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is one of the most original – and one of the most daring – films of the year. It’s a messy, sprawling update of Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata”, re-appropriated to Chicago’s modern-day violent south side – with dialogue almost exclusively in verse. It’s a commentary on gang violence in America, but also on the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and feminism. It’s been a while since a Spike Lee joint was this bold, this boisterious, this sexy, and this urgent. (For full review, see here.)

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Creed

Dir: Ryan Coogler

“Creed” is a rousing reboot/sequel/spin-off of the Rocky franchise. Coogler’s film comes out fighting, throwing all the right japs and landing every punch. It’s a brilliantly directed and wonderfully acted film; but one that’s thoroughly and unashamedly a “Rocky” movie. It boasts all the boxing clichés (the training montage, the step climbing, the “I gotta prove myself” narrative) but it does them all so incredibly well that it never matters. It’s old school storytelling done with contemporary style. And it’ll stir your emotions like few other films this year.

de-palma

De Palma

Dir: Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow

This documentary about filmmaker Brian De Palma – the enfant terrible of the ‘70s Movie Brats – proved to be one of the most pleasurable viewing experiences of 2016. I spent most of the doc simply swooning over De Palma’s craft, thinking to myself, “God, movies used to look like this.” How can you not when you’re greeted with clips of “Carrie”, “Blow Out” and “Carlito’s Way”? (Not to mention the Hitchcock films that inspired him.) This is a rare opportunity to see the man himself discuss his work. And he and his career make a strongly compelling subject. Essential viewing for movie nerds.

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Divines

Dir: Uda Benyamina

This fiery French flick from director Uda Benyamina concerns two Muslim teenage girls that start selling drugs for a local gangster to escape the horrors of poverty and the emptiness of school. The girls, Dounia and Maimouna (fantastically played by Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumuena), are a pair of defiant, determined rebels from the Parisian slums – rebels that dream of living the high-life. They are often seen swaying, flicking imaginary bills from their palms, shouting “Money, money, money!” Together they make the sweetest, most heartfelt on-screen duo of the year. The film will charm you, move you, and devastate you.

green-room

Green Room

Dir: Jeremy Saulnier

I saw this film at the Belfast Film Festival way back in April. I saw it with a packed audience, all geared up and eager to see what Jeremy Saulnier’s latest has in store. Would it pack a punch? Would it be as gripping as “Blue Ruin”? How is Patrick Stewart going to fare playing a neo-Nazi (ahem, sorry – “member of the alt-right” blah, blah, blah)? The answers were as follows: “Yes”, “Yes” and “With terrifying effectiveness.” “Green Room” is a smart, gnarly film about a rock band battling a gang of white supremacist punks in the American Northwest. It grimly depicts a world where neo-Nazis emerge from the shadows and take up arms for battle – in hindsight, a sad, prophetic signal of political things to come.

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The Hateful Eight

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

This sprawling, claustrophobic western from Tarantino proves that he’s still one of the best filmmakers around. It’s a great example of a modern director understanding and exercising sheer cinematic craft. Aside from your Spielbergs and your Scorseses – who are maybe the best in the world at it – more often than not you have to look to the Far East for contemporary examples stellar craft (see Wong Kar-wai, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho). But Tarantino can hold his own. His camera becomes another character in his films. And, in “The Hateful Eight”, his camera follows a group of resentful, despicable characters all cooped up in a tavern during a bitter snowstorm. But duplicity and (inevitably) bloodshed are on the horizon.

the-invitation

The Invitation

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Possibly the most disturbing film of the year. Karyn Kusama’s brilliantly pessimistic film about a dinner party gone wrong has remarkable parallels with today’s political climate – and not in a fluffy, everything’s-going-to-be-all-right kind of way. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay is smart, darkly funny and extremely tense. It wonderfully captures the aching sense of paranoia in a way that only the best screenwriting can. It also contains one of the most memorable final shots of any American film in years.

neon-demon

The Neon Demon

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

This hypnotic, gorgeously shot feature from Nicolas Winding Refn stars Elle Fanning as an aspiring model looking to break into the L.A. fashion scene. But, being a Refn film, the plot isn’t important. Visual metaphors and vividly rendered symbolism are where his interests lie. And boy is it vividly rendered. Argentine cinematographer Natasha Braier frequently captures her subjects bathed in a devilish neon light – deliberately aloof characters that stiffly stare into space like shop window dummies, revelling in their own icy narcissism. It’s convulsive, it’s pulsating – it’s part satire, part black comedy – and the whole thing feels like a particularly beautiful (but also particularly horrible) dream.

sing-street

Sing Street

Dir: John Carney

An unabashedly joyous film from Irish writer-director John Carney, the man who brought us the 2006 indie musical “Once”. “Sing Street” revolves around a 14 year-old kid in 1980s Dublin who forms a band to escape the miseries of school life and the splitting up of his parents. But it’s also to impress a girl. (Actually, it’s mainly to impress a girl.) The songs are glorious little pop records, incorrigibly accompanied by the band’s amateur attempts at making their own music videos. If this film doesn’t leave you smiling, you have no heart. It’s that simple.

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13th

Dir: Ava DuVernay

This DuVernay documentary draws fascinating parallels between the mass incarcerations of African-Americans in the U.S. to the 13th Amendment of the nation’s Constitution. More specifically, it argues that a clause within the 13th Amendment (which prohibits slavery in the U.S.) stating “except as punishment for a crime” allowed for the lawful continuation of slavery into the 21st Century. The doc forces us to take a deep look – or rather, a long, hard stare – at the history of the American prison system, and how it is – and has always been – a direct reflection of the country’s history of racial discrimination.

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Victoria

Dir: Sebastian Schipper

The tagline of this film pretty much sums it up: “One girl. One city. One night. One take.” The girl is Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman who gets involved with a few local guys on a night out. The city is Berlin. The night is one in which the boys are told they must commit a bank robbery to appease a local crime boss – and Victoria slowly gets sucked in. The one take is a gimmick, but it’s pulled off with incredible skill and becomes remarkably effective. It’s employed because the story necessitates it, making the film more than just an impressive technical achievement.

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World of Tomorrow

Dir: Don Hertzfeldt

This animated short became available on Vimeo back in January, roughly the same time it became available to stream on Netflix in the U.K. It’s about a little toddler, Emily Prime, who is taken on a tour of her own distant future by Emily, a future version of herself. It’s barely 17-minutes long, yet it packs more creativity, more insightfulness and more laughs into those 17 minutes than pretty much any other film this year. Developed by the wickedly talented Don Hertzfeldt, it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a true marvel of animation. It may be slight, but, for me, it’s probably the film of the year.

A couple more certainly worth checking out: “The Nice Guys”, “Don’t Breathe”, “Love and Friendship”, “Hail, Caesar!”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, “Hell or High Water”, “The Witch”.

Chi-Raq: a Review in Verse

Note: This review was originally written for Banterflix (see here) in conjunction with the film’s December 2016 UK release.

 

Chi-Raq is a film that captures our time,

A sprawling, crazy tale of black-on-black crime;

A messy, sometimes confounding, minor masterpiece

That sees Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” applied to war on the streets.

It’s an angry retelling of the ancient Greek play

About a woman seeking peace in an unorthodox way.

She rallies all women to refuse sex towards men

In pursuit of peace on the streets – no more killing again.

Lysistrata’s demand is simple, but not so easy,

Yet her cry gains momentum: “No peace, no pussy!”

 

We begin with an overture: “Pray 4 My City,”

A rousing anthem inducing terrible pity

As Nick Cannon describes a city that’s falling apart;

A siren, a call, a desperate cry from the heart.

To the music, the lyrics are printed in time,

Then Sam Jackson turns up and starts speaking in rhyme.

Sam plays Dolmedes, the dapper Greek Chorus,

Narrating a tale that cannot possibly bore us.

 

Two gangs are at war – the Trojans and Spartans –

Shedding black blood on the streets causing the city to darken;

Two sides blinded by gangsters and glory

Gun each other down like some cruel West Side Story.

Wesley Snipes plays Cyclops, leader of the Trojans,

With anger and lust as his primary emotions.

Nick Cannon plays Chi-Raq, leader of Spartans,

Who shares the same name as the place where disheartened

Families have to sit and watch loved ones die;

But not a witness comes forward, not a soul testifies.

 

Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata: a bad-ass chick;

A confident, sexy, self-assured feminist

Who knows what she wants, is never sycophantic,

Breathing dynamic new life into this bawdy Greek classic.

Inspiration for action comes from Angela Bassett,

From which Lysistrata focuses on one particular facet

With which to rid the streets of suffering and agony.

Her plan: a form of regimental chastity.

 

Chi-Raq is gorgeously shot and impressively staged,

Boarding on the silly and tragic in bold, daring ways;

Often as surreal as Buñuel and as funny as Chappelle,

Who turns up in a night club to give the Trojans hell

For driving all of his showgirls away

In one of many hilarious examples of the stellar screenplay.

 

Chi-Raq, spoke almost entirely in verse,

Is the tragic nickname of a place with worse

Crime than America’s Middle Eastern affairs;

But when the poor at home are murdered, who cares?

More Americans are killed in Chicago than Iraq

And most of those killed are young men who are black,

Thus Chicago and Iraq form a portmanteau

Creating “Chi-Raq”: a war zone in South Chicago.

 

Jennifer Hudson is a mother grieving her child,

An innocent schoolgirl that always wore a cute smile

Until a stray bullet flew and caught her left eye:

Killed on the street for being a passer-by;

Killed without her mother getting to say goodbye.

But her mother isn’t going to just standby,

She is not going to see her little baby girl die

In vain for the pain that these killers have caused,

For the dozens of innocent black lives lost;

So she tirelessly works to see that justice is done,

To have this man behind bars, to stop this killing with guns.

 

Theatrical sequences litter the movie:

Some hot and spicy, some bizarre and some goofy.

But all are urgent, they burst with vitality,

Sometimes blurring the line between fantasy and reality,

For this sumptuous satire is such a sensation

And one of the most original films I’ve seen in ages.

It will anger some, perhaps even offend a few

After tackling subjects that may seem taboo,

But Chi-Raq is a gem and should not be missed

So please check it out – no honestly, I insist.

 

Yes the film’s bold, brash and undeniably preachy,

But it’s done so well that it’s a testament to Spike Lee’s

Direction and skill – he’s at the top of his game,

Creating a film deserving of almost every of acclaim:

A film that is biting and with serious sting

And his very best film since Do the Right Thing.

 

It’s a sprawling, messy sensational movie,

Aspects of which are of staggering beauty.

Never once is it boring, bland or chaste,

Though admittedly it won’t be to everyone’s taste,

But this is Spike Lee at his best, resurrecting his voice;

And I, for one, am delighted – I expect you, too, to rejoice.

So welcome back Spike, but please, I beseech you:

Stick around a while – because America needs you.

 

“Chi-Raq” is released in the UK on 2nd of December 2016

It’s U.S. vs Them. But It’s Not the End.

Donald Trump is a virus. He is the embodiment of the very worst humanity has to offer. He is a pompous, self-aggrandising buffoon with as much charm and sophistication as a pubic louse. He is the result of our culture’s obsession with celebrity, its glorification of power, its male-privileged pomposity, and its sick, endearing admiration for the mega-rich and famous.

But this U.S. election was more than a choice for president. It was a choice of identity – America’s identity. In the end, it chose intolerance over inclusion, rage over reason and division over diversity.

How will parents break this to their kids? How will people that raised their children to “never insult others”, “reject racism and bigotry”, “work hard, be prepared and do your homework” – how will they look their kids in the eye and say a man that represented the very antithesis of every value they hold dear just became the most powerful person on the planet?

And what of his opponent?

Hillary Clinton – the most organised, the most prepared, the most calm, measured and judicious candidate in my lifetime (and by far the most qualified) – just lost to a man with zero experience, zero preparation and zero intellect.

Yes. A former First Lady of Arkansas, former First Lady of the United States, former New York Senator and former Secretary of State just lost the 2016 U.S. presidential election to a former steak salesman and reality TV star.

This is what sexism looks like. This is what misogyny looks like. Just when a woman was about to (finally) shatter the glass ceiling and become the first female U.S. president – providing perhaps the most important symbolic feminist victory of this young millennium – Trump manages to mend all the cracks and order a thicker sheet of glass.

To recap (because it has been a lengthy slog of an election and is worth taking a step back):

The man who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country; the man who wants to build a wall on the Mexican border; the man who calls Mexicans “rapists”; the man who bragged about sexually assaulting women; the man who was accused numerous times of sexual harassment; the man who refers to women as “dogs”; the man who doesn’t pay his taxes; the man who deliberately courted white supremacists; the man who won the endorsement of the KKK; the man who thinks Climate Change is a hoax and was “invented by the Chinese”…

This man…

This boisterous, bloviating, bigoted, blow-hard bully is President of the United States.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. It would be wrong and impertinent of me to claim that. But consider this: Everyone who voted for Trump supported a racist. Everyone who voted for Trump validated a racist. And everyone who voted for Trump elected a racist.

This is a bitter pill to have to swallow.

But be optimistic. Be hopeful. It may seem impossible right now, but we must. This morning, Gloria Steinem said “Today is a vote against the future. But the future is going to happen anyway.” She’s right.

I am not American. However, this far-right reactionary movement is sadly not unique to the U.S. – in fact it is much closer to home than I’d care to imagine. But this is why I say “we” and not “you”. Because we are all in this together. Which is why we must keep fighting. We must never give up. We must be kind and we must be caring. And we must go high when they go low.

“This loss hurts,” Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech to a room full of mournful supporters, “But please, never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

Hear, hear Hillary. Hear, hear.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The best kind of horror shows horror in the ordinary. It turns the everyday into a nightmare. “Rosemary’s Baby” does exactly that. It is a psychological masterpiece that exposes the fear in one of life’s most common, most arduous, and most natural processes: pregnancy.

Conceptually, pregnancy is terrifying. It’s why horror is full of it (“Alien”, “The Omen”, “Inside”, “The Fly II”, even “Twilight”). During pregnancy your body begins to change. Your emotions begin to swing. You become the host of an entirely other being inside of you – a creature inside of you; one that’s growing, feeding, kicking, waiting.

Of course when this is your own child you usually let all of that slide. But what if it wasn’t? What if it’s something else? What if it’s not even a human being that you’ve been carrying and nurturing inside of you all this time?

It is this fear that “Rosemary’s Baby” taps into; the fear every mother has for the well-being of her child. All children can act like monsters. All children can be little devils. But what if your child really is a monster? What if your child really is The Devil?

Rosemary Woodhouse embodies all of these fears. She’s magnificently played by Mia Farrow as a blue-eyed, innocent first-time mother, sporting Vidal Sassoon hair and an increasingly cadaverous face. Her husband Guy (played by John Cassavetes) is a struggling actor waiting for his big break to come along. He wants it bad. And he puts his own wife’s life in danger in order to get it.

The movie’s star performance, however, comes from a scene-stealing Ruth Gordon. She plays a nosy neighbour from hell whose pushy prying on the Woodhouses seems genial at first but instead stems from insidious intent.

Rosemary and Guy are newlyweds. We first encounter them as they’re moving into their new Manhattan apartment. They get to work settling in and settling down. After feathering their nest, Rosemary decides that she wants a baby. But creepy cults and satanic rituals are brewing (literally) right around the corner. And they have plans for Rosemary.

Once Rosemary becomes pregnant, the film darkens. It introduces an awful sense of paranoia, positing the notion that everyone – her neighbours, her doctor, even her own husband – are in on some malevolent satanic plot. They’re all conspiring against her and her baby. There isn’t anyone she can trust.

The feminist underpinnings of “Rosemary’s Baby” allow for some of its most cutting and incisive commentary. The film is essentially about the difficulties of pregnancy – the pain and unreasonable expectations that pregnant women often experience. In one scene, a gaunt and pallid Rosemary throws a party and invites a few friends. But her friends (all of whom are women) can immediately see there’s something wrong with Rosemary. So what do they do? They give her advice. They try to help her. They listen to what she has to say.

Contrast this behaviour with the men in the film. Rosemary, who clearly looks unwell, is told repeatedly by men that she’s fine. The paleness: “it’s natural”. The pain: “to be expected”. The depression: “part of the process”. In other words, “Rosemary’s Baby” is a film about a woman who’s constantly being told by men that she doesn’t know what’s best for her own body. Particularly by her own husband.

The symbolic role of the “husband” in “Rosemary’s Baby” is both darkly comic and horribly pointed. In her 1968 review of the film, Pauline Kael wrote that “Pregnant women sometimes look at their men as if to say, ‘What did you do to me?’ Rosemary… has reason to wonder.” In other words, plainly speaking, it’s the husband’s actions that ultimately lead to his wife’s pregnancy. He’s the one to “blame”. He’s the one that brought upon this hardship. Yet it’s his wife that must endure it – not him. “Rosemary’s Baby” knows this. The film is well aware of the inequity of childbirth and plays with that notion in devilish ways, such as showing how it is Guy (not Rosemary) that ultimately profits from a woman’s own labour, a woman’s own efforts and a woman’s own body.

But what makes “Rosemary’s Baby” truly unsettling is that the villains of the piece are all friendly smiles and neighbourly gestures. They are the people you let into your home without a moment’s thought. The people you trust most in the whole world. Again: Horror in the ordinary. Horror in the everyday.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is masterfully directed by Roman Polanski, working from a script adapted from Ira Levin’s bestseller. Every shot in the film is from Rosemary’s perspective. Every moment is spent with her. Every beat of her panic, vulnerability and terror is felt. There’s no escaping it. We are always right there with Rosemary – every cloven-hoofed step of the way.

Dah-ling! – A Tribute to Tallulah Bankhead

“My name is Tallulah

I live till I die”

– Bugsy Malone, 1976

Tallulah, Jodie Foster’s character in Bugsy Malone, exudes charm. She oozes cool and class. “Listen honey, if I didn’t look this good you wouldn’t give me the time of day”, she quips to her boss Fat Sam. She likes her drinks dry and her “men at [her] feet.”

But all this is equally true of another Tallulah, a real-life Tallulah; a Tallulah that also lived till she died, had fire in her stomach and men at her feet, all ready to roll over and purr at drop of a hat:

Ms. Tallulah Bankhead.

Tallulah had it all: style, charisma, devastating wit, outrageous personality. She was perhaps the living definition of bon vivant. “My father warned me about men and alcohol,” she once said. “But he never said a thing about women and cocaine.” She spoke in a deep, husky Southern voice forged by chronic bronchitis as a child and decades of smoke and drink. She dressed in the finest fur coats and held cigarette holders like Holly Golightly. She was immensely talented. She was an icon. She became one of the century’s great Leading Ladies. And one of its greatest personalities.

Bankhead had a rich flamboyance; a larger-than-life persona – a passion. Everyone wanted to be around her. Everyone wanted to be her. As a result, she heard a lot of names and saw a lot of faces. But, as she often confessed, she was terrible with names. So, to get around this, she called everyone by the same name. If you were to meet her, she would always greet you in her low, mellifluous Southern tone and say “Dah-ling!”

Tallulah was born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1902. Her family was a very political one – Southern Democrat, very conservative. She was the niece of a U.S. Senator and the grand-daughter of one too. Her father would later become Speaker for the U.S. House of Representatives during the late 1930s.

However, Tallulah was as a natural rebel. She broke from family tradition in support of liberal causes that flew in the face of her family’s conservative ideology. And she didn’t pursue a career in politics either. Instead of choosing to act in government, she chose to act on stage.

Tallulah was one of the most celebrated actresses of her time. In 1926 she garnered great acclaim for her performance in Sidney Howard’s play “They Knew What They Wanted”, for which Howard won a Pulitzer. In 1931, she got herself a contract with Paramount Pictures. From then on, she became a star.

Tallulah was famous for her liberated sex life. And for her frank discussion of it in interviews. She had sex with almost every man in Hollywood – and every woman too. She once, fabulously, described herself as “ambisextrous”. She slept with some of the biggest female stars of the era, including (reportedly) Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Billie Holiday – talk about Easy Living.

In 1932 she starred in a film called “Devil and the Deep”. It co-starred Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton. But Tallulah got top billing. When asked why she took the part, she replied “Dah-ling, the main reason I accepted was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper.”

Perhaps Tallulah’s best known film roll was in Alfred Hitchcock’s war-time picture “Lifeboat”. She plays a cynical journalist stuck in a lifeboat with some civilians in the North Atlantic. Their passenger vessel sank during a German naval attack. They haul one more survivor on-board. But it’s a German soldier. They must decide what to do with him.

The shooting of “Lifeboat” was pretty rough. The entire movie takes place on a boat so many of the actors got seasick. As a token of appreciation for Tallulah’s stoicism, Hitchcock got her a present – a dog. Except Hitch had already taken the liberty of naming it.

“What’s its name, dah-ling?” asked Tallulah.

“Hitchcock”, Hitch replied.

Tallulah received tremendous commercial and critical success for her performance in “Lifeboat”. She was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle award for her work. A chuffed Tallulah accepted the award with glee. “Dah-lings,” she said holding the trophy, “I was wonderful.”

Tallulah was the definitive libertine. She lived life to the full and embraced her brash, even scandalous, image. “I’m as pure as the driven slush,” she once famously remarked. She was also an honorary member of the Algonquin Round Table in Manhattan during the ‘20s – a place where the cleverest, wittiest people in New York gathered to engage in witticisms, wisecracks and wordplay. Among its members were the great Dorothy Parker (another woman of vast talent and acerbic wit), Harold Ross (the founder and editor of The New Yorker magazine), Noël Coward and Harpo Marx.

The boisterous lifestyle of Tallulah’s, however, inevitably came at a cost. She struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. But, as with everything in life, she treated it with a wry sense of humour: “Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I’ve been using it for years.”

In the early ‘50s, Tallulah became a radio star. She was the host of the NBC radio programme “The Big Show”. The show was scripted but often allowed for ad-lib. This meant giving Tallulah a chance to exercise her trademark wit. In one episode the journalist and gossip columnist Earl Wilson asked Tallulah “Are you ever mistaken for a man on the telephone.”

“No, dah-ling” she said. “Are you?”

Tallulah Bankhead was one of a kind. She was a star of both stage and screen across both sides of the Atlantic. She was a woman capable of incredible generosity towards those in need; a woman who left indelible impressions on those that met her; a woman who could hold her own next to Dorothy Parker and the Marx Brothers; a woman who treated life as an unbroken boulevard of green lights – consequently always living in the fast lane.

Yes, Tallulah had it all. She could do it all. And she did it in style.

But how? How did she do it?

The American comedian and actor Milton Berle once asked that same question. Their conversation went like this:

“Tallulah, you’re in television, you’ve written a book… How do you do it?”

Tallulah: “Superbly.”

Stranger Things, Referencing and Nostalgia

“Stranger Things”, the new much-hyped Netflix show created by Matt and Ross Duffer, is an enjoyable romp. It’s a love letter to the past in a way that has become very fashionable these days. It borrows more sentiments from its Eighties influences than Melania Trump borrows from Michelle Obama. Of course, as every artist would rightly argue, all this borrowing does not constitute stealing. It’s not a rip-off. It’s a “homage”.

But where exactly do you draw the line? When does a self-aware nod become a straight up rip-off? At what point does “homage” become stealing? Can an homage ever be theft? It’s tricky because in art everybody steals from everybody. As Lawrence Olivier once said, “Good actors borrow, great actors steal”; and even then he probably stole that line from somebody else. What I find more interesting is what writers and directors actually do with the material that they’re referencing. Quentin Tarantino, to take a well-known example, does something special: he makes it his own. He manages to take the unmistakable cinematic language of a filmmaker like Sergio Leone and put his own spin on it, creating a cinematic form entirely of his own. Jimi Hendrix took what Muddy Waters was doing in the 50s and created his own unique style of guitar playing that revolutionised the instrument and, in turn, modern music. But some artists just take what others have already done before them and bring nothing original to it at all – nothing of themselves.

For me, “Stranger Things” often falls into this category. There has been much written about the influences of “Stranger Things”: from the creepy science-fiction tales of Stephen King to the suburban adventures of Steven Spielberg. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having any of those influences (obviously). However, there is a difference between producing your own unique vision of an inspiring work and merely reproducing that inspiring work. You must remember to bring your own thing to the table. And while people like King and Spielberg bring something to table, “Stranger Things” arrives to mooch off everybody else.

Just take a look at how explicit the referencing of “Stranger Things” is with regards to its influences. And not only that, but also how little effort there is to try and make any of these touchstones overtly “its own” or offering a unique take on the material.

Here’s short a (somewhat facetious) quiz.

  1. A bunch of kids encounter and befriend a strange creature that can perform incredible things with its mind. The Government meanwhile want to seize control of it, forcing the kids to dress the creature up as a girl to avoid detection.

So, is this “E.T.” or “Stranger Things”?et stranger things

  1. Nancy, a teenager girl, attempts to lure a monster from another world into a home where she strategically laid booby traps for its capture.

What do you think? “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Stranger Things”?

  1. A mother tries to rescue her child from another dimension inside her family home as she struggles to communicate with the static noises and echoed voices of her kid.

Well? “Poltergeist” or “Stranger Things”?

And here are two purely visual examples for comparison.

  1. “Under the Skin” or “Stranger Things?”
  2. “Alien” or “Stranger Things”?alien11Stranger Things Alien

There are numerous references, nods and allusions like these throughout “Stranger Things”. But I can’t help but feel that they primarily exist to (a) act as a cheap way of giving the audience an extra grounding in that period, or (b) to steal the visual audacity of an under-seen work (which seems to the case with the “Under the Skin” motif – after all, there’s no real thematic or contemporaneous connection between the two works that would make referencing it particularly appropriate). It’s almost as if the creators think the aesthetic of the Eighties can only be achieved by referencing Hollywood movies of that era. And after a while, it just becomes referencing for the sake of referencing.

But there’s a catch. If you “get” the reference (‘Oh I see, this part with the kids on the railroad is a nod to “Stand by Me”’) then you may clever for having spotted it. But if you don’t get it, like if you’ve never seen “Stand by Me” or read Stephen King’s “The Body” (which is totally fair game, by the way), then you may think that what you’re seeing is entirely original. If you’ve never seen any of the movies “Stranger Things” is referencing (constantly, mind you), then you’re bound to think “Stranger Things” is more original than it actually is.

The nostalgic referencing in “Stranger Things” isn’t an anomaly. It’s part of a much wider modern tradition of constantly referencing movies from one’s childhood – often without wit or originality. The latest “Jurassic Park” film, “Jurassic World”, references Spielberg’s original in almost every frame. It constantly panders to its fans but has nothing new to offer other than sheer scale. “The Force Awakens” does a similar sort of thing, keeping audiences happy with constant nods and in-jokes to the original trilogy instead of telling its own story (however, this is done with much more skill here than in “Jurassic World”). The new “Ghostbusters” movie never stops referencing the original film either. Many gags solely serve to remind audiences that they’re watching a remake, and the film greatly suffers as a result. The first half-hour of the latest “Terminator” movie, “Genisys”, was essentially a remake of the first two movies, supplying more nods to its audience than Angus Young at a rock concert.

Spielberg, one of the filmmakers the Duffer brothers hold in high regard, often took elements of films he loved as a child and inserted them into his films as a director. But unlike the modern trend in television and cinema, he didn’t simply take whole chunks of the films – their plots, their storylines, their indelible visuals – and insert them into his own; at least not without appropriating them in such a way that they became his. No. He was inspired by them, yes, but he also learned from them – their technique, their craft, their approach – and then he learned how to make it his own. Instead, many modern TV shows (and especially films) are acting like tribute bands to far better musicians.

There is a right way to do this referencing business. See the TV-version of “Fargo” for proof. “Fargo” makes many references to the work of the Coen brothers. But each time it does so it almost always serves a thematic purpose, not just to say to audiences “Hey look, this scene is just like that bit in ‘Miller’s Crossing.’”

All of this isn’t to say that “Stranger Things” isn’t worth watching. It is. All the hype it’s generated isn’t for nothing. Like I said before, it’s an enjoyable romp. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and there are some terrific performances throughout – particularly from the kids (the incorrigible, smiley Dustin, played by Gaten Matarazzo, being a standout). It’s also got some of the best sound design of any film or TV show I’ve seen this year, for which I applaud sound editor Brad North and sound designer Craig Henighan. The show is also impressively shot by DPs Tim Ives and Todd Campbell. The night scenes in particular have a visual aesthetic that gorgeously heighten the eerie scenarios faced by the characters. It’s just that “Stranger Things”, in terms of narrative and inventiveness (and even strangeness) is nowhere near as interesting nor as original as most of the stuff it’s referencing. “Stranger Things” is a well-made pastiche of Eighties classics. But, much like its central character Eleven, it has very little to say for itself.

 

Independence Day: Resurgence

Despite what Boris Johnson may say, the latest Independence Day is not the British people voting for Brexit. Having said that, the movie does feature a scene in which London is in chaos, Parliament collapses, everything is in free fall and no one seems to have a plan for what to do next. So I guess I can’t be too sure. In fact, now that I think about it, “Resurgence” does sound like a single-word synopsis of the political career of Nigel Farage. (Although a few shorter, terser words spring to mind much faster.)

Once again, Independence Day sees our blue and green planet attacked by blue and green aliens. This time, however, they’re after the planet’s iron core. Our core is, of course, not a hard core – it’s molten – but they nonetheless go about it in a hard-core way: wiping out half the Northern Hemisphere. The movie doesn’t care to explain why the aliens are doing this. Instead, all this “iron core” business cynically serves as a ticking time bomb designed to awkwardly force a sense of jeopardy into the film’s final act. But credit to the aliens for their endeavour. They at least struck while the iron was hot.

“Resurgence” is set exactly twenty years after the original Independence Day – the movie that is, not the fourth of July 1776; although that probably would have made a more interesting watch. It’s also every bit as cheesy, every bit as ridiculous, and every bit as jingoistic as the original. Except in this new instalment, Will Smith is noticeably absent. Presumably because he read the script.

“Resurgence” is a nostalgia pic, and, as such, the plot, tone and absurdity are all in keeping with director Roland Emmerich’s original. It has the rookie pilot fighting for his country, just dying to get back home to his girl. It has the stirring messages delivered by people in power calling for solidarity as violins swell. It has the love interest/object of paternal pride. It has the bumbling scientist who’s the butt of all jokes – and whose own butt is used as a literal joke.

And the fun doesn’t stop there.

There are H.R. Giger rip-offs; plenty of people explaining the plot to one another; bizarre character motivations (like deliberately locking yourself in a room with an alien), and some terrifically bad dialogue – the kind of dialogue you only ever hear in these types of movies. Faceless people say things like, “alter its current velocity”, when they mean to say, “slow down.” And then there’s the line delivered by Jeff Goldblum as famous monuments are destroyed around him: “They like to get the landmarks.” People all over are dying. Surely we should care. Now is not the time to be flippant, Jeff. Except, why not? Badly handled destruction of this scale on-screen makes us completely apathetic to the unseen death of millions.

Basically, “Resurgence” is the same movie as the original but half the fun, twice the spectacle, and ten times as big. The movie reminds you of this not just through the CGI, but by actually forcing characters at various points to say, “This one is definitely bigger than the last one.”

We get it.

None of the characters in this film have any real arc at all. Still, Jeff Goldblum is great at being Jeff Goldblum and nobody has a cooler presence and softer voice than Charlotte Gainsbourg. Pity Goldblum and Gainsbourg can’t attempt to save the movie the way they attempt to save the world. Among the film’s more naff characters are an African “warlord” (DeObia Oparei) that has somehow managed to decipher the alien’s language (don’t ask), and the incredibly annoying suit, Floyd Rosenberg (played by Nicolas Wright), who functions solely as awkward comic relief. Although here, interestingly, he is the absolute spit of John Oliver. Honest.

Julius Levinson (aka Goldblum’s fictional dad, played by Judd Hirsch) is possibly, however, the most useless character in the whole film, merely serving as yet another direct link to the original movie. He accomplishes absolutely nothing other than jeopardise the lives of a bunch of kids by driving them in a bus towards a war-zone. This image could only have been made dumber if written on the side of the bus was the phrase “We send the EU £350 million a week”.

You can’t really blame “Resurgence” for being dumb. It’s a sequel to an already dumb movie. But you can blame it for being boring. It’s really quite amazing: despite all the talent, despite all the spectacle, the fancy fourth of July fireworks Emmerich throws at the screen all manage to completely fizzle out.