Charlie’s Cinematic Odyssey: Meh to Mamma Mia!

The Meg

Jaws is one of my favourite movies of all time – it kick started a lifelong fascination with the ocean and sharks, not to mention movies themselves. Despite the rubber shark, the horror in Jaws is still grounded in a very real and primal fear of the ocean and what lurks beneath. Despite the rubber shark, each shark attack in Jaws is still shocking and means something. The moment in Jaws where we dolly zoom into Brody’s face as he realises a young boy is getting attacked and killed by a shark is a pivotal part of the movie.

The shark movie has basically become it’s own genre at this point – starting prestigiously with Jaws in 1975. But that’s where all critical appraisal stops. Jaws casts such a big shadow in culture at large, all other shark movies cannot hope to do better. And so, the entire genre exists in a perpetual state of ‘jumping the shark’ thanks largely to the Asylum movies who have been cranking out dumb monster movies like Sharknado or 3 Headed Shark Attack (soon to be 5 headed shark attack) for the SyFy channel over the last decade.

Whilst each death in Jaws meant something, death in Sharknado or any of the other myriad shark films each kill is a punchline.  And whilst it’s fine to enjoy the silliness of these movies for what they are. To marvel at how many cheap shark movies there are actually released straight to DVD today. I do find myself increasingly disappointed by the state of the shark movie. That nothing is seemingly willing to at least try and do something serious, to even top Jaws

Over the years, there has been the odd ‘good’ shark movie that have made their way to a proper theatrical release, an attempt to take things seriously or at least semi seriously with a big budget – Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, last year’s The Shallows – and Australian movie Bait in which a tsunami floods an underground supermarket leaving it’s customers cut off and sharing aisle space with a killer shark. The latest in line is The Meg, based on series of books from the 90s, which yes, of course I devoured in my youth. The Meg has been on the cards for adaptation for several years now but only now is being made with resources from Hollywood and the all important Chinese market that is partly funded by the Chinese government.

The Meg is basically a big money take on the giant shark movie that ha already been done to death. Everyone by now probably knows what a Megalodon is.

 The plot goes something like this. In the beginning, Jason Statham (playing a dude called Jonas because The Bible) is involved in a daring rescue mission to save sailors from a sunken nuclear submarine. Just as he is home and dry, he realises that the sub has been attacked by a large sea creature and so must sacrifice the life of his two men to save the rest of the crew. Years later, off the coast of China, Rainn Wilson’s eccentric billionaire visits his state of the art marine biology research centre, which is monitored by a progressive Star Trek esque crew of different ethnicities. The target of research is the exploration of a secret layer of depth to the world’s deepest oceans kept warm by geothermal vents and hidden by a cloud layer that looks like the bottom of the ocean but is just a veil to uncharted ocean depth that is teaming with life, but of course the sub is attacked by an unseen gigantic creature. Leaving the scientists no other option but to call up Jason Statham to save the day. Fast forward a bit, The Stath has agreed begrudgingly to come back for one more mission, it becomes apparent that the submarine has been attacked by a gigantic thought to be extinct species of prehistoric shark called a Megalodon. The shark escapes beyond the veil to terrorise the waters and beaches along the coast of China.

The Meg plays it way too safe. It’s no where near as scary as it could be – I mean think of it, a giant set of jaws emerging from the deep to swallow you whole. That’s scary. The notion of being swallowed alive is scary. But when the shark does actually attack the beaches, the kills are all very bloodless and pedestrian. It’s not even as funny as it’s silly setup. Many of the characters feel crow-barred in probably to hit the quota of the Chinese film board.

In Jaws, when Quint interrupts the local Amity Island council meeting by scraping his nails down a chalkboard he remarks that the shark could swallow you whole. For Jaws this was enough. A monster shark – 25 feet – 3 tonnes of him. But as The Meg is 4 times the size of a jaws it could swallow you whole and then some. And that’s basically it, we’re not dealing with a deep seated fear of the ocean or anything that scares you on a deeper level, it’s just about a big shark. Like, a really really big shark. A stupendously big shark. A shark the size of a whale. A shark that eats whales in one bite. That’s it.

The Meg is a nothing movie. I don’t think I could even recommend it to fans who buy into Sharknado schlock, because there is nothing here. It’s not even a great Jason Statham movie.  I was secretly hoping this movie would be mega but ultimately a better name for it would have been The Meh.

Pin Cushion

Still reeling in disappointment from The Meg, the next movie I would see was Pin Cushion at the opening night of The Short Cinema festival at the Phoenix Cinema in Leicester. Pin Cushion is the debut feature from writer and director Deborah Haywood – who had mad several short films that had garnered critical acclaim. It’s a film I knew mostly nothing about going into it, apart from a thumbs up from Mark Kermode.

It’s a coming of age tale centred upon one teenager called Iona and her mother Lyn as they move into a new area within the Midlands. Initially the Mother and daughter are very close, doing seemingly everything together and living a cotton wool wrapped life of afternoon tea and cakes. However, what initially feels like a quirky woollen wrapped indie movie begins to move into darker territory when Iona starts to make friends with the mean girls at school.

There are illusions to fairy tale and folk lore. The mother is a hunchback, a pet budgie is referred to as Iona’s brother, the two of them live a happy if overly cloistered life within the four walls of their castle. Those looking in will probably describe it all as a little weird and the film is not objecting that either, but they’re both happy in their weirdness. It is only when outside influences come into the fray, the lipstick, the alcohol, boys, and peer pressure to be cool in front of the cool kids that the relationship between mother and daughter begins to crumble and innocence starts to wander in startling dark and bleak unexpected ways.

Both mother and daughter are attempting to forge friendships and relationships outside of one another. Whilst Iona goes through the usual trials of a teenager. The teenage drama is perhaps the focus, the magic realism along juxtaposed with the mundanity of life in a small Midlands town reminded me of Taika Waititi’s films. However it’s the darkness of it all that gives Haywood’s film a  style and character all of it’s own. Growing up in Staffordshire and being familiar with the kinds of places the film is set in, it’s a recognisable darkness, a recognisable bleakness. By the end you’ll feel more than a few pin pricks.

The Festival

The-Festival

Feels really weird talking about this movie in October with the heady festival days of the summer long behind us, but in my mission to comment on every movie I see at the cinema this year, I have to cover it. I just have to. I’m a slave to the grind.

The Festival is a British comedy written by the guys who created The Inbetweeners starring that guy from The Inbetweeners. And that woman from The Inbetweeners who also played Warren’s sister in Hollyoaks.  It’s very much like The Inbetweeners then. It’s comedy is rooted heavily to the cringe and the sheer embarrassment of being a white British male. It probably was originally a third Inbetweeners movie. The Inbetweeners go to a festival.

It’s basically the Inbetweeners. That’s what I’m trying to say.

Upon graduating from university, Simon from the Inbetweeners is dumped by his girlfriend. He spends the next summer withdrawn to his room in a depressive lull. Fast forward a few weeks and his best friend lures him out of his depression by taking him to the great British music festival where they will sing and dance, drink alcohol, take drugs and probably get naked with someone dressed as a smurf. An environment where anything goes. An environment that is so quintessentially British yet so polar opposite to the wider perception of Britishness.

Unfortunately for him (from the Inbetweeners) his ex-girlfriend is also attending the festival. So what starts out as an excuse to escape a bad breakup has him awkwardly meeting his ex face to face. So, can him from the Inbetweeners let his ex go and just embrace the festival lifestyle for three days? Or will he just be miserable the whole time and basically be a burden to the actual people who do actually like and accept him?

It gets off to a start, with him from the Inbetweeners awkwardly penetrating his girlfriend – it moves on to gross out involving ejaculation on to graduation gowns – in which his mother becomes involved. Once they get to the festival, there isn’t much in the way of music in this actual festival. But there is nudity, sex with a smurf and an instance in which someone fucks a goat. So it is all mostly gross out and grimace comedy. Y’know like the Inbetweeners.

Him from the Inbetweeners may be doing the same thing he was doing in the Inbetweeners, but he’s pretty good at it. Best part of the movie is Australian comedian Claudia O’Doherty who routinely steals the show and I think I’d take her as my wife if the situation ever arose.

Also Jemaine Clement is in it. So that’s already better than most movies get.

It’s the Inbetweeners. If you every enjoyed The Inbetweeners, you’ll probably like this.

Mamma Mia: Here we go again!

Going from Pin Cushion, one story about mother/daughter relationships to another…

Once again, I was a sceptic going in Mamma Mia 2. I had seen the first movie. Oh boy had I seen the first movie. On DVD. In the comfort of my own home, at Christmas with alcohol. It won me over. Sure. I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m not a philistine who is only into edgy movies. I like joy. I can be joyous.

But seeing the sequel in the actual cinema felt like a step up. Like I was to be a more active participant in the film and all it’s singing and dancing. Cinema isn’t for singing and dancing, you’ve got to be quiet and be focused on what is on the screen. Was I prepared for this?

This feeling of trepidation very quickly subsided and I began enjoying every moment. It’s incredible. Perhaps even more incredible than the first movie. As far as sequels go it’s up there with the Godfather Part 2 in how it deals with duelling timelines between the mother and the daughter. Who needs De Niro when you’ve got Abba? That seems like a crazy thought, Charlie? Heresy even. Maybe so! I honestly don’t care.

I COULD BURST INTO SONG AT ANY MOMENT!

Plotwise, In the present Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is attempting to put on a big party for the reopening of her mother’s hotel. Her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep) passed away a year ago so there is this air of latent sadness in the air that wasn’t there in the first film. Going back in time, the film switches gears to tell the story of a young Donna (played by Lily James) and how she ended up on the island in the first place and how she met Sophie’s three fathers. The past with young Donna has this sunny rose tinted view full of the exuberance of youth, the present and future is largely one of melancholy and tension of whether or not everyone will make it to the big party.

Where do I even start about what I liked about this movie? A big part of it is Lily James who’s just awesome. Not even the biggest Last Jedi hater could not be charmed by her in this role. It’s the ensemble, how everyone is having such a great time in this movie. It’s Julie Walters eating carbs non stop throughout the song and dance routines. It’s the fact that they kept Pierce Brosnan from singing too much but kept him crucially as this silently devastated man. It’s the way they build Cher into the movie and then build her up to singing that Abba song It’s the bit when the god damned boats come in and you just want to punch the air even though you knew it was coming but it still works.

It’s the church scene at the end, which hits you in the heart like a bus.

I think overall, on sheer artistic merits it’s the way the movie depicts the air of melancholy and loss that we all experience in our lives next to this unbridled sense of joy and happiness. I think it can be all too easy for people to embrace the darkness in their lives and let themselves be controlled by it – arguably in real life – it’s easier to go this route than do the thing that people do in these Mama Mia movies do to alleviate the darkness – dancing through the streets LIKE LOONS to the music of Abba. But this is one of the many reasons that films are here for. To transport us – to show us an idealised and cosy version of reality, acknowledging the darkness but never defeated by it.

Mamma Mia 2 is easily the best film of the summer and the year. It’s up there with the Godfather 2. I’ll fight anyone who disagrees. Except I won’t fight you. I’ll take you by the hand and start singing Dancing Queen and you will be the Dancing Queen.

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s ‘latest joint’ is also produced by Jordan Peele fresh off the back of the success of Get Out. Peele came to Lee, one of the most seminal African-American voices in modern cinema with this story about a black policeman who infiltrated the KKK during the 70s. Turns out the story has, sadly, even more resonance in today’s day and age.

The year is 1979, the setting is Colorado. It starts with Ron Stallworth (John David Washington son of Denzel) enlisting in the police force – the first African American to become a cop. Working through several menial jobs, Stallworth is soon elected for undercover work with Jewish (though not particularly religious) detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Specifically, he is used to wear a wire tap and attend local black power meetings in order to highlight any traces of violent uprising against White America. Gradually, Stallworth of his own accord, phones up the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan and convinces them he is a white man interested in joining the terrorist group. Agreeing to meet in person, Stallworth uses Flip as his white stand-in therby gauging whether the Klan are a threat to the local community.

For a story that does deal in concepts that are unfortunately very much alive today, police brutality towards black people, a prison system rigged against black people, those in positions of political power enabling those with white supremacist beliefs to resurface stronger than they have done in years, to those behind the scenes who are very directly looking to find ways to broadcast their own alt right ideology across media and the internet in the aims to incite division.

There are a number of times throughout the movie, that today’s circumstances are very deliberately spelled out. A detective has a talk with Stallworth in a corridor about how the KKK’s ultimate goal is to get someone of their ilk and beliefs into the highest seat of the American government. They both laugh it off, but it wouldn’t have been out of place for both characters to stop laughing and just look at us directly through the camera for five minutes. A phonecall with Topher Grace’s David Duke ends a phone call by basically repeating word for word making America great again. But it’s all done with a wink to the audience – the characters laugh at how stupid that may seem. And then you just feel the shit of today’s situation.

And you do feel angry. Entertained, but angry.

As a Spike Lee film, Blackkklansman is a return to form. With some extremely charged film making, a peaceful black protest, is cut alongside a KKK inauguration, in which the white hoods watch Birth of a Nation. The film gave rose to the KKK in society after depicting the organisation as a righteous order that punished dissenting slaves portrayed so obviously as the bad guys. Lee obviously knows that to wield a camera can be as powerful as wielding a weapon.

There is much to like in Black Klansman, both in the way it shows the KKK and white supremacy to be stupid but at the same time, with the film’s final shot as it leads into a montage of more recent alt-right protests in the US and particularly Charlottesville. The ideology of the KKK still very much exists. Enabled by a president, a man who cheats, a man who only cares for himself, a man who has given other right wing shit talkers the credence that their views are to be accepted. One step forward. Two steps back.

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