LoveFilm Chronicles: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Two weeks ago, we filled in a gap in our cinematic history, and came away with a weird reading informed by decades of cultural osmosis. Today, LoveFilm opted to send us something more recent in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a spy comedy directed by Matthew Vaughn. The reaction seemed to split into two camps: those that thought it was a work of satirical action movie genius, and those that thought it was a boring conservative power fantasy making empty gestures towards subversiveness.

Now I've watched the movie, and I'm here to tell you for once and for all that: it's... both? kind of? What?

Let's dive in...

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Kingsman: The Secret Service has some of the most baffling politics to ever appear in a movie. And not in the same way as something like Transformers: Age of Extinction, where intentionality collides with ineptitude to create something accidentally interesting which seems to be at war with itself. No, Kingsman is far from inept, it's a coherent and confident film structured to make, by the standards of its blockbuster peers, an incredibly daring stance on the disgusting nature of widespread classism. And then, immediately after making such a pointed and seemingly self-aware argument, advocates some of the most backwards respectability politics it possibly could.

There is a lot to unpack here.

The movie tells the story of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the Son of a Kingsman agent who dies in the movie's first scene. He's shown as a kid who has lost his brilliant potential, and squandered his life away with crime, drugs and other such council estate cliches. In fact, the film delights in showing Eggsy's home life as something to be escaped, presenting every other man as a degenerate thug and presenting his mother as an abused wife with no agency of her own. This isn't anything unique, British Cinema is overflowing with depictions of working class life as depravity porn, but it so completely sabotages the supposed thematic ends that Kingsman is working towards.

Eventually, Eggsy does find his escape, when he's selected by Colin Firth's Harry to become a Kingsman candidate. The Kingsmen refer to themselves as Gentlemen, obsessed with surface notions of respectability as self worth. Their secret base is a tailor off of Piccadilly Circus, their secret weapon a bulletproof umbrella. They are cold blooded murderers operating with no jurisdiction who get by entirely upon their class status. It's clear that Kingsman is attempting to show us "the real" James Bond, with its comedic juxtaposition of white, rich British values and scenes of explosive, often empty violence. Unfortunately, in a world where the last James Bond movie presents us with a tragically impotent colonial assassin, Kingsman's reverence for the stereotype makes it a far less successful critique than the very movies it is supposedly critiquing.

The first half to two-thirds of the film features Eggsy's Kingsman training cut against Harry's spy quest to find out what Richard Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is up to. Eggsy nominally learns that being a Kingsman doesn't come from your inherited class but from your strength of character, and then in the very next scene Harry returns from his suave dinner with Valentine to give Harry a makeover, getting rid of his tracksuit and replacing it with a tailored suit. It continues in this way, with these two seemingly contradictory themes just operating parallel, until finally the plot kicks into action and Kingsman makes its move. 

Kingsman's pivotal scene is in a small town american church, in which Valentine tests his superweapon, a wave that turns up the aggression centres of everyone in range of his free sim cards. The scene fades from a cartoonish preacher slinging a litany of racial slurs as the good Christians nod along politely to, when Valentine activates the weapon, an orgy of violence with Harry smack bang in the middle of it. It's this clear gotcha critique of action movies, a very "hah, is this what you wanted?!" scene, but more interestingly to me it's the first moment in the film where the Kingsmen veneer of respectability is shown to be fallible. The sight of a suited Colin Firth slaughtering southern American stereotypes places both on a similar level - a British Aristocrat is no less repugnant than these people simply because he hides his views in a tailored suit and a charming turn of phrase.

Here is where Kingsman not only stands on the brink of building its muddled mess into something resembling a striking thematic message, but achieves it in a rather stunning fashion. All world leaders, go along with Valentine's plan to activate this wave of violence and have the poor kill each other while they get safe passage into the new, safer, world. After Harry is shot dead, Eggsy steps up to save the day, and realises the only way is to overload the inhibitor chips inside the chosen few, killing every single person who decided their life was worth more than those beneath them. Which, unsurprisingly, includes Michael Caine, the Kingsmen's top boss. What follows is a sixty second montage set to alternative British Anthem, "Land Of Hope and Glory," as the heads of world leaders everywhere explode into beautiful fireworks.

This is certainly cartoonish, but make no mistake, Kingsman's climax is the joyous execution of the Bourgeois who had gathered together to celebrate as the poor rip each other to shreds. It's got a far more juvenile tone, but it's an almost Tarantinoesque in its fantasy that maybe we could just blow up the causes of systemic violence around us. It takes this group of people who refuse to take responsibility for their violent role in society (after all, the poor are killing each other!) and passes judgement upon them all. It's the shooting Hitler scene from Inglorious Basterds but applied to the entirety of the modern financial elite.

Immediately after, a suited Eggsy returns home to beat up those awful poor thugs in his estate and take his Mother away to the life of luxury the family of a newly knighted Kingsman agent deserves. It's one of the most intense examples of thematic whiplash I've ever seen, and completely undercuts the chance for Kingsman to be truly subversive. "Manners maketh man," Eggsy says, repeating Harry's catchphrase, condemning these filthy ruffians for simply not being as distinguished as him. The same manners that not two scenes ago were explicitly condemned for the ease with which the upper classes could condone the extermination of their lessers.

All of which is to say: Kingsman: The Secret Service isn't a bad film, but it's a massively disappointing one. Not so much incoherent as unaware of, ironically,  its own message about reprehensible values hiding just below the surface. If you want an action movie that engages with British Working Class Life earnestly (not to mention actually acknowledging the ways that race and gender intersect with classism) then please watch Attack The Block instead.

Trashpect Ratio 17: Glengarry Glen Ross

To listen to the episode, click hereTo subscribe, click here to find the site feed on iTunes, or search "head falls off" into any good podcast directory.

It’s a cast –
A podcast?
A podcast, yes.
What are you saying?
I’m saying there’s a new podcast out.
Can I hear it?
You can listen to it.
Listen or hear?
You can listen to it whenever you want.
There a movie?
There’s always a movie, it’s a movie podcast, what are you –

Please enjoy the final Trashpect Ratio of 2015, where we gather round and talk about Glengarry Glen Ross.

Movies Discussed

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part two
Glengarry Glen Ross

This Month’s Movie

Glengarry Glen Ross

Next Month’s Movie

Trouble Every Day

LoveFilm Chronicles: Psycho

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Last week, we took a trip into Guy Ritchie's directorial debut and came away majorly disappointed. This week we move away from moderately popular cult films into one of the best films ever made from one of the best directors ever made, at least according to popular culture. I've not seen a Hitchcock, so I've got a lot of catching up to do, and I'm ready to fill myself in!

That said, it is definitely filling myself in. I know the deal with Psycho, everybody and their mother knows the deal with Psycho, which is going to greatly effect my experience with something that deals primarily with mystery, tension and shock. So join me, won't you, into a look at what it's like to watch Psycho for the first time in the year of our lord, twenty fifteen.

Psycho (1960)

I can't think of a single film for which the reputation and discussion of a film works against its original intent more than Psycho. And I don't mean that necessarily in a bad way, I just mean that Psycho is a movie playing to a very specific audience; an audience that doesn't know what happens in Psycho.

Which is where it gets interesting for me, because the surprise, the delight and the joy of Psycho came not from discovering the ending, but from discovering the beginning. Because the first 20 minutes of Psycho are not only a completely different film, they're also a far, far better one. The goofy noir that is this woman stealing money from her workplace in order to try to run away is a delight, the tension that the movie is known for displayed in a far less oppressive manner, turning it into more of a genre comedy than anything else.

These first twenty minutes display a playfulness that the film lacks with its increased focus on Norman and the mystery of Bates Motel. Marion is pursued by what can only be described as the worlds worst cop, who spends ten minutes leaning on his car watching her purchase a new getaway vehicle, before slowly walking over to the car dealership himself. It's a ludicrous sequence, one that relies entirely on the knowledge that a film can so brazenly disregard the reality of its situation if it still invests in it as true. Hitchcock's direction in this opening section is both comedically absurd and played completely straight, and we both laugh at and fear for Marion in the situation she's found herself in.

But that, obviously, isn't the whole movie. Eventually Marion pulls in at a motel to sleep for a night, and after a short conversation with Norman, is quickly offed and the aura of familiarity the movie has brought up disappears, or at least it is intended to. Unfortunately we can't go back to the 1960s - nor should we want to - but it does mean that far from the rug being pulled out from under us, it is in fact the film sinking into something expected and rote.

There's a sense of fun to the story of a woman on the run from a world that wants her to stay that just isn't present in the mediation of what's going on inside a serial killer's mind. It doesn't help that the answer to that question is straight up embarrassing, but the fact that the film dissolves into awful psychological guesswork at the end isn't the problem so much as this has become generically such well worn ground. And not just well worn, but given import above its station. In Psycho, a good woman is sacrificed at the alter of a more interesting evil man, which is basically the tragedy of all crime fiction writ small.

Which is why, surprisingly, my reaction to Psycho was that I should dig deeper into slasher films. Psycho plays its obsession with and sympathy for its villain so earnestly straight that it mostly highlights how much better the opening was. But it's unfair to lay my reaction to a 55 year old movie entirely at that movie's feet when my reaction's been informed by 55 more years of this same story. And so, I want to get over my fear of horror and see what work's been done in the genre, because I hear from my horror fan friends that slasher films can be an incredibly vibrant and subversive place; something I'd like to know more about.

Aside from that, my reaction to Psycho was inevitably a kind of shrug. My gap is filled in, I now understand an important part of cinema history, and I don't regret doing it for a second. Sometimes that experience is delightful and you discover what was a cultural icon is also this very real work of art and it's this fantastic moment of connection. Sometimes though, it's just filling in a gap.

LoveFilm Chronicles: Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Last week, we were in equal parts delighted and bemused by the contradictory Scrooged, this week we've been sent a little movie responsible for the last decade and a half of British Gangster Movies that we're still suffering through to this day. And whilst I've only seen Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies, and found them incredibly dull, I have it on good authority from trusted friends that Lock Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels is actually a good lot of fun and should bear none of the ill will for what came in its wake.

Well, I apologise, but to everybody who told me I'd like Lock Stock: you were unfortunately wrong. Which leaves me at a bit of a loss for what to write next, because while I easily could just write a thousand words snarking on why I didn't like the film, it wouldn't be interesting and it's the exact opposite of what I want to do with this writing.

So with that in mind, let's dig in and see just what is going on in Guy Ritchie's directorial debut...

Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

I think the reason I don't like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is because it's a 1 hour and 47 minute joke told to people who are explicitly not me. The characters are archetypes, the situations inevitable, the audience meant to be laughing along because they enjoy the tropes of the genre and like seeing them embraced.

Which is a fair way to enjoy the film. There's a certain coen-esque charm to the way the story falls in on itself, the way the dominos come crashing down in such an unlikely way as to allow our heroes to both succeed and fail in ways for which the only appropriate reaction is yelling "of course. Of Course!" But there's no centre to Lock Stock, there's no heart or depth to the way it plays with genre, it's simply playing because it wants to play.

I'm almost loathe to write that up as a negative; hollow imitation is how anyone starts out, it is the first stepping stone in the development of any creative craft. Hell, Star Wars, the single most relevant film in western culture for the last half a century, is just George Lucas making a 30s Serial because god dammit he missed 30s Serials. But it does explain why there's a student film quality to Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels in a way that goes beyond sheer formal inexperience and budgetary constraints.

For example, each experimental technique and stylistic experiment is wholly purposeless because the story itself is without purpose. The plot is deliberately set up as a zero-sum game, a sitcomesque madcap adventure which collapses in on itself before the credits roll; it is a film about nothing.  Yet there is no attempt made to bring me into the wants and needs of these characters who exist as nothing more than references and icons. They're equally as awful and self-sabotaging as the Seinfeld crew but without the connective power of their deeply human flaws. I mean, I watched this movie three hours ago and the only main character I remember is Jason Statham and that's entirely because he's Jason Statham.

Though I suspect the differences between me and this movie go deeper than unengaging character work. It would be one thing if Lock Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels simply inspired apathy, but instead I actively disliked it, and the main characters I was meant to be rooting for. They are the perfect example of The Lads, a group of guys incapable of empathy or kindness, who instead fail upwards with their particular brand of cheeky charm. The crew in Lock Stock are positioned as everymen, likable and down on their luck, and the film assumes the audience will therefore be behind them. But they're not everymen, they're the chosen kind of perfect person, and the film's contortions to allow them to emerge despite their consistence incompetence serves as an unintentional commentary on the mediocrity that white men are afforded within British culture. Of course they'd be so cheeky, of course they'd be so cocky, what could possibly go wrong?

Now, the last thing I want to do is write a thinkpiece on Lad Culture, but I want to make clear that I'm not writing off British Gangster films or Lock Stock itself as wholly unredeemable. Even Lock Stock makes play at examining these archetypes on a deeper level, with the three public school weed dealers so clearly out of their depth. This gesture towards the way in which class tensions shape characters into their archetypes is the closest Lock Stock gets to an earnest engagement into something deeper than perpetuating generic tropes without examining what they might be saying. But these issues have been addressed so much better within genre fair; Attack The Block is a strikingly nuanced look at class, race and culture within London and it's also a ridiculous alien adventure. Hell, Dexter Fletcher (who plays Soap) went on to direct Wild Bill, a British Gangster film that tackles head on the intersection of class, crime and family in the way Lock Stock purports to and knocks it out of the water.

So it is with great disappointment that I announce I'm just not going to ever enjoy a Guy Ritchie film. Maybe Snatch will prove me wrong one day, but we'll just have to wait a while and see. And I don't hate Lock Stock at all, but I find it indulgent filmmaking into an indulgence I don't share. Which isn't even close to the worst thing a film can be.

LoveFilm Chronicles: Scrooged

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Last week, we were blessed with a surreal exploration of the psyche of a broken man, and now we move away from Werner Herzog to Richard Donner and a far more mainstream 80s comedy starring Bill Murray. At least, that's what I was expecting, because instead we once again have a surreal exploration of the psyche of a broken man.

I mean seriously, this movie is fucked up. And not in the usual way that A Christmas Carol is fucked up - though it certainly is that as well. But it's such a bizarre mix of dark, hearfelt, cruel, surreal and nasty that the film itself is certainly something to behold. That sounds like I'm declaring it a disaster, but that's not what I mean to imply. It's more that my expectations for it and the reality of it diverged so wildly that discovering the truth of the film was an experience in and of itself.

So let's do it, let's gather round, and discuss the one, the only Bill Murray...

Scrooged (1988)

Before we get into the particulars of Scroged, let's talk about A Christmas Carol. It's a classic tale at this point, told and retold every other year, and has firmly rooted itself within the cultural idea of Christmas, at least in the west. On the face of it, A Christmas Carol is a sweet story about the spirit of Christmas and how it's never too late for your heart to grow three sizes that day. But it's also, obviously, a deeply political text about the plight of the working class, and less obviously, it's completely inept at being this.

Scrooge is responsible for countless deaths at the hands of his rampant poverty, and yet he is extended limitless empathy and patience from the story. In its efforts to be warm and kind, it ends up completely sabotaging itself and functions as a vehicle for assuaging guilt. In fact, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suggest this focus on redemption and patience for those abusing positions of power is why the story has enjoyed such a cultural longevity.

But that's not why I bring this up, I couldn't give a shit about calling out Charles Dickens or what have you, instead it's really important context for where Scrooged comes in. This is a mainstream movie released into 1988 America, the year after Wall Street was released, the 80s have been going on a while and their unsustainable nature has begun to dawn. In that sense, Scrooged is a perfect movie for its time, a story about getting back to what matters whilst reassuring everyone that it isn't too late.

This becomes explicit within the film, as it begins with an advert for Scrooge, a production of A Christmas Carol that Frank's (Murray) TV channel will be running on Christmas Eve. Everybody wants to run an ad that focuses on the reassuring nature of Christmas; Frank wants to run an ad that scares people into watching the show by reminding them of how awful the world is. With all this, the stage is then set for Scrooged to be a sentimental 80s movie about how everything is going to be okay, with a Groundhog Day-esque Murray performance about a grump learning to love again.

But if it was just that, I don't think I'd be writing about it, because I don't think anybody would really remember it. Whilst it generically wears the skin of that film, it has a twisted sensibility which overwhelms any and all sentimentality, and in so doing becomes something dark, strange - and exciting. The kind of dangerous movie kids fall in love with because their parents have no idea what they're getting into.

A large amount of this rests on Murray's shoulders. While the script itself is not lacking in either, Bill Murray's performance is without wry charm or muted sadness, the two key elements of Murray's career. Instead, his Frank goes from callous and mean to desperate and panicked by the end. In the obviously ridiculous opening where he fires Bobcat Goldthwait, Murray's dry and disconnected performance turns it from cartoonish to precise and cruel. In the obviously heartfelt ending, when he has a change of heart and wishes well to everyone, Murray rips his performance straight out of Network as he rants breathlessly to the television camera with his bosses looking on. His journey is not one of a heart opening up but a head falling apart.

This is all compounded by Scrooged's trips into a dark surrealism. Each ghostly visit increases in intensity, we start with a shambling corpse holding Murray by the neck through the window of a skyscraper, and we end with Murray himself trapped in a coffin and burning alive. These sequences do appeal to Frank's heart, building up his relationship with Claire (Karen Allen), but even in these flashbacks Murray's performance is entirely without warmth, as Allen's is simply overflowing in it. The lack of chemistry between them is palpable, and thus the relationship can't possibly compete with the more surreal and primal existential terror that drives the movie from plot point to plot point.

All of which should make Scrooged a failure, right? The concept, the story and the script are all building a framework which the final film does not in one way deliver on, and if that's a failure then sure, I think Scrooged failed in its aims. But the film itself is so strange, intense, scary, subversive and yes, sometimes very funny that I can't help but say that I enjoyed it. Everything is so slightly off, so slightly wrong and so slightly dangerous that it has this palpable cinematic spark, bursting with energy from scene to scene, grabbing hold and never letting go til Bill Murray starts half-heartedly taunting the audience as the credits roll.

It'll never be an important film to me, a twenty-one year old in 2015, but it is among many folks I know who watched it young around the time, and I completely understand why.

LoveFilm Chronicles: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

After last week's trip into a tactile cinematic reality, this week's film couldn't be any more wildly different. What arrived in the post was Werner Herzog's 2009 film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a film that may or may not be a remake of the 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, but I'm not going to waste any time deciding whether it is or isn't. Werner Herzog certainly doesn't care.

What the film is, however, is fucking ridiculous. Somewhere between a bent-cop drama, a surrealist drug trip and a raucous, nihlistic comedy, it's a 122 minute experience which I'm delighted to have had and enjoyed thoroughly but would be hard pressed to say whether it was a good film. Such descriptions are meaningless here.

So with all that said, it's time to see our souls dance in the presence of Nic Cage, the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad lieutenant.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

First things first: look at that poster. I mean, seriously, have you ever seen a worse poster? Look at Nic Cage's fuck off digitally inserted gun. Look at Eva Mendes' outfit. Look at Val Kilmer standing at the bottom shadowed in dust and light as if this film is a slick and sexy film here to portray the seductive villainy of the titular Bad Lieutenant.

It's perfect. I love it so much. I look at this poster, and I smile because I know there are a non-zero number of people who saw this image, and on this image alone either bought a ticket or purchased the DVD from a bargain bin as if it was any other thriller. And then I think of the experience they must have had as they realised just how wrong that they were. Some of them would be grumpy, but some would be overjoyed.

On the face of it, Port of call New Orleans is that film. It begins with Nicolas Cage's Terence McDonagh injuring himself in a moment of selflessness that flies directly in the face of his cruel dialogue, saving a man trapped in a cell during Hurricane Katrina. It ends with those two men meeting up once more, sharing something resembling a touching, bittersweet final moment. In between these two moments, Cage takes all the cocaine in the western hemisphere, has a lot of sad disaffected sex and repeatedly makes claims towards being the only sane man in this fucked up department (and by extension, world).

Maybe you could have taken this script and played it like the film I just described. Maybe in an alternate universe, this exists in that form and was immediately forgotten about. But whilst it wears the skin of this simple genre thriller, it is instead a trip into Cage's unhinged performance and Herzog's strange and surreal direction. Things such as stakes or drama are meaningless, and not once does it invest in them. It invests in Cage screaming, his gun raised at two old ladies in a nursing home, yelling at them for reasons long since forgotten. It invests in a bizarre philosophical conversation between Cage and a suspect sharing a joint. It invests in the dancing soul of a mob boss shot dead.

It's just stunning to behold such a certainty in the filmmaking. You're going to watch these things happen because these things are worth watching, you're not here to solve a puzzle, you're not here to write a thesis, you're here to watch. And laugh. And keep laughing. Because what else is there to do at something so full of energy, so bizarre, so joyful in its every scene? It knows its hilarious, it knows there's no way to make these events tragic or potent and doesn't want to try.

In some ways, it feels like a long con. It manages to blend a surreal total rejection of narrative whilst superficially adhering to a long-established narrative form. It's made with an artful craft but makes no attempt to build towards deeper meaning, instead focusing on the ridiculous joy of its frenetic surface. Almost as if the film is in fact made for the person who sees that poster, as if it's here to trick people into engaging with a wider approach to filmmaking without them even realising it.

And I love it for that. It's accessible and inaccessible. Smartly made and endlessly stupid. It cares so much yet so little, and it just wants you to care too. And not to analyze or consider, but to just feel something when Nicolas Cage yells at you, as it pauses for a shot from the imaginary iguana's perspective, as all conflicts are resolved in a single scene of increasingly ludicrous fortunate co-incidences.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is simply wonderful, and to say anymore would be redundant. I watched, I felt, and I laughed. I think it'd have a similar effect on you. Why should any more need to be said?

LoveFilm Chronicles: American Gangster

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Our first entry? Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, the 2007 crime biopic starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and honestly the whims of the computer have not been kind to us today. It would be great if we could start with a propulsive opening entry to this series, with a film that inspires, good or bad, something stirring within. American Gangster is unfortunately no such film, it’s the yearly period biopic with a stunning cast that wins a bunch of Oscars but is immediately forgotten. It hits every beat with no more or less than is required. It whelms.

But thankfully there’s more to say about it than that, the last thing I want to be is dismissive, and I’m determined to make this series a good one. Here we go!

American Gangster (2007)

In the best and final shot in the film, Frank Lucas (Washington) takes his first steps outside prison in fifteen years. The gate rolls down behind him, and he stands still on the pavement, taking in this world alien to him. A car drives past blaring Public Enemy, and Frank can do nothing but look on, framed flat against the prison walls behind him, a man out of time.

Thematically, American Gangster functions as a kind of cliffnotes The Wire, in which the capitalist machinations of the drug trade are used as metaphor to get to the heart of American identity. And whilst it's certainly not ineffective at that, as Lucas stands on the sidewalk, new words on old walls, new music on old music, it becomes clear where American Gangster excels, where American Gangster had always excelled: as a tone piece celebrating a place and time long since gone.

Because the early 70s of American Gangster is a wonderful place to spend an hour or two. It combines a rugged, practical production design with the handheld, grainy digital photography giving the whole film a slightly toned down, Michael Mann feel. The film simply revels in its journey through cinematic reference points; the fragile warmth of the gangster family around the table at thanksgiving, the run-down claustrophobia of a z-tier office for the police task force that nobody wants. It's a loving tour through scenes seen a thousand times before, a painstaking effort to transport the audience back to a world that almost certainly never existed in reality, but certainly existed in cinema, and that's real enough for this "true story."

So it's a shame that the words coming out of these characters mouths are so bland and on the nose. For the most part, people speak in monologues, baldly expositing theme to the audience, which wouldn't be a problem if it didn't undercut the subtleties of its cinematic world. Much like Scott's Prometheus, American Gangster forgoes the nuances of character work in order to stress the importance of the points it strains so hard to make. In so doing, it strips this beautiful world of its humanity, and not even the (frankly amazing) cast can bring it back.

Make no mistake, American Gangster is not even close to the clinical disaster of Prometheus. Denzel brings the charisma in his portrayal of Lucas, a man whose moral certainty gives way to extreme and unthinkable cruelty when the world doesn't co-operate with his vision. He's out to restore the Harlem he loves, the Harlem long presided over by Bumpy, a crime lord with a respect for community and family that seems to be lost in this modern, crueler America. The game done changed.

Russell Crowe is at peak Russell Crowe as Richie Richards, the dishonest honest cop, a man who will turn over his friends on principle but won't take the time to see his son on the weekends. At one point he yells "follow the money!" in reference to the car in front of them with the money in it; it's pretty great. Richie and Frank don't meet until the final ten minutes of the film, but are continually positioned as equals, desperate men trapped in broken systems, their attempts to affect any change squandered by their sheer individual smallness.

It would be profound if it wasn't so rote; American Gangster's cinematic imitation combines decades old inspiration with modern photography to create a nostalgic and wistful atmosphere, but it can't achieve the same nuance in its narrative. Like its protagonists, the film's singular focus is its downfall, and in its dogged attempts to pursue a righteous cause it ends up pushing people away.

Then the credits roll, and we're left with Frank Lucas on the sidewalk, in the 90s. The world I've just spent two and a half hours in has gone, lost to time, and that tragedy in and of itself renders concerns about thematic potency trivial. The film's flaws fade into the background, and I and it reach an understanding, just as Frank and Richie do in their final meeting. Maybe we're not at odds at all. Maybe we never were.

Trashpect Ratio 16: Heavy Traffic

To listen to the episode, click hereTo subscribe, click here to find the site feed on iTunes, or search "head falls off" into any good podcast directory.

From all over the world, the Trashpectors gather, by hook or by bookshop, to record a podcast and bring it to you on this most autumnal of Ides. They sit down for a short while to bring Destiny’s Star Wars adventure to a close, and discuss a strange animated movie from the 70s…

Movies Discussed

The Creep
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
Monster Squad
The Maltese Falcon
Heavy Traffic

This Month’s Movie

Heavy Traffic

Next Month’s Movie

Glengarry Glen Ross

Trashpect Ratio 15: Farewell My Concubine

To listen to the episode, click here. To subscribe, click here to find the site feed on iTunes, or search "head falls off" into any good podcast directory.Delays and internet troubles cannot stop the ides; this month the Trashpectors watch another Star Wars movie and get very frustrated with a supposed modern classic. Come on in and enjoy a nice movie podcast, why don't you? It's a good time!

Movies Discussed

Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones
The Martian
The Walk
The Shining
Room 237
Farewell My Concubine

This Month’s Movie

Farewell, My Concubine

Next Month’s Movie

Heavy Traffic

Listen To Britain & Stories We Tell

This week, I begun a degree in Film Studies and Creative Writing. I'm incredibly excited, I had to switch from my first degree for health reasons and move back home, but already this seems more suited to the kind of learning I'm good at. That is to say, it's Film Studies and not Media Studies, focused more on the reading of film as an art form, rather than the more abstract and industrial study of the way ideas are mediated culturally. I am great at the former, and am terrible at the latter, at least in terms of engaging with the academic language.

In addition to more official pieces, I want to use this site to try to keep as I progress through the academic year. Mostly as a tool for me than, as I'll use them to point to interesting readings, to texts that may come in handy in future assignments, to things I will need to remember when it comes to getting the grades. But I want to do it in an interesting way, things will be written super informally, and if you're reading along you'll get something out of this too!

The first week was mostly an induction, in which we were introduced to the University's practices and structures, whilst being given outlines for each half of the course. At the early stage, both sides seem cool, Film Studies being highly structured with detailed module guides full of wider reading and related viewing. Creative Writing on the other hand is a little less forward, instead encouraging us to just begin writing anything before we start worrying about the little things like craft, structure and if we're any good. I think both of these approaches are fairly spot on for their subjects.

But being an induction, we've not really got into the meat of things yet, which means this post is also going to be a bit of a short introduction, and next week we'll start to talk about the topics being studied, and what I'm taking from the teaching! AHHHH I'M SCARED, LEARNING IS HARD.

We did, however, watch two films as part of this induction week, and I'm going to make notes about all the films watched as part of the course, so here we go:

Listen To Britain (1942)

dir: Humphrey Jennings & Stewart McAllister

For a piece of wartime propaganda, Listen To Britain displayed a striking amount of nuance in its ability to tap into the deep sense of terror that lies beneath the 'stiff upper lip' persona of the time. Musical montages of community are contrasted with uncertain shots of coastlines with German voices heard on the radio. It's an effective and honest display of vulnerability, from a genre that perhaps you may assume would stay away from weakness.

That's not to say the film is subversive, far from it. As a work of propaganda, it's astoundingly effective. It uses this sense of collective sense of unease to enforce a sense of hegemony, to create a false sense of togetherness and promote an ideological status quo. Listen To Britain, despite the mission statement of the  Mass-Observation movement,.makes no attempt to display the truth of the lives of normal people. Instead people are dehumanised, reduced to signifiers of their class in order to promote this idea of unity from the factory worker to the royal family. Do your part.

Mostly, what watching it revealed was that there is little ideological difference between this form of Wartime Propaganda, and any other form of Capitalist Propaganda. David Cameron, his status as elite so codified that he can engage in acts of excess so ludicrous as pig fucking and still get to be Prime Minister, while using this idea of Austerity to enforce cruel policies which kill thousands of disabled people like me.

We're all in this together. We were always all in this together.

Stories We Tell (2012)

dir: Sarah Polley

I've been thinking about the final shot of Stories We Tell ever since I saw it. The film is beautiful, an overwhelmingly powerful look at the intimate and the epic, at the way the mundanities of our lives contain emotions infinitely vast if only we took the time to look. This film hit me so hard that I was in bawling, ready to give up my obligation writing, the things I do because I think I should, and instead embark on some doomed carpe diem quest to truly find purpose.

And had it ended there, Stories We Tell would have been a masterpiece. But then comes the ending, an almost secret second ending which comes after this film which almost aches with import and profundity fades to black. The screen fades back up, and Geoff Bowes delivers the final punchline, puncturing the balloon that is this movie and letting out all the air. Instantly, what was heavy immediately becomes light, and we leave the room reminded that none of us know a fuckin' thing and that's okay.

I could talk about Stories We Tell's study in narrative perspective, in familial dynamics or even in the emotional truth of the documentary form, but that's not what I took from me. What I took was this perfect singular moment, this confidence to completely undercut what the entire movie had been building to in a manner that didn't take away any of the truth from the earlier revelations.

What a beautiful movie, and a fantastic beginning to the course.