In praise of the title sequence

I never really “got” opening title sequences, a practice these days rather old-fashioned (they’re a relic from the days when the credits were almost always front-ended). As a young and impatient moviegoer I would glower with boredom whenever forced to sit through five minutes of Executive Producer credits. Yawn! Get to the film already!

But then I watched Goldfinger for the first time, and witnessed Robert Brownjohn’s limitlessly iconic credit sequence. Such a melée of intrigue and excitement! Sexy gold ladies! Limbs and body parts every which way!  Perfectly pitched to set the Bond tone and perfectly soundtracked by Dame Shirley, it was artful, compelling and alluring, and first alerted me to the value of a pre-match tease.

So I loved this charming little short above, which has just won a Vimeo award. It’s a knowing nod-and-a-wink to the geeky underclass of us who pay attention to this sort of thing, and it’s executed beautifully. You may not know the names of the graphic designers, but you’ll surely recognise some of the clever little homages.

What, you didn’t recognise any of them? What are you doing with your life? Get thee to a Blockbuster! Watch the first five minutes of all the films! Start with Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Fight Club, Enter The Void, and The Naked Gun, and have your report on my desk Monday morning! (Or just go to The Art of the Title, an opening sequence anorak’s dream come true.)

‘For A Good Time, Call’ – some tagline suggestions

Here’s the poster for upcoming cheeky sex-phoneline comedy For A Good Time, Call…, which features not one but two pun-tastic taglines. Did you spot them? Have another look. I’ll give you a clue – the puns are in bold, and a different colour.

As apocalypse-hasteningly great as those are, I thought I’d have a crack at some telephone-based-romcom-tagline-puns myself. You’re welcome, Focus Features!

  • Don’t DIAL things back!
  • Pick the perfect RING(tone)!
  • Stick to the FAX! (as in, ‘facts’)
  • Are you ready to cut the CORD(less phone)?
  • Find the KEY(pad) to your heart!
  • Take my HAND(set)!
  • Find your true VOICE(mail)!
  • Life at full SPEED(dial)!
  • A story with some FIBRE (optic!)

As you can see, I’m not PHONING it in here! *gets coat*

Killer Joe


William Friedkin’s uncomfortably funny thriller is hard to enjoy, but easy to admire. Taking this disturbing trip into a sweaty, depraved backalley of Americana is Emile Hirsch, a small-time drug dealer owing a life-threatening debt, who persuades his trailer-trash father (Thomas Haden Church) to have his estranged wife contract killed, and claim the life insurance. Naturally, things do not go according to plan.

From Gina Gershon’s pubic hair onwards, it’s clear Friedkin’s appetite for provocation has not dimmed, and the veteran director’s eye is as sharp as ever. Knockout performances come from future Brit star Juno Temple and rarely-this-good Matthew McConaughey, as the indomitable psychopath Joe.  The script, from playwright Tracy Letts, is unpredictable and sometimes uneven, with many long, dialogue-heavy scenes better suited to the stage. But it is powerfully dense and often blackly funny, especially as a knowing study of Texan etiquette. And McConaughey’s unexpected new career trajectory, from shirtless heartthrob to complex anti-hero, continues apace.

Originally published in The Skinny magazine. 

How do you sell the worst film of the year?

That’s the unenviable job tasked to the marketing department of Vertigo Films, who have to market the cheap Mexican adaptation of 1960s cartoon Top Cat to tired parents hoping to keep their children quiet for a couple of hours. The omens are not good. “Disaster of the year,” says the Guardian. “One of the worst-ever spin-offs of a TV  series,” says the Mail. “A grievous insult not only to the original cartoon but animation in general, and also arguably cats,” says the Telegraph.

And yet there was nothing but praise in this newspaper advert I spotted:

“10 OUT OF 10” is an impressive score for any movie; all the more impressive considering the 14% score at Rotten Tomatoes. Who is this fearless cinematic scholar willing to place his or her neck out on the line and grant this universally reviled film a perfect score? Er, Artie, aged 5.

Yes, this gushing praise comes from the mouths of babes – as well as Artie, there’s also Ellie, aged 9 and Gracie, aged 7, all misguidedly claiming to have enjoyed this Mexican cackfest.   It’s yet another campaign resorting to audience testimonials, a worrying trend for marketing films nobody liked.

There’s something rather dishonest about this practice – especially with the kind of squint-or-you’ll-miss-it small print used on this poster, which at first glance would have you believe it’s a critic who “wants to see it again”. It’s not. It’s tiny, stupid, mini-people, all under the age of 10 and many of whom will not yet have learnt the truth about the Tooth Fairy, let alone gained a comprehensive appreciation of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi.

Not that there’s anything wrong per se with testimonials from ‘real people’. We all take recommendations from friends occasionally, because we know and trust their judgement. We generally trust the judgement of critics, too, being as they are relative (though imperfect) experts in their field. What we don’t do is ask a dribbling 5-year-old if he liked the pretty colours. Of course he did. He’s an idiot. His mum probably bought him sweets and a big Fanta. He’s having the time of his life. He hasn’t got a clue.

Ultimately it boils down to a choice. Who do you want to believe: people whose job it is to watch films, or people who cannot yet dress themselves unassisted? Vertigo Films hopes the latter, or at least hopes you don’t have your glasses when looking at film advertising. Don’t fall for the subterfuge. Stay vigilant.

In which I go the the cinema with my immediate family

I spent last weekend with my family, which naturally necessitates a “jolly family activity” that we could all enjoy. A trip to the cinema was suggested. Excellent! A chance to impose my well-honed cine-snobbery on my nearest and dearest. Perhaps we could catch the latest study in bleak socio-realism from the Dardenne brothers The Kid With A Bike, or maybe Cannes critical darling Polisse?  Mum spots something in the local listings. “Rock of Ages?” My heart sinks. The thought of an obnoxiously naff Tom Cruise/Russell Brand musical valiantly attempting to destroy the last measly vestiges of rock’n’roll gives me a violent Vietnam-style flashback of the horrors of Mamma Mia. NEVER FORGET.

So an approximate compromise was reached, and we lumped for a film with the asburdly literal title of Fast Girls, a new Britflick in which – suppress your surprise – Girls are Fast. Hopping on the juggernautian London 2012 bandwagon, Regan Hall’s debut feature depicts an intrepid female sprint relay team team up to go for gold at the Olympics (sorry, ‘World Athletic Championships’ – the Olympic corporate overlords stepped in at the last minute to maintain brand assimilation).

This being a sports movie, there were few surprises. As decreed in ancient times by the God of Sports Movies, so it ever shall be: protagonist overcomes adversity to win the day by learning the value of friendship and teamwork, in 90 minutes. And with characters so broadly painted they must have used a roller: Plucky Working Class Underdog, Bitchy Spoilt Middle Class Rival, Controlling Middle Class Father Who Lives Out His Unrealised Dreams Through His Daughter, Hunky Blonde Love Interest With Implausibly Chiselled Jawline…  Seriously, somebody should patent these tropes and live off the royalties.

Still, despite being more predictable than the sunrise, Fast Girls is, to quote my mother, “very watchable”. Decently shot, it’s pacy and fun, with a well-chosen soundtrack. Lenora Crichlow as Plucky Working Class Underdog and Rupert Graves as Controlling Middle Class Father stand out. The only serious weak link was Noel Clarke as the relay coach, who as co-writer has given himself some horrible dialogue; the loftiest words of motivation he can muster to the Fast Girls are “go fast and beat the others!” (I’m only paraphrasing very slightly.)

Most importantly, nobody in the Nugent family hated it – not even me – and it was as jolly as any activity our unit could agree on. Even Dad managed to stay awake long enough to witness the Jonathan Edwards cameo, and we were all cheered by the presence of “Linford”, a comic-relief dog of the same breed as our own family pooch (border terrier, since you ask).  If there has to be Chariots of Fire: London 2012 Edition, then this is a perfectly serviceable fit. And at least we didn’t have to watch Tom Cruise and Russell Brand dicking about in leotards. Small mercies!

The trailer for Branded is madder than a kettle full of armadillos


When you see a film is called Branded, your instinctive first reaction is that this is another one of those anti-capitalist polemics about how the evil corporations are controlling your lives, maaaan, the kind with admirably noble intentions but nonetheless preaching to the converted and the too-stoned-to-do-anything-about-it.

But watching the trailer, it seems Branded is combining well-trodden fuck-the-system ethics with a truly bonkers sci-fi hook, in which an evil Max Von Sydow cackles in a boardroom as trademarked products are implanted into people’s minds and float about and stuff. It looks positively Gilliamesque, and by the power of Baron Munchausen, the world needs more stuff like that. File under ‘one to watch’ (if you’re the kind of person who has a filing system for forthcoming movies).

Secret Cinema: a review of a film I’m not allowed to talk about

I’m standing in a queue and a smartly-dressed woman approaches me with a clipboard. “Are you a data scientist?” she asks. Yes, I reply. “Oh, you must be our specialist in Sumerian and Assyrian archaeology!” she adds, without missing a beat. I answer in the affirmative, and we engage in a lengthy conversation about my celebrated dissertation on Mesopotamian ziggurats. Then I am given a uniform, put through decontamination, and have my money changed into plastic discs. Then I board a spaceship.

This would be an unusual scenario on any day for someone like me whose highest scientific qualification is a B in GCSE Double Science, and stranger still that it would take place in a cinema queue (an environment not known for conversations of grave academic importance).  But this is Secret Cinema: where strange and wonderful encounters like this are business as usual.

Every few months these pioneers of alternative cinema programming put on epic themed events each more quixotically ambitious and stupidly entertaining than the last. They’ve had Lawrence of Arabia with bedouins and actual camels, Bugsy Malone with custard pie fights, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a hospital. Last Christmas, post-war Vienna was recreated in a four-storey warehouse to mimic the world of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Any reviews of the current run must be shrouded in smokescreen, in order to comply with Secret Cinema’s ‘Tell No One’ policy. But plenty of cryptic clues are already out there: mailing list subscribers were invited to sign up to an ‘expedition’ with an organisation calling itself ‘Brave New Ventures’, with references to ‘psychological training’, and ‘discovering new worlds’.

And it’s these new worlds that we discover in an enormous disused-building-turned-spaceship, near Euston in central London. Following ‘decontamination’, we are ushered into lines based on our supposed professions (as well as data scientists, audience members are assigned to be ore surveyors, matter analysts, containment officers and control stabilisers). Then, as lights flash, sirens thunder, and launch countdowns blare from loudspeakers, the pod doors open and we ‘board’.

We’re free to mill about in our pretend space uniforms, exploring the rooms which include a plant nursery, a games room, and a science laboratory, where we have tremendous fun pretending to be knowledgeable lab technicians. A sizable cast of actors are always close by, encouraging you to lose yourself in the experience, and I spend some time discussing my research whilst surveying the surface of Venus.

Then, following some time in ‘hypersleep’, we are led into the ‘loading bay’, where what appears to be two gigantic (and apparently genuine) props from the film greets us. It’s perhaps the most impressive – and probably most expensive – part of the whole evening. Suddenly I find myself scurrying around a desolate, unearthly landscape in near total darkness, searching for lab samples. I have to remind myself that all of this is not actually real.

After a couple of hours of larking about pretending, the attending crowd of hundreds are shepherded into a chaotic ‘evacuation’. A deafening alarm sounds. Actors run through the crowd screaming in panic. I spot a couple of corpses. The staged sense of anxiety feels curiously real. Then, finally, we sit down to watch the secret film. And it is marvellous.

Little wonder, then, that audiences have been coming in droves to Secret Cinema – it’s just about the most fun it is possible to have in London. The evening could only have been improved by marginally less time spent queuing. Is it possible to give a better recommendation than that?


UPDATE (02/07/12): Since the current run is finished, we’re now allowed to say what the film was: PROMETHEUS. And the props mentioned were the actual space cruisers used in the film. How cool is that? I’ll tell you – very. This video just released from the Secret Cinema people – starring Allison Brie from Community, it seems – gives you a decent idea of how properly spectacular an evening it was. I can’t wait for the next one.

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