The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Stranger Things (2016, The Duffer Brothers)

Critics (film or otherwise) have a neat trick: they can use exactly the same observations to either praise or condemn. One of their favourites is to point out when a work makes several obvious references to other works. The resulting piece can be cast as either “a wonderful homage” or “a shameless rip-off”.

Netflix’s current hit with viewers and critics, Stranger Things, perfectly demonstrates this. Here we have a programme that wears its influences (mainly 1980s sci-fi films) on its sleeve. The ‘creators’, the Duffer Brothers, want us to feel flattered every time we notice an allusion; to smile and nod in self-satisfied recognition. “That was just like a bit in E.T.!” “OMG The score is so John Carpenter!” “Kids walking on train tracks – Stand by Me!”

As such, Stranger Things could easily be dismissed as a collection of tropes, and in some cases virtually entire scenes, that have been lifted from other films and TV series: Carrie, Close Encounters, Alien, The Shining, E.T., The Thing, Gremlins, The Goonies, Explorers, Stand by Me, Twin Peaks, Eerie Indiana, The Faculty, The Mist, Let the Right One In… Those are just the ones I’ve noticed.

But who decides where to draw the arbitrary line between referencing and plain copying? And does it matter anyway? After all, Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of demonstrating the diversity of his cine-literacy. And he’s made a fair few classics along the way.

Wherever you stand on this, Stranger Things is still pretty damn entertaining. It’s not as thrilling and wondrous as Spielberg. Not as weird and unsettling as Lynch. Not as bold as De Palma or Kubrick. But it is pretty damn entertaining.


Sam Bowles


In Memoriam: Kiarostami

Taste of Cherry (1997, Abbas Kiarostami)

The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami passed away yesterday aged 76. He had been making films almost continuously from the early 1970s up until his final work, Like Someone in Love (2012). He didn’t just direct; he wrote, edited, and produced. When not making films, Kiarostami was known to dabble in poetry, painting, photography, graphic design… Basically, he was one of those bastards who appear to be able to do anything they put their minds to. I hated him. And I loved him.

Taste of Cherry was the first Kiarostami film I saw, and it changed the way I view cinema. Usually, filmmakers who thrill us (Welles, De Palma) do so with their virtuosity – a flashy camera move here, a cute editing trick there; Kiarostami instantly blew me away with what he didn’t do. No conventional shot-reverse/wide-medium-close-up coverage, no big dramatic moments, no simplistic good/bad characters, no easy resolutions, no music… After watching Taste of Cherry, a friend’s immediate reaction was, “You can tell he’s good because he doesn’t give you anything.”

The tale the film tells is so simple you could barely call it a plot: the protagonist, Mr. Baadi, drives around Tehran asking various strangers if they will get in his car to assist him with something. Is he after a good time? Just some company? It turns out he’s looking for someone to help him with his suicide. He plans to dig a hole, get in, and then kill himself. And he wants someone to fill in the hole afterwards. Seriously. It’s so straightforward, yet totally compelling. And the pared-down style, the completely non-bombastic telling of this potentially melodramatic material, only adds to its fascination.

No one but old Abbas could have created this masterwork. Nevertheless, credit should also go to the lead actor, Homayoun Ershadi. He is in every single scene and for much of the film the camera is trained on his face. Yet we never tire of him. Ershadi doesn’t resort to easy actorly tricks. There are no dramatic vocal shifts or mournful gazes to hold our attention or engender our empathy. The quality of the performance is such that we barely notice it.

Taste of Cherry is not an easy watch. This film requires a bit of effort and a bit of patience. Does that mean it’s pretentious to make that effort? Perhaps. But it’s easier to flick through a copy of Heat magazine than to read a great novel. Does that mean we shouldn’t put in the time reading George Eliot or James Joyce for fear that others may see us as jumped-up, affected wankers? And maybe a bit of affectation is a good thing anyway; it means we’re pushing ourselves and our experience.

After watching Taste of Cherry I sought out more Kiarostami films, discovering that he went on a run in the 2000s where he seemed to be reinventing the medium every time he picked up a camera: ABC Africa (2001), Ten (2002), Five (2003), 10 on Ten (2004), Shirin (2008). The only comparable period of sustained creativity I know of is the sequence of films Hitchcock put out in the 1950s.

Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. In the age of Michael Bay, the fact that an artist like Kiarostami was able to make it into the almost-mainstream should be cherished.


Samuel Bowles




The Best Film on TV this Week

Heavenly Creatures (1994, Peter Jackson)

When, as it must to all men, death comes to Peter Jackson, doubtless the obituaries will focus heavily, if not exclusively, on his epic movies based on the preposterously pompous works of J.R.R. Tolkien. That would be a shame. Those overblown bore-fests are far from being Jackson’s most significant contribution to the medium. The man peaked seven years earlier with his one indisputable masterpiece, Heavenly Creatures.

This film is based on a true story, but don’t let that put you off. This is no movie-of-the-week.

1950s New Zealand. Two teenage girls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet), form an obsessive friendship that ultimately leads to murder.

The girls are bookworms and begin writing their own collaborative fantasy stories which they become more and more wrapped up in. This leads to some extraordinary sequences in which the girls’ fantasies blend with the real world; the magical seeps into the mundane. Jackson is using special effects with purpose, not simply to dazzle but to illuminate character and propel the drama.

Like many of Jackson’s movies, Heavenly Creatures is often hilarious. And you may wonder what happened to this pre-Titanic Winslet with her precisely detailed, and very funny, portrayal of arrogant precociousness.

The brilliance of Jackson’s direction is that he manages to maintain an uncomfortable intensity alongside the humour and the special effects. He then achieves a late switch into devastating tragedy. This isn’t easy. Try thinking of another film that successfully balances so many varying tones and stylistic changes.

-One of the best English language films of the 90s

-Peter Jackson’s career curveballs: splatter horror films Bad Taste, Braindead – Muppets parody Meet the FeeblesHeavenly CreaturesThe FrightenersLOTR

-Mario Lanza music – quaint, enthralling, sinister

-Postscript: what happened to the two girls…

Heavenly Creatures is showing tonight, 12.35am BBC 2

Sam Bowles


Five films to enjoy while the sun’s around:

Dirty Dancing (1987, Emile Ardolino)

1963. A 17-year-old girl, while on holiday with her family in the Catskills, learns how to dance to professional standard in about 2 days. Then gets jiggy with Patrick Swayze.

I know, I know. Why is a man in his 30s drawing attention to a film that’s been precision-engineered to appeal to teenage girls? Because, if you can get past your prejudices, it works like a motherfucker. I think about Dirty Dancing all the time.

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

Racial tensions explode over a single summer’s day in Brooklyn. To the sound of Public Enemy.

Surely the hottest film ever. (And I’m not talking about Rosie Perez in a vest top.)

My Neighbour Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki)

Two children and their father move to a new house in the countryside, while their mum is ill in hospital. They discover some big-time magic is going on in the natural world.

Miyazaki’s masterpiece. Proof that a story doesn’t require an antagonist. The precise observations about the ways in which children interact with their environment are unparalleled. (Nb. Please, if you have the option, watch this film in the original Japanese with subtitles. It’s not pretentious; it’s just better.)

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

A photographer with a broken leg spies sinister goings-on out of his flat window.

It’s funny. It’s cool. It’ll make you wish one of your neighbours would commit murder. I’m still waiting for one of the bastards near me to come through…

A Scene at the Sea (1991, Takeshi Kitano)

A hearing-impaired man learns to surf. And that’s it.

Kitano’s reliably idiosyncratic staging, camera style and sense of humour are wedded to a stronger emotional hook than usual. The storytelling is so visual, you could turn off the subtitles. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Sam Bowles

The Most Overrated Film on TV this Week

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Why? Why did people get so excited about this flick? WHY?! Because most films are so bad? Because people take Christopher Nolan as seriously as he clearly takes himself? Or, have people just forgotten?

Forgotten what? About the Tim Burton Batman films, of course. Yes, there was already a darker, more brooding, graphic novel-inspired take on the Batman myth, with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). These films also managed to retain a sense of humour and remembered they were supposed to be based on a comic strip. (And they didn’t involve Christian Bale.)

Batman Begins (2005) started a trilogy of superhero movies within which Christopher Nolan appeared progressively more in denial that he was making superhero movies. Thus, Batman is almost never called “Batman”; he is either “The Batman” (apparently a definite article confers depth and maturity) or, even better, “The Dark Knight”. These films are entertaining and extremely well shot, but also riddled with flaws, the fatal one being an attempt to make the Batman myth realistic. I’m sorry, this is a story about a dude in a rubber suit with pointy ears on his head. The more Nolan and his cohorts get caught up trying to make a Batman movie which is “grounded in reality” or some such cobblers, the more they paradoxically highlight how ridiculous the whole enterprise is. It would appear Nolan was watching a little too much Michael Mann at the time and tried to remake Heat as a superhero movie.

Everyone knows the highlight of not just The Dark Knight but the entire trilogy is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. What’s notable is there is no equivalent performance (that combination of danger, comedy and charisma) in any of Nolan’s other films. One can’t help wondering if Ledger pulled off this performance despite Nolan’s direction rather than because of it.

The Dark Knight is showing tonight, 9.00pm ITV 2

Sam Bowles

The Best Film on TV this Week

Lone Star (1996, John Sayles)

Have you ever been in a cinema and the film caught fire? Celluloid is very inflammable and a projector gets rather hot. On rare occasions this results in the film actually igniting. And this is what happened when I sat watching Lone Star in a Watford cinema. It appeared as though a large hole was burning through the screen. Of course, this was a trompe l’oeil – the image of a very small burning hole was being projected onto the enormous cinema screen. Quite exciting initially, but ultimately frustrating; it put paid to the screening and I was really getting into the film.

On reflection it’s astonishing that a low-budget, independent film like Lone Star played in Watford at all (albeit for a one-off screening). We were promised that the film would be shown again, but of course it wasn’t and I had to into London to see the film through to the end. It was definitely worth the effort: Lone Star is pretty damn wonderful.

I suspect John Sayles is not a natural film director. Like Woody Allen, Tarantino and others, he strikes me as a brilliant writer who’s extremely intelligent and therefore able to function as an effective director. John Sayles has even been a novelist for God’s sake. Can you imagine Spielberg writing a novel? It’s inconceivable. And so is John Sayles pulling off one of those Spielberg visual flourishes that take in 3 or 4 compositions in one camera move.

So Lone Star’s great appeal is the quality of the screenplay (and the actors delivering it). The genre is hard to pin down – it’s part modern Western, part murder mystery, part character study. Like many other Sayles films it’s also a portrait of community. In this case Frontera, Texas, a town sitting on the border with Mexico. Frontera is made up of a fascinating ethnic mix: Hispanic, white, black, Native American. It also has a cloudy history, one that is slowly revealed to us as the narrative progresses, seamlessly moving between the present and the past.

Lone Star is full of complex, conflicted characters, elaborately interwoven plot lines and extraordinary revelations. The final one of these leads to what Geoff Andrew in his Time Out review called, “…one of the most quietly subversive endings in American cinema.”

Lone Star is showing tonight, 12.30am BBC 2 (Set your video!)

Sam Bowles

Music in the Movies – Songs

Reservoir Dogs (1991, Quentin Tarantino)

I used to dream about Reservoir Dogs. It was released in UK cinemas in 1992, but then repeatedly denied a video release. (This was during one of the periodic media storms around violent films that tediously erupt every 5-10 years.) In consequence, Reservoir Dogs built up an enormous cult following in this country and made more at the UK box office than the American. (It was finally released on video in 1995.)

As a 12 year old interested in cinema, I became obsessed with this film I wasn’t allowed to see. There were tantalising clips on film programmes, articles in movie magazines, mythical stories of pirate copies…and there was the soundtrack. I couldn’t see the film, but I could buy the CD. (And even then I had to have my dad with me!)

Tarantino’s films are as influential for their use of pop songs as for anything else. Just from Reservoir Dogs ‘Little Green Bag’, ‘Hooked on a Feeling’, ‘Coconut’ and, of course, ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ have reentered radio playlists and turn up regularly in adverts and TV programmes. Tarantino has a gift for rediscovering forgotten pop songs and reminding us how good they are. Or, you could just say he grew up in the seventies.

Tarantino has also said he specifically doesn’t want to hire a composer to produce an original score for one of his movies, citing a reluctance to hand over that much creative control to someone else; he knows the impact a score can have on a film. (More on this in ‘Music in the Movies – Scores’)

I listened to the Reservoir Dogs CD over and over, learning the lyrics to all the songs, and the lines of all the dialogue snippets that have become Tarantino’s soundtrack signature. When I was finally able to see the film (my cousin got hold of a copy, taped off a LaserDisc – the thrill!) it was inevitably a touch disappointing. Almost no film could live up to 2 years of anticipation. It was also a strange experience to finally put images to snatches of dialogue I knew word for word.

With later Tarantinos I had the pleasure of hearing the soundtrack for the first time while watching the film. When Jim Croce’s ‘I Got A Name’ played over a snowy montage of horse riding in Django Unchained, I almost got sexually aroused.

Sam Bowles