Vertigo: So, is Jimmy Stewart the bad guy here?

Vertigo is a masterpiece. Or is it problematic? Why not both?

I got to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller again this past weekend, on the big screen for the first time, and it never fails to amaze me with its bold colours and dazzling imagery. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most perverse works, on the surface another glossy, stylish tale of murder and mystery but underneath, it plunges deep into the depths of sex and longing. 

(Spoilers ahoy for a 63-year-old movie follow:)

Vertigo starts as a thriller, turns into a mystery, pivots into a love story, and then goes right back around to where it began again. It’s about the cruelty love can create, in the perils of obsession. Vertigo‘s reputation has risen over the years, and it was named the best movie of all time in the critics’ Sight and Sound poll a few years back. But some also say that Vertigo is overrated and rather, well, problematic in its take on women. 

“Problematic,” like “woke,” can sometimes turn into one of those words that doesn’t really mean any more than “I don’t like this thing.” Vertigo is problematic, but a problem means something you’re supposed to figure out, something you twist and examine in your head and come to your own conclusions about. 

Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie is a haunted man, a former police detective traumatised by his near-death on the job, laid out in the smashingly tense opening sequence, and the resulting fear of heights it’s given him. When old friend Gavin approaches him and asks him to spy on his peculiar-acting wife Madeleine, Scottie is hesitant, but takes the case. But Scottie finds that distant, mysterious Madeleine (a luminous Kim Novak, perhaps the ultimate Hitchcock ice queen) ends up captivating him far more than he’d ever dreamed. He falls for her, but then she apparently dies in a hideous suicide/accident. 

Scottie is shattered, sinking deep into his fixations, seeing Madeleine everywhere. When he stumbles across a woman named Judy who vaguely resembles her, he falls for her and takes control of her life, remaking her hair, wardrobe and style so she’s a dead ringer for Madeleine. Spoiler alert: She actually is Madeleine, in hiding after one of those typically twisty Hitchcock murder plots. She was hired by Gavin to pretend to be his wife and suck Scottie into being a witness, and is actually a cog in a conspiracy to have Gavin’s actual wife murdered (she was the one killed in the “suicide”). It’s convoluted and far-fetched, but basically the plot is an excuse for Hitchcock to delve deep into the tropes of obsession, and boy does Vertigo deliver. 

There’s been a lot written about Hitchcock’s relationships with his actresses, and his unpleasant habit of moulding them like clay into his blonde, icy vision of what a woman “should” be. Certainly a lot of what he apparently did was utterly wrong, but the obsessiveness of his art itself still created a potent cinematic world, never more layered in meaning than it was in Vertigo

Casting good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, well on the way to losing the aw-shucks charm of his earlier work with nuanced portrayals in movies like Rope and Rear Window, was Hitchcock’s masterstroke. He’s the embodiment of the male gaze here, at first passive and objective, but gradually invading Madeline/Joan’s “new life” and remaking her to fit the girl in his head. The scenes where “victim” Scottie turns the tables to prod Joan are still hard to watch today. It’s one of his best performances. If Hitchcock saw himself somehow as the hero in his films, then he’s revealing an awful lot about his own predilections and flaws here. 

In something like North by Northwest, there’s a clear hero in Hitchcock’s tale. But Scottie’s behaviour in Vertigo pushes back against the hero role. You’re set up to identify with him as genial Jimmy Stewart at the start, but over the course of the film, Stewart’s amiable grin develops into a creeper’s unnerving stare. He abuses his “new” Madeleine Judy with persistence, not with a slap but with mental cruelty, shaping her into the woman he thinks he lost. But like all relationships, it’s complicated, and Hitchcock here makes both parties culpable in their obsessive dance. 

While Scottie acts wrongly, let’s not forget that in Vertigo, Judy/Madeleine is a character who aided in an innocent woman’s murder, so she’s no angel here. But is she the villain? 

The real villain is probably the dodgy husband Gavin, who vanishes to Europe and doesn’t pay a price for his sin. He’s simply a plot element in Hitchcock’s little pantomime of obsession. Vertigo is a murder mystery where the murderer barely matters. 

Madeleine/Judy pays a price at the end of Vertigo, as the plot drives her back to same place she assisted in her double’s murder, and a spooky bit of vengeance (actually, a baffled nun with an amazingly poor sense of timing) leads to her own death. She pays a price for the sins orchestrated by the men in her life. 

But what about Scottie? The last shot of Vertigo is of him standing, aghast, at a great height, contemplating the ruin of his own life. Perhaps he’s conquered his vertigo and perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he falls. Perhaps he doesn’t. It’s no heroic epiphany.

Is he the villain here? Sometimes he is, sometimes he’s not. The pleasures of Vertigo after all these years is how dizzy it leaves you with ambiguities, and how the heart can make the head spin, over and over. Hitchcock was a flawed human being for sure, but in Vertigo, he turned those flaws into unforgettable images. 

Now showing: The beauty of boutique blu-rays and DVDs in a streaming world

I think I’m turning into a film snob. Maybe we all should, to bring back a little bit of the magic of the movies. 

It’s been a grim year or so for cinema as the great communal art form it was for so much of the past century. Theatres have closed, video stores are history, and streaming, while there’s a lot of great things about it, caters to the mob and the algorithms, and obscure or older movies are harder than ever to find (especially in NZ, where we don’t have all the streaming services sprouting up in the US).

But I dig going to the cinema and seeing treats old and new, and I do miss the video store era. Physical media is hurting and DVDs are vanishing from the shops even down here in the Antipodes, but for dedicated film nuts there’s still a booming niche market in what are often being called “boutique blu-ray” distributors. These companies are dedicated to lovingly repackaging and curating old movies with an appreciation for the art they are, whether they’re lofty dramas or goofy cult trash. It’s a world film nuts can get lost in – and spend too much money in – but I still love seeing ornate, beautifully assembled editions of my favourite movies arrive in the mail. Who knew that the 1960s Japanese kaiju flick Mothra could look like such a work of art?

Unlike a streaming selection, they’re there whenever I want them, and the plentiful special features, gorgeous box art and essay-filled booklets are all part of the handsome little bespoke packages. You do need a good solid multi-zone player – and boy, I wish someone would explain to me why companies still insist on antiquated region coding on these discs in the age of one global marketplace. Anyway, one of the big appeals of DVDs when they first arrived was special features, but their potential ended up in just one too many boring commentary tracks by disinterested movie stars. Happily, the special features on boutique labels tend to dig deeper, treat their films with real interest and curiosity, and don’t just come off as vapid marketing exercises. 

Criterion is the grandaddy of all cineaste labels, dating back to the 1980s and the laserdisc era and still the gold standard of assembling a modern pantheon of movies from Chaplin to Kurosawa to Michael Bay. The Criterion Collection numbered editions (now well over #1,000) appeal to the gotta-have-it-all collector’s mentality and their always-amazing cover art often makes you see a familiar movie in an entirely new light. I’ve picked up many old favourites like The Princess Bride, Blue Velvet and The Life Aquatic through Criterion, but also been introduced to countless cinema classics I just took a punt on from seeing the cover art and the beckoning prestige of that Criterion label. 

But Criterion aren’t alone these days in gorgeous exhumations of old movies, with a whole slew of similar film archivists popping up in recent years. There’s Arrow Video, who tend a bit more modern with things like a wonderful package of ‘80s teen sex comedy Weird Science that gives that film way more critical appreciation than I ever thought possible.

Shout! Factory and their subsidiary Scream Factory are kings of grand cult and horror movie packages like John Carpenter’s The Thing, while Kino Lorber do an amazing job digging deep into world film and silent film history with gems such as their box set of F.W. Murnau’s groundbreaking work.

The UK’s Indicator do some of the most beautiful packaging in the industry and deep dives into the hidden treasures of film. Also in the UK, Eureka Video have become a particular favourite of mine lately with their looks into vintage kung-fu with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan or the forgotten non-Frankenstein work of Boris Karloff.

Even a relatively new cult exploitation-focused outfit like Vinegar Syndrome has proved to me that I never knew I needed an amazingly comprehensive box set of beloved cheesy barbarian ‘80s flick The Beastmaster, but now that I’ve got it, it shall never leave my side. 

I could go broke investing in all the fancy box sets and special editions these companies are spitting out, but I also appreciate them massively in a day when DVDs have been shoved aside to the bargain bin dumpster in most big box stores if they even exist at all, and consumers are happy to stare on their tiny phone screen at the latest Netflix series that everyone will have completely forgotten about a week from now.

Does that make me sound like a film snob? Well, I probably am a bit, but I’m happy to wear it. I love a good popcorn flick like anybody does, and yeah, I watch stuff on my phone too sometimes, but I also want film to continue to matter. The disappointingly inert and unloved Oscars this year (despite some very good films nominated) just felt like another nail in the coffin of the idea of movies feeling a little bit special.

I’m just enjoying the companies like Criterion, Arrow, Eureka and others who treat movies as something more than another disposable distraction in a world full of them, who treat movies as little miracles whether they’re beloved world classics or gory guilty pleasures, and who make them feel like events once again. 

Can you really watch too many kung-fu movies?

I’m not a violent man. I’ve been in like three actual fights in my life, and think I lost 2.5 of them. But I do love a good ass-kicking on the screen, the weird poetry of movie violence. 

In the pandemic era, there’s been no steady flow of blockbuster superhero epics and action flicks to look forward to. So I’ve been spending an unseemly amount of time diving into the past in search of an adrenaline fix, and eventually asking myself: Can one watch too many kung-fu movies?

I dig a good flying kick to the face, and have long loved the acrobatic chaos of Jackie Chan or the slick killer grace of legendary Bruce Lee. The scarcity of cinema visits and new movies to watch the last year or so has led me to dive even deeper into the wonderful, wacky bottomless world of martial arts cinema, a true “shared universe” of peak human suffering and mythological endurance, where men are battered, beaten and rearranged into new shapes without the benefit of CGI. There are literally thousands of movies churned out by Hong Kong and other studios in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and for every gem I’ve seen I discover another half-dozen I haven’t. 

There’s something visceral and exciting for me about seeing that Shaw Brothers studio logo opening up a film, a sign that the story ahead will provide epic action and mythic storytelling — maybe not so much character development or realistic human interaction but hey, that’s not why we’re here. Betrayal, vengeance, revenge and redemption – that covers the vast majority of themes, dressed up with an infinite number of brutal actions. 

I slid into the habit of watching more and more kung-fu flicks in recent months as a remedy to the chaos of the outside world – here, all problems can be solved by a good backwards kick-flip.

I drank in more classic kung-fu movies I’ve long meant to see, like The Prodigal Son, with Yuen Biao and the wonderful late Lam Ching-ying in one of the best zero-to-hero storytelling arcs; Sammo Hung’s hilarious bulky grace in The Magnificent Butcher and other films, the bloody King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death with its ripped eyeballs and music so memorably sampled by Quentin Tarantino; endearingly awkward Jimmy Wang Yu’s One-Armed Boxer and One-Armed Swordsman; the immensely creepy Mr. Vampire with its gloriously weird hopping “jiangshi” Eastern-style vampires. 

More recently, there’s the amazing work of Donnie Yen in films like the awesome Ip Man series and insanely intense battles in Kung Fu Killer or SPL (Kill Zone). Yen combines Clint Eastwood’s stoic Man With No Name allure with a dazzling speed and grace that’s made him one of the most exciting action heroes to watch perform in ages. 

Not every martial arts movie is equal – the attempts at humour in many “kung fu comedies” is often very broad, dated and sexist and too frequently, rather rapey for my tastes. The cheaper and goofier the movies are, the more raw and silly the experience. The cheapest kung-fu flicks like this massively fun bargain-basement box set I got a while back are watched more as archaeological experience than anything. 

Still, as much as I love these movies, one can overdose. When I start imagining everything in subtitles and every interaction involving duel of honour kicks and punches, I’ve got to back off sometimes and watch something which features actual human beings having actual conversations. The heightened, performative world of martial arts movies is such a self-contained world that it’s a shock to the system to see people in another movie going out to dinner without tables being overturned and bodies flying over the buffet. The pleasures of a good kung-fu flick are endlessly simple joys for me, but it’s never good to dine too much on just one thing. You can’t live on potato chips alone.

When I find myself with idle images of Jackie Chan somersaulting over furniture or Donnie Yen working the wing-chun dummy dancing in my brain at bedtime, it’s a sign to back off a little bit. But I always know I’ll be back, primed for yet another tale of endlessly acrobatic human beings and the damage they can do. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #9: Zardoz (1974)

What is it: The one where the late, great Sean Connery spends most of the movie wearing nothing but a giant orange space diaper. A rather big flop on its release in 1974, it’s generally regarded as one of the strangest science-fiction movies that came in that weird time in between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, when science-fiction movies turned into cosmic head-trips, equally rich in big ideas and spaced-out nonsense. How weird is Zardoz? It starts off with a floating giant stone head descending into a crowd of gun-waving savages, and delivering this speech: “Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good! The Penis is evil!”

Why I never saw it: Zardoz is on the obscure side. Director John Boorman delivered the hillbilly hit Deliverance, and this was his follow-up, in the days when directors got to do whatever crazy shit they dreamed up if they scored a big box office winner. So Boorman (who co-wrote, produced and directed this passion project) came up with a lofty tale set in the distant year of 2293, where what’s left of the human population is divided into the feral “Mad Max” style “Brutals,” and the hippie immortal “Eternals,” who live in their own closed-off world. When “Brutal” “Exterminator” Zed (Sean Connery) ends up infiltrating the Eternal world, it sets up a culture clash between enlightenment and instinct, life and death, and also lots of Sean Connery doing stuff you never saw Sean Connery doing anywhere else. At first, you think this will be some kind of weird post-apocalyptic Western, but it gradually turns into a darkly funny weird riff on “Tarzan” before swerving into another bleak and nihilistic direction entirely at the climax. The movie was a bomb at the time, and post-James Bond Connery never did anything quite so strange again. But Zardoz is kind of a cult fetish object now, although still on the obscure side, and even today, its odd pace, fractured hallucinogenic narrative and overstuffed philosophy make it a bit demanding on viewers. It strives for the profundity of 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but falls a little closer to the cheeseball fest of Logan’s Run

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely, in that it’s frustrating, weird and sometimes slow and yet full of more searching ideas and deep thoughts than pretty much the entire Star Wars franchise post-1983. The experimental science fiction of the 1970s – 2001, Solaris, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, THX1138, The Man Who Fell To Earth – led to many spiritually-tinged, oddball narratives that weren’t just about people having wars in spaceships. They aren’t all successful, but there’s a fevered, inventive passion to them that is sadly missing in a lot of science fiction since. Connery’s character is curious – a monosyllabic brute at the start who gradually becomes more and more talkative and curious as he turns the tables on the “Eternals.” He’s hugely unsympathetic, raping and murdering at will, but then again the aloof Eternals are pretty flawed themselves. It’s hard to quite figure out what Boorman’s point ultimately is with the shapeshifting script, but despite all that, there’s a lot of startling images in Zardoz – the remarkably ominous floating head, groovy prisms, mirrors and colours galore, the dazed and ruined world of the Eternals, and a startling time-lapse shot at the very end that’s unsparingly brutal. 

Worth seeing? If you want your mind blown and to see Sean Connery’s least flattering wardrobe since the blue terrycloth jumpsuit in Goldfinger, Zardoz is definitely worth a look. Heck, Zed’s bizarre look was so iconic it even inspired a Superman frenemy I rather dig. It’s a movie that really is trying to make a statement, and even if in the end that statement is rather half-baked and obscure to me, it’s worth the weird, wild ride. 

Review: Godzilla Vs. Kong, the monster mash we all needed

In a way, I’ve been waiting for this rematch most of my life. I grew up watching and rewatching 1962’s King Kong Vs. Godzilla on a battered Christmas gift VHS tape, my first exposure to classic kaiju movies. 

I won’t claim that ‘60s clash of the titans is an objectively good movie, but man I loved it back in the day, watching rubbery Godzilla and Kong stomp on model houses all over Japan. The Kong in that movie is awful looking, like a hairy Danny DeVito who was hit by a truck, but that didn’t really matter. It was all about the spectacle.

I’ve been a fan of Godzilla movies ever since, as I’ve written about before, and so decades after that VHS tape went to pieces, I went into an advance screening of the long-awaited Godzilla Vs. Kong this week with a kid’s eager anticipation. I was seeing it on the IMAX screen, really the only way to watch such a movie, and I left with my ears ringing and a mild headache after nearly two hours of chaos and carnage. It was loud, ridiculous and utterly fantastic. 

Look, you know going into a kaiju movie what to expect – lots of city-crushing action, some human melodrama, and a willing suspension of disbelief. By all those standards, Godzilla Vs. Kong succeeds admirably. They’ve been building up to this “Monsterverse” clash since 2014’s Godzilla reboot. Without spoilers, they create a good reason for the monsters to battle, throw in a few welcome surprises, and director Adam Wingard nicely straddles the line between kitsch and combat in a very fast-paced ride. Godzilla is the meaner, far more alien monster, and Kong is the more relatable human surrogate, but in the end they’re both just giant creatures smashing up everything in sight. 

Spoiler alert: The monsters do fight in two epic battle scenes, and it’s quite a sight. (The movie’s first clash, a battle at sea, is an all-time kaiju clash highlight.) Although I’ll always have a sentimental attachment to the 1962 flick, the action in this remake blows it out of the water. While these more recent Monsterverse movies can have an annoying tendency to have battles happen at night/in the rain, Godzilla Vs. Kong mostly stages them cleanly and coherently. The special effects work to bring Kong to life is particularly good, giving the big lug a real sense of personality. You could argue that maybe Godzilla isn’t in the movie enough, but actually, he usually racks up less screen time than you’d think if you look at charts like this uber-geeky fan study. The point is the impact he makes when he’s on screen. 

Godzilla Vs Kong actually reminds me a lot of the movies in Japan’s utterly bonkers Millennium series circa the year 2000, which married the zaniness of the original ‘60s Showa era movies with a slick, modern vibe and special effects, and a madcap “anything can happen” feeling. You can do a gritty realism version of Godzilla but you’ll never really better the dark Cold War paranoia of the original 1954 classic.

The key really is to not take these movies too seriously – a flaw that the sluggish Godzilla 2014 was particularly guilty of, while the underrated Godzilla: King of the Monsters managed to be a bit more interested in smashing over hushed awe. GvK takes on a Jules Verne-esque vibe that embraces the mysteries of lost worlds, a theme which we also saw in the great 2017 Kong: Skull Island (still the best of these “Monsterverse” movies, I think). 

The humans are mostly there to fill the gaps between battles, and medium-famous names like Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown and NZ’s own Julian Dennison get the job done. Those “family drama” issues that hobbled King of the Monsters are barely sketched in with each human just getting one or two character traits (scientist has a dead brother; woman adopts troubled orphan; guy loves conspiracy theories). The humans in GvK are almost shorthand approximations of human beings, but who goes to these movies for the humans? You have to just accept that in any realistic kaiju movie the human characters would be dead in the first five minutes and move on, rolling over the implausibilities and basking in the spectacle. 

And boy, there’s a lot of spectacles in Godzilla Vs. Kong. It’s the cinematic equivalent of three energy drinks and a bucket full of M&Ms, and it might leave you with a bit of a sensory overload hangover, but in 2021, there’s no blockbuster I’d rather see than a giant monkey punching a giant lizard right in the face. 

The Mos Eisley cantina, or when Star Wars became Star Wars

I remember the exact moment Star Wars: A New Hope cast its spell on me for good. It was a dark and dusty bar in Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and it was filled with aliens. 

So many aliens! Despite endless franchising ever since and a big diluting of Star Wars mania for me, I’ll always love that cantina scene. This couple of minutes of film is crammed with babbling extras and inventive aliens and it opened up that Star Wars galaxy wide, to be far more than just that farmboy Luke Skywalker and few chirpy droids. The cantina was everyone and everything. It was a universe, filled with mysterious critters and their stories. 

Literally every single character that gets a second or two of screentime in this sequence has since gotten a name and their own complicated story in the “expanded universe” – sometimes a few versions of it. There’s the fun 1995 paperback Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina which delves into dozens of backstories and sidestories for everyone from Momaw Nadon (Hammerhead) to Muftak (the multi-eyed bear thing). The more recent From A Certain Point Of View collection imagines several more side stories from the cantina and the rest of the 1977 movie, and a listing of the gazillions of other Star Wars retellings over the years is far beyond the scope of one mere blog entry. 

I have trouble imagining a single work that has had quite so much backstory and interpretation for every single mask-wearing extra later added into it. You’d probably have to look at the Bible or Shakespeare for something that’s been examined and reimagined quite so much. 

There were just four cantina alien action figures released by Kenner in their original wave back in the day – “Snaggletooth,” “Hammerhead,” “Walrus Man” and Greedo. Poor doomed Greedo is the only one who actually got a name, and later on the others like Walrus Man got less, um, kinda racist names (he’s actually Ponda Baba, and he’ll kill you just for looking at him funny). 

Back in elementary school, I remember friends and I trading our Star Wars figures and daydreaming about other ones they might make – we all wanted the cantina band, but they didn’t get action figures until the late 1990s. By now pretty much everyone who appeared in that cantina scene has an action figure. There is a part of middle-aged me that craves them all. 

Because there were less of them, these OG Star Wars figures were played with within an inch of their lives. When there were just 20 or so of them, old Walrus Man (sorry, Ponda Baba) got pulled out a lot. And don’t even get me started on the mysteries of Red Snaggletooth and Blue Snaggletooth. (A friend had a Blue Snaggletooth once, and to us Kenner geeks it was like a comics fan pulling out an Action Comics #1 or a Beatles fan pulling out the butcher cover.) 

That was the appeal of old school Star Wars – there was so much hinted at in it that you could fill in the gaps yourself forever. There was a great Marvel comic book and the action figures; no internet, no expanded universe yet. You expanded your own universe.

I still feel the cantina scene is what made Star Wars for me – lifting it from a cool Flash Gordon homage about daring heroes and princesses in peril to a passageway to a galaxy vast, strange … and full of an unimaginable bounty of stories. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #8: Alfie (1966)

What is it: “What’s it all about, Alfie?” A time capsule of swinging ‘60s London, it’s the movie that made Michael Caine a superstar and broke many longstanding movie taboos in its frank depiction of a bed-hopping Lothario and the damage he leaves in his wake. Caine’s Alfie is an unapologetic cad juggling multiple women with a casual sexism that’s pretty savage more than 50 years later, yet despite his character’s nastiness Caine also charms – it’s the birth of one of the cinema’s greatest stars. 

Why I never saw it: First things first – I’ve always liked Sir Michael Caine, who brings authority and intelligence to pretty much everything he does, even A Muppet Christmas Carol. However, my exposure to him began with middle-aged Caine – the first movie I remember seeing him in was Blame It On Rio (1984), nominally a very ‘80s teen sex comedy about a man having a mid-life crisis affair with his best friend’s daughter. It’s highly creepy stuff in hindsight, yet what sticks out (besides the plentiful nudity that first caught teenage me’s eye) is Caine’s nuanced, frazzled performance, far better than the movie itself merits. I later grew to dig Caine in such ‘80s flicks as his hilarious turn in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and particularly his Oscar-winning role in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Yet it’s taken me years to really dig into the great run of 1960s/70s movies that made Caine’s career – the astonishingly gritty Get Carter, the classic heist flick The Italian Job, the marvellously intricate duel of wits that is Sleuth. And there’s 1966’s Alfie, his first enormous hit, which in some ways feels as ancient as Victorian times to today, but still has plenty of bite. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Alfie is a product of its time – post-war London, men who don’t bother with birth control, country clinics for tuberculosis patients and women who come second to men in almost every arena. It’s got a bit of a reputation as a light-hearted swingers’ comedy romp, but it’s really more of a drama – like Saturday Night Fever, another movie that is far darker and more cynical than its frothy reputation. Alfie dumps women at a moment’s notice, refers to them as “it”,  and fathers two children that we know of with little consideration for his lovers. Frequently breaking the fourth wall to laddishly address the audience, Alfie at first seems a charming jerk, but we soon see the damage he leaves behind. The emotional heart of the movie is a harrowing abortion sequence involving the wife of one of Alfie’s friends (a terrific Oscar-nominated performance by Vivien Merchant). What makes Alfie linger is Caine’s performance, which balances swaggering arrogance and snarky wit with just the faintest glimmers of self-analysis. He’s a confident Cockney bastard, and you often hate him, but Caine gives him more depth than say, Robert Redford or Peter O’Toole might have. There’s something a bit reptilian about Alfie, a sense that something is always held back. Alfie gets his comeuppance, in a way, but you’re still left with the impression he hasn’t really changed enough, or paid for the pain he dealt out. By 2020 standards, the world of Alfie is a time capsule, but there’s still a lot of Alfies out there today breaking hearts on Tinder and treating women with the same casual disdain Alfie did half a century ago. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely. Go in expecting a reflection of the world of 1966 which is pretty rough’n’tumble compared to today’s expectations of relationships, but underneath it all, a lot of how men and women interact today is still as cruel and callous as Alfie himself. It’s also the birth of a charismatic, unforgettable movie star, whose long career has always married Cockney confidence and charm with a hint of something darker, self-contained and possibly unknowable.

A year at the movies in the year of the plague

I went to the movies 237 times this year. 

However, due to the troubling times we live in, I only saw maybe six of these movies in the actual cinema. So it goes.

We all wanted distractions this year from doomscrolling and darkthinking. And social media rarely made me feel anything but anxious or mad, so to the movies it was. With new films in short supply this year, it gave me time to dig back into cinema history and either fill in some gaps or revisit old favourites. 

I started using the nifty website Letterboxd this year to keep track of my viewing habits. Turns out it’s actually a New Zealand creation which I didn’t realise at first, and it’s pretty swell – I don’t review the movies I watch on there, because then I’d spend the entire time watching a film trying to decide if it’s three or four stars … and besides, I spent years writing video and movie reviews for newspapers back in the day, so I’ve done my rankings time. 

As of Dec. 23, I’d clocked 237 films on Letterboxd since Jan. 1. The oldest movie I watched was 1922’s Nosferatu. The newest the superb Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which came out just last week. 

I’m fairly egalitarian in my habits. I watched a lot of the wonderful works of Akira Kurosawa and Robert Altman, but also trashy fun like Blacula, The Toxic Avenger and Flash Gordon. Sometimes you want an escape, like revisiting all three Karate Kid movies, and sometimes you want to be deeply moved by a film like Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

During the depths of New Zealand’s long initial lockdown, I watched all six of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s effervescent Thin Man comedies and dreamed of martinis and solving crimes. During the heart of the Black Lives Matter protests I watched Do The Right Thing again, with my son. Around American election night I re-watched Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, about a politician who loses his mind. 

There were great movies I’d never seen before – Michael Caine’s Get Carter, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, western Rio Bravo and fantastic more recent films like Midsommar, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. There was a dive into revisiting the always welcoming works of Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd. I got very into digging into the careers of Hal Ashby, Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine and Warren Beatty. The movies are an endless maze, with many exits. 

And perhaps best of all there were the occasional visits to the cinema again – getting to watch True Romance in a jam-packed theatre after New Zealand squashed COVID-19, or taking the entire family to see the big-hearted Bill And Ted Face The Music, which was so darned good-natured and amiable a reminder of the “before times” that it made one want to cry a bit for what we’ve lost.

I don’t mind watching movies at home, but the cinema experience is the real deal. As the curtain falls on 2020 and rises on 2021, I hope the big changes in how we view movies don’t take away their magic, and that I can still find ways to sit in a big room with strangers, popcorn in hand, and enter another world. 

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” – Roger Ebert

In defense of that New Mutants movie

The New Mutants were what the X-Men were supposed to be. 

A group of outcast teenagers, struggling with strange new superpowers they’d been born with, in a world that hates and fears them. The X-Men used to be about that, but the super-sizing of the franchise over the years meant that got more and more diluted with Phoenixes and Wolverines and Gambits and such. 

I was the perfect age for the New Mutants comic which premiered in 1982, on the cusp of teenagerdom and a bit of an outcast myself. At long last, after nearly 40 years they got their chance to star in their own movie this year. 

Considering its epic series of delays, reshoot rumours and studio squabbling, the New Mutants movie by Josh Boone actually isn’t that bad. I rather liked it. It’s certainly better than the cluttered, underwhelming last several actual X-Men movies have been. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a five-star classic, no game-changing Dark Knight or Black Panther, but it’s a tight little potboiler that doesn’t utterly betray the spirit of the comics it inspires. It keep the core cast of the comics – Native American Dani Moonstar, Scottish werewolf Rahne, human “Cannonball” Sam, literally fiery Brazilian Roberto and the magic-cursed Illyana. The movie is set almost entirely in one mysterious institution where the teenagers are being kept forcibly, and the movie follows their attempts to learn more and then deal with the mystery powers of one of their own. It’s an origin story, but never forgets its central metaphor: Growing up is hard, but eventually, hopefully, you get better and find your powers in life. 

They fight, they squabble and act like real teenagers, not superheroes-in-waiting. Again, it’s not perfect – while Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy is superbly charismatic as the nasty Illyana, Game of ThronesMaisie Williams makes a good Rahne, but “Cannonball” Charlie Heaton has the worst attempt at a Kentucky accent I’ve ever heard. Yet it looks and feels a lot like the comic I loved, and refreshingly, the stakes are small for a superhero movie. There’s no CGI-filled battle for the entire world. There’s a little bit of unnecessary sequel-baiting but it doesn’t feel quite as assembly line as some of the other Marvel movies have, and has a much more horror edge to its storytelling. Like the comic itself, it realises that being a teenager is often a living nightmare. 

For its first 40-50 issues, New Mutants was a terrific comic book – written by X-Men guiding light Chris Claremont, it really dug into the teenage metaphor in a way that the older X-Men at the time (with the exception of Kitty Pryde) couldn’t. In its first 17 or so issues it was sturdy fun mutant superheroics, with lots of angst and batting mutant factions. 

Then in issue 18, like a bolt of lightning, Bill Sienkiewicz came on board as the artist and New Mutants proceeded to blow my mind. His impressionistic, painterly art was a radical change from the solid but very traditional artists before him, and suddenly the chaos of the teenage mind was laid bare in colours and images that surged off the page. It was an astounding mutation and Claremont, who works best with great artists, twisted to meet Sienkiewicz’s challenge with the best stories in New Mutants history – the “Demon Bear” saga which is loosely adapted in the new movie, the introduction of the alien Warlock, a shape-shifting surrealist blob who looked like no hero ever seen in comics, the rise of mutant fighting rings and more. 

New Mutants frequently got dark. In one of the best issues, #45, a young mutant commits suicide, and it’s dealt with in a genuinely honest manner. Then there’s the shocking issue where as part of mega-crossover Secret Wars II, a cosmic entity, the Beyonder, literally slaughters the entire team. It’s one of the bleakest mainstream superhero comics of the 1980s, an unrelentingly nihilist battle against an unbeatable foe, and at the end of the issue, everybody is dead. (Yes, they came back, but to Claremont’s credit, several issues were then spent dealing with the trauma of the team’s resurrection.) That one storyline alone makes the rather muddled mess of Secret Wars II worth it in my book. 

Just like the X-Men comics, the New Mutants comics eventually spiralled into an insanely complicated mess of continuity, spinoffs and hip new characters (I have zero time for the totally x-treme Rob Liefeld/Cable years). The main characters are still around (and of course, because it’s comics, barely have aged into their early 20s) and I like to check in on them now and again, but for me the first 60 or so issues of New Mutants was all I needed. Growing up, they felt like companions.

Again, I won’t defend New Mutants the movie to anyone by saying it’s a total gem. But in a year when we surprisingly ended up with almost no new superhero movies at all, it felt welcome. It brought to life a lot of characters I fondly remember that meant something to me at their age, and didn’t make me groan. When we’re literally surrounded by superhero TV and movie products, something that felt a bit more tailored to my childhood nerd hopes and dreams personally kind of hits the spot. 

Laurel and Hardy, still funny after all these years

In my dotage, I keep turning back to the classics to make me laugh – the film stars who were mostly gone and dead long before I was even born, the Chaplins and Keatons and Marxes. But I’ve long had one curious blank spot – the stylings of Laurel and Hardy.

I’ve been chewing through a fantastic collection of most of their best shorts and feature films the last few weeks, and enjoying how well many of these 90-year-old gags still work. The basic building blocks of their comedy – the pratfalls, the slow burns, the turns of phrase and the elaborate chaos – can be seen everywhere still in comics today.

Stan and Ollie became an institution, marketed long after their heyday in comic books and products, and even lionised recently in a well-acted (if a little too melancholy) biopic. Today it’s kind of easy to just see them as dusty archetypes and forget the actual comedians who first hit the screen almost a century ago. 

Many of their famous shorts spring out of fairly everyday domestic settings – a picnic with the wives, installing a new radio antenna, moving a piano. Yet inevitably these ordinary situations seem to go horribly askew in the hands of Laurel and Hardy, ending with plenty of Ollie’s outraged squeals and Stan’s weeping, all attempts at civility and erudition collapsing into a sea of tears and babble. Unlike the Marx Brothers, they’re not quite as surreal, and they’re not as mean-spirited as the Three Stooges

You can’t quite imagine the Marx Brothers navigating the bills and obligations of ordinary life in their movies, and while Chaplin and Keaton often took on domestic life, the elaborate performative style of their silent work gave it a more pantomime quality and they generally stumbled more when sound came on. Laurel and Hardy start off grounded, then spiral into chaos. 

There’s a formulaic glee to the best of their shorts, which tend to start slowly and ramp up into elaborately orchestrated disasters – a lot like any sample episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm does today, for example. That formulaic quality means you don’t really want to binge 12 Laurel and Hardy shorts in a row, but it makes them comforting. 

Escalation and repetition is key to Laurel and Hardy. If a piano falling down an endless flight of stairs once is funny, by the third time it’s kind of zen hilarity. The key to Laurel and Hardy comedy to me seems to be that everything falls apart a bit in the end. In 2020 there’s something kind of weirdly comforting about that notion. Same as it ever was.

Laurel and Hardy, in some ways, still feel like our reaction to modern life – Ollie, exasperated and raging; Stan, confused and flailing. In Ollie’s many world-weary double-takes as one of the pioneers in breaking the fourth wall, or Stan’s always-funny “sad cry,” we see some very modern gestures that still echo today. Not everything old is still funny – but Laurel and Hardy hit a gold mine that’s still paying off to this day.