The year is 2020, the world has fallen in to lockdown and I write this from a deserted landscape formerly known as Salford. This could be the opening to my latest failed attempt at a screenplay, but circumstances have it that we’re now living out “Pandemic – The Movie: The Wrath of Covid”. Never one to shy away from a cliche, I thought I’d throw my hat in to the ring for a blog about self isolation. However, rather than writing a list of films to watch, books to read, or tell everyone about how I’m spending my Tentin Quarantino, I’d thought I’d do something slightly different. Maybe it’s due to the extended down time we all have, but it’s allowed me to look back far away from this shite.
I was thinking about the year 1999, 21 years ago when I was a fresh faced, somewhat awkward, early facial hair burgeoning 13 year old. 1999 was possibly the greatest film year this side of Y2K (remember that farce?), but at 13 I don’t think I’d quite noticed. At 13 the films on heavy rotation for me read something like Star Wars, The Godfather, Bad Boys, The Usual Suspects, Terminator 2, Menace II Society, Die Hard, Speed and The Net (see previous blog for my ode to the wonder of Sandra). In hindsight, I was probably a bit too young for most of that fare, but it was the nineties, we didn’t know any better! Although I loved film, I obviously couldn’t foresee a future where I’d be obsessed by the medium. At 13 my only focus was playing football, making sure my moustache got thicker and plucking up the courage to get my ear pierced. Of the films I saw at the time, only The Matrix remains in the top echelon. Whereas PTA, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell and David Fincher were releasing films, I was more interested in Austin Powers and Episode 1: The Phantom Trade Routes. What can I say, I was 13 and please forgive me. On that note, indulge me while I pick out a few exceptional films.
It is difficult picking out only three films, however I don’t want to turn this blog into a manifesto, so I’ll exercise some self-discipline and calm myself right down. Firstly I’d like to shine a light on The Insider, Michael Mann’s whistleblower drama about the tobacco industries nefarious activities, and the lengths they were willing to go to in order to keep them a secret. Very much cut from the same cloth as the 70’s paranoid thrillers like All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation, it feels like a change of pace for Mann whose previous film before this was Heat; a much showier and boisterous film where Al Pacino shouts at people. Still a little shouty in this, but with no kicking TVs out of cars, Pacino plays the investigative journalist Lowell Bergman coupled with Russell Crowe’s portrayal of, now notorious, whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Coming a year before another hugely showy performance, and for the role is he is probably best known, Maximus in The Gladiator, Crowe is outstanding as the tightly coiled, retiring Wigand and for me it is his finest performance. 13 year old me would want Maximus swinging swords in the arena, but 34 year old me wants the brave, quiet, stoicism of a dignified hero.
Next up is David O. Russell’s Gulf War set Three Kings. I think it’s easy to remember this film as simply “another war movie”. However, dig a little deeper and it’s so much more. Somewhat sidestepping the controversy around the fraught shoot which culminated with the director and star George Clooney coming to blows (read more in Sharon Waxman’s excellent book, Rebels on the Backlot), it cemented the latter’s status as a film star rather than a TV doctor, and the former’s unique style that would be repeated, to varying success, on films such as The Fighter, Silver Lining’s Playbook and American Hustle. It was also a scathing satire on a senseless war which, with the benefit of hindsight, was a few years from being repeated to horrible effect. There is also a takedown on the ‘fear of other’ and the ignorance that surrounds countries and cultures of which we are unfamiliar, as well as a hefty kick up the arse to the horrors of capitalism gone wrong, and the so called freedom it brings. 13 year old me says, “cool, Ice Cube is a bad boy”, 34 year old me says “as prescient and relatable as ever”.
Finally I have to give some love to the master Paul Thomas Anderson, and his second film Magnolia. A sprawling epic of somewhat inter connected stories over one day in LA, it is safe to say I love this film. I was late to the party when it came to seeing this, and it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I did, when my good friend (at the time new friend) Jack told me it was his favourite film. At this point having fulfilled my dreams of facial hair and earrings, film was very much at the forefront of my interests and I was a tad ashamed to have not seen it. I knew I should have and had seen everything else from PTA, but approx. 9 years ago it wasn’t as easy to find as it is now.Thankfully I corrected my egregious error and watched it, in what felt like a seminal moment in my life. I’m obviously exaggerating, but sometimes you watch a film and it has a profound affect on you. Magnolia had that on me. Mr. Anderson has since said if he were to make this again he’d cut around 30 minutes off the 3 hour plus running time. I personally would watch it for another 3, as for me it’s perfection. Since seeing it that first time I’ve probably watched it another 10 times, which for a 3 hour film is saying something. However, I feel I owe it to someone somewhere, to make up for lost time. It is safely sat in my top three films and it’s place is secure. How could it not be? With an ensemble cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, William H. Macy and John C. Reilly, to name but a few. Speaking of Cruise, I would argue it’s his last attempt at an Oscar worthy role, and it’s hard to imagine the man we know now performing this role in 2020. Channeling Donald Trump Jr., his tangerine skinned father, by way of every arsehole you’ve ever met who thinks he’s better than you, it’s a phenomenal showcase for him. Added to that the cast mentioned above, which only scratches the surface, with an Aimee Mann soundtrack that picks you up and sails you along until the credits roll and we realise we’ve witnessed a true masterpiece brought to life by possibly the greatest director of his generation, Mr. Paul Thomas Anderson. If you haven’t seen Magnolia, watch this trailer to whet your appetite and then free up 3 hours and 8 minutes. 13 year old me wouldn’t have a clue what was happening, but would possibly watch it because the Cruisemeister is in it. 34 year old me cries at how perfect this film is.
There you have it, three recommendations. I realise now I’m contradicting my opening gambit, but I’m not following any rules here, so don’t be too harsh. And by watching the three films you can take a step back in time when there was another impeachment and the biggest fear was Y2K. Halcyon days by anyones standards.
Watch films, stay safe and take care.