Film interview: Mark Kermode

"The worst multiplexes are like supermarkets that close the village shop"

You say in your book that blockbuster movies as events nowadays will do well regardless. How did this situation come about?
In the past it was possible for a proper blockbuster failure to actually damage a studio. Then, because of the way that ancillary markets and the international media expanded, it became more and more of a secure bet that if you spent a newsworthy amount of money, included an A-list star, and put in an eye-popping spectacle the chances were your movie was going to recoup.

This situation also went hand-in-hand with the peculiar dumbing down of mainstream blockbusters.

Are they dumb by default?
Transformers is incoherent beyond any form of craftsmanship. But it being a blockbuster is not an excuse. Jaws was a blockbuster, as was the Exorcist, and they are both brilliant movies.

The idea that Hollywood executives have to satisfy all the multiplex punters by talking to "this here idiot" is wrong, because multiplex audiences are not stupid after all. We had all just got used to this level of corporate dreadfulness and accepted how blockbusters are meant to be. If you want to know whether people like a film, ask them to pay on the way out.

Is there some cynicism on the part of writers and directors?
I think there's massive cynicism on the part of people like Michael Bay. How did we get to such a terrible place? The short answer is Michael Bay. The long answer is Michael Bay, Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, Waterworld.

I think the Transformers movies are cynicism made flesh. There is something really grotty about the idea of taking a kid's toy and bringing that kind of soft porn sensibility to it. The camera spends its time running around Megan Fox's backside when it's a movie made about kids' toy robots hitting each other over the head.

Cinemas aren't always the nicest places to visit, either?
If you create an environment in which people are watching movies in a faceless box which has no ushers, so there's no sense of order or occasion... that's just like being in your front room. The roots of cinema are in theatre and showing a film should be a performance every bit as much as a theatrical performance.

The worst multiplexes are like supermarkets. You have a village in which you've got a shop that sells home-grown produce and organic fruit; a supermarket opens three doors up, great, you've got more choice, haven't you? Yes, until the supermarket causes the other shop to close down and it is all you're left with.

Is it dangerous for critics to be friends with the celebrities?
I'm not friends with anyone. In an ideal world, a film critic would not have any friends in the film industry, or any friends full stop. I'm an antisocial old bugger anyway, to be honest with you. I don't go to parties.

How important is the personality of the critic?
If you pretend that there's such a thing as an objective critic then you're kidding yourself. There was a very sniffy review of my book in the Metro that said my inability to distinguish between analysis and opinion is "frankly alarming". I said to the publishers, "I want that on the front cover". I want: "frankly alarming inability to distinguish between opinion and analysis".

If everyone in the west lost their phobia of subtitles, what difference would that make to the industry?
It would open people up to a wealth more movies. There are many territories in which every movie you see has got three sets of subtitles -- Mandarin, Cantonese, whatever -- they're all over the picture and nobody minds about it.

I saw a film recently and I really liked it. I was talking to somebody about it a day later, and they said, "is it subtitled?", and I couldn't remember. If you get into the habit of watching subtitled movies, you genuinely don't notice. And I talked to somebody else and they said they'd had exactly the same thing -- when they remember the movie, they don't remember subtitles, they just remember understanding the language. They remember understanding the film.

Does reading subtitles not require more activity on the part of viewer?
There's a very small amount of effort. But I guarantee if you stick with it, it will very soon become habit. And the joy of that habit is that it's like putting in the effort and riding a bicycle. Once you can do it, you can cycle off into the countryside, into the hillsides and explore strange new worlds. I'm the least well-travelled person, but I feel I've been everywhere because of all these national cinemas I've been exposed to.

That certainly isn't about elitism.
It's quite the opposite. There's something very perversely snobbish about saying, "I will only watch English language movies". There's a whole world of cinema out there, and we're only one part of it.

And as Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ proves, under the right circumstances anyone will watch a subtitled movie.

Passion of the Christ is both a foreign language film and a blockbuster. What did you make of it?
It is an insane movie. It's genuinely insane. It is a movie of really prolonged brutality, about somebody being tortured even until death. Mel Gibson has what I think is charitably described as a "muscular sensibility". And that film's gruelling. Obviously, for some people it was a spiritual experience. I thought the funny thing about it was that the people who most often say, "Gory cinema is horrible and bad for you", have just made a gorier movie than I've ever seen before.

In the book, you talk a lot about Zac Efron...
I love Zac Efron. He's an old fashioned performer, cut from that same cloth as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Silent cinema began with physicality (before it all became verbal), and he's a throwback to that. Plus, I met him once and he was dead nice. He reminded me of Elvis, referring to everybody as "sir".

You make a strange argument for restricting the cinema release of art house films. Can you explain it?
Late of a night in the Bristol Watershed bar after one too many pints of Johnny knock-me-down (we were setting the world to rights as you always do), I said, "The multiplexes should be forced to show foreign language films", and [someone] said, "No they shouldn't, they should be banned from it because independent cinemas survive on the few breakout art house, foreign language, or English niche movies that happen every year.

So if the multiplexes skim this off -- our bread and butter -- that's going to damage [cinemas]". There's a twisted logic in it.

And the allusion to the NHS?
Both my parents worked for the NHS. What's always struck me is that the state funds all these doctors and trains them, and then the private health industry says, "Yes, we'll have that, thank you very much". Then, that's the old lefty in me.

Mark Kermode is a film critic for the Observer and BBC's The Culture Show, and co-presents the Radio 5 Live Friday afternoon programme "Kermode and Mayo's Film Reviews". He is currently touring the UK, until 29 November, in support of his new book "The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex".

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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