Monday, 1 November 2010

Review: Ardal O'Hanlon at Harrogate Theatre

Friday, October 22, 2010



Ardal O’Hanlon is pretending to put his leg in the Large Hadron Collider.

And, for just an instant, he morphs into Father Douglas Maguire, the endearing, enduring innocent he played in sitcom Father Ted.

It’s a lovely moment in a set that’s otherwise ruled by O’Hanlon’s stand-up persona: irascible, irreverent and trivially vindictive.

This is the first time the comic has played Harrogate and he starts in style, encouraging two lengthy ovations.

Then he makes a few latecomers repeat the exercise, before claiming that everyone else has already done an impression of a bear.

Strolling confidently around the stage, he reveals he was named after the scene of an industrial disaster, saying his brothers are called Chernobyl and Hiroshima. And Wetherby.

A group at the back shout their disapproval.

“Ah, ” says O’Hanlon. “Maybe I should have picked somewhere further away.”

Outsourcing

The economic climate has impacted on everyone. O’Hanlon says he’s had to outsource his joke-writing to India - and a chap named Sanjeev.

“Most of my current material is about arranged marriages and the perils of bathing in the Ganges, ” he says.

This proves to be untrue.

Instead, he focuses on sex, family and the oddness of Ireland, while touching on such diverse topics as DIY (“I need a man in my life”), fictional pals (“My imaginary friend had an imaginary friend who was a real person. He was a lad in my class at school”) and murderers (“They’re awful eejits, wearing jumpers on their heads. The time to wear a jumper on your head is when the police are looking for you”).

There’s a dark streak a mile wide running through O’Hanlon’s show, but it never feels forced or overbearing, because of his offhand, engaging manner.

And every so often he corpses, which just adds to the fun.

He’s tried living every day as if it was his last, “in bed with an oxygen mask and a bedpan”.

With his brothers, he’s had to decide what to do with their ailing mother. “Ever since the accident, she spends the whole day looking through the window. I wanted to let her in, but they where having none of it.”

The audience roars.

“I don’t know why that’s funny, ” O’Hanlon deadpans. “That Sanjeev is sick.”

Moving on to bedroom matters, he says he’s always had trouble with bras, leading to more difficulties than you might think. “Sometimes my wife slings a bra across the front door and I can’t even get in the house, ” he says.

He recalls his father teaching him about the birds and the bees, coughing nervously for an age, before blurting out: ‘You know girls don’t have willies.’

“To this day I still associate sex with tuberculosis, ” he says.

Enemies

Now he has kids of his own. At first he wasn’t keen on the idea.

“I’ve enough enemies without spawning more, ” he says.

“Also I’m Irish, so I don’t want anyone to inherit my land... ever.”

The experience has left him confused. Children change all the time. He slips into a bass voice to impersonate his son on the answerphone: “There’s nobody here now, I’ve got them in a bag.”

He continues to attract adversaries. He recently asked an overweight woman: ‘When are you due?’

“Then I realised she wasn’t pregnant, so I added: ‘another snack’. Got myself out of that hole.”

Now scandals in the Catholic Church have left him in a tricky position.

“You can’t even admit to being a fictional priest anymore, that’s what I find, ” he says.

It’s only when he mimes sticking his hand, leg and some Maltesers in the Large Hadron Collider that we see a trace of the mischievous, guileless Dougal.

But that’s fine.

O’Hanlon’s stand-up persona is so blackly engaging and his show so enjoyable that we don’t miss his most famous creation a bit.
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This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 25 of the Harrogate Advertiser, October 29, 2010.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Review: Jeremy Hardy at Harrogate Theatre

Tuesday, October 19, 2010



JEREMY Hardy’s rambling new show had “never been tested on humans” before coming to Harrogate.

His willing subjects reacted favourably to material about religion, history and the Government, but got a touch frosty when Hardy turned his gaze on the nation’s soldiers.

Coming soon after spirited sets from Stewart Lee and Josie Long, the show at first feels a little low-key.

There’s no fanfare: Hardy just ambles on and starts chatting. He’s relatively quiet and appears to lack the presence of someone like Lee, standing on a spot centre-stage, his feet close together.

But the experienced comedian quickly grows into the set, aided by laid-back delivery, a fine turn of phrase and a fondness for waving his hands above his head in exasperation.

His performance has playful moments, like a game of ‘peepo’ with a 24-year-old in the audience and one-liners as deliciously puerile as: “I think I might be food intolerant. I find it just turns brown and falls out of my bottom.”

Righteous rage

Hardy’s at his best, though, in the incisive, sure-footed political routines, sardonic but underpinned by righteous rage. “A free and frank discussion of my entrenched views”, he calls it.

He hasn’t toured under a Conservative administration for 13 years and for a committed socialist, that’s clearly significant.

“Everybody has been saying: ‘Labour, they’re as bad as the Tories.’ Then the Tories get in and you think: ‘They’re not, are they?’, ” he says.

He says the Conservatives have “taken on human form. That’s when they are at their most dangerous” and imagines the tributes that will be paid after Margaret Thatcher’s death: “Blair will say she was the people’s Pinochet.”

He claims Nick Clegg has worn the same expression since opting to form a coalition, “a kind of complacent shame” but that Blair is “entirely sincere - that’s what’s so scary about him”.

“He thinks he’s doing God’s work. God, in his wisdom, should give Tony some light housework, ” he adds.

If so many warring nations are acting on God’s behalf, then something is amiss, “He’s a stirrer.”

Singing debut

As you might expect with a first date, Hardy occasionally falters, peppering his spiels with “y’know”s until he’s back on track. Or covering with a story about making his adult singing debut in Harrogate.

But he does more than two hours of material in all - and most of it is very funny.

There are scattershot gags about the world around us, from sunglasses (“What happened to screwing your eyes up?”), to updates on social networking websites (“‘Seems like I’m indispensable, LOL’? These people are like characters from The Dandy”) and starting every day with a positive mental attitude (“It lasts only as long as you find the milk has gone off and wish you’d never been born”).

He offers his thoughts on the deficit (“don’t give the money back”), the theatre’s decor (“I’m not sure the naked children are entirely appropriate”) and colonial camouflage (“a bright red tunic? Try finding a country that matches that”) before reaching the most challenging part of the show.

“I’m sure soldiers are fit, ” Hardy observes.

“So fit they can kill a man just by shooting him.”

Discomfort

It’s now that a section of the crowd stops laughing and starts looking a bit uncomfortable. Though it’s fascinating to watch a comic so openly confronting an audience’s beliefs, the mood doesn’t improve until he quits talking about Iraq, Afghanistan and the sub-standard education of the armed forces and returns to discussing Britishness.

“If someone asks how you are, don’t say ‘I’m good’, that’s a moral judgement, ” he says. “‘Mustn’t grumble’ is the correct response.”

Then he’s on to culture. “If people don’t understand you, the chances are you’re a conceptual artist or a weirdo.”

And Nietzsche. “‘Whatever doesn’t hurt you makes you stronger’? He obviously never caught TB or hit his knee on the corner of a filing cabinet.”

It’s enough to win back the crowd and draw sufficient applause for an encore.

The test of Hardy’s new material proved a success, then, even if some of it caused uneasiness.
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This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 25 of the Harrogate Advertiser, October 29, 2010.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Review: Josie Long at Harrogate Theatre

Tuesday, October 12, 2010



IT’S good to live in a world with Josie Long.

The daft, cheery and now politically-energised Kent-born stand-up is great company, and has the jokes to match her delightful stage presence.

High-fiving herself, shooting out her familiar catchphrase of “Am I right?” - and a new one, “Buckle me in” - she’s a bundle of energy, and her fresh, funny material has acquired an added bite.

As her touring show reaches its 16th date in the lovely surroundings of a Studio Theatre decked out like a ‘70s living-room, the audience is treated to no fewer than three cracking sets, courtesy of Long, potential star James Acaster and musician The Pictish Trail, a former pupil at St John Fisher in Harrogate.

Long describes her opening spiel as “admin”, saying “if it’s funny, you’re doing it wrong”, but she’s soon reeling off jokes, saying six unoccupied chairs are “the devil’s seats”.

Having walked on with a mug of tea, she duly distorts the cosiness of the image.

“I’ve brought my tea on. I put crack in it. But you’re supposed to smoke crack, so it has no effect. If anything, it’s just gritty tea.”

She promises extreme language, but assures the audience: “I have a big chubby face like a baby - so how can it count?”

And anyway, the show is going better than her date in Trowbridge. “I thought they were going to set us alight, ” she recalls.

James Acaster

Her first support act bounds onto the stage: gangly, curly-haired James Acaster, whose schtick is essentially ‘the funniest guy you knew at uni’.

Whizzing through material about skydiving - with memorable audience participation - safari parks and homies called Simon, he improvises wildly, and the effect is nothing short of sensational.

The lightning-witted comedian further engages the crowd with a chat about bands they’ve been in, before an inspired routine about a terrible gig in Stockport during his musical days.

Finding his audience consisted of two girls in pink puffa jackets, he attempted to back out, only for an ageing rocker on the bill to decide the show must go on, uttering the immortal words: “What if Paul Weller walks in?”

“Does he live in Stockport?” Acaster enquired.

“He lives wherever the hell he wants to live, ” the man replied.

The Pictish Trail appears scowling, with his hood up, before firing up a techno track with aggressively puerile lyrics. Suddenly it cuts out. “None of my songs are like that, ” he says jovially, breaking into some folk music with more than a whiff of ‘90s duo Arab Strap.

Talented, versatile and charmingly nervous, the Scottish-accented singer makes a mockery of his difficult position on the bill with an engaging set that’s stuffed with his trademark 30-second songs.

Astronaut

Then it’s over to headliner Josie Long, who starts the second half in character.

“Thank you for clubbing together to organise this chance for me to talk about my career as an astronaut, ” she says, explaining that she’ll be answering seven questions put on the NASA website “as part of their comedy festival”.

Handily recapping for stragglers, she reveals that she “first decided to go up space after having looked at the stars”.

It turns out the routine is based on a belligerent acquaintance.

“It’s essentially a protracted impression of my sister’s friend. And she’s not even an astronaut.”

The show proper is a hotchpotch of disparate routines - covering Conservatism, dream parents and the paparazzi - loosely tied together by the idea that until lately Long hadn’t been doing good in any meaningful way.

“Going to Glastonbury Festival is not in itself a political act, ” she wryly observes.

There’s also quite a lot of stuff about breakfast.

Long used to be a sceptic (“Oh OK, I’ll eat breakfast and later I’ll learn to drive... SQUARE, ” she exclaims), but has recently become a believer.

She devotes a sizeable portion of the show (pun very much intended) to Walter Ezell, a gay American who posted a photo of his intimidating morning meal on the internet every day for a year - “everything that’s good and everything that’s unacceptable about America... before nine in the morning”.

Nye Bevan

After fantasising about having Ezell, Billy Bragg or Nye Bevan as a father, Long begins to reminisce about life under Labour, which was “like hanging out with a dear old friend who you suspected had betrayed you”.

As the set develops, it becomes clear that she has become newly engaged with politics, finally having something to rail against.

Her response is a mixture of surrealistic fancy (suggesting George Osborne has taken the shape of a bird to attack her), four-letter words and genuine rhetoric, as she attacks the people who look like her, dress like her, but voted in the Tories.

The sublime punchline fuses history, silliness and righteous anger: “Et tu hipsters.”

It’s an arresting direction for a comedian whose ready wit and DIY sensibility - stretching to a photocopied programme and a pad of hand-drawn illustrative aids - have largely been targeted at more trivial subjects.

The slice-of-life gags are still intact (“Not everyone who talks to you wants to have sex with you. Women: be less paranoid. Men: stop it.”) and so are the ridiculous one-liners: she prefaces a joke about the Tube, a bugbear of non-London audiences, by describing it as “like an underground spaceworm”.

But Long now has loftier targets in the crosshairs. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
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This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 23 of the Harrogate Advertiser, October 22, 2010.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Avatar, Viv Stanshall and Wendy Hiller being amazing (again) - Reviews #52

Hello there. I've been on holiday - a joyous break, and without a film in sight. Don't worry, though, I've been spending quite a bit of time in a darkened room since, and the results are transcribed for you below. Several of my most-recently-watched were shot on location in places I visited: Paris, Venice and Rome.



Forget Paris (Billy Crystal, 1995) is a rather chilly examination of how tricky it can be to forge a happy marriage, with a few cartoonish episodes chucked in alongside. Billy Crystal does his usual schtick as he romances Debra Winger, though the structure is pure Woody Allen - the whole film told by a group of friends at a party - and the foreign funeral set-up half-inched somewhat obviously from Billy Wilder's underrated Avanti!. The result is somewhat unsatisfactory. It's certainly no Moonstruck or Broadway Danny Rose, but it's not even When Harry Met Sally - and the Paris-set sections were disappointingly brief considering I'd just returned from my travels and was secretly hankering for a glossily-photographed sight-seeing tour. There are comic compensations, though. Playing a basketball referee, Crystal's meltdown on the court is the obvious highlight - along with his senile father-in-law's fondness for regurgitating ad slogans. "You asked for it... you got it. Toyota. You asked for it... you got it. Toyota. You asked for it... you got it. Toyota." (2.5)

***



Summertime (David Lean, 1955) has a thin plot and a dubious grasp of Venetian geography, but benefits from the glorious on-location filming and Katharine Hepburn's wonderful, nuanced performance. It seemed there was no leading lady stronger in the '30s, nor more frail thereafter. For Lean it's a transitional work between the small-scale, largely studio-bound films of his early career and the sprawling epics with which he became synonymous. Rossano Brazzi is effective as Hepburn's leading man, particularly when he chastises her for seeking perfection. (3)

***



PARIS... Gay... Alluring... Deadly!
The Man on the Eiffel Tower (Burgess Meredith, 1949) is really, really odd, perhaps due to the troubled production, with Irving Allen replaced by Meredith and future Night of the Hunter director Charles Laughton taking charge of the scenes featuring his co-star. The story is fragmented and the direction wildly erratic - sometimes vividly expressionistic, at other times consisting of the cast simply standing in a big line - but at least we've got a restored copy now. Previous touring prints had degraded to such an extent that they had turned sepia, except for Meredith's bright red hair. The plot sees manic depressive Franchot Tone - yes, apparently bipolar disorder is the same as megalomania if you've got it not only in your heart, but "also up here" (I have no idea) - repeatedly taunting useless detective Inspector Maigret (Laughton) en route to a climactic confrontation up Le Tour Eiffel. Laughton is lacklustre, Meredith peculiar and Tone looks about 108 - his grey hair dyed chestnut - though he's quite effective in a one-note role. English leading lady Patricia Roc is also among the bafflingly illustrious cast, but she's given virtually nothing to do. The real star is the Ansco Color photography (unsung MGM masterpieces Kiss Me Kate and Brigadoon were two one of the few other films shot in the short-lived process) shot at sites around Paris, from the banks of the Seine to Les Deux Magots (an old haunt of Hemingway's) and the eponymous monument. (2)

***



Zazie dans le métro (Louis Malle, 1960) is a joyous, freewheeling barrage of gags and cinematic tricks, several years ahead of its time. Perhaps surprisingly, the director is Louis Malle - better known for more contemplative fare like Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (aka A Trip to the Scaffold), with its classic Miles Davis score, and Au revoir les enfants. Nine-year-old Catherine Demongeot - now a historian, trivia fans - is the grinning, foul-mouthed protagonist, who goes to stay with her drag queen uncle (Philippe Noiret, later of Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino) in Paris and proceeds to cause absolute mayhem. Commencing with a delightful, jaunty credit sequence, the first half-hour is simply brilliant - subversive, hilarious and matchlessly energetic - with the next 30 just a notch below. The whole thing appears to run out of energy in the final third, with a weary, overlong slapstick sequence in a restaurant*, before a lovely final reel. (3)

*It's still better than the one in Tati's risible Play Time.

***



"Lilliput!"
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (Steve Roberts, 1980) was the brainchild of writer, musician, comedian, drunkard and visionary Vivian Stanshall, growing out of his work on John Peel's radio show. And very English it is too, in the true spirit of the word: absurd, poetic and - on occasion - devastatingly satirical, underscored by a rich sense of history and a caustic sense of humour. Trevor Howard is typically commanding as the title figure, a colonial relic plagued by booze, indoor polo and the ghost of his adulterous brother, who's looking for his trousers. Then there are the cultured German PoWs he keeps in a cage at the bottom of the garden, who are intent on escaping, and the bodies of the hedonists he offed during a heady night of paganism climaxing with his appearance in a Viking hat, bellowing "Son of Raw!" The dialogue is sublime, the plotting generally more coherent than I'd heard - though it doesn't all work - and the snippets of music truly wonderful. Cracking sepia cinematography too. I just wish it were longer - the running time is a decidedly slender 71 minutes, not nearly long enough to investigate all the fascinating ideas Stanshall casts into the mix. (3.5)

***



Three Coins in the Fountain (Jean Negulesco, 1954) is a disappointingly artificial romantic drama about three women looking for love in Rome. The plotting seems synthetic, with the great Dorothy McGuire given nothing to work with, while almost all the colourful location work is second-unit material employed using process screens. It's rarely objectionable, and it passes the time, but if you're yet to see McGuire in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Spiral Staircase, don't waste your time on this one. Incidentally, the titular water feature is "The Fountain of Trevi", or Trevi Fountain - as everyone else on planet Earth calls it. (2)

***



The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945) is a neat little procedural that's hampered by an over-earnest, flag-waving voiceover that lauds the FBI and celebrates the dropping of the atom bomb (this was 1945, after all), but benefits from a new level of realism in American film, its exteriors all shot on location in New York. The story, about a college boy infiltrating a Nazi spy ring, is fitfully exciting, though personal favourite Lloyd Nolan has little to do of any note, despite his considerable screen-time playing an FBI operative. Hathaway continued to shoot crime movies on location for Fox, including the flawed-but-fascinating Kiss of Death - with Richard Widmark's unforgettable debut performance as a giggling killer - and Call Northside 777, which is the pick of the bunch. (2.5)

***



As a cheerleader for the possibilities of cinema, I thought I should probably check out CINEMA: Avatar: Special Edition (James Cameron, 2010), what with the original, unspecial edition being the Jazz Singer/Brothers in Arms/Matrix of the resurgent 3D medium, as well as the highest-grossing film of all-time. It's sort-of-alright, interest ebbing and flowing as an enjoyable first quarter - with some eye-popping live-action 3D work - gives way to an awful lot of silliness. The premise is predictable but diverting, as American soldiers attempt to colonise a land they make no effort to understand, with obvious echoes of the treatment of Native Americans, and solitary nods to Iraq (the country is rich in natural resources) and Vietnam (a soldier incinerates the vegetation). The dialogue is lousy - patronising, sloppy and full of pseudo-hip one-liners - but that's no surprise. It's the much-touted visuals that are the big letdown: sporadically impressive, but too often false and cartoonish, considering they're the film's main (only?) selling point. And though Cameron serves up a handful of good action sequences, they can't make up for a chilling absence of heart, his script playing like an exercise in formula screenwriting: calculating, unbelievable and empty.

On a more trivial note, I'd also caution against employing a villain who looks quite so much like Derek Acorah, though one can only admire Stephen Lang's adherence to the Cameron-baddie template, jettisoning all credibility by the 30-minute mark then becoming increasingly silly over the next two-and-a-half hours. There was some laughter in the theatre, much of it from me, when he shouted "Shut your pie-hole!", a word that's generally the preserve of jolly northerners, rather than psychotic American hawks. The only decent acting on show comes, predictably enough, from Giovanni Ribisi - good value as an eerily fresh-faced, bloodthirsty back-office bastard - and Michelle Rodriguez, who has a good five seconds of decent material to get her teeth into: a final scene for her character that's really nicely played. For the rest of it she's given little to do except say "bitch". And occasionally "shit". I wish people would let her act. Anyone who caught her arresting debut turn in Girlfight and is familiar with anything she's done since will want to take her agent to one side and shout at them. As regards Avatar; Titanic was the subject of one of the most vicious backlashes in living memory. Really unfair, given that it's one of the best blockbusters of the '90s. If any influential arbiters of taste are reading, you can do what you like to Avatar. Incidentally, the specialness of this re-release comprises several minutes of travelogue-ish padding and a sterile sex scene. (2)

***



SHORT: The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1941) - John Ford's celebrated 19-minute documentary about America's first major victory of World War Two earned him a shrapnel wound, a Purple Heart and an Oscar. The first 10 is impressive without being that interesting - hard-won battle footage that largely consists of some stuff setting on fire, the camera shaking, the film cutting, then something else setting on fire - though the raising of the flag is a lovely moment, narrator Irving Pichel intoning: "Yes, this really happened". The second half is more obviously Fordian, the elegiac tone reinforced by hymns, slanting shadows and Jane Darwell's frenzied, corny, but effective narration. Audiences wept and fainted during the passage where she urges ambulance-men to rush injured soldiers to a hospital. Ford would make his definitive statement on the war, and the nature of heroism, with 1945's They Were Expendable, but this short is well worth a look. (3)

***


This movie is really good. Honestly.

"Where are you from, Bitchville?"
I Love Trouble (Charles Shyer, 1994) - Nick Nolte says this is the worst movie he's ever made. Julia Roberts says he's the poorest actor she's ever worked with. It scores 5.0 on IMDb and garnered 17 per cent of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Well, they're all wrong - it's actually really good. Of course this pastiche of '30s and '40s newspaper comedies comes up short compared to His Girl Friday, but that was like capturing lightning in a bottle. The best light comedian of all-time giving his greatest performance. The sassiest leading lady in Hollywood on top form. The sharpest, zingiest script from the finest writers of comedy-drama in cinematic history, helmed by the fastest, funniest comedy director we've ever seen. All that and a stellar supporting cast including such luminaries as John Qualen, Helen Mack and Roscoe Karns at their peak. But I'd say I Love Trouble would easily slot into the third tier of Golden Age comedies, with pleasant interplay between the likeable leads, fast-moving, stylish direction and a script that mixes intermittently sharp banter with genuine suspense. The action/exposition climax is slightly weak, but I enjoyed the gimmicky coda, like something from a Lee Tracy movie. The quote I've picked out above the review isn't indicative of the script, but its general witlessness made me chuckle. (3)

***



Separate Tables (Delbert Mann, 1958) is an acting masterclass, a stunning adaptation of Rattigan's two single-act plays set at a Bournemouth hotel. David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Wendy Hiller (my new favourite) are flawless in their sensitive, layered performances: he an army major with a dark secret, Kerr the meek, downtrodden girl who loves him, Hiller the hotel manager fighting disappointments of her own. Shooting on home soil, American stars Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth are very good in somewhat less interesting parts. Taking dead-aim at intolerance, as well as examining the disappointments and compromises of adulthood, this is a remarkable piece of humanist drama and one of the most intelligent films to come out of Hollywood in the '50s. Charles Lang's cinematography is a big plus; the only duff element is the wearisome theme song. (4)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Mesrine and why Robert Mitchum was in the dark - Reviews #51



Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985) is an appealing, unconventional film about a shy, put-upon young married woman (Rosanna Arquette) who swaps places with a free-spirited man-eater (Madonna) after a bump on the head. A dated dramatic device, perhaps, but it's such a sweet, sassy and otherwise well-plotted affair we'll let it slide. The film inhabits a similar universe - and employs the same neon aesthetic - as Scorsese's ever-underrated comedy After Hours, but this is an altogether gentler affair. Sure it plunges its heroine into a seedy world dominated by shady, peroxide hitmen and amorous conjurors, but it's in many ways preferable to the yuppie nightmare she's been living with all-time wanker Mark Blum. At least here she's got love on her side, courtesy of kind-hearted Aidan Quinn (the psychotic drug-addled baddie in the Richard Dreyfuss-Emilio Estevez buddy movie Stakeout). Arquette, who played the lead in the classic John Sayles romcom Baby, It's You, is perfect as the doormat desperately seeking excitement, and while Madonna isn't a great actress, she's both hugely charismatic and ideally cast as the manipulative, posing, sex-obsessed Susan. Also look out for John Turturro in an early role as a nightclub compere. A little gem from out of left-field, this one, with an engaging storyline, memorable characters and a disarmingly peculiar sense of humour. (3)

Trivia note: The new Madonna song on the soundtrack is Into the Groove. Not one of her best singles of the period, but still pretty damn decent.

***



MGM's scoring supremo of the '50s Andre Previn said producer Joe Pasternak had "the gift of mediocrity", fashioning unchallenging musicals that satisfied a mass audience. That's underselling the films Pasternak created around Canadian singing sensation Deanna Durbin at Universal in the late-'30s, and his finer pictures after pitching up at MGM, but the words do have a certain resonance when you watch something like Hit the Deck (Roy Rowland, 1955). Employing the "sailors on leave" template familiar from Follow the Fleet, Anchors Aweigh (that's the one where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry Mouse) and On the Town, the film sees Tony Martin, Vic Damone and Russ Tamblyn finding love with Ann Miller, Jane Powell (another Pasternak protégée) and Debbie Reynolds. It's rarely exceptional, as Pasternak's rival Arthur Freed's films so often were, but the plot is easy to take and there are a handful of enjoyable numbers, headed by Miller's sizzling 'Lady from Bayou' and Tamblyn and Reynolds' number in the scary fun house, which offers a spin on the celebrated routine in RKO's Damsel in Distress. The male leads are far less interesting than their female counterparts (Martin is no Sinatra and for all his talent Tamblyn is no Gene Kelly, though Danone may be preferable to Jules Munshin), but the support cast is particularly strong, with Walter Pidgeon excellent as Tamblyn and Powell's father - his near-arrest is very amusing - and an unrecognisable J. Carrol Naish playing an Italian flower shop owner. Gene Raymond, a minor leading man in the '30s (see him in Flying Down to Rio, the first Astaire-Rogers teaming, or The Smartest Girl in Town), has a thankless role as a cad. (2.5)

***


This is getting really boring now.

Federico Fellini delighted in the fact that his name had "become an adjective". It was a myth he bought into, but the more Fellini-esque he became though - creating dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness films that were freewheeling, freeform and fatally flawed - the less interesting the result. 8 1/2 has some stunning moments, but every time it starts to get good the director seemingly tires of an idea and curtails it. Don't worry if the next diversion isn't to your taste, though, there'll be another along in a minute. Fellini's Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972) has the same (lack of) structure, but the opposite problem, with several weak sequences that go on forever. A portrait of the capital shown through the imagination of a young boy, the wide eyes of an adolescent and the jaded viewpoint of a 50-year-old, it promises much but delivers relatively little. The scenes of the younger Fellini are mostly very good, particularly the richly-evocative music hall sequence, while the "fading frescos" set-piece - set in the modern day - is an absolute knockout, loaded with symbolism. But the unbearably tedious traffic jam is a sign that it's not all going to hit the mark, an impression hammered home by the artless scenes of exposition utilising the film crew (a terrible stock device), the never-ending prostitute conveyor belt and a final half-hour that's almost exclusively rubbish. It's difficult to know if the misfiring sequences are simply too personal to make sense, or just self-indulgent rubbish (perhaps those two things are the same), but the film reaches a particular nadir with the clergy-on-the-catwalk fiasco. Is it supposed to be a comment on the wealth of the church? If so, it's simultaneously vague and heavy-handed. If it's a hark back to the gleeful subversion of Bunuel's L'age d'Or, shouldn't it be funnier, or in some way satirical? And does it really have to take 15 leaden-paced minutes? I admire Fellini's originality, his vision and his unconformity, but not his speechifying, self-satisfaction and pointless post-modernism. It's the latter traits that take precedence here. If Fellini-esque refers to Nights of Cabiria, it's high praise indeed. But if it's Roma, then perhaps not. (2)

***


I know it's small, but I'm afraid I have to use this picture.

Topkapi (Jules Dassin, 1964) is among the highlights of the '60s caper-comedy boom, which also produced Charade, Gambit, Arabesque and How to Steal a Million. Helmed by Jules Dassin, the French filmmaker behind heist movie blueprint Rififi (with its legendary silent central set-piece - all 20 minutes of it), it's clever, stylistically showy and deliciously tongue-in-cheek. Maximillian Schell is the criminal mastermind who recruits a team of amateurs as he plots to steal a priceless emerald-studded dagger from an Istanbul museum. He's nicking it for Melina Mercouri, his nymphomaniac former lover, whose fondness for men is exceeded only by that passion for jewels. Schell's protegees include alarms expert Robert Morley, strongman Jess Hahn and human fly Gilles Segal, while whimpering, half-Egyptian tour guide Peter Ustinov and drunken servant Akim Tamiroff (one of the great character actors of the Golden Age, whose fans included Orson Welles) also buzz around. Ustinov's an unwilling plant for the cops, who thinks the group are terrorists. Tamiroff comes with the villa where they're staying; he's convinced they're "Russische spies". It takes a little while for the film's disparate pieces to slot into place, and the variety of European accents can be a struggle, but the second half is utterly superb, with a heist sequence that's tense, funny and mirth-inducingly ingenious, and a gem of an ending. Ustinov got an Oscar for his hilarious turn as the incompetent Arthur Simpson, but the whole ensemble does a neat job, and Tamiroff is very amusing as the bitter, suspicious, misguided, constantly slurring would-be informant. Particularly when he starts talking about fish. (3.5)

***



Mesrine: L'instinct de mort (Jean-François Richet, 2008) aka Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a fast-paced, stylised biopic charting the rise of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), the murderer and media manipulator who became France's most wanted man. It begins with a methodical, initially cryptic sequence set in 1979, then flashes back, tracing Mesrine's service in the Algerian War and his relationship with his father, whom he derides as a collaborator, before enquiring: "Do balls skip a generation in this family?" Mesrine is hard to root for, beating women, spouting racist epithets and sticking a loaded revolver in his wife's mouth, while the movie's mid-section follows the crime/punishment film template too rigidly to be truly gripping, but the piece builds to a truly gobsmacking, nerve-shredding climax with a lo-fi prison escape that consists simply of the hero attempting to snip through surrounding fences with wire-cutters. Cassel is absolutely excellent in the lead, carrying the film on his shoulders and compensating for a script that sometimes skimps on its characters' motivations. Gerard Depardieu, as Mesrine's mentor, is a little underused, but adds weight to the supporting cast, his first meeting with Cassel being particularly memorable. (3)

***



Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1 (Jean-François Richet, 2008) aka Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 goes one better, with deeper characterisation and an incisive narrative laced with pitch-black humour that examines Mesrine's escalating egomania, fuelled by a troubling relationship with the press. The suspense sequences are expertly mounted and seamlessly incorporated, while Cassel's vivid central performance builds on his impressive showing in the first film, fairly twinkling with danger. Sleight him and he'll either josh with you or whack you - frankly there's no guessing which. The first movie was exciting and well made without always displaying a coherent viewpoint. This second part is altogether more satisfying: an impressive evocation of spiralling malevolence that's also largely honourable in its presentation of Mesrine - necessary when you're accusing the media of complicity in his crimes. Richet looks like one to watch; Cassel has been for years. (3.5)

For a review of Cassel's breakthrough 1995 film La Haine, go here.

***



The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945) isn't blessed with the neatest mystery or the strongest script, but it contains one unforgettable performance and several scenes of mounting terror that are among the most intoxicatingly frightening ever filmed. Dorothy McGuire is a mute house servant who starts to believe that a serial killer is living in the place. Offing B movie favourite and future creator of the autograph fair Myrna Dell in the opening credits, the murderer targets women with disabilities (Dell had a limp), making the silent, traumatised McGuire a likely target. At first just the killer's Lugosi-ish eyes are shown, eerily made up in the silent movie manner. That's no accident - Siodmak expertly exploits the possibilities of having a heroine who can't speak, particularly in the film's greatest sequence, where McGuire runs to the top of the house, smashes the windows and screams, only for no sound to come out. The systematic removal of her character's safety net - her doctor boyfriend goes out on a call, her ailing guardian is asleep, the maid is passed out drunk - is skilful, leaving just McGuire, the killer and the director's boundless imagination. The film isn't as well-scripted as Val Lewton's '40s horrors, but there's an obvious parallel in the way it reaches a dizzyingly zenith during the brilliantly-constructed set-pieces. The erratic Siodmak, who did great work on The Killers, Criss Cross and Cry of the City, while also lending his talents to misfires like Christmas Holiday and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, is probably more closely associated with film noir than any other director. He certainly brings a noirish sensibility to this fusion of crime picture, horror film and gothic melodrama, aided by Out of the Past cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca, who Robert Mitchum famously said "lit by matches" ("The fact was that the high-priced stars back at the studio like Cary Grant, they got all the lights, so ours were lit by cigarettes," he said later, by means of sardonic elaboration). There are a pair of backwards tracking shots that follow Rhonda Fleming and later McGuire through a cellar that are just incredible. It's not the technical proficiency itself that's impressive, but the cranking up of the viewer's unease through a really smart, unobtrusive little trick. Indeed, the whole film is stuffed with imaginative ideas, like the shocking moment where we see a mouthless McGuire through the killer's warped gaze. But even Siodmak's considerable magic wouldn't count for much were it not for her remarkable central performance, as good a turn as you're ever likely to see. She's touching, ethereal and utterly heartbreaking, lending the inspired ending an emotional wallop. Stage legend Ethel Barrymore, who went on to play a similar part to her one here in the Frank Borzage noir Moonrise, is excellent in her key role, and Elsa Lanchester provides slightly unsuitable comic support (her patter worked better in The Big Clock), while George Brent - an actor I struggle to like - Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver round out the cast. It's a shame Siodmak and McGuire weren't handed a mystery quite befitting their talents - you can solve this one about 20 minutes in - but the results are still frequently astounding. (3)

For a review of the extraordinary Elia Kazan film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, featuring Dorothy McGuire as the mother, please go here.

***



SHORT: Field and Scream (Tex Avery, 1955) is a hunting-themed cartoon made near the end of Avery's stint at MGM, with a very high hit-to-miss gag ratio. As a wooly, lentil-eating pinko, I found the subject matter a bit uncomfortable, but there's no questioning the quality of the jokes. (3.5)

***


That is not what this is.

SHORT: The Fall Guy (Pete Smith, 1955) - No Smith short has really ever lived up to the first one I ever saw, Sports Oddities, but this collection of clips culled from earlier shorts and featuring his stuntman of choice, Dave O'Brien, is diverting enough. It was A Smith Named Pete's last Specialty film. (2.5)

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

More stars than there are in the heavens - Reviews #50

Here's a review of the star-spotters' dream that is The Stolen Jools, plus where the genre went next and some stuff about my computer habits which I've decided to bore you with.



SHORT: The Stolen Jools (William C. McGann, 1931) is a slapdash early talkie short, but for any fan of the period it's a must, with arguably the finest collection of stars ever assembled for a film. Or at least for a film bankrolled by a cigarette company to fund a TB clinic. Sure, the plot is woeful and the writing is sloppy, even inane, with stars repeatedly introduced by someone saying "Aren't you..." and then their name, while the best bits are over way too soon. But you do get Buster Keaton being knocked over, Wheeler & Woolsey taking the law onto their own hands, Jack Oakie telling a cop that Fay Wray is Jack Oakie, a fun in-joke about Winnie Lightner's signature tune Singing in the Bathtub, and Joe E. Brown yelling. The cast also includes stars Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck (and then-husband Frank Fay), Bebe Daniels (and spouse Ben Lyon), Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Laurel & Hardy, Edward G. Robinson, Norma Shearer (it's her "jools" that get pinched), Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, Warner Baxter, Richard Dix, Maurice Chevalier, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Loretta Young, Richard Barthelmess, character actors Eugene Pallette, Charles Butterworth, George E. Stone, J. Farrell MacDonald, Gabby Hayes and the entire Our Gang gang. It wasn't the first all-star movie, Warner's The Show of Shows (featuring Lightner's hit song) and Paramount on Parade were earlier full-length features that did a similar thing, but those films were restricted to showcasing a studio's roster of famous faces. The charitable nature of The Stolen Jools meant the biggest stars from MGM, Warner, Paramount and RKO could all appear - pretty exciting for inherently trivial star-spotters like myself.

The all-star model would reach its artistic and commercial zenith during World War Two, albeit within the constraints of the studio system, in the shape of Warner's Thank Your Lucky Stars - perhaps the most purely entertaining film I've ever seen - and Paramount's Star-Spangled Rhythm, along with lesser entries like Hollywood Canteen (Warner), Stage Door Canteen (RKO) and Follow the Boys (Universal). These big-budget extravaganzas weren't made solely for philanthropic purposes, but performers do seem to have been lent from one studio to the next with more grace than usual. The all-star film enjoyed a colourful renaissance in the '60s with How the West Was Won, The Longest Day and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, though there were no cast-iron classics to speak of.

I watched tons of Daffy and Bugs cartoons on YouTube last year and was enjoying some classic Lee & Herring on the comp just the other day, but Stolen Jools is the first film I've caught on the internet this year. It seems revealing - or perhaps merely an indictment of users' attention-spans - that at the time of writing 45,000 people have watched the first section of the movie, and only 4,000 bothered to catch the final part. Perhaps they just tuned in to see Wallace Beery. You can watch the film here. The print quality is poor, but we're lucky to have this curio at all, since it was considered lost for many years - even if in all honesty it merits a (2).

Curb their enthusiasm - Reviews #49



*SPOILERS FOR CITIZEN KANE*
Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter, 1941)
- This screen translation of the biggest Broadway hit of the '30s mocks Hollywood convention, then bows to it anyway, burdening the gag-heavy script with a needless romantic strand and going overboard with the musical interludes. Which is a pity, since the opening 15 minutes are perhaps the most joyously anarchic in Golden Age comedy - truly the free-for-all promised in the title song, where "anything can happen and it probably will". We begin with a snatch of a glossy production number, before a lever is pulled and the glamorous chorines are cast down a water slide and into Hell. As these lost souls are prodded up the bum with tridents (the pointy things beloved of demons, not the submarine-based nuclear deterrents), our stars pull up in a taxi. "That’s the first taxi driver who went strictly where I told him to go," Chic Johnson laments. The driver gets out. He is a midget. Johnson shoots the taxi with a blunderbuss, then asks the projectionist to run back the film. He does. Johnson shoots the taxi again, at which point it turns into a horse and the cabbie rides away. Enjoying it so far? Good.

We pull back and we're in a film studio, the quips flying thick and fast as Johnson and Ole Olsen bicker with 'director' Richard Lane and meek screenwriter Elisha Cook, Jr. about the direction their movie should take. As they walk from set to set, their costumes changing seamlessly, there's a deliriously silly photography gag, followed by one about Citizen Kane ("I thought they burned that thing," Johnson mutters, looking at a sledge). Watching clips from the picture Lane is pitching to them, the stars initially offer their own commentary, before arriving in the film-within-a-film. It's at that point that the interest-free plot kicks in - a tedious love triangle - and the laugh-rate slows, despite the best efforts of Martha Raye and Mischa Auer. That's not to say there isn't still plenty to enjoy - the 'Stinky Miller' segment, in which the cast implore a member of the audience to go home to his mother, the staggering Lindy Hop dance sequence, an old man repeatedly trying to deliver a tree - just that there's generally a couple of duff jokes for every inspired diversion, and more than that during the putting-on-a-show climax. The bear's funny, though. And Frankenstein's Monster. All in all, Hellzapoppin' isn't consistent or self-confident enough to match peak Marx Bros fare like Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera, but it's admirably off-the-wall, with a delightful distaste for the fourth wall and much else to revel in despite the faint feeling of an opportunity missed. (3)

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Inception and the wonder of Wendy Hiller - Reviews #48



Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) - Director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight is an intelligent, meticulously-plotted actioner - and a real breath of fresh air. In 2010, we’re used to blockbusters that play out by numbers, take us for idiots or try to sell us watches. This mind-bending, riotously original film reminds us just what mainstream cinema can do. Leonardo DiCaprio is a tormented “extractor”, skilled at entering the dreams of the rich and powerful and plundering their subconscious minds. On the run after the death of his wife, he’s given the chance to return home: if he can plant an idea within the mind of tycoon’s son Cillian Murphy. So, recruiting gifted student Ellen Page, he and fellow extractors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy construct and enter an elaborate dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream scenario, a head-scratching succession of vivid worlds, each fraught with danger. It isn't perfect - the scenes between DiCaprio and wife Marion Cotillard sometimes drag and the snow-bound sequences are confusingly staged - but it's frequently exhilarating, fairly humming with invention. Scorsese’s Shutter Island also saw DiCaprio trapped in a labyrinthine case, as the music pounded and the spectre of his late wife loomed large. But while that film unravelled midway through, this one builds in excitement and ingenuity as it progresses, augmented by superb direction and some fine action set-pieces, with a few incisive thoughts about the nature of fantasy and reality cast into the mix. As a lightning-paced thriller, it was never going to be an acting showcase, but the performances snugly fit the piece, the ensemble - including Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite and the excellent Hardy - smartly employed to serve the story. And what a story it is. (3.5)

***



The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (David Zucker, 1991) - This lacklustre sequel sees Leslie Nielsen and co doing battle with a cabal of shady industrialists who are trying to thwart a new green energy policy. Despite that oddly admirable (if simplistic) eco agenda - this from a filmmaker who went on to film campaign ads for the Republican party - it's a pretty poor showing, with the cast mugging relentlessly in the absence of decent material. Indeed, you'll feel like you've been mugged if you spend any money trying to catch it, particularly by the time Nielsen takes to scrubbing Richard Griffiths' bottom in front of the President. The opening credits are good and the closing ones hilarious, while Nielsen's interrogation scene ("Right, who else is dying?") and his noir description of Presley are fun - but that's five minutes of chuckle-worthiness across an hour-and-a-half, and it isn't really enough. That's not to say that there aren't a lot of gags - there are bloody hundreds - but the majority are tired and predictable and most of the non-sequiturs are idiotic. And I can't watch O.J. Simpson without wincing. (2)

***



Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941) has introduced me to the delights of Wendy Hiller, a remarkable performer born just down the road from where I grew up in Cheshire. Hiller, who I'd previously seen in I Know Where I'm Going and The Man For All Seasons without really clocking her, was G.B. Shaw's favourite actress and now she's one of mine too. I'm sure she'd be delighted. Sparky, passionate and with fire in her eyes, here she achieves a heightened expressiveness - coupled with remarkable, singular diction - to produce one of the most moving affirmations of faith I've ever seen on screen (Richard Burton in Becket is another personal favourite). Hiller is cast as a Salvation Army worker who entrances professor Rex Harrison whilst fighting off the rapscallion tendencies of her arms-dealer father (Robert Morley). But although the dialogue is glorious and Morley provides support for Hiller's wonderful performance with a typically devilish characterisation, the propaganda purposes of the film become readily apparent as the plotting - and rhetoric - goes completely off the rails in the final third. A pity, as it touches true greatness for the first 90. Robert Newton is compelling, though perhaps slightly over-ripe, as a trouble-magnet whose soul needs saving, while David Tree and Marie Lohr make for a hilarious comic team. (3.5)

***



So then I watched Hiller's breakthrough film, Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938), which had the same writer and producer, as well as featuring the only other pairing of Tree and Lohr. It's a more conventional outing than the later film, similar to Hollywood romantic comedies of the period and sharing a basic plot with Capra's Lady for a Day. Leslie Howard is Professor Higgins, the egomaniacal Svengali figure who bets he can transform Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Hiller) into a lady in just three months, then becomes smitten with his creation. Perhaps the film can't quite match the majesty of Major Barbara's opening hour-and-a-half, but it forms a more coherent whole, blessed with incisive plotting, lyrical dialogue and pitch-perfect performances. Howard was annoying in Intermezzo, insufferable in The Petrified Forest and even worse in Gone With the Wind, but given the right material - ideally comic - he was a wizard. His turn in It's Love I'm After is utterly immense, one of the finest in '30s comedy, and he delivers more of the same here, becoming a whirlwind of malignant self-obsession, spewing bile and arrogance. You could argue that Shaw's epigrams are unnecessarily caustic - while the script contains a couple of lunacy gags that make the skin bristle today - but Howard's serio-comic grandstanding makes it all seem palatable. He's matched, perhaps even surpassed, by Hiller, whose performance as Eliza is surely definitive: funny, moving and utterly sincere. This is high-grade entertainment, powered by two wonderful stars, and with a good deal to say about life, love and how to pretend you're not a Cockney. (4)

***



Miss Firecracker (Thomas Schlamme, 1989) is a spirited indie film, with a strong cast making the most of distinctly variable material. Holly Hunter plays a damaged young woman who dreams of emulating stepsister Mary Steenburgen's success in the Miss Firecracker beauty pageant. Meanwhile, their brother Delmont (Tim Robbins) tackles a few demons of his own, while apparently remaining oblivious to the effect he's having on the town's womenfolk. It's sometimes amusing and occasionally arresting, with a handful of genuinely special moments, but more often than not it's muddled and slow, with underwritten characters and plot strands that don't go anywhere. (2.5)

***



Le château de ma mère (Yves Robert, 1990) aka My Mother's Castle is a hugely enjoyable continuation of the story begun in Le gloire de mon pere, charting the early life of French writer Marcel Pagnol and his burgeoning love affair with the mountains of Provence. It can't quite match the earlier film, since its episodes are generally less remarkable and their incorporation is more disjointed, but the performances are delightful (only Julie Timmerman's wooden showing lets the side down), and the cinematography and music glorious. It concludes with a gutting epilogue that's sensitively filmed and carries one of the heftiest emotional clouts I've yet encountered in movies. (3.5)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Theatre review: Alan Bennett at the Royal Hall, Harrogate

Sunday, July 25, 2010



There's something entirely winning about Alan Bennett’s familiar, unassuming persona.

He might be among the most talented, versatile and influential writers of his generation. He might be one of the top draws at this year’s Harrogate International Festival. And he might have just sold out the Royal Hall.

But, shuffling onto the stage in a tweed suit and green tie, he’s not giving his show the big sell.

“I’m going to read bits of plays and things from my career - such as it is,” he says.

And for the next hour-and-a-quarter, seated meekly in a black leather armchair, he does just that, providing a whirlwind tour of a singular back catalogue that encompasses novels, theatre, TV and films - all stamped with that trademark blend of pathos and wry humour.

The resulting show is breathlessly funny, but also remarkably candid, down-to-earth and even outspoken, incorporating a heartfelt defence of “two institutions we are going to have to fight for”: the NHS and the BBC.

After a few teething problems with the microphone (“You’ll have to talk among yourselves,” he says), Bennett starts with a gem from 1968’s Forty Years On, an uproarious account of T.E. Lawrence’s life supposedly written by a fradulent confidant.

A man called Graham

Next up is an excerpt from Getting On, with its genuine - if knowing - tribute to the welfare state. It segues seamlessly into a new piece, written in his dressing room before coming on, that earnestly and passionately pleads for the audience to safeguard its institutions.

He speaks of the state as “nurturer” and “saviour”, saying: “For my generation, brought up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the state educated us, so that everything I have I owe to the state.”

Habeas Corpus merits a brief diversion, before we’re treated to the evening’s highlight, an extended reading from A Chip in the Sugar, the memorable Talking Heads episode narrated by Bennett’s Graham, a damaged soul whose relationship with his mother is shattered by a figure from her past.

“If there’s one thing mother and I agree on, it’s that red is a common colour, and the whole place is done up in red,” he says, as the audience considers the impossibly ornate interior of the Royal Hall - much of it in red - and bursts out laughing.

After selections from Telling Tales and his 2004 play The History Boys, there’s a 15-minute Q&A, taking in technology (“I don’t see how you can take a screen to bed with you”), the Queen (“She’s magnetic”) and regional accents (“The accent that’s still slightly a joke is Wolverhampton, the others all get by”).

Bennett reveals that he wouldn’t have attended university were today’s funding system in place and recalls his father’s pride as he watched other members of the audience laughing at Habeas Corpus, though he says the reaction to his later work would have been mixed - “He didn’t like anything he called ‘cheeky’.”

He closes with a reading from Untold Stories about his battle with colon cancer in the late ‘90s that’s rich in melancholic humour.

'Greatest hits'

It ends a wonderful night’s entertainment: a ‘greatest hits’ package mixing the familiar and the new; both painfully frank and painfully funny.

Bennett’s peerless ear for dialogue and his gift for articulating his audience’s feelings are perhaps summed up by a passage he reads from The History Boys.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you,” he says.

“And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.

“And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

With a set that comprised the first half of the evening, pianist Alessandro Taverna gave an ecstatically-received performance.

Apparently having just as good a time as the audience, he played selections from Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Moszkowski, with highlights including a delicate take on Chopin’s Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 and an exuberant “Carmen Fantasy” by Busoni.

He concluded with several uptempo pieces by Viennese pianist Friedrich Gulda, which brought down the house.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 33 of the Harrogate Advertiser, July 30, 2010.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Sneezing and Monica Bellucci - Reviews #47



Malena (Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000) is an arresting but slightly insubstantial film from the creator of Cinema Paradiso, as village looker Malena becomes village hooker Malena, while remaining an angel in the eyes of eternally masturbating adolescent Giuseppe Sulfaro. It's really a coming-of-age story, but atypical of such films in its refusal to offer easy answers, or indeed any concessions to sentiment whatsoever. Beginning his film in 1940, with Italy on the brink of war, Tornatore displays his usual strong grasp of the Sicilian period setting: all white stone, crowded squares and appalling cattiness. And he's aided by a pair of very attractive central performances, along with cinematography and an Ennio Morricone score that are just glorious. Sadly though, while the script provides two memorable characters and considerable emotional engagement, it suffers from lurches in tone and is let down by repetition - essentially offering the same scene of Malena walking through the town over and over again - and an inability to tie up its loose ends. The narrative is augmented by a handful of very well-observed movie pastiches, but these are largely squashed into the first half. Malena is an honest, appealing, sometimes very funny film, but a touch light in the writing. (3)

***



Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943) - There's surely no genre on earth as ripe for rehab as the romcom. Well this is how it used to look, before that debilitating addiction to formula filmmaking: clever, distinguished, witty and wise, with a focus on love, lust and the nature of being rather than, say, shoes. Don Ameche is the recently-deceased man about town who presents himself "where so many people had previously told him to go" - Hell. There, His Excellency (Laird Cregar) invites him to recount his story, from a youthful dalliance with a French maid, through elopement and marriage to the sweet-hearted Mary (Gene Tierney), then onto acceptance of his place in the world. On third viewing, it appears greater and more masterful than ever, blessed by Lubitsch's matchless handling. The performances he draws from the cast are superb across the board. The leads are delightful, legendary child stars Scotty Beckett and Dickie Moore play the young Ameches, while Charles Coburn is magnificent as the crusty, genial grandfather and Allyn Joslyn unexpectedly moving as Mary's "solid" suitor. Look also for celebrated character comics Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main, as Tierney's constantly-warring screen parents. A wonderful film. (4)

Trivia note: It's interesting (to me, at least) how involuntary bodily functions play such a big part in bringing lovers together - or pulling them apart - in Lubitsch films. In That Uncertain Feeling it was hiccups. Here it's sneezing.

***

And this is the Pixar short playing before Toy Story 3:



*SOME SPOILERS*
SHORT: Day & Night (Teddy Newton, 2010)
is moralistic and a little light on laughs, but boasts some tremendous animation. The plot, such as it is, features cartoonish blobs representing day and night, who show one another just what they can do - namely showcase the very best of their respective worlds. The first is big on scantily-clad sunbathers; the other displays Vegas all lit-up. Eventually the familiar-looking blobs (I can't place them) learn to overcome their fear and prejudice, and understand the other, leading to a satisfying wrap-up. Mid-range Pixar, but we've been spoiled lately, to be honest. (3)

Monday, 26 July 2010

Toy Story 3 and the French Heat - Reviews #46



*SOME SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
is perhaps the best of the series - and that's saying something. Andy is now 17, and heading for college. Clearing out his room, he earmarks cherished childhood toy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) as a travelling companion, but consigns the rest of the gang to the attic, foolishly stashing them in a bin bag. One hair-raising encounter with a refuse lorry later and Buzz, Rex, Hamm, Mr Potato Head and the others decide they've had enough - turning themselves in to the nearest playgroup. There, they deal with obstacles both physical (terrifying toddlers, a psychotic bear) and intangible (love, mortality, the transience of being), as existential ruminations jostle for space with brilliant jokes and wildly-imaginative chase sequences. Benefiting from the leaps in digital animation over the past 12 years, this richly rewarding film adds further depth to this fully-realised world - not least in its subtle, sure-footed use of 3D - while the terrific scripting taps into both the mythology and the absurdity of toys. It's there from the spellbinding, ridiculous opening sequence, set in Monument Valley, to the masterfully-conceived running gag that sees Buzz (Tim Allen) turn Spanish - not the tired non-sequitur you'd get from any other studio, but an inspired riff on the peculiarity of mass-market electronics. That intelligence and invention is underscored by an effortless humanism that informs the whole piece, bursting through the surface during the terrifying landfill set-piece and the ending, which is just sublime. One could legitimately quibble with the excessive repetition in the earlier parts of the script or argue that the new characters can't quite match up to the returning favourites, but it really does feel like splitting hairs. This is a massively ambitious, remarkably successful third outing: mature, invigorating and deeply, deeply moving. (4)

For reviews of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, please click here. For write-ups of WALL-E, Ratatouille, Cars, Finding Nemo and a selection of Pixar shorts, just click on the name. Reviews of other Pixar shorts are dotted about the site - for our full list of contents go here.

***



36 Quai des Orfevres (Oliver Marchal, 2004), named after the police headquarters in Paris, is an entertaining but flawed thriller, loosely based on real events. Jean de Florette co-stars Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu play rival officers - and former friends - striving to bring in a gang of ruthless bank robbers. It is a case that will define their careers and change their lives forever: one for better, one for worse. The characters, that is, not the actors. Former cop Marchal is good on the day-to-day details, but his forays into fiction are largely unsuccessful, striving for epic tragedy and finding only melodrama. The dovetailing of twin narratives, in the vein of Murder, My Sweet or Le Doulos (referenced overtly in the character of the informer Silien), is similarly disappointing, creating a resolution that's too pat, smug and downright predictable to satisfy. This has been described as the French Heat (it's about cops and robbers, it has two famous stars) and while it's not as infuriatingly self-important as that damp squib, its shortcomings are all too apparent. Auteuil's performance, the glossy cinematography and the fast pace are the main draws. (2.5)

Friday, 23 July 2010

Rick's O2 Media Awards adventure


This is essentially what they gave me, but for writing.

I don't usually write about myself, as movies are just so much more interesting. After all, I've never masterminded a heist. Except that one time in Madrid. But following such celebrated posts as that one where I pretended I was raised by the Wolverhampton Wanderers squad and that one where I kept boasting, I've decided to tack up a few self-aggrandising lines about last night's O2 Media Awards for Yorkshire and the Humber.

I didn't win an award - a couple of deserving folks scooped the gongs - but I was highly commended in the Digital Journalist of the Year and Young Journalist of the Year (Weeklies) categories. And at risk of appearing the raging egomaniac I secretly am, here's what the judges said:

Digital Journalist of the Year
Rick Burin has an insatiable thirst for maximising the web, and his efforts are paying off. He’s launched his own film review site, uses Twitter and Facebook to uncover and disseminate news and sports stories and created a blog which when snow and ice hit his home town became an invaluable source of information for stranded residents.

Young Journalist of the Year
Here’s a journalist with a mature writing style that belies his years. A potential star of the future.


I'm really chuffed with that. And it was a great night, full of friendly people and veggie sausage sandwiches. Thanks to everyone who gave me their good wishes beforehand. For a full list of winners, please mosey on over to the O2 site.

June Allyson, The Lone Wolf and Cinema Paradiso uncut - Reviews #45



*MASSIVE SPOILERS*
Cinema Paradiso: Director's Cut (Giusseppe Tornatore, 1988/2002)
is longer, bleaker and more troubling than the uplifting 'international version', which scooped countless awards (including the Oscar for Best Foreign Film) and won the hearts of the world. The set-up is the same, with silver-haired moviemaker Salvatore (the excellent Jacques Perrin) looking back on his childhood and adolescence - most of it spent at the local picture palace - following the death of his mentor Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). Sadly, life has afforded no Hollywood ending to the deadened director, who remains haunted by the spectre of lost love, a doomed romance with the middle-class Elena (Agnese Nano). And through it all, Ennio Morricone's sensational score dips and soars.

Rather than a self-indulgent splurge or a cash-in job, as many extended cuts are, this one is the real deal, an expanded take on the original version of the film that toured Italy in 1988. As well as restoring the 31 minutes that were lost in the re-edit, deemed necessary after disastrous box-office receipts, this definitive cut includes an extra 15 minutes of material. So what's new - or rather old? Well, Toto, for one thing. He's old for much longer. In the shortest cut, we get just a handful of scenes showing Perrin as the grown-up Salvatore, still lamenting his betrayal by the only girl he ever loved. Here, there's a full-blown reunion between the former lovers (sadly the older Elena is played by Brigitte Fossey, who's quite poor), along with a stunning, thriller-ish sequence (composed of masterful jump cuts) that reveals the identity of her husband.

Crucially, this release also reveals why the love of Toto's life apparently left without saying goodbye, substantially changing the character of Alfredo from an avuncular, grizzly old duffer to a possibly misguided puppet-master. These are the extra sequences which were bafflingly shown in confusing and meaningless silent snippets over the end credits of the international version! As with that more familiar cut, the best scenes remain those featuring Noiret and the young Toto (Salvatore Cascio), both of whom are just magical, but here they're lent yet greater resonance by the devastating pay-off. In any form, Cinema Paradiso is a richly evocative movie that radiates a love of film and scales some unforgettable heights - the exam set-piece, the outdoor screening, the montage of kisses. This remarkable cut turns much of what you think you know on its head, twisting the film back from a crowd-pleaser to an upsetting, uncompromising artistic statement. See it. (4)

***



Passport to Suez (Andre de Toth, 1943) - Warren William's final appearance as jewel-thief-turned-crimebuster The Lone Wolf is light on comedy and has almost no mystery. Surprising, then, that it's still a pretty snappy thriller, with our hero (I trust he's your hero too - why wouldn't he be?) getting mixed up with Nazi spies trying to steal secret plans. The Lone Wolf series was a staple of '30s and '40s Hollywood and after a superb, glossy outing with Melvyn Douglas (The Lone Wolf Returns) and a surprisingly sprightly one featuring Francis Lederer (The Lone Wolf in Paris), Pre-Code favourite Warren William took over as solo operator Michael Lanyard. His first appearance was in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, a matchlessly enjoyable fusion of thriller and screwball romance, before the series settled into an agreeable if unexceptional groove with movies like The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady and The Lone Wolf Keeps a Date. Those earlier sequels are certainly the best, full of nice interplay between William and his doting valet Eric Blore. By the time studio Columbia began shoving Lanyard into WWII propaganda flicks like Counter-Espionage (so steeped in patriotic fervour it feels slightly bossy) and One Dangerous Night, the entries were looking a touch thin. Which brings us to Passport to Suez. It's unusual to see William's character so out of his depth as he appears for the most part here, trying - and largely failing - to stay one step ahead of the Axis agents. Eric Blore is good value as ever, playing valet Jamieson, though the introduction of his screen son is a little wrong-headed. The support cast is somewhat enlivened by Ann Savage, the femme fatale from the classic PRC no-budget noir Detour, who has an intriguingly strange face/head, if not a great deal to do. (2.5)

For a review of the previous film in the series, One Dangerous Night, please go here.

***


The worst drawing of Joel McCrea the West has ever known.

*SPOILERS*
Four Faces West (Alfred E. Green, 1948)
is a genuinely offbeat Western, in that no bullets are fired at any stage, though the gunpowder inside is used to cure two sick border children of diptheria. The film begins as a manhunt, with 'bankrobber' Joel McCrea (he leaves an IOU, but does point a gun at the manager) tracked by sheriff Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford). Then it adds some romance and a touch of history, before taking an inspired left-turn. McCrea's Westerns are a mixed bunch. He was a marvellous actor and from 1946 made nothing but oaters. Odd, then, how few were worthy of his talent. Of the 15 or so I've seen, only Stars in My Crown (is that a Western?), Ride the High Country and Colorado Territory really made the grade. This is definitely above-average, improving as it goes along, with a moving, reflective final 30 that comes out of nowhere. The supporting cast includes McCrea's wife Frances Dee as the love interest, and Maltese actor Joseph Calleia, playing against type as a kind-hearted gambler. This moodily-photographed outing isn't a masterpiece, but it does something different, and that's a welcome change in a genre heavily populated by formula films. (3)

***


These women look a funny shape. Can't they get some better artists in Hollywood?

The Opposite Sex (David Miller, 1956) is a disappointing remake of The Women that adds colour, songs and men, but somehow loses the essence of the original. Perhaps the plentiful cuts to plot and dialogue were to blame, though the lacklustre direction and unimaginative incorporation of the numbers doesn't help. June Allyson plays Kay, a former chanteuse who finds that her husband (Leslie Nielsen) has strayed with chorus girl Joan Collins. She's cut up about it and heads for Reno, but the chance of reconciliation is always there. Amidst the disappointment, there are some positives. Allyson was an underrated, distinctive actress and she's very good here, well-supported by Sandy Descher (as her daughter), Ann Sheridan - delivering the best performance of the bunch - and the legendary Joan Blondell, whose part is sadly far too small. June also contributes a couple of musical highlights: Young Man With a Horn, complete with trumpet solo by Harry James, and Now Baby Now, with its explosion-in-a-pastel-factory colour scheme. The latter is an exuberant performance, with staging that clearly informed Elvis' Jailhouse Rock (made at MGM the next year), though it inescapably features Allyson in a light blue jumpsuit, somewhat failing to transmit the desired sex appeal. The film's a bit of a damp squib, all told, though worth sticking with if you do start it. The last third is the best. (2)