Sunday, 30 October 2011

Blue Valentine, Romain Duris and two days in Paris - Reviews #86



*SPOILERS*
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
- Intense, insightful, semi-improvised indie about the death of a relationship, starring perhaps the two best young actors in the world: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. He's a former removal man and ambition vacuum who drinks too much and twists around everything she says. She's a put-upon, busy nurse who thwarts his attempts at physical reconciliation and allows the family dog to get run over. The film doesn't make judgements about these flawed, very real characters: it just throws their story onto the screen and forces you to watch as something utterly beautiful disintegrates, until all that remains is malice, unhappiness and desperation. There are fragments of warmth and love, and even a couple of very Gosling-ish jokes ("That's a funny name"), but the overall effect is like being whacked in the face. One of the best I've seen this year. (4)

***



*SPOILERS*
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard, 2005)
– Audiard, Romain Duris is in trouble in this enigmatic collision of character study, thriller and piano concert. Did you get that? It was like "oh dear”. This star-making vehicle for one of Europe's most interesting, versatile, quiveringly-intense actors chronicles the travails of a low-level gangster and wannabe concert pianist negotiating the shadow of his father, who used to be a somebody in the Parisian underworld. It's a genuinely offbeat film: a collection of rough scenes in which Duris argues with his pops, sulks and rages at his fingers, boffs his associate's wife and later tries to beat someone to death with a briefcase. It's also largely brilliant, lit by Duris' shambling, megawatt persona and full of brilliantly-observed passages ruminating on such interesting subjects as family, honour and violence. It is a remake of the '70s American film, Fingers. I'm sick and tired of the French remaking American films, just because their audiences are too lowbrow to watch anything with subtitles. As observed recently by some otherwise insufferable bore on Radio 4, it's also an interesting companion piece to the recent Drive. (3.5)

***



2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, 2007) - Very entertaining portrait of a Franco-American couple (Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg) who spar, bicker, quibble and sporadically make up while spending two peculiar days in the City of Light. Revealing, intelligent and directed with a truly original eye, meaning that you can forgive some false steps and a feeling - which soon vanishes - that you've already seen this, and it was called Before Sunset. Delpy and Goldberg are both superb. (3.5)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Outrageous Fortune (Arthur Hiller, 1987)
is a very daft, very '80s but kind of enjoyable buddy movie starring Bette Midler and Diane off of Cheers. They're the chalk-and-cheese New Yorkers who – like Team America's Gary Johnson – have to use their acting powers to save the day, after two-timing boyfriend (Peter Coyote) turns out to be a Russian mole. This action comedy is a bit predictable – not dissimilar to Hiller's The In-Laws, which is much better – but for all its cheesiness and implausibility (why do they keep running away once they've knocked a lone bad guy to the ground?), I got quite into it. George Carlin turns up near the end as a faux-Native American tracker, if that's of interest, and there's also an appearance from Altman regular John Schuck. When he was born, I bet the doctor took one look at his face, turned to his parents and said: "Congratulations - it's a character actor!"(2.5)

***



Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, 2010) – A princess with magic hair (Mandy Moore, whose voicework is terrible) is swiped from her cradle by a manipulative old bag and kept in a dock-off tower, but dreams of one day escaping. Then into her closeted universe (and ultimately her closet) comes cocksure thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi). Disney's spin on the Rapunzel legend has its moments of excitement and slapstick levity – not least the I've Got a Dream set-piece, in which a barroom of thugs reveal a more arty side – and an agreeably sly, passive-aggressive baddie. But it's let down by erratic computer animation, the mannered, stagey butchering of a pleasant song score and a second half in which the extremely entertaining comic relief – an expressive, Gromit-esque chameleon – largely disappears. But I suppose I should have expected that from a chameleon. As in so many of its lesser films, Disney applies a thick layer of hideously mawkish, sanctimonious, patronising sentiment to any sequence it possibly can. (2.5)

***

... and a couple of Judd Apatow films I'd missed:



Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008) - Process server Seth Rogen witnesses a murder and is forced to go on the run with his weed dealer (James Franco) in this paradoxically enthusiastic stoner comedy. Most stoner comedies aren't funny unless you're, well, on drugs (French Connection II was a particularly poor effort), but this one's a slight cut above, thanks to an appealing performance from Franco as the dazed dealer and a typically amusing one from Rogen - the pair reuniting after Freaks and Geeks, also produced by Judd Apatow. It's very minor, there aren't enough good jokes and the shift into action at the climax doesn't work, but it's kind of sweet in its muddled way and the leads make a nice pair. (2.5)



Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby (Adam McKay, 2006) - Unpleasant, self-indulgent but sometimes funny Will Ferrell vehicle, in which the star's insufferable speed freak takes stock car racing by storm, before crashing out in a ball of invisible fire (it'll make sense if you watch it) - only to rise again. It's directed by regular Ferrell collaborator McKay, but the improv approach that worked sporadically on Anchorman largely fails them here, as it would with Step Brothers. For every genuinely great line ("So when you say psychosomatic, you mean, like he could start a fire with his thoughts?") there are a half-dozen that just don't work, and the supporting cast of foul-mouthed kids, a grasping wife, a drug-dealing absent father and a neglected pensioner are more upsetting than funny. Ferrell readjusting to life in the fast lane by driving at 26mph made me laugh, and having him evade trackside flunkies by running in circles wearing only his pants is always going to work, but the film is ultimately too cold and cruel to engender any goodwill, which is what's needed when the material is as spotty as this. On the plus side, McKay and Ferrell's fourth collaboration, the cop comedy The Other Guys, is an unheralded classic - the improvisation augmenting rather than replacing a strong narrative and proper characters. "Gater needs his gat." (2)

***



*SPOILERS*
TV: Parks and Recreation: Season 2 (2009-10)
- As anyone will tell you, this second season is a massive step up from the first: think the gulf between Tom Waits' first two records, or Buster Keaton's Three Ages and Our Hospitality. This time around the characters feel real, their low-level quandaries important, whether that means romantic entanglements, some misguided plan to sell unhealthy health bars at the city's parks or dealing with the fallout from marrying two gay penguins. The nominal lead is Amy Poehler - playing eternally positive workaholic Leslie Knope - while Aziz Ansari's desperate, perma-grinning Tom Haverford has garnered most of the critical plaudits, but it's three other members of the ensemble that really make this sublime, satirical series fly: lazy libertarian boss Nick Offerman, pleasant, witless shoeshiner Chris Pratt and sarcastic, deadpan intern Aubrey Plaza. It's just a joy. (4)

***



BOOK: Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing by Lee Server - Server can be a superb biographer, one of the elite crowd who are both diligent researchers and excellent writers (ex-tabloid hack Howard Sounes may have unearthed Dylan's financial records and his second wife, but I still have nightmares about the songwriter's lyrics being "like magic birds that fly into the ear of the listener"). In 2001, he published the definite Bob Mitchum tome, Baby I Don't Care, a fascinating story and brilliant character study told in an awesome prose style that aped Mitchum's own hip, jive-talkin' persona, full of the "hell"s, "man"s and "baby"s that littered the actor's vernacular. This follow-up, which curiously omits Gardner's supposed fondness for "golden showers" - mentioned in the Mitchum book - is a somewhat less compelling affair due to its often dislikeable heroine, events that seem to repeat themselves on an endless cycle and muted stylistic leanings that can probably be filed under "Diet Faulkner". It's still zippy and entertaining, with a particularly strong mid-section (from Gardner's arrival in Hollywood to her time filming Bhowani Junction) and numerous memorable anecdotes involving such supporting cast members as Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Luis Miguel Dominguín - the best bullfighter in Spain. (3)

Saturday, 22 October 2011

CLAIRE DANES SPECIAL

That's a headline. She is. We like her. She's completely lacking in self-consciousness in a way that very few performers are and it makes her characterisations seem very truthful - which is probably the best thing you can say about an actor. We'll tell you more about that one day, but for now here are four reviews. You can read about Romeo + Juliet and Me and Orson Welles elsewhere on the blog.



TV: My So-Called Life (1994) - A phenomenal piece of television that swells with confidence and ambition as it progresses through a single 19-episode season. It begins as standard, sometimes humourless but insightful teen fare largely carried by Claire Danes' wonderful performance, then becomes ever more nuanced, adventurous and hard-hitting, lit by a brilliant ensemble (special mention for Wilson Cruz) and balanced by quiet sentiment and great little comic passages ("Are you Brain?"), leading to a note-perfect pay-off. The plotlines featuring the parents can't match the startling truth of those dealing with teen life, but then what can? Danes' tour-de-force remains simply one of the most important and arresting ever to grace the small screen. Her unconventional, give-everything form of emotional expression, and her innate understanding of how human beings develop and change meant she always deserved a great career. It's been a rocky, fascinating road since then, studded with curious gems; now with the critical acclaim afforded Temple Grandin and Homeland, it looks like she has it. (4)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Shopgirl (Anand Tucker, 2005)
- It has a great cold neon look, a commanding central performance from Claire Danes and an impressive, oppressive musical score, but nothing about this oddly downbeat romantic drama, adapted from a Steve Martin novella*, quite fits together. Danes plays a lonely department store salesgirl who's looking for love, but finds only schlubby logo designer Jason Schwartzman. Then charming, aloof, slightly melted-looking middle-aged businessman Martin strolls into her life. There are a couple of cracking scenes - Danes asking "Why don't you love me?" will live long in the memory and her climactic chat with Martin is very well-handled - but Martin himself is a bit creepy (he's always been better at wacky than sincere) and Schwartzman's character - though amusing - is too dislikeable and ridiculous to be a credible romantic figure. It's not a bad film by any stretch, but it's a frustrating one, as every time it touches greatness it immediately falls away again into nothing. The committed way Danes cries: all snotty, with big puffy lips, sums up what a great actress she is. (2.5)
*What did Steve Martin say when he'd finished his book? "Ivor Novella." BOOM!

***



The Rainmaker (Francis Ford Coppola, 1997) - A powerhouse cast ignites this massively entertaining Grisham adaptation about an idealistic young attorney (Matt Damon) taking on the case of a poor leukemia victim whose insurance company is refusing to pay out. In a second, equally engrossing story strand, he also moves to protect a young woman (Claire Danes) hospitalised by her abusive boyfriend. The film slips into melodrama a couple of times and the last five minutes is sadly muddled, but everything else about this courtroom drama is first-rate. Damon is perfect in the lead, Danes scores big in a sensitive, affecting performance, and the support is a veritable who's who of top character actors, including Roy Scheider, Jon Voight (imposing if occasionally silly), Dean Stockwell, Mickey Rourke and Danny Glover. Best of the supporting bunch is Danny De Vito, playing a roguish researcher on the boundaries of the law. (3.5)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Stardust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007)
- Simply lovely stuff. A post-modern fairy tale, riffing on It Happened One Night, that's stuffed with fun, invention and familiar faces (how on earth did they manage to assemble that cast?!). Charlie Cox is a touch callow in the lead and Pfeiffer's volte-face at the close makes precisely no sense, but those are minor quibbles in what is a tremendously enjoyable film. Claire Danes is cool. (3.5)

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Woody finds his mojo, Lisbeth gets a mohawk and Peter Falk disses Albanians - Reviews #85



*SPOILERS for Midnight in Paris and The Purple Rose of Cairo*
CINEMA: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)
- He did it! He finally did it! Woody made a good film again! I actually want to give him a little hug. What a sweet, gentle, funny, winning, interesting, relevant, piquant, magical and thoughtful little film this is. So just as The Purple Rose of Cairo was a film that chose reality - for all its flaws - over fantasy, so this nostalgia trip has a few smart little observations to make about living in the past. Owen Wilson, typically excellent, is a Hollywood hack and aspiring novelist who travels to Paris with his shallow fiancee (Rachel McAdams). It's nice enough, but the city of which he fantasises is the Paris of the '20s - of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and Dali. And out for a stroll one evening, that's exactly where he ends up, wandering into the past, where he converses with long-dead legends and sparks with artists' muse Marion Cotillard. There's the odd dry spot or antique celeb cameo too many, but this is still the best thing Woody has done since Anything Else - and arguably since since Sweet and Lowdown. Added to which, Adrien Brody is a superb Dali. "Rhinoceros." (3.5)

See also:



*SPOILERS*
Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
- Allen's masterpiece begins with a little surface posturing (you've seen Ibsen, Woody? How terrific), but quickly reveals itself to be the most profound, perceptive and insightful of his many great films. Tracing the romantic fortunes of three actress sisters (Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey), its superbly-scripted episodes have a rare cumulative power, while the writer-director is at his nicest: understanding and empathising with his characters, and giving each a happy ending. This being Allen, we're not concerned only with love, but also with death - as hypochrondriac Woody (playing Farrow's ex-husband) wrestles with the big questions, flirting with Catholicism and Buddhism, before settling for the Marx Brothers - a subplot that contains the bulks of the film's laughs. A score of '30s standards creates the mood, while the exceptional ensemble nails every nuance of the dialogue: the cast boasting Golden Age luminaries Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O'Sullivan, Bergman favourite Max Von Sydow and Michael Caine. And how about that last line? It always makes me grin. And cry. (4)

***



*MAJOR SPOILERS, SOME OF THEM HAIR-RELATED*
Millennium Trilogy: Extended Editions (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009)
- Being the original nine-hour TV extravaganza from which those three The Girl... movies were sculpted, complete with a tasteful, slightly spoiler-heavy animated credits sequence: the buzzing of a taser complete with lively music serving as a wonderfully cathartic metaphor. Dragon Tattoo (Parts 1 and 2) is obviously the best of the bunch, its frankly horrible mystery nevertheless providing a superlative showcase for Noomi Rapace as the endlessly fascinating Lisbeth Salander. Sequel Played with Fire (Parts 3 to 4) is a zippy, intriguing film that delves into her back-story and benefits from excellent acting, though it undeniably suffers from obstinately keeping Lisbeth and co-conspirator Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) apart for its entire duration. Once Salander's protagonist becomes a largely helpless victim in the final two-parter, the series loses something of its energy and its point. On the plus side, and for all its conventionality and fat, Hornet's Nest (Parts 5 and 6) remains an entertaining-enough final instalment: a conspiracy thriller mercifully light on horrendous sexual violence and blessed with a satisfying climactic half-hour. I fancy rocking a mohican if I'm ever hauled up in court due to the machinations of a shadowy organisation known as The Section. (4)/(3.5)/(3)

See also: Our review of the theatrical cut of Dragon Tattoo can be found here.

***



Manderlay (Lars von Trier, 2005) - This sequel to Dogville takes a good 10 minutes to get going - or else for one to acclimatise to its obdurant staginess - but once that's done, it's something pretty special: an exploration of American racism with an argument so incisive, so controversial and so cleverly arrived at that you've just got to marvel at von Trier's massive, swinging testicles. Bryce Dallas Howard is terrific in the Kidman role as gangster's daughter Grace, who pitches up at a plantation in 1933 to find that slavery is still in full flow. Taking over the property through a mixture of might and right, she attempts to turn it into a workers' co-operative, with mixed results, whilst feeling oddly drawn to proud, noble worker William (Isaac De Bankole). It's bracingly original and devilishly clever, with a denouement that's like being smacked in the gob. That's still nothing compared to the end credits: a montage of photos from American history - set once more to Bowie's Young Americans - including pictures of murdered Southern blacks, and a little baby in a Klan hood. (3.5)

***



Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) - George Clooney gives his best performance to date in this light-but-serious drama that uses the insular existence of a "downsizing expert" to examine the selfishness of modern America. As we learned from North by Northwest - which saw Cary Grant triumphantly arresting a desperate slide into mediocrity - that suntanned smug-suaveness is only interesting (and indeed bearable), if you rupture it, at which time it becomes heartbreaking. The film has something to say, and says it through singular iconography and a distinctive vernacular, so you can forgive it the occasional misfire or loose end. What's harder to take is Reitman leaving out the brilliant "spacesuit" dream sequence cut to Ricky Nelson's Lonesome Town, a perfect visual metaphor that would have lifted the film onto a whole other, ahem, plain, in the same way that heightened Mamas and the Papas climax elevated Morvern Callar to greatness. (3.5)

***



Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) - Clever, Charlie Kaufman-esque comedy about an inland revenue agent (Will Ferrell) who begins to hear a disembodied voice (Emma Thompson) narrating his life - and predicting his death. Hoping to get to the bottom of things - and so thwart his impending demise - he enlists the help of literature professor Dustin Hoffman, who suggests he turn his life into a comedy by pursuing an improbable romance with tattooed baker Maggie Gyllenhall. The first half is simply brilliant, full of great jokes and outlandish ideas which are superbly realised, but the film doesn't deliver on that promise, failing to engender sympathy for Ferrell's plight and so appearing strangely aloof and detached as the gag-rate slows. It's still an interesting movie, and there are a couple of genuinely hysterical scenes - Ferrell repeatedly double-taking while brushing his teeth, and later being quizzed by Hoffman about which genre he might be living in ("Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large, luxurious homes to which you may or may not have been invited?") - but it's neither engaging enough to be another Purple Rose, nor bold enough to approach the warped, delirious mayhem of, say, Synecdoche, New York. (3)

***



*SPOILERS FOR FIRST 20 MINUTES*
Ghost Town (David Koepp, 2008)
is a surprisingly successful attempt to turn Ricky Gervais into a Hollywood romcom lead (who's next, Dudley Moore? Oh right), conventional without appearing compromised, and agreeably lacking in lazy anti-Britishness. Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who dies on the operating table and returns to life to find he can see ghosts - and they all want his help. The most overbearing is tuxedoed adulterer Greg Kinnear, who's desperate for him to break up the marriage of ex-wife Tea Leoni. There's a bit of Sixth Sense in there, a lot of Groundhog Day and a chunk of Amélie, but Ghost Town does ultimately carve out a small niche of its own, with a fair few laughs (the funniest bit has Gervais being continually interrupted by doctor Kristen Wiig) and some reflective moments from the star that provide the unexpected highpoints. Karl Pilkington said it was good. I should have believed him, but he's been wrong about things before. Like Stephen Hawking being an alien. "I'm not Stephen, I'm just a brain." (3)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill (Joel Schumacher, 1996) isn't really in the same league as The Rainmaker, trappings of trashiness serving to blunt the impact of its essentially interesting narrative about race and justice in the Deep South. Matthew McConaughey is a Southern lawyer who springs to the defence of a black man (Samuel L. Jackson) accused of a double-murder, after he guns down the rednecks who raped his 10-year-old daughter. The crusading attorney - who has personal reasons for taking the powder-keg of a case - becomes a target for thugs, while assisted by the usual ragtag band of misfits: a liberal law student (Sandra Bullock), a brilliant old soak (Donald Sutherland in fine form) and a twinkingly immoral pal who deals only in divorce cases (Oliver Platt). McConaughey is very good - this was back in the days when he looked like he might become a really interesting actor - and he features in the film's four best scenes: talking to Bullock in the diner, to Sutherland in the courtroom corridor, to Jackson in his cell the night before summation, and finally to the jury - recounting the rape in sickening detail. The film's celebration of vigilante justice is unpalatable, and a subplot about the rebirth of the KKK is essentially just Mississippi Burning 2 (which no-one wants), but there is enough in the fast-paced narrative and typically strong cast to grip. (3)

***



Sons and Lovers (Jack Cardiff, 1962) - Three of the most idiosyncratic and interesting actors in movie history combine for this fascinating but flawed D.H. Lawrence adaptation. Dean Stockwell doesn't go near a regional accent, but does do a good job in the overwritten part of a sexually-charged young artist from Nottingham troubled by familial responsibility and the sexual repression of his true love. Trevor Howard overdoes it a bit as his eternally bellowing coal miner father, who "acts low because thee think I'm low" (or words to that effect), apparently having wandered in from an altogether different movie. I just kept thinking of the cleverly inverted Python sketch, Working Class Playwright. So the film belongs to Wendy Hiller in one of her sporadic, effortlessly devastating big screen appearances, incorporating a couple of little breakdowns that made me whimper. Which other actress has ever made you feel - actually feel - something of the loss of a child, or the ruination of another? The script is often too long-winded and thematically jumbled for the film to approach greatness, but there's no questioning the power of individual scenes and the whole thing is wonderfully-shot by Jack Cardiff - a couple of hideous back-projection shots aside. (3)

***



*SPOILERS*
Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest, 1996)
is a bit overbalanced by Guest's obvious turn as a camp theatrical producer, but this tale of am-dram hopefuls waiting for a Broadway bigshot is quite nicely done, especially in the opening scenes, which have a Parks and Rec feel. It also avoids turning the climactic show into a series of calamities - a clear pitfall - building up goodwill through some clever, throwaway jokes and its gallery of likeable schlubs. Its main failing is that it can't ever hope to touch the Bilko episode that also deals with the staging of a small-scale historical play - probably my favourite ever. I think Guffman is supposed to be a mixture of Godot and a MacGuffin. (2.5)

***



Clerks II (Kevin Smith, 2006) - I saw this more out of hope than conviction - a director notable for his diminishing returns, revisiting the only great film he's ever made? - but it wasn't bad. Well, the inter-species erotica was appallingly unfunny, Randal is too much of a bully in the early exchanges and much of the best stuff is locked away in the deleted scenes, but there are a handful of neat routines, the bit in the jail is genuinely touching and the set-piece about Randal's grandmother is one of the funniest things I've seen all year. Smith also seems like a thoroughly nice chap, which makes me feel bad about disliking so many of his movies. (2.5)

***



*SKIP THIS REVIEW IF RUDE WORDS OFFEND*
Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002)
- Very silly but largely entertaining sci-fi yarn about a world in which emotions are banned (yeah, I know). It all looks and feels oddly amateurish, though it moves at a fair clip, and the action sequences, Christian Bale's performance and the scenes with his kids are pretty effective. I only really watched it for the titan that is Emily Watson - she doesn't have much screen time and is doing a very quiet Irish accent, but offers a couple of nice moments amidst a large amount of complete and utter fucking nonsense. (2.5)

***



Bowfinger (Frank Oz, 1999) - Pretty good comedy about a down-at-heel wannabe movie producer Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) whose plans to make alien flick Chubby Rain are shot down by superstar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). Undeterred, Bowfinger begins to follow him, staging scenes around the terrified star, who becomes convinced he's the target of pod people. When Ramsey checks into a cultish rehab centre, Bowfinger needs a Plan B - and turns to dorkish Ramsey lookalike Jiff (Murphy again). It's scattershot stuff but there are a few inspired moments of silliness and some decent satirical barbs, while Murphy gives probably his best performance of the decade in a dual role. Martin's pretty good too, though just when you think he's not going to indulge that unfortunate penchant for terribly unfunny mock-kung fu, he gives in. (2.5)

***



Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) - Meh. This was what all the fuss was about? Still, it turns out that weapons launched by the Americans never harm innocent civilians. I suppose that is news. Gwyneth Paltrow always seems to land these old-fashioned, appealing characters (see also: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), but lacks the smarts or the spark to do anything with them. (2)

***


Yeah, the excellent period detail doesn't really come across in this poster.

Tune in Tomorrow... (Jon Amiel, 1990) - Radio soap opera writer Peter Falk helps (or hinders?) the course of true love between news writer Keanu Reeves and his sort-of-aunt Barbara Hershey in this '50s-set comedy. Falk is actually quite annoying, Reeves' New Orleans accent is terrible and the plot is very hard to understand, though the relationship between the leads is sweet, there's period atmosphere in spades and it has spoken opening credits - very cool. A subplot about Falk's hatred of Albanians starts off amusingly, then becomes markedly less so as its language becomes horribly reminiscent of anti-semitic Nazi propaganda. (2)

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Melancholia, Ryan Gosling and the boy who lived - Reviews #84

Here are some of the things I've been watching lately. For some reason I've started swearing (I think it's for attention), so if that's likely to offend, don't read on. Otherwise, buckle up for the destruction of planet Earth...



*SERIOUS SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
– We start at the end – the end of the world, and a series of surreal, dreamlike images, set to Wagner, depicting the possible final moments of two sisters, a young boy, a few dozen birds and a horse. One sees Kirsten Dunst's Justine with her hands pointing skywards, spindly tassles of electricity crackling from her fingers – among the most arresting moments of the year. Another, which shows Charlotte Gainsbourg's legs disappearing into a golf course, is less successful. You imagine these passages will also close the picture, but they don't – they seem to belong to a parallel universe. This is a von Trier film after all, and he's a contrary bastard. He's also got a handheld camera fetish, and no sooner has he wowed us with those painterly, uber-ambitious snapshots, than he snaps back and we're in firmly Dogme-ish territory.

The first half – titled "Justine” – is set at the character's wedding, where the fantasy nuptials are interspersed with her decidedly erratic behaviour. The napping, sobbing and selfishness nails the banality and crippling exhaustion of clinical depression, but while there is no rationalism in mental illness, a sex scene with a stranger in a golf bunker seems fraudulent and thrown in for attention. The director's barbs at the PR industry, amusing as they are, also distract from what should be the focus: the relationship between Justine and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who suffers from depression's own stressy sister: anxiety. All in all, the wedding contains several very powerful scenes, including a heartbreaking sequence in which Dunst unthinkingly abandons a symbolic gift from her husband, but also too many plot threads that lead nowhere and a general feeling that we've been here before – not at the end of the world, but at the wedding of a troubled young woman (Breaking the Waves), peopled by a family that hate each other's guts (the superb Festen). This lengthy set-piece is anchored by an impressive performance from Dunst. I don't think she's perfect – for one thing, there's a gaping chasm between her tremendous visual expressiveness and her vocal delivery, which is passable at best – but the dialogue-light screenplay suits her, and the manner in which Justine's mask slips and then evaporates is poignantly, effectively realised. Like George Cukor and William Wyler, von Trier is a great director of actresses – Emily Watson, Björk and Nicole Kidman have all done their best work for him – and Dunst's meaty characterisation is an eye-opener, if not a complete triumph. He also draws a fine, though less showy, performance from Gainsbourg, and while John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are a touch underused (neither is on top form anyway, so perhaps that's no great loss), there's some unexpectedly strong work from Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg's wealthy, secretly fretful husband.

The second half – "Claire” – is like a Bergman film, if Bergman had a thing about horses and was a Neanderthal, though the often uninspired domestic wranglings are lifted by strong acting and a handful of masterful scenes: Justine beating her cherished stallion to within an inch of its life, a harrowing, realistic sequence in which her depressive is flatly terrified of taking a bath, and a neat bit of gimmickry that sees the approaching Melancholia looming large over a homemade "are we all going to die?” device. Yup, looks like it. Whatever flaws the film has, and there are clearly many, they're compensated for by a final 15 minutes that's extremely memorable, and a final 10 seconds that might be the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen in the cinema: the incoming planet dominating the horizon, dwarfing the three figures in the foreground, before a wave of fire rolls in, obliterating the land and finally swallowing up the screen. Not a great film, then, but a film with truly great moments. (3)

***



*LOTS MORE SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
– With its neon credits, synth-led song score and obscenely hip lead performance from Ryan Gosling – another movie psychopath from whom we can all take fashion tips – Drive is an instantly iconic film. It’s also a near-classic, a potent fusion of actioner, crime flick and doomed romance that needed just a stronger script to nudge it into that top bracket. Gosling is a Hollywood stunt man and getaway-driver-for-hire whose lonely life is changed by a chance meeting with neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). He falls for the doe-eyed waitress and develops a cosy rapport with her son, Benicio. But when her husband comes home from prison and finds he’s still in debt to some bald gangsters (one of whom looks really like White Power Bill from Arrested Development), Gosling decides the only way he can protect the woman he loves is by going vroom-vroom for the hoods. Fuck me, that’s a good set-up. The comparisons to Shane have been made, but there’s another obvious parallel with Taxi Driver – seemingly referenced in the poster – as it slowly dawns on us that this guy we’ve been driving around with is a bit unhinged, and the plot also borrows from ‘70s classic Charley Varrick, another film in which our anti-hero accidentally swipes laundered money and finds that the mob is quite annoyed.

Drive is a great experience – with a matchless feel, a killer performance from Gosling (simply the best actor around today) and fine chemistry between him and Mulligan. It intelligently mirrors his shifts between coldness and warmth, while containing frenzied bursts of the old ultra violence – I’d never seen anyone offed with a knife and fork before. But the film is undermined by its comparatively uninteresting subplots featuring Bryan Cranston (who’s good in a clichéd part), Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks and Christina Hendricks, and the central character’s muddled code of ethics – bleeding into bloodlust – which can make him hard to side with, even when he’s chewing that toothpick in such a cool way. But if it’s not quite the masterpiece I was greedily anticipating, it’s still one of the year’s best and another key credit for an actor who’s proving to be infallible. All together now: “A real human being, and a real hero...” (3.5)

***



CINEMA: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates, 2011) – I only just caught up with the series and missed them all at theatres, so I hopped on a train to see the last one on the big screen. In 3D. On my own. My first solo cinema trip ever, I think. I'm not sure it's as streamlined or as adept at juggling the disparate elements as Azkaban or The Order of the Phoenix, but it offers one excellent set-piece after another and considerable emotional clout thanks to Rowling's touching plotting and some fine work by Rickman, Maggie Smith and Ciaran Hinds. Asked to carry the piece, Radcliffe oscillates between profundity and am dram-level scowling – what a strange actor he is. Fiennes fiennally gets it right as Voldemort (though the way he holds his wand above his target has always been a ingenious little detail - nailing the character's arrogance, contempt and malice, and making him look that bit more threatening). For all its flaws, I've got a lot out of this series. Including a free poster. Go me. (3.5)



Harry Potter: Films 1 to 7 (Various directors, 2001-2010) - I never saw these, as I didn't want my imagination colonised by the films before the books had all come out. A few thoughts:
- Chamber of Secrets is underrated as both a book and film.
- Using Ron as a kind of idiot comic relief in the earlier movies is a hideous error of judgement that completely undercuts the central friendship.
- All the kids playing Riddle do a fine job.
- Azkaban is the best both on page and screen, though Kloves excises several of the most potent passages and ideas.
- Richard Harris is a fantastic Dumbledore. Gambon is lacklustre in the role - a weakness as the series progresses.
- Order of the Phoenix is the second best picture, but hampered by a fucking ridiculous giant that looks like it's been made out of plasticine.
- Half-Blood Prince is a poor adaptation but a very good film.
- Radcliffe and Watson turn into halfway-decent actors; Rupert Grint doesn't. He does, however, turn into Mickey Rooney when he's fed a love potion.
- Oldman and Thewlis are both pretty good, belying the notion that they were replaced by replicants in 1993.

***



CINEMA: Crazy, Stupid, Love (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2011) - I really enjoyed this. Don't be put off by the terrible title, it's probably the best mainstream romantic comedy since Just Like Heaven (shut up, you are wrong): funny, romantic, surprising and with a knockout performance by the mighty Ryan Gosling as a womanising slickster who decides to teach the cuckolded Steve Carell - also excellent - how to pick up girls. Is there anything Gosling can't do? Apparently not. (3.5)

***



CINEMA: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) - Well, it's not as multi-layered (or as good) as the TV series, but then how could it be? Well, they could have cut out all the footage of Smiley just walking around, which is still in there. The good news: Gary Oldman has remembered how to act! Repeat: GARY OLDMAN HAS REMEMBERED HOW TO ACT. He underplays brilliantly, then cuts (slightly) loose in three wonderful scenes. Best of the lot: his monologue about meeting Karla, employed less effectively as a flashback on the small screen. All in all, it's an extremely well-directed thriller with a deliciously chilly atmosphere. The only real shortcomings: Tom Hardy's curiously wooden performance as Ricki Tarr, changing Connie's line about Empire to something about WWII (oh look, there's the point all the way over there) and an explanation of the culprit's motivations that's far less memorable than in the series. A high (3).

***



The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) - An unforgettable character study channelled into a gripping mystery, as the eponymous figure (Noomi Rapace) - a damaged young woman with myriad gifts - helps a crusading journalist re-open a 40-year-old murder investigation. The whodunit is interesting and cleverly uncovered (even if the culprit is a tad too obvious for fans of the genre), but where the film really excels is in Rapace's phenomenal characterisation. Her portrait of a woman plagued by unstinting mental anguish is shockingly real. She entertains, enthralls and beguiles, while emerging as perhaps the strongest symbol of female empowerment ever to grace the screen. It's a while since I was so shaken up by a performance. If only they'd rolled the credits as she exited the prison - the coda seems to have wandered in from Oceans Twelve or something. Still, I'll be getting hold of the sequels as a matter of urgency. (4)

***



William + Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996) – The central premise – updating the setting while keeping the dialogue – works well, DiCaprio is dynamic (I don't think he has ever delivered on the promise of his '90s work, despite being taken more seriously nowadays) and once more Claire Danes displays that wonderfully idiosyncratic, unselfconscious acting style, exploding in moments of sudden and complete emotional expression. She's a terrific actress. In other news: Mercutio is shit until he stops dressing as a woman, at which time he becomes quite good. That speech about the hazelnut is still utter drivel, but it was early Shakespeare, so we'll let him off. Luhrmann overdoes the stylistics to begin with, then settles into a more steady, less distracting pattern, making the later concessions to bombast much more effective – particularly DiCaprio's dash to the church, which is fantastic. Good stuff. (3)

***



American: The Bill Hicks Story (Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, 2009) - The odd unearthed clip aside, this documentary is a strangely unilluminating affair, utilising a pretty amateurish effect that brings old photos to unconvincing life. You'd be better off reading the Cynthia True book and picking up the records and DVDs of Hicks' act instead. His routines are still pretty damn great; well, when he's not babbling on about subjective consciousness like a stoned adolescent. The film itself isn't bad, just kind of ordinary. (2.5)

***



My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964) - Distressingly mediocre rendering of the Lerner and Loewe musical (based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion), with an artifical atmosphere, unimaginative staging and a critical absence of heart. Rex Harrison makes a good Professor Higgins and a couple of the best numbers remain largely unscatched (Wouldn't It Be Loverly, On the Street Where You Live), but Hepburn is completely miscast - the dubbing of her vocals is infuriatingly distracting - and Stanley Holloway, who I'm usually rather fond of, is unbelievably irritating as her dad. Still, while I'm Getting Married in the Morning might be the most boring and annoying thing I've seen this year, the biggest letdown is I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, an absolute gem of a song that's just tossed away. I shouldn't imagine I'll ever sit through this again. Not while there's the glorious Howard/Hiller Pygmalion out there. (2.5)

***



Step Brothers (Adam McKay, 2008) - I have no idea if this is any good. Probably not. Adam Scott provides most of the the best moments - he really is a wonderful comedian; Ferrell offers a few laughs. John C. Reilly's not very funny. It's all a bit too nasty and stupid and unfocused. (2), or something.

***



The Aristocrats (Paul Provenza, 2005) - Shit joke, shit film. (1)

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Fallen Idol, the Great Depression and Woody being wonderful - Reviews #83

I've been at it again. Watching films, then reviewing them. Here are another 11 write-ups:



"Baines!"
The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948) - The other Graham Greene/Carol Reed collaboration is arguably even better than The Third Man, as little Bobby Henrey suspects that his hero - butler Ralph Richardson - may have just committed murder. A gutting, slyly witty story about the destruction of childhood innocence, it's brilliantly scripted and directed, with an exceptional performance by Richardson, great work by Henrey and notably ethereal support from the legendary Michèle Morgan, the best actress ever at being photographed through a window (see also: Le quai des brumes). (4)

***



King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh, 1993) - Dazzling, episodic coming-of-age story, as a quick-witted, kind-hearted 12-year-old (Jesse Bradford) tries to stay one step ahead of school authorities, hotel staff and an anti-semitic cop when he's left to his own devices during the Depression. Soderbergh's third film is like nothing else he's done: moving, funny and truly evocative of the period, the horrors of which are not glossed over. It's similar in texture to both Altman's superlative Thieves Like Us and Terence Davies' The Neon Bible - but even more sure-footed and engrossing. Bradford is flawless in the lead, while the excellent ensemble includes Lauren Hill, a young Adrien Brody and an even younger Katherine Heigl. I've wanted to see this for years and it didn't disappoint. In fact, it exceeded even my ludicrously high expectations. (4)

***



Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999) - Woody's last (and final?) masterpiece. I'm not sure how it would play without Samantha Morton's phenomenal supporting characterisation, but that's something we need never worry about, as she's in it, lending immeasurable heart to this potentially minor drama-mockumentary about a self-centred jazz guitarist (Sean Penn). It's original, it's funny and the ending packs a Purple Rose-esque punch. (4)

***



The Young Master (Jackie Chan, 1980) - Jackie's first film as writer-director remains perhaps his greatest movie, with the slight plot a springboard for numerous incredible fight scenes and bits of stuntwork. It's pretty funny too, as these things go, and there's a notable supporting performance from the star's friend and regular foil Yuen Biao - their battle-of-the-benches being the highlight of this richly enjoyable work. (4)

***



Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) – A fascinating story and Strathairn's typically superb performance are undermined by iffy pacing (we reach the dramatic climax halfway through), the idiotic framing of the story as being the battle between two models of TV – rather than two models of America – musical interludes that add atmosphere but completely disrupt the momentum of the narrative, and a mystifying subplot featuring Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson. It's entertaining, well-acted and glorious to look at, but a botched job nonetheless. (3)

***



U Turn (Oliver Stone, 2007) is a grisly, nihilistic neo-noir, laced with black comedy, that sees small-time hood Sean Penn stranded in the small town from hell. The storyline is familiar and the worldview is bleak beyond belief, but there's some flavourful dialogue, Penn and Jennifer Lopez make an interesting team and the supporting cast is first-rate, with Billy Bob Thornton, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes and Nick Nolte excelling in memorable supporting parts. (3)

***



Mogambo (John Ford, 1953) - Hollywood adventure films generally appear hilariously outdated and offensive today. This one's alright, thanks to the director and his central trio of Gable, Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner, though it retains that unfortunate "Oh look, flamingos" affliction caused by trying to include every last frame of hard-won second unit nature footage. (2.5)

***



*ONE RUDE WORD, BUT IT IS ABOUT JOAN CRAWFORD DANCING, SO THAT'S FINE*
Dancing Lady (Robert Z. Leonard, 1933)
- So LoveFilm really do own a copy! Well-worth seeking out this one, not least because it was Fred Astaire's first screen appearance (and the final one of his musicals I tracked down, incidentally). It's based on the false premise that Joan Crawford can dance (she is a fucking horrendous dancer and responsible for the two worst dance numbers I have ever seen: the one they show with a smirk in That's Entertainment! and the hideous blackface number from Torch Song), but it's really stylishly directed by Leonard - some of his gimmicks, like lightning-paced wipes, are way ahead of their time - and the risque script is a real rarity for MGM, even in those Pre-Code times; far more akin to amoral Warner fare like 42nd Street. There's also a top cast making the most of a somewhat tired plot, including Gable, Franchot Tone, Robert Benchley, May Robson (whose role is pretty stupid) and of course Astaire. Ostensibly playing himself, Fred has two numbers and though really he's coasting, it's just great to see him. The next time he graced the screen it would be over at RKO, creating fireworks with a young blonde hoofer by the name of Ginger Rogers, in Flying Down to Rio. (2.5)

***



The Thorn in the Heart (Michel Gondry, 2009) - Largely pointless home video about Gondry's aunt that seems to disprove the idea that every life would make an interesting film. The problem isn't necessarily with the material, though, but the lazy execution. (2)

***



The Killer Elite (Sam Peckinpah, 1975) - This confusing, incredibly cynical actioner is a weak point of its director's oeuvre. The plot sees CIA pawn James Caan double-crossed by his partner (Robert Duvall), then getting the chance for revenge while guarding an Asian politician. The script is all over the place, with clumsy dialogue and characters that make little sense, though Peckinpah's outlandish editing elevates the shoot-outs and Caan earns his pay cheque with a charismatic lead turn. The kung fu sequences are just terrible. (2)

***



Rush Hour 3 (Brett Ratner, 2007) - A bit tired, though Chris Tucker is still hilarious. No he isn't. (1.5)