Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The meaning of life: revealed. (Plus: John Lennon) - Reviews #90

Welcome (back?) to Advice to the Lovelorn, my own little corner of the internet. In this update: the only review of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life with jokes in it, a good film about John Lennon, a less good film about John Lennon and a couple of other things I had lying around. Thanks for reading - comments are always impossibly welcome below.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
- Explosions! Dinosaurs! Brad! Malick's gone all mainstream. No, of course not. On closer examination those crowd-pleasing staples turn out to be housed in a thoughtful, wriggly and sometimes overpowering 138-minute exploration of the meaning of life, as if Python hadn't already put that one to bed. Our main story sees disconnected, grunty middle-aged Sean Penn reminiscing about the death knell of his innocence, and a coming-of-age spent in the shadow of an authoritarian father (Brad Pitt), amidst the tended lawns and playful hoses of '50s America. There's something about the film - a universality, a realisation of sense-memories both gutting and exalting - that you rarely see on screen. The narrative is only really comparable to The Long Day Closes or Terence Davies' American film, The Neon Bible, but this is a more restless movie, shifting endlessly from one snapshot of joy, fury or guilt-ridden sexual awakening to the next. In many ways it's utterly extraordinary: completely nailing the complex, intense feelings of growing up, as if we'd all forgotten, and only Malick really remembers. Between jolts of ecstacy - becoming increasingly infrequent - Jack (Hunter McCracken) laments his ghostly, lovely mother (the excellent Jessica Chastain) for being weak, grows to despise his father, and nicks a nightdress from a local milf, which, shaking with fear, he buries and then throws in the river. One bittersweet scene - to which our narrator is an outsider - sees Pitt underscoring another son's guitar-playing with some gentle piano. It reminded me of perhaps my favourite sequence in all of cinema: Annie Laurie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It's only when Malick diverts from this central story early on - and again near the end - to show us the enormity of creation, the crux of the "nature vs grace" quandary and the possible insignificance of human life, that the movie risks being - what is the word? - oh yes, boring. The curious, breathy, abstract voiceover that runs through the film is actually as well done as I have ever heard it: again, Malick has a firm grasp of his themes, he's not just being a portentous dick, but after a triumphant explosion of spacy visuals, scored to some fucking awesome choral music (excuse my ignorance), he does go on a bit. There are also pacing issues, in so much as the film covers 65 million years in a matter of nanoseconds, then spends ages dealing with the mid-1950s. And the dinosaurs weren't scary at all. #jurassicfail Still, Malick has come closer to articulating the human experience from a trio of contrasting angles than most directors I know, and both Pitt and McCracken are absolutely superb. Their climactic two-hander, in which Bradders apologises for alienating his son and says that his life beyond the family amounts to nothing, is an absolute gem; as good as the comparable scene in Shaun of the Dead - and you can't get much higher praise than that. All-in-all, it's a fascinating, occasionally infuriating film. (3.5)


Two doses of John Lennon:

Backbeat (Iain Softley, 1994) - Emotionally interesting but stylistically unconvincing drama about the relationship between the fifth Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), his intense, gobby pal John Lennon (Ian Hart) and mop-topped German art student Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), whom they meet during the band's Hamburg sojourn. While Hart spews epithets effectively as the bruised, bilious Lennon, his subject's looks and vocal mannerisms are so familiar that it's hard to ever forget that this is just a film - even if the guy playing Paul really does look like Paul. Dorff, a less gifted actor than Hart, fares better simply because we don't really know the real Sutcliffe beyond the soulful eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones of those famous black-and-white portraits, while Lee is an adequate Kirchherr. The film, inexplicably included in the Guardian's "favourite films" strand (well, inexplicable aside from it being one of their journalists' favourite films), is fairly entertaining , but the production values are more in keeping with a TV movie - right down to the artificial encounters with German arty types - and the potentially fascinating story fails to ignite. We could also have done without the crap song-title jokes. (2.5)

Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Wood, 2009)
- This John Lennon flick is a portrait of the artist as a brooding, troubled adolescent, torn between the uptight, unsmiling aunt who raised him (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the redheaded free spirit of a mother who sails back into his life (Anne-Marie Duff). Aaron Johnson makes a decent fist of playing Lennon - though it's by no means a flawless turn - but the film is really worth seeing for the amazing performances by Scott Thomas and Duff, their characters negotiating the line between mirth and misery, but in very different ways. The script is strong - particularly in the guitar-buying scene, which is delightfully-done and ends with the owner grinning: "Just don't shoot me", one of those clever once-removed jokes that doesn't do the work for you - though the "Freudian mystery" aspect of the film seems unnecessary. Taylor-Wood's direction is impressive but unobtrusive, typified by that familiar opening chord, the way she recreates the famous back-of-a-lorry Quarrymen shot by opening up the whole fete with sweeping shots, and the manner in which she deals with the moment of Duff's death. There's some clunkiness in the forming-a-band subplot (though I liked Lennon's riposte to the question: "What's your band called?" - "Do you care?"), but this is still an enlightening and intelligent movie, with a couple of truly superb performances. (3)

See also: Want to read about a George Harrison documentary? Well, it beats watching one.


Upside Down: The Creation Records Story (Danny O'Connor, 2010) - Serviceable party-line biopic of the drug-fuelled label that gave us The Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, Ride, Super Furry Animals and, yes, Oasis. Professional bullshitter Alan McGee dominates proceedings - appearing as a monochrome talking head - which are presented in a one-second-attention-span whirl of crashing visuals, in an apparent ruse to cover up an alarming paucity of footage beyond music videos and photos of magazine articles. Perhaps everyone was tripping too hard to actually film any of the bands live. Much of the music is extraordinary and there are genuine insights - Bobby Gillespie suggests that My Bloody Valentine's Loveless was the last rock record that tried to push boundaries and take us somewhere new - but this is really a whistle-stop version of modern history that tends towards hagiography and only grazes the surface of its subject. The obscure, self-congratulatory Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle-ish inserts don't help. Incidentally, has anyone noticed that (What's the Story) Morning Glory? has, at most, three good songs on it? (2.5)


The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997) - Affable Aussie comedy that hammers away at the same joke for the opening 15 minutes (narrator says something, then actor repeats it), but is ultimately quite deft, funny and quotable, as it traces the travails of a working class family fighting to save its home from an airport expansion plan. Hopeless lawyer Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora) provides the biggest laughs, though Michael Caton is also good value as the lead. A chunky Eric Bana appears in support. (2.5)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Fighter, Natalie Portman and a man repeatedly saying "Ravi" - Reviews #89

The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) - Conventional, sometimes muddled, but very entertaining and well-acted boxing drama about fighter Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) taking a last crack at the big time, as his brother (Christian Bale) just takes a load of crack. I'm a big fan of Wahlberg, but here he's blown off the screen by a trio of supporting players who are given far more interesting roles: Amy Adams, as the tough college dropout with whom he falls in love, Melissa Leo as his ferocious chain-smoking mother and - best of all - Bale as the self-destructive dreamer who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. It's not up there with remarkable boxing movies like Body and Soul and Raging Bull - or even Champion - but it's the right mix of slick and gritty: the powerful mockumentary inserts underlining the most remarkable fact of all - that it's all based on a true story. (3)


Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
- A ballerina, caught in a love triangle, loses her mind as she takes on an impossible role. Yes, it's The Red Shoes II, with Aronofsky spinning the dance film into psychological thriller and body horror territory, as Natalie Portman's driven, frigid perfectionist begins to fall apart, both mentally and around the fingernails. Portman is excellent in the lead, Barbara Hershey works wonders with a cliched part as her mother and the whole piece is a triumph of directorial invention - vivid visuals and eerie soundscapes combining to chilling effect in fragments of black fantasy - but it's all to service a story that's a bit old hat and difficult to engage with. Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel (who can only act in French) offer a whole lot of nothing in support. Having seen many '30s musicals, I'm sure putting on a show used to be a lot more fun. (3)


The Distinguished Gentleman (Jonathan Lynn, 1992) - Underrated comedy that drops Murphy's familiar, wonderful, on-the-make persona into that old chestnut about a first-time congressman inspired by a sexy wumon to expose corruption, a story first filmed in 1932 as Washington Merry-Go-Round and popularised seven years later in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. It's predictable, then - and not nearly as biting as it could be - but great fun, with a handful of laugh-out-loud moments: the speech to the poultry moguls, the "she got her shoe back" gag and a scene where Murphy poses as a member of the NAACP. Indeed, most of his impressions get a run out at one stage or another. Lynn, who directed and shared writing duties here, was the co-creator of Yes, Minister, but had by this stage undergone a subtlety bypass, as evidenced by his revelling in the name 'Dick' and allowing Murphy to spout off about "homos" and keep threatening to kick people's ass. And, yes, while the impressive-looking supporting cast does include a nice bit from James Garner as a randy congressman, the star is really the whole show. But that's fine by me; at this stage Murphy was still firing on most cylinders - even if he's not quite another Jimmy Stewart. Or a Lee Tracy. (3)


Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
- Michelle Williams, Moaning Myrtle and Nina from Bored to Death head off the beaten track in this incredibly ambitious, halfway-successful attempt to make an uber-realistic wagon train Western, which then compromises that raison d'etre with a weird, ambiguous ending. The photography is full of wonderfully-composed images: scorched earth, white skies and muddied faces. The land itself is the most striking character, which is a good thing, as only a couple of the others are really fleshed out. The ever-exciting Michelle Williams is good as an individualistic, compassionate frontierswoman, and Bruce Greenwood does quite well as the grizzled old racist of the title, who could be heading for a lynching if he can't lead the gang to water. Paul Dano is oddly crap in support - he's done very little of note since that astonishing turn in There Will Be Blood. This genre effort, shot in the Academy ratio of pre-1953 oaters, is too distinctive and original to dismiss completely, but too muted - and sometimes too tedious - to be fully embraced. John Ford did a similar thing a whole lot better with the peerless Wagon Master. (2.5)


Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)
- "Aaaauuuuuunnnnnnggggggh." Clint gets in a lot of good-quality growling in this simplistic but effective message movie about a bitter, bigoted old widower - whose worldview was shaped by the Korean War - bonding with the Hmong-folk next door. The ending cleverly and attractively inverts the Dirty Harry/Unforgiven fascist bloodbath pay-off, though the supporting cast is pretty wooden. (2.5)


George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
- Oddly repetitive, annoying documentary about the Pretentious Beatle, who seems to have only written three great songs, all of them in 1968-9. Dishearteningly, Scorsese appears to have forgotten how to assemble a musical biopic in the five years since the remarkable No Direction Home, chasing passing leads with the enthusiasm and negligible attention span of a toddler: the Beatles are in Hamburg, then they're doing Sgt Pepper, then they've split up. If you don't already know the back-story, you're going to be stumped. The rest of it is all "Ravi" ... "mantra" ... "spiritualism" and Shankar twatting about on a sitar, which quickly palls. (2)

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Nine things I like about movies - Part One

... in which I shine a big fat light on films, scenes and movie folks deserving of greater recognition, with the help of words and videos. Nine at a time. I'm not sure why it's nine. This first instalment features backflipping, the Depression and a couple of policemen trying to decide who would win in a fight between a tuna and a lion.

Why not tell me your own below? Oh go on, it'll be fun.

1. The Nicholas Brothers
You know Fred Astaire? That guy who was the finest hoofer of all time? He thought the Nicholas Brothers' Jumpin' Jive routine in Stormy Weather was the greatest dance number ever filmed - and who am I to disagree? (Well, I'm Rick, and I think Fred was being modest. Let's Face the Music and Dance is the best.) This astonishingly athletic duo - real-life brothers Fayard and Nicholas - debuted in early-30s shorts, when Harold was just 11, then made a name for themselves through extraordinary routines that typically began with some rhythmic shuffling, then built exponentially, until by the end they were skipping with handkerchiefs, leaping over each other's heads while doing the splits, or backflipping. Fox, who held their contract in the early-'40s never incorporated the pair into the plots of their films, meaning they could snip the stand-alone scenes from musicals when they played in racist areas of the South. Yes, you read that right. If you've got a few minutes spare some time this week, you should really check out these numbers - three of their best - as they're just about the most amazing thing ever to happen on a cinema screen.

Things for you to watch and enjoy:
Chattanooga Choo Choo (also featuring Dorothy Dandridge), from Sun Valley Serenade
Down Argentine Way from Down Argentine Way
Jumpin' Jive from Stormy Weather.
Be a Clown from The Pirate. If you recognise the tune, it was purloined - uncredited, I believe - for the Make 'em Laugh number in Singin' in the Rain.


2. Frank McHugh
"Haaaaaerh... haaaaerh... haaaaerh." The best laugh in the movies (referred to by fans as the "one, two, three") belonged to the best character comic of the Golden Age - though McHugh did star in a couple of features: He Couldn't Say No, opposite an improbably-smitten Jane Wyman (they generally occupied different strata in the star stakes), and Three Men on a Horse. McHugh, much admired by contemporary and friend James Cagney, could play it straight as well as most - check out his moving performance in the teary One-Way Passage - but it was as an affable, often confused comic foil that he excelled. Who else could have kept up with William Powell's tour-de-force in I Love You Again? McHugh did - and perhaps even surpassed him - with that drunken phone call to Edmund Lowe. And he's just bloody amazing leading a superb ensemble in Three Men on a Horse. In fact, you could argue that the three funniest comedies of the '30s and '40s all feature McHugh: that, I Love You Again and Blessed Event.

Become an instant fan here:
From McHughTube, lol lol lol, a funny moments montage with lots of spoilers.


3. Three Smart Girls (Henry Koster, 1936)
The pinnacle of Deanna Durbin's career: a blissful mix of comedy, romance and lovely music. Canadian child star Durbin - an ordinary kid with an extraordinary operatic voice - was a simply terrific performer and she's in her element here: powering a sentimental, wonderfully entertaining movie that's a bit like The Parent Trap, but with songs instead of twins. Though he sometimes claimed otherwise for propaganda purposes, Durbin's breakthrough film, One Hundred Men and a Girl, was Churchill's favourite movie. Both are available as part of various box-sets, or on their own.

For your delectation:
The trailer.


Decent quality pics in short supply, I'm afraid.

4. How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You, When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life (from Royal Wedding)
The MGM number with the longest title of all, and one of my favourites. Hilarious, invigorating and exhilarating, especially when the beat speeds up and Fred starts striding around the stage, being all awesome. It's from Royal Wedding, which has four or five of the greatest musical interludes of all time, but devotes too much of its running time to Winston Churchill's daughter Sarah (Fred's worst leading lady), rather than the excellent Jane Powell.

Because I am nice:
The full routine in all of its considerable glory.


5. Joan Leslie
The most purely likeable actress ever to grace the screen - a fine actor, brilliant reactor, top dancer, great singer and master of the cartoonish expression later popularised by Debbie Reynolds. She starred with Gary Cooper, Cagney and Astaire, and even played herself - as a romantic lead - in wartime flagwaver Hollywood Canteen.

Now see her in action:
Joan performing A Lot in Common with You with Fred in The Sky's the Limit.


6. Remember My Forgotten Man (from Gold Diggers of 1933)
The production number to end them all: a jaw-dropping crystallisation of Depression-era America in which the myriad ills and marauding malaises afflicting the Land of the Free are paraded across the screen for seven whole minutes. Crippled soldiers sold out by their nation, gaunt, starving widows and bereaved old women take the place of chorus girls, before the massed ranks of the proletariat march relentlessly towards the camera, like something out of a Communist propaganda film. Astonishingly bold and confrontational, it could only have been made by one American studio: Warner Bros, where writers and directors injected searing social comment into the most innocuous-looking entertainments - in this case, a Dick Powell musical. Kudos too to musical director Busby Berkeley for scoring a key passage with a bluesy vocal by a black singer, Etta Moten. Remember My Forgotten Man is remarkably powerful, deeply moving and - aside from The Grapes of Wrath, a remarkable translation of Steinbeck's book crafted by John Ford and noted union-basher Daryl F. Zanuck in 1940 - remains the most striking, outrageously left-wing bit of film ever to emerge from mainstream Hollywood.

See it here:
And be astounded.


7. Mickey Rooney really acting
He's much maligned, our Mickey, and sometimes with good cause. There's that, err, questionable performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's ("Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Miss Gorightery!"), lacklustre turns in films like Pulp and a tendency towards absurd caricature in pictures that I nevertheless delight in: Boys Town, the Andy Hardy series and those other musicals with Judy Garland that helped make him a star, the pick of them being Girl Crazy. There's a lot more to Rooney, though, namely the dramatic chops that saw him described by Tennessee Williams as "the greatest actor of all time". When he was encouraged - perhaps even forced - to dial it down, Rooney displayed a simple style, emotions never far from the surface, that was devastatingly effective. In The Human Comedy he plays an adolescent forced to grow up ahead of time, as the ravages of work take their toll on his home town. In National Velvet, he's unforgettable as the gifted, mysterious, duplicitous horse trainer fighting his demons as he primes a gelding for the biggest race of its life. They're two of the most affecting, revelatory performances in cinema history. A few impressive roles followed, Rooney wrestling memorably with the fictionalised difficulties of Lorenz Hart in the musical biopic Words and Music - which couldn't mention that Hart's main problems related to being gay - but he seemed to lack a handle on exactly what his strengths were, overplaying terribly given the merest whiff of a chance. It'll probably take him shuffling off this mortal coil to get the credit he's always deserved, but you can beat the rush by checking out these twin peaks of screen acting, in which the biggest box-office earner of 1939, 1940 and 1941 briefly turned into the best actor in America.

Watch this:
Rooney's Homer delivers a telegram to the mother of a soldier in The Human Comedy.


8. Tuna vs Lion (from The Other Guys)
For a change of pace, here's one of my favourite scenes from The Other Guys, among the funniest - and most underrated - comedies of the past few years. Will Ferrell is an unsmiling, officious cop whose commitment to keeping his job desk-bound raises the ire of his partner, the perpetually furious Mark Wahlberg.

Watch it here:
Tuna vs Lion.


9. Jojo (from Etre at avoir)
Here's perhaps the cutest movie character of all-time - and he's real. Jojo is the undisputed star of the 2002 documentary Etre et avoir, the simple story of a small primary school in rural France. He can't wash his hands properly, he can't work a photocopier, but he has just seen a wasp. Awwwwwwwww.

See this:
Jojo has trouble getting his hands entirely clean.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Lookout, Christmas and Downton Abbey - Reviews #88

The Lookout (Scott Frank, 2007)
- This is a truly exceptional character-study-cum-crime-thriller about a former high school hockey star (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to put back the pieces of his life, four years on from causing a car crash that took his girlfriend's left leg and killed two friends. Without a short-term memory, subsidised and patronised by his family, he works nights as a janitor in a bank, sequencing his days in biro. Then he meets charismatic, gaunt Matthew Goode, who introduces him first to a red-haired Luvlee (Isla Fisher) and then to some big plans. Gordon-Levitt's performance is absolutely astonishing - from his odd, shuffling walk (the legacy of his physical injuries) to the pained way he forces out sentences, and his guilt-stricken emoting, articulated partly through an unusually effective voiceover. For me, he's one of the best two or three actors of his generation, and I have never seen him do anything comparable to this - not even Brick.

Like another masterpiece of recent years, Winter's Bone, the film knows what its strength is and zeroes in on it: a compelling protagonist forced to trudge through a swamp of moral degradation in search of the money to ease their burden. The noir-literate script by Out of Sight scribe Frank is extremely eloquent and precise, there are solid supporting turns from Goode, Fisher and Jeff Daniels - playing Gordon-Levitt's blind flatmate - and the chilly cinematography from Alar Kivilo adds to the atmosphere of isolation and quiet desperation pervading this extraordinary directorial debut. The Lookout is what I hoped Memento would be like. It doesn't trick or abuse its hero. It doesn't rely on gimmickry. It shows the human cost of a fleeting error of judgement, the devastating fall-out from one moment of idiocy. And then a second. It's a compassionate, incisive drama so real, so sure-footed, so devoid of cliche, that it just blew me away. (4)


Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
- This is a modern sci-fi masterpiece, reminiscent of Silent Running in its intelligent story, retro visuals and atmosphere of loneliness and melancholia. Sam Rockwell is a Moon-based technician, nearing the end of a three-year contract harvesting energy for Earth, who starts to believe that he's not alone. Is he going mad, or is there more to his mission than meets the eye? Rockwell is absolutely stunning in a perilously difficult, demanding part, Kevin Spacey does a great job voicing his robotic colleague (whose changing "emotions" are hilariously detailed via a little yellow face) and the superb Clint Mansell score effectively soundtracks the dizzying narrative as it traverses through confusion and heartbreak to potential salvation. There's also a bit where Rockwell does a funny dance. (4)

SHORT: Whistle (Duncan Jones, 2002) - Prior to Moon, this was the sum of Jones' directorial career: a short notable for its ludicrous story - a hitman lives in a house way up a mountain, assassinating political leaders with his computer thanks to a long-range missile - poor acting, and one glimmer of brilliance: that arresting final shot. How on earth did he get clearance to use David Bowie's Subterraneans on the soundtrack? Oh I see. (1.5)


Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007) – Lumet’s final film is a densely-plotted heist movie, rich in misery and human drama, about a pair of brothers – sweaty, arrogant Philip Seymour Hoffman and twitchy, babyish Ethan Hawke – who decide to knock off their parents’ jewellery store. The time-shifting script is cleverly assembled and Lumet’s handling is typically meticulous: the movie’s cumulative power amassing by the minute as it did in the his seminal cop-corruption drama, Prince of the City. Hawke is very good, Albert Finney gives one of his better turns of recent years as the pair’s father, and Marisa Tomei does her best in a slightly muddled part, but Hoffman blows them all away with an astonishingly effective, multi-layered performance. His flailing real estate salesman appears at first glance to be an utter shit, but people rarely occupy such extremes, and after nearly two hours in his company, you see the hurt, the flecks of human decency amidst the amorality, violence and bitter desperation. A few scenes go on a little long and those featuring a camp, unsympathetic drug dealer (“My mom’s dying”, “Bummer”) seem to have been shoehorned in for the sake of plot convenience, but this gripping film – full of anger, compromise and regret – is a fitting swansong to Lumet’s brilliant career. (3.5)


Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993) - Linklater's breakthrough is less pretentious than the films he made either side - Slacker and Before Sunrise - with the characters living and breathing, rather than acting as conduits for his assorted philosophical musings. It's a low-key, well-acted ensemble drama about freshmen and seniors celebrating the last day of school in 1976, with a few good jokes and a cast of stars-to-be, including Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams and Parker Posey. Some characterisations are better and more detailed than others, the standouts being Jason London's "Pink" - a compassionate, forthright star-quarterback-turned-stoner - and Wiley Wiggins's awestruck Mitch, embarking on his first all-nighter. It's always nice to see Adam Goldberg too, playing a nebbish questioning his place in the world. With its period high school setting, sympathetic look at dropouts, and themes of anti-authoritarianism and personal honour, it's clearly a key influence on Apatow and Paul Feig's Freaks and Geeks. More importantly, it's an enjoyable and insightful film on its own terms, a handful of memorable male characters making up for the periodic dramatic lulls (there are a few scenes in which people just drive past each other shouting) and underwritten female roles. (3)

See also: Goldberg went on to appear in the two best episodes of Friends, Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Julie Delpy's: 2 Days in Paris.


The Angel Doll (Alexander Johnston, 2002) - Overly sentimental Christmas film set in 1950, with aspirations beyond both its budget and its talents. Parachuted in for the present day framing device, former Altman co-conspirator Keith Carradine is the patriarch looking back on his childhood - and his friendship with poor kid Whitey (Cody Newton), who dreamed of acquiring an "angel doll" for a younger sister dying of polio. There are some nice moments in a kind of sub-Stand by Me manner: storytelling around a campfire, bonding in a junkyard, ragging a burgeoning dickhead who then falls off his bike; and both the kids do a decent job, even if Newton has the voice of a 50-year-old homicide detective. But the supporting cast is less impressive and the script veers from the story I was quite enjoying (aside from the mawkish superimposition of the terminally ill girl in the play-within-a-film - bleurgh) to curiously underdeveloped subplots about race and tolerance. It's also saddled with an unfortunate tendency to miss out parts of its narrative at key junctures and, having aimed for weepie territory with an ill-judged twist near the end, then entirely fails to provide the anticipated climax, as Carradine just lounges around, wittering about dolls. It's apparently based on a true story, though, so if that's the way things really happened, fair enough. A decent script editor and a couple of better grownups in the period scenes could still have made it flow a whole lot better. Michael Welch, playing the young Carradine, is apparently now an integral part of the Twilight universe. The film is dedicated to director Johnston, who died shortly after filming wrapped. (2)


DTV: The Littlest Light on the Christmas Tree (Anthony and John Gentile, 2004) - It's not really Christmas yet, but my fiancee had added this to LoveFilm and they just couldn't control themselves, so we watched it last night. It's a minor animation, very much for children, with primitive CGI, broad characterisation and a surprisingly large number of original songs for a 45-minute direct-to-video production. The visuals are so clunky that it would surely have worked better as a hand-drawn affair or a radio play, but its heart is in the right place and there is a good bit where the tree ornaments come to life - the quality of the animation suddenly ratcheting up a notch as a clown unicycles along a tightrope and some inexplicably nasty Christmas lights decide to duff up the eponymous figure. Not the best Christmas film I'll see this year, but so nice that being any harsher than that just seems mean. (2)


The Man (Les Mayfield, 2005)
– Haha, this is rubbish! Eugene Levy plays a dental supplies salesman roped into helping tough cop Samuel L. Jackson bust a gun-running ring in this appalling action-comedy, which imagines itself to be Midnight Run, witlessly spoofs Pulp Fiction, but takes longer to watch than it apparently did to write – and only runs 83 minutes. There are a couple of OK human moments, but the “comedy” is unstintingly abysmal. Lol, he did a fart. Lol, he’s about to be anally violated by customs officials. Fuck me, it’s bad. (1)


TV: Downton Abbey (Series 2, 2011)
- Diverting but disappointing second series that lapses into ludicrousness on a dishearteningly regular basis. The good: Maggie Smith, Matthew and Mary. The bad: plotting straight of cheap melodrama, Brendan Coyle (whose line readings are all absolutely identical) and Daisy, who is just flat-out terrible. Fellowes is clearly more comfortable examining the minutiae of aristocratic life than he is dealing with the lot of the servants, whose stories are almost unfailingly uninteresting. There are effective dramatic scenes scattered throughout the series (the two utilising sentimental period tunes were really nicely done), the doomed romantic couple at the centre are great both alone and together, and Smith's waspish one-liners are a joy, but this decidedly erratic fare is ultimately undone by its stale, silly plotting and muddled execution. (2.5)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Source Code, Sixteen candles and six Bob Dylans - Reviews #87

I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
– “What’s this shit?” as Greil Marcus memorably enquired of Bob Dylan’s 1970 album, Self Portrait. What indeed? The shape-shifting Dylan is split into six different personas, including a flirtatious, feline ball of wiry hair with no emotions (Cate Blanchett), an 11-year-old black troubadour called Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), and a poetic, talking head Bob (Pingu from Nathan Barley), being quizzed by an unseen interrogator. They’re all pretty good while a section with a bland Richard Gere – as the old, incognito Billy the Kid – works nicely (especially his ride into town to the wondrous strains of The Man in the Long Black Coat), but Keith Ledger is wasted in a boring story strand and Christian Batman is just rubbish, mistaking "leaning forward" for "being shy". Haynes' film is based on an intriguing idea and the results are generally entertaining, but it's nevertheless riddled with pretension and emotionally unsatisfying, especially when most of this story has been told so powerfully already in Scorsese’s coruscating, excoriating No Direction Home. (2.5)


Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011) – OK animated feature about a chameleon posing as a hero in the town of Dirt, which works in extended spoofs of spaghetti Westerns and Chinatown, along with some excellent slapstick and a peculiar predilection for jokes about adult health complaints. Johnny Depp’s voicework is a bit strained and the story is bitty in the extreme, but there are effective stretches. Kung Fu Panda 2 was aces, but with this, Tangled and Cars 2, it hasn’t been a great year for animation, all told. (2.5)


Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)
– Supremely entertaining sci-fi movie that cuts Groundhog Day down to eight minutes and then shoves it into thriller territory. Jake Gyllenhaal is the disorientated war vet reliving the final moments of a commuter’s life in a bid to thwart a terrorist atrocity – whilst falling in love with the doomed acquaintance opposite. There may be plot holes and inconsistencies, while a saccharine pay-off alienated many, but this is so slick, imaginative and well-executed that I didn’t really care. With this, Never Let Me Go and The Adjustment Bureau, it’s been a good year for intelligent sci-fi with a bit of heart. (3.5)


Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) - A sweet story about 16-year-old Molly Ringwald's disastrous birthday, her encounter with a horny geek and her mad crush on a soulful, chiselled jock emerges, shaken, from beneath a mountain of cartoonish gags, materialist moans and objectionable epithets ("fag", "retard", "spaz") in this textbook Hughes comedy-drama. The overwhelming impression is that he didn't trust the central story to hold interest for 100 minutes, or didn't know how to adequately sustain it, so just started furiously padding. Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall - as the nerd with a litany of fictional sexual conquests - are both very good in their realistic, star-making parts, and Justin Henry is funny as Ringwald's acerbic little brother, but the ratio of great scenes to disposable ones is about 50:50 (special mention for the terrible mafia subplot) and every moment Ringwald is off screen, it really suffers.

The film has attracted criticism for its supposedly racist Chinese character, but he's kind of a hero and - even taking into account the bit where he leaps out of a tree in traditional dress, shouting "Banzai!", which is hilarious - he's no more of a stereotype than the other characters, with the humour arising from his exuberant idiocy rather than his ethnic background. I should also mention for all John Cusack afficionados (and who could claim to be anything else and still expect to be taken seriously), that he has a fun part as one of Hall's even geekier pals. While Hughes' breakthrough film is maddeningly unfocused, at its heart is something really nice and tender: anchored by a new kind of screen teen. By the '90s and early-'00s, such adolescent angst would be boiled down to its emotional core in heartstopping shows and films like My So-Called Life and Ghost World. Here, as in so many "me decade" films, the universal themes are somewhat obscured by consumerist griping, gratuitous tits and misguided frat house-ry. (3)


Parks and Rec: Season 3 (2011)
- What a wonderful programme this is. Warm, funny and - when necessary - razor-sharp, with an irresistible ensemble. It's great to see Adam Scott slotting into the cast so well: he gets the biggest laugh of the series with his spectacular meltdown on Ya' Heard? With Perd. (4)

See also: That review was rubbish, but don't let that put you off my review of Season 2.