Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Scorsese scores, Gervais bores - Reviews #94

I've got to go back to my holiday in a moment, but here are a couple of reviews:



Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) - Little Martin Scorsese (Asa Butterworth) rescues the reputation - and happiness - of neglected, balding film titan Michael Powell (Ben Kingsley) in this heartwarming, Truffaut-ish love letter to the early days of cinema, set around Montparnasse train station. The film is unapologetically episodic, plays by its own rules (breaking off for oodles of back-story more than once) and hits the target most of the time, thanks to the fascinating subject matter, Scorsese's vivid direction - incorporating spectacular use of 3D - and a cast that does broad in a way that works. It's easily the best thing Scorsese has done since Goodfellas - excepting No Direction Home, of course, on the grounds that it doesn't really count. (3.5)

This would probably have made #10 in my Top 10 of the Year.

***



*REVIEW CONTAINS ONE INSTANCE OF ANGRY SWEARING*
Life's Too Short (S1, 2011)
- Shortly after making the first series of The Office, Ricky Gervais was asked about his favourite sitcoms of all time and, waxing lyrical about Cheers, said the most impressive thing was not pushing boundaries of taste, but making shows that - while inoffensive and of the mainstream - were of exceptional quality. Unfortunately he seems to have forgotten that, as this over-familiar mockumentary, mining the comedy of embarrassment via reheated stock situations and populated with boring celeb cameos, is full of tedious, laboured taboo-tickling shit, even if its treatment of dwarfism is generally quite sensitive)*. Warwick Davis is good value in the lead, playing a hideous spin on himself, but the supporting cast is mystifyingly poor (with the honourable exception of the excellent Rosamund Hanson) and the material, while containing moments of genuine inspiration (the sight of our hero pretending to be the Lord of the Dance in a hotel room will live long in the memory), is terribly spotty: predictable, obvious and frequently unfunny, particularly in the underwhelming final two episodes. I'm a conventional, sentimental sort, and my favourite comedies generally leave me feeling uplifted and fulfilled. After a fun start, this one made me angry, deflated and disappointed - especially on behalf of Davis, who gives his best and is clearly a decent comic performer. Apparently the series is coming back in 2013, but I don't think I'll be rejoining it. After all, life's too short. Arf. Somebody probably already did that one. (2)

*I'm not saying that there isn't a place for that kind of comedy, done well - of course there is. It's just bizarre that Gervais seems determined to carve a niche there, as he's really not very good at it.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Advice to the Lovelorn: Review of 2011



Man of the Year. Time Magazine went for "The Protestor", but I don't remember him being quite so buff. And even The Protestor came out for Gosling - possibly in that way. All together now: "Five, six, seven, eight, Ryan Gosling's super great."

Tedious pre-amble

What a year it's been. The Arab Spring, someone or other winning X-Factor, a woman putting a cat in a bin (was that last year?) and possibly an election of some kind? But more importantly: films! I've seen 319 movies in 2011 (because I am cool), including 32 released this year. So amongst the usual tea-stained ruminations on motion pictures that came out in the 1930s, I've put together a Top 10 of the past 12 months, with a #1 that you won't see topping many lists - but which you must see. Unless you hate scallies. If you hate scallies, it's unlikely to win you round. It's not Arthur Christmas, incidentally, however much I enjoyed that. Aardman have yet to make a film with a scally as the hero.

Elsewhere, there's a round-up of the good, the bad and that time I rather unwisely watched Mamma Mia!, 15 truly great movies I hadn't seen before 2011 - stretching from 1926 to 2010 - and a short sentence about pizza. This post is also my annual concession to a load of boring stats, so please bear with me/humour me/don't injure me. If you want to see last year's somewhat briefer review of the year, it's available here. Now, first up, my top 10 of 2011...

***

TOP 10 OF 2011

1. Attack the Block



Director:
Joe Cornish
Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, Alex Esmail and Nick Frost
We said: "A vital horror-comedy ... an incredibly assured debut, with unpredictable plotting, stylised dialogue and characters you really care about, once their frailties are laid bare ... a thrilling counterpoint to establishment fare like The King's Speech, with the best final five minutes of any film in recent memory."
Please also note: "The standout performance unquestionably comes from John Boyega as gang leader Moses, with his sullen expression, Adidas-three-stripe-style facial scar and burgeoning understanding of his growing responsibilities."

2. Never Let Me Go



Director:
Mark Romanek
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield
What we said: "From eerie opening to gutting denouement, it’s the feel-bad film of the year."
Please also note: "Its world may be chilly but Never Let Me Go is anything but, thanks largely to a quietly electrifying performance from Carey Mulligan."

3. Blue Valentine



Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams
What we said: "An intense, insightful, semi-improvised indie about the death of a relationship, starring perhaps the two best young actors in the world."
Please also note: "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."

4. Submarine



Director: Richard Ayoade
Starring: Craig Roberts, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine and Sally Hawkins
What we said: "What a refreshing, distinctive and arresting film this is: a hysterically funny portrait of teenage life in Britain as it's really lived and a film we've been waiting for, without really knowing it."
Please also note: "This is a brilliant debut: moving, original and dazzlingly cinematic, its singular feel augmented by dreamy Super 8 segments, eye-catching credits and a great song score from Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner. And I laughed almost constantly."

5. Bobby Fischer Against the World



Director: Liz Garbus
Starring: Bobby Fischer, David Edmonds and Anthony Saidy.
What we said: "Gripping, thrilling and ultimately gutting documentary about the US chess prodigy, who dropped out of the public arena at the peak of his powers and spiralled into insanity."
Please also note: "It’s an extraordinary story and this film does it justice: masterfully-constructed, with articulate eyewitness accounts, remarkable archive footage and a superb middle-section."

6. The King’s Speech



Director:
Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter
What we said: "Brilliant stuff ... stirring, funny and riotously enjoyable, with super support from Bonham Carter, Rush and the ever-underrated Anthony Andrews."
Please also note: "As my girlfriend said: 'I thought Colin Firth would be Oscar-worthy, but I didn't know he'd be good as well'."

7. Kung Fu Panda 2



Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Starring: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman and Dustin Hoffman
What we said: "This is a beast every bit as rare as a panda that can do kung fu: a superior sequel. Fast, funny and fleshing out its story with emotional wallops, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a total triumph - and knocks even its predecessor into a conical hat."
Please also note: "The film looks incredible, packed with sumptuous landscapes dominated by vast mountains, dappling rivers and towering pagodas. Few modern movies have realised the possibilities of the big screen in such an assured, ambitious manner."

8. Drive



Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Oscar Isaac
What we said: "It’s 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."
Please also note: "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 ... another key credit for an actor who’s proving to be infallible."

9. Crazy, Stupid, Love



Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon
What we said: "This is probably the best mainstream romantic comedy since Just Like Heaven."
Please also note: "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."

10. Source Code



Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga.
What we said: "A supremely entertaining sci-f movie that cuts Groundhog Day down to eight minutes and then shoves it into thriller territory."
Please also note: "Source Code is slick, imaginative and well-executed."

Also worth a mention: The Adjustment Bureau (Director: George Nolfi), The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011), The Fighter (David O. Russell); Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky); Melancholia (Lars von Trier).

Did you enjoy that? Good. Next up, premieres...

***

TOP 15 PREMIERES
... being a ragtag collection of classics that had evaded my grasping clutches before 2011, but which weren't released this year, instead being released in years like 2007, 1926 and 1972 (I could go on, but I won't). 1945. (Sorry, I had to do one more.) This is out of 260 such movies, so only the best will doodle-do, as that annoying breakfast cereal ad used to say. To learn more about the film, just click on the name. They're in descending order of sublimity.



Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006)
The Enchanted Cottage (John Cromwell, 1945)
My Childhood (Bill Douglas, 1972)
The Lookout (Scott Frank, 2007)
The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948)
King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh, 1993)
For Heaven’s Sake (Sam Taylor, 1926)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
The Shepherd of the Hills (George Cukor, 1941)
Ah, Wilderness! (Clarence Brown, 1935)
The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003, pic above)
The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2007)
Män som hatar kvinnor (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; review of the Extended Edition here
The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010)
Along Came Jones (Stuart Heisler, 1945)

***

And now, because you've been very good this year, here's a quick rundown of the year's highlights (and bad bits). Mostly in terms of movies. I do some other stuff too, but it's not as interesting, so I've put that at the very foot of the post.



FILM
Crazes: Ryan Gosling, Harold Lloyd, Judy Holliday (pic above), Robert Rodriguez.
Continuing preoccupations: Fairuza Balk, John Cusack, Dorothy McGuire.
Revelations: That, in Carey Mulligan, Michelle Williams and Jennifer Lawrence, there are three young actresses worth getting excited about. That DreamWorks can make mighty fine animated films: Kung Fu Panda 2 is not just a superior sequel, it's a veritable visual feast, with an involving and exciting story.
A few performances that stuck with me: Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, Noomi Rapace in the Millennium trilogy, Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go, Willard Robertson's unexpectedly uber-hip turn as a sardonic bounty hunter in Along Came Jones. And - yeah, why not? - Amy Adams in the lovely Enchanted.
Stuff I caught up on: The entire works of Robert Rodriguez, pretty much. The Harry Potter films. And a lot of TV shows.
Happiest surprises: Woody finding his mojo with Midnight in Paris, The Other Guys being so utterly hysterical when I bobbed it on Sky Player one Sunday afternoon; Harold Lloyd's For Heaven's Sake; Synecdoche, New York pushing the boundaries in a way I'd never seen before, whatever its flaws; being able to catch Les enfants du paradis at the cinema.
Biggest disappointments: In terms of this year's animated crop, Rango and Tangled were both a bit of a letdown. I'd heard that The Hangover was funny, but it was just obnoxious. Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Stars spent most of its time with a load of shit comedians, rather than awesome martial artists, which was an error. For all the majesty of its score, My Fair Lady is flawed beyond belief.
Worst films: The Aristocrats was hateful, Mamma Mia! was dreck, and Woody's Cassandra's Dream was just incredibly embarrassing.
Some favourite moments: Judy Holliday murmuring: "I know, s'alright" in Bells Are Ringing. It's slight, it's gone in an instant, but it's so real and affecting. The smile at the end of Attack the Block, Ken Marino pitching up - and getting chased away - in The Baxter, and the dancing in the train smoke in My Childhood. The plays within Les enfants are wonderful; watching them on the big screen made them doubly so.
Favourite jokes: "Tuna vs Lion" and the ballet/stripclub mix-up in The Other Guys were amazing, the Civil War "battle" in Harold Lloyd's Grandma's Boy was risky but pulled it out of the fire and the chase sequence in his For Heaven's Sake was just hilarious. Special mentions to the gag-heavy rickshaw set-piece in Kung Fu Panda 2 and the high-tech present-drop scene near the start of Arthur Christmas for the intensity of invention. A rewatch of The Apartment meant another chance to see the look on Jack Lemmon's face as it dawns on him just what his boss is asking him to do. I saw Buster Keaton's The Cameraman again, too - the bit where he hops on the side of the bus is inspired.
Best film I saw at the cinema: Les enfants du paradis. Then Attack the Block.

***

And for those who simply can't get enough stats (just me then?), here's my top 100 of the year, taking into account rewatches, first watches (shown in bold) and brand spanking new movies.

TOP 100 FEATURES(>40 mins)



1. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001, pic above) (4)
2. Les enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945)
3. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
4. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
5. Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
6. Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006)
7. Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950)
8. Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler, 1943)
9. The Enchanted Cottage (John Cromwell, 1945)
10. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)

11. The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick, 1928)
12. My Childhood (Bill Douglas, 1972)
13. The Lookout (Scott Frank, 2007)
14. The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948)
15. King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh, 1993)
16. For Heaven’s Sake (Sam Taylor, 1926)
17. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) (Cinema)

18. Barcelona (Whit Stillman, 1994)
19. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936)
20. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

21. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) (Cinema)

22. Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
23. The Shepherd of the Hills (George Cukor, 1941)
24. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
25. Ah, Wilderness! (Clarence Brown, 1935)

26. Three Men on a Horse (Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited), 1936)
27. The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942)
28. The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003)
29. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2007)
30. Män som hatar kvinnor (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009): Extended Edition (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


31. Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999)
32. Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010) (Cinema)
33. I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1945)
34. The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010)
35. Along Came Jones (Stuart Heisler, 1945)
36. Spy Kids (Robert Rodriguez, 2001)
37. Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
38. Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
39. Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974)
40. Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus, 2011)

41. Grandma’s Boy (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1922)
42. It Should Happen to You (George Cukor, 1954)
43. Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007)
44. Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Robert Rodriguez, 2002)
45. The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) (Cinema)
46. It Happens Every Spring (Lloyd Bacon, 1949)

47. Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004)
48. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
49. Inside Job (Charles H. Ferguson, 2010)

50. Shi di chu ma (Jackie Chan, 1980) aka The Young Master



51. The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman, 1998, pic above) (3.5)
52. Gas, Food Lodging (Allison Anders, 1992)
53. Kung Fu Panda 2 3D (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011) (Cinema)
54. De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (Jacques Audiard, 2005) aka The Beat That My Heart Skipped

55. Il Postino (Michael Radford, 1994)
56. Valmont (Milos Forman, 1987)
57. Boys Town (Norman Taurog, 1938)
58. Let Him Have It (Peter Medak, 1991)
59. The Hoax (Lasse Hallström, 2006)
60. The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004)

61. Invincible (Ericson Core, 2006)
62. Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach, 1995)
63. The Americanisation of Emily (Arthur Hiller, 1964)
64. My Way Home (Bill Douglas, 1978)
65. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
66. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
67. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
68. Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)
69. The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)
70. El Mariachi (Robert Rodriguez, 1992)

71. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
72. The Rainmaker (Francis Ford Coppola, 1997)
73. Phffft! (Mark Robson, 1954)
74. The Male Animal (Elliot Nugent, 1942)
75. Crazy, Stupid, Love (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2011) (Cinema)
76. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

77. La grande séduction (Jean-François Pouliot, 2003) aka Seducing Doctor Lewis
78. The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011) (Cinema)
79. Vozvrashchenie (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003) aka The Return
80. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

81. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2010)
82. My Ain Folk (Bill Douglas, 1973)
83. Quick Change (Howard Franklin and Bill Murray, 1990)
84. While You Were Sleeping (Jon Turteltaub, 1995)
85. Panique au village (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009) aka A Town Called Panic
86. Après Vous (Pierre Salvadori, 2003)
87. Dan in Real Life (Peter Hedges, 2007)
88. Le dîner de cons (Francis Veber, 1998)
89. A Lawless Street (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955)
90. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)

91. Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, 2010)
92. Manderlay (Lars von Trier, 2005)
93. 2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, 2007)
94. Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2010)
95. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007)
96. Bells Are Ringing (Vincente Minnelli, 1960)
97. Paper Heart (Nicholas Jasenovec, 2009)
98. The Baxter (Michael Showalter, 2005)
99. Small Town Girl (László Kardos, 1953)
100. Two Guys from Milwaukee (David Butler, 1946)


***

TOP 5 SHORTS(> 40 mins)



1. The Goat (Buster Keaton and Malcolm St. Clair, 1921, pic above) (4)
2. Cops (Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, 1922)
3. The Boat (Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, 1921) (3.5)
4. Orientation Day (Kyle Balda and Samuel Tourneux, 2010)
5. Banana (Kyle Balda and Samuel Tourneux, 2010)


*Lists correct as of December 20

***

TV

I saw a heap of great series this year. Here are the 10 best:



1. Veronica Mars (2004-7, pic above)
2. My So-Called Life (1994-5)
3. Edge of Darkness (1985)
4. Party Down (2009-10)
5. Parks and Recreation (2009-)
6. Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
7. Arrested Development (2003-6)
8. Millennium (2009)
9. Bored to Death (2009-)
10. Sherlock (2010-)


These people made me happy. And sometimes sad, but in a good way: Bob Peck, Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr and Noomi Rapace.

***

MISC



Best gigs: Suede doing the first two albums at the Brixton Academy (pic above).
Best day: When I got all engaged.
Best meal: Seafood pizza.

***

EDIT (03/01/12): These things came in too late for consideration, but Hugo and Win Win would have vied with Source Code for the #10 spot in the film list, with Pushing Daisies crashing in at #3 in the TV round-up. To read more about them, just click on the names.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Les enfants, Bob Peck and It Happened One Night 2 - Reviews #93

There's the usual heady blend of history, bad jokes and swearing in this latest set of reviews, which find me enjoying one of my favourite 10 movies at York's City Screen cinema, and then plonking myself down in front of the telly to watch some romcoms. And a bleak, seminal eco-thriller.



*MASSIVE SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Les enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945)
–There are six or seven films so vast in their ambition, so surefooted in their execution, so utterly perfect in every way, that they just make you shiver and gasp and grin. Amongst this exalted group – Remember the Night, Colonel Blimp, Hoop Dreams, The Searchers, Ghost World and Diary for Timothy – stands Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert's Les enfants du paradis: the towering achievement of French cinema. Jean-Louis Barrault stars as Baptiste, the first great mime, who rises to fame at the Théâtre des Funambules but is tormented by his unflinching, draining love for flighty carnival-worker-cum-socialite Garance (Arletty). Even after he's married, he pines for her, while she hops from rakish thief Marcel Herrand to caddish actor Pierre Brasseur and aristocrat Louis Salou. Filmed during the Nazi Occupation of Paris, drawing on half-imagined events in 1830s Paris, and populated by a cast of stage titans, Resistance fighters and the odd collaborator (Arletty, I'm looking at you), it's a portrait of a vanished world, a hymn to the art of acting and an allegory about France – many try to tame or cage the worldly Garance (Arletty, ironically enough), but she is forever free, and none but the people (represented by the pure, Chaplin-esque mime Baptiste) can hold her heart. And all the while, a detestable, amoral shit of a clothes man – reviled by Baptiste – skulks around. That the film contains one of the great screen romances, we know. It's also clear on first viewing, no matter what size the screen, that in the performances of Arletty, Barrault and his quivering, obsessive wife (María Casares), it boasts three of the finest performances ever committed to celluloid. And its high spots are so far above just about anything else you'll ever see that it's faintly absurd: Baptiste sparing Garance from arrest with an impromptu mime, recreating the shattering of his heart as an audience looks on, transfixed, from "les paradis” (the "Gods” of the theatre), standing between his two lovers at the climax of the first half, or fighting against a tide of carnival-goers as an expressionless Garance leaves him again, and perhaps forever. But despite all that, seeing it on the big screen is something else entirely. Everything is magnified; we are placed in the front-row of the theatre, or else amidst its whooping, cheering audience. The atmosphere of the Boulevard du Crime leaps to vivid life – the exquisite staging of the sparingly-used external sequences pervading the whole – and Pierre Brasseur's irrepressible performance as the eternally irreverent ham Frederick is a delightful sideshow to the gutting central narrative. I think you can also see Arletty's nips in the tub, so strike one up for digital restoration. Carné's handling is breathtaking, Prevert's script is so clever, witty and worldly-wise it just makes me want to give up, and the timeless story seems to grow in strength and resonance with each passing year. The greatest. (4)

***



*SPOILERS*
The Baxter (Michael Showalter, 2005)
– You know that guy who always gets left at the altar in movies? Yeah, the one who’s played by Ralph Bellamy. Well, this movie is about him – mostly. And with its time-shifting narrative, plethora of genuinely inventive, surprising gags and spectacular supporting cast, it’s a little gem. Showalter is decent in the lead, Justin Theroux makes an amusing nemesis and Michelle Williams is simply lovely as the girl our anti-hero should be dating – rather than tedious Elizabeth Banks – but it’s the bit-players that really make it, from Paul Rudd to Peter Dinklage, Joe Lo Truglio and Ken Marino. The two surprise gags at the death are sublime. (3.5)

***


Franchot Tone (left), doing his "one eye" thing.

Love on the Run (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936) – In 1934, MGM punished its hottest male star, Clark Gable, by loaning him out to ickle-wickle studio Columbia, for a screwball romance called It Happened One Night. The film, based on a script by Robert Riskin that had been sniffed at in earlier incarnations by anyone with half a brain, went on to be one of the biggest successes of its decade, scooping all five major Oscars – a feat unmatched until 1991. As you might imagine, MGM - America’s juggernaut of a dream factory - was a big peeved, so it spent the next few years trying to recreate the success of that film, looking to capture lightning in a bottle the only way it knew how: by making movies that were quite a lot like It Happened One Night. This one is even billed in the trailer as “It happened... in 77 hours”, which makes it sound less, rather than more, romantic. It’s fun, though: another screwball comedy romance starring Gable, pitting him against Joan Crawford for the seventh time - she’s the tabloid fodder his scheming reporter just can’t do without. There’s a bit of intrigue in there too (though it’s rather incidental to proceedings) and Franchot Tone, Crawford’s then-husband, is cast as the third wheel and butt of Gable’s numerous practical jokes. Gable is fun as a kind of amoral, Lee Tracy-ish reporter – this ends up as something of a dry run for the tremendous Too Hot to Handle – and Tone is as appealing as ever in a role that Ralph Bellamy must surely have lobbied hard for, even if he does keep closing one of his eyes in an odd way that I think is supposed to suggest he's cross. Crawford is perhaps the Hollywood legend I have the least time for – she’s too abrasive to warm to but lacks Bette Davis’s raw power, and elsewhere features in the two worst dance numbers I have ever seen – but aside from a couple of strops, she’s at her most likeable here. The script is a little bit all-over-the-place, and it can’t sustain the film’s brilliant start, but with this level of star power, William Demarest as an irascible editor and Donald Meek doing a little dance in front of an imaginary dog, it’s got to be worth a look. (3)

***



I’ll Take Romance (Edward H. Griffith, 1937) – By-the-numbers comedy musical, with Melvyn Douglas romancing Australian opera star Grace Moore as he tries to get her to sing in Buenos Aires. The film has a few nice arias, a couple of standards and Douglas’ typically deft performance to recommend it, but the script isn’t up to much. (2.5)

***



TV: Edge of Darkness (1985) - Bob Peck's performance - as a tough, smirking, bereaved, hallucinating, hand-stroking, dildo-kissing cop investigating his daughter's murder - is perhaps the most exciting and revelatory I've seen since catching Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns two or three years ago. And this resolutely adult eco-thriller just about matches it, even if the last two episodes aren't quite as a precise, pungent and flat-out phenomenal as the first four. The scene in which Peck and CIA man Joe Don Baker sing an uneasy barroom duet of Willie Nelson's 'Time of the Preacher' is fucking incredible. The score, co-written by Eric Clapton, is a masterpiece. Liked this a lot, lot, lot. (4)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Arthur Christmas, investment bankers and the most fun you can have while laughing* - Reviews #92

*I'm paraphrasing Woody Allen, and quite poorly at that. This batch of reviews is a veritable grab-bag of diverse stuff I found lying around in my room or at the cinema: a new movie, an old favourite, heaps of shorts (by which I mean short films), a romcom and a film in which Steve Coogan attacks someone with a swivel-chair. I think I've sworn a couple of times in a desperate bid to get in with the cool kids, so if that's likely to offend, please do proceed with caution.



CINEMA: Arthur Christmas 3D (Sarah Smith, 2011) - This is Aardman’s best full-length film to date, trumping Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (disappointing), Chicken Run (annoying) and Flushed Away (set down a toilet). It’s a great mix of myth-making, heart and visual humour that sparks into life with a spectacular early sequence showing a high-tech present drop by hundreds of highly-trained elves. Fast, funny and inventive, it sets the tone perfectly. Writing to Santa, six-year-old Cornish girl Gwen has asked a few tricky questions, but the film is happy to answer them, creating a cleverly-devised, believable world that features a whole family of Father Christmases: past, present and future. There’s 70-year-old Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent), who’s just going through the motions, his father (Bill Nighy) – a crotchety old sexist – and his two sons: good-hearted, clumsy Arthur (James McAvoy), and Steve (Hugh Laurie) – solid management material, if a touch unfeeling. Steve’s finely-tuned, tech-savvy Christmas Eve operation is something to behold, but when he accidentally overlooks one child – Gwen – it’s up to Arthur and a ragtag band of festive misfits to save the day.

It’s an unusual film, in that it has no love interest and no real baddie. But, co-written by director Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham – who has had a hand in landmark comedies from Fist of Fun to The Day Today and Borat – it’s deft, amusing and imaginative, with intelligent plotting and the odd concession to pitch-black humour, taking in the Blitz, the Cuban Missile Crisis and possible death in the desert. Not that it’s a dark film: quite the opposite. It’s simply joyous, glowing with a love of Christmas (like Arthur’s slippers), stuffed full of jokes (like a stocking) and – aside from the word “cookie” (they’re called biscuits) – possessing that certain idiosyncratic Britishness we’ve come to expect from Aardman (like Wallace and Gromit). The frenetic set-pieces are a wow, the sentimental message is never mawkish and the voicework is very impressive, particularly from Broadbent and the scene-stealing Jane Horrocks. Indeed, all of the elves are unfailingly hilarious, while rarely has a film generated so many laughs from the combination of old man and dustbin. (3.5)

***



Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler, 1943) is perhaps the most purely entertaining movie ever made. A slight plot – songwriter Joan Leslie tries to help crooner Dennis Morgan land a benefit gig with egomaniac Eddie Cantor – is simply an excuse for a glut of brilliant Loesser-Schwartz songs, star cameos and specialty numbers. Dinah Shore does three lovely vocals, including The Dreamer, Morgan and Leslie duet delightfully on I'm Riding for a Fall, and a host of Warner Bros stars turn up for unlikely guest spots. Bette Davis sings (and briefly dances) to They're Either Too Young or Too Old, Jack Carson and Alan Hale perform the vaudeville-flavoured North, and Errol Flynn – sporting a fantastic handle-bar moustache – dances the funniest jig you've ever seen, as a drunkard outrageously overstating his war record in That's What You Jolly Well Get. S.Z. Sakall and Edward Everett Horton buzz about fretting, Cantor does a couple of tunes while playing a dual role as himself and a tour guide who hates Eddie Cantor, Ann Sheridan pops up in a nightie, Bogart gets bullied by Sakall and uses the phrase "movie fans” and George Tobias, Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland are introduced as if they're about to provide some highbrow entertainment, before launching into a pig-Latin version of The Dreamer. There's also Spike Jones playing a song on some pans, Alexis Smith whirling around in a nightclub, John Garfield performing a tongue-in-cheek Blues in the Night full of gangster patter, a walk on from director Butler and maverick producer Mark Hellinger, and Hattie McDaniel and Willie Best doing an energetic, Harlem-set number about a cool would-be bride called Ice Cold Katy. Two hours of pure joy. It's as much fun as you can have with a DVD player. (4) (I had this in my last top 100, at #100.)


Bugs sort of half kind of does his bit for the war effort.

The "Warner Night at the Movies” feature is a wonderful DVD extra, providing the full programme (minus a B movie) that you might have seen with a film upon release: a smorgasbord of fun-size curios. They're usually amazing, though this one was a little below par, perhaps because they're mostly tub-thumping things about the war. The Vintage Newsreel (1.5), about the Hollywood Canteen, is shot from too far away and had no sound, though I did see Joan Leslie in the distance at one point. Three Cheers for the Girls (Jean Negulesco, 1943, 3) is a fun short that nabs some footage of chorines from various Warner musicals – most directed by Busby Berkeley – then frames it with (supposedly) the same girls sitting in their dressing rooms singing about their status. The excerpts are just that – they miss out key passages of the numbers – but it's still good fun, and a welcome reminder of just how brilliant the staging of that solitary song in Fashions of 1934 is. At the end it goes all propaganda-y in a way that makes no sense. The United States Navy Band (Jean Negulesco, 1943, 1.5) is pretty weak as these things go, with unmemorable music and lots of stock footage of Washington a. Food and Magic (Jean Negulesco, 1943, 2.5) is a fairly entertaining public information film, with Jack Carson explaining that a woman in the audience has wasted several billion tonnes of bread. I think she's emblematic of America, because it seems unlikely that one person could have done that, or that she wouldn't be in jail if she'd done so during a war. Falling Hare (Robert Clampett, 1943, 2) is a disappointing cartoon pitting Bugs against a malevolent little gremlin who likes to wreck aircraft. The story doesn't really make sense – it seems to be a propaganda film without a message – though it's notable for one eerie bit where the plane flies over an American city, and heads directly for two twin skyscrapers.

***


This man is about to look like a twat.

Inside Job (Charles H. Ferguson, 2010) - Excoriating polemic about the recession, explaining in crisp and clear detail what went wrong, who was to blame and what happened next. It's brilliantly-researched, cleverly assembled and forcefully-argued, though there is a slight issue with the selective and possibly disingenuous editing used to stitch up some apparently deserving interviewees. While it's revealing to see the dean of Columbia Business School drop his mask and spit: "You've got three minutes, so give it your best shot", I'm not exactly sure what the ethics are regarding that. Still, it's a vital film: passionate, infuriating and darkly funny, while serving as required viewing for anyone who still has the merest vestiges of trust in the financial sector, or indeed economics itself. "I had to revise a textbook" must be the worst excuse ever for leaving a key post at the Federal Reserve during a financial meltdown. (4)

***



The Parole Officer (John Duigan, 2001) - Pedestrian comedy-thriller that marked Steve Coogan's starring debut on the big screen. He's the title figure, who recruits some newly law-abiding ex-cons for a bank job after he's framed for murder. It's amiable enough, there are a handful of smile-worthy moments (the fight scene using office equipment is good value) and the film generates some suspense by taking its story surprisingly seriously, but the characters are poorly defined - aside from Stephen Dillane's bent copper - and that rollercoaster set-piece is just crap. It's always funny when future stars turn up in bit-parts and you wonder just how hard the producer is kicking himself for not giving them more to do. Here, Simon Pegg has a walk-on as "deflated husband", while Olivia Colman appears for all of 10 seconds, and isn't allowed to speak. (2.5)

***



Only You (Norman Jewison, 1994) - Pleasant "Rome-antic" comedy (yeah, I'm good) that's rather less than the sum of its parts. Marisa Tomei is a hopeless romantic who's held out her whole life for a man she's never met: Damon Bradley. Aged 11, she got his name via a ouija board, then had it confirmed by a plump mystic. When - 14 years later - she finally buckles and gets engaged to a foot doctor, she's congratulated on the phone by one ... Damon Bradley, and hotfoots it to Italy hot on his trail. It's a fun idea, but the film isn't particularly funny or romantic - it should have spent far more of its 100+ minutes on the relationship between Tomei and charming man-about-town Robert Downey, Jr. (who is wearing more make-up than her) - and its screwballish plotting is largely predictable. It does have some virtues, though: Tomei's extremely likeable, atypically sensitive characterisation, slick direction from Moonstruck helmer Jewison and photography by the legendary Sven Nyqvist, shooting in Venice, Rome and rural Italy. And Downey, Jr.'s impression of Gregory Peck made me laugh. (2.5)

***


He's behind the eight ball. If you don't know what that means, you haven't watched enough old movies.

SHORT: So You Want to Wear the Pants (Richard L. Bare, 1952) - Another outing from the Joe McDoakes series, which couldn't be more '50s if it starred Stanley Matthews as a Teddy Boy and Korean War draftee with a stack of Bill Haley 45s and a crush on Marilyn Monroe. It doesn't, more's the pity. Instead, George O'Hanlon has a row with his wife about who works harder, then they wake up in each other's bodies and a minimal lack of hilarity ensues. It's kind of bleak, though the way this series can take a promising premise and then accidentally mislay it on the way to the credits is truly remarkable. (1.5)

***


Something amusing but quite hard to fathom is about to happen.

SHORT: Terrier-Stricken (Chuck Jones, 1952) - Passable Tom and Jerry knock-off, which never bothers to introduce its characters' relationship, meaning that we're rather at sea when they start playing tricks on each other. Kind of alright. (2)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Bobby Fischer, Disney princesses and a talking horse - Reviews #91

I've been having a great time. Here's why. (Reviews contain periodic adult content: swearing, smugness... that sort of thing.)



Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus, 2011) – Gripping, thrilling and ultimately gutting documentary about the US chess prodigy, who dropped out of the public arena at the peak of his powers and spiralled into insanity. It’s an extraordinary story and this film does it justice: masterfully-constructed, with articulate eyewitness accounts, remarkable archive footage and a superb middle-section in which it accessibly deconstructs the key plays of the Cold War grudge match that was Fischer vs Boris Spassky, lending each significant game within the match a cool-as-flip title like ‘The Poisoned Pawn’ or ‘Son of Sorrow’. That pivotal encounter takes up a fair slab of the running time and this outstanding documentary is one movie that I would happily have watched another two hours of – skipping as it does fairly quickly through Fischer's troubled upbringing and horrific, anti-Semitic meltdown – but even in just 90 minutes it does a superb job of pinning down the elusive, reclusive Fischer, building up his status as a genius, while attempting to comprehend his actions, and nature, as a man.

Particularly insightful is the passage about paranoia being an essential part of chess – that is, trying to anticipate your opponent’s moves (Kasparov comments that there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible scenarios in a chess game, equivalent to the number of atoms in the solar system) – but a catastrophic approach to take into one’s life. Alas, for Fischer, chess was his life. The only bit I didn’t like was the use of an offensive, apparently shit silent film to illustrate Fischer’s crumbling psyche: an unusually crass misstep in what is otherwise a sensitive, extremely insightful portrait. BBC4 inexplicably screened this under the markedly inferior title of Bobby Fischer: Genius and Madman, presumably sating the audience switching over from My Head Is a Piece of Toast on Channel 5. (4)

***



Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007) - This is lovely, a superb subversion of Disney's princess films, by Disney. Amy Adams is the redheaded cartoon heroine kicked into the live-action world - and modern-day New York - by evil witch/Queen/potential stepmother Susan Sarandon. She's followed by conceited beau James Marsden, but finds herself falling instead for divorce lawyer and single parent Patrick Dempsey. Villainous, snivelling Timothy Spall also turns up every so often, mugging like a low-rent Charles Laughton. It's a funny, charming and surprisingly sharp movie, with winning performances from Dempsey and - particularly - the beguiling Adams, and two brilliant musical set-pieces. The second is a giant, meticulously-choreographed production number in a park, while the first (and best) sees her cleaning an apartment with the help of her animal friends: flies, cockroaches, pigeons and rats. One of my highlights of the year, that. The film's special effects climax is pointless and incongruous (see also: Young Sherlock Holmes), but it's the only real shortcoming here. Enchanted is an exceptional family film, shorn of the saccharine and emotional pretentiousness of so many Disney movies, trading instead on genuine heart, humour and invention. It was what I thought Tangled might be like, but then categorically wasn't. It made me feel all happy and warm inside. (4)

***



A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009) – Anarchic, uproarious stop-motion animation about housemates (and plastic figurines) Cowboy and Indian, and what happens when they accidentally order 50 million bricks for their friend Horse's birthday. A unique film of relentless energy, full of inspired visual gags, with plotting that's impossible to second-guess, even if the scattergun approach means that not every gag hits the mark. Perpetually-yelling neighbour Steven is one of the funniest characters I've encountered: the scene where he eats a gigantic breakfast being the absolute highlight here. (3.5)

***



Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2010) - A (photo)journalist (Scoot McNairy) takes an engaged heiress (Whitney Able) back to her tycoon father, but must first navigate perilous rivers and jungles beset with a few fucking massive octop-aliens. Yes, it's It Happened One Night meets Apocalypse Now meets a film about fucking massive octop-aliens, with a poignant romance at its centre - comprising a trio of truly touching scenes - an atmosphere of near-constant suspense, and an assured style that creates a fully-realised apocalyptic world through sumptuous handheld visuals. There is one scene, upon the couple's arrival in a ghost town, where both the scripting and the acting suddenly break down, but otherwise it's first-rate all the way. Despite that bit where I said it was like two other films, this is actually a really original movie: tonally, dramatically and in terms of those fucking massive octop-aliens. (3.5)

***



TV: Wonderfalls (Created by Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland, 2004) - Like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, Wonderfalls belongs to that elite, unfortunate band of quality American dramas cancelled by their network after a single season. Or in the case of Wonderfalls, four episodes, screened in the wrong order. Caroline Dhavernas is Jaye, an aimless 24-year-old Gen Y-er, who lives in a trailer-park and works at the Niagara Falls gift shop. She's a sardonic, quick-witted, selfish man-eater, or at least she was, until souvenirs with the faces of animals - any animals - began telling her what to do. Now she's saving lives, restoring reputations and serving as matchmaker for her lesbian sister, while engaging in a tricky, appealing, on-off relationship with barman Eric (Tyron Leitso), whose wife just sucked off a bellboy. Dhavernas is terrific: adept at the put-downs (if occasionally too mannered) and unexpectedly excellent in the quieter, more reflective moments, particularly in the moving final episode. There's a scene with her sister in the back of the gift shop where she breaks down in tears that got me all choked up. She also pronounces "stoopid" in a wonderful way, wrinkling up her face like a young Myrna Loy. She'ss supported by a decent ensemble, with concerned, intrigued brother Lee Pace and sassy confidante Tracie Thoms (the especially annoying one from Death Proof) the pick of the bunch. There are also a few notable guest appearances, including one from Nurse Ratched. The series is directed with particular flair - series co-creator Todd Holland helmed a few, while Heathers director Michael Lehmann did the last one - with a singular style that memorably utilises the round-edged "viewer" gimmick as part of its arsenal of visual weapons. Later episodes also incorporate that welcome old stalwart: the slo-mo sad sequence cut to a pop song. And the theme song itself, by Andy Partridge, is very cool in its jaunty, boop-boop-boopy, "wonder-why-the-Wonderfalls" way.

It isn't a terribly consistent series. The first two episodes are flat-out phenomenal, but the next five - whilst enjoyable in themselves - are largely self-contained, with little or none of the character development necessary to elevate a comedy-drama from the good to the great. Episode eight, Lovesick Ass, gets it back on track in considerable style, a total triumph that marries the smaller and larger picture to spectacular effect, with the introduction of a 13-year-old compulsive liar who falls in love with Jaye. The next two are similarly superb, but episode 11 is overly melodramatic, while the penultimate outing is a bizarre anomaly that takes us out of the main story completely, with some fairly entertaining but completely ridiculous supernatural gubbins about Native Americans. The final chapter goes all Press Gang on our collective asses, as Jaye, her sister, her bowl-haired schoolboy boss and a fat security guard are held hostage by a gunman. That plot is only so-so, but the way it plays into the resolution of the main story is smartly-handled, and the whole thing has a sweet and satisfying pay-off. A good job really, since the two follow-up seasons that were planned never transpired. Contemporary TV seems littered with such (relatively) sad stories. (3.5)

***



TV: Bored to Death (S2, 2011) - Jason Schwartzman returns as the shambling, unfulfilled, pot-obsessed PI in the second season of Jonathan Ames' cult comedy, one of the most idiosyncratic series of the past decade, even if one can broadly sum up its appeal by scribbling 'Wes Anderson does film noir'. Schwartzman is joined once more by bearded, easily-stung comic-book maestro Zach Galifianakis and eternally rutting sexagenarian Ted Danson. This is a wonderful eight-episode cycle, a real step up, making its characters clearer and more sympathetic, and adding an undercurrent of subtle sentiment to each episode. It's clever, funny and with a wordy, articulate script. The break-up scene between Galifianakis and boozy moll Kristen Wiig is just amazing. Roll on season three. (3.5)