Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Review of 2012


Woman of the Year: Janet Gaynor

If you would have told me this time last year that by now I would have finished directing my first movie, skydived from 3,000ft and become a father, I wouldn't have believed you. And with good reason: none of those things have happened. I have watched a lot of films, though.

In this review, you'll find the best films I happened upon all year, the five finest from 2012 itself, and a fun questionnaire that you might like to fill in yourself (feel free to nick it, but give us a mention if you do). The Ghosts of Annual Reviews Past are here: 2010 and 2011.

Are you ready? I was born ready. Sorry, relatively near Reading. I've included a couple of pleasant views later on, in case you get bored.

***

Premier Premieres: The best new old films of the year...

... being an excitable whizz through the finest movies I saw for the first time this year. This excellent blog calls them "discoveries", which is frankly perfect, but I don't like to steal, so I'm going to persist with my terrible title and incredibly long-winded explanation instead.



7th Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927) – An exalting, extraordinary metaphysical romance that alerted me to the peerless powers of Janet Gaynor. Headily romantic and overflowing with staggering imagery. Full review.

La vie rêvée des anges (Erick Zonca, 1998) aka The Dreamlife of Angels – A profound, poignant drama about the friendship that develops – and then unravels – between two young women who meet at a factory in Lille. Élodie Bouchez is remarkable. Full review.

Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley and Morris Engel, 1953) – An absorbing and subtly moving film – filled with quiet charm – about a seven-year-old boy who goes AWOL to Coney Island, after thinking he's killed his brother. A stunning, hyper-realistic movie, shot entirely on location, that paved the way for Les 400 Coups. Full review.

Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929) – More Gaynor-y goodness, as J-Dog and the Borzagemeister team up for one final blast of silent transcendence. Pastoral, amusing and unfailingly sweet-natured, with an utterly enchanting characterisation at its core. Full review.



A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937) – The original Hollywood heartbreaker, with two stars falling in love as one goes stratospheric and the other implodes. Lesser-known that the 1954 remake (which is also superb), but with an immediacy and insider feel that's all its own. Stars Janet Gaynor. Full review.

Street Angel (Frank Borzage, 1928) – What an ending – and the rest of it isn't too shabby either. Stars Janet Gaynor. Full review.

Reagan (Eugene Jarecki, 2011) – Simply one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen, an endlessly illuminating, virtuosic study of one of the most fascinating American figures of the 20th century. Full review.

Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray (Serge Bourguignon, 1962) aka Sundays and Cybele – An intensely moving, truly original drama – with increasingly spare comic touches – that confronts the cynicism, horror and alienation of the adult world. The three central players are terrific, and the film boasts some of the most striking black-and-white photography you’ll ever see: an endlessly creative variety of shots drawing you inexorably in to the heartbreaking story. Full review.



Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2002) – An authentic, immersive and charming inner-city indie about a self-proclaimed teen lothario (Victor Rasuk) who falls for a girl clearly out of his league. The film has a unique atmosphere, Sollett immersing you in a fully-realised, insular world, aided by Tim Orr’s stunning close-up photography, and uniformly fine performances from the no-name cast. Full review.

Léon Morin, prêtre (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961) – One of the best films ever made about man's relationship with God. Full review.

Les rendez-vous de Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1995) aka Rendezvous in Paris – With its endlessly tramping camera pulling you around Paris, this trio of tales brings a painter’s eye, a capricious, coquettish woman’s fancies and a hardened girl’s perspective to bear on the City of Light, creating something indelible and unforgettable from the everyday. Full review.

Young Tom Edison (Norman Taurog, 1940) – Captivating Americana based on the boyhood of the famed inventor. It's a wonderfully-mounted production, with a literate script that mixes things that actually happened, things you wish had happened and MGM staples like the family sing-along. And it climaxes with two extraordinary, unbearably tense suspense sequences. If you're a cynic, just don't bother. For everyone else, this is a rosy primer on Edison's early years and a poignant, exciting and flavourful example of MGM at its absolute best. Full review.



Los amantes del círculo polar (Julio Medem, 1998) aka Lovers of the Arctic Circle - For 70 minutes, an astonishing love story that traces, in alternate chapters, the dovetailing lives of palindromically-named Spanish stepsiblings Otto and Ana. Then the coincidences start to pile up too heavily, and Otto winds up dangling rather impotentently from a tree, a metaphor for the film’s third act struggles. For all that, it remains a remarkable achievement, armed with a tireless but revolutionary concept of the human condition, and the surefooted grasp of aggressively non-linear narrative required to sustain it most of the way. Full review.

Passenger Side (Matt Bissonette, 2009) – A very smart, punchy little indie, with Adam Scott ferrying around his ex-junkie brother for a day. Hilarious, offbeat and genuinely affecting. Full review.

The Interrupters: How to Stop a Riot (Steve James, 2011) – A haunting humanist documentary from Hoop Dreams director James, about ex-gang members trying to stop violence on the streets of Chicago. Both inspiring and utterly devastating. Full review.

Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922) – Copywright wrangles meant that The Adventures of Robin Hood - starring Errol Flynn - couldn't replicate the plot of this silent classic, and so alighted on lesser-known aspects of the story. It's ironic that the '38 film is now a staple of popular culture, and the prism through which we see the legendary Robin. Dwan's film, featuring a perfectly-cast Douglas Fairbanks in the lead, feels more authentic and grown-up, while still brimming with energy, derring-do and romance. I thought it was fantastic. Full review.

***

Top 5 of 2012:

1. Silver Linings Playbook



Director: David O Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro
What's it about? "Cooper is a psychiatric patient released after eight months in a hospital, following an explosive episode brought on by his wife’s infidelity. Invited to dinner by his best friend, he meets a bereaved, "slutty" depressive (Jennifer Lawrence) who offers him a deal: she can get a message to his estranged wife, if he helps her compete in a dance contest."
Why's it so good: "It’s nice to see these kinds of characters – and specifically these characters – on a movie screen. Cooper is nothing short of a revelation, and his chemistry with Lawrence – one of the finest actresses working today – is really beautiful. There’s also a nice performance from De Niro, his most interesting in years, as Cooper’s father, who may be trying to build bridges with his son – or may just be using him as a good-luck charm to win money betting on football. His sequences seem distracting early on, taking us away from a beguiling burgeoning friendship, but the film’s apparently disparate elements slot together perfectly as it progresses, leading to a wonderfully satisfying finale. I loved it to pieces."

Full review: http://advicetothelovelorn.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/silver-linings-playbook-paul-rudd-and.html.

2. Take This Waltz
3. Damsels in Distress
4. Moonrise Kingdom
5. The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Four American indies and an Aardman animation. Yes, I am a disgrace.

Worst film of 2012: This Means War

***

Rick's end-of-year report:


An enduring preoccupation: the mighty John Barrymore (think John Barrowman mixed with Michael Barrymore, then the opposite of that). He's with a woman, as usual.

Crazes: Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Hayley Mills.
Continuing preoccupations: Wendy Hiller, Buster Keaton, John Barrymore, Frank Borzage.
Revelations: Just how good Janet Gaynor was. And that she didn't sing I Will Survive. Douglas Fairbanks' swashbucklers were even greater than I could have imagined - especially Robin Hood, which may be superior to the Flynn version. I also realised that I'd been spelling Dan Aykroyd's name wrong for my entire life. "Ackroyd", since you ask. That was the only thing I got out of Dragnet.
A few performances that stuck with me: I haven't been able to get Gaynor's performance in Lucky Star out of my head. Nor would I want to. Just beautiful. Elodie Bouchez's turn in The Dreamlife of Angels got to me too, while both the leads in Sundays and Cybele did remarkable things. Ellen Page was chilling – and brilliant – in the very nasty Hard Candy. I revisited two of my favourites: Wendy Hiller in Major Barbara and JGL in Brick. And the younger brother in The Kidnappers was very cute. He went on to produce Superman (oversee the film, not expel him from his body).
Stuff I caught up on: A lot of silent films, some documentaries, some Truffaut, some Rohmer.
Happiest surprises: Lots. 7th Heaven blew me away and set me on a very Janet Gaynor-y path for the remainder of the year (it took in other happy surprises like A Star Is Born – just as good as the Judy version – and a remarkable offbeat comedy called The Young in Heart). I hadn't heard of The Dreamlife of Angels until it turned up on Film4, but it was an extraordinary movie. Both 17 Again and Easy A were great fun, completely immersive and brightened up gloomy days. Kissing Jessica Stein, Raising Victor Vargas and The Tao of Steve proved that the classic romcom has been alive and well over the last 15 years, it's just been hiding. Jimmy the Gent couldn't touch Blessed Event (with which it rhymes) or It's Love I'm After, but it was nice to find another comedy in the same punchy Warner vein. I'm a big Melville fan, but Léon Morin is usually referred to as a lesser work. It's hardly that. Same for Nolan's The Prestige – his best film so far, for me. I'd long laboured under the misapprehension that Eric Rohmer movies would be a bit heavy, largely because I hadn't bothered to find out anything about him except his name. Rendezvous in Paris was anything but, while The Green Ray was merely making you earn that chink of light. He's one to explore further next year.

Still with me? Thanks. Enjoy this photo of Venice, then we'll continue.

Biggest disappointments: A slew of overhyped, overrated sci-fi movies: Avengers, Looper and The Dark Knight Rises. I always imagined that Cocoon would be a delight, but it bored the sexy fly-around alien orgasm spirit out of me. After spending some quality time with John Hughes' finest films, Weird Science was like a kick in the balls. And not in a nice way. I think I may have seen a different Kill List to everybody else. A rubbish one.
Oddest films: Outcast of the Islands took a sensational cast and gave them very strange things to do. It was perplexing, sometimes unsuccessful, completely batshit, but kind of brilliant. Liliom had a handful of things going for it (Lee Tracy, H. B. Warner, the train), but set a new benchmark for stilted awkwardness in early talkies. Kings Row was about 11 different kinds of films in one: most of them very enjoyable.
Worst films: A Touch of Class is a romantic comedy in which the lead characters get together after she jokes that he "can't even rape her" properly. Everything else paled beside that, really. I did watch more crap than usual this year. I better fine-tune my instincts before 2013 kicks off, or just listen to the ones I have.
Tell us about some great movies you saw that no-one's really heard of: Right, there's this film called Manhattan by this guy called Woody Al- Oh right. Matt Bissonette's movies with Adam Scott, Who Loves the Sun and Passenger Side, were a pair of very funny, emotionally satisfying indies. The first 70 minutes of Lovers of the Arctic Circle was staggering, and if the momentum wasn't necessarily maintained, it's still well worth your while – or anyone else's.
Some favourite moments: Gaynor saying bye-bye at the gate as she left Farrell's house for the first time in Lucky Star. The train arriving in Liliom was breathtaking (shame about the rest of the film). And the pony rides in Little Fugitive were a delightful, hilarious touch. I also really enjoyed having a wee at the end of Batman.
And some least favourite moments: That line from A Touch of Class made me feel ill. The little girl (played by Anne Shirley!) mythologising domestic violence in Liliom made me feel angry. Edward Herrmann going on about cock-rings in Wedding Daze made me feel sad.

In a moment, I'll be carrying on. But first: here's Paris at night.

The funniest jokes: The Other Guys still makes me laugh like a wally, especially, "We WILL have sex in your car – it WILL happen again." Marion Davies' impression of Lillian Gish in The Patsy is about as good as it gets for silent film nerds, and Fredric March's Oscar-winning John Barrymore impersonation in The Royal Family of Broadway is much the same for '30s obsessives. Frederic Lederer's "I notice she didn't leave on her own" in Midnight was amazingly funny (that was the only film I didn't review on here this year, as I lost my write-up), and so is everything else about that film and fellow screwballer Twentieth Century. Archive footage of Ronald Reagan saying, "Attaboy, Bonzo" to a chimp and then hugging it, in Reagan, was also hilarious.
2012 was... The year of hype. Or maybe I've just been on Twitter more. I saw around 25 films from this year (compared to the 39 I saw in 2011) and though some were very good, the standard seemed a little lower than last year.
Best musical numbers: Billie Holiday's songs in New Orleans were nothing short of sensational, and I liked the work of an unexpectedly vital, vibrant and energetic young Louis Armstrong in A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, a rather cool short from the early '30s. It was great reliving the fantastic numbers in Girl Crazy, while Kathryn Grayson's Daybreak (not to be confused with Lorraine Kelly and Aled Jones's Daybreak) and Alice Faye's They Met in Rio lit up a couple of mediocre musicals.
Best film I saw at the cinema: Silver Linings Playbook. My instant reaction: "I loved Silver Linings Playbook. Best film I've seen at the cinema this year. Original, screwball-y, w/beautiful chemistry between the leads".
I was bored by: The usual tedious hoopla around Bond. Also, the film Agatha, which I only finished due to my affection for Harrogate.
I wrote this pretty good review of _______________, you should read it if you have a minute (with a link): Damsels in Distress, putting that Whit Stillman buffery to use at long last (http://advicetothelovelorn.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/whit-stillman-magic-glasses-and-singing.html). It was nice to have him back.
Total number of films I've seen (new watches in brackets): 297 (280) - with the Christmas holiday still to come.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Hobbit: There and Back There Again - Reviews #141



The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

First impressions: Thursday, December 13 (3D and 48fps).

Bilbo, Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins (the bravest little Hobbit of them all), gets a third of the way towards facing a big dragon, in Peter Jackson’s return to the Lord of the Rings universe.

The first thing to say is that it’s lovely to be back there, and that this isn’t the misfire various posturing critics would have you believe. The second is that Freeman is as perfect a Bilbo as you’d imagine: his impeccable comic timing and understated rendering of heavy emotion filling the film with charm and hobbidity (or whatever the hobbit equivalent of humanity is) whenever he’s on screen. And the third is that it all looks a bit weird. The 48fps innovation does rectify some of the problems that 3D has with fast-moving action, but it also gives the film a weirdly low-budget look, more like a prime-time Saturday night ITV serial than a film which might well be troubling box-office records in the coming weeks.

There’s also a feeling that this is LotR-lite, more episodic, with somewhat less memorable supporting characters (a legion of dwarfs doing some nice work under excessive prosthetics) and a greater accent on broad comedy and gross-out humour. But it’s also very entertaining, with a cracking final 45 that includes the welcome, perfectly-placed and marvellously executed appearance of Gollum. The scenes in which his pluralising, pointy-toothed little scamp – sporting a Bobby Charlton-ish combover – tangles with Bilbo through a series of complex riddles are just a joy to watch, effortlessly reclaiming Serkis’s creation from a decade of spoofery, and unleashing him into the action with barely disguised glee. I also greatly enjoyed McKellen’s twinkling performance as Gandalf the Grey, especially his line about drawing courage from Bilbo. And Jackson knows his way around an action set-piece, as evidenced by the very neat use of a ladder.

I’m not convinced the film will attain the classic status of the LotR trilogy, but last night’s rapturously-received screening (which included a queue out the door as people jostled for the best seats, and a lovely reaction to the film’s most obviously moving moment: awws, then applawws) suggests that Jackson hasn’t ballsed it up after all. Apparently we’re seeing it again next week, so I can report back further then. (3)

***

Actually, it wasn't a week I had to wait, it was three days, as Mrs Rick was rather excited.



The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

Second thoughts: Sunday, December 16 (3D and 48fps again).

There and back there again. After braving the intensity of a first-night screening (lovely audience; I do enjoy nerds), we went back for more of the same on Sunday. The 48fps still looks odd – if a little less so second time around – and Freeman and Gollum are still awesome. But my thoughts don't stop there. No. I had several more.

The Hobbit is a tonally uneven movie, the almost inevitable result of squeezing a children's book – lighter, less doom-laden and more knockabout – into the LotR template, but I'm not sure that's necessarily a problem, and I don't think the criticisms about overlength or padding ring true. People say that not much happens, but our heroes fight trolls, then goblins, and then orcs, almost get crushed to death by rock giants, and watch as an apparently ineffectual little bookworm becomes a stout and noble warrior. If that happened to me in the space of 166 minutes, I'd consider it quite an eventful couple of hours.

I barely touched on the dwarfs in my first review, largely because I wrote it in 10 minutes on my lunch break. On second viewing, I was able to distinguish a little better between them, and I do think that Jackson and his writers have done a reasonable – if flawed – job of sketching out these characters. Bombur's only real contribution is to break a chair by being fat, but Vengeful Dwarf, Old Dwarf, James Nesbitt Dwarf, Chiselled-Yet-Playful Dwarf and Right Up His Jacksy! Dwarf are all given moments to shine, or, in the latter case, look like a ginger Nicholas Lyndhurst shouting rubbish. The tearjerking pay-off between Vengeful Dwarf (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo is an obvious highpoint - I enjoyed Armitage's forthright performance throughout - but James Nesbitt Dwarf's exchange with the apparently departing hobbit is to be treasured just as much, and Old Dwarf's tale of woe ("... for their dead were beyond the count of grief") is very affecting.

The sequences in which the dwarfs pile into battle are also rousing, accompanied by a soaring motif from Howard Shore's triumphant score. The best of the action spectaculars is the encounter with the goblins, particularly the climax, in which second unit director Serkis and his crew have the baddies battered and throttled with a ladder – which is subsequently used to sprint over a crevasse – and then chase a runaway boulder (perhaps it was them behind Indy that time), which skittles their adversaries. I'm not sure that the hideously unattractive goblin king, or the cockney, mucus-filled trolls are the stuff of movie legend, but they're fairly entertaining, while harking back to Jackson's early horror movie Bad Taste (which I still think is dreadful). In fact, Jackson's first forays into film are an obvious touchstone here. There are a few cock-eyed camera angles (including one woozy, swooping shot in the dinner sequence at Bag End) that are more readily associated with ultra low-budget genre flicks than Hollywood blockbusters.

McKellen is excellent reprising his role as Gandalf: I particularly enjoyed his mischievousness - especially the sheepish look he gives Galadriel when she rumbles him (not a euphemism) - his line about Bilbo, and the interplay between wizard and hobbit. Freeman's performance as Bilbo is really lovely. I think most people nodded sagely when he was cast, and that confidence has been vindicated. He's equally good at being a bossy Baggins, a fish-out-of-water or an unexpected hero, and does some impressively childlike gawping when asked to hang, terrified, from a rockface. The only off-notes are a couple of minor technical errors in the way he has been forced to acclimatise to green screen work: firstly when he's looking a good foot away from Gandalf's head, and secondly when he's pointing a sword vaguely near Gollum.

The extraordinary Riddles in the Dark sequence is probably the best thing I've seen in a cinema this year. I was in absolute hysterics, again, at Gollum's delivery. His agitated yelp of "Give us a chance, precious! Give us a chance!" is almost indecently funny, though of course there's terror and menace circling under the surface. It all takes place in a dark, dank cave, lit only by Bilbo's lightsaber (that's what it was, right?), but exists on a higher plane than everything that surrounds it.

For while The Hobbit is an admirable, entertaining and often funny film (the goblin stenographer deserves a quick mention), packed with stunning landscapes, ailing hedgehogs and rabbit sledges, and lit by moments of considerable emotional catharsis, it's also a bit lumpy – and more than a touch erratic. The defiler looks like the action figure of Mum-Ra I had as a kid, the rock giants set-piece feels flat, uninteresting and unbelievable (it's the one instance where the HFR really takes you out of the action, as the integration of CGI and live-action is so transparently false) and a recourse to snot-based humour is rarely to be found in truly great films.

I thought Leonard Maltin's assertion that The Hobbit was "incredibly boring" was so far wide-of-the-mark that he'd been trying to make it with a green screen, but I'll admit that there are a few dips in interest. (Still, these shortcomings seem to have more to do with slack screenwriting than spinning out the story: Jackson has always struck me as someone whose passion is for movies, not money, so who cares why the studio green-lit a trilogy?).

It's that messiness, and those periodic dry spells, that detract from the film rather more than the collision between grown-up chatter and broader fare, like one of the film's greatest gambles, the broadly comedic introduction of Sylvester McCoy as that "foolish fellow", Radagast the Brown. It's a rare movie indeed that can house both an eloquently-scripted set-piece set at a diplomatic think-tank, and a frenetic attempt – by a wizard covered in bird poo – to resuscitate a hedgehog, but both work well, in themselves and as a part of the larger piece.

Many critics seemed to be competing to see who could appear the most discerning by being the most critical (credit to the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, who can be guilty of one-starring everything in sight, for his measured review), but I think they got this one badly wrong. It's not perfect, by any stretch – and not nearly so unexpected second time around – but it's largely enjoyable, with a trio of superb performances and a handful of truly special moments.

I don't understand why he's called the Neck Romancer, though. He didn't romance anyone's neck during the whole movie. (3) again.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Seven Psychopaths, Ricky Gervais and waterfalls - Reviews #140

Apparently life begins at Reviews Update #140, so bring it on. Just the three films this time, as I've been busy making Christmas cards. And writing a lengthy diatribe about that abysmal Ricky Gervais movie (see below). Join me.



Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012) - A screenwriter called Marty (Colin Farrell), who's working on a script about Seven Psychopaths while wrestling with writer's block, finds himself surrounded by gangsters, murderers and, well, psychopaths, in this second feature from the writer-director of In Bruges. Also along for the uncomfortable ride is Marty's best buddy, grinning dognapper Sam Rockwell – who's snatched a tiny, fluffy pooch belonging to a psychotic ganglord (Woody Harrelson) – and his boss, a softly-spoken Christian (Christopher Walken) whose wife is dying of cancer. And so unfolds a niftily-scripted, neatly-constructed tale of erratic, violent behaviour, that shifts between fantasy and reality, taking in Buddhist gunmen, serial killers who only kill serial killers (enter a shambling, rabbit-carrying Tom Waits, whose monologue is a real showstopper) and serial killers who only kill mid-to-high-ranking-members-of-the-Mafia-and-the-Yakuza.

There's more than a hint of Tarantino about the on-screen notes (a running tally of psychopaths is handily included), the time-shifting narrative and the post-modern dialogue, which trades in biblical allusion, pop culture references and post-modern genre-subversion – and perhaps that's the problem. Because while I thoroughly enjoyed Seven Psychopaths – despite a decided dragginess in the final third, as the meta elements jar and the film's contrariness becomes predictable – In Bruges felt like the work of some sort of genius, whereas this feels like the work of a very funny writer with a dash of class about him (the pay-off line he affords Walken is unexpectedly resonant). Seven Psychopaths is an incredibly funny film, with a host of spectacular gags, a penchant for an inspired diversion – several of which could make great films themselves – and another superb performance from Rockwell (whose habit of responding to the question: "What?" by repeating whatever he's just said verbatim is a superb comic invention), but it's also a slight letdown as a follow-up to one of the defining films of the last decade. I can't think of another filmmaker who could have created In Bruges, but I can name 10 who could have made this. Despite the movie's many virtues, we need McDonagh for something more – something better – than post-modern gangster flicks. (3)

***



*A COUPLE OF VERY RUDE WORDS. APPROACH WITH CAUTION*
The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2010)
- In a parallel world where everybody tells the truth, Ricky Gervais's everyman invents falsehood, turning his nobody into a somebody, and giving him a shot at Pouting Sexy-Woman Jennifer Garner. But when he tells a lie to ease his dying mum's mind, he inadvertently invents religion (yawn), investing him with a frightening power and attracting attention from all four corners of the globe. What begins as a mildly entertaining high-concept comedy (with Woody Allen-ish credits) turns into an incredibly heavy-handed atheist satire that operates at the heady intellectual and theological level of an 11-year-old skim-reading Philosophy for Beginners. I've found before that Gervais is fine at ridiculing Karl Pilkington for being stupid, but when he's asked straightforward questions about his own beliefs, he flounders, ums, ahs, and ultimately says something either facile or vague and non-committal, before changing the subject and calling somebody a cunt. Now you can enjoy that sensation at feature-length!

I'm a church-going Irish Catholic, but I've seen and heard some invigorating and impressive take-downs of religion in the past (Richard Herring's 2010-11 show was an extremely passionate and sure-footed examination of his atheism, and accompanying obsession with Jesus, while Maggie Holland's A Proper Sort of Gardener expertly condensed uncertainties about the God of the Old Testament into four tear-jerking minutes). Watching Gervais outline his embarrassingly simplistic views here takes his cringe-comedy to new levels, as if his legendary set at the Diana memorial gig had gone on for three days. And his basic "truthful world" concept, while neat in theory, is frankly bollocks in execution. In his podcasts series, I remember Gervais having a go at Pilkington for saying that he thinks in full sentences. But that's exactly what Gervais' characters do here. It's not that they can't lie, it's that they speak in one-line précis of their most secret or embarrassing thoughts, which doesn't make any sense. That's not to say that the set-up doesn't inspire some clever sight gags or smart sketches (the Coke advert is good), but it's confused beyond belief, even before attempting to meld the tedious-message-movie to the unconvincing-rom-com, with its unbearablly twee recurring mantra of "fat kids with snub noses". There's also a sense that Gervais and Robinson have gnawed off more than they can chew (or at least more than they have time to script), epitomised by a reliance on dire musical montage that removes the need to write dialogue for what you might think were important scenes, like our hero using his new powers to do good. He seems to be lying to people, and they seem to be smiling; beyond that, I've no idea what's going on. That poverty of invention extends to the Lecture Films sub-plot, in which Gervais' screenwriter devises an outlandish new work supposedly based on a true story. A decent idea, but the result is bafflingly unfunny.

Perhaps the problem is that while Stephen Merchant appears in the film's only laugh-out-loud scene, he wasn't around to co-write this one. On the podcasts, he would almost always alight on the funniest way of exploring or expanding a subject, and exhibited impressive editing skills (the conventional wisdom is that great comedy double-acts usually consist of an innovator and an editor; I'd argue that Merchant is both, and should maybe go it alone), while Gervais would contribute relatively little, largely whooping, screeching with laughter or being excessively rude to Pilkington in a jokey way that's nevertheless uncomfortable to listen to. I don't actually dislike Gervais, or his work, as a rule: The Office was excellent, Extras was quite good in places, and Ghost Town - an earlier high-concept affair to which The Invention of Lying bears some similarity - worked rather well. And I actually think he plays the emotional scenes here pretty effectively. But I do think that his brand of comedy is very limited and that his rarefied position means that there's simply no-one there to tell him when he's being boring, trivial and wearyingly samey, wasting a stellar comic cast, or delivering his tiresome point with the delicacy and quiet finesse of a wrecking ball. It's a bit like Idiocracy, if Idiocracy was shit. (1.5)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Mollycoddle (Victor Fleming, 1920)
- Richard Marshall IV (Douglas Fairbanks), the latest in a long line of American pioneers, adventurers and chivalrous gunmen, is something of a disappointment. Raised in Monte Carlo since the age of four, he's an effete, cane-wielding, monocle-wearing fop who's mistaken for an Englishman – the indignity! – because he keeps saying things like "ripping". Then all at once he falls in love, is persuaded to return to his homeland and gets mistaken for a secret service agent by a diamond smuggler (Wallace Beery), transforming him into a butch, all-American he-man and solo army (who still talks like a posho). This Fairbanks vehicle starts in scintillating fashion – incorporating a dazzling historical scene featuring Marshall III that perfectly marries humour and action, and a very funny bit establishing his progeny's amusing girliness – and ends with a brilliant, thrilling fight-scene that sees the hero and villain throw each other through walls and plunge, Holmes-like, down waterfalls, but what's in between is a bit slow and stodgy, with too much plot and lacklustre would-be intrigue. A shame, really, as the set-up promises so much, there are flashes of true greatness, and the film boasts an admirable, unexpected progressiveness in its dated but heartfelt message that whites and "Indians" aren't so different. (2.5)

See also: I've done a round-up of several of Fairbanks' finest early films here.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Take This Waltz, and Flint Lockwood revisited - Reviews #139

Lately, I've been really spoilt in my movie-watching - different to having my movie-watching spoilt, as has happened at times this year - and this new, indescribably tiny batch of films is no different. Take This Waltz is now my second favourite movie of 2012 (going by UK release dates), trailing just behind last week's Silver Linings Playbook, and the fun doesn't stop (or really start) there. It goes marginally further. So join me, as I take you on a journey to a TV with an accompanying DVD player.



*SPOILERS*
Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011)
- Is happiness just about finding the right person? That's the question posed by Sarah Polley's fiercely intelligent new drama, a grown-up, adult film about a failing relationship, and the possibility of a new and better one, powered by a staggeringly brilliant performance from Michelle Williams. She's a wannabe writer, married to kind, gentle Seth Rogen, but experiencing an intense five-year itch which she thinks free-spirited artist Luke Kirby may be able to scratch – if she just can summon the courage to act. Beginning mysteriously, ending ambiguously and overflowing with symbolism, foreshadowing and existential angst, Polley's film is distinctive and bracingly original, with an unshakeable sense of conviction, an unflinching approach to storytelling and an unforgettable pay-off. It's a film with something to say and the talent to say it, armed with spellbinding imagery, an ambitious script and a sublime song score. And even its rom-com interludes feel new: the zingy badinage and mutual goofing twisted beyond all recognition by the torrent of emotions beneath the surface.

It isn't a flawless film. It's built on a rather feeble coincidence (the adultery interest lives right across the road), some of Polley's dialogue is too mannered, Kirby is never more than adequate (and he drives a rickshaw – what?), while Sarah Silverman's character exists only as a metaphor and rhetorical device. But films don't have to be flawless to be truly great. This is a movie that really moved me: philosophically invigorating, true to life and as painful as a knee to the nuts. Which other film has characters who are "afraid of being afraid"? Which romances tell you, "In the big picture, life has a gap in it, it just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it"? Where else do characters re-connect so sweetly, only to fall away so completely? Rogen is great, building on the promise he showed in 50/50 and Freaks and Geeks' The Little Things, but no-one working today can keep pace with Williams. This is a wondrous film, and its beating heart is a perfect performance from the most exciting actor on the planet. (4)

This is an expanded version of a review that I wrote for MovieMail.

See also: Williams also had mo' marriages, mo' problems in Blue Valentine, one of my favourites of last year.

***



Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2009)[/b]

Manny: "You are going to need a co-pilot."
Sam: "You are a pilot too?"
Manny: "Yes. I am also a particle physicist."
Sam: "Really?"
Manny: "No, that was a joke. I am also a comedian."

The best non-Pixar animation to come out of America last decade is just as delicious second time around: a barrage of brilliant jokes (and oversized foodstuffs), bouncing off an appealing romance and a touching father-son subplot, as inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) makes it rain food, unfortunately endangering the world. Its characters are superbly drawn, its action sequences are masterfully conceived and just about every gag is judged to perfection, several nailing the quiet absurdities of 21st century life in a way that few films master. It doesn't need non-sequiturs (the fall-back for any failing animation), because it's got something better: sensational comic timing and the most spectacular set of running gags I can remember. It's also admirably fearless - it isn't afraid to get soppy, or post-modern, or really and genuinely weird - but sharp and streamlined too. Everything serves the story. Even the bit where a monkey called Steve, who's wearing a thought-translator, pulls out the heart of a malevolent gummy bear and eats it. (4)

See also: For their next trick, Lord and Miller rebooted (i.e. gave a kick up the arse to) 21 Jump Street. Cloudy 2 has been confirmed for 2013. Boo, and indeed, yah.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Silver Linings Playbook, Paul Rudd, and the beta Zeta - Reviews #138

The best film I've seen at the cinema this year! My favourite sitcom! A really underwhelming, disappointing David Wain comedy that lacks a coherent structure or characters you can truly root for! All in this latest update, which contains more swearing than it strictly should, possibly because I'm sleepy. Or showing off, I forget which.

MOVIES:



*VERY MINOR SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
– At last! I’ve been waiting all my life for a film about a character who’s a bit like me. And now it’s here. Because Bradley Cooper’s bruised, bipolar protagonist really fucking hates Stevie Wonder’s Ma Cherie Amour. Just like me! And that’s not the only reason to celebrate, since Russell’s original, screwball-y film of two lost, damaged souls connecting, is the best film I’ve seen at the cinema this year.

Cooper is a psychiatric patient released after eight months in a hospital, following an explosive episode brought on by his wife’s infidelity. Invited to dinner by his best friend, he meets a bereaved, "slutty" depressive (Jennifer Lawrence) who offers him a deal: she can get a message to his estranged wife, if he helps her compete in a dance contest. Its rom-com framework may appear conventional, but the film consistently surprises. It’s true that most depictions of mental illness ring false, because a realistic work would usually be really fucking boring, but this is a film that manages to entertain without trivialising its characters or their problems. While angling on the humour of their situation, spotlighting the obsessiveness and lack of social skills that are often a symptom or by-product of mental illness, it takes the subject seriously, an admirably honest approach in a genre often beset by duplicity. Simply put, it’s nice to see these kinds of characters – and specifically these characters – on a movie screen. And like Tom McCarthy or Alexander Payne, Russell can offer escapism while making you think, and feel, a welcome trick on a Friday night, when the temptation can be to immerse oneself in froth.

Cooper, who was just unbearable in The Hangover (a film I loathe), is nothing short of a revelation, and his chemistry with Lawrence – one of the finest actresses working today – is really beautiful. There’s also a nice performance from De Niro, his most interesting in years, as Cooper’s father, who may be trying to build bridges with his son – or may just be using him as a good-luck charm to win money betting on football. His sequences seem distracting early on, taking us away from a beguiling burgeoning friendship, but the film’s apparently disparate elements slot together perfectly as it progresses, leading to a wonderfully satisfying finale. I loved it to pieces. (4)

***



Mostly Martha (Sandra Nettelback, 2001) – When the Catherine Zeta-Jones romcom, No Reservations, was on telly recently, I sought advice from the internet as to whether I should watch it. Almost without exception, everybody in the world told me to avoid it like the plague (or Spice-World), but to track down the German-language original immediately. So I did. Martha (Martina Gedeck) is a lonely, workaholic chef whose solitary existence is transformed forever by the arrival of her niece (Maxime Foerste), whose mother – Martha’s sister – has died in an accident. At the same time, Martha's job as head honcho in the kitchen appears threatened by the arrival of a charming Italian cook (Sergio Castellitto). What I most enjoyed about this grown-up film film was how its happy moments were so well earned, and its downtime so true to its story, a lesson most American rom-coms could do with learning about 30 years ago. Really it’s a well-observed human drama, with flashes of welcome levity, that isn’t afraid of the emotional messiness that’s a part of real-life, or the mistakes, grudges or fuzzy reconciliations that go with it. The film has some minor shortcomings in that its score leans towards cheese (complete with light jazz sax), its cinematography is too glossy and clean for the material and its "blind tasting" scene is a bit tired, but Gedeck is stunning in the lead, and the story really sucks you in, as well as making you terrifically hungry. (4)

***



The Decoy Bride (Sheree Folkson, 2011) – A sassy Scotswoman (Kelly Macdonald) returns to the Isle of Man the Hebrides after getting her heart broken, where fate casts her into the life of a ridiculous twitching caricature (David Tennant) – an author and all-time phony who’s about to wed a big-jawed American movie star. This rehash of I Know Where I’m Going! – via Leap Year – doesn’t really deserve to share a sentence with either, as it doesn’t occupy the same realm as P&P’s transcendent romance, nor plumb the depths of that recent, insultingly lazy slab of shite. Any charm it does have rests on the superhuman efforts of Macdonald – whose appealing performance weathers all manner of ridiculous developments – and the lovely Isle of Man locales. As with almost any British production that tries to include some Americans, chunks of it are rather embarrassing (ex pony-smacker Sally Phillips, who co-wrote this one, bizarrely forces herself to play a supporting part with an unstintingly terrible US accent), and this would doubtless have worked better had the leading man approximated the behaviour of a human being – even if his sentimental sequence with the bagpipes is rather sweet. Thanks to Macdonald, though, it turns out alright, her comic timing, periodic underplaying and attractive fieriness breathing life into a story that’s been told too many times. (2.5)

***



*SPOILERS*
Wanderlust (David Wain, 2012)
– A woman wearing too much make-up (Jennifer Aniston) and Paul Rudd (Paul Rudd) chance upon a hippy commune and, after first bidding it goodbye forever, resolve that it’s where they should spend the rest of their lives – pending a two-week trial. It’s his decision to go back there, but it’s she who blossoms, by which the film means that she flashes her tits, wipes her arse with some leaves and shags Justin Theroux’s pretentious slimeball. This mystifyingly misfiring comedy from the people who brought you Wet Hot American Summer (muted applause), The Baxter (exuberant applause) and Role Models (sheepish cheering) has a couple of massive laughs at the start, benefits from Rudd’s typically amusing performance (spotlighting his deadpan, very English sensibility) and boasts a strong cast on paper, but is pointlessly confrontational, emotionally vapid and ultimately nothing more than a string of barely-connected, clichéd set-pieces, each more desperate than the last. If you find yourself watching a film, thinking, “I could probably have written this”, that’s usually a bad sign. Especially if your next thought is: “I’m fucking glad I didn’t.” (2)

***

TV:



"Behind every successful man is... me, smiling and taking partial credit."
Parks and Recreation: Season 4 (2011-12) - I'm something of a novice when it comes to TV, but this may be the greatest season of small screen comedy I've ever seen. Tracing Leslie's election campaign from genesis to polling day, with a few inspired diversions, it expertly refines her central character, uses the show's supporting heroes – Ron, Andy, April, Ben and Tom – in the best possible way, breathes real life into previously uninvolving figures like Chris and "Ann Perkins!" and finds room for enjoyable guest spots from Paul Rudd (as idiotic election rival Bobby Newport) and Kathryn Hann. There are a handful of lesser episodes along the way (I'm Leslie Knope, Pawnee Rangers, Bowling for Votes), but it's very much relative, and the overwhelming majority are astonishingly good: like End of the World, Smallest Park, The Trial of Leslie Knope, Campaign Ad and Win, Lose or Draw. This fourth season is smart, sharp and satirical (particularly in the nerve-shredding episode, The Debate, which is a complete triumph and may just be the best thing Parks and Rec has ever done), but retains its cheeringly, often exaltingly soft centre. It's also breathtakingly funny. "First of all, you did the right thing by hiding under this table." (4)

See also: There are brief reviews of Season 2 and Season 3 elsewhere on the blog.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Jagger, Judy and Jonah Hill - Reviews #137

Also, in this latest reviews update: Dragnet, drugs and lots of people in blackface. Just a short one this time.



Crossfire Hurricane (Brett Morgen, 1972) – Very watchable but shallow documentary about the Rolling Stones, executive-produced by the band, that begins (for no apparent reason) in 1972, flashes back (for no apparent reason) to 1965 and then provides the expected mix of anecdotes, rare clips and occasional insights across a couple of enjoyable hours. The Stones are my dad's favourite band, so I was brought up listening to them (and hearing that they were better than the Beatles), and their show at the Don Valley Stadium in 1995 was the first big gig I ever went to. But while I'm grounded in the music, and read a couple of biographies at an unsuitably young age, this is the first proper doc about them that I've seen. Beginning with a disingenuous disclaimer that "no cameras were alllowed in the room" while new interviews took place – true, but only because the director said so – the film overlays a wealth of archive footage (much of it culled from previous Stones films like Gimme Shelter) with voiceovers from the band. Charlie Watts proves as cool and dry as you'd expect and Richards is unexpectedly articulate (some of the time), offering the strong image of the Stones as a black-hatted Western baddie, while Mick Taylor explains why he quit the group, Wyman outlines their bluesical alchemy in technical terms, Ron Wood turns up briefly – accompanied by photos of him looking like a drug-crazed scarecrow – and Jagger, in the film's most moving moment, says he doesn't know "how many months" it was after Brian Jones was kicked out of the band that he turned up dead. "It was three weeks," says the interviewer. "Fuck," replies Jagger, as if someone has just kicked him in the ribs, his usual aloofness shattered for a fleeting moment. There are other telling details too: the rivers of piss flowing down the aisles as excitable teenage girls wet themselves in droves, Jagger describing his fear and abject helplessness at Altamont, and Watts revealing his embarrassment at being chased down the street by schoolgirls (them again). It's also interesting to hear how Jones would mercilessly mock the working man – the same sort of man you see claiming that the Stones are "like us; not like the Beatles, spending eight days in bed".

As with any film about '60s musicians, there are also lots of clips of clueless, middle-aged journalists asking these hip young upstarts completely idiotic questions (the only artist who ever came out of that situation badly was George Harrison, whose interrogation about his mystical beliefs, featured in the Scorsese doc, was hilariously incoherent). But while those parts are amusing, and do a fine job of articulating the yawning generation gap that the Stones understood, epitomised and exploited, watching a young Jagger being constantly if handsomely evasive palls after a while. The film is also oddly shapeless, with no clear dramatic narrative aside from an "everyone hated us, then everyone loved us" angle shoved in near the close, an over-reliance on unsatisfying musical montages (Morgen just isn't very good at them) and a rather slapdash approach to what should and shouldn't be included. Most disappointingly, the film fails to delve into the Jagger-Richards relationship, surely the most interesting thing about the band. I should add here that I find all the mythologising of Richards' life incredibly tiresome - so he took a load of drugs and didn't die, whoop-dee-fucking-doo - but the love-hate dynamic between the two, forged at a young age over a love of blues, and mutating and twisting ever since, while producing some glorious music, is fascinating. We're never really told who the Stones are, where they came from and how they came together, aside from Wyman's line that the others "met in jazz clubs". I'd also quibble with Morgen's idea that talking head interviews aren't worth seeing: seeing how someone says something, the range of emotion on their face, is often as intriguing and revealing as what they're saying. Sadly we'll never see Jagger's expression as he disclaims, "Fuck" (presumably one of dumbstruck horror), as, well, no cameras were allowed in the room.

There's no denying that Crossfire Hurricane is a fun watch. There are blistering versions of several key tracks, including the legendary take on Sympathy for the Devil from Rock and Roll Circus (which I have seen), Morgen does do a good job of finding film of events that at the time seemed minor, but echo through history (like Jones' last relevant contribution to the band), and with the volume of fine footage available - allied to a few interesting interviews - it would be hard not to make an entertaining film. But Crossfire Hurricane is also sanitised and slightly aimless, which isn't something you could say about the Stones themselves - or their best records. Still, I suppose you can't always get what you want. (3)

***



*SPOILERS FOR KILL LIST, BIZARRELY*

Dragnet (Tom Mankiewicz, 1987)
- A flat, misguided homage to/spoof of the wildly popular '60s police procedural show, with Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday, the uber-officious nephew of Jack Webb's character, and Tom Hanks playing his new partner, a relative loose cannon. Hanks is good, fans of the series may enjoy seeing Harry Morgan reprise his role, and a few of Aykroyd's lines - translating events into coldly and excessively factual police-speak - hit the target, but there are long, laughless stretches, an air of un-earned smugness pervades, and the intentionally far-fetched plot is unintentionally shit. I can't decide if Christopher Plummer's creepy, perma-laughing moral crusader is good or not. The funniest thing about the movie is that the encounter with the pagans and the subsequent tunnel escape - guns blazing - is virtually the same as the one in Kill List! Veteran character actress Kathleen Freeman also turns up to call Aykroyd a "jizzbucket", which is funny if you pretend that she's reprising her rosy-cheeked, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-Scandinavian-mouth role from Annie Was a Wonder. Just me then?

Trivia note: Director Mankiewicz is the son of Joseph L., and had worked as a writer on several Bond films and the Superman series. (2)

***


This seems fine.


Not sure about this.

Babes on Broadway (Busby Berkeley, 1941) - No, it might not be strictly necessary for Mickey and Judy to do quite so many impressions of deceased theatrical greats. No, I don't know why he's doing a weak take-off of Carmen Miranda. Yes, the plot about sending inner-city orphans to the country is unbelievably corny. And no, perhaps everybody shouldn't be in blackface. But this was 1941. And America. So, yes, this decent putting-on-a-show musical leans on plotting that's almost self-parodical, and features a climax that is simply baffling to modern audiences – while it's worth adding that the blackface finale is in the theatrical tradition of minstrel shows, which were hardly out of the ordinary in 1941, and it's naively celebratory rather than mean-spirited, the image of a blacked-up Rooney impersonating an African-American pensioner and mugging as if his life depended on it whilst playing the banjo makes his performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's look like a model of PC restraint. But the flabbiness is part of the fun, Garland is in terrific form (compensating for Rooney, who's very talented but just too OTT here) and there are some wonderful numbers. Especially How About You?, which has long been a favourite, is beautifully staged in a tenement flat and features a brief flash of Rooney-doing-John-Barrymore. Elsewhere, Busby Berkeley's direction utilises his beloved crane shots to impressive if unnecessary effect, and there's a top supporting cast that includes tap dancer Ray McDonald, future director Richard Quine, Fay Bainter and the talented Virginia Weidler, who's largely just asked to cry and pout. A tiny Margaret O'Brien also makes her debut here, playing a wannabe actress who greets theatrical impresario James Gleason with the words: "Please don't send my brother to the chair, warden." If you ever want to see a Mickey and Judy film – and they are resolutely NOT FOR ALL TASTES – Girl Crazy remains the one to go for. (3)

***



Accepted (Steve Pink, 2006) – Lazy smartarse Justin Long fails to get into college, so he invents one of his own - which soon becomes horribly real. This campus comedy starts off very funnily, goes nasty and offensive (the college is a former psychiatric hospital, resulting in a slew of mental illness gags), then settles into mediocrity, before turning oddly pious at the close, as Long launches an impassioned defence of his establishment's non-conformist method of learning, which as far as I can tell involves listening to broad if agreeable anti-corporate sentiments, and watching people ride motorbikes into swimming pools. Still, Long and especially Jonah Hill make the most of it. "This is awesome," Hill says as they enter the abandoned hospital for the first time, "'cause now I can finally get hepatitis!" (2)

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Noir, nosh and Nelson Eddy - Reviews #136

Plus: POLITICS! DINOSAURS! OLDSTERS! Yes, you read that right. Oldsters. Coming right up.



Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948) - An escaped convict (Dennis O'Keefe) heads for a confrontation with his double-dealing former accomplice (Raymond Burr), accompanied by the two women in his life: a fresh-faced, idealistic lawyer's assistant (Marsha Hunt) and an age-worn, beaten-down floozy (a perfectly cast Claire Trevor), who spins her tale of woe in a poetically gloomy voiceover. This punchy crime flick is the best of several cult noirs made by Mann in the late '40s: well-plotted and played, with stunning photography by the legendary John Alton (who did as much as anyone to define the genre, shooting Mann's T-Men and Border Incident, and The Big Combo for Joseph H Lewis) – and atmosphere to burn. (3.5)

***



Let Freedom Ring (Jack Conway, 1939) - A soaring Hechtian drama about immigrant America and the power of the press, starring a singing Nelson Eddy. He plays a Harvard lawyer who returns to the New West to find his father (Lionel Barrymore) – and his fellow pioneers – under siege from a corrupt railway boss (Edward Arnold) and his firebug flunkies. Posing as an effete, greedy dandy, Eddy decamps to the mountains periodically to produce a subversive newspaper designed to win over the immigrant workforce and sway the election away from Arnold's craven candidate (Guy Kibbee). The film occupies a similar world to Howard Hawks' Barbary Coast, but whereas there Hecht was asked to bowdlerise a saucy book, here he's working from scratch, and the results are spectacular. His script is powerful, eloquent and often furiously funny, building to a striking, shamelessly patriotic but strongly humanist climax. Eddy is often derided as a limited actor, but I've never bought it, and here he equips himself superbly at the centre of a preposterously strong cast that includes heavyweights Arnold, Barrymore and H B Warner (terrific as an ailing casino owner), a sparky love interest in Virginia Bruce and a pair of classic character comedians – Charles Butterworth (Floppy in The Nuisance), and Raymond Walburn, who always excelled playing dodgy politicians. Eddy also puts that wonderful voice to good use singing a succession of tuneful songs, including Dusty Road and My Country 'Tis of Thee, the anthem that gives the film its name. And he punches Victor McLaglen in the face. A transfixing and triumphant little oddity from Hollywood's greatest year. (3.5)

***



The Patsy (King Vidor, 1928) - A charming silent comedy, with Marion Davies utterly disarming as a romantically neglected young woman who gets Pygmalioned – sort of – by the man of her dreams. A couple of the gags are in questionable taste (one has Davies feigning mental illness, another pretending she's at risk of rape), but she's in irressistible form and her Lillian Gish impression is one of the funniest and most brilliant parodies I've ever seen. (3.5)

See also: I reviewed Davies's most celebrated film, Show People, here.

***



A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt (Sally Rowe, 2011) - An interesting doc about an intense, driven and pioneering chef, raised in London but trying to make his name in New York, whose gastronomical concoctions bring him fame, but put him at loggerheads with his profit-driven backers. The film meets him first as a floppy-haired 26-year-old, working at what one food critic dismissively labels "a dump", then tracks his progress across the following five years, ultimately focusing on the opening of an ambitious new restaurant, Corton, at which he'll be head chef. Moving quickly from one year to the next, then spending rather too long on the lead-up to the launch, it's a bitty and imperfect documentary, but blessed with a fascinating subject who can be unnecessarily abrasive but is easy to relate to if you're someone who feels compelled to do something creative with their life, but encounters countless frustrations along the way. Which is all of us, I think. Liebrandt's story has a happy ending, anyway. I'm glad his ambitious concoctions... Corton. (3)

***



Primary (1960) - JFK and Hubert Humphrey face off in the Wisconsin primary, during the 1960 presidential election campaign. Humphrey's tactics mostly involve starting every speech by mentioning what he's just been eating, and telling everyone that he fancies their wives. JFK was probably boffing them on the side, but at least he has the decorum not to mention it. I'm not sure how great this is as a film - the editing's mediocre and the sound's frequently dreadful - but it's a technically groundbreaking documentary (the first to use portable cameras, some held by D.A. Pennebaker), and a valuable piece of history, with remarkable access to its subjects and a habit of zoning in on telling visual details, like the strange ways JFK and his missus move their hands when they're speaking. (3)

***



Dave (Ivan Reitman, 1993) - Archetypal everyman Dave (Kevin Kline) bears a remarkable resemblance to the President (Kevin Kline). So when the big man suffers a massive stroke, his political adviser Frank Langella spies an opportunity to seize power, placing Dave in the Oval Office. All goes to plan until our hero meets the idealistic, long-neglected First Lady (a short-haired Sigourney Weaver), and begins to impose his authority. Considering it's a comedy-drama that isn't funny, Dave is very appealing, with a familiar universe that's fun to play in - and ripe for wish-fulfilment - and a strong second half that happily takes a few chances: at first Dave is just in favour of homeless children, it's only later that he announces the largest job creation scheme since the New Deal. Kline is OK when he isn't trying to show off (he reminds me of untalented but attention-seeking drama students at school), Ben Kingsley has a nice bit as the vice-president and Weaver is very good in an atypically tender characterisation; at least until she tries to do comedy; I wish Dave had passed a law making that illegal. Of course this pales in comparison to Mr Smith Goes to Washington or even Washington Merry-Go-Round, but it's on a par with The Distinguished Gentleman, and far better than something like Legally Blonde 2. As are most things. (3)

***



Women of Glamour (Gordon Wiles, 1937) - Hollywood used to love re-releasing movies, but in the mid-'30s it had a problem: there were certain questionable films made before the 1934 censorship crackdown that not even judicious cuts could render palatable. So they remade them instead. This is a toned-down reworking of Capra's 1931 movie Ladies of Leisure, with Virginia Bruce in the Stanwyck role as a nightclub dancer whose thriving – and rather tame – one-woman escort service is thrown into jeopardy when she falls for brooding artist Melvyn Douglas. The film is somewhat disjointed, its low budget is a problem rather than a virtue, and the cleaning up of to the storyline stops it from making perfect sense (is what Bruce has been doing really enough to make her a social liability?), but the leads are good, Reginald Owen is quite amusing doing his usual "drunk toff" bit, and Leona Maricle provides a refreshingly likeable spin on the character of the thwarted fiancee. (2.5)

***



The Royal Family of Broadway (George Cukor and Cyril Gardner, 1930) - This screen version of the hit Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman play – dealing with a theatrical family clearly patterned after the Barrymores – is stagy, inexpertly adapted and slightly stilted in that early talkie fashion, but worth it for Fredric March’s amazing, Oscar-winning performance as “Tony Cavendish” – or rather, titanic hellraiser John Barrymore. Occasionally March’s own tones creep through the edifice, but everything else about the take-off is spot-on, from the crooked finger to the vocal tics, and that famous habit of turning an exquisite left profile to the audience. Barrymore loved it. Obviously. (2.5)

***



Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier, 2009) - The gang (that I don't really feel any warmth or nostalgia for) reunites to save Sid the Sloth from a big scary dinosaur, in this seriously patchy animated adventure. The first 15 is hilarious (particularly Scrat pulling at his skin, trying to fly) and the last 20 isn't bad, but the middle really drags, and Simon Pegg is surprisingly lacklustre in a showy part. He also says "butt", rather than "bum", twice, for which he should be thoroughly ashamed. Mark Kermode described this film as "the death of narrative cinema", which is clearly incorrect, as narrative cinema still exists – and anyway, did The Long Day Closes have a narrative? No it did not. That is a great argument, shut up – but it is a bit of a mess, and includes a song from the point of view of a lovelorn acorn, which is not some piece of Lynch-like invention, but actually a load of rubbish. It's also a mistake to have Scrat falling in love: there's something truly profound about his sole, slight and simple ambition being perpetually thwarted, and diluting it with such extraneous elements renders it uninteresting and trivial. This isn't as bad as Madagascar. Or Heat. But it's a bit of a waste of your life. (2)

***



*SPOILERS*
Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)
- A passable portrait of a damaged war veteran (Neil Maskell) picking up his career as a hitman, which goes completely and irredeemably shite as soon as its horrible, ludicrous, Wicker Man-apeing twist kicks in. There are a few strong sequences of psychological study and suspense, but this must be about the most overrated film I've ever seen. As genre-bending British buddy movies of the past few years go, I think Skeletons is more my style. (2)

***


I hoped I might entice you in with this hot beefcake shot.

Cocoon (Ron Howard, 1985) - A bunch of fogeys find the Fountain of Youth in a nearby swimming pool, courtesy of some sentimental aliens, in this occasionally interesting sci-fi. The premise is sufficiently original to draw you in, the oldsters (including Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Maureen Stapleton) are pretty good and there are some affecting ruminations on the nature of mortality, but the story is rather aimless, the dialogue is atrocious and the cast members in their 20s are appallingly wooden. Yes, Steve Guttenberg, I am looking at you. Also you, Tahnee Welch, though you did convince me that you can make someone have an orgasm without even touching them. (2)

***

TV:



The Office: Season Seven (2010-11) - The weakest season so far, and the one in which the series finally falls off its pedestal. There are a few of the best episodes yet (Todd Packer is a classic; "Who is Justice Beaver?" and all), but most of the worst, including a few largely laughless ones towards the end. Threat Level Midnight is particularly unrealistic and unsatisfying, while Michael's exit - and accompanying character transplant - is clearly powered more by real-world necessity than dramatic sense. Added to that, Will Ferrell is absolutely dreadful in his four episodes, proceeding to derail the entire show in a fit of uncontrollable egotism. This series built up a lot of goodwill over the previous five seasons (the first of which is an absolute classic), but one of the finest ensembles on TV is rather ill-served this time around by some seriously erratic writing - and some odd decision-making behind the scenes. My favourite characters in previous seasons tended to be Jim and Kevin, but Creed has now overtaken them, while both Dwight and Darryl are firing on most cylinders, the latter revealing previously hidden comic chops. (3)

See also: I whizzed through Seasons One to Five here, and there's a review of Season Six here.

***



Downton Abbey: Series 3 (2012) - Fellowes writes largely in banal platitudes, his worldview is restrictive and shallow, several of the performances are phoned in (not least Hugh Bonneville's), and I laughed as much at the programme as with it, but the third series of ITV's silly period soap is rather entertaining. Maggie Smith is in peak form throughout, Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan are a great team, and the rivalry between two of the series' nastiest characters creates an enjoyable, bitchy subplot that escalates superbly, filling much of the final episode and shifting our sympathies in an effective and unexpected manner. Hardly high art, but tons better than Series 2 and the Christmas special, and enough to get me coming back for more. Always nice to see a dog's bum eight times too. (3)

***



Songs of Sandy Denny at the Barbican (2012) - I'm a massive fan of Sandy Denny - I'd say she's in my top three all-time artists, with Dylan and Tom Waits - but I decided against going to the Manchester leg of this tribute tour, as her voice was always the key draw, and that wouldn't be on show. I'm glad I did, as this concert was pretty crap. Thea Gilmore was brilliant, as she always is - so charismatic, original and talented - and both Dave Swarbrick (the best in the world at what he does) and Lavinia Blackwall (who murdered her first number, but did a heartstopping Quiet Joys of Brotherhood) rose to the occasion. But the rest of it was dire, failing to do justice to Sandy's superb self-penned songs, and serving only to remind me what a unique and inimitable vocal talent she was. (2)

Next time: Wow at the Rolling Stones! Thrill at Jonah Hill dressed as a hot dog! Feel uncomfortable about Mickey Rooney in blackface!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Lincoln on film: 1915-2012



"I... emancipate... your... milk-slave!"

To shamelessly piggy-back on – sorry, "celebrate" – the release of Spielberg's Lincoln, I've compiled a maddeningly incomplete round-up of big-screen appearances by the only president you can imitate by taking some old hair off your hairbrush and holding it up to your chin with your thumb.

As anyone who's just been searching on IMDb knows, Honest Abe has appeared as a character in more than 300 movies and TV shows. He's been given the biopic treatment from three pivotal figures in cinema: noted racist and inventor of movies as we know them, D. W. Griffith, the greatest American director of them all, John Ford, and now the creator of the popcorn movie (and possibly popcorn itself), Steven Spielberg. He's fought vampires, been saved from assassination by John Kennedy and needlessly contravened the separation of powers just to please Shirley Temple. Here are some of the most memorable Lincolns on film (i.e. the ones I've seen).


Joseph Henabery in The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915) – Griffith's hateful, bilious epic sees America overrun by scary black people after the assassination of Lincoln. It's morally repugnant but technically groundbreaking, while Henabery makes for an excellent Abe – he certainly wears more eye-shadow than any later incarnation. Griffith's first talkie was Abraham Lincoln, a biopic starring Walter Huston.



Frank McGlynn, Sr. in The Littlest Rebel (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), The Plainsman (1936) and many others – McGlynn first played Lincoln on stage in 1919, toured in the part for two years, revisited the role for a short film in 1924 and featured as the president in a slew of '30s movies. The Littlest Rebel has him as an avuncular, folksy figure who loves kids and has time for everyone. Will he grant a last-minute reprieve to adorable curly top Shirley Temple's widowed father? If he doesn't, Depression-era audiences are probably going to be a bit miffed. John Ford presented Lincoln as an almost Christ-like figure throughout his work. In The Prisoner of Shark Island, which deals with the supposedly wrongful imprisonment of Dr Samuel Mudd - the physician who treated Lincoln's killer - McGlynn reprises his most famous role, getting a band to play Dixie, before a chilling, unforgettable and low-key restaging of the assassination that feels eerily like the real thing. He was miraculously reincarnated for Cecil B. De Mille's The Plainsman later the same year, kicking off that festival of questionable history in fine style.


John Carradine in Of Human Hearts (1938) – For those who found the Lincoln in The Littlest Rebel a bit too grittily realistic, here's John Carradine as The Great Emancipator, who has a few words to say to Jimmy Stewart about how he should be nicer to his mother. It's possible this may be a misuse of Lincoln's image. Let's see if the scene crops up in Spielberg's film too.


Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln (1939) – Having featured Lincoln as a supporting character in his epic "coming of the railways" Western, The Iron Horse, John Ford gave him a film of his own: a peerless slice of Americana. Wearing the iffiest false nose this side of Looper – making him look a lot like Gary Neville – Fonda makes for a touching, funny and, well, young Mr Lincoln, who expounds much of his energy standing up for the little guy, but has an extraordinary predilection for laying down zingers. The star had expressed some reservations about being cast as the former president, saying it would be like playing Jesus, only for Ford to put him in his place. “You think Lincoln's The Great Emancipator?” he said derisively. “He's just a jack-legged lawyer from Springfield.” Written by Lamar Trotti – who'd penned a similar piece of legal-minded myth-making for the director, Judge Priest – this semi-fictionalised hymn to Ford's favourite president is overflowing with symbolism, humanism and subtle foreshadowing. It also contains arguably the most beautiful and moving scene of Ford's career, a wintry graveside chat, with Fonda bidding goodbye to his lost love. Simply put, it's by far the best Lincoln movie I've ever seen.



A giant piece of marble as the Lincoln Memorial in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – He's just a bit of marble. He doesn't even move. He's being back-projected in a Hollywood studio. But he inspires our hero. Sob. Since 1939, a succession of filmmakers have basically stolen Capra's idea, which is used when anyone is in Washington in a film and feeling a bit sad. A statue of Lincoln comes to life in Night at the Museum 2. The less said about that, the better.

Leslie Kimmell in The Tall Target (1951) – He wouldn't be so tall if he took off that sodding hat. Can Sgt John Kennedy (Dick Powell) prevent Lincoln being shot? For now, I suppose.



A massive stone carving of Lincoln's face in North by Northwest (1959) – Hitchcock's best film of the '50s (no, you are wrong) includes a terrific suspense sequence at Mount Rushmore. It's also worth mentioning that the crack squad of Team America are based inside the mountain and exit via Lincoln's mouth, which is frankly a brilliant touch.



Charles L. Brame as Lincoln in Heaven in Happy Gilmore (1996) – If you ask me, this is where Lincoln officially sold out, looking down from Heaven to congratulate Adam Sandler's annoying golfer.

Tom Willett as the resurrected Lincoln in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) – Hurray - all the characters are alive again! And so's Abraham Lincoln!


Pete Antico as The Ghost of Abraham Lincoln in Black Dynamite (2009) – One of the more laboured non-sequiturs in this spotty spoof has Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) aided by the ghost of Lincoln in a White House fight-to-the-death against President Nixon. Honest Abe karate-chops Tricky Dicky.



Benjamin Walker in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2011) – I saw a trailer for this. It looked a bit crap.



Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012) – A faithful 90-minute biopic, followed by a superfluous hour in which Lincoln helps a child thwart his parents' divorce and then they send a homesick alien back to his folks. Probably.

I know I missed out Abe Lincoln in Illinois. That's because I'm watching it tomorrow. The actors who've appeared as Lincoln most often are, if you're interested, Frank McGlynn, Sr. (14), Benjamin Chapin (14), Ralph Ince (9), Francis Ford - John's brother - (8) and Raymond Massey (5). Thanks for reading. Let me know your favourite below. Ah, gwarn.