Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Zac Efron, lesbians and how to stop a riot - Reviews #133

Plus: Tina Fey not being very funny, house painting and Spencer Tracy's early Google.



17 Again (Burr Steers, 2009) - This might be the most entertaining film I've seen so far this year, an irresistible reverse-Big (or reverse, gender-swap 13 Going on 30; they chickened out of doing 17 Going on 70), in which unhappy father-of-two Matthew Perry – about to be divorced by Leslie Mann – gets the chance to be 17 again, the age that he got his girlfriend pregs, and so gave up his dreams of college. He also turns into Zac Efron, the lucky bastard. It's utterly charming, disarmingly affecting and unexpectedly funny, powered by a turbo-charged performance from Efron. For what it is, it could scarcely be better. Efron's hair was cooler at the start, though. (4)

***



The Interrupters: How to Stop a Riot (Steve James, 2011) – A film that’s at once horrifying and humane, upsetting and uplifting, as Hoop Dreams director Steve James traces a year in the lives of “The Interrupters” – a group of former gang members whose sole mission is to stop violence on the streets of Chicago. James focuses on three of the mediators: the daughter of a notorious gang lord, who renounced her former life after turning to Islam, a convicted drug trafficker transformed by the love of his step-sons, and a murderer forever haunted by his past. Even their boss has a criminal background: he was once a good-looking, low-level hustler who got by on the kindness of women. James’s film argues that absent fathers, a rancid, ingrained culture of masculinity – in which violence is always the first recourse – and a lack of understanding from wider society is to blame for Chicago’s woes, and smartly incorporates inflammatory news reports to contrast the complex reality with the popular media’s treatment of the same issues: a simplistic, right-wing demonisation of society’s victims. But while the deaths of young people, and the way many law-makers want to shoot the problem under the carpet, makes for chilling, heart-rending viewing, the Interrupters themselves are inspirational: brave, selfless souls who put a lie to the idea that human nature is unchangeable and bad things are only done by bad people, using their second chance to ensure that others – if only a few – don’t need a second chance at all. It’s an extraordinary, eye-opening, wrenchingly powerful film, brilliantly assembled by one of the best filmmakers working today. (4)

***



Kissing Jessica Stein (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, 2002) - An uptight, 28-year-old Jewish woman (Jennifer Westfeldt), whose impossible standards have made her unlucky in love, begins a relationship with a clever, funny and erudite soulmate, who just happens to be a woman (Heather Juergensen). This intelligent, witty and affecting romcom, written by the stars and based on their play Lipschtick, is a breath of fresh air, with well-drawn characters, an incisive look at adult relationships and sexual attraction, and a strong NYC flavour, with Woody Allen-ish use of apposite old standards. My only two complaints: using the verb "to marinate" outside its food-y context isn't that impressive (it sounds like business speak) and the ending is rather contrived and unsatisfying. Kissing Jessica Stein is still a cut above. (3.5)

***



The Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen, 1984) – A wily old maintenance expert trains an unskilled teenager to become an accomplished car-waxer, floor-sander and house-painter, whilst supposedly preparing him for a karate competition. The archetypal ‘80s crowd-pleaser still holds up superbly today, with a terrific performance from “Pat” Morita – as the mystical Mr Miyagi – a lengthy running time that allows for plenty of character development, and a more realistic set-up than you might expect: Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) brings some of the pain on himself by provoking a local hothead, to impress a girl (Elisabeth Shue), the second time in incomparably idiotic fashion. There’s also a clever, very well-directed scene in a diner where we can see what’s coming – but Daniel-san can’t. It’s very ‘80s (one of the fist-in-the-air moments involves someone getting a nice car) and a bit daft in places, but completely winning – a far superior underdog story to Avildsen’s most celebrated film, Rocky, which I think you’ll find is actually a bit rubbish. (3.5)

***



Desk Set (Walter Lang, 1957) - A broadcasting company brings in efficiency expert Spencer Tracy to see whether his new-fangled computer can do the same job as the reference department, headed by the lovelorn, fiercely intelligent Katharine Hepburn. The eighth of nine Tracy-Hepburn vehicles begins at a leaden pace, rambles rather and has too many concessions to silliness, but picks up for a spirited, sweet-natured second half that features three extended set pieces: the first funny, the second touching, and the third rather broad and overdone. The leads are excellent throughout, displaying an effortless, very real chemistry that extends to their overlapping dialogue and affectionate chiding. There's also a welcome appearance from Joan Blondell, who gave perhaps her best performance in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? the same year. No classic, but worth watching, and sticking with, particularly for fans of the stars. (2.5)

***



Baby Mama (Michael McCullers, 2008) - A mawkish, one-joke comedy - and the joke's not very good. Tina Fey is a career woman who recruits thick, white trash Amy Poehler as a surrogate. I find Fey incredibly overrated, the film's universe is tiresome and unappealing, and Sigourney Weaver is so bad at comedy it's painful. The film is also saddled with a horrible, overbearing score pointlessly hammering home the mood of almost every scene. Poehler and Dax Shepard provide a few laughs in support. (1.5)

***



Elektra (Rob Bowman, 2005) - There's quite a fun scene where Cleavage (Jennifer Garner) stops Goran Ivanisovic and his daughter from being murdered. The rest of it is either incredibly boring, completely incomprehensible or hilariously stupid (there's a henchman with tattoes that turn into animals and attack people, Boobs has flashbacks to quite a difficult swimming lesson, and Terence Stamp is in it looking like a sunburnt lion) and it has some of the worst dialogue I've ever heard. The baddie genuinely stops in the climactic fight to say: "There is nothing you can do - and so the balance tips to me." Ooh, zinger. (1)

***



The Office (US): Season 6 (2009-10) - Another extraordinarily good season. This is where everyone says it started going off the boil, but I don't see it. There are weaknesses: the once transcendent Jim-Pam relationship now contains too much bickering (as highlighted in the first clip show, always an underwhelming endeavour), Kathy Bates is a pain in the arse and there are three weak episodes (Mafia, in particular), but the show has one of the best ensembles out there, offers consistently top-grade entertainment and continues to evolve and develop - even while sacrificing realism in the name of laughs. I still love it. (3.5)

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Tabu, Simone Signoret and a letter to Elia - Reviews #132



*SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
– This intense, ambitious, sometimes whimsical fantasy – inspired by Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name – has incredible high points, but doesn’t manage to sustain that level throughout. After a short prologue, set in the early-20th century, which deals with a bereaved hunter leading an expedition, the film is split into halves. The first, Paradise Lost, takes place in present-day Lisbon and deals with a Catholic woman (Teresa Madruga) trying to save her neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral), from the ravages of madness – and possibly witchcraft. The second, Paradise, is set in Africa in the 1960s and concerns the young Aurora’s (Ann Moreira) illicit affair with a virile, moustachioed Italian (Carlotta Cotta). It’s an impossible film to categorise, with the same freewheeling air and fondness for an eccentric character trait that informed Julio Medem’s brilliant Lovers of the Arctic Circle: Madruga is being avoided by a Polish student who’s pretending to be her own friend, Soveral lost her money at a casino after a vivid dream about a half-husband half-monkey, Moreira has a pet crocodile – possibly a relation of the “melancholic” one in the prologue – and Cotta is the drummer in a swankily-dressed covers band, providing just some of the film’s jolts of Ronettes-themed joy. But you do sometimes get the impression – despite the film apparently bursting with ideas – that Gomes isn’t quite sure what it’s about, or doesn’t have a firm enough grasp of his convictions to carry them through.

Like Murnau’s film, Tabu has chapters called Paradise and Paradise Lost, is filmed in black-and-white and Academy Ratio, and deals – if only tangentially – with tribal customs. And, like Murnau’s movie, its central theme appears to be forbidden love: just like the virgin wed to the gods in the 1931 picture, so the flighty, married, preggers Aurora is “tabu”. But both halves of the film have strangely slow stretches, where the movie seems to be struggling to flesh out its slender narrative or get a handle on its subject matter. Then suddenly everything will click into place again, and Gomes will do something truly dazzling: a blast of Be My Baby, a lingering close-up, an erotically-charged sex scene, a bizarre diversion or some inspired bit of storytelling. Like the first time we see Moreira and Cotta together: an exhilarating, invigorating piece of virtuoso filmmaking – seen as if from afar, soundtracked only by wildlife – in which their mutual attraction is expressed through fleeting, then lingering glances. In a homage to Murnau’s film, Gomes opts boldly for a silent second half with sound effects, while adding a well-written voiceover. And he plays fast-and-loose throughout with the rules of filmmaking, allowing rain to cascade down the lens, showing ugly buildings reflected in ugly buildings or just having fun out on the road, as Cotta and his mate race across the fields in a riotous PoV shot. The story isn’t always as interesting as the way it’s being told.

Admittedly, the story isn’t always as interesting as the way it’s being told. It doesn’t all work, the clamour to hail it as the movie of the year seems a little misplaced, and it has several false endings – if the credits had rolled when Cotta sang harmonies on Be My Baby, tears rolling down his face, it would have been a much more satisfying movie – but it’s too original, exciting and unusual to miss. (3)

***



Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta, 2011) - A sheltered, polite insurance salesman (Ed Helms) leaves his small town to attend an important convention, after the firm's star performer dies during an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. There, he falls in with a boorish party hound (John C. Reilly), a free-spirited adulterer (Anne Heche) and a man who very much enjoys HBO's sprawling crime drama series, The Wire (Isiah Whitlock, Jr), and begins to doubt everything he's ever been told about life, love and the coveted "two diamonds" award - given each year to the most morally upstanding, god-fearing insurance company. This modern spin on little-guy-against-the-system Capracorn - complete with hundreds of sex jokes - is more intelligent and sweet-natured than you might expect (there's a gently subversive speech idealising insurance agents that's a little gem), but it's also rather underdeveloped and could have done with a script revision or 12. Arteta's handling is surprisingly conventional, given that he was behind the lively Michael Cera vehicle Youth in Revolt, though he does at least effectively evoke the apparent claustrophobia and inevitable heightening of convention life. The film's real selling point is the performances: Helms - who was fantastic in The Office but weak in The Hangover, a film I detested - is ideal in the lead, Reilly typically energetic with the shackles well and truly off, and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development's Maeby) very appealing as a matter-of-fact prostitute, each of them giving the variable material a real shot in the arm. (2.5)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Thérèse Raquin (Marcel Carné, 1953)
– This noir from the director of Les enfants du paradis and Le jour se lève is extremely well-acted, and blessed with both Carné’s remarkable sense of visual composition and his eye for an arresting effect, but it’s also very ponderous, and has a story that’s hackneyed and predictable to the point of being insulting. Simone Signoret is Thérèse, who’s tempted to abandon her unhappy marriage to the weak, sallow, callow Camille (Jacques Duby) after she meets hefty Italian lorry driver Laurent (Raf Vallone). If you can’t guess what’s going to happen next, you really should be watching more movies. The opening 40 minutes does an OK job of establishing the characters, and Signoret’s stifling world, but it’s only when the film gets on a train at night – a pair of noir staples – that it begins to move a little. The final hour isn’t top notch Carné, but it does have its moments, particularly after nightfall. There’s a great, gripping moment where Signoret fears for her future, and Carné throws in an “electric chair” effect: Thérèse repeatedly illuminated by a passing, rattling train – reminiscent of the “halo” near the end of Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale. But while the director has a lovely way of shooting – focusing on telling details, like the tinkling bells above a door prior to one of the film’s key moments – he always needed a good script (preferably from his great co-conspirator Jacques Prevert) and here he and Charles Spaak just aren’t up to it – even when drawing from an Emile Zola story. Still, the performances come to close to saving it. The uninspiring Vallone recalls brutish Maxwell Reed’s turn in Daybreak, to which the film bears some similarity, but the other three main performances are very interesting. Duby is good as a manipulative, malicious cuckold, Daniel Craig – sorry, Roland Lesaffre – offers excellent support as a confident, supercilious amateur blackmailer whose youth was trampled by war, and the mighty Signoret is spectacular in the title role – suffering in style, while displaying tenderness, fragility, and a core of steel. (2.5)

***



To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944) – I saw this as a teenager, found the second half a bit boring and haven’t been back since. I might not have bothered with it again, but MovieMail asked me to review it. It’s undoubtedly Casablanca-lite, is rather lacking in story and has some notably un-special effects in the fishing sequence, but the Bogie-Bacall chemistry and William Faulkner’s dialogue are sublime, and there’s another in an endless list of fine supporting characterisations from Walter Brennan. Great fun; one wonders what else the teenage me got disastrously wrong. I’m not submitting this review, this is just a précis. (3.5)

***

TV



A Letter to Elia (Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones, 2010) – Excellent, personal documentary about Scorsese’s connection with Kazan, the remarkably gifted director who revolutionised the nature of screen acting, brought a new realism to American cinema, but sold out his mates to the HUAC. It’s full of brilliant (though spoiler-heavy) clips from throughout Kazan’s career, placing particular emphasis on East of Eden, On the Waterfront and America, America, and for once Scorsese’s need to put himself front-and-centre in these documentaries on cinema works in the film’s favour, as he articulates a touching, intense affinity with these films about flawed people, and with the flawed person who made them. (3.5)

Monday, 8 October 2012

Looper, Brick and space paninis - Reviews #131

Plus: fire, funnies and Alice Faye, in our latest reviews round-up.



*MAJOR SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)
– 2012 has been the year of hype, with unprecedented amounts of hoopla around movies like Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises – which are apparently two of the BEST FILMS EVER – and Prometheus, which was supposed to be one of the best films ever, but unfortunately turned out to be THE WORST FILM EVER. About the only blockbuster that hasn’t been hyped to death is The Amazing Spider-Man, which was actually really strong. Looper is another disappointment. It’s not a bad movie – it has a lot to recommend it – but it’s also not a particularly good one. That it’s not in the same league as Brick is fine; that it’s probably not as good as The Brothers Bloom is not.

As you may be aware, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a looper (not in real life, in the film) – paid by a criminal gang to kill and dispose of people sent back from the future, who arrive bound and with a sack on their head. When his future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back for the looper treatment (without a sack on his head), Gordon-Levitt is forced to track down the bald idiot, while being pursued himself by his former employers. The first 50 is very impressive, with Johnson traversing the noir territory he mined so successfully in Brick, and conjuring a grungy, ugly future world that’s an interesting companion piece to the future-noir universe of Blade Runner. A terrific first-person voiceover plants you right in the middle of things, and the dialogue sings. Johnson serves up a pair of brilliant two-handers featuring Gordon-Levitt. The first sees him enduring an interrogation by beardy boss Jeff Daniels (recalling the pair’s work in the spectacular Scott Frank film, The Lookout); the second has him facing down Willis in a diner – something like how the famous De Niro-Pacino scene in Heat should have played out, if it wasn’t rubbish. But then the film starts to lose its way: the pacing seems off, the concept of muddy, organic time-travel – while great in theory – doesn’t really work, as it’s too confusing, and the movie decides to decamp to the countryside to meet Emily Blunt.

Noirs have wandered off to the country before – Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground spent most of its time there – and sometimes it works. But here it’s just not a very interesting diversion, accompanied as it is by an unimaginative, wearisome subplot about telekinesis. The film seems to get lost out there on the farm, with nothing happening at the intensity it should do: the acting, the action, the human drama. It seems to have an almost fatal absence of heart and, when persuading us who to root for, bizarrely sends Willis off to shoot some kids; apparently a suggestion by some of Johnson's screenwriter buddies. Gordon-Levitt is quite good but, essentially asked to do an imitation of Willis, he’s hamstrung by a weird mix of make-up and CGI that makes him look melty and computer-generated, hampering his strong suit of subtle expressiveness. Mickey Rourke was able to blast through the prosthetics in Sin City, but he’s a hulking great lunk whose strengths lie in throwing his whole body into a role. Gordon-Levitt isn’t like that. He’s also having to play a young version of a poor actor. Obviously he’s better here than Willis (whose career consists of a good performance in Twelve Monkeys and being well-cast in Die Hard), but it’s still hard to be impressive when you’re having to ape someone’s annoying, shallow mannerisms. Whenever Daniels appears, following his amazing introduction, it's just to shout very loudly for five seconds, before disappearing again.

Somehow, at the end, Johnson drags it back, with an ending so slick, affecting and effective that it’s like peak-form Christopher Nolan just popped his head into the editing suite. Or the Johnson of 2005 turned up. The voiceover kicks back in, Gordon-Levitt ups the dramatic ante, and the film’s threads and themes congeal into something very satisfying. But, ultimately, it’s not nearly enough, though you wouldn't know it switch on your computer. So yes – the year of hype. Or maybe I’ve just been on Twitter more. (2.5)

You can listen to Johnson's Looper commentary here. It's very interesting, regardless of how fully you bought into the movie.
***



“I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night – that puts me six up on the lot of you.”
*SOME SPOILERS*
Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)
is one of the best films of the last decade – and one of the great debuts. An eerie, unsettling and upsetting high school noir, complete with five minutes of wall-to-wall hilarity in its mid-section, it’s a one-of-a-kind movie, with one of the great scripts, and one of the great performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Brendan, a tousle-haired teenager and archetypal loner who stumbles into his school’s teeming, rancid underbelly while investigating the murder of his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin). Having duffed up a toga-wearing jock in a car-park, Brendan comes to the attention of “old, like 26” heroin dealer The Pin (Lukas Haas) and his hair-trigger accomplice, Tugger (Noah Fleiss), all the while sparring with possible femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner).

Snappily shot and sumptuously-scripted, with a lingo-heavy language that’s all its own, and an effortless grasp of when to wink and when to play it straight, Brick builds to a gutting, unforgettable pay-off that bears some resemblance to The Maltese Falcon’s clincher – albeit relocated to a high school football field – but in its offbeat, horrifying destination is perhaps more similar to another spiritual predecessor: Robert Parrish’s Cry Danger. Gordon-Levitt, who is simply the best actor working today, is astonishing as the unhappy, sardonic, deceptively tough protagonist playing all ends against the middle, impressively supported by the enigmatic, creepy Haas, Looper’s Noah Segan and a largely unknown ensemble. Johnson’s next two haven’t delivered on Brick’s promise, but let's just let him keep going: this cast-iron masterpiece is too damn perfect to have been a fluke. Just like its hero, it'll take some beating. (4)

***



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 basic story may recall John Sayles’s classic teen drama, Baby It’s You, but this is a less stylised, more earthy affair: a rich portrait of immigrant communities, shot through with affection, humour and a genuine humanity that makes you appreciate the wildly differing viewpoints of its many characters, from the alleged stud to his insecure girlfriend, conflicted younger brother and outraged, religious grandmother, who’s reaching the end of her tether – and sounds quite a lot like a cartoon character. 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. It's one of the best I’ve seen this year. Sollett went on to make Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Quite why is anyone’s guess. (4)

***



*MAJOR SPOILERS*
In Old Chicago (Henry King, 1938)
– Fox’s answer to San Francisco – the MGM film about the 1906 earthquake that was one of the ‘30s biggest successes – is a superficial but entertaining disaster movie that climaxes with the 1871 Chicago Fire. Tyrone Power is a roguish gambler and saloon-keeper who embodies the city’s shady side. Alice Faye is his long-legged business partner – showgirl Belle Fawcett – Don Ameche plays his brother, a straight-arrow lawyer, and Alice Brady is their mum, apparently winning her Oscar for a single poignant expression during a victory parade, because that’s the only bit of acting she does in the picture.

The story is a bit corny and predictable – cribbed largely from San Francisco, right down to a dirty-faced Power, tie-undone, wandering through the rubble in a daze – but there are compensations. The opening shot is a beaut, there are a smattering of memorable lines courtesy of co-writer Lamar Trotti (who did Judge Priest and Young Mr Lincoln for Ford), the three leads are good (especially Faye, who also sings a bit), and the action climax – directed by Charlie Chan regular H. Bruce Humberstone – is extremely well-executed. It's wrapped-up with a very moving reunion, and then an unintentionally hilarious final line from Brady. “We O’Learys are a strange tribe… and what we set out to do, we finish,” she says, as the camera cuts to the smouldering remains of the city of Chicago.

The film has lost 20 minutes from its original roadshow print, so some plot strands don’t go anywhere, and the whole things feels too slight; there’s a scene in the trailer that’s not in the available print that’s integral to the brothers’ relationship. “When we were kids, we were always fighting,” Power says. “But I bet if any others Irishers tried to horn in, it was the O’Learys against the world,” Faye replies, foreshadowing the climax. It's a shame that was lost. In Old Chicago isn’t as good as San Francisco, or Fox’s The Rains Came – featuring Myrna Loy’s best dramatic performance – but it’s an effective, if unexceptional entertainment. (2.5)

***

TV



Community (Season 3, 2011-12) – It may not be as amazing as the first two seasons, but this third outing for the students of Greendale Community College is still great fun. The highlights are the third episode, with its dizzying treatment of alternate timelines, and the Christmas special: an unbelievable 21 minutes of musical entertainment – imaginative, tuneful and slyly subversive. Alison Brie ending a sexy Santa dance with the words “Boo boo be doo, sex” may be the funniest thing I’ve seen on TV this decade. Elsewhere, the air conditioning subplot has one line of absolute beauty (“I want to eat space paninis with black Hitler!”) but comes off as forced and Coens-lite, Pierce's dad is more unpleasant than funny, and both the first episode and the asylum one are just a bit... rubbish, but this remains one of the sharpest, most original shows on TV, with a killer ensemble. Who knows what the post Dan Harmon-era will bring? (3.5)

***



New Girl (Season 1, 2011-12) – I enjoyed this from the start, but then the strangest thing happened... it actually went good, with involving storylines, some fun improvised gags and a collection of strong characters – particularly Nick, who becomes unstoppably hilarious at the exact moment the writers decide to stop treating him as a love interest in waiting. Every so often there’s a mystifyingly weak, laughless episode (the one where Schmidt undergoes a personality change, for example) – and it’s clearly not as clever or groundbreaking as Community – but I just really, really like it. Hopefully Lizzy Caplan and Justin Long will return. They’re funny. (3.5)