Sunday, 25 May 2014

Westival, Andrew Scott, and a genius limbering up - Reviews #190

Sorry I went AWOL for a while - I've been busy. Now without additional ado, please let me welcome you to Westival, in which I rewatch all of Wes Anderson's feature films in order. Except Fantastic Mr Fox, because it's rubbish. I'll probably get around to the shorts too at some stage.

Bottle Rocket (1996) is Wes Anderson’s first film and arguably his funniest: an extraordinarily assured debut that established his sense of the absurd and his off-kilter sentimentality, if few of the stylistic concerns that have gone on to dominate his work.

So we get a brilliant passage in which Anthony (Luke Wilson) and his loose cannon of a best mate Dignan (Owen Wilson) have a walk-and-talk that turns into a burglary that turns out to be of Anthony’s parents’ house that turns into a row about Dignan’s stepfather… but throughout the sequence Anderson’s meticulous (some would say alarmingly anal) sense of symmetrical composition is notably absent – a bit of slo-mo the movie’s only real sign that the director was about to establish himself as one of the most visually distinctive directors of his generation.

And I’m OK with that. I’m a fan of Anderson’s work, but I’m not someone who gets overly excited about framing and shot duration – I prefer jokes and bits that make me go slightly weepy. If the film has a problem, and it has a little one, it isn’t that it’s relatively pedestrian in the way some of it looks, it’s that the story sags a touch in places, at about the point it introduces a love story that’s very sweet-natured – and positively Jarmuschian in its hurdling of the language barrier – but more conventional and less amusing than much of what leads up to it. And then again in the coda.

It is an extremely good film, though. There’s the beautifully delicate handling of mental illness, which is a real strong suit of Anderson’s: “You’re so complicated,” a woman tells former psychiatric hospital patient Anthony as they lounge by a pool. “I try not to be,” he replies. There’s Owen Wilson’s spectacular, star-making performance (before Shanghai Noon booted him into the stratosphere) as the wonky-nosed, crew-cutted, deeply sensitive Dignan. And there’s a succession of simply brilliant jokes, including two of the best that I think have ever been put on film. The first is Dignan’s response to his friend Bob going AWOL. And the other is everything that hapless safecracker Kumar (Kumar Pallana) does during the spectacularly good heist sequence that concludes the picture proper.

That Anderson is happy to break off from such comic brilliance for a succession of heartbreaking asides is testament to the confidence clearly coursing through the man, even at this early stage. His co-writer, Owen Wilson, was less sure of himself, pleading with Anderson not to release the film as he was convinced it would mark the end of both their careers.

Anderson would make greater films – a whole succession of them that we're currently rewatching for what Mrs Rick dubs “Westival” – but this one shouldn’t get overlooked in light of Tenenbaums and the rest. It’s a little beauty, its unpredictable sense of humour allied to a truly beguiling tenderness. (3.5)

Rushmore (1998) - Meet someone who has a problem with Rushmore, and they’ll tell you they don’t like Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman), the insufferable teenage twerp on whom the movie centres, spreading himself thinly across a dozen school clubs and engaging in an obsessive courtship of school teacher Olivia Williams (who's simply superb). That, though, is the point: you’re not supposed to like Max, up until the model aeroplane scene, where he first exhibits empathy, turning him from a fitfully impressive pseudo prodigy into a proper person.

Anderson’s second film is one of his greatest: a meticulously constructed, almost uncategorisably personal work about love, death, pretension, catharsis and growing up, full of brilliant one-liners (“She was my Rushmore” “Were you in the shit?”) and self-contained sequences of rare originality that combine to form a magnificent whole.

This time it was Murray coming out of the elevator that destroyed me. “I’m a little lonely these days..." (4)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - Three times in the last 10 minutes of The Royal Tenenbaums, someone utters a sentimental line that begins with the words, "I know...", and three times it takes the breath away, Anderson repeatedly hitting the release valve after a sad, reflective movie otherwise dominated by duplicity, longing and quiet desperation.

Tenenbaums is funny at times, even quirky, but it's more often heartbreaking, as Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow somehow dominate a movie featuring Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston: a sprawling story of useless promise and potential gone to waste for want of human warmth. When the film uncovers that latent emotion, the results are revolutionary. (4)

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) - Wes Anderson's fourth movie, and his first to get a bit of a kicking, is stylistically stunning - evoking a meticulously detailed, self-contained world - and has many fine quiet moments between marine documentarian Zissou (Bill Murray) and his possible son (Owen Wilson).

Better yet, it boasts a remarkable USP in the shape of the petty, bruised but fiercely loyal Klaus (Willem Dafoe), whose accidental mutiny, after Murray's "Do you all... not like me any more?" line is a typically virtuosic melding of pathos and comedy in the Anderson tradition.

The film as a whole, though, is slightly disjointed, with a strange number of fragmented scenes and continuity errors - as characters make cryptic references to sequences cut from the finished article - and a few characters who are either erratically drawn (Cate Blanchett's English reporter) or plain old uninteresting (Michael Gambon).

There are unquestionably some beautiful moments, not least Zissou's tears in the observation pod, but it is ultimately a movie of great moments, rather than a truly great movie. (3)

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) - Of all Wes Anderson's films, this is the one that seems most resistant to formula. But whether that's because it's original and narratively daring, or baggy and slightly incoherent, I'm never entirely sure. And we're on, ooh, viewing number five now, I think.

It begins as a straightforward story about three warring brothers - each scarred, one visibly, two not - who resolve to go on a trans-India journey aboard the titular train. The first half of the film is funny and light and well-scored, without really adding up to very much. Then the trio get turfed off the train, and the movie goes in news and fascinating directions, with Jason Schwartzman's send-off to Sweet Lime, that gutting scene in the river, and the look on Anjelica Huston's face as her monastic mother communicates with her children, entirely without words.

The Darjeeling Limited does feel episodic and oddly paced, as if some crucial scenes are missing and superfluous ones tacked onto the end, while as much as I admired the flashback sequence when I first saw it, nowadays it doesn't seem to add much besides a few extra minutes on the running time. But it is also a very touching, emotionally tender piece, with several outstanding comic moments, a couple of very good performances and perhaps the best one that Owen Wilson has ever given. (3.5)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - Watching all of Wes Anderson's features back-to-back (except Fantastic Mr Fox, obviously) has been an instructive, some would say unforgivably nerdy pursuit, revealing the ways in which has talent has both unfurled and declined.

Because Moonrise Kingdom has one of his most poignant and arresting central stories - a sort of Tenenbaums Babies, if you will - illustrating just how refined his sense of the absurd and the absurdly, deadpan-ly sentimental has become. But it also strolls deleteriously into the realm of caricature and overloads its simple, affecting narrative with cartoonish characters given too little time or attention to truly flourish.

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are just about perfect, in that scarcely emotive, none-more-Anderson manner, as a pair of 12-year-old runaways joined by love and mutual emotional damage, and hunted by a lonely, lovelorn cop (Bruce Willis), a guileless scoutmaster (Edward Norton), and Social Services (Tilda Swinton, again proving that she is the indie Meryl Streep, her popularity with notably fine directors rather out of proportion to the size of her talent).

That gloriously uncynical romance, full of droll one-liners ("I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about") gives the film a lolloping but intense emotional thrust, which sustains it through character overload (Harvey Keitel - yawn), instances of detached smugness and a curiously uninteresting, pretentious subplot about Hayward's sad-eyed parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDoormat) that feels like a parody of the director's best work.

There's an hour-long film inside this one that's among the finest and most touching things Anderson has ever done, and both Willis and Norton score in their sympathetic supporting parts, but the movie as a whole doesn't ultimately soar like Mordecai, becoming slightly compromised and self-satisfied, before turning in on itself at the end. (3)



CINEMA: Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014) is being sold as a "black comedy", but that's a misleading tag. It's actually a dark, state-of-the-nation drama that just happens to be full of absurdist humour: a succession of foul-mouthed, philosophical conversations between a rural priest (Brendan Gleeson) and a succession of archetypes reflecting the vices and virtues of modern Ireland, one of whom wants to murder him.

The film is erratic - more successful dealing with questions of faith and the issue of church-sponsored paedophilia than tackling, say, the banking crisis - McDonagh has a rather ugly way of shooting interiors, and Gleeson makes the eclectic supporting cast look almost amateurish.

But his imposing, multi-layered characterisation is another to add to a rapidly swelling list, the director's acerbic, loquacious style of writing is enjoyable when not reverting to self-reference, and the passages dealing with that collision between belief and the horrors of the real world are often very powerful indeed. (3)


CINEMA: We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013) - An appealing, rough-edged portrait of two boyish teenage girls who start their own punk band, enlisting the help of a shy, bullied Christian called Hedvig, who's entirely capable of rocking out.

Lukas Moodyson's latest, which harks back to his special early films like Fucking Amal, is an enjoyable film based on a novel by his wife, and paying out considerably in the currency of awkwardness, effectively nailing the physical and emotional discomfort of adolescence. Ultimately, though, it begins to drift disappointingly into formula, with a completely uninteresting romantic subplot cursed by surely the very antithesis of the punk spirit: conventionality.

Perhaps the movie merely suffers from "Young Adam syndrome" (others may know it as "that weird thing with Man of Steel"), in that I'm still waiting to see the masterpiece I glimpsed in the trailer, which seemed an extraordinarily smart, funny and charming work. It's very nicely acted, though, by Mira Barkhammer − as the bespectacled Bobo − and the dynamic, mohawk-sporting Mira Grosin, who's surely destined for enormous things, while the ending should leave you with a grin plastered from one excessively pierced ear to the other. (3)


CINEMA: Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014) - After the unadulterated triumph that was 2011's The Muppets, a touching, nostalgic treat with superb songs, where were the gang supposed to go next? That's the question posed by the opening scene of this sequel and in truth it's never properly answered, except prosaically by Ricky Gervais: "on a world tour".

The film starts off brilliantly, with a succession of great gags, a surprisingly funny turn from Gervais and the inspired introduction of an evil Russian frog called Constantine, who inveigles his way into the Muppets, posing as Kermit and promising the others whatever they want. But as the movie progresses, and the celeb cameos rack up, it gets broader and broader, until the real Kermit's gulag inmates are enthusiastically staging a ballet, which is apparently funny because they're tough, burly men (clue: it's not funny).

It's all harmless enough, and not the disaster some of the more exciteably negative critics have claimed, it's just a bit long and lazy and increasingly heavy-handed in both its comic and sentimental scenes. Constantine is very funny, though, and the running gag about his incredibly poor attempts to replicate the behaviour of his lookalike never stops being funny. (2.5)


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945) - There's a time to bring a certain scholarly objectivity to a review, to place a film in its historical context, to discuss its relative merits and to ruminate emphatically if dispassionately upon its place in the cinematic canon. And then there's a time to shout from the rooftops: 'Hurray! One of my favourite 10 films of all time is finally − but, finally − out on DVD!'

Because Elia Kazan's debut isn't just one of the key artistic works of the studio era, but the sort of beguiling experience that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place.

Adapted from Betty Smith's autobiographical memoir, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming-of-age drama of unmatched potency and poignancy, told through the eyes of an idealistic adolescent, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner). Growing up in a Brooklyn tenement, she enjoys an uncertain relationship with her loving but steely mother (Dorothy McGuire), while idealising her alcoholic, periodically loquacious pipe dreamer of a father (James Dunn) beyond anything else in the world.

Essentially one heartbreaking sequence after another, with occasional recourse to hard-won catharsis, it's an intensely moving, dramatically stunning movie, perhaps lacking the documentary-style realism that the director would bring to subsequent films like On the Waterfront, but attaining a simple emotional truth that underscores every moment. Kazan was fresh from the theatre, and his gift for coaxing revelatory, even revolutionary performances from his actors was never more in evidence. For A Tree Grows in Brooklyn contains not one, not two, but three of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid.

There's McGuire, delivering the finest turn of a miraculous year in which she also made The Spiral Staircase and The Enchanted Cottage, as the fiercely protective mother who fears growing hard and cold in the face of poverty. Then Garner, playing every moment to perfection as the sweet-natured teen with the world on her shoulders. And finally Dunn, towering above all as the twinkly-eyed Irish charmer beset by guilt and self-loathing: the definitive cinematic pipe dreamer. It's a film for the ages, finally − but, finally − out on DVD. (4)


Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013) - What looks at first glance like an investigation into a single tragedy - the death of a SeaWorld trainer at the theme park in 2010 - turns out to be an indictment of the whole rotten business, and indeed of our relationship with the natural world.

From the neurologist who explains that "killer whales" possess a more advanced sense of empathy than humans, to the hunter still wracked with guilt at capturing baby orcas almost 40 years ago, via testimony from a litany of SeaWorld trainers, each offering a chilling insight into the disconnect between the business's image and the stark reality, it's one of the most horrifying, intensely upsetting documentaries I've ever seen. It's also extremely well put together, featuring some bold - and largely successful - editorial choices, and a fittingly eerie score.

If anyone tells you they're off to SeaWorld, give them a copy to watch on the way. (3.5)


My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004) - This is another film about the intense friendship between two teenage girls, rather closer to the frenzied Heavenly Creatures than something like Me without You.

Natalie Press is a dour, freckled young woman from Yorkshire who retreats into solitude after her psychotic brother (Paddy Considine) becomes a born-again Christian. Then one day she meets the bored, upper-class, sexually-confident Tamsin (Emily Blunt), and they start talking to one another in that slightly stilted, low-budget British fashion. Also kissing.

The film has a certain something, with an unusual visual sense that reminded me a little of Terence Davies's The Neon Bible, an extremely good performance from Considine, and an important early credit for Blunt. But it's also over-familiar and poorly scripted, with no real point to it and an eleventh-hour twist that's entertaining and unexpected, but undercuts and negates much of what precedes it. (2)


A Civil Action (Steven Zaillian, 1998) - A big-budget '90s courtroom drama, based on a true story, with superficial prosecutor John Travolta investigating the death of eight kids living close to a toxic waste site. As he discovers his long lost sense of humanity, he meets a formidable adversary in the shape of psychopathic, slightly silly defence attorney Robert Duvall.

It isn't exactly a bad film, just quite annoyingly directed and scored, somewhat over-familiar - playing like a much less successful version of Coppola's The Rainmaker - and so slick, glossy and calculating that it's impossible to penetrate its surface to actually feel anything - except perhaps in the closing scenes. (2)


Cary Grant double-bill:

Thirty Day Princess (Marion Gering, 1934) - One of Preston Sturges' first credited scripts, with just enough evidence of that singular genius's disarming pathos and unique comic brain to make it work.

Sylvia Sidney - the mistress of Paramount chief B. P. Schulberg, vintage gossip fans! - stars in a dual role as a European princess and the down-on-her-luck actress who's hired to impersonate her on a state visit to New York, only to fall in love with a cynical newspaper editor (Cary Grant).

While Sturges and co-writer Frank Partos were channelling The Prisoner of Zenda, the effortless gender swap surely prepared Hollywood for the idea of doing the story straight, first with the patchy Princess O'Rourke and then in that beguiling slice of Romanic, romantic near-perfection, Roman Holiday, while Sturges' own 1941 smash, The Lady Eve, traded on a similarly duplicitous dame: Barbara Stanwyck's working class con woman malevolently masquerading as an heiress.

Judged on its merits rather than its influence, Thirty-Day Princess is somewhat less impressive: essentially entertaining, but with a few dead ends, a smattering of longueurs, and a hopeless running gag about a suitor with a lisp. There's also the awkward sight of Grant turning in one of those pre-Awful Truth appearances where he doesn't seem quite sure who he is or what he's for - though he does thump somebody in the face, resulting in the most delightfully '30s version of mussed up hair.

Every so often, though, there's some heartfelt exchange or ingeniously inverted line that's pure Sturges, signalling that the future titan of screwball comedy is limbering up, ready to unleash that string of classics largely unequalled in the annals of American cinema. (2.5)

Big Brown Eyes (Raoul Walsh, 1936) - A strange comic melodrama full of stars-to-be, as cop Cary Grant and his reporter girlfriend Joan Bennett do battle with a slimy crimelord (Walter Pidgeon) and his florally-minded heavy (Lloyd Nolan). The script is confusing and full of overwritten dialogue, but the movie is worth seeing for some genuinely striking direction from Walsh - especially in a courtroom sequence shot entirely at rough angles - and that quartet of future headliners, each wrestling with their burgeoning persona whilst looking impossibly young and fresh-faced. (2)


They Won't Believe Me (Irving Pichel, 1947) - Maybe that's because your story is so silly.

This is a watchable but intensely daft melonoirma (this is my new word), with Robert Young as a weak-willed philanderer on trial for the murder of his wife, and regaling the jurors with the story of his life - and his dalliances with a variety of unstable women, including Susan Hayward and Jane Greer.

Told in woozy flashback with the help of an excessive first-person voiceover, it's no great shakes in terms of direction or dialogue, though the far-fetched story is consistently interesting for the first hour, the characterisation deals in a few shades of grey, and pouty Hayward - talking out of the side of her face - is very lively in a key early credit.

Even given the incredible material, it would doubtless have worked better with someone more imposing or lyrical than Young in the lead (though he does look amusingly like George Washington with a flannel on his head), and the poetry of fellow RKO noirs like Out of the Past and Murder, My Sweet is nowhere to be found, but it does boast a few surprises, including a famous ending that's no more or less improbable than the rest of it. (2)



A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre (2014)
- Another first-rate book in MacIntyre's accessible, novelistic style, full of straightforward sentiment, wry remarks and the three funniest details he can find about every historical figure who enters the story.

The extraordinary tale of Kim Philby, the Cambridge-educated MI6 spy-hunter who was himself a Soviet mole for the best part of 25 years, has been told a great many times, but here McIntyre alights on a new angle, framing it as a story of friendship among the "friends", Philby's betrayal enabled and abetted by the trust of two great allies: his ribald, gentlemanly colleague, Nicholas Elliott, and CIA heavy-hitter Jim Angleton.

There are some inevitable gaps in the story, due to the nature of the secret services, but MacIntyre keeps it moving at a cracking pace, addressing the human cost of Philby's actions, incorporating several cameos from the hilariously debauched Guy Burgess, and climaxing with that remarkable meeting between Elliott and Philby in Beirut. "I once looked up to you, Kim," says Elliott. "My God, how I despise you now. I hope you've enough decency left to understand why" - dialogue so poetic, poignant and utterly perfect, it's astonishing to discover that it really did play out that way. (3.5)



Birdland at the Royal Court Theatre (Carrie Cracknell, 2014)

"Am I being a cock again?" Yes, Paul, you are.

Andrew Scott's empathy vacuum, a global superstar in an electric blue jacket, is the centre of this entertaining, smartly staged and somewhat compromised play, which flits between the universal and the personal, the comic and the heartfelt with such capricious uncertainty that I'm not entirely sure its writer knows what it's about.

Paul travels from Moscow to Paris to London in a whirl of debauchery, demanding home-grown fruit, advocating anal sex (no strings attached) and seducing his best friend Johnny's rather over-eager girlfriend, who promptly kills herself. After that, he's both haunted by her spectre and bafflingly abuses her parents - a comic scene that works well in itself but makes no sense in the wider context - before coming clean to Johnny, an act of compassion that would have given us something to cling on to had it happened an hour before.

The opening scene aside, with its irritatingly mannered inflections, Simon Stephens' dialogue is solid: neither naturalistic nor heightened, certainly rich in repetition, but selling its points about wealth and fame with some élan. And while you can quibble with staging that laboriously denotes a dream sequence by lowering glass bubbles from the ceiling, the gradual flooding of the performance space to mirror Paul's descent into amoral self-revulsion is the kind of plashy visual metaphor I like.

The performances are good too: Scott, best known as the shrill, psychotic Moriarty in the BBC's Sherlock, is excellent as the play's superficial superstar and Alex Price makes for an agreeably haunted but matter-of-fact foil, while the rest of the cast each play a variety of roles, scoring one minute, struggling the next, before Stephens opts for a third act revelation that's, well, not really the point, is it?

Birdland is never less than entertaining, but it's also less than the sum of its parts, its sporadic insights into the modern world housed in a narrative that seems too purposefully unrealistic to engage with, while undercutting its leading man's heroics by spending its duration examining the environment and the psyche of a cock. (2.5)

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