Saturday, 26 July 2014

Mick Travis, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and English public school - Reviews #193

Assorted ruminations on recent film viewings. I'll try to update you on books read and plays seen when the sun isn't quite so shiny.

CINEMA: How to Train Your Dragon 2 3D (Dean DeBlois, 2014) - So, a sequel to an animated kids' film? Bigger? Check. Darker? Check. Roger Deakins hired as aesthetic consultant? Pardon.

That's just a little hint as to how high this one aims, upping the ante from the original with a story about a fascistic warlord who transfixes gentle but malleable creatures and turns them into a rampaging army (see 1930s Spain, Germany, Italy...), the film going blacker and more intensely sad than you could ever imagine, but also filling its vast frame with wonder and beauty and magic, including some of the most intoxicating flight footage ever created.

In a key part, Cate Blanchett's accent globetrots to a distracting degree - while the challenge of getting her character to make narrative sense requires some not entirely convincing plot developments - but for the most part it's a startlingly effective film, with excellent voicework by Jay Baruchel as our heroic Hiccup, a new faux-folk ballad penned by Shane MacGowan, and a beating heart as big as that weird alpha male ice dragon thing.

Does the film ever quite make up for the daringly dark, perilously tragic turn it takes in its second act? It's debatable, but I think just about: Hiccup's pleading, sincere, desperate face emerging from the fuzzy gloom as that magnificent score gets ready to soar.

Bizarrely, the lamentable Madagascar tried a similar thing and predictably died on its arse. This one has the clarity of vision and the sheer congregation of talent to sustain it through all manner of improbable challenges, the familiar fusion of action, comedy and family drama lent real weight by the sheer scale of its ambition - never more in evidence than when Hiccup sees a flamboyant dragon-rider dressed like The Statue of Liberty bearing down on him, apparently thirsty for blood... (3.5)


if.... (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)
- Lindsay Anderson's bewildering, bewitching Marxist revenge fantasy is what '60s cinema should have been but so very rarely was: satirical, socially conscious and genuinely surreal, happily lacking in gimmickry and low comedy, with a variety of competing concerns but a sure focus on just who - and what - it wants to dispense with in a hail of bullets.

When I saw the film as a blazered teenager at a British public school, it seemed straightforward to me - after all, which right-thinking adolescent doesn't want to collage his walls, attract a pouty raven-haired girlfriend and then shoot everyone he doesn't like? My #1 film aged 16 looks no less radical to the 30-year-old me, but odder and wilder, throwing off the constraints of filmic form and function, just as its characters blast away the shackles of establishment oppression.

The story is slight but bracing: a trio of dissenters, led by the inestimable Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) - who's afforded one of the great screen entrances, dressed like a highwayman for reasons actually too uncool to recall - drink, scoff at authority and abscond from their increasingly bizarre public school, before a heartbreaking act of vindictive subjugation tips them over the edge into armed revolution.

Some have sensed a respect for tradition in Anderson's treatment of the David Sherwin script: I see little but a twitching contempt, the hymns, habits and institutions of the establishment merely monoliths and their entrenched but superficial trappings to be incinerated by the fire that burns within Travis and co.

There's none of Godard's stultifying posturing here, though: the drama is rooted in human feeling not philosophical semantics, and every sequence seems to serve some grander purpose, even if it's often left to us to determine what that might be. So the fencing fun sets up the triumvirate as musketeers defending some ancient right - and shifting from false to genuine blood-letting - the "tiger dance" presumably denotes a return to man's animal state, and the subsequent motorcycle jaunt is redolent with the smell of freedom: the antithesis of British public school life.

It's possible that the basement clear-out is just Anderson being confrontationally obscure (like Antonioni including the tennis-playing mimes in Blowup "for the critics"), but some tentative theorising can find symbolic value in everything they discover: the crocodile corpse is a relic of imperialism, tossed onto the fire, the gas mask represents Our Finest Hour, the foetus in the jar is an undeveloped human trapped under glass - much like Travis and his cohorts - and the weapons, well, they're the only answer to that.

Perhaps the only element of tradition that Anderson and Sherwin have any time for is the vernacular of public school, of "shag spots", "whips" and "scums", and that's weird enough to fit: a singular language for a singular film that flits between colour and black-and-white (initially through financial necessity, then later artistic choice), possesses a notably and joyfully unglamorous cast and chucks a grenade at the rule book.

For if there's one shot that sums up everything glorious about if...., it's that swooping, exhilarating close-up of Travis on the roof, about to take a shot of his own. (4)


O Lucky Man! 1973 (Lindsay Anderson, 1973)
- This unremittingly bleak, cynical meander through 1970s Britain is alternately visionary, flabby, bizarre, offensive, stupid, brilliant, scattershot, prescient and beautiful. It's also magnificently unpredictable.

Malcolm McDowell allegedly 'returns' as Mick Travis, the hero of Lindsay Anderson's if...., but if it's the same bloke, then he's certainly changed. Where once he was a Marxist insurgent, now he's an amoral coffee-salesmen-cum-arms-deal-facilitator who makes not a single reference to his glorious past (unless that abstract interrogation counts). But perhaps that's the point writer David Sherwin is making, inserting a deliciously sly line about moneyed warmongerers who once worshipped Karl Marx and Keynes within the walls of Oxford's left-leaning Balliol College.

The film as a whole is almost impossible to pin down, following Travis as it dumps him, and us, into a tragic guest house, a medical testing centre, a hippy hang-out, some smoke-filled rooms of unspeakable moral depravity, a rose-tinted jail that deliciously satirises prison's status as a place of reform, and the environs of a soup truck for the disenfranchised, the film ultimately revealing itself as the evil twin of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, with not a crumb of comfort for its audience, aside from the solace of celebrity.

Laced with wicked black comedy, brilliantly soundtracked by Alan Price and his band - who often appear on-screen - and brought to life by a startlingly eclectic cast often playing several different roles (at one point Captain Mainwaring from Dad's Army turns up in blackface as an African president, and makes Rachel Roberts stroke his penis), it's an exhausting, astonishing work, as a patchy - even tedious - first half gives way to a frequently dazzling second.

In terms of coherence and visceral impact, it can't match its stunning predecessor, but it's a fascinating, remarkable film that's both a time capsule and a sign of things to come. Anderson, Sherwin and McDowell reunited nine years later for the conclusion of the trilogy, Britannia Hospital, but let's pretend they didn't. (3)


28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2004) - *swoon* Cillian Murphy.

Danny Boyle's zombie nightmare isn't as murky or bleak or intense as it really should be.

Sure, it has memorable ideas - newly awakened hospital outpatient Murphy walking the deserted London streets, shouting "Hellooooo" without much reply - but they're rarely executed as stridently as they might be, and the moments that do hit home are ultimately outweighed by a plethora of shortcomings: ugly digital cinematography, an excessive song score, some weak performances and a mawkish, often formless narrative. The admittedly bold third act diversion isn't an inspired left turn, it's the sight of the script wandering off into the wilderness.

Like all Boyle films, the movie does start well and it's not exactly unwatchable after that - with a pleasant philosophical undertow about what exactly there is to live for in this dystopia - but it's also not nearly the bristling homegrown Romero reboot that most critics would have you believe.

Take Naomi Harris's character as a case in point. She's a punchy, nihilistic one-woman pharmacy, warming up as the body count escalates - but she's just not that convincing, or interesting, or painted in bold enough colours. And neither's the film. (2)


Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984) - A sad, scintillating film - adapted by Julian Mitchell from his play - about the (semi-fictionalised) school days of the notorious dissolute Guy Burgess (Rupert Everett), who traded upper class respectability for a rollicking infamy born of alcohol, illicit sex and a double life as a Soviet spy.

Here we find him as a tortured young soul, his flamboyant queerness nothing but a mask to face down the stifling, pointless conformity of boarding school life, his dangerous sexuality as intrinsic to his being as the obsessive communism of his best friend (Colin Firth).

It's a strange, lolloping film - the missing link between the counter-culture public school rebellion of if.... and the repressed, restrained gay romance of Merchant Ivory's Maurice - unnaturally obsessed with the rules of its elite establishment not in themselves but as the strictures and structures of the establishment, in all its quivering hypocrisy.

Scored by an eerie synthesiser track, it wanders in and out of its various stories with the swaggering arrogance of Burgess himself, yet interrogates the characters - or archetypes - therein with the intellectual relish, sadness and wit also intrinsic to his being (at least as seen here).

Those myriad complexities - within us all, but within Burgess tenfold, if the film is to be believed - are brought to life with a dizzying virtuosity by Everett, before he apparently jacked in artistic ambition in favour of celebrity and playing various versions of himself in lousy American romcoms.

The scene in which he, lovestruck and drunk, hushedly croons Rodgers and Hart's 'Who?', laid out on a wooden library floor, is the kind of stunningly vulnerable, unselfconscious acting that people only seem to do when they're young and brilliant and seizing the world by its collar. Watch it next to him leading a chorus of 'I Say a Little Prayer for You' in My Best Friend's Wedding, and say a little prayer for the death of youth and its boundless creative endeavour.

Firth, too, is excellent, and their final scenes together are touched by a rare brilliance, the film's themes dovetailing perfectly into an incisive, razor-sharp examination of class, equality and Britishness. Their schoolmates naturally suffer in comparison (as Burgess's heartthrob, Harcourt, Cary Elwes has the cheekbones but not the requisite etherealism), though Michael Jenn is extremely good as a sympathetic house 'god' cracking under pressure - despite looking about 45, rather than 18.

Another Country works best with some prior knowledge of Burgess (or 'Bennett' as he is here), and isn't for all tastes - elliptical, self-contained and closeted as it is - but if you're interested in British history, class or sexual politics, it's completely fascinating, invigoratingly entertaining and extremely moving, with a hypnotically powerful, well-conceived pay-off. I loved it. (4)


Forbidden Games (René Clément, 1952) - Seeking perfection in art is a curse. "Why?" I hear you demand in suitably suppliant fashion. Because 'flaws' are often an irrelevance, and one that distracts viewers, reviewers and critics from embracing something truly special.

Take Forbidden Games, an Oscar-winner from 1952, which has more than its fair share of narrative and stylistic shortcomings. The subplots required to power its plot - including a rivalry between neighbours and an illicit romance between their offspring - are heavy-handed and a little dull, while the interiors shot around the lower level of a farmhouse are neither cinematic nor terribly credible.

Which makes it a flawed film, right? But it's also one of the greatest films ever made: an incredible, indelible movie about love, friendship and the destruction of innocence that builds to not one but two extraordinary gut-punches.

The movie details the intense and moving relationship between a little girl (Brigitte Fossey) orphaned in a bombing raid, and the older boy, Michel (Georges Poujouly), who appoints himself her protector. Together they try to confront the horror of war through a forbidden game: swiping ornamental crosses to decorate the cemetery they have created for fallen creatures.

While the action going on around them is middling, the children are both sensational, and the scenes concerning their obsessive friendship, their darkly comic quest and their wrestling with the biggest and most troubling questions in life are singularly and enduringly resonant, leading to a final scene that's as moving and powerful as cinema is ever going to get.

Its high points are so high, its view of childhood so arresting and deftly realised, that poorly-framed interiors and a handful of duff scenes seem a little beside the point. (4)



"P. S. Have you ever been teased? Can you help me?"
Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009) - An animated Australian wonder about the idiosyncratic friendship between a lonely eight-year-old Antipodean girl and the obese, anxiety attack-prone middle-aged American man - magnificently voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman - whom she selects for a penpal.

Told largely through their absurd, heartbreaking letters - which reach a definite peak of hilarity as Max recounts his employment history - and accompanied by distinctive visuals stuffed with brilliant, imaginative sight gags, it's a true original armed with an abundance of emotion, much of it deep and dark and sad.

The film arguably oversteps into poking fun at its characters a couple of times, and its plotting is best when not wandering off into diversions about manslaughter trials and lottery wins, but writer/director/designer Adam Elliot eschews easy sentimentality with admirable vigour, lending the mesmeric Que, Sera Sera sequence a haunting power, before a climactic scene that may even make Max weep big and salty tears. (3.5)


The Mayor of Hell (Archie Mayo, 1933) - Or Badass Boys Town: simply one of the best social dramas of the '30s, a crackling slice of humanist filmmaking, with Jimmy Cagney in electrifying form as a slum kid turned political boss who finds his conscience while running a reform school.

It's naïve in places and dramatically simplistic in others - with gangster-flavoured, comedic and romantic subplots we don't need - but it's also startlingly committed, intensely moving and often punchily exhilarating, with Cagney and juvenile delinquent extraordinaire, Frankie Darro, forming an irressistible team.

Darro would star in Warner Bros' revolutionary teen movie, Wild Boys of the Road, the same year. This one is almost as incendiary and provocative (in Wild Boys, Darro and his freight-jumping pals beat a rapist to death - and get away with it): a persuasive and progressive piece of entertainment, with a message about brutalised, demonised and abandoned youth that still rings utterly true, some beautiful direction and a Cagney performance that's up there with his very best. (3.5)


Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012) - "I never thought of murdering an innocent person like that before." A rewatch not long after my first one, as my wife hadn't seen it. It's very funny, very British in an acute, specific way, and has some skull-crunching violence to set your teeth on edge. The lead performances could scarcely be better. I like it a lot. (3.5)


Goon (Michael Dowse, 2011) is like Dodgeball but with brains and heart, as former security guard Doug (Seann William Scott) is drafted into a struggling Canadian hockey team to protect its mercurial star from marauding opposition heavies, and becomes a cult hero.

Despite having its roots in truth, the plotting is rather by-the-numbers, but the script by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg is funny, offbeat and sweet-natured, while providing Scott with a great part as the dim, guileless and fiercely loyal ice-borne thug with a little of Parks and Rec's Andy Dwyer about him.

Alison Pill is also extremely good as a most unusual love interest: a conflicted, horny young woman not too dissimilar to Jennifer Lawrence's celebrated character in Silver Linings Playbook, but a good couple of years before the fact.

The film occupies a strange hinterland between reality and absurdism, when leaning towards one or the other might have made it more emotionally resonant or outlandishly funny, but it is a fun place to hang out for a fast-moving hour and a half. (3)


Year One (Harold Ramis, 2009) - One of the more notorious flops of recent years: a comedy about cavemen Jack Black and Michael Cera, who get involved with Cain and Abel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple.

It starts quite well, the leads are fun in small doses and every so often there's a really good, deceptively sharp gag, but, considering it was written by a couple of American Office staffers, it's mostly a big disappointment, with a stupid and unsatisfying story, a tendency to go for the insultingly lowbrow - and the alarmingly sexist - and a horrible performance by Oliver Platt as a high priest that sets back the gay rights debate to Year Zero. (2)


I didn't get to this bit. Thank fuck.

The Boat That Rocked (Richard Curtis, 2009) - Or Operation Yewtree: The Movie. This story of pirate DJs in the '60s is just complete garbage: awfully conceived, beset with mawkishness, and rife with Curtis's cringeworthy sex gags, including an astonishingly ill-judged 'comedy' attempted rape. You'll be rooting for Kenneth Branagh's ludicrous baddie to close down their stupid, boring, sex pest-y boat. Or just bailing early, as I did. (1)


The film is exactly this funny.

"Doctor, can you give the court your impression of Mr Striker?"
"I'm sorry, I don't do impressions, my training is in psychiatry."

Airplane II: The Sequel (Ken Finkleman, 1982) - There's no story here beyond Ted Striker (Robert Hays) trying to stop a lunar passenger flight from blowing up, simply an endless stream of jokes. Sorry, 'jokes'. The original film is pretty good if bafflingly overpraised; this repetitive sequel has precisely one-and-a-half laughs (the one is above, the half is that line about pre-flight nerves). The rest is just broad, nasty and sexist. Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit doing whatever would make it in some way bearable. (1)


Thanks for reading.

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