Thursday, 22 September 2016

REVIEW: Björk at the Royal Albert Hall

21 September 2016

Pic by Santiago Felipe/Getty

A mesmerising night in the company of one of our time's truly great artists, centred largely on her tortured last record, Vulnicura, the most harrowing break-up record I’ve heard in years. Before a sell-out crowd of over 5,000, backed purely by the strings of the Aurora Orchestra and wearing a flamboyant mask that lights up midway through the first half (obviously), she gives a mesmerising performance that’s utterly raw: flaying her wounds till they’re tender, then cauterising them till they’re healed.

The two 40-minute halves are delicate, discordant exorcisms, punctuated by moments of melodic triumph, inimitable and almost childlike movement, and overwhelming catharsis. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced at the Hall: the rapt silences during the songs are breathtaking, especially when the orchestra cuts out and it’s just Björk wrestling with her demons in front of an audience of thousands, and when each number comes to a close, the reception is a deafening appreciation. The first half comprises the first six songs of Vulnicura: an epic suite that ranges from the cello-led Stonemilker, with its plea for “open-hearted clarity” to the disarmingly, heartbreakingly straightforward Family, taking in the retrospective sensuality of History of Touches (“every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous timelapse), Black Lake's throbbing minimalist menace and the syncopated hellhole that is Notget.

After the interval she’s back dressed like a fairy librarian and, before closing with two of the three other Vulnicura songs, distorts her poppier past by fitting the likes of Joga (from Homogenic) and I’ve Seen It All (from Selmasongs) into this almost shapeless, intensely personal template of pregnant pauses, pained exhortations and between-the-notes pitching. Pagan Poetry, meanwhile, breaks off into heartstopping a capella, as she laments: "I love him, I love him, I love him", a single beautiful sound in this vast Hall of ghosts. The encore is her mermaid shanty, Anchor Song (from Debut, still perhaps the greatest thing she’s ever done) and Pluto from Homogenic, now stripped of its electronic clothes but not its polite mayhem or that unmistakable chorus.

As she departs and the lights come on, the entire crowd refuses to leave, and instead begins to sing that worldless refrain, building to a seemingly endless roar of gratification. After five minutes of bedlam, Björk returns to the cacophonous Hall to say that “London is very special to me”. Such a beautiful moment, and something I’ve never seen at a show before. But then this whole show was like nothing I’ve seen before, and there is simply no-one else like Björk – or even close. Her performance was bleak and draining and exultant and incredible, and she sang like every dream you’ve ever had. (4/4)


EXHIBITION: Björk Digital at Somerset House – There’s something endlessly fascinating, dizzyingly esoteric and yet gloriously specific about the shape-shifting, now 50-year-old Björk, for whom music is emotional expression and visual art is avant garde experimentation. This exhibition, tied into her big one-off show at the Royal Albert Hall this week, is led by four VR experiences, which possess an enrapturing, all-encompassing embracing of immersion, dropping you on a beach where a multitude of Björks serenade you with Stonemilker, placing you in the back of her throat, showering you with sparks and disorientating you entirely as a prism becomes a boy who becomes a giant, transparent, electronic Björk, and you circle her endlessly, as the music explodes into ferocious discord.

It’s challenging, boundary-warping art that’s only commercial in that it embraces the latest technology. VR was big in the early ‘90s and is now back with a vengeance, though we’re not quite there yet: the progression into 360 degrees (via technical advancement and rotating stools) is a major step forward, but the picture is never as crisp as it should be – which is fractionally alienating – and the sequences can’t yet run more than 10 minutes without causing nausea. There are some other attractions included, most notably a chairless cinema in which fans were sprawled happily on the floor, watching a loop of every music video Björk has ever made: Triumph of the Heart (, which I’d never seen before, was perhaps the highlight of the whole installation. A room giving you the chance to play with the Biophilia app was also well worth visiting, though the mini-organs being played at random by a computer seemed to traverse the line into pointless pretension, a charge often levelled at Björk's work by people who voted Leave.

The exhibition as a whole is artistically dazzling, its architect’s intrepid, idiosyncratic pursuit of new worlds to conquer enabled by technology that’s amazing to experience, even if it’s not quite there yet. (3.5/4)


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Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Fathers and daughters at the BFI – Reviews #243

A double-bill of emotionally devastating films on the big screen. The best way to spend a Sunday.

CINEMA: The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970) − I watch this every couple of years and am crudely reacquainted with the fact that it's a film: a finite, flawed film with broad, dated comedy interludes, a few wooden line readings and the nagging sense that its sensibility is unfashionably white and middle-class.

The rest of the time it exists in my mind as a collection of moments, almost as real as my own memories, and as precious as anything that cinema has given to me: the birthday party, the kids in the long grass, the red flags made of petticoats, handkerchiefs waving from the open train windows, and Agutter on the platform as a figure appears amidst the clearing steam.

She's frequently perfect, Bernard Cribbins is spot-on as the poor, proud station porter Perks, and the music, the location photography and Lionel Jeffries' thoughtful, frequently inspired direction make this the definitive version of the story, surpassing even E. Nesbit's source novel. The film exists, then, and you should see it, but to me it's more than that, much more. (4)


Not really spoilers in this next write-up, but I'd recommend watching it before reading any reviews:

CINEMA: El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983) − A completely overpowering movie from Spirit of the Beehive director Victor Erice, about a young girl in northern Spain who loses her innocence as she begins to observe and understand her complex, haunted father. 'El Sur' (The South) is the place he left and never returned to, somewhere in his mind the Civil War guns still firing.

Slow, painterly, often wordless and with the overt quality of memory (the effect is of Beehive crossed with Terence Davies's Distant Voices and The Long Day Closes), it is at once enigmatic and confrontational, telling us universal truths about growing up, but wrapping them in a narrative that begins in obscurity before lifting the veil just enough, as the intense, wide-eyed eight-year-old Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) gives way to her 15-year-old self (Icíar Bollaín), a smile never far from the surface, even if she is entirely alone.

I found this bucolic, melancholy film both exquisitely beautiful and utterly heartbreaking. Two hours after it finished, I still feel destroyed. El Sur says something profound about the way we idolise our parents, and how we never really recover from finding out that they're imperfect. Though Erice intended the movie to run more than three hours, it's perfect in this form, ending on a note of quiet revelation without tramelling us under the literal truth.

There are so many things to love and admire. The detachment and relentless, unpleasant repetition of the opening. The unsentimental, multi-layered characterisation that evades simple categorisation. The dream-like vignettes we encounter and experience as we wander through Estrella's memories: a motorbike ride capturing a father-daughter idyll; the Electra complex evoked via a discarded communion veil; a pan up the front of an art deco cinema and through the glass, Citizen Kane-style, to the screening inside; the simple horror of a kid seeing her father incapacitated by drink, trying repeatedly and pathetically to light a cigarette: vivid flashbacks of James Dunn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I saw the film at the BFI immediately after the re-run of The Railway Children. Both are movies about a young girl in the countryside who idolises her big, dark bearded father, but whereas there she worked tirelessly to clear his name, here she turns detective to try to understand his true self, even though she knows that what she finds will destroy her. There, growing up is about autonomy, self-sufficiency and understanding adult relationships; here it's about having your illusions shattered.

Spirit of the Beehive is half the greatest film I've ever seen - the half about the kids searching for Frankenstein's Monster - but it's dragged down by the disconnected, aloof sequences with the adults. Here, it's all meshed effortlessly and the effect is overwhelming, perhaps even a little too much for my comfort. (4)


Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Abe Lincoln, Notorious and Jack Lemmon being irritating – Reviews #242

Plus: Plan 9: Part 2, Bryan Singer's classic prank and a really horrible book about Leeds.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (John Cromwell, 1940) – This is one of the best films I've seen in a long time: an extraordinarily mature, literature drama of the sort that has never really been in vogue.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Robert E. Sherwood, it was one of just three movies produced by Max Gordon − the theatrical impresario so much a part of '30s popular culture that he got a name-check in Cole Porter's song, Anything Goes − and the only feature released by his 'Plays and Pictures Corp'.

At the time, RKO − under the guidance of studio head George Schaefer − was partnering with independent producers like Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney to create ambitious, artistic moneymakers. Though they junked the idea after falling out with Orson Welles in 1942, Abe Lincoln in Illinois came along at just the right time. Having produced the play to great acclaim on Broadway in 1938, Gordon took the property and star Raymond Massey to Hollywood, and RKO assembled a top team of craftsmen to put it together, including cinematographer James Wong Howe and the ever underrated composer, Roy Webb.

In the interim between its stage success and its realisation as a film, Fox had also put out a picture about Lincoln, directed by John Ford. Young Mr. Lincoln was an altogether different beast: magical, manipulative, atmospheric wish-fulfilment with more than a hint of Ford's mythmaking about it. "When truth becomes legend, print the legend," says a cynical journalist in Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Abe Lincoln in Illinois does quite the opposite: heavier, more incisive, more human, stripping away the legend to show The Great Emancipator as a man riddled with melancholy, wrestling with his demons, wanting simply to be left alone, until destiny and a loving but neurotic wife (Ruth Gordon) shove him onto the path of greatness.

It takes a while for the film's themes to coalesce. At first it's wrestling, folksiness and runaway pigs, as the young Mr. Lincoln gets work on a barge, in a shop and as postmaster, while pining for a saloon keeper's daughter named Ann Rutledge (Mark Howard). Then tragedy intervenes, Gordon's Mary Todd appears, and darkness takes hold of Lincoln, sucking you in to a portrayal that's like nothing you've seen before: a journey into history, a window in a man's soul, Lincoln greater than you would ever have thought, because it wasn't easy, because he was just a man, because the burden upon him was so unwelcome and so great. The only biopic of a legend that comes close in its incisive unpicking of received wisdom is Hal Ashby's film about Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory.

Massey is absolutely immense as the former president, particularly in the film's gobsmacking second half, full of magnificent dialogue, complex ideas and a complete lack of Hollywood sheen. It's bruising, difficult, heartbreaking: his journey from gangliness to greatness a picture of sacrifice and self-denial, a Black-Dog-and-all portrayal of a character most commonly shown in American cinema as being akin to Jesus.

As Mary Todd, Gordon matches him. Lincoln's wife is airy, steely, driven and often dislikeable, the key to his greatness and the barrier to his happiness, and Gordon plays those contrasting facets to perfection. I'd never clocked her before as a young(ish) woman (though I've seen Two-Faced Woman a couple of times), only as the beautiful Auschwitz survivor and unexpected sex object in Harold and Maude and a possible Satanist in Rosemary's Baby. Pitching up in '40s Hollywood, she proceeds to give one of the best, most nuanced and realistic performances of the decade, even though she can't be on screen for more than 15 minutes.

By the end, as Lincoln enlists then rejects the phrase "this too shall pass" to lay out the future of the nation, as his backers patronise him behind closed doors, as his wife's neuroses and the march to war sour his greatest achievement, you realise that not only did they not make films as thematically dense and morally eloquent as Abe Lincoln in Illinois in 1940, but they may not have made one since. (4)

See also: I wrote about my other favourite Lincolns here, and reviewed Spielberg's effort here.


Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
– In some ways the most Hitchcockian film that the Master ever made; in others, like nothing else he ever did, with his familiar style now so effortless and economical that every perfectly-choreographed movement of the camera counts, every minor quirk and flourish is unmistakably his, and yet this matchlessly skilful, distinctive direction is applied to a slick, seductive Hollywood thriller rich in unusually lush romanticism, the heightened emotions and sexy repartee an invigorating counterpoint to the usual nerve-shredding terror.

Ingrid Bergman plays the daughter of a Nazi agent, pressed into doing her bit for Uncle Sam by cynical handler Cary Grant – who won’t express his true feelings for her. Bergman inveigles her way into the confidence – and bed – of shadowy industrialist Claude Rains, but down in the cellar of his mansion things go very wrong, and soon she’s close to death, as an oblivious Grant gets ready to flee the country.

From an inspired opening scene in which we see only the back of Grant's unmistakable head, to that stunning zoom into Bergman’s hand, via the longest kiss in Code-era cinema, it’s a feast for fans of ‘40s film: a trim, sensual story lit by Ben Hecht’s dialogue, Ted Tetzlaff’s glorious cinematography and a pair of leads at their absolute zenith. Grant, a short way into transforming from the best light comedian in Hollywood history to a complacent mahogany annoyance, is curiously and effectively macho, trading kisses, stinging barbs and hurt feelings with the love of his life. Bergman too, tears dripping from her eyes, that voice wavering, that temper flaring, was never better, her gargantuan appeal obscuring her limited range. And as their nemesis, Rains is characteristically superb, managing to wring sympathy from us, even while funnelling funds to Adolf Hitler, because he really, truly loves Bergman – or at least the person he believes she is.

It was the first time the director had had two huge, heavyweight stars and a first-rate foil, and he knows it’s a chance to do something extraordinary. There’s no padding here (save two drab expository scenes almost certainly added by the studio and directed by someone else), but impeccable foreshadowing, plenty of subversion and lashings of black humour, as Hitch acquaints us repeatedly with the staircase that will prove central to the climax, has Rains’ mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) transform from a malignant gossip to a chain-smoking crimelord, and subversively uses champagne bottles – a staple, of course, of trifling, escapist rom-coms – as a symbol of spiralling terror.

Truffaut regarded Notorious as the best film Hitchcock ever made, and the greatest example of “pure cinema” in his canon, the whole story being told by the camera. Having seen it for the first time in 15 years, and for the first time on the big screen, I’m inclined to agree.


X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014) – This film opens with an absolutely fantastic prank: an unbelievably boring 10-minute CGI action sequence about robots fighting in the dark – pretty much my least favourite thing in movies – which left me momentarily convinced that Bryan Singer had completely lost the fucking plot.

But then he pitches us into the ‘70s, where a lanky-haired Dr Xavier (James McAvoy) is dealing with addiction, the young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is awash in his usual megalomania, and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is trying to kill an odious weapons manufacturer (Peter Dinklage), setting in motion events that – unless thwarted – will ultimately lead to the extermination of the mutants. The characterisation is rich, the story is fascinating, and the action set pieces are a joy – though a special mention for Quicksilver’s piece de resistance, which is absolute gold.

Sometimes the film struggles with its attempts to knit its well-worn philosophical investigations to Vietnam and the Nixon era, and like First Class it fails to showcase Lawrence’s incredible talent, before ending in a cacophonous 20-minute yawn of blockbuster redundancy, but for the bulk of its running time it’s both interesting and highly entertaining: second only to X2 in this series as an intelligent, imaginative piece of sci-fi that temporarily abated my intense superhero fatigue.

Ellen Page is gorgeous, isn't she. (3)

See also: My favourite Ellen Page movie is Hard Candy, and my favourite Peter Dinklage film...? There's only one serious contender. I've also reviewed X-Men, X2 and The Last Stand on the blog, albeit somewhat briefly.


The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder, 1966) – This flat Billy Wilder comedy begins poorly and never really gets going, as a news cameraman (Jack Lemmon) gets knocked over at an NFL game and his scheming shyster of a brother-in-law (Walter Matthau) smells big bucks − convincing him that a lawsuit could win him his wife back, and filing for $1m of damages.

It's put together rather like Wilder's last great comedy, One, Two, Three, but it simply doesn't work: the material is weak, Matthau lacks the manic energy of someone like Cagney needed to put this over, and Lemmon is at his most "yaddle addle addle" annoying (that's the sound he makes when he's singing to himself).

There are a few clever lines, Judi West's performance as Lemmon's greedy wife isn't bad, and the ending featuring sentimental football star 'Boom Boom' Jackson (Ron Rich) works fairly well, but I just don't find it funny.


Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006) – I have a soft spot for massively ambitious artistic statements crushed by studio beancounters… but Richard Kelly's apocalyptic follow-up to Donnie Darko is basically Plan 9 Part 2. After half an hour I remembered how short life was and switched it off. (1)



1974 by David Peace (1999) − It must be awful living in David Peace's head. This vitriolic, nasty, uber-violent chronicle of child murders in mid-'70s Yorkshire − and how a local journo gets obliterated by the fallout − is a vivid, visceral portrait of moral bankruptcy and utter alienation. It's altogether unforgettable, but whether that's down to its majestic evocation of a vanished netherworld, its profane poetry or the fact that it's just extremely nihilistic and unpleasant isn't always clear. (3)


Thanks for reading.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Basia Bulat, The Entertainer and a voice you could write a book about − Reviews #241


The Entertainer (Garrick Theatre) − It makes sense that Kenneth Branagh would close his first season at the Garrick with this: a play synonymous with his hero, Laurence Olivier. Branagh is Archie Rice, the unhappy, dissolute and past-it music-hall star Archie Rice, whose fey, innuendo-laced stylings are playing to dwindling audiences in '50s Yorkshire.

John Osbourne's play is very much of its time, but director Rob Ashford does well to mine it for its modern relevancies: patriotism, racism and the pathos of an artform on its last legs, and plays Archie as a slight, sad figure, his bags of charisma obscuring a complete lack of moral character, or really any substance at all. He's fast, erudite and fills a room (if not a concert hall) with his bravado, and his rants are more lost than vitriolic. It's a reading of the character that convinces but doesn't always lend itself to emotional dynamism, and that's problematic in a play that has some serious longueurs. On a more prosaic note, I remember reading years ago that Branagh doesn't work himself up into a teary state, but aims for the same effect through simple acting shorthand, and that synthetic approach leaves me feeling rather detached and cheated.

After a stunningly modern opening that sees a silhouetted Branagh slowly tapdancing with his back to the audience, as he's joined by four young chorus girls, we're largely trapped in a room with his family. The first dialogue scene, with Branagh's daughter (Downton Abbey's Sophie McShera) and his father (Gawn Grainger) goes on forever and has little to offer but vast swathes of unpopulated space and an oppressive mundanity. As Greta Scacchi enters as Archie's wife, Phoebe, and the star breaks off for music hall routines pitched perfectly between the dated and the devilishly good, it does begin to work up some momentum, but the first half never really hits its stride until the final seconds.

Once that happens, it doesn't lose it: suddenly it seems to have a purpose and a theme, the characters crumbling like the edifices of the music halls, their viewpoints complex but apparent, and their relationships shifting like cogs in a rotting machine. I don't rate McShera as an actor, and she speaks increasingly throughout the play with that unbearably false intonation that convinces people they don't like theatre. The other principals are fine though: Grainger's comic timing, sentimentality and irascible detachment are a joy in themselves and lend the climax a real emotional heft, Scacchi is largely terrific as a woman drunk on her own hard-luck stories, and Jonah Hauer-King is tuneful and gently nuanced as Archie's lanky son, Frank.

It doesn't ever quite hit the heights I was anticipating − and one can only imagine what John Hurt might have made of Grainger's character if he hadn't been forced to drop out − but at its best it's a valuable, fascinating portrait of the Britain that was and perhaps still is, with a commanding, committed and often brilliant performance at its centre. (3)


Photos by me, can you tell?
Basia Bulat (Oslo Hackney) − Barnstorming power-pop princess Basia Bulat lit up London again last week, surely confirming her status as just about the best live act around. A knockout In the Name Of, a three-song autoharp solo spot comprising Heart of My Own, Gold Rush and In the Night, a heart-stopping, brokenhearted cover of Damaged by Primal Scream, and a dizzying version of her 2013 song The Wire that concluded with her screaming into a voice distorter, it often took the breath away. She never stands still; every time, every song sounds new, thanks to her restless imagination, a Sandy Denny-like gift for reworking melodies, and that notable fondness for odd gadgets. If you get the chance to see her, leap at it. (3.5)

See also: I've reviewed other Basia gigs, at the Slaughtered Lamb (my favourite show of 2015), Rough Trade East and − best of all − Hoxton Square Kitchen. ***


CINEMA: Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1940) − I had a rough day on Thursday, then I went to the BFI to watch this, and my worries just floated away. It's a film I return to time and again, and it always has the same effect on me.

The movie is dominated by Judy Holliday's tour-de-force as ill-educated, complacent former chorine Billie Dawn, whose gangster fiancé (Broderick Crawford) decides that she needs her edges smoothing off, but doesn't bargain for what happens next. You could write a book about Holliday's voice alone: the working class accent, the seductive impediment, the cartoonishness that accentuates the comedy but is never broad or alienating as Billie transforms from an abused adornment to a self-possessed modern woman.

Garson Kanin's script pulls a punch or two to circumvent the censors (the rogue congressman who Crawford bribes is the exception, not a rule) and William Holden's columnist − the catalyst for Billie's change − comes off as a tad smug, but it's rare to find a mainstream movie that elides so succinctly with my own views: that anti-intellectualism is dangerous, that intellectual posturing is tiresome, and that a woman improving herself for her own sake is more beautiful than if she reforms for love.

Cukor's direction is curiously drab, but almost everything else about the film works, with Howard St. John superb as Crawford's refined, self-hating lawyer, two dozen big laughs, and some eloquent polemicising that's arguably more relevant in 2016 than it was in 1950, dealing as it does with crooked lobbyists, spineless legislators and rampant misogyny.

Its greatest strength, though, remains Holliday's astonishing characterisation: so hilarious, vital, heart-warming, nuanced and specific. She would give other truly great performances, but none as great as this. People who say women can't be funny should have their eyes stapled open and be made to this film. It'll improve their Thursday. (4)

See also: This movie is in my all-time top 100, which you can read about here.


Thanks for reading.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Caroline Proust, My Night at Maud's and the birth of satire − Reviews #240

A round-up of some things I never got around to sharing, plus Season 2 of Spiral.

My Night at Maud’s (Eric Rohmer, 1969)
− I’ve become a huge Eric Rohmer fan over the past few years. The older I get, and the more complex my idea of life becomes, the more I appreciate his work: full of eroticism, irony and paradox, where the sun only comes out to cast darker shadows. There’s no denying, though, that many of his films follow a certain formula: not just in their plots (his six Moral Tales, made between 1962 and ’72, are all based on F. W. Murnau’s expressionist silent romance, Sunrise), but also in the form and structure he favours. My Night at Maud’s isn’t his best movie, but it’s perhaps his most Rohmerish, almost to the point of exaggeration: it begins slowly, turns tiringly talky and then whacks you in the solar plexus with a coda that’s rooted in the philosophical groundwork he’s been laying, while trading the verbose, probing philosophy for poignant, nail-on-the-head specificity. Stop someone halfway through a Rohmer film, and they might tell you they’re bored. Ask them what they think at the finish, and they’ll tell you they’re floored.

My Night at Maud’s – his most famous and popular film, and the third of his Moral Tales (though released after part four, La collectionneuse) – reminds me a bit of Melville’s superb and atypical Leon Morin, Priest, in which a sexually frustrated war widow becomes infatuated with a kind, cerebral and undeniably hot man of the cloth (Jean-Paul Belmondo). This too is an exploration of sex and spirituality, though not of celibacy, as a practical but serious Catholic (Jean-Louis Trintignant), not entirely unlike Rohmer himself, is caught between two women: one whom he sees as pure and innocent – blonde churchgoer Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault, the niece of Jean-Pierre, star of the greatest French film of all, Les enfants du paradis) – and the other whom he dismisses as too slutty and too atheist, Maud (Françoise Fabian).

The film’s opening and closing chapters are dazzlingly presented, but the middle-section – the night at Maud’s – is almost wilfully uncinematic in conventional terms, consistingly largely of Trintignant and Fabian in a room, chatting circularly about faith and attraction. The presentation, aside from a single cut-away to a snowy exterior, is drab and restricted, but it forces us to focus on the nuances, zoning in on the basic incongruity of the situation, as Trintignant’s Jean-Louis mounts an aggressively calm, contextualised campaign of verbal self-justification, as his passions are stoked by this woman who seems to represent everything he purports to detest, and yet on some level is also everything he wants: and that’s not just a sexual level, he finds her invigorating and fascinating, a philosophical adversary and yet perhaps a spiritual twin. His face tells the story, as his voice lies. That disconnect between a character’s actual desires and what they will admit, even to themselves – that gaping chasm of self-awareness – is what powers these films.

I’m not a big fan of Trintignant generally, but here he’s so deep in his quiet, serious but impassioned personification that you can’t imagine what this film would be without him. Barrault is used more as a symbol than as an actress, but works brilliantly as an avatar for Rohmer and Jean-Louis’s collision of humanism and idealism, while Fabian floods the screen with a desperate, exhausted pragmatism that inspires an endless empathy. Sometimes in its central sequence the film does feel too heavily academicised for me, becoming more a discussion of abstract ideas than of these characters’ burning and overwhelming preoccupations, but it’s littered with fascinating insights, and when it turns from mere talk to action and revelation it’s a genuinely explosive film, explosive in the way that only Rohmer’s films are, as a character quietly implodes and it blows us apart. The ending here, picking up five years after the story proper, is one of his biggest departures, biggest gambles and most extraordinary successes, taking us to the beach and flipping the whole film upside down. (3.5)

See also: I've reviewed the first three Moral Tales already: The Bakery Girl of Monceau, Suzanne's Career and The Collector.


Robert Evans with convicted rapist Roman Polanski.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, 2002) - The charming former Paramount honcho Robert Evans tells us repeatedly how handsome he is in this classic ‘unreliable narrator’ doc (though he is admittedly quite handsome), which allows him to spout forth on his life and work, and take credit for just about everything, though particularly The Godfather.

There’s some great footage, especially at the beginning when we see his three movie appearances as a young man – which start well and end with him giving arguably the most ridiculous performance of all time – and later when he’s selling the moneymen on his most beloved project (himself), but the bulk of the picture is just artfully animated photos and some film of his house, accompanied by Evans spinning tales in voiceover: his fortuitous rise to prominence, his marriage to Ali McGraw, and his coke-fuelled descent into redundancy and worse. It’s all rather shallow, but also colourful, conspiratorial and highly entertaining: a fast-moving Hollywood saga bringing to life the highlights of his memoir, also called The Kid Stays in the Picture.

That title, incidentally, is what Evans claims legendary Fox producer Daryll F. Zanuck yelled through a bullhorn on the set of The Sun Also Rises, a Hemingway adaptation from which the author – and almost everyone else connected with the film – attempted to sack him. Director Brett Morgen went on to make a functional but enjoyable Rolling Stones doc, Crossfire Hurricane, before compiling that bloody awful Kurt Cobain cinematic biography, Montage of Heck. (3)



The Thick of It (Series 4)
− The last, and least, of the definitive modern political comedy's four series traverses mostly old ground, though it's still very funny, and extremely prescient in its depiction of the crumbling Labour Party. Its main flaw, aside from familiarity, is that the character comics playing the Lib Dem leader and his special advisor are too broad and mannered, the incisive material rarely emerging unscathed from their superficial sitcom delivery. Still, the first instalment − in which outdated 'one nation' Tory Peter Mannion (Roger Allam) attempts to launch a tech initiative − is a classic, and the double-length penultimate episode concerning a public inquiry is ambitious, cleverly conceived and extremely impressive. (3)


Beyond the Fringe (1964) − It’d be convenient if Beyond the Fringe no longer existed – most of it, anyway. This astonishingly popular comic revue was so important and so influential, single-handedly inspiring the British satire boom of the 1960s, and yet long stretches of it are virtually unwatchable today.

The best routines are all Peter Cook’s, and the best of those are as funny as anything he ever did: the ‘Great Train Robbery’ sketch, with its overly literal investigating officer, the ‘Perkins’ section of The Aftermyth of War – in which Jonathan Miller’s private is asked to make an entirely futile sacrifice – the surrealistic monologue by a regretful miner, ‘The End Is Nigh’, which closes the show, and the famous ‘One Leg Too Few’ (with Dudley Moore as a manically cheery, one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan), which was added midway through the run.

The rest of the two-hour show ranges largely from the pale to the painful: Miller mugging, Moore playing interminable ‘comic’ piano pieces, and Alan Bennett apparently ill at ease with a succession of sketches that require him to play posh idiots; of the non-Cook pieces, only his T. E. Lawrence skit stands the test of time, as Bennett recalls his brief friendship with the famed adventurer, which begins with the narrator accidentally going to the wrong house where he mistakes a schoolboy for the aged Lawrence. (2.5)


Misfits (Series 3, 2011) – This third series is a big step down from the first two, struggling to know what to do with the metaphysical relationship between Simon (Iwan Rheon) and Alisha (Antonia Thomas) developed so stunningly last time out, until a dazzling conclusion to the final episode, and offering little in the way of compelling through-lines. Instead it serves up a succession of self-contained outings that are often involving and amusing, but sometimes just a little desperate (an episode about Nazis has an astonishingly good prologue but then goes awry, with little to say and a completely nonsensical treatment of time-travel; and another in which Simon is manipulated by a comic book artist begins to unpick the fabric of the programme). With Nathan – the funniest character in the show – now written out, the bulk of the comedic burden falls on newcomer Rudy (Joseph Gilgun). While it takes an episode to get used to his big performance, he is extremely funny, but he isn’t properly integrated into the ensemble: often he’s grandstanding brilliantly and the others are simply forced to pull faces in the background, an awkward juxtaposition that stops you from becoming immersed in the action. The third series is a pleasant enough time-filler, but it’s not exceptional as the first two series were, at least until it wraps up Simon’s story in perfect, mythmaking fashion. (3)


Spiral (Season 2, 2008) – This second series retools the original template to perfection: as sexycop Laure Berthaud and her team launch a season-long war on dealers, the incidental, self-contained storylines are stripped down to the bare essentials, the purpose of them now to pad out an hour’s TV but to shine a light into the corners of its characters. Original, involving, literate, confrontational and, in its denouement, almost unwatchably tense, it offers a gallery of new characters – including brilliant undercover agent Samy – revels in the multi-layered, multi-faceted complexity of its others, and turns an interesting show into one that’s simply unmissable. I start on the next series tonight. (4)


Thanks for reading.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Elvis, Julieta and the cop I love - Reviews #239

Everything I've watched in the last couple of weeks.


CINEMA: Julieta (Pedro Almodovar, 2015)
– A wonderful, extremely powerful film about a middle-aged woman (Emma Suarez) willing to give up everything she has for a chance to reconnect with her estranged daughter. In flashback, we learn her story.

There's such a great feel to this movie − the sense that you're in the hands of a master in complete control − which underneath its sheen of sadness is so sexy, and so emotionally violent. It reminded me of Paris, Texas, of Philip Roth's Pulitzer-winning novel American Pastoral, of Tornatore's gut-punch of a Director's Cut of Cinema Paradiso, of Douglas Sirk's woman's pictures, and also of Bunuel in its aggressively unconventional decision to cast Adriana Ugarte as the young Julieta, and have her meet Suarez's characterisation in the most abrupt, surprising way.

For all that, though, it rarely feels derivative, it simply exists in that world of complex choices, life-altering epiphanies and mistakes, and misguided interventions; a world with a dearth of easy answers.

It sucks you in for 100 minutes, and when it's over it stays with you. Not just the gradually unwrapping story, nor Suarez's superb performance, but the way it forces you to interrogate the way that you live your own life. It's quite something. (3.5)


Two lesser-known Doug Fairbanks swashbucklers:

Don Q, Son of Zorro (Donald Crisp, 1925) – Perhaps the most purely entertaining movie Doug Fairbanks ever made − and that’s saying something. As the title suggests, he stars as Zorro's son, who travels to his ancestral land of Spain, charms archduke Warner Oland, woos decorous socialite Mary Astor (a perfect love interest), and is then embroiled in scandal, retreating to the ruins of his family's castle as he plots to clear his name.

It's not as ambitious and groundbreaking as some of his other silent swashbucklers − which might be why it's so little known − and nor are the stakes as high, but this sequel to his career-changing Mark of Zorro is formula-filmmaking for the ages, full of delightfully soppy romance, deftly-handled intrigue and superb stuntwork (as well as a few bits where the star is like a kid pointlessly showing off). It does dip a little in the mid-section, becoming too preoccupied by plot, but by introducing Zorro himself in the second half (also played by Fairbanks), it also shows the star's growing awareness of his own place in big screen mythology, a subject he would revisit to stunning effect in his silent swansong, The Iron Mask<>.

I wasn't expecting a great deal, to be honest, but I'd rank it well above the star's more celebrated Three Musketeers and Thief of Bagdad. (3.5)

The Gaucho (F. Richard Jones, 1927) – This is by far the least of Doug Fairbanks’ eight silent swashbucklers – a portentous, heavy-handed and often deathly slow film about faith – though when it’s good, it’s very good indeed.

The star plays a near-mythic ‘gaucho’ (Mexican cowboy) who travels to a Lourdes-like shrine with the intention of robbing it, only to have a conspicuous and long-winded change of heart. Despite a promising cast including Three Musketeers villain Nigel de Brulier (as a saintly cleric) and 'Mexican spitfire' Lupe Velez (playing a tempestuous sexpot not unlike her real self), it’s an oddly unsatisfying movie: aloof, brusque and ponderous, where Fairbanks’ vehicles are usually so intimate and charming, and not helped by a synth-led score on the Kino DVD that's as dated as the movie. I'm a sucker for a religious film done right, but this one doesn't come close.

Its saving graces are a pair of short sequences exhibiting genuine movie magic – Fairbanks doing trick-stunts on a horse, and persuading his followers to tow away an entire house just to impress his girlfriend – and two of the most exuberant, exciting action scenes of the star’s career, as he takes an entire fort single-handedly, and later swings through the trees with a grace and elan that Tarzan himself never managed.

Those glorious set-pieces give a welcome respite from the message with which we're being hit repeatedly but belabouredly over the head in this peculiar mash-up of The Mark of Zorro and The Song of Bernadette (the star had got the idea while visiting Lourdes), and reminds you of just how fun Fairbanks' films usually are. (2)


King Creole (Michael Curtiz, 1958) – In 1961, Elvis put out two movies: a muddled but serious-minded Clifford Odets drama called Wild in the Country, which lost money, and a splashy, stupid musical by the name of Blue Hawaii, which made $3m. After that, the die was cast: he would only make thin, throwaway movies, and he never need worry about trying to be a serious actor ever again. Before that, though, the King did some really interesting work, particularly in Jailhouse Rock and Flaming Star − in which he gave his best performances − and in King Creole, which is probably his stand-out film.

This Louisiana-set crime film is a bit trite in places, and slightly overlong, but it's also dramatically satisfying, beautifully shot by Howard Hawks regular (and Gun Crazy cinematographer) Russell Harlan, full of good music, and with a strong supporting cast, led by Carolyn Jones, who's terrific as Connie, the sexy, unhappy, neurotic kept woman of sadistic gangster Walter Matthau. Elvis is pretty good in the lead too, playing a slightly lost school leaver who winds up singing in Paul Stewart's rundown club, while antagonising the local hoods and battling his weak but puritanical father (Dean Jagger).

Sometimes the film trips up while trying to make the star seem both exciting and palatable to middle America, but at other times it articulates a young man's search for identity, success and balance really well, and director Michael Curtiz − who made Casablanca, amongst numerous other Warner classics of the Golden Era − creates an effective Creole milieu of dark alleys, jazz dives and, most memorably, wood jetties on sun-dappled water, the storm passed or perhaps just about to properly begin. Much of the work is done, though, by a pre-credit number in which black street peddlers call out the names of their wares, pitching you straight into this time and this place.

You can see why it didn't do as well as Blue Hawaii: it's cynical, sometimes complex and decidedly bleak, but it's also a vision of what Elvis's career might have been (especially if his manager had let him appear in Bob Mitchum's B-movie, Thunder Road, the same year!), as well as a bruising, brooding little film on its own terms. (3)


Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry, 1978) – This Warren Beatty star vehicle takes its name from one immortal '40s rom-com − Ernst Lubitsch's classic tale of a self-hating philanderer − but is a remake of another, the superb, supernatural Here Comes Mr Jordan, one of the most refreshing and original films of its decade.

Beatty is Joe Pendleton, in this iteration a star NFL quarterback, who is taken to Heaven prematurely by a bumbling archangel, then gets the chance to return, but in the body of a heartless industrialist.

I've wanted to see this for a while, but found it maddeningly uneven: a jarring collection of New Hollywood tics, vastly differing styles of comedic acting, narcissistic excesses (like Beatty being so keen to be the centre of attention that we never see the bodies he inhabits, just his), highly enjoyable wish fulfilment and − just when you've decided that they kind of ballsed this one up − a truly beautiful ending.

It's not in the same league as the original, then but nor is it completely dispensable. Julie Christie does increasingly well as the love interest, considering she's pretty miscast, James Mason is an ideal replacement for the late, lamented Claude Rains, and Beatty is, well, as unbearable and impressive and flawed and self-indulgent and limited and talented as usual. (2.5)


Cocaine Cowboys (Billy Corben, 2013) − This is like one of those FHM or ShortList long reads about true crime: trashy, morally inchoate, artistically indefensible but actually quite enjoyable. Edited by someone who seems to have quite recently taken cocaine, it's a fast-paced, choppy sail through the Miami drug wars of the late-'70s and early-'80s, based on the testimonies of two traffickers, a hitman, a dodgy lawyer and a couple of investigators, mixed with archive news footage and completely unnecessary photos of bloodied corpses. (2.5)



The Armando Iannucci Shows (2001)
− There's so much going on here, and most of it is brilliant. Armando Iannucci, perhaps the outstanding comedy creator of his generation, guides us through eight episodes of sketches on such diverse subjects as 'Communication' and 'Twats'. The early episodes are the best, but it's consistently and thrillingly original, with a special mention for his Derby County song, the racist police horses and a man whose seemingly effortless dinner party banter isn't entirely natural. (3.5)


Spiral (Series 1, 2008) − An outstanding crime series from France which is chilling, nasty and at the most surprising times extraordinarily humane. It takes a while to get going, and the overarching narrative about a brutal murder is more interesting than the self-contained cases in each episode, but stick with it: it has a rich cast of fascinating characters, and episodes six and seven are absolutely astonishing. Also, I am in love with Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), the flawed, feminist cop with the killer smile. (3.5)


Thanks for reading.