Tuesday, 18 October 2016

London Film Festival: Part 4 − Xavier Dolan, Don't Think Twice and a really, really bad film

The last of the fest, and what a joy it was. Well, with a couple of exceptions, for the greatest of which: read on...


Film 14: It's Only the End of the World (Xavier Dolan, 2016) − A hell of a film, in that I imagine this is probably what Hell is like: a loud, stressful and apparently endless family argument.

Shot almost entirely in close-ups with fuzzy backgrounds (or vice versa), it's intense talkiness - fragments of fractious dialogue murmured or yelled - and awkward silences, as dying playwright Gaspard Ulliel returns to the family home to engage in stilted, vague but excessive dialogue with his unhappy mother (Nathalie Baye), troubled sister (Lea Seydoux), nervy sister-in-law (Marion Cotillard) and brutal, hotheaded brother (Vincent Cassel).

The performances are strong (especially Ulliel's), there are two flashback montages of rare potency, and Dolan's use of sound and music is superb − a song as bad as Numa Numa has never whacked me in the solar plexus before − but the material is so hackneyed that I didn't respond to enough of it, and the film so noisily miserable that I was glad when it was over. (2.5)

Film 15: The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, 2016) − An utterly compelling moral thriller from the writer-director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi, about a couple (Shahab Hosseini and Taranah Alidoosti) whose marriage is thrown into turmoil by the hand of fate, as they prepare to appear together in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Like A Separation, it's a consistently surprising drama that - when you sit back and consider it at the end - could only ever have been heading for one place, and it's blessed with the same incisive writing and skilful direction, which sees Farhadi apparently effortlessly manufacturing suspense from thin air (a quality I find myself looking for, and understanding far better, since reading Hitchcock/Truffaut). It also seems to offer real insight into Iranian society and the Iranian psyche, in which women are property and slights against them are slights against their husbands.

I don't want to give away even a little of the story, as it's a film that really benefits from going in blind, but I will say that although its allusions to Miller are too loose and then too literal, that thread ends in heartrending style, and the film features both Iran's long-awaited answer to Jonathan Lipnicki and a late shock so well-executed that it made the person next to me in the cinema do a little fart. Now that's movie-making. (3.5)


Film 16a (SHORT): What's the World Coming To? (Richard Wallace and F. Richard Jones, 1926) − Profoundly unfunny Hal Roach 'two-reeler' (20-minute comedy) that takes a reasonable premise - men are becoming more like women and vice versa, let's skip 100 years into the future - and kills it stone-dead.

Stan Laurel co-wrote and L&H regular James Finlayson appears as the father of a decidedly emasculated bride-groom, but there are only a couple of small laughs and the rest is so dated it's almost incomprehensible: mirthless mugging, non-sequitur slapstick and people being kicked up the arse.

A mention, though, for Laura De Cardi, in proto-Dietrich garb as a wolfish woman preying on the poor, defenceless husband. The only nod to the future setting, incidentally - the heightened premise aside - is that the cars and pie-stands now fly.

It's the kind of silent comedy that makes being a silent comedy evangelist such exhausting work. (1.5)

Film 16b (FEATURE): A Woman of the World (Malcolm St. Clair, 1925) − A bit of silent comedy froth, with an anti-hypocrisy message, about a tattooed Italian countess (Pola Negri) who scandalises a small American town while fleeing a break-up, and catches the eye of fanatical moralist Holmes Herbert. The supporting comedy is too broad for my taste, but the opening scene is a cracker, the ending is agreeably mad, and when the round-faced, bob-haired, overtly sensual Negri is on screen the rest of it mostly works. (2.5)

Film 17: SpaceshipSpaceshit, more like: a film so amateurish and pointless that it shouldn't ever have been backed by the BFI, let alone included in this country's flagship film festival. There are some decent visuals (the element that piqued my interest), but the script is so pretentious, empty and intellectually bankrupt that it makes Gosling's Lost River look like Chinatown. It's like a 90-minute bus journey with the most unbearable, self-satisfied teenagers on Earth, and a waste of money, cameras, my time and a festival spot.

The worst film I've seen since Mamma Mia. And then some. Absolute fucking shit.

On the plus side, they were doing surveys in the foyer, so I got a free biro. (1)

Film 18 (my last of a glorious fest): Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia, 2016) − A very funny, unexpectedly deep film about a New York improv troupe which goes into meltdown when one of its cast is signed for a Saturday Night Live-style TV sketch show.

Most of the comedy comes from on-stage routines or the improv-ish flourishes that these characters use to get through the day, and that dynamic takes a little getting used to (probably the closest comparison I can think of is to The Trip), but there's no arguing with the number or volume of the belly laughs echoing around the Prince Charles Cinema, and I liked the way that humour is shown as a release, and as a bond that grows and tightens when hardship and tragedy bites.

From the press around the film, I wasn't expecting the melancholic undertow that comes with the comedy, as it deals with the 30-something experience: with heavy break-ups, the dropping or re-shaping of dreams, and our reasons for living, and though the film ultimately becomes too miserable for too long and occasionally deals in cliché (particularly regarding the vacuousness of mainstream culture and how, to paraphrase Morrissey, "we hate it when our friends become successful"), at its best it is unusually honest, perceptive and insightful.

The performances are really well-balanced too, with a specificity and maturity to which I really responded. Gillian Jacobs, who played Britta in Community, is particularly good as a thoughtful woman blossoming into her true self, and Chris Gethard plays Bill with fine, subtle inflections that take you to heart of his character: unassuming and apparently ordinary, but alive in the comfort of the stage, where his quicksilver wit can shine.

It's an imperfect but winning and distinctive film, and you can see why it became a big sleeper hit in the States. It reminded me a little of Renoir's French Cancan, another hymn to creative people, though he was all about giving everything you have in exchange for art; the message of Don't Think Twice is more nuanced and achievable: that you find what inspires you, and keep it in your life. (3)


Thanks for reading. Roll on next year.

Monday, 17 October 2016

London Film Festival: Part 3 − Bassem Youssef, Certain Women and a dead Blackbird

"What was she like?"

As good a description as any for Kelly Reichardt's mind. Four more films from this year's fest:

SUNDAY 9th (continued)

Film 10: The Fury of a Patient Man (Raúl Arévalo, 2016) at Picturehouse Central
− A morally complex, hard-as-nails Spanish thriller from debuting director Raúl Arévalo about the relationship between a notably sexy mother (Ruth Díaz), her violent ex-con husband (Luis Callejo) and her quiet new boyfriend (Antonio de la Torre). It starts in mysterious, decontextualised fashion, then reveals its hand gradually, with particularly superb use of sharp implements and even better use of sound. (3)

Film 11: Una (Benedict Andrews, 2016) at Embankment Garden Cinema
European premiere

This belated opening up of the hit stage two-hander Blackbird makes for a flat, doggedly mediocre film, as the title character (Rooney Mara) turns up at the office of Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) to confront her past, but finds only slack writing and bad cinematography.

Mara's pretty good (if not at her dazzling best), but this functional, boringly-shot film is merely vague when it should be ominously, piercingly fascinating, recalling such drab, uninspiring homegrown melodramas as Match Point and Separate Lies.

I'd really like to see the play, which is apparently set in one room and packed with fractured, singularly rendered dialogue, but if that's true then this adaptation has incinerated its raison d'être, like those Shakespeare-for-kids books that keep the recycled plots but chuck out all of his words. (1.5)

Guests: An introduction from Andrews, Mendelsohn, Tara Fitzgerald (who plays Mara's mother), writer David Harrower and various crew. The main players returned for a post-film Q&A − I would have loved to see the movie they were describing.



Film 12: Tickling Giants (Sara Taksler, 2016) at Vue West End − A wonderful documentary about 'the Egyptian Jon Stewart', Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon who becomes a TV satirist and national hero following the Arab Spring. As the political climate festers and the military intervene, his potshots at authority start to divide the revolutionaries, leading to protests, boycotts and threats, but he and his staff remain unyielding – at least at first. After one of the writers says she doesn’t care about the outcry, a colleague asks if she’d care to provide a more diplomatic answer. “Yes,” she replies. “I don’t give a shit.”

I expected Tickling Giants to be insightful and powerful, but not such fantastic fun as it is, and if you’re worried that Egyptian humour won’t translate across language and cultural barriers, you couldn’t be more wrong. Youssef is simply hilarious, beginning as a rather nervous Stewart clone, but quickly establishing himself as a ferociously funny and fearless comedian, with a fine line in irony, righteous anger and foul-mouthed rejoinders. This marvellously entertaining, inspiring and yet troubling film is liberally sprinkled with clips of the show (entitled ‘The Show’), fascinating behind-the-scenes footage (as the protests begin to take their toll) and animation designed by one of Youssef’s collaborators – which is distinctive if not as entertaining as what surrounds it.

It’s one of the highlights of the festival so far: an intimate portrait, state-of-the-nation address and uproarious comedy all in one. (3.5)



Film 13: Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016) at Hackney Picturehouse
− Kelly Reichardt has such a unique way of looking at the world, at humanity, and this triptych of short stories is an instant classic: a rich, tactile, beautifully-edited film that's brilliantly low key in its performances, its humour and its sumptuous, washed-out, finely-grained cinematography.

We meet four great female characters across three stories, the final (and longest) of which is a simply stunning achievement. There's Laura Dern's patient lawyer dealing with an increasingly erratic client, hard-working but harsh mother Michelle Williams (shades of Dorothy McGuire in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) visiting a dementia patient with her husband (and employee), and then Native American stablehand Lily Gladstone happening upon knackered lawyer Kristen Stewart, and finding her life suddenly flooded with light and meaning.

Reichardt tells each story with simplicity, economy and endless empathy, while serving up – with a minimum of fuss – a feast for the eyes and ears: weathered snow crunching underfoot, a torrent of grain cascading into a barrel, and pioneers' sandstone lifted from the ruins of an old schoolhouse, and laid out in fudge-coloured chunks. There are no universal themes tying together the three Maile Meloy stories, nor a universal approach in their worldview – the first is fatalistic, the final one surprising and the middle chapter somewhere in-between – but each is deftly sketched, impeccably acted and comprised of handsome, static shots. The title seems to have a double meaning, articulating both the women's steadfast certainty and the barbs aimed at "certain women" who act in this bold, unapologetic way.

It’s a film of unwavering, unflinching honesty and quiet poetry – from Williams’ piercing, scarcely likeable performance to that shot of a rogue truck tumbling off the road – a gift from a filmmaker at the very peak of her powers. (4)


Thanks for reading. The fourth and final part will round up five films from the last weekend, including a fine foreign picture and a homegrown disaster, and I'll talk a little about the festival as a whole.

All the opening lines are taken from the festival trailer, every word of which is etched into my brain forever after seeing it 20 times!

Saturday, 15 October 2016

London Film Festival: Part 2 − Isabelle Huppert, Manchester by the Sea and the most 1930 thing ever

My continuing adventures at the wonderful London Film Festival.

"I'm not done, right, I got more in me..." (I now see the LFF trailer, which plays before every screening, whenever I close my eyes. I hear it all the time.)

SATURDAY 8th (continued)

Film 5: King of Jazz (John Murray Anderson and Paul Fejos, 1930) at NFT 2 – This musical revue, complete with two-strip Technicolor, is a symphony in green and red, and while it's as hit-and-miss as any, it's a must for fans of old films.

Building on the success of Paramount on Parade and Warner's Show of Shows, which were designed to test the stars and the ground during the transition to the talkies, Universal's King of Jazz focuses on Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra - then the most popular jazz ensemble in the country - presenting a non-stop succession of eye-catching treats, all in that distinctive palette, and ranging from a comic cartoon about Whiteman fighting a lion, to skits, scatting (oh behave) trio the Rhythm Boys (featuring a cherubic Bing Crosby), ponderous ballads and a climactic celebration of America as a 'melting pot' that credits Germany, Spain and Scotland with creating jazz, but not any black people.

At its worst it's dated and dull (the 'bridal veil' and Monterey numbers are definite low points), but it's mostly good and occasionally great, with an astonishingly high success rate in its comic sketches (usually the worst part of a movie revue), as much camera trickery and surrealistic invention as Man with a Movie Camera and a handful of knock-out numbers, most notably So the Bluebirds - preceded by a glorious snatch of Missisippi Mud - stunning dance number Ragamuffin Romeo, and the infectious Happy Feet.

It's the weakest of the five Festival films I've seen so far, but still a lot of fun. It's like "How much more 1930 can you get?" and the answer is none. None more 1930. (3)

Guests: none, unless you count a slideshow of rare production photos (you don't)

Film 6: Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) at Odeon Leicester Square
European premiere

Kenneth Lonergan's third film is a familiar but extremely well-acted melodrama about haunted, introspective Casey Affleck pitching up in the chilly sea town of Manchester after his brother Kyle Chandler's death, and uncertainly reconnecting with his grieving, smartass teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges).

Affleck is absolutely terrific in a largely internalised role, there's one absolute knockout of a scene where he meets his ex-wife (an otherwise underused Michelle Williams) on the street, and Lonergan's dialogue is typically literate and funny, but the film lacks the originality and deceptive precision of Margaret (it's a sort of hybrid of You Can Count on Me and Tom McCarthy's Win-Win), and its narrative is rather too baggy and heavy-handed to overwhelm you in the same way. I also find the way that Lonergan uses stylised explosions of machismo violence as a shorthand for emotional turmoil a bizarrely shallow trait.

It's still a finer and more affecting film than most others you'll see this year. (3.5)

Guests: Kenneth Lonergan, Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and members of the crew (pre-film Q&A)

Film 7: Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016) at Embankment Garden Cinema
UK premiere

Virtuosic but extremely suspect Verhoeven film, with Isabelle Huppert as a divorced careerwoman who's raped by an intruder, setting in motion a highly unpredictable chain of events. She's astonishing, the excoriating black comedy is jawdropping and there's one of the biggest jump scares ever, but the film leaves an absolutely repulsive taste in the mouth, and for that reason I can't really recommend it.

Verhoeven has quite a history of misogny: Peter Weller is killed in Robocop because Nancy Allen can't help but stare at a bad guy's penis during a shootout, and the director (allegedly) filmed Sharon Stone's vulva without permission in Basic Instinct before broadcasting it to the world. Elle is something else, though. During the post-film Q&A, audience members kept telling Verhoeven they 'loved' his film. How can you 'love' a rape comedy?

I'm still angry. (3)

Guests: Paul Verhoeven, Isabelle Huppert and Anne Consigny (post-film Q&A)


Film 8: Toni Erdmann (Marin Ade, 2016)

This cult favourite, which wowed audiences at Cannes, is a genuinely unconventional German film about happiness, dealing with the relationship between a free spirit with a very specific sense of humour (Peter Simonischeck) and the estranged, work-obsessed daughter (Sandra Hüller) he visits in Bucharest after his dog dies.

Marin Ade's film is extremely funny - often in the most unexpected, imaginative ways, with a similar sense of the ridiculous to Le dîner du cons - but underpinning it is an understanding of life's contradictions, man's facility for melancholy and the shifting dynamics of relationships that I found very truthful and powerful. The leads are both wonderful.

There's no reason for it to be 162 minutes, though. (3.5)

Guests: Stars Sandra Hüller and Trystan Pütter

Film 9: Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2016) at Odeon Leicester Square
World premiere

This comedy from Boosh alumni Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby is slight, and a little clichéd and formulaic in its premise and structure, though when it's funny it is very, very funny.

Barratt is a an arrogant, washed-up actor who once starred in a Bergerac-like crime series. When murder suspect Russell Tovey says he'll only speak to Mindhorn, it's time for him to strap on the electronic eye that is also a lie detector one more time - and return to the Isle of Man.

There are some brilliant jokes here about grudges and actorly pretension (including two absolute crackers during death scenes) and a pair of extremely funny supporting performances from Farnaby and Kenneth Branagh, though it feels like it's at least a draft away from being a great film. A lot of it feels kind of slapdash and convenient, clever ideas like the lie-detector eye are never properly exploited, and a few of the gags are tasteless in a way that they're not funny enough to justify.

It also gets the Manx flavour completely wrong, which is fine in an audience of self-satisfied Londoners, but is going to ring hollow to anyone who's spent some time there. You can shrug and say that it's not a shortcoming that matters, but a lot of humour works because of its specificity and clarity, and the oddities of the Manx character are funnier and wilder than these invented generalisations.

Having seen the best comedies than Germany, France and Iceland have to offer, this BFI-backed one feels rather minor, and suggests that perhaps we haven't really moved on that far from The Parole Officer. Speaking of which, this must be the most banal contribution Steve Coogan has made since adding nothing to The Other Guys (now that's a great comedy film - no, you shut up). (2.5)

Guests: Sean Foley, Julian Barratt, Simon Farnaby, Harriet Walter and other cast and crew (pre-film Q&A). I also bumped into Steve Oram from Sightseers outside. I love that movie.


Thanks for reading. Part 3 will feature the first real flop of the festival and my two wonderful midweek excursions.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

London Film Festival: Part 1 − Rebecca Hall, La La Land and Finnish film

"Do you have any dreams...?"

What a massive treat this is: one of the world's greatest film festivals on our doorstep, glowing amidst the gloom of this lousy year, and bringing the likes of Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling and Isabelle Huppert to the capital. It's the first time I've got properly involved since moving to London in 2014, and it's been a magical experience. I'm seeing 18 films across the two weeks, from a Finnish boxing drama to a documentary about Syria's answer to Jon Stewart. Here are the first four.


Film 1: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, 2016) at Vue West End
– A completely charming, disarming Finnish film, based on a true story, about a boxer who falls in love whilst preparing for a world championship fight. Shot in grainy monochrome, it reminds me a little of Truffaut in its grace notes (lovely, self-contained sequences of children) and also of Half Nelson – with its eye for an arresting, unexpected image or sentiment – though its sensibility, and its sense of humour, are all its own.

Whatever their quality, boxing movies tend to be bruising noirs about proud patsies (Body and Soul, The Set-Up, Champion), shameless stories about underdogs (Rocky) or cynical, bruising portraits of disconnected losers (Raging Bull). Olli Maki, with its humble hero, quiet humanity and knockout ending, could scarcely be more different.

Occasionally it seems unfocused or long-winded, but the performances from stage star Jarkko Lahti (as Olli), newcomer Oona Airola (as his ordinarily beautiful new girlfriend) and Eero Milonoff (playing his ex-champ of a manager) are really fresh, credible and well-judged, the bits of off-kilter humour mesh nicely with the affecting central storyline, and the film’s blending of realism, sweetness and surprise makes it a richly enjoyable experience.

A cracking start to the festival from debuting feature director Juho Kuosmanen – who won ‘Un certain regard’ at Cannes for this one. (3)

Guest: Juho Kuosmanen (post-film Q&A)



Film 2: Christine (Antonio Campos, 2016) at Vue West End
– A stunning character study of a woman whose name is notorious if indeed it’s known at all: Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), a news reporter in early ‘70s Florida who’s indelibly associated with her final act: shooting herself on live TV.

This richly empathetic film goes beyond the sensationalist headlines to explore her psyche, her environment and her motivations (if something as irrational as suicide can have motivations at all), and though the script’s shorthand and inventions can seem too pat and glib, Hall is just staggeringly good, and the film feels just right.

First, though the script: its mixture of the tough and the tender is right, but at times it’s simply crude and rudimentary: allusions to Chubbuck’s breakdown in Boston are sledgehammer-subtle, the invention of a crush on network anchor Michael C. Hall is simply misleading, and the way the film sometimes presents depression as a series of bad responses to triggers seems simplistic. That kind of paraphrasing or superficiality feels OK in a movie like, for example, Dmytryk’s The Sniper, which also strips away its character’s safety net by episodes, but a real story deserves better than that.

The story does, however, get the performance it deserves: in actuality, one of the best performances in years. As Christine, Rebecca Hall is simply astonishing. Tightly-wound, highly-strung and unable to connect, she has moments of eye-popping neurosis, but there’s nothing here that’s false or overdone. She lashes out in moments of black comedy, embraces the awkward by overstepping the mark quite egregiously with her boss, and then acquires a fittingly unearthly calm once her mind is made: I’ve been with someone about to kill themselves, and I didn’t see it coming either.

The film’s artistry and humanity grows organically from her performance, which places its roots far below the script and nourishes everything else. Michael C. Hall is fine and Tracy Letts is good as her boss, but it’s Rebecca Hall who makes everything work: in moments of disintegration that risk seeming synthetic and smack of screenwriting-by-numbers, her conviction is complete and utterly overpowering.

She’s by no means the only thing about the film I admired. When I say that it ‘feels right’, I don’t just mean that its portrayal of mental illness is extremely realistic and nuanced (sadly I have more experience in this area than I would wish on anyone) in a way that no movie aside from von Trier’s Melancholia has approached, but also that the film replicates the textures of ‘70s Florida in both its look and its sound: its succession of apposite West Coast soft rock classics is some of the best use of music I can remember. And nor is the script a write-off: the final scene seems tacked-on and false, but its opening gambit is amusing, its ability to sometimes give us a good time while putting us through the wringer isn’t to be underestimated, and the shards of black comedy embedded in the tragedy twinkle darkly amidst the heartbreak.

She is, though, the thing about the film that lifts it way out of the ordinary, turning it into an experience to be cherished, as it turns a headline into a portrait that acts too as a plea for empathy. A lot of people are hurting. Try to connect. (3.5)

Guest: Michael C. Hall (post-film Q&A)

Film 3: Tower (Keith Maitland, 2016) at Vue West End A moving, utterly gripping documentary about the University of Texas shooting in 1966, which doesn’t – as the festival literature suggests – use the tragedy to understand subsequent massacres, but instead tells the stories of the victims in mesmerising fashion.

It’s a film about the ways we react in extreme circumstances, and afterwards: the way that life-defining events have an aftermath and, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Deadeye Dick (another work that’s superficially about a shooting), the way the story may be over, but the life has to continue.

Director Keith Maitland took five years to make the film: conducting dozens of hours of interviews, then interspersing the footage of talking heads with archive film and new sequences of rotoscopic animation, which enabled him to restage much of that fateful, fatal day at the real locations, without having to get permission to film there.

It’s a striking approach that lends the film an artistic distinctiveness without undercutting its realism, and imbues it with a nauseating tension while keeping its real human stories centre-stage. And the stories are incredible, the characters unforgettable: the reflective, forgiving Claire, the tower itself – since the shooter is unseen, it seems to be picking off innocents at random, like the truck in Duel – and resourceful off-duty cop Martinez.

Best of all is Rita, whose selflessness dominates this story and makes it a portrait of humanity at its best, rather than at its worst. (3.5)

Guest: Keith Maitland (post-film Q&A)



Film 4: La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) at Odeon Leicester Square
– I’ll be astonished if I see a better film than this at the London Film Festival: Whiplash director Damien Chazelle’s homage to MGM musicals is like Blue Valentine starring Fred and Ginger, with a first half of unparalleled joy and a second that’s almost unbearably poignant.

It’s a movie about people out of time: actress Emma Stone should be in the ‘40s, jazz musician Ryan Gosling should be in the ‘30s and they shouldn’t both be on the cusp of realising their dreams if this relationship is going to work.

Timing is central to people getting together (a fact rarely acknowledged in movies) and La La Land acknowledges the fact that these characters may want to have their time over again (or have it in an idealised realm) in the most spectacular way imaginable: a climax that’s both exhilarating and replaces your entire throat with a lump.

The exuberant opening sequence sets the tone (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it) and from there on it’s great music, irresistible chemistry and a descent into heartbreaking Technicolor melodrama of which Jacques Demy would be proud.

From Stone’s hair lit like a neon sign (echoes of One From the Heart), to a Band Wagon-ish jaunt in a park, via nods to Gold Diggers (stylised montages! Chorus gals living together!), Broadway Melody of 1940 (challenge dancing!) and the climactic dream ballets of the ‘50s, it fits into the grand tradition without ever feeling like a novelty or a rip-off. And if I say that Mandy Moore’s choreography more than makes for A Walk to Remember, that is no small concession.

The problem with contemporary musicals is the undercurrent that says: “Isn’t this wacky, we’re doing a musical!” It was musicals’ everyday nature, their centrality to the national psyche that made them so magical. Somehow Chazelle has made that live again, and if his leads can’t dance quite like Fred and Ginger, they can sing comparably and act better. Gosling's comic timing is a thing of eternal beauty.

I expected to be charmed by this film, but I didn’t expect to be blown away like I was, or completely broken by the end. This is a wonderful, wonderful movie, and so far the undisputed highlight of a dizzyingly good festival. (4)

Guests: Pre-show Q&A with Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and two producers.


Thanks for reading. Part 2 includes Bing Crosby, Casey Affleck and a bizarre Isle of Man-set comedy from Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby of The Mighty Boosh.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Joseph H. Lewis, Margaret, and what to watch when you have a cold − Reviews #245


Margaret: extended version (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) − One of the best films of the decade so far: a breathtaking, one-of-a-kind character study about a high-school student (Anna Paquin) wrestling harrowingly with life's vicissitudes after causing a fatal accident.

Kenneth Lonergan's belated follow-up to You Can Count on Me, eventually released after a six-year legal battle, is novelistic in its elliptical, conversational, almost aggressively uncommercial approach, with long takes, chapters and characters whose relevance isn't always immediately obvious, and stately, slo-mo interludes of pedestrian traffic soundtracked only by orchestral music, which not only place the narrative vividly in New York, and hint at the frailty of all human lives, but also seem to underline that this is just one story among millions.

It's profound, rounded, literate, poetic and intimate, full of completely surprising and real characters and developments, and climaxing with a scene of remarkable catharsis in lieu of any easy answers.

It's difficult to pick out favourite characters or incidents, given that Lonergan's own cut of the film runs more than three hours and forms such a compelling whole, from high school debates about American imperialism to J. Smith-Cameron and Jean Reno discussing adult relationships, a sex scene featuring Kieran Culkin as an effortlessly ironic slacker, unrequited love, Matthew Broderick teaching poetry, the vagaries of road safety laws, Matt Damon exuding decency, the idea that (to quote Joseph Conrad) we live as we dream − alone − and two of the best rows on film: Paquin's raw encounter with unrepentant-as-fuck bus driver Mark Ruffalo at his apartment, and a discussion in which she ill-advisedly calls older confidant Jeannie Berlin "strident". Every line, every beat is there for a purpose, and the overall effect is overwhelming: I can't recall many films that possess such an abundance of wisdom or confusion or rage.

Paquin has long been one of the most interesting actors around, notably acting Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel off the screen at nine years old, but nothing prepared me for how good she is here: how committed and nuanced and lacking in vanity, carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders and never needing to be liked. It's an extraordinary performance at the centre of an extraordinary picture.

I'm seeing Lonergan's third film, Manchester by the Sea, at the London Film Festival next Sunday. (4)


My Name Is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis, 1945) − A sensational low-budget shocker from B-movie maestro Joseph H. Lewis, who regarded this as the beginning of his career, 10 years in. Nina Foch is the title character, who applies for a job as a secretary and gets rather more than she bargained for, but I'll say nothing else of the plot − it's best to go in blind. Lewis serves up 64 minutes of mystery, mayhem and nerve-shredding tension, circumventing the shortcomings of his script and cast through restless invention, and elevating a cracking but trashy premise to high art. That climax has to be seen to be believed. (3.5)


CINEMA: Café Society (Woody Allen, 2016) − Woody's latest follows his familiar formula to a tee, as naïve nebbish Jesse Eisenberg moves to Hollywood in the 1930s to get a job with his uncle, super-agent Phil Stein (Steve Carell), and falls in love with secretary Kristen Stewart, who's already seeing someone else. From then on, it's affairs, one-liners and hyperbolic exasperation, as well as some excellent character development once the story moves to New York and skips forward some years at the halfway point. When Allen breaks midway to do something ambitious and different, it's usually a sign that he's motoring, as in his melancholy masterpiece, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Café Society has attracted some raves, a poster quote from my favourite current reviewer, Robbie Collin, declaring that it "fizzes like vintage Woody Allen". For me it doesn't: it starts poorly and wrings nothing of value from its '30s Hollywood setting, simply naming stars in lieu of satirising, paying homage, or trading on Golden Age gold dust. But then it does begin to cast a spell, helped by nice work from Eisenberg, Blake Lively and particularly Stewart − who's beguiling − saves most of its better jokes for the second half, and socks you in the solar plexus with an extremely beautiful ending that's as powerful as any Allen dreamt up in his '80s heyday.

The part that most excited me − a guided tour of '30s Hollywood −fizzes merely like cava from Aldi, but as with his 2014 film, Magic in the Moonlight, it simply takes a while for the octogenarian Allen to warm up; once he does, he can still deliver, as his disastrous decade of chronic misfires recedes further into the past. (2.5)

See also: Allen's previous film, Irrational Man, pissed me off so much that I wrote a small book about it. I'd kind of forgotten it existed, and am now cross again that it does.


Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996) − A shlocky, overlong courtroom thriller with a decidedly outdated understanding of mental illness, which gets an almighty shot in the arm from Edward Norton, who's absolutely dynamic in his debut (and breakthrough) role as a damaged, apparently ineffectual kid who might have just hacked a priest to death. His scenes with Richard Gere may be the most one-sided acting tussle since Bette Davis was paired with George Brent. (2)


Basic Instinct 2 (Michael Caton-Jones, 2006) − This antiseptic sequel to one of the '90s most notorious (and enjoyable) movies is silly, inappropriately British and about as sexy as buying Anusol at Boots, with a melty-looking Sharon Stone spouting risible innuendo as she ties increasingly brutish psychoanalyst David Morrissey around her melty finger. The did-she-or-didn't-she intrigue is gone, the one-liners are as sharp as a spoon and her first victim is Stan Collymore (yes really), but damn it if this isn't actually rather good fun. Morrissey and an inexplicably Welsh David Thewlis, looking like Mr Weasley, take it far more seriously than it deserves, the plot is half-decent, ending up just where you want it to, and watching Stone is bizarrely fascinating, if not always rewarding. Exactly what I was in the mood for as a heavy cold reached its zenith. (2)


Miss Congeniality (Donald Petrie, 2000) − A thin, laboured comedy that ticks every chick flick box but just about scrapes through on the strength of Bullock's likeability and talent. Caine does what he can with a poorly-written part as her perfectionist mentor. (2)


Thanks for reading.

Maggie Smith, A. I. and a trip to see David Niven's suit − Reviews #244

Please excuse the relative sparsity and brevity (and indeed one of my most obvious opinions, about A. I.), I've been moving flats. A second update is on the way after this one.


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969) − As an adaptation of a quite brilliant novel, this doesn't hack it, but as a film in its own right, it's rather wonderful, hammering a deliriously modern and subversive book into a work of eccentric nostalgia, culminating in a histrionic battle of wills.

Maggie Smith is Miss Jean Brodie, an idiosyncratic, unmarried teacher in '30s Edinburgh who adores her charges, idolises Mussolini and won't shut up about being in her prime. Caught between two men − upstanding music teacher Gordon Jackson and rakish arts master Robert Stephens − she incurs the wrath of prim, moralistic headteacher Celia Johnson, as her relationship with self-possessed student Sandy (Pamela Franklin) begins to sour.

I find the film's synthetic, pastel-ish appearance simply unattractive and the book's wry wit and deliriously inventive flashes forward are much missed, but the music is wonderful, Smith is sensational and the film gains in momentum as it progresses, leading to a devastating monologue about Dante (invented for the stage production that preceded the film) and a climactic confrontation of sheer quivering fury.

It's a much more conventional work than Muriel Spark's source novel, but perhaps I'd rather find a film that does something different rather than emerging as a pale shadow of a beloved book. (3)


A. I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
− Striking, heartwrenching sci-fi that for almost two hours hits the sweet spot between Kubrick's cold intellectualism and Spielberg's sodden soppiness, as robo-kid Haley Joel Osment is adopted, rejected and goes off in search of the 'Blue Fairy' who can turn him into a real boy. Dominated by Osment's wonderful performance and augmented by stunning visuals and John Williams' slowed-down-Raiders score, it's a film constantly in motion, never quite satisfying us until it reaches a point of poignant, terrifying clarity. Then Spielberg serves up the usual embarrassing half-hour coda saturated in treacle. (3)

See also: I decided to seek this one out after reading Mark Kermode's book, Hatchet Job, which discusses it at some length.


Love and Death (Woody Allen, 1975) − I'm a huge fan of Woody Allen movies, but his "early, funny films" − as he termed them in Stardust Memories − aren't really my thing. Pitching his familiar, bespectacled persona into some incongruous setting: the future (Sleeper), a South American revolution (Bananas) or Russian history (Love and Death) like an old Bob Hope or Marx Bros film, they're largely a barrage of gags, bereft of the warmth and deft introspection that typify that decade of classics he produced between Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanours.

Love and Death has its moments: a couple of inspired monologues to camera, some great one-liners ("Where did you go to finishing school, on a pirate ship?") and the inspired use of Prokofiev's music, but a lot of it consists of shameless mugging, self-satisfied nods to Russian novels and the kind of broad humour that veers awfully close to Mel Brooks territory − and I can't stand Mel Brooks. Even Diane Keaton can't make some of this work. (2)

See also: I'll be reviewing Woody's latest, Cafe Society, in the next reviews update. And here are 10 things I learned about him from an excellent 2012 documentary, as well as an address to the elephant in the room.



Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut (1982)
– Vonnegut's 1982 novel is superficially about gun control, but as usual goes much wider, weirder and deeper than that, as narrator Rudy "Deadeye Dick" Waltz recalls his double-murder, his visit to Broadway and the neutron bomb that wiped out all life as we know it in Midland City, Ohio. It's partly about the death of innocence, partly about the sins of the father (in this case a former mate of Hitler's whose whole life, like his house, is a meaningless construct) and partly Vonnegut taking aim at the hypocrisy and muddled priorities of 20th century America, though it's about much else besides. And its narrator, meanwhile, is almost entirely dispassionate, lending the book a disorientating, otherworldly feel, strengthened by the flights of forced removal whereby he begins to write about stressful events in his life as if they were in a play.

Everything you would want from Vonnegut is ultimately here, from the stylistically childlike language (death is described as someone's "peephole closing") to the mischievous form (relevant recipes are sprinkled throughout) to the championing of art and community, even if it it's rather harder to get a handle on than most of his works. The passage about the way lives translate to stories ("If a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is") typifies what I love about him as a writer: profundity distilled through a knowingly simplistic folksiness. Deadeye Dick is wry, dark, humane and wise, and it couldn't be mistaken for a book by anyone else. (3.5)



Spiral (Season 3, 2010)
– A far-fetched but very entertaining third series of my new favourite programme, with Laure (Caroline Proust) and co hunting a serial killer, and Judge Roban (Philip Duclos) turning his steely blue eyes on political corruption. The grubby realism of Season 2 is exchanged for some improbable melodrama – would all of these things really happen to these people in just a few months?! – but the acting is excellent, stocky, taciturn cop Gilou (Thierry Godard) really comes into his own, and the final episode is a knockout, with a phenomenal conclusion that sheds new light on both Laure and ruthless lawyer Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot). (3.5)



Real to Reel (Imperial War Museum)
− This handsome exhibition looking at war movies and the real stories behind them is rather stronger on movie artefacts than those from genuine battles, but if that's what you're after, then the IWM's scholarly but accessible exhibition is essential viewing. As a proper film nerd, I was delighted and surprised by the scope and depth of the cinematic knowledge underpinning it, and by the chance to see David Niven's costume from A Matter of Life and Death, Dietrich's USO dress and the coat that Gable wore during WWII. More eerie, and yet arguably even more fascinating, is a rare opportunity to view a clip from a piece of shimmering Nazi escapism (a rare instance of interactivity), since almost every film made under the Third Reich is banned from distribution. My favourite of all the exhibits was in the final room, but I won't spoil the surprise (perhaps I'll publish a picture once the exhibition has closed): think '40s Warner Bros movies and prepare to get very excited. Incidentally, Real to Reel uses the 100 years since the drama-doc The Battle of the Somme as its hook, so there's no nod to the first, most influential and perhaps most troubling war movie of them all, Griffith's notorious Birth of a Nation. (3.5)


Thanks for reading.

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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvgVsxaqYgA), 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)


Thanks for reading.