Thursday, 1 December 2016

Amy Adams, The Big Short and a biography of rare brilliance – Reviews #249

Here's what I've been consuming of late:


Huey Long by T. Harry Williams (1969)
– This is a political biography of rare brilliance: a heavyweight chronicle of the life of Huey P. Long, one of the most extraordinary figures of the American century. A humble-born native of Louisiana, Long found work as a travelling salesman and a lawyer before entering politics and proceeding to dominate the state like no-one has ever dominated a state. By the time of his assassination in 1935, the senator for Louisiana was one of the most popular – and reviled – figures in America, and preparing to run for president on a radical platform of wealth redistribution.

Williams’ epic, Pulitzer-winning biography, two decades in the writing and clocking in at 900 pages, is a work of uncommon clarity, insight and poetry, drawing on 275 interviews, archive memos, newspapers and private letters, and painting a rich, vivid portrait of the man. Williams dismantles claims of fascism, despotism and racketeering, but his clear-sighted analysis does acknowledge Long’s egomania, vindictiveness and increasingly erratic decision-making, while illustrating at length the brilliance of his subject’s mind, the quality of his oratory and the sincerity with which he went about changing the lives of the state's – and the country’s – poorest and most vulnerable people. It’s also a work of stunning breadth, detailing the unique character of Louisiana, establishing its political scene and examining the context that made Long’s rise to prominence possible, while leaning on the ‘great man’ theory and maintaining that while someone would have come along to grasp this mantle, it did not have to be a Huey P. Long.

Beyond that, it’s also an extremely funny and entertaining work, not only in its recounting of the innumerable colourful stories involving Long – from greeting foreign dignitaries in his pyjamas to threatening a rail company with exorbitant taxes unless it gave all LSU students cheap passage to a football game and his fabled stump speech about ‘High Popalorum and Low Popahirum’ – but also thanks to Williams’ wonderfully dry sense of humour, his prose peppered with ironic commentary on the hypocrisy of both Long’s supporters and his nemeses. The overall effect is astonishing and enveloping, placing you at the scene of some of the most remarkable political happenings of the 20th century, from filibusters on the floor of the Senate to deals in smoke-filled rooms and the devastating assassination that naturally closes the book. By the time it comes, you’re so invested in Long, and in his programme for change, that you can barely turn the pages.

There’s no question that Long was a great man, but what surprised me is that he also comes across as a good man. There are times when he oversteps the mark – threatening a newspaper editor with blackmail, trying to utterly destroy (rather than just beat) his rivals and leaning occasionally on race prejudice (though Williams makes it clear that he did less of this than any of his Southern contemporaries) – but it’s also true that he’s one of the few left-wing leaders in the Western world who, when faced with the pitiless onslaught that faces anyone trying to change things for the better, fought his foes with everything at his disposal, until they were nothing but dust. There are times in 1934-5 when his local power-grabs and recourses to martial law are utterly contrary to democracy, and I found that disillusioning and difficult to swallow, but Long really was trying to change the lives of poor people for the better, he was just greedy for every bit of credit that went with it. His story is astonishing, inspiring and also critical to understanding the Roosevelt years, for without him, FDR would never have been dragged so far to the left, and become – for many, myself included – America's greatest president. (4)

Expect that to figure prominently in my books of the year round-up, one of three review collections coming up, as ever, at the end of December (the other focus on films and live events).



CINEMA: Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)
– A film about emotional violence, cruelty and revenge, as disquieting and unpleasant as any mainstream Hollywood movie I can remember, and for that reason both an experience that I can’t recommend and that I must. It’s a collision of three stories, three universes: an antiseptic art world, where curator Amy Adams and her Tom Ford glasses live a cool, detached life contorted by compromise; a headily romantic Hollywood film in which her younger self flirts with old acquaintance Jake Gyllenhaal and then flirts with giving him up; and a horrifying slab of Southern gothic – rendered by the current day Gyllenhaal, in which his ‘weak’ husband is run off a Texas road by mutton-chopped psychopath writ large, Aaron Taylor Johnson.

The start of its horror thread – long, unflinching and uninterrupted – is particularly arresting: hypnotically, seductively awful; a harrowing, caricatured journey into man’s dark heart, a panic attack in film form. But this strand isn’t new. None of them are. Where this dazzling, dizzyingly surefooted movie astounds is in its outlandish, hugely ambitious juxtapositions: an ingenious, incisive structure; a combination of the cerebral, sentimental and utterly visceral that tosses you about the theatre like a ragdoll. At first you wonder if Ford can tie these threads together properly, if the knot will be tight enough without pulling the individual stories out of shape. He can: the cumulative effect is far greater than the parts, three stories of one dimension adding up to a whole that’s in three.

Where the film does fall down is in hitting its emotional and dramatic zenith a half-hour from the end – while its final five minutes are haunting, certainly the gothic part plods onwards for some time after it’s become submerged in lacklustre familiarity – but it’s an extremely unusual and refreshing reworking of genre clichés, novelistic but also invigoratingly cinematic. It’s a model of how to utilise cinematic grammar (particularly abrupt, busy but restrained editing) to tell a story, and to layer that story so densely and virtuosically that it embeds itself in you. The performances are great too, with Johnson fine in a big performance that doesn’t slip from showy dynamism into hamminess, and Shannon absolutely superb as the intense, taciturn and unsmiling sheriff called into action by Gylenhaal’s tale of terror.

Don’t miss it, and don’t come crying to me after you've been. (3.5)


The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015) – An audacious, counter-intuitive and richly entertaining polemic about the financial crisis, its raw anger cooked up into a fun old caper movie, studded with vividly sketched characters, sourly profane dialogue and a heap of meta gags: a few of them overdone, but most melting in the mouth before leaving an aftertaste akin to charred vomit. McKay knows what he’s doing, and even if he’s sometimes doing it too loudly or just with tits, it’s ultimately worth it.

It’s the story of a one-eyed maths whiz (Christian Bale, superb), a smarmy, roguish narrator (Ryan Gosling), a bereaved, self-loathing fund manager (Steve Carell, never better) and two naïve kids trying to get onto Wall Street with the help of a gloomy neighbour (Brad Pitt) – all of whom see the financial crash coming, and start betting against the market.

A few left-leaning critics have questioned its morality, but that’s such a blinkered, reductionist view. If you make a film about a poor guy losing his house or a morality play condemning bankers, you might win an award, but you won’t find a mass audience. The Big Short made over $133m (Inside Job, the brilliant, Oscar-winning documentary dealing with the same story grossed under $8m) – and in that context it’s pure dynamite. The punters may be so wowed by the shiny, Ryan Gosling-patterned paper they won’t realise they’re holding a textbook, but the film is nimble enough to make its viewpoint clear. It’s like The Wolf of Wall Street if it wasn’t a nasty, incoherent shambles.

More than that, though, it’s intellectually daring. Like Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, it trades not in heroes or spoonfeeding, but in ideas and shades of grey. Oddly, this is actually McKay’s second stab at a financial crisis comedy. While The Other Guys is my favourite Ferrell film and probably the funniest mainstream comedy since Team America, its attempts at social comment were hapless, with only the end credits PowerPoint landing any blows at all.

The Big Short may be playful but it’s pointed enough to draw real blood, asking you to question your preconceptions and priorities – while being ferociously funny and quite ludicrously fun. (3.5)


West of Memphis (Amy Berg, 2012)
– A powerful, polemical documentary about a notorious miscarriage of justice, in which three eight-year-olds were murdered, turtles nipped at the bodies, and ambitious, blinkered public officials ill-equipped to deal with the case decided that these injuries could only have been caused by satanists, robbing 14 years from the lives of three teenage outsiders: damaged Damien Echols, softly-spoken Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, a mentally handicapped young man whose ‘confession’ formed a key part of the case.

For anyone gripped by Making a Murderer, this is more of the same, but ahead of the fact and without the same doubt in your mind: these three were knowingly fitted up by the state, and that should chill your blood. Unlike Making a Murderer – and indeed the first two Paradise Lost documentaries previously dealing with this case – it’s all told in retrospect, so it becomes a clear-sighted indictment of the American legal system, rather than the campaigning piece needed so desperately in previous years.

As a film, Amy Berg’s condensed account is fast-moving and often forensic, though with an eye for an entertaining aside or celebrity angle – among the campaigners interviewed are Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins – as it paints a complete picture of the case, and posits a highly credible theory of its own (though if you think about it, that's pretty hypocritical!). It’s also, ultimately, an oddly uplifting film, as well as a gruelling and horrific one, as it depicts the selflessness of the West Memphis Three’s champions: including the girlfriend of Damien Echols, Lorri Davis, who took up his case after watching Paradise Lost.

Some people still think these three dunit, but when their evidence is things like “known history of mental illness”, it makes you wonder what the fuck. I have a known history of mental illness and have never murdered any children.

A chilling postscript is that Echols later had to meet Piers Morgan, surely more awful than any experience he endured in prison. (3)


My Scientology Movie (John Dower, 2015) – This is an amusing but infuriating documentary, in which Louis Theroux fails to speak to any Scientologists, except to explain that he has a filming permit and doesn’t see why he should leave. That’s the problem with making a film about an incredibly powerful, secretive cult. Sorry, religion. Sorry, obviously cult. If you don’t know anything about the subject, I suppose it’s mildly insightful – with various reenactions, interviews with ex-Scientologists and archive clips of Tom Cruise being weird and frightening – while Theroux’s façade of amiable bumbling makes for some funny encounters, but like his fellow posh, shambling English documentary-maker, Nick Broomfield, he thinks that being asked to leave somewhere is investigative journalism in itself. (2)


Brothers in Law (Roy Boulting, 1957) – A below-par legal satire from the Boulting Brothers that starts promisingly but gets sidetracked by broad, lazy set-pieces and bits of ‘business’ that surely someone must find hysterical, though I’ve no idea who. If you’re the kind of person who finds a nervous Ian Carmichael bumping into people funny, then get ready for the greatest night of your life. He’s a recent graduate of the bar trying to find his feet in the legal world of London, who finds an unlikely ally in selfish Dickie Attenborough, a powerful sponsor in Miles Malleson and a girlfriend in the charming Jill Adams, but bumbles haplessly through his first few cases and – in one interminable, laughless sequence – incurs the wrath of judge John Le Mesurier while playing golf.

Carmichael’s relationship with his parents, particularly his warm, proud father (Henry B. Longhurst) is delightful and touching, Malleson is quite amusing, and now and then there are some intelligent sideswipes at the law – particularly when Attenborough tries to avoid leading questions and cocky criminal Terry-Thomas enlists Carmichael’s assistance – but it’s too often unfocused and unfunny, without the teeth of the Boultings’ best comedies (the more I see of their later work, the more I wish it was all like Heavens Above!), and replete with irrelevant story threads that exist only for their unsatisfying and obvious pay-offs. (2)


SHORT: Come Together (Wes Anderson, 2016) – Anderson’s H&M advert (sorry, ‘new short film’) is droll, tender and really rather magical, with that undertug of disconnected, Keatonesque melancholia blossoming into selfless humanity that makes his films so deceptively substantial. It’s otherwise extremely straightforward and almost self-parodically designed, harking back to The Darjeeling Limited in its setting – a stylised, late-running train dominated by sad-eyed conductor Adrien Brody – and telling a Christmas story of impeccable (and arguably insulting) simplicity. One complaint, though – and I know my class warfare may be showing – must the kids in his films always look so preppy and spoilt? I appreciate that all children deserve a nice Christmas, and money isn’t necessarily a signifier of a life easily lived, but on the whole I can think of worthier subjects than some prep school Tarquin in his designer blazer. It’s still affecting, though, and one to pop on the list of brief festive films worth visiting and then revisiting: not a patch on The Snowman, Jolly Snow or Star in the Nightthat miraculous Tex-Mex Nativity story directed by a young Don Siegel! – but blessed with a certain seasonal something. (3)



King Lear (The Old Vic, 19/11/16)
– Glenda Jackson makes a triumphant return to the stage in this sparsely-staged version of one of Shakespeare’s most long-winded and inaccessible plays. The set is all white screens and functional tables, the effects done with lighting and a proliferation of bin bags, and across it Jackson rampages or creeps, dynamic and desperate as the king “more sinned against than sinning” as he loses his authority and his mind. There are great moments, and the acting is a treat – with a surprisingly effective Rhys Ifans as the Fool, and Sargon Yelda, Simon Manyonda and Karl Johnson putting bigger names Jane Horrocks and Celia Imrie to shame with nuanced, sometimes hilarious performances – allied to an energetic and bawdy reading of the text, but so much of it is just mad people shouting nonsense: if I wanted that, I’d just open my Twitter notifications. (3)


Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Nicholas Brothers, Arrival and the sound of silence – Reviews #248

Plus: Jimmy Joyce's laugh riot and a load of rubbish starring Ryan Gosling.

CINEMA: Arrival (Denis Villeneve, 2016) – This cerebral, mind-bending and emotionally devastating sci-fi film takes a while to reveal itself, but absolutely floors you when it does.

After vast, charcoal-coloured alien pods appear at 12 spots worldwide, the US army sends linguistics professor Amy Adams − still reeling from the death of her daughter − to the one hovering in Montana, tasked with finding out what the visitors want. With the help of good-natured physicist Jeremy Renner, she makes contact and begins to decipher the inky circles of text being cast into the air, as the world loots and panics.

It opens like Up (see #26 in my all-time Top 100), with a breathtakingly beautiful, vividly universal montage of Adams' life with her daughter, then threatens to fall away, as you wonder if it will have anything to it at all. That's a false impression: Villeneuve is zoning in slowly but unerringly on the film's emotional centre, and when that grabs you, you can't get loose.

His movie blends the literate, sun-dappled nostalgia of The Tree of Life, with Gravity's sense of nervous wonder and Moon's freaky but human edge, but it meant a lot more to me than any of those films, and it's still commandeering my brain now, almost a day later, with its rich tapestry of emotions, Adams' characteristically immersive performance and a reveal that you won't forget in a hurry. Without giving anything away, you realise that the ordeal awaiting her is really what life is.

As La La Land and Certain Women aren't on general release here until 2017, I think we can comfortably call it the movie of the year. We never did learn why Portuguese is different to the other romance languages, though. (4)


The Nicholas Brothers managing to steal the limelight from Cab Calloway's trousers.

CINEMA: Stormy Weather (Andrew L. Stone, 1943) – The last five minutes of this film briefly made me forget President Trump. They are that bloody good.

I've lost count of how many times I've watched this film over the years, though this was the first time on the big screen, with soul singer and Wire actor Clarke Peters choosing it (via a fascinating if confusing intro) for his 'screen epiphany', as part of the BFI's Black Star strand.

For all its flaws, it's unmissable entertainment: standard studio escapism but with an all-African American cast, including many of the leading jazz, blues and dance stars of the era. The comedy is dated, some of the racial elements are wince-inducingly offensive (black female dancers with golliwog caricatures on the backs of their heads, anyone?) and the plot is just a frail thing to hang the numbers on – as 65-year-old Bill "Bojangles" Robinson vaguely romances smoking hot Lena Horne, 26 – but this was a relatively positive, modern and aspirational film for black audiences (previous attempts, Hallelujah! and Cabin in the Sky, were superbly done but dripping with patronising, cod-Biblical archetypes), and the music is simply sensational.

There's Fats Waller doing a playful Ain't Misbehavin', Horne performing a succession of standards – including a breathtaking version of the title track – Bojangles belying his age with some fine hoofing, and the pièce de fucking resistance: Cab Calloway's exuberant Jumpin' Jive, which segues into a Nicholas Brothers routine that's nothing short of the greatest dance number of all time, according to me and – more significantly – Fred Astaire.

It's almost like minority communities contribute a huge amount to society, and to the arts which make living worthwhile, even when they're being treated like shit. (3.5)


CINEMA: No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) – What a film to see today*: an uncompromising, perceptive and prescient film about a blonde, furious, self-pitying white supremacist (Richard Widmark) railing against elites and PC language as he turns the life of a black doctor (Sidney Poitier) into a living hell.

Mankiewicz's film – released just three months before his All About Eve! – is of its time in terms of the terminology and studio trappings, but remarkably relevant and resonant in its presentation of racism as a social disease afflicting the disenfranchised, with some typically fine dialogue, and standout performances from a credible Poitier (in his screen debut) and a silkily charismatic Widmark, whose ability to turn resentment into race hate chillingly foreshadows this fucking binfire of a year. (3.5)

*it was the day of Trump's victory


Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013) – Appallingly pretentious, plot-free wank. Like Wong Kar-Wai directing a story by a drunk guy at a party who won't leave you alone. The music's gorgeous, though. (1)


And here's a review of Ghostbusters from 7 August, as apparently I never put it up on the blog:

Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016) – I'm so glad this film exists. The decade has seen a rebirth of mainstream films dominated by strong female characters – from Gravity to the magnificent Mad Max and Star Wars – and rebooting a boys' toys concern as a feminist buddy movie was about the only thing that could have dragged me into the cinema to watch a Ghostbusters remake.

The direction of cinema shouldn't be determined, though, by one film. If, as an action comedy fronted by women, this one had turned out badly, that doesn't mean the whining, furiously wanking teenage sexists were right, it just means that lots of movies aren't very good and this would have been another one.

It's actually pretty good, though. The central dynamic is refreshing, its adapted iconography can be spectacular when not tying itself up in smug, post-modern knots, and there's a fantastic character in Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a scientist, weapons manufacturer and all-round badass, with an unstudied cool, an infectious sense of silliness and at least one superb action sequence. Most importantly - and enjoyably - she isn't a pubescent masturbation fantasy or a manic pixie coming to save the main character, she's a proper woman, a self-sufficient person defined by herself and her job, who spends her time inventing, hanging with her friends and shooting ghosts.

My issue with the film is that it doesn't feel finished – the last movie I saw that came off as this slapdash was The Green Hornet – with a dull, hackneyed plot, a dire villain and a script that gives Kristen Wiig almost nothing good to do, while forcing the 'the busters to regurgitate reams of dialogue consisting only of scientific and supernatural jargon. What's the point of that? As vengeful janitor Rowan, Neil Casey is a desperately uninteresting foil, and Chris Hemsworth's idiotic secretary - while sometimes quite funny in himself - overbalances the movie. The worst performance is probably by Dan Aykroyd, who does an incredibly dated, unfunny bit about New York taxi drivers who won't take you where you want to go (diddums, did the millionaire not get to his next engagement quickly enough?), but at least it's only a cameo.

I'd also quibble with Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold's decision to hold a pivotal action sequence at a rock show: I'm not very easily offended, but I presume everyone else was also just thinking: "I really hope there isn't lots of carnage, as lots of people were murdered at the Bataclan less than a year ago." There isn't much. Just the CGI gubbins that fits this film to bursting.

An almost incomprehensible post-credits sting sets up the possibility of a sequel. I hope both that it happens and that they iron out all the wrinkles in the script before they make it, because there's real potential here: not just to stick it to the fucking twats on the internet, but to do something pretty special. (2.5)



Pic from Slate.

Dubliners by James Joyce (1914) – Have your heart broken every eight pages by James Joyce's most accessible work, which was two years in the writing and took a further seven to navigate its way past nervous editors who balked at its sexual frankness. Rooted in a repressed city that finds escape only in booze and self-destruction, it's a collection of 15 short stories: 14 ironic, distinct and yet stiflingly similar, and the final one, The Dead, perhaps my favourite piece of writing: a portrait of the artist as a young man effortlessly evoking nostalgia, pity, shame, sexual longing and the fragile impermanence of existence. Following mere fragments of prose that distill the perfect essence of a greater whole, the 50-page closer is a work of clarity, genius and extraordinary openness: haunting and heartbreaking. Dubliners is bleak and sometimes difficult, its vernacular specific and its frame of reference obscure (thank goodness for Penguin's lengthy notes section!), but its lack of linguistic deconstruction, its universality of themes, and Joyce's compassion and patience with the human condition make it easier to take to – and understand – than many of the books that followed. It took me a while to read it (and this was my second go round!), but it's both a remarkable snapshot of a time and place, and an unforgettable commentary on humanity's capacity for self-harm, with a final chapter that's gorgeously lyrical and chokingly sad. (4)

See also: John Huston's adaptation of The Dead is one of the great book-to-film translations, and was at #12 in my list of all-time favourite movies. I'll revisit it at greater length some time soon.



Paul Simon at the Royal Albert Hall (Tue 8 Oct 2016)
– One of the best 10 shows I've seen (and I've been going to gigs for 23 years now, and work at a music venue). Simon's voice has held up better than anyone else's of his generation − with the possible exception of James Taylor − and this show, which ran to over two-and-a-half hours without an interval, was a stunning, moving, exultant tour of one of the finest back catalogues in popular music.

He gave us much of Graceland, that seminal 1982 record infused with African rhythms, spotlighted greatest hits from 'Still Crazy After These Years' to 'Me and Julio...', their melodies tweaked and modernised yet still timeless, and drew on the Simon and Garfunkel years a full seven times, with highlights that included a poignant 'America' (I woke up the next morning and realised we've never needed it more), a sing-along take on 'The Boxer', and a delicate, heart-stopping, acoustic 'Sound of Silence' which rendered that unique and magnificent song utterly fresh.

Dylan is a contrarian and McCartney a crowdpleaser, but Simon's something else: a man at peace with his legacy who'll give you the hits in a new way, and knows you'll love it. The show brought us to our feet and dancing countless times, prompted four standing ovations and included both the best ('Stranger to Stranger') and worst ('Wristband') of his current record, but it was his haunting hymn to serenity and sorrow that really took my breath away. (4)


Thanks for reading.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Sigourney Weaver, Creed and the strange story of Silibil N' Brains − Reviews #248

I have broadband in my flat for the first time ever, so I streamed some recent movies. Then I went to meet Sigourney Weaver.

A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor, 2014) − A superb, low-key crime film set in New York during its most violent year, 1981, as immigrant oil boss Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) tries to protect his truck drivers, his family and his fortune, against attacks, bailing banks and a crusading D. A. (David Oyelowo).

The movie's unpredictability, grubby realism and tersely credible dialogue reminded me of two of my favourite movies, Cry Danger and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and its moments of tension, violence and revelation are all gloriously understated and offbeat.

It's the polar opposite of something like De Palma's Scarface, made in the meticulous, slow-burn style of Sidney Lumet, and more interested in the minutiae of human relationships than in excess of any kind. Most impressive and rewarding is the way it presents the marriage between the pragmatic, persuasive, Pacino-esque Isaac, in his mustard coat, and his wily, wary wife (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a Brooklyn gangster and usually two steps ahead of everyone else.

It's a movie about moral relativity, decisions made in a moment − and their arbitrary impact − and the American Dream, and probably more literate, mature and interesting than any crime film released in the past five years. (3.5)

See also: I have so much time for Isaac and his chameleonic stylings. I've reviewed quite a few of his others, including Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the borderline-miraculous Inside Llewyn Davis.


The Great Hip Hop Hoax (Jeanie Finlay, 2013) − In 2004, Californian rap duo Silibil N' Brains looked set to be the next big thing. Signed to Sony and managed by industry heavyweight Jonathan Shalit, they opened for D12 at Brixton Academy and recorded a session for MTV, where they were interviewed by Dave Berry. There was just one problem: they were really Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd from Dundee.

It's a fantastic story, but Jeanie Finlay's documentary, which gets to the root of the matter, isn't the knockabout, throwaway fun you might expect. Gavin and Billy weren’t pranking the music business: after being dismissed by execs looking for the next Eminem as "the rapping Proclaimers", this ruse was the only way they could see of cracking the industry, and as they threw themselves wholeheartedly into the scheme, their immersion into their personas and their fear of getting found out began to drive a wedge between these best friends, and to drive them steadily insane.

This 2013 documentary, made for Storyville and inspired by Bain's memoir (released first as California Schemin', and then Straight Outta Scotland) is a film about the cruel collision between dreams and reality, an indictment of the music industy's obsession with image, and an exploration of two fascinating characters: Gavin, a shy, obsessively driven creative force whose perfectionism ultimately lays them low; and Billy: charismatic, fun-loving and yet ultimately devoted to his wife and children.

Those personas were blown up into Silibil N' Brains (Silly Bill and Brainy Bains, if we deconstruct them slightly), but it's the way these characters stagnate, intensify or transform over time that's most fascinating, reminding me a little of the protagonists of my all-time favourite documentary, Hoop Dreams.

At times the relentless, sub-Busted goofing of the American alter-egos, documented in innumerable proto-YouTube skits, becomes a little wearing, but that's kind of the point. When you see just how passionate, how lyrically inventive and how well-versed in their art these two performers were, it's depressingly illuminating to see the only way that the music industry would accept them was as baseball-cap wearing, crotch-grabbing pretend Americans, washing their faces with Bill's piss. I'm less certain about the animations, which seem at times to simply be filling in those sequences for which no other materials exist: I had a similar relationship with the stylised cartoon inserts in The Filth and the Fury and the recent Tickling Giants. But, taken as a whole, it's an exceptional film.

I was expecting something disposable and fun, but given the director (who also made last year's excellent documentary about another musical imposter, Orion) I should have known better: The Great Hip Hop Hoax is an immensely moving film, and its ruminations on fantasy, compromise, creativity and chance are universal. I also have quite a crush on Gavin, the broken-nosed raconteur whose mixture of talent, apparent sweetness and unreliable narration melds effectively with Billy's chubby ruddiness and down-to-earth honesty, recalling the ferocious chemistry that almost catapulted them to super-stardom, when they were pretending to be American. (3.5)


Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015) − I was expecting a bruising, stylised, self-consciously credible African-American update of Rocky. Instead I got Rocky VII. But that's fine. Kind of nearer my comfort zone.

Michael B. Jordan is Adonis "Donnie" Creed, the illegitimate son of former heavyweight champ Apollo, who moves from L. A. to Philly (a 'reverse Fresh Prince') to train with restaurant owner Rocky Balboa, and − would you believe it − gets a shot at the world title.

Considering that I don't think the original Rocky movies are very good (my favourite is Rocky III, because at least it has few pretensions), I found both this movie and Rocky Balboa to be very affecting in their utilisation of the series' very definite mythos. And, by adding a further undercurrent of wistfulness and melancholia caused by Donnie's emotional displacement and need to connect with the father who died before he was born, Creed does make you care about its characters.

Without giving too much away, it also provides Rocky with a powerful, very well-imagined storyline, trades amiably enough on the fact he's entering his dotage, and fashions an agreeable romance between Creed and a musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who as this is a Rocky film, is obviously going deaf. Add to that the series' usual mix of fight-night clichés, rousing training montages and persuasive villainy − in the shape of a Scouse boxer whose dialogue is well-researched enough not to make British people howl with incredulous laughter − and it's got everything you need for an entertaining but also agreeably substantial two hours.

It's not in the same league as something like Body and Soul, Fat City or Raging Bull, but it's a different kind of film. It's also unusually well-acted, without the somewhat trivial paraphrasing that blights other Rocky films, and has several moments that lift it well above the other movies in the series, particularly a When We Were Kings style run-around − but with the kids on bikes! − and a flashback sequence on the canvas with a denouement as overpowering as a punch to the temple.

It isn't for the most part a daring or dynamic film, and I find the critical bouquets flung in its direction somewhat confusing, but it's actually better than the movies it homages, taking a tried-and-trusted formula, amplifying its more successful elements and creating a crowdpleaser with a bit of heft to it. (3)


Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014) − I presume whoever produced this owns shares in prosthetics, as Mark Ruffalo's false hairline, Channing Tatum's cauliflower ear and Steve Carell's Dick-Tracy-villain nose are the most distracting appendages since Nicola Kidman's false schnozzola won an Oscar in The Hours.

It's the true(ish) story of Team Foxcatcher: essentially Behind the Candelabra with Matt Damon replaced by a wrestler, as eccentric multi-millionaire John Du Pont (Carell) brings Olympic gold medallist Mark Schultz (Tatum) to his isolated ranch with promises of glory, and things promptly start to get a bit weird. Ruffalo is Mark's older brother, Dave, a beloved, bearded star athlete who's initially suspicious but eventually acquiesces and takes his place on the farm.

The performances are excellent, and the paring down of the story to these three characters, in this shortened time-frame, makes it a disorientating and creepy ride, with echoes of Faust and wider resonances about the nature of greatness and America. At the same time, though, the film doesn't get to the heart of Du Pont's neuroses and madness, lessening the story's natural intensity and reducing its ultimate emotional impact. We see the tragic ending coming simply because 'why would they have made a movie of this story otherwise?' and not because there's a thread of fatalism running through it.

As with director Miller's over-praised Capote, its methodical pace will turn some people off, and its deliberate re-imagining of reality for its own ends is questionable, but Foxcatcher does unsettle and intrigue, thanks to a good performance by Tatum, an award-hungry portrayal of creeping oddness from Carell, and Ruffalo's excellent turn as the much-loved, decent Dave. (3)

... and then I watched this:

Team Foxcatcher (Jon Greenhalgh, 2016) − Solid documentary about the true story behind Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, which distractingly omits Mark Schultz from the story, focusing instead on the relationship between increasingly eccentric multi-millionaire, John Du Pont, and a slew of other US wrestling stars, including their figurehead: Mark's brother, Dave.

This Netflix film, essentially presented through the eyes of Dave's wife, Nancy, does a good job of filling in all the context omitted from the movie, which is critical really to understanding what happened, as it charts Du Pont's mental breakdown, his increasing paranoia and his conspiracy theories about how Dave was living in his walls.

Much of the footage of the Foxcatcher Ranch used was shot on one day, eight years before the events it's often describing, which is somewhat disingenuous and distracting, but the usual mixture of archive clips and talking heads works fairly well, provided you can stomach the use of 911 calls from immediately after a murder.

I can't help but think that this film could have been a lot more arresting and memorable if it had started as a sports story and then changed tack, rather than foreshadowing its central tragedy, but it's convincing − fast-moving, yet sufficiently detailed − and its more creative moments, including a heartbreaking sequence in the ruins of Dave and his family's house, soundtracked by old video of their idyllic lives, are beautifully rendered.

Viewed here, the events of the film seem less abrupt and more inevitable, their obvious avoidability heightening the sense of tragedy and loss. The effect was to make Foxcatcher seem curiously false and unconvincing: more a Rothian meditation on the unknowability of man and the state of America than a chronicle of what actually happened on the ranch. (3)


Give me strength.

Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015) − The astonishing story of the Hollywood blacklist, which has fascinated me for decades, becomes an astonishingly bad film, telling its story through the life of Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and playing like a Walk Hard-style parody of itself, as every character introduces themselves by reciting their name and profession.

It's plodding, monotonous and moronically irresponsible: a cartoon in which – contrary to the findings of Victor S. Navasky's searing moral audit, Naming Names, which indicted almost all of Hollywood – the people to blame were just J. Parnell Thomas, Hedda Hopper and Edward G. Robinson.

If you want a totemic figure, why not Ronald Reagan (glimpsed briefly in archive footage), the president of the Screen Actors' Guild, who secretly betrayed his own members to further his career? Or indeed director Edward Dmytryk, the member of the Hollywood Ten who turned on his friends – including Trumbo.

It's that kind of incomprehensible decision-making that prevents us from getting close to either the issue or the central character. There's one scene where we see him laid bare by the dehumanisation of prison that's all in the acting, but otherwise both he and the film are tedious and aloof.

We should blacklist whoever wrote this. (1.5)


I literally took this picture.

Aliens Live at the Royal Albert Hall (James Cameron, 1986) − A trip back to LV-426 in the company of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, who brought James Horner’s ominous, throbbing, clanking, frenetic, discombobulating score to vivid, terrifying life at the Royal Albert Hall (disclaimer: that’s where I work).

It is, of course, a textbook action film, full of vivid archetypes, snappily quotable dialogue and pulsating, adrenalised suspense scenes, edited with jaw-dropping bravura. And in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, it has probably the greatest female action hero of all time, her DNA in everyone from Rey to Furiosa to Holtzmann.

The audience loved it, laughing at Hudson's doom-laden whining, whooping at the climax of those densely inventive action set-pieces and hollering at Weaver's insistence that the Alien Queen get away from little Newt, "you bitch".

Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd and the film’s star all came to London for this world premiere of Aliens Live, which meant that I got to hear Cameron talk about what "a Cameron film is” (he didn’t realise until someone pointed it out to him that his heroes are almost always reluctant ones) and to Sigourney about feminist actioners, Avatar and physiotherapy. My job is cool and weird. (4)


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Double-bill: animals who are a bit like humans – Reviews #247

Come marvel at my tenuous links.

Zootropolis (Byron Howard and Rich Moore, 2016) – The best thing that Disney – old Disney, standard Disney, non-Pixar but now Lassetered Disney – have done since The Lion King: an imaginative and explosively funny film, with a progressive, pointed message that isn’t just the usual “aren’t families important?”.

The story sees the world’s first ‘bunny cop’ (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) pitching up in the big city with stars in her eyes, and armed with ambition, idealism and a canister of fox repellent, just in case. At first she's sidelined, but when a doting father (and otter) goes missing, she manages to wangle the case and stumbles upon something big – though there's only a cynical con artist (Jason Bateman) to help her.

I loved the specificity and comic, Kaufmanesque daring of the sloths routine, the Cloudy-ish running gags about viral videos and oddball supporting characters, and the fact that the Godfather spoof isn’t the joke in itself (typically accompanied in theatres by a forced laugh that says, “Yes, I do recognise what you are referencing”) but the springboard for all manner of absurdity and surrealist hilarity.

Zootopia (retitled and redubbed in Britain as Zootropolis because a nation that votes for Brexit is too stupid to have read Thomas More) is just a sheer delight. It zones in on the virtues of co-directors' Byron Howard and Rich Moore's previous separate hits – the rather trite though nevertheless modern Tangled, the zippy, meta but minor Bolt, and the warm and hugely inventive Wreck-It Ralph, which still assumed a little too much knowledge of arcade games – while snipping off the padding and easing off on the patronising.

The jokes are superb, the action's better than in almost any other animated movie (the exception is Kung Fu Panda 2, a visually sumptuous, frenetic feast of a film), and its balance of story, character and wider resonance – as well as the freshness and distinctiveness of each – kicks it way above most of the fare we've been fed by Disney since the pioneering spirit of its early years gave way to mawkishness, formula and safety.

It's zooperb. (4)


The Fly (Thomas Neumann, 1958) – Cronenberg's gruesome, glorious 1986 remake is pure body horror, but the original version of The Fly begins more like a murder mystery, as Patricia Owens admits to killing her beloved husband – scientist David Hedison – prompting his lovelorn brother (Vincent Price) and a smart but sympathetic cop (Herbert Marshall) to try to get some answers, largely just by asking her, which prompts a lengthy flashback. You'd expect Price to play the scientist, but before this film he was barely associated with horror; afterwards, of course, he did little else, working with the likes of Roger Corman and William Castle on a slew of midnight movies, and doing as much as anyone to define and then refine the genre.

The Fly is sadly rather pedestrian for the most part, and far too talky, but its premise is ace, its ending is oddly affecting, and its two horror highlights – a pair of ingenious, shocking scenes, building on slow burns and blessed with very '50s optical effects – are utterly fantastic. As a companion piece, I'd heartily recommend Joe Dante's Matinee, which features the film-within-a-film Mant!, a referential, reverential and perfectly-pitched send up of this film and its ilk. Incidentally, this film was written by novelist and screenwriter James Clavell, five years before The Great Escape, and around the time Steve McQueen was starring in a low-budget horror that makes this one look like Rosemary's Baby, The Blob! (2.5)

See also: I've reviewed other Vincent Price horrors elsewhere, including The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and Pendulum, Tales of Terror and The Masque of the Red Death, all directed by Roger Corman.


Thanks for reading.

Amanda Knox, The Jinx and Bridget on Brexit – Reviews #246

A few things I've seen over the last couple of weeks.


I Married a Communist (Robert Stevenson, 1949) – If you’re interested in the history of Hollywood, then this is essential viewing: a movie released at the height of the communist witchhunt, which slips the commies seamlessly (and stupidly) into a standard crime melodrama template. And who else would have made it – at least like this – but red-baiting RKO studio chief Howard Hughes, his rationality thrown to the wind by three too many plane crashes.

Robert Ryan, whose presence is as dispiriting proof as any that prominent liberals were complicit in this dark chapter of American history, stars as the VP of a shipping line who’s targeted by his former comrades in the party, who like nothing better than seducing vulnerable young men and throwing older ones in the river.

It’s clear that the screenwriters either don’t want to expose the public to leftist ideas, don’t want to risk boring their audience with ideology or don’t know what communism is, as the sequences of indoctrinated worker John Agar making speeches at union meetings are done as a wordless montage (!), and the whole exercise is really extremely silly (compounded by Laraine Day’s terrible performance as Ryan’s concerned wife)… but there’s something about the movie that kept me enthralled.

Partly the rich characterisations from lovesick party whore Janis Carter and hired assassin William Talman – a womanising shooting gallery owner – partly the fact that it’s shot by Nick Musuraca and utilises RKO’s undeniable genre expertise, and partly the considerable curio value of seeing a film this vile, irresponsible and thick: Cold War paranoia writ large, if not very well. (2)



The Jinx (Andrew Jarecki, 2015)Capturing the Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki explores the life (and possible crimes) of real estate scion and suspected triple murderer Robert Durst, in this six-part HBO mini-series. It starts uncertainly, unnecessarily padding its run time and becoming frequently entangled in an unnecessarily complicated structure, but by the straightforward, utterly gripping Episode 4 (surely no coincidence) – based around a murder trial – it's really motoring, and the final two episodes are outstanding, some long-winded making-of elements compensated for by the sheer scale of the subsequent revelations.

I remember, when training as a journalist, my class being given reams of paperwork about an ongoing murder investigation. We spent a good half hour searching dedicatedly for the truth, before our trainer helpfully pointed out that we were journalists. "I'm not expecting you to solve the case," he said witheringly, "you just have to write a news piece about it."

We did, but it wasn't nearly as satisfying. And that's where The Jinx comes into its own. It's perhaps less effective as a creative exercise than either Serial or Making a Murderer, and yet unlike those retrospective pieces it actually moves the story along, and – incredibly – manages to solve the case. While there are serious questions to answer about the documentary's own timeline and its commitment to entertainment over, say, morality, the final 15 seconds are as extraordinary as anything I've ever seen on TV.

See if you can spot the almost imperceptible 'tell' that Robert Durst does when he might be telling an untruth. Lol. (3.5)


Amanda Knox (Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, 2016) – The Amanda Knox story done Making a Murderer-style: though the teaser trailers and the opening monologue play with the idea of her possible guilt, this Netflix Original is a single-sided polemic aimed at clearing her name. Which has, of course, already been cleared by the Italian Supreme Court, so fair enough.

This film does a fine job of undermining the case against her and underlining the media feeding frenzy that assisted it, by letting tabloid sleazeball Nick Pisa and mad prosecutor Giuliano Mignini speak for themselves, and then elegantly slicing their testimony into finest fillets of unapologetically self-serving bullshit and dangerous, errant nonsense. Among Mignini's more outlandish pieces of deduction (and there are several) is that when he accused Knox of murder she put her hands over her ears because she was reliving the screams of her victim. Pisa is just an unmitigated arsehole, who either didn't know or didn't care what normal, empathetic people would make of his contributions. It takes something to be the most appalling person in a documentary about a murder, when you were just there to report on it, so well done to him. 'Nick Pisa-shit', am-I-right?!

Speaking about the case, and glimpsed in incredibly eerie home videos shot just before her trip to Italy, Knox is so appealing and so pretty that you can't help but hope that she's innocent (shallow, I know), and certainly there's no smoking gun included, though her decision to try to pin the murder of English student Meredith Kercher on her own boss was, at best, astonishingly selfish. Her then boyfriend and co-defendant Raffaele, meanwhile, is just an adorable bundle of cute, with his broken English and wide open face and, oh yeah, four years spent in prison for murder. Whoops.

This isn't the best true crime work you'll ever see, but it's professionally put together, and weirdly entertaining for a film that's about what it's about. It somewhat skids about on the surface rather than providing the depth of research or emotion that would blow you away, but for its multi-faceted approach and its access - if not its intimacy - it's well worth seeing.

So did Knox do it? Probably not. There definitely isn't enough credible evidence to say anything stronger against her: the most damaging piece is that Raffaele told the police that her alibi was false, but then he was under unfathomable pressure, the adorable bastard. (3)


Spiral: Season 4 (2012) – "Précédemment dans Engrenages..." This knockout fourth season of the French crime series is for the most part a return to realism after the silliness of the previous run, with Laure and co investigating both left-wing bombers and Kurdish paramilitaries. And while it never comes close to Season 2 – a devilishly intense, tightly-coiled beast of an eight-parter – it's the second-best series of shows that Spiral has offered, with Tintin given more to do than ever before, and a final episode that offers everything you could want, and then some. It's hard to recall a show with so many great recurring characters, the programme's nuanced view of its heroes and effortless way of manipulating our sympathies - either gradually or via short, sharp shocks - creating a litany of special moments that jar your emotions as they pull the rug out from under you. A dark, nauseatingly suspenseful joy. (3.5)



Bridget Christie: Because You Demanded It (Leicester Square Theatre, 20 October 2016)
– This new show from my absolute favourite stand-up is very good, but with a few obvious flaws. Christie's delivery is rarely utterly seamless, but at the Leicester Square Theatre on Thursday she stumbled over her words at least a dozen times and at others seemed to be almost reciting by rote: of course that's mostly what stand-up is, but the illusion of it just having occurred to the performer is central to its success. And while the material has some dizzying peaks (including one masterfully contextualised routine in which she argues that "A paedophile who voted for Remain is better than a non-paedophile who voted Leave"), it has just a handful of small additions to the show that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of months ago.

Since it's essentially a show about Brexit − set up with the premise that we all need a break, so the show will be about gardening, bringing her on to thoughts about foreign and indigenous plants − that's problematic. The news, particularly this news, is moving so fast that you could conceivably write five minutes of great new material every day, but then quantity was never Christie's strongpoint: while in her award-winning purple patch, she was essentially repurposing the same material across different mediums: radio, interviews, shows and even a (completely delightful) book. All of which makes it sounds like I didn't like enjoy the show, which I absolutely did.

My problem (well, one of my many problems) is that I wanted the things I like to be things I can love: I want Thea Gilmore to stop writing two songs an album about how you'll never be able to stop her from speaking out, and actually just speak out: as far as I'm aware, she's only ever written one real protest song, and that was 10 years ago. Christie can be staggeringly incisive, is superb at mining the humour from almost impossible sources (women's rights, feminism, FGM, an 80-year-old man falling down a lift shaft) and is better at building a routine than just about anyone I've ever seen, as evidenced by the brilliant (if familiar) story of the Daily Mail printing a photograph of her, believing it to be Charles II.

The material frequently spears the ludicrousness of racism, the decision to hold the EU referendum in the first place, and our decision to vote to punch ourselves in the face − and there's a brilliant bit about a short, fat, sweaty bald man propositioning her in a hotel lift − before a climactic piece of unexpected (and unexpectedly sublime) physical comedy, but the show doesn't quite deliver on the promise of the premise (Bridget Does Brexit), due to some uncertain delivery and the fact that, even in just two months, the story has rather moved on. (3)


Thanks for reading.

REVIEW: Brian Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall

Friday 28 October 2016

Brian Wilson and his band, including Brian (at the piano), Darian Sahanaja (second from left), Al Jardine (white suit), Blondie Chaplin (blue suit) and Paul Von Mertens (front right). Concerned that the frail, fragile Brian Wilson, the visionary behind the Beach Boys’ earth-shaking pop music, might struggle to put on a good show? Don’t worry baby...

You know the legend – and all of it true – of the landlubber who defined the surf sound, who perfected the art of pop with Pet Sounds, then pushed the boundaries of the medium with the LSD-fuelled Smile, which looked to build on the pioneering spirit of the sonically sublime single ‘Good Vibrations’, but instead exploded before lift-off, incapacitating Wilson in the process. His lost decades, his stalled comebacks under the malign eye of psychologist Eugene Landy, and then the immobile, lightly-jowled, fragile figure of the silver-haired sexagenarian embracing his legacy with new records, a re-recorded and now complete Smile and a decade of sold-out shows around the globe. This year, his 75th, he’s marked the 50th anniversary of his masterpiece, Pet Sounds by playing it in full at concert halls all over the world, bookended by two lengthy, exuberant sets of “rare cuts and greatest hits”, that gleeful embracing of the mythology of a needle dropping on a double-sided LP embraced as fully on stage as in the PR bumf around the shows.

Friday’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall (accompanied, incidentally by one of the most apposite, beautiful graphics I’ve seen for a show) was billed as the last time he’ll ever play Pet Sounds live, and so how could I miss it? Especially as I work there.

Surrounded by a band of uncommon quality, it takes Wilson a little while to warm up, his voice on the first three tracks a little metallic and out-of-step, but once he’s in the groove, the first half is a treat. He takes the low notes and Matt Jardine (son of founding Beach Boys member, Al Jardine, who’s also on stage) cuts in to take over when it’s a song defined by Wilson’s extraordinary ‘60s falsetto, except for on ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, a song that I love so dearly, and for which Jardine Jr is allowed to take centre-stage, delivering a mesmerising performance. The other highlights are ‘Surfer Girl’, a song lent an impossible poignancy by the announcement that it was Wilson’s first and the yearning way that he now sings it, ‘Darlin’’ – lent a shimmering Motown feel by guest vocalist Darian Sahanaja (more often seen on keyboards), and an outrageous 10-minute jam on ‘Wild Honey’. The latter is dominated by Blondie Chaplin, part of the Rolling Stones’ touring band for a decade, who turns up midway through the first half with a Gibson, weird white plimsolls and some weird, stutter dance moves, and proceeds to take over the show. His guitar licks and saxophonist Paul Von Mertens’ solos make this far more than a night of nostalgia, probing the material and dynamically reshaping it for 2016, while Al Jardine – who looks like Jimmy Carter playing Richard Widmark – repeatedly takes the burden of the show on his shoulders. He was never touched by God’s hand, as Wilson was, but he’s remarkably fresh, clear-voiced and charismatic, carrying chunks of the show with his charm and talent.

The second half begins with Pet Sounds in its entirety, from the staccato innocence of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ to a short, heartbreaking ‘Caroline No’, via the deft, subversive majesty of ‘God Only Knows’, the simple profundity of ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’ and ‘Sloop John B’, transformed from the dirge of a thousand football chants back into one of the greatest pop songs ever written. I thought I could never hear it again as new, but this extraordinary night made it possible, its inclines steeper and more arresting, its foreshadowing of Wilson losing his mind ever more harrowing, and its repetition a mounting force that shook the walls of the Royal Albert Hall.

There’s a brief hiatus before we're treated to a tour of the band (who walk on one-by-one, each slightly increased ensemble playing a casual, well-oiled riff, like 'Smoke on the Water') then launched into the highlight of the night: Good Vibrations and then an incredible, incredibly fun run of early singles that’s like a medley in that they just don’t stop, but better still in that they’re all in full – and often fuller than on the record. A long, overpoweringly cheery ’Help Me Rhonda’ brings the Hall to its feet dancing, followed by a rambunctious ’Barbara Ann’, an escapist, relentless ’Surfin’ USA’ and then ‘Fun Fun Fun’, almost self-parodic in its naïvete and iconography (sun, surf and a T-Bird), and all the better for it. I’ve rarely experienced an atmosphere of such sheer, exultant joy: Wilson’s personal demons scuttling for cover in the midst of the celebratory atmosphere.

And then they’re back for a moment, as he closes the show by singing ‘Love & Mercy’ at his piano under a single spotlight, his fragility making it a little amateurish – as he coughs, misses a cue and then looks at his watch – but emotionally devastating. He wrote the song while trying to emerge from Eugene Landy’s shadow: it kicked off his first ever solo record, and gave a name to the recent Wilson biopic. He’s been back from the brink and he isn’t always all there, sometimes difficult to reconcile with the cocky, cherubic young genius who changed the world of popular music forever. Yet with the support of these cohorts and his old ones, who so transparently adore and revere him, he has wrestled control of his own legacy. As with Shane MacGowan and The Pogues, it was this mercurial songwriter – now broken – who made them anything at all, and now it’s the duty of the journeymen he catapulted into the stratosphere to carry him for a while. And they do.

It’s a deeply moving celebration of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, but it’s more than that: it’s a show that’s vivid, alive and invigoratingly enjoyable: an exploration and reinvention of some of the finest songs ever written, with Wilson its centre and its beating heart, even if a part of him is still lost somewhere in the 1960s.


Thanks for reading.

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: Spaceship (Alex Taylor, 2016)Spaceshit, 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.