Friday, 25 March 2011

Bourne x 2, Bond 22 and two James Nesbitts - Reviews #58

Here are some more reviews. Irony fans will want to read on, as I've employed their favoured linguistic device twice. There's a couple of rude words in there too, so if that offends, steer clear. Unless you really like irony.

Seducing Doctor Lewis (Jean Francois Pouilot, 2003) - I saw this at the cinema when it came out. I liked it a lot then and I still do. It's a neat spin on the old city-slicker-is-won-over-by-small-town-life stock plot, which as we know is just about the best device going. Here, the little guys try every trick in the book to secure the services of coke-sniffing, foot-massaging, father-figure-seeking Doctor Lewis (David Boutin) and thus land the tupperware factory that will restore some dignity to their lives. There are lots of smart ideas and clever sequences (the cricket match, the big catch, the mass dash across town) along with some well-drawn characters who are both desperate and devious, while remaining likeable and engaging. Having seen how badly this sort of thing was done by Waking Ned only made me appreciate it more. It's not overly demanding and some will find it too gentle (I haven't mentioned yet how pleasant the scenery is), but to me it's the epitome of charm and there are some really great jokes. (3.5)


"Treadstone - tell me what it's all a-pout."

The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004)
- A tour of the world's finest modern train stations, directed by that beardy yokel off of Heartbeat, and just as good as that sounds. Amnesia victim Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is back in this exhilarating, globetrotting game of cat-and-homicidal-mouse-and-cat, hunting the criminals that offed his girlfriend, as he tries to clear his name of a double murder. It's punchy, gripping and superbly shot and edited, with a suitably sombre turn from Damon to hang the whole thing on. Only the climactic car chase goes on a bit. This is what you hoped Bond would be, but never was. I'm projecting again. (3.5)

The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007) - A dynamic conclusion to the trilogy, with Bourne (Matt Damon) striving to uncover his true identity, while being pursued by a succession of assassins. It's truly heart-pounding stuff: a series of extraordinary action sequences (some of them decidedly minimalist) interspersed with plot-heavy chatting and footage of Damon getting on and off trains and boats. The script is incredibly well-plotted and inventive, as Bourne battles guerilla-style against all-pervading surveillance, and the human drama is again agreeably understated, with Julia Stiles finally given something to do except get kidnapped, in a touching subplot. Again, the denouement isn't quite as strong as the rest, but that's my only gripe with this invigoratingly exciting movie. (3.5)


"He's got a gun and great big man-tits/He's got jug ears and tiny trunks/Dame Judi Dench is furious with him/He's gone completely out to lunch...” By far the best things about Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008) are its spoof theme tunes by Adam and Joe. Viewed in the light of the last two Bourne – and indeed, 2006's Casino Royale – the film itself seems a little lacklustre, tentative and rushed, as if it was written in about 15 minutes. That's not to say it isn't diverting. Daniel Craig's portrayal of Bond as a pocket-sized hothead remains impressive, Judi Dench is a fine M – stern but fiercely protective in the schoolmarm-ish manner – and there are some fairly effective action sequences, including Bond wiping out a lift-full of British secret servicemen in five seconds flat. It's just a pity the plot isn't really up to it, as underwhelming David Mitchell-Peter Lorre hybrid Mathieu Amalric schemes to overthrow the Bolivian Government and steal its precious resources, belying his reputation as a philanthropist and environmentalist. Fucking environmentalists, trying to stop me driving a 4x4, flying to London and burning tyres in my front garden; they're clearly the greatest danger to the modern world. Clarkson told me. Decent coda, though. (2.5)


Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004) - "When in Rome...", "Veronica had a very funny joke today!", "60 per cent of the time it works every time", "You know how to cut to the core of me, Baxter", "Agree to disagree", "Milk was a bad choice"... There are plenty of great lines and funny ideas in Anchorman, but it's unquestionably erratic, with some seriously dry spells and a supporting performance from Steve Carell that's completely undercut by the crass, offensive line about him being "mentally retarded". For fuck's sake - is that still considered OK? The story sees self-assured local news anchorman Will Ferrell and his office full of chauvinists thrown off kilter by a talented new arrival, who just happens to be a woman. This is as funny as I've seen Ferrell and there's a strong supporting cast, including Paul Rudd (who's always good value), David Koechner and whoever that blonde chick with the nice arse was. Whammy. (3)


Boo-yah. This, I like.

Ride Clear of Diablo (Jesse Hibbs, 1954) - A solidly entertaining Audie Murphy Western, one of a string of superior B movies starring the most decorated US soldier of WWII. Dan Duryea perhaps overdoes it this time, cackling away in his familiar supporting role like a parody of Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, but he's always fun to watch and the movie is largely well-played and well-mounted (the church social is wonderfully-directed), with a cracking action climax. At least until Murphy decides to stop blasting away and rugby-tackle the baddie. (3)


Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I. I think. I can't be bothered to check.

Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998) - Boring, confusing historical drama. Blanchett's quite good in the lead and there are a couple of moments that work (Edward Hardwicke's act of coat-y kindness, the final scene), but the script is poor and the eclectic cast (Eric Cantona, Angus Deayton, Lily Allen) offers very little. The tone is set by the opening exchanges, in which horrible spotty Queen Mary sits in her dark, airless attic, being all weird, while Elizabeth skips around in a field. (1.5)


TV: Jekyll (2007) - This is another super series from the pen of Steven Moffat, a fusion of human drama, conspiracy thriller and blood-soaked horror. James Nesbitt is research scientist Dr Jackman, whose very special problem sees him forced into battle with scallies, shadowy Americans and his own unhinged alter-ego, the redoubtable Mr Hyde. The plotting is consistently inventive - sometimes dizzyingly so - right down to a killer twist near the end, though I'm not convinced the disparate elements quite slot together. As usual, Moffat provides a heap of memorable set-pieces and nifty one-liners. One of the things I admire most about him is his ability to reveal something terrible to the viewer a fraction of a second before it dawns on a character. It's a really difficult thing to pull off, but he does it effortlessly, most notably in episode four, with the knocking on the door and the ice-cream van jingle. He's also effective at subverting the previously innocuous - like the old nursery rhyme Boys and Girls Come Out to Play - but in a way that's largely removed from gimmickry and reveals something of his hero or villain. Nesbitt is really good value in the lead, whether underplaying sympathetically or camping it up outrageously, and there's effective support from Michelle Ryan, though there are a few iffy American accents about and I don't trust Gina Bellman as a dramatic actress. All in all, great fun, and I'd be well up for watching a second series. The show's big reveal is the third scariest thing I've ever seen on telly, after 1) Grotbags (when I was four) and 2) The "Psirens" episode of Red Dwarf (when I was nine). (3.5)

Review: Pretending to Be Me at Harrogate Theatre - Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sir Tom Courtenay’s eyes close. His voice raises. His hands raise and shake.

He’s midway through Philip Larkin’s seminal Audabe, and building up a head of steam.

“This is a special way of being afraid,” he says.
“No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.”

Pretending to Be Me, commissioned by the Larkin Society and first performed in Leeds in 2002, is a remarkable show that brings to life the late poet and Hull University librarian through a 90-minute, in-character monologue drawn from poems, articles and letters.

It offers hot jazz, an obscene anecdote about W. H. Auden and rules you can really live your life by, like: “Distrust any enterprise requiring new clothes.”

“It’s difficult to keep life at arm’s length, isn’t it?” it begins.

Courtenay’s Larkin is thoughtful, acerbic and twinklingly misanthropic, with a fondness for withering, throwaway one-liners aimed at revered institutions, rival poets and himself.

He says that getting married “is like agreeing to stand on one leg for the rest of your life”, dismisses “Ted ‘The Incredible Hulk’ Hughes” with his swaggering masculinity and leather jacket, and then turns his attention to America. Friends told him to only visit the east and west coasts.

“The rest is a desert full of bigots,” he wryly observes.

“I think that’s the part I would like.”

It’s Larkin’s reaction to the prospect of being a poet-in-resident at a US
university that lends the show its name. “I don’t want to go around pretending to be me,” he laments.


Courtenay, the stage and screen legend of Billy Liar, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The Dresser, and a fellow son of Hull, makes no effort to look like Larkin and uses a minimum of props; just the odd drink.

But he’s utterly magnetic.

He talks about his childhood stammer, his family and his first forays into verse, then becomes more reflective, considering his ailing productivity, his public persona and - most movingly - his own mortality.

“Just imagine we’re sitting round in a condemned cell,” he says.

“Would we talk about the SDP and the price of fish?”

He concludes that we probably would.

But it’s when Courtenay performs the poems, seamlessly woven into the narrative, that he ups the ante, changing to a more flamboyant style of expression.

It’s as if it’s only when he’s writing that Larkin comes alive - and we see right into his soul.

Bolstering some of the myths around his life (“Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”) and obliterating others, the show is illuminating, intriguing and ultimately captivating.

It reaches a climax with the poet’s declaration that the one line that sums up his oeuvre is not the potty-mouthed one about his parents, but the final sentiment of An Arundel Tomb: “What will survive of us is love.”

And it’s anchored by a performance of rare intensity and virtuosity from one of Britain’s finest actors.
This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 31 of the Harrogate Advertiser, March 25, 2011.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Submarine, chemistry and Woody Allen floundering - Reviews #57

I went to the cinema three times at the weekend. I'd recommend it to anyone.

CINEMA: Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010)
- What a refreshing, distinctive and arresting film this is: a hysterically funny portrait of teenage life in Britain as it's really lived and a film we've been waiting for, without really knowing it. In 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), writer-director Ayoade gives us a new kind of hero: introspective, self-obsessed, occasionally noble, with a burning sense of his own importance, but no idea how it's going to manifest itself. The tone is set by a superbly-conceived fantasy sequence in which he imagines his own death and the outpouring of grief that would be felt "by all of Wales". This appealing, sometimes appalling protagonist exists in a painfully well-observed world, the school scenes - with their bullying, idiocy and moral compromise - conjuring the opposite of a Proustian rush as they throw up every guilty secret or suppressed memory of your teenage years.

It's at school where Oliver finds love, beginning an intense relationship with classmate Jordana Bevan (Yasmine Paige) that's built on bullying, but blossoms into a shared love of spitting and setting fire to things. Oliver tries to broad their horizons by offering her Salinger, Nietzsche and sex, but with limited success. The scene in which he reclines on his bed in some grotesque parody of '70s manhood is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. At home, our hero is also going through a sticky patch, his mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) having her head turned by obnoxious mystic Paddy Considine, with his depressive father (Noah Taylor) unwilling - or unable - to act. The twin storylines dovetail perfectly, with a punchline that's completely unexpected and rings utterly true. Indeed, there isn't a false note in the plotting or the acutely-detailed characterisations, from Chips (Darren Evans), the school bully who compounds Oliver's sorrow with a well-timed 'wanker' sign, to Taylor, who offers one of the most affecting and realistic treatments of mental illness I've seen on screen.

This is a brilliant debut: moving, original and dazzlingly cinematic, its singular feel augmented by dreamy Super 8 segments, eye-catching credits and a great song score from Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner. And I laughed almost constantly. Film of the year. So far, anyway. (4)


CINEMA: The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011) - Matt Damon and Emily Blunt make a wonderful couple in this enjoyable mixture of sci-fi, thriller and romance. Their effortless, glorious chemistry takes the thought-provoking, well-plotted storyline to another level and there's also a nice turn from Anthony Mackie, though the abrupt ending and Terence Stamp's lacklustre one-note showing mute the impact a little. It's still compulsively entertaining; the only serious misstep being the voiceover from the guy in the row in front, which lasted until he was thrown out of the cinema halfway through. (3.5)


CINEMA: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen, 2010) - Woody Allen has made more truly great films than any other American writer-director. His extended reign as the king of comedy - and a deft dramatist - lasted from Take the Money and Run in 1969 to the beguiling Sweet and Lowdown 30 years later and included an unbroken, decade-long run of masterpieces that took in Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo (see #90, sorry about the formatting - it all dropped off when we changed to the new site), Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours. Only Buster Keaton and '40s screwball comedy wizard Preston Sturges have achieved anything comparable. Since '99, though, pickings have been slim, with Allen's creative paralysis coupled to a paucity of ambition which has turned the biggest lie about his work - that he can only make one type of film - into the truth. Anything Else was a lovely update of Annie Hall, Melinda and Melinda had some bright moments and both The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Scoop offered some escapist fun. But the blind film director of Hollywood Ending, the risible darkroom petting of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the laughless second half of Small Town Crooks have been rather more representative.

Allen's latest has the virtues and the vices we've come to expect over the past 12 years. Plotwise, it's nothing new. Love and death. There are four affairs across the film's 98 minutes, as married couple Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin bicker and her mortality-minded parents (Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones) split up. These characters, and thus the story, aren't sufficiently engaging, and the film has an acute case of voiceoveritis, though in places the old Allen magic - or some faded semblance of it - shines through. A reunion between Hopkins and Jones is brief but affecting and there's an agreeable absurdism to Watts' despairing farewell chat with boss Antonio Banderas. Allen also draws an amusing supporting performance from Lucy Punch, playing Hopkins' mouthy, uncultured young wife. "It wasn't scary,” she complains, following a theatre trip. "It wasn't supposed to be scary,” he replies. "The ghosts were symbolic.” But a few great lines, one fine comic turn and solid dramatic work from Watts and Jones can't obscure the fact that Allen's 41st film just isn't very good. (2)


Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936) - A truly wonderful film, one of Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin's very best. Small-town good guy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits $20m and winds up in the big city, where he's screwed over by crooked lawyers, scheming relatives and a hack (Jean Arthur) who's falling head-over-heels for him. It's superbly written, directed and played, with Arthur absolutely irressistible - particularly in the courtroom finale. (4)


A Big Hand for the Little Lady (Fielder Cook, 1966) - A clever Western comedy, with sweaty poker fiend Henry Fonda getting in over his head taking on the big guns (including Jason Robards, John Qualen and Charles Bickford), leaving wife Joanne Woodward to bail him out. It's a bit repetitive to begin with, but the interest builds and builds, there's a neat ending - and what a cast. (3)


"Haha, gay people like dancing." Oh shut up.

In & Out (Frank Oz, 1997) - Too infantile in its first half, too worthy in its second, with no internal logic and a gross over-abundance of terrible jokes about what gay people like (it's basically Barbra Streisand, 50 times). Having said that, Kline is pretty good, Joan Cusack has a really powerful dramatic scene in the back room of a church and the climax works well. (2)

Monday, 14 March 2011

Paul, D.W. Griffith and Hancock's 46 minutes of magic - Reviews #56

CINEMA: Paul (Greg Mottola, 2011) - As Simon Pegg and Nick Frost said on Radio 5 Live recently: if you're spending $50m of someone else's money, you've got to make a certain kind of film. So gone are the offbeat sensibility and obscure pop culture references of the show that made their name - Spaced - and the genre movies that followed, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The nods to E.T. and The X-Files here are more like headbutts. Gone too is the razor-sharp sense of humour. There are plenty of laughs, but the humour is so broad you could park a spaceship on it. This one's as straight-down-the-line as a movie about a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking alien is going to get. Pegg and Frost play a couple of nerds who plan to follow their visit to San Francisco's comic convention with a tour of the Deep South's UFO hotspots. They've barely gotten started before a car flips over in front of their camper van and - examining the wreckage - they come across Paul. He's an alien. A peaceful but rude alien. And he needs to get home. But before that the mismatched gang are going to have to do battle with an FBI agent (Jason Bateman), two childish cops, a couple of good ol' boys, a shadowy megalomaniac and a gun-totin' father. Yes, I think they probably have seen The Blues Brothers. One can lament the absence of Edgar Wright, the stylish director who co-wrote Shaun and Hot Fuzz with Pegg and was single-handedly responsible for their frenetic visual style. And it's easy to pick holes in a film that jettisons its creators' distinctiveness in search of a bigger audience - though there is at least one blessing: Pegg said he wanted to make more of the creationism subplot, the most smug and misguided bit of the film. But at the same time, it seems churlish to be too down on a film this solidly entertaining, with its likeable performances, strong supporting cast and a dozen genuine laughs. (2.5)


Sally of the Sawdust (D. W. Griffith, 1925)
is a nice film from the director of The Birth of a Nation, with nary a heroic Klansman in sight. The engrossing storyline, adapted from a hit stage musical, sees carnival barker W. C. Fields looking to restore orphaned waif Carol Dempster to her rightful place in society. The much-maligned Dempster is actually very good here (save for a bit of over-acting among the rushes as the police close in on her), backed by a couple of unimpeachable heavyweights: Fields and Effie Shannon. There are flaws. We could probably have done without the knockabout comedy for a start. The slapstick interludes aren't as jarring as in Way Down East, where the wrenchingly powerful narrative is offset by some of the most inscrutable alleged comic relief ever slapped onto the screen. For one thing, it's quite funny. But it does jar a little with the dramatic elements, particularly when we see Dempster striving desperately to avoid capture and ruin, intercut with Fields bouncing down a hill in an old banger. And there's also the sense of a missed opportunity. For a film that's not afraid to be melodramatic, the climactic reveal doesn't really carry an emotional punch at all, let alone the assault on the tear ducts I was anticipating. But I liked the film on the whole: interesting story, strong performances and - once you adapt to Griffith's style, revolutionary in 1915, a touch staid 10 years on - very watchable indeed. (3)

Trivia notes: Alfred Lunt, who plays Dempster's love interest, was Monty Clift's mentor and acting tutor. The film was remade as the talkie Poppy, also starring Fields, in 1936.


Hancock (Peter Berg, 2008) - If the credits had rolled after 46 minutes, I'd be raving about this as one of the best films I've seen in years. Hilarious, profane and bracingly original, with a killer performance from Will Smith and a deliciously dry one from Jason Bateman. Unfortunately it completely falls apart after that, morphing into a metaphysical love story of rare incoherence and tedium. Rarely have I come across a film - or a book, or a record, or a meal - with such a gaping gulf between the quality of its first half and its second. Gaah. The script was in development for 10 years, being fundamentally re-written with no input from the original author. Could that by any chance be something to do with it? (2.5)


Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988) is the second most '80s movie of all time (The Secret of My Success, obviously) - a hymn to business (urgh, business) with a sweet performance from Melanie Griffith, a fun one from Sigourney Weaver (boo, hiss) and a slightly lacklustre turn from Harrison Ford, making a then rare foray into romantic comedy. The story is formulaic in the extreme and there aren't many jokes, but it's entertaining and Griffith is an appealing presence. (2.5)


Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998) is an enjoyable comic thriller, scripted by Scott Frank, though patently not one of the best films of its decade, as it's regularly described. The leads are good - I've never seen Clooney and Lopez as attractive or amusing as they are here - the labyrinthine, time-shifting script is mostly pretty neat and there are some strong scenes, including an opening bank robbery that's the ultimate in lo-fi insouciance. But the movie also drags in places, with an abundance of uninteresting subplots, and it's never quite as clever, smart or sexy as it seems to think. (3)


Anne of Green Gables (George Nichols, Jr., 1934) - This is a short, sentimental highlights package that turned out to be RKO's sleeper hit of 1934. Anne Shirley is Anne Shirley (she used her character's name for the rest of her screen career), the cheery, melodramatic, eternally appealing redhead created by L. M. Montgomery. Mistakenly placed with adoptive parents who were rather hoping for the boy they'd requested, her hot temper proceeds to get her into scrapes with friends, neighbours and that cheeky, good-looking boy in her class. There are production and pacing issues. The first hour is a little lacking in atmosphere, then - upon finding loads of the stuff - the film proceeds to race through the rest of the narrative at breakneck speed, with a succession of short scenes that cover five years in about five seconds. It also omits the most memorable bit of the book: Anne dyeing her hair green. For all that, this is a really gentle and rewarding movie, with absolutely charming performances, particularly from Shirley and O. P. Heggie, best-known for his turn as the blind hermit in Universal's seminal Bride of Frankenstein the following year. (3)


Bee Movie (Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith, 2007) - The story doesn't always work, but the script's very funny and the animation's good. Not Pixar-good. But good. Apparently it got a bit of a kicking on release, which is a shame. Unless the critics were suggesting that a relationship between a bee and a woman constitutes quite an inappropriate romantic subplot, in which case they would be correct. (3)

Friday, 11 March 2011

Garson Kanin, Russian mice and the two sides of Ben Stiller - Reviews #55

It Should Happen to You (George Cukor, 1954) - There's always plenty going on beneath the surface of a Garson Kanin script. And here, as in the eternally underrated Tom, Dick and Harry and The Rat Race, his real subject is the American Dream. Judy Holliday, who originated the lead in Kanin's Born Yesterday on stage and won an Oscar for it on screen, plays Gladys Glover, a newly-unemployed model whose plan to make a name for herself involves just that: plastering her moniker across a Columbus Circle billboard. It brings her fame, but as beau Jack Lemmon suggests in one telling, prescient exchange, she hasn't done anything to warrant it. And anyway, isn't it OK to be part of the crowd? The dialogue is absolutely scintillating, the satire spot-on and the performances from Holliday and Lemmon (in his big screen debut) spectacular, while Charles Lang's crisp on-location photography adds immeasurably to the film's fresh feel. (4)


An American Tail (Don Bluth, 1986) is an erratic animated feature with some bravura moments. A first glimpse of The Statue of Liberty, viewed through a green bottle. An operatic trawl through the underbelly of New York. A climactic reunion amid the fountains of an orphans' commune. Elsewhere, the animation is as changeable as the storyline and having a kid with a strong American accent voice your Russian immigrant hero is rarely going to work, no matter how appealingly drawn he is - in both senses of the phrase. Yes, it's formidably scary, admirably heavy and has a handful of nice James Horner songs, but a tighter script, slicker chase sequences and a more coherent worldview could have made this something genuinely special. (3)


Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) - "I'm fair to middling, Leonard Maltin would give me two-and-a-half stars," muses Ben Stiller's Greenberg in this ultra low-key comedy-drama. A bit harsh - I'd say he's worth a three at least. Like its believable, often dislikeable hero, the film is shambling and nearly aimless. Unlike him, it's also charming and funny. Not all of it works - there are subplots and episodes that drag on or appear extraneous - but Stiller (who's good) and Greta Gerwig (who's absolutely superb) make the utmost of the material. The highlight is Stiller's birthday meal, which features a flurry of ridiculous lines, before ending in a profoundly discomforting tantrum. (3)


Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, 2008) - This is a bit of a weird one. The first 10 minutes were so dreadful I almost did the unthinkable and stopped watching. It picked up after that, with some very funny jokes, a brilliant scene with Paul Rudd as a surfing instructor and a narrative that - again, much like its hero (Jason Segel) - is a little flabby and sometimes misguided, but ultimately goes the right way. I don't really have any interest in Russell Brand, but I thought he did quite a good job here. Bill Hader, I very much like. (2.5)


Zoolander (Ben Stiller, 2001) wasn't half bad. Well, it was half bad, but the rest of it I enjoyed a great deal. There are a surprisingly large number of laughs (the scale model of the reading centre, the statue gag at the end, just about everything Owen Wilson does...) and there's a bit of an edge, belying the countless cameos, though when it doesn't work, it really doesn't, and boy is Will Ferrell unfunny in it. (2.5)

Comedy review: Richard Herring at Harrogate Theatre

Monday, March 7, 2011

A ball of fire hits the stage of Harrogate Theatre and Richard Herring slumps to the floor.

“I do believe in you, God, ” he whimpers. “I’ve just been showing off, trying to impress girls.”

It’s the silly, whizz-bang climax to a two-hour show about Jesus that made me laugh harder than just about anything I’ve seen since Herring’s last visit to the town a year ago.

To me, he’s the best stand-up around at the moment. While his freeform internet broadcasts, written within a week or entirely improvised, are touched with brilliance, they’re also wildly erratic, almost by definition.

His touring shows, on the other hand, are honed night after night until they’re just about flawless.

Despite a few abrasive lines, this one isn’t the Christian-baiting shock-fest you might fear, but an incisive and entertaining look at Herring’s atheism and his apparently contradictory obsession with Jesus, boasting his usual strong suits of elevated pedantry and faux self-obsession.

In it, he offers his own aphorisms (which bear an uncanny resemblance to the opening lines of TV theme tunes) and parables (a succession of hysterical stories he penned as a child) and attempts to recruit some disciples.

“Ask me if I’m Jesus, ” he tells his first follower.

“Are you Jesus?” the man enquires.

“That is what you say, ” Herring replies.

The comic also tries to answer some of the big theological questions, like: “Why did Jesus always call Simon ‘Peter’? Is it like the way Trigger always called Rodney ‘Dave’?”

Three of his routines are so effective that the audience seems to be collectively willing him to stop so it can catch its breath.

Stupid plonker-wallies

Scrutinising the Ten Commandments, he laments the over-writing and confesses that he once failed to honour his father and mother, calling them “stupid plonker-wallies” to their faces.

Then he pours scorn on page one of Matthew’s gospel, adopting the persona of the disciple’s publisher to declare: “It’s rubbish, Matthew. Begat isn’t even a word.”

Herring knows what he’s talking about, incidentally. He spent four days memorising the opening genealogy, then five minutes on stage taking the mickey out of Booz of Rachab’s name.

Early in the second half, he launches into an inspired riff based on a letter he received about his show from an irate Christian, containing eight instances of people who’ve mocked God and then been brutally killed.

“This is definitely true, ” he says, moving on to the final example. “You can tell by the way none of the people have names and it obviously never happened.”

“Jesus did say: ‘If someone offends thee, send them a threatening passive-aggressive email’, ” he adds.

But Herring does concede that an extremely drunk heckler, who invites the whole audience to a party, may have been sent by God to punish him. When he isn’t removed, Herring speculates that he must be a local dignitary.

In fact, “God” intervenes in more showy fashion near the close, as the lights go off, there’s a small explosion and Herring immediately begins to mock-repent.

That takes us into the unexpectedly reverential final spiel, where the comedian becomes more serious, ultimately expressing his admiration for Jesus and for Christian values, detached from his distaste for organised religion.

Along with two extended dream sequences - in which Herring engages in a bike race with Jesus - it effectively crystallises the dichotomy at the heart of the show, if slowing the laugh-rate a little.

Early in the set he’d asked who really believed Jesus was the son of God.

I’m not really one for audience participation, but I figured this was quite important, so I raised my hand.

At the end, he asks from the stage if he’s managed to change my mind.

I’m afraid not, I say.

Great show, though.
This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 21 of the Harrogate Advertiser, March 11, 2011.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Fairuza Balk - A celebration

By Rick Burin

There she is on the right, surveying the blog in her own inimitable fashion, as she has since the day it started. Fairuza Balk. My favourite turqoise-eyed ingenue turned sassy-but-vulnerable goth-punk. And, for many years now, one of the few actors I'll watch in absolutely anything.

A teenage crush started it, but we've all had a lot of call centre jobs since then. Inspired by a chance viewing of Things to Do in Denver, I quickly consumed every Fairuza film I could get my grubby mitts on and no matter how glorious (Return to Oz), incisive (American History X) or Adam Sandler-ish (The Waterboy) the results, she was always the best thing on screen. By turns subtle, explosive and beguiling, she was one of those artists with whom you feel an immediate and important affinity. The most exciting screen presence of her generation. An actress of extraordinary potency. And did I mention that Valmont is actually amazing? It's the film where Balk wears ruby slippers and Colin Firth emerges from a lake with in a sopping wet white shirt. Put that in yer pub quiz.

The only mystery, on the basis of Balk's mesmerising turn in Gas Food Lodging, is how a performer of her unabashed talent and gobsmacking emotional sensitivity failed to go on to conquer the world. It's churlish to view through sad eyes a career that's involved working for Milos Forman, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, but at the same time, I always felt frustrated that there seemed to have been a paucity of Fairuza films - and roles - truly worthy of her gifts. I figured this was down to poor luck, the wrong choices or Hollywood's unfortunate propensity to pigeon-hole a performer on the basis of one hit film. Now I'm not so sure. Her new website and associated Facebook and Twitter feeds, suggest that she's actually very happy as she is: making records, drinking tea, writing kids' books and appearing in a couple of pretty interesting films a year. So that shows what I know - very little, as per usual.

Anyway, for those of you who, like me, see just about everything in terms of cold, hard films, here's a quick run through Fairuza's career highlights...

1. Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985) - A belated, superior sequel to MGM's splashy sing-along that was unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1985 - and promptly made all the children burst into tears. Balk is Dorothy Gale, back in Kansas and embarrassing her folks. She keeps going on about her mates – one of whom's made out of straw, another out of tin, and a third who seems to be some sort of camp lion – so Aunt Em decides to give her electro-shock treatment. Yes, really. Luckily she escapes and, finally arriving back in Oz, finds the Emerald City in ruins and her former companions turned to stone. With a new gaggle of rebels, Dorothy tries to right these terrible wrongs, but soon enough dismembered heads start yakking and our heroes have to escape on a talking sofa with the head of a moose. Then it gets really weird. I'd say it was the greatest kids' film ever made, if I was sure it's suitable for kids. Whatever, it's utterly brilliant: a stunning fusion of horror and childhood fantasy that gleefully subverts the iconography of the original whilst providing a wealth of whizz-bang thrills. The director, Walter Murch, had been the sound mixer on Coppola's The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. He never helmed another movie. In her first theatrical feature, Balk is truly superb; the definitive Dorothy. (4)

2. Valmont (Milos Forman, 1987) is an uproariously entertaining period romp that slips into perilous darkness in its second half. The script is well weighted, laced with pungent one-liners without going overboard, but it's the cast that's the real draw: caddish Firth, omniscient, plotting Bening and sweet, virginal Balk, two years on from her Oz heroics. If you've ever wanted to see the goths' representative on film sing a folk song, accompanying herself on the harp, this would appear to be your chance. (3.5)

I'm not sure who cropped this picture, but I don't respect the way they've done it.

3. If Return to Oz is Fairuza's best film (and it transparently is), then Gas Food Lodging (Allison Anders, 1992) features far and away her finest performance; one of the best in '90s cinema. I find it hard to put into words just how much I like it, and its utter honesty. The movie isn't perfect, its rich atmosphere, thoughtful dialogue and exquisite film-within-a-film segments offset by the odd wooden gesture or duff line, but it's appealingly original and in her transitional role Balk is simply transcendent: her Shade travelling untainted through a succession of defining moments as she searches for romance and for her father. (3.5)

4. Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (Gary Fleder, 1995) is a spotty but extremely memorable thriller, one of a slew of offbeat American crime pics made in the mid-90s. Andy Garcia (the punchy trainee cop from The Untouchables) is an ex-con with a new venture: filming terminally ill people so they can speak to friends and family from beyond the grave. In debt to bankroller Christopher Walken, he plans a heist, enlisting the help of several other actors who've escaped from the 1980s, among them Treat Williams – brilliant in Lumet's Prince of the City – Christopher Lloyd (Doc from Back to the Future) and William Forsythe (Once Upon a Time in America). Garcia spars romantically with Gabrielle Anwar, while keeping an eye out for troubled Fairuza, and trying to stay one step ahead of Steve Buscemi's slick hitman, Mr Shhh (so called because he "don't say much"). This stylish, intriguing picture has too many lulls and inconsistencies to trouble anyone's top films list, but Balk is absolutely arresting in her supporting part, and there's a melancholy, nostalgic undercurrent reinforced by Garcia's backward-looking catchphrase: "Back in the day". (3)

5. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) - Well, this is something different, anyway. Fairuza as a neo-Nazi, chiding intense Edward Norton for giving up on the old race hate. She's great in it, as is Norton, and it's powerful stuff, despite the sound of plot gears crunching towards the end. (3)

6. Don't Come Knocking (Wim Wenders, 2005) - Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard re-teamed 21 years on from their peerless Paris, Texas for this off-kilter road movie. Shepard, a leading man in the '70s (he's one of the central trio in Terence Malick's Days of Heaven), plays a broken down old Western actor who heads back home to see his ma (Eva Marie Saint), then off in search of the son he never knew he had. The storyline is a bit jagged, but Shepard's dialogue is, as always, on a higher plane. Fairuza is a joy in a primarily comic role, her ding-dong with Gabriel Mann as they stalk down the street being an obvious highlight. (3)

... and here's a round-up of some of the others:

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (Rebecca Miller, 2002) - She might not have her father Arthur's genius, but writer-director Miller certainly knows her way around the rudest word in the English language. Does that make up for it? I'm not sure. The film is split into three chapters. The last has Fairuza wandering around in shock and she's phenomenally good. The Worst Witch (Robert Young, 1986) is a super little TV movie for kids, The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996) - in which she plays a far worse witch - I can pretty much leave, despite Balk's trademark pyrotechnics as a baddie, while The Waterboy (Frank Coraci, 1998) is just a stale rehash of Harold Lloyd's The Freshman. Starring Adam Sandler. I'm a big admirer of Fairuza's work in American Perfekt (Paul Chart, 1997), but you'd struggle to argue that it's a good film. Again, Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000), where she's cast as one of Kate Hudson's legion of "band aides", has a fervent following, and I usually take to Crowe's brand of sentimentality, but it didn't really do it for me.

So there we are. What's next? Well, she's mentioned a possible collaboration with Quentin Dupieux (director of Rubber and the guy responsible for Flat Beat), but despite Fairuza's clear contentment, sheer selfishness on my part dictates that I'd be fascinated to see what a few more of modern cinema's true greats - von Trier, Wes Anderson, Lasse Hallström, Gus Van Sant - could achieve alongside her. And in the meantime I'll stop being so churlish.