Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Review: Emmylou Harris at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Monday, May 30, 2011



For one number she has us worried, her remarkable Southern wail faltering, stuttering, even failing as she struggles to weave a tale of hard work, boozy nights and guardian angels. Her voice sounds broken, some words barely emerging at all.

Perhaps time has overhauled the great harmoniser, the constant reinventer, the Queen of Country. Perhaps it's robbed her of her powers.

Then Emmylou Harris breaks into a spellbinding version of Orphan Girl and we breathe a sigh of relief. She probably just doesn't warm up that much anymore, and it takes an iffy reading of the disposable Six White Cadillacs to shake the cobwebs out of her voice.

From then on in we're cooking, as Harris - her snow white hair against an all-black outfit of hair band, dress complete with a puffy, uneven skirt and ripped stockings - provides a proper, ole-time show. Her latest might be called Hard Bargain, but there's no short-changing here: a two-hour show that takes a tour of her sizeable back catalogue, with two-thirds of the new record thrown in alongside. And she's supported by an exemplary five-piece band, the Red Dirt Boys, including a superb lead guitarist.

Hard Bargain isn't up there with cast-iron classics like Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel and Wrecking Ball - all of which are represented tonight - but it does have one truly great song, the opener The Road, which pays tribute to the much-missed alt-country genius who gave Harris her break, Gram Parsons.

Her version tonight is arresting and emotive, and follows a heart-stopping take on The Death of Emmett Till - a backwards-looking Civil Rights ballad. On record these songs sound cloistered: shrouded in atmosphere and mystery. Here they're played straight, stripped of such sonic complexity, and the results are fascinating. Other new songs like The Ship on His Arm, Home Sweet Home and Goodnight Old World are lyrically unambitious but extremely tuneful, and frankly Harris could sing a Black Lace medley and make it sound mournfully beguiling.

The only duff number is Big Black Dog, a song that resolutely works on only one level. It is just about a dog. "Bella, Bella," Harris intones. "She's not brown and she's not yeller." Indeed. That would be a wasp.

Harris tells us, with a grin, that the idea of the show is to push the new record - but also to revisit some songs she hasn't played in years. Early highlights include the tender, tragic Beneath Still Waters, a sweet duet with mandolin-player Rickie Simpkins on If I Needed You and a buoyant Hello Stranger.

She visits Pieces of the Sky for a slow, sensational rendering of Boulder to Birmingham ("You have ESPN," she tells an audience member who screams a request immediately before it appears in the set), then plays the old Parsons song Luxury Liner, which is given a boisterous treatment. Harris is enjoying her vowels, though sometimes so much that she can't quite get the next word out quickly enough. Ah well, no matter, it's all great fun.

In addition to the astonishing Orphan Girl, her 1995 masterpiece Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois, is represented by Every Grain of Sand, arguably the most wonderful song Bob Dylan has ever written. While the new songs are tailored to Harris' changing voice, which lacks the range, power and crystalline clarity of old but compensates a la Billie Holiday through its crackling charge, many earlier numbers are given a thorough revamp: a new arrangement, an altered style, a different emotion. Every Grain of Sand is shorn of its fragility, becoming sturdy and confident, with a pulsing bass drum that mounts in intensity as the chorus blasts into view. Pretty amazing.

Harris climaxes with a succession of unsung, knock-out numbers: an acapella Bright Morning Stars, sung in a trio, the tranquil Shores of White Sand, relative rarity The Pearl, '70s ballad Together Again and hit single Born to Run, which is comfortably the second best song ever called Born to Run.

The crowd whoops for more and gets it, the 20-song plus set finishing with Old Five and Dimers Like Me and a yearning but catchy take on the Parsons/Chris Hillman number Wheels. The crowd rises as one, to give this rare talent a standing ovation. She looks really chuffed. That unique voice is still doing just fine.

Simon Lynge

I can count the number of really good support acts I've seen (excepting those I already knew: Mansun, the Super Furries and so on) on one hand and still have a finger left over: VV Brown (who blew co-headliners Florence and the Machine off the stage and up the street), '90s rock band Daytona, Little Lost David and Josephine Oniyama - when she was a Tracy Chapman-ish acoustic balladeer and not a dancehall diva. And I suppose Audioweb and Del Amitri were OK. That's in 17 years, and I'm quite a positive person.

Now add to that exalted list: Simon Lynge, an Inuit, Greenland-born singer-songwriter with a fantastic voice and a handful of really strong songs. His killer number is Love Comes Back to You - which attracts a massive response - but there isn't a weak song in his set, which includes the title track of his first album, The Future, Love Is an Umbrella and a superb version of (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay. That's not actually a very hard song to sing (try it the next time you're doing karaoke), since the range of notes is small, meaning you can focus on the old soulful expression.

But it is hard to sing if you insist on changing the tune, whacking out the rhythm on your guitar and singing half the song in an outrageous, powerful falsetto. Which is what Lynge does. He's clearly a major talent and I hope he gets the breaks. Well, he's touring with Emmylou Harris, so he is clearly getting the breaks. He reminded me a bit of Jeff Buckley and no-one reminds me of Jeff Buckley. Except Tim Buckley.

Lynge talks about Greenland a lot. Go see him.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Machete, Bill Douglas and two men fighting over a mill - Reviews #72



My Childhood (Bill Douglas, 1972) just blew me away. Douglas made only three short features and the socio-political epic Comrades before his untimely death at the age of 57. This, his debut, is a grainy, uncompromising slice of neorealism – the closest British cinema has come to a Bicycle Thieves or Pather Panchali – shot through with sincerity, compassion and a unique eye for poetic detail. The performances from the two kids (who both died tragically young) are breathtaking and the scene in which the elder, Hughie Restorick, spins and dances atop a bridge in swirling, billowing train smoke is a shot of pure joy in a film dominated by monochrome sadness. (4)



My Ain Folk (Bill Douglas, 1973) isn’t quite as good – it’s a bit too plotty and relies excessively on interiors – but then what is? Douglas’s second film remains a wrenchingly powerful portrait of financial and emotional poverty, amidst the coal mines and crumbling families of rural Scotland. As the director’s on-screen alter-ego, Stephen Archibald gives another superb performance: the troubled youngster had a naturalism and subtlety you rarely come across in juvenile acting. And the film's opening – juxtaposing the cosy, Hollywood sentimentality of MGM’s Lassie Come Home (set in Yorkshire) with the grim reality of post-war Britain – is an absolute knockout. It presumably informed near-contemporary Terence Davies’ subsequent forays into film. (3.5)

***



Machete (Robert Rodriguez, 2010) grew out of a fake trailer made as part of Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse project. There was a huge clamour to see this stylised, uber-violent, non-existent high-concept flick; so now here it is. Unfortunately, in fleshing out the concept, Rodriguez has somewhat overstretched. In 2003, the director seemed to tire of making pure entertainment in the vein of El Mariachi and From Dusk Till Dawn and began to use his privileged position to bang the drum for democracy, decency and Mexico. An admirable goal; he's just not very good at it. And it means his revenge thrillers - whether glossy (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) or trashy (this one) - are painted on far too broad a canvas, replete with uninspiring speechifying and saddled with countless extraneous subplots, which frequently veer towards melodrama.

So while the central story of machete-wielding Danny Trejo going on the rampage is very fun, the parallel thread about immigrant-killing senator Robert De Niro and his devious aide is embarrassingly silly. And Jessica Alba's narrative is like Traffic remade by CBBC. On the plus side, there are a heap of explosive action sequences with grisly pay-offs (the opener is a stunner, while another sees Trejo using a man's intestines as a rope) and the ensemble is impressive, with Rodriguez drawing on his stock company of Trejo, Cheech Marin, Daryl Sabana, Tom Savini and Jessica Alba, and attracting De Niro, Don Johnson (complete with a jokey "and introducing..." tag), Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan, the ever-excellent Michelle Rodriguez and the never-excellent Steven Seagal. All in all, it's an enjoyable film - with a few truly triumphant moments - though the coupling of exploitation-style mayhem and heavyhanded liberalism remains an incongruous one. And the huge action climax is as deadening as the one in Desperado. (2.5)

Trivia notes: Trejo also played a character called Machete Cortez in the Spy Kids series. No-one's quite sure if this is a spin-off. My guess is that it isn't. The end credits here promise two sequels, entitled Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again. Apparently this is serious. Awesome. Let's just have a small-scale thriller next time, shall we? Please?

***



Spoofy sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990) has little story to speak of, instead offering a string of comic scenes as those little green bullies run amok in a futuristic office block, raiding Christopher Lee's genetics lab and emerging with bat wings, eight legs or a plummy voice and a doctorate. It's not a patch on the first film and Gizmo's story thread is a bit hard to take, but there are some funny and imaginative moments, and a couple of great lines. "We could have had three shrinks and a plastic surgeon in that space," says building owner John Glover of the genetics centre. "But no..." (2.5)

Trivia notes: When Gizmo is asked about his grandfather's death, he responds by bleating: "Keye Luke", the name of the screen legend playing the old man. I thought that was nice.



The ‘burbs (Joe Dante, 1989) – Are those guys down the street really murderous Satanists? They certainly seem a bit, well, German. There are a few pointed observations about small-town American life here, but this horror-comedy is a bit light on both jokes and thrills. I laughed three times; at a pratfall, Corey Feldman stalling the police and Tom Hanks’ bemused one-liner: “I've never seen that. I've never seen anybody drive their garbage down to the street and bang the hell out of it with a stick. I... I've never seen that.” Carrie Fisher provides an engaging characterisation as Hanks’ matter-of-fact suburban wife. But while The ‘burbs is pleasant enough, it never really gets going. Also, Bruce Dern is rubbish in it. (2.5)

***



The Shadow (Russell Mulcahy, 1994) – This big-screen version of the old radio show, previously done as a serial in 1940, has a lot going for it: the spectacular ‘30s art deco production design, a fascinating presentation of a complex hero (Alec Baldwin) and a smart romance, which sets up our reformed warlord with a fragile, telepathic girl who could prove his undoing. Sadly it’s hamstrung by a ridiculous adversary – a psychotic descendant of Genghis Khan who kills a taxi driver for knowing his whereabouts, then guffaws about it at deafening volume, in full body armour, in the middle of the street – along with a bafflingly inconsistent script that breaks into wisecrackery at the worst possible moments. That's massively disappointing, as this could have been something genuinely special. Still, Peter Boyle is fun in support as Baldwin’s trusted chauffeur and the runaway bomb was a nice touch. (2.5)

***



Mr. Nice (Bernard Rose, 2010) is a straightforward biopic of Welsh drug smuggler Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans), with a good cast and the odd memorable scene, including a potential kneecapping at a farmhouse and a couple of nice courtroom fib-athons. Ifans is quite effective carrying the piece – he’s in virtually every scene – though the best work comes from David Thewlis as a Provisional IRA member with a bit of a temper and Christian McKay (one of my favourites), in a small role as a MI6 operative. The film generally avoids the dreaded weed-is-cool posturing (to which the only possible response is a great big yawn), limiting it to just the opening and closing reels. Marks' cameo as a Dutch coffee shop owner ended up on the cutting room floor, before someone picked it up and put it on the DVD. (2.5)

***


What's happened here is that she's accidentally taken magic mushrooms. No, that isn't very funny and, yes, it is fairly typical of the script, but enemy-of-the-tabloids Hugh Grant makes me laugh.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Beeban Kidron, 2004) is a step up from the original (stay with me here), as at least it’s fairly funny. Well, sometimes. Caddish Hugh Grant and uptight Colin Firth provide all the laughs, though Zellweger acquits herself well, considering she hasn’t an amusing bone in her perpetually perky persona. (2)

***


It's approximately as fun as it looks.

Big Business (Jim Abrahams, 1988) is an amiable but laughless would-be comedy about two sets of twins, separated and mixed up at birth, who are on opposing sides of a business deal that threatens a rural community. Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin do their best in dual roles – the latter sharing an affecting romantic scene with rough-hewn Fred Ward – but the material is very thin, as the look-alikes take to simply wandering around the Plaza hotel, getting mistaken for one another. (2)

***



TVM: The Mill on the Floss (Graham Theakston, 1997) is a disappointing BBC period drama, worth seeing only for Emily Watson's brilliant performance. This was the teleplay she made shortly after von Trier's Breaking the Waves, the devastating drama of faith and sexual degradation that catapulted her to fame. She plays Maggie Tulliver, a young woman whose existence is dominated by love for her changeable brother and a booming conscience that won't let her find happiness at the expense of others. Watson's depth and clarity of expression is like nothing else I've ever seen and whenever she's on screen the piece sparks into life. But the story is essentially uninteresting - concerning the rivalry between a mill owner and his neighbour - most of the other performances are weak and the script is particularly poor, with little dramatic coherence and chunks of sloppy exposition. (2)

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Review: Suede at Brixton Academy, May 19 and 20, 2011



Eleven years after the decade ended, eight years after they split for the first time, it seems Suede are finally being recognised as the ‘90s band. The one that really matters.

There were plenty of us doggedly sticking to the belief that their self-titled 1993 record (at the time, the fastest-selling British debut album bar none) and 1994 follow-up Dog Man Star were as good as anything ever released by anybody. But it took a sell-out reunion at the Royal Albert Hall last March to wake up the broadsheet critics and magazine journalists and kickstart a critical re-appraisal.

Then, a couple of months back, the band announced that their five studio records would all be getting a cleaned-up, bumped-up re-release and – more importantly – that they’d be playing the first three live, in their entirety, across three nights at Brixton Academy. Now call me a misguided, pauper-y old misery guts, but I’m not overly enamoured with Coming Up, the unashamedly poppy 1996 album that has as much filler as killer – and only a couple of really special songs. But the first two nights? I could barely dip into my overdraft quickly enough. Just a quick call to my dad to check he was up for it. After all, he first played me The Drowners – taped off a John Peel show – in ’92. He took the 12-year-old me to see Suede at the Manchester Apollo in ‘96. He still listens to Dog Man Star with admirable regularity. And, well, he’s my dad.

***

Suede play the classic album Suede
Brixton Academy – Friday, May 19, 2011


"Last night at Brixton was one of the best crowds I can remember EVER! There was so much love in the room, how could it not have been amazing?" - Brett Anderson

Energy. Pure pulsating, raw energy. I’ve never been to a gig with more of the stuff, the tone set by frontman Brett Anderson’s invigorating performance. He paces, leaps, pines with an expression of pained longing and gets down on his knees. He pants, sweats, shimmies and frequently ventures into the arms of the crowd. By the end his white shirt is transparent, held together by a solitary button, his torso exposed and glistening with sweat as the audience passes into rapture.

As a statement of intent, the opening shrieks of So Young take some beating: “She can! ... start... to walk out!... when she wants...” And setting the rock-out numbers – dealing invariably with youth, sex and death – against the heightened balladry of Pantomime Horse et al works just as well as on record. Perhaps even better, since the heavy numbers are heavier and the troubled ones more desolate and plaintive.

The highlights of the main set (and this is a relative term, since it's all so damn good) are as you’d expect. A flamboyant Animal Nitrate, a raucous Metal Mickey, escapist closer The Next Life (with its glorious, child-like pay-off: “We’ll flog ice-cream/Till the company’s on its knees”) and the peerless four-song suite that forms the centrepiece of the record. Has there ever been an album with a run of four songs like it? Pantomime Horse/The Drowners/Sleeping Pills/Breakdown. It takes the breath away. Brett’s on his knees for a devastating Pantomime Horse and in the audience for The Drowners (“You owe me a button,” he tells a woman in the crowd), before combining with Richard Oakes – a phenomenally gifted guitarist and the unsung hero of these gigs – for a sensitive, mesmeric Sleeping Pills.

But it’s Breakdown that’s the standout. One of my favourite two Suede songs (The Power, since you ask), I’d noted in the review of the Royal Albert Hall show that while they hadn’t played it that night, you couldn’t have everything. This prompted blogger and intimidatingly knowledgeable Suede fan Planet Me to observe that I was being a bit unrealistic as they’d only played Breakdown live “once, EVER”. Well, they did it again on Friday and it was extraordinary. An eloquent evocation of mental disintegration, class A intertia and sexual anguish dominated by a refrain of “You can only go so far... in your mind”, the song is a wonderful marriage of incredibly rich imagery (“Back where the dogs bark/Where still life bleeds the concrete white”) and the saddest tune this side of Mighty Lak' a Rose, before it blasts out in a weighty din, Brett wailing the obscure, Suedehead-esque question: “Does your love only come in a Volvo?” The live version, with its tremulous vocal wracked with fear and regret, and music building from a whisper to a cacophony, was one of the most wonderful things I’ve heard in my time on this earth. If that sounds like hyperbole, then you weren’t there.

After The Next Life brings our primary reason for being here to a close, the group stride off, wait about a minute, then stride back on again, launching into High Rising, a B-side to So Young. As has been observed time and again, Suede’s B-sides are unprecedentedly strong: better than most bands’ A-sides; hell: better than some of their A-sides. After that gentle, sweeping number, we get a heap of these secret gems: the dirgy He’s Dead, My Insatiable One (a special one for Oakes, as he played this on his audition tape in ’94) – which like so much of the night’s show turns into a huge sing-along – an epic To the Birds and the explosive Killing of a Flashboy, which sends the mosh-pit into a meltdown from which my feet are only just beginning to recover. They close with Can’t Get Enough from fourth album Head Music and a couple of hit singles off Coming Up: Trash and Beautiful Ones.

It was a wonderful show: a pivotal, unimpeachable record given the treatment it deserved – sounding utterly familiar and yet somehow fresh, of-the-moment, even new. A great venue, a fantastic crowd and even a smattering of relative rarities given the timeless treatment. The best thing of all? It's Dog Man flipping Star tomorrow.

Setlist:

So Young
Animal Nitrate
She's Not Dead
Moving
Pantomime Horse
The Drowners
Sleeping Pills
Breakdown
Metal Mickey
Animal Lover
The Next Life
Encore:
High Rising
He's Dead
My Insatiable One
To the Birds
Killing of a Flash Boy
Can't Get Enough
Trash
Beautiful Ones

***

Suede play the classic album Dog Man Star
Brixton Academy – Saturday, May 20, 2011


So how do you follow that? Well, we went on the London Eye. Yeah, really good. You can see everything. Then we went to see Suede again, joined by my old friend Phil (whom regular readers will remember from the Thea Gilmore review).

For me, Dog Man Star is the greatest record of all time: breathtakingly ambitious and completely original, with a worldview and an atmosphere of stifling misery and fantastical escape that’s all its own. Lyrically it’s one of the most coherent and articulate albums around – not many writers could kick off a song with a William Blake line, then maintain that level of artistry – and Bernard Butler’s soaring soundscapes are so far ahead of anything attempted by his contemporaries that you’re almost embarrassed for them. Sling in vocal performances of unmatched emotional intensity, a tight but expressive and exciting band, and a photo of a naked guy on a bed and you can understand the fervour it inspires. So what’ll it be like live? Rather good, it turns out.

It mightn’t surprise you to know that I’d been imagining the start of this gig quite a bit. I was pretty excited. And what a set-opener Introducing the Band is, with its methodical rhythm and Ballardian lyrics, the delivery potent and forceful as the band kicks the lid off the atmosphere of bottled-up excitement. A couple of live regulars – We Are the Pigs and Heroine – are as polished and as reliably superb as you’d expect, before an unforgettable rendering of The Wild Ones, an Anderson anthem that saw him dive into ‘50s American culture once more (James Dean and Marilyn also get a name-check on the record), nabbing the title of a macho Brando biker flick for this fey imagining of a flight from suburbia. As the chorus approaches, Brett casts his microphone in our direction, imploring us to join in. We would, Brett, but it’s a bit high.

I'd read that, by 2003, Daddy's Speeding had been turned, Dylan-style, into something more brooding and intriguing than the slightly muted album version. No kidding. The verses are pared down, but with the vocal torment cranked up to breaking point, lending greater resonance to the slightly clichéd subject matter. The chorus is a chugging racket, the climax remarkable in its ferocity and unhappiness. My girlfriend couldn’t make the gig, so I rang her halfway through and held my phone in the air. She could make out enough of it to know what it was. Brilliant. That’s what it was.

I’ve always held a special place in my heart for The Power. I don’t know another Suede fan who regards it as their greatest song, but it’s just got a special something I’ve never come across anywhere else. It's an update of '60s 'kitchen sink' realism, recalling A Taste of Honey (“Or enslaved in a pebble-dash grave/With a kid on the way”) and tracing the John Osborne idea that the loss of Empire meant imperial derring-do ("If you're far over Africa, on the wings of youth") had been replaced by joblessness and stultifying tedium ("Or if you're down in some satellite town and there's nothing you can do"). It's also extremely cinematic and contains perhaps my favourite couplet in all of music; one which perfectly captures the album’s melding of Hollywood romance and British malaise: “You might live in a screen kiss, it’s a glamorous dream/Or belong to a world that’s gone, it’s the English disease.” They never play it live, but this week they did. It was like the album version, only more so, and - singing it with passion and conviction - two thousand voices (and pointing hands) imploring him to give them the power, it seemed Brett was discovering again what a glorious song he’d created.

New Generation is exuberant and This Hollywood Life (the weak link, though it's a relative term) sleazily appealing, before we reach the only four-song stretch that can give Suede's debut a run for its money. A quartet of ballads - The 2 of Us, Black or Blue, The Asphalt World and Still Life - each with a stunning climax, whether string-led and grandiose (Still Life) or tortured beyond belief (The Asphalt World). The first two are transfixing; the others simply jaw-dropping. The Asphalt World, which begins like a kids’ story (“I know a girl/She walks the Asphalt World”) before being torpedoed by heartache, sexual jealousy and thin consolation, shakes with unleashed unhappiness. The band takes centre-stage near the close, as Richard Oakes unleashes a blistering guitar solo, before Brett rejoins them for the final, hurt-wracked chorus. I’ve seen them do Still Life a couple of times before, but it still gets me anew each time: a simple but epic heroin confessional, with a painfully self-aware Anderson trapped behind glass, crawling the walls, but clinging onto the idea that for all that he’s still alive. As this once-in-a-lifetime version draws to a close and the (recorded) strings swell, the crowd lifts its arms as one, for a two-minute ovation. A thank you, for the greatest record ever made.

Then things get really silly. You know Stay Together, the sensational stand-alone single that Suede never perform, because they’re apparently ashamed of it? Well, they play that. An amazing version of that. Preceded by its legendary B-sides: the heartbreaking The Living Dead and fan favourite My Dark Star. That prompts an “Oh, what?” moment from the fella next to me, as his dream setlist materialises before his very ears. Then they roll out four of the biggest successes from the night before: Killing of a Flashboy (which I had been singing all day), So Young, Metal Mickey and Animal Nitrate, as the venue threatens to erupt with delight. And then they stroll off, exiting to deafening applause and hoarse-throated shouts.

We tumble out, sweat-drenched and grinning, exclaiming the same thing: one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen, one of the best nights I’ve ever had. Better than last night? Ooh, hard to say.

Setlist:

Introducing the Band
We Are The Pigs
Heroine
The Wild Ones
Daddy's Speeding
The Power
New Generation
This Hollywood Life
The 2 of Us
Black or Blue
The Asphalt World
Still Life
Encore:
The Living Dead
My Dark Star
Stay Together
Killing of a Flash Boy
So Young
Metal Mickey
Animal Nitrate

***

Please note: The YouTube vids I've linked to aren't mine. Comments are very welcome below - if you want to link to your own review, Flickr feed or whatever, feel free, and I can also tack the urls up in the body of this post.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Winnipeg, RoboCop 2 and a cute little fella with homicidal kids - Reviews #71



My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007) is a dreamy "docu-fantasy" stuffed with tall tales, half-truths and, well, lies about Maddin's snowy hometown. It has 10 times more sleepwalkers than any other city. It's the coldest metropolis on earth. And all its old signage goes to a mass graveyard. He shows us a balletic seance that ends with two fatalities, a hockey match between pensioner pros in a half-demolished building and a tragedy-cum-tourist attraction - featuring 11 dead horses - that sparked a baby boom. In the style of John Ford, the great American mythmaker, these imaginings somehow reach an essential truth that a factual account could never approach.

And, as in Ford's 1941 masterwork, How Green Was My Valley, we begin with the narrator leaving his birthplace for the final time. Or at least trying to. Dragged down by fatigue, bound by unbreakable sentimental bonds, he resolves to "film his way out". The result incorporates flights of fancy, a furious section dealing with architectural vandalism and class politics that calls to mind Michael Moore, and - of course - Maddin's on-camera alter-ego recreating pivotal scenes from his early life with his aged mother ('40s B-movie icon Ann Savage).

There's an obvious parallel here with Terence Davies' 2008 film, Of Time and the City, being a hymn to a city all tied up with the filmmaker's childhood and his obsession with his family, particularly his mum. There's nothing as transcendent as the jawdropping, emotionally devastating portrait of urban alienation cut to Peggy Lee's 'The Folks Who Live on the Hill' - the staggering centre of Davies' film. But My Winnipeg is more consistent, more accessible and less pretentious, with an attractive playfulness and sense of humour that's largely missing from Davies' frustrating (though often brilliant) film.

It's also great to see Savage giving it both barrels for this glorious last hurrah. A presence in series pictures like After Midnight with Boston Blackie and Passport to Suez, she went on to define the femme fatale in the notorious film noir Detour - just about the only movie from cheapo studio PRC that anyone can remember. With a relatively slender amount of screen time, she dominates My Winnipeg, playing an omniscient, bird-hating ex-salon owner with a sideline in Freudian deconstruction. The scene in which she dismantles her daughter's cover story about hitting a deer to reveal an act of eager promiscuity is a masterclass in stifling, overbearing menace, shot through with jet-black humour.

That such darkness is offset by pseudo-mystic ramblings about rivers, pseudo-sexual ruminations about his "mother's lap" and a jaunty credits sequence scored by a catchy old-time novelty record entitled 'Wonderful Winnipeg' is part of the movie's magic. And its often mesmerising appeal. I don't know if there's a Winnipeg by-law demanding that if someone sleepwalks to their old house and unlocks the door, the current owner has to let them stay until they wake up. But by all rights there should be. This sleepy, feverish film makes it so. (3.5)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
It may not be very polished, but Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984) sure is enjoyable: a gungy monster movie that sees malevolent, pointy-chinned little green tykes marauding through an all-American town at Christmas, destroying everything in their path. We begin in Chinatown, where inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) happens across a Chinese bric-a-brac store, run by bona fide Hollywood legend Keye Luke (Charlie Chan's Number One Son in the classic Fox series of the 1930s; see #47). There, tucked away in a basket is the impossibly cute mogwai Gizmo, a furry, crooning little bundle of fun. Just don't expose him to bright light, don't put him in water, and don't feed him after midnight, Luke warns.

He won't cause you any trouble. But his asexual offspring are a touch psychotic.

The acting from the juveniles is wooden and first-time scripter Chris Columbus never did write the most eloquent dialogue, but he has strong basic ideas and follows them through in imaginative ways. And while making your diminutive, cartoonish villains both frightening and hilarious is a difficult trick to pull off, he, Dante and the creative team manage it effortlessly. The set-pieces in the kitchen and living-room (gremlin into blender will go), the science lab and the YMCA are loaded with menace, contrasted with the Muppets-esque cinema sing-along and a simply amazing spot of carolling. From start to finish, the Christmas setting is milked for all its worth (Phoebe Cates' monologue about her worst ever festive experience is supposed to be a joke, isn't it?) and the subversion of the small-town idyll is also spot on; the tracking shot of hero Billy (Zach Galligan) and his dog making their way to work is a little gem that opens up the whole town, establishing a real and credible movie world.

As with so much of Dante's work, there are numerous film references for cool folks like you or I. Not only the obvious nods to The Wizard of Oz, concerning a wicked old woman's attempts to nab our hero's hound, and the clips of It's a Wonderful Life, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Clark Gable racing flick To Please a Lady (smirk) scattered liberally throughout the film, but also a handful of gag cameos and a character named Lew Landers, after the journeyman director who helmed '30s horror classic The Raven.

Grossing more than $150m from a budget of just $11m, Gremlins inspired a rash of knock-offs and a 1990 sequel (in which the gremlins eat movie critic Leonard Maltin, who bashed this initial effort). It was also a key influence on Joe Cornish's spectacular Attack the Block, released last week. Viewed 17 years on, the film's flaws are evident, but they're outweighed by the sheer amount there is to admire and enjoy. This is a deft blend of horror and humour, with a sound premise, a rich Yuletide atmosphere and some amusingly malicious little green terrors, who lay waste to middle America while declaring "Yum, yum, yum". And call me a massive wuss, but Gizmo is really cute. The bit where he sings and plays the keyboard is lovely. (3.5)

***

Some misguided souls claim this next film is a classic. I am going to set a killer robot on them.



RoboCop 2 (Irvin Kershner, 1990) - RoboCop is a genuinely great film, a potent actioner with lashings of satire and a surprisingly effective emotional undercurrent. RoboCop 2 is not. It's a patently weird mix of extreme cynicism, broad comedy and imcomprehensible storytelling, as Detroit's favourite cyborg law enforcer (Peter Weller) is destroyed by a gang of drug-dealers (including a young boy who won't stop swearing) then rebuilt along wooly liberal lines, with his three commands replaced by more than 250 community-minded guidelines. Including: "Don't walk across a ball room floor swinging your arms." That's one of only two good jokes in the film. The other is the self-referential chapter in which one of the character intones: "Introducing... RoboCop 2!" only for everything to immediately go wrong. That would be funnier if it wasn't such an apt metaphor. There are some interesting elements here - the philosophical question of how human our hero really is, a snapshot of his conflict with everyday cops - but these are dropped almost immediately, as the movie trades in its brain for a dock-off drug-addict robot and its heart for a cheap laugh. (1.5)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Attack the Block - Reviews #70

Just the one review in this update, as I can't wait any longer to tell you about the spectacular...



CINEMA: Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) - The first film from Joe Cornish, one half of cult broadcasting duo Adam and Joe, is a vital horror-comedy that pitches a teen gang against a breed of hairy aliens with glow-in-the-dark teeth. It begins with a mugging, as nurse Jodie Whittaker has her phone, wallet and ring taken at knifepoint by five hoodies. No sooner has she fled the scene than an alien falls from the sky into a parked car. The kids kick it to death. Then its mates turn up.

This is an incredibly assured debut, with unpredictable plotting, stylised dialogue and characters you really care about, once their frailties are laid bare. Cornish has acknowledged his debt to '80s "creature features", but the film this most recalls is John Carpenter's action classic Assault on Precinct 13 - albeit set in London, and with added aliens - as a gaggle of disparate, untrusting souls band together to combat a greater threat, and an unlikely, initially dislikeable hero emerges.

While Whittaker is excellent and the supporting players are uniformly fine, the standout performance unquestionably comes from John Boyega as gang leader Moses, with his sullen expression, Adidas-three-stripe-style facial scar and burgeoning understanding of his growing responsibilities. He's a fantastic character and Boyega nails his myriad complexities: his insecurity and feeling of persecution alongside his bravery, resourcefulness and sense of honour.

Cornish also has a natural gift for choreographing action, leading to a series of frenetic, energetic, perfectly-paced set pieces. Indeed, that vitality and invention runs through the whole film, from its "big alien gorilla wolf monster" baddies to the Union Jack reveal: an iconic shot, informed by Roger Moore-era Bond, at the heart of a stunning finale.

Perhaps the subplot about middle class drug dealer Luke Treadaway was a bit of a misstep - although funny in itself, it slows proceedings - but everything else about this punchy, idiosyncratic slice of genre fun is absolutely dead-on. It's also a thrilling counterpoint to establishment fare like The King's Speech, without a royal carriage or quietly-emoting monarch in sight. And it has the best final five minutes of any film in recent memory. (4)

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Station Agent, floppy hands and Ewan McGregor as a cockney - Reviews #69

In the latest batch of reviews, I bring you a deceptively deep deep-space adventure, a couple of comedies, a London-set stinker and a total triumph.



The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003) - "When his only friend dies, a man born with dwarfism moves to rural New Jersey to live a life of solitude, only to meet a chatty hot dog". So begins the plot summary over at IMDb. I didn't realise the sentence had cut off and thought that was possibly the best basis for a film EVER. But even without a verbose sausage roll (it's actually a hot dog vendor), this is comfortably one of the best movies of the decade just gone, boasting as it does a revelatory performance from Peter Dinklage. He's the deceptively boring dwarf who ups sticks upon inheriting a dilapidated train station and finds friendship with the relentlessly upbeat temporary manager of a mobile eaterie (Bobby Cannavale) and a damaged middle-aged woman (Patricia Clarkson), mourning the death of her son. Working with a minimum of dialogue, Dinklage is simply remarkable: poignant and yet completely unsentimental, while unleashing a series of breathtakingly funny reaction faces that put him in the exalted company of Buster Keaton, Joan Leslie and Walter Connolly. The scene in which he talks about his anger at being born a dwarf is especially resonant when you discover that those were Dinklage's own experiences too - his ire and sense of injustice subsiding with age.

The film's undulating narrative is perhaps a touch too formulaic in its happy-sad-happy-sad structure, but one wonders how else you build dramatic tension, and it's difficult to fault the level-headed script, with its abundant humour, confident handling of potentially mawkish subject matter, and periodic hammer blows. Writer-director McCarthy also provides some distinctive visuals - often shot at Dinklage's level and making the most of his fascinating features - giving the film a backwards-looking sensibility as he casually evokes a lost age of steam, society and station agents, aided by Stephen Trask's spare, Cooder-ish score. It's a terrific piece of work and a must for anyone in thrall to first-rate acting and emotionally-resonant human drama. Even without a talking hot dog. (4)

***



Heartbreaker (Pascal Chaumeil, 2010) is a breezy, intoxicating romantic comedy that's so fun - and so funny - you can forgive it for skimping a bit on the characterisation. Romain Duris is a professional charmer called in to split up unsuitable couples in a variety of guises - and using a multitude of tricks - though always ending with the same tried-and-tested spiel. Deep in debt, he takes on a humdinger of a case, pitching up in Monaco to coax Vanessa Paradis away from British philanthropist Andrew Lincoln just days before their wedding. The film does sometimes struggle to explain why Paradis should choose the deceitful (albeit smitten) Duris over the blameless Lincoln, but if you're willing to go with it, it's hugely enjoyable, with an inventive script, some super sight gags and an excellent turn from Duris, who's equally good at playing dashing, vulnerable and plain old silly. In support, Francois Damiens and Julie Ferrier - as Duris's partners in deception - make a really sweet couple. I liked it a great deal more than I expected to. (3.5)

***



The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003) is a bleak, slow and engrossing drama about two teenage brothers and the trip they share with their returning father, a taciturn, mysterious, often cruel man with an almost pathological desire to toughen them up. Beginning with a desperately moving vignette about the younger boy's inability to fulfil a dare set by some older neighbourhood kids, then changing tack entirely, the film is virtually impossible to second guess, as Zvyagintsev bucks convention and side-steps easy answers, before fashioning an ending that's gloriously unresolved but fitting - even perfect - in the Les quatre cents coups vein. It's a tough watch, because of its harshness and emotional brutality, and occasionally a little too ponderous, but the richly expressive photography is a major boon and the performances from the kids are just wonderful. Tragically, 16-year-old Vladimir Garin lost his life two days before the film's release, attempting to replicate the stunt he performs in the film's opening moments. (3.5)

***



Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot, 1998) - This isn't the disposable, one-joke affair its marketing campaign would have had you believe. Rather, it's a heartwarming comedy-drama about a group of lost, unhappy souls who shed their insecurity and self-loathing during an intergalactic road trip. Tim Allen, Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver are the stars of a cult sci-fi show, cancelled in 1982, whose plodding existence as convention attractions is invaded by fans from another planet. The problem: the silver-suited octopus-people with their wild speech patterns and floppy hands believe the show to be a historical document, and need the characters' help to defeat some big green badasses. The film starts off unpromisingly, with barely a joke or strong scene in the first half hour, but gets better and better, leading to a richly satisfying final 40 that mixes serial-like thrills (the metal punchers, the re-appearance of the rock monster) with emotionally weighty subplots. Weaver tends to get "being funny" confused with "just shouting", but Sam Rockwell is a standout as a self-reflexive genre buff convinced of his impending demise, and there's a nice performance from Justin Long as an enthusiastic nerd. He played a similar part in Die Hard 4.0, to contrastingly disastrous ends. (3)

***



Analyse This (Harold Ramis, 1999) – The premise is good and the leads are quite fun, but the screenplay’s all over the shop, with a dearth of decent jokes and a plot that makes no sense. (2)

***



*SOME SPOILERS, ONE RUDE WORD*
Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, 2007)
– Oh Woody, you poor bastard. What have you done? And why? Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are Ian and Terry, cockney bruvvas with not entirely convincing accents who get in over their heads when their loveable, wealthy uncle Tom Wilkinson (like an older version of Joseph Cotten from Shadow of a Doubt) turns up and asks them to bump off troublesome whistleblower Phil Davis. Wilkinson’s actually OK and there are a couple of tense moments (I’m a sucker for that someone’s-somewhere-they-shouldn’t-be gimmick), but the acting from McGregor and Farrell is utterly laughable and Woody’s script is ear-shreddingly horrendous, a potent fusion of banality, risible plotting and toe-curling one-liners. The characters call each other “Terry”, “Ian” or “Uncle Howard” at the end of almost every exchange; that’s how we speak in England. We also say “I’ll give you a phone”, if we’re going to ring someone. On top of all that, Woody inexplicably makes Sally Hawkins talk in that going-up-at-the-end-of-a-sentence-scally-Lahndahner voice that Lucy Punch does in his latest. I interviewed Jim Carter last year and asked him about working with Woody on this. He said he’d like to draw a veil over it and that the movie was "a turkey”. He’s not wrong. (1)

Note to people with finite amounts of free time: It's really not worth it. I've seen all of Woody's movies as director as this is by far the worst thing he's ever done.

See also: To peruse other recent Woody efforts, follow these handy links: Whatever Works (2009), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). To read about his masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters, clicky here and scoot down to the bottom of the guide.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Making of Buster Keaton - Part Two

... in which we continue our journey through the early career of the silent screen's greatest comic. You can read Part One here.



The Rough House (Roscoe Arbuckle, 1917) was the second collaboration between endlessly-mugging slapstick peddler Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle - whose career was about to bottom out in gutting fashion - and Buster Keaton, a genius newly arrived in Hollywood and yet to premiere his legendary blank-faced persona. There's some funny stuff here - like Arbuckle trying to douse a raging fire by repeatedly filling a teacup with water - but little rhyme or reason as to how the hero behaves. He's essentially a sociopath: attacking people for no reason, jettisoning job opportunities by stroking the staff, and applying a thick coat of butter to a bald man's head. Intriguingly, he also does a very short "dance of the rolls". It lacks the joy and innocence of Chaplin's celebrated routine in The Gold Rush, particularly as there's no dramatic context, but it's interesting to note how silent comedy evolved and observe that some of the most famous set-pieces in cinema (the national anthem sing-off in Casablanca, familiar to anyone who's seen La grande illusion) are half-inched quite shamelessly from earlier works. Buster's contributions here include a few spectacular pratfalls and a bit where he gets stuck on top of a big pole, dressed as a policeman. Following the old "great big fight, barely-related second-reel" template, The Rough House isn't in the same league as Keaton's dizzyingly inventive solo shorts (we'll get to them in due course), but it has a few bright spots and spotlights the supreme physicality that was about to make him a superstar. (2)

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Robert Rodriguez's Mexico Trilogy - Reviews #68



In 1992, Mexican director Robert Rodriguez burst onto the scene with a low-budget, Spanish-language thriller about a musician hiding out in a small town having been mistaken for a deadly criminal. El Mariachi was followed three years later by Desperado, a glossy Hollywood actioner where the title role was taken up by Antonio Banderas. A conclusion to the trilogy arrived in 2003, on which Rodriguez spanked $29m - more than 4,000 times what the first film cost - as he looked to emulate part three of Sergio Leone's slightly overrated Dollars Trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What I've done is, I've watched the films and then written reviews of them.



*SOME SPOILERS*
El Mariachi (Robert Rodriguez, 1992)
- Rodriguez's debut feature, shot in two weeks for $7,000, is a heady mix of grisliness, wry humour and charm, as a travelling guitarist (Carlos Gallardo) is mistaken for a ruthless killer, turning him from lightning-fingered balladeer to lightning-fingered desperado. It's an excitingly rough and ready mission statement, with bloody action scenes, a touching romance and a great use of voiceover, as our hero harks back to the mariachis of old, lending the film a timelessness and cultural relevance. Rodriguez allows some cheesiness to creep in when slimy '80s-style villain Peter Marquardt is on screen, but it's a minor shortcoming in this excellent little film, which milks the mistaken-identity plot for all its worth, aided by Gallardo's considerable charisma and likeability. There's even time in its 82 minutes for us all to stop and listen to a nice song. (3.5)



The first sequel, Desperado (Robert Rodriguez, 1995), kicks off in spectacular fashion, with Steve Buscemi regaling barman Cheech Marin and his pals with the story of a near-mythic gunman, "the biggest Mexican I have ever seen". His tall tale is intercut with exaggerated footage of El Mariachi (now played by Antonio Banderas) wiping out a bar-full of real lowlifes. "I think he's headed this way," Buscemi adds helpfully. For 50 minutes, the film maintains that momentum, setting up its Leone-ish story through a series of deft set-pieces as Banderas blasts up a second saloon, gets acquainted with leggy book-store owner Salma Hayek and encounters a knife-throwing mystery man (Danny Trejo). But then the story gets away from Rodriguez, becoming repetitive and uninteresting as it sets up a run of increasingly desperate action sequences. Banderas is good in the lead, but the film's concessions to conventional "cool" are pretty tiresome compared to the individuality, wisdom and bracing bleakness of the first instalment. (2.5)

Trivia note: That's the original El Mariachi, Carlos Gallardo, as Banderas' buddy Campa - the chap with the rocket-launcher guitar case.



Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez, 2003) - So this is how the trilogy ends. Not with a bang, but with a succession of massive bangs. The first sign that Rodriguez might be getting a little carried away is in the credits sequence, where Banderas strolls to the top of a cathedral and we pull away to an obscenely, self-consciously grandiose helicopter shot that must have cost more than his entire debut film, the music swelling in mock-Morricone style. Then our hero watches a blameless pensioner get shot for protecting his identity and you begin to think: 'Perhaps a little more time could have been spent on the story.' It's a confused, portentous film that weaves its many narrative strands with the casual grace of a dead rhino, as CIA agent Johnny Depp tries to engineer a revolution to his ends, Banderas hunts the man who killed his wife and daughter, and Eva Mendes wears a succession of very tight-fitting tops. There are individual sequences that work well, particularly another flashy opening that's rich in mythology and a flashback that sees Banderas and Hayek escape from a fifth-storey flat whilst handcuffed to one another, but the overall effect is deadening. Rodriguez certainly knows how to mess up the end of a trilogy, doesn't he? (2)

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Bewitched, Beatrix and Woody remembering to include some jokes - Reviews #67



*SPOILERS AND ONE PRETTY MILD SWEAR WORD*
Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009)
– It takes a good 10 minutes to get going and the last half hour is a write-off, but there's 50 minutes of decent stuff here and in terms of Allen's recent work, that's not bad going. Larry David plays a misanthropic physics "genius” (his word) whose life takes a turn for the better when he meets down-and-out Southern beauty pageant regular Evan Rachel Wood - before some unwelcome visitors shove the lever on the old roundabout of infidelity. There are a few problems. Allen invests Wood with a great deal of likeability, but never warms to the idea that people who appear ignorant aren't necessarily unintelligent. And not only does he seem to think the funny thing about Born Yesterday is that Billie is a dumbass, he seems to think we're guffawing at Pygmalion because Eliza is a chav. They're not and we're not. The satisfying thing about those works is the idea that they challenge our initial perceptions and we wind up rooting for these transformed characters as they're given a chance in life and seize it with both rows of teeth. There's also an issue with Allen's portrait of evangelical Christians. Now I'm as sick as anyone of bigoted, gun-totin' idiot-holes giving the rest of us God-likin' folk a bad name, but I flat out refuse to believe that the reason they're big on fidelity and homophobia is because the women are nymphos and the men are all gay. That's true of 50 per cent of them, maximum. And, thirdly, while Allen has never really made a statement on film about the public arse-kicking he got following a certain relationship decision in 1992, this is the closest he's got, as David laments the crusading morality of America's "family values nuts", time and again. Nice, Woody. Very subtle.

Now to the good stuff. Whatever Works has effective performances from David and Wood, a strong first act where their relationship flowers and as many good one-liners – scattered liberally throughout the film – as any Allen film in recent memory. My favourite is a sitcom-ish pay-off, when Ed Begley, Jr. comes looking for his estranged wife, now shacked up with two lovers. "She's got a new man? What's he like?” Begley asks. "He has four arms and two noses,” smirks David. It's a shame, really, that the excessive smugness and disastrous plotting takes it off target, because there's some fine writing here and the potential for a great film, about a talented old grump finding happiness – and hopefully some shred of decency – in the love of a pretty young girl. But then I suppose that's Sweet and Lowdown. And about five million other movies. And perhaps, Woody would say, his own life. (2.5)

See also: To read about how little Woody forgot how to make good films again, read our annoyed review of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger here.

***



*ONE RUDE WORD*
Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009)
– Maybe we've been spoiled by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' spectacular update of the Holmes legend, but this doesn't quite cut it. Whereas that BBC series provided a fascinating, contemporary, utterly convincing spin on the character: dark, apparently autistic and obsessed with crime beyond all reason, Ritchie's film thinks the way you inject danger into Sherlock is to make him a bare-knuckle boxer. It also lacks the knowledge of, and reverence for, Conan Doyle's stories – there's precious little of Holmes' distinctiveness here. And, while the movie exploits the Victorian London setting to some degree, it does so no more than, say, From Hell. Or Shanghai Knights. Added to which: why are the stakes in these action blockbusters always so high? And so stupid? In this case it would appear the answer is at least partly down to marketing. Villain Mark Strong is very keen to mention clearly – and twice – that he intends to take over Britain (yeah, whatever, who gives a shit?) and then AMERICA (oh no, not the Land of the Free!). Having said that, Robert Downey, Jr. (as Holmes) and Jude Law (as Watson) are both quite good, and spark off each other impressively, and the possibly supernatural story – which at times appears ludicrous – does tie up reasonably well at the end. If the sequel can get hold of a smarter script, it might turn out alright. But I'm rather more excited about the return of Sherlock to the small screen in the autumn. (2.5)

***



While You Were Sleeping (Jon Turteltaub, 1995) – This excellent romantic comedy eschews formula and works so well for just that reason, with a real story about characters you genuinely care about, feeling emotions that humans actually feel. Sandra Bullock is a lonely train station ticket attendant who falls in love with suave commuter Peter Gallagher without having ever spoken to him. When he's mugged at the station, she rescues him from the tracks and, while he's in a coma, is taken to the bosom of his family. The only thing is, they think she's his fiancée. Then his suspicious, quietly charming brother (Bill Pullman) turns up. It's an extremely well-plotted film, never feeling forced or unrealistic, and the performances from Bullock and Pullman are absolutely lovely. It's funny too, with Michael Rispoli offering a hysterical characterisation as Bullock's unwaveringly horny neighbour. (3.5)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996)
is about as good as a crime-thriller-turned-vampire-bloodbath is ever going to be. Tarantino’s script is excellent, the performances from George Clooney, Harvey Keitel and then flavour-of-the-month Juliette Lewis are spot on, and the super-stylised weapons make fighting the undead look like a valid and desirable career option. At least until that massive rat thing turns up. I could certainly have done without a sensationalist subplot about rape, and Tarantino is a flatly terrible actor, but everything else about this Alamo re-imagining hits the bullseye. There's also a bit where the not-entirely-hideous Salma Hayek dances around in her bra and pants, if that's your sort of thing, which it probably is. (3.5)

***



Bewitched (Nora Ephron, 2005) isn’t a straight update of the enduringly popular ‘60s sitcom, but a film about an update of the series, which features a real-life witch (Nicole Kidman) as Samantha, opposite obnoxious movie star Will Ferrell. I'm not being unpleasant; those are the roles they play. It feels more like a cop-out than a meta-textual triumph, as if comedy veteran Ephron won the right to adapt the series, sat down and promptly thought: ‘Oh no, what the bloody hell have I done?’ It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the film has little obvious fondness for its source – beyond its pop cultural significance – as the remake-within-the-remake scenes are purposefully unfunny. I don’t think the film deserves the comprehensive kicking it received. The story’s nothing new, essentially paraphrasing Bell, Book and Candle, with Steve Carell overacting in the Lemmon stylee as if his life depended on it. And a strong veteran supporting cast, featuring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, is largely wasted (though Caine does turn himself into the Jolly Green Giant at one stage). But it’s entertaining – particularly in the first half – with Ferrell doing his usual shouty improv schtick and Kidman drawing laughs and pathos from a wide-eyed, deadpan naivete, only falling down when she diverts from it. The best moments are in Ferrell’s opening scene, where he enthuses about the merits of the original Bewitched, before a bit of prompting from his agent (Jason Schwartzman) encourages him to embark on an increasingly ludicrous set of demands. It's not magical, then, but not too bad. (I wish they hadn't glibly soundtracked one inane sequence with R.E.M.'s Everybody Hurts, though - that song is too great and too important for such tiresome indignities. The rest of the music is really well-chosen, in the American Werewolf in London manner.) (2.5)

See also: For a write-up of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, also starring Will Ferrell, go here.

***



Miss Potter (Chris Noonan, 2006) is a pleasant but unremarkable biopic of Beatrix Potter, lit by its minimal use of animated inserts (which interact with their creator) and some good performances. Zellweger is an almost instinctively irritating performer – all ill-judged grins and cloying sentiment – but she’s far better than usual here, bringing both steeliness and an attractive vulnerability to the character. The script’s mostly quite well done too, though it's a little one-note and does turn into a dry study of land reform in its final minutes, which is generally a no-no. Ewan McGregor is ideal as Miss Potter’s publisher and prospective beau. Emily Watson, who apparently wanted the lead and would doubtless have been wonderful in it, is also fine as her confidante. Nice music too. (2.5)

***



Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000) – Heeeeeeeeere’s Gandhi! Yes, Sir Ben Kingsley (I called you “Sir Ben” like you asked, please don’t glass me) is the goateed psychopath trying to talk ex-crim Ray Winstone out of retirement in sunny Spain, with the aid of repetition, deviation and his fists. This is really just another variation on the classic ‘70s/’80s Lahndahn gangster model, with echoes of both The Long Good Friday and Get Carter, but the dialogue and characterisations are extremely strong, the heavyhanded symbolism in the opening scenes works a treat and the pay-off is particularly sweet. I’m not sure about the jokey twist at the death, though. (3.5)

***




Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004)
isn’t necessarily a very enjoyable film, as Lindsay Lohan’s school newcomer loses her identity, her perspective and her sense of decency as she battles – and ingratiates herself with – reigning queen of mean Rachel McAdams. But there’s no questioning the quality of either the acerbic dialogue or the performances, which are spot on. The plotting does borrow too liberally from the wonderful Heathers, and Tina Fey loses her grip on the realism of the piece in the final third, but this is still an incisive and intelligent teen movie. (3)

***



Shrek (Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, 2001) - Well, it's not as funny or clever as it thinks it is, but the central story is strong, John Lithgow's tiny villain is good and Eddie Murphy made me laugh a few times. (2.5)

Friday, 6 May 2011

Spy Kids, baseball and the worst film I've seen in years - Reviews #66



Spy Kids (Robert Rodriguez, 2001) – This is a wonderful children's movie: intelligent, wildly imaginative and with plenty of heart. Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega are appealing as the troubled kids whose tedious suburban life is turned upside down by the revelation that those bedtime stories were real, and their parents (Carla Gugino and the excellent Antonio Banderas) really are super-agents. Now all they have to do is travel to the remote island castle of an eccentric kids TV presenter (Alan Cumming) who's imprisoned their mum and dad, fight some henchman made of giant thumbs and defeat an army of robot children. Rodriguez, who also scripted, edited and co-scored, perfectly juggles the diverse elements, creating a movie that's as funny, entertaining and original as any live-action kids' film of the last 20 years. From the super-stylised pre-credits sequence - showing Gugino and Banderas gettin' it on - to the heartfelt post-action pay-off, this is something very special indeed. (4)

***



Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Robert Rodriguez, 2002) is an absolutely exceptional sequel that takes all the best elements of the first film - humour, warmth and pencil-moustaches - and throws in some giant hybrid animals and Steve Buscemi as a mad scientist, with predictably awesome results. Sabara and Vega return, this time battling a shadowy power-crazed villain, while trying to out-do a pair of rival, showboating spy kids. As you might expect, their quest involves camping out on an island populated by oversized beasts, like a 20ft half-spider/half-gorilla. Not to mention several Harryhausen-homaging sword-fighting skellingtons. Rodriguez expands his scope, adding romance and another generation of super agents (Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor as Gugino's parents), without diluting the sense of wonder, excitement or emotional clarity. My favourite gag is the little toddler weighing into the fight at the awards dinner. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that the musical end-credits sequence is rubbish. (4)

***


Yes, it really is this rubbish.

*SPOILERS*
Spy Kids 3: Game Over (Robert Rodriguez, 2003)
is an inexplicably dire third outing that takes place largely in a virtual-reality universe, flinging things audience-wards in a way that apparently realises the full benefits of 3D, while ignoring all of cinema's other possibilities. Juni (Daryl Sabara), now an ex-super-agent, is forced to return to the fold after his sister is frozen in a video game by slurring megalomaniac Sylvester Stallone, cueing a series of terrible CGI set-pieces. There are a couple of laughs, including the appearance - and then swift demise - of The Guy (a surprise cameo), but the film is full of superficial sentimentality and entirely devoid of magic or invention, trading idly on the goodwill from the first two movies. Disappointingly, Sabara plays Juni as if he were a different character: self-consciously cool, and lacking in the nerdy appeal essential for the part, while the sequences with Stallone and his unfunny alter-egos are beyond parody. This is like watching someone else play a video game for 80 minutes. (1.5)

***


At no point does this, or anything like this, happen.

It Happens Every Spring (Lloyd Bacon, 1949) is a sporting comedy that takes a fun premise and knocks it out of the park. Ray Milland plays a professor who inadvertently discovers that his new solution can keep baseballs away from bats, launching him on a wildly successful pitching career. It's clever, atmospheric, amusing and sometimes very tense, with some thoughtful things to say about hero-worship and America’s obsession with its national game, an excellent supporting performance from Paul Douglas and a particularly satisfying ending. (4)

See also: To read about The Doctor Takes a Wife, a screwball comedy starring Ray Milland, go here.

***


Oh shut up. Your character makes no sense.

Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008) - This has put me off Abba. And Julie Walters. And possibly cinema itself. I couldn't stand anything about it, from Meryl Steep's grating singing and "look at me, I can be fun" characterisation to the teeth-achingly dreadful script - which crowbars the numbers in with staggering artlessness - witless staging and uniformly annoying performances. Except Colin Firth, he was kind of OK. Without hyperbole, the worst film I've seen for two years. (1)

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Kim Novak, B-Westerns and taking off all of your clothes for money - Reviews #65



Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955) – William Holden is the muscly drifter who blows into a small-town to see an old college buddy and rips the lid of the local women's repressed sexuality. The opening and closing scenes are utterly wonderful; everything in between is a little overwrought in the '50s style, dealing with over-familiar themes and pulled down by some mannered, obvious turns (not least from Rosalind Russell). There's still plenty to admire and enjoy, with Holden utterly explosive in his atypically theatrical performance, Novak ideally cast as the young woman in his sights, and some spectacular cinematography from the legendary James Wong Howe – like those lantern-lit picnic scenes. (3)

See also: William Holden also appeared in Garson Kanin's sensational Born Yesterday.

***



Pushover (Richard Quine, 1954) – Fans of Double Indemnity won't be surprised to see investigator Fred MacMurray getting talked into murder by a sexy laydee (Kim Novak) in this slightly tired psychological noir. Novak sizzles, MacMurray sweats and there are some nice stylistic touches, but such exertions are spent on a largely uninteresting script. There are some intriguing parallels with the work of Alfred Hitchcock, though. As with Rear Window, released two days later, large portions of the film are shot from a stakeout position and, like Vertigo, the film deals with what happens if you get obsessed with Kim Novak (timely, as I've watched three of her films this weekend). There's also a nice romantic subplot featuring Dorothy Malone and Philip Carey. (2.5)

***



Bell, Book and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958) is a minor but enjoyable romantic comedy that appears to have no significance beyond its immediate story, until a lovely last 15. Kim Novak is a New York witch who – literally – charms publisher Jimmy Stewart to stop him marrying her high school nemesis. It's a gentle and entertaining film, even if there are only a handful of real laughs ("Taxi! Oh taxi!”), with fine chemistry between the leads (reunited after Vertigo) and a really awesome, snow-tinged set. In support, Elsa Lanchester spouts vacantly, Ernie Kovacs drinks a lot and Jack Lemmon offers a vivid demonstration of what he'll do if you don't rein him in. Mug incessantly and play the bongos. (3)

***




The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) – Before The King's Speech, there was... The Full Monty. Yup, that was the last time the whole of Britain went to the cinema. It's a neat comedy-drama, of a piece with the cycle of such home-grown successes released in the mid-'90s, though shorn of the heavier social commentary of Brassed Off and not in the same league as the remarkable Little Voice. The film traces the fortunes of six sons of Sheffield who decide the way to reverse their ailing fortunes following the collapse of the steel industry is to take off all their clothes in public for money. Its main virtues are an inventive, literate script by Peter Beaufoy (though without wanting to sound like a killjoy, I'm not sure an "epi" is really acceptable slang for a fit) and a game cast, including Robert Carlyle and Tom Wilkinson. The emotional moments are nicely handled and that celebrated scene in the dole queue where they all start dancing in sync is indeed joyous. (3)

***



A Lawless Street (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955) is a thoughtful, exciting and flamboyantly-directed Western from Lewis, who began in oaters but made his name with a couple of incredible films noir, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. Randolph Scott plays a lawman troubled by the town he's trying to tame and the memories of the men he's had to kill. Into his life rides Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) off of Murder, She Wrote, a music hall actress who also happens to be his estranged missus. Meanwhile, hired gun ("Don't ever call me that again”) Michael Pate arrives in town, wanting a showdown with the marshal. This is a cut above the Scott fare that had come before – if a little short of the Ranown run on which he was about to embark with Budd Boetticher – with original dialogue, a progressive worldview and a knockout performance from Pate as the rubber-lipped hitman. The only shortcoming is a rushed and somewhat unsatisfactory final reel. (3.5)

***



Coroner Creek (Ray Enright, 1948) – Incredibly boring Randolph Scott Western, notable only for introducing his new, hard-bitten persona. He plays a (not overly) mysterious man seeking vengeance against the kingpin of Coroner Creek, who committed some (not overly) mysterious wrong 18 months back. A strong cast – including Forrest Tucker and veteran character actors Edgar Buchanan and Russell Simpson – is largely wasted, the plotting relies on frequent coincidence and the dialogue is just awful. Curious, as this by-the-numbers effort was penned by Kenneth Gamet, who wrote eight Scott vehicles (and the earlier Pittsburgh), including A Lawless Street. (1.5)