Saturday, 30 June 2012

Review: The Stone Roses at Heaton Park, Manchester

Friday, June 29, 2012

As the 11pm curfew falls, fireworks explode across the Manchester sky and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song floats from the speakers around Heaton Park, it is something like a perfect moment.

It’s strange, perhaps, for the evening’s euphoria to congeal into this tranquil, whispered climax, 70,000 faces turning their backs on the stage to watch pretty patterns in the night sky. Strange for this pivotal moment to occur after the band has disappeared, the reverb of I Am the Resurrection replaced by the whizz-bang of lit gunpowder. But there was nothing ordinary or predictable about a night which most of those 70,000 – not least the four on stage – thought would never happen.

And the musical pay-off? Marley's song is appositely-named, to say the least.

Yes, there are greater wars to be fought on this earth than ones involving Mancunian bands, but this was still a night of redemption for an iconic group that threw it all away not once but twice: first by going missing at the peak of their powers (not all their fault, I'll grant you), and then by inexplicably imploding when they were perfectly poised to cash in commercially and artistically on the British indie guitar boom they did as much as anyone to inspire.

Strolling nonchalantly onto the stage at 9 o'clock sharp, basking in the adulation and then breaking into an atypically rocky I Wanna Be Adored, the Roses set about obliterating the brickbats of tiresome commentators, blowing away concerns that this was only about the money, that it was a pointless exercise, a hollow nostalgia trip or a spectacle unbecoming of a group of 40-year-olds.

Their remarkable two-hour set, before a convivial, woozy, boozy, largely stoned and endlessly pointing audience, included every song from their seminal, self-titled 1989 record, the best three songs from the hubris-tastic follow-up Second Coming – with lost anthem Ten Storey Love Song comprehensively reclaimed by a bellowing crowd – two stand-along singles of inestimable importance, and a trio of unforgettable flipsides. It always seems like a big, pretentious fib when someone claims their favourite song is a b-side, but aside from the first and last songs on their debut, Where Angels Play takes some beating. Tonight we get a glorious reading, segueing into Shoot You Down.

On a stage flanked and backed by big screens showing close-ups mixed with inventive, lemon-heavy visuals, there’s ample room for frontman Ian Brown to prowl, and easy access to a horizontal gangway where he periodically disappears to stroke the hands of the front row. His vocals always get a pounding from cynical critics, but – at least in terms of what you could hear above a perpetual crowd chorus – there was only one song in which he was flat out singing the wrong notes, and that was the closer, I Am the Resurrection. In totemic terms, he was faultless: everything was channelled through him and there was no false gesture (nor any false modesty) in his crowd-commanding performance.

The band had promised a modern spin on their classic sound and they delivered, the same three-piece group delivering a meatier, heavier, more muscular sound, complete with some inspired noodling from guitarist John Squire. If Brown signed up for the gigs on the basis that he could pay for his divorce, Squire presumably did so on the proviso that he be allowed to play a six-minute guitar solo during every song. The one during an exultant Fools Gold was a belter, and the sort of musical diversions that seemed like introspection or even self-indulgence on the second record worked ideally in a live setting, complementing a hit-heavy opening with artistry and originality. I’m not sure everyone was so enamoured by the periodic shifts from singalong to jam session, though. At times you could see feet shifting and slight boredom setting in as Squire settled into another complex fingers-of-fire routine.

There was a rant from Ian Brown about the Royal Family (to whom he dedicated murder fantasy Elizabeth, My Dear), a lot of boasting about the scale of the band's achievement in putting on these shows – self-aggrandisement tinged with self-deprecation – and also the singer’s attempt at a rap, in which the only audible words were “Stone Roses” and “Heaton Park”. But such things were mere trivialities besides a band who just did everything right as they reconnected with fans who had lived for this day, but never expected it to arrive.

The highlights? There were too many to choose from across an exhilarating show, but here’s for starters: a blissful Where Angels Play, versions of Sugar Spun Sister and Made of Stone that lifted you off the ground, and one of the loveliest moments I’ve ever had at a gig: our entire family unit hugging, leaping and singing as one to This Is the One, as all around everyone else did the self same thing.

These ‘80s indie-rock tunes aren’t the important “songs of freedom” to which Marley referred, nor are the audience in need of rescue or emancipation, but – to borrow from another great modern songwriter – the rain falls hard on this humdrum town, and this night of escapism, nostalgia and, yes, redemption, was one we’ll never forget.



I Wanna Be Adored
Mersey Paradise
(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister
Sally Cinnamon
Where Angels Play/Shoot You Down
Bye Bye Badman
Ten Storey Love Song
Standing Here
Fools Gold
Something's Burning
Waterfall/Don't Stop
Love Spreads (inc unintelligible rap)
Made Of Stone
This Is the One
She Bangs the Drums
Elizabeth, My Dear
I Am The Resurrection


Support acts: I saw a smidgen of The Wailers, who were decent, while main support Primal Scream were excellent, playing a frenetic set lit by stunning versions of some of the best songs on Screamadelica (and unfortunately also doing Swastika Eyes).

Monday, 25 June 2012

Romcoms, Rohmer and Harry Langdon - Reviews #121

CINEMA: The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller, 2012) – This romantic comedy from the Judd Apatow stable starts brilliantly and ends well, but suffers from a sour and silly middle third in which its hero is reinvented as a deeply unhappy deer-hunter with mutton chops. Yes, I know. Sous chef Jason Segel proposes to English girlfriend Emily Blunt, but after her work takes them from San Francisco to the snowy cultural wasteland of Michigan, their relationship begins to sputter. And that’s where the terrifying whiskers come in. Apatow's improvisational approach tends to create fun but flabby films that are always good but never great, with sentimental central stories too serious to engender much comedy, leading him to shove in dozens of subplots or supporting characters to supply the laughs. While that works on a comic level, and provides his films with minor delights, it also results in a certain shapelessness and lack of focus. It's a curious problem, in that the things most appealing about his films are often the ones that shouldn't be there. The movie offers some insight in its treatment of relationships and the practical compromises essential within them, but not quite enough: after a while its central narrative just takes to making the same point over and over. For once, though, the bladder-baiting running time works in Apatow's favour, allowing the film to get back on track after its overly gloomy, distractingly unrealistic mid-section.

Blunt is excellent, of course, her easy, gently-joshing charm creating chemistry with everyone she plays against, but the film’s secret weapons are perhaps the sweetest, funniest second leads since torch singer Lillian Roth and acrobatic comedian Lupino Lane lit up The Love Parade. (That was 1929.) For playing Segel’s best mate and Blunt’s oddly-accented sister are two of the brightest talents from two of the best sitcoms around: Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt and Community’s Alison Brie – their parts nicely incorporated into the story. Pratt’s very public song – in which he attempts to list all of Segel’s past conquests to the tune of We Didn’t Start the Fire – and his monologue about the importance of honesty in a relationship are the comic highlights in a film which has many. Because for every wearisome bout of swearing or lazy gag about grandparents, there’s a cracking one-liner or some inspired bit of oddness. Often from the mouth of furious psychologist Randall Park (though special mention to an explosion of adult sibling rivalry conducted in the voices of Elmo and the Cookie Monster). The Five-Year Engagement doesn’t come close to troubling the twin peaks of recent romantic comedy – Just Like Heaven and last year’s Crazy, Stupid, Love – the narrative is too muddled and padded for that, but the appealing leads and a typically strong supporting cast just about make it work, even when the hirsute, murderous Segel takes to serving mead from a hairy mug. (3)

See also: Apatow struck gold with the TV series Freaks and Geeks. His best movie to date is probably Drillbit Taylor or Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.


The Tao of Steve (Jenniphr Goodman, 2000) – Tubby, permanently stoned slacker Dex (Donal Logue) has a way with women. Specifically, the way of Steve: a theory of living drawn from the greatest minds down the ages, infused with the cool of McQueen, and geared exclusively towards getting him laid. Then a forgotten figure from his bleary-eyed past appears, forcing a sea-change in his attitudes. The conventional romantic comedy structure houses a genuinely fresh and funny philosophy: incredibly literate, clever and original, with dialogue exchanges that are ambitious and even learned, but knowing, and lacking in pretension. This quiet indie got some attention from movie magazine Empire at the time for the wrongheaded and misleading way the studio attempted to market it as a raunchy sex comedy. It’s a fine film, something really different, with an outstanding performance from Logue and an unusually apt song score. (3.5)


The Green Ray (Eric Rohmer, 1986)
- An unhappy, fragile and lonely young woman (Marie Riviere) muddles through encounters with well-meaning friends, confused carnivores (she's a veggie) and free-spirited adventurers during her summer break, hopping disconsolately back and forth between Paris, Biarritz and the mountains, on her way to a (possibly) significant encounter beneath the "green ray" of Saint-Jean-de-Luz's setting sun. My second Rohmer tackles highly original subject matter in an impressively thoughtful, non-judgemental way, though its vivid portrait of a depressed loner who finds it impossible to be "normal" is – almost by definition – tough, meandering and even a little boring in spots, while studded with moments of visual and actorly poetry. (3)

See also: I was blown away by my first Rohmer film, Rendezvous in Paris. You can read about it here.


My first forays into the career of silent comedian Harry Langdon left me decidedly underwhelmed:

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Harry Edwards, 1926) - Harry Langdon is often cited as the fourth great silent clown, but he's not really. He's a strange, sexless, moon-faced, childlike mime with a distinct lack of ambition, whose moments of great comic and emotional lucidity are too often usurped by an undeveloped acting style that frequently just sees him mugging vaguely at the camera. He only appeared in a handful of silent features (including Frank Capra's first directorial effort, The Strong Man, see below), of which this was the first. Langdon plays a shoemaker's son who takes part in a $25,000 cross-country walking race - organised by a corporation-y corporation - in a bid to save his father's shop and win the heart of cloche-hatted poster model Joan Crawford (and for no other reason than that it's funny, let's now remember that Bette Davis called her "the original good time that was had by all"). The film starts off well - there's a particularly sweet scene in which Langdon first meets Crawford, whilst blowing kisses at a billboard of her - but soon reveals itself to be a disjointed collection of erratic set-pieces, rather than a coherent whole. Langdon has neither Chaplin's skill in effortlessly tying together story strands, nor Keaton and Lloyd's gift for building to a frantic finish. There is a cyclone climax that predates Steamboat, Bill Jr's hurricane by two years, but frankly it's rubbish. The best bits, and there are a few genuinely marvellous moments, come when the film is being sensitive, gleefully silly, or preferably both, with a special mention to the sequence where Langdon covers a room with pictures of Crawford - and then with feathers - and later gets caught by a farmer putting a marrow in his trousers. Elsewhere it's mostly the kind of material that does a disservice to silent comics - Langdon pretending to be sleepy or struggling to put on some clothes - while the supposed "thrill" sequences don't work, because the techniques behind them are so transparent, from safety platforms to close-ups, model work and stunt doubles. It's diverting enough, and Crawford's a charming leading lady, but it's hardly Sherlock, Jr, and Harry is certainly no Buster. Mighty fine DVD label Kino have done a Langdon collection in the States, but the Region 2 DVD is one of the worst I've ever encountered, with a clean but washed-out print and the same three pieces of music (total running time: four minutes 30) simply repeated over and over with no attention to the action. (2.5)

The Strong Man (Frank Capra, 1926) – Harry Langdon’s most famous comedy – and Capra’s first film as director – is a fitfully funny silent that hints at greatness but never sustains such lofty ambitions beyond a couple of minutes at a time. Langdon plays a Belgian Red Cross worker who survives WWI (the scenes set in the trenches are genuinely peculiar, prefiguring the consummate strangeness that was to follow in the notorious Long Pants) and moves to America as a strongman's assistant, all the while searching for the sweet girl whose letters sustained him during the conflict. Quite what was said in the letters, I'm not sure, as the print on the Region 2 DVD is catastrophically bad, while the score simply loops the same four-and-a-half minutes of annoying music used for Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. The central romance, when it finally arrives, is sweet (though Langdon's character again makes little sense, changing from an idiotic man-child to a sensitive leading man in the blink of an eye), while Capra's decision to break away from the star for a full five minutes in the middle of the picture, to contrast the God-fearing folk and beer-swilling reprobates of a border town, is an interesting snapshot of a massive talent at the beginning of his career. But the comedy is wildly erratic, with a handful of great jokes - Langdon accidentally climbing a ladder, encountering a nude model and, most memorably, being kicked off a bus - interspersed with long, tiresome routines that frequently have nothing even resembling a punchline. The climax, in which he takes on a bar-full of heavies using a cannon and a trapeze, is vastly superior to the cyclone set-piece in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, but pales in comparison to the sorts of routines Buster was putting together at this time, partly because it's quite small-scale, but largely because you don't believe Langdon is really doing those things. And really the problem with the film doesn't lie with Capra's direction, the story - which is a little more streamlined and coherent than before - or the gags. It lies with Langdon. Not only is he not that funny (he has a couple of very nice moments in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, but here the laughs come almost entirely from the situations into which he's dropped), but he's constantly acting to the camera, a style of performance that was at least 10 years out of date. Good acting can often mean you forget you're watching a film. I forgot I was watching a film here, but only because I felt like I was watching a play. If this was the best Langdon could do, I won't be coming back for more. (2.5)


Three Loves Has Nancy (Richard Thorpe, 1938) - After being stood up on her wedding day, straightforward Southern gal Janet Gaynor goes to New York in search of her errant fiance - only to fall in with selfish author Robert Montgomery and his publisher Franchot Tone (in a typically downbeat, sozzled characterisation). This by-the-numbers romantic comedy suffers from some weak material, but benefits from a good - and game - cast, led by Gaynor in an unusually broad, screwballish turn. She has just one real dramatic scene, in a lift, but plays it so beautifully that the whole film seems to rise a couple of storeys. Presumably someone on the ground floor then pushed the button. The funniest bit in the picture is the "sleepwalking" sequence, a nice piece of physical comedy from Tone and Montgomery, though old movie buffs should get a kick out of the identity of Gaynor's beau, revealed at the death. There's also able support from character players like Guy Kibbee, Emma Dunn, Reginald Owen and Charley Grapewin. It's a shame a cast this talented wasn't given a script to match, but it's pleasant enough - well, apart from that joke about killing Chinese babies, that's one of the most horrible things I've ever heard. (2.5)

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Banking on the Olympic dream

What is the official bank of the London 2012 Olympics?

Oh yes, I remember, because they drove a little musical van past us repeatedly as we were waiting patiently and expectantly for the torch parade. And then the sponsors sent in the big guns: an open-top bus with a shouty MC and a 10ft Beckham Head smoothing out at us from a video screen.

Even the impressively bendy woman wowing the crowds by walking like a crab was dressed in the official colours of the official bank, except for a patriotic wig. And it seemed a shame.

Because Harrogate had never seen anything like it: thousands upon thousands lining the streets to welcome the flame in a show of community spirit and unbridled enthusiasm about the possibilities of the summer games.

Yes there was free cola, but the Olympic dream seemed to be struggling to clamber out from under some hideous corporate nightmare and the crass Americanisms that threaten to invade every public event.

“Put your hands in the air!” No, shut up and go away.

And then the flame arrived: an awestruck, unaffected kid grinning from ear to ear, clutching the outsized golden torch as he jogged along West Park, his smile growing ever larger as the deafening ovation rippled through the crowd.

And all the cynicism melted away.
This column was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 2 of the Harrogate Advertiser, June 21, 2012.

I don't usually put news-y stuff on the blog, as most of the readers obviously aren't from Harrogate, but this seemed more universal, and I was quite pleased with it.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Review: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Royal Albert Hall

Monday, June 18, 2012

Humility isn’t usually Tom Petty’s strong suit.

The Floridian rock star has twinkingly commandeered members of other bands, fiercely clung onto songs written for other voices and largely swaggered through a 35-year career that has seen him pegged variously as a punk rock upstart (see Peter Bogdanovich’s doc, Runnin’ Down a Dream, for how he earned that improbable accolade), FM radio regular and nostalgic balladeer.

Tonight, though, he’s overwhelmed. First by the venue – he says twice that it’s been a long-held dream to play the Royal Albert Hall, later adding wistfully, "What a place" – and then by the rapturous crowd, which gives him at least a half-dozen standing ovations (mine was permanent, as I was in the gallery).

After a supporting set from Jonathon Wilson that begins in an average vein only for the singer (who seems to have wandered in from the 1970s) to reveal unexpected levels of musicianship and originality - his every song better than the last - Petty treats the packed hall to a two-and-a-half hour set that includes blistering blues (Good Enough from his most recent album Mojo), acoustic crooning (Something Coming, from the same LP) and a gaggle of glorious hits that span three decades. As opening gambits go, the words: “We’re going to play a lot of songs for you tonight” are about as welcome as they come.

The highlights include a triumphant I Won’t Back Down – a song that simply evokes the stoicism and steel beneath Petty’s blonde, perma-grinning persona – and two cuts from the near-legendary Damn the Torpedos: the romantic rocker Here Comes My Girl (as sweet an evocation of the redemptive power of a good woman as you’ll ever find) and Refugee, which has an unwittingly tasteless chorus but gorgeous verses and one hell of a riff. The former is faster than on record, but still lifts you above the world, while the latter is heavy but crashingly anthemic.

There are crowd pleasers in the shape of the inevitable, wonderful Free Fallin’, Last Dance with Mary Jane (not a personal favourite, but lovely in London), a sing-along Learning to Fly and the iconic early single American Girl. Elsewhere, Petty gives a rare outing to the Hard Promises album track Something Big - which he's striving to rescue from obscurity - and even proffers an invitation to “mosh” via the tuneless audial assault of I Should Have Known It, a rare dud tune on a thrilling night. Don’t Come Around Here No More, which Petty wrote with Dave Stewart then refused to hand over because he was too fond of it, is successfully transformed from a choppy, synth-heavy curio (one of the finest and least typical Petty tracks) into a conventional, pleasing rocker, while the lovely Traveling Wilburys single Handle with Care gets a breezy, beautiful airing, dedicated to fallen comrades Roy Orbison and George Harrison.

Complemented by the Heartbreakers (was there ever a better name for a backing band?), who include Mike Campbell – Petty’s long-time co-conspirator and one of the most underrated lead guitarists around – as well as the wonderfully gifted pianist and organ player Benmont Tench (not Ben 10, that’s a different person), Petty is on top form throughout, exhibiting an effortless stage presence, some tight, tasty licks and an easy rapport with an avid audience who've flocked from across the country.

That inimitable voice has barely faltered since 1979, Petty's energy levels can never be faulted (he even engages in some questionable bum-wiggling at a couple of junctures) and his all-conquering self-confidence is as evident as ever. But tonight, playing his first UK gig in 13 years, at a venue he’s never graced before, it’s coupled to something else: a sense of excitement, wonder and ultimately jubilation. A dream realised – and not just for him.


Listen to Her Heart
You Wreck Me
I Won't Back Down
Here Comes My Girl
Handle with Care
Good Enough
Oh Well (Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac cover)
Something Big
Don't Come Around Here No More
Free Fallin'
It's Good to Be King
Something Good Coming
Learning to Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin' Down a Dream
Mary Jane's Last Dance
American Girl

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Pre-Coders, policemen and the real Paris - Reviews #120

It's been hard fitting in too many films these past eight days, what with the feast of football, but I've seen a few. This round-up features my first Eric Rohmer, my second viewing of The Other Guys and Jimmy Cagney at his considerable best.

Rendezvous in Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1995) – I try to see a fair mix of movies, but somehow I’d never gotten around to an Eric Rohmer. This was my first, and I thought it was wonderful: an epic outdoor walk-and-talkathon that resembles Before Sunrise and (more obviously) Before Sunset, as various youngish people stroll around the city's less celebrated landmarks and boulevards, espousing their views on love. Each of its three chapters seems low-key, almost incidental at first, before revealing hidden depths. And each is special in its own way. The first (and probably best) sees the excellent Clara Bellar negotiating relationships with a possible cheater, a possible thief and a sizeable coincidence; though as the screenplay insists, “coincidences do happen”. The second concerns an offbeat, adulterous affair played out across various day-long dates, as Serge Renko pleads repeatedly with Aurore Rauscher to leave her boyfriend, while the final chapter is a neat spin on the “live every moment” cliché, with artist Michael Kraft deciding to follow Bénédicte Loyen into and out of a gallery, only to not get quite what he bargained for. The film’s thoughts on life, liberty and the pursuit of women are genuinely original, clever and insightful, and there’s a lovely lightness to the director’s handling. I’m not a Parisian (sorry if this comes as a shock to any of you), but the film seems largely unique in appearing to capture something of the genuine nature and flavour of the city. Old Hollywood idealised it – that old-school presentation still informing films like Ratatouille, A Monster in Paris and Hugo – while later American films rendered it banal and flavourless. The French have had a fair crack, with Malle (Zazie dans le métro) and Delpy (Two Days in Paris) offering vivid, distinctive takes, while a gaggle of notable names provided vastly differing portraits in the occasionally successful portmanteau picture, Paris, je t’aime. But this film – with its endlessly tramping camera pulling you around Paris – brings a painter’s eye, a capricious, coquettish woman’s fancies and a hardened girl’s perspective to bear on the City of Light, creating something indelible and unforgettable from the everyday. (4)


The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010)
- When L.A.'s iconic cop duo Danson and Highsmith (The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson) perish in a "head for the trees" 10-storey-jump calamity, it's up to Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) and Gamble (Will Ferrell) to fill the void. Unfortunately, Hoitz is an office-trashing hothead haunted by his shooting of a sporting celebrity, and Gamble refuses to leave his desk, as he has some very important paperwork to do. The leads have superb chemistry, and Wahlberg is very funny playing it largely straight, but the film is dominated by Ferrell's brilliant performance. When people talk about his best work, they tend to plump for the dramatic roles, in Stranger Than Fiction - a Charlie Kaufman-esque slice of post-modern invention that begins panting a few miles from the finish - Everything Must Go and Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda. But this is the one: a deft, dialled-down characterisation that creates some incredible comic moments (tuna vs lion, "To give me back my real gun?", the "desk pop") while giving him somewhere to go. Ferrell has generally spent too much of his career yelling, which is why making him a staid, sheltered, officious and easily offended administrator is such a masterstroke - and why his periodic explosions are so much funnier than usual ("I am going to make you eat a plate of human shit!"). The plot, in which an underused Steve Coogan engages in dodgy deals, honestly isn't developed enough to be described as "not very good" and the film flags a little in places before running out of steam at the end (stick around for the post-credits sequence, though, as it's amazing), but at its best it makes me laugh louder and harder than any film I've seen since Team America: "They found your red Prius trying to vote for Ralph Nader", "If you were with me, you wouldn't be here in this strip club, shaking it for dollar bills", "I saw how aggressive you were being, and I thought: 'Wow, I gotta go even bigger than that since we're doing 'bad cop, bad cop'" and - this incapacitated me for an entire minute last night - "We will have sex in your car - it will happen again". Amazing. (4)


Jimmy the Gent (Michael Curtiz, 1934) – Bloody hell, this is good fun, a lightning-paced comedy about a no-good, scruple-free inheritance fraudster (Jimmy Cagney – who else?) trying to land a 200G case through a series of phony weddings, big fat lies, and furious rants at his sidekick Allen Jenkins – all the while pretending to reform for the benefit of his former flame, the understandably suspicious Bette Davis. It’s reminiscent in its best moments of the legendary Blessed Event (which was originally set to star Cagney), as well as Satan Met a Lady – a screwball comedy riff on The Maltese Falcon also featuring Davis – and powered by a simply explosive central performance. With his unruly eyebrows threatening to escape his face each time he engages in another morally-indefensible tirade, and sporting the harshest haircut I have ever seen (he’s seen from behind in the opening scene, with two big scars across the back of his head), Cagney is almost illegally funny. (3.5)


Beauty and the Boss (Roy Del Ruth, 1932) – Banker Warren William has two eyes for the ladies – but only after office hours, which might be why he hasn’t noticed secretary Marian Marsh. Either that or because she’s a machine in a bad hat. This very entertaining, dirty comedy from the master of Pre-Coders (Del Ruth also did Blessed Event and the weird Cagney vehicle Blonde Crazy) is occasionally affected by its leading lady’s woodenness, but has a genuinely sweet centre and an incredible scene – shot from above – in which William chases Marsh around his office, trying to kiss her. After a slightly sluggish opening five, this short, sharp, censorship-free shock becomes a fast-paced mix of romantic drama, makeover show and rude jokes that provides top escapism, an interesting portrait of early-‘30s sexual politics and a perfect example of Hollywood product before the Hays Code stopped everyone’s fun. It also has an amazing trailer, light on footage but heavy on kaleidoscopic images, exciting fonts and hyperbole, which promises things the film could never possibly deliver. (3)


Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009)
- "Dy-na-mite! Dy-na-mite!" This spoof of blaxploitation movies gets everything right in its send-up of the genre, but is maddeningly inconsistent in terms of laughs. Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is a Vietnam vet, ex-CIA agent and all round bad-ass who "use Kung Fu when we want to, has sex when he please". After his brother is killed by The Man and he finds a corrupt politician selling smack to orphans, he cracks open an entire crate of whuppery, only to uncover a plot more dastardly than anything he could have possibly imagined. White is excellent in the lead, doing not-very-good acting brilliantly, and the film looks and particularly sounds just right, with an arsenal of low-rent '70s visual tricks and a heap of apposite funk songs that drip with clumsy exposition. But while there are some hilarious moments - the "puddle of blood" line, a convoluted uncovering of the central mystery that takes in rock 'n' roll, spelling and Roman mythology, the young, orphaned Black Dynamite throwing some bullies through a window, and, especially, the hero's hysterically uncomfortable attempts to frolic gaily in a park - there are entire scenes that pass without a smile, especially towards the end. Part of the problem is that spoofing kung fu isn't funny. It wasn't funny in The Jerk, it wasn't funny in Wayne's World 2 and it isn't funny now. You could argue that at least Black Dynamite plays its martial arts scenes straight, but watching people doing reasonably good kung fu in an apparent pastiche of Black Belt Jones isn't really entertainment - and too much of the short running time consists of precisely that. Sorry to come across all Judge Joyless but, given all the hype around this one, I had high hopes, and it didn't quite deliver. (2.5)


Quick, someone push them in the water.

Failure to Launch (Tom Dey, 2006) – I thought this might be mindless fun. Well, I was half right. Matthew McConaughey’s parents hire professional “interventionist” Sarah Jessica Parker to get him out of their house. Her trick? To make him fall in love with her. It’s a shame they’re both idiots. This is a shallow, ridiculous romantic comedy that moves from one contrived comic situation to another (most of which seem to involve people being bitten by animals), with horrible swings in tone and characters that make no sense, even within the film’s unbelievable parameters. Its only saving grace is a funny supporting performance from Zooey Deschanel, who works wonders with her part as Parker’s moody roommate. (1.5)


Moonrise Kingdom animation (Various, 2012) - You know those books that Suzy takes with her when she runs away? Well Wes Anderson and a group of illustrators and animators have brought little snippets of those fictional creations to life, in this droll, inventive and attractive short, which packs more humour and heart into its four minutes than many modern American films manage in 90. As someone who watched Failure to Launch out of choice yesterday, I realise this may come across as a little rich. If you liked the feature, it's a wonderful little bonus, with narration by Kara Hayward and links by Bob Balaban. (3.5) You can see it here.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Wes Anderson, Easy A and the problem with J.J. Abrams - Reviews #119

... also featuring Shakespeare, a drunk judge and another plundering of It Happened One Night.

CINEMA: Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) is a very Wes Anderson lovers-on-the-lam movie, as two emotionally disturbed 12-year-olds head for the hills, with a scout troop, a cop, social services (Tilda Swinton) and a couple of parents on their tail. After the baffling miscue that was Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson resumes his run of deadpan, dead-on films about damaged souls with this poignant portrait of loneliness and love. The first half is absolutely wonderful, full of lovely jokes and the director's usual off-kilter sentimentality, and if the second half can't match it - becoming too bitty, as well as curiously claustrophobic and small-scale at its supposed climax - it's still a very entertaining, amusing and affecting film. The familiar fonts, distinctive musical selections (Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams) and sad-faced protagonists are all present and correct, so if you like Anderson's (non-animated) films, you'll like it. If you don't, you won't. If you like some of them and not others, then you're weird and I don't understand you. (3.5)


Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010) - Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) unwittingly starts a rumour that she's done a sex, and the next thing you know her whole school is up in arms. If Stone, a bright redhead who's extraordinarily adept at both comedy and drama, is a more talented Lindsay Lohan, then this is a superior - not to mention less stressful - spin on Mean Girls, full of brilliant one-liners and equipped with some razor-sharp satire. The nods to other teen movies seem unnecessary and forced, but the characters are very nicely drawn (while possessing a shared aptitude for densely eloquent phrasing), the unexpected gags come thick and fast (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson have some great lines as the heroine's parents), and Stone is just absolutely superb. This is one of the best and most enjoyable comedies of the last few years. (3.5)

See also: Stone also lit up the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love.


The Great Garrick (James Whale, 1937) is an unusual, sometimes brilliant comedy presenting a fictional chapter from the life of the great English actor David Garrick (Brian Aherne). During a breathtaking opening, the mercurial, caddish thespian manages to both entrance London and offend the French, who've just invited him to star at the Comédie-Française - so they hatch a plan to humiliate him, staging an elaborate ruse during his stay at a rural hotel. When Garrick is tipped off by an old acquaintance (Etienne Girardot) to expect a set-up, he becomes wrongly convinced that the virginal runaway countess falling into his arms (Olivia de Havilland) is somehow involved. Aherne is absolutely sensational, the climactic reveal is stunningly powerful and there's a superb supporting performance from Girardot (the absent, balding comedian who somehow matched John Barrymore in Twentieth Century), but the tricks within the central scheme aren't very funny and the lushly romantic love scenes are somewhat undercut by the fact that Aherne is having de Havilland on. There's still much to enjoy and admire in both the original material and Whale and producer Mervyn LeRoy's masterful evocation of the period, but this tale of a Shakespeare-quothing ham enjoying the affections of de Havilland pales in comparison to 1937's other - the irresistible It's Love I'm After. (3)


The Bride Wore Black (Francois Truffaut, 1968) - In 1968, Jeanne Moreau will... KILL FERGUS. Possibly. Truffaut's Hitchcock homage, which in turn led to Kill Bill, pays tribute more in style than in theme, as Moreau's widowed bride tracks down the five men responsible for her husband's death (I say "responsible", four of them get a pretty bum rap), amidst numerous clever directorial touches (like the camera snaking around the bushes in front a potential victim's house) and to the strains of Bernard Herrmann's superb score. It isn't deep, particularly credible or very well plotted, it's shot in the peculiar "pastel shade" fashion of so many European films of the '60s - that extends even to the actors' skin; it's difficult to distinguish between the many drawings of Moreau and the real thing - and there's a very silly death scene effect that is almost certainly not a joke, but for the most part it's fast-moving and fun, particularly if you like seeing lecherous Frenchmen being killed. (2.5)


Barbary Coast (Howard Hawks, 1935) - A mediocre Hawks entertainment, on his usual theme of tough, displaced men and women falling in love, with a very strong cast but a rather trite and badly-paced storyline. Miriam Hopkins is the self-consciously tough broad who pitches up in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, and allies herself to casino owner Edward G. Robinson – who has a really funny, ever-present curl trespassing onto the right hand side of his face – only to fall for soppy poet Joel McCrea. To get an idea of just how sanitised the movie is, it's worth noting that Joseph Breen, the head of the Hays Office, thought the original script was the filthiest thing he'd ever read, but regarded the film as absolutely charming. There's some wonderfully poetic Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur dialogue in the opening exchanges ("However soiled his hands, the journalist goes staggering through life with a beacon raised" – just beautiful), but it dries up alarmingly quickly, while the story degenerates into tiresome bickering, before reinventing itself as a gruesome love letter to vigilantism. Breen seemed to espouse a strict pro-death-penalty, anti-double-bed viewpoint that’s difficult to get on board with nowadays. (I'm also not sure what the form is on everybody celebrating the arrival of a "white woman" - seems a bit racist.)

There are a few atmospheric shots in fog-shrouded San Francisco – though conveying the sweep of the burgeoning town is never even attempted – but the real selling point is the performances. Hopkins gives one of those faintly wooden, sub-Stanwyck, but nonetheless intriguing performances combining genuine, even enrapturing emotional attractiveness with the ability to be a bit irritating, while both Walter Brennan and Robinson make the most of familiar roles: Brennan a hoarse crook with an eyepatch and a quietly-emerging conscience, Robinson a menacingly-mewling tough guy who doesn’t really understand how love works. McCrea is cast in one of those parts that can come off as unbearably smug (I’m thinking of Leslie Howard’s horrendous role in The Petrified Forest), while the script asks him to swallow some rather questionable plot developments, but he’s not bad, playing more fey and sensitive than was usually required. There’s also a very funny bit part for J.M Kerrigan, who shines as a drunk judge in an incongruous, inappropriate but riotous comic interlude. Barbary Coast never really manages to clamber over its main obstacle – a disjointed, at times slightly tedious story – but some very nice acting and the odd good line or arty shot make it worth a look, especially for fans of the director. (2.5)


Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)
is a fraud. A group of kids shooting a homemade horror film see something they shouldn't (clue: it's a big alien), in Abrams' love letter to his teenage self (OK, and the films he saw back then, borrowing liberally from the likes of The Goonies, Gremlins and Stand by Me). On one level, it's a fairly fun ride - I've certainly rarely seen so many bikes in one film - but take a peek under the surface and there's nothing there. To be honest, I have a real problem with Abrams' script. He's clearly read some screenwriting books, but his treatment of bereavement and broken families is horribly mechanical: he can regurgitate manipulative cliches at will, but seems to have nothing to say and no understanding of either genuine human emotion or the patterns of speech. There's no insight or warmth and his characters don't talk like real people, they just talk like people in other films he's watched. On the plus side, Ella Fanning is quite good as the teenage love interest: I like the way she fancies the hero because he paints model trains - that is just like what happens in real life and not at all wish-fulfilment. Her acting debut at the train station is one of the two best scenes in the film; the other is the bit where the friends are all bickering in a diner. Essentially Abrams has just crammed most of Stand by Me into 90 seconds, but for a few seconds you forget you're watching a movie and start to believe in the characters. The rest of it feels terribly hollow and fraudulent. There's actually a film called E.T. from the 1980s that has quite a similar story to this, but is much better. (2)


Leap Year (Anand Tucker, 2010) - While the prospect of a romantic comedy featuring the talents of Amy Adams and Adam Scott would usually make my heart, well, leap, the reviews of this one were for once enough to put me off. But then Mrs Rick decided she wanted to see it*, so we gave it a go. It's offensively unoriginal, just a tired reheating of the old It Happened One Night stock plot - with chunks of The MatchMaker stirred in - but after a terrible first half hour it picks up a little and by the end it had at least stopped getting on my nerves. Adams' character is too dislikeable for too long, Scott has little to do beyond a bland retread of his smug Step Brothers persona, and both the general plot and the individual jokes are appallingly predictable, but Matthew Goode is quite good as a love interest with odd patches missing from his scruffy beard, and there's nothing mean-spirited about it, aside from the fact that some studio accountant decided to make this unambitious, derivative film instead of any number of interesting scripts that will never see the light of day. Mrs Rick thought it was OK. (1.5)

*My superior half actually has impeccable taste - her favourite films are Colonel Blimp and Ninotchka - but she shares my romantic comedy weakness... only more so.

See also: The best retread of It Happened One Night is surely The Sure Thing, though I have a soft spot for Love on the Run too.