Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Review of 2012


Woman of the Year: Janet Gaynor

If you would have told me this time last year that by now I would have finished directing my first movie, skydived from 3,000ft and become a father, I wouldn't have believed you. And with good reason: none of those things have happened. I have watched a lot of films, though.

In this review, you'll find the best films I happened upon all year, the five finest from 2012 itself, and a fun questionnaire that you might like to fill in yourself (feel free to nick it, but give us a mention if you do). The Ghosts of Annual Reviews Past are here: 2010 and 2011.

Are you ready? I was born ready. Sorry, relatively near Reading. I've included a couple of pleasant views later on, in case you get bored.

***

Premier Premieres: The best new old films of the year...

... being an excitable whizz through the finest movies I saw for the first time this year. This excellent blog calls them "discoveries", which is frankly perfect, but I don't like to steal, so I'm going to persist with my terrible title and incredibly long-winded explanation instead.



7th Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927) – An exalting, extraordinary metaphysical romance that alerted me to the peerless powers of Janet Gaynor. Headily romantic and overflowing with staggering imagery. Full review.

La vie rêvée des anges (Erick Zonca, 1998) aka The Dreamlife of Angels – A profound, poignant drama about the friendship that develops – and then unravels – between two young women who meet at a factory in Lille. Élodie Bouchez is remarkable. Full review.

Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley and Morris Engel, 1953) – An absorbing and subtly moving film – filled with quiet charm – about a seven-year-old boy who goes AWOL to Coney Island, after thinking he's killed his brother. A stunning, hyper-realistic movie, shot entirely on location, that paved the way for Les 400 Coups. Full review.

Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929) – More Gaynor-y goodness, as J-Dog and the Borzagemeister team up for one final blast of silent transcendence. Pastoral, amusing and unfailingly sweet-natured, with an utterly enchanting characterisation at its core. Full review.



A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937) – The original Hollywood heartbreaker, with two stars falling in love as one goes stratospheric and the other implodes. Lesser-known that the 1954 remake (which is also superb), but with an immediacy and insider feel that's all its own. Stars Janet Gaynor. Full review.

Street Angel (Frank Borzage, 1928) – What an ending – and the rest of it isn't too shabby either. Stars Janet Gaynor. Full review.

Reagan (Eugene Jarecki, 2011) – Simply one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen, an endlessly illuminating, virtuosic study of one of the most fascinating American figures of the 20th century. Full review.

Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray (Serge Bourguignon, 1962) aka Sundays and Cybele – An intensely moving, truly original drama – with increasingly spare comic touches – that confronts the cynicism, horror and alienation of the adult world. The three central players are terrific, and the film boasts some of the most striking black-and-white photography you’ll ever see: an endlessly creative variety of shots drawing you inexorably in to the heartbreaking story. Full review.



Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2002) – An authentic, immersive and charming inner-city indie about a self-proclaimed teen lothario (Victor Rasuk) who falls for a girl clearly out of his league. The film has a unique atmosphere, Sollett immersing you in a fully-realised, insular world, aided by Tim Orr’s stunning close-up photography, and uniformly fine performances from the no-name cast. Full review.

Léon Morin, prêtre (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961) – One of the best films ever made about man's relationship with God. Full review.

Les rendez-vous de Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1995) aka Rendezvous in Paris – With its endlessly tramping camera pulling you around Paris, this trio of tales 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. Full review.

Young Tom Edison (Norman Taurog, 1940) – Captivating Americana based on the boyhood of the famed inventor. It's a wonderfully-mounted production, with a literate script that mixes things that actually happened, things you wish had happened and MGM staples like the family sing-along. And it climaxes with two extraordinary, unbearably tense suspense sequences. If you're a cynic, just don't bother. For everyone else, this is a rosy primer on Edison's early years and a poignant, exciting and flavourful example of MGM at its absolute best. Full review.



Los amantes del círculo polar (Julio Medem, 1998) aka Lovers of the Arctic Circle - For 70 minutes, an astonishing love story that traces, in alternate chapters, the dovetailing lives of palindromically-named Spanish stepsiblings Otto and Ana. Then the coincidences start to pile up too heavily, and Otto winds up dangling rather impotentently from a tree, a metaphor for the film’s third act struggles. For all that, it remains a remarkable achievement, armed with a tireless but revolutionary concept of the human condition, and the surefooted grasp of aggressively non-linear narrative required to sustain it most of the way. Full review.

Passenger Side (Matt Bissonette, 2009) – A very smart, punchy little indie, with Adam Scott ferrying around his ex-junkie brother for a day. Hilarious, offbeat and genuinely affecting. Full review.

The Interrupters: How to Stop a Riot (Steve James, 2011) – A haunting humanist documentary from Hoop Dreams director James, about ex-gang members trying to stop violence on the streets of Chicago. Both inspiring and utterly devastating. Full review.

Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922) – Copywright wrangles meant that The Adventures of Robin Hood - starring Errol Flynn - couldn't replicate the plot of this silent classic, and so alighted on lesser-known aspects of the story. It's ironic that the '38 film is now a staple of popular culture, and the prism through which we see the legendary Robin. Dwan's film, featuring a perfectly-cast Douglas Fairbanks in the lead, feels more authentic and grown-up, while still brimming with energy, derring-do and romance. I thought it was fantastic. Full review.

***

Top 5 of 2012:

1. Silver Linings Playbook



Director: David O Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro
What's it about? "Cooper is a psychiatric patient released after eight months in a hospital, following an explosive episode brought on by his wife’s infidelity. Invited to dinner by his best friend, he meets a bereaved, "slutty" depressive (Jennifer Lawrence) who offers him a deal: she can get a message to his estranged wife, if he helps her compete in a dance contest."
Why's it so good: "It’s nice to see these kinds of characters – and specifically these characters – on a movie screen. Cooper is nothing short of a revelation, and his chemistry with Lawrence – one of the finest actresses working today – is really beautiful. There’s also a nice performance from De Niro, his most interesting in years, as Cooper’s father, who may be trying to build bridges with his son – or may just be using him as a good-luck charm to win money betting on football. His sequences seem distracting early on, taking us away from a beguiling burgeoning friendship, but the film’s apparently disparate elements slot together perfectly as it progresses, leading to a wonderfully satisfying finale. I loved it to pieces."

Full review: http://advicetothelovelorn.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/silver-linings-playbook-paul-rudd-and.html.

2. Take This Waltz
3. Damsels in Distress
4. Moonrise Kingdom
5. The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Four American indies and an Aardman animation. Yes, I am a disgrace.

Worst film of 2012: This Means War

***

Rick's end-of-year report:


An enduring preoccupation: the mighty John Barrymore (think John Barrowman mixed with Michael Barrymore, then the opposite of that). He's with a woman, as usual.

Crazes: Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Hayley Mills.
Continuing preoccupations: Wendy Hiller, Buster Keaton, John Barrymore, Frank Borzage.
Revelations: Just how good Janet Gaynor was. And that she didn't sing I Will Survive. Douglas Fairbanks' swashbucklers were even greater than I could have imagined - especially Robin Hood, which may be superior to the Flynn version. I also realised that I'd been spelling Dan Aykroyd's name wrong for my entire life. "Ackroyd", since you ask. That was the only thing I got out of Dragnet.
A few performances that stuck with me: I haven't been able to get Gaynor's performance in Lucky Star out of my head. Nor would I want to. Just beautiful. Elodie Bouchez's turn in The Dreamlife of Angels got to me too, while both the leads in Sundays and Cybele did remarkable things. Ellen Page was chilling – and brilliant – in the very nasty Hard Candy. I revisited two of my favourites: Wendy Hiller in Major Barbara and JGL in Brick. And the younger brother in The Kidnappers was very cute. He went on to produce Superman (oversee the film, not expel him from his body).
Stuff I caught up on: A lot of silent films, some documentaries, some Truffaut, some Rohmer.
Happiest surprises: Lots. 7th Heaven blew me away and set me on a very Janet Gaynor-y path for the remainder of the year (it took in other happy surprises like A Star Is Born – just as good as the Judy version – and a remarkable offbeat comedy called The Young in Heart). I hadn't heard of The Dreamlife of Angels until it turned up on Film4, but it was an extraordinary movie. Both 17 Again and Easy A were great fun, completely immersive and brightened up gloomy days. Kissing Jessica Stein, Raising Victor Vargas and The Tao of Steve proved that the classic romcom has been alive and well over the last 15 years, it's just been hiding. Jimmy the Gent couldn't touch Blessed Event (with which it rhymes) or It's Love I'm After, but it was nice to find another comedy in the same punchy Warner vein. I'm a big Melville fan, but Léon Morin is usually referred to as a lesser work. It's hardly that. Same for Nolan's The Prestige – his best film so far, for me. I'd long laboured under the misapprehension that Eric Rohmer movies would be a bit heavy, largely because I hadn't bothered to find out anything about him except his name. Rendezvous in Paris was anything but, while The Green Ray was merely making you earn that chink of light. He's one to explore further next year.

Still with me? Thanks. Enjoy this photo of Venice, then we'll continue.

Biggest disappointments: A slew of overhyped, overrated sci-fi movies: Avengers, Looper and The Dark Knight Rises. I always imagined that Cocoon would be a delight, but it bored the sexy fly-around alien orgasm spirit out of me. After spending some quality time with John Hughes' finest films, Weird Science was like a kick in the balls. And not in a nice way. I think I may have seen a different Kill List to everybody else. A rubbish one.
Oddest films: Outcast of the Islands took a sensational cast and gave them very strange things to do. It was perplexing, sometimes unsuccessful, completely batshit, but kind of brilliant. Liliom had a handful of things going for it (Lee Tracy, H. B. Warner, the train), but set a new benchmark for stilted awkwardness in early talkies. Kings Row was about 11 different kinds of films in one: most of them very enjoyable.
Worst films: A Touch of Class is a romantic comedy in which the lead characters get together after she jokes that he "can't even rape her" properly. Everything else paled beside that, really. I did watch more crap than usual this year. I better fine-tune my instincts before 2013 kicks off, or just listen to the ones I have.
Tell us about some great movies you saw that no-one's really heard of: Right, there's this film called Manhattan by this guy called Woody Al- Oh right. Matt Bissonette's movies with Adam Scott, Who Loves the Sun and Passenger Side, were a pair of very funny, emotionally satisfying indies. The first 70 minutes of Lovers of the Arctic Circle was staggering, and if the momentum wasn't necessarily maintained, it's still well worth your while – or anyone else's.
Some favourite moments: Gaynor saying bye-bye at the gate as she left Farrell's house for the first time in Lucky Star. The train arriving in Liliom was breathtaking (shame about the rest of the film). And the pony rides in Little Fugitive were a delightful, hilarious touch. I also really enjoyed having a wee at the end of Batman.
And some least favourite moments: That line from A Touch of Class made me feel ill. The little girl (played by Anne Shirley!) mythologising domestic violence in Liliom made me feel angry. Edward Herrmann going on about cock-rings in Wedding Daze made me feel sad.

In a moment, I'll be carrying on. But first: here's Paris at night.

The funniest jokes: The Other Guys still makes me laugh like a wally, especially, "We WILL have sex in your car – it WILL happen again." Marion Davies' impression of Lillian Gish in The Patsy is about as good as it gets for silent film nerds, and Fredric March's Oscar-winning John Barrymore impersonation in The Royal Family of Broadway is much the same for '30s obsessives. Frederic Lederer's "I notice she didn't leave on her own" in Midnight was amazingly funny (that was the only film I didn't review on here this year, as I lost my write-up), and so is everything else about that film and fellow screwballer Twentieth Century. Archive footage of Ronald Reagan saying, "Attaboy, Bonzo" to a chimp and then hugging it, in Reagan, was also hilarious.
2012 was... The year of hype. Or maybe I've just been on Twitter more. I saw around 25 films from this year (compared to the 39 I saw in 2011) and though some were very good, the standard seemed a little lower than last year.
Best musical numbers: Billie Holiday's songs in New Orleans were nothing short of sensational, and I liked the work of an unexpectedly vital, vibrant and energetic young Louis Armstrong in A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, a rather cool short from the early '30s. It was great reliving the fantastic numbers in Girl Crazy, while Kathryn Grayson's Daybreak (not to be confused with Lorraine Kelly and Aled Jones's Daybreak) and Alice Faye's They Met in Rio lit up a couple of mediocre musicals.
Best film I saw at the cinema: Silver Linings Playbook. My instant reaction: "I loved Silver Linings Playbook. Best film I've seen at the cinema this year. Original, screwball-y, w/beautiful chemistry between the leads".
I was bored by: The usual tedious hoopla around Bond. Also, the film Agatha, which I only finished due to my affection for Harrogate.
I wrote this pretty good review of _______________, you should read it if you have a minute (with a link): Damsels in Distress, putting that Whit Stillman buffery to use at long last (http://advicetothelovelorn.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/whit-stillman-magic-glasses-and-singing.html). It was nice to have him back.
Total number of films I've seen (new watches in brackets): 297 (280) - with the Christmas holiday still to come.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Hobbit: There and Back There Again - Reviews #141



The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

First impressions: Thursday, December 13 (3D and 48fps).

Bilbo, Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins (the bravest little Hobbit of them all), gets a third of the way towards facing a big dragon, in Peter Jackson’s return to the Lord of the Rings universe.

The first thing to say is that it’s lovely to be back there, and that this isn’t the misfire various posturing critics would have you believe. The second is that Freeman is as perfect a Bilbo as you’d imagine: his impeccable comic timing and understated rendering of heavy emotion filling the film with charm and hobbidity (or whatever the hobbit equivalent of humanity is) whenever he’s on screen. And the third is that it all looks a bit weird. The 48fps innovation does rectify some of the problems that 3D has with fast-moving action, but it also gives the film a weirdly low-budget look, more like a prime-time Saturday night ITV serial than a film which might well be troubling box-office records in the coming weeks.

There’s also a feeling that this is LotR-lite, more episodic, with somewhat less memorable supporting characters (a legion of dwarfs doing some nice work under excessive prosthetics) and a greater accent on broad comedy and gross-out humour. But it’s also very entertaining, with a cracking final 45 that includes the welcome, perfectly-placed and marvellously executed appearance of Gollum. The scenes in which his pluralising, pointy-toothed little scamp – sporting a Bobby Charlton-ish combover – tangles with Bilbo through a series of complex riddles are just a joy to watch, effortlessly reclaiming Serkis’s creation from a decade of spoofery, and unleashing him into the action with barely disguised glee. I also greatly enjoyed McKellen’s twinkling performance as Gandalf the Grey, especially his line about drawing courage from Bilbo. And Jackson knows his way around an action set-piece, as evidenced by the very neat use of a ladder.

I’m not convinced the film will attain the classic status of the LotR trilogy, but last night’s rapturously-received screening (which included a queue out the door as people jostled for the best seats, and a lovely reaction to the film’s most obviously moving moment: awws, then applawws) suggests that Jackson hasn’t ballsed it up after all. Apparently we’re seeing it again next week, so I can report back further then. (3)

***

Actually, it wasn't a week I had to wait, it was three days, as Mrs Rick was rather excited.



The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

Second thoughts: Sunday, December 16 (3D and 48fps again).

There and back there again. After braving the intensity of a first-night screening (lovely audience; I do enjoy nerds), we went back for more of the same on Sunday. The 48fps still looks odd – if a little less so second time around – and Freeman and Gollum are still awesome. But my thoughts don't stop there. No. I had several more.

The Hobbit is a tonally uneven movie, the almost inevitable result of squeezing a children's book – lighter, less doom-laden and more knockabout – into the LotR template, but I'm not sure that's necessarily a problem, and I don't think the criticisms about overlength or padding ring true. People say that not much happens, but our heroes fight trolls, then goblins, and then orcs, almost get crushed to death by rock giants, and watch as an apparently ineffectual little bookworm becomes a stout and noble warrior. If that happened to me in the space of 166 minutes, I'd consider it quite an eventful couple of hours.

I barely touched on the dwarfs in my first review, largely because I wrote it in 10 minutes on my lunch break. On second viewing, I was able to distinguish a little better between them, and I do think that Jackson and his writers have done a reasonable – if flawed – job of sketching out these characters. Bombur's only real contribution is to break a chair by being fat, but Vengeful Dwarf, Old Dwarf, James Nesbitt Dwarf, Chiselled-Yet-Playful Dwarf and Right Up His Jacksy! Dwarf are all given moments to shine, or, in the latter case, look like a ginger Nicholas Lyndhurst shouting rubbish. The tearjerking pay-off between Vengeful Dwarf (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo is an obvious highpoint - I enjoyed Armitage's forthright performance throughout - but James Nesbitt Dwarf's exchange with the apparently departing hobbit is to be treasured just as much, and Old Dwarf's tale of woe ("... for their dead were beyond the count of grief") is very affecting.

The sequences in which the dwarfs pile into battle are also rousing, accompanied by a soaring motif from Howard Shore's triumphant score. The best of the action spectaculars is the encounter with the goblins, particularly the climax, in which second unit director Serkis and his crew have the baddies battered and throttled with a ladder – which is subsequently used to sprint over a crevasse – and then chase a runaway boulder (perhaps it was them behind Indy that time), which skittles their adversaries. I'm not sure that the hideously unattractive goblin king, or the cockney, mucus-filled trolls are the stuff of movie legend, but they're fairly entertaining, while harking back to Jackson's early horror movie Bad Taste (which I still think is dreadful). In fact, Jackson's first forays into film are an obvious touchstone here. There are a few cock-eyed camera angles (including one woozy, swooping shot in the dinner sequence at Bag End) that are more readily associated with ultra low-budget genre flicks than Hollywood blockbusters.

McKellen is excellent reprising his role as Gandalf: I particularly enjoyed his mischievousness - especially the sheepish look he gives Galadriel when she rumbles him (not a euphemism) - his line about Bilbo, and the interplay between wizard and hobbit. Freeman's performance as Bilbo is really lovely. I think most people nodded sagely when he was cast, and that confidence has been vindicated. He's equally good at being a bossy Baggins, a fish-out-of-water or an unexpected hero, and does some impressively childlike gawping when asked to hang, terrified, from a rockface. The only off-notes are a couple of minor technical errors in the way he has been forced to acclimatise to green screen work: firstly when he's looking a good foot away from Gandalf's head, and secondly when he's pointing a sword vaguely near Gollum.

The extraordinary Riddles in the Dark sequence is probably the best thing I've seen in a cinema this year. I was in absolute hysterics, again, at Gollum's delivery. His agitated yelp of "Give us a chance, precious! Give us a chance!" is almost indecently funny, though of course there's terror and menace circling under the surface. It all takes place in a dark, dank cave, lit only by Bilbo's lightsaber (that's what it was, right?), but exists on a higher plane than everything that surrounds it.

For while The Hobbit is an admirable, entertaining and often funny film (the goblin stenographer deserves a quick mention), packed with stunning landscapes, ailing hedgehogs and rabbit sledges, and lit by moments of considerable emotional catharsis, it's also a bit lumpy – and more than a touch erratic. The defiler looks like the action figure of Mum-Ra I had as a kid, the rock giants set-piece feels flat, uninteresting and unbelievable (it's the one instance where the HFR really takes you out of the action, as the integration of CGI and live-action is so transparently false) and a recourse to snot-based humour is rarely to be found in truly great films.

I thought Leonard Maltin's assertion that The Hobbit was "incredibly boring" was so far wide-of-the-mark that he'd been trying to make it with a green screen, but I'll admit that there are a few dips in interest. (Still, these shortcomings seem to have more to do with slack screenwriting than spinning out the story: Jackson has always struck me as someone whose passion is for movies, not money, so who cares why the studio green-lit a trilogy?).

It's that messiness, and those periodic dry spells, that detract from the film rather more than the collision between grown-up chatter and broader fare, like one of the film's greatest gambles, the broadly comedic introduction of Sylvester McCoy as that "foolish fellow", Radagast the Brown. It's a rare movie indeed that can house both an eloquently-scripted set-piece set at a diplomatic think-tank, and a frenetic attempt – by a wizard covered in bird poo – to resuscitate a hedgehog, but both work well, in themselves and as a part of the larger piece.

Many critics seemed to be competing to see who could appear the most discerning by being the most critical (credit to the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, who can be guilty of one-starring everything in sight, for his measured review), but I think they got this one badly wrong. It's not perfect, by any stretch – and not nearly so unexpected second time around – but it's largely enjoyable, with a trio of superb performances and a handful of truly special moments.

I don't understand why he's called the Neck Romancer, though. He didn't romance anyone's neck during the whole movie. (3) again.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Seven Psychopaths, Ricky Gervais and waterfalls - Reviews #140

Apparently life begins at Reviews Update #140, so bring it on. Just the three films this time, as I've been busy making Christmas cards. And writing a lengthy diatribe about that abysmal Ricky Gervais movie (see below). Join me.



Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012) - A screenwriter called Marty (Colin Farrell), who's working on a script about Seven Psychopaths while wrestling with writer's block, finds himself surrounded by gangsters, murderers and, well, psychopaths, in this second feature from the writer-director of In Bruges. Also along for the uncomfortable ride is Marty's best buddy, grinning dognapper Sam Rockwell – who's snatched a tiny, fluffy pooch belonging to a psychotic ganglord (Woody Harrelson) – and his boss, a softly-spoken Christian (Christopher Walken) whose wife is dying of cancer. And so unfolds a niftily-scripted, neatly-constructed tale of erratic, violent behaviour, that shifts between fantasy and reality, taking in Buddhist gunmen, serial killers who only kill serial killers (enter a shambling, rabbit-carrying Tom Waits, whose monologue is a real showstopper) and serial killers who only kill mid-to-high-ranking-members-of-the-Mafia-and-the-Yakuza.

There's more than a hint of Tarantino about the on-screen notes (a running tally of psychopaths is handily included), the time-shifting narrative and the post-modern dialogue, which trades in biblical allusion, pop culture references and post-modern genre-subversion – and perhaps that's the problem. Because while I thoroughly enjoyed Seven Psychopaths – despite a decided dragginess in the final third, as the meta elements jar and the film's contrariness becomes predictable – In Bruges felt like the work of some sort of genius, whereas this feels like the work of a very funny writer with a dash of class about him (the pay-off line he affords Walken is unexpectedly resonant). Seven Psychopaths is an incredibly funny film, with a host of spectacular gags, a penchant for an inspired diversion – several of which could make great films themselves – and another superb performance from Rockwell (whose habit of responding to the question: "What?" by repeating whatever he's just said verbatim is a superb comic invention), but it's also a slight letdown as a follow-up to one of the defining films of the last decade. I can't think of another filmmaker who could have created In Bruges, but I can name 10 who could have made this. Despite the movie's many virtues, we need McDonagh for something more – something better – than post-modern gangster flicks. (3)

***



*A COUPLE OF VERY RUDE WORDS. APPROACH WITH CAUTION*
The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2010)
- In a parallel world where everybody tells the truth, Ricky Gervais's everyman invents falsehood, turning his nobody into a somebody, and giving him a shot at Pouting Sexy-Woman Jennifer Garner. But when he tells a lie to ease his dying mum's mind, he inadvertently invents religion (yawn), investing him with a frightening power and attracting attention from all four corners of the globe. What begins as a mildly entertaining high-concept comedy (with Woody Allen-ish credits) turns into an incredibly heavy-handed atheist satire that operates at the heady intellectual and theological level of an 11-year-old skim-reading Philosophy for Beginners. I've found before that Gervais is fine at ridiculing Karl Pilkington for being stupid, but when he's asked straightforward questions about his own beliefs, he flounders, ums, ahs, and ultimately says something either facile or vague and non-committal, before changing the subject and calling somebody a cunt. Now you can enjoy that sensation at feature-length!

I'm a church-going Irish Catholic, but I've seen and heard some invigorating and impressive take-downs of religion in the past (Richard Herring's 2010-11 show was an extremely passionate and sure-footed examination of his atheism, and accompanying obsession with Jesus, while Maggie Holland's A Proper Sort of Gardener expertly condensed uncertainties about the God of the Old Testament into four tear-jerking minutes). Watching Gervais outline his embarrassingly simplistic views here takes his cringe-comedy to new levels, as if his legendary set at the Diana memorial gig had gone on for three days. And his basic "truthful world" concept, while neat in theory, is frankly bollocks in execution. In his podcasts series, I remember Gervais having a go at Pilkington for saying that he thinks in full sentences. But that's exactly what Gervais' characters do here. It's not that they can't lie, it's that they speak in one-line précis of their most secret or embarrassing thoughts, which doesn't make any sense. That's not to say that the set-up doesn't inspire some clever sight gags or smart sketches (the Coke advert is good), but it's confused beyond belief, even before attempting to meld the tedious-message-movie to the unconvincing-rom-com, with its unbearablly twee recurring mantra of "fat kids with snub noses". There's also a sense that Gervais and Robinson have gnawed off more than they can chew (or at least more than they have time to script), epitomised by a reliance on dire musical montage that removes the need to write dialogue for what you might think were important scenes, like our hero using his new powers to do good. He seems to be lying to people, and they seem to be smiling; beyond that, I've no idea what's going on. That poverty of invention extends to the Lecture Films sub-plot, in which Gervais' screenwriter devises an outlandish new work supposedly based on a true story. A decent idea, but the result is bafflingly unfunny.

Perhaps the problem is that while Stephen Merchant appears in the film's only laugh-out-loud scene, he wasn't around to co-write this one. On the podcasts, he would almost always alight on the funniest way of exploring or expanding a subject, and exhibited impressive editing skills (the conventional wisdom is that great comedy double-acts usually consist of an innovator and an editor; I'd argue that Merchant is both, and should maybe go it alone), while Gervais would contribute relatively little, largely whooping, screeching with laughter or being excessively rude to Pilkington in a jokey way that's nevertheless uncomfortable to listen to. I don't actually dislike Gervais, or his work, as a rule: The Office was excellent, Extras was quite good in places, and Ghost Town - an earlier high-concept affair to which The Invention of Lying bears some similarity - worked rather well. And I actually think he plays the emotional scenes here pretty effectively. But I do think that his brand of comedy is very limited and that his rarefied position means that there's simply no-one there to tell him when he's being boring, trivial and wearyingly samey, wasting a stellar comic cast, or delivering his tiresome point with the delicacy and quiet finesse of a wrecking ball. It's a bit like Idiocracy, if Idiocracy was shit. (1.5)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Mollycoddle (Victor Fleming, 1920)
- Richard Marshall IV (Douglas Fairbanks), the latest in a long line of American pioneers, adventurers and chivalrous gunmen, is something of a disappointment. Raised in Monte Carlo since the age of four, he's an effete, cane-wielding, monocle-wearing fop who's mistaken for an Englishman – the indignity! – because he keeps saying things like "ripping". Then all at once he falls in love, is persuaded to return to his homeland and gets mistaken for a secret service agent by a diamond smuggler (Wallace Beery), transforming him into a butch, all-American he-man and solo army (who still talks like a posho). This Fairbanks vehicle starts in scintillating fashion – incorporating a dazzling historical scene featuring Marshall III that perfectly marries humour and action, and a very funny bit establishing his progeny's amusing girliness – and ends with a brilliant, thrilling fight-scene that sees the hero and villain throw each other through walls and plunge, Holmes-like, down waterfalls, but what's in between is a bit slow and stodgy, with too much plot and lacklustre would-be intrigue. A shame, really, as the set-up promises so much, there are flashes of true greatness, and the film boasts an admirable, unexpected progressiveness in its dated but heartfelt message that whites and "Indians" aren't so different. (2.5)

See also: I've done a round-up of several of Fairbanks' finest early films here.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Take This Waltz, and Flint Lockwood revisited - Reviews #139

Lately, I've been really spoilt in my movie-watching - different to having my movie-watching spoilt, as has happened at times this year - and this new, indescribably tiny batch of films is no different. Take This Waltz is now my second favourite movie of 2012 (going by UK release dates), trailing just behind last week's Silver Linings Playbook, and the fun doesn't stop (or really start) there. It goes marginally further. So join me, as I take you on a journey to a TV with an accompanying DVD player.



*SPOILERS*
Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011)
- Is happiness just about finding the right person? That's the question posed by Sarah Polley's fiercely intelligent new drama, a grown-up, adult film about a failing relationship, and the possibility of a new and better one, powered by a staggeringly brilliant performance from Michelle Williams. She's a wannabe writer, married to kind, gentle Seth Rogen, but experiencing an intense five-year itch which she thinks free-spirited artist Luke Kirby may be able to scratch – if she just can summon the courage to act. Beginning mysteriously, ending ambiguously and overflowing with symbolism, foreshadowing and existential angst, Polley's film is distinctive and bracingly original, with an unshakeable sense of conviction, an unflinching approach to storytelling and an unforgettable pay-off. It's a film with something to say and the talent to say it, armed with spellbinding imagery, an ambitious script and a sublime song score. And even its rom-com interludes feel new: the zingy badinage and mutual goofing twisted beyond all recognition by the torrent of emotions beneath the surface.

It isn't a flawless film. It's built on a rather feeble coincidence (the adultery interest lives right across the road), some of Polley's dialogue is too mannered, Kirby is never more than adequate (and he drives a rickshaw – what?), while Sarah Silverman's character exists only as a metaphor and rhetorical device. But films don't have to be flawless to be truly great. This is a movie that really moved me: philosophically invigorating, true to life and as painful as a knee to the nuts. Which other film has characters who are "afraid of being afraid"? Which romances tell you, "In the big picture, life has a gap in it, it just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it"? Where else do characters re-connect so sweetly, only to fall away so completely? Rogen is great, building on the promise he showed in 50/50 and Freaks and Geeks' The Little Things, but no-one working today can keep pace with Williams. This is a wondrous film, and its beating heart is a perfect performance from the most exciting actor on the planet. (4)

This is an expanded version of a review that I wrote for MovieMail.

See also: Williams also had mo' marriages, mo' problems in Blue Valentine, one of my favourites of last year.

***



Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2009)[/b]

Manny: "You are going to need a co-pilot."
Sam: "You are a pilot too?"
Manny: "Yes. I am also a particle physicist."
Sam: "Really?"
Manny: "No, that was a joke. I am also a comedian."

The best non-Pixar animation to come out of America last decade is just as delicious second time around: a barrage of brilliant jokes (and oversized foodstuffs), bouncing off an appealing romance and a touching father-son subplot, as inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) makes it rain food, unfortunately endangering the world. Its characters are superbly drawn, its action sequences are masterfully conceived and just about every gag is judged to perfection, several nailing the quiet absurdities of 21st century life in a way that few films master. It doesn't need non-sequiturs (the fall-back for any failing animation), because it's got something better: sensational comic timing and the most spectacular set of running gags I can remember. It's also admirably fearless - it isn't afraid to get soppy, or post-modern, or really and genuinely weird - but sharp and streamlined too. Everything serves the story. Even the bit where a monkey called Steve, who's wearing a thought-translator, pulls out the heart of a malevolent gummy bear and eats it. (4)

See also: For their next trick, Lord and Miller rebooted (i.e. gave a kick up the arse to) 21 Jump Street. Cloudy 2 has been confirmed for 2013. Boo, and indeed, yah.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Silver Linings Playbook, Paul Rudd, and the beta Zeta - Reviews #138

The best film I've seen at the cinema this year! My favourite sitcom! A really underwhelming, disappointing David Wain comedy that lacks a coherent structure or characters you can truly root for! All in this latest update, which contains more swearing than it strictly should, possibly because I'm sleepy. Or showing off, I forget which.

MOVIES:



*VERY MINOR SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
– At last! I’ve been waiting all my life for a film about a character who’s a bit like me. And now it’s here. Because Bradley Cooper’s bruised, bipolar protagonist really fucking hates Stevie Wonder’s Ma Cherie Amour. Just like me! And that’s not the only reason to celebrate, since Russell’s original, screwball-y film of two lost, damaged souls connecting, is the best film I’ve seen at the cinema this year.

Cooper is a psychiatric patient released after eight months in a hospital, following an explosive episode brought on by his wife’s infidelity. Invited to dinner by his best friend, he meets a bereaved, "slutty" depressive (Jennifer Lawrence) who offers him a deal: she can get a message to his estranged wife, if he helps her compete in a dance contest. Its rom-com framework may appear conventional, but the film consistently surprises. It’s true that most depictions of mental illness ring false, because a realistic work would usually be really fucking boring, but this is a film that manages to entertain without trivialising its characters or their problems. While angling on the humour of their situation, spotlighting the obsessiveness and lack of social skills that are often a symptom or by-product of mental illness, it takes the subject seriously, an admirably honest approach in a genre often beset by duplicity. Simply put, it’s nice to see these kinds of characters – and specifically these characters – on a movie screen. And like Tom McCarthy or Alexander Payne, Russell can offer escapism while making you think, and feel, a welcome trick on a Friday night, when the temptation can be to immerse oneself in froth.

Cooper, who was just unbearable in The Hangover (a film I loathe), is nothing short of a revelation, and his chemistry with Lawrence – one of the finest actresses working today – is really beautiful. There’s also a nice performance from De Niro, his most interesting in years, as Cooper’s father, who may be trying to build bridges with his son – or may just be using him as a good-luck charm to win money betting on football. His sequences seem distracting early on, taking us away from a beguiling burgeoning friendship, but the film’s apparently disparate elements slot together perfectly as it progresses, leading to a wonderfully satisfying finale. I loved it to pieces. (4)

***



Mostly Martha (Sandra Nettelback, 2001) – When the Catherine Zeta-Jones romcom, No Reservations, was on telly recently, I sought advice from the internet as to whether I should watch it. Almost without exception, everybody in the world told me to avoid it like the plague (or Spice-World), but to track down the German-language original immediately. So I did. Martha (Martina Gedeck) is a lonely, workaholic chef whose solitary existence is transformed forever by the arrival of her niece (Maxime Foerste), whose mother – Martha’s sister – has died in an accident. At the same time, Martha's job as head honcho in the kitchen appears threatened by the arrival of a charming Italian cook (Sergio Castellitto). What I most enjoyed about this grown-up film film was how its happy moments were so well earned, and its downtime so true to its story, a lesson most American rom-coms could do with learning about 30 years ago. Really it’s a well-observed human drama, with flashes of welcome levity, that isn’t afraid of the emotional messiness that’s a part of real-life, or the mistakes, grudges or fuzzy reconciliations that go with it. The film has some minor shortcomings in that its score leans towards cheese (complete with light jazz sax), its cinematography is too glossy and clean for the material and its "blind tasting" scene is a bit tired, but Gedeck is stunning in the lead, and the story really sucks you in, as well as making you terrifically hungry. (4)

***



The Decoy Bride (Sheree Folkson, 2011) – A sassy Scotswoman (Kelly Macdonald) returns to the Isle of Man the Hebrides after getting her heart broken, where fate casts her into the life of a ridiculous twitching caricature (David Tennant) – an author and all-time phony who’s about to wed a big-jawed American movie star. This rehash of I Know Where I’m Going! – via Leap Year – doesn’t really deserve to share a sentence with either, as it doesn’t occupy the same realm as P&P’s transcendent romance, nor plumb the depths of that recent, insultingly lazy slab of shite. Any charm it does have rests on the superhuman efforts of Macdonald – whose appealing performance weathers all manner of ridiculous developments – and the lovely Isle of Man locales. As with almost any British production that tries to include some Americans, chunks of it are rather embarrassing (ex pony-smacker Sally Phillips, who co-wrote this one, bizarrely forces herself to play a supporting part with an unstintingly terrible US accent), and this would doubtless have worked better had the leading man approximated the behaviour of a human being – even if his sentimental sequence with the bagpipes is rather sweet. Thanks to Macdonald, though, it turns out alright, her comic timing, periodic underplaying and attractive fieriness breathing life into a story that’s been told too many times. (2.5)

***



*SPOILERS*
Wanderlust (David Wain, 2012)
– A woman wearing too much make-up (Jennifer Aniston) and Paul Rudd (Paul Rudd) chance upon a hippy commune and, after first bidding it goodbye forever, resolve that it’s where they should spend the rest of their lives – pending a two-week trial. It’s his decision to go back there, but it’s she who blossoms, by which the film means that she flashes her tits, wipes her arse with some leaves and shags Justin Theroux’s pretentious slimeball. This mystifyingly misfiring comedy from the people who brought you Wet Hot American Summer (muted applause), The Baxter (exuberant applause) and Role Models (sheepish cheering) has a couple of massive laughs at the start, benefits from Rudd’s typically amusing performance (spotlighting his deadpan, very English sensibility) and boasts a strong cast on paper, but is pointlessly confrontational, emotionally vapid and ultimately nothing more than a string of barely-connected, clichéd set-pieces, each more desperate than the last. If you find yourself watching a film, thinking, “I could probably have written this”, that’s usually a bad sign. Especially if your next thought is: “I’m fucking glad I didn’t.” (2)

***

TV:



"Behind every successful man is... me, smiling and taking partial credit."
Parks and Recreation: Season 4 (2011-12) - I'm something of a novice when it comes to TV, but this may be the greatest season of small screen comedy I've ever seen. Tracing Leslie's election campaign from genesis to polling day, with a few inspired diversions, it expertly refines her central character, uses the show's supporting heroes – Ron, Andy, April, Ben and Tom – in the best possible way, breathes real life into previously uninvolving figures like Chris and "Ann Perkins!" and finds room for enjoyable guest spots from Paul Rudd (as idiotic election rival Bobby Newport) and Kathryn Hann. There are a handful of lesser episodes along the way (I'm Leslie Knope, Pawnee Rangers, Bowling for Votes), but it's very much relative, and the overwhelming majority are astonishingly good: like End of the World, Smallest Park, The Trial of Leslie Knope, Campaign Ad and Win, Lose or Draw. This fourth season is smart, sharp and satirical (particularly in the nerve-shredding episode, The Debate, which is a complete triumph and may just be the best thing Parks and Rec has ever done), but retains its cheeringly, often exaltingly soft centre. It's also breathtakingly funny. "First of all, you did the right thing by hiding under this table." (4)

See also: There are brief reviews of Season 2 and Season 3 elsewhere on the blog.