Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tom Hiddleston, Unbreakable and that movie about LEGO - Reviews #188

Plus: mixed fortunes at the cinema, nice music and Lindsay Lohan. Some of these reviews have been knocking around for a little while, for which I profoundly apologise.



CINEMA: Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) - Only Incredibly Pretentious Vampires Left Alive, more like.

The bar for what constitutes a great film nowadays seems to have fallen in the toilet. Jarmusch's last really dragged the depths, but this is the worst of his others, a lot of pop cultural posturing with a story about toothy haemogobblers attached.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are Adam and Eve, age-old vampires enduring tricky, bloodthirsty lives, she in Tangiers with friend Kit Marlowe (John Hurt; shades of Dead Man's William Blake), he as a reclusive rock musician in Detroit.

They reunite, and that's it for a desperate first half, as Jarmusch employs showy camera angles for no reason, has his characters spout synthetic philosophy about science and art, and tediously fetishes old guitars for what seems like about three years, a single diversion about the Michigan Theatre hitting the mark.

Then Mia Wasikowska turns up as Swinton's little sister, Eva, and the film splutters into life, becoming first an amusing domestic comedy, then a bleaker, more arresting proposition, leading to some tender exchanges, a few more longueurs, and an excellent ending.

But while Hiddleston is good and a few bits work well, the overall effect is of a maverick who has mislaid his unique talents somewhere along the way, and can find only a plethora of Stax, Tesla and Byron references to plug the gap.

What ever happened to vampires who were happy to just sneak into virgins' rooms at night and drink their blood? (2)

***



The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014) - "Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you're part of a team..." So goes the anthem of the establishment in this subversive, upliftingly imaginative animation, in which most things are indeed awesome.

Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) is a little, yellow-faced Lego man, a construction worker like thousands of others, only less distinctive. Then one day he falls down a big hole whilst gazing at a gothy ninja, and happens upon the Piece of Resistance, fulfilling a fairly recent prophecy, and being hailed as "The Special One" (like Jose Mourinho but less annoying). That unsurprisingly sets him on a collision course with tycoon, media mogul and megolamaniac Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who was planning on destroying the world in three days' time.

This, ladies and gentleman, is the real Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. While a film bearing that name was unleashed on unsuspecting, presumably underwhelmed moviegoers a few months back, it had almost no input from the creators of the first film, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Instead, they were working on this one, a consistently delightful action-comedy that allies the anarchic sensibility of that modern masterpiece to the post-modern, multi-world universe of Wreck-It Ralph.

The first 15 minutes is dizzyingly brilliant, introducing a Lego-infused style of animation every bit as good as you'd hope for, while unwrapping a story that spears conformity head-on, firing off dead-on zingers as it goes. Emmet, like most of his compatriots, is happy to lead a constricted, restricted and uniform life. He follows the instructions, watches Where Are My Pants? on the telly, and sings Everything Is Awesome until the uncertainty goes away. When Business's right-hand thug, Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), asks Emmet's best friends about him, he finds that they're not sure who he means.

While the film doesn't quite maintain the pace or the comic invention of that opening, spending more time on clever action set-pieces than in fostering the tear-jerking emotional undercurrent of Wreck-It Ralph, and delivering a message that's frankly very confusing, its chaotic, haphazard approach to comedy and storytelling contains a thousand little reasons to love it. And every time it flickers across your mind that you haven't laughed in a few minutes, it does something so outrageously brilliant that you fall in love with it all over again.

I think I could seduce you into watching the film by listing just a few of the fanboy-pleasing characters who make an appearance in Lego form (the film is basically a pub quiz question waiting to happen), but that would be to ruin a succession of joyous surprises. And while there's a little lazy spoofery now and then, trading on catchphrases and the like, that obviousness is overwhelmed by the amount of unexpected, truly new off-kilter iconography attached to these familiar faces. At times its daft, quickfire, ceaselessly satirical atmosphere reminded me of Hellzapoppin' - the 1941 film borne of a Broadway revue that journeys into Hell and manages to incorporate Lindy Hopping, Frankenstein's Monster and a gag about Citizen Kane.

You might think from the title that this one would be more akin to The Lorax (pure bland kiddie fodder) than Cloudy (no more a kids' film than Inception is), but that would be wrong. Voiced by Ferrell, Parks and Rec stars Pratt and Nick Offerman, as well as Elizabeth Banks, Arrested Development's Will Arnett and Community's Alison Brie, it very much trades on a sense of humour both hyper-intelligent and knowingly stupid. Pratt is a wonderfully gifted, completely natural comedian, and his voicework simply couldn't be better.

I don't think the film can quite compete with its great rivals in terms of emotion - a sharp left-turn near the close is bold and largely successful, but perhaps not universal enough to get you where you live - but for laughs and Lego-heavy spectacle it can't be beat: right through to that killer closing gag.

Now I just need a pun to close with. It's brick-liant? It's highly constructive? No... Ooh, I know. Le-go and see it. (3)

***



Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) - Note to Tod Browning, Kristen Stewart and Jim Jarmusch: *this* is how you do a vampire movie. (4)

***



Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000) - What an interesting, entertaining and unusual film this is. But is it a comic book "origins" story or a tale of aimless urbanites losing their grip on reality?

Bruce Willis is a stadium security guard who miraculously survives a train wreck. Was it luck, fate or something else? A comic book obsessive (Samuel L. Jackson) with a rare bone disease posits a theory of his own: Willis is his polar opposite, a new kind of superhero who is, well, unbreakable.

Some of the film's surprises aren't really surprises, Shyamalan's cameo is Tarantino-esque in its ineptitude, and a couple of the climactic sequences are too revolting, sensationalist and lurid to enjoy, but it is a consistently engrossing and fascinating film, with many unexpected qualities, as Shyamalan serves up a worthy successor to The Sixth Sense.

Beyond Die Hard, I don't really like Willis - I find him smug, annoying and light on talent - but his performance here is agreeably thoughtful and nuanced. And Jackson is just excellent: way out of his comfort zone as an intense, hobbling nerd, but commanding every scene with that awesome gift he has for emphasis and using silence like a sledgehammer.

The film is great to look at, too. At times it seems almost over-directed, with Shyamalan constantly searching for a way of shooting a scene that hasn't been done before (through the gap between two train seats, with a cape-ish curtain in the way), but that sort of enthusiasm for the medium, coupled with a sense of genuine invention and imagination is very exciting to watch, while rarely getting in the way of the material.

There is a bit of an issue with some of Shyamalan's writing. Would a man really fail to notice that he hadn't been ill for 30 years? Would a kid really try to prove his dad was magic by shooting him? Probably not, but it's a minor gripe with a film of such conviction and originality that you can't help but be pulled along with it. And that ending? Even if you guess some of what's coming, it's a chilling, exaltingly cinematic and beautifully executed pay-off. (3.5)

***



Freaky Friday (Mark Waters, 2003) - This remake of a fondly remembered but actually pretty dire Disney comedy from the '70s works so well because it never descends into cartoonish slapstick or caricaturish characterisation, instead rooting its body swap shenanigans in the real.

Lindsay Lohan plays an archetypal teenager plagued by an annoying little brother, an unrequited crush and a vindictive English teacher. Her mum (Jamie Lee Curtis) loves her to pieces... but also regards her as a sullen, awkward and combustible child who needs to pull her weight in the family, and be protected from gorgeously greasy emos. On the eve of Curtis's wedding, a meddling woman at a Chinese restaurant puts a spell on them, leading them to inhabit one another's bodies for the eponymous "freaky Friday".

There's cheesiness here, some overly convenient plotting and a posturing regard for mediocre guitar music that's a little wearying, but also charm, sincerity and some very good acting. It had never really occurred to me how talented Lohan actually is (was?), but she does a great job with her character here: particularly when trying to comprehend her daughter's plight from within her body, which can't be an easy thing to play. It led me to think of other Lohan performances I'd seen, and though there hasn't always been scope for her to reach for grand emotion or high art, she carried or enhanced several enjoyable mainstream films, from The Parent Trap to Mean Girls, before discovering how much fun it is to get plastered. The last time I saw her she was being bizarrely and rather thanklessly employed in Machete. Perhaps some day she'll be rehabilitated in more ways than one.

If Curtis's role had gone to someone like Sigourney Weaver, it would have been played with an unwatchable broadness. In her hands, though, it largely works. There are a few concessions to teen-mocking stereotypes, along with the requisite "bloody awful makeover scene" but there's a subtlety and sincerity to her performance that I found very winning. She and Lohan are supported by an unexpectedly tolerable ensemble, with slightly mannered little brother Harry Coleman and grandpa Harold Gould proving a fun pairing.

The film isn't in the same league as 17 Again, which I really do think is the best and most original body-swap comedy around (shut up), but it's comfortably in the second tier with Big and 13 Going on 30 (shut up more). While belly laughs are in short supply, that's perhaps because it isn't quite that sort of film, instead delivering a bright human story with characters you actually care about. (3)

***



True Grit (Joel Coen, 2010) - If everything about this film was as good as its score and Hailee Steinfeld's performance as the implacable Mattie Ross, then I'd be clearing a space for it in my top ten at this very moment.

As it is, it's a rather frustrating watch, those exaltant twin virtues - alongside some gloriously inflected exchanges, Roger Deakins' bleached-out photography and an invigoratingly executed long-distance shoot-out - simply lying around in an aloof, sloppy and poorly-paced story hampered by the Coens' usual vices: excessive unsentimentality and self-satisfied comedy that stalls dramatic momentum.

The story, as in the curiously celebrated 1969 film, has 14-year-old Mattie enlisting the help of gruff, garrulous marshal Rooster Cogburn (an unintelligible Jeff Bridges) to hunt down her father's killer, assisted and thwarted in almost equal measure by a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon).

I do prefer this version to the flaccid, clichéd Henry Hathaway one, in which John Wayne was merely eye-patched Oscar bait for an Academy keen to reward him for past accomplishments. I just wish it lived up to Steinfeld's forthright, heartfelt performance, perfectly pitched between naturalism and precocity, Carter Burwell's lush, gospel-influenced score, and the stunning employment of Iris DeMent's peerless rendering of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms (also the key song in Night of the Hunter, hymn trivia fans). (3)

***

Busby Berkeley double-bill:



Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933) - Warner made a heap of great musicals in the early '30s, with the likes of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler crooning and hoofing, Guy Kibbee and co providing the comedy, and the incomparable Busby Berkeley designing the numbers.

This one sometimes gets overlooked alongside 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers series, but it shouldn't, not least because it throws Jimmy Cagney into the mix and climaxes with the unique spectacle of three big back-to-back Busby Berkeley numbers.

Honeymoon Hotel is tiresome smut, but the climactic number - Shanghai Lil - is great fun, with Keeler and Cagney tapping on a bar, and the middle one, By a Waterfall, is a sumptuous, extravagant, kaleidoscopic affair that shows the choreographer at the peak of his powers.

The story isn't as convincing or compelling as elsewhere, with Cagney running a company putting on theatrical prologues between cinema fearures, but it has a fantastic atmosphere: vast swathes of it taking place before or around realistic rehearsals, as dance director Frank McHugh wails "It can't be done!" and Cagney fires off a succession of ideas, commands or smartarse remarks.

William Keighley is credited as the "dialogue director", but I wouldn't be surprised if Berkeley shot plenty of this, as the beautiful, fluid camera movements showcased throughout the film are hardly the calling card of studio hack Lloyd Bacon. Buzz was, of course, responsible for the other full production number, with Keeler dressed as a sexy cat.

Aside from the spectacular songs, the biggest treat is the chemistry between Cagney and the charming, big-eyed Joan Blondell, who's absolutely wonderful in a part she played several times: a tough, wise-cracking secretary with a secret yen for her boss. (3.5)



Gold Diggers of 1937 (Busby Berkeley, 1936) - After the popular 42nd Street, Warner Bros made their musical masterpiece, a Depression-era beauty called Gold Diggers of 1933 that mixed somewhat risqué comedy with astonishing production numbers, including the greatest one ever filmed: Remember My Forgotten Man.

Its outrageous success led to a series of Gold Diggers films: arguably including Dames (Gold Diggers of 1934 in all but name), as well as Gold Diggers of 1935 (poor plot, jawdropping songs), this one - actually released in 1936 - and Gold Diggers in Paris.

The story here has the crooked partners of Victor Moore's ailing theatrical impresario - including Anthony Perkins' dad - taking out a massive insurance policy on his life, then trying to off him with the help of chorus girl Glenda Farrell, who memorably laments: "It's so hard to be good under the capitalist system." Meanwhile, Farrell's former colleague Joan Blondell gets a secretarial gig at the insurance firm in question, thanks to a lazy salesman (Dick Powell), who ends up handling Moore's case.

The film finds Berkeley and his Warner cohorts at a strange time. The putting-on-a-show story that had served his style of musical number so well was fast going out of fashion, so he was forced to create a couple of promising plot-driven numbers that never quite get there, partly because Blondell and Powell could hardly dance. The censorship clampdown was also by now in full effect, meaning little of the scurrilous humour that made earlier comedies at the studio such fun. And as well as stifling the sex gags, the Hays Office ensured that the politics of the period were no longer fair game for comment, with the chorus girls now having to bail out a former millionaire!

It's still a decent watch, though, with two good numbers and two great performances. Joan Blondell is rarely cited as one of the best actresses of her era, presumably because - like Myrna Loy - she complemented rather than annihilated her co-stars. The more I see her, though, the more I love her. Not just her assured sexiness, but also her ability to effortlessly shift mode and mood from lovelorn to sassy to sardonic. She was comfortably and contentedly the best thing about numerous films of the 1930s, and here she walks away with every scene she pitches up for during for the first hour.

After that, it's over to the adorable, snub-nosed Farrell (whose Torchy Blane was the inspiration for Lois Lane), here combining her talent for the cynical and sentimental to unforgettable ends. The scene with Moore in his dressing room is absolutely sensational, as he throws off his familiar comic persona (which here is far more grating than usual), to deliver a heartfelt speech, and she matches him every step of the way.

Berkeley's best two numbers are the most familiarly Berkeley-ish - a poolside medley reminiscent of his work on the Eddie Cantor film Roman Scandals - and the fondly remembered All's Fair in Love and War, in which an army of women memorably gas their male adversaries with perfume, presumably causing war veterans in the audience to say, "What the actual hell?" and Powell to pull a face like Franklin Pangborn. Some of the number just consists of women walking around or pouting, but it has passages of wonderfully imaginative, regimented imagery, particularly some bravura flag twirling - and that bizarre trench warfare. (3), just about.

***


This is one hell of a nice poster.

Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976) - Hitchcock's final film is no classic, just a watchable, often lighthearted thriller: a bit lazy, a lot padded, but with enough of his usual pizzazz to keep your attention. It's kind of odd seeing him at work in an era of flares, gargantuan sideburns and a strange fondness for the colour brown, though. Also, I thought the title might have a clever double or triple meaning, but it doesn't.

The ironic story has phony psychic Barbara Harris and taxi-driving sidekick Bruce Dern on the trail of the mysterious "Eddie Shoebridge". They want to give him a fortune - and collect a 10 grand commission - while he thinks they know about that kidnapping, and that double-murder.

The interminable kitchen scenes between Harris and Dern have no real reason to be there, her supposedly comic psychic readings are a big bore, and Hitch spoils one suspense sequence about a runaway car by trying poorly to play it for laughs, but there's plenty to enjoy, with a fair story, a good supporting turn from Karen Black, and a handful of the Master's trademark flourishes. This one isn't all that tense for the most part, but it does have a handful of nerve-shredding moments (Black's painted fingers on the door handle of a car!) and some exciting visual reveals.

It's just a shame that Hitchcock died before anyone could tell him that: a) that back-projection he uses looks terrible, and b) blood really isn't that brightly coloured.

Sadly the toothy, pipe-wielding Dern is only 1976's third best cabbie, after De Niro, and Barry Evans in Adventures of a Taxi Driver. (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

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