Thursday, 25 June 2015

Fury Road, Hitler's secretary, and echolalia - Reviews #210

I went to Mallorca, read two books and swam in the sea. And that's not all. When I got back, I went to the cinema to see a movie you all saw ages ago.


CINEMA: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) - An exhilarating feminist actioner that unleashes torrents of water on the risible '80s Mad Max films from an improbably great height.

First off, Ratty Rockatansky has had an upgrade (from Mel Gibson to Tom Hardy); secondly, he's in league with a bunch of gun-toting, patriarchy-defying harem escapees, one of whom (Charlize Theron) can shoot a hell of a lot better than him - and knows it.

Introducing such additional, agreeable novelties as grenade-lobbing pole vaulters, a guitar that's also a flamethrower, and a steady, beating heart where once there was none, it's a crunching, breathless, vital piece of genre joy that rewrites most of the rules and resets the action clock to Year Zero.

There are moments near the film's beginning where you worry that Miller has again pitched us into a world it's frankly no fun to visit, but as soon as it gets moving - in both senses of the word - it really gets moving. Kudos too for a blockbuster that sees human nature as truly complex and transmutable, epitomised by Nicholas Hoult's pale, Valhalla-bound cult flunkey.

Favourite moment? Hardy's little backwards-looking thumbs up, as the first crack appears in his nominal hero's selfish, hard-bitten persona. (3.5)

Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, 2002)

Yes, that’s right. ‘Uncle Hitler’.

This film is just 87 minutes of a single talking head. Thankfully that talking head is Traudl Junge, an 82-year-old German woman who worked as Hitler’s personal secretary from 1942 until he shot himself. Her reminiscences of the “kindly old gentleman” she worked for – contrasted with the “monster” she regards him as in retrospect – make for utterly gripping viewing, as she talks in circles about her guilt, sorrow and confusion. Her memories are moving, maddening, sometimes baffling, and the film is quite brilliantly structured, with a stunning final sequence. (4)



Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)
is a pungent, pustulous lancing of the boil that is America, by the incomparable Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut. Written in an even more extreme post-modern, scrupulously self-referential style than his seminal Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s sort of the stories of a psychotic millionaire and a failed sci-fi writer, but really it’s a freewheeling treatise on the ills of the world – world – from racism and cultural imperialism to the inherent, in-built dangers of questioning norms of thought. Thought. Perhaps it loses some momentum in the middle, but it’s ferocious and ferociously funny, with a devastatingly sad undercurrent (to which I could truly relate) and a knockout ending. Ending. And the scene in which the waitress is trying to flirt with Dwayne but he has echolalia is my new favourite thing. Thing. (3.5)

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) – A mammoth, all-consuming and all-conquering book, alternating between the story of the Joad family – a bunch of Dustbowl Oklahomans heading west in search of work – and the world they inhabit, from marauding tractors who don’t feel the earth beneath their tracks, to sentimental waitresses and one very sleepy tortoise. It’s not as punchy and abrasive as Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, but it’s stunningly ambitious and utterly immersive: a sad, grubby, noble crawl towards partial but jawdropping catharsis, full of unforgettable characters struggling to survive in a country gone to Hell. John Ford’s film adaptation was probably the most radical film ever to come out of the studio system, and it’s unquestionably a masterpiece, but there’s a different feel to it. Steinbeck’s novel is a heavy, difficult, waterlogged epic, reeking of grease and pain – a book so challenging and exhausting that he never wrote another quite like it. It’s a tough read too, overloaded with description and despair, but a stunning achievement on any terms. (4)



Fleetwood Mac at the O2 (Mon 22 Jun) - Their voices may be two octaves lower, their faces may be a little melted, but this was an uplifting, even raucous show: cathartic for them, it seemed, and for us: joyous. (3.5)


Thanks for reading.

Gish and Griffith: pockmarked with greatness

You know D. W. Griffith - he made the most racist film of all time, The Birth of a Nation, which rather inconveniently also created cinema as we know it. You may notice that a Klansman appears to be the hero.

I've been watching a lot of Griffith's films lately, partly because the BFI in London has had a special season on, and partly because I'm enduringly and indelibly obsessed with the actress who starred in so many of his films, the immortal (not actually immortal, she died in 1993) Lillian Gish.

Depending on your mood, and his, Griffith's films can be either unbearably corny or rather moving in their sincerity, but while he was unquestionably a shamelessly sentimental bigot with a yen for preposterous third-act melodrama, he was also the most important and influential filmmaker of his generation. Here's a whizz through all the Gish-led Griffith I've got my mucky little mitts on lately:

An Unseen Enemy (D. W. Griffith, 1912) - Panic Room, 1912-style. It's all a bit silly, but worth it for the debuts of the Gish sisters, with Lillian compulsively watchable throughout.

Title cards include:

Oh, D. W., you are giving silent films a silly name. (2.5)


The Musketeers of Pig Alley (D. W. Griffith, 1912) - The 'first gangster movie' still looks decent a century on, with a hokey but atmospheric opening, a slightly static middle where people mostly walk in and out of a saloon, and then an absolutely spectacular denouement, featuring one eye-popping close-up, a tense shootout in an alleyway and an irreverent ending that makes the most of star Elmer Booth's dazzling charisma.

Lillian Gish is 'The Little Lady', whose patronising nickname masks the fact that she's an asskicking feminist who clobbers an amorous assailant, chooses whichever man she likes, and unwittingly starts a gang war by being hot at a party. Walter Miller plays her boyfriend, a musician who may as well just have 'mug me' tattooed on his face, while Booth is The Snapper Kid, a swaggering gunman who's like a sexy, funny, easy-going Al Capone, though the film came out when Al Capone was 13.

Underworld, Little Caesar and The Godfather all redrafted the genre rules across subsequent decades, but this is the film that wrote them, in 16 brisk, bruising minutes, with Booth something like the cinema's first anti-hero: a likeable guy swaggering around the wrong side of the law, far removed from the tedious, moustache-twirling villainy that blighted many films of the period. Tragically, he died just three years later, on the cusp of superstardom, in a car accident caused by future Dracula director Tod Browning. He had been about to start filming Griffith's epic, Intolerance. (3.5)


CINEMA: A Romance of Happy Valley (D. W. Griffith, 1919) - The hero in this film is a lot like me, a young man who sits at his desk, in his flat, in the unforgiving city, thinking about Lillian Gish.

A Romance of Happy Valley was made by D. W. Griffith during his white-hot streak between the enduringly controversial Birth of a Nation (1915) and his epic of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm(1921) , a period that also took in Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), and essentially laid the template for cinema as we know it.

Set in the Kentucky where he grew up, it's notably less ambitious than almost all of those films (Broken Blossoms is the only one on a similar scale): a gentle, pastoral comedy-drama about a farm labourer (Robert Harron) who goes off to seek his fortune in New York, leaving behind the lovestruck, pure-hearted and relentlessly stoic Jennie (Lillian Gish), his childhood sweetheart.

It's corny in places, predictably racist in a couple of others (uh-oh, a white guy in blackface who's greedy and feckless), and saddled with an overlong, melodramatic and improbable climax, but it's also extremely involving and often very moving, with an unexpectedly wry, even occasionally subversive sense of humour.

Harron provides plenty of those virtues in a committed, appealing performance, while Gish is as transcendent as ever, whether bidding him an awkward, adoring goodbye, seeing off 'a descendant of Judas Iscariot' who fancies getting off with her, or romancing a scarecrow that's dressed as her lover, a touching, understated sequence that influenced 7th Heaven and then The Artist.

Her singular artistry and Griffith's trendsetting direction - rich in close-ups, including an unforgettable flourish featuring the lovers' hands, and still yet to be emulated let alone overhauled by his European rivals - make this a little gem, despite a bit of his signature silliness. (3.5)

This screened at the BFI along with Griffith's 1909 short, The Cricket on the Hearth (D. W. Griffith, 1909). My only comment on that one is that I had absolutely no idea what was going on. (1.5)


True Heart Susie (D. W. Griffith, 1919) - Maybe my favourite ever Lillian Gish performance, with everyone's favourite tiny-mouthed acting titan playing the "simple, plain" Susie, an angelic, motherless farmer who sells her cow to fund sweetheart Robert Harron's college career, then watches, powerless as he falls for a tight-skirted, powder-faced party animal (Clarine Seymour).

Yes, that is the best premise for a movie ever, thank you for asking.

True Heart Susie is old-fashioned, rose-tinted and heavy-handed in its depiction of the afflictions besetting America (adultery, dancing, lipstick), with a lurch towards melodrama in the final quarter that's more convenient than credible, but it's also utterly beguiling: beautifully directed by a filmmaker who could do Americana with the best of them, when he wasn't doing racism with the worst of them. At one point he uses a hedgerow to split the screen into two: ecstasy on the left, despair on the right.

And yet it's only when Gish is on screen that it hits those heights. Without her, it's a standard, slightly overripe drama with a touch of visual poetry. But when she steps in front of the camera - her heroine too pained to watch as her love is snatched away, hiding her tears behind a fan, or collapsing in agony as soon as the ill-suited pair depart from sight - it becomes something else entirely. You sense that Griffith knows it too: in those scenes his lense is softer but his eye is sharper, and every detail his camera catches seems profound and vivid and alive, every muscle of Gish's genius twitching and sparking.

It's not a flawless film, but as a snapshot of two pioneers pockmarked with greatness, it can scarcely be beat. (3.5)


Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Secret Cinema, Adam Curtis and gut punches - Reviews #209

I'm planning something separate about my overriding preoccupations - D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish - but here's everything else I've been enjoying/not really enjoying of late...


Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis, 2015) - The latest film from Power of Nightmares director Adam Curtis, available solely on iPlayer, is an astounding piece of work.

His thesis is that we are unable to truly engage with or understand contemporary affairs because of the simplistic stories to which we have become addicted. To make this point, he considers the case of Afghanistan, creating a sprawling mosaic that alternates utterly fascinating, eye-opening polemicising with thousands of feet of extraordinary, raw, unbroadcast footage − poetic, surreal, chilling, heartbreaking and enraging − shot by BBC News crews over the past 15 years.

Oddly, Curtis doesn't actually succeed in constructing a convincing case around what turns out to be a rather nebulous, ironically simplistic theory, while the idea that most of us stand for nothing, compared to the Mujahedeen, is frankly madness. But the story he weaves, of the seeds for our economic and ultimately ideological destruction being unwittingly sown by Roosevelt (hands down my favourite president) when he met Saudi Arabia's Kind Saud on Seattle's Bitter Lake in February 1945, is quite, quite brilliant. And while at first many of the clips seem to be going on a bit, Curtis's unique approach ultimately gives the movie a haunting, cumulative power that lingers on long after the credits have rolled.

It's an imperfect but essential film. (3.5)


An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) - Despite being a slightly annoying, militant eco type (I didn't fly between 2005 and 2013, I don’t drive for the same reason), I'd never gotten around to Al Gore's Morally Righteous PowerPoint Presentation, as this film should obviously be called.

His sincere, twinkly-eyed hectoring, which includes wiping his mouth whenever he makes a joke, is mostly extremely effective and informative, ticking all the boxes from the Confident Presenter course I once went on with work, and making a passionate, inspiring case for saving the planet. Though admittedly, putting axes on several of these graphs might be helpful if we're going to finally see off all the selfish, blinkered wankers, sorry, 'climate change sceptics'.

The problem with An Inconvenient Truth, and there really is a true, inconvenient problem, is that it breaks off regularly for folksy, glossily-shot segments about Al Gore's life, which are occasionally illuminating (his college professor was the first person to measure the amount of CO2 in the air, for instance) but mostly self-aggrandising and completely irrelevant. There is also a quite staggering amount of PowerPointPorn, as Al smoulders in close-up, dragging pictures from one window to another, as if the other main crisis threatening to engulf us is shoddily assembled slideshows.

The rest of it's good, though, and I was glad to see in the credits that it's a carbon neutral production, as Al seemed to be flying around the world telling people to stop flying around the world. Next I expected him to start stoking a bonfire while shouting: "This is really irresponsible!" (3)


Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) - An above-average dystopian flick set in an apocalyptic England, the last outpost on an Earth battered by untold calamity, including an infertility epidemic. Clive Owen is the bereaved activist who’s dragged into radical politics again by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) and ends up as the protector of a mysterious young woman on the run (Claire-Hope Ashitey).

The frequently redrafted script has too many annoying tics and speeches of weak, mannered dialogue – the sort of thing you’d write if you had writer’s block – but the one-take action scenes are dizzying and dazzling, and the story is hearteningly unpredictable, incorporating not only unexpected deaths and shifting sympathies, but Biblical allegory, Pam Ferris with dreads and a man being shot for farting.

The cast is alright too: though Owen isn’t much of an actor, he’s a decent star, and the supporting ensemble is unpolished but interesting, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Peter Mullan and a weed-smoking Michael Caine, playing a kind of slightly damaged Bob Harris. Ashitey is also quite good as the key central figure, her unorthodox performance – sincere, twinkling yet fearful – adding another layer to this flawed but impressive vision of the future. (3)


Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) - I don't know what to think about this one, exactly, which is probably a good thing.

Danny Boyle’s visceral film about sticking an atom bomb in the sun throbs with the director’s typical restlessness: has he ever ended a film in the same genre that he began it? It starts as a men-(and-women-)on-a-mission movie, full of suspicion and setbacks, then becomes a psychological thriller and ultimately an explosive, screeching fusion of horror and action.

There’s some Alien in there, a bit of 2001, Silent Running and Cube, but plenty that’s new too, particularly in its theme of sun worship, which hangs over the story and overpowers its visual sense, resulting in scenes of increasingly exhilarating screen saturation.

The dialogue can be perfunctory and the story extremely difficult to follow, but the ensemble cast is interesting – including future stars Chris Evans and Rose Byrne (who I finally fancy, now she’s an intense tomboy rather than a vacuous neurotic) – there’s fascination to spare, and the imagery is immense. (3)


SECRET CINEMA: Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) - I reviewed this movie very recently, so no need for a big write-up.

What I did notice this time were a couple of things half-inched from Tarzan movies, which provided serial-like thrills of their own in the 1930s. Firstly and most obviously, Luke swinging on the vines at Degobah, but then also the Mynocks attacking the Falcon - this far, far away galaxy's answer to the "vampire bats" so cruelly cut from Tarzan Escapes.

I was watching the movie again due to Secret Cinema. Though I found everything surrounding it rather underwhelming and amateurish, the film itself did manage to transport me, in a way that it always does, and in a way the rest of the experience didn't. (4 for the film, 2 for the overall experience)



Gypsy (Savoy Theatre)
– This is a fun, funny, intensely sad translation of Sondheim’s 1959 musical about the creation of striptease sensation Gypsy Rose Lee (Lara Pulver), focusing on her manager, Rose (Imelda Staunton), the ultimate stage mother. A work of real emotional heft, it starts off light and sweet and frothy, then takes us deep into the souls and psyches of its characters, peddling a little of Sondheim’s broad sordidness (which isn’t really my sort of thing but works alright), before flooring us with a succession of gut punches. Completely compelling even at two-and-a-half-hours, it’s a show shot through with wit, ugliness, angst, desperation, panache and pizzazz, from the stylised, skewed-perspective sets to a slew of stellar songs and Staunton’s sensational central performance, the best I've ever seen her give. (4)

See also: I reviewed another favourite Staunton performance here.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Leni Riefenstahl, Mad Max, and prawns - Reviews #208

A micro-update for your delectation, featuring all of the above, and not much more. Also, I went to see The Lion King, which was great fun. Here I am at it.

Incidentally, we crawled raced past 250,000 all-time hits this week, so thank you kindly for your continued support.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Müller, 1993) - If you find yourself saying things like: “The reason I sent that telegram to Hitler was…” or “… Hitler hated it, ask anyone who was there”, it may be time to take a long, hard look at your life.

But since Leni Riefenstahl isn’t happy to do that, this absolutely extraordinary film does it for her.

The idea was actually Riefenstahl’s.

The greatest female film director of all time – and the only one to have filmed a Nuremberg Rally – had been shopping the project around for a while, and finding that more than 200 respected documentarians wouldn’t touch her with a barge pole, because of The Triumph of the Will, the fetishistically fascist Olympia, and that one where she borrowed extras from a concentration camp for the crowd scenes of gypsies. Plus all the telegrams to Hitler. And her close personal friendship with Josef Goebbels, whom she unconvincingly describes here as “my worst enemy”.

Enter Ray Müller (“the umlaut is a noble symbol and not to be mocked” – Herman Göring), who somehow manages to walk the trickiest, most perilous of tightropes: making a credible, even-handed and deeply insightful film about Leni Riefenstahl in which she is the only interviewee. His remarkable movie – which it’s still kind of difficult to believes genuinely exists – traces Riefenstahl’s journey from dancer to (gorgeously lit) actress to mountaineer to feature film director and finally documentary-maker of choice for the Third Reich. He wisely allows the 90-year-old Riefenstahl to tell her story, using the most perfectly chosen footage and allowing her to offer insights into her creative process, which – whatever you think of her as a person (and in my opinion, she was basically an utter, irredeemable shit) – usually resulted in the most staggering footage.

He also lets her mount the case for the defence, while occasionally and invigoratingly taking her to task for evasion, deceit and instances of appalling moral turpitude. The sequence in which she denies having anything to do with the creation of the 1934 rally itself, only for Müller to throw in a lantern-lit parade with undeniable echoes of the first scene Riefenstahl ever shot, is just one of the sublime, unaccented juxtapositions that pepper this unique film. There’s also the continuous disappearance of her gentle, perma-smiling façade when her carefully-navigated narrative of denial is questioned – or when she thinks the camera is off – and a prologue mixing footage of Nazis and tranquil, beguiling underwater footage that’s simply the best imaginable way of kicking us into this troubling story.

While the film does ultimately lose a little momentum when it follows Riefenstahl to Africa and to the bottom of the ocean, its decision to portray Riefenstahl’s whole life is almost certainly the right one, and the last couple of minutes are astounding, as Müller tries to pin Riefenstahl down once and for all, and her response is everything at once: full of regret, remorse, anger, confusion, self-delusion, and ultimately an attempt to manipulate the world again.

But I suppose this is simply what happens when you let a woman direct films.

Leni Riefenstahl really was a Feminazi. (4)


District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) - This modern sci-fi marvel is about racism, corporate greed, media complicity in state-sponsored terrorism, aliens who look like prawns and a big robot that makes things go “pooosh” and explode when it shoots them. The story, set in Johannesburg and with clear echoes of Apartheid-era South Africa, unfolds initially as a documentary, telling the 20-year story of an alien craft that halts over the city and is prised open to reveal scared, malnourished creatures who end up being detained in a slum. After rioting, the government brings in a private contractor to shift the 1.5m “prawns” – the reductionist racist epithet of choice – transforming the life of the company owner’s sweet, callow, over-promoted son-in-law (Sharlto Copley).

Perhaps in its ultimate shift from a sci-fi movie with lashings of body horror to a sometimes sentimental action film it loses a touch of its novelty and clout – Alien to Aliens, if you will – but it is a fearsomely clever movie with a sense of swaggering self-confidence, a firm grasp of the unexpected and a tremendous amount to say about the world in which we live. It’s also brilliantly and often outrageously funny, whether saddling Copley with a hilarious media smear or giving full flight to scenes of metal-suited mayhem that make Iron Man look crap by comparison (it is crap, anyway). From its inspired evocation of the ‘other’ – a ghettoised, stomach-churning enemy, painted as sub-human – to the unexpectedly moving, poetic final image, it’s mostly very special indeed. (3.5)


I started rewatching 'all the Mad Max films, climaxing with Fury Road', but since I didn't like the first two, I'm revising that plan.

Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) - It's flashily directed in its trashy, B-movie-ish way, but this Australian actioner is so formulaic, derivative and simplistic that it's kind of boring. (2)

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981) - Grumpy Max (Adolf Hitler) is back in this one-note sequel, scowling as things go boom. I genuinely don't understand why this is supposed to be good. The prologue is nattily done and the ending is a knockout, but what's in between is almost unremittingly crap, with awful characters, risible comedy and a whooping, moronic sensibility that's quite uniquely offputting. Miller certainly knows his way around a crane shot and a flash of kinetic action; if only he could do anything else. (2)


Thanks for reading.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Elephant Man at Theatre Royal Haymarket

Wednesday 27 May

The Elephant Man (Theatre Royal Haymarket) - This adaptation of Bernard Pomerance's play (also the basis for the exceptional 1980 film) is fantastic as far as it goes, but it doesn't go quite far enough.

The production feels too short by a good 20 minutes and has no real dramatic climax, though it's illuminated by a superlative, all-American cast, particularly screen star Bradley Cooper, who made it big in that abhorrent, detestable slice of Fratwank, The Hangover, before revealing he could actually act the pants of most people in Hollywood, and makes for a simply sublime John Merrick. Eschewing prosthetics, he instead walks on stage as the pin-up he is, before responding to a doctor's coldly clinical analysis of his character's physique by contorting his award-winning body (People Magazine's Sexiest Man of 2011) into the curious curves of the Elephant Man, just as his voice then leans on gasps and gulps, and his personality bends to draw out Merrick's good humour, irony and inherent tortured melancholia.

In what is more of an ensemble piece than you may expect, veteran indie darling Patricia Clarkson goes for some big American moments, angling for the loudest kind of quiet pathos imaginable, as she wields the silence between words like a sledgehammer, but she's certainly commanding playing a world-weary diva shaken to sentiment by her encounter with true goodness. The other really notable performance here, though - indeed, the only person on the Theatre Royal stage who can live with Cooper in this kind of form, in this kind of scene-nabbing role - is Alessandro Nivola, absolutely excellent as doctor Frederick Treves, a character whose descent from arrogant, ambitious physician to largely broken man wielding a few choice observations about the human race is chilling, if not dramatically complete.

The acting is complemented by inventive though not groundbreaking stagecraft, into which so much thought has clearly gone that at times the production slightly undermines itself (the odd if arresting scene in which Cooper contrasts the standard human form with Merrick's distorted body requires that he act from behind a curtain prior to that). It's a hot ticket, though, and it deserves to be, not just for the big names from the big screen - which have brought a crackling excitement to Haymarket - but for the quality of the acting, Pomerance's familiar, erratic but sometimes beautifully modulated observations, and a basic story that retains its ability to appal, amuse, confound and move.

If it has a problem, it's that it never quite comes to the boil. The problem, perhaps is that Pomerance's thesis - that Merrick was as damaged by his embedment in high society as by his experiences as a ritually abused freakshow attraction - doesn't really seem to ring true, at least not in this version of the story.

There's a huge amount to be drawn from it, though, and even a bit of gratuitous nudity for us all to enjoy. No, not Patricia Clarkson's waps (though those are also on show), I'm talking about that glimpse we get of the real John Merrick's penis, which is perfectly in proportion. Cool. (3.5)