Thursday, 29 December 2016

Roger Moore, Fantastic Beasts, and Sesame Street: Origins – Reviews #253

Just a quick round-up of the things I watched immediately before Christmas. Been mostly eating cheese and re-acquainting myself with a guitar since then.



CINEMA: It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) – Frank Capra's immortal film about everyday heroism is a Christmas movie – but it's not just for Christmas. It's an enduring celebration of life, love, friendship and small-town America that doubles as an indictment of the rapacious capitalism that now defines the country.

It's perilously dark, delightfully left-wing and stuffed with unforgettable scenes and performances – from H. B. Warner nearly poisoning a kid, to Alfalfa from Our Gang as a graduation hop prankster, Gloria Grahame playing town flirt Violet Bick, Beulah Bondi doing her Best Mum Ever bit, Thomas Mitchell playing drunk (obviously) and Lionel Barrymore as the penultimate word in arsehole financiers.

Dominating it all is Jimmy Stewart's greatest performance: funny, utterly loveable and finally heartbreaking as selfless George Bailey, who one Christmas Eve wishes he'd never been born and gets to see what the world would be like without him, thanks to bumbling guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers).

The wise, universal (and multi-authored) script is densely packed with charm, incident and insight, while Capra's handling is sublime, with stunning use of close-ups at key moments, and that intense, breathlessly-directed sequence in the hellish netherworld of Pottersville that culminates in Violet being dragged away by the vice squad.

All that, plus Donna Reed's beautifully-judged performance as George's wife, Mary, the genesis of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, that amazing joke about needing to be excused, and one of the most wonderful denouements in movie history.

Though if I read one more review from someone saying, "I thought old movies were rubbish until I saw this" and then not watching any others, I swear I will go full Mr Potter on them. (4)

***


"Psst, where can I find those fantastic breasts I keep hearing about about?"

CINEMA: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016) – A textbook family film, with just the right balance of story, characters, jokes, soppy stuff and moderate peril, as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) pitches up in 1920s New York with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts, while vitriolic anti-witch campaigner Samantha Morton and dodgy Colin Farrell battle for the soul of Typecast Weird Teenager Ezra Miller – and a mysterious little girl.

There's so much to enjoy, from Rowling's effortless expansion of her wizarding world to Morton in a cloche hat for the first time since Sweet and Lowdown (shame she's evil), and an immensely satisfying scene in which the city is repaired following the usual CGI destruction. (We neurotics would like to see this in every film from now on, please.)

I'm not a huge fan of Redmayne, who seems to have waltzed into a major-league career on account of his background and connections, but he's rather charming as the wide-eyed Newt, Katherine Waterston is delightful as his foil – a recently unemployed auror – and both Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler do well to mine pathos from rather familiar roles.

It helps, I think, that this was written for the screen, as there's no need to strip away subplots or skip from one set-piece to the next; instead there's a methodical but immaculate balance between the different elements (like when RKO used to plot each Fred and Ginger vehicle on a chart: comedy bit, romantic bit, dance number, etc).

In my eyes, you're usually onto a winner if you set your film in '20s America – just about the most fascinating, cinematic place imaginable – and though I'm sure the decision is rooted in the commercial, it's a delight to be there, and not just because Waterston dresses as a flapper in one scene.

And though I usually find CGI too synthetic and unbelievable to be wondrous, Fantastic Beasts manages to evoke a real sense of magic – and character – from those creations. Especially the echidna-alike with a magpie's eye for shiny things. The way that Rowling allows the story to hinge on their actions and the way they're used may be a little gimmicky (we'll see in future instalments), but it completely justifies this new series – and already I can't wait to see the next entry.

There's nothing here to challenge the Harry Potter books as Rowling's finest artistic achievement, but it's arguably better than the best of the Potter films, which for the most part left me fairly cold (it goes 3, 8, 5, 6 and the rest I can leave, really, if you were wondering). Fantastic Beasts has a few extraneous sequences and hamfisted supporting characters, but it's also a handsome, funny, immersive, appealing and entertaining movie, and those don't come along every week.

It's also the only family film I've seen where a middle-aged man is almost raped by a magic rhino. On second thoughts, that sentence doesn't need the word 'family' in it. (3)

***



The Man Who Haunted Himself (Basil Dearden, 1970) – A cracking, eerie thriller about staid suburban businessman Roger Moore getting in a car smash and cheating death, only to find that he now has a corrupt, womanising doppelganger.

The film is hampered by a few naff elements – dated music, weak back projection and Freddie Jones as an eccentric Welsh psychiatrist – but the story is great, Moore is terrific fun in a dual role, and this one reaches a fantastic domestic climax, only to rather throw it away in the final seconds.

A pity, but The Man Who Haunted Himself is well worth seeing: gripping in itself, and with some heavy-handed but interesting points to make about conformity and repression. Listen out too for Moore talking about James Bond, three years before taking the role that would define his career. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Review of 2016: Part 3 – Books and TV

I read 32 books and watched 43 TV shows this year. Enough boasting, here's a piece about which ones were good and which ones weren't.

BOOKS

Fiction




My favourite book of the year was Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954), an endlessly economical, alarmingly relatable marvel about lecturer Jim Dixon, who's caught between two very different women, and plagued by a litany of unspeakable men, as he attempts to hold on to his job and arrest a casual but definite decline brought on by booze, poor fortune, general confusion and a tragic inability to Play the Game. Barely a sentence goes by without Amis introducing some black, bleak or brilliant idea, revolving on some inspired turn of phrase, while the book’s blending of the cynical, romantic and inutterably, breathtakingly funny is just about perfect. It's an absolute wonder.

In April, I read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004), a chilling piece of alternate history, in which heroic aviator and fascist sympathiser Charles Lindbergh ascends to the US presidency and agrees an ‘understanding’ with Adolf Hitler. Against the slow-burn of burgeoning anti-semitism, the young Roth comes of age, while the older brother he idolises is co-opted by the establishment, his cousin is crippled by war and his parents are torn between pragmatism and self-respect. Roth's humanity, intelligence and explosions of ironic violence keep you gripped and gazing in slack-jawed amazement, though of course it could never happen.



Another of my highlights was Tom Perrotta's Election (1998), an exceptional piece of storytelling told from five vantage points and prefaced with perfection by Irish novelist William Trevor's observation that "the world is the school gone mad". So I asked for two more of his books for my birthday: Little Children (2004) was a modern masterpiece that transcended its suburban trappings, and offered such virtuosic delights as a sarcastic child molester; The Leftovers (2011) was superbly plotted but saddled with a bafflingly blunt and broad sense of humour.

There is no piece of writing I love more than James Joyce's The Dead, which makes up for any of the other failings of Dubliners (published 1914), and indeed for some of the year's relative disappointings, including Dashiell Hammett's flat The Thin Man (1934), a rare case of a book being vastly improved in its cinematic translation, Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1954) – an interesting but imperfect sci-fi work – and David Peace's 1974 (1999), which is unforgettable, but not always in a good way.



I was seriously underwhelmed by a couple of early Evelyn Waugh comedies: Scoop (1938), with its thin characters and fixation merely on language, and Vile Bodies (1930), an oddly blinkered and distractingly self-satisfied work with only a few passages of breathtaking wit and the superb character of absent aristocrat Colonel Blount to recommend it. It's deathly dated in its satirising of people and phenomena long forgotten, with nominative determinism that's a shallow bore, though its principal problem is its triviality: that's perhaps the point of the book, but it's also entirely self-defeating, preventing it from really amounting to anything.

This year's two Vonneguts were lesser works, though I found plenty to love about Deadeye Dick (1982), less so Galapagos (1985).

But most of the books I read were good, and many of them were simply fantastic. Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love (1945) is a playfully heightened, impeccably-written romantic comedy, laced with insight, understated emotion and dazzling wit, based upon her own life – and her experiences as a member of Britain’s most notorious family. It’s not especially ambitious in terms of scope, but it is magnificently realised. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark, 1961) was slim, spare and economical, warped, waspish and filled with malevolent, brilliant throwaway jokes, its nastiness masking a poignancy and perception that linger, along with the bitter taste of betrayal. And A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980) was as repulsive and rip-roaringly funny as you could ever want, a hypnotically original slice of Southern Gothic, full of virtuosic passages of bilious wit, as Ignatius J. Reilly and a gallery of hysterically funny supporting characters go almost aimlessly about their daily business in a vividly-realised nightmare of New Orleans, before you realise that Toole has been shuffling everyone expertly into position for a quite brilliant finale.



I also read my first Márquez novel this year, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004), which is great if you want to read about a disgusting old man fucking a child, and luxuriated in a book of epic silliness and staggering readability, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by (Joel Dicker, 2012). I'm finishing the year with Northanger Abbey, the one of Jane Austen's six completed novels that I hadn't yet read. She wrote it first, though it was only published post-humously, and there's a different feel to her later books: an immense energy allied to an apparently limitless supply of withering sarcasm.

I read lots of kids' books to help with my pitching of my own novel for eight to 12-year-olds (nothing yet, but I'll keep you posted), though one I read for pleasure, and received incalculable amounts, was How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban (1974), an utterly beautiful ode to silliness, with hilarious, sumptuous illustrations by the incomparable Quentin Blake.



***

Non-fiction



My non-fiction book of the year was unquestionably T. Harry Williams' epic treatise on the life of Louisiana senator Huey Long (1969). Next to that (but also next to most history books), Bill Bryson's One Summer (2013) looked frankly dire, though Owen Jones' Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes (2011/12) remains fresh, relevant and important after five years in which so much has changed, and yet nothing has.

As usual, I read quite a few books about movies. Margaret Talbot's book about her father – actor Lyle Talbot – and his times, The Entertainer (2012) was frequently excellent, Mark Kermode's Hatchet Job (2013) proved shapeless but lively, and I really enjoyed the third volume of Simon Callow's Orson Welles behemoth, One Man Band (2015), covering 1947 to 1965 in considerable style. The best by far, though, was François Truffaut's book on Alfred Hitchcock (1967, revised 1983), which fundamentally changed the way I look at cinema. I wrote about it a little here.

***

TV



My elder brother exposed me to the French cop show, Spiral, which quickly became a favourite, as I consumed the first four seasons, though my attempts to marry Laure Berthaud (above) have thus far come to naught. At times it traverses the line marked 'do not cross, silliness ahead', but at its best it's remarkable. Season 2 is a marvellous thing.

The Thick of It and Veep were regulars round my place, with just the right balance of misanthropy and swearing at a time when I was in dire need of both. I also caught up with some quality BBC dramas from recent years, and loved all of them: The Shadow Line, State of Play and Life on Mars. I travelled a little further back too, for all three brief, brilliant series of the original House of Cards.

E4's Misfits ('superheroes with ASBOs') was escapist and intensely funny, though I bailed after Season 3, by which time all of the original cast had left. The Simon/Alisha storyline in the second series is so ambitious, and so deeply affecting. Some amazing, incredibly handsome reviewer described the programme as "an antidote to morality plays, Marvel movies and just about everything else", and who am I to disagree?



Aside from Lillian Gish, my favourite actor of all time is Wendy Hiller. She was primarily on the stage, but appeared in a handful of films, and did a fair amount of TV work late in life. I watched three of her small screen triumphs: All Passion Spent (above), a delightful rom-com called The Kingfisher that reunited her with Major Barbara co-star Rex Harrison and, best of all, The Best of Friends, a miraculous drama based on the correspondence between legendary playwright George Bernard Shaw (Patrick McGoohan), esteemed museum curator Sydney Cockerell (John Gielgud) and Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Hiller).

The American Sherlock Holmes series, Elementary, got by on the strength of its central relationship, Adam Curtis made the hyper-intelligent HyperNormalisation for iPlayer, and I developed an unexpected fondness for true crime films – or at least miscarriage-of-justice polemics – devouring the likes of Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Netflix's Amanda Knox film, and old documentaries about James Hanratty on YouTube. (Bit of a weirdo, sorry.) I bailed on the much-lauded Stranger Things after two derivative, pointless episodes.



I also attended Vicky's fabled Eurovision party, finding to my perpetual astonishment that this programme I'd been avoiding for years was actually great fun, especially with friends and without Terry Wogan. I have listened to the Italian entry more times than I'd care to admit this year. The Apprentice, which in the past I'd really looked forward to, was for the most part exceedingly dull, with no heroes and – even more damagingly – no decent villains. (And I listened to a lot of podcasts, but I can't review everything, where would it end?)

I've just started Master of None (2015) on Netflix, which is a sweet and beautiful thing.

***

Thanks for reading.

Review of 2016: Part 2 – Live

Hello again. Thanks to those of you who read the first part of my review of the year, it means a lot to me, genuinely. And thanks especially to those who shared it on Twitter and Facebook.

Part 1 was about movies, which is when you go into a darkened room and watch a filmed record of people pretending to be other people for about two hours at a time. This second part will cover gigs, exhibitions and the theatre, the last two of which have become an increasing part of my life since I moved to That London, which for all of its many flaws – and the unacceptability of this being the case – dwarfs the rest of Britain when it comes to cultural opportunities. Unless you would care for some more ado, here it is:

THEATRE

5. Sunset Blvd. (London Coliseum)

I saw this whilst in the midst of personal trauma and, despite a few flaws, it enraptured and obsessed me. It's an Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation of Billy Wilder's Hollywood nightmare, brought to the home of the English National Opera with a bare set, a 48-piece orchestra and Glenn Close in the lead (on the rare occasions when she wasn't indisposed). I ended up seeing it twice, and the second time was a more arresting experience, thanks to a front row seat and a stirring, moving performance from Close's big-voiced understudy, Ria Jones, whose performance I much preferred. Oddly, the things I liked most about it, though, were elements that wouldn't necessarily come to mind when you uttered the title: the lush melody of Too Much in Love to Care, the explosions of inventively choreographed dance, and the pairing of Michael Xavier as cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis, and Siobhan Dillon playing his possible lifeline: bright-eyed studio scribe Betty Schaefer. Their irresistible chemistry made Joe's story as much of a tragedy as that of Close and Jones' character – deluded former screen queen, Norma Desmond – lending an undertug of humanity to this story of stifling desperation, laced with bitter, bullet-ridden, waterlogged wisdom.

4. Letters Live (Freemasons' Hall)

A must-see event, if you're a human and in London: letters from history, both well-known and unknown, read by some of the leading lights in the arts, including the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law and Meera Syal. The most profound of these was written, and read, by Caitlin Moran, and immediately and fundamentally transformed my conception of her. It has moments of self-aggrandisement, but it affected me very deeply, and I've looked to it time and again this year when things seemed a little too great to bear.

"Here is a promise, and a fact: you will never, in your life, ever have to deal with anything more than the next minute. However much it feels like you are approaching an event – an exam, a conversation, a decision, a kiss – where, if you screw it up, the entire future will just burn to hell in front of you and you will end, you are not.

That will never happen. That is not what happens.

The minutes always come one at a time, inside hours that come one at a time, inside days that come one at a time – all orderly strung, like pearls on a necklace, suspended in a graceful line. You will never, ever have to deal with more than the next 60 seconds.

Do the calm, right thing that needs to be done in that minute. The work, or the breathing, or the smile. You can do that, for just one minute. And if you can do a minute, you can do the next.

Pretend you are your own baby. You would never cut that baby, or starve it, or overfeed it until it cried in pain, or tell it it was worthless. Sometimes, girls have to be mothers to themselves. Your body wants to live – that’s all and everything it was born to do. Let it do that, in the safety you provide it. Protect it. That is your biggest job. To protect your skin, and heart."


3. The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre)

A lewd, sharp and sordid version of Brecht and Weill’s classic musical that provides deliciously amoral fun while doubling as a critique of establishment hypocrisy – and perhaps humanity itself. Seeing the play the day after Jo Cox’s murder, the brooding, putrid patriotism that infests the characters – sprawled beneath a gargantuan St George’s flag – cast a pall over the theatre: one of those moments when great art captures the national mood almost through chance. Full review.

2. Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, The Globe)

A monumental achievement on an intimate scale, with Atkins recreating a lecture on Shakespeare's women by 19th century actress Ellen Terry. Staged in the Globe's sumptuous smaller room, it was educational, enrapturing and exhilarating, with Atkins/Terry discoursing on gender politics, sketching deft portraits of characters and breaking into dazzling performances of apposite Shakespearean scenes. A quietly breathtaking night.

1. Groundhog Day (The Old Vic)

It's incredibly rare that an actor takes a role indelibly associated with someone else and makes it completely, and perhaps irrevocably, their own. But that's what's happened with Groundhog Day's Phil Connors in this musical adaptation of Harold Ramis's 1993 film. As realised by Broadway star Andy Karl, Connors is a comic whirlwind, powering a jawdropping production that's both a technical and an artistic triumph, using a rotating stage and several travelators, a song style fusing Lorenz Hart with hip hop, and an inspired broadening of its focus to wring every laugh, gasp and tear from the source material, and from its audience. A complete triumph. Full review.


Round-up: Glenda Jackson returned to the stage in a genderblind King Lear at The Old Vic: a mixture of the terrific and the tedious. Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick was interesting and enjoyable, but hampered by an understudy ill-equipped to deal with a framing of the play as a study of sexual obsession. Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon had great moments and laboured griping, The Entertainer recovered from serious inertia to provide a vivid portrait of a past (and present?) Britain, and Day Job at the Bread and Roses Theatre showed that some of the most interesting and dynamic work is done in small rooms by people who aren't on telly. The cast was superb. This year's worst were Show Boat, a play that may need to be either re-tooled or retired, and an unbearable take on The Caretaker at The Old Vic, featuring the lesser-spotted Bad Timothy Spall Performance (above).

***

GIGS

Oddly for me, almost everything I've seen this year has been at work, perhaps because the line-up at the Hall this year was quite ridiculously good.

7. Brian Wilson performs Pet Sounds (Royal Albert Hall)

A deeply moving celebration of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, but it’s more than that: it’s a show that’s vivid, alive and invigoratingly enjoyable: an exploration and reinvention of some of the finest songs ever written, with Wilson its centre and its beating heart, even if a part of him is still lost somewhere in the 1960s. Full review.

6. Radio 2 Folk Awards (Royal Albert Hall)

A truly magical evening, not least because I spent much of it with Georgia Lucas, the daughter of my great hero, Sandy Denny, as well as meeting people I'd grown up listening to, including Norma Waterson, Linda Thompson and Ralph McTell. The show itself was a wonder, including a tribute to Sandy, Sam Lee singing 'Lovely Molly' and The Unthanks doing a clog dance. I wrote a feature about Sandy's shows at the Hall here.

5. John Grant (Royal Albert Hall)

Not the loud, sweaty, hyper-intensive show we got at Hammersmith Apollo in November, but no less memorable a night, with Grant in balladic, hypnotic and rhapsodic mood. I still haven't recovered from that heartstopping version of Mary MacGregor’s 'Torn Between Two Lovers', featuring Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon on lead vocals. Full review.

4. CHVRCHES (Royal Albert Hall)

A dancy, high-octane show from Scottish electronica heroes, CHVRCHES. 'Leave a Trace' damn near blew the roof off the building (it's not actually attached, it merely rests on the Hall). The most fun I've had without laughing, as Woody Allen once said. Review.

3. Björk (Royal Albert Hall)

A mesmerising night in the company of one of our time's truly great artists, centred largely on her tortured last record, Vulnicura, the most harrowing break-up record I’ve heard in years. Before a sell-out crowd of over 5,000, backed purely by the strings of the Aurora Orchestra and wearing a flamboyant mask that lights up midway through the first half (obviously), she gives a mesmerising performance that’s utterly raw: flaying her wounds till they’re tender, then cauterising them till they’re healed. Full review.

2. Paul Simon (Royal Albert Hall)

A stunning, moving, exultant tour of one of the finest back catalogues in popular music. Dylan is a contrarian and McCartney a crowdpleaser, but Simon's something else: a man at peace with his legacy who'll give you the hits in a new way, and knows you'll love it. The show brought us to our feet and dancing countless times, prompted four standing ovations and included both the best ('Stranger to Stranger') and worst ('Wristband') of his current record, but it was his haunting hymn to serenity and sorrow, 'The Sound of Silence', that really took my breath away. Full review.

1. Basia Bulat (Hoxton Square Kitchen)

She topped last year's list too, but nothing prepared for me this, though: the whispery, wispy, baby-faced Bulat reincarnated as a power-pop diva in a gold cape, charisma bursting from her, as she belted out crowd-pleasers from behind a keyboard, like some improbable, magnificent union between Janis Joplin and Carly Simon. She also had an adorable smear of lipstick on her cheek for the entire show. Full review. And I saw her in Hackney in September too.


Round-up: Other highlights include Belle and Sebastian's 20th anniversary 'If You're Feeling Sinister' show, Guy Barker's warming Big Band Christmas (graphic above), and the Manics doing Everything Must Go. I saw a couple of Proms too, including one in a car park.

***

EXHIBITIONS

7. States of Mind : Tracing the Edges of Consciousness (Wellcome Collection)

This study of the fringes of the mind began simply enough, with paintings representing synaesthesia and photos attempting to capture dreams, then became increasingly unsettling as it journeyed through somnambulism, resistance to anaesthesia, temporary paralysis and memory disorders, augmented by eerie soundscapes and alarming, atmospheric installations. Isn't reality terrifying?

6. Real to Reel (Imperial War Museum)


A handsome, scholarly and accessible exhibition about war and its fictional representation on screen, curiously rather better on movie artefacts than those from genuine battles, but I wasn't complaining. The highlight was right at the end: IDs, the letters of transit and a bona fide cafe chair from Warner Bros' really rather good 1942 movie, Casablanca. Full review. (That's Steve McQueen's bike from The Great Escape in the photo.)

5. Annie Leibovitz – WOMEN: New Portraits (Wapping Hydraulic Power Station)

An interesting exhibition in a startling location of bare, weathered brick and standing striplights. The photos (all of women) alternated vapid society worship and striking, distinctive work, and while seeing that volume, largely projected, created some semantic saturation, it largely engendered admiration for a sure style that avoids self-plagiarism. Leibovitz also captures character quite well, exhibiting a valuable, unexpected humility for a widely proclaimed superstar of the medium. The pub across the road did nice pies too.

4. Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy)

A heavy-hitting overview that did a fair job of making this material accessible to a beginner like me, showing Pollock's versatility, range and the muscularity of his art, expanding my understanding of Rothko beyond his status as a creator of moods, and introducing me to a selection of (apparently well-known) contemporaries. Robert Motherwell's endless evoking of the Spanish Civil War sounded promising but left me cold, but Still's ever-climbing verticals and the "violent marks" of Kline – stark black lines conjuring noirish city scapes – took my breath away, and I found the fleshy eroticism of de Kooning's 'women' period beguiling. The Pollock and Rothko pieces were utterly overpowering, in both scale and content, and a room of drawings and photos included a lovely shot of the former 'disappearing in light' as he dripped onto a vast canvas. For the most part, this was a really interesting, rewarding exhibition, though with the usual moments of nagging unease I get from modern art exhibitions, as some pictures and painters leave me with the distinct feeling that either I'm stupid or they're shit.

3. Björk Digital (Somerset House)

There’s something endlessly fascinating, dizzyingly esoteric and yet gloriously specific about the shape-shifting, now 50-year-old Björk, for whom music is emotional expression and visual art is avant garde experimentation. This exhibition, tied into her big one-off show at the Royal Albert Hall, was led by four VR experiences, which possessed an enrapturing, all-encompassing embracing of immersion. It was artistically dazzling, its architect’s intrepid, idiosyncratic pursuit of new worlds to conquer enabled by technology that’s amazing to experience, even if it’s not quite there yet. Full review.

2. Warhol (Ashmolean Museum)

A small, brilliant celebration of Warhol's work, from striking but superficial tracings of socialites and celebrities to loops of experimental films and bold, brilliant, perfectly contextualised prints, the best of which finds him sticking great big honking portraits of his friend and polar opposite Joseph Beuys on a cheap laundry bag. From this vantage point, he seems more like a conflicted commentator on his times - bemoaning the unthinking acquisitiveness of art collectors while being commissioned to draw titled millionaires - than a hypocrite, pushing the boundaries of both imagery and popular culture, and exploring his own obsessions and failings, as he cuts a singular swathe through counter-culture and then mainstream America.

... and the winner is...

1. Ragnar Kjartansson (Barbican Centre)


All I knew about Ragnar Kjartansson before this glorious exhibition was that he once got American indie heroes The National to play their song Sorrow over and over again for six hours. Feats of endurance were a recurring theme during the Kjartansson retrospective at the Barbican, but these aren’t just stunts, they’re part of a body of work that treats popular culture with both reverence and scorn (often simultaneously), deals with deadly serious subjects like familial strife and mortality with a beguiling playfulness, and manages to tread that line between being dully prescriptive about what we take from the work and seeming to be about nothing much at all. The piece de resistance (or "stykki de viðnám" in Icelandic), though, was The Visitors, a gorgeous meditation on music, communality and individuality, as eight musicians in separate rooms of a historic building some miles from New York perform a song together, build once more around a single mantra, this time heartbreakingly beautiful: "Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” I experienced it walking round and round, as in turn each screen came to life, and then each performer began to make music, accentuated as you reached them, from the professionalism of the drummer to the pianist’s classical flourishes, the artist himself crooningly in a bubble bath (a slightly glib gesture) and, best of all, the accordion player singing in an unaffected, Joanne Newsom-ish squeak. It’s an absolutely devastating, exultant and euphoric piece of work: a manifesto, memoir and concert film that you experience in a new way each time, and in a completely unique way based simply on where you stand and where you walk. Full review.

Round-up: I enjoyed Endless Endeavours, a one-room exhibition at the LSE Library celebrating suffragism and described by this reviewer as 'sexy'. Exhibitionism at the Saatchi Gallery was both impressive and infuriating (I took my dad for his birthday), while the Science Museum's Our Lives in Data served up both insight and imagination, right up until the point that it stopped very abruptly.

***

MISCELLANY


Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert apparently not finding the need to justify the repulsive Elle at LFF2016.

As always, I saw a fair bit of stand-up, enjoying (though not unreservedly) Stewart Lee's Southbank marathon and new Leicester Square show, catching a disappointing but nevertheless entertaining Bridget Christie performance dealing with Brexit, and experiencing David Cross's rather laboured contributions to the medium.

Film-wise, I watched Love and Friendship in the company of Kate Beckinsale and the incredible Whit Stillman (meeting him was a great thrill), saw the likes of Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams and Kenneth Lonergan at the London Film Festival, and was fortunate enough to both catch Aliens Live at work, and be invited by Neil Brand to the premiere of his score for Allan Dwan's Robin Hood (which I seem to have forgotten to add to my blog), still the best take on that thieving git from Nottingham.

An improbable event teaming Ray Davies and Mark Hamill was one of those once-in-a-lifetime shows you're compelled to go to, regardless of penury or the fact it's in Hornsey, though somehow finer than all of these things was the live reunion of Adam and Joe at BFI Southbank this month, which brought tidings of comfort, joy and delirious silliness at a time when they've scarcely been more needed.

***

Thanks for reading. The final part will be on books and TV, but virtually none of them came out this year, so it probably won't be that interesting for anyone except me.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Review of 2016: Part 1 – Movies

2016 has been an absolute binfire of a year. At least I watched a few nice films, eh? Here's the first part of a review of the year in the usual three instalments (movies/live stuff/books and TV). I hope you enjoy it.

Best films of 2016*

10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang and Ben Mendelsohn
What we said: "This is great: a film that hums with a love of the original trilogy, that adds layers to the Star Wars universe, but that stands on its own two feminist feet, telling a story which invokes the saga's singular iconigraphy and chimes with its enduring preoccupations – family, destiny and righteous rebellion – while going resolutely its own way. The ending, we know; but the rest is up for grabs, and the results are frequently electrifying."

9. Weiner

Director:
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
What we said: "From a spectacular opening that shows what a barnstorming, populist performer Weiner was in his congress days, through to a desperately and increasingly uncomfortable chance to be a fly on the wall as his marriage falters and his campaign implodes, it's a remarkable portrait − with remarkable access − of a narcissist who clearly cares about ordinary people, and yet is destroyed by his own rampaging demons and a recurrent shittiness in his private life."

8. Nocturnal Animals

Director:
Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor Johnson and Isla Fisher
What we said: " A film about emotional violence, cruelty and revenge, as disquieting and unpleasant as any mainstream Hollywood movie I can remember, and for that reason both an experience that I can’t recommend and that I must. An extremely unusual and refreshing reworking of genre clichés, novelistic but also invigoratingly cinematic. It’s a model of how to utilise cinematic grammar (particularly abrupt, busy but restrained editing) to tell a story, and to layer that story so densely and virtuosically that it embeds itself in you."

7. Love & Friendship

Director:
Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O'Mearáinn, Sophie Radermacher and Chloë Sevigny
What we said: "It's so great to have one of America's best ever writer-directors back making movies again, and this one's a wonder. I was incredibly excited when I heard this movie was in the works, and I'm delighted that it didn't disappoint, its short shooting schedule (entirely in Dublin) and small budget nowhere in evidence, except perhaps to lend it the same zippy, breakneck feel as The Thin Man, a film with the same modern, offhand sensibility, and delirious sense of fun."

6. The Big Short

Director
: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt
What we said: "An audacious, counter-intuitive and richly entertaining polemic about the financial crisis, its raw anger cooked up into a fun old caper movie, studded with vividly sketched characters, sourly profane dialogue and a heap of meta gags: a few of them overdone, but most melting in the mouth before leaving an aftertaste akin to charred vomit. McKay knows what he’s doing, and even if he’s sometimes doing it too loudly or just with tits, it’s ultimately worth it. The Big Short may be playful but it’s pointed enough to draw real blood, asking you to question your preconceptions and priorities – while being ferociously funny and quite ludicrously fun."

5. Spotlight

Director:
Tom McCarthy
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery
What we said: All the Pederasts' Men, with an exceptional ensemble bringing to life this true story of the Boston Globe's investigation into child abuse by the Catholic Church. It makes me proud to be a (lapsed) journo and a Tom McCarthy cheerleader, ashamed to be a Catholic. McCarthy, like Alexander Payne, has that rare gift for making films that entertain as you watch them, then reward you a dozen times over in retrospect. This one diverges considerably from the tried-and-tested formula of his first three – and is perhaps more obviously weighty and virtuous – but once more gives the impression of having not just passed your time pleasantly, but left an indelible mark upon you, with its quiet anger, compassion, and hard-won wisdom, never dampened by naïvete or sensationalism."

4. Julieta

Director:
Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Darío Grandinetti and Michelle Jenner
What we said: "A wonderful, extremely powerful film about a middle-aged woman (Emma Suarez) willing to give up everything she has for a chance to reconnect with her estranged daughter. In flashback, we learn her story. It sucks you in for 100 minutes, and when it's over it stays with you. Not just the gradually unwrapping story, nor Suarez's superb performance, but the way it forces you to interrogate the way that you live your own life. It's quite something."

3. Zootropolis

Director:
Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Cast: (voices of) Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman and Idris Elba
What we said: "The jokes are superb, the action's better than in almost any other animated movie, and its balance of story, character and wider resonance – as well as the freshness and distinctiveness of each – kicks it way above most of the fare we've been fed by Disney since the pioneering spirit of its early years gave way to mawkishness, formula and safety. It's zooperb."

2. The Hateful Eight

Director:
Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen
What we said: "A bloody, bloody brilliant fusion of Western, horror and black comedy that confirms Tarantino's return to relevance. The scene-setting is inspired, Morricone’s sparsely-used music is marvellous, and Tarantino’s dialogue is incredibly rich: unmistakably his yet steeped in the Western tradition, with its grand allusions to the Civil War, its bitter dark humour and its contemporary resonances. It’s a delirious, down-and-dirty exercise in restrained mayhem that doubles as a clarion call."

1. Arrival

Director:
Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Ruth Chiang and Forest Whitaker
What we said: "It opens like Up, with a breathtakingly beautiful, vividly universal montage of Adams' life with her daughter, then threatens to fall away, as you wonder if it will have anything to it at all. That's a false impression: Villeneuve is zoning in slowly but unerringly on the film's emotional centre, and when that grabs you, you can't get loose. His movie blends the literate, sun-dappled nostalgia of The Tree of Life, with Gravity's sense of nervous wonder and Moon's freaky but human edge, but it meant a lot more to me than any of those films. It's still commandeering my brain now, almost a day later, with its rich tapestry of emotions, Adams' characteristically immersive performance and a reveal that you won't forget in a hurry."

***

*Only films released in the UK this year are eligible. Thanks to #LFF2016, some of the best new movies I saw this year won't be on general release here until 2017. The best five were: La La Land, Certain Women, Tickling Giants, The Salesman and Christine. The first two of those are films for the ages.

Previous winners of my 'best film of the year' award are:
2010 – Toy Story 3
2011 – Attack the Block
2012 – Silver Linings Playbook
2013 – Frances Ha
2014 – Boyhood
2015 – Amy

***

Top 16 discoveries of 2016:



16. Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012) – An unexpectedly fantastic movie – based on a classified ad – about journo Jake Johnson and intern Aubrey Plaza going in search of eccentric Mark Duplass, who believes he’s built a time machine. It has a distinctive (and hilarious) sense of humour, a penchant for the unexpected and an abundance of genuine human emotion, thanks chiefly to the chemistry between Duplass and Plaza – both of whom are superb, though especially her. The way she looks at him when they’re by the campfire is worth a spot in this list by itself.

15. Beggars of Life (William Wellman, 1928) – I've wanted to see this for a decade or more, and – finally enjoyed with a live musical accompaniment from Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers – it didn't disappoint. A grim but intoxicating silent wonder from William Wellman, with a rough-and-ready storyline, Louise Brooks' best American performance and a first 45 minutes of almost perpetual motion, as our heroine kills an attempted rapist, dresses as a bloke and then hops freights with hobo Richard Arlen, trying to shake the "dicks" on their tail (stop sniggering).



14. Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby, 1976) – A brilliant – and for the most part brilliantly unconventional – biopic of the legendary protest singer Woody Guthrie, which until its final 30 provides no stock storytelling, no obvious Hollywood moments and no real antagonists aside from the system itself, just the man with his great flaws and virtues, and a succession of episodes within a spellbinding evocation of Depression-era America, in all its grim beauty and despair.

13. Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976) – Documentary maker Barbara Kopple lived with coal miners’ families for a year in order to make this startling, far-reaching film, which uses a desperate localised strike – called by workers seeking union recognition – to examine the way America treats its poor. Kooper soundtracks the whole thing with a succession of beguiling, soot-choked renditions of bluegrass songs about mining, some done professionally, others sung with an overpowering intensity by minor players in the film; the CD has been my most-listened record this year, along with Pronto Monto by Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and the soundtrack to the number four film in this list.


12. Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952) – A late entry in the list: I only caught it this week. It's an absolutely knockout noir, with burly criminal mastermind Preston Foster hiring three career crooks (Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand) to pull off the perfect crime, snatching $1.2m from a Kansas bank. When they escape in a flower van, florist's driver John Payne is picked up by the cops, who start to sweat and swat him... Startlingly directed by unheralded genre giant Phil Karlson, this one's packed with breakneck twists, and has fantastic performances across the board. The gorgeous Dona Drake, whose role is essentially ornamental, was a mixed race black actress who passed for Mexican, somewhat circumventing the toxic racism of America in the 1940s and '50s.

11. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) – If you're ever worried you might be oversharing, watch Sarah Polley's immaculate 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell, in which the incisively intelligent, staggeringly honest writer-director of Take This Waltz lays bare her family's history while telling the story of her late mother, Diane. As in my review, I'll avoid saying much about its subject or its style, but it is a remarkable film: haunting and bravura and with a genuine ovaries-out bravery that knocked me sideways.


10. French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1955) – Renoir's whimsical, beautiful film about the birth of the Moulin Rouge is handled largely with the lightest of touches, reaching eternal truths along the way, before exploding into an ecstasy of music, dance and colour. Taken minute-by-minute, it's not a faultless film, but it's a heart-melting, uniquely textured and utterly rousing experience, with just the right undertug of melancholy and sacrifice, as Renoir suggests that a great creative life means no other life at all, but that the ultimate creation makes everything else pale into nothing. On this evidence, you can see his point.

9. El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983) – A completely overpowering movie from Spirit of the Beehive director Victor Erice, about a young girl in northern Spain who loses her innocence as she begins to observe and understand her complex, haunted father. 'El Sur' (The South) is the place he left and never returned to, somewhere in his mind the Civil War guns still firing. There are so many things to love and admire. The detachment and relentless, unpleasant repetition of the opening. The unsentimental, multi-layered characterisation that evades simple categorisation. The dream-like vignettes we encounter and experience as we wander through Estrella's memories. I found this bucolic, melancholy film both exquisitely beautiful and utterly heartbreaking.



8. Abe Lincoln in Illinois (John Cromwell, 1940) – This is one of the best films I've seen in a long time: an extraordinarily mature, literature drama of the sort that has never really been in vogue. Massey is absolutely immense as the former president, particularly in the film's gobsmacking second half, full of magnificent dialogue, complex ideas and a complete lack of Hollywood sheen. It's bruising, difficult, heartbreaking: his journey from gangliness to greatness a picture of sacrifice and self-denial, a Black-Dog-and-all portrayal of a character most commonly shown in American cinema as being akin to Jesus.

7. Margaret: extended version (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) – A breathtaking, one-of-a-kind character study about a high-school student (Anna Paquin) wrestling harrowingly with life's vicissitudes after causing a fatal accident. Kenneth Lonergan's belated follow-up to You Can Count on Me, eventually released after a six-year legal battle, is novelistic in its elliptical, conversational, almost aggressively uncommercial approach, with long takes, chapters and characters whose relevance isn't always immediately obvious, and stately, slo-mo interludes of pedestrian traffic soundtracked only by orchestral music, which not only place the narrative vividly in New York, and hint at the frailty of all human lives, but also seem to underline that this is just one story among millions.


6. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 1999) – David Lynch’s spin on Sunset Blvd. is a Hollywood nightmare, a uniquely disconcerting experience that builds to a glorious, incomprehensible climax. There are scenes here of utter brilliance, of heart-stopping terror, raven black humour and intoxicating sensuality: a psychic neighbour babbling harrowing warnings, a botched hit, the punchline to the Winkie’s set-piece, and Watts’ mesmerising audition (as much nibbling, biting and heavy breathing as actually acting). Those stand-out, almost self-contained passages are trapped in an unfolding, enveloping head-fuck of a film that’s comfortably one of the three or four scariest I have ever seen.

5. Séraphine (Martin Provost, 2008) − This is such a wonderful film: a movie about art, which is itself great art, taking the kind of real-life story that’s usually done in some hideous, schmaltzy way and ruthlessly rooting out every last bit of sentiment. Each choice it makes, from the delayed gratification of its opening (we don’t see a single painting for a good 40 minutes) to the marginal catharsis of the denouement is perfect, and the result is a French film in the traditions of Renoir, Bresson and the Dardenne brothers.


4. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen, 2013) – This sad, whimsical and purposefully baggy story of missed opportunities and shambling urban alienation – set in Greenwich Village moments before the '60s folk boom, and centring on Oscar Isaac's titular troubadour – is an extraordinarily special piece of work. I'm interested by the Coen brothers, and watch everything they make, but this is the first time I've ever truly loved one of their films; and the more I think of it, the more I love it. That performance. That soundtrack. That cat.

3. The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (Samuel Fuller, 1980/2004) – Sam Fuller's masterpiece, released in butchered form in 1980 then 'reconstructed' 24 years later according to his original shooting script, is a war movie like no other: the episodic, wryly fatalistic story of four dogfaces, dubbed 'the four horsemen of the apocalypse' who fight the battles that the writer-director had in World War Two. It's the best war movie I've ever seen.


2. Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959) – An astonishing movie that I only heard of for the first time in May, when it was scheduled to play at the BFI in London; it sounded amazing, so I got a ticket. It's the Orpheus myth transplanted to the Rio Carnival, with womanising guitarist Breno Mello falling in love with pure, troubled Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). They dance, have sex, and save one another, but his feisty ex-girlfriend and Eurydice's psychotic, death-faced stalker hint at the unlikeliness of a happy ending. It's difficult to believe when watching Black Orpheus that the story would or could make sense anywhere else, such is the film's complete conviction, and the virtuosic skill that Camus displays in meshing these diverse elements together, while capturing the penury, charm and beauty of the setting, and inspiring a host of pitch perfect performances.


1. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Éric Rohmer, 1963) - A mesmerising, intoxicating Rohmer short that's as close to a personal manifesto as you'll ever see on screen. His enduring preoccupation was where eroticism touches romance, and his view of both was heady, wise, ironic. After the false start that was the director's abysmal debut feature, the tedious, neorealist Signe du Lion, this story of a law student (Barbet Schroeder) flirting with a counter girl at a Parisian bakery (Claudine Soubrier) as he waits for his true love (Michèle Girardon) to walk past is extraordinarily affecting, honest and insightful.

***

Everyone likes lists. Here's one.


Seeing this on the big screen was a highlight.

Crazes: Éric Rohmer (I bought a Blu-ray box-set of all his films whilst drunk) and London Film Festival (I saw 18 movies in 11 days).
Continuing preoccupations: Lillian Gish, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis, three actresses who have given me an incredible amount of pleasure (and a little heartache) over the years.
Stuff I caught up on: François Truffaut's more obscure films. A lot of them are little-known for good reason, though L'enfant sauvage (aka The Wild Child) is an extremely fine piece of work. I also watched the rest of Buster Keaton's shorts for Educational Pictures, which had flashes of inspiration amidst much depressing floundering.
Revelations: La La Land will be the only thing anyone is talking in January (apart from Brexit and Trump).
Happiest surprises: Tarantino cementing his return to form with The Hateful Eight, Whit Stillman being allowed to take a crack at adapting Jane Austen (the fact that the resulting film was brilliant was no surprise at all). Tickling Giants being an absolute riot (after an exhausting day at work), rather than an exhausting slice of docu-realism, was such a treat. Somewhere in the Night is perpetually overlooked or patronised in discussions of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's work, but it's a fantastic little movie with a host of unexpected delights.
Biggest disappointments: Richard Kelly's Southland Tales and Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate have a reputation as being visionary artistic statements sunk by grasping moneymen. Both are a bit crap, really (though the latter is shot and scored like a dream). Trumbo was bold enough to be a film about the Hollywood blacklist that had an unrepentant communist for a hero (Guilty by Suspicion in 1991 notoriously changed Abraham Polonsky's screenplay so that its Marxist protagonist was instead a liberal), but it was an otherwise cartoonish, shallow and pathetic attempt to do justice to an enduringly fascinating and important period of American history.
Oddest film: I Married a Communist, released at the height of the witchhunt I just mentioned, is an unmissable cocktail that drops some teeth-achingly awful Red Scare nonsense into a a fairly straighforward shot of urban noir.
Worst films: Spaceship, the nadir of
a largely intoxicating and uplifting London Film Festival. I left the cinema genuinely furious.
Some favourite moments: Experiencing the campfire scene from My Own Private Idaho, the 'Girl Hunt' ballet in The Band Wagon and the Niagara Falls climax of Remember the Night on the big screen was a luxury that will live long in the memory. The conversation in the cafe in Victor Erice's El Sur was acutely painful, and gloriously offset by Black Orpheus's deliriously enjoyable samba sequences. How far can we stretch 'favourite? The insane babbling on the doorstep in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was certainly memorable, but I don't plan to 'enjoy' it again any time soon.
2016 was... the worst year since 2002, though I loved visiting my nephews, going to the London Film Festival and seeing Adam and Joe's live reunion.
Number of films I saw at the cinema: A preposterously high 54, as I'm now a BFI member (I'd recommend it to anyone in London who loves movies).
Best film I saw at the cinema: My favourite film, Remember the Night.
I was bored by: Billy Wilder's atrocious The Emperor Waltz, one of those catastrophes from a major director that are actually surprisingly common.
I wrote this pretty good review of _______________, you should read it if you have a minute: If you want a head's up on next year's best films, my series about #LFF2016 is here. I was pleased with my write-up of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a remarkable independent film (though it was distributed by RKO) from 1940.

***

Thanks for reading. The next two instalments will follow before the year is out.