Is Anybody There? (2008)

May 15, 2009

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I haven’t been able to get on here for a while- in fact it’s been a week since I saw Is Anybody There? and Goldfinger– which poses a bit of a problem.  My Goldfinger notes were about two paragraphs in and I’ve just tossed them off so that I can get to this film.  It’s not like I need notes to remember that particular film.  With Is Anybody There? I could have done with notes at the time, this is far from a memorable film.

So you’ve got Michael Caine as an ageing, retired magician (he seems to like films about conjuring these days) and young Bill Milner from the lovely Son Of Rambow as- guess what- a geeky outsider kid and they strike up a friendship and teach one another about life and love.  That’s right, they strike up the kind of friendship that is really unusual except in films where they’re ten-a-penny.  It looks quite nice; shot in a fuzzy, vaguely lo-fi, slightly off-kilter and- I suppose- quite trendy way.  There are a couple of good performances- I especially liked Anne-Marie Duff as Bill Milner’s mother- and some nice cameos from a couple of top-notch old players (Leslie Phillips, Peter Vaughan, Mavis from Coronation Street, Elizabeth Spriggs and Sylvia Sims).  And so I liked it for that.

But because it’s formulaic and a bit obvious and determinedly bittersweet I didn’t even remember it a week later, rendering these notes redundant, so it’s sort of okay but a poor utilisation of the superb talents on show. 4/10

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Goldfinger (1964)

May 13, 2009

Goldfinger

I genuinely think that this is one of the best films I’ve seen.  I go back to something that I often harp on about- a film must be judged against its aims and Goldfinger has lofty aims which it  exceeds.  The third Bond picture followed the excellent From Russia With Love and deliberately raised the stakes from that early high-spot.  The intention is to retain the levels of intrigue and to increase the wow factor with a bigger budget used wisely.

Connery returns again as Bond in a serious, steely mood- there is a spite behind his wisecracks throughout- and, for me, his third performance in the role is his best.  By his fifth he would have relaxed into sleepwalking through the films for cash.  And his iconic status here is assisted by the direction of Guy Hamilton (pipping Martin Campbell as the best of Bond’s directors) who achieves the double intention of making Bond credible as a thriller hero and yet incredible as an unflappable superman.

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The film- like The Great Escape which I watched a few weeks ago- is more than a mere film these days, it is a huge part of our cultural fabric.  And, with that in mind, it’s hard to ignore the significance of Oddjob, Pussy Galore, the Aston Martin DB5 and “no Mr Bond I expect you to die”.  But doing that and judging this solely on its own merits it still stands up.  It is fantastic entertainment; tightly scripted, well acted in the main with compelling memorable characters, hilarious dialogue- “shocking, positively shocking”, “no mister Bond, I expect you to die”, “I must have appealed to her maternal instincts”, “I have a slight inferiority complex” and a great interaction between Bond and his allies M, Q, Moneypenny and Felix Leiter.

I honestly love it. Everyone does don’t they? 10/10

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Oliver Twist (1948)

May 3, 2009

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It’s difficult to know what to mention first- Lean’s masterfully clear narrative structure or Guinness’s incredible prosthetic nose (what is it about Lean putting Guinness in mad costumes?); Robert Newton’s eyeball-rolling losing-it-rapidly Bill Sykes or Guy Green’s wonderful almost Expressionistic camerawork; the atmospheric opening or the delicious scenery-eating of Francis L. Sullivan- this is a very rich film.  I love the performances, the pace, the storyline and dialogue (though most of the credit there goes Boz, obviously) but most of all I really love the look of the film.  The stark monochrome contrast and wonderfully deep set locations in scenes like Sykes’ rooftop escape or Twist’s flee through the London streets leave an indelible impression on the watcher.  This looks more like the London of Dickens’ novels than any film I’ve seen- it is authentic and haunting.

I don’t want to say too much, I want to surprise myself when I see it again.  Everyone knows the story but this retelling of it is still surprising. Superlative, better even than Lean’s Great Expectations.  10/10.

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Villain (1971)

May 1, 2009

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“I don’t want a fertile imagination, I don’t want to know if society’s to blame, I just want to catch criminals”

The film opens with two heavies waiting in a London flat, as a car pulls up in the street below they wake Burton giving him time to wash his face and compose himself.  As he does so, the owner of the flat returns and they hold  him captive.  Fresh and alert, Burton enters the room and- with barely a word- begins to deliver a vicious beating and then takes out a cut-throat razor.  Our next sight of the victim is when Burton looks up from beside a drip of blood (having made a crass joke about pigeon droppings) and sees him tied to a chair hanging from a window horrifically lacerated.  On the other hand our next view of Burton sees him after he returns home and gently wakes his Mum with a cup of tea and offers to take her for a ride out to the coast.  Now THAT is how to start a film!

This is one of those films that you rarely hear about, almost a lost classic.  You’ll be discussing Get Carter or The Long Good Friday and someone will say ‘you should see Villain‘, only as no-one ever has the conversation moves on quickly.  It’s such a shame that this is forgotten and shite like The Business is relatively lauded.  Richard Burton plays Vic Dakin, the kind of character that in summary sounds implausible; he’s a gay, sadistic, sociopathic gangland boss who lives with his Mum and rules part of London through fear.  It sounds implausible except that there was a guy like that in the sixties called Ronnie (or maybe Reggie, I get them confused) Kray.  And, whether you find him plausible or not, the depth of characters like Dakin put this film streets ahead of most efforts in the genre.

It isn’t just about Burton- and he is compelling, just the right side of overdoing it- everyone on show here is a cut above.  Especially Ian McShane who, as Wolfie a small-time hustler and object of Dakin’s sadistic lust, has an even more compelling part and really makes the most of it.  Even some of the minor characters are fascinatingly written- Nigel Davenport’s dogged, determined and stoical policeman Matthews who appreciates the futility of his task but presses on anyway; Joss Ackland’s gangster who spends an entire hold-up chomping down hard-boiled eggs to ease his stomach ulcer; top-notch Irish character actor T.P.McKenna’s rival gangster who is far more businessman than criminal; and smarmy, velvet-purring Donald Sinden as a crooked, seedy MP.

In fact, it isn’t just the characters- the plot is formulaic but the dialogue is marvellous (“he’s a bit bent for a start. You know the type, thinks the world owes him something. A wanker“, “you festering pig“, “Stupid punters. Telly all the week, screw the wife Saturday“) especially when Dakin is upbraiding anyone who dares to even look at a woman (“sordid!“) or doesn’t wash their hands after taking a piss.  I also liked the underlying themes that crime is just a job, a means of employment on both sides of the law and that removing one criminal just creates an opportunity for another jobbing criminal.  The crime-as-a-business angle is never overplayed but the existence of a structure, hierarchy and protocol as a given is an important aspect to Villain.

I’d like to mention Christopher Challis’ excellent cinematography, not only does he handle the task of transmitting gritty realism with aplomb but he manages to capture an excellent car chase and also take very intimate and graphic shots of various fights including the main crime around which the film revolves.  Superb.  The soundtrack too (Jonathan Hodge) is excellent, switching from tinny funk to stabbing synthy strings to John Carpenter-like piano motifs; all of it is reminiscent of films that would follow but oddly Hodge himself would get very little more work, similarly the director (Michael Tuchner) did little else of note.  But at least they did this.  A proper British gangster thriller that I loved- they even found a space for a Michael Robbins cameo- 8/10.

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In The Loop (2009)

April 21, 2009

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“Even the posters are brilliant”

On the strength of The Thick Of It, which I utterly adored, this has probably been my most eagerly awaited cinematic experience of the year.  Normally, as anyone who knows me will testify, I would follow such a build-up with a sad recitation of my utter disappointment- such is my tendency to let excitement overtake any sort of realism- but not today.  I loved In The Loop.  You want funny?  This is it.  You want pointed?  Ditto.  Pertinent?  Yup, the hat trick!

I would exhort anyone to go and see this, for the scabrous dialogue and hilarious plot and on-the-money performances and- most importantly- for the brutal depiction of politicking in the 21st century.  Malcolm Tucker (the awesome Peter Capaldi) is as hilarious and vicious as ever but he’s now a small fish in a big pond as the film brings in the US military and some incredibly youthful Washington diplomats all of whom are headed by Tony Soprano and Sledge Hammer.

I write these notes as a reminder to myself but as I’ll be buying this on release I won’t need any reminders and in case anyone reading hasn’t seen this yet, I’ve avoided any spoilers whatsoever.  See it, love it- even the bits that are a little bit of filler- 9/10

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The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

April 18, 2009

rutles-1“the whole thing is brilliantly authentic

This is a great film.  It works if you have a sketchy knowledge of The Beatles because it doesn’t rely on obscure references or in-jokes but equally if you do have a nerdy knowledge of the Fab Four (as I probably do) then it is never simplistic or inaccurate.  Knowing how possessive and geeky Beatles fans can be, that’s quite an achievement.

There are superb Beatles pastiche songs by Neil Innes from The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and hilarious cameos from George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Michael Palin, Bianca Jagger, Roger McGough, Paul Simon and Ronnie Wood- some as themselves, some as minor characters.  There are superb one-liners from the pen of Monty Python’s Eric Idle (“Many fans burnt their albums, many more burnt their fingers attempting to burn their albums”, “He was supposed to have been killed in a flash fire at a waterbed shop”, “In the midst of all this public bickering, “Let it Rot” was released as a film, an album, and a lawsuit”) and the whole thing is brilliantly authentic.  The Beatles Anthology, the real documentary which followed probably twenty years later and is also exceptional viewing, can’t help but look like this and that’s a great testament to the direction of Eric Idle and Gary Weis.  The budget might have been miniscule (it certainly looks like it) but it hardly matters, there is enough invention and intelligence here to make it all worthwhile.

The only real negative is that the film, sadly, peters out.  The frantic pace of the gags in the first three quarters of the film appears unsustainable and it doesn’t help that they are parodying a relatively sad period and slower, more introspective songs.  It’s hard to write a pastiche of something that was fairly ridiculous to begin with and the Maharishi stuff, the Magical Mystery Tour and the slow-motion bust up are all tip-toed around in the least satisfying segment of the film.  Swapping references to late sixties drugs like LSD and marijuana for tea just isn’t very funny, is it?

But it’s still fantastic, second only to the mighty This Is Spinal Tap. 8/10

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Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

April 18, 2009

It’s a real minefield this.  It is definitely funny for a certain demographic (in a childish sniggering down your sleeve at the back of the class at the word penis way) and definitely offensive.  But the counter-argument, as I understand it, goes that it is offensive to everyone equally and that the offensiveness is simply a tool to expose the hypocrisy and bigotry in others.  Borat is defended as a kind of agent provocateur fearlessly exposing others by the act of making them feel comfortable in their ignorance by indulging in behaviour which makes them seem moderate in comparison.  Others may say that anything is fair game in the world of comedy and part of me agrees with that.  I certainly wouldn’t want to see the likes of Borat censored or banned on the grounds of bad-taste, who knows where that may lead?  No, that’s not what I would want at all.  But I don’t have to like it either.

I don’t believe for a second the idea that Sacha Baron Cohen is ultimately trying to do anything so laudable as expose hypocrisy in others, except to point at them and say “look, they don’t even react when I make Bestiality jokes“.  What he does, he does very well but the value of the thing isn’t worth the cost.  If you think a group of people are inherently racist and want to expose that, then reinforcing their repellent and closed-off world-view by portraying them as culturally and intellectually superior is a really dumb way to go about it.

The film itself is pretty muddled.  Cohen talks straight to the camera throughout and is accompanied by a documentary producer (played by Ken Davitian) and an unseen cameraman.  Sometimes the cameraman exists (“don’t film me, film him”) and sometimes he doesn’t (when Cohen and Davitian flee various locations and he films their departure objectively).  The weakness of the plot- go to various niche events and act like a prick so that other people are encouraged to make themselves look half as stupid- then stage an attempted kidnap of Pamela Anderson and get thrown out of a shopping mall- could be covered by the humour of the piece were that not so weak too.  I’m sure that it has thousands of avid fans, but then I’m sure that  American Pie 4 (or whatever number they’ve reached) does too.  That’s the level of humour on show here- fart jokes, gay jokes, naked jokes, sexist jokes.  Oscar Wilde it ain’t.  There is a scene where Borat hitches a lift with some beer-drinking fraternity boys and says ludicrous things to encourage them to do likewise and, being drunk and immature, they do so- advocating the return of slavery, for example.  And this is the problem and this is why the film is a failure as an exposé of latent xenophobia, homophobia etc- it is targeted at the people it is lampooning and leaves them with the wriggle room to enjoy it.  No-one who came into the movie theatre would have their preconceptions altered at all.

There’s no defence of this shit.  It is only funny for people who find the later Police Academy sequels funny and it doesn’t challenge bigotry at all, it supports it.  0/10.  Verily.