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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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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Rushmore (1998)

April 7, 2009

rushmore_adThis might be Murray’s best ever role

Amazing that I’d never seen this.  It’s a cracking little film, but one that slips a little under the radar being a little overshadowed by the star-heavy The Royal Tenenbaums.  It is a very Wes Anderson film;  lots of great screen compositions, beautiful colours, lots of stills with graphics, a phenomenal soundtrack, quirky characters doing pretty incredible (and frankly uncredible) things in between smoking a lot and riffing some impossible-to-extemporise dialogue.

It is about relationships and the lengths people will go to in order to get their own way.  And in Rushmore that familiar Anderson territory is better explored than he perhaps manages anywhere else.  Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer is a scholarship student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy who hides his modest background (his father, played by Seymour Cassel, is a barber) and will do anything to remain at the school.  He develops a friendship with a wealthy but unhappy middle-aged man Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and an infatuation with a teacher (Miss Cross, played by Olivia Williams).  Inevitably, they develop a relationship between them causing conflict and a reappraisal of priorities.

Where most of Anderson’s films are a triumph of style over substance- not necessarily a criticism of course- this one has a little more depth.  I particularly like the Oedipal themes which recur, Max has father-figure relationships with his own father (well, duh!), Herman Blume, Dr Guggenheim (Brian Cox, an underrated actor) and even is the father-figure for Dirk Calloway- I don’t know what it’s called in the US but here he’d be called Max’s fag.  The way in which the same relationship is shown with differing dynamics is really quite nicely done.  This also gives scope for some great characters and some really enjoyable performances, most especially by Bill Murray: Rushmore is a total gift for Bill.

I thought this was great.  I don’t want to give it an 8/10 because I’ve given loads of films an 8/10 and it feels a bit devalued, but that’s what it really is for me.  8/10

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

April 6, 2009

A bit too arch

I liked this.  I thought it was very much a ‘first-time director’ effort with some gimmicky bits that detract from rather than add to the overall piece- and you don’t really need that when it’s a Charlie Kaufman script- but I enjoyed it a lot.

Sam Rockwell plays, as he often does, the role with great relish.  It’s not quite hammy, but it is certainly theatrical.  He also exposes his buttocks more than champion bottom-flasher Jean-Claude Van Damme has ever managed in a single film.  He has a ball.  In fact, it looks like everyone has a ball- except Clooney whose added responsibility seems to carry over into his role resulting in him underplaying a little too much against Rockwell and being kind of shut out like white noise.  His sub-Cary Grant comedy gurning would be out of place here but he could still benefit from ramping it up a little.

From memory it was about this point that Julia Roberts started to be considered ‘interesting’ after proving she could carry a film in Erin Brockovich (I haven’t seen that, I’m trusting reputations) but I didn’t see too much from her here to shout about.  Likewise Drew Barrymore is fun playing within herself.  And that’s okay because it all works fine, the film is loose and rolls along in a carefree manner which is suited to the material- this is really no place for histronics after all.

The concept is fantastic, obviously, playing the fantastical material straight works and even the talking heads bits- which shouldn’t work at all given the nature of the piece- contribute something.  But it isn’t quite right.  Clooney would follow this with the far superior Goodnight and Good Luck, a weightier film altogether which perhaps suits him better.  It’s just a gut feeling and I should know better than to listen to gut feelings, but I got the impression that some of the fun stuff here- the mention of Rosemary Clooney, the weird colourised cinematography, the seriously outlandish costume and sets- was a bit too arch and a bit too forced.  It’s almost like an inferior version of Terry Gilliam’s underrated Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. But I enjoyed it, that’s what matters. 5/10

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Duplicity (2009)

March 24, 2009

I have a weakness for caper movies.  Perhaps I fancy myself as an arch-mastermind or something, I’ve never really thought about it.  Whatever the reason is, I gravitate towards them and have a propensity to really enjoy them.   This one is shit, though.  It’s not the best premise in the world- two ex-intelligence agency spooks make a killing in corporate espionage by playing one business off against another- but I’ve seen great films with far less of a plot than that.  And in Roberts, Owen, Wilkinson and Giamatti the acting talent is certainly there.  Visually too it’s fine if all-too-similar to a dozen other movies you’ll see this year.

But it’s so leaden-footed, it lacks any zing!   The (frankly all-too-obvious) denouement takes forever to arrive and underwhelm you.   And the circuitous route the movie takes to get there- with it’s chopped-up time-line and twist-on-a-twist narrative- is tedious and banal.   The screenplay isn’t complicated, it’s just really badly transferred to the screen.   Tony Gilroy’s direction is lazy, the soundtrack is flat and uninspiring, the stars are sleepwalking with Wilkinson woefully underused and the film ends up a flabby mess.

And it’s such a shame because a good, punchy movie about big corporations screwing themselves up through myopic greed could have really ridden the zeitgeist and got bums on seats.  Duplicity isn’t anything like as clever as it would like to think, nor anything like as inscrutable as the ham-fisted direction makes it appear. 2/10

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His Girl Friday (1940)

March 24, 2009

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It’s the sheer relentless pace of the film that astounds you.  The overlapping dialogue and fast-paced narrative leave you breathless as the scoop changes from minute to minute.  This is hilarious stuff.  The Coen Brothers, talented as they are, tried the same hectic screwball style with The Hudsucker Proxy– Jennifer Jason Leigh basically does a Rosalind Russell impression throughout- but came up well short of this level.  It’s a testament to the genius of Howard Hawks.

Suave as ever, even in a double-breasted suit that most men would look a chump in, Cary Grant plays newspaper editor Walter Burns the ex-employer and ex-husband of Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson.  She is to remarry Ralph Bellamy’s nice-but-dim insurance man Bruce Baldwin and drops by Grant’s office to tell him just as a big news story breaks.  This sets off a fantastical chain of events where everyone conspires and plots against everyone else all to get their big share of the pie- Grant has Bellamy thrown in prison three times in a day, Russell assists a death row prisoner in making sure that his insanity hearing sees him cleared, the Sheriff unwittingly helps the prisoner escape, Grant has Bellamy’s mother kidnapped, Russell hides the fugitive from the police, the Mayor and Sheriff (Clarence Kolb and Gene Lockhart) bribe a messenger to withhold the prisoner’s reprieve and order their men shoot to kill, newspaper men hounding a witness for information make her jump from a window…  So much happens so quickly and all of it is so unreal that considerations of taste and decency are irrelevant, this is suspension of disbelief time- an exaggeration, a distortion under the microscope.  When Cary Grant describes Bellamy to a girl he is sending to distract him with the words “he looks like that Hollywood actor, Ralph Bellamy” or says “the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach” (his own real name) then these are clear signals that it is all a big joke.  And it truly is great fun.  It isn’t a kind look at the journalistic trade (Russell says: “A journalist! Peeking through keyholes — running after fire engines — waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if they think Hitler’s going to start a war — stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that got chased by apemen! I know all about reporters — a lot of daffy buttinskies going around without a nickel in their pockets, and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives will know what’s going on!“) but it does make it all look such dastardly fun that you can’t help but envy them all their unscrupulousness, wit and camaraderie.  Howard Hawks could make road-sweeping look like a barrel of laughs!

The two lead performances are mesmerisingly good, Grant plays with great charm despite the frantic nature of his role and Russell is superb as the ballsy, headstrong ‘newspaper man’.  This is dynamite. The dialogue is fantastic and so pacey that you can barely pick up on it.  As the story breaks Grant is on the phone to his sub-editor to clear the front page “That’s what I said — the whole front page!  Never mind the European war!  We’ve got something a whole lot bigger than that… What Chinese earthquake?  I don’t care if a million people died, the deuce with it… Take the President’s speech and run it on the funny page … Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page too” it is hilarious stuff watching the whole thing spiral out of control with Grant and Russell continuing two, maybe three conversations at a time. The direction allows us to keep pace superbly- the plot is never confusing, the narrative is clear despite the breakneck speed and the sheer volume of characters involved.  A fantastic achievement.

Oh I loved it.  As Rosalind Russell says to Cary Grant “you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way” – 10/10.