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.


The Dark Knight (2008)

April 17, 2009

the-dark-knight-1“Fan-boys might want to look away now”

I’m really pushed for time this week, so my notes will be brief and lacking in support or explanation for any opinions offered.  The purpose of these notes is for me to not have to remember anything and so its a bit of a risk to note down how I feel and not why I feel it.  To myself in the future, I apologise.  Whilst I’m busy caveating, I should add that my first viewing of last year’s biggest film (that’s the kind of unsubstantiated guess I was on about, on reflection Mamma Mia! probably beat it) took place in three broken spells on the 320×240 screen of my phone.  Hardly ideal viewing circumstances.

The films I avoided last year because of the hype were Wall-E and The Dark Knight.  I wish I’d seen them both on the big screen now, but for differing reasons- in Wall-E‘s case it is simply because it was a beautifully constructed piece of high-art masquerading as a kids’ filmThe Dark Knight, however,  is very specifically designed for the multiplex viewer- with its dark look, booming sound effects and the huge visual impact of its explosions.  Seeing it on a phone (or even a big fuck-off telly) can never do that justice.

The film itself is a pale shadow of Batman Begins.  I know that it’s easy to slag off a sequel, but that isn’t what’s happening here.  The sequel, unusually, is the more lauded of the films.  For a long spell in 2008, an IMDB poll had The Dark Knight rated as the greatest film ever made- currently it is merely the 6th best film of all time according to voters there.  Personally, I greatly prefer the first film because a lot of the determination that was there to make a really good film first time around appears to have been lost in the desire to make a really great spectacle.  The subtlety and intrigue is gone.  Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was troubled yet driven, morally ambiguous and too immature for the role he had created for himself.  In this film he is a towering intellectual giant with a clear moral code and a ludicrously husky vocal delivery once he gets that suit on.  Far be it from me to suggest that someone has disrupted Bale’s process, but I much preferred it when his Bruce Wayne was a three-dimensional human.  I’ll never tire of that audio clip, by the way.

Fundamentally, Batman is James Bond in kevlar body armour.  He goes outside the law and employs astonishing gadgets to bring down world-threatening bad guys in the final reel of the film.  Michael Caine is M, Morgan Freeman is Q and Maggie Gyllenhall (a huge, huge improvement on Katie Holmes and the one aspect of the film where the quality is ramped up on the original) is Vesper Lynd.  And this is a pretty decent Bond film; the set-pieces are amazing, the villain is charismatic (but it isn’t quite worthy of the posthumous plaudits) and the suspense is held pretty strongly for the most part.  The problem, as is often the case with this type of film, is the plot- The Joker wants to create mayhem in the only city on the planet with a superhero by bankrupting the numerous crime overlords and turning the tough-on-crime District Attorney into a delusional psychopath.  Just because he can.  There are twists along the way, but they’re not interesting or surprising.  You know a twist is coming because it is signposted way ahead by the projected plot being that little bit too straightforward.  The intention is to lull the audience and then surprise them.  Well either I’m too cynical or there was too much lulling and not enough surprising.  Even weaker than the plot, though, is the dialogue, which everyone delivers as if they were Richard Burton on Richard III.  That is the weakest thing in the film.

The costumes and visual effects and lighting and stunts and all the dull stuff that only matters if the rest of the film is up to scratch are all great, I should say.  But it’s effectively just a very effective marketing tool and a great visual spectacle and very probably a great multiplex experience (if a little long) and not much of a film.  4/10

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Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (2009) * Second viewing

April 14, 2009

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“Haunting blanched beauty”

The first time I saw this I was so enchanted by it that I concluded my notes with the words “If this film isn’t the best of the year, then I may not live through the one that beats it”.  I have to say that I was probably underselling it.  The first time I saw this- on a leaked screener played on a small screen- I probably didn’t truly appreciate the haunting blanched beauty of the film or its stunning soundtrack (by Johan Söderqvist).  Well I do now.

Tomas Alfredson’s film has been trailed over here as a pretty standard horror film (I haven’t seen the trailer but it is apparently very generic).  The poster, reproduced at the bottom, doesn’t give a sense of what is to follow at all.  I suppose the aim is laudable- get bums on seats and let the quality win them over- but filling screenings with people expecting eye-popping gore and sudden shocks doesn’t seem very fair upon either them or upon the people who might want to watch something beautiful and romantic and may then miss this on the basis that it is being sold as if it was The Omen Part 14 or something.  Tough call.

I’m not even sure that it is a horror film, even after seeing it twice.  There are horrific elements of course, but the film is more than that.  It is a coming-of-age film, a love story, a film about childhood and loneliness and resilience and pain and conventionality and unconventionality.  There is a theme in Sam Mendes’ overrated but nonetheless impressive American Beauty about seeing beauty where others don’t and that applies equally here.  Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is an outsider, bullied and ostracized by his classmates and misunderstood by his family but Eli (Lina Leandersson) connects with him in the same way that, we are led to presume, Eli connected with Håkan (Per Ragnar) before him.  What Eli connects with isn’t Oskar’s vulnerability or loneliness, despite this being their common ground, it is his latent rage (the first words Eli hears from him are “Squeal! “Squeal like a pig!”) and his total detachment from the conventional standards and expectations of the people around him.  When he strikes his erstwhile tormentor Conny (Patrik Rydmark), his immediate reaction to seeing the blood and pain is one of curiosity which turns to delight.  And this is the most interesting aspect of their friendship- Eli is the vampire with a capacity for violence which is tempered by a disregard for it while Oskar’s capacity for violence is latent and expressed only through his fascination with newspaper reports of murders and his knife.

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The theme of seeing the beauty in unexpected places extends to the visuals of the film itself.  The icicles on the climbing frame, Oskar’s snot running from nose to mouth, dripping blood in the snow, the hand-print fading on a windowpane, Oskar resurfacing in the swimming pool- no matter how mundane the subject, a perverse beauty is created by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.

Something that struck me on second viewing was the possibility that the very final scene (on the train) doesn’t happen.  What if Oskar dies and this is his dying thought?  He certainly appears to die- he ceases to struggle, he doesn’t inhale upon resurfacing, he has a beatific smile upon his face- but this is purely speculation.  The only real clue is the complete lack of reaction from Conny’s brother when another boy is dragged away by Eli- his hand doesn’t react at all- but is that really a clue.  It’s dodgy territory this, where does it stop; what if the whole thing was in his imagination?  I prefer the more literal ending.  It makes more sense that, with Oskar taking the place of Håkan, the story turns full cycle.  There are signposts to this throughout the film- Håkan’s jealousy of Eli’s new friend as he watches from the window, Eli’s tender gesture when he asks her not to see Oskar that evening, the way in which Håkan targets the ‘normal’ boys who would be Oskar’s tormentors and would have been his own.

My descriptive powers are pitifully inadequate for the task of conveying my admiration of Let The Right One In.  10/10

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Far From The Madding Crowd (1967)

April 13, 2009

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“Why is love such a misery?”

Thomas Hardy’s novel was one of the texts I was set for my A-Level English Literature course and I hated it.  I hated the slow pace, the unnecessarily detailed sections (there were, I recall, about three pages describing a barn on a hillside which no-one ever entered or discussed again) and the cloyingly sweet pastoral setting.  Dorset in winter isn’t idyllic, whatever Hardy would have you believe.  While that should make it surprising that I even risked the near-three hour film adaptation, it does also mean that I won’t spend these notes banging on “it isn’t as good as the book” as I did with Watchmen and The Damned United recently!

Such pressing reasons not to like (or even watch) Far From The Madding Crowd were outweighed by the Kinks connection, my admiration for Schlesinger’s sixties films, the cinematography of Nic Roeg and Terry Stamp.  I love Terence Stamp.  When I was commenting having seen Valkyrie, I said “This is Terry Stamp doing an advert for that life insurance that only the over-50s can have“.  The guy is basically sleepwalking his way through risible film after risible film these days (his last few films have been Valkyrie, Yes Man, Get Smart and Wanted) but this shouldn’t detract from the fact that he is an incredibly talented, charismatic actor with some superb performances behind him.  For me, this is one of them.  There is a moment where Stamp turns to Julie Christie with cold-eyes and says “this woman is more to me dead as she is than you ever were or are or could be” and you are simply awestruck.  He chills you to the bone as he destroys her with spite and malice by completely underplaying it.  The words are delivered deliciously, with venom.  It is a powerhouse performance, he is breathtaking.  The beauty of Jude Law combined with the presence of a young (pre-self-parodying) Pacino.  Amazing stuff.  But what a wasted talent!

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No-one else here hits quite those heights, but there is still a great deal to admire here.  Julie Christie plays Bathsheba Everdene with just the right mix of arrogance and insecurity, her independence is stripped away little-by-little until Troy feels compelled to admonish her “don’t be so desperate”.  She skilfully retains a degree of ambiguity in the early stages and it is never truly clear whether Bathsheba is being purposely cruel or simply immature.  Smashing performance.  Peter Finch, the raving mad prophet of the airwaves from Network, plays Francis Boldwood another man on the verge of a nervous breakdown here- albeit with much greater composure.  Here he internalises the trauma, expressing it subtly; a quiver of the eyebrow, a distant glance, a mouth opening wordlessly.

The central performance is given by Alan Bates in the role of Gabriel Oak.  His character is the first and last that we see and provides the moral compass for the film.  He is always honest, if respectful, always thoughtful and exemplifies the traditional values of moral certitude and diligent stoicism.  His response upon being financially ruined by a sad quirk of fate is simply to remark “Thank God I am not married.  And this serene acceptance of events is what works against Bates, who is a fine actor, because he has nothing to do but look calm and read his lines.  It’s no coincidence that the most virtuous character is called Gabriel, is it?  Actually, I may as well moan about something that has bugged me since 1991- Far From The Madding Crowd has a character called Oak who is solid and dependable and one called Troy who is handsome but comes with hidden defects.  This is like giving them a white ten gallon hat and a black one- great literature my arse!  I’ll stop now, I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about the book, only the film.

The mechanics of the film are impressive, Roeg captures the landscape beautifully giving a sense of the absolute surrender to the elements which each character suffers from (indeed Boldwood, through machinery, is the only character who attempts to master his circumstances- as he does with his attempted bribery of Troy, a nice touch- but this proves futile).  The soundtrack, including originally composed folk songs, by Richard Rodney Bennett has a lilting pastoral beauty which serves to build the mood of the piece beautifully.  These things, in addition to the suppressed passion in the performances, are co-ordinated by Schesinger to produce a slightly arid and slightly too worthy reading of the novel.  It is almost as if he was so determined to move away from the small-scale urban setting of his great opening trio of films (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling) that this overtook any other considerations.  It doesn’t ruin the film at all, but it does create a film where there are a few fantastic set-pieces (the unexpectedly harrowing scene where the sheepdog runs the sheep over the cliff, the tension of Gabriel and Bathsheba battling the storm, the carnival, the sword exercise where Troy seduces Bathsheba) interspersed with some disappointing ones (the obvious soft-focus scene where Boldwood first sees Bathsheba, the slow-motion shot of Bathsheba tossing the corn in the cornmarket, the harvest dance and the marketplace scene where Oak looks for work).

And so it’s a good film, but still a disappointing one.  Worth seeing again, but only when I’m in a patient mood 6/10.

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Black Mama, White Mama (1973)

April 10, 2009

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“Part two of my ‘Mama’ double bill”

If the title doesn’t tell you all that you need to know, then the cast list probably does.  If the cast list doesn’t, then welcome to civilization and where have you been?  Pam Grier- acting, as ever, mostly with her nostrils- is in a prison in the Philippines.  I imagine that she was there for a crime she didn’t commit as she gave withering looks to the guards which said “I’m better than this” but I wasn’t totally concentrating as I’d spilt a cup of tea all over my left leg at this point.  After the world’s longest shower scene, presumably designed to allow the feckless cum-shedders watching to get their onanistic pleasure out of the way and leave the cinema quietly (and damply) we get on with the plot.  Grier and the equally statuesque Margaret Markov don’t hit it off at all, in fact they’re soon throwing things on each other’s food in the canteen and get locked (topless) in a big metal box in searing heat to sweat it out for twenty-four hours.  After that, they get chained together to be taken to an even tougher prison but, en route, the prison convoy is attacked by some guerrillas and the girls take their chance to run for it.  This is not The Defiant Ones by any means!

A little conversation here reveals that Markov is a poor little rich girl running with a group of Marxists who knows too much to allow them to let her stay in prison where she may talk and Grier is a drug-dealer’s concubine who has stashed away a load of his money.  Being chained together presents a little problem; Markov wants to get back to her comrades and appeals to Grier’s better nature “you’re black, surely you can understand”, Grier doesn’t care at all about her “jive-ass” revolution she just wants to get the cash and leave the country.  Clearly, all this talk is slowing down the pace too much and Eddie Romero (directing) isn’t stupid, he knows what we want to see.  The girls have a catfight.

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Next they head to the nearest town and, spying two nuns, drag them off the street and duff them up in time-honoured fashion before dressing in their habits as a disguise.  Presumably on the grounds of good taste the beating up and stripping to the undies of the Nuns happens off-screen.  Good taste my balls, I’m not watching this for sensitive film-making.  Now, while I’m on about this scene, I’m not claiming to be a brainbox or anything, but I like to think that I can dress myself okay.  What I don’t think I could do is to change from a (tiny, obviously) mini-dress into a Nun’s habit while handcuffed to someone else.  Not without some dress-making equipment, a lot of time and total ambidexterity anyway!

Oh, that’s enough about the ludicrous plot (even if Jonathan ‘Silence of the Lambs and New Order’s brilliant ‘True Faith’ video’ Demme did write it!).  Here’s what it boils down to- Pam Grier is brilliant in her trademarked early 70s hammy-but-cool way, Marjorie Markov is unexpectedly almost as good and Sid Haig is screen-chewingly brilliant as crackers bounty-hunting gangster who dresses somewhat incongruously as a cowboy.  Everyone else is shit.  There’s lots of tomato ketchup splashing around and a fair bit of nudity- including Pam’s famously odd 0 and o shaped nipples.  The film runs out of steam and ideas pretty quickly and everyone seems to wish they’d just made an “interracial lesbians in prison” movie instead because it all seems a bit too much of an effort out there in the jungle but in spite of it all it’s still tremendously entertaining- if only for Grier and Haig’s charisma.  5/10

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