Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

Angel Face

Director Otto Preminger Stars Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman USA 1952 Language English 1hr 31 mins Black & white

Beware the spoilt kid

Let’s talk about the good girl for once. Because what could be more thankless than the part of the woman in a film noir destined to lose her man to the femme fatale? Are the writers going to bother to make her interesting, will the director care, will the actress have anything to get her teeth into?

So a bit of credit to the writers and actress Mona Freeman for putting some life into the crisp, sensible Mary Wilton, described thus by the man about to cheat on her, ‘She’s a receptionist at the hospital. She has blonde hair, blue eyes, she weighs 105lb, stripped, she sleeps in pyjamas, she’s an excellent cook and she doesn’t ask questions.’

The key fact there might be the pyjamas – not racy, prudent but modern, and – crucially – her boyfriend knows what she wears in bed (of course he does: he’s played by Robert Mitchum, he’s definitely sleeping with her even in a 1952 movie).

Later on, a friend offers her solace with, ‘A times like this a guy can offer a girl a handkerchief or a double Old Fashioned – what will it be?’

She answers, ‘Both.’

She’s smart, she’s pretty, she’s not a fool and the film leaves her confident and strong. It’s a good move. 

So what about the bad girl? That’s Diane (Jean Simmons) – not quite 20, more a fille fatale than a femme fatale. She meets ambulance driver Frank (Mitchum) when her wealthy stepmother suffers the effects of a supposedly accidental gas leak in her room. Diane makes a play for Frank instantly and with no subtlety. He responds – more to her offer of financial assistance towards his dream of a garage for sports cars than the promise of sex (as he’s hinted, he’s not struggling on that front). Soon he’s caught up in her struggle with her (actually not at all wicked) stepmother and it looks likely that this will all end badly. 

Frank is a sucker, but he’s not a total sucker – he knows that Diane is spoilt and scheming from the start. And he’s not outrageously greedy – he’s not after riches, just the chance to be a small businessmen. It’s enough, though, to make him hesitate at the wrong moments. 

Mitchum and Simmons make a good pairing – he’s big, American, slow-moving; she’s bird-like, English, full of nervous energy.  The dialogue crackles, the plot isn’t over-busy or too predictable, and director Otto Preminger already had a fine track record when it came to film noir (Laura, Where The Sidewalk Ends). It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly a good one.

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Treacle Jr

Director Jamie Thraves Stars Tom Fisher, Aidan Gillen, Riann Steele UK 2010 Language English 1hr 25 mins Colour

Down and out in South London

Once upon a time, there were two young British directors who had made attention-grabbing videos for Radiohead and seemed ready to make the leap to feature films. Jonathan Glazer’s gangster fable Sexy Beast was memorable for Ben Kingsley’s career-redefining turn as the psychotic, foul-mouthed Don Logan (hang on, did Gandhi just say that? Yes, he did) and Ray Winstone’s well-oiled, sun-baked gut. I enjoyed Sexy Beast, but I preferred Jamie Thraves’ debut. The Low Down was, as the title suggests, a quieter affair, as close as anyone as come to finding a British equivalent of the classic American indie film*, set in a Dalston that had yet to become a hipster cliché.

Both Glazer and Thraves struggled with their second films before seemingly falling off the map together. But neither quite vanished into the abyss that swallows so many British directors. Glazer eventually made a triumphant comeback with Under The Skin. Thraves’ return, again, was much more low-key, with this micro-budget tale of life on the margins in London. Oddly enough, despite being in some ways a slice of social realism, it has a couple of things in common, one methodical, one thematic, with Glazer’s sci-fi headscrambler. Both were shot in real places with the actors interacting with real people, both are about strangers in a stranger land coming to feel the need for haven. You could also argue they have bigger stars than you might expect for the size of the project, in Treacle Jr’s case Thraves’ mate and long-time collaborator Aidan Gillen.

We start with Tom (Tom Fisher) walking out - for reasons that are only ever hinted at - on his comfortable family life in Birmingham and arriving in London, where he starts sleeping rough. A series of predictable misfortunes bring him to the A&E of King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, where he is latched on to by a hyperactive, child-like Irishman called Aidan (Gillen). As any local will tell you, this is an all-too-plausible setting for the first meeting of two people with mental health problems.

At first, Tom tries repeatedly to shake Aidan off, but he’s a persistent little bastard - and also he has a flat, useful as Tom learns swiftly that being homeless is no fun. Aidan also has… well, it’s unclear what Linda (Riann Steele)  is… Girlfriend, flatmate, partner in petty cons, exploiter? She’s young, beautiful, vicious and although she believes she’s much more together, at least as troubled as either or Tom.

With a $30m Hollywood budget and, say, Sean Penn, as Aidan, I can imagine a remake of this as one of the worst films ever made. But the tiny budget and the setting  keeps it grounded.

Anyone who has spent much time in South London will feel at home as the characters wander through Elephant, the Walworth Road, Camberwell, Denmark Hill, Lordship Lane, Forest Hill, Herne Hill… It’s up there with Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland as a portrait of this half of the capital.

If you’ve only seen Gillen in one of his two highest-profile TV roles - in Queer As Folk and as Tommy Carcetti in The Wire, you might not know that he goes the full Daniel Day-Lewis given half the chance. His Aidan has an extensive range of twitches and verbal peculiarities, although Thraves claims this is dialled back from the Dublin music scene eccentric the character was inspired by. The tall, taciturn Tom – referred to as ‘Lurch’ by Linda – is a good foil for him.

Thraves has given himself a tough task here - to show some moments of light in pretty fucked-up lives. It’s tricky – do the jokes (this is a funny film) undercut the more serious moments? Are we laughing with or at Aidan, or both?

For me, it works, gets the balance right. As a study in optimism that seems deluded but maybe isn’t, it’s up there with Happy Go Lucky. As a drift through the world people on the margins can build for themselves, it’s reminiscent of Aki Kaurismaki’s finest hour, The Man Without A Past. If I say it’s a lovely small film, understand that there’s nothing of a backhanded compliment in that – big is by no means better, especially when it comes to cinema.

*The Low-down starred Aidan Gillen and Kate Ashfield, whose girl-in-the-office-you-fancy looks, as opposed to film-star prettiness, made her the default British indie leading lady for a while there, culminating I guess in the role of Shaun’s girlfriend in Shaun Of The Dead. Not that I can remember what her character was called, and she didn’t see her career take off with Pegg and Frost, although she never seems short of work.

I finally caught up with Treacle Jr when it was shown as part of the Sydenham Arts Festival by the excellent people from Sydenham Film Club

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Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Director Matt Reeves Stars Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell USA 2014 Language English (with subtitles for the ape sign language) 2hr 10mins Colour

 Return of the Super-Ape

So last time round we left the assorted chimps, gorillas and orang-utans free in the forests near San Francisco, having escaped from mistreatment in zoos and labs led by Caesar, the genetically modified chimp home-schooled by James Franco. Meanwhile, the same experiment that had both orphaned Caesar and given him his enhanced intelligence had, as a busy credit sequence to this film reminds us, triggered a ‘simian flu’ epidemic, that went on to decimate the human population worldwide. The survivors then – being stupid humans – turned on each other, burying civilisation in the process.

The apes, meanwhile, are leading what’s broadly a stone-age existence in their rather stylish village in what had been California. A couple of them chat (in sign language) about how long it is since they saw humans, and ponder whether any survive*… Cue a small party of humans having a tense encounter with the apes.

The bulk of the film concerns the attempts at pragmatic ape-human cooperation led by Caesar and a human called Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and undermined by assorted trigger-happy people and by Koba (Toby Kebbell), a former lab bonobo understandably unwilling to make friends with his torturers.

If that sounds like both an environmentalist/animal rights warning and a post-colonial/revolutionary allegory, that’s because it is that. In the spirit if the original Ape movies of the ’60s and ’70s, this has some big (and not too subtle) messages about the human capacity for self-inflicted damage, and how easy it is to tip a promising situation into disaster. Caesar has echoes of his namesake Julius, but also Jesus/Aslan, Mandela, Lenin, Gandhi and Nehru. That’s a hell of a symbolic burden for one chimp. (Koba, meanwhile, was a nom de guerre used by Joseph Stalin, so you know where you are with him**…)

Someone asked me if I’d sided with the apes or the humans while watching this. The film, like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, certainly spends more time looking at things from the simian perspective. The casting leans that way, too – other than Gary Oldman, who I’m guessing is on screen for 20 minutes tops, the producers have gone for B-movie actors unlikely to outshine a charismatic orang-utan. Jason Clarke is interesting casting as he looks more like an angry NRA member than a natural peacemaker.

For what is a film that is dependent on special effects, the biggest compliment I can pay it is that I didn’t think about them at all. I did notice the design – the rather beautiful ruins of San Francisco and an ape village that looks like something built for glamping.

There are problems with The Dawn Of… The pacing is a bit off at times, and it meanders. The message can be a little clanging, and it suffers somewhat because we know where this all going, eventually. And Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which was a better film, also benefitted from low expectations.

For all that, this is still a very enjoyable movie, with some memorable scenes – the hunt at the start, the lights coming back on – and that sense of moral urgency that you got in 1970s sci-fi. This isn’t the apocalypse-for-kicks you get from directors like Roland Emmerich, but nor is it Chris Nolan-pompous. More, please.

 

*SEMI-SPOILER I think the film cheats a little on geography, revealing that fair-sized populations of apes have been living about 20 miles from each other, I’d guess, and yet hadn’t crossed paths despite the apes going on large hunting expeditions and the humans still being motorised. 

**So it’s also Animal Farm, except not shit.

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Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater Stars Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke USA 2014 Language English 2 hrs 46 mins Colour

‘Kid grows up’ turns out to be easily worth two and three quarter hours of cinema

The first thing you need to know about Boyhood is that it’s a wonderful movie: funny, moving, acutely observed. Why is it important to get that in upfront? Because obvious way to start talking about it is with how it was made, and then give that credit for why the film works. And that would be wrong, because although the unusual circumstances under which Boyhood was made are certainly crucial to the kind of film it is, you could easily done the same thing and ended up a lousy movie.

Boyhood was shot a few scenes at a time over the course of 12 years, with the same small cast – other characters come and go (and sometimes come back again). As the title suggests, that lets us watch the main character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up, taking him from age seven to college without the need for actors playing younger or older than they are, or multiple actors trying to convince us they are the same person. Unusual, but not unique – Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday was made over five years in a similar way. And before we get carried away with the coolness of the idea, it’s worth remembering that actors age with their characters the whole time on TV, and also in mainstream movie series (Harry Potter) and arthouse ones (Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films and, of course, Richard Linklater’s own Before… trilogy). What makes Boyhood special, then, is not just the idea, but the way that notion becomes something great in the hands of the director, cast and crew.

This is the story, then, of Mason, his sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater) and their single mom, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). At the start, the Mason Sr is a mythical, long-absent figure, but he turns up in the form of Ethan Hawke*, seemingly the classic unreliable dad trying to bribe his estranged kids with presents, zero discipline and rides in his classic 1960s muscle car.

The first half of the film has more obviously dramatic incidents, and more politics, with Mason Sr trying to inculcate his kids with his anti-Bush, anti-war fervour (and they live in Texas, and not Austin), leading to the scene where Mason Jr asks a man who has a Confederate flag on his house if he wants a Vote Obama sign for his front yard.

As Mason hits adolescence, the movie becomes more philosophical – Linklater does like to let his characters ponder the meaning of life (and love). We get bullies, confrontations with teachers and fumblings with girls – none ever shown in a heavy- handed way by the director. It’s as if the more confidence he feels with project, the more relaxed he is with filling it with the small moments that mean a lot to the people living them. And I find the more character-driven a film is, the more what happens next is capable of surprising me.

Despite the title, it’s not just Mason’s story. It’s the resourceful Sam’s too, as the older sister often forced to make sense for both kids of their unstable world (also, her rendition of Oops!… I Did It Again is priceless). And Mason Sr’s, as he struggles with his desire to stay cool versus the fear that waking up alone at 45 in a shitty apartment filled with empty beer cans and half-smoked joints might not really be the dream. And most of all, it’s Olivia’s – this is unabashedly a film about a heroic, self-improving single mother in a world full of men who don’t deserve her. Linklater puts in an uncharacteristically unsubtle moment late on to underline (to both her kids in the movie and to the audience) Liv’s awesomeness.

Linklater has a reputation of being a fine director of kids, and he gets great work from Ellar Coltrane and his daughter Lorelei. I’m assuming that to a fair extent he shaped the characters round the people playing them – however it was done, they have created a thoroughly believable pair: sometimes charming, sometimes bratty, often self-absorbed, sometimes baffled by events, at others far too clued-in for the comfort of the adults.

There are clear echoes of Linklater’s previous films – the Before films, his high school masterpiece Dazed And Confused and even a nod to Slacker. And this is up there with the best of them – because the epic effort, the ambitious plan, has paid off, with a rich, rewarding film that justifies its hefty running time.

*At some point in his twenties, Hawke seemed to age a decade overnight. But after that dramatic shift, he seems to have stopped. Consequently, he looks roughly the same age over the course of this film. Weird, that.

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Movies I’ve seen in the cinema this year but didn’t feel compelled to write about in depth…

 

Locke

As bloke drives from Manchester to London, his life falls apart in a series of phone conversations. The whole thing takes place in the car. ‘That’s not a film, that’s a play,’ objected my mate Tim. More specifically, you could argue it’s a radio play. I found it tense and absorbing, but - and we come back to the radio play notion - scared of silence: there should have been stretches during which he just drives and thinks. Instead, he fills any possible natural gaps by talking at the ghost of his dad. That’s a wrong move. But the thing that almost capsizes - maybe does capsize - the movie is Tom Hardy’s decision (not prompted by the script) to play the part with a ludicrously rich, rolling, theatrical Welsh accent, which had me thinking of Rob-Brydon-doing-Richard-Burton-and-Anthony-Hopkins-reading–Dylan-Thomas.

Her

I liked Spike Jonze’s love story about a man and his OS a lot, but what made a real impact on me was not so much the movie itself, but its astonishing effect on some of the people who saw it. The voices of two sharp, tough-minded young women I know turned soft and sighy every time they mentioned it - it was like they had a crush on the film itself. It was the strangest thing - the most tangible evidence of the power of movies since the time I saw Shame.

 

 Muppets Most Wanted

I enjoyed 2012’s The Muppets, but felt it gave too much space to its human characters. This one rightly put the muppets up front, which works brilliantly – I found a much more consistently funny (and moving) film. Not to say there isn’t a terrific turn from Tina Fey as a gulag commandant, plus the return of Muppet fave Ray Liotta. There are also some excellent songs and good cameos. You might say that gags like casting Usher as an usher are obvious, but obvious can still be genius. Plus, the implication that the USSR is still a current entity proved timely indeed…

Blue Ruin

Much-praised indie about an oddball taking bloody revenge. I kind of got what people liked - it has an unusual central character, it knows retaliation is futile, it couldn’t feel less like a Charles Bronson movie - but I didn’t love it. And comparisons to Blood Simple seem some way off the mark.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Wow, how wrong has Halle Berry’s career gone when she signs up for a role in which she literally just stands around? In fact, the part of the film that Berry is in - a dystopian future-set, Inception-indebted framing device - is rubbish all round. The scenes set in 1973, on the other hand, are excellent, despite the fact that they contain extensive Hugh Jackman. I’ve done a U-turn on James McAvoy as Charles Xavier - my instinctive gripe was that it was annoying casting as it’s impossible to imagine McAvoy growing up to be Patrick Stewart*. But actually he’s been terrific in his two outings in the role. Not nearly as good as X-Men: First Class, but it has its moments.

Calvary

A funny one, this. The premise is arresting: right at the start Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is told during confession by the victim of child abuse that he is going to be murdered in a week’s time, because killing a good priest will make a much bigger statement than murdering a bad one. That suggests we’re going to get an existential thriller, and we do, but this is also a tiresome exploration of eccentric small-town Irish life peopled by some familiar TV faces (Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran and a scenery-chomping Aiden Gillen). It ends up as a weird fusion of Jean-Pierre Melville and Graham Linehan. Powerful but not wholly satisfying.

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street

I had my doubts: three bloody hours long. That’s three bloody hours. And the trailers made it look fucking awful. But it’s awesome, and DiCaprio is extraordinary.

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Judged as a stand-alone action movie, CA:TWS is a decent watch, if a lot less fun than the first one. Viewed as part of the wider Marvel-on-screen universe, especially in conjunction with the corresponding episodes of Agents Of Shield on TV*, it makes more sense. And fans take it to another place entirely.

The Quiet Ones

Not long ago, I heard an interview on the radio with the scientist and writer Sue Blackmore. While she was at Oxford in the early ’70s, she had a classic out-of-body experience, and set about finding evidence for the existence of the paranormal. After a couple of decades, she concluded there was none. She’s also quite open about the fact that on the day of that initial experience, she had been smoking (a lot of) cannabis(!). Still, I don’t think the whole thing was a waste - she appears to have looked for something she thought was there with both great enthusiasm and rigour, and been honest enough to conclude that there was nothing to find.

So what does that have to do with this Exorcist-flavoured effort produced by the reanimated Hammer films? Simple, this is set in Oxford in the early ’70s, where a maverick (of course) academic and his ambitious (and hot) young students are working with a disturbed young woman who believes she’s possessed. The idea is to get a ’70s feel as well as a ’70s setting, but it doesn’t succeed in doing that in the way that, say, Brothers Of The Head did. It’s a silly film that takes itself rather seriously - a braver film would have left the ‘psychosis or possession’ question more open, I feel.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

My father - if I remember this right - used to be obsessed with the bath taps in the Grand Hotel, Sopot, Poland, a huge old place that somehow retained some of its charm in the bleak Communist era. I told him he should watch Grand Budapest Hotel, and he did, and enjoyed it greatly. So did I. There’s a whirl about the storytelling that seems to have convinced some Wes Anderson sceptics. I, meanwhile, had fun watching Ralph Fiennes on screen for possibly the first time ever. It’s a terrific film, and I look forward to seeing it again.

 

*Obviously, not as inconceivable as Ewan McGregor growing up to be Alec Guinness.

**Now there’s an idea that would wind up Mark Kermode.

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Farewell, My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet)

Director Edward Dmytryk Stars Dick Powell, Clare Trevor, Anne Shirley, Mike Mazurki USA 1944 Language English 1hr 35 mins Black & white

Marlowe takes a trip

Meet Marlowe. He won’t be surprised if you try to crack the back of his head with a blackjack. It seems to happen a lot. Maybe people just don’t like his face. More likely they don’t like the way he sticks his nose in where it isn’t wanted. And they definitely don’t like how he responds to threats – and pretty much everything else – with a gag. ‘I’m afraid I don’t like your manner,’ someone tells him. ‘Yeah, I’ve had complaints about it, but it keeps getting worse,’ Marlowe snaps back.

Farewell, My Lovely was the movie audience’s first encounter* with Raymond Chandler’s tough, thoughtful and ever-wisecracking private eye. He’s played by Dick Powell, who brings a bit less screen presence to the role than Bogart did a year later in The Big Sleep, but probably looks and acts a bit closer to how Chandler had imagined his hero – he’s tall and straight-backed, for a start.

The crucial thing, though, is that he was able to sound at ease with the narration (there’s lots of it) and the dialogue – not easy, because Chandler (one of my favourite writers) had the tendency (like, say, Oscar Wilde) to shoot for a winner with every line, which can seem fake and wearying in the wrong hands. Powell does fine with stuff like, ‘It was a nice little front yard. Cosy, okay for the average family. Only you’d need a compass to go to the mailbox. The house was all right, too, but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace.

The real stars of the film are the writing and Edward Dmytryk’s direction, full of heightened mood and building to an extraordinary set-piece hallucination sequence that occurs when Marlowe is clobbered over the head with a gun and then pumped full of drugs. It extends several minutes after Marlowe has come to, the screen etched with smoke that won’t shift. It’s almost certainly one of the main inspirations for The Big Lebowski.

Even in 1944, I’m sure it felt like a story filled with stock crime-drama characters – the foolish rich old man, his trophy second wife (Clare Trevor) with a past worth hiding and her jealous stepdaughter (Anne Shirley), the sexually ambivalent con man preying on rich women, the lovesick hood (Mike Mazurki), the high-society quack with a sideline in blackmail… They are still an enjoyable bunch to spend time with time with as Marlowe gets sucked into a story whose MacGuffin is the theft of $100,000 jade necklace, the pursuit of which brings him into the competing clutches of blonde Helen Grayle and her brunette stepdaughter Ann.

It’s not as funny as The Big Sleep, but it’s harder and weirder, or maybe weird in a different way. More of a real film noir, a lot less of a sharp-tongued romantic comedy. If you’ve never read Raymond Chandler, or seen any of the adaptations of his films, this probably as good a place as any to start. And if you’re a huge fan, like me, it’s a satisfying attempt at a terrific book.

*The story had, though, already been semi-adapted for screen using a different (much-filmed) hero as The Falcon Takes Over.

 

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Mud
Director Jeff Nichols Stars Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard USA 2012 Language English 2hr 10mins Colour

Dark-edged boys’ adventure

Some possible responses to the great Matthew McConaughey surge into critical adoration:

'How did that happen? I thought he was that cheesy romcom dude?'

'I've always loved him. Phwoar!'

'He's good in the early stuff - he just needed to stop making films with Kate Hudson.'

'He's still creepy.'

'Why should Oscar-fodder like Dallas Buyers Club be automatically considered better than Failure To Launch?'

'I used to really like him - why is he making all this boring, miserable stuff now?'

'At least with Tom Cruise and Will Smith you can spell their names.'

I guess that third position is more or less mine – I first noticed McConaughey as the endearingly sleazy Wooderson in Dazed And Confused, which became one of my favourite movies. He was in some terrific films like John Sayles’ Lone Star, and he was effective in movies that weren’t as good, for instance Edtv, in which Woody Harrelson played his brother. Over the years, he could still be watchable in movies that didn’t really work, like Sahara, which was meant to he the start of his big franchise of action movies, but notoriously wasn’t.

So where does Mud fit? If I told you it also features Reese Witherspoon you could get the wrong idea entirely. It came out before the big reassessment, but slots neatly into the era of smarter choices. McConaughey plays the title character here, but not the main character. That’s Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a 14-year-old from Arkansas who has grown up on the river. With best mate Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), he goes off in search of a boat stuck in a tree. Living in the boat they find the mysterious, charismatic Mud. Ellis is sold immediately - Neck is more sceptical about Mud’s tales. But they both end up helping him.

Meanwhile, Ellis is falling in love with an older girl in town and his parents’ marriage is falling apart. He’s a tough and resourceful country kid who swears a lot, but Ellis has a tremendous sense of chivalry and a touching belief in true love. Which gets him punched a lot and hurt in other ways too…

Mud is a bit Stand By Me, a lot Huck Finn and a little Night Of The Hunter, too, I guess. It’s about kids, but it’s not a kids’ movie. Which is to say, I would have loved this when I was 12, but it does have (lots of) swearing, violence and talking about sex, all the stuff many parents try not to let their kids be overexposed to too soon.

It stands or falls with the kids, who are perfectly cast and working with a script that I think will have felt pretty natural to them. They are well  supported by a top-grade bunch of adults - McConaughey, obviously, Reese Witherspoon - who in the right part still has incredible screen presence, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker…

So you’ve got all that lot, a great location and sense of place and of a way of life under threat, snakes, heartbreak, betrayal, a homemade Fugazi T-shirt, a weird (also homemade) diving apparatus and - not forgetting - that boat in a tree. It shouldn’t fail with so much going for it, and it doesn’t – director Jeff Nichols marshals it all perfectly. A terrific movie.

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Frank

Director Leonard Abrahamson Stars Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal UK/Ireland 2014 Language English (with a tiny bit of German) 1 hr 35 mins Colour

Misadventures on the far side of rock

I was aware of Frank Sidebottom, would have been able to place where he (or the act?) fit in the greater scheme of things. But I never got the point, never got the joke as far as there was one, never felt that this was something for me.

I don’t think that matters for this film, which says it was inspired by Sidebottom and his creator, Chris Sievey. Because the film dispenses with the cultural specifics of the original act, including that fairly common yet still comic north English surname Sidebottom. Most of what’s left is the idea of a guy singing while wearing a huge papier mâché head. Other than that, this seems as close to say, Daniel Johnston’s story as Sidebottom’s.

Anyway, so we’re in the present day in a dour English seaside town and meet Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who lives with his parents and writes John Shuttleworth-esque songs about everyday life. Then, one day he semi-accidentally talks himself into filling in on keyboards for a touring American band called Soronprfbs. He doesn’t know anything about them, but they turn out to be purveyors of squalling art noise led by a singer called Frank (Michael Fassbender) who never takes his huge, scary head off.

Jon ends up heading off with the band to remote rural Ireland, where they attempt to record an album, hindered by Frank’s visionary methods (I think we’re meant to think of them as fairly unhinged, but actually plenty of great records have been made in very similar circumstances). Jon is made to feel welcome by Frank and manager Don (Scoot McNairy), but earns the enmity of the rest of the band, classic Velvet Undergroundy types, most of all keyboard/theremin player Carla (a perfectly cast Maggie Gyllenhaal).

The story has to do a tricky thing: Jon is our way into to this strange little world, but he’s a bit of a dick from the start and becomes more so as it goes along. As he is effectively our narrator* via Twitter and YouTube updates, it’s important that we don’t find him completely lousy company. I don’t think that ever happens, quite.

Some people have raved about Michael Fassbender’s performance – I have to confess I’m not quite sure what they’re so excited about. Maybe the idea that he does well considering that his face is hidden and voice distorted – but actually I think the head does quite a lot of work itself. I liked the band – they look and feel like a real band to me, and their live initial appearance is quite exciting.

It seems like a fairly slight movie, but it wants to say a bunch of things, about outsider art, maybe about the value of the time spent making stuff versus the result (is the Beach Boys’ Smile greater for never having been finished – because you can imagine something amazing?), about the delicate chemistry of any group of people, and about the need (or not) for suffering to fuel the creative process. And I think that’s all in there somewhere, if not particularly subtly put or always convincing.

It’s kind of funny, but not hilarious, and rather melancholy. I suspect that the filmmakers expect the audience to find the whole set-up weirder than I did. Still, the final scene pulls it together nicely.

 *Jon shares a first name with Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the screenplay and wrote the memoir this is based on. But Jon in the film is nothing like as bright as Ronson – if this is autobiographical, it’s of the most self-mocking sort. 

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Can we talk a bit less about acting? (or: please only cast Scarlett Johansson in weird movies)

Scarlett Johansson is on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair. Now, the choice of magazine cover star is a bit more haphazard than you might believe, and although I’d like to think that VF is better run than most of the publications I’ve worked for, its cover story often feels like the feature that’s had the least care put into it.

But Johansson feels like the right person at the right time. There is a lot to talk about, including her scuffle with Oxfam. But mostly, her career, which had seemed becalmed for the best part of a decade, has come to life with Her, Under The Skin and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – the blockbuster balancing the two prestige gigs. They are three very different films – Spike Jonze’s melancholy, eccentric comedy-drama*, Jonathan Glazer’s startling mix of gonzo porn and Kubrick, and the latest instalment in Marvel’s crowd-and-critic pleasing Avengers saga. They could, however, all be considered sci-fi, and, like a lot of sci-fi, concern the question of what makes us human.

Johansson matters to the success of all these films – it’s not just that she is in them and people happen to like them. Her value is obvious in Under The Skin where she is constantly present. But you could say that in Her, on the other hand, she is ‘only’ a voice, and she was a very late addition to the movie, and in Captain America she has one of a pair of sidekick roles. That would be to misunderstand both films – with Her, Jonze took the decision that Johansson’s voice worked better than that of Samantha Morton**, who I think most people who have an opinion on the matter would consider a superior actress. Not having seen a version with Morton’s voice, I can’t judge whether this was right, but Johansson works. In The Winter Soldier, she has to make the amiable but depth-free Chris Evans look interesting – as sidekick roles go, this is a substantial and satisfying one.

It’s been a long-standing belief of mine that we put too much emphasis on individual acting performances. This is, of course, what awards ceremonies steer us towards – looking for a combination of skill and commitment. While I feel that good and bad acting are real things (but there is no consensus on what they are, otherwise Ewan McGregor wouldn’t have a career), I think most of the time we’re better off talking about use (by the filmmakers) and choices (by the actor and her/his ‘people’).

So let’s say that Scarlett Johansson has some assets (feel free to insert joke here): a weird beauty that is genuinely that (rather than a polite way of saying she just looks weird), a great body***, a terrific smile that transforms an otherwise moody face, and a distinctive, husky voice. When not smiling, however, she often appears bored or disengaged as a default position – perfect in Ghostworld or Lost In Translation, less appropriate in other parts.

I would argue that comedies like He’s Just Not That Into You, We Bought A Zoo and In Good Company failed to use her for what she’s good at. Other movies she’s been in – The Black Dahlia, The Spirit – were so spectacularly rotten all round it seems unfair to apportion blame to any of the actors****. Johansson had her phase as Woody Allen’s muse, from which she only escaped relatively unscathed from Vicky Christina Barcelona – Match Point, for instance, disappears into a black hole whenever the energy-deficient pairing of Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers appears on screen.

The question is, has Johansson become better at acting lately? Does she now seem capable I’d stuff she could never do before? Not to any great extent, I’d argue. Maybe a bit in Her – though I find it hard to judge as there no performance of hers to compare it to, and towards the end of Under The Skin. But mostly – at the risk of sounding like meat-and-potatoes football pundit Steve Claridge – it’s all about putting the right actors in the right roles.

Certainly craft and talent come into it, but take someone having an even better year than Johansson – Matthew McConaughey. Lots of people, including me, loved the chest-thump/tribal drone humming thing that he improvised in The Wolf Of Wall Street. Could he have done the same thing in Failure To Launch or Sahara? Well, yes, I can imagine that. Would we be hailing it as genius? I think not.

Nothing captures our collective contradictory take on acting as much as the awards season. On the one hand, the acting awards are the ones that get media and public most excited – you don’t tend to get headlines about the winning cinematographers or screenwriters. At the same time, clearly lacking faith in their ability to spot a great performance, the Oscar voters in particular tend to rely on easy-to-grasp markers – is the actor playing someone in a wheelchair, someone dying, mentally ill, with an addiction, or a real famous person against whose memory we can gauge the performance? So, from recent years in the Best Actor category, we have McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club (weight loss, critical illness); Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (historical figure, martyr); Jean Dujardin – The Artist (a rare comedy win – but a bunch of difficulty points for acting without spoken dialogue); Colin Firth – The King’s Speech (historical figure, disability); Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart (alcohol addiction); Sean Penn (historical figure, martyr)… And so on. There are exceptions, but for every Denzel in Training Day you get a Geoffrey Rush in Shine.

As he ploughed round the interview circuit talking about his trifecta of triumphs (Wolf/Dallas/True Detective), McConaughey made it clear that the most important thing he had done was keep saying ‘no’ for months on end. Refusing to make any old crap, refusing (he didn’t say this explicitly, obviously) to share screen space with Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston. In his case, the choices were crucial – I think romcom

producers and (say) Richard Linklater like a lot of the same aspects of what he brings to a role, it’s the movies around him that are different.

With Johansson, carefully targeted use is more crucial. Cast her as a spoilt Jersey Jewish princess w/the hot bod – as she is in Don Jon – and she is OK, but you miss out on the weirdness that makes her so worth watching in Under The Skin, or the rare capacity for embodying utter boredom you get in the best of her early films.

I do believe that great acting exists, but it’s a rare thing, which is why the loss of Phillip Seymour Hoffman was so massive. Because for every Hoffman, there are 50 Keanu Reeves – perfect in the right film (both Bill And Teds, Point Break), horrible in the wrong one. Hell, I’ve even seen Hayden Christensen – so widely trashed for making the Star Wars sequels even more horrible than they already were – doing perfectly decent work on stage and screen.

So let’s be a little less mystical and a little more analytical about why the same actor can be so watchable in some roles and so off-putting in others. Although if anyone has a better name for it than ‘use and choices’, please let me know.

*The film that causes sharp girls to talk in a sighy, soft voice after they’ve seen it.

**Unless you buy into the idea that Her is some kind of answer film to Lost In Translation, in which case Johansson’s presence has a whole different reading. 

***Although a friend and I have spent too much time arguing whether Johansson has stumpy legs or not.

****Although, dear god, the horrifying miscasting of Hilary Swank in The Black Dahlia – you can see why she wanted to get away from being cast as ‘the chick who makes a convincing dude’, but… well, sometimes by trying to shatter stereotypes you just reinforce them.

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Until The Light Takes Us

Directors Aaron Aites & Audrey Ewell Stars Varg Vikernes, Gylve Nagell USA 2008 Language English (with occasional bits of Norwegian and Swedish) 1hr 33 mins Colour

Everything you wanted to know about black metal but were too much of a fucking wuss to ask

Sometime in the mid-2000s. Infernus, the leader of Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth, is waiting to talk to a journalist from a mainstream music magazine. He knows that journalists are liars, morons, treacherous by nature, and British ones worst of all. But he also knows that black metal has thrived on notoriety, its ability to generate lurid headlines seemingly confirming that its musicians did the stuff other bands just sung about* – church burnings, murders, the eating of brains – turning it from a little local scene in a previously musically unremarkable country into an international phenomenon. And Infernus has a couple of juicy things to talk about – his band’s blood-drenched live show has got them into trouble with the authorities in Poland, and his guitarist is doing time for assault, an incident that allegedly involved him threatening to drink the victim’s blood**. All this gives Infernus the opportunity to share his vision of Satanism in magazine with U2 on the cover.

The journalist turns out to be the biggest idiot, the lowest worm, the most outrageous waste of oxygen with whom Infernus has ever spoken to. Not only does he know nothing about Gorgoroth or black metal in general, he keeps trying to tell Infernus that he needs to watch some Disney cartoon that – this British imbecile claims – reconnects superheroes with the Nietzschean concept of the übermensch. Where do they get these mental deficients?

So that was my one and only encounter with black metal, writing a news story that tied in three murders in Italy with the original Norwegian scene. I interviewed a priest from the Catholic body that trains exorcists as well as failing to convince Infernus that he would find The Incredibles philosophically interesting. I’d like to think it was a classic clash between a dogged investigative reporter and an unrepentant extremist, but I suspect nobody was any the wiser at the end of it, certainly closer to why these people were so furious at having to grow up in wealthy, safe, fair Norway.

Anyway, poor old Infernus doesn’t even merit a mention in this fascinating, funny, disturbing documentary telling the story of the most metal of metals, the mentalist of metals, an account that ranges from the innocence of a bunch of kids all working and living together in a record shop – like noisy Nordic Monkees – to death, destruction and – although the directors pull their punches on this – political views that are at once childish (in essence, ‘why can’t we still be Vikings?’) and vile (answer, ‘because the Jews won’t let us’). It’s a world where everyone goes around with names like Hellhammer and Demonaz – my favourites being the two chaps from Immortal, who resemble nothing so much as a pair of gangsters being played by Hale and Pace.

Given raw material this good, the directors had some important choices to make. As with any music documentary, the first question is: how much time are you going to give to what these bands sounded like? Here, it’s surprisingly little – I’m not sure there is any live footage, and only short bursts from records; the bulk of the soundtrack is actually moody electronica. Next, who is telling the story? As there is no narration and no experts, it’s the musicians themselves, with a bit of news archive to fill in the gaps. And what story? So, rather than a panoramic view of the genre along the lines of LA metal classic The Decline Of Western Civilisation Part II, we focus on two of the founding figures – Gylve Nagell from Darkthrone (the one into the music), and Varg Vikernes, from Burzum (the one more into dodgy ideology). Both are far from the Spinal Tappian bozos of popular myth – Nagell, aka Fenriz, with the long, straight, dyed black hair, is an engaging depressive, wrestling with his part in the scene’s unexpected success, and telling one interviewer that anyone who took the lyrics of his recent albums to heart would feel compelled to commit suicide. Vikernes (former nom de metal: Count Grishnackh) by contrast, is confident and effortlessly articulate, the picture of Nordic healthiness with his neat blonde hair and youthful looks – only a sculpted beard adding a vague rock touch. He can be quite waspish – on his former mate Nagell, for instance: ‘Gylve is a special person with special goals, and it’s impossible to know what those goals are’. The funny thing about is that at the time the film was made, Nagell was free to roam the world while Vikernes had spent most of his adult life in prison for the murder of the third of the genre’s pioneers, Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth from Mayhem.

It becomes clear that for both Vikernes and Nagell, the early days were the best – working at Euronymous’ shop back at the start of the 1990s and taking the piss out of the customers, searching out the shittiest musical and recording equipment to make the most fucked-up sound possible. Then things escalated.

What united the two of them by the time this was filmed is a sense of disappointment – not regret for the lives lost or the senseless vandalism, but the timeless lament of the dimestore demagogue: what they imagined was going to be a rebellion of the gifted against the mediocre*** mostly attracted either the very damaged or people they regarded as pondscum. Vikernes snipes, ‘I was frustrated when I realised this movement was the same bunch of braindead metalheads’ while Nagell ruefully sums up his life’s work with, ‘I guess sales of black lipstick went through the roof.’

When you see the footage of the trial in 1994, you realise that Vikernes was just a kid at the time. And I started speculating, based on no more watching than this documentary, that maybe that’s why he seemed so content now when he was interviewed for the film, having spent a decade or so as a guest of the soft-touch Norwegian state he despises. He compares his time in prison to being in a monastery, but considering his age when he went in, it’s also like he was able to be a permanent student. For a hyper-bright but immature and hopelessly self-centred kid, what could be better than being allowed to play with your ideas and not have to deal with the grind of everyday life – the bills, the rent, practical decisions. He was released in 2009, and now reportedly lives in France with a wife and kids. I wonder if that was a shock to his system…

Serious black metal folk apparently have big gripes with this film: it retells an old, old story, it ignores their particular faves in favour of Nagell and Vikernes, and it has far too little of the right kind of music. For the curious, though, it’s terrific.

*In that way, it has parallels to gangsta rap, which broke through around the same.

**At this trial, his mother testified, ‘My son is a vegetarian and very fussy about food. He eats absolutely no innards. That is why I do not believe this at all’, thus trashing his Satanist cred in one swift move.

***See what I meant about The Incredibles?

(With thanks to Sarah – this was a much better shout than Celebrity Big Brother)

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