Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

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Permanent Vacation

Director Jim Jarmusch Stars Chris Parker, Leila Gastil, John Lurie USA 1980 Language English (with a bit of Spanish) 1hr 15mins Colour

Jim Jarmusch’s student film. Approach with caution

You know those really early episodes of The Simpsons in which the characters look more sketched than drawn and Homer not only sounds completely different, his personality hasn’t emerged yet? You can see traces of what was to come but so much of the good stuff isn’t there. That’s roughly where Permanent Vacation – made while he was at NYU – stands in relation to Jim Jarmusch’s later work. It’s a hint of the future, but it’s missing so much of what matters. 

In outline, though, it sounds deceptively close to his later films. It’s very short on plot, and consists almost entirely of a young man (Chris Parker) wandering around New York City and encountering strange people. He is, as you might imagine, the picture of thrift-shop cool, and he’s mad about old jazz.

But although there are scenes that could have come from Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law, there are many that are very different in tone. A large part of the problem is Parker, who was – the director has said – basically playing himself. Jarmusch appears to have been enthralled by this latter-day beat, petty criminal and self-educated thinker. Unfortunately, he comes across as a crashing bore, spouting the usual ’you can’t tie me down’ clichés, only vaguely mitigated by the fact he looks about 12. Since he’s in every scene of the film, that’s a problem. 

Then there are the people he meets. Everything that isn’t visual or musical in Jarmusch’s work could be boiled down to: ’Bumped into this chick/cat… Man, what a character!’ 

Here, though, the characters are either severely mentally ill or catatonically hip. Neither are entertaining to spend time with, yet nor are you going to get any insight into their lives. Various anecdotes are preceded by ’Funny story…’, but they never are. Lacking here, but present in Down By Law or Dead Man or Ghost Dog, is a sense of humour along with a generosity of spirit.

Permanent Vacation does have a value, and it’s an ironic one because Jarmusch is one of those film-makers who tries to create his own, distinctly non-topical world. What you see here is a document of the extraordinary condition of New York City at the start of the ’80s, when sizeable chunks of lower Manhattan looked – as a couple of the characters suggest – as if a war had been fought there. Parker drifts amid the ruins, walks down streets with pot-holes that are like canyons. It would have been hard to imagine then the stiflingly affluent NYC of today. Parts of it then were hellish – dirty, dangerous, unpredictable – but it was ideal for a young musician/film-maker like Jarmusch. It was a great time and place for art, for all sorts of music, for comedy and for low-budget movies*… It’s no surprise that Jarmusch’s most recent film, Only Lovers Left Alive, visits the even more wrecked landscapes of Detroit.**

Permanent Vacation is a transparently immature film, filled with the kind of self-important moodiness that people often grow out of  – and luckily Jim Jarmusch soon did. 

*The movies bit is explored in the entertaining, if factually erratic, documentary Blank City. For art and music, it’s worth checking out the narratively weak but historically fascinating features Downtown 81 (aka New York Beat Movie) and Wild Style. 

**There is an excellent chapter on the fetishisation of modern ruins, and the tricky politics thereof, in Mark Binelli’s The Last Days Of Detroit.

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A Most Wanted Man

Director Anton Corbijn Stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin  UK/USA/Germany 2014 Language English, Arabic (with subtitles) 2hrs 02mins Colour

Corbijn! Le Carré! PSH! Nap time!

There’s slow, and there’s slow. And then there’s Anton Corbijn slow, a lack of pace that seems designed purely to torture the viewer. Corbijn’s previous film, The American, contained several extended sequences of distant aerial shots of a car driving on mountain roads with multiple hairpins. Beautiful, in a way, but dull. So dull.

You can see what drew Corbijn to the work of John Le Carré. Le Carré is a writer of patient books in praise of patient men.  The second of the BBC’s peerless TV adaptations of his work, Smiley’s People, contains an episode that largely consists of the title character driving to Charlton, having a low-key chat there, and then driving back to Chelsea.

Which is to say that the very reasons that Corbijn wanted to make this film are the reasons he should never have been allowed to make it. Because while there are some interesting things to watch, as a piece of drama, let alone a thriller, it’s a complete non-starter.

Here, for what it’s worth, is the set-up: Issa, a young Chechen (Grigoriy Dobrygin), turns up in Hamburg illegally and eventually (no rushing) comes to the attention of both Günther (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the head of a small, shadowy German counter-terrorism unit, and Annabel (Rachel McAdams), a beautiful, young, idealistic* human rights lawyer. As Günther does, it seems safer for the audience to assume that Issa is up to something – he seems clueless, immature, damaged… But that could be just right for a suicide bomber, right? And what’s his business with Tommy (Willem Dafoe), the aristocratic heir to a once-dodgy private bank?

Meanwhile (this being Le Carré), Günther is involved in a bureaucratic turf war with rival departments and, of course, the bloody Americans (Robin Wright).

The casting may have alerted you to the language issue – Corbijn has gone for the old-fashioned option of having people speak English in German accents to indicate they are speaking German. Of course, the novel is written in English, and there are many terrific films – including this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – where the suspension of disbelief allows us to put aside linguistic hang-ups. But I find it does bother me these days with, say, war films and political thrillers, where a literal sense of reality is fairly crucial. 

Mind you, there is plenty that is implausible here – mostly to do with Günther’s team. While he is baggy and flabby and dishevelled, his small team are young and good-looking and extremely slick, able to know what is happening everywhere and be just where they are needed instantly despite there seeming to be only six of them and Hamburg being a big old place.  

Talking of Hamburg, Corbijn’s use of the city is the best thing about the movie. It’s a top to bottom (literally, in some ways, from high-rise hotel coffee bars to strange basements) exploration of a messy modern city, taking us to scruffy but appealing old bars and to gentleman’s clubs, from the parts of town where illegal immigrants can disappear to the gorgeous glass-walled home of Tommy the banker, from the bustling still-vital port to the post-industrial space of a warehouse conversion. Ignore the story and just watch the pictures and it makes a useful companion piece to a film that Corbijn has unsurprisingly cited as a reference point for this one, Wim Wenders’ Hamburg-set classic The American Friend.

So what of the big name cast? They can’t do much with the material, and you do keep expecting there to be more to do for the characters played by Dafoe, and especially Daniel Brühl, to justify their presence.  This kind if casting can be a distraction. It’s a pity that this is one of the last films that this is one of the last films that Hoffman – the greatest screen actor of his generation – made. He’s fine – though slightly hamstrung by the accent – as the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, crumpled-yet-charasmatic Günther, but it’s not a great role.

It’s become a cliche, but TV tends to do this stuff better** – from those great BBC Smileys to State Of Play the underrated US conspiracy thriller Rubicon. On TV, you’d have time to make Günther’s struggles with his colleagues – and the politics of it all – interesting rather than annoying. 

Corbijn seems to be enthralled by the big European art-house directors of the past – Wenders, Antonioni – but he’s picked up all of their bad habits and few of the good ones. His sole trick – here and in The American – is draining a thriller of action and pace, but he adds nothing, no strangeness, no invention, no humour. The scenes are largely conventional, but dragged out. The result is stupendously boring.

*In fairness, she’s not nearly as annoying as the young, beautiful, idealistic etc woman played by Rachel Weisz in the film of The Constant Gardener.

**TV can also do this stuff badly – see the BBC’s dismal recent An Honourable Woman.

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Obvious Child

Director Gillian Robspierre Stars Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman USA 2014 Language English 1hr 24mins Colour

Sharp but sweet. Or maybe sweet but sharp 

This is a tough one to write about under ‘no spoilers’ rules. Not, as it happens, because it is high on dramatic tension. Rather because what does or doesn’t happen in the last few scenes defines the film. Because of that, most of the reviews have just spelled it out. I read a couple of reviews before I saw the film, and having a fair guess where it was going didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film.

Even so, let’s try spoiler-free for a bit. Here’s Donna (Jenny Slate) doing a highly confessional, fairly gynaecological stand-up routine in a small, scruffy bar.  At the end of that opening sequence, she gets dumped by her boyfriend and goes off into something of a downward spiral. 

But… well, not too much of meltdown (despite some drunken leaving of voicemails and an ill-considered, over-confessional gig), because one of the things that’s interesting about this film is the support structure Donna has.  There’s her wise ever-loyal flatmate (Gaby Hoffman), the club compere (Gabe Liedman), her boss in the dying left-wing bookstore she works at, her once-successful in showbiz dad (Richard Kind) and even her business-school lecturer mother (Polly Draper), even if her mom is one of those people you go to for a hug and they insist on giving you practical advice instead.

A lot of comedies would go for laughs you could get from all if these people just making things worse for Donna. Here they don’t. But don’t come away thinking this is sappy film. The bite comes from the dialogue, from Donna’s assessment of her own situations. It might also be worth mentioning that both the Donna’s routine and the film spend a lot of time on bodily functions - not in a gross-out comedy kind of way, more in a well-we-all-piss-shit-fart-puke kind of way.

I don’t think anyone would pretend that a lot of the elements here aren’t familiar - brainy, Jewish, New Yorkers in crisis? Hardly a neglected demographic in independent film history. But this is an endearing movie, funny in places and well-always observed. The casting is spot-on – from Slate on down, they all seem perfectly comfortable as their characters. Its hook, though, is its unfussy approach to a contentious subject – which will be discussed below. 


WARNING: SPOILERS ARE COMING





SPOILERS ARE IMMINENT





HERE BE SPOILERS

Right, so in the middle of her mini breakdown, Donna discovers she is pregnant. And books an abortion straight away. The film’s attitude isn’t that this is no big deal, just not the biggest deal. Other characters discuss their abortions and the fact that they feel no guilt or remorse. In the American context, that makes this a political film, even if it never feels like one.

Critics have compared it (favourably) to Juno and Knocked Up, films that only fleetingly suggested the termination option. Beyond any ethical or political considerations, the logic of film (and TV) narrative leans against early, legal, complication-free abortions. In the same way as characters going straight to the police when there is trouble or paying their debts promptly, the swift termination shuts down possible story developments.

In any sense, Obvious Child is a double winner on this front - it gets (deserved) credit for taking on a tricky topic, but also for being as low-key about it as most of the characters are.

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Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment

Director Karel Reisz Stars David Warner, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Handl, Robert Stephens UK 1966 Language English 1hr 37 Black & white

You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals

Here’s Morgan. His wife has chucked him out, so what does he do? Breaks into her house, vandalises it, wires it up so that he can eavesdrop on her and her new boyfriend and blast them with animal noises, and then he escalates sharply it from there… Funny or just sinister?

From a 2014, it’s hard not to see this as a film that’s essentially about a man terrorising a woman just because she’s rejected him, and wonder why it’s played for (gloomy) laughs and is apparently on his side. That was probably how quite a few people saw it in 1966, too.

What it was meant to be about seems to have been the then-intellectually fashionable issues of psychiatrist RD Laing’s radical approach to mental illness (often caricatured as ‘is it the patients who are mad or is it society?’) and the future of the revolutionary left in the face of the (very slow in some quarters) realisation that Joe Stalin had been a monster and psychopath. Also in the mix is a reminder that we are, for all our fancy trappings, just apes, an idea that – with the rise of genetics and evolutionary psychology – is probably more current now than it was in the ’60s.

All this is carried by a rather goofy little film, full of the tricks that were modish at the time (eg speeded-up scenes, proto-Reggie Perrin juxtapositions of human and animal faces, chunks of a Tarzan film dropped in) without going for all-out weird – it’s never actually properly disorientating.

Morgan (David Warner, who does look quite ape-like) is an artist from a working-class, staunchly Communist family who is the process of being divorced by posh Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave). He refuses to accept this, and keeps invading her Kensington house. Leonie is annoyed, obviously, but she still has a soft spot for Morgan – I’m guessing point one on any list of tips for losing a stalker is ‘For god’s sake, don’t sleep with him.’ 

Morgan doesn’t seem to have any friends beyond his Party loyalist mum (Irene Handl) and her wrestler chum Wally (Arthur Mullard), and even Mum is despairing of how wrong he’s gone personally and ideologically (she accuses him of being a liberal).

Morgan’s guerrilla/gorilla warfare against Leonie and her snooty art dealer lover Charles (Robert Stephens) is played as comedy, but there’s a strong undertow of melancholy – he’s delusional and grows more so over the course of the film, sliding from gently anarchic to a danger to himself and others. 

The film was made at the tail end of what’s sometimes called the British New Wave – which started off with gritty stories set in the Midlands and the North (A Taste Of Honey), and then moved on to Swinging London and its discontents (Darling), with Billy Liar as the neat link between the two. Czech-born director Karel Reisz had been a big part of all that, making one of the era’s most memorable films, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. Morgan isn’t his best work, but he keeps it moving, and there are other mid-’60s films that feel overwhelmed by the cinematic fads of the time while this one is in control of them. It’s shot in crisp late black & white, which I think was the correct choice – a lot of colour British films of the era look rather sludgy. It had been written as a TV play four years earlier by David Mercer – I’ve never seen that version, but it’s apparently much more conventional in style. I’m guessing this is much better match of style and content.

The casting of the leads looks strange, but only in retrospect. Warner would go on to specialise in sinister, powerful* figures, Redgrave soon became severe and forbidding. It’s funny to see him as young and awkward, her as pretty and vulnerable. It’s also surprising to see these rising RSC-types sharing the screen with British comedy stalwarts Arthur Mullard and Bernard Breslaw.

There’s a line between dated and appealing retro, and Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment still feels like it’s on the wrong side of that divide. There is probably only a handful of people under 65** interested in the politics of the New Left, although I guess Trotskyism is stubbornly still with us. RD Laing was the subject of a fascinating Turner Prize show work a few years ago. But the real problem is the film’s attitude towards how Morgan treats Leonie – Reisz and Mercer are so caught up in sympathy for his plight that they often (thought not always) forget about how hard this must be for her.  I don’t feel I can set that aside so easily.

*His voice hadn’t yet fully developed into the formidable instrument that has made him a great radio actor and a favourite with animators. 

**I am one of them, I guess.

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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 up front? Because the 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, 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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