Thursday, December 21, 2006

Q: Is it two-timing if there's more than one of you?

A: Ask David. I'm leaving off for the Christmas break with this extraordinary film rattling around inside my head. It's certainly hard work, but exhilarating with it. It's also exactly why I love David Lynch, and, pending a second viewing at the very least, my film of the year. A

Back in a week with end of year round-ups, once I've seen The Death of Mr Lazarescu (high hopes) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (dreading it, but I'm a completist like that). Also a look ahead at the films I'm determined to catch up with in 2007, like most of Pasolini, and a lot more Buñuel. I'll welcome anyone's tips. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Truth in advertising

I'm fond of movie taglines that accidentally hit the nail on the head. Here are three:

"Whoever wins, we lose"Alien vs. Predator (2004)

"Nine men are about to change history"U-571 (2000)

"One taste is all it takes"Chocolat (2000)

Any more, anyone?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Reeling around The Fountain

I'm still turning The Fountain over. I like it. I like Hugh Jackman in it. I like the movie's swooning ambition, the tactile ways it teleports itself through the centuries. I admire the feverish quality of its overlapping certainties, and the ways Aronofsky wants to both conjure and unlock some essential mysteries here.

But I don't love it yet, or exactly feel it. I think the film organises itself around ideas too high-handedly to flesh them out in human terms, beyond the Cronenberg-worthy sexual imagery. (You're missing out until you've seen Jackman gulp down spunk — sorry, sap — from the Tree of Life.) I can intellectualise this odyssey and make it sound organic but I'm having to do too much of the work myself. The phrase "transcendental kitsch" occurred and kept clogging my thoughts, and my response to Aronofsky's overprocessed visuals, in the late going. I want the movie to be simpler, really: I want fewer pyrotechnics, more of a spare ascent. A honing to a point. Some kind of white-out.

But I'm dying to see it again, and there's one thing in it I genuinely adore. Clint Mansell and Mogwai's music is a thing of wonder: I've had little else playing in the flat for the last two days. I wonder what The Fountain would be without it, actually — a far lesser achievement. (Aronofsky seems to think with his scores.) Mansell's searching cellos, in love with their own melancholy, washed ashore by a tragic tide of expectant violins, will fuel my own obsessions, dreams, and longings for weeks yet. It's not just the soundtrack of the year, but one of the most beautiful I know.
The film: B
The score: A+

Thursday, December 07, 2006

When Leading Ladies Need Throttling

I hate how negative I can sometimes be. I really really hate it, you know. But how else is a critic meant to carry on when his week's viewing has included this vicious and wrong but infuriatingly well-executed genocidal rumble in the jungle, this sad, stunted and waddling half-stab at a genuinely ambitious children's 'toon, this slice of pure Yuletide cheese, so pornily predictable as to defeat criticism altogether, and this other slice of pure Yuletide cheese fermented at source 2006 years, 11 months and about 18 days ago?

Enough for one week, you'd hope. But there I was, all but ready to pronounce Cameron Diaz's excruciating performance in The Holiday the worst by a leading actress in 2006, and I had to go and blunder like a complete idiot into this shit: courtesy of a wretchedly uninteresting "literary romance" and its puckered-up little Renée doll, so winsome you could drown her in the village pond, we suddenly have a tie on our hands. I will make the admittedly extreme claim that I'd happily not see either of these actresses in another film again for about a decade, or five years if they behave themselves. Consider this a public health warning, and be very, very afraid.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Crimes of the Heart

Don't ask me why I bothered — well, OK, blame a pile of ironing — but does anyone else think this film plays like a batty parody of early Tennessee Williams? I do declare...

Monday, November 27, 2006

Supporting Actress Smackdown: 1974

A shout-out once again to StinkyLulu, the web hostess with the mostest and our monthly go-to-gal for debating the issues that really matter. In this case it's who deserved Best Supporting Actress in 1974, when by unanimous consensus Ingrid Bergman pulled a Zellweger and defeated four better rival performances than her own (in the stuffy and smug Murder on the Orient Express). By no one's reckoning was it a great year for the category — co-smackdowner Nick thinks it might even have been the worst ever — but I differ in having enjoyed the comic va-va-voom Madeline Kahn injects into the otherwise rancid Blazing Saddles, the blowzy vitality of Diane Ladd as a harassed diner waitress in Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and the touching, flavourful work of Valentina Cortese (the overall favourite) as a diva crumbling on set in Truffaut's faintly disappointing film-about-filming Day for Night. Plus, I was the only one who had much time for Talia Shire in The Godfather, Part II, debate about whom still rages in the comments below. Do you hate her or rate her? Post away. Mention has been made of the unnominated, as ever: Karen Black, who I dimly remember being marooned and miscast like almost everyone in The Great Gatsby, Kahn and the hysterical Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein, and, my personal picks, the even more memorable double-act of stay-at-home girlfriends Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles in Altman's fantastic California Split. (Pic above, and a tip: Altmaniacs wanting to commemorate his passing in some way could do a lot worse than tracking down this underappreciated flick. I think it's one of his very best.) Next month: 1975, and another one.

Review: Stranger Than Fiction

Or: A Little Bit of Literary Theory is a Dangerous Thing. I’ve seen worse films in 2006, but few have made me physically squirm so often with the shallow and stretched quality of their core conceit: that glum IRS accountant Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), insofar as he’s a human being at all, exists in the imagination of a highly annoying, chain-smoking and we suspect not very talented author of death-obsessed novels about The Way We Live Now (Emma Thompson, frankly all over the place). Stranger Than Fiction is perilously pleased with itself and has almost nothing to say, but I was at least hoping for a little charm and deftness of tone, some effective comedy, from such an obviously featherweight effort. In the event, Zach Helm’s debut screenplay, which I have a nasty feeling will pick up this year’s easily-pleased Match Point Oscar nomination, is the precise opposite of good Charlie Kaufman (heavy concepts, light touch) in that it handles its wafty, overfamiliar ideas with great clumsy gauntlets by way of pretending they add up to something. Ferrell is fine as a flummoxed nobody, but as Harold runs around trying to decide if his life conforms to comedy or tragedy, we’re yanked from the film’s nominal comparison-points Adaptation or The Truman Show (as if!) to altogether less inspiring memories of Melinda and Melinda. As for Marc Forster, he’s hired the same d.p. and production designer who made his barely-seen Stay (2005) a gruellingly pretentious watch: they’re evidently much bigger fans of art, books, modernist architecture and psychoanalysis than they are of, say, tax officials, which means that while Harold’s apartment and office are of the low-ceilinged, airless variety of your typical drone worker, everyone else’s look almost dangerously hip and urban. (I bet their next film’s some kind of trippy psychological thriller about a boutique hotelier.) Naturally I wanted to like Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played a gold-digging rebel to utter perfection in Don Roos’ Happy Endings, but even her performance as a seditious baker (!) goes instantly wrong here — how does Forster bungle so much, with a cast of this calibre? After this and Stay I’m almost ready to mount a rearguard defence of the admittedly twee Finding Neverland as its director’s least precocious, fussed-over project, but every one of us has more of a life than Harold and, fingers crossed, better things to do with it. C—

Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Hollywoodland

The wacky miscasting of Adrien Brody as a dissolute gumshoe, which almost every review I’d read, good and bad, had suggested was this film’s biggest mistake, turns out to be not only the least of its problems but, to me, its sole point of peripheral interest. I’m certainly not going along with the “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Ben Affleck acting!” wave of praise, since the latter’s job — playing 1950s TV Superman George Reeves, found dead at the film’s start, as a tragic washout — is just the easiest excuse ever for an obviously limited star to cash in on his shortcomings. Nor did I have much time for an ineffectually brittle Diane Lane as his mistress, the wife of a sinister studio chief (Bob Hoskins), because director Allen Coulter has even less, virtually complicit with faithless George in his decision to underlight her big woman-spurned monologue, quite brutally, and thus deny her an affecting sign-off of any kind. The movie achieves no pathos for Affleck or Lane’s characters even when it thinks it does, and its aim — to dredge up and make us really feel the linked tragedies of a couple of has-been celebrities — is undone by your discovery, within minutes, that it’s a has-been in itself, lifeless and grey on the slab.

No, the only spark of curiosity for me was watching Brody collude in the flimsy pretence that he’s in some way “investigating” Reeves’s death, when the interspersed flashbacks bear little or no relation to any clues he’s actually finding, conversations he’s having, or anything much in the framing sequences at all. What’s the point of his case? I couldn’t find one, until — wait for it, fans of tenuous metatextual games for critics with nothing better to do — the suggestion that Reeves had his role in From Here to Eternity snipped to shreds put me in mind of Brody’s similar fate on The Thin Red Line, another James Jones adaptation. I’m not done: Brody’s dismissive treatment of sheepish cop Dash Mihok, who beat him with a larger if still minor role in Malick’s film, encouraged me yet further in my utter boredom to read Hollywoodland as in fact its misplaced leading man’s smirking idea of comeuppance, now that he’s got his Oscar. The film is devoid, after all, of plausible notions elsewhere about how movie stars are meant to manage their careers, and try as I might I could find no other workable point of connection between Brody’s Louis Simo and the pitiful Affleck-as-Reeves. If Brody keeps signalling his superiority to the material, as I’ve read in plenty of other reviews, it’s because he is superior to it, and heaven knows I’d rather be watching him flirt gamely with his own miscasting than anyone — Daniel Craig? — trying on a Ralph Meeker impression in a manner you could call apropos for such a silly part. I can’t recommend Hollywoodland in the slightest, really, but I have a feeling I’ll always look back on this particular inglorious moment as Brody’s graduation to fully-fledged stardom. Stardom and all the lunacy and industrial compromise that term entails — not because he's very suitable for this non-role in an insultingly drab period mystery, but because he’s so unmissably wrong and steals it anyway. D

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Doubly deflowered

I had a free afternoon today, so went to catch a bargain screening of Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia at the West End's only real second-run venue these days, the wonderfully (and, for this movie, aptly) disreputable Prince Charles Cinema. With its voluminous red curtains, upwardly sloping floor and old-fashioned instruction that patrons might want to contemplate shutting the hell up for the next two hours, the Prince Charles fosters a sense of hushed, dirty occasion even at 3.15pm on a cold and darkening Thursday, and it's one that this much puzzled-over movie met deliciously. I like the fact that I like The Black Dahlia, quite a lot — I like the fact that I'm not supposed to. No one could argue that De Palma's film was more satisfying, shapely or in any conventional way better than Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential, but I think I could have a good stab at positing it as a truer, more faithful distillation of James Ellroy's prose, in that's it's sleazy, not classy, jagged not smooth, and that, not to put too fine a point on it, large chunks of the thing simply don't add up. In all the ways that Hanson and Brian Helgeland's screenplay for the earlier film "improves" on Ellroy, I think they're also doing him a vague disservice, and it's one which De Palma, like the scuzzball voyeur he is, intuitively rectifies.

The truth is, though there have been several (not many) better American movies this year, there have been very few which not only warrant but actively demand a second viewing like this does, and many of the things that might have failed to work for you first time round simply don't matter on a return visit. I still don't get the whole business with Blanchard's ill-gotten gains at the end, for instance, perhaps because De Palma's direction (or my attention) were at their least focused on both viewings when major plot points were being wrapped up, but who cares? Of the lead quartet, only Scarlett Johansson strikes me as completely wrong for her part, I still have a whole load of time for the faintly affected stylings of Hilary Swank, whose peculiar look and accent could only belong in this movie, and Josh Hartnett's weary, sexy, inwardly and outwardly scarred embodiment of Bucky Bleichert is not only easily his best work to date but my pick for the most underrated male performance of the year. It's telling how much of Mark Isham's propulsive score is cued directly into tiny movements of Hartnett's face — he can blink, without a word, and send the film barreling down whole new avenues of intrigue on a hunch. I need hardly add that Fiona Shaw and Mia Kirshner continue to amaze in small parts of such rich, distinct colouration that it felt like going back in to watch them carry on those performances rather than repeat them. All told, whatever, it's still a mess of a movie in some crucial ways, but I think it's a good mess. A fine mess. I stand by my original grade and then some. B

PS. Do comment. Who else has seen a movie twice this year and what changed?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Maxie on breasts

I don't link to my flatmate's bloggy activities nearly enough. Here's a corker.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Review: This is England

Shane Meadows could be British cinema’s best-kept secret — a poet of pratting about, lippy banter, and boys doing what they’re best at, which is being hopeless. For a good 45 minutes, This is England — Meadows’s first attempt at a period piece, and certainly his most ambitious movie to date — seems such safe ground for this talented dosser that we’re lulled into a false sense of security: the movie’s joshing ensemble and bang-on Thatcher-era detail are confidently interwoven, the young actor Thomas Turgoose is a tremendously natural and cheeky find as the 11-year-old adopted as a mascot by a gang of skinheads, and the Falklands war is sensibly submerged by way of backdrop to the point where more tellies are tuned into the vintage ITV quiz show Blockbusters than the tank-and-plane-filled news broadcasts. (Sadly, adorable host Bob Holness is only heard, not seen.)

If we have some inkling that the film’s going to tip over into something darker, it could be that we’ve seen Meadows’s marvellous A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), still his best feature to date, and one which the debuting Paddy Considine practically broke in half with an unanticipated and terrifyingly casual outburst of mid-movie sociopathy. This is England wants to make a similar shift, and also to use a single intervening personality to get us there, which is to say from laddish comedy to race-baiting melodrama. That person is Combo (Stephen Graham), recently paroled and a skinhead with issues, unlike the gregarious and welcoming Woody (Joseph Gilgun), the chubby, put-upon Gadget (Andrew Ellis), his ironically-named West Indian comrade Milky (Andrew Shim) and the rest of the gang.

From Combo’s arrival onwards, Meadows’s previously sure direction starts to falter in small but damaging ways, and the more the picture strains for controversy and impact, the less it ends up having. Two big transitional scenes misfire, back to back — first an accidentally soothing blanket of string score, welling up on top of one of Combo’s screeds, fails to highlight the tensions within the group and instead all but papers over them, uniting the rest of the gang and ourselves in a sort of head-shaking compact of awkward awareness. This mistake carries over into the next, crucial Combo scene and contrives to disable his rhetoric so fundamentally we can’t believe anyone, let alone Turgoose’s previously hard-to-kid Shaun, is actually talked round.

The moment the appalled Woody and pals leave the scene, there’s a dismaying sense that Meadows has transferred all his eggs to the wrong basket, and the absence of the decent and appealing Gilgun from pretty much the whole of the rest of the movie is painfully felt. We get big sequence after big sequence from here on, starting with a nationalists’ convention addressed by Meadows regular Frank Harper in the manner of a village butcher in his Sunday best, and then numerous confrontations between Combo and his cohorts, but big sequences aren’t really Meadows’s forte, and the shortage of interstitial bits of comic business or even many Turgoose close-ups during the film’s second half compounds its schematic crudity. The scenario works if and only if Shaun is convincingly persuaded to be a racist, but not from Graham’s Combo are we going to get the chillingly charismatic advocacy of, say, Edward Norton in American History X: he’s just a thug, emotionally stunted and patently troubled, and the performance isn’t multi-layered enough to disguise or underplay these traits until their explosive revelation, in a powerfully acted scene with Milky, later.

However we slice it, the force of Combo’s personality is less than enough to get Shaun on side, so there’s also the memory of the boy’s dad, a Falklands casualty, to get him thinking, and it’s here that Meadows wishes to make an uneasy equation between violence at home and the sputtering legacy of British military imperialism overseas. Thomas Clay’s critically panned The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, intercutting its savage rape with images of Churchill and the Gulf War, took this same line of thinking to a notably senseless extreme, but while there’s nothing comparably pretentious in Meadows’s picture, what he’s actually trying to say remains disappointingly woolly and ill-thought-through. As a state-of-patriotism bulletin, This is England just seems to be going through the motions, and Shaun’s apparent conversion away from a racist mindset, mainly through a bloody kicking administered to Milky, by Combo, in a fit of self-pitying jealousy right near the end, is just as sudden and dramatically convenient as his lapse into it. This in itself might work if we felt impressionable little Shaun (shorn!) was still under the sway of mercurial, daily-shifting playground allegiances, which the early part of the film auspiciously suggests he is, but not many 11-year-olds have to carry the symbolic burden of a St George’s flag around or make a life decision using it, and the fact that Shaun is required to as part of his steep late-in-the-picture learning curve is a clear indication that we have Bigger Fish To Fry. Despite all the problems I’ve outlined, the movie is well worth wrestling with, and I don’t for a second regret that Meadows has attempted to make it, but I think his canvas is too small for the points he wants to get across, those points actually obscure the character detail he really excels at, and if he’d given Shaun slightly fewer of his big fish to cart around, the little ones might have made a filling meal all by themselves. B—

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Cool Hollywood Couple no. 472

I love Annabella Sciorra, and I didn't know she was seeing Bobby Cannavale. That makes me wildly jealous of them both. I can't wait to see her in Twelve and Holding, and him in Cuban-Italian-American Studs' Wild and Wacky Jockstrap Party. Oh wait. That's not a film.

Let's leave the kid out of it, OK?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Why I Don’t Get The Departed

Read more than a handful of the glowing reviews for Scorsese’s latest and you may detect — beneath the rote praise for Thelma Schoonmaker’s slightly uncertain editing, the justified plaudits for what DiCaprio’s doing, and a whole load of starstruck raving about one of the least disciplined performances of Jack Nicholson’s career — a heavy sigh of relief. He’s pulled it off, is the implication: the movie’s no masterpiece, but it works.

Think about that for a second. Which other great American director has reached a point in his career where we’re this damn grateful for a half-decent movie? Who else labours for two years or more, from script to shoot to famously arduous post-production, on a piece of cinema whose unveiling isn’t the cause for celebration but its very opposite — apprehension? Scorsese is personally complicit, of course, in the prickly air of worry that now seems to hang over every Scorsese project. He guards his secrets like a paranoid magician: only the most trusted and friendly of journalists is allowed access to his sets. And he’s constantly described as “wary” about his films’ reception, stung so often in the past by even minor criticisms of his best work, continually a disappointment to his studios, pipped to that Best Director Oscar by idiots. Actors! Who wouldn’t get butterflies?

The real problem arises when the movies themselves seem nervous. The Departed, for me, isn’t decent but exactly half-decent — about half the film it should be, which is an odd thing to say about a picture that feels 30 minutes too long as it is. The structure isn’t there and the movie’s a shouty scrummage, albeit an often pretty entertaining one, of big scenes, flashy riffs and see-what-sticks showboating. It doesn’t quite know how to contain itself or many of its core elements — certainly not Nicholson, who barges in right from the start and upsets, not subtly, but with shoulder-blows, the yin-yang symmetry this plot is crying out for. There just isn’t room in the movie for three lead performances and Matt Damon, who’s perfectly promising in a blunt sort of way, traipses out of the saloon door with his tail between his legs.

Then there’s the half of the movie that works a treat, which is almost every scene Leo gets that isn’t opposite Jack, all the stuff with Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Ray Winstone, and a surprising amount of the love-triangle subplot (see what I mean about scrummage?) in which Vera Farmiga acts the hell out of a nothing role. The truth is that Infernal Affairs was just as patchy and nearly as wasteful of its terrific genre conceit. Instead of cat-and-mouse intrigue — we want these guys to have each other’s number, early on, and each to be working at full tilt to outwit and dislodge the other — both movies give us straggly threads of subplot that go nowhere, and tie things up in frankly desperate fashion with the intervention of third-tier characters whose corruption (meant, sure, to be emblematic of a wholesale, institutional rottenness) is in narrative terms a shrug and a cop-out. I can think of so many cleverer, more grabby, and more subversive ways that this plot could have been worked out: it was begging for a top-to-tail restructuring, not just a relocation to Boston, a locale neither Scorsese nor most of his cast nor screenwriter William Monahan (who was actually born there) nor even great d.p. Michael Ballhaus (if we compare, say, Tom Stern’s work on the otherwise iffy Mystic River) ever seem fully comfortable in.

What I mean by nervous is that I think The Departed risks being a self-conscious recycling of pet Scorsese tropes, one that keeps looking over its own shoulder and courting approval like some kind of ageing jester. That guitar intro to “Gimme Shelter” again, for instance? And it comes particularly unstuck in the trotting out of needlessly thuggish set-pieces that break free of all psychological credibility in their attempt to gain the blackly comic edge of Mean Streets, Goodfellas and the massively underrated Casino. Not even the hard-working DiCaprio can sell his character’s ability to go tactically apeshit in a bar here: it’s just Scorsese giving us what he thinks we want. Ditto the unrelenting and exhausting stream of homophobic abuse. Pauline Kael said Goodfellas was about “being a guy and getting high on being a guy”; The Departed is about not being a faggot and getting high on calling other guys faggots. Is this authentic Boston man-speak? I don’t care. They’re all enjoying it too much. C+

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Truly Madly Wetly

What is it with Anthony Minghella and baths? Ralph and Kristin got steamy in The English Patient. Matt stirred a finger in Jude’s tub in The Talented Mr Ripley. And Breaking and Entering, Minghella’s new London-based romantic drama, from his first original screenplay since Truly Madly Deeply (1991), has two big bath scenes late in, the double whammy of which seems to me a faintly contrived way of gearing up for some naked truths. Law (the director’s continuing muse here, as an errant architect) first sloshes about with Juliette Binoche, who plays a Bosnian immigrant seamstress living with her light-fingered son (Romi Aboulafia) somewhere around the many building sites of King’s Cross. Robin Wright Penn pines away at home, usually through glass, as Law’s not-quite-wife, who’s half Swedish. The second bath is hers, and one of those where the character sits hunched forward looking pained and beautiful and presumably getting a bit cold. Minghella clearly likes his actors to bare their souls while they’re passing the soap, but neither scene wins the prize for best tub thesping in recent movies, which rightly belongs to Emily Watson’s hands, in close-up, in The Proposition.

The truth is, no one’s bad in Breaking and Entering — certainly not Renée-Zellweger-in-Cold-Mountain-bad, or Nicole-Kidman-in-Cold-Mountain-bad, or indeed anyone-in-Cold-Mountain-bad — and even when the film’s not quite working, which is often, it has some charming grace notes, many of them belonging to Martin Freeman as Law’s bemused business partner. But it’s a picture in which cleaning ladies cite Kafka and hookers donate Land Rovers as parting proof of their innate wisdom, which is to say I simply don’t buy very much of it, and the urban-regeneration-as-romantic-metaphor idea is straight out of the Stephen Poliakoff handbook for clever screenwriters itching to go location scouting. Minghella hoists his drama into place with an impressive panoply of cranes and scaffolding, but it’s left half-finished, really. Hard hats advised. C+

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

New Guest Oeuvre: John Carpenter (see side panel)

What can I say? He's made more guilty pleasures than any other director I know, except maybe Brian De Palma. We'll do him soon. Almodovar too, once I've seen a few more of the early ones...

I'll leave you with that magnificent line from the splendid They Live (above): "I've come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum..."

God bless you John!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lunch-break serendipity

Sorry for all these scrappy posts. Just switched on the TV and caught the last act of Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown by accident. It's some while since I last saw it, but I maintain that, scene for scene, it's the best Hitchcockian thriller of the last ten years. Anyone with me on that? Anyone not seen it? I wish Mostow had stayed down and dirty rather than graduating to the big league with U-571 and T3. Hear he's remaking Frankenheimer's Seconds next, which might be interesting...

Forest fire

Whoah. Haven't seen it yet, but from the quotes here it looks like next year's Best Actor Oscar might be a virtual shoo-in for one of my favourite actors. I'm psyched!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On These Three and Dodsworth

Just watched These Three, William Wyler's first version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, in preparation for this Sunday's Supporting Actress Smackdown. I won't comment on the nominee in question — Bonita Granville, who plays the diabolical Mary Tilford — as it's nice to leave some surprises. But I will say that I like this version marginally less than the remake, and not just for its (actually rather judicious and cunning) bowdlerisation of Hellman's themes. Merle Oberon was a serious problem for me, for starters. The first performance of hers I've seen, it's a stiff piece of semaphore, full of repetitive touches like that little moue of knowing amusement she puts on whenever Mary's throwing a fit. Worse is that it exposes a significant weakness of the play, which is that Karen is too often a mere spectator in the scandal brewing up around her, and her suspicions about the veracity of Mary's story aren't signposted nearly early enough. Audrey Hepburn, invariably on another planet, lets us look past this in the 1961 movie; Oberon just seems to be acting out a much more stilted, slow-witted drama than anyone else. I liked Joel McCrea goofing off on the sidelines, and Miriam Hopkins is subtly strong in the more generous role of Martha; Alma Kruger is an imposing presence, too, as Mary's grandmother, if never quite managing the shading and self-reproach that netted Fay Bainter a nomination for the remake. But I don't think Wyler quite gets to the heart of the play here; the scandal lacks truly public weight and so do the recriminations.

Few such qualms with Dodsworth, Wyler's other 1936 release and now my third favourite film of his, after The Little Foxes (another Hellman, magnificently realised) and The Best Years of Our Lives. Initially I was a bit off-put by Ruth Chatterton, but blame the character: if the movie has a flaw, it's that Fran Dodsworth is unhelpfully slathered in face cream when she's getting to make a case for herself, and required to put her most self-serving, ill-considered airs on at the exact point when contrition might save her. Still, Walter Huston's Sam (and the film) give her plenty of chances. Maria Ouspenskaya is up for discussion on Sunday for her one-scene appearance as an obstructive baroness, but, leaving her aside, you can expect me to be heartily lamenting the absence of Mary Astor from the same race. As Dodsworth's widowed ladyfriend Edith Cortwright, she comes in at all the right moments and achieves the perfect balance of hope, sadness and fragile dignity to channel this splendid picture where you want it to go. She's quite wonderful.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Durex-free future

Here's mainlymovies' first long(ish) review in a while. Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men is equal parts brave and frustrating, I think. It feels like the first part of a series we'll never get — the backdrop's remarkably detailed, the production design Oscar-worthy, but we barely feel we've got to know any of the main characters before it's over. I heard yesterday that the Universal exec who greenlit it has been given the boot. It's unfashionably grim stuff, for sure, but flashily so — and there's the rub.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

How is the weather?

You know this lyric in The Turtles' 'Happy Together'?

"No matter how they toss the dice, it had to be /
The only one for me is you, and you for me /
So happy together..."

Now read it again. Parse it. Or, better still, listen to it. I don't know how I'd managed to miss this before, since I pretty often call this my favourite song of all time, but it's a hidden admission of unrequited love, right? "The only one for me is you, and you for me". Ouch. What about her? Does she get a say? I don't think so. The whole song's fantasising about the unattainable, surely. But what I love most is how — with the easy rhyme there, which lulls you time and again into missing the actual meaning — it seems to convince itself every time you hear it, and how that relentless march-beat escorts song and listener up, up, and over the moon.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Will Tim ever get his blogging groove back?

He's not sure. But Taye might help. Come on Taye, whisk me off to Jamaica or what have you.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mid-year stock-taking

Mainlymovies is well aware that he's been a rubbish blogger of late, what with back-to-back holidays and books to finish and other demands on his time. So to kickstart this whole thing back into something approaching life, here's a recap of what's been particularly good (and awful) over the past six months or so. List time!

The Movies of 2006 (so far)

Black Sun (d. Gary Tarn) A
Requiem (d. Hans-Christian Schmid) A—
MirrorMask (d. Dave McKean) A—
A Scanner Darkly (d. Richard Linklater) A—
United 93 (d. Paul Greengrass) A—
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (d. Tommy Lee Jones) A—
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (d. Jeff Feuerzeig) A—
Monster House (d. Gil Kenan) B+
Strayed (d. André Téchiné) B+
Forty Shades of Blue (d. Ira Sachs) B+

Best Director

Paul Greengrass (United 93)
Tommy Lee Jones (Three Burials...)
Dave McKean (MirrorMask)
Gary Tarn (Black Sun)
André Téchiné (Strayed)

Best Actress

Emmanuelle Béart (Strayed)
Sandra Bullock (The Lake House)
Sandra Hüller (Requiem)
Stephanie Leonidas (MirrorMask)
Pauline Malefane (U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha)

Best Actor (struggling a bit here...)

Nicolas Cage (The Weather Man)
Tommy Lee Jones (Three Burials...)
Edward Norton (Down in the Valley)
Guy Pearce (The Proposition)
Melvil Poupaud (Le temps qui reste)

Best Supporting Actress

Nichola Burley (Love + Hate)
Charlotte Rampling (Lemming)
Meryl Streep (A Prairie Home Companion)
Emily Watson (The Proposition)
Kate Winslet (Romance and Cigarettes)

Best Supporting Actor

Mos Def (16 Blocks)
Robert Downey, Jr (A Scanner Darkly)
Woody Harrelson (A Prairie Home Companion)
David Morse (Down in the Valley)
Barry Pepper (Three Burials...)

Original Screenplay

Guillermo Arriaga (Three Burials...)
Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean (MirrorMask)
Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, Pamela Pettler (Monster House)
Bernd Lange (Requiem)
Dan Wilde (Alpha Male)

Adapted Screenplay

David Auburn (The Lake House)
Paul Greengrass (United 93)
Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly)
Hugues de Montalembert (Black Sun)
Gilles Taurand, André Téchiné (Strayed)

Original Score

tomandandy (The Hills Have Eyes)
Nathan Johnson (Brick)
Nick Cave, Warren Ellis (The Proposition)
John Ottman (Superman Returns)
John Powell (United 93)


William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell (Miami Vice)
Douglas, Pearson, Rouse (United 93)
Rian Johnson (Brick)
Roberto Silvi (Three Burials...)
Dan Zimmerman (The Omen)


Black Sun
Miami Vice
Monster House
United 93


Dion Beebe (Miami Vice)
Bogumil Godfrejów (Requiem)
Alar Kivilo (The Lake House)
Chris Menges (Three Burials...)
Gary Tarn (Black Sun)

Production Design

Forty Shades of Blue
A Prairie Home Companion

Costume Design

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
A Prairie Home Companion
The Proposition
Three Burials...

Documentary Feature

Black Sun
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Who Killed the Electric Car?

Animated Feature

Curious George
Monster House
A Scanner Darkly

Top ten reissues:

The General (Buster Keaton, 1927) A
King Lear (Grigori Kozintsev, 1969) A
The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948) A
I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964) A
The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) A
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) A
The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) A—
Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1964) B+
L’armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) B+
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990) B+

Worst ten movies so far this year:

The Da Vinci Code D—
The Thief Lord D—
Underworld: Evolution D—
Hostel D—
Silent Hill D—
Ultraviolet D—
Quo Vadis, Baby? F
Shopgirl F
Lady in the Water F
Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ F

And the so-bad-it’s-completely-unmissable award:

Thursday, August 10, 2006

New Guest Oeuvre: Michael Mann (see right panel)

Let's get back into the swing of this...

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Best Supporting Actress 1961

Our friend StinkyLulu has some very bad news over at his blog. Get there and give him your support. But the man is one of those tireless, unstoppable bloggers I'm in slight awe of, and I'm delighted to say that his ongoing supporting actress project isn't taking a breather even on this saddest of Sundays. I've been remiss this month in not managing to see all five of the nominated performances from 1961 — blame the unavailability of Summer and Smoke either on DVD or VHS in this country, and me being too slow off the mark to track it down elsewhere. (Thanks for the offer, though, Nick!) As a result, Una Merkel's nominated performance will have to pass without comment here (let's just say fellow supporting actress smackdowners weren't over-impressed.) Still, it was a quality year otherwise: the veteran character actress Fay Bainter, in William Wyler's second stab at adapting The Children's Hour, is rivetingly over-receptive to the vicious gossip cooked up by her granddaughter; Judy Garland acquits herself really pretty well in Stanley Kramer's all-star tribute to Nazi shame, Judgment at Nuremberg (while hardly putting brilliant Best Actor-winner Maximillian Schell in the shade); Lotte Lenya is poisonously watchable pimping out gigolos to ageing American tourists in the Tennessee Williams-derived The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone; and Rita Moreno — though this should be news to no one — is quite the best thing in West Side Story. Head over to stinky's and see what the others thought; thanks Nat, again, for the banner and the clipreel.

On a side note, more, soon, if I ever get round to a long review, on why even Kate Hudson's bearable in Iain Softley's rather overlooked Louisiana spook story The Skeleton Key, why the same movie has the best use of Gena Rowlands in donkey's years, and how it stands out in the dubious oeuvre of twist-fond screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Reindeer Games, The Ring) for being tightly ingenious, satisfyingly grim, and surprisingly witty on a second viewing. Well worth a rental folks.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No, it's an actual post on mainlymovies! I'm not all that super or anything (still, thanks for asking) but I have returned, from a long self-imposed sabbatical of holidaying and book finishing. And I intend to blog again, lots. Where are we? Supey was kind of a mixed bag, yes? Pirates a non-event, if not quite a complete waste of time. But riddle me this: how damn strange is Miami Vice? We may need to talk about this one. A great deal of it's just awful, and then... well, you should probably all see it first. Drop by and say hello everyone!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Mainlymovies will return soon

He's in Cyprus, not watching movies. Getting sunburn. In the meantime, go to Stinky Lulu's for some supporting actress fun...

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Best of The Best

I suppose I could just pick up David Thomson, but my favourite way to get an instantly accessible overview of a director's career tends to be courtesy of all those people — many of them apparently half-mad, but bless — who cast their votes on the Internet Movie Database. Clicking "sort by ratings" — which gives you a ranked list of any director/actor/craftsperson's complete output according to each film's average mark out of ten — is admittedly a fairly tragic activity, but then so is treating the ticking off of movies as a life goal (guilty) and collecting football cards (not guilty) and any number of other male, listy things, so leave me alone.

Anyway, it can yield some surprises. What would be your guess for everyone's favourite Bergman film? The Seventh Seal (1957)? Try Shame (1968). Worst film starring Nicole Kidman? It ain't The Human Stain (an alarmingly high average of 6.29) or Days of Thunder (5.30) or even The Stepford Wives (5.20), but something from 1987 called Watch the Shadows Dance (3.83). (Apparently the 2000 Blockbuster Entertainment Awards, which voters scathingly panned with an average of just 3.03, were even less enjoyable.)

Anyway, a director I've been checking out recently is William Wyler, whose record is quite something: 29 movies, and not a single one that dips below a pretty respectable 6.8 on the "weighted" scale. (Whatever that means.) Bottom is 1935's Edward G Robinson-starrer Barbary Coast, on which Wyler was actually replaced by Howard Hawks. Hawks, Cukor and others would go green looking at Wyler's scorecard, even if his top mark (8.2 for Ben-Hur) isn't particularly stratospheric compared with, say, the upper echelons of Hitchcock or Welles.

Looking at his career this way has confirmed my sense that Wyler was one of the most genuinely reliable directors of Hollywood's golden age, if by reliability we mean a versatile craftsmanship in, out and between genres, a habit of doing intelligent justice to his given material, and a sturdy interest in recurring themes without the instantly recognisable authorial stamp of his more canonised peers. Which is to say, if you were a Cahiers du Cinema critic, you'd probably have to call Wyler a "metteur en scene" rather than a full-blown auteur, but, unless you were a particularly dogmatic one, you'd still have to allow him his own subtle signature — refined and difficult to forge, we might say, unlike the bold, easily pastiched imprimatur of a Hitchcock or a Frank Capra.

I'd differ very slightly with IMDb's rankings of the mere five Wyler films I've seen to date: Funny Girl (1968), which I still quite like, does belong towards the bottom, because though it contains, or rather struggles to contain, an almost frighteningly assured declaration of intent from Streisand (in her debut), it's typical of the stodgy, puddingy quality of late-Sixties musicals in too many other ways. I like The Children's Hour (1961) quite a lot more than Mrs Miniver (1942), basically because of sharper drama and better acting, but both are strong; and The Heiress (1949), the director's stab at Henry James's Washington Square, stands up beautifully give or take a slightly disappointing performance from Olivia de Havilland.

It's not for want of chances, but I've still yet to see Ben-Hur. The Wyler I've just got round to, third down on the IMDb list, is his WWII homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives, a big wham-bam Oscar grab bag in 1946, but a marvellous, bitter and plangent movie all the same, enthrallingly small-scale for a film of its epic length, and distinguished by at least two remarkable performances and several pretty good ones. Nick, for one, considers Fredric March's Oscar the most worthy ever given in the Best Actor category, at least among those he's seen; I think I'd give that honour to George C Scott in Patton by a whisker, but it's very close, with Nicolas Cage and F. Murray Abraham (curiously underrated, insofar as an Oscar-winner can be) not far behind.

Still, for all March's contained virtuosity, his caginess, his staunchly untheatrical self-pity, there was another performance which, if not technically its equal perhaps, struck me as in many ways even more impressive in terms of its centrality to the film's impact. I'm talking about Harold Russell, who plays double amputee Homer Parrish. Wyler lavishes his best work on the character right from the beginning, as do cinematographer Gregg Toland and (in one of his finest scores) composer Hugo Friedhofer, all enfolding him in a spellbindingly expressive moment of wordless vulnerability as he wakes up on his flight home and gazes out fearfully and almost beseechingly at the clouds.

I was instantly attached to Homer as a character and Russell as a performer, and so impressed by his acting that I began to doubt whether he was a non-professional war veteran as I'd initially assumed. I must admit that I'd never heard of the man, a real-life amputee who was awarded the kind of Best Supporting Actor Oscar the Academy could, in this of all years, have felt justified handing him for sentimental reasons alone. But they didn't, or at least they needn't have, on that basis. He's a wonderful, genial, touching and sad presence throughout the film and really the whole point of it. The way he modulates his pain in different company — hearty with the guys, stiff and awkward with family, almost unbearably lonely and introspective on his own — tells Wyler's whole story about rehabilitation and tells it magnificently. I found the other plotlines less compelling in various ways — Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright struggle to make their will-they-won't-they courtship sufficiently surprising, and Myrna Loy is perfectly good but oddly irrelevant — but even if the film falls just short of greatness in its last hour, it remains top-flight stuff whenever March or Russell is on screen. Overall, it strikes me as almost the summary statement of Wyler's career: shrewd, humanistic and powerfully layered, an honourable and unpretentious achievement which stands its ground, neither giving in to maudlin awards-bait theatrics nor pretending to solve all its characters' problems in one go. Ben-Hur (#1) and Dodsworth (#2) will need to be pretty damn good to beat this.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) A—
The Heiress (1949) A—
The Children's Hour (1961) B+
Mrs Miniver (1942) B
Funny Girl (1968) B—

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Gaslight (1940) vs Gaslight (1944), and other musings

In between bouts of intense work on this book (a DVD guide, on which more later) it's been 1940s cinema a-go-go around here, what with all those 1942 supporting actresses to watch and a couple of key Ingrid Bergman movies I've only just got round to catching. I'm not sure Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) actually deserves to be called key, though its star acquits herself relatively well given the barmy compound of dime-store Freudianism and Surrealist chic she finds herself sifting through. Ponderously organised, slick and faddish, it's a David O. Selznick movie with occasional flashes of creepy Hitchcock wit, but it's disappointing to watch a director who only the following year, in the wonderful Notorious, would sail so blissfully through a bonkers plot making such heavy weather of the gimmickry here: the puzzle-box layering of the Gregory Peck character, in particular, strikes me as virtually unactable, though square and wooden he can manage. I'm not at all sure that the first five, remarkably prolific years Hitchcock spent in Hollywood — from Rebecca through to this, scoring him his first three Best Director nominations — aren't actually his least interesting from any period: the double threat of Selznick and WWII seemed to stifle his sense of humour, I'm not even that crazy about Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and several of the others (Suspicion, Saboteur, Lifeboat) are workmanlike and impersonal in ways that dull the edge of their promising concepts.

I had a better time during George Cukor's Gaslight, with its Suspicion-like plot, though fans of the director and the film should take note that the earlier British version, made by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and famously suppressed by Louis B Mayer, is in every way its superior. (It even makes it into my top 100.) Bergman's well-calibrated hysterics are both the movie's trump card and its problem, since it's fashioned so opulently by Cukor as a sort of vehicle for them, Charles Boyer's smooth but oddly unimpressive heavy coming nowhere near the unforgettable taunting sadism of Anton Walbrook. Cukor gets excellent work as usual from his ladies — Angela Lansbury's marvellous debut as the slutty maid fully earned her supporting nod, and Barbara Everest is good too as the housekeeper — but I think he lacks the killer genre instincts to make this material work as well as it should: a Hitchcock, for instance, would never allow Dame May Whitty to pop by and say coo-ee at the precise moment Boyer's being violently apprehended, and where Dickinson prowls around and points his camera unsettlingly at the ceiling, Cukor's just a shade too hung up giving Ingrid her sumptuous pained close-ups instead. It's by no means bad but it's glossy in a somewhat predictable way and — at a good half hour longer than Dickinson's — it rather lets the air out.

Spellbound (1945) C+
Gaslight (1940) A
Gaslight (1944) B

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Supporting Actress Smackdown: 1942

Mainlymovies has a book to finish and is nowhere close and frankly going a bit mad, but he must just pause for a minute to alert readers to the Supporting Actress Smackdown over at StinkyLulu's, in which he has had the honour of participating and which was, as predicted, a riot. The year in question is 1942, in which Teresa Wright picked up a gong for her loving war bride in Best Picture Mrs Miniver, beating Dame May Whitty in the same film, fellow home-front ingenue Susan Peters in Random Harvest, Gladys Cooper's imperious tyrant in Now, Voyager and Agnes Moorehead's unforgettable Aunt Fanny in Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons. Ok, so I've already tipped my hat there, but do tune in to find out what fellow smackdowners Stinky, Nick and Nathaniel thought of the field, and who they argue ought to have won. (Nat, whose largesse knows no bounds, has also compiled a wonderful clipreel of the contest which is well worth watching first, right through — you'll get a priceless "reaction shot" of Cooper after the decision's gone down.) More Supporting Actress Sundays, with any luck, to come — in future I'll hopefully be able to reflect on them in more detail without this deadline breathing down my neck. Thanks Stinky for bringing me on board, and thanks Nat for the time-saving banner I've stolen!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

New Guest Oeuvre: David Cronenberg (see sidebar)

I've gone a bit crazy with the As, but I wouldn't want any of those films any other way.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Flickr-ing in hell

My photo-taking hasn't been all that prolific recently, but I'm back in the groove and planning to buy a new camera next week.

Or at least I was. The context for this pic is too painful to relate in full, but involved the unavoidable loss of £200 and possibly the most miserable Saturday night in human history. I tagged it "Simulacrum of Hell" on flickr, and I'm not even joking. (Satan, in the shape of Westminster City Council, is down the end of that corridor, roasting all car owners alive and enjoying it. Yes, it does end, but it takes nearly ten minutes to walk down, and it's somewhere deep, deep under Marble Arch.)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Friday, April 28, 2006

Susie Diamond is forever

It may have come to some readers' attention that blogmate Nathaniel Rogers, over at The Film Experience, has a soft spot for Michelle Pfeiffer. He's kind of shy about this, is Nat. I really had to press him into coming out of the Pfeiffer closet this week, and, after an exhausting campaign of arm-twisting, I've managed to coerce him into organising a kind of Pfeiffer-awareness blogathon across the web today, largely as penance for what paltry coverage he's given the poor woman over the years. It's her birthday tomorrow, and she's got three new movies in production this year, and I really thought it was high time he made amends and gave her a bit of a shout out, basically.

Anyway, I jest. Nat is a Pfeiffer fan in the way that people are fans of eating, sleeping, breathing. And I like her too, very much. But there's one performance for me that towers over the Pfilmography and which I want to try and capture, just briefly. I can't imagine her ever topping her wonderful Susie Diamond in Steve Kloves's The Fabulous Baker Boys, and I don't know why she would ever need to, if the truth be told. The performance has just about everything: grace, ease, charm, wit, comic timing, magnificent allure, smoky singing, slinky moves on the piano and a totally assertive, screw-you independence. She should have won an Oscar for it. (Sorry, Jessica Tandy.)

Her breathy audition number, "More Than You Know", may be my favourite scene of an actor just standing there and singing in any film, but the architecture of that whole sequence is a perfect and incredibly generous showcase for her talents: the way she comes in, chewing gum and kind of cringing at the décor, after the Bridges brothers have just had that run of ear-splitting wannabe divas trying to belt out the showtunes. Pfeiffer's voice just melts out of her and holds you rapt. I love the close-up on Beau steepling his fingers and almost in tears. And then it's over, and she sort of steps out of the moment with a little, "Yeah, well...", and you settle in for the rest of a gloriously enjoyable and sexy movie. Others might single out "Makin' Whoopee", or the montage of the trio clambering up the hierarchy of Seattle nightspots, or the great cat-and-mouse seduction games with Jeff in the hotel suite, but it's that audition piece which pins me to my seat, every time. Can we request an encore, is what I want to know. Where's Susie Diamond now, after all?

Is she happy?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sunday, April 23, 2006

New Guest Oeuvre: Stanley Kubrick (see sidebar)

Nothing below a B—, two A+s. Nearly as good as it gets, I think.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Gospel According to St Matthew

My word. Forgive the blaspheming, but it really is a f**king masterpiece. Magnolia had better prepare to drop off the old top 100...