Archive for July, 2012

Magic Mike *** (out of five)

Steven Soderbergh is an experimental filmmaker. Not that he makes video installations with trippy visuals and no narrative; rather, he experiments with what sort of stories cinema can be used to tell. The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire, The Informant!, Che, The Good German, Bubble, Full Frontal, Solaris, Schizopolis, Kafka and his breakthrough debut feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape are all intensely personal visions that are far from the films that naturally occur within Hollywood studios, or are written by people who read books on screenwriting. They are risky ventures with intriguing, uncommon and sometimes just plain strange narratives. Each feels as though they have been made so that he could answer the question of whether they should be made. “Would a movie about a prostitute who provides a ‘girlfriend experience’ be enjoyable? Well, let’s shoot it and find out!”

Magic Mike, although seemingly a commercial piece, is definitely in this section of his extremely prodigious output. Common wisdom has it that, while working with star Channing Tatum on Haywire, Soderbergh found out that Tatum’s past included being a male stripper. Soderbergh thought, “Perhaps there’s a story in that?” So… he made it.

Interestingly, Tatum does not play the Tatum role. That goes to Alex Pettyfer, as 19 year old college dropout Adam, who drifts to Tampa, Florida, simply because his sister (Cody Horn) lives there and he can crash on her couch. Trying to pick up work on a building site, he meets Mike (Tatum), a thirty-year-old self-proscribed entrepreneur who introduces him to the lucrative world of Xquisite, a male strip club run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). One of the regular strippers in the team drinks too much and can’t perform his signature number; Adam goes out onto the stage and strips – and a star is born.

What works in the movie are its cast, its locale, and, of course, its unique milieu. We’re shown the behind-the-scenes workings of a male strip club in much the same way we become privy to the workings of professional wrestling in The Wrestler, although it’s obviously much, much more fun being a stripper. We’re thoroughly immersed in the “culture” of Tampa – which involves every night being a party night, endless young tourists looking to get blasted, sun, sand, surf, (loads of) booze and (somewhat less) drugs. It’s a world that’s made for the young, and Mike’s dilemma is that, at 30, he may be getting a little old for it.

McConaughey’s Dallas will never get too old for it. He’s a party-boy lifer, who runs his club like a coach might run a football team, except way more leniently (tellingly, that stripper who got too drunk to perform is never remotely chastised for it). He’s still got the body of a stripper (which is to say, a perfect body made up of ripped muscles and abs, abs, abs) and hosts every evening’s performance, though he doesn’t strip anymore himself. Essentially likable, he’s got a lot of negative qualities, and there’s a chilly danger running beneath the surface that makes him almost always uncomfortable to watch. It’s a really fantastic performance, one that McConaughey seems to have been born to play, and I am placing early money on him getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor come the new year.

Tatum is extremely unlikely to get a nomination for Best Actor, but that’s only because it’s not an “Oscar” type of role (McConaughey’s is, because Dallas is showy, a little villainous, and much more of an extreme character than Tatum’s Mike). Tatum is extremely good as Mike, goofy, fun-loving, highly sexual, funny, quite smart and more than a little vain. He’s amazingly natural and free on screen, a genuinely likable, very American movie star with much more range than he’s probably been given credit for until now (or at least until 21 Jump Street, which is where he showed off his very strong comedic chops). Pettyfer is equally good as Adam, and the rest of the strippers are very believable. The only uneasy performance is Horn’s, as Brooke, Adam’s sister and Mike’s potential love interest, whose easy-going acting style is fine for this sort of naturalistic film but contains no zing, no spice. Essentially, it’s hard to see what Mike sees in her.

The problem is in the stakes. Theses are amazingly attractive people having an unbelievably good time in a mini-paradise. Much of the movie is spent watching them enjoying themselves immensely, getting drunk, having great sex with an endless income of gorgeous young strangers who then do the polite thing of getting on planes and leaving them free to hook up with the next night’s revelers. In that sense, it feels a little like the TV show Entourage, which ultimately made you want to throttle its ensemble cast of characters for having such a god-darned perfect life.

Soderbergh knows that drama needs conflict, but the conflict here is its false note. It feels in there because a movie needs it, when, really, there’s not much to be conflicted about for anyone in this movie. Mike’s goal is modest: he’d like to make some custom furniture. It’s hardly wanting to rob the world’s biggest casino, win a class action lawsuit against a huge multi-national corporation, or stop the flow of drugs form Mexico into the US, or lead Cuba’s revolution. The stakes are extremely skimpy here, and I think everyone knows it. So, to compensate, there’s an awful lot of stripping – which is what some people will go to see. A lot already have. The film, budgeted at only seven million dollars, has already made over one hundred million in the US alone. So if indeed Soderbergh asked himself, “Does the world want a movie about male stripping?”, he’s got his answer.

Mike considers quitting stripping during the course of the movie. Soderbergh has said repeatedly that he wants to quit making movies. The obvious question pertains to both: Why would you? Soderbergh has two more films coming up, so perhaps making Magic Mike answered more than just one question for him. I hope so. Even his lesser experiments are far more interesting than ninety percent of Hollywood product, and I want him to go on strutting his stuff for us forever.

The King is Dead! ***1/2

There’s a long, great history of films (and books, television programs, and all many of mediums) depicting loving husband-and-wife teams in perilous situations. Unlike romantic comedies (since the leads are already romantically entwined when the movie begins), these are essentially genre films, where the role of protagonist is split, or rather, united into a married couple. My favourites are the Thin Man movies, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as the most loving (and fun-loving) crime-fighters ever, but there are many examples: Fun With Dick and Jane (both versions are good), Mr. and Mrs. Smith, True Lies, True Romance and Pacific Heights spring to mind.

South Australia’s great, idiosyncratic, fiercely independent and always original filmmaker Rolf de Heer’s fifteenth feature film, The King is Dead! (the exclamation mark is deliberate, like everything de Heer puts his hand to) features Bojana Novakovic and Dan Wyllie as Therese and Max, two Adelaide yuppies (I know, that word sounds so dated, but that’s precisely what they are, as well as “dinks”) who purchase a lovely federation home on a tree-lined street at the beginning of the film. They quickly become aware of their neighbours: on one side, the perfect young family of three, and on the other, a dim-witted, uncouth, drug-and-booze-addled headcase known as King (Gary Waddell, excellent) whose extremely loud, uncouth, rancid, ratty, drug-dealing mates dominate his house night and day, effectively terrifying the neighbourhood. Therese and Max both pride themselves on being tolerant and patient, but the hell of next door only increases, and something’s got to happen. This is a film, after all.

You think you know where this is all headed, and you may be partially right, but the journey is rich, diverting, and much more surprising than you might guess. De Heer, shooting in his own Adelaide home and the houses on either side of him (!), has more than just “Lord of the Flies in Suburbia” in mind. Unlike a lot of American films, where a family under threat fights violence with extreme violence for gruesome thrills (there are so many of them, such as Fear and last year’s Nicholas Cage / Nicole Kidman turkey Trespass), the married couple here, very amusingly (the film’s tone is essentially one of very black comedy) have to work through – to fight through – their own self-imposed senses of decency, ethics and simple modern manners to arrive at any sort of action to remedy their situation. Eating healthy home-cooked dinners and never without a bottle of red wine, this is the intellectual, liberal, do-good, perfect couple struggling to find their inner beast – and failing miserably.

Novakovic (who is proving to be not just a very good but a greatactress, one of subtlety and depth) and Wyllie are terrific together, completely believable as this particular couple, full of small, intimate gestures that are so subtle as to inform the viewer’s understanding of them, their love and their world, in a subconscious manner. Their interplay is warm and it warms us too, even as the tale gets increasingly cold. Not that they are saints: de Heer’s script certainly holds them (and, assumedly, us, as I suspect the audience here will only relate to this side of the fence) up to the mirror. Likewise, the villains of the piece have many sides: everyone is a human being. De Heer isn’t interested in satisfying our primal urges; as always, he wants to tell a multi-faceted, thought-provoking story that is much more intriguing than it may seem on the surface.

Rolf de Heer and Gary Waddell

De Heer has to be one of the most resourceful filmmakers on the planet. He insists on working, so, rather than spend years chasing large budgets, he’s learned to thrive on small ones. Here, he shoots in his own house, with a tiny cast, and makes the whole thing look, if not like a million bucks, then at least very good indeed. His mastery with a camera (working with regular DOP Ian Jones) means that somehow, he makes what is essentially a two-house shoot look amazing, and constantly surprising, the whole time. Classically shot, he dollies, cranes, glides, and frames in intimate detail. You’d swear he had a studio set to play with, with fly-away walls and busloads of space. Nope. He and Jones are just consummately skilled. I suspect, too, that, shooting in his own house (and assumedly having written the script there), de Heer spent a lot of time just walking around, drawing inspiration from his surroundings: “Ah ha – here would be a great shot!”

The film requires a couple of leaps of faith. The obvious answer to the couple’s predicament – sell the house – isn’t considered, which is frustrating (it could have at least been discussed then explained away rather than avoided entirely); the first ten minutes or so are a little pat and ungainly, as though the film was shot in order and it took everyone a while to find their feet (this is not only entirely possible but quite likely); and there is an element introduced in the third act that seems surprisingly obvious for a filmmaker of de Heer’s originality. But on the whole, The King is Dead!, while not as brilliant as Bad Boy Bubby or Alexandra’s Project, shares with those films a unique and perverse vision of Australian suburbia. De Heer is always bold, and here he’s bold again. The Independent King is certainly not dead.

YES WE ALL LOVE HAMM, DINKLAGE AND CRANSTON. BUT…

Okay, the Emmy nominations are out, and they’re fine. Really amazingly talented people got nominated in all sorts of categories. All fair enough! But I want to put forward some acting nominations that notice those really amazing actors in some of the best shows who, almost certainly because they are (to whatever degree) unknown outside of that show, simply don’t get nominated.

Note: If you wish to comment on these concepts, please do so without “spoiling” any show’s plots.

BREAKING BAD

Look, Cranston, Gunn, Esposito and Paul all deserve their noms. Perhaps. But, really, the texture that holds Breaking Bad together for me, and the characters most interestingly defined these days, are the following:

JONATHAN BANKS for Best Supporting Actor.

As Mike Ehrmantraut, Jonathan Banks is just freaking incredible. He can do anything. He’s as cool as Clint Eastwood has ever been, he’s full of mystery, and he’s got so much damn charisma it’s ludicrous. Where has he been all our lives? Well, his 133 acting credits on IMDB are almost entirely composed of guest roles on ongoing television drama series, stretching back to The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie (who the hell would he have played on that?) and Lou Grant. Mike is my favourite character on Breaking Bad, and it’s not just because of how cool he is – it’s how Banks plays him. Banks deserves an Emmy Nomination.

 

 

 

 

DEAN NORRIS for Best Supporting Actor.

As Hank Schrader, the tempestuous, tough, and (in season four) extremely frustrated wounded DEA agent, Norris is phenomenal – it’s like he was born to play this part. Perhaps he was – he’s played an awful lot of cops. His 140 IMDB acting credits are full, like Banks’, of guest roles on US drama series, and the amount of cops (and, of course, “coaches” (!) is off the scale). Unlikely to ever be asked to “play The Dane” (Hamlet), Norris is perfect as Hank, including having to play much of Season Four sitting immobile on a bed. One thing’s for certain – Norris deserves an Emmy Nomination.

 

 

 

 

 

BOB ODENKIRK for Best Supporting Actor.

As Saul Goodman, the lawyer we all really need but certainly don’t know that we want, Odenkirk has, yard for yard, the funniest part on this (mainly) non-comedic show and makes a meal of every moment. He’s really funny, and deeply sleazy. “You better call Saul!” has become iconic, thanks to that voice. Odenkirk hit the ground running, bringing a full-flown character to the series in his very first scene in Season Two, and has never looked back. Odenkirk is brilliant – and deserves an Emmy Nomination.

 

 

 

 

 

GAME OF THRONES

Yes, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister is about the most perfect casting since Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in Deadwood. But Game of Thrones has some amazing casting genius beyond Dinklage.

CONLETH HILL for Best Supporting Actor.

As Lord Varys, the Eunuch advisor to the Small Council and “Master of Whisperers”, Hill, who is (somewhat surprisingly) only 46 and only has 27 acting credits on IMDB, is absolutely believable: a strange, purring beast who’s a little Frank Thring, a little C3PO, and more than a little Kenneth Halliwell. Lurking in the shadows but a massive part of the fabric of Game of Thrones, Hill deserves an Emmy Nomination.

 

 

 

 

CHARLES DANCE for Best Supporting Actor.

As Tywin Lannister, the no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, all-powerful über-Father of the otherwise completely nutso Lannister family, Dance, who was born with eyes that said “I could kill you right now, and would like to”, has finally found his perfect role – and medium. Unlike Jeremy Irons, who has a similar vibe but can actually attract our sympathy, Dance’s unique physiognomy has condemned him to a career of bitter villains, cuckolds, jerks and Upper-Class twits, in a career spanning many, many movies (most of them forgettable) and, of course, The Jewel in the Crown, a massively successful mini-series in which he played Guy Perron. His return to television on Game of Thrones is the best decision of his career. He is unbelievably powerful as this super-Patriarch – and deserves an Emmy Nomination.

 

 

 

 

SOPHIE TURNER for Best Supporting Actress. (Warning: Season One Conclusion Spoiler)

As Sansa Stark, Ned Stark’s stunning, red-headed elder daughter, Sophie Turner is put through the wringer: accidentally causing her father’s death, watching him slaughtered in front of her, married to a disgusting, sadistic creep who likes to beat her up, and psychologically interfered with by her deranged, perverse mother-in-law, Sansa is like a medieval version of a tragic Russian heroine. It’s a role that may have been runined in lesser hands, but five-foot nine-inch Sophie, all of sixteen years old, with no other acting credits, is pitch-perfect in every single one of her many scenes, maintaining a beautifully hidden strength in underneath vulnerability and fragility. Sophie Turner really deserves an Emmy Nomination.

 

 

 

 

 

MAD MEN

JOHN SLATTERY for Best Supporting Actor.

It’s bonkers, absolutely bonkers, that John Slattrery’s performance as Roger Sterling has never received an Emmy Nomination. By far the funniest person on the show, he also is engaging, truthful and constantly surprising. Is Sterling a drunk or just a drinker? A Casanova or just a philanderer? An honest man or a total ass? The genius of Slattery’s portrayal is that he maintains this mystery even as he maintains total control of his mercurial character. I would like to write for Sterling more than almost any other character, and there’s no doubt that Slattery deserves an Emmy Nomination.

 

 

 

 

 

VINCENT KARTHEISER for Best Supporting Actor. (Warning: Vague Series-Arc Spoiler)

 

Vincent Kartheiser owns the role of Pete Campbell, the young, seemingly-naive executive who goes from hero-worshipping Don Draper to, in a sense, becoming him. His growth from nebbish to power-broker is beautifully calibrated. Campbell over-thinks things (a bit of the Hamlet is in him); he’s worried by everything, but then, strangely and intriguingly, sometimes lets his instincts take over – and the next thing you know he’s landed a huge client or bedded a neighbour. It’s a complex, unshowy role, and Kartheiser has never mis-played it. Indeed, of all the actors on MAD MEN, Kartheiser is, to me, the one who most seems to actually have stepped out of the 1960s – I simply can’t imagine Kartheiser as a real person, as an actor – I can only imagine him as Pete Campbell, so completely does he inhabit that character. For these reasons, Vincent Kartheiser deserves an Emmy Nomination!

Your comments are welcome: who else deserves an Emmy Nomination?

The Dark Knight Satisfies

Posted: July 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

The Dark Knight Rises **** (out of five)

Viewed on IMAX

Interestingly, The Dark Knight Rises circles around an unbelievably advanced, powerful and efficient new energy source that is stolen by a master villain and turned into a nuclear bomb. A band of heroes must find and defuse the bomb before it blows up the pre-eminent, most populated city on the US East Coast, which is called Gotham City but is resolutely and plainly New York, and Manhattan, to be precise.

Sound familiar? That’s the exact same one paragraph synopsis as The Avengers, the other major superhero movie of the north American summer (we can forget The Amazing Spider-Man, which is in another, much lower, league.) It seems unlikely that the projects were not at least vaguely aware that they were telling the same essential story. No matter how “cloaked in secrecy” you keep your project, these are films employing thousands of people. “Ours deals with a stolen energy source that gets turned into a bomb.” “Really? So does ours.” Hollywood is a small town, and these movies employ many, many hundreds of people casually. There would have been crossover. That conversation had to happen.

Luckily, this rather uncanny similarity is where similarity ends. Tonally, as you would expect, The Dark Knight Rises is light years away from The Avengers, avoiding that movie’s  colourful joie de vivre to wallow in the dark. The Dark Knight Rises is serious. Loki, the British via outer-space villain in The Avengers, was trying to be a conquerer. Bane, the British via The-Worst-Prison-on-Earth villain in Knight, is a terrorist, and his target is Manhattan.

Christopher Nolan, again directing a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Johnathan (The Dark Knight, The Prestige), makes no attempt at pretence: Gotham city is Manhattan in this picture, absolutely identifiably so, and to see it at the mercy of a highly-co-ordinated terrorist attack is quite shocking. Indeed, the most shocking moment in the film shows massive explosions causing havoc around One World Trade Center (formerly known as Freedom Tower), the two-thirds completed building rising where the World Trade Center once stood. The allusion is not just obvious, it’s hugely deliberate and packs a powerful punch: Look, it could all happen again. I’ve no doubt that Nolan toyed with the idea of actually showing One World Trade Center being blown up (there’s no reason Bane would not blow it up) but I’m glad he didn’t: I think that would have gotten this superhero movie into waters too deep, and have edged into bad taste.

As is, Nolan is skirting brave ground applying Batman to what is essentially a 9/11 story, re-framed as an act of domestic terrorism, but he stays on the audience’s side by never treating the terror as sensationalistic. I think we were all meant to be kind of awed when Roland Emerich blew up the White House in Independence Day (1996) but when Bane starts blowing up Manhattan it’s not exciting, it’s sickening. There is a cold, grey, grim dread to the acts of villainy in Dark Knight Rises that follow on directly from the style of The Dark Knight: it is very in touch with that picture in all respects, and eons away from what’s going on in the rival Marvel Universe.

Bane (Tom Hardy) is a commanding presence, a huge hulk of a man – but just a man, all the same – who wears a grim metal mouthpiece that is somehow essential to him (it does get explained in the film). Bald, he bears a huge resemblance to The Humungus in The Road Warrior, and, given that Bain was created by Batman comic scribes Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench and artist Graham Nolan (no relation to the filmmakers) in 1993, while The Road Warrior and The Humungusdate back to 1982, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he was inspired by that huge, bald, metal-masked villain. If so, more power to him: pop (culture) must eat itself.

The Humungus from THE ROAD WARRIOR.

The metal mask is cool-looking, but I wish that Nolan and Hardy had contrived a way for him to not require it all the time. Bane speaks a lot, including two set-piece, public orations to the city he has sublimated, and it would have been great to see Hardy at work. As it is, to be brutally honest, Bane could have been played by a bodybuilder and voiced by a separate actor, as you never see his mouth at all, and his eyes, separated from each other by a strip on the device and with no recourse to a nose, prove less than a window to his soul. Nevertheless, it is to Nolan’s credit that he cast such a terrific actor as Hardy in such a role (The Humungus was played by Kjell Nilsson, a Swedish Olympic-class weight lifter who has three other credits). It means that Bane’s physicality is in touch with his thought processes and impulses, and the character, despite the mask, works. Hardy, no doubt in league with Nolan and sound designer Richard King, has come up with an enticing voice for Bane that is very reminiscent of Sean Connery without being a blatant (and therefore completely out-of-step humorous) imitation.

Anne Hathaway joins the party as Selina Kyle, who becomes Catwoman. As always, Hathaway is very good. Somehow she can make pretty unlikely characters extremely believable (in this case, a stunning cat burglar who also has serious hand-to-hand combat skills, can drive any crazy bat-vehicle with no practice, and has balls of titanium). She looks absolutely incredible in her catsuit, and she gets, I think, all of the film’s laugh lines, not that there are many. Actually, thinking back on it, Michael Caine, returning as Bruce Wayne’s adorable butler Alfred, gets a couple, which he works like a pro, of course, and Thomas Lennon, who has played so many “Funny Doctors” that I’ve lost count, turns up as a “Funny Doctor”, gets one laugh line, and is never seen again (nor credited on IMDB, at least as of this writing).

Christian Bale, as Bruce Wayne and his batty alter-ego, doesn’t trade in witty quips. There’s a lot going on in Bruce’s brain at the beginning of Dark Knight Rises, and it’s not funny. Thankfully, Nolan doesn’t indulge in too much psycho-drama. The Dark Knight’s Joker was the time and place for that. Here, it doesn’t take too much for Bruce, eight years out of The Suit, to revisit the Bat Cave and get it back on. What’s interesting is how little it stays on. There’s not a whole lot of The Caped Crusader in this (final) instalment of the franchise. There is a whole lot of Bruce Wayne, but The Batman himself has limited screen time, and, it has to be said, limited heroics.

Which is not to say the film has limited action. It’s full of action, because The Batman isn’t the only one throwing the punches. Nolan works on a big canvas here, utilising Gotham City’s police department and giving Bane a growing army. There are fights, chases, killings, a load of destruction, and the whole thing begins with a spectacular ariel sequence that looks amazing on the IMAX screen (I saw the film on Sydney’s main IMAX, which is the largest in the world). What there isn’t, is blood. Nolan has delivered what feels like an R-rated story but with PG-13 violence, and it works just fine.

A lot of interesting actors return, and some interesting new ones show up. There’s Ben Mendelsohn! There’s Tom Conti! The story is clearer than The Dark Knight, and for me it was more satisfying, even if it lacked that movie’s concentration of brilliant individual moments and scenes. Nolan promised an epic for the final chapter, and he’s certainly delivered that. The Batman comics, as I grew up reading and understanding them, were always very civic affairs, all about the interplay between Batman, the police force, and the actual city of Gotham itself. That ethos is absolutely the guiding force here. Using Manhattan as his massive canvas (and incorporating other cities, by the way, as occasional stand-ins: the beady-eyed can spot the scenes shot in Chicago), Nolan has crafted a massive, and massively entertaining, film, that is as bleak, grim, and filling as The Avengers was light, sprightly and fun. It is an extremely satisfying conclusion to a major franchise, which will now go down in film history as one of the greatest of trilogies.

One note: the film I saw was very dark – and I’m not talking tonally but visually – at times maddeningly so. At times I couldn’t make out what was going on. In its early scenes I could barely make out Batman’s cool new aero-vehicle and in one scene I thought Catwoman was tied up in a subway tunnel when she was actually just hanging out. I will attempt to find out whether the bulb was low or the lens was wrong at the screening I saw, but if so, that should not be happening at IMAX; if not, I’m amazed that Nolan has deliberately delivered a film as dark and muddy as this (it does brighten up about an hour in, when the action shifts more to the daytime).

NEW: I contacted IMAX about my concerns about the sheer muddy darkness of the print. Here’s the reply from the CEO of IMAX Australia, Mark Bretherton:

“Interesting response as I had an issue with a hot spot in the centre of the screen indicating the lamp was too bright. To be technical we are getting 22 ft Lamberts of light off the screen, the standard brightness for IMAX 2D and the brightest in the industry. For 3D we use polarisers in front of the lens, not specific 3D lenses, so this will not have been the issue. Ironically we have had a couple of people raise the brightness of the image due to the hot spot (which we have since corrected). I watched the same screening and noticed the hot spot but thought the light levels were good otherwise and certainly comparable with other 2D films. I was a bit surprised to read Paul Byrne’s comments in SMH, but clearly he’s not alone. So at the moment it’s too bright for some, too dark for others. Not sure I have an answer for this!  We are aiming to get 21-22 ft L off the screen, it’s what Chris Nolan would have been seeing throughout the making of the film, so all I can say is what people see is what the director wanted.”

Tickling The Ivories

Posted: July 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

Hysteria **1/2 (out of five)

Hysteria, the third film from director Tanya Wexler, is frustrating, sometimes to the point of infuriating. Based on a true story, the subject matter couldn’t be more fantastic and fun: how an accepted medical method of treating “hysteria” in women in England (and other European countries) in the late nineteenth century – by stimulating their clitorises to orgasm, often on a weekly basis – lead to one doctor’s hand-cramps, which in turn lead to his mate inventing the vibrator. It’s a tall tale that happens to be true, and, in the right hands, it could be wonderfully funny.

I’m not sure that Wexler’s were the right hands. The film is certainly directed to be funny – performances are encouraged to go over-the-top across the board, and sight gags abound – but it very rarely is funny (I laughed out loud once, which is well down on the international critics’ convention of six out-loud laughs doth a fair comedy make).

The frustration lies within this collision between the inherent wonderfulness of the material and its’ lackluster realisation. The period design is all terrific and some of the acting is very appealing (not all, tragically). But the script is often ham-fisted, hammering home points and concepts that were easily understood to begin with, and the direction wastes excellent opportunities constantly, then surprises with a sudden, delightful sequence.

Wexler’s previous two films (Finding North, 1998, and Ball in the House, 2001) were both American works, and I think she’s found making an English period movie too much of a candy store, and has gone overboard. Thus all the supplementary characters – especially those over fifty – have crazy red faces, wild muttonchops, ludicrous laughs, huge bug eyes, super-posh voices, and all manner of combinations of the above, making the film feel like it’s set in a Do-It-Yourself BBC Comedy from the 1980s. She’s also cast Hugh Dancy as the lead character of Dr. Mortimer Granville, he of the hand-sprain (who must and will eventually play Colin Firth’s younger brother) and seemingly directed him to over-enunciate, over-elaborate, over-physicalize, and generally overdo everything. It’s like the rest of the cast were given body mikes but he was told he’d have to be picked up by a boom in the corner of the room.

Molly tickles her tickler.

Luckily, he’s supported by some terrific performers, who, although they all engage in their bits of scenery chewing, seem somehow to do it with more aplomb. Jonathan Pryce, as the best manual stimulater in the business, is his usually excellent self; Felicity Jones is extremely appealing as his daughter; and Rupert Everett brings some excellent physicl comedy to his role as Edmund St. John-Smythe, the actual inventor of the vibrator. It’s a perfect role for Everett, one of the great British movie stars of all time in my opinion, and who still looks absolutely smashing.

Most wonderful – and surprising – of all, however, is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte, Pryce’s other daughter, a progressive feminist, caregiver, and general troublemaker of the most charitable kind. Gyllenhaal somehow manages to find some aspect of “Englishness” and inhabits it completely – she is so believable as a Brit that I wondered if maybe she has been all along (I didn’t really wonder this, but she is thoroughly convincing). She’s so good as to eventually balance out Dancy’s hamminess, so that by the end, this very uneven film manages to be at least somewhat sweet and moving. But ah, what might have been.

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony ***

Lesser-known British composer Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is ludicrously complicated and demanding, requiring over 600 musicians and choir singers. It is so rarely performed that Brian wrote that he was sure it was cursed. While this makes for a fun title and gives this enjoyable documentary a theme for its graphic design, it is not about the supposed “curse” at all but rather about one man – and, over time, one group’s – obsessive attempt to perform the symphony in the city of Brisbane.

And obsessive it is. The film follows producer Gary Thorpe and Maestro John Curro over seven years, as they keep attempting to mount the symphony, constantly getting shot down due to all sorts of obstacles, from funding, finding enough musicians and choristers, and securing an appropriate venue, to disdain from fellows within the Brisbane music community for the work, the project or both.

John Curro

The personalities involved are interesting (and obsessed) enough to keep the film entertaining for its 90 minute running time; if you’re a fun of Brian’s work it will obviously be a must-see; if not, it’s an interesting enough introduction to this quirky composer (and the members of the Havergal Brian Appreciation Society, who are really quirky). Extremely similar in theme, structure and tone to last year’s Mrs. Carey’s Concert, it suffers in comparison to that exquisite film, but it certainly stands alone as a swift, entertaining look at a very particular artistic quest.

Be Young And Free

Posted: July 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

You Instead ***1/2 (out of five)

Take The Defiant Ones (two people handcuffed together), Once (two musicians coming together musically and romantically) and Before Sunrise (boy and girl get to know each other overnight in an exotic locale) and you’ve got You Instead, a joyous, exuberant ode to music, youth and everything associated with music and youth, which, if marketed correctly, should have been the biggest and best loved film to come out of Scotland since Trainspotting. (Unfortunately, the movie has already bombed in the United States, the UK, Spain and Russia, although France quite liked it.)

Shot amidst the massive Scottish summer music festival T In The Park, this seventh feature film from director David Mackenzie is spunky, vital and original (despite the obvious allusions mentioned above). It’s a glass of champagne rather than a meal, slight and shallow, and only eighty minutes – but it’s a great ride that just keeps growing on you. From the opening scene – an a cappella version of the title song, sung by two bandmates, Adam and Tyko (Luke Treadaway and Mat Baynton), collectively known as “The Make”, in the back of a tiny car – the film announces itself as fun, free-spirited and very clever. During this opening sequence you immediately suspect you’re in for a “found footage” film – until all of a sudden the camera leaps out of the car into a stable, conventional shot of the car from behind. But this, too, is a ruse – for the film is far from conventional. Shot on-the-run at the actual T In The Park festival, with real bands and 85,000 real revelers providing an absolute universe of background colour, You Instead is, perhaps, the next best thing to being there (or far better than being there if you don’t like mud).

I’ve never been to one of those massive, multi-day music festivals held deep in rural areas that become temporary mini-cities in themselves, but now I feel that I have. You get a sense of how such a massive beast behaves from all angles, from the thousands of tents for the general punters through the yurts for the mid-range bands and the buses for the headliners. Aerial shots show the enormity of the thing, while a quiet shot at dawn of incalculable tons of rubbish show the environmental impact (which is tempered by a shot of rubbish trucks in action – this was produced with full co-operation of the festival itself). And if the concept of 85,000 (mostly) Scottish youngsters drinking and drugging for days straight in the mud sounds like your greatest fear, You Instead essentially portrays the punters – who are, don’t forget, mostly genuine festival attendees – as simply fun-loving rather than violent or coarse. In one memorable moment, two very drunk revelers help out a third, who is spectacularly drunk – and it’s really quite touching.


The plot itself is wafer-thin: arriving at the Festival the day before being scheduled to play, Adam finds himself in a confrontation with the lead singer of “The Dirty Pinks”, Morello (Natalia Tena, who must become a big star out of this) before suddenly being handcuffed to her by a mysterious fellow who then disappears into the crowd. As “meet cutes” go, this one may be contrived – and the outcome may be pretty darn guessable – but the fun comes along the way, with The Dirty Pinks scheduled to play that night. Adam, Morello and both of their bands have to deal with both of their impending gigs, their respective partners, 85,000 revelers, and, of course, each other.

The music is terrific, with Newton Faulkner, Kassidy, The View and even the good ol’ Proclaimers all appearing on the Festival’s stages (Faulkner also has a very funny scene). The Dirty Pinks and The Make both have to do their gigs, and both bands were created and did actually perform at the Festival – very impressively. All the performances are winning, and while it’s not really full of laughs, it’s got a lovely vibe, nothing but positive energy, and a festival full of heart. The climax is almost unbearably joyful. Feel-good movie of the year, thus far? Absolutely. And if the title track, sung twice in the film in two very different versions, doesn’t get nominated for Best Song at the Oscars next year, then the producers and marketers of You Instead won’t have done their jobs in campaigning for it: it’s as wonderful as this wonderful, bubbly, slight and silly movie.

Man’s Best Friend

Posted: July 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

Ted *** (out of five)

Seth MacFarlane, the creator, showrunner and voice of three of the male leads on Family Guy makes his feature film debut with Ted, the story of 35 year-old John (Mark Wahlberg), a rental-car company employee, who lives in a state of arrested development thanks to being lucky enough to have a talking teddy bear, with a real brain and sense of humour, as his best friend. John’s about to celebrate his four-year anniversary with his über-stunning girlfriend Lori (über-stunningly played by über-stunner Mila Kunis) and the worry that she may be wanting a wedding ring is playing on his mind. But how can he get married when he enjoys smoking weed, drinking beer and watching eighties movies with the most fun little friend a guy can have?

That’s the dramatic set-up of this occasionally very funny comedy, and all the plot you need to know. If you’re a fan of Family Guy you’ll have bought your ticket already, and you won’t be disappointed. The tone of the film and its sense of humour are very reminiscent of that show; basically, you can only say that it’s “very Seth MacFarlane” (and indeed, Ted the teddy bear, voiced by MacFarlane, sounds so much like Peter Griffin from the TV show that it’s acknowledged in the film). Like in Family Guy, MacFarlane hurls gags around without restraint, figuring that if one doesn’t work, the next one will. This inevitably means that many don’t work, and that’s the truth here; the balance, of course, is that many do, and some of them are very funny indeed.

There are a couple of sustained set-pieces that are really funny (wait for the hotel room scene) and some killer lines (almost all spoken by Ted). On the flip side, the actual plot of the movie is weirdly, detrimentally sentimental and formulaic – something Family Guy has staunchly never been. It almost feels like, despite the tremendous ongoing success of Family Guy, the studio (Universal) insisted that MacFarlane hit some extremely old-fashioned, mawkish story beats if it was to give him fifty million dollars to play with (they needn’t have been concerned: the film is already a massive international hit); these scenes are easily the film’s weakest; you can tell that sort of stuff just doesn’t interest MacFarlane.

Seth MacFarlane

What interests him is the business of funny, and a talking teddy bear (particularly one with a healthy sex drive) is pretty funny. The CGI is extremely well done, and Ted is as full a character as any of the humans on screen (and a far better actor than a couple of the supports). MacFarlane also has a massive appetite for referencing the popular culture he grew up with, and the eagle-eyed will have fun spotting as many as they can (there’s a particularly wonderful, and relatively subtle, Raiders of the Lost Ark reference). The film is set in Boston, and that city is surprisingly lovingly shot. Also surprising are the action set-pieces, which are quite spectacular; I must admit, I wasn’t expecting an exciting car chase in a talking teddy bear movie, but there you go.

Incidentally, MacFarlane’s real voice (or at least, the character voice he plays that most sounds like his own) is that of Brian, the talking dog on Family Guy (and my favourite character on that show). MacFarlane does what he does well, very well indeed. Hopefully for the sequel he won’t be required to have any mushy bits: his audience doesn’t want them anyway – we just came to see a teddy bear talk, smoke, drink, get high, and screw.