Charade

Cary Grant in Charade

 

 

 

It’s the early Sixties, and the high artifice of the Hollywood studio system is suddenly being challenged by the supposedly more believable movie-making styles of a younger, hipper generation, among them the French Nouvelle Vague. Does Stanley Donen, an arch exponent of pure Hollywood artifice (he directed Singin’ in the Rain, for proof), take this sort of thing lying down? He does not. Instead he heads right into the heart of enemy territory, Paris, and makes a romantic suspense film that is stylistically and thematically all about artifice. The plot is, or appears to be, about the hunt for stolen money. Audrey Hepburn may or may not be a doe-eyed grieving widow. Cary Grant, who she turns to for help, may be precisely the wrong man to save her – what sort of guy has four-plus identities? As for the other guys (among them Walter Matthau and James Coburn, his first movie role after half a career already in TV), all of whom seem to want Hepburn dead, we’re never quite sure what their motivation is.

Never mind Jean Luc Godard’s dictum – “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” – with Charade you get a masterpiece of tight control, plus girl, plus gun. Every hair on Cary Grant’s head is iconic Hollywood make-believe, Hepburn’s clothes are by Givenchy, the colour is by Technicolor and the French bit-parts are try-outs for Inspector Clouseau. And as for Peter Stone’s script, it’s an arch invitation to watch the film with one eyebrow raised. An invitation entirely worth accepting.

 

Charade – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Holy Smoke

Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel in Holy Smoke

 

 

A maker of thoughtful films, some hugely successful (The Piano), some not (In the Cut), Jane Campion here takes a small film – about a cultbuster (Harvey Keitel) and his intensely focused efforts to deprogram a naive Oz girl (Winslet) who’s been got at in India – and produces a sly, dry comedy of trans-Pacific manners. Being set in Australia really helps it, those highly personal, dialogue-heavy interchanges between the two main players being balanced against huge backdrops (does it come any bigger than the Outback?). Keitel is a presence it’s hard to miss too, of course, but he’s offset by deliberately ripe caricatures by some of Oz’s finest, the meat in the sandwich being the brooding, voluptuous presence of Kate Winslet, who around this time seemed to take her clothes off in every film she was in. Can Harvey resist her? Could anybody?

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Holy Smoke – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare in Love

Gwyneth Paltrow in drag in Shakespeare in Love

 

 

Judi Dench won an Oscar for an eight-minute on-screen performance, which in her acceptance speech even she admitted was slightly pushing it, but her Elizabeth R was the icing on a very lavish cake that reminded a lot of people that there were other ways to do romantic comedy than the prevailing models – ie Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan doing it the adult Nora Ephron way or Freddie Prinze Jr/Julia Stiles doing the high school equivalent. On second viewing the richness is even more apparent, yet what’s also clear is that the romantic element is handled with a featherlight touch, as “blocked” Bill Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) gets all Romeo and Juliet with a heavily disguised Gwyneth Paltrow (then on her big run of success which included Emma, Sliding Doors and The Talented Mr Ripley). So you can either watch this as a charming if fairly bimbo-brained love story, or engage the mind and drink in the allusions and deliberate anachronisms dropped in by adapter Tom Stoppard. There’s also the fact of playful casting conceits (Ben Affleck pops up), counterpointing what is for the most part a heavy-hitting cast of British stage regulars. Worth every one of its seven Oscars.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Shakespeare in Love – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Final Destination

Kristen Cloke, Devon Sawa and Kerr Smith in Final Destination

 

 

Remember The House of Wax or The Abominable Dr Phibes and the highly elaborate ways Vincent Price would off his victims? Films in the decades that followed had budgets running into squillions, yet the victims always seemed to die the same way: sharp knife, sharp billhook, sharp what-have-you. How dull. Then, for people desiring more elaborate, designer-label death, Final Destination turned up right on time. In terms of plot all you need to know is that it’s about a gang of hot guys and gals who “cheat death” when they get off a plane just before it explodes. But what if that plane had their number on it? Our clean-limbed posse of grave dodgers are very exercised by this idea, and they spend quite a time, well a few minutes, having no-brainer discussions about free will and determinism – is there such a thing as “fate” etc etc. None of this matters. Because when the Grim Reaper realises he’s missed out on some prime American teenage cuts, he doesn’t start sharpening his scythe. Oh no. He calls in the SFX guys for some of the most ingeniously, tortuously contrived and preposterous deaths on screen since Vincent Price hung up his hat. Final Destination is a genre classic.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Final Destination – at Amazon

 

 

 

Onegin

Liv Tylerin Onegin

 

 

The world has grown wary of the costume drama since the heyday of Room with a View. To put bums of seats these days Stan Lee has to be involved at some level. Put a girl in a crinoline and a universal “meh” goes up. Even back in 1999 audiences weren’t flocking so readily. Which is a great pity because Onegin is an opulent delight. Directed by Martha Fiennes and featuring swathes of Fiennes siblings and in-laws in one capacity or another, it is worth a look because of its beautiful cinematography alone, and its obsessive attention to period detail. Most commendable of all, though, is its plot, based on a Pushkin poem, adapted intelligently by Peter Ettedgui and Michael Ignatieff, which is pursued right through to its logical, pitiless conclusion. There’s another Fiennes in the lead, Ralph, playing Onegin, a bored man about St Petersburg who inherits, moves to the country and starts playing boy-meets-girl with Tatyana (Liv Tyler). The couple never seem in danger of offering a credible threat to the permafrost but this barely matters, because the really big and worthwhile feature of this film is its exquisite languid pace. Never slow, incredibly magisterial, very rewarding. You simply won’t want it to stop.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Onegin – at Amazon

 

 

 

Meet The Parents

Poor Photoshop skills add a little extra to the lie-detector scene from Meet the Parents

 

 

The notion of “upstaging” someone comes from the theatre. If you as an actor walk upstage, away from the auditorium, you force the person you’re addressing to turn their back on the audience. The audience can’t see the actor’s face, it can’t hear him/her that well either. It drives actors crazy. It’s a harder thing to nail down on film, but it’s something Robert De Niro is great at, especially when a comedian is involved. In Meet the Parents the funnyman in question is Ben Stiller, playing the poor sap back to “meet the parents” of his intended (Teri Polo). De Niro plays Jack Byrnes, the mutha of a father, subjecting Stiller’s character, Greg, to the sort of weekend that would have you waking up sweating for the rest of your life (“I have nipples, Greg, do you think you could milk me?”). De Niro the actor, meanwhile, is putting Stiller through something similar, the same sly wringer he used on Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy, and Billy Crystal in Analyze This. It’s become a standard line against De Niro that his later work relies too heavily on mannerism – he’s acting rather than reacting. But watching him raise his game is always fascinating (Jennifer Lawrence forced him into doing it in Silver Linings Playbook). So sit back, enjoy the humour, but most of all watch the tussle as De Niro deploys every tic, gurn and volcanic pause in the book, utterly refusing to be outdone in a comedy by some wiseguy who tells jokes for a living.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Meet the Parents – at Amazon

 

 

 

1 April 2013-04-01

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook

 Out in the UK this week

 

Silver Linings Playbook (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Almost entirely brilliant from first breath to last gasp, David O Russell’s beautifully made, perfectly acted adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel follows bipolar Bradley Cooper and his faltering relationship with fellow psychiatric case Jennifer Lawrence. If you’ve ever doubted Lawrence’s epic ability, watch this. In fact she’s so good – essentially mainlining Juliette Lewis – that she forces a good performance out of Robert De Niro, who is just one nugget of brilliance in a cast including Jacki Weaver (if you haven’t seen her in Animal Kingdom you have missed out) and Chris Tucker (entirely forgiven for those Rush Hour films with Jackie Chan). Intelligent, emotional, gripping – that’s enough, isn’t it?

Silver Linings Playbook – at Amazon

 

 

The Heist aka Maiden Heist (Signature, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

It has taken four years for this film to creak out onto DVD. It is, as the title (originally The Maiden Heist) suggests, a caper movie, and stars Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman and William H Macy as security guards in an art gallery who decide to heist the works they have fallen in love with, rather than see them shipped off to Norway, to be replaced by conceptual works featuring the artist’s penis, if I remember rightly. As a heist movie it’s competent, as a comedy (which is what it foolishly sets out to be), it’s less so. At one point William H Macy does comedy running about – always a sign of desperation – and Macy also does a fair few nude scenes. So for some people, their ship has probably just docked. It’s not awful – Walken, Freeman and Macy all know what they’re doing, they’re always worth watching. Er…

The Heist aka Maiden Heist – at Amazon

 

 

10 Years (High Fliers, cert 12, DVD)

Aiming to be The Big Chill for the N’Sync generation, this high school reunion drama stars Channing Tatum, Justin Long, Rosario Dawson and Kate Mara, all of whom sit snugly in a universally tight ensemble who catch that odd note of regret and exuberance that seems unique to reunions. Yes, there is the initial suggestion that this is a film done on the lam – Tatum, for instance, has the paunchy look of a Hollywood star who put his face back in the trough once shooting on The Eagle was over. But it’s a much more accomplished film than that, and skilfully weaves many isolated stories into a satisfying whole.

 10 Years – at Amazon

 

 

The Road: A Story of Life and Death (Verve, cert E, DVD)

Marc Isaacs is an amazing documentary maker and The Road – focusing on the A5 as it runs out through Kilburn in North London – is an amazing piece of work. A snapshot of London, it also chronicles a process of renewal, with Isaacs capturing the moment when one generation of immigrants (among them a Jewish refugee from Hitler and an Irish man who spent a lifetime on the roads and railways) yields to another. If this sounds a little arid, Isaacs makes it anything but with his close access and intimate questioning getting the sort of answers from his interviewees that make the eyes widen.

 The Road – A Story of Life and Death – at Amazon

 

 

C’était un Rendezvous (Spirit Level, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

In 1974, having just finished a film with Catherine Deneuve, under budget and with a single can of unexposed film left, nouvelle vague auteur Claude Lelouch decided to strap a camera onto the front of a car and send it haring through the streets of Paris at dawn. The stunt got Lelouch arrested but C’était un Rendezvous is the result of it, a hair-raising single-shot dash whose soundtrack comprises an engine urgently changing up and down the gears and tyres squealing through the corners. Watch it with headphones on, Richard Symons of Spirit Level Films told me. I did. And as the car went through the corners, I found myself leaning left and right into the bends and hitting the imaginary pedals. It lasts only nine minutes, but it is nine minutes of visceral excitement.

C’était un Rendezvous – at Amazon

 

Everyday (Soda, cert 15, DVD)

Michael Winterbottom’s drama stars John Simm as a man in prison and Shirley Henderson as the wife trying to keep the family together between prison visits. It was shot over five years, so we see their children grow up, and delivers two familiar messages – that criminality passes down through families, and that it’s the family who suffer when someone is inside. Slight but beautifully acted (special mention for the kids).

Everyday – at Amazon

 

Baise-Moi (Arrow, cert 18, DVD)

If Thelma and Louise had been written by Quentin Tarantino and was populated entirely by porn stars, it would have something of the lurid grunge factor of Baise-Moi, now released uncut with the offending 10 seconds of material reinstated in the brutal rape scene near the beginning. It stars Raffaella Anderson and Karen Bach as a pair of good looking girls on a revenge spree who seem particularly good at fellatio and killing men. Note how when a man turns up in Baise-Moi, within minutes he’ll either have his cock out or his head blown off. Or both. The reason why this notorious item isn’t considered to be hard core pornography is because a) there is a story of sorts and b) it’s French.

 Baise-Moi – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

Cream: Farewell Concert

Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton of Cream

 

 

You don’t see films about popular music stars of the 21st century on the big screen too often. Recently Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have managed it, and a few years back there was Dig! – about the rivalry between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols – which almost qualifies. But the back end of the 1960s saw the beginning of a run of them, from 1969’s Monterey Pop film, then on to the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and Woodstock in 1970, before everyone – Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin – got in on the act. Director Tony Palmer got in early and used his record of rock supergroup Cream’s last concert, originally conceived as a programme in the BBC’s arts strand Omnibus, to convince the world, in a slightly desperate and unnecessary manner, of the relevance of rock musicians (some of them were classically trained, you know).

Then rock was still new and exciting and frightened people. Now, with rock in the phase where it creatively recycles itself, as jazz does, it is a good time to look back on the moment when blues and psychedelia met and gave birth to the baby we’re still holding today. Then, stylish bassist Jack Bruce and crazed drummer Ginger Baker were every bit as well known as Eric Clapton. Now they’re footnotes and only Eric is remembered (though “White Room”, a Jack Bruce song, will survive long after the band members are all dust.) Consisting of the guys gigging at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1968, intercut with interviews backstage, it’s a direct link to the era when rock gigs were recorded with scant regard for sound quality, though the 2005 remaster does clean things up a lot and adds a few more songs. “Sunshine of Your Love” kicks things off, before the band run through a greatest hits set list including “Politician”, “I’m So Glad” and “Toad”, Baker’s steamtrain of a drum solo. There are only six songs in the original film (ten on the remaster) and from the way the band interact musically – they’re all at full stretch almost throughout, improvising like crazy – you’d never guess that Bruce and Baker in particular really didn’t get on. Connecting the whole thing together is a totally square voiceover by Patrick Allen (who refers to the band as “The Cream” throughout). And as for Palmer’s freak-out psychedelic camerawork – like wow, man.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Cream: Farewell Concert – at Amazon

 

 

 

Almost Famous

Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous

 

 

Almost Famous follows teenage Rolling Stone wannabe William Miller (Patrick Fugit) on his trek across America as he tries to get an interview with Stillwater, a band on the verge of making it. Abba: The Movie has the same plot, but it misses out on the groupies, including “band aid” Penny Lane (the perfect Kate Hudson), the drugs (when going out to dinner was a knife, fork and stomach-pump affair), and the passive-aggressive one-upmanship of cool (“So I boned your lady. You don’t own her, maaaan” etc). Given these elements, Almost Famous could easily have been Spinal Tap, but for director Cameron Crowe’s dribbly-nosed affection for the era and its music – Yes, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin – and it comes as no surprise to learn that Crowe himself was once a teenage Rolling Stone wannabe who trekked across America doing things 15 year olds probably aren’t mean to do.

Excellence abounds in this film – it’s probably Crowe’s best film, is certainly Hudson’s, marked a highwater mark for Crudup. And Frances McDormand gets one of those scenes – where as the concerned mother of the wandering scribe she delivers a down-the-wires homily/plea/threat – that regularly comes up on “best phone scenes” lists. They do exist. For those who were there, the evocation of the period is total, bringing onto the screen the age when the black velvet jacket, patchouli oil and Wrangler jeans were de rigueur, and when rock’n’roll bands lived like feudal lords, beneath the radar of tabloid journalists. And for those who weren’t it’s a quiet reminder that U2 are not the best rock’n’roll band in the world.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Almost Famous – at Amazon

 

 

Hold Back The Night

Christine Tremarco and Stuart Sinclair Blyth

 

 

One of the occasional forays behind the camera of Phil Davis, the hugely gifted actor whose face pops up in everything from a Dickens adaptation to a geezer gangster flick.

Which is particularly of interest in this film because it’s neither of those. In fact it’s a genre Brits have a fairly low success rate in – the road movie. Upping the ante even further it’s a  feelgood road movie. And heaping the improbable on the unusual, it’s set in a Scotland that’s actually sunny.

It stars the enormously talented Christine Tremarco, as a teenager on the run from her abusive dad. Also on the hoof is Stuart Sinclair Blyth as her tree-hugging be-dreadlocked boyfriend, and Sheila Hancock turns up as the toffee-nosed terminally ill woman they run into.

Hancock is another standout in this unusual drama with a heart warm and genuine and a mouth occasionally foul. The New Age stuff does date it a bit but Davis has a straightforward way of directing and does with his actors what actor/directors often do – he lets them get on with what they’re good at.

In doing so the performers and Davis wring extra psychological insight out of Steve Chambers’ screenplay. Lovely stuff.

 

 

Hold Back the Night – watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013