Sunday 30 May 2010

8 Musicals

No time for much commentary today, but, inspired by Encore's Musical Blog-a-thon [], a list of eight favourites.

1. Calamity Jane (1953) - Whip crack-away!

2. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
3. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) - Two Jacques Demy classics: the exuberant, flawed-yet-irresistible Rochefort, and Cherbourg, its sweeter, sadder cousin.

4. Cabaret (1972) - "After Cabaret it should be a while before perfomers once again climb hills singing or a chorus breaks into song on a hayride..." (Pauline Kael). Well, there's nothing wrong with that occasionally, but it's certainly true that Cabaret blows the cosier tendencies of the American musical apart.

5. Little Shop of Horrors (1986) - Steve Martin gets the standout sequence, but superb songs, a terrific creature, and a surprisingly soulful love story ensure that Little Shop provides pleasure throughout.

6. 8 Women (2000) - In Andrew Asibong's terms: "a bright pink candy-box of pulsating kitsch, perversion and sweet-smelling cruelty." The musical, Ozon-style, is also, of course, a cinephile's wet dream.

7. Les Chansons d'Amour (2007) - Christophe Honore brilliantly conjours the spirits of Demy and other New Wavers here.

8. I'm Not There (2007) - Deconstructing Dylan.

Thursday 27 May 2010

More Mike: Leigh on Another Year

"Which ever way you look, and for all of us, time is always running out..." Some brief thoughts from Mr. Leigh on Another Year.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010)

No second Palme d'Or win for Mr. Leigh, but Another Year is still one of the films I'm most looking forward to seeing in 2010.

The Sea Wall (2008)

The Sea Wall (2008), directed by Rithy Panh, is an intriguing but finally unsatisfying adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s semi-autobiographical novel. The film features Isabelle Huppert as a widow with two teenage children (Gaspard Ulliel and Astrid Berges-Frisbey) in early 1930s French colonial Indochina. Huppert’s character is sold a dud piece of frequently-flooded farm-land that she resolves to make a go of by employing local villagers to construct a dam against the sea. Her efforts are complicated by nasty bureaucrats, incipient colonial unrest and by her children’s attitudes and new-found relationships.

Admirably, perhaps, Panh seems determined not to use the colonial setting as a mere backdrop to a family melodrama, and The Sea Wall starts out as a somewhat grittier vision of Regis Wargnier's Indochine (1992), with some interesting observations on power dynamics in Cambodia at this time. But the film grows increasingly perplexing and remote; its various strands and characters simply fail to cohere. (The family’s dallying with a wealthy Chinese man who falls for the daughter is particularly bizarre.) It doesn’t help that Huppert gives one of her closed-in, slightly irritating performances that crosses the line between enigmatic and impassive; she seems disengaged in key scenes here and the film badly requires an actress with a stronger physical presence to ground it and create a more vivid protagonist. Ulliel certainly displays his physique a lot, and Berges-Frisbey (playing a verison of the teen Duras) pouts either sullenly or coquettishly; the three become a tiresome and unsympathetic bunch. Some interesting, even provocative ideas drift around in The Sea Wall, but the end result is frustrating; this is a film that never finds its form.

"Let It Be" by The Beatles

Chris Ingham writes “its release in March 1970, as the final Beatles UK single, meant [that] during the trauma of [the group's] split, it hung in the airwaves like a comfort blanket for the world.” "A comfort blanket for the world ..." 40 years on, that’s a function that “Let It Be” still serves.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Four Lions (2010)

Arch satirist Chris Morris specialises in cruel, creepy but sometimes brilliant work that’s artfully designed to offend as many people as possible. Unfortunately Morris is at his most obvious and least brilliant or artful with his feature film debut Four Lions (2010), an already-notorious broad comedy about a group of inept suicide bombers who hatch a plot to blow up the London Marathon. Though furnished with plenty of de rigueur pseudo-doc camera-work, the roots of the movie would seem to lie in Ealing comedy and Monty Python. But, overlooking for a moment the tastelessness of the scenario, the film turns out to be a rather lame and laboured piece of work. Morris and his co-writers (Peep Show scribes Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain) seem so pleased with the daring of their premise that they expect the jokes to take care of themselves. Much of the audience seem to agree that they have, and maybe at some deep subconscious level the film fulfils a need to laugh in the face of one of the greatest of contemporary panics. The problem is that a couple of inspired moments do not a great comedy make. Four Lions doesn’t have enough good ideas to sustain its running time; by the final, spectacularly uncomfortable sequence, the film seems as misguided - and as stupid - as its protagonists.

Morris does succeed in getting solid turns out of his main actors: Riz Ahmed (of Rage [2009]- now if only that truly transgressive movie had received some of the attention that this one’s getting…), Abdeel Akhtar, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay and Arsher Ali work well with the often shoddy material. And he certainly skewers the lunacy of this group of regionally-accented radicals who hate the West but whose cultural reference points - from Alton Towers to The Lion King - are almost all either British or American. But the “Let’s blow up Boots” banter - not to mention the more “risqué” quips about “Jews and slags” - quickly pall; they just aren't funny enough.

Morris is also careless in his handling of the subsidiary characters, most of whom simply go to waste: Julia Davis turns up as - what else but? - a dim-wit neighbour, and she’s not given a single funny thing to do or say. Four Lions is the kind of comedy in which almost everyone - terrorist, police marksman and negotiator alike - are dim-wits; for all its alleged edginess the film lets the audience rest pretty comfortably in its sense of its superiority to everybody on display. Morris seems to think that the spectacle of self-styled jihidis bumbling and squabbling is inherently hilarious. By the end, he seems to bank on the fact that we’ll find the spectacle of these guys blowing themselves (and a few other people) up inherently hilarious as well. That’s a big ask; too big, in the opinion of this viewer.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

The Limits of Control (2009)

Modern art and molecules. Imagination. Perception. Schubert. The movies and dreams. You can't accuse Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (2009) of a lack of ambition (or pretension). But, though it takes a while to adjust yourself to the rhythm of this self-consciously enigmatic work, its verbal and visual refrains gradually cast a spell. (Christopher Doyle's wondrous cinematography helps.) Jarmusch plops his impassive hero (Isaach De Bankolé, superb) down in three Spanish locales - Madrid, Seville and Almeria - where he moves through encounters with a batch of oddballs (John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Gael Garcia Bernal amongst them), receiving cryptic missives from each. Only at the end is his mission (more or less) revealed to us. "It's a game," muses Swinton's character at one point. She's talking about Welles's The Lady From Shanghai (1947), but that's not the only time that The Limits of Control turns around to comment on itself. (It's also amusing to note how, between her cameo here and her work in I Am Love (2009), Swinton is becoming a conduit for every auteur's favourite movie memories.) Stylish, confounding, profound and absurd, this is a great movie. (I think.)

Monday 17 May 2010

"Unwed Fathers" by Gail Davies

It's always fun when country music gets feminist... Here Gail Davies tackles a prime slice of Bobby Braddock/John Prine; Dolly Parton helps out.

The Next Voice You Hear... (1950)

After a batch of cynical and abrasive contemporary films, some 1950s Hollywood homilies about "creating for yourself the miracles of kindness, goodness and peace" can be surprisingly palatable and (whisper it) even a little bit inspiring. The premise of William Wellman's The Next Voice You Hear ... (1950) - a voice claiming to be that of God broadcasts messages over the radio - may not sound particularly promising, but, helped out by a neat script by Charles Schnee, Wellman creates an involving and touching film here; what's beguiling about the movie is the way it combines a fantastic scenario with a sure-footed feel for the details of lower-middle-class American life. James Whitmore is sympathetic as the ordinary "Joe" through whose jaded eyes we experience the miracle; Nancy Davis and Gary Gray give good support as his wife and son. Thanks to Michal over at Last Seat on the Right [] for supplying this one.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Treeless Mountain (2008)

So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain (2008) is told in an intimate and contemplative manner that keeps the viewer attuned to the emotions and impressions of its two young protagonists, sisters Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and Bin (Song Hee Kim). The film, which follows the girls when they are left behind - first with an Aunt, then with their Grandparents - while their mother goes in search of their errant father, has been compared to Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004). The similarities are fairly superficial, but Treeless Mountain could be described as the more hopeful, redemptive cousin of that gruelling film. The performances from the young actresses are superb, and the film offers a tender and evocative child's-eye-view of the world.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Departures (2008)

The Japanese film Departures [Okuribito] (2008), which won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, comes to us with a brace of reverent, rave reviews deeming the film to be “funny, wise and profound,” “genuinely cathartic” and “cinema at its most affecting.” Really? I found this story of an unemployed cellist (Masahiro Motoki) who returns to his hometown and takes up the post of "encoffiner" (washing and preparing bodies for burial) to be schmaltzy and painfully contrived. It’s true that director Yojiro Takita and writer Kundo Koyama wrest some (mild) black comedy out of the premise during the film’s first half, but the movie slides further and further into egregious sentiment as it progresses, with some laughably heavy-handed symbolism and plot points telegraphed so heavily you can only wince when they arrive. When a significant stone falls from the hand of a character in a climactic reconciliation scene, it’s the final nail in the movie’s own coffin.

Clearly some critics have found the film to be a deep and thoughtful examination of the passage between life and death but the sequences involving the preparation of the bodies are lingered over for so long that they become tedious. In terms of the acting, Motoki is fine, but, as his wife, Ryoko Hirosue gives an embarrassingly winsome performance that seems to encapsulate the film's sentimentality; the wittiest turn comes from Tsutomu Yamazaki as the elderly expert who teaches our hero the finer points of his trade, though even this relationship isn’t as developed as compellingly as it might have been. What Departures proves, ultimately, is that Academy voters these days have about as little good sense when selecting worthy foreign films as they do when honouring homegrown productions. (The unforgettable The Class and the brilliant Waltz with Bashir both lost out to this movie!) Disappointing, to say the least.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Cine-Cities: New York and London

I was challenged by the venerable John Gray over at Going Gently to name five films that best showcase London and New York. I’m not sure that these are the films that "best" showcase the cities but they’re the ones that came to mind.

New York

1. Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961)
Audrey and George get up to all kinds of things that you could never fake in Toronto.

2. Mean Streets (1973)
Scorsese creates a vibrant portrait of Little Italy …

3. The Age of Innocence (1993)
… and, twenty years on, puts Wharton’s Old New York on the screen with equal vividness.

4. Hannah and her Sisters (1986)
One day I intend to visit the bookshop where Michael Caine buys some e e cummings for Barbara Hershey.

5. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
A disreputable choice, but I was still young enough when this came out to find Master Culkin’s adventures in the Big Apple very exciting indeed.


1. Wonderland (1999)
At once gritty and romantic, Michael Winterbottom’s superb portrait of London loneliness and London connection.

2. Secrets and Lies (1996)
Almost any Mike Leigh film will do, of course, but this is the one I love best. Damp patches on the ceilings, loos in the garden, and that great scene outside Holborn tube station.

3. The Mother (2003)
Roger Michell gives familiar and not-so-familiar locations an expressive elegance in The Mother, providing more than a mere backdrop to Daniel Craig and Anne Reid's romance.

4. Intimacy (2001)
In between the shagging, Chereau sends his characters out into a bustling, seedy and slightly scary London-town.

5. Last Chance Harvey (2009)
Because sometimes a touristy visit is not such a bad thing, after all.

Monday 10 May 2010

"Sexy Sadie" by The Beatles

Re-entering the 60s time-warp. One of my favourite songs from one of my favourite albums.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

Overlong and overwrought as it undoubtedly is, Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers (1960) still exerts a strong hold upon the viewer for most of its (nearly three-hour) running time. The film is pitched somewhere between neo-realism and grand opera, as it follows the fortunes of a poor family from Southern Italy, the Parondis. Matriarch Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) and sons Rocco (Alain Delon), Simone (Renato Salvatori), Ciro (Max Cartier) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) move to Milan to make a new life for themselves in the city, where their sibling Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) has already re-located. But the brothers struggle to find work outside of the boxing-ring, while grand passions erupt when the saintly Rocco and the hot-headed Simone both form a relationship with a prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot).

This was a star-making picture for both Delon and Girardot and its not hard to see why. The camera dotes on Delon while Girardot gives an impressive and varied performance in a problematic role. Salvatori is also an imposing presence as Simone, and the violence that erupts between these three characters is still shocking to behold. Rocco isn’t perfect by any means - there are slack moments, a few of the characters are sketchy and remote, and some dicey dubbing doesn’t help - yet it remains a powerful and haunting work.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Music Facts

A slightly condensed version of the questionnaire designed by Meaghan over at Wild Celtic:

Name your top 5 favorite bands/musicians of all-time.
I'm going for 10. Bob Dylan (overlooking the nightmarish Christmas in the Heart and a few others), The Beatles, Tori Amos, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Iris DeMent, The Doors, The Band, June Tabor, Richard Thompson. And the list could go on ...Joni Mitchell, Loudon Wainwright, Neil Young, Joan Baez, Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone...

Of all the bands/artists in your cd/record collection, which one do you own the most albums by?
A toss-up between Dylan, Morrison, Amos, Wainwright, Harris and Tabor.

What was the last song you listened to?
"St. Dominic's Preview" by Van Morrison. Favourite moment: "And the restaurant tables are completely covered/The record company has paid out for the wi-i-ine..."

What was the greatest decade for music?
I'd say 1967-1977.

What is your favourite movie soundtrack?
Tough one. Philadelphia, possibly.

What’s the most awful CD/record/etc. you’ve ever bought?
Probably something produced by Stock Aitken and Waterman in the late 80s...

Rolling Stones or The Beatles?
The Beatles, without a doubt, though there are a few Rolling Stones songs I love.

What is the one song you would most like played at your funeral? Your birthday? While on a romantic date? Funeral: "After You're Gone" by Iris DeMent, or some good gospel. Birthday: "Birthday" by The Beatles. Date: some Sinatra or Ella, and you can't really go wrong.

Monday 3 May 2010

The Caiman (2006)

Marketed as a savage anti-Berlusconi satire, Nanni Moretti’s The Caiman (2006) turns out to be a ramshackle, fairly endearing comedy about its protagonist’s personal and professional travails; the obvious pot-shots that it takes at the Italian PM may be the weakest thing about it. The film follows the fortunes of Bruno (Silvio Orlando), a producer of schlock thrillers. Down on his luck following the failure of a Kill Bill-esque film called Cataracts, Bruno meets a young woman who presents him with a script entitled “The Caiman.” Distracted by his marital problems and his attempts to get a movie about Columbus off the ground, Bruno initially reads the script as just another thriller, before realising that it is actually a critique of Berlusconi. The film details his frustrated attempts to get "The Caiman" made.

While there are plenty of things that don’t add up in this scenario, Moretti’s film has engaging, amusing and sometimes touching details: the scenes between Bruno and his wife and kids are particularly memorable, and Orlando gives a lively and enjoyable performance. But The Caiman becomes tiresome when the characters stop dead to make political points. Moretti is sure-footed in much of his satirising of the Italian film industry, but then loses his way; the final sequence - which presents clips from the finished film with Moretti himself taking the role of Berlusconi - is totally fumbled. Nonetheless, this odd, haphazard movie is worth seeing for the incidental pleasures that it offers.

Lynn Redgrave (1943-2010)

Very sad news, yet again, for the Redgraves.

Saturday 1 May 2010

7 Movie Questions

The latest blogger's questionnaire, completed by Mike over at You Talking To Me? amongst others.

1) What was you first movie-going experience?
The Jungle Book, though I don’t have much of a memory of seeing it. Return to Oz a few years later made a much stronger impression. But the first one that really meant something was Home Alone.

2) How many DVDs do you own?
Estimate: 500.

3) What is your guilty pleasure movie?
Problem Child and Shining Through are two that spring to mind.

4) You have compiled a list of your top 100 movies. Which movies didn't make the cut?
Lists are too changeable for me to answer this one.

5) Which movie(s) do you compulsively watch over and over again?
These days, mainly older stuff: Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Vanishes, and the Sherlock Holmes films. Also, Sling Blade, Gremlins, Talk To Her, and Paradise.

6) Classic(s) you're embarrassed to admit you haven't seen yet?
A lot of Tarkovsky, and quite a bit of Bergman.

7) What movie posters do you have hanging on your wall?
These days, sadly, zero. In the 90s, one of practically every film that I saw.