Talking Movies

January 13, 2019

Notes on Stan & Ollie

Oscar-bait biopic Stan & Ollie was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

This drama follows a faded Laurel & Hardy’s farewell tour of theatres in Britain and Ireland in the early 1950s. Steve Coogan nails the voice but not the look of Laurel, while John C Reilly simply vanishes as Oliver Hardy rides again in look and sound. And yet for a film about two comedians it isn’t really that funny… Perhaps it is the photocopy effect, that which stripped all emotion from the end of Star Trek: Into Darkness. Watching Reilly and Coogan pretend to be Laurel and Hardy doing their slapstick routines on stage that the audience knows from their films puts so many removes between the routine and its reception that it ceases to be funny. As a result the limelight is stolen by their promoter in England (Rufus Jones) who shamelessly makes them do publicity stunts for free without ever actually asking them, and Stan’s wife Ida (Nina Arianda) who blows thru the film like a force of nature spewing insults and repeatedly, pointedly refusing to sit beside said promoter in any venue.

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October 17, 2014

Northern Soul

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Acclaimed photographer Elaine Constantine makes an assured cinematic debut with a tale of two teenagers in the Northern Soul scene.

John (Elliot James Langridge) is a shy teenager in a dismal Lancashire town in economically depressed and culturally depressing 1974. He’s happy writing poetry, and spending time with his beloved Grandad (Ricky Tomlinson), but his mother (Lisa Stansfield!) is insistent that he should get out more. Dad (Christian McKay) doesn’t really want to get drawn into any strife… John unwillingly goes to the local youth club, only to be dazzled by the dance moves that Matt (Josh Whitehouse) performs to the unusual soundtrack of Edwin Starr’s Time. Impulsively saving Matt from a beating John pretends he knows what Northern Soul is to spend more time with this charismatic outsider. Pretty soon John knows Northern Soul inside out, is going to amphetamine-fuelled Wigan Casino dances, and plotting a trip to America with Matt to ransack obscure vinyl for their DJ gigs.

Northern Soul is a familiar type of story told against an unusual backdrop. Matt is the dazzlingly charismatic hero who brings the diffident observer John out of his shell to the point that he stands up to abrasive teacher Mr Banks (Steve Coogan), winks at his crush Angela (Antonia Thomas) on the bus instead of pining away, and thinks nothing of popping the endless supply of pills that cockney Sean (Jack Gordon) thinks necessary for their Wigan nights. But the backdrop is something we’ve not seen before. Ray Henderson (James Lance) the Wigan DJ has enormous street-cred for his ‘cover-up’; a stonking tune that he refuses to reveal the identity of to his listeners; and the quest to unmask the cover-up fuels the rise of John as a DJ. Indeed he’s obviously a better DJ than the foul-mouthed graceless Matt.

Writer/director Elaine Constantine makes Northern Soul look fantastic for its budget, especially the long sweep over the dancers when we see the Wigan Casino bacchanalia for the first time. She also makes excellent use of a limited amount of classic Northern Soul music by playing out the songs in full over lengthy montages. At the same time she draws excellent performances from the actors. Gordon is on fire as the rambunctious Sean, Whitehouse is instantly attractive as rebellious Matt, and Langridge makes John’s transformation completely believable. Ultimately Northern Soul becomes a bromance, as Angela isn’t nearly as important, or worth a grand rom-com gesture, as Matt. Henderson pushes John away from Matt by insisting that Matt holds him back as a DJ, and Sean blames Matt’s big mouth for unwanted narc attention, leading to some unexpected suspense before the finale.

The story is just a bit familiar, but it’s told with such avowed sincerity that Northern Soul might just be a very belated Quadrophenia for the Northern Soul set.

3.5/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

October 31, 2013

Philomena

Steve Coogan co-writes, produces and stars opposite Judi Dench in a tale of investigative journalism based on a true story.

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Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is a Labour spin-doctor shafted when his well intentioned but unfortunately phrased email becomes the object of media hysteria. Moping around, pitching a book on Russian history, the former journalist is approached at a party by waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Jane’s Irish mother Philomena (Judi Dench) has just disclosed she had another child, a son; who was forcibly given up for adoption decades before while in a Magdalene laundry. Initially disinterested, Sixsmith pitches the story to hard-bitten magazine editor Sally (Michelle Fairley), and, commissioned, meets with Philomena. The unlikely duo set off on a road trip, first to the convent in Roscrea where Cathy Belton’s nun informs them all paperwork was lost in a fire, and that Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is too ill to help them, and eventually to America to find lost child Anthony.

Coogan’s script has been acclaimed, but the Oxbridge educated Sixsmith’s consistent patronising of the ‘Daily Mail and romance novel reading’ retired nurse Philomena is actually rather uncomfortable viewing. His opening quip on leaving a carol service early, “I don’t believe in God, and I think He can tell”, recalls Woody Allen’s “To you I’m an atheist, to God I’m the loyal opposition”, but this script lacks the philosophical engagement of Allen’s most thoughtful works. It is instead largely devoted to bashing the Catholic Church without much reflection. Stephen Frears’ anonymous direction seems to display the effect of four centuries of Anti-Catholic propaganda in England as the camera almost regards pre-Vatican II clerical garb as a cinematic shorthand for evil akin to SS uniforms when depicting the laundry; which the girls could leave at any time if their families wished it.

Hillsborough shows that cover-ups are endemic to institutions, secular as much as religious, which protect their prestige at the expense of innocent victims. Mitt Romney, in his capacity as a LDS Church Bishop, was trying to persuade single mothers to give up their children for adoption well into the 1980s. But acknowledging those truths make Catholicism less exceptional… The American sequence is startling for the dramatic nuances forsaken. Philomena’s son did have a better life there than she could have given him, but he was made to feel shame for his ‘sin’ in America as much as his mother was for hers in Ireland, because of the Evangelical Protestantism that swept Reagan and the Bushes to political power. When the film returns to Roscrea, it seems relieved such knotty ambiguities can be replaced by Catholic-bashing.

Philomena excoriates people for applying their shibboleths without empathy, yet, by condemning people for not applying current shibboleths in the past, itself disdains attempting to understand why those people acted as they did – comprehension is not forgiveness, but empathy.

2/5

October 12, 2012

Ruby Sparks

The directors of Little Miss Sunshine return with a comedy-drama cross between Pygmalion and Stranger than Fiction that fails both as comedy and as drama.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a former literary wunderkind who set the book world alight with an epic novel when he was 19, but has since produced only short stories and is in analysis trying to crack his writer’s block. Dr Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) forces him to write about a woman who likes Calvin’s dog Scottie, as an exercise. Calvin starts to write about Ruby (Zoe Kazan), a girl in a dream who likes Scottie but is also very combative verbally. Soon he has written half a novel about her, and then she physically appears in his house as the perfect girlfriend conjured up by his imagination… Calvin think he is losing is mind, a conclusion heartily endorsed by his obnoxious sports agent brother Harry (Chris Messina). But a startling encounter with a literary groupie (Alia Shawkat) proves Ruby’s real…

Ruby Sparks is terribly unfunny, especially when set beside 2006’s Stranger than Fiction. There are good lines at long intervals, but only an amusing sequence where Ruby becomes insanely clingy actually lingers in the memory. Despite the fantastical set-up this is a game played with the oldest deck of rom-com cards. The man knows something the woman doesn’t, he wrote her, he doesn’t tell her, they fall in love, she finds out, they break up; can he make a grand gesture to win her back? Who cares? Ruby never sparkles enough to convince as the ideal woman, and Calvin isn’t remotely a loveable everyman. Chris Messina’s role is an empty cipher and he can’t showboat as all the script gives him are tiresomely predictable crude sexual remarks. Gould is tragically underused while Steve Coogan barely registers as Calvin’s pompous rival.

Instead of gags we’re given endless psychobabble masquerading as insightful drama. An awkward visit to Calvin’s mother (Annette Benning) and step-father (Antonio Banderas) is excruciating, especially as its sole (contradictory) purpose is to allow Ruby shrink her creator as ‘controlling’. Unfortunately Ruby hasn’t noticed that Calvin’s mother has been completely reshaped by her new husband, while the analysis buzzwords spouted by Ruby are almost identical to the self-justifying nonsense proffered by Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), who callously left Calvin weeks after his father’s death. Ruby Sparks is this week’s second release starring a couple, one of whom wrote the script, but this lacks even Hit and Run’s good heart. This is a quite insulting attempt to examine the male psyche by a female screenwriter who thinks such scrutiny means accusing men of not appreciating women.

By the end you’ll wish Calvin would just type ‘A grand piano falls on Ruby, the rope attached to it leads to an anvil that falls on Calvin, Road Runner appears and goes meep-meep’.

1/5

July 6, 2011

Top 5 Michael Caine Movies

I wouldn’t like to give the impression that I was mean-spiritedly making fun either of Michael Caine or of cockney accents in last week’s sketch, so as a gesture of atonement here’s a Top 5 of my favourite Michael Caine movies. I’ve picked only ones in which he’s the lead.

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(5) Get Carter
“You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape”, “She was only thirteen”… A movie plundered both by Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan to sharpen their Caine impressions in The Trip, and arguably by Martin Campbell and Daniel Craig to make the last image of Casino Royale iconic. This gritty thriller, which is still director Mike Hodges’ calling card, sees Caine’s implacable London hard-man Jack Carter head north to avenge his brother’s death with a shotgun. Shot in stylish long-takes with a distancing aesthetic this is an imposing British crime movie that loomed over all that followed.

(4) Educating Rita
“There is more insight in the telephone directory…and probably more wit”. Caine’s jaded English professor helps Julie Walter’s discontented housewife better herself thru an adult education course in a sparkling adaptation of Willy Russell’s play, itself almost a spin on Pygmalion. But this Henry Higgins is on a serious downward spiral; drowning in drink and self-pity in equal measures, cheated on by his wife and despising his own volumes of poetry. Caine’s showy role encompasses glorious high verbal comedy and drunken slapstick, as well as the quiet drama of alcoholic misery. This finally won him a BAFTA.

(3) The Quiet American
“Oh, shit” .Caine’s dead-pan delivery of that line is emblematic of his quiet, measured and ultimately devastating performance in Philip Noyce’s 2002 film. This subtle work is arguably the finest adaptation of Graham Greene’s work since the 1940s. Caine plays the archetypal Greene character. His foreign correspondent boasts of simply observing the chaos of 1950s Vietnam and offering no point of view, no political allegiance. An unwelcome romantic rival (Brendan Fraser’s titular do-gooder) and pressure from London to break a story sparks a belated moral engagement with the ethics of American interference, and opposition to it…

(2) Sleuth
“Be sure and tell them it was all just a bloody game!” Joseph L Mankiewicz’s riveting adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play sees a rich aged writer invite his young wife’s lover, a cockney hairdresser, to his rural mansion for some vindictive head-games. Caine’s regional accent and film acting technique go head to head with Olivier’s RADA accent and stage acting style in a contest Caine was easily winning till a desperate Olivier produced a moustache… If you want to empirically measure Caine’s acting ability note how Sleuth’s entire structure disintegrates in the remake because Jude Law can’t act.

(1) The Italian Job
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” A truly flawless film; from Quincy Jones’ impossibly catchy original soundtrack and the glorious turn by Noel Coward as the imprisoned crime-lord masterminding proceedings, to the implausible gang apparently composed solely of gay aristocrats and cockney wide-boys and the deranged Carry On antics of Benny Hill, and on to the wonderfully staged Austin Mini car-chase and the definitive cinematic cliff-hanger, it’s impossible not to sit back with a smile pasted on your face throughout as Caine motors the whole film along with a performance of winning charm.

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