Talking Movies

May 5, 2018

From the Archives: Son of Rambow

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a neglected British comedy whose child stars went on to interesting careers while its director waited nearly a decade for Sing.

Garth Jennings, director of the flawed but fun Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, fulfils his obvious potential with a very funny and charming slice of 1980s nostalgia. Directed from his own script, which he was working on prior to Hitchhiker’s, this is very obviously a deeply personal project. Fantastic young lead actor Bill Milner (think a less annoying Freddie Highmore…) plays Will, a shy child who lives with his widowed religious mother and has little contact with the rough side of life…until a detention-worthy encounter in the school corridor with Carter, whose introduction is a visual triumph. Will Poulter is fantastic as Lee Carter, the coolest kid in school. Every school had one of these, a bad boy with a heart of gold…maybe. But not every school had one who got up to such demented antics involving flying plastic dogs…

It’s a great pity that this film is being released after the similarly themed Be Kind Rewind as this is far, far funnier. Jennings’ staging of the boys’ production of insane home movie Son of Rambow is just inspired, with endless quirky and inventive stunts. The warmth of the script has attracted a nice supporting cast of British actors including comedy legend Eric Sykes. Spaced star Jessica Stevenson stands out in an unusually dramatic turn as Will’s mother, a leading member of the Plymouth Brethren who disavow music, films and television. Will thus has to sit outside while TV documentaries are shown in class, which leads to a wonderful running gag, and also his fateful encounter with Carter.

Featuring the coolest New Romantic French exchange student of all time among other joys this does occasionally dip into cliché with its ‘touching’ message about childhood friendship and the liberating joy of cinema. But it’s all done with such obvious affection for the perils of watching Rambo at too young an age that it can be forgiven its faults. Son of Rambow is reminiscent of Grosse Pointe Blank in being a film so warm-hearted and fun that it can make you nostalgic for a 1980s adolescence you never even had.

4/5

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May 2, 2018

IFI Stories

Reading through Talking Movies’ back catalogue after 10 years (sic), and archiving the lost reviews that came before, has set me thinking about memorable cinema trips of the past. So here are two great memories of unexpected audience interventions in screen 2 of the IFI.


In late 2004 I went along with three friends to see Bubba Ho-Tep. Let’s call one of these friends Friedrich Bagel, because that’s who it was. Herr Bagel was, at best, a Bruce Campbell agnostic, and two of us laid on the Bruce hero worship perhaps a bit too thick just before we all walked into the cinema. This led to some unfortunate timing of snippy remarks on the part of Bagel the Bruce agnostic, because as we took our seats he exploded at us, “Just who is this Bruce Campbell character anyway? And how many fans does he have? Just you two?” As we touched down on our seats 4 guys in the row in front of us rocketed up out of their seats. They turned to face us, all wearing Evil Dead t-shirts. Ah… The tallest, looming over the Bruce-baiting Bagel, waved his arms around while booming – “How dare you sir! This is the Church of Bruce! You shall not blaspheme in the Church of Bruce!” Luckily the other guilty party in boosting Bruce beyond Bagel’s breaking point was just as tall and far bigger in build. He stood up and assured the Pastor of the Church of Bruce that our Bruce agnostic did not need to be killed for heresy, but was a potential convert, and needed only this film to push him into Bruce’s arms. Calm returned to the cinema, even if it was a slightly cowed calm on the part of Bagel who now realised Bruce Campbell did indeed have more than just two fans.

2011 found me at one of the last screenings of The Tree of Life in the IFI, in the afternoon with an audience of Malick devotees. Well, maybe they weren’t true devotees. Maybe like me they just really liked Badlands. I’d been trying to concentrate on just luxuriating in the visuals of the creation of the universe montage, rather than thinking too critically about it. The choral soundtrack got louder and louder, and I was thinking about how on earth Terrence Malick was achieving this (was he adding in extra singers for each verse?), when an exasperated older man a few seats down from me suddenly turned to say to his female companion – “Oh, this is just pretentious f****** nonsense! It really is…” Unfortunately life imitates art far more often than art imitates life, and, in a hilarious occurrence straight out of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, at that precise and most wonderful moment the soundtrack abruptly went mute. His bellowed whisper bounded around the entire cinema and was heard by everyone. You could feel the audience stiffen in their seats like an electric current had been passed thru all the rows. Some were offended by this philistinism, but many more I think were suddenly roused, out of somnolent acceptance of Malick’s montage as being High Art, back into consciousness and began a critical evaluation of what the man had just said. And do you know what, I swear that I felt most of the audience suddenly silently agree and think, “It is pretentious f****** nonsense, isn’t it?!”

I can’t think of Bubba Ho-Tep or The Tree of Life to this day without remembering the odd way I saw them in the IFI.

September 18, 2014

Smoke gets in your eyes, Delaney gets under your skin

macbethandthemurderers

INT.EDINBURGH OFFICE-DAY

DELANEY, not Mark Pellegrino’s legendary agent but a minor agent to non-entities in Scotland who by an amazing coincidence shares his name, sits at his desk lovingly dropping feed into a fishbowl while HAMISH McBITPARTH, paces around the office restlessly, waves his arms passionately, and complains volubly…

 

McBITPARTH: I naarrryy part *&**&**& %%%£$ (&*(& aye.

DELANEY: What’s that now?

McBITPARTH: And whutevya &*&( hag? ^*&%()*%^&)% noo?

DELANEY: Hey?

McBITPARTH: Pay you shills &*&( R$$$^ &(*&(* hoor

DELANEY: Come again?

McBITPARTH: Are ye deaf orr *&^*^ %(^(*&*& ^^%%$%$9 mon?

 

Delaney leans back in his chair, baffled and exasperated, looks idly at the fishbowl, looks intently at the fishbowl, and smacks himself in the forehead.

 

McBITPARTH: Now whut &*&* ^*&^(* at all?

DELANEY: Wait! I forgot to put my Babelfish in.

 

Delaney gently scoops the fish out of the bowl and sticks it in his ear. He sits down.

 

DELANEY: Good God, I really had forgotten just how unintelligible you were without it. If I hadn’t taken it as a memento from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy set nine years ago I don’t know how I would ever have managed up here. Honestly, if you people vote next year to the leave the Union… Without any restraining English influence on you the entire country will be incomprehensible within five years.

McBITPARTH: Aw shove it, Delaney. Go back to London then.

DELANEY: London remains a bit dicey. Sam Rockwell still has eyes and ears there…

McBITPARTH: Were you listening to me?

DELANEY: Yes! That is to say, no. That is to say, I was listening but not hearing, or hearing but not listening; whichever of those Sherlock Holmes said and would therefore make me sound witty is what I was doing. But in any case if you were griping, which is what it sounded like, then not to worry. I’ve got you a part.

McBITPARTH: Is it a good part?

DELANEY: It’s a juicy part.

McBITPARTH: That’s what you said about Taggart!

DELANEY: I was being descriptive about the corpse you’d be playing. This time I’m being… expansive, metaphorical.

McBITPARTH: You know that Taggart has ended, nigh on three years ago?

DELANEY: You’re obsessed with Taggart!

McBITPARTH: You’re obsessed with Taggart! After the corpse you got me another part in it, a bigger part you said.

DELANEY: It was a bigger part!

McBITPARTH: I died in flashback and then appeared as a corpse!

DELANEY: That was double the screen-time!

McBITPARTH: And then there was that Macbeth fiasco…

DELANEY: YOU WOULD HAVE TO BRING THAT UP WOULDN’T YOU?!!

McBITPARTH: SOMETIMES I THINK THAT WHEN YOU FLED HERE FROM THE SOUTH ALL YOU KNEW OF SCOTLAND WAS TAGGART AND MACBETH – AND MACBETH WAS WRITTEN BY A SASSENACH!

DELANEY: You wanted to do some good work, I got you a part in a Shakespeare play. And to be hauled over the coals about it year after bloody year. Shakespeare! The Bard of Avon! The poet of the nation.

McBITPARTH: Your nation.

DELANEY: Ohhh!!! (pained pause) Just because you didn’t have any lines.

McBITPARTH: I was playing the FOURTH murderer in a play famous for having a redundant THIRD murderer! I’ve never been so embarrassed…

DELANEY: Still better than just being a corpse.

McBITPARTH: (sighs) So what’s this part you’ve got me?

DELANEY: It’s in some weird film. I couldn’t understand anything they said about it, and they were all English so it’s not a problem with dialect.

McBITPARTH: What’s the part?

DELANEY: You have a sex scene with Scarlett Johansson.

McBITPARTH: **** off.

DELANEY: (massaging his ear) My Babelfish appears to have come loose.

McBITPARTH: No, I was swearing.

DELANEY: How dashed odd! Why did it censor you?

McBITPARTH: You lifted it from the set of a PG-13 movie you dobber.

DELANEY: Ah! But seriously, you have a sex scene with Scarlett Johansson.

McBITPARTH: No.

DELANEY: Yes.

McBITPARTH: No.

DELANEY: Yes.

McBITPARTH: Yes?

DELANEY: Yes.

McBITPARTH: No!

DELANEY: Yes!

McBITPARTH: Yes??

DELANEY: YES!

McBITPARTH: YES!! YES!! Will she be naked?

DELANEY: Yes.

McBITPARTH: YES!! This is why I became an actor!!

 

McBitparth jumps up, does an impromptu dance of joy. Delaney mistakes it for a Highland fling and grimaces at it, an expression of exquisitely Tory contempt.

 

McBITPARTH: Is this a wind-up?

DELANEY: No, it’s totally legitimate.

McBITPARTH: Scar-Jo will be naked in a scene with me?

DELANEY: Yes, but you’ll be wearing a sock.

McBITPARTH: I’ll bloody need to be wearing a sock…

DELANEY: Don’t…

McBITPARTH: Why me? Why did they want me?

DELANEY: Well, a friend of mine in London put them in touch with me.

McBITPARTH: Looking for Scottish actors then?

DELANEY: I think he said they were looking for non-professional actors.

 

They both look at the floor.

 

McBITPARTH: Naked Scar-Jo! YES!!!

DELANEY: That’s all I bloody hear these days…

December 6, 2010

Dramatis Personae: Annie & Zooey

This meditation on personae and typecasting began as a proposed comment on Paul Fennessy’s piece on She & Him’s Volume II, but soon developed a life of its own…

While reading his blog I thought of the episode of Elvis Costello’s music show in which both She & Him and Jenny Lewis performed new material. She & Him’s music seemed inconsequential beside Jenny Lewis, perhaps because she had the achievements of Rilo Kiley behind her, but perhaps also because Zooey’s presence visually indicated this was merely quirky fluff and not to be taken seriously. But listen to it on the radio without any visuals and it stands up beside Jenny Lewis’ solo output. Which begs the question has Zooey become almost as much a victim of her screen persona as the Annie of my title, Angelina Jolie?

When I first sat thru the trailer for Salt and saw a blonde Jolie wearing smart work-clothes, who goes on the run by dyeing her hair black and dressing in leather, I asked out loud in disbelief – “Wait, so her disguise is to turn into Angelina Jolie?!” The persona that Jolie has created is something I’ve discussed in reviews of A Mighty Heart and Wanted which remains fascinating. Many stars have eschewed acting in favour of creating a persona which they impose on every role. The Duke took years to create the persona that he was able to live off for four decades. He was able to play against it in The Searchers, and toy with its comedic potential in The Quiet Man, but mostly he just imposed it on every script. Hence John Ford’s apocryphal outburst on seeing Red River, “I never knew the son of a bitch could act!” Jolie though is burdened not with a cinematic persona created thru a decade of hard-graft in B-movies, but with a purely public persona created thru a decade of tabloid headlines. This cannot be captured on celluloid, except parodically. Her sole smash hits in the last decade were Mr & Mrs Smith and Wanted. Mr & Mrs Smith centred on her tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt’s character, and at times it played merely as a cinematic objective-correlative of the preposterous comic-book which is her life, as depicted by the tabloids. Wanted seemed to say that her persona of voluptuous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure couldn’t be taken seriously, but could be perfect casting for an assassin of few words called…Fox.

This glorious playing up to her ridiculous persona followed her failure to win an Oscar for A Mighty Heart. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying. The curled hair, darkened pigmentation, French accent, and despairing shouting did everything short of run ‘For Your Consideration’ subtitles across the bottom of cinema screens. Yet the baggage of her all too public life sank what would have been a great role for a lower profile actress. All her best moments were in quiet unshowy scenes when she stopped giving ‘a performance’, but that’s increasingly hard to do, as Changeling also saw her fail to convincingly morph into an everywoman character. Jolie seems painfully aware that this outlandish persona is destroying her, hence her uber-grim directorial debut and those attempts with A Mighty Heart and Changeling to return to serious drama. Salt’s more serious return to Mr & Mrs Smith action-land seems to reflect distinct unease with comedically approaching the persona and perpetuating it as Membektov did with such visual panache in Wanted. Salt suggests a plan to alternate money-making dutiful nods to her persona (The Tourist) with focused attempts to overcome it.

Deschanel’s persona is a horse of a different colour. The apocryphal anecdote of Emily returning from auditioning to fume to her kid sister that they were looking for ‘a Zooey Deschanel type’ emphasises how quickly her deadpan quirkiness, showcased to perfection as the cool older sister in Almost Famous, became a persona. The point of a persona of course is that it’s a heightened construct. Jolie has trouble finding a cinematic home for her tabloid-created persona whereas Zooey’s persona, being in the classic Wayne mould, is infinitely more useful. She’s been able to use it both in supporting roles as the idiosyncratic best friend in Failure to Launch, The Good Girl, and Showtime’s Weeds, and as the dead-pan romantic heroine in Elf, Yes Man and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker’s in particular saw her breathe some badly needed life and depth into the character of Trillian. The adorable Zooey from Almost Famous and Elf was reinforced with some emotional weight to become the definitive Trillian. In doing so much with a historically underwritten role she proved that she had considerable dramatic ability behind the persona. Indeed the delightful absurdist black comedy Eulogy boasts an enviable ensemble but it’s hard to think that its whimsical madness could be held together by anyone else but her.

Conversely with The Happening it is hard not to think any other actress would have been better, as M Night Shymalan in his current state of disrepair obviously had no earthly notion how to use either her persona or her deeper skills. That is obviously the low-light of her career but by simultaneously branching into a music career, retiring her old L.A. based cabaret duo in order to form the far higher-profile country-pop duo She & Him, the perception that she had become trapped by her persona was bound to gain currency. Perhaps this was the motive behind her turn in (500) Days of Summer. This was extremely courageous as a career move because it deconstructed her persona as the uncommunicative but adorably quirky girl by showing just how capricious and cruel that free-spirit shtick could become in real life. She was luminous when she needed to be but Deschanel also didn’t hold back on cruelty, and, while the combination of charm and emotional realism divided people hilariously when it came to judging Summer, this made her performance a career highlight. Sadly Gigantic and her guest appearance in Bones seem to indicate she’s being offered, indeed being custom-written, only roles that require her to dial in her persona. She & Him seem to be slowly gaining some level of popularity, but whether their particular brand of pop reinforces her quirky persona is debatable. In any case her ‘escape’ from her persona handsomely beats Jolie’s.

Personae can be problematic because of the fine line between typecasting and playing to your strengths. Being offered similar roles is a vote of confidence that you will do a good job with this material, but after a while it also trades on the perception audiences will have of you from previous performances, the persona you may have created. Type-casting has its own reward, being able to play against type; Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, Robin Williams in Insomnia. But its danger is that, like Eugene O’Neill Senior as The Count of Monte Cristo, not only can audiences only accept you in one type of role, but your range contracts so that you can only actually play one role. Zooey Deschanel’s persona is her own creation, not that of the tabloids. Her quirky persona may cause difficulties of reception on live music shows, but it is her screen profile and not their meagre sales that gets She & Him onto those shows in the first place. Indeed, as their elegant summery pop reflects in her song-writing the creative energies that created her persona originally, in a way, the persona will remain an ever-present even if She & Him get the popular success they deserve to the extent that Deschanel gives up acting.

Paul recommends She & Him. Seconded.

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