Monday, December 15, 2014

Review of 'Along Came Polly'

This film never stood a chance. It has Jennifer Aniston in it, and it has Ben Stiller. Either of these are efficient indicators that a film is going to be rubbish; taken together they are a lot more reliable than a triple A rating on a bond that this will be terrible.

And yet, somewhere in here was a good film struggling, and failing, to escape. It has Philip Seymour Hoffman, the opposite of a crap indicator; if he’s in it, it’s usually good. Sure, his character is mainly played for the kind of cheap laughs you’d expect from a romcom/frat-buddy film, but underneath there is a kind of tragic story about someone who never recovered from early success, and who has zero insight into himself. When Hoffman and Stiller’s characters play basketball there is a running gag whereby Hoffman makes all the right noises and calls to indicate that he is about to make a winning shot, but always misses. This underlines the lack of insight thing; Hoffman continues to not notice that he is doing this and is very bad at basketball.

Stiller’s character has too much insight into himself – he understands himself as a man scared of life, with a too well developed sense of statistical risk. Of course this is played for laughs, but there is some sense of the underlying tragedy. Bad things really do happen to him (his new wife shags a scuba instructor on his honeymoon, for example) but those aren’t the things for which he has calculated a probability.

And much of the film is about relationships between men – between Stiller and his buddy Hoffman, Stiller and his new girlfriend’s gay best friend, Stiller and his obnoxious boss, Stiller and the Australian CEO who’s risky life he is supposed to be assessing for insurance purposes, Stiller and his silent father…without the cheap laughs this could actually have been a thoughtful and sensitive film. The Australian CEO makes for a bit of a sub-plot that could have been funny and interesting; the way that Stiller’s new wife humiliates him with the scuba instructor and later tries to resume the relationship as if nothing has happened has genuine tragic potential.

Interestingly, for a romcom, it’s the men’s bodies that are really examined; it’s almost a gay film dressed up as a man-woman romcom. There is very little chemistry between Stiller and Aniston, or between Stiller and his soon-to-be-ex-wife. There’s a bit more between Stiller and his mother, naturally. She manages to unfailingly give him the wrong advice, including the suggestion that he should get back together with the cheating wife.

Despite all this, the film is not worth watching, except perhaps on a plane when the alternative is back-to-back Stallone movies. But it’s interesting to muse on how this could have been made differently, so that it actually was worth watching.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Review of 'The Invisible Woman'

Nice, slow but worthwhile adaptation of Claire Tomalin's book about Dickens's affair. Dickens is rather well played by Ralph Fiennes (who also directed) as a charming and sentimental man who is also a bit of a shit - he humiliates his wife and treats his mistress very badly too. Some good insights into the Victorian world of celebrity, and lots of good performances, including one by Kirstin Scott Thomas as the mistress's mother.

Review of "Jimmy's Hall"

A solid Ken Loach film about Jimmy Gralton, an Irish Communist in the post-Independence period, who opened a little tin-roofed hall for cultural and educational activities in a rural area and thus aroused the enmity of the church and local reactionaries. Good because it recovers from obscurity the story of Gralton, the only Irishman to be deported from Ireland, and because it avoids the usual nationalist cliches about Ireland's troubles all being due to the British. The thugs who close down Jimmy's hall are Free State policemen and soldiers; the rascally landlords who evict tenants are all Irish, not cardboard Anglo aristocrats. The IRA are a useless bunch of ditherers and fence-sitters, not the bold nationalist heroes that they usually are in Hollywood films.

Review of 'The Railway Man'

A good enough film about the life of Eric Lomax, who was a prisoner of the Japanese during WW2 and worked on the notorious Burma railway, where he was tortured. The film depicts his time as a prisoner, and his later life as one of several war veterans horrendously damaged by their experience. Lomax (Colin Firth) is encouraged by his wife (Nicole Kidman playing against type as a rather mumsy middle-aged woman) to deal with his pain rather than push it under the carpet, and he eventually finds and confronts the Japanese man who translated during his sessions of torture.

It's a good film rather than a great one. Firth is rather good as a slightly nerdy 'railway enthusiast'.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A cunning wheeze: make the public pay for culinary excellence

I have a cunning wheeze. I am going to open a very expensive restaurant. The food is going to be absolutely top quality, and it will serve the best wines. The prices will be such that only the very rich will be able to afford to eat there. I will talk a lot though about how it benefits the whole of society by raising the standards of cuisine and setting a benchmark for cooking. Wouldn't it be nice if other restaurants could be as good, by ‘levelling up’ to be as good as this expensive one?

The cunning bit is that you lot are going to help to pay for my restaurant, in which only rich people can afford to eat. That’s because my restaurant is going to be a charity. It won’t make any profit, though it will pay me a handsome salary for overseeing it. I will call the charity the Foundation for Excellence in Culinary Knowledge, just to show what I think of plebs like you. Because the restaurant is a charity it will get all sorts of tax exemptions – unlike the restaurants where the hoi polloi eat.


If anyone really makes a fuss I’ll offer to let some pleb chefs train in the kitchen once a month, or even send some of my chefs over to pleb restaurants once a month to show them how we make really good food and serve excellent wine. That should keep the Labour Party sweet, right? I mean, if it works in education, why shouldn't it work for restaurants?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Review of ‘Interstellar’

Was really looking forward to this one, and just a tiny bit disappointed; not entirely sure it’s OK to say so, since so many others have such strong opinions, and lots of people really like it.
It’s visually arresting, though not as much so as other Nolan films. The audio was murky, though this might be my declining ears (I find myself saying that more and more) or even the crappy sound system at Muswell Hill Odeon. Whatever the reason, I missed some of the dialogue, though this didn’t seem to matter all that much. It’s a film of images and themes. The images are striking enough, and they function as visual cues to call up reserves of associations and feelings.

The dust bowl is one. The film begins with documentary-style talking heads, people talking about the wind-blown dust. Actually, they are real documentary talking heads, from another film about the 1930s dust bowl. There are shots of American climate refugees who look just like the Oakies of the 1930s, down to the trucks – explained by the fact that the climate crisis, and a population crash, means that everyone is making do with retro technology.

And maybe it’s just me, but I thought that the space suits – particularly the helmets – looked more like the ones worn by Soviet cosmonauts than American astronauts. That wouldn’t fit with the overall story line, which is about the ultimate triumph of the American way of life – Old Glory on the surface of planets in other galaxies – but it does help to give the space effort a sort of battered retro look.

Another visual cue is the film 2001 A Space Odyssey, to which this has sometimes been compared. I saw 2001 when it was already old, and I don’t have the feeling of reverence for it that some people seem to have. I can still recognise the scenes which evoke the earlier film, though – some of the shots of the ring-shaped array of docked spacecraft, the sequence when they pass through the wormhole – and the overall theme of humans being curated by a benevolent external intelligence.

It’s more about the themes than anything else. The plot and the narrative drags a bit. The dialogue is not important, and the characters are mainly uninteresting – apart from Matt Damon’s character. But there really are lots of big themes. Ecological crisis, climate change, and future food shortages. The relationships between parents and children, and what each owes to the other. The role of science and technology. General and special relativity, and the way that the physics of space travel would impact on the relations between the generations.


Others have commented on the underlying politics of the film – the message that it doesn’t entirely matter that we’ve fucked up the planet, because science and technology will be able to build us an escape route to other worlds, and that anyone who says we need to fix this planet because it’s the only one we have is a misguided liberal – and a dishonest conspiracy nut too, prepared to spread the lie that the moon landings were faked if it serves a purpose. 

Review of Northern Soul

I've never been a member of a music-based subculture, so I don’t know what it feels to define oneself as a member of an in-group based on clothes and music. That’s what this film is about, though. The main character is a slightly geeky, introverted boy whose parents bully him into trying the local youth club, and who – by taking sides in a fight on the spur of the moment – finds himself fallen in among soul boys. He becomes an enthusiastic participant and thereby finds shape and meaning for his life. There are lots of amphetamines, some of them dodgy.

The film is dark and dirty-looking, and the sound is sometimes a bit muffled – funny for a film about music. There is no sense that the palaces of Northern Soul were wonderlands for the people who went to them; they look dismal. The dancing about which so much has been said is energetic but graceless and not at all beautiful. It’s a sort of male competitive display, the boys dancing to impress each other. They certainly don’t seem very interested in the girls, who bob up and down discreetly in the background.

It did remind me a bit about how awful it was being a teenager in the 1970s, even though my suburban London Grammar School wasn’t even close to this world. Fountain pens and ink bottles, uncomfortable school uniforms, the underlying threat of violence between boys, the sarcastic teachers, the horrible dangerous cars…


Funny to recall a time when any kind of recorded music was a rare and precious commodity that you had to seek out, and where finding and owning the right recordings was worth both money and cudos. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'

A comedy thriller – not always a good hybrid, but this one works well. Robert Downey Jnr is good as the rather hapless recent arrival in Hollywood who stumbles into a complex plot involving incest, swapped bodies, frame-ups and murder, while failing to get it together with his teenage unrequited love. A few ‘alienation of the audience’ devices as RDJ speaks directly to camera, pauses the action and so on, which also work quite well. The detective to whom RDJ is assigned to ‘learn about the detective business’ for his putative movie role is gay, played by Val Wilmer, and I thought the gay jokes were sympathetic, not nasty, and quite funny; not really for me to say, though.

Is it of any consequence that I had seen it before and forgotten it? I don't think so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review of 'Wristcutters'

A strange but not unenjoyable film set in an afterlife peopled entirely by suicides. Visually striking, apart from the naff 'miracles', in the way it evokes decay and dereliction. An interesting premise, not too badly done, it doesn't worry too much about plot mechanics or continuity - well, they're all dead, aren't they? Tom Waits is in it, so it can't be all bad. Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of Gogol Bordello, was originally supposed to play the role of...er...Eugene.

The poster and DVD cover art are a bit misleading, in that they suggest it's lighter than it really is.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review of 'Detachment'

A really good film about a supply teacher - how often do you get to write that? I was expecting a conventional 'inspiring teacher' or even 'cynical bad teacher' film, but this was much, much better. So much insight into the pain and humiliation of ordinary life, and the ways that people armour themselves against it. Some good acting (including Lucy Liu playing against type as a burnt-out school counsellor), really interesting camera-work, haunting incidental music. Well worth watching.