Monthly Archives: November 2011

Resistance

Amit Gupta’s Resistance, an adaptation of a novel by poet Owen Sheers, is set in a remote Welsh farming community during an alternative version of the 1940s in which the Germans have mounted a successful invasion of Great Britain and are starting to mop up the more peripheral settlements. One day the women of the village wake up to find that all the menfolk have abruptly vanished, presumably to join the titular resistance movement. They react to this with sanguinity, but shortly afterwards a small group of German soldiers arrive and take up residence while they search for a valuable artefact believed to be in the area and their commander’s surprisingly civilised and sympathetic manner starts to put a strain on the loyalties of a number of them.

This may be the quietest, least overtly confrontational, war film I’ve ever seen, although there are enough moments of brutality both off and on screen to sell the seriousness of the situation. The subtle and shifting relationships between the different parties are for the most part presented in a restrained and neutral manner, with no background music, close-ups or flashy editing to elicit a cheap emotional response. That’s not to say there’s no conflict here though: several of the characters find themselves facing profound moral tests, and they don’t want always make the choices one might expect. This is a film that requires close attention and doesn’t deliver easy resolutions but it’s never annoyingly obscure or arty. It’s certainly worth watching just for the beautiful landscapes and farmhouses and for two excellent and unshowy performances from Andrea Riseborough and Tom Wlaschiha, as well as a strong supporting turn from Michael Sheen, who seems to have to appear in every British film by law at the minute.

My Week With Marilyn

My Week With Marilyn is a surprisingly enjoyable account of the tensions that arose between two screen legends during the shooting of The Prince And The Showgirl at Pinewood studios in 1956. Director and staunch non-sufferer of fools Sir Laurence Olivier knew the publicity value of securing the famously erratic Marilyn Monroe for his project but was disastrously ill-equipped to deal with her insecurities once filming had started, and his increasingly visible impatience with her lateness and reliance on an ever-present method acting coach only served to make a bad situation worse. All this was observed by wide-eyed and starstruck young third director (or glorified dogsbody) Colin Clark, and it eventually fell to him to earn the delicate star’s sympathy and give her the necessary confidence to complete the film. Clark (who is incidentally the son of the famous art historian Kenneth and the brother of the wildcard Conservative MP Alan) later wrote up his experience as a book, from which this new film is drawn.

A project like this is going to live or die according to the strength of its script and the canniness of its casting and fortunately both elements are spot on here. This is a breezy, brisk movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously but still manages to generate some pathos for the poor beleaguered Marilyn and manages to avoid painting the potentially bland and reactive Clark as a complete non-entity. There’s plenty of fun to be had with the broad-brush but believable depictions of a glamour-starved 1950s England and the inevitable culture clashes that occur when a clutch of sophisticated New Yorkers arrive in the buttoned-down outskirts of London. Michelle Williams does the impossible and manages to pull off a credible impersonation of Marilyn that doesn’t devolve into a collection of mannerisms but the stand-out performance is Kenneth Branagh, who captures Olivier’s fragile and prissy persona to perfection and throws in some of Sir Larry’s signature bizarre pronunciations and ill-timed Shakespeare references just to cap it off. Eddie Redmayne is fine in the unshowy central role, though you get the feeling any reasonably good looking young actor would probably have been OK, and Zoe Wanamaker is a bit of a revelation as the star’s waspish drama coach, who’s impervious to Olivier’s intimidatory tactics. This is by no means an important or groundbreaking bio-pic but it’s as straightforwardly entertaining as anything I’ve seen all year.

C.W.Stoneking and The Dodge Brothers, Koko, London, November 23 2011

“We’re not just skiffle, we’re militant skiffle” proclaims the high profile and famously bolshie film critic Mark Kermode from the stage at Koko before his energetic, if not exactly fresh-faced, retro combo The Dodge Brothers launch into another frenetically paced number. I’d heard of this group via occasional mentions on the legendary movie review slots hosted by Kermode and the seasoned and rather more emollient Simon Mayo, but it was a complete surprise to find them supporting C.W.Stoneking tonight. A very nice surprise too: this is no mere vanity project. Despite remaining firmly within what one might unkindly dismiss as an outmoded idiom this band really rocks, and they’ve got some good material too. Singer and guitarist Alex Hammond hollers out tales of transport, homicide and drunkenness (the band’s own tongue-in-cheek description of their songs’ subject matter) which he punctuates with authentic sounding but never overtly flashy rockabilly riffs while Kermode slaps his battered double bass and parps feistily away on a harmonica like he’s exorcising some personal demons. The sound’s fleshed out by Aly Hirji’s briskly scrubbed acoustic guitar and Hammond’s son Mike on either snare drum or washboard, augmented during one number by an empty wine bottle which he clamps gamely between his thighs and whacks with his sticks. Between song banter falls initially to Hammond senior, but as on the radio Kermode can’t resist getting more and more involved, and fans will have been able to breathe easier once the inevitable David Lynch reference is out of the way. The songs are short and fast and sharp (and pretty much all original too, I found out later) – top quality support.

This is the third time I’ve seen uncanny 1920s blues throwback C.W.Stoneking this year (see also here, where I try to describe what he sounds like, and here, where I get to meet him), and by now I’m familiar enough with him to not spend the set wondering where he got the time machine that let him assimilate and replicate this style of music so authentically but instead relax and enjoy the subversive faux-vaudevillian showmanship he’s also a master of. This is a brilliant performance. After a few numbers featuring his distinctive and highly talented band he takes the stage solo for a while, prefacing the songs with rambling, surreal monologues that are worth the ticket price on their own. Blues singer Jimmy Rogers is recast as an African fertility deity,  a shipwreck leads to death by banjo and a sinister discovery of an “I love Jesus” tattoo, and tales of New Orleans fortune tellers and abandoned weddings take unexpected turns when Coldplay and techno DJs are incongruously namedropped. Stoneking seems more relaxed and comfortable in his master of ceremonies role and his ninety minute set flashes by. The audience are eating out of his hand by the end. Great gig all round.

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary is an adaptation of an early, and reasonably autobiographical, novel by the celebrated (some might say over-celebrated) journalist, irritant of the high and mighty, and all-round substance abuser Hunter S. Thompson. It’s main, and possibly only, point of appeal to a mainstream audience is the casting of Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp, a disillusioned journalist who snags a position at a run-down English language newspaper in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s. Depp has form in this area: he previously appeared as another Thompson surrogate in Terry Gilliam’s lurid and undisciplined take on Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and was reportedly a good friend of the original gonzo speedwriter himself (Thompson took himself out of this world via shotgun in 2005, while on the phone to his wife). That The Rum Diary got made at all is pretty much entirely down to Depp’s enthusiasm for the project, which must have been considerable as he persuaded Bruce Robinson to come out of retirement after nearly twenty years to direct it and write the screenplay. Robinson’s directorial CV is brief, but eventful: after writing and shooting the peerless Withnail & I and its overwrought follow-up How To Get Ahead In Advertising he took on the Hollywood originated Jennifer 8, on which he clashed disastrously with the studio – the film was eventually released straight to video, and Robinson chucked it all in in disgust.

The plot of this new film is kind of loose, but definitely present. Depp’s newspaperman (who’s also a failed novelist) starts off as defeated and diffident, and seemingly content to be dragged into various seamy intrigues and situations by the various colourful, depraved or corrupt characters he happens to find himself rubbing up against. There’s a flashy but dodgy PR man who wants him to sell his shady tourism enterprise, a loudmouth colleague who inveigles him into trouble with the locals and the police, a would-be drugs shaman who’s perpetually wrecked and talks with Tom Waits’s singing voice and a beautiful but unattainable girl to complicate everything further. It’s quite a talky film, but most of the dialogue is worth listening to, even if it’s seldom laugh-out-loud funny, and there are a few setpiece sequences of physical comedy and one or two quite impressively mounted car chases, involving pleasingly beaten up old bangers. There are also a few scenes showing what look like genuine cock fights – not sure what the Animal Humane Society would think.

You’d expect any kind of project based on a Hunter S. Thompson work to be a bit sprawly and ornery and challenging, and Gilliam’s film was certainly all those, although I’d maintain it’s a lot better than the surface impression you get from it might lead you to believe. The Rum Diary is however positively restrained when compared to Fear And Loathing, although inevitably a fairly large percentage of its running time is devoted to the consumption and discussion of strong alcohol, the trashing of motor vehicles and general cussing and ranting. For a start the new film seems to take place in entirely real, naturalistic even, locations and a lot of the people you see in the background look like they may be going about normal everyday business. The one occasion when the film does resort to CGI effects for the purposes of rendering a drug-induced hallucination is jarring, though admittedly also effectively squirm-inducing. It’s also a lot more coherent than Fear And Loathing, with plotlines being followed through and resolved, and Depp’s character even getting an arc in which he finds his voice as a writer. In some ways it came across to me as quite an old-fashioned film, and not just because the quality of the film stock used made it look like it was shot thirty years ago. The Rum Diary is I think destined to be a bit of a curio – too offbeat and wordy to be a hit at the box office, and not glaringly weird or gimmicky enough to garner much of a cult – and it’s a bit of a shame, though Depp deserves credit for ensuring it exists at all when he could easily be coasting his way through blockbusters all the way to retirement.

The Future

Is it just me, or has there been a bit of a backlash against lo-fi, arty, deadpan, vaguely magic realist American movies of late? A few years ago self-consciously offbeat films by geekily hip directors such as Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry seemed to be all the rage, and many of them were pretty damn good as well, once you got past the general slacker too-cool-for-school vibe, but now, in this new age of austerity and social disintegration, it feels like the appetite is more for gritty realism on one hand or unchallenging escapism on the other. If I’m right, and I confess I haven’t spent that much time or effort whipping this theory into shape, then the prospects for Miranda July’s new film The Future may not be that glowing, as it falls squarely into the sub-genre defined by things like Being John Malkovich, without really bringing anything particularly interesting or new to the party.

The Future concerns itself with a thirty-something couple, Sophie and Jason, played by Hamish Linklater and July herself, who find their relationship reaches a crisis point after they make the decision to adopt a sick cat. It turns out that there will be a waiting period of 30 days before they can collect the animal (the film is in fact narrated by the cat from inside its cage at the rehoming centre), which gives them time to realise that their lives are about to enter a new and more committed phase. Like July’s previous film Me And You And Everyone We Know the narrative here is pretty stripped back and is just there really as a starting point for the lead characters to get all introspective and self-explorey before embarking on unconventional and unpredictable encounters with unlikely new acquaintances. While there are parts which are funny and enough surreal elements to let you know this is a heightened reality you’re being presented with the overall mood is actually quite sombre, melancholy even, which is a relief as this project could easily have come off as hopelessly self-indulgent if the “quirky” card had been overplayed. July makes for a convincing oddball and Linklater is very likeable in what could have been a nerdy and bloodless role, though I suspect the test on where you stand on this movie is whether you’re able to stomach the high purry voice July uses for the voiceovers from the cat. I didn’t mind the film – it certainly caught a mood, featured some pleasing details (I did really like the expressive props used for the cat’s paws) and importantly didn’t go on too long – but it all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. Is there still room for a bit of navel-gazing in these harsh times?

The Help

The casual racism and onerous working conditions experienced by black housemaids in early 1960s Mississippi are the subject of The Help, an impeccably liberal and sometimes very funny drama adapted from a novel by Kathryn Stockett. Recent graduate and wannabe journalist Skeeter Phelan, who sticks out sore-thumb-like amongst her terribly conventional and well-to-do contemporaries, senses the opportunity for an interesting story when she starts to observe the offhand callousness and absurd humiliations that these so-called respectable women subject their employees (or “Help”) to. One of her erstwhile friends is even trying to get a government bill passed that will forbid black servants from using the inside lavatory. Skeeter conceives a project to write a book from the maids’ point of view and after initial resistance finds some willing collaborators who are capable of considerably greater articulacy when met with a sympathetic ear than they ever get a chance of demonstrating in their working lives. Many choice anecdotes are told and played out, with the privileged white women of property variously revealed as venal, scheming, self-righteous, vacuous and even, in a couple of cases, humane and compassionate. The film probably goes on a little too long, but there are some richly earned pay-offs along the way, and the acting is uniformly excellent, with Bryce Dallas Howard standing out as the beyond-snobbish ringleader of the establishment womenfolk and Sissy Spacek stealing every scene she’s in as her screw-loose mother, alongside a much more grounded and subtle performance by Viola Davis as the embittered but never thoughtlessly vengeful maid Aibileen. This is, one or two moments of offscreen violence and a rather unconventional recipe for chocolate pie apart, a perfect Sunday afternoon movie and will probably do great business on DVD.

The Silence (Das Letzte Schweigen)

The Silence is a carefully made and often quite gripping drama from Germany that reminds me quite a lot of the multi-part one-off crime serials you sometimes get running at 9pm on the BBC: Five Days, Criminal Justice, slow, sombre, delicately unfolding stuff like that. The film starts by showing the rape and unintentional murder of a young girl in 1986 – not in graphic detail, but it’s dwelt on enough to stick unpleasantly in the memory – before cutting forward to 2009, when a seemingly identical crime takes place in the same location. The viewer gets the points of view of all the relevant parties: the perpetrators, who are depicted as troubled rather than evil, the families of the victims, and the police officers investigating the murders, who include most of the stock character types one might expect to find in this type of piece: one is experienced and irascible, one is officious and unimaginative and one is fragile but brilliant. Despite the familarity of the genre and one or two gratuitous impressionistic sequences intended to convey the inner torment of certain characters The Silence is well worth a look, if only for the sympathetic portrait it draws of the man at the centre of the mystery, who is struggling to lead a good life despite his unsavoury impulses.

The Awakening

The Awakening, the first film from TV director Nick Murphy, is the classiest and most atmospheric period ghost story I’ve seen since The Others. It’s strategically set in a boys’ public school sited at a remote Cumbrian stately home in 1921, thus affording the possibility of tender souls carried off too soon by war and Spanish flu. Florence Cathcart, a sceptical young investigator of paranormal activity, has been called in after the death of a boy in seemingly supernatural circumstances. She rolls up with her cameras and thermometers and recording devices in a business-like and confident frame of mind, but as you’d expect the situation turns out to be not as cut and dried as she’d anticipated.

This is a very fine looking film. Not only is the bleak and forbidding location enough to get your imagination running wild on its own, with its cavernous and echoey interior spaces and the expanses of wintry woodland and austere hilltops visible through every window, but the colours have been artfully graded to accentuate chilly blues and greys and downplay the warmer colours to virtually nothing. Everyone here looks freezing, and the general state of the school’s inhabitants’ mental wellbeing doesn’t come across as too rosy either. The director runs through a lot of the stock moves of films of this genre (lengthy sequences of characters creeping round corridors at night before the sudden shock appearance of a creepy child, that sort of thing), but he does it with restraint and judgement and succeeds in never letting the film tip over into unintentionally hilarious melodrama. The actual plot turns out to be a lot more convoluted and unpredictable than it might first appear, and for my money there are maybe one or two complications too many (the thing seems to resolve after an hour of running time, before heading off in another direction), but it hangs together perfectly well and keeps you guessing until surprisingly late into the running time. A definite plus is the casting of Rebecca Hall in the lead role – whenever I’ve seen her before she’s always seemed to be in somewhat thankless third banana roles (Vicky Cristina Barcelona or The Prestige, which has certain ground in common with this film), but she’s very good indeed here, adeptly portraying her character’s gradual slide from breezy self-assurance to bewilderment and panic. Also present are Dominic West, who’s fine as a tormented history master (I guess it’s my problem that he’ll always be McNulty from The Wire to me) and Imelda Staunton, who by now can do the creepy repressed matron thing in her sleep. Like I said: classy.

Island Of Lost Souls

H.G.Wells’s The Island Of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896, remains one of the most truly nightmarish books I’ve ever read. The novel is told from the point of view of a most unfortunate gentleman who, after being rescued from a shipwreck, finds himself deposited on a remote outpost where an obsessed scientist is carrying out bizarre surgical experiments on imported animals, with the aim of converting them into humans. The trials seem to be successful, in that the various creatures learn to walk upright and even master rudimentary speech, but eventually nature reasserts itself, resulting in a highly dangerous and disturbing environment populated by tortured parodies of humanity who are struggling to contain their bestial impulses. The protagonist of the novel witnesses, and becomes involved in, various distorted rituals, ceremonies and debates before what passes for society on the island descends into chaos.

Given the luridness of its scenario and the potential for schlocky special effects sequences there have been surprisingly few attempts at adapting the book for the screen. There’s a 1977 film starring Michael York and Burt Lancaster which I haven’t seen, and a spectacular misfire from 1996 which connoisseurs of bad cinema should seek out just for the sight of Marlon Brando, no less, camping it up at a grand piano with the smallest man in the world while wearing an expansive white nightdress. The only other English language version I’m aware of is the 1932 Island Of Lost Souls, which has just been released on DVD in the prestigious Criterion Collection range. This one actually came out while Wells was still alive, and reportedly he didn’t care for it very much, but it sure beats the 1996 film by miles.

Island Of Lost Souls is actually a fairly loose version of Wells’s book, probably due to the perceived demands of the cinema audience of the time. It devotes a lot of its crisp 70 minute running time to establishing its characters (even giving the leading man a love interest), and has several scenes set in the outside, off-island, world, which have the effect of providing some relief and contrast from the claustrophobic nightmare that is Moreau’s domain. These changes could easily have diluted the power of the ideas presented in the novel – actually, however, the intrusion of reminders of normal society have the effect of heightening the weirdness of the basic scenario. Key to the success of the film is the casting of Charles Laughton as Moreau: he’s urbane, assured, unflappable, highly civilised on the surface, but in certain shots when he’s seen in half-shadow you can really believe that he’s a reckless and controlling obsessive who will stop at nothing to ensure the continuation of his project. It’s also a very shrewd decision by director Erle C. Kenton not to dwell on the many weird creatures in the film – not because they’re anything but excellently realised, as you can appreciate when you occasionally get to see one in close-up, but because the technique of having them scuttling around at the edges of the frame while the lead actors are having ostensibly rational exchanges of dialogue is highly effective and unsettling. The film is shot in a striking expressionist style, with the contrast between curtains of bright light and heavy shadows in which you can just about make out subtle movements more than making up for the complete absence of incidental music, a convention which at this early stage had yet to be adopted. There are some excellent cave and jungle sets, which come into their own towards the climax of the film, and it’s obvious that this film is an important pre-cursor to the following year’s King Kong (weird jungle beasties, ships ploughing towards isolated islands through lonely seas, unfettered nature bringing chaos to established orders). While Island Of Lost Souls is by no means as iconic or downright thrilling as Kong it certainly deserves far wider currency, and if you’re at all interested in early horror or creature films you should certainly seek it out.

The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn

I was feeling a bit queasy about going to see the new Tintin film, having read some decidedly mixed reviews, including a couple which lambasted it as a downright travesty, a horrible descration of Hergé’s widely beloved, and painstakingly executed comic book series. I’m a big fan of Tintin, twice over: once as a child, when I loved the books for their vibrancy, wit and invention and then again as an adult, when I could better appreciate Hergé’s skill and care as a graphic artist and his skill at convincingly placing his realistically flawed and human protagonists into exotic, but always meticulously well-researched, locations. Tintin first appeared in the 1920s as a serialised cartoon strip running in a Belgian newspaper, and while the early stories were somewhat basic, both in terms of draughtsmanship and plot, it wasn’t too long before Hergé was rolling out sophisticated, intriguing yet entirely accessible adventures and mysteries that commented on geo-political issues of the day and also served to sympathetically introduce a young audience to other societies and cultures. In later years the books became less and less frequent as the author spent more and more time and resources on getting both the overall stories and the individual panels as perfect as he could possibly get them. It was worth it – his albums from the 50s and 60s like The Calculus Affair, Tintin In Tibet and The Castefiore Emerald have the richness of great novels or films.

Efforts to bring Tintin to the screen have never been very satisfying. Up until recently, film-makers had the choice between attempting live action, which would lose much of the charm and precision of the books, and traditional animation, which would always carry the risk of just being an exercise in filling in the missing frames between the carefully selected points in the story that Hergé chose to render as panels. Nowadays, however, the tools of the trade have evolved to the point where big-name directors like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (who gets a producer’s credit here) can achieve a middle way: via extensive motion-capture technology, it’s now possible to produce something that looks “real” but is populated by characters who closely resemble those seen on the printed page (as I understand it, it involves filming real actors who are wearing sensors at strategic points of their bodies and then generating animated on-screen characters via computers which have analysed the actors’ movements). I first saw this type of technique used in the film of Beowulf a few years ago, where it just looked odd – you could recognise the actors, like Anthony Hopkins, but they looked liked they’d been wrapped in clingfilm – but in this film, it kind of works, once you get used to it.

As the title suggests, the film is more or less an adaptation of The Secret Of The Unicorn, which came out in 1943, but it also contains quite a few elements from a previous album, The Crab With The Golden Claws, which have presumably been included because the events of Unicorn take place entirely within Belgium, and the Middle East set sections of Claws provide an opportunity to “open out” the action a little. This cavalier mixing and matching of the source material may be one reason why the film has met with a snooty reception in some quarters, but I don’t have a problem with it, as the movie’s plot, which does make significant alterations to that of the book, seems as logical and thought-through as any you’re likely to come across in a Hollywood blockbuster. Said plot concerns a mystery bound up with three models of a 17th Century sailing ship, The Unicorn, which various shady parties are trying to obtain. Tintin starts to investigate, like a plucky young journalist should, and uncovers a connection between The Unicorn and a drunk and defeatist ship’s captain called Haddock that he encounters on a boat headed for the Gulf states. The story whips along at a fair pace, although it seems a lot more focussed in the early stages when Tintin starts his sleuthing in his home town than in the inevitable setpiece action sequences that occur later. The tone of the film is not too dissimilar to that of the Indiana Jones films (not surprising, given the director), or 1970s comedy crime capers like The Pink Panther films, and like those films Tintin is really pretty enjoyable once you let yourself relax into it. The storytelling is clear and uncluttered, the characters are well-defined and often pleasantly eccentric, there are many witty touches, not all of which are derived from the books, and while I bemoan some of the unfunny comedy (anything to do with The Thompson Twins) and the regrettable decision to give Captain Haddock an on-message character arc it really could have been a lot worse. I mean, imagine if they’d given Tintin a back story. Or a love interest.