Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from the Coen brothers, is an odd hybrid of comedy and existential howl of despair. Set among the clubs, coffee shops and rented rooms of the New York folk music scene of 1961 it stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, a gifted but catastrophically self-centred performer whose efforts to establish himself as a commercially viable act are constantly sabotaged by his thoughtlessness and refusal to make the necessary accommodations of other people’s help and constructive advice. He’s repeatedly seen tramping through snowy streets to whatever kindhearted acquaintance he thinks he might be able to persuade to put him up for the night and his spare time between his very occasional gigs seems to be spent in arguing with and generally alienating fellow musicians, family members and record company bosses. About the only living being other than himself that he shows concern for is a ginger cat that he manages to misplace while minding a friend’s apartment.
Llewyn’s misadventures and lack of social niceties make for some very funny and sometimes winceworthy scenes, with dialogue as sharp and inventive as you might expect from the makers of The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing. There are several genuine laugh-out-loud moments. But there’s also an underlying melancholic tone that makes his bumbling plight feel almost tragic at times, most notably during a speculative roadtrip that Llewyn makes to Chicago in order to try to impress a famed folk music impresario. His two travelling companions (one taciturn, one patronisingly garrulous) seem not just eccentric but disquietingly alien and the long car journey to a freezing, windswept Chicago comes over like an odyssey to the dark depths of Llewyn’s soul. The muted, soft-brown, colours that the Coens use for the bulk of the film give way here to deep wintry blues and near-blacks that couldn’t be a better choice for spelling out “All hope is lost”.
Llewyn’s one redeeming quality is that he is, despite all his arrogance and indifference towards the people who might help him, a pretty spellbinding guitarist and singer…which means that Oscar Isaac must be as well, as we’re treated to several unbroken and closely observed sequences of the man doing his thing, at live shows and auditions and at one point even in the passenger seat of a car. The Coens have always been good with music (witness the groundbreaking success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack) and one of this film’s main pleasures is the way it’s saturated with stripped down folk songs that are captivating and authentic (or authentic-sounding, anyway. I’ve got no idea how many of the pieces here were written specially for the movie). The fingerpicking and close harmonies are gorgeous and even the deliberately cheesy tunes have a weird fascination.
You wouldn’t call Inside Llewyn Davis a feelgood film by any measure other than musical as it ends up feeling as weirdly unresolved and ultimately a bit unsatisfying as other recent Coen efforts No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man. It is however exquisitely made, with some great turns by the cast (Carey Mulligan is convincingly and formidably pissed-off as one of Llewyn’s one night stands) and an unusually affecting atmosphere. It’s certainly the best film I’ve seen about a talented but self-destructive acoustic guitar player since Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown about fifteen years ago…although I guess there hasn’t been too much competition there. And it’s got the best cat acting ever.
The Railway Man is an adaptation of the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a British World War Two veteran whose horrific experiences in Burma at the hands of the Japanese army were causing him severe post-traumatic stress even thirty-five years later. When Lomax discovers that the interpreter Nagase who facilitated his barbaric interrogation sessions is still alive and working at the same location he decides, with the encouragement of his new wife, to take the trip over to South-East Asia to face his demons and maybe achieve closure.
This is an earnest and worthy film that sets out to explore weighty themes of memory and reconciliation and if you’re looking for an actor who can deliver stiff-upper-lip repressed torment you’re not ever going to do better than Colin Firth but even so, I dunno…it all felt a bit fumbled and awkward to me. It’s structurally odd, starting as it does with a rather charming meet-cute between Firth and Nicole Kidman on a train, the light tone of which is absent from the rest of the film, before working its way through a rather contrived set of flashbacks showing Lomax as a young man being captured and set to work along with the rest of his unit on the infamously high-casualty Burma railway construction project. Presumably this format has been adopted so that the audience gets the information about Lomax’s past in the same sequence as his wife uncovers it but it might have been better for the flow of the film to have presented it in a straightforward chronological order. I was also distracted by Kidman’s haircut and over-precise enunciation and, slightly less trivially, by the decision to cast the defiantly Swedish-accented Stellan Skarsgard as Lomax’s former comrade-in-arms Finlay. Surely we’re not running that short of adequate Scottish actors? It all feels like someone should have run an iron over the script to minimise the wrinkles before they started shooting.
When, however, The Railway Man does get going and is allowed to get to the heart of its story it succeeds well in getting across the horrors of this particular corner of war. The scenes set in the 1940s are both vibrant and harrowing, presenting a convincing depiction of brave and resourceful men struggling to survive in a hostile situation. Jeremy Irvine does an excellent job as the younger Lomax who’s put through hell when his enthusiasm for making maps of trainlines is misinterpreted by his captors and some of the other actors look disturbingly malnourished. The film’s also pretty affecting later, when a stony-faced Firth returns to confront Nagase – you’re genuinely not quite sure how these scenes will play out. There’s enough good stuff in this film to make it worth your while if you’re interested in the subject, or just want a good cry – I was just left feeling that it was a shame that a fairly amazing true story had been put on the screen in such a convoluted fashion.
If you thought Martin Scorsese’s new epic The Wolf Of Wall Street was going to be a heavy and serious critique of the excesses of the banking sector in the last few years think again. It’s based on the memoir of the stockbroker Jordan Belfort which came out before the big crash of 2008 and details his working practices, fraudulent activities and jaw-droppingly unrestrained playboy lifestyle in the years of plenty…plenty being a euphemism for industrial-scale misselling of stocks and shares of highly dubious potential.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort as a slick, ambitious and hyper-confident salesman who’s convinced that the world is for his taking as long as he can make his pitch irresistible. As it turned out, he was right: within a few years of starting his career by coldcalling gullible clients with honeyed promises from scuzzy offices converted from garages he was making millions a month, able to afford a mammoth mansion in upstate New York, a yacht the size of a shopping centre and a constant cycle of uproarious parties and sleazy liaisons, fuelled by a regime of illegal stimulants and relaxants. All of this is rendered on screen with gusto and panache, with the scenes set among the coked-up, aggressive dealers on the trading floor barely less feral than the bacchanalian orgies that follow (the dwarf-tossing party actually occurs in the workplace, while trading is open). This film is very much in Scorsese’s comfort zone, and with its tale of the rise and fall of an outsider through a vicious hierarchy of power it’s highly reminiscent of Goodfellas, even down to the cocky voiceover and the freezeframes, and I also recognised the same tone of heightened mania that runs through The Aviator. What it’s lacking, despite all the luxurious trappings, beautiful models and top of the range sportscars, is glamour – DiCaprio and an unexpected cameo from Joanna Lumley aside, all these chancers look and act like slobs. At times it’s a gallery of flab, bad hair, base appetites and self-centredness, with Jonah Hill’s performance as Belfort’s bizarre right-hand man Donny a particularly fascinating study in creepiness. The good times of course can’t last, and the FBI gradually get wind of Belfort’s insider deals and failure to declare mountains of cash, making for a denouement that may be inevitable but is still pretty dramatic, and along the way there are at least half a dozen setpiece confrontations and capers that seem destined to become classics (Belfort’s return home from the country club down the road from his house had me cackling in my seat).
The Wolf Of Wall Street is a riot, three hours of outrageous and reprehensible behaviour that had me gasping, laughing and occasionally even cheering throughout despite the misgivings of my impeccably right-on inner Guardian reader. Politically correct it isn’t but hilarious it most certainly is and there’s just enough self-awareness and punishment for its loathsome lead characters for the viewer not to feel too bad about it.
While it’s pretty clear that civilisation in general is going through a bit of a bad patch at the minute, what with the revival of the concept of the undeserving poor and the slashing, belittling and selling off of essential public services for reasons that seem dubious at best, there are however one or two fringe benefits to being alive right now, particularly if you’re into old movies. Back in the day, before videos and DVDs and way before on-demand streaming, you sometimes had to make herculean efforts to see any film not currently on general release, either by waiting up into the small hours to catch a screening on one of the three TV channels or by attending film clubs, where the quality of the prints were usually so dire that you weren’t left much the wiser by the end. The advent of VHS rental shops seemed like a revolution, but even then you usually ended up squinting at something smeary and riddled with tracking artefacts and there was the ever present possibility that your machine would chew the tape into unusability. Plus it wasn’t necessarily cheap: shops would often require you to buy one film at retail price before they let you start renting, and the price of a film could be something like £45, which could represent several weeks worth of disposal income in the early 80s.
Nowadays on the other hand you can get high-definition surround-sound transfers of just about anything beamed direct into your cerebral cortex within seconds of thinking of it. Or, if you’re still wedded to the idea of the physical product you can probably order it on disc for the price of a latte or a magazine. For example: as part of their centenary celebrations, Universal studios have issued a handsome box containing blu-rays of eight of their classic horror movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s and you can currently get it online for £18. That’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride Of Frankenstein, The Phantom Of The Opera, The Wolfman and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. For eighteen quid! It’s an austerity-age bargain! And these are no knocked-off cheapo editions either – they’re buffed up, restored, gleaming transfers with yards of value added material such as documentaries and commentaries attached, and you even get a glossy little book and postcards showcasing the original promotional art.
So far I’ve only watched Dracula (1931) all the way through. It’s a classic, just for the opening ten minutes, which are all wild mountainside roads and the Count’s spectacularly cobwebbed and ultra-gothic castle. The sets and matte paintings are just gorgeous. Eventually Bela Lugosi makes his appearance and despite his slightly stilted delivery (you can tell English is not his first language) he’s immediately the definitive Dracula: elegant, charming, slick-backed and exotically accented. He couldn’t be more of a contrast to the rat-like Max Shreck in Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu and is the template for more or less every screen vampire-in-chief ever since. I’ve got to say that the earlier film is ultimately more effective and resonant due to its sheer weirdness and scenes of plague and disaster – where Murnau showed a whole town succumbing to the baleful influence of the vampire, the 1931 film seems to bed down into long and not very dramatic dialogues scenes that take place in a comfortable mansion, as though we’re watching a stage play. The main points of interest are Dwight Frye’s manic interjections as the possessed Renfield, which do shatter the slightly soporific tone even if they’re a bit hammy.
Anyway, one film down, seven to go and if you’d told me thirty years ago that a collection like this would be available for the price of a small shopping basket at Tesco I’d have told you that it sounded like someone somewhere had got their priorities a bit tangled.
New Year’s Resolution: if you can’t find anything interesting to say then keep it short.
Case in point: 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of nineteenth century black musician Solomon Northup’s 1953 book of the same name. Northup was kidnapped and sold to a succession of plantation owners, under whom he witnessed and experienced barely imaginable cruelty. The film’s been garnering five star reviews for months and is as surefire an awards-magnet as I’ve ever seen for its theme, its pitiless but never gratuitous depiction of the barbarity and degradation of slavery, the skill and judgement of its makers (despite all the horrors here they still managed to bring it in as a 15 certificate) and the quality of the acting, particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor as the brutalised Northup, Michael Fassbender as his drunk and sadistic “owner” Edwin Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as an unfortunate girl who Epps has taken a perverse shine to. I could go on for another few hundred words, many of which probably be along the lines of “searing” and “unflinching”, but others have said it much better elsewhere. It’s pretty much a bulletproof classic. I will however throw in a couple of observations: firstly, that I did very much enjoy Paul Giamatti’s cameo as a silver-tongued slave dealer (“my sentimentality is the length of a coin”) and secondly, that it did leave me with a yen to dig out the old mini-series Roots. My guess is that while it would probably come across as a lot more stagey and a bit less intense than McQueen’s film it would still make a good point of comparison and stand up well, if only for showing the monumental effects of slavery on successive generations rather than one displaced man.
The Desolation Of Smaug, the second and middle part of Peter Jackson’s ludicrously over-extended adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is just as padded out as its predecessor with gratuitous sequences of horrible orcs hunting our heroes but nonetheless seems to flow considerably better. This may be because it’s starting to feel that Bilbo and his dwarfy mates are actually getting somewhere in their convoluted journey to the Lonely Mountain and the usurping dragon within, or it might have something to do with the variety and richly textured realisation of the places we get to visit: a spooky, cobwebby forest, the treetop palace of an Elven lord, the damp and rundown platforms and walkways of Laketown (particularly liked this location, a bit like a Poundland Venice in the Fens) and finally the treasure strewn halls of the dwarves’ former kingdom. We get man-eating spiders, spectacular flypasts round forbidding ruined castles precariously balanced on the sides of mountains, about half a dozen long and complicated battle bits in which Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly prove over and over and over again how great elves are at kicking goblin butt and, as the master of Lakeland, Stephen Fry doing his addled aristo routine in a quite awesomely preposterous wig. Best of all we eventually get a one to one between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and the Benedict Cumberbatch voiced dragon Smaug (Watson, meet Holmes), and like its counterpoint Bilbo/Gollum scene in the first film it stands head, shoulders and menacing scaly appendages above everything else – it’s creepy, unbearably tense and was the only point in the film when even the young children in the audience I was in fell silent. Elsewhere, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf continues his tradition of abandoning his charges just when they need his help most in order to keep mysterious appointments in pointlessly perilous places, and Richard Armitage’s Thorin carries on managing his team badly with a winning mixture of impulsiveness, resentment and arrogance, like he’s been hastily over-promoted. This is a film that there’s really not much recommending, as you’ll either not be interested or will have bought your ticket and ordered the DVD already, but it delivers more or less everything you require it to and once someone’s done a fan edit that cuts out all the endless crossbow and beheading bits it’ll be pretty damn zippy. My chief worry is that we leave the story very close to the end of book, if I’m remembering it rightly – how on Middle Earth is Jackson going to wring a final three hour film out of one dragon attack, one battle and a bit of mopping up? Will it turn into a musical?
About eighteen months ago I was quite sniffy about the first Hunger Games movie, mainly because I was disappointed that a promising future world scenario, in which random young people from the oppressed outlying districts of a decadent dictatorship were forced to fight to the death, had fizzled out in an over-extended arena sequence which seemed to go out of its way to dodge the potential moral challenges that Jennifer Lawrence’s gutsy heroine Katniss should have had to face. Fortunately author Suzanne Collins’s books form one of these modern Harry Potter style franchises, so here’s another film in which they get to have another go at the same basic storyline (or a pretty familiar-feeling development of it, anyway) and this time round it seems to me to come off a lot more satisfactorily.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows straight on from the events of the first installment and assumes that you’re up to speed on who’s who and what’s what without so much as a title card to break the ice. It’s framed as a conflict between Katniss, who is becoming the unwitting figurehead for a nascent revolution since her wily gambit at the end of the previous games saved her life and that of her fellow tribute Peeta, and the cruel and manipulative President Snow who was only a shadowy presence before but gets buckets of choice dialogue scenes and lingering malevolent close-ups here. This is good news as Donald Sutherland can do unsettling and controlling as well as anyone in the business, and he’s not the only heavyweight delivering a classy performance as we also get Stanley Tucci reprising his role as a brilliantly oily TV presenter and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the hard-to-read games designer Plutarch Heavensbee, which is incidentally the most preposterously enjoyable character name I’ve come across in a good while.
Anyway, whereas in the first film we got a gripping set-up followed by a lame pay-off, here it’s the other way round. The first half of Catching Fire seems unremittingly drab and dour and bleak as we witness the various deprived regions suffering brutal reprisals for the mildest acts of dissent against the state while the plot weaves its way through the contortions necessary to contrive a reason to send Katniss back into the arena of death again. None of this is poorly thought out or badly staged, and in a lot of ways it even feels emotionally convincing, but Lord it’s grim, with the only light relief being the bizarre costumes and hairstyles of some of the privileged capital dwellers and the odd moment of deadpan black humour. It really ramps up though when we eventually get to the main event – this time The Hunger Games themselves are meaner and altogether zippier, taking place in an ingeniously deadly environment and involving a much more interesting bunch of competitors than previously. Hell, some of them are even middle-aged or older! One of them even wears glasses!
The last hour or so of the film is as inventive and engaging as you could hope for, even if the overall tone remains firmly in the zone marked bleak, and there’s real uncertainty as to how the story will resolve. Without wanting to spoil anything, there are another couple of films in the pipeline and this one ends with the sort of revelations that some folk like to call “game-changing”. This isn’t exactly the cheeriest night out, and don’t even think about going to see it if you haven’t seen the first film, but it’s nice to see a sci-fi blockbuster that’s taken the trouble to establish characters as complex and subtle as some of those presented here, and to not make it too obvious which ones are going to win out in the end.
Yesterday I spent much of the day unsuccessfully trying to fix a dripping tap. It was awful. The fittings were corroded, it took me ages to get the stopcock to turn, the screw-thread on the cylinder of the thing was shot and no matter how many times I tried different washers the problem just kept getting worse. I was a jangled wreck by the time the decision was taken to give up on it and call the plumber in.
Later on though I went out to see the much-heralded Gravity, which turned out to be a big help in putting my problems with hardware, and indeed everything else, in perspective. This movie, in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play space-walking astronauts whose mission to repair components on the Hubble Space Telescope is seriously disrupted by a random fly-past of Russian space debris, is right and properly awesome in a way that I can’t remember seeing on screen since HAL 9000 refused to open the pod bay doors way back in the day. It takes place in a vast and implacably indifferent environment that’s rendered so well you’re made to feel as insignificant and vulnerable as one of the little nuts or bolts you occasionally glimpse drifting off into the infinite blackness and much of it plays out in daring near-silence and in unbroken and fiendishly complicated takes lasting minutes on end. It is however despite all the extraordinarily well designed and realised space stations and equipment and detailed views of the Earth not really a science fiction film. It’s more like the worst day at work ever, which just happens to have taken place in space as opposed to on an oil rig or at an airport or in an installation at the bottom of the sea.
I’m not going to go into much detail about what happens in this film because the thing is so immersive and gripping and thrilling and vivid that it would be like trying to describe a bungee jump or a rollercoaster ride that somehow managed to include sections in zero gravity. I will say that at ninety minutes it’s admirably streamlined and focused, with Clooney’s tiresome know-it-all wisecracking and an overly contrived tragic backstory for Bullock the only minor elements to distract you from the extreme and gruelling peril you find themselves in the midst of. There are sequences that are stunning for the degree with which you find yourself identifying with the astronauts’ fear and disorientation and there are moments that are still and quiet and beautiful. I’m not sure if it adds up to anything profound or revealing about the human spirit but the ingenuity, care and skill with which it’s been executed means that anyone planning a movie set in space is going to have aim high or risk looking hopelessly outmoded. Director Alfonso Cuarón is some kind of visionary, with an enormous facility for overcoming technical challenges (this is, apart from anything else, the first film I’ve seen since Avatar that really demands to be seen in 3D, and I can imagine it being absolutely overwhelming in an IMAX cinema). I wonder if he’s good with bathroom taps?
So when does Steve Coogan find time to sleep then? He seems to be have been in half the cinema trailers I’ve seen of late, as assorted porn barons (The Look Of Love), estranged fathers (What Maisie Knew) and legendary East Anglian titans of naffness (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa), roles he must have struggled to squeeze in between his sterling Murdoch-bashing turns on Newsnight and the Leveson inquiry and the filming of a new series of The Trip with Rob Brydon. And, look, here he is again, not just starring in but co-writing the script for Stephen Frears’s new film Philomena. Is there maybe more than one of him?
This latest is an adaptation of former journalist and spin doctor Martin Sixsmith’s memoir about an Irish woman’s search for her lost son. Philomena was a victim of the now notorious Magadalene laundries, in which unmarried teenage mothers were forcibly separated from their children by hard-faced nuns and turned into workhouse slaves until it was felt that they’d atoned for their sins and repaid their (non-existent) debts to society (for another account of this see Peter Mullan’s brutal The Magdalane Sisters, if you have the stomach for it). Judi Dench plays the older Philomena, who only chooses to reveal this secret of her traumatic youth on the 50th birthday of her son, while Coogan takes the role of the smart but supercilious Sixsmith, who initially only agrees to help research the story because his high-flying careers as a journalist and a spin doctor have come off the rails amid much media acrimony.
This small-scale but potentially unwatchably dour story doesn’t sound much like a fun night out on paper but rather miraculously Philomena turns out to be a wonderful film, with an intriguing detective story and constant instances of wit and humour perfectly balancing the worthy but grim subject matter. It’s essentially an odd couple two-hander between Dench and Coogan, and Frears is enough of an old pro to pare away distracting sub-plots, complications and overblown setpiece revelations and just let them get on with it. Coogan’s Sixsmith is a muted variation on his stock tactless know-it-all character who unlike Alan Partridge et al does know how to press his case to get results but often finds his glib assumptions about his subject seriously misplaced. Dench on the other hand skilfully projects an air of artlessness and benign naivete which covers some surprising worldliness and great emotional maturity. At different times the two grate on each other in different ways but both are rounded enough human beings to gain insight from the various strained encounters they find themselves in, and they get some brilliantly funny dialogue too.
And on top of all this lovely character stuff there’s an amazing, and apparently true, story here that on a number of occasions catches you off guard and develops in ways you couldn’t have anticipated. One scene in particular, in which what starts as a petty domestic-style row between the two suddenly converts into the most dramatic of bombshells, left me reeling and the impact was heightened by the lack of any bombastic devices on the part of the director to prepare the audience for what was coming. The restrained, TV-movie style of Philomena doesn’t make it look like the kind of film you should go out of your way for, but it’s so brilliant, funny and in places devastatingly effective that you really should.
Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant doesn’t have too many overt similarities with the Oscar Wilde story from which it derives its name but it certainly shares something of its fable-like and melancholic tone. It’s an impressively spare and naturalistic film set in a deprived Northern city where the only opportunities for advancement available to two lads from disadvantaged backgrounds who find themselves excluded from school are in the gift of the hardbitten foreman of a scrap metal yard. One of the boys, the gentle Swifty, has an affinity with the horses and ponies that are still used for transporting the dodgily acquired cable and spare parts that represent what passes for currency at this level of society and starts to see a future for himself as a rider in one of the illegal but exhilarating cart races that regularly take place on public highways at the crack of dawn. The talents of his friend Arbor, on the other hand, lie more in the area of having the gall to strike cocky deals anywhere he can and being fearless enough to go after the kind of electrical parts that any scavenger with a sense of self-preservation would leave well alone.
The most obvious influence on The Selfish Giant is Kes, and like that film it’s likely to become a bit of an enduring classic of disenfranchised youth and doomed aspirations by virtue of its clear, uncluttered and often courageously quiet filming style (there’s no music soundtrack, for example, and the credits at the start are more or less non-existent), the uniformly excellent and entirely convincing acting particularly from Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas as the two young leads and the complete absence of any high-handed moralising. It’s too well crafted and composed to be mistaken for a documentary but you have no trouble believing that things like this happen and that makes the eventual dramatic reverses at the end of the film that much more gut-wrenching. My only real problem with it is that sometimes there seems a bit of a mismatch between the frenetic and chaotic lives of the two boys and the studied, neutral way they’re observed by the camera – please go see the Dardenne Brothers’ brilliant The Kid On A Bike for an example of how a director (or pair of directors) can really make you feel the fizz of a young man on a mission. Nonetheless, this is a pretty impressive and moving film that easily transcends the average run-of-the-mill Brit-movie bleakness.