Tuesday 31 October 2006

Blogcritics redesign

Blogcritics has improved its site design. It's still quite cluttered and text-heavy, but that's because there's so much material contributed by its 1,700 reviewers. The ads cheapen it a little, but I guess they're a necessity. On the whole, though, it looks so much better, especially with a slightly smaller font size. Arial looks mince when it's too big.

I've contributed a few of my ickleReviews.

Sunday 29 October 2006

The Producers (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

Remake of the 1968 Mel Brooks movie musical about a flopping Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986); I could establish no relation to Joyce's Leopold Bloom), who run a scam to produce a deliberate flop show to maximize their profit from the investment money. They pick Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell)'s Nazi paean, Springtime for Hitler, and hire gay-as-you-like director Roger DeBris (Gary Beach) and Swedish chorus girl/secretary/receptionist Ulla (Uma Thurman). The only problem is, with Hitler camped up, will audiences really take offence?

At 129 minutes it's a little flabby and uncinematic. The exposition scene between Max and Leo is far too slow to develop and is not as funny as it thinks it is. Ferrell is brilliant as the tall lederhosened German with Nazi-saluting pigeons, and Thurman manages to be ridiculously sexy without being arousing.

It's a fun film with some great choreography and production design, and a marvellous tune in "Springtime for Hitler", but it remains a little flat throughout.

Nugget: I'd have to see the 1968 original before I can pass fair judgement.

Thursday 26 October 2006

Wednesday 25 October 2006

Handkerchief Drill (1949) - ickleReview (cinema)

Amusing one-minute short public information film produced by the British government's Ministry of Health to encourage its citizens to use handkerchiefs when sneezing. In the style of Mr Cholmondley-Warner. This black and white film has recently been restored by the BFI and is being screened before performances of The History Boys.

Nugget: surely this sort of thing was made with tongue inserted firmly in cheek.

The History Boys (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

In 2004 Alan Bennett's play The History Boys was a huge success at the National Theatre on London's South Bank. Its run was extended to meet audience demand and it toured with similar popularity in New York and Sydney, receiving numerous awards. This film crystallizes those immaculate performances, preserving them on celluloid for future generations, who would never be able to see the same cast performing the play. Already the boys were becoming young men. This film came before it was too late. It's so rare that the entire cast and the director (Nicholas Hytner) are able to carry on over into the film adaptation of a play.

Set in a Yorkshire grammar school in the early 1980s, The History Boys is about a class of exceptionally smart boys who return to school for one final term after their A-Levels to prepare for Oxbridge entrance exams. The school does not have a tradition of sending candidates to these two most prestigious universities, so the headmaster (Clive Merrison) hires a young teacher called Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to tutor the boys and teach them how to stand out. Irwin's journalistic slant on History, turning it upside down, taking the controversial angle, is at odds with the teaching philosophy of Hector, their beloved English teacher (Richard Griffiths), who fills their heads with poetry and useless knowledge, not to pass exams, but for the sake of it. Their History teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) has taught them hard facts and taught them well, but Irwin finds their essays correct but boring. Gradually the boys learn Irwin's method of doing the unexpected thing, although they also begin to understand the value of what Hector has taught them.

The strength of the play was its characterization, which is happily carried over on to film. When Bennett was writing the play, he had no characters for the boys in mind. He just wrote "Boy" in the speech heading. It was in rehearsal for the National Theatre production that the company discovered who said what. Even sitting at the back of the theatre, when the actors' faces were out of focus, their characters emerged in sharp detail. Only Rudge could define history as "just one fucking thing after another". Only Posner could have a crush on Dakin. Only Timms could incur the fond wrath of Hector, be hit over the head and called a "rancid little turd". It was a relief (but no surprise) to find these characters had only grown stronger on film.

The plot and dialogue are effectively the same and the strong writing of Bennett translates superbly across media. It's still a wordy film, but it never feels like a recorded play. Even though I knew it was coming, I still couldn't help welling up when Hector and Posner discuss Hardy's poem "Drummer Hodge" in a private one-on-one tutorial, so poignant are their softly spoken words, flirting around the edges of a confessional.

Nugget: a film of joy. Full of the wonder of a type of teaching no longer possible in our curriculum incubus schools. An inspiration to teachers and to anyone who ever had a teacher as wonderful as Hector. I did. His name was Mr Williams (PSW) of Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, who always read "in [his] own inimitable style".

This review was also posted on Blogcritics.

Tuesday 24 October 2006

Monday 23 October 2006

Wide Sargasso Sea (2006) - ickleReview (TV)

Made-for-TV BBC feature-length adaptation of Jean Rhys's prequel novel to Jane Eyre. Sumptuously shot with a minimal cast, it focuses on the troubled marriage between Edward Rochester (Rafe Spall) and Antoinette (who became the madwoman in the attic). Their courtship is touchingly but concisely portrayed, forced together by family pressures. Edward Rochester is the second son of a family with a good name and has been sent to Jamaica to find his own fortune and marry a well dowried wife. Antoinette is a beautiful creole with £30,000. Their early passion is soon cooled by a whispering campaign amongst the local servants and Antoinette's half-brother.

The dialogue is often dubbed over jumpy editing and creates an unsettling effect, augmented by the heavy soundtrack of wildlife and atmospheric music, when, really, the actors were doing a good enough job by themselves. The soundtrack does, however, recreate the over-sensuous feel of the book, the bewildering over-stimulation of love in a strange place.

Nugget: at 85 minutes this is sensibly concise. Just a shame it had to be cut in half by the 10 O'Clock News on BBC1.

Red Road (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Set in a scabby part of Glasgow, the Red Road of the title refers to a towerblock housing estate where much of the action takes place. Jackie (Kate Dickie) works in a CCTV control room, reporting crimes and keeping track of her favourite citizens, including a dancing late-night cleaning lady and a man with an incontinent dog. One night she spots a face she recognizes, one she wasn't expecting to see. Clyde (Tony Curran) has been released early from prison. Jackie begins to stalk him, but it is unclear how she knows him, what the nature of his crime was, and why she is putting herself in such danger. Martin Compston (who brilliantly debuted in Sweet Sixteen (2002)) is a schemie friend of Clyde's called Stevie, a role he plays particularly well.

The plot unravels slowly. We are never sure until the end about what went on before and how the characters are related to each other. It's creatively shot, much of it from what appears to be real CCTV cameras. They are intrusive, but the way Jackie watches out for her favourites is also affectionate, and it makes you realize how, in a violent city like Glasgow, they keep us safe. The director Andrea Arnold is a confident and proficient storyteller with an eye for colour and beauty in a bleak urban landscape.

Nugget: solidly acted, engagingly told thriller not afraid to show the scary sides of Glasgow. Doesn't exactly make me homesick.

Saturday 21 October 2006

37 Uses for a Dead Sheep (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

BBC4 Storyville and ARTE France documentary about the Pamir Kirghiz tribe of central Asia, who migrated from Russia to China, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the twentieth century before settling in eastern Turkey in 1982. The filmmakers collaborate closely with the Kirghiz community who re-enact seminal moments from their history in a patchwork of film stocks made to look like newsreels and early Soviet films.

Nugget: amateurish in the pejorative and positive senses it approximates the essence of a people without the patronizing tendency of anthropoligical studies.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Proof (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

John Madden/Miramax actors' vehicle starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hope Davis. Based on David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play (on which Madden and Paltrow collaborated), it tells the schizophrenic Lear-like story of a brilliant maths professor at the University of Chicago (Hopkins) who loses his mind and mathematical "machinery" becoming a burden on his favourite daughter (Paltrow). Gyllenhaal plays his student determined to rescue his reputation by finding a breakthrough proof in his legacy of over a hundred notebooks, most of them filled with gibberish. Davis is the unfavoured other daughter who's made a success of her life in New York but now returns to Chicago after her father's death.

Nugget: the plot is cleverly structured with hypotheses and proofs, but doesn't quite pay off. An above average film.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Moonlight Mile (2002) - ickleReview (DVD)

Perfectly formed minor masterpiece by writer/director Brad Silberling that was ravaged by the critics when it first came out. It's best not to know anything about this film, just watch it and let it grab you. Strong cast on top form with Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, newcomer Ellen Pompeo and Holly Hunter.

Nugget: bravely drawn-out exposition keeps you learning about the characters throughout the film.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken. But, lucky for you, I kept a backup.]

Jake Gyllenhaal 4-Disc Box Set: Moonlight Mile DVD (15)

Dir: Brad Silberling, 2002, USA, 114 mins
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Ellen Pompeo, Holly Hunter

Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal)'s fiancée is dead: shot as a bystander in a smalltown New England diner. He's staying with her parents Ben and Jojo Floss (Hoffman and Sarandon) for the funeral and its aftermath. They treat him like a son-in-law. There are warm bonds between them, beyond just the dead girl they have in common. Yet Joe isn't being quite honest with the Flosses or with himself.

Writer/director Brad Silberling has produced a perfectly crafted minor masterpiece. Impeccably acted by a strong cast, including Holly Hunter as Mona Camp, the lawyer prosecuting the man who murdered the Floss' daughter. Newcomer Ellen Pompeo plays Bertie Knox, a girl Joe meets who is also going through a grieving process for her lost lover, Cal.

Set around 1973, the unrest in the outside world is a faint background to the Floss' problems. The family dog is called Nixon and it's implied that Cal is missing in Vietnam. Like the soundtrack of low-key B-sides, these details deftly determine the mood. (The music never screams "Listen to me!" like Tarantino or John Williams.) Silberling admits he writes to music and encouraged his actors to listen to the same songs on set. The lyrics often complement the onscreen situation.

Hoffman and Sarandon are a natural couple. Their imperfect but loving marriage is indelibly plausible. They seem to be coping admirably with their daughter's death; but each character in turn chokes towards their breakdown. When the three of them are sitting in front of the TV, Ben cryptically acknowledges, "I almost slipped and he broke my fall," at once thanking Joe for rescuing him in a moment of emotional weakness, while protecting Jojo from this knowledge. Gyllenhaal gives an assured performance, much of his acting without words (he jokes on the commentary that he's all "ums" and ellipses); yet when he does speak, the lines are flawlessly delivered.

The relationships between the characters aren't telegraphed; they emerge gradually through dialogue. Joe is so intimate with the Flosses that it appears at first he's their son. The lost fiancée/daughter, Dianne, is a constant presence in the film, and yet she only appears in a glimpsed photograph, a half-waking dream. (No need for schmaltzy flashbacks.) In some ways the film is about how a person lives on in the lives of the people who loved her. In a typically delicate touch, Jojo wears her daughter's watches, winding them each day, as if to keep her alive by keeping her time going.

The plot revolves to reveal its unironed creases, keeping us interested without gimmicks. The exposition extends well beyond the hour-mark: a brave filmmaking decision; one that is closer to a play script. It's best to know as little as possible about this film, just to watch it and let it grip you.

Includes two commentary tracks by the director, and the director and cast (Hoffman and Gyllenhaal) with some amusing rapport and fascinating insights into the filmmaking process; deleted scenes with director's commentary; and a 22-minute bog standard promotional "making of" documentary about casting and production.

Also in the collection:

The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Highly polished documentary about John Lennon's life in America from 1966-76 at the height of his involvement in the anti-war movement.

Nugget: contains some rare footage from the Lennon archives and a soundtrack almost entirely of Lennon's songs.

Read the full review on FilmExposed, where you can also find my Q&A with the directors, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Thursday 19 October 2006

The Good Girl (2002) - ickleReview (DVD)

The Good Girl doesn't know who her daddy is. Bastard offspring of One Hour Photo (2002), Fargo (1996) and Gigli (2003). Starring Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, the real strength comes from the supporting cast, who provide most of the humour to off-set the semi-tragic love story between frustrated wife (Aniston) and intense writer-type (Gyllenhaal).

Nugget: this certainly wasn't the run-of-the-mill date movie the packaging led me to expect, but it wasn't quite successful in the generic detours it decided to take.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Wednesday 18 October 2006

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003) - ickleReview (DVD)

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a documentary adaptation of Peter Biskind's book about the New Hollywood era spanning from the collapse of the old studio system in 1966 to the advent of high-grossing blockbusters Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977).

Nugget: essential viewing for anyone interested in these filmmakers.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

Recut of the 2001 original with 20 minutes of additional footage, redesigned sound and visual effects, a slightly reordered soundtrack of songs, and a commentary track by director Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith.

Nugget: elucidates some of the ambiguities of the original version without spoiling it, as I had feared. A good complement for fans of the film, but should not be treated as the superior version.

Note: this review refers to the Region 2 single disc edition.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Sunday 15 October 2006

Romanzo criminale (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

Italian mafia film about a gang of boys who form a criminal gang after an adolescence of petty crime and take on the established mafia in Rome, murdering their way into a position of power. At 152 minutes it's a very long film, but doesn't have the epic thrust of a Godfather to justify so many reels. I was getting bored after about 90 minutes.

The opening half hour has a curious tone: the characters speak all the gangster clichés but it feels slightly fraudulent. Either the film is badly scripted and acted (or the subtitle translations wear away the cool idioms), or the characters are supposed to look like newbeats adopting a pose before they truly find their criminal vocation.

The film tries to tell a parallel story about the Machiavellian world of Italian politics and its resemblance to the criminal underworld, even suggesting the two are deeply related; but to someone who doesn't know twentieth-century Italian political history in any detail, the weaving of archive footage (if indeed it was genuine) into the plot made no great semantic impact.

The most intriguing character is the bald-headed State representative, who performs the same clean-up role no matter who is in power. There is a glimmer of a twist involving him at the end, but again it was opaque.

The best aspect of this film is its soundtrack. Reasonably stylish, yes, but based on what appears to be a pulpy novel (the title translates as Crime Novel), it has little original to say in the genre. At least it makes the gangsters more human and amateurish than the slick professionals of Scorsese and Coppola.

Nugget: average mafia Joe, although at least this time it's made by Italians. Curious, though, that they learned the syntax to tell such a story from American films.

Thursday 5 October 2006

Wedding Crashers (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

Another good one to watch on a bus journey. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn get their kicks from crashing weddings to score with chicks. During one season they do 17 of all denominations. One time they get caught up with a couple of powerful American families, the sort who could run for President, and get a little too involved with two of their daughters (including Home and Away's Isla Fisher, who plays a nymphomaniac).

Nugget: good fun with amusing gags, plus Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell in smaller roles, but hardly a classic and nothing to be proud of.

The Football Factory (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

Adaptation of John King's books about life as a Chelsea football hooligan. The film is updated to the present day, whereas the book was set in the early 90s. Captures the nastiness of these men who arrange to fight on matchday using their mobile phones, with young boys as scouts on the lookout. Infectious levels of swearing in cockney and an impressive ruckous scene between Millwall and Chelsea. Doesn't do any favours for the reputation of English football fans, but at least it tries to justify their behaviour by putting it in the context of Britain's history as a warring nation. (Still, not everyone acts like this.) Some of the characters are a little 2-D, but that's because the narrative is told from the perspective of Tommy Johnson (Danny Dyer from Human Traffic (1999)).

In the violent genre of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) but with a different feel from another football hooligan film, I.D. (1995), in which the fighters actually bothered to go to the match.

Nugget: I remember being more scared when I read the book.

Starsky & Hutch (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

Remake of the 1970s TV series. Enjoyable enough in a rugby coach with Ben Stiller as Starsky, the uptight stickler cop and Owen Wilson as Hutch, his more easy-going partner. They try to bust a big cocaine deal and pick up some girls along the way. So what's new? Not a lot, but it passes the time.

Nugget: good for a few laughs. The car didn't feature as much as I'd been expecting.