Saturday 30 December 2006

Gosford Park (2001) - ickleReview (DVD)

Outstanding Robert Altman comic drama set in 1932. A shooting party takes place at an English country house. Servants make preparations belowstairs gossiping about their masters' squabbles above. A huge ensemble cast shines with innumerable layers of intrigue so subtly conveyed. The snobbish hierarchy of the aristocracy is mimicked if not outdone by the servants' stuffy conventions belowstairs. Wonderful performances by Helen Mirren as the perfect head servant Mrs Wilson, Maggie Smith as a wickedly snobbish old dame, Alan Bates as the butler, Jennings, and Richard E. Grant as a swaggering footman - amongst many other superb characters.

Nugget: it's almost a shame there had to be a murder, so enthralling are the intertwining storylines of servants and masters.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

A devastating thresher of a film by Ken Loach about the early days of the IRA in rural Ireland, 1920. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor about to move to the teaching hospitals in London, leaving the provincial life behind him. However, having witnessed the pointless brutality of the British Black and Tans regiment, he is compelled to stay behind in Ireland and joins the Irish Republican Army to drive out the British and establish a democratic Irish republic. Damien leads a small but determined militia against the British, ambushing them to acquire weapons. When caught, the British soldiers are ruthless in their torture and punishment of the Irish rebels.

Paul Laverty's screenplay skilfully covers a number of issues relating to the rebellion: hatred of the cruel treatment by the British, a worker's desire for socialism, the impact of brother fighting against brother, the amateurish training of the Irish rebels, the in-fighting and disagreements about what they are fighting for and what to do with their power once they have it, the involvement of the women, the stubborn pride of the republicans, the moral guidance offered by the clergy.

Loach bludgens his audience with realistic detail and rounded characters. There are token scenes to sketch out the wider implications of the plot, but they don't feel at all clunky. There is, for example, a politically slanted sermon by a Catholic priest to demonstrate how the clergy side with whoever has money and power, and a civil court scene to demonstrate how the women have taken over administrative roles and seek to establish a more just, egalitarian society.

Although it only covers a short period in history, the film manages to convey the hopeless struggle of ideologies and the factions within factions as the men and women fighting for Ireland's freedom have many conflicting motives. Once the Irish Free State is established, not all of the IRA freedom fighters are happy because the senators will be made to swear an allegiance to the King of England still. Yet had the British granted full independence, they would have succumbed to similar nationalist movements all across the Empire much sooner than they did.

Nugget: an important and impeccably observed film with an outstanding performance by Cillian Murphy in the lead roll and a strong supporting cast.

Wednesday 27 December 2006

Phone Booth (2002) - ickleReview (DVD)

Colin Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a self-centred publicist in New York who is held hostage in a phone booth he has used to call his girlfriend (Katie Holmes), a young actress he's trying to take advantage of. He used a phone booth so that his wife (Radha Mitchell) wouldn't see the calls on his cell phone bill. The caller (Kiefer Sutherland) is holding him at gunpoint from an unseen window with a sighted sniper rifle. Short and sweet at 81 minutes, the tension builds in long takes as the caller exacts a conscience from Stu, enjoying his mind games and manipulation in the sight of TV news cameras, tourists, passers-by and a trigger-itching police presence.

Farrell's performance is impressive. He's in almost every scene of the movie and has lots of dialogue. (But then so does any stage actor, so I don't think he should be singled out just because he could remember his lines.) The long takes build the tension. Joel Schumacher has made an entertaining film on a tight budget and 10-day shooting schedule. The ending seems to come a little soon and doesn't quite pay off. I felt like it should have gone on for another 10 or 15 minutes. It's a little anti-climactic, but at least it's trying something different.

Nugget: next time you see a phonebox ringing, it's best not to pick up. Oh, and don't cheat on your wife.

Casino Royale (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Daniel Craig's first Bond film - and possibly one of the franchise's best. Craig is a much harder, colder, more macho Bond than Brosnan, with no campness. Someone said perceptively about this film that it's what Bond would be like if it was real. The baddies in this one are small terrorist groups and the men who finance them. Bond has just been made a double-O agent. In the opening black and white sequence we see his first kill. For once his turn and shoot towards the camera for the opening credits actually means something. The stunts are grittier and more enthralling than usual, including Free Running (Parkours) specialists. I was impressed with the use of technology: the thought of Bond logging into MI6's secure database using M's username and password, the constant use of mobile phones, the tracking chip that is placed in Bond's forearm by his employers to keep track of him, and so on. The gadgets are ones that we all use - except, perhaps, for the DIY defibrilator that he keeps in the glove compartment of his Aston Martin...just in case he has that heart attack.

The Bond girl, Eva Green, is smarter and harder to get than her predecessors. She's the Treasury's representative at the high-stakes poker game he plays in order to smoke out one of the terrorist financiers. I like the way Bond orders a new drink, the way he says he couldn't care less whether his dry Martini is shaken or stirred, the way we see, for once, characters being affected by the deaths around them.

Some people may object to the product placement, but that's what our world looks like nowadays: it would be odd not to see these brandnames. Richard Branson having a cameo out of focus at a security check point at Miama airport is another matter; although I found that quite amusing. I wonder how much he paid.

It's quite a long one (144 minutes), but the plot deserves the treatment. The changes of pace are welcomed and the downtimes are some of the most interesting moments of the film. Bond even thinks he falls in love. (Shades of On Her Majesty's Secret Service...)

Nugget: good to see some fresh ideas and I'm very impressed with the new Bond.

Scoop (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Woody Allen's second film shot in the UK is about Sondra (Scarlett Johansson), a doh-brained journalism student from America who is staying in England over the summer with her upper-class family friends. When she takes part in a magic trick in Splendini's stage show she receives a tip-off about a murder story from back-from-the-dead reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). Splendini (Woody Allen), whose real name is Sid Waterman, accompanies Sondra on her precarious investigation of the lead, which brings them into contact with high-class businessman and politician Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), a Lord's son, whom they are told is responsible for the unsolved serial Tarot Card Murders.

As Match Point was a British remake of Crimes and Misdemeanors, so Scoop* is a refashioning of Manhattan Murder Mystery. It is an enjoyable, light film, taking itself less seriously than Match Point did, and thus has no jarring changes of tone, as happened when the earlier London film brutalized towards the end. The plotting feels smoother and the conclusion less of an afterthought than his previous film.

Johansson's character is ditsy and, after some initially awkward scenes, the Allen-Johansson double act functions well as they botch their way through their hunt for clues to connect Peter Lyman to the murders. McShane spends the film escaping from Death's boat to the Underworld to give Sondra and Sid clues, having been told the scoop by Lyman's poinsoned former secretary.

Allen seems more confident in his portrayal of his London fantasy world of high society, much like the New York rich set that probably doesn't exist either. The locations are more low-key: he does not gawp up at the Royal Albert Hall, for example, as he dallied past Buckingham Palace in Match Point like a tourist. He also seems more comfortable with the British English idiom, even poking fun at it with Sid's refrain "I love you, really. With all due respect, you're a beautiful person. You're a credit to your race." The soundtrack is full of atmospheric classical music rather than his more familiar jazz score, partly because it is a mystery film, not a comic romp.

One wonders why, in December 2006, this has yet to be released in the UK. (I watched this film at the seedy Museum Lichtspiele in Munich, Germany, where they have been showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show every week since its release in 1975. There is no - or ineffective - heating, ineluctable popcorn and Coke spillage, and buzzing, faulty speakers.) Is it to be another Hollywood Ending and sneak below the UK distributors' radar? Surely Woody Allen has earned the reputation by now to be treated with more respect.

Nugget: good to have you back.

* NB This has nothing to do with Evelyn Waugh's eponymous 1938 novel about the bumbling war correspondent William Boot sent to Abyssinia.

Sunday 24 December 2006

16 Blocks (2006) - ickleReview (DVD)

Bruce Willis police action thriller. The old man plays Jack Mosley, a broken, alcoholic cop who, after a long nightshift, has to escort a witness 16 blocks through New York City rushhour traffic to the courthouse before 10am when the jury expires. The prisoner/witness, Eddie (Mos Def) is a talkative baby-voiced crook who is going to testify against police curruption, affecting Jack's ex-partner Frank Nugent (David Morse) and other precinct colleagues who try to chase them down and prevent the testimony in a familiar good cop/bad cop routine.

After a few twists, it all ends happily and everyone gets a slice of birthday cake. The alternate ending on the DVD is more complicated but more intriguing and implausible and would have lost more audiences.

Nugget: pretty standard stuff.

Friday 22 December 2006

Letter to Brezhnev (1985) - ickleReview (DVD)

Love story about two Scouse girls who meet a couple of Russian sailors out one night in Liverpool. One of them (Margi Clarke) is looking for a good, care-free time; the other, Elaine (Alexandra Pigg), wants romance. Sergei (Alfred Molina) and Peter (Peter Firth) duly oblige. However, the sailors have to go home the next day, which leaves Elaine, who has fallen in love with Peter, desolate.

Had it ended here, it would have been a bonnie enough film, akin to Before Sunrise but without the eloquence. Yet it moves on to a second act in which Elaine, rather implausibly, writes to the Russian president to intercede in her situation: she wants to marry Peter but he is not allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

The film looks dated with 80s fashion disasters around every pub pint. It is now a period piece for Thatcher's Britain. Pigg and Firth give the best performances, although Eileen Walsh is amusingly course as Elaine's mother.

By no means a bad film - the first half is sweet - but the second is less engaging. Writer Frank Clarke is at his best creating Scouse banter on a night out.

Nugget: nothing to write home to Russia about, but not to be written off either.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) - ickleReview (TV)

Spike Lee's two-part feature-length Storyville documentary about Hurricane Katrina, focusing on New Orleans and its largely black, underprivileged underclass. It follows the events in sequence through the hurricane, the rescue missions, the "refugee" crisis (although this is a word the victims took offence at, as if they were not citizens of their own country) and the diasporal aftermath, showing how the survivors are trying to rebuild their homes in a devastated city.

It is often tremendously moving as the survivors tell their stories with real intimacy and - at times - humour. There is a great deal of hard feeling against FEMA and the incompetant Bush administration. One feels this is the reason why some leftists parts of the British press were so sceptical about the election of a stupid president in 2000: his foot-in-mouths are inconsequential in comparison to the uncaring bunch of cronies he appointed to his government.

Nugget: it's amazing these people don't question their faith when it appears their suffering has been caused by an "act of God".

Monday 18 December 2006

Q&A with the directors of "The U.S. vs. John Lennon"

My Q&A with the directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, makers of The U.S. vs. John Lennon, is now published on FilmExposed.

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

Monday 11 December 2006

Forrest Gump (1994) - ickleReview (TV)

Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) was a dumb, crippled kid from Greenbow, Alabama who grew up to be an all-American hero: college football star, Vietnam war hero, ping-pong player, shrimp boat captain, corporation owner, inspirational long-distance runner, und so weiter. It's a cross between Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. His life story is wonderfully implausible, narrated waiting on a bustop bench to whoever is sitting there, not always listening. His life-long sweatheart, Jenny (Robin Wright Penn), abused by her father as a child, struggles through life as a stripper, hippy, drug addict and waitress, never far from Forrest's thoughts, which are predominantly simple, sometimes profound, always endearing. The film is focalized through Forrest's low IQ of 75, told with a naivety that looks at the world anew and that shows but doesn't tell the (presumably smarter) audience what's going on: that Jenny's father is an alcoholic widower whose hugging and kissing of his daughters isn't as loving as it sounds; that there are rather a lot of political assassinations in America's recent history; that drug addicts died from AIDS, and so on.

In the mid-nineties there was excitement over the film's CGI faux-documentary footage of Forrest Gump meeting the president (twice) and appearing in news footage about racial segregation while at college. Twelve years later these inserts still stand up quite well, but look a little shakey. I suppose they were always supposed to look a little odd - a bit like those video mixes of Blair and Bush singing "Gay Bar".

Nugget: some wonderful touches and still compelling to watch after a number of previous viewings. At 142 minutes it is stretching running-time etiquette but I think, in this case, it is justified because there are simply so many crazy stories to cram in. I wonder what quirks they left out.

A room with a view

The view from my bedroom window this afternoon at sundown.

Cricket sledging

I suspect there may have been more F-words used in these gentlemanly exchanges at the crease. I like the one about the biscuit.