Monday 29 January 2007

The Last King of Scotland (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Kevin Macdonald usually makes documentary films such as One Day in September (2000) and Touching the Void (2003). The Last King of Scotland is a film based on fact but moulded into a filmic, fictionalized narrative. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) is a newly graduated doctor in 1970s Scotland. He is eager to avoid his patronizing doctor father and picks Uganda at random as a faraway place to practise his medical skills, arriving amidst a military coup. Initially serving in a small village hospital, he catches the attention of the new president, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), who soon offers him a job as his personal physician. Amin eventually relies on Garrigan as his closest advisor, having become paranoid after an assassination attempt. His regime turns ruthlessly bloody and dictatorial, although this isn't immediately obvious to Garrigan.

McAvoy gives an assured performance. His character isn't always likeable (he is too easily swayed and tempted away from his humble charity work), but he does have charm and intelligence despite his naïvety.

Whitaker is mesmerizing as the charismatic Amin. He is both childishly endearing and ferociously volatile. Never have I seen an actor so fully embody a real-life character. Almost every time he appears he is in a different state of mind. A number of scenes feature terrifying mood-swings. It will be no surprise if he wins the Oscar.

The title refers to Amin's sympathy for the Scots - one of the reasons he took so warmly to Garrigan (who I believe is a composite of two or three real-life counterparts). He defies the English just as the Scots have done for centuries. He even names two of his sons Campbell and McKenzie.

As well as posing moral problems, the film - through Whitaker's supreme performance - casts an enduring image of Amin in particular and military dictators in general. Gillian Anderson excels in a small role as the wife of the English doctor whom Garrigan was originally intending to work alongside.

Nugget: an outstanding performance by Forest Whitaker in an otherwise compelling film.

Sunday 28 January 2007

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) - ickleReview (HD)

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a shameless nerd. He's bullied by the jocks at high school. He has no friends until he meets Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a quiet Mexican. His brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), spends all day chatting up girls online and thinks he's going to be a cage fighter. Their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a door-to-door salesman, comes to look after them when their grandmother has a quad bike accident. It's all rather cringeworthy, but at times very funny. You feel bad for laughing at such weedy people. But I guess that's the point.

Shot in Idaho, the film looks and feels provincial. None of the actors are familiar, but their characters are the same old high school clichés. Napoleon, however, takes nerdiness to new levels: dangling his acting figure out of the school bus window on a piece of fishing line; drawing a "liger", a magical, mythical cross between a lion and a tiger; drinking, gawping, dancing around in his moon boots. He can't even stand still and do nothing without looking like a total dweeb. It has a certain appeal, but the story needn't go anywhere. There are the usual plot points: the school dance, the class president elections, lunchtime, lockers, asking out girls; they are all quite normal but bloated with the weirdness of director Jared Hess.

Nugget: I didn't find this film as funny as I was expecting it to be, but it's enjoyable, quirky and full of independent spirit.

Style Wars (1983) - ickleReview (Google Video)

Graffiti, break-dancing and hip-hop: the three main ingredients of this compelling documentary about New York "bombing" culture. Directors Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver feature candid interviews with graffiti writers, who try to explain why they pursue their dangerous and controversial lifestyle. Some of the artists, such as Seen, are really very talented and speak eloquently about their desire to go "all-city": spreading their work across the Metropolitan Transport Authority's trains, taking them all across the five boroughs. Some of the other writing is less aesthetically pleasing, particularly on the inside of the trains. The MTA spend millions trying to clean up their rolling stock, but end up corroding it with the harsh cleaning fluids, which don't even clean off the paint properly.

New York City Mayor Edward Koch fights a losing battle against the entrenched culture, which is embraced by blacks, Puerto Ricans and even whites from rich private schools. Their is a culture of respect for each other's work amongst most of the writers, but some bombers, such as the malicious Cap, are just out to destroy other people's art, defacing their designs by tagging on top of them.

The graffiti writers have a second identity: each has their own nickname, which is the main thing they write. One of them compares it to his mother's doodling on the telephone. Although his doodling is conducted in public, he says it's just for him and the other writers. He doesn't seem to care that to some of the MTA's 3 million daily passengers, it might be less pleasing.

Chalfant and Silver appear to side with the graffiti writers. The figures of authority trying to stop the graffiti are portrayed as somewhat petty, arrogant and unable to comprehend the reasons behind graffiti culture.

What is missing from this film is a deeper investigation of the history of graffiti writing. I want to know when it first started, how it has developed, whether New York really is the centre of the world and how it managed to spread to every Western city.

Nugget: a fascinating look into a largely misunderstood act of modern urban culture.

Saturday 27 January 2007

The Sugarhill Gang - Rapper's Delight

I can't believe how many tracks have sampled various parts of this song (even "The Ketchup Song" by Las Ketchup), believed to be the birth of hip-hop in 1979. Try listening to it even once and see if it doesn't stick in your head for the rest of the day.

Nora (2000) - ickleReview (DVD)

Nora Barnacle was the life partner of the Irish-born writer James Joyce, author of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the greatest writer of the twentieth century, perhaps any century. Rather than adapting Banana Xerox (Brenda Maddox)'s biography into a biopic, writer/director Pat Murphy has turned it into a beautifully crafted, impeccably measured, sweet love story. The film spans 1904-12: from Nora's flight from Galway to Dublin, where she met Joyce and soon emigrated with him to Europe, eventually settling in Trieste, an Italian irredentist city then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

To Joyceans like me, the film provides a fascinating perspective of Joyce from a woman's point of view, from his muse, Nora. Ewan McGregor's performance is surprisingly pleasing. He does not have the stature, the blue eyes, the accent one might expect of Joyce; but he has the character down to a tee. One begins to believe it is him, and the resemblance with photos at particular stages of his life are uncanny. Susan Lynch is outstanding as Nora: independent-minded, fiercely loyal, anti-intellectual, and just as disaffected with Ireland's betrayers as Joyce.

This film doesn't disappoint. Dublin is suitably claustrophobic and paralyzed, if a little too much like a move set. Stanislaus, Joyce's devoted younger brother, is brilliantly realized by Peter McDonald. There are subtle suggestions that he has romantic affections for Nora. The kids, Giorgio and Lucia are delightfully portrayed by a group of child actors, including Triestine Joyce scholar (and author of The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920) John McCourt's son, Liam, who scribbles on Joyce's precious manuscripts as Giorgio aged 2. There are hints at Lucia's abandonment - pointing to later mental troubles that lie outwith the concerns of this film.

Compared to Bloom (2003), which in so many ways fell short of its potential, Nora really is a fine film about Joyce, leaving his work quietly to one side. It is mirthful, poignant, and creative in it reconfiguration of biographical facts in order to make a more coherent screen narrative. For Joyceans it is a work of joy, a look at the man and his muse away from his work. Yet to those who know little or nothing about Joyce and his writing, it will still function as a touching love story, a portrait of womanhood and the devotion of two human beings to one another.

Nugget: bravo, says I.

Friday 26 January 2007

Bad taste variation on an old joke

Source: Private Eye, no. 1176 (19 January - 1 February 2007), p. 6.

Related stories: "Girl killed by pit bull terrier", Monday 1 January 2007, BBC News.

Sunday 21 January 2007

Eulogies for Altman

A Prairie Home Companion was director Robert Altman's last film. He seemed to sense his own impending mortality. A number of lines in the film confront the prospect of death with an admirably uplifting philosophy. I don't always think of death as a bad thing. People elegize instead of eulogize; mourn instead of celebrate. True, I've never suffered the death of someone really close to me; but one day I will, and I hope I will be able to deal with it in proportion. Births are not a miracle (they happen every second); deaths are not a tragedy when a life has fulfilled its potential; and even potential cut short can be full of beauty in its own way because it will always remain a possibility rather than a failure. Death is the only certain thing about life.

Thus in A Prairie Home Companion the angel/femme fatale (played by
Virginia Madsen) says:

"There is no tragedy in the death of an old man. Forgive him his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care."

And when an old man dies waiting for his lover to come and GK refuses to acknowledge it during the broadcast, the following conversation occurs:

Lola Johnson: What if you die some day?
Garrison Keillor: I will die.
Lola Johnson: Don't you want people to remember you?
Garrison Keillor: I don't want them to be told to remember me.

Hear, and indeed, hear.

Another "Prairie Home Companion" joke

Q: What did the elephant say to the naked man?
A: It's cute, but can you really breathe through that thing?

Source: A Prairie Home Companion.

The penguin joke

Two penguins are standing on an ice floe. The first penguin says, "You look like you're wearing a tuxedo."

The second penguin says, "What makes you think I'm not?"

Source: A Prairie Home Companion.

A Prairie Home Companion (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Robert Altman bids a folksy farewell to filmmaking and later life with a mix of real-life radio show, bad jokes, sweet singing, film noir weirdness and Mid-Western cookie characters. A Prairie Home Companion is a smalltown bigheart radio variety show broadcast live from the [F. Scott] Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul, Minnesota (the hometown of the author of The Great Gatsby). This part-fiction film celebrates its final broadcast on WLT ("with lettuce and tomato") radio, so-called because it apparently started out in the back of a sandwich shop. Believe this story if you will, but there are many other myths to come about the show's origin, perpetuated by the wily GK, the MC played by himself, Garrison Keillor, who wrote the screenplay.

What strikes you immediately about this swansong is its simple beauty. The opening shot of a rural landscape at dusk, gradually roaming towards the gloaming with the crackle of a radio in the background, searching to find that satisfying, homely station. A Prairie Home Companion is an American Home Truths (BBC Radio 4) set to music: a mix of charismatic presenting, oddball humour and a welling of human spirit from both performers and audience.

Cut from the opening credits to an old-school American diner car. The narrating voice of Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a Walter Neff-like wise owl private detective transported from the 1940s film noir era. What the hell is he doing in this film? He must have walked into the wrong Hollywood backlot. But no, he wanders through a modern-day theatre audience to the backstage area where the performers and crew are preparing for a live musical radio broadcast. Later he's joined by an angel/femme fatale (Virginia Madsen), whom Guy Noir describes, "She had a Mount Rushmore T-shirt on, and those guys never looked so good. Especially Jefferson and Lincoln. Kind of bloated but happy." Thus the weirdness.

But the film feels like it's running live in real-time with Altman's signature ensemble acting, chaotic busyness and tumultuous-dialogue before, during and after the final broadcast. Real people playing themselves are accompanied by a superb cast including Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the singing Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda; Lindsay Lohan as Yolanda's suicide-obsessed daughter Lola; Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as cowboy guitar duo Dusty & Lefty; Maya Rudolph as a beautifully sexy pregnant stage manager; and Tommy Lee Jones as Axeman, the head of the Big Bad Corporation that has bought its way in and is going to take the show off the air.

At times this film is a musical with surprising singing performances from Harrelson and Streep in particular (if, indeed, they sang their own parts). Dusty (Harrelson) sings a dignified country version of "I Used to Work in Chicago" a filthy old rugby song ("Liquor she wanted; lick her I did") and steals most of the laughs with his buddy Lefty during their song "Bad Jokes", which features so many jokes you have to quieten yourself so you don't miss any more.

The rapport between the cast members is simply brilliant, like the neon glow from the diner in puddles that frames either side of the film, and the intrigue of Gosford Park (2001). Neither celebrity face nor person-playing-himself looks out of place. Shot the way it is, as if in real time, the 105 minutes flies by and you wish you'd be able to tune in again next week.

Nugget: when I go, I'd want to go with the same joyful dignity as Altman does with this, his last film.

This review was also posted on Blogcritics.

Bad jokes, can't get enough of 'em

A farmer's wife says to her husband, "I notice our bull procreated 200 times this year. I should be so lucky."

The farmer replies, "Yes, honey, but that's not all with the same cow."

Source (probably slightly misremembered): A Prairie Home Companion.

Wednesday 10 January 2007

Another new look

I've finally given in to the temptations of Blogger's more versatile drag-and-drop template system and cleaned up my design in the process, removing much of the ugly guffage, which I had added in an unsuccessful attempt to increase my traffic. I couldn't quite get the font to look the same in the new set-up, so I have switched to Verdana. I hope it's an improvement. The last time I did this was almost two years ago.

Tuesday 9 January 2007

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) - ickleReview (DVD)

Martin Scorsese film starring Ellen Burstyn as a widow, Alice, who has to find a way to earn a living for her 11-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter). She leaves her home in New Mexico to find work as a singer in Phoenix and then Tucson, Arizona with the aim of reaching her girlhood home in Monterey, California by then end of the summer. Numerous men make a pass at her, including Ben (Harvey Keitel) and David (Kris Kristofferson), but living out of motel rooms with a cheeky, bad-mouthed son is a hard way to find stability.

Burstyn gives a powerful performance in a rare female lead and the sort of film one doesn't associate with Scorsese, who at times shows off unnecessarily with the camera. Tommy is a hilariously delinquent son, who meets Audrey (a very young Jodie Foster), a tomboy whose favourite word is "weird" and who leads him into trouble. Keitel's role is minor but impressive, and Kristofferson is dependable as charming nice-guy David.

This is Sandy (my dad)'s favourite film and has become a bit of a family institution for the humour: the cheek of Tommy and Audrey; the terrible "Shoot the dog! Shoot the dog!" joke, which is never told in full; the tense rapport between mother and son; and the supporting roles of the staff and customers in the diner at which Alice finds work as a waitress.

A comedy and a human drama (but not really a weepy) with career performances by an excellent cast. It's a shame Scorsese hasn't made more movies like this. One tends to expect from him gangsters and guns; in smalltown American he can also shine.

Nugget: some beautiful solo singing from Burstyn is showcased in a couple of at-the-piano scenes. This is one you can watch again and again over the years.

Life Is Beautiful (aka La Vita è bella) (1997) - ickleReview (DVD)

Life is beautiful and so is this film. Roberto Benigni shines in this brilliant tragic comedy about Italian Jews in the Second World War. Benigni plays his usual crazy lovable character, a waiter who wins the affection of his wife-to-be with a series of charming coincidences. When his family is deported by the Nazi's to a Jewish concentration camp he keeps his son's spirits up by convincing him it's all just a game and that the winners will get a real tank at the end.

Nugget: Benigni's performance is magical and sad. A masterpiece of the beauty of pathos.

Cold Mountain (2003) - ickleReview (TV)

Film adaptation of Charles Frazier's American Civil War novel. Inman (Jude Law), a southern labourer, goes to war against the northern Yankees. He leaves behind a pastor's daughter, Ada (Nicole Kidman), whom he hardly knows. Ada struggles to earn a living off the land until she gets help from Ruby (Renée Zellweger). As the Confederates are losing the war, Inman gets wounded and seizes his opportunity to escape the fighting and head for home.

Minghella directs with conventional Hollywood polish and makes a passable film out of a dreary book, although from memory they have changed the ending quite considerably. The story itself is a little silly as the lovers' pining is based upon so little time together. They are more in love with the person in their imagination than in real life.

Nugget: reasonable but now somewhat predictable love story. Doesn't really deserve to be called an epic.

Tuesday 2 January 2007

Broadway Danny Rose (1984) - ickleReview (video)

Black and white Woody Allen comedy about a hard-working but unsuccessful showbiz agent, Danny Rose (played by Allen), who takes a personal interest in his clients. His best client is an Italian nightclub crooner, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who, despite being around since the 1950s, is benefitting from a nostalgia revival. Danny gets involved with Lou's lover, Tina (Mia Farrow), and is chased across town by the mob.

The plot is framed by a bunch of old comics trading old stories about their colleague in a New York diner. (Allen would repeat this device with greater success in 2004's Melinda and Melinda.) The choice to shoot in black and white suits the nostalgic tone of the movie, but it is nowhere near as beautiful as Manhattan (1979).

Nugget: not one of his best, but still watchable.

Love and Death (1975) - ickleReview (video)

Woody Allen's comic epic about fighting in the Russian army against Napoleon. Allen plays the cowardly soldier, one of three brothers, who is in love with his cousin (Diane Keaton). Their philosophical debates about objectivity, subjectivity and epistemology are good craic. This is a bit like Take the Money and Run (1969) in the sense of its ranging, episodic plot, but it has more coherence.

Nugget: amusing rip on costume dramas, war films and serious Soviet cinema, but Allen and Keaton are still the focus. It was not until the late 1970s that Allen started using a stronger supporting cast.

Sleeper (1973) - ickleReview (video)

Woody Allen comedy sci-fi film set 200 years in the future. Woody has been cryogenically frozen after a routine operation went wrong. He is brought back to life illegally by scientists of the future and asked to identify a number of mysterious objects and photographs, including chattering teeth, Lenin, and Nixon, whose Watergate scandal has been erased from history. Allen is hunted as an alien and disguises himself as Diane Keaton's domestic help robot.

Sleeper is notably smoother than Allen's previous films Bananas (1971) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), but it still has the occasional abruptly cut scene. In the second half Allen and Keaton appear to be improvising and their anger is either supremely acteed or genuine between them.

Nugget: the beginning of Allen's more accomplished, wittier period, but still slapsticky and with the familiar jazz score.