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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
So what is Jessica Stevenson doing in According to Bex, other than
getting paid? I tuned in fearing the worst but with a little hope in
the back of my mind that if Jess was anywhere near the project it would
have someone else going on, a spark which would disprove the idea that
all Friday night sitcoms on the BBC are bad. In the fifteen minutes
before I turned it off, my mouth gaped open so far my lips began to
The premise seems to be that Bex is a Bridget Jones-type with an on/off boyfriend, looking for a perfect man. But the twist is that as the plot progresses she addresses the viewer and asks people in the street what they think she should do. I'll cautiously say that this isn't such a poor idea if done well. But for a start the members of the public aren't -- they're actors, all of whom you seemed to remember seeing before in an advert or pop video, and to a degree all hopelessly trying to be seen. Bex addressing the viewer are about the only times Jess seems comfortable but set looks like its been brought out of mothballs from an 'I Love...' series. The execution is so rotten that I was happy that my new DVD recorder had an erase button so I could literally dump the programme from the disc and my life.
I have a nagging feeling that the script isn't awful. There was evidence of some perfectly funny lines in there. But its buried under the kind of cruddy acting style which wasn't allowed on US TV in the Eighties as every line is emphasised lest we miss a single joke or jape. Imagine a show in which everyone is talking as though they're doing a parody of Ross from Friends. In the case of Greg Wise (a fine actor I thought) this leads to some frightening eyerolling to the extent at one stage during a particularly unfunny exchange with Stevenson its easy to imagine he's gone into a fit. Jess just looks lost unfortunately, which is a shame because I really like her -- and every now and then you can see glimmers of the actress we know -- but much of the time it's like she's been afflicted with the bad delivery disease infesting the rest of the cast.
Their verbal emphasis is further heightened by a maddeningly loud laughter track. Not an eye roll, a gesture or a stroll passed by without the audience, canned or not, treating it as though it as though it's the funniest thing they've ever seen. At one point it sounded as though the 'howl' button was stuck and it was rotating around and around and around.
It's been a while since I've wanted to criticise a show so vehemently but this really has few redeeming features. To be fair I did only see the first fifteen minutes so its entirely possible I was seeing a sitcom parody wrapped in a dream sequence and those last five inspired minutes could have been really good. I'll hold onto that hope because with this running double bill with a fifth (why?) series of Ardel O'Hanlon in My Hero it feels like quality control in the BBC comedy department is at an all time low. I mean even the sets are horrible with a bar set which looks like it was borrowed from Coupling and the fakest looking office in TV history. If Dom Joly wasn't producing the genius of World Shut Your Mouth (or 'Triggy Happy TV flies the World') later in the evening it would be easy to characterise this to be the place were ex-Channel 4 talent goes to work off all the dark matter which is left over when they're tapping out their genius over so many years. Tragic.
Tonight's film course film was The Legend of the Suram Fortress and
during its 87 minute running time it managed to quickly jump into my
top five most difficult films of all time. That's difficult to watch;
films so different to everything else that you're seeing something
totally alien. A brief synopsis would be: a group of Georgians are
trying to build a fortress to defend themselves from invaders, but
every time they are about to put on the finishing touches, for no
readily apparent reasons it collapses. So they go and see a fortune
teller who advises them that if they want to get the fortress to stay
standing, they need to find a youth, a tall blonde blue eyed boy to be
buried into one of the walls during the construction and his presence
will ensure that the construction job will be completed smoothly. And
sure enough in those closing moments there he is gladly being smeared
in cement and eggs, giggling as he's buried alive, with only his mother
It actually a fairly simple story. But the director, Sergo Paradjanov, working in Soviet Georgia in 1984, not too long after leaving a fifteen year jail term, doesn't follow any of the film making rules we are used to. There are very few close ups. Very often the action we need to be following is hidden in the bottom left hand corner of a landscape shot, extra-ordinarily easy to miss. There are very few close ups and at times its hard to tell whose doing what to whom and why. Every now and then the film goes off on digressions which have no relevance to the main plot and generally serve to confuse the viewer. The music is utterly mad, with found sounds, on screen instruments and church organ dropped in seemingly at random. At times when nothing seems to be happening, someone will break into a jig, almost playing time until the next scene comes along. But infuriatingly there is an obvious cinematic voice behind it all so you're compelled to try and understand the message whatever it is. One of those times when your eyes are glued to the screen simply because you can't believe what you're seeing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Virginia Madsen has always felt to me like the one who got away. Like
an Eighties Monica Potter she was just in the wrong place at the wrong
time in the wrong films, one breakthrough moment away from being a
household name. Horror fans might know her work in Candyman and fantasy
fans will have noticed she was in Highlander 2 as they were walking
out. But to me she's Madeline in the prophetic Electric Dreams,
breaking three hearts at the same time, Miles Harding, his computer and
mine. Now here she is in the fantastic Sideways one nomination away
from a statue. I think she's basically finally won hearts via a single
speech she gives at the heart of the film in which her character Maya
explains why she loves wine. I won't give away the details, but by the
end you'll love wine and love her too.
But that's one of the great things about Sideways -- the chance to see actors I've whose work I loved for years, which no one else has heard of in something which everyone is talking about. I was afraid Paul Giamatti was going to end up being 'the guy from American Splendor' for the rest of his career but here people are putting a name to a face they've been seeing for years. Look at his filmography there are very few films you haven't heard of. In fact in some he's even played proto-Miles, especially Bruce Paltrow's Duets in which karaoke was his love instead. Sandra Oh might look like a discovery but she's equally always been busy (Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Film to Under the Tuscan Sun). I remember her from Last Night and The Red Violin in which she had a quiet dignity far removed from Stephanie. If I'm being honest though I've never watched the sitcom Wings so I don't know about the cult of Thomas Haden Church. But is in George of the Jungle which is good enough for me.
In casting these actors, Alexander Payne knew exactly what he was doing. Apparently George Clooney was actively campaigning for Giamatti's part. Extrapolating that further, we could have ended up with Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and introducing some young actress. All perfectly fine actors and they would have essayed their roles well, and the chemistry would have been there, but it would have felt false -- this didn't need a successful cast -- a dream cast. It needed a group of actors who all seemed kind of familiar without being 'famous' because these are characters who are just like us or people we know. Very refreshing.
There are certain times at the cinema when it slowly becomes clear that
you're the only person who is loving the film. A weird chemistry occurs
in which your enjoyment of the evening is diametrically opposed to
everyone elses. And so it was tonight during Ocean's Twelve. It really
isn't the film anyone was expecting, but that actually means is so much
better. If you're a fan of the first film because of all the heist
hijinks you'll probably hate this. If you're a fan of Steven Soderbergh
and seen all of his films, you'll just love it.
I don't want to talk about the plot here because frankly you wouldn't believe me. Just when you think the film is going to settle down into some kind of recognisable rhythm, something entirely unexpected is thrown in turning everything on it's head. You know the moment at the end of the first film when everything you thought you saw turned out to be something different? Pretty much every scene here is like that. Which is probably were I and nearly all the mean spirited reviews I've read part company. The general feeling seems to be that the plot was thrown together and the story lacks structure. Well yes that's the point. Soderbergh's messing about with what you're allowed to do in a so-called typical Hollywood sequel. It's experimental rather than erratic.
I'll admit to a degree that is a greatest hits of Soderbergh's greatest hits, with a variety of film stock and messy camera angles on display. Flashbacks are in full evidence as are the freeze frames and captions in multiple fonts. But so what? Would it have been better if some hack had been hired to trot out a clone of the first film, clinically perfect without any passion? He should be applauded for not making the same movie again, opting instead for something which resembles his own Full Frontal, with obscure film in-jokes intact. Go with an open mind and a clear heart.
Joey is already a loss before the opening moments of the first episode
simply because its a spin-off from the biggest live-action sitcom on
the planet. The pressure the creators and writers must have felt when
handed this behemoth must have been extra-ordinary, since the network
will have been looking for something to fill a very big hole. Unless
Joey was sitting in a New York apartment with five other people called
Chandler, Pheobe, Ross, Rachel and Monica this was never going to
happen for them.
The obvious unfair comparison would be the pilot episode of Friends which for me is a perfect 22 minutes of comedy which somehow manages to define all the characters, set up their relationships and still manage to be barn stormily hilarious. Joey's pilot isn't like that -- it's more of a slow burn. It simply doesn't fly in the same way. The funnier moments for example happened when references were made to the previous series, which is either lazy or provides continuity depending on your point of view.
Which is why curiously, it isn't totally awful. The scripts are fairly well constructed and the jokes are pleasingly character based; none of your Chandleresque pop culture references hanging around looking for a punchline. There is some good chemistry between Matt LeBlanc and his co-stars. Drea de Matteo (who I believe was in something called The Sopranos) as his sister Gina has a real aptitude for comedy -- to a degree there is a feeling that some of the slapstick has shifted from the Joey character in her direction. Paulo Costanzo is welcome and again bashes away excellently at the banter. Having a Rocket Scientist in the ensemble is a good choice although they may have difficulties if they don't vary the idiot/genius dynamic between Joey/Michael which could become tiresome.
Which is just one of the question marks. Some of the funnier moments in the mothership were at the time when we'd cut back to Joey and he'd be doing something funny. Then they were used to counterpoint another more tragicomic scene. Here they are just sort of there and after a while it could become repetitious. Also I'm not entirely convinced by Andrea Anders character Alex, who seems a little blank to me. Perhaps they're hedging for not waiting to see what works or doesn't but that's dangerous as in this situation the viewer needs something to hold onto pretty quickly. So she's married, and a lawyer and .... ? But I'm willing to give it a chance, if only for nostalgic reasons. This doesn't feel like the simply cash-in it could have been, with Janice turning up in episode two and Gunther passing by in four. There is a good feeling of treating this as a different show, with a different sensibility. It's quite pleasing that they are taking the time to set up the characters and relationships over a constant stream of empty laughs. But they can't leave it too long before giving us that killer episode which will keep us around. The first two episodes were pleasant but a whole season like this?
Watched all of Robert Bresson's final film L'Argent in film class tonight. This is when he finally stripped away almost everything you would expect to be important in a film -- acting, music and clear plotting. It's about a how a fake bank note leads a man into prison and finally to redemption through murder. Important moments are expressed impressionistically to the extent that the viewer frequently only works out what was going on some minutes down the line. To be honest, it was all a bit too blank for my taste -- I couldn't relate or become involved in any of the character's stories so that in the end there was a general sense of emptiness -- like I'd eaten a pizza which had been in the oven too long and the cheesy topping had gone hard.
Not a criticism, but The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou feels like a
big screen remake of an old Hannah Barbara cartoon. You could imagine,
some time in the 70s, in the style of the old Godzilla series, Steve
and the crew discovering a new species each week with each episode
ending with a short film of the animal they've found and one of those
moralistic things saying how we should treat wildlife and the
environment with respect. It's an oddly melancholy you see, filled with
a sort of restless contemplation on lost innocence, which is possibly
why people who have seen the film tend to be disappointed. It's funny,
but in a sad way. You tend to laugh in that way people do over a beer
remembering something which happened ten years before when everything
Much of this is to do with Bill Murray's performance. His work here is largely very understated -- he understands that Zissou's best years are behind him and that he's effectively playing a version of his old self for appearance sakes. To a degree that's actually were Murray was a few years ago turning up in the things like Larger Than Life with an elephant as a side kick, so thanks to Wes Anderson for Rushmore and saving Bill and us from the decline. There are moments when we get to see the Murray of old and in fact his Ghostbusters persona even pops up in one particularly unexpected scene.
And thanks to Wes Anderson for this film. It's yet another recent example of a director exercising their own film making style, presenting the audience with a choice of following him or missing out on the discreet charms he is going to be offering. There are scenes which are entirely based on the audience needing to be in on the joke and judging by the almost silent crowd I watched it with I can only imagine we're a very small but lucky group.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In case you missed the trailer which has played about a hundred times
over the past month, Casanova began tonight on BBC Three in a graveyard
preview slot, rather like a weekend film preview in the hopes of
creating good word of mouth before it turns up on a main channel. It's
an interesting strategy, especially with something which is obviously a
premium series for the beeb, and it should really pay off.
Because it's absolutely tremendous. From the opening shot which offers the ageing Casanova played by -- my god -- Peter O'Toole putting words into the mouth of his younger self essayed by instant star David Tennant as he tries to talk himself out of what is obviously yet another scrape, the show just rattles along throwing out costume drama convention after convention. It's been tried before in everything from the film Plunkett and McLean to a Channel 4 version of Anna Karenina from a few years ago, but here it actually works.
It more or less demonstrates why Russell T Davies is one of the best five script writers on TV. In the dialogue he manages to offer a contemporary blend without it jarring with the period. Using the framing device over the older telling the story of the younger, he manages to cover a lot of ground in plot and character terms but without the audience feeling short changed that they're missing the really good bits. But he also knows when to pull back and let the pictures tell the story. There is a great moment in which two people communicate across a crowded room, something I've never seen before in frocks and coats and it's utterly real.
But the directing and editing are fluid as well. Sheree Folkson previously worked on contemporary dramas like Burn It and the The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star both of which had a kinetic energy which re-appears here. Forget establishing shots -- don't need them -- they'll just get in the way of the sight gags. The closest comparison I can think of is early Simpsons, that use of mounting montage leading to a punchline, comedic or emotional. I once went to a workshop with some people from Red Productions who are one of the companies behind this and they emphasised a philosophy of telling the story through what you can see and this really embraces that philosophy. The photograph is sumptuous as well; I'm not a huge fan of the Digital Video the BBC are using on their shows nowadays (tends to seem a bit washed out) but there are moments here which have the feel of a pure Technicolour production.
There's all that and there's the cast. I said earlier that David Tennant is an instant star, and he really is. He's just channelling the always excellent O'Toole's charisma to create this uberpersonality -- that ability to be totally likable even when he's (possibly) doing some bad things. Even with all the above the show would flatten out if he wasn't so good. To drop the inevitable reference, he has the magnetism of a young Tom Baker in his series of Doctor Who (although he sort also reminded me of Paul McGann in the audios -- that kind of curious happiness).
I'm also inevitably going to say that Laura Fraser is luminous, but she just is. I was afraid she'd just be getting a cameo, but she's Casanova's life long dream, always on his mind. The camera looks longingly at her in way I've not seen since Small Faces and underlines what a tragedy it is that she's not a STAR! Hopefully this will change that when it turns up on the main channel. I've not seen Rose Byrne before, but it takes something to match O'Toole yet there she is battling away as Edith the maid. I don't want to talk about the rest of the cast because it would give too much away but all are great too.
Just an excellent, excellent thing. If you missed it, I'd wait for the repeat before diving in. I'd imagine that you'll be losing a lot of the emotional resonance if you're just turning up for part two next week...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I reviewed Woody Allen's last film, Anything Else, it was on the
defensive. That film had taken a lot of criticism for being identikit
Woody Allen, marginalised from reality. I loved that film for both
those reasons. I love Melinda and Melinda in the same way, and
ironically it seems to be playing those criticisms as strengths.
Which is why it's odd that it's being presented as a return to form, particularly because most of the elements are so similar to his other films. Even the music over the titles has been heard a few times before in earlier films. It has the discussion/storytelling format of Broadway Danny Rose and the mixture of comedy and tragedy of something like Crimes and Misdemeanors. It's still set in affluent Manhatten in which people own houses in the Hamptons and will order out for Chinese food if an already expensive meal is ruined.
I think what makes it a more watchable and probably accessible film is that it feels like a richer experience. The central conceit, of a story being told from a tragic or comic perspective from an initial stimulus is a discussion of the essence of drama. That discussion occurs throughout the film as the two stories echo each other, moments being mentioned or re-described in differing configurations, with suicide played in the darkness and light in equal measure. It gives the piece a background bigger than the characters and their situations.
But there is also a depth and breadth in the cast. As both Melindas Radha Mitchell gives a towering performance. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors (a spiritually similar film) who was called upon to play essentially the same character twice, here Mitchell has to think herself into two spaces completely. Each Melinda, because of their place in the comedy and tragedy sections, has a different life experience and so reactions are going to be wildly different. The tragic Melinda feels to an extent like Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives; comic Melinda is more lovable though, a bit Meg Ryan. Compellingly you fall for both in different ways.
But this is an ensemble piece though, and what's very interesting is that the whole cast isn't replicated through both stories, Mitchell is the only common thread. This means Allen's also played to the strengths of casting for comedy and tragedy. I've never previously loved Will Ferrell, but here, possibly because he's effective Woody avatar he's actually very effective and heartbreaking. Amanda Peet, who I've always known is a wickedly great actress repeats the excellent work she's done in things like Two Ninas. On the tragic side, if Johnny Lee Miller is a bitter mannered with his best attempt at an American accent, Chloë Sevigny continues her consistent work and Chiwetel Ejiofor shows once more that he's going to be a very big star.
You what I think makes this seem like a better film? Woody's started editing again. Lately, the director has been relying on oners with steady-cam and hand-held, with the characters playing within a space. That has the effect of making things seem very theatrical, and also reduces the facility for subtlety. Here, there are many more close ups and frequently the frame will hang on a face giving the actor room to tell a story. There is also a lot less conspicuous improvisation. In only a couple of scenes can we tell that people are throwing ideas in and hoping they stick. Everything feels planned giving this film a rhythm which has been lacking. There are rumours that this could be Allen's last New York film for a while, so it's lovely that Melinda and Melinda looks so amazing, with the photography of Vilmos Zsigmond (who also impressed on Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl) finding yet more new ways of evoking the city.
Woody's next film, Match Point has been made in London, with his next being set there as well. That should give him a shot in the arm creatively. But frankly on the basis of this I don't think he needs it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Since the only comic book I've read in years is Whedon's X-Men I
suppose I came to the film as a piece of cinema rather than an
adaptation. There are probably hundreds of smaller references in here
which I'd never understand and I've no idea what fans of the comics
make of this (which perhaps puts me on the other side of the
Hitchhiker's-style debate). What I saw though was an extra-ordinary
piece of film making which managed keep the spirit of everything which
has gone before, whilst keeping its own coherence.
It's exciting that the studio would sanction another origin adventure so close to the Tim Burton film. I was never a fan of that -- too stylised for its own good lacking clear characterisation. What's surprising here is that rather than giving what the audience wants, two horns and a cape, we hardly see the dark knight until into the second hour. There is quite a complex flashback structure creating an underpinning of the psychological reasons why Bruce Wayne would want to hang around in caves with bats as friends, while at the same time subtly setting up some important plot information later in the film. If there's a slight problem with the train sequences they reminded me a bit too much of Highlander -- especially all the sword play. Also I defy anyone not to be waiting for Neeson to tell Bale to 'be mindful of the living force'.
The development of the iconography of the bat are also handled incredibly well. In this explanation for the wonderful toys, its Bruce using largely existing hardware rather than items he's developed himself -- and also granted some of them are a bit fantastical -- it takes the point of view that its not about the tools, its how they're used, which is a step up from a magical utility belt which can do everything. Over and again, we are reminded that this is just a man -- a highly skilled, well trained man -- but flesh and blood nonetheless. He gets hurt, we see bruises. This adds an extra vulnerability. Unlike previous incarnations Batman isn't somehow a separate character apart from the billionaire playboy, its the conduit through which the playboy saves the world.
It is a cameo-fest, a dream for any player of Six Degrees. There is a moment about half an hour into the film as all of the major characters are introduced and they're all played by names actors. It's real kitchen sink casting, an Ocean's Eleven for actors of a certain age, but there are some brilliant choices and it's great in particular to see Gary Oldman not playing the lunatic for a change. Michael Caine's Alfred is also a great creation. Katie Holmes just feels like a better more exciting love interest not just around to be saved but integral to the story. There was also something for the Nu-Who fan, with The Long Game's Christine 'Cathica' Adams playing a secretary. One day to go.
What this proves is if you get a Chris Nolan to make a superhero film, you'll get the best example of the genre money can by. He'll take the character seriously, do experimental yet crowd pleasing things with him and make the audience want to see more. Up until now, I thought the cartoon series was the best imagining of the character I'd ever see. This is just as good if not better. Of all the comics adaptations this year I'd be very surprised if any of them are better than this.
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