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Sweet and sad like a good folk song
31 January 2014
Warning: Spoilers
As a child my family's long, fractious car trips to the seaside in the 1970s would invariably be calmed by long stretches of old sea shanties, ballads and gentle calypsos from Livepool-based folk group The Spinners. So the world lovingly sent up in this gentle, lo-fi film seems very familiar to me.

Llewyn Davies is just another struggling folk singer in a Greenwich Village that is so choked with them that it must have been like being a country singer in Nashville today. What he sings sounds pretty good – sometimes really good. But his music is starkly at odds with the chaos and the casual wrongness of his life. As the film develops you learn just how wrong it is, just how broken, and his erstwhile singing partner Mike's role in his trajectory becomes increasingly important.

Sometimes it felt like this film was little more than an auteur exercise in making you care about someone whose charms, perhaps were mostly superficial. It's pretty effective at that – even when my expectations were being smashed, Coen-style, I did realise that I was starting to care about what happened to this man. There are a million million musicians out there and very few make anything like a solid career out of it. ** Small spoiler** It starts to seem increasingly clear that this musician, despite his nicely crafted material, just doesn't have that transcendent look of being willing to do anything to play – of really not caring whether you like it or not.

I think the Coens had a lot of fun with this film – kicking off their shoes and relaxing at the expense of the boho 60s Greenwich Village set, of folk music in particular, of all the Llewyn Davies' out there, and of every film ever made in New York. I saw glimpses of "Breakfast at Tiffanys" and "Manhattan", "Funny Face" and cinematography in gorgeously muted tones, that brought to mind a number of great available-light films from the late 60s/early 70s Golden Age. But there's a lot of love, for the music, for the genre and for the city.

The folk satire feels pretty spot on, an able ensemble cast drawing the latent comedy from the scenario. I loved Jean and Jim's hilariously cutesy double act, the marvellous Arran sweaters of the Irish quartet, the pretentious audiences, and there are even pointers to that nasal, trumpet-like "I can't sing but I'm going to anyway" folk style, still much beloved in British folk circles even today, and of which Bob Dylan was certainly a signed-up member. I remember a (BBC) radio documentary once where an African American musician said of Dylan, "he did not have what we in the black community would call a Strong Voice, but we all took notice when he had a new record out." So the fact that I'd rather listen to the fictional Llewyn Davies' pretty, evocative ballads than to Dylan's horn-like dirges misses the point – who made that contemporary audience feel that something new was happening? Who took it to the next level?

Ultimately this film is all about small, nicely observed iconoclastic moments. But I wouldn't get a budding young musician to watch it.
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Fish Tank (2009)
Painfully moving and raw modern day tale of being lost
28 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I won't run through the story again, since lots of other reviewers have done this very well. I'll just try and reflect my thoughts about this fascinating and beautiful film by auteur director Andrea Arnold.

There's something of the fairy tale about this particular story of a girl's coming of age – not the saccharine type, but the kind of dark, bloody European fairy tale in which people are maimed. Mia's wonderfully disobedient and enraged Little Red Riding Hood trips through the urban forest of an Essex housing estate, nutting rival girls on the estate, beneath the poverty line and beneath many people's knowledge or contempt. Feeding on a diet of cheap cider, she never speaks when she can shout or snarl, and she escapes into dance, in a clumsy way. But there's no escape from this forest: no prince is going to come for her. She's ill-equipped to deal with the unforgiving environment in which she has grown up and the scary and strange monsters she encounters.

Take Michael Fassbender's charming Connor, for example. His arrival in a house of women affects them all, positively at first; and if he seems to carry with him a veneer of normality (he has money, a car, he's comfortable around the kids, he takes them all out on a trip), well, turns out that should be treated with caution, just like that dazzling smile, those sharp white teeth, those piercing eyes.

Not a great deal happens in this film; it's all about small, nicely observed snapshots in a life. There are deliberate ironies: the trip the family take to the Essex countryside – not much in itself, but a lot to kids unused to holidays. That incredible Essex sky, in the great half-wild, flat and marshy semi-industrial spaces around the A13 and the M25. Mia's dancing is awkward and undeveloped: she doesn't have the wherewithal to improve, interesting as her embryonic style definitely is. We know this isn't "Flashdance"; but she's so brave to try and reach for a means of genuine self-expression, and we still feel something for her when what she's doing is stupid, or even malevolent. The downward trajectory, the hope-filled interludes – none of these things are new but all are presented here with great integrity, and with naked, non-judgemental clarity. The heart-stopping pursuit through a darkened field grips my imagination years on.

The cast is really, really good. Katie Jarvis' performance is so honest and unselfconscious that it's often painful to watch her negotiate the murky waters of her relationships; there's the shock of recognition of her teen-aged anger, utter boredom, loneliness and unchannelled desire. This was Katie Jarvis' film, but Michael Fassbender's lupine Connor was convincingly charming and opaque. Mia's mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing) got short shrift in the film, slightly unfairly. Joanne's powerful discontent defines her household, but she's just as lonely and bored as Mia. Just as compelling a film could have been made about her life, too.

Who knows what will happen to Mia? Perhaps nothing better; but she's given herself a chance. What more would any of us dare ask of her?
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"Young people in love are never hu-un-gry!" The granddaddy of all rom-coms
1 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I stumbled across this film recently, expecting it to do no more than help me kill some time. Several viewings on, I'm hooked – it seems almost incredible that it was made in 1934, not 1984 or 2004. There isn't a romantic comedy in existence, and never will be, that doesn't owe a debt to this film. It's funny, modern, charming, and meaningful about people – what more do you want? Colour? Ah, nuts.

Clark Gable plays Peter, a cynical journalist who ends up on a road trip across a Depression-hit USA with runaway heiress Ellen (Claudette Colbert). Ellen's sheltered life has done nothing to prepare her for the trials that lie ahead. She's so certain that she knows what she wants, and what's best: she's naive, but sparky and intelligent. She has to be knocked down in order to have her eyes peeled open.

* Some spoilers from here* I thought I knew all about Clark Gable, and wasn't that bothered, but here he radiates masterful alpha-male charm and can switch on a dime from comedy to a love scene, boyish vulnerability to hardboiled cynic and back again. I don't know which version of him I liked more, although I think my favourite mini-moment comes when he's hardboiling it for the telegram girl, pipe in mouth - Philip Marlowe if ever there was one.

The script is full of wonderful details – I don't know how much was in the original short story but I get the impression a great deal must have been added in to make it funnier. Oh, let me count the ways… her not understanding what a real piggy back ride is…his hilariously terrible attempts at hitchhiking…Mr Believe You Me...Peter's "shut up" when they're back on the bus (which brings to mind James Cagney and That Grapefruit)…and then his petulant sulk when he realises he's losing the upper hand, falling in love and just a shade jealous…it's all great.

I was hysterical by the time we met the operatic buggy driver – ever since I first saw the film I've been turning everyday trivialities into Gilbert & Sullivan libretto – and I just loved Peter's shouty conversation with Ellen's dad. But best of all are the lessons Ellen has to learn. For all her wealth and snobbery, and for all we enjoy her gradual comeuppance, she shows she's capable of learning (finally being hungry enough to eat a raw carrot!), and is worthy of Peter's love. When, near the end, she's weepily describing to her father how poor Peter's opinion is of them both ("you should hear what he says about you!"), capping it off with "…he's marvellous…(sob)…", you're right there with her.

"It happened one night" is in danger of eclipsing William Powell's wonderful "My Man Gordon" as my favourite thirties film. It's revised my lazy opinion about Clark Gable too – but it won't make me like "Gone with the Wind" any better, I don't care what anyone says.
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Game of Thrones (2011– )
Fantastically alive adaptation - rich, violent and good
4 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Gloriously big, classy, brave, sexy and violent production of George RR Martin's extraordinary "Game of Thrones" saga. The show benefits incalculably from the now-familiar HBO approach (lots of tits, lots of gore, great acting by heavyweights - lots of Brits, yay! - amazing scenery and set design, costumes, the lot), and it creates more vivid tableaux-vivants from Martin's wonderful source material than anyone, it seems, thought possible. Right down to the beautifully intricate steam punk opening credits, this is a whole show, thought through consistently and presumably costing an absolute fortune to make. The writer whose books have sold in the tens of millions deserves no less, but it was still surprising to see scenes take place on screen that matched so completely those that had occurred in my imagination when reading the books.

The script is snappy and clever; characters scheme and fight, and face bigger, scarier threats than knights' swords. Almost every actor with a speaking part performs excellently. There were just one or two that seemed a trifle weak to me; for example, Lena Headey, beautiful in her huge blond tresses, corrupt as sin, but strangely lacking in commitment to her lines. I was initially disappointed by Emilia Clarke as Dany, and her story among the Dothraki - and by her Khal, clearly chosen for his man-mountain status and stripped of dialogue - may as well have been Chewbacca. But I warmed to Dany as the series went on, and her final appearances in Series 2 were truly powerful. Good on her. "The Imp" gets all the best lines, as indeed Peter Dinklage deserves - a great, once-in-a-lifetime part.

Speaking as an anti-Lord-of-the-Rings person, I would say that the whole thing is great, great stuff. Please, go out and enjoy.
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Jane Eyre (2011)
Different again, a more melancholy Jane Eyre
23 April 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This review is full of spoilers, sorry! In addition to the detail about motivation, camera technicalities and great tidbits about the actors to be found in Cary Fukunawa's interesting commentary to the DVD for this film, one thing in particular struck me. He's talking about the scene where Jane hears Rochester calling to her at the height of her emotional conflict with St John Rivers. He compares Michael Fassbender's near-whisper to Orson Welles' booming "Jane!" as an illustration of the way acting styles have changed over the decades. I thought that said a lot about the whole approach of this highly atmospheric and relatively quiet film.

It isn't helpful to plot the points of divergence between book and film: I'm a fan of all attempts at this wonderful story. Finding the parts of each adaptation that I most enjoy is more than half the fun, so I don't mourn for long the loss of what might seem like important characters or scenes: Grace Poole; Hannah the servant at Moor House; the gypsy scene (showing Rochester's reckless playfulness); the tearing of the veil - something had to go.

This version looked undeniably incredible. Shot using minimal assisted lighting, they obviously went to a lot of trouble to make it look and feel and sound right. I liked that the director had spent some time at Haworth Parsonage, thinking not just about Jane Eyre, but about Charlotte Bronte herself. I thought the casting was all pretty good, though I'm fed up with casting directors believing only Judi Dench can do a Judi Dench. Mia Wasikowska in particular was I think terrific as Jane: very close to the bold, lonely, restless girl in my head, despite her striking looks. I can't understand why many have found fault with her restrained performance: I think they're criticising the wrong one.

Michael Fassbender was the more problematic lead to me, as a Rochester who certainly looked the part (even without the ugly-beautiful face and the oddly animal frame described in the story). When he was on good form, he filled Rochester's skin pretty well considering what a chameleon-like changeling he is in the book, veering from weary seducer to love-struck schoolboy to Bluebeard. The literary Rochester is "busy paving Hell with energy"; but in this film he's a calmer, smoother presence. There are frustrating moments, though, when Fassbender seemed to be merely reciting his lines in a low monotone – extraordinary for an actor of his proved range. Two particularly jarring scenes: in his bedroom, where Jane has just saved his life, and he first expresses feelings for her; and the scene in the garden at dawn, when he (supposedly) bitterly taunts her with mention of his "lovely one". Were there too many people behind the camera on those days? Considering the spot-on excellence of his acting in other scenes, I found this disconnect with the material incredible. But Fassbender is terrific in his other, better scenes, such as when he and Wasikowska are verbally fencing by the fireside in his study; and when she has finally emerged from her room after their thwarted marriage attempt.

I think perhaps it must have been direction: keep it subtle, keep it soft. This isn't very Brontean; yet there are remarkable moments that absolutely nail the mood. Jane looking longingly out from her walled garden/cage at the horizon; Rochester's face, made dark and ugly as he picks out a tune on the piano that makes him think of his hated wife upstairs; his piercing stares as he intuits Jane's thoughts. I loved Jane's quiet, suppressed "public" face and the slow private awakenings of her first desire. And for all Jamie Bell may not physically much resemble the godlike blond St John from the book, his forcible challenge to Jane's "lawless" passion has all the unforgiving intensity of a Templar bigot from a bygone age. All these memorable things almost make up for the loss of humour.

My lasting favourite adaptation is the 1980s TV version starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke; whose powerful performances pay tribute to an almost unabridged script. But I'll still thoroughly enjoy owning this on DVD. I recommend watching the recent TV adaption of "Wide Sargasso Sea", taken from Jean Rhys' brooding riposte to the treatment in "Jane Eyre" of the story of mad, silenced Other Mrs Rochester.
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L'arnacoeur (2010)
Charming and funny confection
13 December 2011
Warning: Spoilers
What a joy! A quite mad French rom-com which is very funny, not over-subtle and completely bewitching.

Romain Duris is Alex, a professional breaker-up of the relationships of "unknowingly unhappy" women. He's good. He's an artist, driving himself into the arms of a loan shark to pursue his calling for the benefit of, well, of the people who pay him to separate their friends, sisters, daughters from A N Other unsuitable man. The joyous thing about what he does – what saves it from cynicism or worse, is that the women clearly benefit too, walking away with their eyes open, feeling loved. But he's about to meet his match: Vanessa Paradis is Juliette, his next and most challenging target, a woman who appears to be perfectly happy. He and his crack support team have a week to pull off the impossible: separate a perfect woman from the perfect man she's about to marry and be Happy Ever After with. He can't afford to question why he's being asked to do this.

I think the 'classic' French male leading man is often an acquired taste to Brits. On paper – and even on first impressions – it's hard to find Alex likable, and yet that's exactly what he, and the film, achieves. It helps that he's something of a 'little' guy: he's broke, and genuinely loves his job, and the likes of Juliette look down their noses at people like him. He exudes a brilliant physical energy throughout the film: it's this – and his passion and determination, never doing anything by halves – that's crucial to his ultimately winning the audience, and his 'victim', over.

Of course, the reserved, poised Juliette might also appear, at least at first, somewhat unlikeable, with her very expensive lifestyle and her perfect fiancé. But her secret lowbrow tastes, her playfulness, and her seeing the good that we see in Alex, win us over too. It helps that Paradis the actress is a bit of an icon, a bit edgy; even slightly odd looking (sorry is that me? That doesn't mean I think she isn't beautiful!). He's slightly odd looking too.

The film goes at a cracking pace, and features bedroom farce, classic French meringue-light comedy, visual gags, slapstick, crime, punishment, an English stooge, pleasing background music, knowing references – you name it. But amazingly it works. It makes wonderful use of "Dirty Dancing" which I'll leave you to enjoy in all its guilty glory – admit it, you loved it too! Shot beautifully in ice-cream-coloured Monaco, everyone looks great – expect no less from a French romantic comedy.

I think men should be obliged to buy this for their girlfriends and wives immediately. You never know, men might even like it too…!
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Lovely and sparkling social satire
14 September 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this on some bargain-bucket DVD; and beneath the veneer of "1930s screwball comedy" - mixed feelings about those kinds of films – was a lovely and charming film.

I'm pretty sure "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" owes a lot to this film, in addition to the French play ("Boudu sauvé des eaux") it more obviously imitates. It's so interesting a premise: Godfrey is a "forgotten man", a down and out victim during the Depression. But he 'forgot' himself, as it were: we later find out that he's intelligent, from a "good" (i.e. both rich and old) family, but before that, the film opens with Godfrey, living in highly dignified squalor on and off the New York City dump. His 'rescue' is effected by the comically idle and frivolous Bullock family, and he becomes the family butler. With his very eloquent eyes, trim moustache, mellifluous voice and urbane delivery, he negotiates a family with more than its share of flaws, the object of spiteful retribution and adoring love respectively from its two daughters. From his unusual position, he treads the space between the very poorest and the very richest, spreading wisdom, elegance, grace and understanding as he goes. He even finds a way to give something back to the place that nurtured him. It's funny, satirical, bitter and sweet in turn, lovely to watch. (It's always lovely to watch the homes and outfits of the rich.)

I'd have to say I found Carole Lombard's performance very much slapstick to William Powell's understated satire; which jarred sometimes. As a modern viewer, I also looked hard for the sexual tension between Godfrey and Irene – and found it instead between Godfrey and spiteful Cornelia in classic love-hate form. In a modern version of the film the attraction between him and Cornelia would have been put more to the test - but it's an equation that doesn't work in this film. In one great scene he puts Cornelia down so effectively, and so completely, that it really doesn't leave any room for sexual frisson. The problem then, is that the lack of tension between him and Irene left me a little baffled at his profession that he was "getting that feeling again" in relation to Irene – it certainly didn't show. But then this is fundamentally Jane Austen for Depression-era talkies; the love is in the head as much as the heart. You never got any close ups of her, perhaps because she was playing younger than her age? Perhaps also this explains the sometimes manic laughter and infuriating giggling.

I know, I know, it's best not to look too hard. The verve and gusto, the witty dialogue, the social satire, the costumes, the lighting and above all, William Powell's wonderful performance, make up for anything lacking. I think I'm in love…
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Iron Man 2 (2010)
So-so follow up. Impress me more.
16 July 2010
We all cry out for "next episode" films when we've loved the first one; but like naughty children, we shouldn't always be indulged in our desires. Iron Man II's Goliath has made a David out of the funny, quirky first film.

Poor old messianic Iron Man. Even Robert Downey Jr's considerable charm couldn't quite overcome the pointlessness of this film, which is a pity: Favreau had a ready-made audience, eager for more; he could have taken chances, had a really punchy script and dealt with something bigger and nastier than Iron Man's glimpse of his own mortality. One newspaper review commented on how "Stark arrogantly states 'I've successfully privatised world peace'", and I agree: it's monstrously arrogant. Whoever wants world peace privatised anyway? Isn't it a civic, national and international duty to help keep the peace? Or is this another illustration of the US's pathological hatred of "central" governance? Yawn. Or perhaps it's just go-it-alone isolationism? Double yawn.

Elsewhere the film was teeming with underused but well-played characters: Mickey Rourke's surprisingly effective villain, hamstrung by his crude and ultimately ineffective weapon not once but twice (a scary whip? Again?!); Scarlett Johansson doing a pretty good job considering her "reveal" doesn't really go anywhere (and reviews that say she's just there as eye candy are unfair, she has at least one good fight scene); Gwyneth Paltrow's cute Pepper Potts gone all shrewish – why?; Don Cheadle and Samuel L, serious acting talent, with nothing much to do - what are Shield doing in this anyway? Much of the story was crowded, boring and inexplicable, and I count it as a bad thing when I find myself actually welcoming another brainless action sequence.

I once heard Paul Hogan touting "Crocodile Dundee II", and his use of the expression "it's a good product", was like a death knell. Well, when I heard Jon Favreau talking about this film, although to be fair these press things must be mind-numbingly awful – he made it sound like just an item on his CV: another death knell. Without passion, "Iron Man II" was always just going to be just a day at the office. Maybe we all expect too much; here's hoping number three just goes back to being good, simple entertainment.
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Insipid like a 1980s music video
5 July 2010
A triumph of the dead-eyed purveyor of schlock over the imagination.

The imagery in this film made me think of all those fantasy illustrations you used to be able to find in Athena poster shops in the 1980s: scantily-clad big-boobed maiden/warrior princesses, warriors with scimitars and lots of greasy long hair. Bring on the sport rock. When did that rubbish become desirable? I was interested enough to watch the film because it looked like a decent cast; but I should have known that Bruckheimer was behind it, making it all bigger, dangit, bigger! And louder! More sand! More swords! Those tits aren't big enough – hoist 'em! And so we all get exactly what we deserve: a poorly thought-out "epic" in name only.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton are both likable actors, but here, very much a second-rate Luke Skywalker and Princess Leah combo, being pulled through the labyrinth of the plot as if by a piece of invisible wool. Their characters reminded me of fruit in British supermarkets: it looks like a strawberry…but it doesn't taste like anything in particular. Alfred Molina stole (saved!) the show not only with the best lines, but with the film's only really funny delivery.

I've never seen such appalling editing in a major Hollywood film. Clearly the director often couldn't be bothered to show how an action set piece developed from shot to shot – so they just show the character, now in one place (e.g. leaping across columns), now in another (just arrived on a racing horse), and these obvious 'logic' gaps strip the film of believability. Of course, that's what happens in video games too, isn't it? No pesky explanation shots keeps things moving faster for all those goldfish-attention spans. I thought the point (if there is one apart from profit) of bringing a video game to the big screen, was exactly to fill in all the bits the video game leaves out, to generate some magic up there. But no one cares about its faults – the makers are so busy making money and looking at future merchandising and franchise options.

If scripts are bad and over-referential now, imagine how awful they'll be when future scriptwriters have material like this to refer back to. And I'm not even going to begin talking about the consistent 1950s-style casting of anglo-saxon white people as Persians. It's not as if this film is a first for that; and besides, what fan of this film would care anyway? I feel soiled and used.
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Great 1950s shipwreck adventure
20 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
What a very pleasant surprise, watching this film on TV recently for the first time. It's a simple, well-made story of two shipwrecked characters during wartime. How they get on – practically, emotionally – is offset by a host of ingredients – WWII, the Japanese, the protagonists' respective professions – which make the story infinitely more interesting. The actors are good enough to show that each character has an inner life – this is tremendously important and elevates the film above standard wartime adventures or romances. There are obvious comparisons to be made – to 'The African Queen' and to 'Hell in the Pacific' in particular – but this is good enough in every respect to stand on its own. I'm beginning to understand why the 1950s are referred to as a Golden Age for Hollywood. "Anastasia", "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness", much of Hitchcock's output, "The Journey" – all great 1950s films.

"Heaven Knows, Mr Allison" is really all about the interaction, the inner and outer life, between two people who didn't choose to be where they are (stranded on an island in the thick of danger), but make the best of it: Robert Mitchum's marine, Corporal Allison, a practical, man's man, rough and tough but with a good heart; and Deborah Kerr's nun, Sister Angela, whose motivations are more opaque, but who shows nevertheless a soldier's resilience. Corporal Allison knows pretty well what he is and is not: he's not 'nice' but he is good at his job. * * Spoilers from here ** The trouble is, so is she: she's a good nun. Not even the periodic reappearance of the Japanese could have prevented this from becoming a 'lovers on the windswept beach' story had it not been for this important fact. His good heart, and her job, keep the sexual subtext submerged. Both actors have 'complicated' faces in addition to proved acting skill, in a story that in weaker hands would have been all batting eyelashes, heaving chests and sweaty stares, a second-rate doctor-nurse romance. I agree with other reviewers that you don't learn nearly as much literal information about her – her profession, her place in it – as you do about him. But Kerr's skill is that you do still learn quite a bit – what there is to know you can find from her energetic embracing of the practical difficulties of their temporary life together; from her silence when he is speaking; from her looks (at him, away from him). She's brave: she isn't defensive; she doesn't shrink; and when she does it's not from him; but from the ugly reality his words force in front of her.

I was intrigued to read from another reviewer that the book on which the story is based brought the subtext very much into the plot: uptight 1950s Hollywood wasn't going to have any of that. But in fact I think the restraint for once improves the film. It would have been so facile and predictable for poor old Sister Angela to follow the leanings of practicality (boring but true!) and her own liking for her fellow castaway, and give up her vocation for the comfort of life in the arms of that big, handsome, happy man. But as anyone who has seen "The Nun's Story" (- another great 1950s film!) knows, being a nun involves strength on a military scale; and it's this that she draws on – that they both draw on – to survive their inclinations. It is survival in every sense; survival of desire. The shot of her without her veil is extraordinary. Allison is wordlessly more attracted to her than ever when he sees her calmly accepting the practicality that he has had to remove her clothing – that crucial symbol of her faith. Had either acted on their inclinations, could they have survived the boat trip out of there? Unlikely (see the original book of "The African Queen"!). The beauty of this ending is that you suspect it won't matter. They have an inner life, these people – a faith strengthened through what newspapers would call today "their ordeal". His not taking her in his arms; her not ripping off her veil and her ring; their not walking into the sunset arm in arm – these things don't matter. What matters is her faith; his being a soldier – surrounded, at the end, by soldiers. And that's why this film is, besides being an enjoyable adventure story, a highly respectful and intelligent view of both professions, a credit to all involved.
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As sweet as a cupcake - a slightly guilty pleasure
15 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Corrina, Corrina (for IMDb) I stubbornly refuse to sneer at this 'period' film, which I think was not critically well received. Some of its themes are close to my heart – but even without this I'd be inclined to smile on such a gentle film, with such great – and such consistently miscast – actors. It's the early 60s (isn't it?) and newly widowed Manny Singer (Ray Liotta, for once cast against type) is struggling to hold down a job as a jingles writer, while raising distraught daughter Molly on his own. (** Very minor spoilers from here**) He employs widow Corrina Washington, and their rocky road to an understanding, healing Molly along the way, is the subject of the film, played with gentle humour.

The small pleasures go on and on: Whoopi Goldberg in a film quiet and sedate enough to be a fine showcase for her super-dry wit; Ray Liotta, such a charismatic actor, finally getting to play a good guy, not a wise guy; the lovely child actress Tina Majorino, our eyes and ears in this film; the delightful ice cream hues, shot lovingly by serious cinematographer Bruce Surtees (much favoured by Clint Eastwood I believe); the elegiac inclusion of Don Ameche at the very end of his life; the supporting cast including the wonderful Curtis Williams as Percy. I could go on. All right, so in truth, not a lot happens; so the story isn't very original, more a hymn to a rosily remembered Jewish American childhood than great cinema - but so what? It's a pure pleasure to watch. Only one thing bothers me, given the interesting subtext of the film (**small spoiler**): why exactly, in 1994, did they need to make the kiss take place in near-total darkness (some 30 years after the period depicted in this film)? And whose decision was that?
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Life (I) (2007–2009)
Very entertaining bonkers lightweight entertainment
7 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I'm really loving this show, came to it late as usual. Damian Lewis is very impressive as Charlie Crews, who has just got his life back after 12 wronged years in prison. He was police through and through: he was framed; now he's out and very rich and, apparently, serene, with a great passion for fruit. He practises the art of zen; but his messy life keeps catching up with him despite his splendid isolation. No one wants him back on the force: but with no idea how to spend his great wealth, he does what he can: by day he's an off-beat detective. By night he's hunting – you'll see for what. His partner Dani Reese is being punished for having a drug problem, and the carrot dangled in front of her is to bring Crews down to elevate herself. But (** spoilers **) her partner's good police work and quirky approach to life turn out to bring out the best in her, too. And praise the scriptwriters – these two don't fall in love.

Sarah Shahi's Dani Reese got a better deal out of season 1 than season 2; and so did we (unless you're a 12 year old boy). In the first season she had a really three dimensional life, with mysterious and dysfunctional behaviour accounted for by her having "messed up" on the force; by rehab; by her cop dad who she didn't have a great relationship with before Charlie dragged his shadiness into the light. So her character amply balances out Charlie's oddness. But by season 2 she is these things, in this order: great body; fluffy big hair; the love interest for the new captain; the troubled cop. That's extremely disappointing. Did her new tight fitting clothes and high heels deprive her of inner thoughts? What happened to interesting Reese with the depressive Persian mother, the drug and men problem and the determination to be all the cop her dad was? It's like the director can't wait for another opportunity to show her in her knickers again. Her relationship with the new Captain, Tidwell (Donal Logue, quite as mad as Charlie Crews) had really interesting possibilities of moving in the same self-destructive direction of Reese's past exploits; but currently, about half way through season 2, it's just a regular clothed-guy-naked-girl type deal. Lazy and unnecessarily sexualised: did a female scriptwriter get sacked or something?

As almost everyone has commented here, Adam Arkin lends much-needed heart and humour to the show. I'm suspicious, however, that for season 2 the writers are in danger of pulling a Chandler on him – that is, giving him awful and embarrassing things to do which risk emasculating him (remember poor old Chandler from Friends by the end?). That's not fair on his character: he's more interesting when you remember that he survived prison too.

It's got a nice supporting cast, and I love the way LA is so bright and pretty; and the bodies always more still life art than grimy verité. The zen teachings can be wearing but I still like it a lot – mostly due to Lewis, Shahi and Logue. "Life" has legs – has someone gone and cancelled it then?
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Earthly Possessions (1999 TV Movie)
Cute, enjoyable and undemanding
6 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I loved this easy on the eye 'little' film, adapted from a story written by the great chronicler of American ennui – Anne Tyler. Bored, frumpy vicar's wife Charlotte (Susan Sarandon) thinks that, today, she's finally going to make a break from her dull life. She succeeds, by accident. Arriving at the bank to withdraw her money, she is grabbed by a useless young bank robber, Jake (Stephen Dorff), who makes his escape with her in tow. But she's a uniquely unusual hostage: the road trip he drags her on is the release into the unknown that she never had the courage to make herself. His fear of capture, and her curiosity, keep them together at first; but as their journey continues more complicated, emotional ties bind them.

But the things that were wrong with both their pasts are never far away, and this tension leads to an ending which I can see many reviewers found unsatisfactory. But it's the "right" ending, really. We only feel cheated because the chemistry between the bank robber and his 'hostage' is so great. You feel with them; you want them to work it out so badly; you wish them a magic carpet, or a wand, or a desert island.

Both actors do a great job. When Sarandon's frumpy Charlotte first sees her kidnapper and exclaims "oh! You're so young!", her eyes show she's thinking he's something else besides young. The moments where Charlotte's and Jake's relation first changes have a palpable tension. Stephen Dorff has had a bit of a raw deal in the leading man stakes. I don't think he's a particularly less talented or good-looking actor than many A-listers who have languidly hogged the limelight forever...*&!brad?:£!pitt&!$**….I hope Dorff gets better luck in the next decade, or the next life. If you liked this film you may like the quirky "Skipped Parts" with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sarandon was excellent in "White Palace" from the same period as "Earthly Possessions"; and I remember Dorff being pretty good as the 'fifth' Beatle in "Backbeat".

Film distributors should stop freaking out about film clips being posted on, ahem, certain websites. Instead of stifling the film industry they reinvigorate it. "Earthly Possessions" is just one of many films I first saw on one of these sites, without which I wouldn't have known they existed; and then rushed out to buy on DVD.
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Witness (1985)
Fascinating glimpse into an alternative America
1 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is simply one of my favourite US films of all time. Unusually for Hollywood, this feels like a "small" film, and it hasn't really dated, to the great credit of everyone involved. It's a neat, tightly-told story of the flight into hiding of Samuel, a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who makes an expedition into the big city with his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis), and there witnesses a brutal murder. In their flight to the safety of their Amish farming community, they pick up baggage – a Philadelphia cop, John Book (a super-charismatic 80's Harrison Ford) – along the way. A damaged Book seeks to protect them by becoming part of their community, and in turn his are the eyes through which we learn about the Amish. But inevitably the ripples his presence make in this serene community spread continually wider, until finally the trouble – and the city - comes to them.

The screen chemistry between McGillis and Ford is electric, and you don't feel as if they've been clanged together (as in most modern romances): they were simply walking towards each other from the first. In addition to being a fine romance and a bit of a thriller, it's a window on a closed world, respectfully scripted and shot. It's the least boisterous, and most contemplative piece of Hollywood that I've seen in many years: how often is an alternative vision of America presented, in such a way as to suggest that it may even offer a superior quality of life to that of "modern" America? Very rare ingredients indeed. Mind you, I'd expect no less from the director of the surprisingly thoughtful "Master and Commander". It brings to mind "small" British films like Angela Pope's "Captives", and David Leland's "The Land Girls".
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Emma (2009– )
I grudgingly admit I quite enjoyed this...
28 October 2009
Not another "Emma"! And not Romola Garai! This was never my favourite Jane Austen book, always read with "what's the point?" on my lips; and I've never really taken to Garai's rather frosty beauty on screen. But I found myself liking this adaptation in spite of myself as it went on. Grudgingly. But really, there are other books out there! Must we do the same dance over and over again? Despite being determined to dislike Garai's "Emma", by the end I was appreciative of how she managed to balance her character foibles and genuinely good qualities. Johnny Lee Miller took a bit of getting used to, but put in an excellent, subtle and likable performance as Mr Knightley. My only slight snarky point would be that there didn't appear to be a really discernible difference in age between him and Emma, which represents such a significant barrier in the original story to Emma's consideration of Mr Knightley as something more than a scolding old friend, her superior in age, intellect and gravitas. Generally the cast was high quality – I'd love to see Jodhi May given more full-on screen time. Her face as a (slightly!) older woman is as extraordinary as it was when she played the silent screen star in "Last of the Mohicans" way back in 1992.

There were more of the now familiar jarring, socially-aware inserts into the screenplay from writer Sandy Welch - it's almost comforting to note that they sit as uncomfortably in Austen's text as they did in Gaskell's ("North & South"). Somehow her scripts seem to make the least of the best material – I can't quite work it out. Very annoying, like the awkward waving at each other frequently indulged in by the lead characters. At least it wasn't all about heaving bosoms, as others have been. But the last two episodes were, I thought, very much better, less awkward, more serious and more seriously enjoyable, than the first two.

I've always experienced Mr Woodhouse, Emma's father, as a fussy, over-delicate, nervous and entirely unlikeable character. But writer Welch and Michael Gambon have done something very interesting: they've turned him into someone who might almost have a nameable medical condition in today's psychologically aware times. This, together with Emma's loving and committed care of him, generates considerable empathy…this Mr Woodhouse is a person that a lot of people with an elderly parent or grandparent might well recognise. That was a touchingly unexpected thing to tease from the source material.

Still, I'd love to now move on from the microscopic study of the 1% of Regency England that dwelt in fine houses and did nothing but sit interminably in elegant chairs. All right, so I didn't have to watch it…but I always do…
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Fringe (2008–2013)
Don't worry about the logic, just enjoy the drama
22 October 2009
Incomprehensibly negative reviews here: what heights of TV brilliance were all these disappointed people expecting? Seriously, this is just 'mad science' packaged beautifully for mid-evening TV (after work, brain no longer required), and it does, I think, exactly what it says on the tin. I understand that creator J J Abrams was behind "Alias" and "Lost". OK, yes, pretty good. soaring expectations were based on what, exactly? (And no, I'm not counting his wonderful "Star Trek" - different medium, different ball game.)

The formula is familiar to us all from countless scientific exploration/forensic/detective shows, so to me there was no great leap to understand the setup, and definitely no questioning of it. It's not deep – add one part crime detection, two parts quirky "work family", one part dysfunctional father-son relationship, and four parts pseudo-science, conspiracy government plot science. Do we actually mind that it's "X Files" for a new generation? Or that the detecting conclusions leapt to through impossible scientific bounds are tenuous in the extreme? Who cares?! Does it actually need to make sense if it's addictive and well made?

I don't spend my mid-evening TV time worrying about continuity and logic, especially not for shows like this which make throwing logic out of the window sort of a point of honour. Provided - as in this case - it loosely ties together, the characters are not cardboard cut-outs and have interesting inter-relationships, and it looks pretty good and keeps the low-IQ part (of course it's only a part!) of my brain entertained, I pretty much got what I came for. I like Agent Olivia's fearless stares; I like Peter Bishop's murky past (a little at odds with his boyish face under the beard); I like the supporting cast, especially Broyles (forever Lt. Daniels in my mind!) and, crowning glory, I adore Dr Walter Bishop, bless his delightfully unhinged self-medicating cotton socks. I love it. And now despise me if you dare.
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Twilight (I) (2008)
Blood is the new black
10 August 2009
What is it with vampires?! – now that the empire has declined and fallen it seems we have this universal need to crowd all that we don't understand, all that we desire but fear, into a comprehensible whole – vampires: the Other made flesh - feared and beautiful, like a religion, or a nation. Then this plastic mould can be fitted to anything at all – so why not a lightweight teenage high school romance? – as long as it knows what it is and doesn't have pretensions beyond its abilities, of course.

Now I've learned there's a whole cultish book series behind this film, some things make sense that didn't when I'd just seen it. It wasn't that I found the story confusing – it's not that deep! – but that I couldn't understand why some characters were in it, why they were being shown to me. They seemed to have no purpose. But other things bug me more.

In some ways they got it so right – the way Bella looks at Edward, with a mixture of awe, fear and the kind of lust that belongs exclusively to teenagers; the misty Washington setting; the casual high school chatter; the inclusion of Jacob and his Quileute family for a bit of mystical interest – but in others they got it so, so wrong. Edward is very beautiful indeed – but he's too beautiful, he doesn't appear to have any imperfections at all (unless his love for – and lust for – a human could be said to be his fatal flaw). He's the boy girls draw on their notebooks if they can draw, and dream about if they can't. So I don't buy that he's waited all this time for Bella to come along; that he's, in effect, Sleeping Beauty to Bella's Prince. I don't buy that, if he's so hot and desirable, all the high school girls don't hate Bella for being the one girl – the first – to go where they couldn't. I felt that for all the idea was cute, the film would have benefited from a bit more visual style, some directing flair, which would have perhaps made it easier to 'buy' all the unbelievable bits.

That said I thoroughly enjoyed watching it for the lightweight entertainment it is, and will definitely be watching the inevitable sequel. But next time I'd be happy with some sharper dialogue, and can we please have some serious competition for Saint Edward? Can someone tell me why I'm supposed to like any of Edward's 'family'? Can something interesting happen to the characters that seem to drift purposelessly through this film – such as Bella's lonely dad and Jacob, out in the cold on the rez?
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Firefly (2002–2003)
Charming, sweet, sad, a well-told story by the most inventive of modern storytellers
9 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I'll try not to gush, it's very unattractive. Nothing with this much care and attention lavished on it could be written off as bad TV; characters this well thought-out and so fascinating a (sci-fi) premise – it's too good to just say "nah, didn't like it". I was recommended to watch this – long after it had already been abruptly cancelled on US TV by the ever-short-sighted Ratings Police – by a trusted recommender of shows like Deadwood, The Wire, Dexter etc. – all good stuff.

The fact that creator Joss Whedon was the genius behind Buffy and Angel appears to bother some (oddly enough, they seem never to have actually seen either of these!). But "Firefly" has little in common with Buffy or Angel except its easy, often humorous dialogue and the occasional snappy one-liner. The real similarity lies in Whedon's wonderful ability to build atypical, non-nuclear 'families' from random assortments of people. Some are good, some bad, some flawed, but no one is simple, and all of them, for one reason or another, are outcast. It's the strength and warmth of the oddball family unit that's compelling – and this is exactly the strength of "Firefly".

I can't stress strongly enough that the superficial 'sci-fi' label shouldn't put you off. It's sci-fi only in principle: you'll be pleased to know that in this intelligent writer's vision there are no aliens, thank goodness. Instead it's a cleverly worked-out guestimate of what our future might conceivably contain if certain events took place in a certain way. The 'world' of "Firefly" is a series of post-apocolyptic, post-war, post-reconstruction planets that contains the full spectrum of humanity. The 'Alliance' – well-meaning but inevitably militaristic and interfering – controls the "Central Planets", which are like the best mall you ever went to: glossy, costly, exclusive, clean, completely controlled. Equal influences from the two major players in this future world – the USA and China – contribute towards the predominant style and speech. Outwards from there the other planets – terra-formed for human use – get steadily rougher, tougher, poorer and wilder, and the desperados, thieves and pioneers who inhabit them, take on a sort of "Wild West" mentality – they speak differently, they wear miscellaneous clothes, they shoot each other frequently with actual guns and suffer random diseases for which they can't afford medicine.

Beyond the planets themselves is "the black" - in which people who don't really belong anywhere can find a home, if they can take the itinerant uncertainty, the occasional stray bullet and a darker, more sinister threat that exists even further out than this. Mal Reynolds fought hard on the wrong side of the war that led to the Alliance victory. Now he's captain of a heap of junk (a 'Firefly-class' spaceship ironically named "Serenity" - a grim joke) that scours their world for any job – legal or otherwise – that pays; scraping a living out of the outcast world, himself utterly outcast, bitter, sad, adrift; but very much the noble cowboy, the knight errant, the ronin, stubborn and strong. Travelling the expanse with him are Zoe and Wash, his first lieutenant and pilot; Jayne, muscle for hire, sweet Kaylee, the natural-born engineer; and lovely Inara, "The Ambassador". When he takes on a motley assortment of passengers, one, Shepherd Book (a priest) finds out a great deal about Inara's relationship with Mal from his hasty "oh! She's not really an Ambassador, Shepherd: she's a whore". In fact she's a Registered Companion (a high-class courtesan modelled on the Geisha of old) and her potent beauty, gentle voice and enduring battle of wills with Mal forms a crucial part of the show's appeal. In fact the entire show is carried aloft by the endearing and well-drawn inter-relationships between the characters, the way their dialogue really does sound like something they'd say; the way there's a lingering sadness over their world, humanised with great charm. There's a series-wide story arc involving a young, posh doctor and his very unstable stowaway, which you just need to enjoy by yourself I think. Interspersed through this are stories about their escapades and numerous narrow escapes from the cold hands of the Alliance.

I love, love, love this all-too-brief show. Perhaps I like it so much because in many ways I'm a bit of an outcast, too – perhaps we all are in our glossy, costly, exclusive, clean, completely controlled (Western) world.
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Hope Springs (2009– )
Very enjoyable daft nonsense
7 July 2009
Goodness me what a lot of bile and spleen has been written in the press about this flippertigibbet, this feathery fascinator, this pink marshmallow of a show!

The fact that it's very silly indeed, that its plot has to be held up with matchsticks to keep it afloat, that not all of the acting is any good, that the premise is as daft as a box of frogs – none of these things make it a whit less enjoyable, and I like to think of myself as having a brain and a critical faculty (though maybe some might wonder now). But I also like to switch them off on a Sunday night when preparing myself for another week in hell, so I don't care a tarnished farthing how mad and bad the show actually is. I've been glued to every episode and if they can manage to scrape another series off the walls I'll be glued to that, too. Go on, hate me. I think Alex Kingston, Paul Higgins (a nice surprise after his excellent turn as 'Scotland's crossest man'), Ronni Ancona and Annette Crosbie are great. I think several parts are seriously underwritten and could use a lot more development – but having just watched episode five I'm tossing out every possible academic objection. I thought everyone did really, really well in the wedding episode. In episode seven it was nice to see Josie finally getting into her part as her awkward friendship with Ronan develops; but what on EARTH is going on with Gill and his love life? I'm not buying that latest development at all.

Still - what were all those critics expecting? "Great Expectations"? Is this not supposed to be undemanding entertainment on the lines of "Heartbeat"? Were we expecting to be challenged and deeply moved? I wasn't. I got exactly what I wanted; it's like those lucky dips at fêtes which turn out better than you expect: a trinket of no value, of course, but pleasant nonetheless.
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Law & Order: UK (2009– )
Watchable, hardworking, decent, but not a leap forward in crime drama
28 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The makers of this show should have recognised that the UK audience has kept pace with high-end US police and legal shows, and its expectations have risen in common with the US in the time since the L&O franchise first began. US shows like "The Wire" and "Damages", the UK's "Prime Suspect", France's excellent policier "Engrenages" ("Spiral" in the UK) and Swedish export "Wallander" have all considerably raised the bar: in the policing and detecting and legalising, in the character development, there's more of the believable real-life criminality, more development of the complex psychological forces that motivate all sides. You can't then expect an audience used to these shows to be happy to "start at the beginning".

So "Law & Order: UK" doesn't feel like a step forward, coming off a bit uncomplicated and unchallenging, and for me now, that's just not good enough. OK, so the show doesn't make grand claims to be groundbreaking TV, just good old fashioned entertainment – but it's so very old fashioned! I've seen user review comparisons with long-running UK police show "The Bill", which isn't complimentary. "The Bill" is like a nursery skiing slope for programme makers; so a machine and smooth and skillful as the L&O franchise ought to be able to easily outstrip it. That's arguable, so far.

Having said this, there's a lot to like (plus it's always nice to see British actors gainfully employed). I like the pairing of Bradley Walsh (a very pleasant surprise he turned out to be!) and Jamie Bamber (great in "Battlestar Galactica"). I like the law element, and the way that Freema Agyeman sort of takes care of (the sometimes rather emotionally unstable?) Ben Daniels. There's a particularly moving and strong episode about sexual assault. But I don't feel I'm getting much insight into the legal knowledge necessary to bring a case to prosecution (skimping on consultation perhaps); and I was underwhelmed by the moments – surely among the most dramatic in law? – when it becomes clear, for example, that the police trail has gone cold, or a case is no longer viable for prosecution. L&O should take notes from "Engrenages" on how to make the contrast of the different departments – police and law – interact and sometimes clash excitingly. The drama lies – doesn't it? – in the way 'the system' makes a conveyor belt and a lottery of personal accident, people's wishes, innocence and guilt.

It's still watchable and entertaining and I'll be watching as each episode airs – but if this makes it to a second series I'd like to see more challenging scripts, longer story arcs that allow for complex exploration of the uncomfortable truces between law and order, and chaos and crime, that the police and judicial world actually live with. I'd also like to get a little bit more inside the heads of the slightly under-drawn protagonists. I don't see much (after the first episode) of the dry, gallows humour that might successfully differentiate the UK show from its US parents. If I wanted to be soothed and appeased with inoffensive no-brainer eye candy I'd watch Agatha Christie or the never-ending "Midsomer Murders" (for my sins).
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Robin Hood (2006–2009)
Gleeful, unabashedly populist retelling of the oldest Tall Tale in the book
18 May 2009
I started off being pretty rude about this show, but as time wears on I'm hooked, lock stock and Guy of Gisbourne! In this sweetly mad modern-sensibility take on the Robin Hood tale, the Very Bad Sheriff of Nottingham squeezes the quaint townsfolk for his own benefit, while wreaking vengeance on his enemies; King John plots campily for the throne; Guy of Gisbourne lurks darkly behind the Sheriff, ambitious and Quite Bad, longing for Marion who's got the hots for Robin. Meanwhile that lad Robin Hood and his band of…other lads, roam the forest robbing the rich to feed the poor. I have no idea what season is on right now, but it's cheap, funny, nonsense entertainment and it's just what I need right now.

I'm having great fun reading reviews which get in a lather about the historical accuracy of a show which is basically for kids/teenagers/adults reliving their second childhood, and which has an arrow thunking across the screen to mark the beginning of each scene! And where the Sheriff of Nottingham always wears black eyeliner! And the ladies are always immaculate in their Lusty Barmaid outfits! Where Robin Hood basically wears a hoodie, and Guy of Gisborne is a high street bondage fantasy! It's utterly mad to apply any kind of logic or academic historical standard to this show. It's a lot more fun once you stop trying.

With your brain switched off you'll stop worrying about how it is that a black man (GASP!) could be cast as Tuck (if you'll stop being horrified for a moment you may see that David Harewood is a charismatic actor with a kind face who thoroughly deserves to have been cast), how Kate has super-plucked 21st Century eyebrows, how Isabella has "'cos I'm posh and worth it" fabulous hair, and people recover miraculously from near-fatal wounds, and so on and on…you'll just sit back with a nice cup of tea and laugh heartily at the mad arrow and sword action, the soapy modern dialogue and as much Richard Armitage as anybody could want. (Actually, if we could just get a bit more Richard Armitage that would be great.) So you can take your whinging about historical accuracy and go and watch BBC4 where that sort of thing actually matters.

Final gripe: I do wish people would stop screaming "PC! PC!" the moment they see a black or Asian actor cast, anachronistically or otherwise (in THEIR opinion), in a historical piece (or a modern one: laughable TV show "Bonekickers" featured two black archaeologists – outrageous, apparently). Ye Olde Englande was definitely not Ye White Englande. Black people have been in Britain for at least two thousand years, coming here with the Romans as centurions, and via Spain with the Moors in the Middle Ages, for starters. No Black people in Britain when the (largely fictitious!) Friar Tuck roamed the land? Please. Furthermore, Robin Hood is pure oral tradition, a story passed on, handed down, embellished, aggrandised, unashamedly populist. I have no problem at all with modern writers – being, in effect, modern day minstrels themselves – tall-tale-ing this piece of folklore for the better enjoyment of the audience they actually have. Or perhaps you think black TV audiences deserve to only ever see themselves in 'gritty' urban dramas involving crime and punishment? I say bring it on, and more Guy stories please!! He's my antihero…sigh…
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"The Dark Joker" or "21st Century Ennui"
12 May 2009
The last time I had to ask so many questions during a film was during incomprehensible existential timewaster "Tron" (so now you also know roughly how old I am!). Significant exceptions aside, this is the "Tron" of the modern-day blockbuster world. I emerged saying "yeah, well…".

I loved "Batman Begins"; Christian Bale is my favourite Batman; and with this many great actors, it should have been a steal. Michael Caine in particular brings, with his briefest appearance on screen, a wonderful sense of comfort and pathos. But despite all this – despite a general tone suitable to a post-traumatic, mid-recession era – I was left entirely agreeing with a reviewer who described feeling unaccountably "disconnected" from the culture that spawned this film. The breathless adulation that some have heaped on the film has astonished me.

I love dark things: I love film noir; and films of all sorts whose characters who struggle with their souls' messy urgings. But "The Dark Knight" is all dark looks and no urgings. Lots of reviewers have praised the 'dark Gotham' design: huh? It's modern-day New York in low light and with extra night thrown in! How is that brilliant? And the crime wave? You want a truly dark tone, watch "Serpico" or "Blue Collar". To make a really good action film about corruption, everyone – literally everyone – needs to be, or to seem, corrupt. How much more interesting would this film have been if Rachel, Alfred and Lucius Fox were under suspicion, or better still, actually corrupt and working against Batman? Or if Batman were found in his Penthouse by Rachel, curled up naked and whispering mad nothings like a Gotham Howard Hughes? Bale was half asleep, or may as well have been – what a waste of that intense face, his physicality! Ledger was very, very impressive, and this was his film – he would eventually have made the lists of the really great actors if he could have kept from doing rubbish films like "Casanova". The charismatic Maggie Gyllenhaal is a pleasant change but even she can't perform the magic trick of making a meaningful character from an underwritten part. I've seen the Batman back catalogue, but throughout this I kept asking: "so…she knows that Bruce is Batman?" "…so…she loves him but she's marrying someone else?" "…so….she's known him all his life? Who IS she?" I had no idea that this was the same girl Batman had brushed with in "…Begins", so for me, there was no history, no connection, no tension. Everything got absorbed in the central, overstretched idea of Batman's inner darkness versus the Joker's chaos theory.

Like the vision of purgatory that is Batman's temporary lair while Wayne Manor is being rebuilt, mostly I think this film is about nothing more or less than the state of being bored. Batman is bored of his dual lifestyles. The Joker is bored of playing all by himself, the only intelligent psychopath in Gotham. Harvey is bored of winning his not very interesting games of chance. Glass-and-steel Gotham is 1980s dull; crime, which is money, is boring – so boring that the Joker sets his money on fire. That party Bruce throws for Harvey – come on! – the most boring party on earth; Rachel's "love" triangle is the most boring love triangle ever. Maybe a different style altogether would have helped bring this spin on the story alive, such as comic animation in tune with the TV series, or hyper-stylised like "Sin City", which seems apt.

It's absurd to imagine that this film – mere dark-toned spun sugar confection that it is – merits a place in any generation's top 100 list. Here's a revolutionary idea: how about NO more Batman, in this guise at least? Leave the superheroics in the capable hands of Iron Man and Hellboy and move on.
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It's chemistry! Enduring and quirky musical
28 April 2009
I'm intrigued by the strong sense of favour towards (or sympathy for!) Sinatra in the other reviews here. I've read elsewhere that Sinatra never seems to have forgiven anyone for *not* being cast as Sky Masterson.

OK, so who wouldn't want to be cast as Sky Masterson? – it's a great part: the charismatic successful gambler who makes a grave mistake when he allows himself to be suckered into a bet, in which he must take Salvation Army Sargeant Sarah Brown on a date to Cuba, or lose. It's not the money – it's the pride, but he and she meet their match. Meanwhile Nathan Detroit must juggle his long-suffering fiancée Adelaide with trying to find a spot for a craps game which will make him rich if it doesn't alienate his fiancée forever first.

The film started life as a series of short stories by Damon Runyon: that's his unique dialogue you hear, and those are his great character names, and that's his horse-racing/nightclub/late night gambling world. Then it became a musical, and you can't help but feel that in film form it never really left the stage. The camera is unusually static and the sets remarkably – and not pleasingly – flat and childlike. Fortunately the music is so great, I don't care that much.

My absolute favourite thing about this film, though, is the singing and acting of the two non-singers, Brando (as Sky) and Jean Simmons (as Sargeant Sarah Brown). Of course, putting pro singers into these roles would have produced better music; but what surely gets forgotten is that two such excellent actors brought something else to the party instead: what they lacked in vocal talent they more than made up for in gusto, acting ability, and pathos, pathos, pathos. You're with Sky as he argues with Sarah against reason, steadiness, pipes and safety. You enjoy Sarah's loosening up under the influence of Cuban "milk". You feel completely the suddenness and passion of their scene in the courtyard with bells ringing and an hour to go before the plane takes them home. As Sky rightly says, it's "chemistry". Pro singers – be they Broadway belters or smooth crooners – can't necessarily be relied on to make this happen. (And they certainly didn't.) I read somewhere that Brando criticised Sinatra for not putting all of himself into his role of Nathan Detroit. Sinatra in turn was infuriated by Brando's four-take acting method. As a Brando fan (does it show?!) I'm bound to take the other side, but I can't imagine that this film would have been the much-adored classic it is today if Brando and Simmons hadn't been in it with their wonderful chemistry; Brando's unpredictability; Simmons' face, all pink cheeks and brown hair, drunk and ashamed in a Cuban bar. Beautiful. I'll always want a copy of this film lying around in case I need to feel good again. You'll forgive me if give some of the Nathan (sleep)talking parts the 100% brush-off though, won't you? You won't? Oh, be quiet and have some more of Mindy's cheesecake!
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The West Wing (1999–2006)
Outstanding political drama with wit, humour and lashings of liberal thinking
2 April 2009
Creator Aaron Sorkin's world is just that – a world of his creating, an embellishment of beliefs and realities that are filtered through his own imagination. As such, it's possible not to 'fight' "The West Wing" and just accept it for what it is, a simply brilliant tour-de-force piece of writing, acting and high-octane politico-drama, centring on the White House, written by liberals for the benefit of the western world.

I say that advisedly: I can imagine that many, many groups worldwide (including much of Europe) would find this show insufferably smug about America's sense of itself; the right wing will be tearing out their hair at the way in which republicans get a look-in only as manipulative game-playing 'anti's; other departments of the American political machine will be gaping at the way in which it appears to posit that the entire country (sorry, "the free world") is run by, er… the Chief of Staff, the Communications Director and some speech-writers. When I hear the swirly music I know I'm about to get another lesson in American democracy (argggh!); and I'm not sure I quite agree with reviewers who feel that the complex stories don't have 'pat' neat endings: I think they do have very unlikely neat endings, but the writing is so sophisticated that this isn't obvious – but it's hard not to feel that when the President makes another "difficult" decision and looks "bad" doing it, your strings haven't been pulled just a bit (he falls only to rise up again in glory in the next segment).

But enough sniping, I love this show: the refreshingly left-wing liberal politics, the quality of the writing, the relish of the actors as they get their teeth into rapid-fire 1940s style rat-a-tat-tat dialogue usually performed on the move; I love the characterisations, particularly Abby Bartlett, Toby Ziegler and Danny Kincannon. So, watch it for great, witty drama; don't allow the style to push your annoyance buttons – it's a style, not an attempt at any kind of reality. I'm happy enough to watch the political game memorialised as highbrow and earnest, but I never allow it to blind me to the fact that in real life many politicians seem to me to be the very opposite of highbrow and earnest: sometimes scarcely-intelligible, extremely fallible, vainglorious human beings, and any lofty ideals they once had seem to be quickly pushed out of them by the sheer race and tussle of the political machine. No President ever made as many good, and as few poor, choices as Bartlett does.

It may be news to Americans, but no one else in the world actually *likes* to think of the President of the USA as "the leader of the free world" (which is how Bartlett is constantly described during the show). I suspect that those outside the US aren't excessively grateful to the US for their 'freedom' (and that, in any case, non-Americans may interpret freedom in a more personal, and less political, way). But the way in which this show IS extraordinary is in making the ground-level assumption that every viewer is capable of following and believing in high level intellectual political discussion. In this it's a triumph. Check out Sorkin's precursor show "Sports Night"; and younger viewers may be interested in glimpses of Martin Sheen's acting excellence as a much younger actor in "Badlands" and "Eagle's Wing". But if the glamorous sheen of "The West Wing" is a bit much for you cynics, "In the Loop" is a masterful British antidote.
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Skipped Parts (2000)
Why didn't I hear about this great little indie-hearted film before?!
5 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"Skipped Parts" is good, unusual, challenging "small" film about sex, relationships and growing up. I really enjoyed it and thought it was pretty brave of everyone involved. I'm having fun trying to work out who found it more controversial: the zealots supposed to hate it, or the liberals itching for the zealots to hate it. All I can say is, thank goodness for the internet, without which I'd never have heard about it or seen it.

*spoilers from here* Jennifer Jason Leigh has a great vampy time as peroxided young Lydia, banished to Grovont (couldn't they spell Gros Ventre?) Wyoming from her Daddy's expensive Southern home with her illegitimate son Sam (as a punishment for her bad behaviour and for showing him up: Daddy's running for Governor). What starts as mere time in solitary becomes more interesting – for better and worse – for Lydia and Sam as they both meet their match. Maurey Pearce is one of the local kids "who can read" and is determined, with Sam's help, to know what are the "skipped parts" in all the books about love, marriage and sex. Hank Elkrunner is the Blackfeet cowboy whose steady persistence with the shiftless Lydia is finally rewarded. "Skipped Parts" may not be the most polished and definitive 'coming of age' type drama out there; but it wins my respect for many of the little details that set it apart from teenager and rom-com dross: the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh, always a flag that something interesting's going on; the nice interaction between the two young leads, Bug Hall (Sam) and Mischa Barton (actually playing her age as Maurey); the quality of the cast, including Michael Greyeyes as Hank and Peggy Lipton as a pretty devastating Laurabel Pearce; the really fantastic sound, costumes, sets and locations.

If you find the idea of underage sex unpalatable, well, I'm sorry for you. It's very much a reality, as any look at any tabloid newspaper in any given month will tell you. And it always was: what an outrageous lie it is, that teen and extra-marital pregnancy didn't occur in more repressed decades. For me this was as much the story of Lydia's growing up as it was of Sam's – in fact, more so. I found Lydia's story by the end of the film more believable than Sam's; she's so like a child herself - so unwilling to do more than play at the drama of life.

Even I must admit that part of the ending did slightly jar on me. I live in a very liberal world: I've seen households made up of very unusual (and unexpectedly successful) combinations of people, and am only too happy with new, non-nuclear family images. But I wouldn't be altogether happy about a young teenager of my acquaintance watching this ending, and, perhaps, drawing the conclusion that if you leap backwards off a flight of steps there will always be someone there to catch you; because that simply isn't true. Conservative moment over. If you liked this film and want similar things, perhaps you'll be interested in the path I took to get here, which went something like this: Eric Schweig in the lovely modern fairytale "Big Eden". That film's director Thomas Bezucha, who also directed "The Family Stone", with its complicated modern family dynamics. Jennifer Jason Leigh, queen of unconventional roles (e.g. as Dorothy Parker and as Catherine Slocum, 'heroine' of "Washington Square"). Michael Greyeyes, an accomplished plains Cree First Nations dancer who I'd thought was pretty impressive in TV historical romance "Stolen Women, Captured Hearts". Films about outcasts, others, the different, the lonely - try "Trust" by Hal Hartley; "The Station Agent" and "Different for Girls".
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