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Peters is sensational, so are the numbers. The film isn't - quite., 31 October 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A conceptually dazzling musical, adapted by Dennis Potter from his BBC series, which juxtaposes the grim reality of Depression-era life with the fantasy of popular song.

Steve Martin is a pipe-dreamer and travelling sheet music salesman who thinks about sex once every one second, leaving his frigid wife (Jessica Harper) in the lurch and a timid spinster (Bernadette Peters) up the duff. Potter doesn't give Peters the soapy sob story, though. In fact, what he does with this tiny-mouthed schoolteacher is remarkable to the point of revolution, and her candid, conflicted, sensual performance is astonishingly good, one of two real reasons to see the film.

The other is the songs: an endless succession of show-stoppers, mostly framed as fantasy sequences, and almost all lip-synched to the crooniest available versions of old standards, while faithful to some distinct visual style of the 1930s. Many borrow directly from Busby Berkeley - Yes! Yes! even has kaleidoscopic overheads - but there's also a nod to nautical numbers, an enduring obsession in American popular culture for reasons unknown, while the film reaches the height of its ambition with a Fred-and-Ginger take-off staged on a replica of the Let's Face the Music and Dance set, but with choreography inspired by Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.

Just about every number is impressive or thrilling in some way, from Peters' exuberant Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You (mimed to a Phyllis Robins record and featuring schoolchildren as backing dancers), to a gold-tinted, stunningly-staged version of the title tune danced by Vernel Bagneris, and excellent guest spots for '50s hoofer Tommy Rall and Christopher Walken, the latter magnificently objectionable as a face-cutting pimp with a sideline in tap-dancing, whose incredible version of Let's Misbehave is probably the gateway drug that Tarantino fans need to get into Cole Porter.

Between these musical high points, though, which reveal the central characters' hidden urges or wildest desires, the dramatic passages don't quite cut it. I haven't seen Potter's original, but his script here - which underwent 12 revisions while boiling down six hours of drama to less than two - operates mostly at a surface level, and seems to mistake repetition and mundanity for profundity. Few of the characters seem truly affected by anything that happens to them, that strange, cold aloofness preventing you from engaging with much of what's going on amidst the impeccable period design. The writing isn't bad - there are moments of truth amidst Potter's laid-back perviness - but it isn't up to the standard of its interludes, which border on the sublime.

There's also the problem of Martin's performance. His attempts at emotion seem to have a unique, mawkish insincerity about them, while his zany treatment of some of his musical spots, mugging when he should be following Peters' restrained lead, often puncture the pastiche, leaving only a cartoon in its place. He makes a good fist of the dancing, but with someone down-to-earth and dramatically dynamic in the central role, perhaps Potter's spoken passages would have come closer to the robustness and realism needed to make the central contrast really work. Though its numbers aren't as impressive, that's why Ken Russell's version of The Boy Friend works so well: you believe in the seedy seaside world it creates, and so the songs give you something to escape from.

I wish this were great. It should be. It almost is. But it doesn't quite make it. A little like the pipe dreamer at its centre.

One of the greatest movies ever made, 30 October 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

*LOTS OF SPOILERS. A DOUBLE-WARNING, AS I DON'T WANT TO SPOIL THIS ABSOLUTE MASTERPIECE FOR YOU*

When I'm writing about this one, I tend to run out of superlatives halfway through. It's the greatest film from one of Hollywood's greatest directors; a silent translation of a popular operetta, and as much fun, romance and heartache as most people can generally stand across an hour and three quarters.

Ramon Novarro is the titular prince, the nephew of the king of Karlsburg, whose restrictive upbringing - one of "duty, obligation and loyalty" - goes out the window, however briefly, in a fug of love, friendship and beer, swirling (swilling?) across the old city of Heidelberg.

The love - and the beer, for that matter - comes from an ethereal but down-to-earth, slightly cross-eyed barmaid (Norma Shearer): the guileless, glugging Kathi forever the high point of her screen achievements. Novarro himself wasn't blessed with the greatest range, but then you don't want J. Carrol Naish as your callow, conflicted young romantic, you want a sweet, sensitive, big-eyed kid with a seductive streak - and who more suitable than Novarro, a Latino sex symbol whose tenderness and vulnerability were all too real.

You want your kindly professor, his sense of fun overriding his sense of decorum, played by someone with the chops and twinkle-in-the-eye of Jean Hersholt. And, of course, you want Lubitsch, the inimitable, irreplaceable Lubitsch, behind the camera, every scene handled with that "Lubitsch touch", every moment seeming to offer something new and extraordinary to bring a smile to your lips or a tear to your eye: Shearer checking out Novarro with absolutely no subtlety when they first meet, a garden-full of beer glasses raised with military precision, the look on the lead's face as his love interest downs an entire pint, the pair's spirited night-time excursion to the finest field in movies, and that heartbreaking return to Heidelberg, as heartfelt a paean to lost innocence and the youth that is never to return as the movies have ever served up.

You can analyse the film a dozen different ways and it comes up faultless - from its abundance of visual metaphor, shifting perspectives used to illustrate the prince's changing moods, to the director's sparing use of intertitles, and the use of a groundbreaking shot in summation that predates The Long Good Friday by 53 years - but it all adds up to the same thing: a film for the ages, an emotionally overwhelming portrait of self-sacrifice, paradise lost and position found, of young lovers meeting like passing trains, together for a fleeting, shining moment, then torn away by "duty, obligation and loyalty". And it's all scored to perfection in the old Thames Silents version by the peerless Carl Davis.

"It must be wonderful to be a prince," muses one of the town kids, studying a portrait of Novarro. On this evidence, not so much, but then isn't life just about enjoying those perfect moments when they come? This film has more than almost any other.

73 out of 109 people found the following review useful:
So disappointing, 21 October 2013

I'm resigned to the fact that "0 out of 124 people" will find the following review useful (in the world of IMDb, dissenting opinions are usually regarded as useless - quite odd, as I always enjoy reading reviews that challenge my thoughts on a film). Anyway, here goes: If the original Cloudy was like one of those Heston Blumenthal dishes that's both outrageously odd and utterly brilliant - I don't know, perhaps fried egg with jam and Rice Krispies - then this misguided, saccharine sequel is a pointless pudding, an overly sweet dessert that makes you sick up a bit of the main course.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) lands a job with a shady corporation run by his childhood hero - funny how he wasn't mentioned in the first film - who decides to send Flint back to his home island for the post-first-film clean-up, whilst playing him off against his friends. The island itself is now inhabited by living beings made of food, including a cute little strawberry with the voice of Eric Cartman, a spider comprising Big Mac and fries, and a taco-dile that spits vegetables everywhere. Are you sure this script is ready? The problem, no doubt, is that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were only on hand to provide the story and exec-produce, with former South Park staffer Erica Rivinoja botching the writing job, and Cody Cameron (Shrek, Madagascar) and Cloudy contributor Kris Pearn taking care of the rest.

There are a few good jokes - the fishing trip, the translation, Steve the monkey generally - but it's largely overbearing sentiment, food creatures with punny names (essentially a Twitter hashtag that got out of hand), and Steve Jobs-based villainy, a sort of Robots/Wreck-It Ralph/Jurassic Park III hybrid, with a minimum of heart, wit and invention. I wanted something as anarchic and genuinely original as the first movie. Instead, I got a film that's not only aimed at kids, but doggedly conventional, and insultingly predictable, both in its re-treading of old ground and its telegraphing of old jokes.

It's the most disappointing movie I've seen for a couple of years at least.

A landmark of British silent cinema that lay unseen for over 75 years, 25 April 2013

Intended as a morale-booster in the wake of World War One, this staggeringly ambitious British epic simply disappeared when Elvey and his team were paid £20,000 by parties unknown to bury it just prior to release. Considered lost for decades, it was found in the house of Lloyd George's grandson more than 75 years later, and finally screened in 1996. Such is the film's scale of ambition and level of success that silent film scholars argue that if it had been released in 1918 as planned, it may have altered the course of British cinema forever.

Viewed almost a century on, it's a remarkable achievement: storytelling on a grand scale. The sequence depicting a riot at Birmingham Town Hall utilises 10,000 extras, intelligently orchestrated (well, once some of them stop grinning); there are victory parades, fog-shrouded war scenes and symbolic tableaux: France's Marianne raises her sword triumphantly upon a Great War battlefield, we flash back into American history, and receive a visit from the ghost of premiers past. There are rural scenes of breathtaking bucolic beauty, and tours of wartime factories which, even if they go on a bit, offer a valuable history lesson, and provide a glimpse of Elvey himself.

Made with the blessing of Lloyd George's family, and featuring a distinctly hagiographic tone, the film begins by showing his genuine birth certificate and snapshots of his parents, shoots extensively at genuine locations, and features numerous details and anecdotes from his career, shared by friends and confidantes, alongside his notable political triumphs. From a humble background, he becomes a solicitor, before his gift for oratory finds him a place in the House of Commons, then the cabinet, and then the hot-seat. He fights for the poor, runs away from the Suffragettes like a big girl's blouse, and then inspires his nation to triumph against the empire-builders of Germany - while lamenting the human cost of the conflict - in what may be a slightly fanciful retelling of the Great War. (I also can't help but notice that the French celebrate his uplifting wartime speech in Paris by waving white handkerchiefs in the air; typical French.) Lloyd George is played, as an adult, by Norman Page, with Alma Reville - Hitchcock's wife and sometime collaborator - as his spouse, and Ernest Thesiger, the great Golden Age character actor, best-known for The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, as Joseph Chamberlain. It's Page's show, though, he's rarely off-screen and proves a charismatic screen presence, with a perma-pointing finger.

Such is its antiquity that the flaws are obvious to the modern viewer: there's little dramatic tension throughout the narrative, the scenes of ordinary people's lives being transformed by the beneficent title figure are heavy-handed in the extreme, and where the writers don't have access to speeches from the late 19th century, they're resistant to speculation, and so simply show Lloyd George speaking with no intertitles. There's also a truly baffling scene in which the film breaks off from its story about social reform to let us know that Dave enjoyed a day off and scored a bogey on the first hole of the golf course, an impressive achievement that's then expressed pictorially. Sadly, no mention is made of Lloyd George's greatest attribute; greater even than his golfing prowess. In his diaries, Tony Benn recalls how he was showing a group of students around the Strangers' Gallery at the House of Commons when he happened to mention the former prime minister. At this point he was interrupted by a very old man, who rose to his feet and announced, "Lloyd George had a prick like a donkey".

As a director, Elvey shows extraordinary promise, but also comes up short compared to, say, Griffith, due to a marked lack of close-ups. The film is rousing and frequently compelling, with an eye for a crowd scene and an ear (or another eye?) for a great line of speech-making, but it's missing the human touch that comes from photographing the face. Elvey is a whizz with a long shot and a wonder with a montage, but a film is often too aloof if you can't read people's expressions. Having said that, on one of the rare occasions when we do get a medium close-up, it's in order to view what must be the most unconvincing false beard I've ever seen. Lloyd George's dad looks like someone has affixed a doormat to his face.

For all the film's highlights - which while strung together rather episodically are great in number - stretching from little Lloyd George shaking his fist at a grown-up buying off the family furniture, to refusing to say the catechism at Sunday school, through speeches in the Commons, a genuinely funny scene about a big liar, and that huge riot, my favourite is by far the short procession sequence, tinted in red, lit by night fires and accompanied by the loveliest portion of Neil Brand's beautiful score, in which Lloyd George's supporters celebrate his election with a sign that reads, "VICTORY FOR YOUNG WALES". Shot from high above, masterfully-composed and effortlessly moving, it's the highlight of an inevitably dated but extraordinarily confident and mightily impressive landmark in British silent cinema.

Ip Man (2008)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Superb in every way. A triumph., 25 April 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is, simply, one of the three or four best kung fu films I've ever seen, a back-to-basics classic with a realistic setting, a powerful story and a series of superbly-choreographed fight scenes that place an accent on technical skill, and possess a heartening reverence for visual clarity. There are no mystifying close-ups of unidentifiable feet, and the film benefits from both a negligible amount of wire-work and a complete absence of juvenile comedy, placing it in a bracket almost by itself. It's also rooted in a stunning evocation of time and place, complete with poignant, beautiful bleached-out cinematography that calls to mind old sepia photos.

Donnie Yen starred in Yuen Woo-Ping's groundbreaking Iron Monkey (perhaps the first film to properly spotlight the stylistic preoccupations that would find a worldwide audience through The Matrix and Crouching Tiger), and had supporting parts opposite Jet Li in the jaw-dropping Once Upon a Time in China II and Zhang Yimou's disappointing Hero. But, unlike Li, he hasn't had it all his own way. As Yen searched for worthy starring vehicles, so fans had to suffer dreck like New Big Boss, a film which boasts the unique distinction of having a story so mystifyingly convoluted that it makes The Tree of Life look like Under Siege. When Yen ventured abroad, it was to appear as the villain in Shanghai Knights, and then to choreograph the action scenes in Stormbreaker. The poor bastard.

Ip Man, happily, is the perfect vehicle for his talents, casting him as the eponymous aristocrat, a quiet, noble family man who is forced to give up his home, his lifestyle and his beloved Wing Chun martial arts after the Japanese invade in 1937. After a fun, fight-heavy opening, we follow Ip Man and his compatriots through all manner of physical, moral and spiritual degradation, a process of dehumanisation that reaches a symbolic pinnacle when the martial arts masters are offered rice to prostitute their talents in front of the military brass. Ip Man doesn't want the rice, not at that cost, but he would quite like to fight 10 Japanese guys at once, train a factory-full of workers to stick up for themselves, and face down the general in front of the whole town.

It's a story of great heart, masterfully-conceived and perfectly-paced, with numerous punch-the-air(/punch-the-baddie) moments, the dramatic entrances from Yen's near-mythic hero - fists clenched in fury - set-up with such intelligence and emotion that, when he appears, the spirits soar. Each fight scene serves a purpose within the narrative, and every one is viscerally, intensely exciting, Yip and his action director, Sammo Hung, respecting Yen's artistry to such a degree that he's frequently shown in full-length shot, cuts only made to better showcase his skill or to transmit the pure power inherent in those twisting hands and flitting feet.

Agreeably, Yen's hero is also one of the most sensitive and progressive in action movie history. He uses a style of fighting devised by a woman, refuses to fight until given permission by his missus, and dismisses the taunts of a thuggish brute who's just turned up in his house by saying that there is nothing wrong with a man who "respects his wife". Take that, '70s Clint, you chauvinist wally. The thuggish brute, incidentally, is Siu-Wong Fan, who I saw in the terrible Supercop 2 just the other day (see below). There he was a pleasant, slim, slightly vacant young man with big eyes, who turned out to be fairly handy in a scrap. Let's just say that he's eaten several few pies and a lot of creatine since then. And grown a little beard.

Ip Man is an exhilarating experience, one of those films that uplifts you through its sheer brilliance and makes you ask: "Why can't ALL movies be this good?" I never thought I'd type these words, but it's like Fist of Legend. Only better.

One of a kind, 25 April 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The Hired Hand is a New Hollywood masterpiece from Peter Fonda, a reflective Western in which redemption comes not through revenge, but romance, in all its selfish, selfless glory. Its title comes from the stone of story at its centre, in which Fonda tries to atone for walking out on his wife (Verna Bloom, shorn of all vanity) by signing on as her hired hand, accompanied by his friend Warren Oates. That set-up suggests gender battles or sexual power-games, but what we get is something altogether quieter, subtler and more persuasive: a story about forgiveness, dependence and the healing of wounds, with an almighty kick in the tail that takes genre mythology and proceeds to do something unforgettable with it. The relationship between the reformed, gentle Fonda and his strong, unrepentant wife only accounts for perhaps a third of the running time, but gives the film such heart that it can justify the numerous asides and self-contained vignettes: a fatal shot from out of nowhere, an early-morning mission of vengeance and the shattering of a tranquil idyll as a young girl's dead body snags on a fishing line.

Fonda's Easy Rider is a great film, because it captures a feeling, epitomises an entire period and exploded an outmoded cinematic status quo, but it isn't a very good film. It's tacky, juvenile, boring and full of ridiculous visual quirks that make no narrative sense (there's a reason why no-one uses those juddering transitions it attempted to initiate, and it's that they're pointless and crap). The Hired Hand, however, is a film touched with that refined, adventurous brilliance that seemed to be in the air in '70s Hollywood. It's visually outstanding, but it's more than that: it's like Monte Walsh - William Fraker's film about the "last cowboy" - but loaded with longing and sexual angst, and equipped with some trippily avant garde imagery that still stays true to the genre, Fonda, photographer Vilmos Zsigmond and editor Frank Mazzola simply kicking Winton C Hoch's eye-popping compositions up a notch. The most remarkable has Fonda and Oates talking by a corral. As they turn gradually to silhouettes, close-ups of their faces illuminate the sky behind, tinted by the setting sun. It's a jaw-dropping trick that pitches them as Western icons, larger-than-life, greater than contemporary folk heroes and at one with the sprawling plains and vast skies that are - or were - America. Fonda isn't interested in a conventional narrative, more in evoking an atmosphere, and as he slips from one episode to the next, he layers one piece of footage - a body twisting in a river, horses stalking along the trail - over the next. It's odd, then, that some of the interior scenes in the early part of the film look flat and cheap, if not '50s-B-Western shoddy.

Fonda is superb, while Bloom, one of the best things about Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, gives a remarkable performance as a woman who refuses to repent after looking for sexual solace in his absence, but yearns to be loved - and not just wanted. It's only during her pivotal speech that I feel she falters, but perhaps subsequent viewings will be kinder. And Oates? Well, Oates is simply sensational. Perhaps only Jason Robards ever combined the scuzzy, the world-weary and the roguishly appealing as well as the toothy, grubby, bearded Oates, and as a good guy fighting the lust coursing through his body, he damn well walks away with the film. The Hired Hand is one of the great movies of the '70s: a unique, unsentimental vision that doesn't seek to dismantle the Western, as Altman would with McCabe and Mrs Miller, but to take its iconography and its stock characters somewhere new. The gunfighter still rides to the rescue. The showdown still happens. And his body still falls to the floor with that same sickening thud. But then a hired hand returns to a homestead and closes a door, and we realise that there was never a Western like it, and that none ever gave us an ending like this, in all its simple, beautiful and perfect ambiguity.

Big (1988)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Flawed, but holds a special place in my heart, 7 June 2012

This was one of the only films I saw as a kid. I loved it then, have watched it rather too many times since, and still get a lot out of it now. It's the best of the "make me an old dude" body-swap comedies, with a normal 13-year-old kid waking up to find he is 30, has a hairy chest and is played by Tom Hanks. It's surprisingly if agreeably dark to begin with, while a sappy romance somewhat commandeers proceedings towards the end (and never gets over its problem of a grown woman boffing a kid), but the considerable middle is tremendous fun, with Hanks' brilliant comic performance, the famous giant piano set-piece and one of my favourite jokes in any movie. "She'll wrap her legs around you so tight you'll be begging for mercy," sleazy Jon Lovitz tells Hanks, pointing at a co- worker. "Well, I'll stay away from her then!" says Hanks gratefully. The delivery is amazing.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A very tough watch, but transparently brilliant, 7 June 2012

After her teenage son does a Very Bad Thing, Tilda Swinton reflects on their relationship, from the maternal instinct failing to kick in, to a new contender for the movies' Most Uncomfortable Dinner Date Scene. It's a gruelling, chilling and upsetting film, brilliantly directed by Ramsay – who made perhaps the best British film of the previous decade, Morvern Callar – and anchored by Swinton's pitch-perfect performance: flinty, meek and desperate in turn, to meet the film's peculiar requirements. The various Kevins are equally good ("Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah"), each inhabiting the character's particular brand of pale- eyed sadism. As the elder version, Ezra Miller's two-handers with mumsy are jawdroppingly awful. And his one-hander's pretty unpleasant too. John C. Reilly rounds out the family unit in a clever turn as Kevin's incredibly deluded father. It's a horrific film; almost unwatchable. But it's also another major accomplishment for one of the country's truly great directors, whose ability with actors, fondness for an old pop song (in this case a heap of '30s country) and confrontational visual sense creates movies you'll never forget – as much as you might like to.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Wonderful, 7 June 2012

Captivating Americana based on the boyhood of the famed inventor, played here by Mickey Rooney, who is kicked out of school for his intense inquisitiveness - and his habit of staring out the window, and that big explosion - is branded "addle-pated" by the townsfolk, but ultimately comes good. Rooney's stock persona was as a brash, cartoonish know-it- all who gets a lesson in humility (at which point he starts crying and saying sorry), but his best performances came when he was asked to calm down and actually act, doing extraordinary work in The Human Comedy and National Velvet. He's superb here - using slightly broader strokes than in those seminal later performances - and surrounded by a cast of top character actors, including Virginia Weidler as his affectionate sister, Fay Bainter as his protective mother and George Bancroft as a stern patriarch with impressive sideburns but an unfortunate propensity to ignore his son's protestations of innocence. It's a wonderfully-mounted production, with a literate script that mixes things that actually happened, things you wish had happened and MGM staples like the family sing-along. And it climaxes with two extraordinary, unbearably tense suspense sequences. If you're a cynic, just don't bother. For everyone else, this is a rosy primer on Edison's early years and a poignant, exciting and flavourful example of MGM at its absolute best.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A mess, though Tautou's very good, 7 June 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When hairdresser Audrey Tautou receives a lyrical, unsigned love letter, she first throws it in the bin, then fishes it out and sends it to her mum, who's in a four-year rut. Mumsy (Nathalie Baye) guesses who wrote it – over-educated handyman Jean (Sami Bouajila) – but not who it was intended for. After unwittingly waiting years for a love triangle featuring a mum and a daughter, I've seen two in two weeks (the other was It's a Date), but this one's no frothy confection; certainly not the Amelie-ish romcom promised by a disingenuous marketing campaign. It starts off cheerily, with an amusing opening 20, but gets lost, becoming a fraught, gloomy romantic drama desperately in need of a lighter touch. As an outwardly harsh businesswoman plagued by loneliness, fear and insecurity, Tautou is excellent, and Bouajila does a good job of articulating his character's predicament, but the film gives the distinct impression of having got out of hand somewhere along the line, with plot developments that simply don't work. Jean is buffeted around by lies in a way that's more bleak than funny. Beautiful Lies is neither enjoyable enough to work as entertainment, nor resonant or believable enough to have value as anything else. The French title actually translates as True Lies – I wonder why they changed that.


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