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susannah-straughan-1

9 reviews in total 
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6 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
An enjoyable but non-vintage comedy, 12 February 2011
6/10

With no CGI or big-name stars to suck you in, indie movies often have to fall back on the virtues of a decent script and a well-chosen soundtrack. Matthew Bissonnette's low-key comedy drama, Passenger Side, rides into town trailing some rather dubious "poster quotes" in its wake. I'm talking about the so-called reviewer who claims "No, it's not like Sideways; it's a lot better in fact".

See what he did there? The bracketing of this movie with Alexander Payne's 2004 comedy, suggests that Passenger Side is nothing short of a modern classic. After all, Sideways picked up the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, which even allowing for the stupidity of the Academy's voters still means something. But in my opinion, this likable story of a couple of LA slackers on the road to nowhere, isn't in the same league as any of writer/director Payne's best work.

Matthew Bissonnette's third full-length film stars his brother Joel as Tobey, the ex-junkie brother of failed novelist and world-class cynic Michael (played by Adam Scott). The movie begins with Michael in his Echo Park bachelor pad, trying to dodge a call from Joel, who needs a ride somewhere. Reluctantly he agrees to take his younger sibling to some job interviews, but the real purpose of their day-long car trip turns out to be a case of "cherchez la femme". Joel is desperate to locate Theresa (Robin Tunney), supposedly the love of his life, but the trail involves many diversions and misadventures.

Shot on HD video in just 14 days, Passenger Side also has a pleasingly retro feel about it. There's Mike's car, a 1975 BMW that remains a defiantly iPod-free zone. Mike has invested in a brand new cassette deck but has no cell phone — there will be no texting and definitely no "sexting" here. Instead, this movie features the rare sight of a character getting out of his car to use a public pay phone. What's most old-fashioned, of course, is the reliance on dialogue to drive what little plot there is. If you imagine that two guys driving round LA County promises pedal-to-the-metal scenes and frenetic action, think again.

As in Sideways and the more recent Easier with Practice, it's the wildly differing attitudes of the protagonists that create dramatic interest. In short, it helps if one guy is a loner and a misanthrope and the other more of a "glass half full" type. Mike, whose stock in trade is words, rarely says anything that isn't laced with several layers of sarcasm. Tobey, though he's obviously led a rather dissolute life, claims to be at a turning point now that he's joined the Scientologists. But as the brothers try to reconnect over their shared history, writer Bissonnette's message seems to be that it's Mike who needs to wake up to his failings.

The bulk of Passenger Side's 85-minute running time is taken up with the kind of bizarre incidents that you expect to see in road-trip comedies. Perhaps the critic who compared this with the work of Judd Apatow was referring to Mike's close encounter with a transsexual prostitute; a stop-off at an adult movie set; or the bleeding Mexican who's chopped off a couple of digits. Bissonnette stops short of giving these incidents the full gross-out treatment because there's a genuine humanity about his characters. Earlier in the film, the brothers bicker over the significance of "different strokes for different folks", but when Tobey criticises Mike for living in LA and not knowing any Spanish, his point is well made.

Although Passenger Side is smartly scripted and both leads convincingly inhabit their characters, it all feels a little aimless. The mystery element concerning Michael's fruitless phone calls to a (possible) girlfriend is kept largely in the background until the film's rather rushed conclusion. When we do finally get to meet Tobey's beloved Theresa, she only has one underwritten scene in which to explain her actions.

Matthew Bissonnette obviously laboured long and hard over honing his dialogue, choosing the locations and selecting music from the likes of Leonard Cohen, Wilco and Silver Jews. But the lack of structure in his story robs it of any real emotional impact and the non-stop sarcasm becomes a little wearing by the end. If Miles from Sideways were comparing this movie to a wine, I'm afraid it would be a Merlot rather than the much-prized Pinot Noir.

8 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Only the lonely, 3 December 2010
8/10

"What are you wearing?" A late-night call to his motel room brings writer Davy Mitchell (Brian Geraghty) an unexpected introduction to the mysterious "Nicole" (Kathryn Aselton), who likes to seduce guys over the phone. Before long, Davy's dull book tour of New Mexico has been transformed into an onanistic odyssey that shocks even his brother Sean.

I shudder to think about the prurient comedy that could have resulted from this set-up if Judd Apatow or the American Pie team had got their sticky fingers on it. Fortunately, Davy Rothbart's GQ article "What Are You Wearing?", has been adapted by writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez into a low-key but surprisingly affecting drama about loneliness and the yawning gap between romantic expectations and real life.

The opening credits feature a montage of images from the covers of those dime store romantic novels that feature big-shouldered heroes ravishing big-breasted ladies with huge red lips. It turns out that Davy keeps one of these books in the car that he and brother Sean (Kel O'Neill) have been sharing during their extended road trip. A brief reading from this torrid romance suggests that Sean has a rather more earthy approach to relations with the opposite sex than his elder brother does.

The film begins in a bookshop with the earnest, bespectacled Davy giving a reading from his collection of short stories, Things People Do To Each Other. When the brothers check into yet another nondescript motel in Albuquerque, Sean goes out to buy cigarettes and Davy settles in for an evening of channel surfing. Moments later the phone rings and Nicole enters his room. Of course she's not actually in the room -- it just feels like it to the audience and especially the flustered Davy. At first he thinks it's a mistake or Sean playing a prank. After all, why would an alluring young woman be calling him out of the blue? In the 10-minute scene that ensues the camera doesn't move from the figure of Davy sitting on his bed cradling the receiver. Soon she's telling him what she's wearing (nothing as it turns out) and encouraging him to lose his inhibitions and engage in the kind of explicit chat that you normally find on premium rate numbers.

It's early in the story so we don't know much about Davy, but the way this conversation plays out is more psychologically than sexually revealing. Alvarez isn't interested in showing us his awkward fumblings. From his expressions and rather stilted responses we gather that 28-year-old Davy doesn't have much imagination or confidence when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex.

This riveting sequence is pretty much guaranteed to leave audiences shaken, stirred and full of questions about who Nicole is and whether this movie is going to have a nasty sting in the tail. After all, in the horror and thriller genres, getting dragged into a phone conversation with a stranger tends not to be a recipe for long life and happiness. Think of Drew Barrymore's quiz ordeal in Scream or Colin Farrell's Phone Booth nightmare and you'll get my point.

The first half of Easier with Practice plays out like a road movie, as the brothers move through a succession of bookshops, motels, cafés and bars. There's a comic feel to Davy's attempts to conceal his ongoing relationship from his sceptical brother, who reminds him "She could be an obese middle-aged woman with a thousand cats." But overall what Alvarez really captures is a feeling of romantic yearning on Davy's part, as he tries to get Nicole to open up about herself: "Can't we talk a little bit?" he pleads during one of their late-night chats.

Having opened his hero up to the possibility of intimacy, Alvarez brings him back down to earth as the book tour ends. Back home in his poky bachelor apartment festooned with Post-It notes, Davy is just another loser with an unfulfilling temp job. Except now he believes that in Nicole he's found someone who really gets him and that they might eventually meet up.

Socially awkward and sexually gauche men provide great material for comedy -- especially when they fall into the embrace of rapacious women. But this film doesn't take that approach, though there are some painfully funny moments during Davy's conversations with Nicole. Geraghty's skill lies in making Davy sympathetic and believable as he blunders through a meeting with the attractive Samantha (Marguerite Moreau), with whom he's had some kind of failed tryst. As with the young student who tried to chat him up in a bar during the trip, we see a man who wears his reticence like a badge of honour. He's disapproving of the way his brother casually cheats on his girlfriend, though you sense there might be some envy, too.

As Davy struggles to reconcile the reality of his relations with women with the fantasy that is Nicole, the film moves towards a climax that is in keeping with what's gone before, but doesn't neatly resolve the hero's problems. To say any more about the plot might spoil what is an emotionally resonant and well-acted drama.

Brian Geraghty, whose geeky look here is reminiscent of the young Harrison Ford, was previously in The Hurt Locker and Jarhead. This is a role that takes him and the audience on an emotional journey, though in many scenes he's alone -- just staring into the abyss. It's a great performance and one that is beautifully framed by Alvarez and cinematographer David Morrison, who have woven an air of romance around banal locations like parking lots, laundromats and motel rooms.

Easier with Practice is an impressive debut from Alvarez that deserves to find an appreciative audience. I just hope that its thoughtful approach to issues of sexual identity and isolation won't go over the heads of film fans weaned on a diet of stoner dude comedies about idiots with overactive libidos.

4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
The odd couple, 25 October 2010
7/10

Sally Bowles, the glittering, swaggering, sexually adventurous nightclub chanteuse at the centre of Cabaret is one of the most memorable figures in 70s cinema. Liza Minnelli, who played her in Bob Fosse's critically acclaimed 1972 musical, won an Oscar in the part that seemed tailor-made for her — from the black bowler hat to those kinky boots.

It may be hard to believe now, but in the mid-50s, Julie Harris was Sally Bowles. She played her on stage in John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera — winning a Tony award — and reprised the role in Henry Cornelius's 1955 film. Both works were based on Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, but their portrayals of Berlin in the early 30s could scarcely be more different. To appreciate Harris's take on Sally you really have to banish memories of the Kit Kat Club, Joel Grey's louche MC and those fabulous songs.

"The more worthless the book the more they need noise and alcohol to launch it." Middle-aged writer Christopher Isherwood (Laurence Harvey) begins this semi-autobiographical tale of his youthful adventures in pre-Second World War Germany with the discovery that sex sells. The irrepressible Sally Bowles has turned author, with the provocatively entitled The Lady Goes on Hoping. Some things never change.

After this Bloomsbury-set opening sequence, I Am a Camera flashes back to Berlin on New Year's Eve 1931. Isherwood, narrates the story of his life as a struggling author, living in a boarding house run by the long-suffering Fräulein Schneider. So far, it seems that his one moment of inspiration has been to come up with that title: "I am a camera, with its shutter open, just watching it, quite detached." Isherwood's professional detachment is tested when he accompanies his friend Fritz (Anton Diffring) to a club, where Sally is performing. In what we soon learn is a familiar pattern, she is soon left high a dry by her latest beau. Feeling sorry for this "naive" girl, our hero gallantly offers her a room for the night, though the platonic terms of their relationship are made clear from the outset.

It's not long before the totally out-of-his depth novelist realises that his new friend's modus operandi is to shock people. Asked why she wears green nail polish, Sally cheerfully explains "To attract men!" As their life together descends into penury and bickering, he alternates between fascination at Sally's lack of morals and self-pity at his inability to make progress with his work.

Harvey went on to play the social-climbing Joe Lampton in Room at the Top and the brainwashed assassin Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate. I find him more convincing as an embittered cynic than as a suave leading man, so he's well-suited to the role of the permanently exasperated Isherwood. When his one clumsy attempt to seduce Sally is repelled, his sardonic response is to ask "A puritan all of a sudden, or just where I'm concerned?" With her throaty laugh, theatrical mannerisms and fine comedic timing, Harris's Sally is an enthralling and infuriating companion. In the film's most enjoyable sequences, she drags the hard-up Isherwood into a bar, where she downs a succession of champagne cocktails. The arrival of filthy rich American Clive (Ron Randell) leads to a wild party — complete with a hydro-therapist played by Patrick McGoohan.

Of course the sexual dynamics would have looked very different if this film hadn't been made in the mid-50s. There's no hint here that the writer might be gay, or even bisexual – as Michael York's Brian is in Cabaret. Instead, the would-be novelist is just celibate, waspish and openly disapproving of Sally's promiscuity. In the film of Isherwood's later novel, A Single Man, George (Colin Firth) and his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) have once been on intimate terms, but she reluctantly has to accept his homosexuality.

John Collier's screenplay is at its sharpest and most assured in the scenes of domestic cut and thrust between the flat-mates. But attempts to bring the social and political unrest of pre-war Berlin into the mix are less successful. Though Berlin was on the cusp of seismic events you get little sense here of the growing unease on the streets, while the nightclub scenes are more dreary than decadent. There is an awkward romantic subplot involving Fritz and the wealthy Natalia (a miscast Shelley Winters) that tries to address the dilemma facing Jewish citizens. Isherwood makes a belated attempt to reclaim his independence by brawling with some Nazis in the street, and rebukes Fräulein Schneider for an anti-Semitic remark.

Cornelius, who directed only five films, had to work within the censorship restrictions of the time. This movie may have been an X-certificate in its day, but the Sally of 1955 doesn't get to be as wanton — or show as much leg — as the Sally of Cabaret. As a portrait of the artist as a young man, I Am a Camera is funny and charming and the two leads have good chemistry. But if you want to know why money still makes the world go round, the Kit Kat Club is the place to go.

Howl (2010)
14 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
The Beat goes on, 12 October 2010
7/10

Poetry can seriously damage your health. That's the main thing I've learned from recent biopics in which Johnny Depp's pox-ridden John Wilmot (The Libertine), Ben Whishaw's consumptive Keats (Bright Star) and Gwyneth Paltrow's depressive Sylvia Plath (Sylvia) have cornered the market in self-destructive behaviour.

I approached Howl, a movie about Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, it stars James Franco as Ginsberg and Mad Men's Jon Hamm as his lawyer, Jake Ehrlich. I'd watch these two ridiculously handsome actors in just about anything, but I really didn't want to sit through another Ode to Angst.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman -- The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet – are renowned for their documentary work and this film was originally conceived along those lines. Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl" was first published in 1955, but its explicit references to drugs and homosexuality (amongst other things) led to the prosecution of his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1957. The intention was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of those events.

But instead of a straight documentary, the film-makers have opted to show us three sides of "Howl". There's the poem itself, with Franco trying to channel the spirit of Ginsberg as he addresses a rapt audience, in the b/w sequences from 1955. By contrast, the trial scenes are shot in colour and feature many voices with differing opinions about the merit of Ginsberg's work. Finally, the poet's own thoughts are recorded by an unseen interviewer. At the centre of all this, "Howl" is also given visual form, with a series of animations created by artist Eric Drooker.

For me, the courtroom scenes are the most enjoyable and thought-provoking element of the film. A succession of expert witnesses – some pompous, some just prejudiced – try to get to grips with issues of literary merit and the nature of obscenity. David Strathairn is admirably straight-faced in the role of prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh, as he tiptoes through a minefield of sexual imagery and baffling phrases like "angel-headed hipsters". Hamm's tight-lipped defence lawyer brings a sense of intellectual superiority to the proceedings – he's a crusading Don Draper with the added bonus of a moral compass.

Ginsberg himself wasn't on trial here and wasn't present at the proceedings, but the debate about whether the law is an effective tool for censoring and constraining artists remains highly topical. As one of the more thoughtful witnesses (played by Treat Williams) explains, "You can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it is poetry." The poet's own perspective on his life and work is captured in conversation with an off-camera reporter. A bearded, chain-smoking Ginsberg talks openly about his homosexuality, his mother's psychiatric problems, and fellow writer Carl Solomon, to whom "Howl" was dedicated. This strand of the film was inspired by a never-published interview that Ginsberg gave to Time magazine, but the film's dialogue is culled from a variety of sources.

Trying to explain the process of translating feelings into verse is a hard thing to pull off on film. Perhaps that's why most film-makers prefer to concentrate on the broken marriages and substance abuse that go hand in hand with tortured literary geniuses. Epstein and Friedman, who also wrote the screenplay, have done a good job trying to condense biographical detail and literary theory into what is basically a monologue – without being pretentious or boring. Brief flashbacks of Ginsberg pounding away at his typewriter, with his friend Neal Cassady, and in bed with long-term partner Peter Orlovsky, help to round out a portrait of the artist.

The final piece in the jigsaw – the poem – is the most problematic aspect of the film. How much of the work does the audience need to hear, and how do you hold their attention through some long and difficult passages? I quickly became bored of Franco's declamatory style, as he reads to a gathering of smug-looking hipsters at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.

When the recitation continues over Eric Drooker's animation, the effect is even worse. It's a matter of taste whether you thrill to the repeated imagery of fire, the minotaur-like Moloch and weirdly elongated bodies flying across the night sky. I prefer not to have someone else's interpretation of the verse foisted on me. Archive footage from the period would have been another option to fill the gap, but overall I think the poetry should have been used more sparingly.

Howl is bold, stylish attempt to capture a period in the mid-20th century when writing poetry could be an act of political rebellion – a shot across the bows of dull, conformist, heterosexual America. By casting the handsome and charismatic James Franco as Ginsberg, the directors could have turned this into yet another movie about the cult of personality. Instead they've largely succeeded in keeping the focus on the verse and on the act of writing. As the man said, "There's no Beat Generation. Just a bunch of guys trying to get published."

Huge (2010)
5 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
A match made in comedy heaven?, 14 September 2010
6/10

"BEN MILLER'S HUGE" shouted the poster ads for a play about a pair of aspiring comedians, which was produced on the Edinburgh Fringe back in 1993. Seventeen years on, Ben Miller – one half of a double act with Alexander Armstrong -- hasn't quite achieved the stratospheric success of, say, Ricky Gervais or Sacha Baron Cohen. On the other hand, he has finally made his directorial debut, bringing the characters he co-created with Jez Butterworth and Simon Godley to the big screen.

In a dingy London flat, Warren (Johnny Harris) watches videos of his heroes Morecambe and Wise and practises fielding abuse from hecklers. Clark (Noel Clarke) is a waiter in a Greek restaurant, where he gets to hang out with former EastEnder Michelle Ryan and entertain kids with his glove puppet act. They meet during an open mike night at the Stoker's Hole, where Warren's faltering performance is rescued by Clark's timely intervention. Warren and Clark: a comedy legend is born.

If only it were that simple. In a nod to Cinderella, Clark flees the venue, leaving only his (Greek) slipper behind as a clue to his whereabouts. Before long the pair are sharing a flat, working on their material and dreaming of a bright future playing the Hollywood Bowl and schmoozing with the likes of Scarlett Johansson. Life settles into a pattern of incessant bickering and humiliation at the hands of indifferent promoters and impatient punters.

Huge is a film about comics but it isn't 80 minutes of riotous laughs. As everyone knows, real-life comedians are often depressed, repressed or just boring to be around. You won't be falling off your chair laughing at well-crafted gags or moments of slapstick hilarity, because we don't really get to see these guys perform. Mind you, if their oft-repeated "Knock, knock" joke is anything to go by, that's probably a good thing.

What we do get to see is the start of a friendship that just might evolve into a solid gold comic partnership somewhere down a very long and winding road. Miller and Godley played these lovable losers on stage, so their depiction of the realities of the London comedy circuit feels authentic – sometimes painfully so. The film tries to convey those moments of paralysing fear before a performer hits the spotlight, by muting the dialogue – making the audience appear even more intimidating. One of many low points comes when they're bounced out of a "Going, Going, Gong" night before they can get through their opening lines.

Apart from knowing this grimy milieu, Miller is also able to call upon the services of his celebrity mates to bolster the cast. Wisely he restricts himself to a brief cameo, but he does wheel out the likes of Eddie Izzard, Harry Hill and Frank Skinner for a scene in which the two wannabes crash the Comedy Awards after party. But it's Thandie Newton who reveals an unexpected flair for satire, playing a wildly over the top American promoter who takes a shine to the geeky Clark as she blithely dispenses career advice and Class A drugs.

The strength of Miller's film lies in the performances and the on-screen chemistry of his two leads. As the balding Warren, Johnny Harris (London to Brighton) brilliantly treads the fine line between wild optimism and utter despair, as he tries to break into the most unforgiving of professions. Bafta winner Noel Clarke, who was so menacing in Kidulthood, shows us he can be equally convincing as the kind of mild-mannered geek who attracts women without even trying. We sense that he's less committed to pursuing his craft than his partner, and it's no surprise that the climactic scene involves Warren reminding him that being successful isn't about being nice.

Does Huge, which had its premiere at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival, live up to its name? It's a likable excursion into the backwaters of British comedy, with a script that draws out the dilemmas and insecurities of being a performer. Sadly, this is without question the worst shot film I've ever seen -- anywhere. Last year Miller said in an interview "We intend to make this film, whether we end up shooting it in glorious 35mm or on my Sony camcorder." The grey, grainy and largely out-of-focus camera-work suggests that someone badly needs to upgrade their equipment.

I Am Love (2009)
99 out of 137 people found the following review useful:
The bold and the beautiful, 27 April 2010
9/10

The poster for Luca Guadagnino's film shows a regal Tilda Swinton in an eye-catching red dress surrounded by her sober-looking family. In another version, the frock has undergone a cheeky digital makeover to a shocking pink that matches the movie's bold, declaratory title. The symbolism might seem a little obvious, but this is a story in which one woman's passion comes bursting to the surface – with tragic consequences.

"Something part palace, part prison, part museum" is how star and producer Swinton envisaged the house at the centre of this contemporary drama about the Recchis, a wealthy Milanese family. Opening with a series of almost monochrome shots of a snowbound Milan, Guadagnino closes in on the elegant but forbidding 1930s mansion, where Russian-born Emma (Swinton) and her husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) are preparing to host a dinner party.

On the surface, Emma is an attractive middle-aged woman, perfectly at ease with her three grown-up children and comfortable within the sumptuous trappings of Italian society. Guadagnino and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux linger over the chandeliers, wall hangings and gleaming napery that indicate decades of affluent living. But as the white-gloved lackeys hover over the birthday celebrations of ageing patriarch Edoardo, we sense that something – or someone – is about to shatter the family's much-prized unity.

Soon there is an announcement about the future of the family textile business, but it isn't the defining event of this opening set piece. Guadagnino's interest lies not in soap opera-style financial wrangling, but in how two of Emma's children unwittingly lead her towards a personal epiphany. First her daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), a talented artist, causes a minor ripple by declaring that she's now more interested in pursuing photography. Emma's subsequent discovery of a heartfelt note inside a CD box reveals that Betta has fallen deeply in love – with a girl.

During the meal, a young man turns up looking for Emma's son Edo (Flavio Parenti). He awkwardly refuses to join the party, but it's clear that Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) a handsome and supremely talented chef, has struck a chord with the lady of the house. So, as Edo eagerly makes plans to open a restaurant with his friend, Emma is drawn into a high-risk affair.

The power of Swinton's performance lies not in her mastery of Italian dialogue but in her gradual, unspoken surrender to passion, over the dictates of convention. This is a film in which speeches are, for the most part, far less important than the sense of underlying tension generated by John Adams's operatic score and Le Saux's restless camera work. Late in the film there's a sinuous tracking shot that follows Emma's impulsive descent to the basement kitchen for a stolen moment with her lover.

Guadagnino's willingness to take risks in the pursuit of what Swinton has called "pure cinema" is what distinguishes this film from other stories of forbidden love involving ladies who are old enough to know better. Epicureans will experience as frisson as Emma is seduced by Antonio's lovingly prepared prawn dish. The lingering shots of those seductive crustaceans could have been ridiculous, but they're another small and believable step in Emma's awakening to the possibility of a new love. When the action moves to the glorious countryside around San Remo, Emma allows Antonio to cut her hair, in an apparent nod to her daughter's recent change of style. Her rebellion reaches a crescendo in the extraordinary al fresco sex scene, shot in huge close ups to the accompaniment of teeming insect life that threatens to drown out everything else.

Guadagnino and Swinton first worked together on The Protagonists (1999) and this latest collaboration evolved over a period of nearly 11 years. It's too early to say whether they can be measured against some of their inspirations –Tolstoy, Flaubert , Hitchcock and Visconti – but there is much to admire in this stylish and well-acted drama.

There are faults: some of the camera placements are too artily self-conscious and Emma's interactions with her husband and children often feel rather perfunctory. Unlike Visconti's The Leopard, this isn't an in-depth exploration of family dynamics buckling under the forces of history. But neither the director nor the star can be accused of timidity in the way they embrace the protagonist's headlong rush towards her destiny. And even the Master of Suspense would have applauded the shocking climax of a confrontation in the garden, which made me jump out of my seat.

108 out of 168 people found the following review useful:
A role tailor-made for Colin Firth, 18 October 2009
9/10

With Tom Ford at the helm, the very least you'd expect from his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel is a parade of gorgeous men in well-cut suits. Certainly there's enough Kennedy-era period detail here to satisfy the most ardent fan of Mad Men (and an uncredited voice cameo from Jon Ham). But the meticulously edited trailer gives no hint of the warmth and humour that underscore this potentially bleak meditation on love and loss.

The action takes place over the course of just one day (and night) -- 30 November 1962 -- in the life of handsome, middle-aged college professor George (Colin Firth). Like his friend, neighbour and one-time lover Charley (Julianne Moore), George is an expat in LA. He has a good job and a well-appointed home in a picture-perfect suburban street, but since the death of his long-term lover Joe (Matthew Goode) a few months earlier, George has been going through the motions. Now today it appears that he is putting his affairs in order, with a view to ending it all.

I must confess that I never swooned over Colin Firth's Mr Darcy back in the 90s and I've found it increasingly hard to relate to the repressed, lovelorn and frankly lumpen Englishmen he often plays. But here he's a revelation. As George's day unfolds, a series of reveries -- erotic, nostalgic, humorous and sad -- reveal the man behind the immaculately suited exterior. Whether perched on the loo wryly observing his neighbours, lavishing praise on a bemused secretary, or enduring a discourse on bomb shelters from a colleague (Lee Pace), Firth shows a welcome lightness of touch. He's tender and tolerant as Moore's gin-sodden hostess berates him for his inability to be the (heterosexual) man she needs. And his obsessive-compulsive fumbling with a gun and a sleeping bag are hilarious.

Moore expertly conveys the fragility and hopelessness of a woman once married and once feted for her looks, who is now staring into the abyss through the bottom of a bottle of Tanqueray's. It reminded me of some of her best work -- in Safe, Boogie Nights and The Hours -- and made me wish she'd stop wasting her talent playing second fiddle to the likes of Nicolas Cage and Samuel L Jackson.

It's a film in which the camera restlessly prowls in search of physical perfection: in the well-tended gardens of George's neighbourhood; the piercing blue eyes of flirtatious student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult); and the chiselled looks of Goode's doomed lover. But the script, co-written by Ford and David Scearce, ensures that this never descends into pastiche or glossy melodrama.

Chain Gang (1950)
5 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Low-budget prison drama that wears its heart on its (striped) sleeve, 15 June 2009
6/10

Leading man Douglas Kennedy's uncanny resemblance to tough guy Robert Ryan almost makes up for the lack of star names in this watchable B-movie. Kennedy is convincing as a crusading reporter who goes under cover as a chain-gang guard to expose the brutality of the penal system. Brandishing his high-tech (for the time) camera disguised as a cigarette lighter, he tries to conceal his bleeding heart liberal credentials secret from his oafish colleagues as he posts a series of shocking exposes.

The film's brief running time doesn't give director Lew Landers much of a chance to explore nuances of character or theme. But it's not giving anything away to say that the real villains here aren't the guys in the striped suits.

If you're a fan of this particular sub-genre of prison movies, you'll want to check out the infinitely superior Paul Muni vehicle, I Am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang.

9 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
A neglected gem from Joseph Losey starring the excellent Stanley Baker, 15 June 2009
9/10

Stanley Baker's dodgy Irish accent strikes the only false note in Joseph Losey's hard-nosed crime drama. A lethal combination of charm, guile and brute force makes jailbird Johnny Bannion the top dog in B block. Once he's released, Bannion is plunged straight back into a world of free-flowing booze, casual sex and cool jazz in his well-appointed bachelor pad. But there's no thought of going straight as he plots a lucrative racetrack heist with the reptilian Carter (Sam Wanamaker). The intrigue here lies not in the heist itself but in the web of betrayals that follow, as Losey and screenwriter Alun Owen build an authentic portrait of the criminal underworld on both sides of the prison wall. There's no hint here of the cartoonish Swinging London and stereotypical cockney villains that continue to plague British cinema. Robert Krasker's photography lends a stark beauty to the pollarded trees in the prison courtyard and Johnny Dankworth's score, punctuated by a mournful Cleo Laine ballad, is superb. With its harsh, sweaty depiction of prison violence, this is a million miles from the upper-class shenanigans depicted in the director's later films like The Servant and The Go-Between.