Return To Planet Laceyvision
It's a while since I've done one of these, so I'm playing catch-up with a number of reviews. Here we have Across The Universe, Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story, There Will Be Blood, Margot At The Wedding, I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With, Gone Baby Gone, Juno and No Country For Old Men choking down globules of warm criticism.
The delay between UK and US release dates for films has one notable upside - all the prestige films released late in the year for awards consideration don't make it over here until January or February, which can brighten up what is otherwise a fairly depressing time of year. This year has seen a crop of particularly high quality - while the Best Picture Oscar has become synonymous with crap like A Beautiful Mind or Shakespeare In Love lately, most of the films in contention this year have been serious, bold, artistic statements with weighty themes. The kind of meta-narrative and genre-blurring that were popular in recent years have given way to a more traditional approach - the dramas here are unflinching, the thrillers intense and unpredictable, the comedies touching and funny. There is, however, one film which deserves a special mention:
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.
Across The Universe deserves special mention because it is riddled with incomprehensible stupidity at every possible level. It is a musical made up of Beatles songs. As everybody knows, The Beatles are the best band ever. So how did their music end up populating the worst musical ever? The answer comes about halfway through, when our main characters meet an idiotic caricature of a drugged up, bus-driving spiritualist leader, who within moments achieves the rare honour of being possibly the most punchable man I've ever seen. More punchable than Bono, even? But, look closer! It *IS* Bono! The only man in the world with enough money to get something this stupid made. Here's an idea of "fair trade", Bono - I saw your STUPID MUSICAL, so as a "fair trade", you should have to watch me take a shit in a dustbin and then pound on the side of it with my shoes, SCREAMING, for two hours. THEN WE'LL BE EVEN.
The funniest scene by miles occurs when our hero "Jude" is having a row with his girlfriend because she works for an "anarchist" magazine and he just sits in the kitchen doing bloody awful paintings. The sentiments he wishes to express to her are roughly summarised in the Beatles song "Revolution", so he barges into her office and starts singing away, kicking up a fuss and knocking things over. Not only does this sort of contradict the message of the song (whilst singing "when you talk about destruction, you can count me out!" he is wrecking an office and punching people in the face), which is about the sixteenth in a tiresome list of increasingly strained excuses to shoehorn Beatles songs into the plot (at one point a character actually says "Her? She came in through the bathroom window!" and somehow nobody onscreen looks like they're having trouble keeping a straight face), he's the only person in the scene singing, and everybody else is just sort of standing around looking horrified. They become the audience. Even when Jude has been thrown out of the building, and his girlfriend rushes outside, the film defies musical convention and where you would have expected her to burst into song, she screams "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?" at Jude. The whole scene feels like CCTV footage of a laughable, babyfaced drunk who thinks he's in a musical, rather than a scene from a real musical, and is the point where I cracked up so much I lost all ability to do anything other than laugh at this film. Unless you're Fame or Once, you can't have realism in a musical, because it's a MUSICAL. There's people SINGING. They're SINGING. The people are SINGING. With their INVISIBLE ORCHESTRAS. It ISN'T REALISTIC. AT ALL.
Somehow, that came AFTER an appearance by EDDIE IZZARD as EDDIE FUCKING IZZARD "jazzing up" a rendition of "Being For The Benefit Of Mister Kite" with various sub-par and tired Izzard-isms (the overall impression is that a director has handed Izzard a stupid costume and said "go over there and BE EDDIE IZZARD! PARODY YOURSELF! CHEAPEN YOURSELF! DO THAT BRITISH SCHTICK" which isn't something Eddie Izzard has done particularly well for a few years), after a procession of RETARDED "LIVERPOOL" ACCENTS, after a character called Prudence has HIDDEN IN A CUPBOARD for NO REASON other than to justify the line "won't you come out to play" in the song "Dear Prudence", and after THE MOST BORING COMPUTER GENERATED ACID FANTASY EVER. If you are one of those people who slows down to watch car crashes, or animals having sex, or enjoys the You've Been Framed "Funny Babies" specials - watch this film. A truly magnificent achievement in stupidity. I didn't do a "Best Of 2007" list, but as I've just written about definitely the worst film of that year, I may aswell mention my two favourites.
WALK HARD - THE DEWEY COX STORY / THERE WILL BE BLOOD
How many truly great comedy films are there? Twenty? Fifty, tops, I reckon. Walk Hard is one of them, anyway. A note-perfect spoof of Ray / Walk The Line and films of their ilk, with a towering lead performance from John C Reilly, one of the few straight actors who feels perfectly at home with this sort of work. Where the comedy production stable headed by Judd Apatow has recently been embracing new realistic takes on the rom-com, this is a return to the quickfire, surreal lunacy of films like Anchorman, Airplane or The Jerk. There's a healthy combination of sight-gags, one-liners, set-pieces, recurring jokes, genuinely funny music and great cameos (one scene may feature the best cinematic depiction of The Beatles yet, and like everything else in this film, makes such an achievement look like nothing more than the product of some very talented people being as silly as they like).
The music, in particular Black Sheep (a Brian Wilson-esque everything-including-the-kitchen-sink psychedelic jam penned by Van Dyke Parks) perfectly captures the styles of the eras it is supposed to span, and that they would be million-selling hits is easily believable, regardless of their comic value. They're just great songs, which happen to be frequently hilarious. Don't leave until you've heard "Have You Heard The News? (Dewey Cox Died)" playing over the end credits. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed songs in a comedy this much - it could be as long ago as The Three Amigos! which adds to the feeling that this is the kind of film which doesn't come along very often. I put the fact that this flopped massively at the box office down to the ferocity with which it attacks films that are inexplicably so universally lauded and awards-laden. One of the promotional videos has John C Reilly exclaiming "suck on that, Joaquin Phoenix!". For anyone who has a fondness for those films, Walk Hard amounts to being called an idiot for 90 odd minutes. For anyone else, it's a blast. Try to get ahold of the Directors Cut DVD, which reinstates about a half-hour of new stuff, from which the film greatly benefits. The theatrical cut felt a bit hacked up, and it's clear why - whole swathes of the disco period were trimmed, and scenes cut down to their big laugh or plot-advancing moment when the longer scene is much funnier.
It took only a matter of minutes for There Will Be Blood to join Walk Hard as BEST FILLUM OF THE YERE - it begins with a lengthy, wordless scene which perfectly establishes the unremittingly grim tone of what is to follow, and is riddled with disturbing beauty. In it, Henry Plainview, played to fierce precision by Daniel Day Lewis, strikes oil, falls down a big hole, and has to drag his broken body back to the surface, while the camera drifts between intense focus on Plainview, and the bare, gritty landscape - all to the strains of Jonny Greenwoods intense score.
It's not even the first masterpiece Paul Thomas Anderson has made, but where his other films felt very cinema literate, tricksy and smarty-pants, like a Tarantino film if he'd been raised on Altman instead of kung-fu rubbish, There Will Be Blood has a far more classical dramatic sensibility. Which isn't to say there aren't fleeting references to other films - there are touches of Kubrick here and there, and the music recalls Bernard Hermann (Psycho). The PT Anderson who resolves multiple plotlines with a shower of frogs and group singalong has been replaced by one who cranks out works of actual genius worthy of sitting alongside Citizen Kane as an examination of one mans life. Plainview is consumed by greed, and it gradually erodes the few tiny scraps of empathy tethering him to sanity. It's an arduous, unsettling experience, but unarguably one of the greatest achievements in cinema of recent years.
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Every now and again, just as I'm starting to get really pissed off with Nicole Kidman (most recently for The Golden Compass, which I'd write a damning review of if I could remember a single thing about it), she goes and makes a completely fucking brilliant film. I mean, let's just take a look at how brilliant some of Nicole Kidmans filmography is, just incase we've forgotten, as I usually do. Birth, Dogville, The Hours, Eyes Wide Shut... granted, that's just a handful from a very long list, but they're each unusually good films, and Margot At The Wedding might be her very best performance, and the only reason it's not her very best film is that she worked with Stanley effing Kubrick. Writer-Director Noah Baumbach is probably best known for helping Wes Anderson to write The Life Aquatic, and the dysfunctional families in his own films (his previous, The Squid And The Whale, is also fantastic as I've harped on about in this column before) shed some light on how Baumbach was able to make the family dynamic in The Life Aquatic, though it's not far from Andersons usual terrain, more affecting than usual. Baumbachs films share a certain sensibility with Wes Andersons, the leafy suburbs of The Squid And The Whale particularly reminiscent of Tenenbaums, but they're far more rooted in the real world and willing to delve deeper into uncomfortable psychological areas, insecurities, sexual hangups, awkward adolescences and generally terrible behaviour. The miracle of Baumbachs films is that any of his characters remain likeable, and it's a credit to Nicole Kidmans performance that after wanting to smack her in the mouth for two hours, her eventual undoing is more or less as unsettling for us as for her. Gambling the emotional climax of your film on such a staggering amount of empathy from the audience would only work in the hands of people this talented.
I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH
Written, directed by and starring Jeff Garlin (you know, off Curb Your Enthusiasm!) is a gentle romantic comedy/drama which plays a bit like Curb Your Enthusiasm, as Garlin strolls through his life having short comic vignettes on social awkwardness with various familiar faces, but it has real heart, honesty, some good jokes and a great, touching final scene. I don't really know what else to say about this - it's a short, simple, cheap film which doesn't attempt anything groundbreaking, but plays to it's strengths and becomes something a little more than the sum of its parts.
GONE BABY GONE
"Hello, my name's Ben Affleck! You might remember me from BEING A COMPLETE IDIOT for the last decade or so. Well, I directed this film which is like, probably top 5 of last year, so FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU."
That's what I'd say if I was Ben Affleck. Gone Baby Gone is a truly unpredictable and wrenching neo-noir, anchored around a great lead performance from Afflecks wee brother Casey and an innate sense of geography (I've never been to Boston, but I bet it's exactly like this film) which adds a harsh realism to the depiction of the effect a childs disappearance can have across a whole community.
Apparently, if you don't like Juno, you're part of the "Juno backlash", or you have a HEART OF STONE, or you're just curmudgeonly. Let's straighten this out a bit. Yes, Juno is an above average script for a first-time writer and it's extremely well-cast and acted. But it's also extremely self-conscious, there's far too much samey music in it, it's too twee, with the exception of Michael Cera the characters all talk in exactly the same way (their speech peppered with smartypants New York zingers) regardless of age or sex and that gives the whole thing a pretty amateurish air. Certain scenes like the Mother getting maternally defensive and uncharacteristically bad-ass feel par for the course in films of this nature now. In summary - it's nothing special, and falls far short of Jason Reitmans previous film, "Thank You For Smoking".
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
This film, despite dealing with plenty of familiar elements from their earlier output, feels like a new chapter in the careers of the Coens. While it's not as bad as everyone seems to think, Intolerable Cruelty was undeniably a big step down from the run of films preceeding it, and The Ladykillers looked so awful that neither I nor anyone I know has seen it. As such, much is riding on their return to "proper" film-making. So it was refreshing to read about this "return to form", an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. Had I any familiarity with McCarthys work, the incredibly bleak and sombre tone of this film wouldn't have surprised me so much as it did, but having been led to expect something resembling their earlier work, I was taken aback by quite how un-Coensy the film was. Which is in no way to it's detriment - it just makes comparing No Country For Old Men to say, Fargo, a futile exercise. Which is remarkable, considering they both concern murders, human weakness, bags of money, police officers, hitmen and suchlike. While their films are frequently unusual, rarely have the Coens abandoned the viewer to make their own assessments of such a grisly situation. Dramatic music cues, climactic shootouts and wisecracking expositionary characters are notable by their absence, and the audience is left as weary and confused about the world as the characters.
Let's try something new - here is a film that I made, and you can tell me what you think in the comments bit.