Archive for May, 2009

Half-Nelson

May 31, 2009

Half-Nelson is one of a spate of recent films that name-check prominent figures of the nineteenth century (cf. Napoleon Dynamite). I came very close to seeing it at the cinema, but if I recall correctly, the very individual who had tabled the excursion ended up having one of his famed John ‘n’ Yoko-esque week-long sleep-ins instead. Failing to see the film has not stopped me reviewing it, you will be relieved to hear.

It is said that each of us remembers at least one teacher who inspired us to learn and who ignited our intellectual curiosity. This however is a statistical impossibility. Experience teaches us, one and all, that the profession of pedagogy is a refuge for ill-beseeming, metallic-voiced scoundrels. For every Robin Williams, prancing thoughtfully on an old dusty Longfellow, there are ten thousand paid-up sad-sacks puffing moronic smoke into the ears of their tiny, helpless wards.

Mr McClure, the hero of this piece, is typical of the species in this respect. But he hides an unhygienic secret: Drugs! When not hectoring his luckless pupils with facile observations and aphorisms, Mr McClure plunges, like a gauche speedoed diver, into the all-too-seductive smog of crack-cocaine. This appetising opiate he sups through a Gandalf the Grey-style pipe: globular at the base and twig-like at the shaft. But, as Hugh Grant wisely said, ‘the pipe maketh not the wizard, Julia’.

Few would disagree with the statement that crack-cocaine enables musicians to make better music. The same cannot however be said for education. Mr McClure’s crack addiction fails to improve his feeble (even by the standards of the trade) lessons. They merely add a bloodshot aspect to the proceedings. Things reach a head when Mr McClure’s already veinous eyeballs achieve such a pitch of redness that he begins to resemble Grar-Raith, the Volcano-dwelling troll-lord. At this point one of Mr McClure’s students intervenes and weans him off the delicious drug by bleating at him incessantly like a tiresome, sententious ewe.

Ordinarily at this stage in the review I would offer my judicious and pungent opinions on the film, but on this occasion I have decided to abstain. To do otherwise would be to encourage directors and script-writers to make more films about teachers and schools. We have had enough of them already. The cycle must end. You have been warned.

Friends of the Agoraphobic Reviewer

May 30, 2009

In the same way that I often wonder whether there is a God, listening to my thoughts and laughing at the right intervals like a well-prompted sitcom audience, so too do I wonder whether anyone actually reads this blog. If however they do, it is surely thanks to the generous commendations given me by the following bloggers. It is only fair that I return the favour. Naturally, I have not read their blogs because I spend the larger part of my time strenuously avoiding watching any of the films I review. Anyway. Here they are:

www.anyeventuality.wordpress.com – this guy actually has the temerity to watch the films he reviews, and then make accurate and insightful comments about them. It makes me sick.

www.banjosbrew.blogspot.com – this nefarious character peers at the world askance through the murky, opaque waters of the semi-legal alcohol he moonshines up in his cellar, pausing occasionally to throw out spicey bluegrass licks on his banjo and ruminate on the ongoing necrosis of reality.

www.oldrope.wordpress.com – old rope is the inventor of the decorum- and RSPCA-baiting game ‘Poo-paw’. He is a danger only to himself however. His bulbous eye takes in all of creation – including fried breakfasts, imaginary sitcoms, northern soul music, cats called Yoko Ono, experimental artists called Tiddles – and cries it back out again in the form of a hilarious, melancholy teardrop.

Wolf Creek

May 30, 2009

It goes without saying that I have not seen Wolf Creek. But I cannot imagine who would voluntarily subject themselves to such an ordeal. My friend, ordinarily a fearless ragamuffin, saw this film and wobbled nervously like a neurotic bowl of trifle for a fortnight afterwards. I told him to take a leaf out of my book and avoid watching films altogether. He hung his head and cried. This entry is for him.

Can the human mind conceive of a more terrifying place than the Australian outback? My human mind cannot. At night the desert heaves and throbs with cretinous activity. The lone driver humming up the outback highway is besieged from every side by twitchy dark rogues clutching towards them with horrifying fumbling claws. Imagine you are one such driver. You feel a sudden prong about your person and sense nasty little eyes looking at you, spoiling for an immoral feast. All of a sudden, you realise that you have been skewered by a rudimentary man-trap, and as you lie, pinned to your seat like a sorry racoon, you realise the truth of your situation: you are become manmeat.

The protagonists of this film are two spruce ladies from Britain, a country whose citizens frown upon cannibalism, and seek no repast grander than a simple platter of baked beans on toast, washed down with a hearty draught of blackcurrant cordial. No British menu could have prepared them for what they were to encounter in the outback. Sheer horror was to consume them in its hot maw. Savage cruelty was to make short shrift of these unfortunate English roses.

One of the protagonists, Maisy, is a case-study in lackadaisical sneezy innocence – her hayfever a metaphor for the way in which her inner goodness baulks and bridles at the ripe pollen of wickedness that fills the rotten desert atmosphere. Throughout the first half of the film, Maisy reads from ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, often pointing out salient passages. When terror strikes and the heroes become the prey of dirty human roadweasels, we cry out for Dumbledore to swoop down on a majestic griffin and save this imperilled dreamer. But then we remember that there is no hope of magical rescue here. This is reality, albeit a warped Australian version of it.

The other protagonist is less interesting. But does she deserve to be eaten and to be menaced with gob-spikes and blood-whisks? No. Never. Horror is a deadly weapon and must only be used as a last resort. We must be very careful who we horrify with our demonic tales and potent grisly images, lest they, one terrifying day, horrify us back in return.

American Graffiti

May 29, 2009

George Lucas is, unfortunately for him, a figure of fun. This grieves me sorely. He has given us so much happiness. In order to counter these atrocious slanders and sideswipes, I have written a defence of his early masterpiece, American Graffiti. Needless to say, I haven’t seen it. 

Oh, to have my youth again. Or, even better, to have George Lucas’s youth again. In the 1950s things sure were sweet for the pubescent director, if American Graffiti is to be believed. By day he drank soda-pop and root beer, whilst bopping and jiving to a wild new beat. It seemed like the fun would never stop, and every new bottle of syrupy carbonated liquid promised, upon opening, to spray out an invigorating mist of neat fun and bebop times. But as the twilight approached, then came George’s visions. As he lay in his humid, musty bed, George closed his eyes and dreamed ridiculous infantile dreams about big hairy men and glowing swords that go ‘swwvvvooom’.

This is film is half ode, half paean and half elegy to the hot pop-fuelled jiving of George’s days and the absurd imaginings of his nights. The young George Lucas is played by his older self, which jars at first, not least because he sports a fearsome grey beard and is two feet taller than the other actors. But after a while we accept this theatrical necessity and enter into the spirit of things. His friends, Chumpchump, Curly and Beeswax are played by an assortment of child actors. Most interestingly of all, the role of his love interest, Sindy, goes to an nearly convincing animatronic puppet. George’s acting during the love sequences with this puppet is a tour de force. We almost believe that George sees her as an actual woman.    

American Graffiti features all of the staple elements of the 50s-based teen drama: games of ‘chicken’, knife fights, self-mutilation. But shot through every scene, no matter how bleak or tedious, is the warm, womb-like red glow of fond remembrance. And this is where Lucas really comes into his own: as a sort of Pied Piper leading us back into a pre-birth state, rescuing us from the cynical, bankrupt world of adulthood and taking us back to a more meaningful time, when we were, each of us, suspended in pellucid ante-natal bliss. This is a profoundly umbilical film. It reaches out to us from the mind of a man who, endearingly, wishes himself unborn and believes in aliens, and nourishes us with its nutritious viscous formula. We are all babies in the womb of George Lucas’s brain. Consequently, I have given it 7 out of 10.

Videodrome

May 28, 2009

 

Whenever I hear the name David Cronenberg I feel vaguely uneasy. His name sounds like a horrible foreign film made by Guillermo Del Toro (whose name, by way of contrast, sounds like a refreshing ice cream). It is because of this rational fear that I have avoided watching any of his films, as a consequence of which, I am bound to review them, beginning with Videodrome. This one comes in poem form:

 

Q. What is a Drome?

A. It is a place for running.

Q. What is a Cronenberg?

A. It is a new way of seeing

Q. What is a Cronendrome?

A. It is a new way of seeing people running

When their dark chrome legs

Whirr in the synthetic light

Q. What is a Dromencrone?

A. It is a camel with two humps

Q. What is a Videocrone?

A. It is a soiled VHS showing a film of you dressed as an old woman

Q. What is a Dromenberg?

A. It is a spa town on the outskirts of Dusseldorf

Q. Why is a Videodrome?

A. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086541/

Before Sunrise

May 28, 2009

Yes, yes, we’ve all heard how amazing ‘Before Sunrise’ and its sequel ‘Before Sunrise 2’ are. But who among us has actually sat down and watched either? Not me, that’s for sure. Here’s my review of the first instalment:

Before the appearance of ‘Before Sunrise’, dialogue played a very peripheral role in the fabric of filmic storytelling. It was felt, arguably justifiably, that audiences had a natural indisposition to watching other human beings forming articulate sounds with their vocal organs. The seasoned, sticky-eyed director, John Ford summed up this universally-held tenet of cinema when he said: ‘When folks start to yappin’, I gets dirty murderous’. Elsewhere in the world, Akira Kurosawa expressed similar sentiments, albeit more misogynistically, in stating ‘Talk is cheap, like Stephen Speilberg’s wife’. Cinematic legend has it that Speilberg agreed whilst slapping his thighs, guffawing ‘yes, yes, neat simile Mr Kurosawa’, though this may be because he is a craven sycophant.

This film broke the mould. Not only was the action largely limited to two actors talking flagrantly into each other’s faces, it also rewrote the rule book, by using two characters/actors who were not, in the conventional sense, attractive, charming or intelligent. The premise was simple: a cameraman follows two mediocre heffalumps from bench to café to bus stop, as they cover a range of improvised conversational topics, including toothache, love, death, what happens after death, books that they have read or seen in shops, fate, and the popular musical Les Miserables. At the time, audiences were gripped as they observed the unprecedented spectacle of people talking for ages and ages.

In retrospect, the film seems less clever. From this vantage point, Ethan Hawke looks too much like a whiskered, snuffling mouse. So much so, in fact, that as I was watching the film, one of my bowl-headed offspring wandered into the room and shouted ‘Yay, An American Tail!,’ before realising his mistake and mock-retching with disappointment. This may seem like an irrelevant point to make – after all, Hawke cannot help the way he looks. But his tiny mammalian features date the film horribly, and will probably prevent future generations from being able to enjoy this most radical and inventive of films.

Julie Delpy is not beyond reproach either. Her acting style is too floppy, too invertebrate, too atrophied. She rarely stays in frame for more than 5 seconds before drooping out of shot like a dying sunflower. This is not entirely her fault however. The director could have employed splints or a pulley system, enabling her to deliver her copious, unending lines with the correct posture. But this is just one among the many, many films that have been ruined through bad posture: I am of course thinking of Citizen Kane, Schindler’s List, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and pretty much everything that Lars Van Trier has ever made (except The Idiots).

The Other Boleyn Girl

May 27, 2009

I haven’t seen ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. Why would I? But review it? Why not?

 Henry VIII was nauseatingly obese and had at least 43 children, leading respected historian E. P. Thompson to dub him ‘The Sperm Whale’. His bestial gluttony and lecherousness were matched only by his cruelty towards his serving staff, in whose long-suffering low-born faces Henry often waggled his disgusting greasy fingers, mockingly. So it was with violent puzzlement that I ‘watched’ ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, in which Henry is, inexplicably, depicted as a handsome and erudite sovereign, unburdened with a distended gut-pouch. Henry VIII, was, according to this film, the Tudors’ answer to Elvis Presley or, to use a more contemporary example, Chris De Burgh.

 See Henry nuzzling wenches in the privet. See Henry shooting dormice. See Henry laughing it up with Sir Thomas More. A more cynical reviewer might argue that this film is just one big exercise in ‘seeing’, like so many films nowadays. As cinemagoers we need more than just things to look at. We need moral instruction and spiritual guidance. We need passion and pomp. We need to be grabbed by our crimson ruffles and squeezed. We need to leave the picture-house feeling that something has just happened. I’m not sure that this film answers these needs. ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ fawns and flatters the eyeballs like a base, perfumed pettifogger, and superficially charms the visual cortex with its flimsy baubles. Speaking of which, Scarlett Johanssen should perhaps be singled out for praise for putting in a pneumatic, curvaceous performance as Ann Boleyn.

 Early Modern English history was a gruesome tangled root, from whence grew the gnarled barky monstrosity that is modern life. Had Henry VIII fiddled less frenetically with the church and with the business of procreation, had he not furnished cause for future intestine broil with his cavalier attitude towards best practice, then the world might have been a better place. The English Civil War and latterly the Second World War might not have happened, and people might have looked less strange than they do in the present age. There is of course no way of knowing. But this much is true: if we do not learn from history, how can we learn from it. ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ offers us no opportunity to learn from history, choosing instead to engage in dainty parlour games and coquetteish monkey-business . I shudder when I consider how many of the impressionable youths who are swayed by the spangly trinkets of this film will grow up to become corpulent, lusty monarchs. It really doesn’t bear thinking about.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

May 26, 2009

Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ is a flawed masterpiece, I’m told. One day I hope to verify this with my own eyes. Until then:

As a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe in the 1960s, it was felt that Terry Gilliam was too uncomely and too American for British audiences. Typically, Gilliam would be sent into a darkened back room to make childish cartoons, which the other members occasionally included in the show, largely in order to humour him. But since then Gilliam has overcome his natural shortcomings and taught a generation of cinema-goers how to dream again. He is a warlock. A powerful master of all that is imaginable. A dark archimago on a bulging-eyed steed, stalking a fat, complacent public, ever-ready to strike them down with his phantasmagorical tales of wonder.

‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ was made while Gilliam’s directorial career was still in its early, uncouth phase. He had not yet teamed up with his delicate, dreamsome muse, Johnny Depp, who was at that time still stuck in a rut of playing preening flibbertigibbets. Similarly trapped in an interminable prelude to his proper career, Gilliam had to make do with Geoffrey Rush as his brave, silly Baron. Despite not being Johnny Depp, Rush nevertheless made a valiant attempt to act the part in a satisfactory manner. Rush has always been a chafing bag of tics, struggling for every second that he is on screen not to look into the camera and make faces at the people watching him. ‘Elizabeth’ was unwatchable for this very reason. But, in this film, Rush’s naïve, savant style seems almost appropriate.

Like Baron Samedi and Baron Harkonnen, Baron Munchausen was an actual historical personage. A sort of cross between the Marquis de Sade, Thomas Aquinas and Jeffrey Archer, Munchausen lied, laid and lickspittled his way through the eighteenth century, throwing out insightful adages as if they were buttons or grains of rice. This film cleverly pretends that all of the preposterous flim-flam that left his rubbery, oleaginous lips was in fact 100% truth. So at one point we see Munchausen having a picnic on the moon with John the Baptist; elsewhere we see him flaying Jean-Jacques Rousseau, climbing inside the removed skin-suit, and starting the French Revolution. Like all simpletons, I enjoy magic and wizardry, but these sequences strayed just that bit too far onto the wrong side of unrealistic for my palate. The film might perhaps have rung truer had Gilliam reigned in this sort of thing more often.

Gilliam also omits aspects of Munchausen’s life that I would have greatly liked to have seen: his noisy, miraculous birth; his deep love of butter; his tender, loving relationship with his manservant, Gruntweed. Of course, the biopic is a tightrope of a genre, bestrewn with minefields and treacherous waters. You cannot please all of the people all of the time. But even so, I can’t help but feel that if Gilliam had tried harder to please viewers such as myself, ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ would have been a much better film.

Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World

May 25, 2009

Although only a recalcitrant calumniator and all round humbug could ever even dream of accusing me of peddling cheap literary gimmicks and engaging in ostentatious displays of spurious learning, this entry comes in the form of a poem, in honour of our new poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, the greatest versifier I have never read. It concerns ‘Digby, the biggest dog in the world’, a film I have actually seen, but seen so long ago, when managing to defecate into the toilet was still something for which I could receive genuine and enthusiastic applause. I remember nothing about this film except what is already given in the title. So, with that in mind, Sing Heavenly Muse…

It’s a long title

For a minor film

But wait’ll you see that big-ass dog

Boy

Wait’ll you see that dog

Timmy was just a nobody

Short trousers

Pumps

And the mittens his mother made

When he was jus’ a squawling baby

Timmy’s face is a freckled ball

And his heart is an empty canoe

I tell you what you need

Timmy

You need a big-ass dog

Boy

You need a big-ass dog

This is what I’ll do for ya Timmy

I’ll take this here regular size St Bernard

An’ I’ll pump it full o’ gamma rays

’Cos I like ya Timmy

An’ you’re a good kid

It’s jus’ like they taught ya

In school, Timmy,

Dog + Radiation = Big Dog

So now, the dog’s grown big already

His nose is like one of them jellyfish

Like they got down in Californee

Timmy

Like they got down in Californee

Your problems will cease then

Timmy

You’ll ride that dog about like an Indian Prince

The bullies’ll back off

You’ll get more pussy than you can shake a stick at

Timmy

Imagine that

Eventually,

ol’ Digby’ll have to go

To the big kennel

In the sky

Leaving an unmanageable irradiated corpse

That you can’t do shit with Timmy.

A dirty great dog-corpse.

But think of all the fun

We’ll have before then

Timmy

You, me

And Digby makes three.

Two losers

And big-ass dog,

Timmy

Two losers

And a big-ass dog.

The Big Sleep

May 24, 2009

Perusing the yellowing, laminated DVD titles in my local civic library recently, I almost decided to rent ‘The Big Sleep’. The film and book of this story have exercised a hold on my imagination for a long time, a hold I fear would be diminished were I to watch or read either. Here is why:

Raymond Chandler wrote his epic dark epic, The Big Sleep at a time in America when crime was all but legalised. It was a bitter pill for the punks, hoods and hunks of Hollywood to swallow, but it did ’em good. Anyone who can sit through this film and still think that crime pays should be locked up for life.

Our hero is one Philip Marlowe, a partially-tracheotomised duffle-bag, who flips when he should roll, and rumbles when he’s on the grouse. This film should have subtitles. Philip’s spicy argot curdles on the ear, like Flemish or Portuguese. When he is hungry, Philip ‘chows down on a spent bit of penny-whistle’; and when he is feeling amorous, he goes looking for ‘a shiny pinball with the top down’. This is harsh and confusing. But it’s also poetry. Gritty, meat-mouthed poetry.  

Comprehension issues aside, there is a lot to recommend The Big Sleep: lean characters; a plump plot; the most colourful black-and-white action this side of the visible spectrum. It also features a cameo from a fresh-faced Ronald Reagan, playing against type as a greasy scoundrel. The ‘moll’, played by Audrey Hepburn, perspires the kind of minty, super-lunary glamour and grace that, alas, is all too rarely found among the cauliflower-eared starlets of the twenty-first century. And in her leading man, played, I imagine, by James Cagney, she has a pleasing, perpendicular yin to match her wispy, winsome yang.

Los Angeles has captured the imagination of crime writers since before the War of Independence. And this is not just because it is twinned with Rotterdam. No, Los Angeles is a deeply ambivalent metropolis: a sugar-puffed pleasure-ground to some, a frightening, beastly Sodom to others, and a sort of combination of the two for the remainder. ‘The Big Sleep’ captures all three faces of this most Janusesque of cities in all of their beefy grandeur.