AMERICAN SNIPER – REVIEWED

Published January 18, 2015 by tootingtrumpet
Bradley Cooper - or near enough

Bradley Cooper – or near enough

When I was a kid, Manifest Destiny was the stuff of Saturday morning kids’ telly. The Cowboys would hit the Injuns with firearms, knocking them dead (literally) and the Injuns would return fire with arrows, like the darts at the Ally Pally. My grandad once said about these 60s black and white American import series (and it’s stuck with me for forty years or more, so it hit home), “Nobody cares about those dead Injuns much do they?” No, they didn’t care much – not much at all.

If Clint Eastwood wasn’t in that cheap TV filler, he was in Rawhide, which probably wasn’t much different. And he’s been active in Republican Party politics for years – once interviewing an empty chair in some stunt or other to rile the Democrats. So, on saying, “Two for American Sniper please,” and shoving the card into the reader to pay, you have to leave your Guardian editorial-honed sensibilities behind at the popcorn stand. This is no documentary, no examination of the case for war, no even-handed inquisition into its impact on all combatants. So, rather like the grunts over there, you just have to get on with it.

What impresses is not the film’s “depth” – the impact of PTSD, the ebb and flow of the marriage of Bradley Cooper (good, but too charismatic surely) and Sienna Miller (not given enough to do – but, you know, by Clint), the buddies rubbing along – it’s the shallows of the film.

Well, not quite the shallows, but the surfaces. The battle scenes are photographed with real panache, the flat light that washes out all but the greys I last saw in American History X (another film with its problems) is back and doing the same job, twenty or so years on. The broken cities are given dignity by a camera that laments for their lost completeness and disdains the tiny humans ducking in and out of doorways and windows. Like the New York of The Warriors, the city overwhelms its occupants.

Good too is the camerawork on the action sequences – for once we feel present without feeling the seasickness attendant on the fast cut, wobbly handheld sequences that seem almost obligatory these days too. There’s CGI, but its unobtrusive, and lost in that light that just floods out such detail. Eastwood’s politics may have hardened over the years but so too has his confidence – this is a film-maker with nothing to prove (at least, technically) and it shows.

Ultimately, American Sniper shares a lot with (of all things) pantomime. It can be coarse and derivative, it demands that the audience buy into its conceits and it’ll attract plenty who will deride it (mostly without the benefit of actually seeing it). But grit your teeth, leave your politics in the foyer and enjoy a film that is more successful (on its own terms) than the other Oscar contenders I’ve seen and then see if you agree with me – if Clint does get the nod for best director, he’ll 100% deserve it.

 

The Theory of Everything – Reviewed

Published January 11, 2015 by tootingtrumpet
Jarvis Cocker and Christine Keeler - maybe

Jarvis Cocker and Christine Keeler – maybe

You know the form. Oxbridge actors filmed by an Oxbridge director while the sunlight dapples the honeyed college buildings and (probably Oxbridge) extras walk about quads looking, well, very Oxbridge. Nobody seems to do much work, money sloshes about and someone is overcoming extreme personal challenges. Between this caricature and its Mike Leigh / Ken Loach mirror somewhere up North with ex-members of 7:84 or Hull Truck Theatre doing the Oxbridgers’ roles, you might just be able to tell why I tend to cast a rather jaundiced eye at British films.

The Theory of Everything deserves better than that – just. It is distinguished by two splendid central performances from bee-stung lipped pretty boy turned twisting professor Eddie Redmayne and bee-stung lipped pretty girl turned saintly carer Felicity Jones (as Stephen and Jane Hawking). Both should feature in the upcoming awards jamborees with Redmayne well ahead of Cumberbatch for my money in the Eton vs Harrow old boys face-off. The principals are worth keeping an eye on (well, it won’t take much effort doing that I suspect) as both almost certainly have much more to offer in future projects having had to throttle back in the second half of the movie.

And that’s where the problem lies. For an hour or so, the love story under pressure is set against Hawking’s rapidly disintegrating body and burgeoning scientific career. Though (as the quip doing the rounds claims) there’s not much theory in the The Theory of Everything, there’s a sense of his genius, of the nature of academic work, of something unique. Hawking is funny too, but, apart from his atheism and Jane’s High(ish) Anglicanism, we’re told nothing of their backstories, so we do what we can to fill in the gaps with cues from accents, clothes and all the tedious markers of English class – because, well, it matters (even if it shouldn’t).

And, once Charlie Cox walks on the scene with a sympathetic eye and a sympathetic story of his own that made even me want to hug him, the film loses its extraordinary quality and becomes a rather conventional tale of two people drifting apart as they find the needs they had in their mid-twenties differ from the needs they have in their late-forties.

Hawking falls for a rather less rounded (if more curvy) nurse whom one is given to believe is not driven by the most noble of motives, and soon the removal men are in and the family photos are being divvied up. You end up pleased for the two of them really, as it can’t have been easy, and it’s especially heartwarming to witness the late, somewhat unexpected, reconciliation at Buckingham Palace. That said, it’s disappointing to have to flick the Wikipedia switch to find out that Jane is a professor in her own right having been seen for less than ten seconds actually studying her subject of Iberian medieval poetry (barely tolerated by the geekish men of course). At least she fares better than Alicia Nash, John Nash’s wife, in the dismal A Beautiful Mind, a film that shares much with this one though is inferior in all aspects.

That real-life events have been manipulated for dramatic effect (see this piece in Slate for some of those elisions and extensions) is fine by me – it’s entertainment, not history – but it’s a shame that the film falls away into something not far removed from a soap opera storyline. Perhaps, in the last 45 minutes or so, a little more E = mc^2 would made the time pass a little less slowly.

 

 

The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 by Michael Palin – Reviewed

Published December 25, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
Keeping matters in hand - on the set of Jabberwocky

Keeping matters in hand – on the set of Jabberwocky

I like diaries. Of course, there’s the frisson of excitement that comes with looking at anything forbidden, the pulling back of a curtain and the peek inside the life of another. But, aside from the voyeurism, three other structural qualities give the reader of diaries a real thrill.

Firstly, the roles of writer and reader are reversed. There is no omniscient narrator slowly revealing the plot to us, the denouement held back just long enough for that oh so satisfying resolution. It’s us, comfortably sitting in 2014, who know the diarist’s future not them!

Secondly, one is immersed in a permanent present, each day self-contained and as likely to butt up against Triumph or Disaster as any other day. And one can track one’s own parallel life too – the months and years at the tops of the pages as much a map for one’s own memory as for the entries of the writer.

Thirdly, one sees the doubts, the paths not trodden, the sheer chance of life explicitly – diarists do not plot a route to becoming Prime Minister at 45, they muddle through as much in thrall to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the rest of us. They’re lifted from our lives of opportunities missed or refused only partly by talent – it’s hard not to conclude that it’s as much luck, energy and boldness that defines a person’s life as the dead hand of socio-economic class etc etc etc.

These observations seem to cut through all diaries, whether the politics and positivity of Tony Benn, the decency and melancholy of Chris Mullin, the snobbery and gossip of Sir Roy Strong or the wit and tragedy of Kenneth Williams. So it’s no surprise at all to find them applying to Michael Palin’s Diaries, the first volume of which is an ascent from post-Oxbridge umming and ahhing to global megastardom with the Pythonic apotheosis, “The Life Of Brian”.

Palin is, of course, a notoriously decent cove, something that shines through on page after page. He sees the best in people and that sunny disposition means (as so often) people return the favour by seeing the best in him – he’s good company. He’s not without his frustrations: Graham Chapman’s boozing; John Cleese’s eye on the cash and a certain impatience with unionised film crews come through strongly; but nothing like as strongly as his respect for the talents of others. Though not prey to false modesty, Palin knows that his fellow Pythons are immensely gifted too and this combination of egos (incredibly) holds together on this gossamer-thin thread of multilateral respect, as they are tossed on the stormy seas of international fame. There is, of course, much to be said in any relationship for the ability to make one another laugh – and they never stop doing that.

Other names outside the magic circle flit in and out of shot: a charity football match vs Radio One, in which Ed Stewart plays a blinder in goal; The Secret Policeman’s Ball with Peter Cook’s virtuoso judgement on Jeremy Thorpe; George Harrison, all quiet decency and sly scouse humour. Nobody is given short shrift: even John Belushi (who surely can’t have been easy to work with, jetting in and out of Saturday Night Live) comes across well.

Insights pop up on almost every page. One of the best half-hour comedies in the BBC’s rich history of the format, “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite” was filmed between his father’s death and the memorial service a week later. Pre-Diana, that was the way things were. The now classic “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” that closes “Brian” was received “coolly” by the Pythons at a preliminary read-through. The brilliantly funny School Leopard in “Tomkinson” was an ad-lib, the sequence dropped in later.

There’s more, much more, as we sit in on the creation, execution and (though there’s rather more of it than I would like) marketing of some of comedy’s highest peaks. What’s remarkable is the willingness of the Pythons to maintain so much control over their work, regardless of its impact on their lives. Each of them write, perform and direct (or otherwise work on casting, editing etc) day-in, day-out, the inspiration seemingly on tap and available at 2.00pm – 5.00pm between a morning spent acting and an evening schmoozing potential investors. Perspiration trumping inspiration yet again on the production of great art.

Though in the late 70s, Palin and co are cushioned by substantial (but nothing by today’s standards) pots of cash (even travelling by Concorde can be hard work), the ordeals involved in filming “Holy Grail”, “Jabberwocky” and “Brian”, all of which demanded much of Palin’s good humour, physical fitness and will to succeed, the business of making films is gruelling and would break lesser men. Palin’s feet were fixed firmly to the ground by (it has to be said, cliche though it may be) dollops of Northern common sense, ordinary domestic arrangements (wife and three kids in North London house with Mini parked outside) and a keen curiosity in everything – the urge to travel, manifest in later life, pokes through the narrative regularly. Quite how characters less anchored than Palin survived such workloads is a story in itself – some, of course, did not.

There are few laugh-out-loud passages in the diaries – there seldom are in this format – the need to get things down at the start or the end of busy days with no time for rewrites is hardly a recipe for style. But the ordinary prose about extraordinary events leads to a rhythm that makes the volume unputdownable. I’ve already downloaded Volume II and I know I’ll do the same for Volume III.

Thanks Michael – see you again soon.

Mr Turner – Review

Published November 16, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
2014, MR. TURNER

No oil painting

Mr Turner opens with a gorgeous shot of windmills in Holland with our eponymous hero looking at the yellow light, taking it all in, the better to express it on canvas. Unfortunately, apart from a few more Tarkovsky-like moments of cinematography from Dick Pope, the gorgeousness gives way to Timothy Spall’s ungorgeous jowly countenance and as gnarly a set of teeth as you will see in 2014. And that growl, deployed almost randomly, starts off as irritating but soon becomes unbearable.

Nor is Turner a particularly pleasant man – in fact, he’s a particularly unpleasant man, arrogant, aloof and with a dismal attitude towards women, even for his time (the early, hypocritical years of the 19th century). I found myself longing for the movie to finish so I could get away from a man I wouldn’t choose to spend two minutes with, never mind a ludicrously stretched out two and a half hours.

Of course, many great artists were appalling individuals (step forward Amedeo Modigliani) and JMW Turner was undoubtedly a genius as a painter, anticipating impressionism both in technique and its subject matter of the emerging modern world. Instead of this being made clear (surely three of those 150 minutes could have been spared) we get little help in locating Turner within art history beyond a bit of sniping at John Constable and some frankly unbelievable scenes (not helped by bad CGI) where he is suddenly inspired to paint the celebrated The Fighting Temeraire and Rain, Steam and Speed etc.

There’s little too that explains Turner’s attraction to middle-aged women from drawn from well below his social station and a curious incident with a beautiful 22 year-old prostitute in which he seemed to have some kind of seizure at the mere sight of her in repose, left me none the wiser as to its significance.

I took my seat knowing that Turner was a great artist who had a thing for working class women and who left his paintings to the nation in a bequest that was only made good a century or more after his death with the opening of the Clore Gallery. I left my seat knowing no more. 

The Imitation Game – Review

Published November 16, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
From 1992

From 1992

There may be people left who don’t know about Alan Turing – miracle code-cracker, father of the Computer Age and victim of anti-gay laws – but there really shouldn’t be after the biography, the novel, the TV adaptations, the pardon, the road… So the challenge for The Imitation Game was to say something new – and, often commendably and sometimes less commendably, it did.

On the downside, the film is anchored not by the race against time, as U-boats sank the convoys that crossed The Atlantic carrying the food that sustained a Britain that was completely isolated off the coast of Nazi Europe, but by Turing’s emotional life, its secrets foregrounded more than those of Hut 8. He loses more sleep agonising about Joan Clark than about Colossus (here renamed Christopher after his dead school paramour, turning Turing into something of a Gore Vidal). There’s also a great deal of focus on Turing’s Asperger’s-like disdain for empathy and jokes, something that seems to surprise the near-geniuses with whom he works (who appear to be unimpressed with his Cambridge Fellowship achieved at 24 – an unlikely story as that is very hard currency indeed in those circles).

So much for the Hollywoodisation of the Turing. Focusing on the film’s many strengths, most of which flow from its slightly surprising faith in its audience, yields a more balanced view of an excellent film. Exposition is largely eschewed – we’re trusted to “get” cryptography pretty quickly and to understand why the work at Bletchley Park is the toppest of Top Secret. We’re also trusted to disentangle the layers of espionage and counter-espionage that provided Bletchley Park with its carapaces of deniability and leak justifications – should they prove necessary. Turing may have thought he was in charge; a old buffer Admiral played by a permanently ruddy-faced Charles Dance certainly thought he was in charge; a wisely off-camera Winston Churchill was in charge; but it turns out that the Sir Humphreys were pulling all the strings (as ever).

Best of all are the two stars’ performances. Benedict Cumberbatch catches the quirks, the arrogance and, most of all, the humanity of a man never at ease with his personal destiny, but entirely at ease with that of his his work. It’s always award catnip to play a troubled real-life character, but one can so easily imagine the standing ovations for speeches that laud a man wronged in his time, but rehabilitated by the movies, as Cumberbatch blinks back the tears cradling his BAFTA / Oscar – it’s going to happen isn’t it?

Keira Knightley, though not exactly a dead ringer for Joan Clarke, bubbles with brightness and decency, a balance for Cumberbatch’s ticks and grimaces and, crucially for the film, credible as both a mathematician and a woman for whom Turing can “care for”. She may be cast partly for the glamour she brings to a film that hardly screams it, but she more than pulls her weight – as does her character, despite the caricature prejudice she faces.

Though the Turing argument was won many years ago, the recent Royal Pardon merely confirming what had long since been established public sentiment, an epilogue rightly points out that 45,000 more men were prosecuted (as Turing was) for, well, being gay. Sod the floodgates argument, we should honour the debt we owe to Turing’s work by pardoning every last one of them in his name – The Turing Pardons. Let the Daily Mail lead a campaign against a war hero who unequivocally loved his country and see how far they get with that one.

Interstellar – Review

Published November 8, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
Not Matthew McConaughey

Not Matthew McConaughey

Earth’s soil is turning to dust, destroying crops and choking the people left trying to hew a living from a land disintegrating beneath their feet. But NASA, literally as well as metaphorically underground due to political expediency, has secretly sent ten astronauts through a recently discovered wormhole near Saturn to jump to another galaxy with planets (and a black hole). Ten years later, little has been heard from them, so a mission sets off after the explorers led by ex-ace astro Cooper (a curiously often inaudible Matthew McConaughey). He leaves behind his super-bright daughter Murph after a bitter parting and strikes out for the sake of humanity.

Christopher Nolan’s epic, intelligent and beautiful new film is wonderful to look at, unafraid of dealing with hard science and a fine addition to the dystopian film / novel (as it acknowledges with a prominently displayed copy of Stephen King’s The Stand on a bookshelf). But it’s (bafflingly) both too long and too short – too long in introducing an obvious villain and too brief in rushing to its set-up of an inevitable feelgood ending. Having invested so much exposition on gravity, time, black holes and relativity in the first 120 minutes, all kinds of stuff just seems to happen in the last 40 or so as time and space are suddenly malleable even to us flesh and blood humans. (And, as ever in this type of science fiction, it’s never quite explained why intelligence so superior to our own can’t just make things easy for us poor saps so in thrall to them).

There’s lots of talk about how it’s impossible to visualise a black hole – ironically much of it while Anne Hathaway’s enormous saucer eyes are onscreen – and an endearingly “human” computer (thanks due to Nolan here for resisting the temptation to make its voice camp, as so many have done in the past), but there are very few laughs in a relentlessly earnest warning tale that might not go down too well in the American Midwest. Michael Caine delivers a pleasing cameo: but do watch out – you know what an English accent signifies in a Hollywood movie don’t you?

So does it work? In a cinema, I’d say yes. The photography pleases the eye, a limited pallet of greys, browns and monochrome black and white lit to allow the eye to rest on the colours shifting on the screen if the brain fancies a timeout from the exposition. The CGI (for once) complements rather than overpowers the action, the servant rather than the master of the director (and there’s plenty of adverts for forthcoming features to show how rare that is these days). McConaughey makes a passable hero, though I couldn’t help but think of Sam Shepard’s dazzling performance in The Right Stuff, the definitive “pilot as hero” in my time – he’s good, but not that good. Jessica Chastain does the pent-up anger and intensity well as adult Murphy Cooper, but she’s outshone by Mackenzie Foy as young Murph, who has to deliver almost all the emotional thrust of the film and does so brilliantly – surely a nomination for Best Supporting Actress should follow.

So, if you’re a Nolan fan or enjoy mass entertainment that doesn’t treat its audience as a group of five-year-olds in their first science class, go see the movie now, in a cinema, with no distractons. If you’re thinking about waiting for the DVD – don’t. Shorn of the spectacle on the big screen, there probably isn’t enough drama nor romance nor plotting to carry 169 minutes in your own living room. Few films could stretch that far – maybe, few films should.

Only When I Laugh — My Autobiography by Paul Merton

Published October 22, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
How's the picture in the attic Paul?

How’s the picture in the attic Paul?

I saw Paul Merton once — at Jongleurs in Battersea in about 1989. He was funny, but not spectacularly so — though the success or otherwise of a comic’s set was determined as much by my beer gauge (about five pints imbibed was perfect: a few either side of that mark, and the reception was less than optimum). He was already a star, but has since gone on to become — wait for it — a national treasure, pulling off the remarkable trick of retaining most of his cultish appeal while working extensively right across the mainstream. Like Michael Palin, he seems both ubiquitous and loved, a granny’s favourite who can still show the fangs when he needs to. It’s clear that this oft-lonely, oft-insecure, only child has never had any problem getting people to like him — a rare and precious gift — but that he doesn’t always like himself, nor others.

If that less than earth-shattering revelation about a funnyman emerges from the text, I’m afraid it’s one of the few. Not that it makes for a bad book or a whitewashing whinge or a backstabbing bitchfest. What we get is a narrative of Paul’s outward life. There’s a lot of, “The phone rang and soon I was on my way to a lunch meeting about a new six-part series about which, I confess, I had many doubts but that proved to be one of the biggest hits of the decade”. It’s not short of, “We fell in love and soon we were renting a little / large flat in Streatham / Fulham”. either. How Paul? How?

This absence of introspection (strange in a man who has thought very hard indeed about how comedy is created in the cracks between what the mind expects and what it obtains) is most apparent in the book’s central interlude in which he is falls prey to paranoid delusions brought on by anti-malaria meds (his explanation) and overwork (my speculation) and spends some time in hospital pretty much run on the along the lines of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The horrors of mental illness are described unflinchingly, but, on his discharge, normal life is resumed as if nothing had happened with little more than a footnote that his marriage to Caroline Quentin fell apart soon after.

Enough of the downside — the upside is plenty steep enough. The best parts of the book are those handful of occasions where he drops a gag into the text (though the economy and almost tangible crafting of the joke contrasts with the somewhat pedestrian description of “things happening” that surrounds it). Writing was hard graft, demanding hours of work (often with longtime collaborator, John Irwin) drawing on an immense reservoir of self-acquired knowledge of classic comedy from radio, television and film, accumulated since early childhood. Though often self-effacing, Merton is proud of his work and his awards and not dishonest enough to hide it.

There are also many warm tributes paid to a Who’s Who of British comedy over the last fifty years: Forsyth, Milligan, Galton and Simpson, Hislop, Parsons and many, many more emerge with an enhanced humanity for Merton’s accounts of his dealings with them, especially his waspish sparring partner from HIGNFY. This warmth is most evident when he breaks his leg in an ill-advised football kickabout and loses money on a cancelled Edinburgh run. A starry list of “alternative” comics show that all the previous stuff about the camaraderie on the road was no soft-soaping, as they club together to raise money to settle his debts with a one-off gig.

Come the last page of the book, one can only be satisfied that things have worked out so well for a man who had to swim against the tide so often — no Footlights conveyor-belt to the BBC for him — his domestic and professional lives balanced beautifully in his mid-50s. But there’s still much more to say, more to reveal, depths hinted at but not plumbed — which is, of course, the right of an author — but nags at the reader. One can’t help wondering what a biographer with psychological insight would make of Merton’s mind, a fecund but not entirely comfortable place and how that has carried him on his unique and still unfolding journey. For that we must wait.

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