Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)


Drive poster

Well, this was not what I was expecting at all! A film called “Drive” with a central character with a double life as stunt driver and getaway man – this is going to be a brainless adrenaline rush of chase after chase, right? Wrong. This is a properly cinematic thriller; yes, its hero is a bit of a superhero, and there are some good driving sequences but few, and they are more plausible than I expected.

The opening scene didn’t bode too well, with slightly too much “Basil Exposition” for my taste but, as soon as the first chase scene began, I was intrigued. This was a much more interesting chase than I expected. Then some time is spent establishing Driver’s (Gosling’s lead, I don’t think he’s named) relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan, good in everything I’ve seen her in, including Dr Who) and her son, Benicio. There is some chemistry and it is delicate and sweet.

When Irene’s husband, Standard, comes out of jail, it throws a spanner in the works of Irene and Driver’s possible relationship but, again, there is a bit more going on. As Driver agrees to help Standard pay his debts, for Irene and Benicio’s sake and with the assistance of another crook, Blanche (Christina Hendricks, surprisingly unglam), the situation rapidly becomes more serious. Some of the film style is almost Lynchian in style, dark and menacing, and there are occasional bursts of extreme violence. Despite my initial fears, there are no “A-Team cars rolling over, things explode, nobody hurt” and the “18” certificate is not surprising.

There are twists, not labyrinthine, and there are characters, though not especially deep but, most of all, there is craft on display here. It’s not perfect but it is, much to my surprise, among the best films I’ve seen this year.

La Regle de Jeu (“The Rules of the Game”, Jean Renoir 1939)


La Regle de Jeu

Proving that it’s not just the English that valued the “stiff upper lip”, we have this gem from pre-war (just) France, in which the household of a wealthy aristocrat go away to his country house for a weekend of sexual intrigue. Robert de la Cheyniest is trying to get rid of his mistress, having been touched by his wife Christine’s refusal to enter an affair with a celebrated aviator, Jurieux. Jurieux’ friend Octave, who loves Christine himself though he’s having an affair with her maid, Lisette, manages to get an invitation for Jurieux to the weekend and Christine, who already has to face some prejudice as an Austrian in inter-war France (the background to this, the “Crisis” of 1939 permeates this film) will face more temptation and confusion.

This kind of plot could be the template of a Woody Allen film, and there are a few laughs to be had but it is mostly played straight, as is the sub-plot of Lisette, who has her own affairs and secrets. It is striking that this is very natural and underplayed. There are moments of high drama and moments of farce but the overall feel of the film is of a real situation and so this film dates pretty well.

Friends with Benefits


Friends with Benefits

Postmodernism is alive and well. This movie is, on one level, a standard romcom and, on another, a commentary on romcom conventions, taking (pretty obvious) digs at many of the cliches we expect while indulging in several of them itself. There is a “movie within a movie” that is just too awful to be funny at all and also a post-credits sequence that carries on this theme but really should be much funnier, though it still gets a couple of digs in.

If talk of postmodernism makes this film sound intellectual and worthy, that would be wildly misleading; this is a bit of fluff, a fun (and largely it is fun) picture of two glamorous, successful yuppies, “pretty people” having sex while trying to stay friends and not fall in love with one another (no prizes for guessing how that turns out).

Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake play Jamie and Dylan, a corporate headhunter and the art director she recruits for GQ magazine (a rather intrusive bit of product placement, of which there are other examples – iPad, anyone?). Both have “issues”, Jamie has unrealistic expectations of a “Hollywood” romance (this is postmodern, you see) in reaction to her upbringing by a permissive hippy mother while Dylan keeps people emotionally distant due to some family issues of his own.

Dylan’s “issues” are the most convincing, engaging and moving parts of the film. Among other things, his father is suffering from Alzheimers and starting to deteriorate, and this is portrayed sympathetically and sensitively, and his family life, with protective older sister and her son looking after the intelligent but vulnerable father, is likeable even if their beachfront house is nauseatingly perfect.

But this is a comedy so the big test is “is it funny”? The answer for me is yes. It’s not riotously so, though there are enough laugh out loud moments to make it fun. There is a comic sex scene that is nowhere near as funny as that at the beginning of Bridesmaids, largely because we are supposed to like both parties to it and generally, this is nowhere near as funny as that film but it is funny enough. If anything in this film stays with me, I think it will be the scenes with Dylan’s father but it’s not really a memorable film. It’s disposable fun and, as that, it’s an entertaining evening’s watch.

Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)


Superman Returns

I really wanted to like this. I know that it was not critically well received, though I hadn’t read any reviews so hadn’t any specific foreknowledge of why, but Singer has form – The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men films – and has earned a reputation as an intelligent filmmaker.

So why is this film so fucking dull?

Firstly, you have to look at its stars. Brandon Routh isn’t bad, precisely, but he doesn’t have the charisma to really dominate scenes the way he should and, with his overlong hair and kiss curl, comes across as a bit of an emo superhero; watching him, I realised how good Christopher Reeve actually was. Kate Bosworth as Lois is similarly competent-but-no-better. Kevin Spacey gives a good account as Lex Luther but is underwritten and only really has much to do in a couple of scenes.

Secondly, it’s bloody long. It’s about two and a half hours long, and feels it. The story just isn’t that complex that it requires so long and there are plenty of scenes that look as if they’ve just been included to look good, without achieving that sufficiently, including one “crucified superhero” (haven’t we already seen that in the last Matrix film?) shot that is simply risible.

Then there is the nature of Superman himself. It’s been a truism for as long as I can remember that Superman is too powerful to be dramatically interesting; he always comes across as a bully. Hence the need to artificially introduce peril by the introduction of Kryptonite into every storyline in order to generate a few brief moments of peril – which is duly done here. Superman is fundamentally a boring character and it takes a creative approach to mould a watchable story around him.

That brings us to, for me, the biggest problem – Singer’s approach. Singer wants to make thoughtful films but seems to struggle to find a balance here. On the one hand, he tries to remain faithful to the generally light-hearted and rather cheesy Christopher Reeve template, almost slavishly so, with many nods to those films, to which this is an overt sequel rather than the currently fashionable ‘reboots’. On the other, he tries to introduce quasi-philosophical points such as questioning the role for a superhero in a world that has carried on without him, and whether he has responsibilities. But we’ve already seen these points explored, in Watchmen, Singer’s own X-Men films and even Kill Bill (Bill’s meditation on Clark being the alter-ego, rather than Superman, sardonically commenting on humanity’s frailty) and it all seems a bit perfunctory here, with interruptions to the story and to no great effect.

I have to admit that I was always a Marvel comics fan and never ‘got’ the DC ones, but it seems to me that the X-Men naturally supported the kind of story Singer wanted to tell, while Superman required too much of a stretch.

Here’s hoping that Joss Whedon doesn’t similarly get burned with The Avengers.

A couple of ways to cook potatoes


Pommes de Terre Bonne Femme & Gratin Dauphinois
(Bonne Femme front left, Gratin Dauphinois back right)

In the UK, we tend to boil, mash, roast or make chips from spuds but not do much else. Trust the French to make them more interesting! Two of the easiest preparations, both pretty similar, are Gratin Dauphinois and Pommes de terres bonne femme. The first is vegetarian (not vegan) but is chock-full of cream (I did say it was French) so isn’t one for everyday, and the second is healthy with a good blast of chicken stock so isn’t suitable for veggies. Both work best with waxy potatoes, or at least not especially floury ones, and this kind of recipe is why waxy potatoes are much more common in Francophone countries than in the UK. Both dishes need at least two layers of sliced potatoes but preferably not more than four, since the browned and crisped outsides are the best bit, and they are both great accompaniments to a steak or other simple cutlet and serve two.

Gratin Dauphinois.

Generously butter the inside of an oven-safe container, approximately 5 inches wide by 8 inches long (or equivalent area) and at least two inches deep. I use an enamelled cast iron dish, as this gets very hot itself and helps to cook the underside of the potatoes and crisp them up, but a ceramic dish is fine provided it can handle high temperatures. Set the oven temperature at gas mark 8, 450°F or 232°C.

Slice two medium sized potatoes thinly and put a layer to cover the bottom of the dish. Grind some fresh pepper and nutmeg and sprinkle with a little salt, a little chopped garlic and pour some double cream thinly. Add another layer of potato and cover again with salt, pepper, nutmeg and garlic. Repeat until all the potato is used and finish with a topping of cream.

Put the dish in the oven for 35 minutes. The potatoes should come out with a deep golden brown colour. When sliced open, the cream inside will have formed a semi-solid ‘cheese’, caking the slices of potato together. Serve in wedges. Because this is so rich, it really helps to have a leafy salad with a tangy vinaigrette on the side to cut through the richness. If you wanted to serve just the potatoes and salad alone, add a little cheese on the top of each layer of potatoes before putting them in the oven in order to make a main course out of it.

Pommes de terres bonne femme

This means “goodwife’s potatoes” and illustrates the virtues of making simple ingredients very good indeed. Given how easy this is to make, it really tastes special and is a regular in our house.

As above, grease the inside of the container. As this is using chicken stock, chicken fat would be an appropriate fat to use, but butter or oil would also be fine. Slice two potatoes and also a shallot or half an onion. Lay the potato slices in the dish and then a layer of onions and some salt and pepper. Continue until all the potato is used and top up with chicken stock, allowing a quarter inch clearance at the top. Put into a hot oven and cook, this time for about 45 minutes, until the potatoes have a deep brown colour and most of the liquid has evaporated – there should still be a little, thickened liquid at the end of cooking. If the potatoes are still swimming in stock, put them back in the oven for another five to ten minutes to let the liquid cook down.

Soba noodles with coriander, lime and chillis


Soba noodles with lime and chillies

This is a really easy Asian-style (by no means “authentic”) noodle dish, that is quick to prepare, can be served vegetarian or omnivorous and can be served hot as a main meal or cold as a packed lunch. And it is fantastic. This serves two.

Dry fry a small handful of cashews to get a bit of colour on them – take care as they easily burn. Chop up a little cooked chicken or pork, if preferred.

Mix together:
Pumpkin seed butter (available from health food shops), or smooth peanut butter, two tablespoons.
Juice of two limes.
Hot chillis, two or three.
Sesame oil, one teaspoon.
Soy sauce, two teaspoons.
Coriander leaf, small bunch, chopped
One large or two small cloves of garlic, finely chopped, grated or crushed.
One large or two small spring onions, roughly chopped.
Handful of sezchuan peppers, roasted and ground (optional but very good)

If the pumpkin seed butter is used, the sauce will keep an attractive, rich, deep green, colour – peanut butter and it’ll be a muddy brown, but still taste great. The sauce will probably be a bit too thick, in which case add a little water – or chicken stock if it’s handy.

With all of these ingredients, experiment with proportions and taste the finished sauce to check it’s right for your own preference. If it’s too sour, add a pinch of brown sugar. As it’s going to be added to the noodles, it should taste a bit too salty and spicy on its own, particularly if it’s going to be served cold. Add more soy and chilli if necessary.

Take one small bundle of dried soba noodles (for preference, other Asian noodles would do) and add to boiling water and cook according to the instructions – usually only a few minutes.

If serving as a hot meal, simply drain the noodles and mix with the sauce, cashews and chicken (if using) and serve immediately.

To serve as a packed lunch, as I do frequently, drain the cooked noodles and rinse them in a colander or sieve under cold water for twenty seconds or so. This gets rid of excess starch so they won’t glue together in a block. Put the drained noodles in a small serving tub, cover with the sauce and top with cashews and, if using, meat. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Mix the noodles into the sauce just before serving cold.

The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, Leeds Town Hall.


Unthanks

I have the Unthanks albums, and have seen them live before, but how well would they translate their usual small string and horn section to a full brass band, even if that band is the national champion?

I needn’t have worried. Tori Amos’ “Putting the Damage On” proved that a brass section could add a real emotional ‘kick’ to a gentle pop song but, here, the Brighouse and Rastrick band showed just how subtle and restrained brass could be, even managing to achieve a dreamy lullaby quality on one song.

The Unthanks took a break from the stage to let Brighouse and Rastrick let rip, which they duly did, to full oompah effect on an Irish jig but they returned to restrained ways with the Unthanks back on stage for a four part suite, “Father“, newly composed for a Durham festival. They did the same in the second half, retreating to leave the Brass band to demonstrate versatility with “A Northern Fantasy“, a medley of northern English folk tunes.

Some songs were more successful than others. “Felton Lonnin“, which opened the second half, suffered from the loss of its lonely purity, but “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” revelled in woozy, boozy trombones and tuba. Other members of the Unthanks’ own band were also given the opportunity to shine, including a “swing” version of “Queen of Hearts” which let the band really go all out.

The purple and gold of the champion band (together with the trophy prominently displayed at the front of the stage) added to the sense of occasion in the magnificent Victoria Hall to make this a real “event”gig and a joyful occasion.

Troll Hunter


I’ve not seen other “fake found footage” horror films (Cloverfield, Blair Witch) so I can’t compare to them. I suspect, though, that “mockumentary” movies such as Spinal Tap might be a better comparison. This is not a scary film; it is just scary enough to make the comedy work.

It follows a bunch of student filmmakers as they troll around (sorry) the Norwegian countryside, initially trying to get an interview with what they think is an unlicensed bear-hunter. Of course, this is the eponymous troll hunter, Hans, and despite their initial incredulity they get drawn into documenting his work.

The decision to make the camera crew students is inspired, as their enthusiastic skepticism is a great “key” to draw us in, particularly as they become more serious in their investigations. Likewise, the decision to play it straight, delivering a barely-attempted “rational” explanation for the mythical creatures without camp or jokiness means that we can get more involved in the drama so the laughs, when they come, are more satisfying.

The faux “we really believe this is true” silliness that bookends it doesn’t really work for me – I thought it unnecessary – but I’m sure it’ll work for some. In fact, I look forward to crypto-zoologists adding troll sightings to those of Yetis, Bigfoot, Nessie, Chupacabra and all the other non-existent creatures they pretend are real.

Great fun.

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)


Mary and Max

Claiming, somewhat implausibly, to be based on a true story and opening like a washed-out Aardman animation, part in sepia and brown and the rest in black and grey, this is an animation, but certainly not for children.

Telling the story of two lonely oddballs, Mary (voiced by Toni Collette), a plain, overweight and bullied young girl in a small-town in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a middle-aged and obese Jewish atheist in New York, this delivers a litany of hardships and traumas in a wry, comic voiceover from Barry Humphries.

Max has mental health issues that see him unable to form any relationships except with his pets, and has an obsession with unhealthy foods; Mary is bullied, not least by her sherry-soaked shoplifting mother, Vera.

These two no-hopers form a pen-letter friendship across the continents that is heartbreakingly sweet. The mordant wit that informs both the animation and the voiceover make the desperate sadness in the story bearable, but it’s not for the easily upset, as this is about friendship in the teeth of adversity. The moments of triumph, soundtracked gloriously with Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s Perpetuum Mobile, are all the more enjoyable for having been fought for.

This is both the most miserable and the most genuinely moving animation I’ve seen since Grave of the Fireflies.

Jane Eyre (2011, dir Cary Fukunaga)


Jane Eyre

Opening with a gorgeous shot of moorland, this is another film set in my county of residence, Yorkshire, though mostly filmed in Lancashire and Derbyshire according to the end credits.

It’s a very faithful retelling of the novel, though it starts quite far into the narrative, a device that works quite well as we are plunged into one of the most dramatic scenes of the story and the director can tie the history of Jane into her current situation through a few key flashbacks from her upbringing, a much more economical retelling than trying to blast through her entire childhood and schooling. Despite this, the film had quite a stolid, old-fashioned feel to it – not necessarily a bad thing. If you haven’t read Charlotte Bronte’s novel – and you really should have – it’s an intense and romantic love story of a poor but strong-willed young woman acting as a governess for the illegitimate daughter of a sullen and brooding wealthy man with a shameful secret, shocking for it’s time though much more restrained and realistic than sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, also soon to be released in a new film version.

Fassbender makes a compelling Rochester, if a trifle young for how I imagined him, and Wasikowska is good value as Jane. For most of the film, I was fully immersed in the world, though the screen looked a bit gloomy, even during what were evidently meant to be bright, sunny scenes. I’m inclined to think this a fault of the projectionist rather than the cinematographer.

It did lose a bit of dramatic power just as it should have been most intense. At two hours long it shouldn’t need an interval but I wonder whether this was simply a bit of fatigue and that it would be better viewed in two halves, like a tv mini-series.

A slight aside – I was amused to see from the credits that the horses and carriages were provided by “The devil’s horsemen”.