My Week With Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011)


My Week With Marilyn

Based on a diary from Colin Clark, the ‘hero’ of this film and brother to the more famous diarist, Alan, this recounts his lucky break in getting to work on the film set of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957, and getting close to the most famous actress, perhaps then the most famous person, in the world. Given his aristocratic and well-connected background, his lucky breaks could be said to start with being the son of a famous father, the art historian and TV presenter, Sir Kenneth. We see, both at the start of the film and a little later, just how reliant Colin was despite his stated aim in making his own way.

Colin (Eddie Redmayne) gets very close to Marylin Monroe emotionally and, though he falls in love with her sexually, the relationship remained platonic. Monroe is played by Michelle Williams, a spirited attempt (including singing) to recreate an icon that, for me, never really convinced in the original. This Marilyn is a sphinx, both vulnerable and devouring, sweet but also an emotional vampire who destroys the men in her life even as she struggles to cope with her own (admittedly overwhelming) life as a movie star. How much this was conscious is left open, though there are hints.

The Prince and the Showgirl was not a very successful film, commercially or artistically, and this tale suggests it was doomed from the start, old-school director/star Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, having great fun) not understanding Marilyn and her not being capable of producing what he wanted. Clark, or perhaps the screenwriters who adapted him, looks in a few places to be a little self-serving, seeing what no-one else does and there are a few clunking lines that play into our knowledge of Marilyn’s frailties but that could have been much better written. I also feel that he plays favourites somewhat, with Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) and particularly Sybil Thorndike (another Dame, Judi Dench) being perhaps too sanctified but then this was Clark’s diary. The film also overstates Monroe’s talent as an actress; while it is undoubtedly true that she was more natural on screen than many of the theatrically trained actors of the time, she was not the titan of acting ability the film occasionally would have us believe.

In the end, this film uses the backdrop of the film-within-a-film, and the fractiousness of its making, as the backdrop to its real theme, which is only in part Clark’s near-fling with a superstar. It’s about the bittersweet nature of first love as a rite of passage and it’s a lovely little tale, not deep but very affecting, and lovingly told.

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The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)


The Wizard of Oz
Here we go, always first with the newest films.

I’d only ever seen bits and pieces of this and it is on so many “best film ever” lists that I had to give it a try, despite my general aversion to musicals (Cabaret and a few other exceptions notwithstanding). It’s not among my favourite films but I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated, particularly after an unreasonably long song’n’dance sequence with the Munchkins was out of the way. The main problem with musicals, for me, is that all too often the songs interrupt the narrative flow and, unless you really enjoy the songs, they do so to no good purpose. This is very true of The Wizard of Oz but the songs are much more prevalent in the first half of the film than the second.

Two things struck me about this film; the first was the breadth of its influence on modern culture. Most of us know phrases like “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more”, used whenever some bizarre event or place is encountered (and recently satirically against the Kansas education board for trying to sneak creation onto their science syllabus) and “click your heels three times” for wishing simple solutions. Ideas like “the man behind the curtain” succinctly sum up false impressions of competence projected by those in power. The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion have become tropes, too, although Scarecrow is a much stronger character than either, but there are surprises – for me, at least. I didn’t know that Mr Burns’ winged monkeys were a direct steal from this movie, for instance. Nor did I know that the entire Oz episode was a Freudian dream episode (there is, I have discovered, even a book entitled “The Wizard of Oz in the Land of the Id“) with each of her Kansas acquaintances making appearances in the guise of Oz characters based upon some aspect of their exaggerated characters.

The second thing that struck me was how powerful the rationalist message overall was. Ok, there are witches, magic and a variety of supernatural agents involved but this is all within the context of dream, and both Dorothy and the audience are encouraged to think for themselves and not to trust claimed authorities. This is a really good message to give to children and it is done so within the context of a colourful and simple narrative that they ought to be able to enjoy just for its own sake – the younger children, at least, who might also find it pleasingly scary.

One problem I have with the film is Dorothy’s own age. In the early section, Dorothy is selfish and bratty. This is important since, in her experiences in Oz, she will learn lessons that change her outlook and she will be a better, more rounded person at the end. The problem is that Judy Garland was just too old to pull this off convincingly. She was sixteen playing much younger – I can’t find any reference to how old Dorothy was supposed to be (it appears to be unstated) but, from the way her dialogue is written, I can’t imagine her more than thirteen, at very most. This becomes less of a problem later on, since the ‘improved’ Dorothy’s dialogue is less idiosyncratic for an older teen to say.

So, not really for me but a film I respect and admire.

A Cock and Bull Story (2005, Michael Winterbottom)


A Cock and Bull Story
Following from their turn together in the low-key but wonderful “Cruise of the Gods“, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden teamed up again to make this, a film inspired by Laurence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy. Described in the film as the “first postmodern novel, before there was any “modern” to be “post” about, the novel is reputed to be ramshackle and wandering, with numerous digressions and changes in style, oddities and absurdities, with no obvious and clear plot but always interesting and endlessly amusing. Whether this is true of the novel, I cannot say but it is certainly true of this film.

It begins with an apparently straight retelling of the novel, with the slight “fourth wall” device of the narrator, Shandy, talking directly to camera about what is happening to the child portraying the young him. Then we get the confusion between the character of Shandy and the character of “Steve Coogan” playing him, obviously a comically fictional variation of the real comic actor of the same name and the character of Shandy’s father, also played by Coogan. “Coogan” and “Bryden” bicker about star billing and the representations of their characters and compete visciously (this element reprised recently for “The Trip” TV series, also directed by Winterbottom), and it is easy to lose track of whether / how much this represents reality and might be ad-libbed (I suspect very little) and how much is tightly scripted.

The other characters/actors get similar treatments, with fiction using fact in a dizzying and hilarious mix as Winterbottom’s film “A Cock and Bull Story” describes the fictional attempts to make a film called “A Cock and Bull Story” about the Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, only bits of which we get to see. The film within a film is analysed and found wanting – except it’s not, it’s another comic device, to describe the inadequacy of ever making a true filmic representation of a novel, particularly one so odd as Sterne’s. Later on, the film takes some utterly bizarre surrealist turns that remind me of Charlie Kaufman’s best stuff. It really is hard to do justice to this film as it is such a subtle and layered beast but watch it – with a bottle of wine to hand – you’ll need it.

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011 – Leeds Film Festival)


Shame

Well, this was unusual. That’s in a good way. Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is a sex addict. We see him on a variety of one-night stands, hiring prostitutes and using (a vast collection of) pornography. Much of this is reasonably graphic; there is a great deal of nudity and fairly convincing and extended sex scenes.

And yet this is neither arousing or embarrassing. Perhaps this is because we see all this portrayed as problematic – it is part of Brandon’s addiction. And, perhaps, the slow and grave musical score also lends these scenes poignancy. Despite many “pretty people” getting their kit off, including the stars, this doesn’t feel exploitative or shabby.

Brandon appears to be doing ok at the start of the film. He is successful at work in a high-powered business firm and seems to effortlessly pick up girls, contrasting with his brash and coarse (married) boss, who is upstaged by just an intense stare from Brandon – it probably helps to look like Fassbender! While not appearing sinister, there is something very predatory about Brandon on the pull.

When Brandon’s sister, Sissy, an aspiring torch singer with serious issues herself, arrives and plants herself in his flat, his life begins to unravel. The seeds of this were there before her arrival and the process is gradual bit inevitable, leading to… Well, I can’t really say, can I?

The film looks wonderful – there is an extended shot of Brandon running through the New York streets at night that is simply amazing but much of the direction and camerawork is simple (or looks so) and unshowy, letting Fassbender and Mulligan’s acting prowess shine. A beautiful, haunting film to officially close the Leeds Film Festival.

Anna Calvi (the Cockpit, Leeds, 16 November 2011)


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Anna Calvi, for me, released one of the standout albums of the last year; indeed, with PJ Harvey and Lykke Li leading a pack of innovative female singer-songwriters that also includes tune-yards and Janelle Monae (or “your freaky bitches”, as my partner refers to them all), she’s doing well in a crowded field so this ought to be a good gig, providing she could cut it live.

First, a brief mention for the support, a Minnesota band called (oddly enough) Halloween, Alaska. My first impressions weren’t too promising, competent but uninspiring, but they grew on me. With a guitarist seemingly modelling his look on Rivers Cuomo, a singer-keyboardist his on Chris Martin (a very bad sign), a bass player who looked like a young Bruce Willis and a drummer who looked scary, they ran through a variety of styles, really catching light during a song that had a Talking Heads/Prince-style pop-funk guitar sound. I liked them enough to gamble on their CDs at the concession stall.

On to the main act. Calvi started up with, as per the album, Rider To The Sea followed by No More Words, the first demonstrating that her superb guitar playing, at one point glissading like a harp, isn’t dependent on studio wizardry and the second that her voice was likewise for real. My god, the voice! Rich, warm and powerful, it dominated the whole set. Backing came in the form of drummer and percussion/harmonium (though not at all like the sounds Ivor Cutler made!), so there were frequently two sets of percussion simultaneously playing to give extra drama.

And that’s what Calvi is about. With her severe hairstyle, chic culottes-and-blouse and her vertiginous heels, her look is all about a classic glamour, her cover songs, Elvis’ Surrender and Edith Piaf’s Jezebel confirming that she looks to a very particular idea of what constitutes ‘rock’. You might think Piaf doesn’t have anything to do with rock but she had that same dramatic intensity that Calvi has and it is powerful stuff. Her very self-effacing and seemingly shy demeanour between songs was surprising, given her total immersion in the moment during them.

If I had to make one gripe it was that there was a dearth of new material; for the most part, what we got was what is on the album. While that is terrific, and while familiarity lends a gig security, I’d liked to have had more in the way of surprise and some indication as to whether we could expect anything new, or at least of comparable quality, on her next album. Maybe it’s too soon for that.

Anyway, as one punter shouted out in between songs, “Anna, you rock!”. Indeed she does.

The Goonies (Steven Spielberg, 1985)


The Goonies
Sean Astin, as Mikey, leads his friends in “The Goonies” children’s gang (his brother Brand, and friends Mouth, Chunk, Data, Andy and Stef) on a quest to discover pirate hidden treasure before their homes are repossessed by greedy developers, and whilst trying to evade the criminal Fratelli family, who they encounter hiding out in the area.

A couple of colleagues mentioned this at work one day as a “great fun film”, and one that “everybody loves”. It was a challenge but I was up to it. I don’t like this film. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate it – it’s far too mediocre for that. It’s just very, very ordinary and too many things fail for me to give this the love that so many others seem to have for it.

OK, so there are good points. The stunts are often great – very reminscent of the Indiana Jones movies (hardly surprising, given who’s directing) and some of the kids’ acting is good, Sean Astin in the lead is standout and some of the special effects are good, especially for a kids film. And, er, that’s it.

The acting is very uneven, some of it being atrociously bad. Some of the stunts are simply terrible, the entire effect being achieved by speeding up the action, as if this was a low-budget Saturday afternoon TV children’s adventure, fine if you nostalge* after such stuff, atrocious if not. Many of the characters, both children and adults (especially the villains), look as if they were assembled by a tick-box checklist of clichĂ© and ham-actor general-use mannerisms and tics and I didn’t like the kids, Mikey excepted. The script is frequently embarrassingly bad, with a few nice touches sprinkled here and there to remind you that it really needn’t have been that bad.

On checking IMDB to get names and spelling I noticed that this gets a 7.5 rating, so I’m aware mine is a minority opinion. I suspect that if you watched this as a child you might have a residual warmth to it and if you watch it with children, their enjoyment might rub off on you. I’m a cynical adult watching it for the first time and this movie rubbed me up the wrong way. Such is life.

(*Yes, I’m aware that this isn’t really a word)

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)


The Philadelphia Story
This movie had been recommended to me several times and was the inspiration for one of my mum’s favourite films, High Society, so it was high time I got round to watching it. It’s not so much a “screwball comedy” as it is a comedy of manners, witty, urbane and, most of all, humane, treating its characters as real and fallible people who, for the most part, mean well.

We first met CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) as their recent marriage spectacularly falls apart with them fighting (literally) on the doorstep as Dexter moves out. We then move to the office of a scandal-sheet editor a few months later as he gives instructions to reporter Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to attend Tracy’s new wedding, this time to an upwardly-mobile but dull businessman, George. Their ‘in’ to this society event will be pretending to be friends of Tracy’s brother, conveniently absent in South America, and their vouchsafe for this will be – Dexter.

There are twists and laughs but we pretty know where this is going to end up right from the beginning; The important thing is that these people are likeable and there is great fun getting there. The class and sexual politics have dated a little but not that much and it is instructive to note that Hepburn’s character has more wit and intelligence than we see in pretty much any modern mainstream Hollywood fare – and when would we now see a heroine who was not a virgin and got so drunk as to be unsure whether she’d had a one-night stand with a newly-met acquaintance? Bridesmaids may signal a change in this, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns (Leeds Town Hall, 9 November 2011)


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This is the second event I’ve attended at the Leeds Film Festival, and much more to my taste. Paul Merton, relishing his role as ‘folk historian’ of the silent era is an informative and entertaining host, even if his illustrations of verbal comedy, to contrast with the silent stuff to come, are a bit rubbish.

First up, we have a Snub Pollard (not well known but what a name!) short film, It’s a Gift, in which our hero sets the mould for Wallace and Gromit as a mad inventor out for a drive in his little magnet-propelled car, with an endless stream of little gags.

Then a snippet from Get Out ‘n’ Get Under in which Harold Lloyd drives a more recognisable period car and demonstrates that many of the quirks we still associate with driving are hardly new developments, with some terrific stunts along the way.

Then we get The Pawnshop, where Charlie Chaplin seems to fit an unfeasable amount of comic invention into a few short minutes. Merton told how Groucho Marx, infamously hard on other comics, rated Chaplin as the funniest comic ever. I’ve not really given him his due, I think.

A snatch of Seven Chances, previously shown on Merton’s tv show, shows Buster Keaton’s fantastic athleticism and agility as he tumbles down hillsides and dodges boulders.

Finally for the first half, Laurel and Hardy, in the short Big Business, develop a slight altercation, through tit-for-tat pettiness into orgiastic vandalism, and we see the foundations of their transition into the ‘talkie’ era.

The second half was given over entirely to Safety Last, the Harold Lloyd classic with the famous shot of him hanging from a clock hand, high up on the side of a tower block. What’s interesting about this, for me, is how ‘the Boy’s” predicament is set up over an extended period so that, when he does have to climb the building, there is a real sense of tension, growing markedly with each storey higher. His near destitution does lead to one uncomfortable scene, in which two stereotypical Jewish jewellers slaver over his money as he buys a necklace chain, which he can’t afford and means going hungry, for his fiancĂ©e to keep her deceived that he is successful. This anti-Semitic scene is a blot on the movie, which doesn’t otherwise date too badly but it’s pretty nasty.

This film is about stunts, though, which really get going when the climb begins, and it changed Hollywood, as Merton related, with Chaplin and Keaton having to inject thrills into their films along with the gags, in order to keep up.

Each of the films was given a live accompaniment, with piano and sometimes double bass and guitar also, or violin and drums. For Safety Last, all five musicians were on stage together. The live music really helped, adding a sense of immediacy and urgency, and filled up the hall. I’d been warned to avoid showings of standard (talkie) films at the Town Hall as the sound quality is poor. This may be true for cinema speakers but certainly isn’t for live music.

The only slight reservation I have about this event is that it really should have had a Q & A session. It was ideally set up for this – and I wanted to ask about that jeweller’s scene.

Inbred (Alex Chandon, 2011)


Inbred

Well, this was unusual for me – a proper ‘Genre’ horror comedy, at a special screening (the first with this soundtrack) at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the ‘Fanomenon’ strand of the Leeds Film Festival.

First thing to say – I’m not really the target market for this kind of film. It’s a B movie gorefest, a low-budget (nothing wrong with that) broad comedy schlocker that relies on bad taste and (pretty good) special effects and the ‘yuk’ factor for both its laughs and its horror. I have to admit that, while I laughed quite a bit and winced some more, it didn’t really make much of an impact with me. I want an emotional or intellectual connection with my films and this didn’t score well there, though I’m aware that this isn’t the point of this kind of film.

Ok, that out of the way, to the movie itself. The Director opened with a bit of absurd violence, for the benefit of genre afficionados, I suppose, and then spent the first half hour establishing characters and situation before returning to the ultra-violence, an investment that paid off, to an extent. The acting ranged from moderately good to adequate but no-one was terrible, so the characters worked and there were clearly established ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, for us to give a damn about who lives or dies.

Two care workers and four of their reluctant charges arrive at a remote Yorkshire village to embark on a ‘team building’ weekend. The team leader is officious and distant and his assistant more of the ‘you can talk to me’ kindly and sympathetic. The kids range from the gobby and arrogant to the introverted and non-communicative. As they arrive, two of the more sympathetic kids catch a glimpse of the last outsider to visit, the man who is supposed to be meeting them to set up the weekend. The house they are staying at is a wreck, the local pub (“The Dirty Hole” – yes, this is the level of humour) an unwelcoming rural pub (an echo of “The Slaughtered Lamb” but anyone who’s visited a properly rural pub will recognise this kind of place). As the kids encounter the locals, the inevitable conflicts build until they explode in gory, splattering violence.

The film borrows heavily from loads of sources; there is an organist who resembles Eric Idle’s Monty Python character from “Blackmail”, another Python reference, to “Mr Creosote”, American Werewolf in London, Papa Lazarou from League of Gentlemen, , The Wicker Man and more. While spotting these is fun and the Director openly acknowledged them in the Q and A session after the film, they were a little obvious and unfiltered for my taste, too close to their source material to be as much fun for me as this evidently was for much of the rest of the audience. If that audience response was anything to go by, my luke-warm response to the film is not a good indicator to how this will go down with genre fans, who might well be more enthusiastic.

Tori Amos (4 Nov 2011, Manchester Apollo)


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Touring to promote Night of Hunters, Tori Amos finally played somewhere and somewhen I could make, though I haven’t been too impressed with the last few albums so I might have timed this better. The last album was better but hadn’t grown on me as Boys for Pele or Under the Pink. My neighbour at this (seated) concert assured me the album’s a grower and after this superb concert, I’m going to revisit it.

The gig kicked off with the support act, Mark Hole. His was an interesting act, very much in the Tori mould, gender notwithstanding, and it was obvious why he’d appeal to her as support. Of his five songs, two were excellent, two pretty good and one, called ‘Tori Tour’ and written to commemorate the bittersweet moment when he was unable to share his news of being offered this tour because he’d broken up with his partner, was apposite but schmaltzy.

Tori herself kicked off with Shattering Sea, one of the new songs, and it quickly became apparent that these new songs stood up very well on this live environment. Indeed, Star Whisperer , though it comes in at just under ten minutes long, was riveting and will surely become a fan favourite.

There was also a good smattering of older songs, with Bliss and Hey Jupiter among the highlights, though probably the strongest of these was a fairly radical reworking of Precious Things, employing two of the supporting string quartet as percussionists, on second violin and cello to great effect. Only Winter (All the White Horses), of the old songs, was a disappointment, being a little overwrought; this has to be put in perspective – it was excellent but not up to the flawless standard set elsewhere.

The string section, Apollon Musagete, were interesting themselves, inventive, unorthodox and animated. Before Tori’s first encore, rather than the usual impatient wait, Apollon Musagete had the stage to themselves and got a huge cheer, fully deserved, for their efforts.

Very often at gigs, we accept a lower standard of finished sound as the price for stagecraft, a sense of occasion and a certain ‘edge’ to the live performance. Here, for the most part, the songs were better than their album versions, with the rich and deep sound quality really making a difference to the overall song. Tori was no slouch on stagecraft either. Sitting between grand piano and electronic keyboard, frequently playing one hand on each and with long hair and flowing green robes, she could have been a (much prettier!) Rick Wakeman figure, but with better music. She also, especially on the new songs, threw in a few expressionist dance poses, this now reminiscent of Kate Bush. There was more traditional playing to the audience which helped leven the occasion, since many of the songs are pretty intense, and one improv. song, I Fucked Up, when a mic-headphone cable became detached.

A rollicking, foot-stomping Big Wheel closed and then this was done.