The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)

cook, thief, wife & lover
Gangster Albert (Michael Gambon) takes his wife Georgie (Helen Mirren) and his gang of cronies to the haute cuisine restaurant he owns, but which is run by chef Richard (Richard Bohringer). Albert is a bully, oafish and vicious, though with pretensions to culture, and his seemingly meek wife catches the eye of bookish loner Michael (Alan Howard) on a nearby table and begins to find ways to leave Albert’s table and begin a torrid, and very dangerous, affair, aided in covering this up from Albert by chef Richard and a few of his staff.

I loved The Draughtman’s Contract, probably Greenaway’s other ‘big’ movie but I found it very hard to like this one. Gambon’s portrayal of the gangster is so overwhelming, so bullying, so big, that it is difficult to put up with him with for such a long portion of the running time (2 hours) of the film, though this is, of course, emblematic of what Georgie is having to put up with. Also, Georgie and Michael’s affair is so purely sexual – they don’t speak at all until several trysts have elapsed – that it is hard to care much about their relationship. And the set design is so stylised, so red and operatic (there is even a boy soprano working as a kitchen helper whose singing acts as the musical backdrop for much of the time) that there is little sense of realism to help me care. I believe the operatic sense was entirely intentional but it does distance the characters for me.

I won’t spoil the ending here, though the nature of it is one of the most well-known in cinema; I was aware of it in a general sense, though not its specifics, and when it arrived it had real power. I just wish that getting there hadn’t felt so much of a ‘worthy’ effort.


Vi är bäst – “We are the Best!” (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)

~We are the Best
Set in the early 1980s, around teenage Swedish punk fans who form their own (really bad) band, it would have been easy to make this a broad comedy, along the lines of “The Bad News Tour”, but it is quite another thing, and one of the most fun films I’ve seen for quite some time.

Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) are best friends at school, and both fans of the Swedish punk scene, already in the dying fag-end of the movement. Only Klara really looks the part, and seems to have caught the bug from her older brother, though he’s now moved on to “rubbish” bands, like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen (what horror!). Annoyed by the level of noise made in their Youth Club’s music practice room by local wannabe heavy rock band, they are informed that anyone can book the space and, realising that the space has not actually been booked, sign up for it themselves out of spite, despite having no instruments, no songs and no talent. Very punk.

Taking possession of the space, they start messing about with the drum kit and the bass guitar, the only instruments that the Youth Club own and decide to form a band. Rejected from the school’s talent contest for entering too late, they watch the usual dross acts, such as the “girly” girls dance acts and a rather good, but badly out of place, classical guitarist. Shortly afterwards, Bobo realises that this guitarist, squeaky-clean and friendless christian girl Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), has something they need in their band – actual musical ability – and they set out to recruit her, with the added ‘political’ intent of making her an atheist.

The comedy is excruciatingly embarrassing at time, in the manner of The Office or Parks and Recreation, and the girls’ naive enthusiasm and aching sincerity is both funny and touching. Despite their intention to be anarchic and political, in the manner of their heroes, they are still 13 year old girls, and they do silly things like getting drunk and falling out over boys. And their one and only song, “Hate the Sport”, inspired by not liking PE lessons, is really terrible until, adapted to circumstance, it takes on the true spirit of punk.

A really warm and touching film. Lovely.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Marc Webb, 2014)

amazing spiderman 2
The first of these films was enjoyable enough, even if it felt a little unnecessary, given the previous three films of the same superhero. Having the ‘origins’ story already set up and out of the way, the stage was set for this version to really get going. Oh dear, how sad, never mind…

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone do a fine job and really shine as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey – that part of the film really works and their relationship (as might be expected, given their real-life relationship) convinces as real and is charming.

What fails is the threat and the overall story. The creation of Elektro from a geeky fan-boy is meant to be a commentary on outsider status and its alienating effect but the transistion from comedic to tragic to scary is too broad and shallow to really work – and the Spiderman character himself is surely the original commentary on this theme, anyway? Then we get the Green Goblin story, a more interesting story anyway, shoehorned in halfway through and dealt with rather cursorily. This was worthy of a film in its own right but looks like an afterthought. And then we get more villains added in the background, ready for the next film – a case of Sony picking up on Marvel’s Avengers template of sacrificing the film we’re watching to set up the next?

I was intrigued with the Gwen story; would the filmmakers have the guts to see it out, as per the iconic comic story? And, if so, how would it sit tonally with what was generally quite a lightweight ‘popcorn’ movie, aimed young? I have to say that they did better with this than I expected but it wasn’t enough to save the film.

A more honest title would have been The Adequate Spiderman 2. A shame.

Nina Conti – “Dolly Mixtures”, Leeds City Varieties, 15 April 2014

Nina Conti

Stage ventriloquism is a curious thing. It’s clearly a skill, and one that entertains, but you are basically watching a one-person play, with the puppets an extension of the performer’s “costume” and a conceit that we treat the puppet as a ‘real’ character. If the ventriloquist is good, we can even forget that they aren‘t real. Nina Conti, who is a very good artist (“Fourth best in the world”, according to her intro) goes a little bit further, and her act could be described as a ‘meta’ one, in which she discusses the nature of ventriloquism itself, and its attractions, both to the audience and the performer.

In one section, Conti chats to various members of the audience at the front, in order to ascertain who might be possible ‘stooges’ later in the act. One of them was a mental health nurse, and Conti couldn’t resist asking what ‘diagnosis’ might be responsible for her act. “Loneliness” was the response, and this was very much in tune with the general direction of the act.

Each doll was meant to represent a different facet of her personality and/or personal history. Some were more immediately funny than others though, when we reflected later on the evening, we found some of the sections we thought relatively weak turned out to have had some of the funniest moments. And there was plenty to think about later.

Funny, but also thought provoking and occasionally moving.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014)

Captain America 2
The previous Captain America movie, The First Avenger, was quite enjoyable until the very end, which left the whole experience ultimately underwhelming, so would Marvel’s growing experience of expanding their ‘universe’ give them more confidence and daring in this follow-up?

This starts with Captain America, the genetically enhanced World War II ‘Super Soldier’ Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), first seen fighting the uber-Nazi organisation, Hydra, on a plane, about to embark on a mission. Revived after 65 years of accidental cryogenic storage (at the end of the first film), he is now established as a regular agent for Shield, with some seniority from his experience in The Avengers. Shield is the world-wide agency set up to defend the world from existential threats, whether originating in criminal conspiracies, super-powered individuals, or alien visitation. Shield has been instrumental in organising reaction to threats in several Marvel films to date, and in the TV series, Agents of Shield. Nonetheless, Rogers still has serious reservations about the organisation for whom he works; growing up in a simpler age when he knew who his enemies were and for what he was fighting, he regards the modern surveillance society with huge suspicion.

His mission being to rescue hostages from a ship that has been boarded by pirates, Rogers is furious to learn that the mission, which he ostensably commanded, was actually only a small part of a larger mission, in which Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was directed to retrieve information on the “Insight” programme, an intensive intelligence/monitoring system about to come on line. When the director of Shield, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is shot, Captain America and Black Widow set out to uncover a conspiracy that has links to Rogers’ past, but with the whole apparatus of Shield devoted to stopping them, directed by Fury’s friend and World Council bureaucrat Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

There are quite a few things to like in this film. For a start, the issues that so disappointed me about the first one – the lack of any investigation by Rogers of his past, or reflection on what he had lost (surely the strongest dramatic element of the entire story) is addressed at last, on one occasion heartbreakingly. For another, there is a serious philosophical/political discussion about the modern obsession about security, the post-Snowden issues of privacy, and what this may mean for freedom. In a ‘popcorn movie’, that’s quite an important statement. Even if the solution is a little simplistic, the fact that the question is asked at all matters. The ambition of a studio willing to mess up the world they’ve created is pretty impressive too.

What stops the film from being really satisfying, then? This probably sounds silly, given that I’m considering a costumed superhero movie, but it’s that the scope of the threat is unbelievable. Even in a fantastical setting, the world created has to be coherent and believable, and I simply baulked at the scale of the villainy, which was so huge that I found myself shaking my head and saying to myself “no chance”. It also suffers a little from Marvel’s perennial obsession – the sacrifice of dramatic integrity of the film being made in order to set up or tease another film to come. Many people left the cinema as soon as the credits began to roll, and most left after the mid-credits teaser but, of course, there was another teaser at the end – and it was only the second that added anything to the film we’d just watched. Given the title of the film we’d seen, this last teaser-trailer seemed almost insulting, as “The Winter Soldier” barely featured in the this film but seems more important for some future offering.

Like the first, then, it is flawed. Unlike the first, however, it doesn’t save up all its flaws until the very last scene, so I didn’t come out of the cinema angry at the letdown but, instead, felt that I’d been pretty well entertained but that an opportunity to make a film as solid as The Avengers had been sadly thrown away.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014)

Under the Skin
“Enigmatic” might be too light a word for this film; “Wilfully cryptic” might be better. “Oddball”, too (though this is not necessarily a bad thing).

The film opens with light effects reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a woozy, shifting kaleidoscope that intimates something weird without actually spelling out anything specific (unless I’ve missed some glaringly obvious symbolism), and we then see a mysterious motor cyclist recovering a dead woman from the roadside on a scottish moor. He delivers her to Scarlett Johansson, naked in a featureless white room space. Johansson takes the clothes from the dead woman and she and the biker part company, Johansson taking possession of a transit van and driving round Glasgow, accosting strangers to ask directions, in fact trying to ascertain who she can seduce and entice into her van and back to a base where her victims will meet a rather unpleasant, though still unexplained, end.

There isn’t a great deal of plot; this is basically an alien coming to earth and, in human guise, experiencing a little of what it means to be human (the people she encounters being mostly good, some not so) and perhaps becoming a little more human in the process. It relies a great deal on tone and atmosphere, in this (although not much else) being a little similar to Johansson’s breakout film, Lost in Translation, and I struggled, at first, to fully engage with the film. One of the much-discussed features of the film is that some of Johansson’s encounters were surreptitiously filmed meetings with real people, and others staged, and I found this distracting, wondering who was ‘real’ and who not, though this became less of an issue later on, when the story elements came more to the fore and the random encounters less frequent. Also, there were some transitions from comedy to horror that were distinctly odd – at first, I wasn’t sure if the comedy was intended though I now think they were. In at least one instance, the comedy nicely set up an unexpectedly gruesome bit of nastiness.

Johansson is nude or semi-nude for significant sections of this film, which I’m sure will attract publicity, one way or the other; it doesn’t appear to be simple titillation but, rather, is an important part of establishing the identity of the alien. Kudos, too, for Johansson for taking this role, in a small, weird and oddly interesting film that would barely get a screening but for her involvement in it.

I’ve not read the book on which this is based, and I’m not sure whether it would help explain things, or if I want all the meanings neatly wrapped up. It’s a film that, while not entirely successful, is extremely interesting and it’s one I’d probably watch again.