Crustacés & coquillages (Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau, 2005)

Crustace et Coquillles

A proper oddity, this one, and one that I’ll struggle to describe. It’s a sex comedy, ok, but what kind? I’m not really sure, and it’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever watched before.

The set up is that Marc (Gilbert Melki) and Beatrix (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) take their children to a seaside cottage where Marc grew up. Their daughter immediately rides off with her biker boyfriend to Portugal, leaving son Charly and his gay friend Martin their only companions. Martin is infatuated with Charly, whose parents think they’re lovers though Charly is hetero and the two kids are only letting the adults think they are both gay as a joke.

Beatrix also has a lover, who turns up to continue their affair, with Marc somewhat negligent and seemingly uninterested in his wife sexually, though it’s clear they both love one another.

The plot is not too far-fetched and the characters behave, largely, realistically (though there are a couple of odd musical numbers which sit strangely in what is already a pretty odd film). Beatrix’s lover seems, to me, slightly unpleasant and this detracts from her character, who is clearly meant to be sympathetic, having taken a lover due to spousal neglect, but his lack of either charisma or morals makes the affair more seedy than it need be, although there is more seediness in store.

The film and its characters get more interesting as it progresses, with some revelations and twists that reveal more about the characters and their situation without really resolving the flaws in them or, ultimately, the film.

By the end of the movie, I think I liked it.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
A few weeks later than intended, I got to watch this film. When it came out, I was eager to see it, enthused by the reviews of it as an intelligent action film. Over the weeks, it’d dropped down my pecking order of films to watch but it was the most conveniently timed showing of any film available, so Dawn… it was.

I’d enjoyed the first film in this reboot, Rise… , but it hadn’t been really great, just good enough to set the scene, so it was really up to this one to lay down a marker of how the series would develop.

The story opens ten years after the plague unleashed on the humans in the first movie, with a cleverly mixed montage of real and fictional news footage to set the scene of human civilizational collapse, and then we switch to the ape community, a terrifically realised treetop “Ape City”. The apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) haven’t seen any humans for two years and have started to believe they have all died out, while starting to build their own civilization. Apes can talk – well, many of them – though most communicate through sign language, and the community is starting to create an identifiable and unique culture.

We follow this community for a while, including a hunt in which Caesar nearly loses his young son, Bright Eyes before being rescued by his friend Koba (Toby Kebbell). Koba is a laboratory experiment survivor, and is a more aggressive character than Caesar, though Bright Eyes leans towards Koba’s point of view. Into this world stumble a small group of humans, one of whom, in panic, shoots Bright Eyes’ friend Ash.

Caesar lets the humans return across the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge, to their newly formed and precarious community within the ruins of San Fransisco, in order to prevent a war with the humans, telling them not to return but the humans desperately need the power of a hydroelectric dam located on the Apes’ side of the river, before their fuel runs out. The ape and human communities are nicely balanced, each with their pacific and militaristic wings, and all having their justifications for their stance, as they see it. The human ‘hawks’, such as the leader of the humans, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) see the apes as responsible for the disease that wiped out more than 90% of humanity; the apes remember being caged and, in the case of chimps like Koba, having been experimented on. The ‘doves’ in the human camp, led by our human heroes engineer Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and CDC doctor Ellie (Keri Russell), realise that the chimps were unwitting and innocent vectors for the disease which had been created by humans. For his part, Caesar has seen more of humans than any of the other apes, including having been raised by them, and realises they/we are not all sadistic slavers. Nonetheless, the pressures towards conflict are strong and the doves have their work cut out to prevent a total war between species.

The movie is intelligent, raising general issues of sectarian and inter-community violence and, especially, trust but it is not overly po-faced and remembers that it is there to entertain us. The special effects and action sequences are really spectacular, quite a few notches up from the (already impressive) previous film, and all the more engaging for my having engaged with the characters, on all sides, and caring what happens.

Not my favourite film of the year so far (Once, Frank and We Are the Best, at least, were more fun) but it’s up there.

St Vincent (Leeds Met Uni, 20 August 2014)

This was a great gig – eventually. Originally scheduled for May, when I turned up then there was nobody waiting and no-one at the University knew anything about it. Quickly googling, I found I’d made the trip into Leeds for nothing. I made a calendar note – and a note to check for cancellations before travelling to gigs in future.

So, tonight I was happy to see a queue outside the venue and managed to get in early and at the front. The support band, Arc Iris, arrived and won me over pretty quickly.

Arc Iris

I knew nothing about them beforehand but, looking at their website now, I see that lead woman Jocie Adams was previously in the Low Anthem, another band I like, though the music tonight was very different in nature. Appearing as a duet (with Zach Tenorio-Miller), both players sang (Jocie as lead) and played keyboards, with Jocie occasionally switching to guitar or woodwind (oboe, I think, though I don’t know for certain). The vocal styles reminded me of several other singers, Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsome among them, and the musical styles ranged from slightly folky through jazz and more dance-y rock. Some of the songs were too twee even for my taste but I liked enough of it to buy the CD to give them a proper listen.

Annie St Vincent

Annie Clark and the band then came on stage and launched into ‘Rattlesnake’ from the latest eponymous CD, complete with the performance act to the song I’ve seen previously on TV but, before the song had even finished, all the amplifiers went silent and we were left with just the drums, as Matt Johnson gamely continued. Annie tried to keep the crowd going with a sing-along of the chorus, and then a bit of a chat, but it became apparent that the problems weren’t going to be resolved quickly and the band retreated backstage, leaving the technical crew to try and fix the power outage. At this point, the gig seemed cursed.

Half an hour later, and with a huge fourway power adaptor running across the back of the stage, the band returned. Not all the songs work in a live setting, but the big powerhouse ones, ‘Help Me’, ‘Your Lips are Red’, ‘Birth in Reverse’ and, particularly, ‘Cheerleader’ were absolutely amazing. Annie and Toko Yasuda, when both playing guitar, displayed how powerful a stage technique moving in unison can be – I can only think of the Shadows and Big Country really using this, though this was a more mannered performance than either.

For the encore, Annie climbed the riser at the back of the stage and, with just guitar, gave a gorgeous solo rendition of ‘Strange Mercy’, then the band returned and we were back in the strange land of the full St Vincent sound.

Annie is a really good guitarist and a strange, imaginative songwriter, with a terrific stage presence (she looks totally calm and unruffled) and the band were impeccable, not letting the technical problems ruin the mood which, by the end, was ecstatic. As Annie writhed around the stage, manic strobing gave the impression of something akin to David Lynch, rather than the more mannered David Byrne-influenced performance of earlier. And a performance is exactly what you get.

A magnificent gig, and St Vincent goes in my list of ‘unmissable gigs’ whenever one is next available.

When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989)

When Harry Met Sally
When Nora Ephron died in 2012, much of the outpouring of affection centred around this movie, which was one of the (many) on my “should’ve watched but hadn’t (yet)” list. Having attempted, and failed, to watch the second Indiana Jones movie, I was in need of a ‘palate cleanser’, something not too deep but still with a bit of character about it, and I settled on this. What a good choice!

The film opens with a shot of an elderly couple reminiscing on how they met and fell in love, this scene being repeated for different couples in great variations of circumstances throughout the film, leading to an inevitable final scene.

The plot of the film opens in 1977, as Sally (Meg Ryan) gives a lift to the boyfriend, Harry (Billy Crystal), of her best friend at University in Chicago all the way to New York. They take an immediate dislike to one another, Sally being a little uptight and ultra-organised and Harry being, let’s face it, an obnoxious slob. They part on 5th Avenue, having agreed that they can’t be friends, largely because Harry insists that men cannot be friends with any woman they find attractive.

The film returns to the pair at intervals of years as they meet up, initially when at least one of them is in a relationship and, slowly, they do become friends. As their friendship deepens it becomes obvious to us, if not to them, that they are certain to become lovers (though, if this were a French film, this would be far from certain) but there is lots of fun on the way.

There are many things to like about this film – the way the film takes its time, both in its chronology and in terms of plot, the friendships each of them has and recurring characters who also develop. There is also the fact that the film is not afraid to show each of the leads changing as they grow older – and misremembering their past.

I’m not entirely convinced by the acting chops of the stars – Billy Crystal is funny but doesn’t have a great range of emotion and Meg Ryan looks nice and sweet but isn’t that great an actor either – but this would be nitpicking as the film doesn’t really demand that great a range or intensity of acting ability. It requires, and gets, a light touch from two (mostly) likeable leads who deliver the right balance of chemistry to ‘sell’ their growing friendship and love.

(oh, and yes the scene of the fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli is very funny – but, to be honest, I’ve seen that scene many times before, and I was more distracted by looking at a place I visited last year than at Meg’s big scene)

Beautiful Lies / De vrais mensonges (Pierre Salvadori, 2010)

Beautiful lies
Secret crushes, anonymous letters redirected to new recipients and mistaken identities – this could be the recipe for a farce though this French movie is a little slow and gentle for a classic farce, but is still very enjoyable.

Emilie (Audrey Tautou) runs a hairdressers where her handyman, Jean (Sami Bouajila) is secretly in love with her. Unknown to Emilie, Jean is actually far, far too qualified to be a handyman. Previously working at the UN as a translator, Jean only started working for Emilie as a stopgap and has stayed there to be close to her. Trying to make something happen, Jean starts writing anonymous letters to Emilie but Emilie decides that these letters would be better directed to her mother, Maddie (Nathalie Baye) who has been moping since she split up from her husband; a secret admirer is just what Maddie will need. Cue the twists and turns as everyone tries to get what they want without admitting what they’ve done…

This isn’t a great film but it plays on Tautou’s undoubted star quality – her character’s name appears to be a nod to her most famous role, also something of a fixer – with a good supporting cast, and is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, and there are a few genuinely touching moments.

The Spy in Black (Michael Powell, 1939)

The Spy in Black
Lurking on our set-top box for several months, this little gem was marked out for attention as it was the first collaboration between two of the most celebrated and original filmmakers in movie history, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who wrote the script).

Released in 1939, though filmed in 1938, it’s actually set in the First World War, after the Battle of Jutland, when German submarines were first attacking British shipping and is, not for the last time in Powell & Pressburger’s film career, but still rather daringly, mostly told from a (sympathetic) German naval officer’s viewpoint. This officer, Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is shown as dedicated, competent, cultured and thoughtful, though he is, we are frequently reminded, the enemy. He is sent to the Orkneys to rendezvous with another agent and, somehow, to destroy the British fleet there. His contact, and commanding officer, is the schoolmistress (Valerie Hobson), who has taken the place of the sweet young woman newly recruited to the job. Known by no-on in Orkney, she is easily replaceable by the spy. We see the replacement early on and, in its brutality, we are reminded that the spies are playing a very dangerous game.

The ‘Schoolmistress’ arranges a meeting between Hardt and a disgruntled British Naval officer, who has been blamed for losing his ship (an incident of which Hardt is aware) due to his apparently never-ending descent into alcoholism. Not only is he embittered, he is also infatuated with the Schoolmistress and she teases both him and Hardt with the promise of her sexuality. As the locals make their new schoolmistress welcome, the spies prepare to execute their plans.

This film is not in the league of later Powell and Pressburger, but few films aare. It’s still enjoyable, and an interesting bit of British film history.

Films I Hate – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
There are a few films that I either can’t finish or really resent having done so. I got to the end of the recently watched second Hobbit film by a mixture of determination and a sense of having invested so much time already that it felt like a wasted investment not to. Titanic was on a list of ‘best’ films, and laden with Oscars, so I wanted to know what the deal was. The deal, it transpires, is a good beginning and end and an interminable middle section in which decent actors flounder with atrocious and utterly implausible dialogue, with special effects substituting for plot. Both of those had the dual problems of being both terrible and very long, but still I finished them.

The Goonies was a film that several people told me was ‘a Classic’, only for me to discover that their use of the word was remarkably loose, and encompassed unsympathetic characters running around, and bad special effects speeded up for ‘comic’ effect, reminiscent of cheap and nasty Saturday morning children’s TV. I barely enjoyed it for a moment, but still I watched it out.

This brings me to tonight’s attempted watch, which resembled the last mentioned film in its horribly childish outlook. I thoroughly enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark and loved The Last Crusade, but I just loathed this one. The opening action sequence in Shanghai was ok, though it dragged on a bit, but when Indy and his unbelievably irritating companions reached India, I lost patience. Characters (and it’s me who’s stretching the word here) I didn’t like explained the plot in strained dialogue so we could get to the big action sequence without either the writers or us having to think at all (both the other films manage to move the plot with a minimum of exposition-as-dialogue). Then there’s an unfunny comedy section to set up the final push to the extended action, so clumsily handled that I would have been happier to see the heroes die than have the scenes continue.

Liberal use of fast-forward wasn’t enough, and I admitted defeat; I wasn’t going to finish this one. I abandoned with about half an hour run-time left, and I’m going to try to forget that I ever watched any of it. If Crystal Skull is truly worse than this, as reputed, it must be a remarkably terrible movie.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2014)

A terrible mess of a movie. Confused, frenetic, but most of all, dull. How Jackson managed to make a film this bad from the source material he had, and allegedly loves, bewilders me.

I know some of my friends think I can be over-harsh when disappointed, and I’m also open to charges of being a purist, but I really don’t think this is the case here. After the first part of this trilogy, I really wasn’t sure I’d watch any more at all, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay good money to see it, but we have the streaming service and there it sat, waiting…

The first part of Lord of the Rings was a delight, setting up the world of middle-earth with a care that astonished and made me see it through new eyes. From there on, Jackson started changing things, messing the plot around, understandable and absolutely crucial in theory but, in practice, totally (in my opinion) misjudged as the effect was to remove any character from the films, and all subtlety (and, god knows, Tolkein didn’t have that much!) from characters. This was especially difficult in The Two Towers but this movie is much, much worse than that one.

If ever there’s an episode in the book where we might like to linger and look around, Jackson inserts some bogus reason to get the characters running around or fighting in the manner of a really bad video game. If there’s a character’s motive that is at all unclear, Jackson will insert a stilted speech or conversation which gives an unconvincing ‘explanation’ for it. And he deviates far from the book in order to make this drivel ‘work’. It’s as if he is terrified that if the screen stops spinning round for more then ten seconds, or if anything at all is unexplained, the audience will wander off. The perverse result of this hyperactive stupidity was to make the moments when the film did catch my attention rare, my mind wandering to more interesting places, like whether I’d received any emails, for most of the ridiculously long run-time.

I’ve not given the plot; what’s the point? Read the book (it’ll take an hour) and overdose on energy drinks. You’ll get the idea.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2006)

I’ve only really been aware of Linklater’s “Before…” series so, although keen to see this new film, I wasn’t really sure what to expect and can’t really put it in any context to his other work but it may well be that it is sufficiently “other” to stand alone anyway, because the manner of its making is so unusual that it would be unlikely to be particularly typical.

The premise is simple enough – follow a family over a period of around a decade, with particular emphasis on son Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from around age 7 to the end of boyhood, when he goes away to college. The ‘trick’ is that rather than using a series of different actors to show the children growing up (such as We Need to Talk about Kevin), Linklater returned to the same cast each year to film each segment. This is a monumental logistical achievement and it could have come across as gimmicky, and been an obstacle to enjoying the movie but manages to run quite smoothly. Consequently, the passage of the years has a very naturalistic effect, with new segments clearly evident from easily noticeable changes in characters’ physical changes (hairstyles most obviously, but also inevitable change in body-shape and facial features) without the need for explanatory titles or overt spoken cues.

The cast, Patricia Arquette as mother, Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei as Mason’s sister Samantha, and Ethan Hawke as the, initially, absent father all work well. In fact, it’s a real shame that Lorelei Linklater fell out of love with acting, her role in later sections of the film being substantially reduced, because she is an immensely strong character early on and her relative absence unbalances the film later, leaving the emphasis on Mason looking a bit sexist, as we weren’t really convinced he was interesting enough to be the focus of the entire story, and yet he was. Mason is a bit of a cypher, often a bit blank – someone to whom things happen rather than someone who does things, and the film would have benefitted from Samantha’s more pro-active personality to balance.

The plot? Well, there really isn’t one to speak of. Mother and father have a child too early and become a family, having a second child before father does a runner, leaving mother to raise the kids on her own. This is where we join the film and we follow the family as mother returns to education to make herself a career, while running through a few further unsuccessful relationships, father flits in and out of his children’s lives as he, too, grows up. All the while, Mason and (though less so later) Samantha try to make their own ways through life.

It’s an imperfect film, and it appears a little overlong, as several potential endings are passed over before a slightly underwhelming one is reached but it’s easy to see how Linklater might have needed to prepare for a cessation of the project as each year could have been the last and, having made all the effort to get the material, it would be really difficult to reject it and say “no, this movie’s going to stop with the footage I got three years ago”. Nonetheless, an interesting and enjoyable film, and certainly one to support, given how ambitious the project.

Dreamboat (Claude Binyon, 1952)

My partner described Clifton Webb as “always the best thing he’s in, whether or not that thing is good” and had fond memories of this film as absolutely hilarious, so we bought the DVD in the full knowledge that memory is a tricky thing and that the film might not be as good as recalled but that Webb would probably be worth watching. We were pleasantly surprised, then, to discover that the film was as funny as remembered.

The premise is that Thornton Sayre (Webb) is a stuffy literature professor at a stuffy school. He is perfectly happy with his lot in trying to instil high culture in, sometimes inadequate, young minds and his daughter Carol (Anne Francis) is on track to take after him, even down to aping his tweediness. This tranquil existence is thrown into turmoil when it is revealed that a television programme, “Dreamboat” is showing old silent movies of a (for the 1950s) racy nature and that the star of this series of movies, “Bruce Blair” is actually Thornton Sayre. The students mock him, and also Anne who takes the mockery particularly badly, and the school consider sacking Sayre if he cannot stop the broadcasts as they regard the publicity as damaging for the reputation of the school.

Sayre himself is determined to stop the broadcasts and travels to New York to threaten the tv station with litigation, taking Carol with him. His attempts to block transmission are hampered both by the tv company’s fear of other litigation, over broken contracts with advertisers, and by his ex co-star in the films and now presenter for the “Dreamboat” series, Gloria Marlowe (Ginger Rogers) who is making a handsome living from this second bite at a career. Gloria tries to seduce Thornton while Carol is romanced by dashing young executive Bill Ainslee (Jeffry Hunter), who tries to pigeon-hole her as a “type” but finds her more complex than he can really manage.

There are some really funny sequences, the ‘archive’ silent movie footage being excruciatingly over-the-top and Thornton at one point getting into a fight and taking ‘instruction’ on what to do from one of his own films, but mostly there is a light and refreshing wit. It’s also interesting to see the effect of the Hays Code on movies, somewhat mocked here, as the silent movies, while still being shown on tv, were considered too ‘risqué’ to be made in the more conservative ‘50s. Another interesting aspect is the idea of privacy and open access. It’s hard to imagine, now, anyone threataning to shut down a tv station for showing films for which the actors were knowing participants, were paid but are now embarrassed by, and having any realistic expectation of success but in these early days of television, when the rules were still being established, it might be reasonably expected that the films had been made only to be shown in cinemas and that their ‘second life’ was not part of the contract initially made.

It’s fairly inconsequential stuff but not the less fun for that, and sci-fi fans can get a kick out of both the original Star Trek captain, Jeffrey Hunter, and a lead from one of the all-time sci-fi classics, Forbidden Planet, Anne Francis, in the same film.