Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

Punch Drunk Love
So this is a strange one. I can’t say I’m familiar with Sandler’s work, it never really appealing to me, a few moments of “Little Nicky” really putting me off, but BBC critic Mark Kermode always points to this as proof that he can make good films, so I gave it a try.

It opens as Barry Egan (Sandler), a self-employed salesman sees a car crash and a harmonium abandoned at the end of the lane of his wholesale outlet. Picking up and bringing back the harmonium, which features throughout the film but without any clear reason, Barry returns to his office where he is hectored (mostly by phone) by his sisters about attending a party. Barry is bullied by his sisters, one of whom is trying to set him up with a date, Lena (Emily Watson). Barry, and we, actually see this prospective date early in the film, as she leaves her car outside his work and asks him to look out for it – she’s basically checking him out.

We also see Barry checking an airmiles promotion on a range of ‘healthy choice’ foods, which Barry realises actually mean that the products are worth much less than the offer and, if he is canny, means he can effectively travel for free. He searches out the most cost-effective product to buy – and then buys stacks of the stuff, enough for a flight to Hawaii.

At the party later, his sisters relentlessly pick on Barry until he flips out and destroys a window – something he’s done before. Lonely and frustrated after the party, he calls a phone sex line but not for sexual gratification, just for a friendly voice to talk to. Unfortunately for Barry, this is a scam, the woman he’s talking to taking enough personal and financial information to think they can blackmail him.

Surprisingly, Barry does manage to strike up a connection with Lena but the phone sex blackmailers, led by an oddball Philip Seymour Hoffman, threaten to make life difficult, and even dangerous, for Barry and he has to balance his pursuit of Lena with this threat to his health, livelihood and good name.

This is an enjoyable film, for sure, and certainly not ‘just another rom-com’, though I’m a little concerned that I am starting to notice the unthinking sexism in so many of these movies that isn’t intentional or malicious but is nonetheless distracting. Just as in the last rom-com I watched, Adventureland, the female lead must be ‘rescued’, in a sense, by the male. Here, in addition, the hero is so odd, and occasionally so violent, that although we see he’s a nice guy, it’s hard to believe that she sees enough to realistically make that judgement and you’d have to wonder whether, in real life, she’d actually be safe with him.

Still, it’s not real life and maybe I need to go easier on the rom-coms for a while.


Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013)

This was a film I’d been wanting to see for ages, though I missed it on release at the cinemas, as I’d been following the clerical abuse stories coming from Ireland over the last couple of years but hadn’t seen this particular story. The film version has taken some liberties with the facts (there is no joint road trip to the USA) but the changes look, to me, a justified ‘streamlining’ of the narrative, without materially altering the important facts of the case or unfairly maligning anyone.

Martin Sixsmith (played here by Steve Coogan) was an ex-news reporter who had been working for the government as a spin-doctor before a briefing scandal forced him to resign. Looking around for something to write about, he is initially dismissive of the dreaded ‘human interest’ story until he is persuaded to meet Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and the nature of the abuse she suffered, and the resultant problem she faced. Philomena got pregnant as a (-n unmarried) teen and, in the Ireland of 1951, this meant that her options are limited to one. She must work in the dreaded Magdalene laundries, effectively as a slave, and with limited contact with her child. After four years, she finds that her son has been given up for adoption, without her knowledge or consent. Returning to her family, Philomena carried on her life, her later husband and further children knowing nothing about her lost son.

On what would have been his fiftieth birthday, Philomena contacts Sixsmith through her daughter and tells him the story, which we see in flashback, and the pair team up to find what has happened to the lost child. Visiting the convent, they are told by the nuns that the records no longer exist because of a ‘big fire’ but, at the local pub, they are advised that the ‘big fire’ was limited solely to the records that had been deliberately destroyed to cover up an illegal (and hugely unethical) adoption service – effectively, the nuns were selling illegitimate babies to rich and childless Americans. Sixsmith quickly and fortuitously find the identity of the child and they travel to the States to find out what they can about what happened to him.

In turns hilarious, moving and enraging, this is a beautifully told story that cannot easily be dismissed as ‘Catholic bashing’, the usual easy retort whenever yet another scandal of the Catholic church in Ireland is exposed to public view; Philomena herself has remained a staunch Catholic, managing a forgiveness for the perpetrators of the inhuman regime she suffered that eludes me and, if I’m honest, I think is morally wrong. The people who carried out these acts and enabled such barbarities should not be forgiven.

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009)

I tagged both this and Zombieland, both starring Jesse Eisenberg, both made in the same year and both with similar titles and put them down to watch together, presuming them to be connected. Only when I came to decide which to watch first did I discover that they are completely unrelated films, except for the coincidences listed above.

In this film, Eisenberg plays James Brennan, just leaving school in 1987 and about to head off for a summer in Europe with his friend before taking up his studies in New York to become a journalist. Very late on, he discovers that his father’s job has been ‘downgraded’ meaning James’ parents can no longer pay for his holiday and, further, he’s going to need to take a summer job in order to save some money for college. Utterly unprepared for this, James finds he hasn’t relevant experience to get any job he might actually like and, instead finds the only place that will accept him is a nearby funfair, Adventureland, that operates over the summer and accepts just about anybody. Even then, he can’t get on the ‘Rides’ team, the least worst of the options available, and has to work on ‘Games’ instead.

While there, he makes a friend of pipe-smoking cynic Joel (Martin Starr), who shows him the ropes, and falls for the drily ironic Em (Kristen Stewart), after she saves him from being attacked. James is a virgin and Em is decidedly not, having already had several sexual relationships, and she is currently in a clandestine relationship with the married rides technician, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds). Connell is a sleazebag, a musician who trades on the ‘cool’ of a pretended period supporting Lou Reed, to seduce young women but James makes the mistake of trusting him as a friend, even though he soon recognises that the Lou Reed connection is bullshit, Connell knowing far less about Reed than James, a Velvet Underground and Reed fan, does himself. The question is whether James and Em’s relationship will flourish, or will her low self-esteem and her secret, and his naiveté and inexperience, mean they fail to consummate their budding romance.

The characters are generally well drawn and likeable – even Connell is mostly likeable, despite his despicable actions; of course it’s his charisma that sells his ability to charm the girls – and the drama is low-key and believable. Mostly. I do have a bit of a problem with James. He’s just too cool. For a naïve virgin nerd, he seems a bit too self-possessed. Of course, I’m judging him by how I and my friends were at that age, but he just seems to be too idealised a version of the writer’s own youth, with a large dose of wish-fulfilment in the mix.

Still, I did enjoy this, including Kristen Stewart’s acting. Whatever the virtues, or otherwise, of the Twilight films and her acting in them (I can’t judge, as I’ve never seen them), the notion and internet meme of her being unable to even vary her facial expression, let alone act, is well wide of the mark.

Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)

Only Yesterday
Well, this was a novelty. A Ghibli film I didn’t like. Ok, there were parts I liked and parts I hated and, overall, I’m quite ambivalent about it but it’s far and away the weakest one I’ve seen so far, and that’s despite a conceit, and also some scenes, I loved.

The story is set as a schoolteacher, Taeko, in her late twenties travels to her annual summer holiday in the countryside where she works on a farm. As she travels, and then as she works on the farm, memories of her ten-year old self haunt her imagination, manifesting almost as a real presence in her modern life. Some of these are very clear echoes, with thematic links between then and now, but others are more idiosyncratic and cryptic in meaning. The memories of her childhood were the most charming thing about the film, often funny but also insightful, charming and moving. It’s her adult self that’s problematic. As a child, Taeko is feisty, individualistic and bright (though with believable gaps and flaws in her understanding); as an adult, she is a bit ‘thin’, and all too placid. Her friendship, and hesitant romance, with a local farmer is the only drama we see, and that’s all too often side-tracked by some overt preaching about organic farming.

It’s that preachy tone to the film that really grated. There was constant repetition of the mantra of the countryside being better than the city, and of organic being the ‘way forward’ and ‘old ways’ being the answer to all Japan’s problems. Because harking back to a mythical golden age, with simplistic and unworkable solutions is always the answer to the world’s problems! As always with Ghibli films, much of the animation was gorgeous, in this case mostly the landscapes, but the people! There was a repeated attempt to show the unalloyed, simple happiness of the farming community but their smiles were so uniformly and simplistically portrayed as to make them look like gormless automatons.

Most of Ghibli’s films have an environmental consciousness about them, and frequently a message to impart, but no others I’ve seen are so blunt or wrong-headed in delivering it, or willing to screw up the telling of a story as sacrifice to it

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.