Saturday 30 March 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of March 22-24, 2013: 

1 (new) The Croods (U)
2 (new) Jack the Giant Slayer (12A) **
3 (1) Oz The Great and Powerful (PG) **  
4 (new) Identity Thief (15) *
5 (2) Side Effects (15) ***
6 (4) Wreck-It Ralph (PG) ***
7 (new) Stolen (12A)
8 (3) Welcome to the Punch (15) ***
9 (5) Parker (15)
10 (7) Mama (15) **   

My top five:
Finding Nemo
2. Point Blank
3. In the House
4. Good Vibrations
5. One Mile Away   

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (6) End of Watch (15) ***
2 (3) The Bourne Legacy (12)
3 (1) The Watch (15)
4 (2) Ted (15) ***
5 (8) Looper (15) ****
6 (7) Killing Them Softly (18) ***
7 (new) Sightseers (15) ***
8 (5) Gambit (12) **
9 (new) Amour (12) ***
10 (10) Lawless (18) **
My top five:    
1. The Master 
4. Everyday
5. Great Expectations

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Citizen Kane [above] (Easter Monday, BBC2, 9.40am)
2. The Magnificent Ambersons (Easter Monday, BBC2, 11.40am)
3. Beauty (Easter Monday, C4, 1.10am)
4. King Kong (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
5. Insomnia (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.05pm) 


Interiors: "Trance" and "In The House" (ST 31/03/13)

Trance (15) 101 mins ***
In the House (15) 105 mins ****

Fresh from warming our cockles with the Olympic opening ceremony, Danny Boyle wants to mess with our minds. Trance is a film seemingly designed to shuck off this director’s recently adopted mantle of cuddly, Slumdog-peddling national treasure – and instead remind us of the energetic iconoclast responsible for the visceral one-two of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Where that Games opener evoked a fixed and certain sense of place, Trance depends on us not knowing where we are exactly. It begins on familiar turf – with a London artworld heist – and thereafter charges headlong towards disorientation.

We’re in a near-future London, for starters: one just different enough to be disconcerting, where characters we might think inhabit entirely separate worlds instead rub against one another, intimately, aggressively, sometimes both. Vincent Cassel’s masterthief Franck snatches Goya’s “Witches in the Air” mid-sale, knocking auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) unconscious. Rapidly hailed as a hero, Simon is dispatched to Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist charged with restoring his memory, but she permeates everybody’s head – unsurprisingly, as Dawson’s features could get a man to give up a painting, their sanity, anything.

We’re dealing with a violently bad case of transference sparked by a potentially false memory, and Lamb only encourages it: “I’ll admit it’s not conventional practice”. That’s Boyle’s credo, too. Narrative and logic soon go broadly separate ways; dialogue and sound come adrift from the image. Often we have only the stars, radiating charisma, to guide us. Think Rififi as remixed by Nic Roeg, that master of modish trippiness: it’s intended not to last but to jolt, Rick Smith’s pulsing score and Jon Harris’s razor-sharp edits speeding us around amid the hailstorm turbulence of Simon’s cranium.

Are we moved, though? Not quite. Amused and bemused, yes; psyched, weirded and grossed out, often; stirred and chastened by the critical depiction of the male psyche as a dark hinterland of fried breakfasts and Barbie-doll fantasies, certainly. Emotionally, however, this is very much cool Britannia. Trance may not be enough for some, and will be too much for others: squeamish viewers might prefer last year’s Ruby Sparks, which tackled similar control issues without the putrefying corpses and full-frontal nudity. Still, many – this viewer included – would now grant Boyle an Olympic Park-sized free pass to make any film he likes. Judging by this sinuous strip of pure cinema, he most likely could.

With In the House, French writer-director François Ozon continues his project to reframe or redress conventional narratives: you may recall his 2002 musical murder-mystery 8 Women, or 2004’s 5x2, with its love-match played out in reverse. Here, he’s telling two stories, one born of the other. Jaded writer-turned-teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) has had his interest piqued by the one pupil of the Lycée Gustave Flaubert who can string a sentence together. Each week, Claude (Ernst Umhauer) turns in a piercing anecdote drawn from a classmate’s home – handwritten A4 sheets that, like a Dickens serial, keep everybody on tenterhooks.

Not for the first time chez Ozon, an outsider will be spotted inveigling themselves into bourgeois households. Claude’s vivid, gossipy descriptions of the classmate’s blokey father and bored mother provide compulsive bedtime reading for Germain and distraction-hungry wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). Each element starts to comment on every other. Germain ponders whether to intervene when Claude starts to stray in too deep: should he encourage the boy to seduce the mother in the interests of a racier narrative? Or – as a responsible adult – does he caution restraint? What is it we want from our stories?

Ozon effortlessly swats that canard about writing not making involving cinema, partly through his superb cast, but mostly by inspired composition: in correcting the story’s direction, the teacher remembers he can change the course of a life. We, too, become eavesdroppers, hearing Ozon initiate a dialogue with his younger self, and strive to tell an affecting story while critiquing his own wilder impulses. “C’est du Barbara Cartland!,” exclaims Germain as one of his protégé’s drafts takes a turn for the florid. One of French cinema’s foremost enfants terribles here finally grows up: this elegant and eloquent film weighs its words and images with commendably mature precision.

Trance is in cinemas nationwide; In the House is on selected release.

"The Expatriate" (The Guardian 29/03/13)

The Expatriate (15) 100 mins **

With Bourne beyond reach, the movies begin targeting those lower-bar Liam Neeson vehicles that emerged in its wake. This semi-efficient, Belgian-set timewaster fuses Taken with Unknown, and almost works. Aaron Eckhart is typically brisk as a security expert forced on the run after being declared persona non grata; set against Taken’s Maggie Grace, Liana Liberato (Trust) is practically a Rhodes Scholar in the delinquent daughter role. Sadly, the script remains reconstituted pulp, prompting familiar footchases through metro stations, and Olga Kurylenko scarcely convinces as a CIA chief. It doesn’t entirely insult the intelligence, but often leans towards the indifferent. 

The Expatriate opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on April 8.

"King of the Travellers" (The Guardian 29/03/13)

King of the Travellers (15) 80 mins **

This feels like a fictionalisation of Ian Palmer’s probing 2011 doc Knuckle, about rival clans of itinerants holding bare-fisted donnybrooks in damp Irish lay-bys, but the tone’s erratic. Writer-director Mark O’Connor’s aiming for authenticity, tying the travellers to those other migrant labourers persecuted by locals and landowners alike. Yet he trips over a vein of notionally crowdpleasing broad comedy that recalls Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, with its gold-chained chancers doing mushrooms in the woods. A bit of a flibbertigibbet: it arrives with a twinkle in its eye, and little else between its cauliflower ears.

King of the Travellers is showing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on April 8.

Thursday 28 March 2013

On DVD: "Rise of the Guardians" (Metro 28/03/13)

Rise of the Guardians (PG, DVD only) *

Released in cinemas in the run-up to Christmas, emerging on DVD just in time for Easter – only now does the thoroughly cynical masterplan of this DreamWorks digimation become clear. An Avengers-style assembly of multiple kiddie favourites, Peter Ramsay’s undeserving seasonal hit teams an Aussie Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman), a Slavic Santa (Alec Baldwin, bizarrely) and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) with the deathly dull Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to combat Pitch Black (Jude Law), a Voldemort clone who’s returned from the Dark Ages with the aim of shattering our youngsters’ illusions. It’s a pretty disillusioning experience itself, stuck with frenetically charmless animation and a script that settles for drippy (baby teeth “hold our most important memories of childhood”, apparently) when it’s not cribbing flagrantly from the more imaginative Monsters, Inc.. As a 3D experience, this was already pretty flat and lifeless; viewed at home in 2D, it’s practically dead on arrival. You’d do better buying the nippers chocolate.

Rise of the Guardians is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Kicks: "Good Vibrations"

After their glibly commercial debut Cherrybomb, the directorial partnership of Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D'Sa have arrived, with Good Vibrations, at an altogether more arresting (and apparently true) story: one of teenage rebellion as fostered by a middle-aged Hank Williams fan with a glass eye and a beard. This would be Terri Hooley, a revered figure in Irish pop culture, who - ever since he was blinded in one eye during a childhood contretemps - set himself to finding an alternative to the violence of the Troubles, and found it by opening a record store amid the bomb-blackened storefronts of Belfast's Great Victoria Street in the mid 1970s.

Good Vibrations trundles along in a lowish gear for some while, as we watch Hooley (Richard Dormer) struggling to raise the finance required to get the business up and running, and coming to pay off some rather cartoonishly drawn Provos (represented by Adrian Dunbar in a silly wig) with a choice selection of long players. Yet it hits its groove the minute its reggae-loving protagonist ventures to a punk gig that gets rudely interrupted by the RUC. Hooley finds himself drawn to the anti-authoritarian fervour of the moshpit, where he ends up pogoing and gobbing with the best of them - a moment presented as roughly as epochal as Tony Wilson's presence at the Sex Pistols' Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in 24 Hour Party People.

As its title suggests, the film's subject is energy, and what might be done with it, and its thrust is a figure like Hooley was badly needed to energise an industry that had previously limited itself to recording whistle-and-drum bands and jingles for cheese and onion crisps. Hooley took punk into the provinces, came back with a dashboard full of demos made by the frustrated kids he found there; in the face of near-universal indifference from the Mr. Bigs of the mainland recording labels, he persisted with a bunch of chancers from Derry called The Undertones, indirectly providing John Peel with his favourite record of all time.

Cherrybomb, too, had energy to burn, but frittered it away, and Good Vibrations doesn't lack for sophomoric fumbles, particularly around the creation of "Teenage Kicks", that two-minute-twenty-six-second masterpiece of spontaneous simplicity. (And even to call it that is to intellectualise it needlessly; it's a record you feel, somewhere between a throbbing erection and a broken heart.) At first, we're denied hearing the track - making us tense up, fearing the film doesn't have the necessary clearance rights for the song so crucial to Hooley's life and work - and then Leyburn and Barros D'Sa usher on the world's worst Peel impersonator to talk it up. If nothing else, Good Vibrations is the film that proves the DJ was - unlike so many of his Radio One contemporaries - inimitable.

Yet the film is agreeably focused in its description of the context such punk faves passed into, and shook up like a joybomb: carefully inserted archive footage reminds us just what an inflamed and divided state Ireland was in when Hooley began cultivating this particular scene. Furthermore, Leyburn and Barros D'Sa know to temper the narrative's idealistic undertones with a degree of music-biz pragmatism. You see it in the rapid progress of Hooley's coke-dealing best friend within the boardrooms of London, or indeed in its subject's sincere and apparently unshakeable belief that Rudi and The Outcasts - who'll get as much of a bounce from the film as 24 Hour Party People gave The Durutti Column and Crispy Ambulance - would be bigger than The Undertones ever were. What's crucial isn't that he was right or wrong; it's that he took the chance in the first place.

Maybe it's a little too inclined towards the feelgood to generate the down-and-dirty spirit of punk: again, you sense these directors have one eye on the box-office in the closing third, as the teenage kicks of neo-Nazis (a regrettable offshoot of this movement) come to be set against adult security, and the wife and child Hooley had waiting for him back home, but Good Vibrations never quite sells out its subject, or his energies, in the search for mainstream acceptance. Buoyed by Dormer's wholly ingratiating central performance, which manages to put a twinkle in even Hooley's glass eye, this breezy celebration of music's ability to hurdle all barriers and roadblocks more than justifies its own beaming title.

Good Vibrations opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 25 March 2013

From the archive: "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra"

Over in Hollywoodland, meanwhile, the death knell for an excessively dismal - and alarmingly militaristic - blockbuster season is sounded by The Mummy director Stephen Sommers' G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a stupefying live-action take on the "much-loved" (it says here) range of Hasbro action figures. What we learn here is that G.I. Joe isn't a single individual, but the codename for an entire organisation taking on an evil weapons manufacturer by wheeling out some pretty big guns of their own; you might consider it Starship Troopers played dismayingly straight.

As head marine Duke, Channing Tatum (buffed upper torso, dialogue pulled from him by drawstring, no obvious genitalia) leads the ill-drilled platoon of thesps making a frontal assault on any Worst Ensemble Acting awards being handed out this year. Across a battlefield strewn with bad accents English (the London-born Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Scottish (Christopher Eccleston), high-level embarrassment (general Dennis Quaid, President Jonathan Pryce), outright incompetence (the statuesque Slovak blonde Quaid is required to address as Colonel) and Marlon Wayans, the surprise is that Sienna Miller should have found her natural level, giving acceptable slapdash pantomime as the villainous, lycra-clad Baroness.

The remainder is the usual exercise in evaluating marketing elements and business decisions. The rise of the Asian market had led to the now industry-standard concessions towards wire-fighting and kung fu, although Paramount seem less concerned about Arabs, depicted as nefarious camel-tuggers to be overpowered by all-American might, or Parisians, whose city - as in the Transformers sequel - gets shot to shit for the sake of a few quick (and flimsily digitised) thrills. (Handing French-born Moroccan Said Taghmaoui a paycheque to play a subordinate computer nerd doesn't cover your back.) As crass, jingoistic propaganda, Joe has an almost endearingly hamfisted way of hitting all its targets; as a movie, it barely gets out of the packaging.

(August 2009)

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is available on DVD through Paramount. A sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, opens in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday.

Friday 22 March 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office  
for the weekend of March 15-17, 2013:
1 (1) Oz The Great and Powerful (PG) **  
2 (2) Side Effects (15) ***
3 (new) Welcome to the Punch (15) ***
4 (3) Wreck-It Ralph (PG) ***
5 (4) Parker (15)
6 (new) The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (15) ***
7 (5) Mama (15) ** 
8 (new) Red Dawn (15)
9 (6) Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (15)
10 (7) The Guilt Trip (12A)

My top five:
1. Michael H.: Profession Director
2. The Princess Bride  
3. Robot & Frank  
4. Trance
5. Neighbouring Sounds

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (1) The Watch (15)
2 (3) Ted (15) ***
3 (4) The Bourne Legacy (12) 
4 (6) Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (12) **
5 (7) Gambit (12) **
6 (new) End of Watch (15) ***
7 (8) Killing Them Softly (18) ***
8 (2) Looper (15) ****
9 (5) The Dark Knight Rises (12) ***
10 (re) Lawless (18) **

My top five:  
1. The Master 


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Zodiac (Saturday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
2. Bringing Up Baby [above] (Wednesday, BBC2, 12noon)
3. The Iron Giant (Good Friday, C4, 7.10am)
4. Ratatouille (Good Friday, BBC1, 4.55pm)
5. Adventureland (Sunday, BBC2, 11pm)

Fe fi ho hum: "Jack The Giant Slayer", "Identity Thief" and "Reality" (ST 24/03/13)

Jack the Giant Slayer (PG) 114 mins **
Identity Thief (15) 111 mins *
Reality (15) 116 mins *

The cinema right now is all filler and footnotes. One week, we’re being told of Hansel and Gretel’s later life; the next, where exactly the Wizard of Oz hailed from; now, with Jack the Giant Slayer, we finally learn the provenance of those magic beans. Bryan Singer’s film is the timeless fairytale retold under the influence of George Lucas and Dan Brown. Who knew the beans were sourced by an ancient cabal of monks? Or that giants can be slain using a fiery crown fashioned from their own hardened hearts? And who, I’d ask, really needed to know?

It’s taken four writers to sling some action beats and a half-hearted love triangle around this gibberish. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is still a poor tenant farmer, only here he takes a horse rather than a cow to market: it’s sexier, presumably. En route, he catches the eye of Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), poised to be married off when she inadvertently causes Jack’s beanstalk to sprout; the pair will be accompanied on their journey skywards by leading swordsman Elmont, raffishly played by Ewan McGregor, the erstwhile Obi-Wan effectively recast as Han Solo.

Singer’s chief contribution is to clear some small space for his actors in a world that feels 80-90% pixelated. The likable young leads are bolstered by doughty old pros (Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan) who show up, hit their marks before the green screens, and react as directed, before pocketing appreciable cheques. Set against Clash of the Titans or Alice in Wonderland, this workmanlike Jack slays time painlessly enough, and its armies of snot-nosed, farting 3D giants, perhaps influenced by Roald Dahl’s BFG, may yet distract younger viewers.

Nevertheless, this remains a tale of the expected. The darkness and eccentricity that make the most compelling children’s fables have again been purged to secure mass-market acceptance: you see it in the pronounced editorial flinch when one of Jack’s foes shapes to bite off some unfortunate’s head. Whatever jeopardy there is here – the storm-lashed ascent of the beanstalk, Elmont clinging by his fingertips above a waterfall – is virtual and, worse, temporary. Stuff happens in these films; a moment later, it gets resolved and something else comes along.

Jack’s narrative is persistently reframed, first as animation, then bedtime story and finally as a London tour guide’s anecdote: a baffling postmodern muddle suggestive less of cleverness than unresolved script conferences. Just as the Sam Raimi who made the Evil Deads went AWOL during Ozthe Great and Powerful, so the Singer behind The Usual Suspects’ sharp and stylish chicanery has similarly been obscured. The beans he’s taken to hawking are easily consumed, but they’ll pass straight through you, no more magical or distinctive than any supermarket’s own-brand.

Identity Thief is Hollywood’s attempt to garner laughs from the subject of credit-card fraud. Jason Bateman plays Sandy Patterson, a corporate flunky whose latest promotion is threatened after he falls victim to a Floridian grifter. Rather than have Sandy ringing up his bank to resolve the situation, Seth Gordon’s film chances it’d be funnier if he personally pursued the culprit. She’s Diana, played by Melissa McCarthy: you may remember her as the bridesmaid in Bridesmaids who came to defecate in a sink.

Now, it seems, there’s no holding McCarthy back. A gaudily accumulating hybrid of Kathy Bates and Katie Price, Diana is a projectile vomiting, throat-punching nightmare – proof, somewhat uncalled for, that a female comedian can be just as crude as her male contemporaries. Yet even as Diana is observed pleasuring herself with a champagne bottle, we’re struck by another queasy sensation: that the character is intended as redeemable, and that she and Sandy will soon become better people for this experience.

Seventy years ago, Hollywood’s smarter minds might have spun this scenario – uptight male undone by impulsive female – into screwball gold: a film about our infinite capacity to deceive and be deceived. Gordon and his screenwriter Craig Mazin instead string it out for two hours, appeasing the audience with a car chase, fist fight or reassuring hug every fifteen minutes. The formula has thus far fleeced US cinemagoers to the tune of over $100 million; British viewers are urged to be on their guard.

The arthouse offers scant shelter. Reality, a mirthless satire about a fame-hungry Neapolitan fishmonger, proves a woeful disappointment after director Matteo Garrone’s superb Gomorrah. That film used non-professionals to give its depiction of life under the Camorra a chilling authenticity; here, they’re wheeled on to damn ordinary folk as plump hayseeds and grasping grotesques. One co-producer is RAI Cinema, whose TV arm cradles the Italian Big Brother; this gets Garrone access to the show’s sets and staff, while compromising him fatally elsewhere. Reality wants to illustrate the cult of personality that holds sway in Berlusconi-land; what it finally demonstrates is the depressing extent to which even its sharper-minded observers might be corruptible.

Jack the Giant Slayer and Identity Thief are in cinemas nationwide; Reality opens in selected cinemas from today.

"I, Superbiker: The Day of Reckoning" (Guardian 22/03/13)

I, Superbiker: The Day of Reckoning (12A) 99 mins **

The third in a formerly DVD-bound series of petrolhead docs, being slipped into cinemas with an eye to boosting the British Superbike Championship’s media profile. Murray Walker narrates this 2012 season review, which – deprived of the life-and-death hook of 2011’s surprise hit Closer to the Edge – often resembles a fan video for a sport that remains resolutely blokey and unsexy. Cursory footage of men piloting their steeds around drizzly lengths of track is interspersed with leering shots of pit-girl derrieres and uninspiring rider profiles in which everyone is very careful to mention their sponsors. 

I, Superbiker: The Day of Reckoning screens in selected cinemas this Monday.

"12 in a Box" (Guardian 22/03/13)

12 In A Box (12A) 95 mins *

In 2007, a pre-primetime Miranda Hart was fourteenth-billed in a shambling am-dram fiasco about old schoolfriends reunited (very Noughties) to bicker over a dying billionaire’s fortune. Retrieved from landfill, it’s now being remarketed on Hart’s name – even though her screen time amounts to five minutes, during which she’s hog-tied, described as “a big ugly bird”, and never once permitted to topple over. Everything else falls hopelessly flat in another trudge around that cosy Britcom universe where henpecked husbands, mistaken sexual identity and the repetition of the word “willy” are considered inherently hilarious. Refunds would appear inevitable. 

12 in a Box opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on April 1.

Thursday 21 March 2013

1,001 Films: "Through a Glass Darkly/Sasom I En Spegel" (1961)

Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly takes place on a remote island, where a troubled young woman (Harriet Andersson) is trying to work out relationships of differing degrees of healthiness with the three men in her life: her husband (Max von Sydow), her brother (Lass Passgard) and her father (Gunnar Björnstrand). Other than these four, there are no other visible signs of life, and the Biblical title is justified by the way the characters are shot under vast, open, brooding skies, their every flaw and fault exposed to the heavens. This sky is yet another of Bergman's mirrors, a two-way looking glass that will - like the young woman - flip at one pivotal moment in order to allow its principals to see God.

Ostensibly, not a great deal happens. Through a Glass Darkly has one of those "waiting for God" plots in which the majority of screen time is occupied by the characters expressing their inner turmoil in intense monologues. As such, it's a difficult film to warm to - or, indeed, to recommend unreservedly - yet it remains strangely hypnotic to watch: beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist, who finds a whole palette of black and white tones with which to paint each character's myriad ambiguities, and superbly performed by Andersson, the puppyfat cheesecake in this director's Summer with Monika, who here gives a lean, remarkably unmannered portrayal of madness, making very real and affecting a last-reel speech accusing the Creator of assuming the form of a spider in order to rape her. It ends with perhaps the most humdrum of all cinematic miracles - one character simply talks to another - with Bergman, on particularly bleak form, suggesting this is the best we can hope for.

Through a Glass Darkly is available on DVD through Tartan.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

1,001 Films: "The Ladies Man" (1961)

At his 1960s height, Jerry Lewis presumably saw himself as the rightful inheritor of the Chaplin tradition, putting out work that mixed slapstick and sentiment with something of the artist's soul. Another fifty years down the line, his films are as much love-'em-or-hate-'em experiences as the Adam Sandler oeuvre, though there are crucial differences between the two comics. For one, Sandler wouldn't have been able to resist turning the premise of The Ladies Man - in which Lewis's momma's boy Herbert Hebert leaves home in the wake of a heartbreak, and finds work as a factotum in a boarding house for actresses - into a leering male fantasy. 

Similarly, Sandler's pet directors - the Dennis Dugans and Frank Coracis of this world - have never quite done anything this visually ambitious or strange within the widescreen frame. Lewis's film takes place largely on the one exquisite, cross-sectioned dollshouse of a set, one of the very best the movies ever provided for a comedian to romp around on. Successive pullbacks and rugpulls recast this set as a dancehall (in which Herbert comes to tango with George Raft, playing himself and effectively initiating the long comedy tradition of po-mo celebrity cameos), a TV studio, and finally an easel upon which Lewis could sketch and design set-pieces that sought to do for the comedy what Gene Kelly had done for the musical. 

The interest in interiors extends to more than one level. As with its predecessor The Nutty Professor, this is almost as much case study as it is straight comedy, hinging on a replayed scene of trauma - Herbert/Jerry seeing his college sweetheart being swept off her feet by a jock - that this putz must overcome through his everyday interactions with the boarding house's women, presented as "real" and unidealised. The film is unusually generous and gentlemanly towards the 1,001 actresses who parade across the screen, clad in the finest Paramount-bought appareil; we could be watching the typical Hollywood audition process, scaled (and, no doubt, classed) up a thousandfold.

The usual caveats pertaining to Lewis apply. Yes, it's narratively scatterbrained, and dependent upon the presence of a performer who, for better or worse, is relentlessly on. Lewis the director is the enabler in this respect, ensuring the camera is always trained on his own garbling, eye-rolling and facepulling. Yet this unblinking gaze results in some very funny, still risky set-pieces, like the extended take that sees Herbert bringing a visiting tough down to his level through the crushing of his hat (and, it's inferred, his masculine pride); it also catches a streak of pathos that remains in comedic circulation, running as it did through Peter Baynham's Peter in TV's Fist of Fun to today's foremost bespectacled weirdo Angelos Epithemiou. As Herbert Hebert himself says, "Being alone, you know, is very lonely - but at least when there are people around, you can be lonely with noise."

The Ladies' Man is currently unavailable on DVD.                                                                

Monday 18 March 2013

1,001 Films: "Lola" (1961)

"In the cinema, things are always more beautiful." Though they may now appear less epochal, such statements - such sentiments - most likely seemed as radical to the young Turks of Paris and beyond, striving to pin down the cinema's place relative to reality, as anything hypothesised in Breathless. Yet where the encyclopaedically-minded Godard took it upon himself to be concerned with all cinema, Jacques Demy's particular field of interest was the swoony romantic melodrama, which - in Lola - he spliced into the nooks and crannies of his native Nantes, in the process fashioning real life into something perhaps more beautiful yet.

At the film's heart are a pair of childhood friends - possibly sweethearts - reunited in their twenties, and marked by experience in very different ways. Roland (Marc Michel) is a drifter and a dreamer; Cecile (Anouk Aimée) is now a cabaret dancer, stage name Lola, with a kid with an absent father. The movie radiates outwards, to show those characters this pair have touched one way or another - the sailor who's assumed Lola as his gal, the mysterious American driving around town in his Cadillac, the teenager seeking independence from her overbearing mother - and to show them bouncing around the streets like molecules. Some bond, some don't; to paraphrase the Chinese proverb with which the film opens, some come to laugh, and some will cry.

The element of reality that persists is key. Shot in monochrome on location by the great Raoul Coutard, it's a couple of productions - and towns - away from the candy-coloured musicals Demy would become best known for: even as they're drawn into a diamond smuggling plot, these characters feel like actual residents of this part of the world, who just happen to be undergoing a particularly intense couple of days. Demy already has Michel Legrand on side as musical director, yet Aimée burbles her way through the title number in the style of a performer who doesn't really want to be caught on film singing - an early indicator of this director's desire to do something unconventional with the way songs are sung on screen.

It's still tentative and experimental, and its ultimate success may depend on how charmed you are by Lola's flightiness (I wasn't, particularly), much as Jules et Jim stands or falls on how willing you are to be seduced by Jeanne Moreau; it's also the film that explains contemporary French cinema's wearying obsession with the blaring pomposity of Beethoven's Seventh, given full and repeated airing here. What impresses is the fledging director's control and balance: in its lightness of touch, this is unmistakably a New Wave venture, yet there are also hints of the emotional weight that Demy would later pick up around Cannes, Cherbourg and Rochefort - a recognition of how, for better and worse, we come to be shaped by the lives of others.

Lola is available on DVD through Mr. Bongo Films.

Saturday 16 March 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of March 8-10, 2013:

1 (new) Oz The Great and Powerful (PG) **
2 (new) Side Effects (15) ***
3 (2) Wreck-It Ralph (PG) ***
4 (new) Parker (15)
5 (3) Mama (15) ** 
6 (1) Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (15)
7 (new) The Guilt Trip (12A)
8 (5) Safe Haven (12A)
9 (4) A Good Day to Die Hard (12A)
10 (6) Les Misérables (12A) *

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Michael H.: Profession Director

2. The Princess Bride
3. Robot & Frank
4. Shell
5. The Spirit of '45


Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (new) The Watch (15)
2 (3) Looper (15) ****
3 (2) Ted (15) ***
4 (1) The Bourne Legacy (12)
5 (4) The Dark Knight Rises (12) ***
6 (new) Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (12) **
7 (new) Gambit (12) **
8 (new) Killing Them Softly (18) ***
9 (5) Total Recall (12) **
10 (10) The Five-Year Engagement (15) **

My top five:
1. The Master 
3. Amour
5. Sister

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Once Upon a Time in America [above] (Saturday, C4, 12.20am)
2. Scream (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
3. The Year of Living Dangerously (Tuesday, BBC1, 12.15am)
4. Midnight Express (Friday, C4, 12.15am)
5. Total Recall (Saturday, ITV1, 10.35pm)