Thursday 30 May 2013

1,001 Films: "My Fair Lady" (1964)

My Fair Lady dates from the final days of the Hollywood studio system, an era when kindly paternalist studio bosses like Jack Warner still thought they were doing good work in resurrecting old George Bernard Shaw texts to teach we, the plebs how to speak English proper(ly). In an enfant sauvage narrative, professor of phonetics Rex Harrison plucks "squashed cabbage leaf" Audrey Hepburn, with her squalling hair and mouth, out of a gutter in Covent Garden; soon enough, the poor little flower girl is blossoming, the door to her birdcage is thrown wide open, and the symbolism is being laid on as thick as the icing on a wedding cake. 

It's not unfair to say that George Cukor's film now resembles a stage-bound relic, one that takes care to namedrop Demosthenes just before the entr'acte and proves heavily reliant on the notion Woman Needs Man. (You'll note the title isn't A Fair Lady or This Fair Lady; something of that possessive article lingers in every scene.) There's also that little white lie of having Hepburn's singing dubbed by Marni Nixon, a presumably Warner-induced state of affairs that does nothing much for either woman, depriving Hepburn of her voice (Nixon's just too posh singing "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?") and her interlocutor of what might have been a starmaking role. It's difficult to say whether Julie Andrews' cut-glass vowels would have rendered any more convincing the proling-down asked of Hepburn, though you do feel Andrews was better off going to Mary Poppins, which looks positively avant-garde compared to this.

Still, as with its scarcely less problematic predecessor Gigi, it'd be a very hard heart that didn't warm to some, or even most, of My Fair Lady: the overall experience is akin to being given a stern finger-wagging by a man wearing a beige cardigan, and thus hard to take too seriously. (Three hours of voice-coaching!) The songs - even unofficial stalker's anthem "On the Street Where You Live" - are pretty much unimpeachable, and some pleasing ambiguity persists in the brusque, dismissive tone of Harrison's performance: just how much of that is the role, and how much a veteran actor's natural response to the bounded stuff and nonsense of the source material?

My Fair Lady is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Friday 24 May 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office  
for the weekend of May 17-19, 2013: 
1 (new) Fast & Furious 6 (12A) **
2 (new) The Great Gatsby (12A) ***
3 (1) Star Trek: Into Darkness (12A) ***
4 (2) Iron Man 3 (12A) *** 
5 (4) All Stars (U) **
6 (7) Mud (12A) ***
7 (5) The Croods (U)   
8 (3) 21 and Over (15)
9 (6) Olympus Has Fallen (15) ***
10 (8) I'm So Excited! (15) ** 

My top five:
1. Grave of the Fireflies  
2. My Neighbour Totoro [above]
3. Something in the Air
4. The King of Marvin Gardens
5. Beware of Mr. Baker  

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Argo (15) ***  
2 (4) The Impossible (12) ***  
3 (2) Jack Reacher (12) **  
4 (8) Quartet (12) ***  
5 (new) Alex Cross (15)  
6 (6) Seven Psychopaths (15) **  
7 (5) Silver Linings Playbook (15) ****  
8 (3) Skyfall (12) ****  
9 (7) Taken 2 (15) *  
10 (9) Anna Karenina (12) ***    
My top five:        
1. The Last Stand
2. Planet of Snail
3. I Wish
4. Aurora
5. Lore
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:  
1. 48HRS. (Saturday, C4, 10.40pm)
2. The Dam Busters (Saturday, five, 12.20pm)
3. Crank (Saturday, ITV1, 10.30pm)
4. Stage Door (Saturday, BBC2, 6.45am)
5. The Quiet American (Thursday, BBC1, 11.45pm) 


"Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict" (Metro 24/05/13)

Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict (PG) 109 mins ***

Benjamin Britten remains an enduringly cinematic composer, inspiring Derek Jarman to make 1989’s War Requiem and Wes Anderson to deploy him in last year’s Moonrise Kingdom. This dogged, unspectacular documentary primer, released to mark the composer’s centenary, slips its history between reconstructions of Britten’s inter-war schooldays: all ruddy-cheeked boys in matching blazers, earnestly discussing Stravinsky and the rise of fascism. It’s meant for specialist audiences, who’ll grasp the (under-explained) significance of counterpoint and the Wallfisch family to this story – and might spot how John Hurt’s narration can’t quite smooth over rumours of discontent within Britten’s inner circle. Still, it’s compiled with obvious affection, and director Tony Britten (no relation) scores coups whenever he sets his camera in front of a choir, soloist or string quartet and lets the music – ever-risky, emotional and dramatic – to sing and soar for itself.

Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict opens in selected cinemas from today.

"The Hangover Part III" (Scotsman 23/05/13)

The Hangover Part III (15) **
Directed by: Todd Philips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis

In the circumstances, two stars might be considered a minor triumph. 2009’s patchy original made so much money that sequels were inevitable; the real shocker was the $586m the Bangkok-set Part II took, despite being as quantifiably lousy as anything released in 2011. We’ve now come so far from whatever distinguished the original that, until a post-credits sting, nobody here gets remotely pished. Instead, director Philips ups Part II’s stuntwork while turning his fabled Wolf Pack into a schlubbier Ocean’s 11, pursued through the Vegas underworld by aggrieved heavy Marshall (John Goodman).

It isn’t a radical overhaul, but it permits greater clarity and respite: fewer ladyboys, for one, and more space for Ken Jeong’s amusingly unhinged Mr. Chow. The usual sticking points remain: variably charmless leads, a near-total absence of anything for women to do. Yet toning down the laddishness casts the once-flimsy central relationships in a newly affectionate light. With one anti-Semitic joke that everyone on screen blanches at, a franchise premised on going too far finally arrives at some understanding of moderation: it’s not necessarily any funnier, but proves somehow more bearable for it.

The Hangover Part III is in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 18 May 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office       
for the weekend of May 10-12, 2013: 
1 (new) Star Trek: Into Darkness (12A) ***
2 (1) Iron Man 3 (12A) ***
3 (2) 21 and Over (15)
4 (4) All Stars (U) **
5 (6) The Croods (U)
6 (3) Olympus Has Fallen (15) ***
7 (new) Mud (12A) ***
8 (7) I'm So Excited! (15) **
9 (9) The Place Beyond the Pines (15) **
10 (5) Oblivion (12A) *

My top five:
1. A Hijacking  
2. Beware of Mr. Baker
3. Our Children  
4. Journey to Italy  
5. Village at the End of the World 
Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (1) Argo (15) ***
2 (4) The Impossible (12) ***
3 (2) Jack Reacher (12) **
4 (8) Quartet (12) ***
5 (new) Alex Cross (15)
6 (6) Seven Psychopaths (15) **
7 (5) Silver Linings Playbook (15) ****
8 (3) Skyfall (12) ****
9 (7) Taken 2 (15) *
10 (9) Anna Karenina (12) ***    

My top five:      
1. The Sessions
2. Bullhead
3. The King of Pigs  
4. Hors Satan  
5. Side by Side

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Social Network [above] (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
2. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Saturday, five, 11.15am)
3. I'm All Right, Jack (Thursday, BBC2, 11.15am)
4. Hotel Rwanda (Wednesday, C4, 1.45am)
5. The Dam Busters (Saturday, five, 3.35pm)   


"The Stoker" (The Guardian 17/05/13)

The Stoker (15) 87 mins ***

Not to be confused with the recent Park Chan-wook/Nicole Kidman curio, but a return to UK cinemas for Russian provocateur Aleksey Balabanov, whose Of Freaks and Men gained a cult reputation back in 2000. His latest is no less bizarre: a pitch-black allegory about an Afghan War veteran employed as a factory stoker. In exchange for paper on which he tentatively pecks out a novel, the stoker (Mikhail Skryabin, wirily touching) allows local heavies to burn corpses in his furnace – at least until matters get personal, and the deal requires renegotiation. It’s full of idiosyncratic, almost suicidal choices – a noodly-poodly guitar score, inexpressive actors, doll-like actresses – yet weirdly cuts to the heart of a country that’s been taken over by such wholly unlovely characters. In materialistic, surface-weighted structures, Balabanov suggests, subterranean workers and artists risk being crushed. Pussy Riot, anyone? Dhaka, even? 

The Stoker is in selected cinemas nationwide.

"Fast & Furious 6" (Metro 17/05/13)

Fast & Furious 6 (12A) 130 mins **

2011’s Rio-set Fast Five – one of the strongest fifth entries in any series, for all that’s worth – pushed a once-idling franchise into something close to top gear. The follow-up dumps soap in the gas tank, alas, prioritising non-characters and awful dialogue over any action. Semi-sentient test dummy Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and ever-boring boy racer Brian (Paul Walker) are reunited after The Rock’s walking FBI zeppelin Hobbs brings news: Toretto’s sweetheart Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, roadkill in Fast Four) is back up and running with a gang wreaking havoc with bulletproof kit-cars on the streets of London.

Contain your excitement: its Londoners are monodimensional toffeenoses or thicknecks, and while it’s good to have the no-nonsense Rodriguez back in play, she’s soon crowded out by the dreary ex-models and wisecracking dipsticks this series has accumulated. Director Justin Lin, at the wheel since Fast Three, delivers okayish fights and chases – the lovers take a high-speed reunion waltz around a traffic-free Piccadilly Circus – but the remaining ninety minutes couldn’t be any more middle-of-the-road if the Rita Ora cameo had gone to Richard Hammond, and we were left to watch Walker paying the congestion charge online.

Fast & Furious 6 is in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Far north: "Village at the End of the World"

The filmmaker Sarah Gavron was last in UK cinemas back in 2007, with her well-received adaptation of Monica Ali's immigrant narrative Brick Lane. Her new documentary Village at the End of the World suggests Gavron is either naturally curious about people living in some form of exile - or that attempts to fund any fiction follow-up to her breakthrough work have been so fraught that she herself needed to get away from it all for a while. So it was that in summer 2009, she and a small crew pitched up in Niaqornat (population: 59), a bayside community in North Greenland, to film a year in the residents' lives.

As a location, Niaqornat could scarcely be more intriguing: caught between multiple identities (Inuit, Greenlandic, Scandinavian), hooked up to the Internet, yet still vulnerable to polar bear attacks. For the handful of teenagers knocking about, the remoteness is no big deal: Gavron finds them mucking about on the surrounding volcanic slopes and updating their Facebook profiles between shifts tending the bags of Haribo in the village shop, dreaming of the day they'll relocate to nearby Uummannaq, a rather bigger outpost spoken of with much the same level of reverie as the big city is described in American smalltown dramas.

The village elders have greatly more pressing concerns, however: a lack of job opportunities exacerbated by the threat hanging over the nearby fish-processing plant, an aging, dying population striving where possible to pull together, yet evidently being stretched thin. One of the questions raised in this part of the world: when a relationship with the girl or guy next door breaks down, how can you get away or lose yourself in a place of fifteen, maybe sixteen houses? (Similarly: how does anybody find new love? We learn the Internet, as ever, has provided one possible answer.) 

The question of how to film remote communities without appearing to exoticise them has confronted Western filmmakers ever since 1922's Nanook of the North, after which director Robert Flaherty was accused of simplifying his characters' hardscrabble existence. 2001's Atanarjuat The Fast Runner offered a corrective in the sight of Inuit filmmakers taking the means of production into their own hands, and telling their own myths and legends. Gavron, for her part, has arrived at a workable compromise. She's in thrall to her subjects' words, turning to them wherever possible for narration, testimony, context, listening in as they swap tales, adorning her images with the Greenlandic names for the seasons.

But those images are entirely the director's own, further demonstrating the eye for colour she revealed in Brick Lane. We're shown a line of schoolroom smocks hanging out to dry in a pleasing chromatic order; the camera notes the blood left in the icy water after the successful slaying of a shark, and picks out the hi-vis jacket of a dreamy sanitation worker as he completes his rounds amid the gathering winter gloom. Every now and again, an image tells a much wider story: an electric mosquito-zapper surrounded by weeks, if not months' worth, of casualties, a slow pullback that reveals a figure isolated on the ice fields.

As winter blows in, obscuring what remains of the sun, what becomes clear is not only the extent to which this community is at the mercy of the elements, but also that to which Gavron is alert to the issues heading her subjects' way. This isn't some unspoilt, earthly paradise, but a real place facing up to encroaching threats: the interviewees speak of the pressure they feel to pack up and move away, or the rising suicide rates among young adults. The waters are further muddied with the arrival of a cruise ship containing greying Danish tourists, overheard betraying some of the colonial attitudes Flaherty was accused of, even as the locals turn out en masse to have their photos taken and sell these gawpers Inuit tchotchkes.

There would perhaps be a more crusading, nuts-and-bolts documentary in here about the Niaqornat community's attempts to form a co-operative with which to retain control of the factory and thus a modicum of control over their territory; Gavron instead goes for the wider, human story, which isn't going to hurt her film's chances in the long run. This film remains romantic, without losing track of what's going on at ground level, and humorous, without being condescending. If the director's aim was to drop a pin in a map, and by doing let the world of cinema know where she's been these past few years, she's very much succeeded: someone should bring her in from the cold now.

Village at the End of the World is in selected cinemas.

Saturday 11 May 2013

1,001 Films: "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg/Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (1964)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a film that spends 90 minutes daring you not to believe in it, which makes it as much a provocation as the Nouvelle Vague films of the same period. An operetta in which every line of dialogue is sung - from "you smell of petrol" to the instructions given for making tea - it presents us with a world where mechanics mull over whether to attend the opera or the theatre of an evening; where Catherine Deneuve works as a shopgirl; and where people live in houses in which the primary colour is shocking, sweetshop pink. (Deneuve's mum, who runs the shop named in the title, admits to having decorated its living quarters the day before she gave birth, so she could have been legitimately delirious, I guess.) Just beneath all the design and artifice, and still very much visible, is a love triangle with Deneuve's Geneviève at the centre. The two men on either side of her: Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), the greasemonkey who impregnated her before having to leave on military service, and Roland (Marc Michel), an older diamond merchant who helps out the family at this moment of poverty, but doesn't know his love is pregnant by another man. 

Even if, like me, you're largely impervious to Deneuve (who essentially has to sustain the second act by herself), accept the reality Umbrellas presents you with, and it develops as a film of rare charm: in a work as genuinely lyrical as this, there's even a sense the heroine has been named Geneviève because that name trips off the tongue - and can therefore be sung - in a number of ways. (The secondary love interest is named Madeleine, which would appear to confirm it.) Because everything is sung, the variation comes in how it's sung: phrases with too many words and not enough punctuation for scenes of heightened emotion, short staccato bursts whenever the adrenaline is up. (Arguably those whose knowledge of French extends only to "je t'aime" and "mort" could more or less understand what's going on through listening to the soundtrack alone.) It famously looks just gorgeous - well, unless you're a Goth - although, preserved as it is beneath a layer of snow and ice (Deneuve's best working conditions?), there's something equally perfect about its monochrome final scene, which cuts through some of the excess elsewhere to sound a note of real, lasting poignancy: that it's funny, sometimes, how life can work out.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is available on DVD through Optimum Home Entertainment.

Friday 10 May 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office     
for the weekend of May 3-5, 2013: 
1 (1) Iron Man 3 (12A) ***
2 (new) 21 and Over (15)
3 (2) Olympus Has Fallen (15) ***
4 (new) All Stars (U) **
5 (3) Oblivion (12A) *
6 (4) The Croods (U)
7 (new) I'm So Excited! (15) **
8 (new) Dead Man Down (15) **
9 (6) The Place Beyond the Pines (15) **
10 (5) Evil Dead (18) ***


My top five:
1. A Hijacking
2. Our Children
3. Journey to Italy
4. Village at the End of the World
5. Gimme the Loot


Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (new) Argo (15) ***
2 (1) Jack Reacher (12) **
3 (2) Skyfall (12) ****
4 (new) The Impossible (12) ***
5 (3) Silver Linings Playbook (15) ****
6 (5) Seven Psychopaths (15) **
7 (4) Taken 2 (15) *
8 (new) Quartet (12) ***
9 (6) Anna Karenina (12) ***
10 (8) End of Watch (15) ***
My top five:    
1. The King of Pigs
2. Hors Satan
3. Side by Side
4. The Impossible
5. Quartet  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. A Bronx Tale [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
2. The Outlaw Josey Wales (Monday, five, 11pm)
3. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Sunday, five, 3.30pm)
4. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
5. Nurse Betty (Friday, C4, 1am)