Archive for January, 2015

Oscars 2015: Selma

Posted on January 31st, 2015 in At the cinema | No Comments »

selma

After the recent cycle of American guilt-porn movies, and given the Academy’s predilection for lumpen biopics, I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to Selma but I didn’t have much of a chance to right it off in advance as I saw it prior to its UK release courtesy of Odeon’s “Screen Unseen” series of surprise movies.

Whereas 12 Years a Slave was horrifyingly brutal but structurally flawed, and The Help was ultimately a bit too twee and winsome to really succeed as a cutting evocation of America’s troubled history of racial conflict, Selma being set barely half a century ago instantly feels far more relevant and the sickening violence in Ferguson and elsewhere gives it a grim modernity which its makers can’t have anticipated.

By sensibly focusing on a small period of time – the few weeks in 1964 between Martin Luther King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and the march from Selma to Montgomery – the movie avoids the shapelessness which dogs so many biopics, and early on director Ava DuVernay is in total control of the material, juxtaposing King in Oslo, the shocking murder by explosive of four young black girls and producer Oprah Winfrey’s neat cameo as would-be Selma voter Annie Lee Cooper, where she pulls of the neat trick of combining stoic dignity with aching vulnerability.

As the movie settles down and we meet the rest of the cast, DuVernay’s camerawork becomes a bit more pedestrian. A magnificent crane shot towards the end is eye-catching but a most of the rest is unshowy, simple and just intended to capture the performances. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but a movie ought to full the frame a bit more than a TV show and from time-to-time Selma does feel a bit movie-of-the-week, with a little too much slo-mo and a little too much omnipresent syrupy music from Jason Moran. I’m not saying DuVernay should have gone full Michael Bay on this, but a more dynamic camera would not have undermined the story at all.

Where she does succeed is in marshalling a terrific cast, and balancing the sub-plots with the main story. Without ever taking energy away from the central thread, we get glimpses into the lives of King’s loyal followers such as James Bevel (Common), James Orange (Omar Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson); we see the uneasy relationship between the two young men already working in Selma for voting rights; we see the earnest white folks who rally to the cause, not all of whom make it out of Selma alive.

It helps that we get some familiar faces in this sprawling cast like Lorraine Toussaint, from HBO’s Orange is the New Black and Wendell Pierce from The Wire, because we’re not done yet. As well as the law enforcement on the ground in Selma, we also have a brilliantly reptilian turn from Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Cuba Gooding Jr and Martin Sheen, not to mention Carmen Ejogo who does a great deal with very little as King’s ever-patient wife.

There are a couple of loose threads. Dylan Baker appears in only about two scenes as J Edgar Hoover and irritating captions keep appearing which remind us that the FBI is spying on the Kings, while giving us further information we already know – but the FBI storyline never amounts to anything. Even more bizarrely, Nigel Thatch appears in exactly one scene as Malcolm X, is never seen to meet King and then dies off-screen.

Then main conflict then is between Tom Wilkinson’s rangy Lyndon B Johnson (fascinating to compare this performance with Bryan Cranston’s approach which I was privileged to see on Broadway last year) and David Oyelowo’s electrifying King. Pitting Johnson’s compassionate pragmatism against King’s fiery idealism is a fascinating dichotomy and the scenes between them are wonderfully handled. Being shamefully unfamiliar with the details of King’s story, I was struck by the shocking nature of his tactics – broadly to mount nonviolent protests in the hope that the other side will retaliate with violence. The movie is unafraid both to criticise this approach and also to consider the cost on King’s personal life as he knowingly puts young men and women into harm’s way in order to achieve a greater good, but ultimately it becomes clear that progress would be unlikely to be achieved in any other way.

Smartly surrounding him with a rich cast of supporting characters, DuVernay is nevertheless happy to let Oyelowo off the leash from time-to-time and my word does he tear up the part when he needs to. He is absolutely magnificent, embodying Dr King with fire and passion and integrity in a way which seems almost impossible for a British public school-boy to pull off. And a further hat-tip to DuVernay who is apparently responsible for writing new speeches for him to say, when the original Martin Luther King speeches were not available. That must have been a daunting project to say the least!

So, this is not the most ambitious film on the list, nor is it the most formally daring. But it is a compelling story, well-told, with a world-class performance at its centre and a deep pool of acting talent in support. That it was so widely overlooked by the Academy is absolutely baffling, particularly Oyelowo’s performance, and particularly the screenplay, if only for those astonishing speeches.

Oscars 2015: Whiplash

Posted on January 20th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

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Warning – this review contains some potential spoilers

There’s no denying that Whiplash is an extraordinary film. What’s most extraordinary about it is how very, very close to being ordinary it comes. Here’s the set-up. Music student and aspiring jazz drummer Miles Teller, newly enrolled at a prestigious (fictional) music academy in New York hopes to be and is talent-spotted by martinet band-leader and conductor JK Simmons. Through his sometimes brutal tutelage, Teller develops his talent, but suffers mightily in the process.

I have to say, this set-up, neatly laid out in the trailer, did not inspire me with confidence. This is pretty familiar stuff. The older man whose ruthless and sadistic game-playing (while simultaneously firing off zippy one-liners) ultimately leads the callow youngster he takes under his wing to a greater understanding and eventual a rapprochement between the two. Off the top of my head, I can think of Scent of a Woman, every episode of House MD, Full Metal Jacket (only with a different ending), House of Games, and many sports movies including Million Dollar Baby, Rocky and (sort-of) A League of Their Own. You can probably think of more. Plus Shine sets the bar pretty high for musicians-who-push-themselves-to-breaking-point movies for me.

But if we must have another entry in the collection of demented mentor figures, let us at least have one played by JK Simmons who seizes the material with delirious glee – with a lesser actor in this key role, the whole thing might fall apart. He shifts effortlessly from laconic encouragement to full-on physical abuse, constantly keeping his young protégée off-balance, while continuing to manipulate, encourage and punish him to greatness. Teller, likewise, holds up his end of the bargain, giving poor Andrew just enough steel that we continue to root for him, and enough vulnerability that we fear he might fail. Teller’s Brat Pack good looks allow him to be laser-focused on his goal without losing too much audience sympathy. It’s a good job in a much less showy acting role, although his contortions behind the drum kit are amazing to behold.

But to understand what makes this film so extraordinary, it is necessary to consider (pace Julian Barnes) all the things which writer-director Damien Chazelle did not do. Anyone who has heard the set-up or seen the trailer will understand that the main conflict will be between charismatic but possibly loopy teacher and talented but possibly too feeble student and that the interest lies in seeing how each deals with the other, and who will end up on top.

Plenty of films would have built up at least one, if not both characters, before they first meet. They would show us Teller’s first day at school, establish his desire to be one of the great jazz drummers, clue us in on this school works, what power JK Simmons has (maybe his reputation precedes him), what competitions his band will enter and what the rewards are for doing well in them, and ease us into the story. Whiplash has no truck with any of that. Seconds after the company logos are off the screen, we get the two men’s first meeting, and already Simmons is playing mind-games with Teller. This is what you came for? Well, here it is, front and centre.

This ruthless efficiency certainly smacks of confidence in the material and the cast, and it largely pays off. There’s a pleasing lack of pedantry which, especially after the clunking Theory of Everything, is very refreshing. He picks the players. They play in competitions. It’s important. You got that? Okay, we can move on. But what’s also fascinating is that the nature of their interaction all centres on technical ability. Just like in a sports movie, Teller pushes his body beyond what it can bear, plunging bloody hands into ice water and then picking up the drumsticks again. But whereas you will hear the dread passive-aggressive phrase “Not quite my tempo” from Simmons’ terrifying conductor more than once, you hear hardly anything about the music and nothing about soul or inspiration.

You don’t even hear anything about improvisation, and this is a movie about jazz! The expected conflict between technical proficiency and playing from your heart simply fails to materialise. Good is good if Simmons says it is. It’s like being able to jump high or run fast or bowl a 300 game. When you can do it, everybody knows it. Okay then. And yet, the music itself belies that. Justin Hurwitz does an amazing job with the (entirely diagetic) score and Chazelle shoots the shit out of the practising, rehearsing and playing sequences which are edited with razor-accuracy by Tom Cross.

But while this lean approach pays dividends (the supporting cast is pared to the bone too – none of the other band-members really register, Paul Reiser is in maybe four scenes as Teller’s pleasingly rumpled Dad, and Teller gets a girlfriend only to dump her immediately to focus on drumming) it also has drawbacks. Finding the shapes so familiar, even though I was enjoying the bright colours used to fill them in, I pretty quickly constructed a road-map of the movie in my head, right the way up to the eccentric mentor’s eventual humbling followed by his little speech of self-justification.

However, removing all unnecessary material means the films burns through story pretty quickly and so we reached that point only around 70 minutes in. It’s in its final act – not so much a plot twist as an elegant narrative curlicue – that the movie finally did what I think it had been trying to do all along: it surprised me.

This is fine film-making, a little less adventurous in its construction than maybe its writer-director would like to admit, but rooted enough to feel real, brash enough to feel arresting and shot with real verve and brio. I somehow doubt it will last the ages, but it’s tight, exciting and grown-up cinema.

Black marks to my local Odeon (Camden) who allowed me to book online and pick my seats in their spacious, but misshapen Screen 1, and then without notice moved the film to their broom closet of a Screen 4 and stuck me in the back row, far left. However, kudos for politely and promptly refunding my money when I complained.

Oscars 2015: here are the runners and riders

Posted on January 19th, 2015 in At the cinema | No Comments »

It’s the Oscars!

If you’ve any interest in cinema, you’ll probably have noticed that in the year of a major Martin Luther King biopic, Academy voters have delivered the least diverse slate of nominees anyone can remember. Every single one of the twenty acting nominees is white and every single director is a white man (okay, one is Mexican and one is Norwegian) and all of the 15 writing nominees are men. Given that the nominees (and indeed the winners) are decided upon by a secret ballot, there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do about this, but there do seem to be some pretty startling omissions, and Selma’s failure to get anything beyond Best Picture and Best Original Song (which somehow makes it worse) is chief among these.

Anyway, for new readers of this blog (because my delusion of readership is such that I find it necessary to subdivide my armies of followers into categories instead of, say, counting them on the fingers of a pair of mittens), every year I attempt to ensure that I have seen all the Best Picture Nominees before the Oscars ceremony itself. I first attempted this feat in 2010 (also the first year the Academy decided to nominate ten films instead of five) but couldn’t bring myself to sit through The Blind Side. I’ve not missed a movie since.

They now nominate between five and ten depending on how the voting goes and this year the total is eight, with Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel sharing the most nominations with nine each, although Boyhood is the bookies’ favourite to win the big one, despite having only six nominations in total. Even this list is overwhelmingly male and only Selma has a squeak of racial diversity about it. Every Best Picture nominee has a male protagonist and only one, The Theory of Everything, has a real female second lead (I guess you could make an argument for American Sniper or The Imitation Game). Look at the nominees for Best Actress – only Felicity Jones is nominated for starring in a film also nominated for Best Picture despite the fact that there are eight Best Picture nominees and only five Best Actress nominees!

This depressing trend aside, it’s not a bad list, although not a great one either, and at the time of writing, I have seen half of them, so watching the remaining four in the next month should be pretty easy. Here’s a quick list, with my preconceptions, review or a link to my review as appropriate.

American Sniper
w. Jason Hall (nominated), book Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice; d. Clint Eastwood
Bradley Cooper (nominated), Sienna Miller

This has had some pretty poisonous press from the liberal media (i.e. people like me) so I’m not really looking forward to it. I don’t know an awful lot about it, but Eastwood is certainly capable of shooting humane and tasteful movies, so it remains to be seen whether this is sanctimonious gun-loving or a clear-eyed look at warfare or something in between. Also nominated for editing, sound mixing and sound editing, but not Eastwood for director. Just outside contention for the big prize I suspect.

Birdman

w. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr, Armando Bo (nominated); d. Iñárritu
Michael Keaton (nominated), Edward Norton (nominated), Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone (nominated)

Marvellous, original stuff with terrific performances all-round, that manages to play games with reality while respecting the audience’s need for some kind of narrative through-line. My full review is here. Must be in contention for the sheer number of nominations (Keaton alas will be crushed under Eddie Redmayne’s wheelchair) but surely it won’t win?

Boyhood

w. Richard Linklater (nominated); d. Linklater (nominated)
Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette (nominated), Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke (nominated)

Linklater follows up his, apparently on-going, After series with this extraordinary experiment in film-making, shot over twelve years. My question going in is – with limited ability to plot out the storyline in advance, will the incidents which make up the material of the film be interesting enough to justify the extraordinary commitment which went into making it? Heavy favourite to win, probably on that basis alone, but Linklater has strong competition for director in the form of Iñárritu and possibly Wes Anderson too.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

w. Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness (nominated); d. Anderson (nominated)
Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Almaric, F Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe

Marvellous ornate fantasy, very much in its director’s signature style, but with a bit more narrative drive and graced with a sublimely deft turn from Ralph Fiennes. Who knew he had such a lightness of touch? Certainly no-one who sat through his brittle performance as John Steed in the ghastly Avengers movie (not that one). I saw this and loved it when it was first released last February and failed to review it, but it’s terrific fun, it’s story-within-story-within-story puzzle-box structure allowing it licence to play far more fast-and-loose with logic and reality without the whole edifice collapsing under the weight of its own whimsy. Again, were it not for the sheer number of nominations, I would say it had no chance at all, but with nine, and that eleven months after its first release, it must be in with a shout, surely.

The Imitation Game

w. Graham Moore (nominated), book Andrew Hodges; d. Morten Tyldum (nominated)
Benedict Cumberbatch (nominated), Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley (nominated), Mark Strong, Charles Dance

The other crippled genius biopic, but Turing’s stammer and homosexuality may pale next to motor neurone disease and a tracheotomy. Still, Turing was trying to end a war, rather than ponder the rather more abstract mysteries which occupied Hawking’s mind. I haven’t seen it yet, but advance word is that’s rather soapy and I feel it’s unlikely to compare well to the BBC film Breaking the Code with Derek Jacobi. Very much in the also-ran category for Best Picture, but might just nick screenplay if it’s very lucky.

Selma

w. Paul Webb; d. Ava DuVernay
David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Common, Wendell Pierce, Andre Holland

This one almost flew under my personal radar. I had expected to see Foxcatcher, Big Eyes, Mr Turner, Wild and The Gambler on this list, but almost failed to notice Selma sneaking under the wire. Maybe being released so close to the deadline hurt it? Or maybe it’s all those British actors in the cast, but for chrissake, if you can’t get an Oscar nomination for playing Martin Luther King, then you wonder why you bothered trying to master the accent at all. Is it any good? I’ll let you know in a few weeks’ time. Obviously has no chance at all at winning Best Picture unless the Academy voters are suddenly seized by white guilt (which I suppose is not impossible, but I’m still picking Boyhood at our sweepstake).

The Theory of Everything

w. Anthony McCarten (nominated), book Jane Wilde Hawking; d. James Marsh
Eddie Redmayne (nominated), Felicity Jones (nominated), Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis

Hugely disappointing, a ball-less and bland script squandering an awesome leading performance by Redmayne who will surely win, but it’s very unlikely to walk away with anything else.

Whiplash

wd. Damien Chazelle
Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Another one which nearly slipped past me and the trailer made me fear the worst. I saw it last night and I will put my review in the next post.

A quick account of the other major categories. Best film, as noted, will be Boyhood, with best director a straight fight between Anderson, Inarritu and Linklater. Foxcatcher will likely get nothing, ditto Selma. Julianne Moore is probably favourite for Best Actress, with only Reese Witherspoon needing to bother writing a speech. In the supporting categories, things are a bit more open, as they often are. Both Edward Norton and JK Simmons have strong claims on the male side, while on the female side Patricia Arquette and Laura Dern seem to have the best chance, but it’s never wise to right-off Meryl Streep. Original screenplay I imagine will go to Birdman, although Boyhood and Budapest both have a shot. Adapted screenplay is a bit harder to call. Whiplash probably has the best chance at the moment.

My review of Whiplash will be here later today or tomorrow.

Pre-Oscar round-up – Birdman, The Hobbit, The Theory of Everything

Posted on January 9th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

The Oscars are almost upon us. The BAFTA nominations were announced yesterday, the Golden Globes are on Sunday and the cinemas are full of beautifully framed suffering and gurning, which will shortly give way to the usual fare of explosions and solid jawlines.

In the last week I’ve crammed in three movies, at least of two of which I confidently expect to see in the Best Picture nominees come 15 January, all three of which I shall review here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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After the slightly tedious An Unexpected Journey and the unexpectedly elegant and engaging The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson’s sixth and final Middle Earth film is a rather ho-hum affair. Beginning almost immediately where the previous film left off (almost as if the material had been shot without anyone imagining there would a break of a year in between), the focus is all on Luke Evans’ anodyne Bard the Bowman who proceeds to almost immediately slay the fiery Smaug in exactly the way he said he would.

This brutally efficient, by-the-numbers style is the watchword for most of the film. After Gandalf is finally released from his “holding pattern” at Dol Guldur and after sufficient chat to bulk the thing up to a reasonable running time, the titular battle finally gets underway. Bonkers dwarf-king Billy Connolly is a bit of a treat and Richard Armitage’s mano-a-mano show-down with Azog works well, but the gigantic battle scenes contribute nothing we haven’t seen before and crucially none of the character drama really resonates, with Thorin’s re-emergence from “dragon sickness” disposed of in a few minutes with little more than a CGI pool of gold and a furrowed brow.

What’s particular disappointing is how little Martin Freeman gets to do. His performance was the saving grace of part one, the heart and soul of part two and his side-lining in the climactic instalment leaves the film without a happy centre. Still, I’d rather be him than, say, James Nesbitt who I swear gets two lines in the whole thing. A bit more Freeman and a lot less clumsy comic relief from Ryan Gage’s Alfrid Lickspittle would have gone a long way.

Birdman

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One of the most bracing and exciting films I’ve seen in a very long time, Birdman deserves all the praise which is being heaped upon it. In a neat bit of self-referential casting, Michael Keaton leads as Riggan Thompson, Hollywood actor once well-known for his starring role in a series of extravagant super-hero movies, now attempting to show snooty Broadway theatre-goers that he is still relevant, talented and vital with a self-penned, self-directed adaptation of a (real) Raymond Carver story starring himself.

He is joined on-stage by his girlfriend Andrea Riseborough, a Broadway first-timer (Naomi Watts) and volatile supposed genius Ed Norton, gleefully following in Dustin Hoffman’s footsteps by playing up to his reputation as a difficult and demanding star. What sets this tale of desperation and personal need for fulfilment apart from the crowd is its casual attitude towards reality and the innovative shooting style deployed by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (that’s easy for you to say). Riggan is haunted by the voice of his musclebound alter-ego and appears to be able to – or believes himself to be able to – or fantasies that he is able to – alter reality with a single thought. Our first shot of him is floating in mid-air in the lotus position. He later apparently causes a light to fall on a recalcitrant fellow actor and later visits all manner of physical impossibilities on himself and objects around him.

While we watch these fantastic actors explore these great characters in this pressure cooker situation (I haven’t even mentioned brilliantly restrained Zach Galifianakis, an ice cold turn from Lindsay Duncan and a delightful cameo from Amy Ryan), Iñárritu’s camera swoops and circles and darts and dollies and never, ever (apparently) cuts.

The discipline of shooting the entire movie in a single take (although not in continuous time) makes it even harder to be certain about what is real and what is not, but this carefully calibrated ambiguity locates us inside Riggan’s head, as the camera crawls over Keaton’s panicky face, its sharp Batman contours now crinkled with a network of fine lines.

It’s not a perfect movie. I’ve had about enough of the cliché of real-acting-is-doing-it-for-real so when Norton starts drinking real gin on stage I rolled my eyes a bit – although, to be fair this is certainly on-theme. What’s much less satisfactory is Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter who adds very little to proceedings, and when she and Norton start playing Truth or Dare on a balcony, the whole movie suddenly descends into after school special faux-profundity.

For the rest of its running time, however, the film remains bracingly original, constantly kept me guessing and even managed to pull off an obscure ending which doesn’t seem like a cop-out (it also includes a wonderful visual pun). Hardly stands a chance of getting the big prize, but surely it must be nominated – unlike the amazing percussion score by Antonio Sánchez which the Academy won’t even consider on the entirely spurious basis that the movie also includes some classical music.

The Theory of Everything

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I don’t really like biopics. They’re very, very hard to pull off. Most non-biopic movies cover relatively short spans of time and those that attempt to work over longer periods need a great deal of discipline to find a central theme and hang on to it. When you are telling a true story of somebody’s life, there’s an apparent need not to leave anything out, so most biopics go from cradle to grave, with the result that we whip through key incidents and the overall effect is like reading a Wikipedia entry rather than being caught up in the reality of somebody’s life. Chaplin is possibly the worst example of this tendancy, The Social Network a particularly elegant way around the problem.

The Theory of Everything is blessed with an absolutely outstanding performance by Eddie Redmayne. Physically contorting himself like no other actor since Daniel Day-Lewis, he doesn’t so much impersonate Hawking as possess him. It’s sensitive, compassionate, funny, detailed, heartfelt and will surely win him Best Actor this year. It’s also a performance which the rest of the movie entirely squanders.

Telling the story of Hawking’s life means tackling at least three different narratives. The brilliant mind grappling with impossible problems of reality; the love story between young academics who don’t expect their marriage to last more than a few years; and the triumph-over-adversity story of a vital young man suddenly crippled by a life-threatening illness. It’s hard to pick just one of these and so my hope going in was that scriptwriter Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh would find a way of braiding these strands together which would somehow elevate all three of them.

In practice, the first story is all but ignored. There is maybe two minutes of science in the whole thing, most hilariously when a troupe of Cambridge post-graduates make a road trip to hear Christian McKay’s Roger Penrose deliver a lecture which would be elementary to a GCSE physics class, based on the thirty seconds we are allowed to hear. The life-threatening illness, brilliantly realised by Redmayne, is often the main focus but this is the least interesting strand being over-familiar in general from many, many similar movies and TV movies prior to this, but also because the details of Hawking’s condition are so well known.

And so, the love story forms the bulk of the movie, which is when the frantic skipping from scene to scene does the movie so few favours. Everything is trivial, glib, tick that box and move on. Why do we have to hear about Hawking bluffing his way through his viva at Oxford instead of taking the time to let that scene play out? Why do we jump from his first date with Jane to their wedding in the space of about ten minutes? Why do we never get a sense of who these two people are to each other, let alone as a couple? Hawking’s family is drawn efficiently and vividly, thanks in part to a lovely turn by Simon McBurney as his dad, but elsewhere the writer seems to be hoping that the cast will fill in the gaps and the cast seem to be hoping that the editing will fill in the gaps and the director seems to be hoping that enough stirring music will see him through.

How is it that a single film manages to be simultaneously so pedantic and yet also so coy? When we need to introduce possible cuckoo-in-the-nest Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox, instantly forgettable), we can’t just show him giving piano lessons to one of the Hawking offspring, we first have to wheel in Emily Watson as Jane’s mum to laboriously explain to her that singing in the church choir is a Good Idea, then we have to have Jane creep mouse-like into the church just as the singing practice is conveniently finishing, then we have to have a lumpen conversation between the two of them – and so we exchange one telling, detailed, measured scene which would bring verisimilitude and texture to the story for three box-ticking snippets instead.

And yet at the same time, the film keeps eliding what’s actually interesting. The Hawkings’ sex life is included only by having Stephen and Jane embrace and then a cut to Eddie Redmayne cuddling a baby – not once but three times. And the potentially fascinating debates about the role of God in the universe are reduced to two quick mentions and one dinner table conversation in which C of E Jane is largely side-lined. That’s the other major problem with this film. Based on a book by Jane Hawking, it fails to realise that the story can’t be what is it like to be Stephen Hawking?, that’s largely unknowable in any case. But it could be what is it like to be married to Stephen Hawking? except that the filmmakers can’t bring themselves to cut away from their big-ticket item, the floppy haired one in the wheel-chair.

One particularly striking example is the diagnosis sequence. Hawking stumbles in the college quad, is taken to hospital where they perform a variety of tests and the young man is given his grim diagnosis. He returns to Cambridge and breaks the news to his bunk-mate Brian but when his then-girlfriend Jane tries to see him he refuses to talk to her. She is eventually given the news by Brian in a pub (we are not permitted to hear the dialogue).

But whose story is this? By never tackling this question, the movie is only ever able to give us the animated Wikipedia version, while steadfastly ignoring the colossally obvious point that every single fucking movie-goer is going to know the diagnosis before the characters do. If they had had the wit, the perspicacity – the fucking balls – to realise that this was Jane’s story, the whole sequence could have been played from her point of view. Her boyfriend has a mysterious fall in the quad but instead of just being patched up by the college nurse, he is taken away in an ambulance. In this pre-mobile phone age, she can’t get any information from the hospital, no matter how often she calls from the payphone at the bottom of her staircase. When Stephen eventually returns, apparently fit and healthy, he barricades himself in his room and refuses to talk to her. Imagine the confusion, the horror, the anger – and of course the ghastly dramatic irony because we, the audience, know all too well what’s coming.

What compounds all of these structural problems is just how fucking saintly everybody is. Hawking is unfailingly charming, funny, self-effacing and good natured – with the aforementioned brief strop the only moment where his disposition is anything less than sunny. Felicity Jones’s doe-eyed Jane is warm, supportive, patient, wise and deadeningly sincere, only leaving Hawking when he’s found flirty Maxine Peake to pal about with instead, and Charlie Cox’s Jonathan is essentially a tweedy martyr, tediously putting everyone else’s feelings ahead of his own. Where’s the vinegar? Where’s the tension? Where, for pity’s sake is the story?

At the fairly full cinema we saw this in, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a damp eye in the house. When a film dealing with a wheelchair bound genius whose marriage is falling apart can’t even be bothered to be mawkishly sentimental, let alone attain any real insight, power or emotion, you know it’s really in trouble. Lazy, boring and trite, if it were not for Eddie Redmayne, this would have been utterly ghastly. As it is, it’s just dull.

Full Marx

Posted on January 7th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

marx-bros-monkey-biz

The Marx Brothers are probably the most important comedy team in history. That isn’t to denigrate any of their peers, antecedents or successors, but just to acknowledge that they revolutionised comedy on stage and on film and their influence is still felt today.

Leonard, Arthur, Julius, Milton and Herbert Marx were born to German Jews in New York at the turn of the century. Their mother, Minnie, turned the four oldest boys into a singing act called the Four Nightingales, but when a touring gig went badly wrong, the four young men took their frustrations out on the theatre manager, tour booker and anyone else they could find to blame. The audience fell about laughing and so Minnie enlisted their uncle Al Shean (of Gallagher and Shean) to construct a comedy routine for them. Four distinct comedy personalities emerged and with them four nicknames which they eventually took on stage – Italian piano-playing Chico, mute harpist Harpo, fast-talking Groucho and now-forgotten Gummo.

The team hurled through vaudeville, took Broadway by storm and eventually arrived at Hollywood. Gummo at some point left the act and so baby brother Herbert was drafted in his place and given the arbitrary soubriquet “Zeppo”. They eventually made around 13 films (depending on how you count) from 1929 to 1949. The BFI is showing a selection of their best. Here’s a rundown of the complete Marxography.

1929: The Cocoanuts

Filmed version of their first Broadway hit play, made less than two years after Warner Brothers up-ended the motion picture business with The Jazz Singer. It’s almost impossible to say if the original stage version would have held up, because the film is so beset with technical problems. The probably-hilarious prison break is shot so poorly it’s almost impossible to see what’s actually going on. Even for the dedicated Marxist this is tough going, with a lot of the running time dedicated to an even more than usually tedious real estate / stolen necklace / young love sub-plot but Harpo is sublime throughout and there are some wonderful moments, including the fastest door-slam / adjoining room scene you’ll ever see.

1930: Animal Crackers

Their second Broadway play makes a much more confident screen outing, with Groucho in particular seeming much more at-ease. The first half contains a number of classic routines including Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the Bridge Game, Harpo Drops Knives and Take A Letter, all of which are absolutely hilarious but the plot takes grim hold for the last half hour which is almost a laugh-free zone during which everyone (except me) seems terribly interested in the fate of a stolen painting. It seems churlish to complain however when the first hour is so often so joyful.

1931: Monkey Business

Their first original and the only film in which they play “themselves”. Stowaways on an ocean liner is the perfect situation for the Marxes and neatly identifies what made them so unique. In the same situation, Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd would emerge from hiding because a pretty girl had to have her honour defended, Laurel and Hardy would be unable to stay hidden out of sheer stupidity, but the Marxes want to get caught because being rude to authority is so much more fun than staying hidden. The Passport routine is just possibly the funniest thing ever put on film – but where is Margaret Dumont? And why does the film keep going after the Marx Brothers get off the ship?

1932: Horse Feathers

Groucho as a college president is a much less interesting situation than stowaways and TV censors have chopped to ribbons what was probably the highlight of the film – all four brothers trying to romance Thelma Todd. Even without the help of the censors, some very good scenes peter out with a whimper of a fade-out instead of ending on a good strong punchline. And the supposed climax is, again, a problem, being a very conventional football game with not enough Marx madness to distinguish it. On the other hand, the Speakeasy scene is fantastic and the film has some of Harpo’s best-ever gags.

1933: Duck Soup

Their most highly-regarded film, possibly correctly, certainly it’s their most concentrated with barely a hint of a romantic comedy sub-plot and with any number of wonderful scenes. Groucho has gone from hotel manager to feted explorer to college professor to running an entire country and – hurrah! – Margaret Dumont is back! But the traditional harp and piano solos are missing and much of the Harpo/Chico stuff with Edgar Kennedy owes more to Laurel and Hardy’s brand of tit-for-tat violence than the Marxes’ own style of mayhem. No doubt director Leo McCarey’s influence is at work – he was the guy who had the bright idea of pairing Stan and Ollie in the first place. Even the justly famous mirror scene is an old vaudeville routine given a thin Marx gloss. That said, the classic scenes when they come are amazing and no Marx film will make you laugh more consistently. It’s perhaps typical of this most perverse of all comedy teams that their best film is also in many ways their least typical!

1935: A Night at the Opera

Duck Soup flopped on its first release and cost the brothers their Paramount contract, but MGM snapped them up. Zeppo at this stage quit, fed up of being the under-appreciated straight man. This prompted the studio to ask if the three of them wanted to be paid as much as the four of them. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Groucho shot back, “Without Zeppo, we’re worth twice as much.” Wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg convinced the boys that removing the romantic comedy subplot had been a mistake (sigh) but he also spent months getting the comedy scenes for their new movie just right, and had the brilliant idea of sending the comedy scenes out on the road so the team could get the timing and the lines just-so. The result is that pretty much every comedy scene is a classic but – as with the earlier films – they now occupy only about half the running time. To be fair, now when the guy-that-nobody-cares-about sings a love song to the girl-that-nobody-cares-about, it’s with the full backing of the 80-piece MGM orchestra and looks gorgeous, but you’d still be tempted to hit fast-forward to get to The Contract Scene or The Stateroom Scene or The Bedroom Scene. Harpo’s presence is a little muted which is a shame.

1937: A Day at the Races

Opera was a smash hit and it was inevitable that MGM would try and get lightning to strike twice. The previous film suddenly became a template to be followed, and most of the films that came after it would try and recapture what made it work so well, including putting the comedy scenes out on tour before filming began. Allan Jones and Sig Ruman both return and the plots are eerily similar. A Day at the Races is fine, but many of the routines are not-as-good versions of previous scenes. Tootsie-Frootsie Ice Cream is good but not as good as The Contract Scene. Groucho’s introduction to the sanitarium is good but not quite as good as his introduction as President of Fredonia. Margaret Dumont’s examination is good but quite as good as the Passport Scene, and so on. The musical numbers are even longer and more boring than ever (the lavish water carnival sequence goes on for about a week – on the DVD I’ve got, even the film historian providing the commentary checks out while it’s on) and when Harpo gets mistaken for the angel Gabriel by a gang of Hollywood 1930s negroes, it’s enough to make you wish you’d never put the movie on in the first place. On the other hand, the twenty minutes in the middle with Esther Muir trying to frame Groucho is as good as anything they’ve ever done. Irving Thalberg died before the movie was complete and some say the Marxes’ enthusiasm for making movies died with him.

1938: Room Service

A real curio. A “straight” stage farce rewritten for the Marxes and the tension between the source material and the comedians playing it often shows. Why would Groucho Marx care if his play gets a backer or not? Isn’t there an authority figure he could spend his time insulting instead? Some of the blacker comedy plays oddly against the Marxes sunny pandemonium as well. The scene which gives the film its title is probably the best and – hey, look – it’s Lucille Ball. Their only film for RKO.

1939: At the Circus

Back under contract at MGM, they rattled off three films in three years. Each one contains at least something of note, but all three are depressingly ordinary most of the time. At the Circus is the least interesting of the three because what stuffy pomposity can the Marxes undermine when at a circus for chrissakes? Groucho now has to join his wig-wearing brothers to conceal his receding hairline, and those awkward negroes from Races are back. Margaret Dumont pretty much saves the film in the last third but before then we do get Lydia the Tatooed Lady which is a real gem.

1940: Go West

Somewhat of an improvement, with a crackerjack opening (albeit another riff on the Tootsie-Frootsie scene) and an amazing train chase at the end, but little that comes between is really worthy of comment. Harpo, who was once an invincible demon from another reality, is here mainly reduced to a doofus who just does silent imitations of whomever is talking, Groucho looks mainly bored and Chico ends up playing straight man far too often.

1941: The Big Store

All three brothers look a bit old and tired now – they were all in their fifties. Harpo and Groucho have a nice scene with Margaret Dumont at the beginning but most of the rest is pretty by-the-numbers. My favourite scene is the piano duet with both Harpo and Chico at the keys. They would reprise this act in their live show for years afterwards. Groucho has abandoned the toupee at least, for what was announced as their final film.

1946: A Night in Casablanca

But Chico’s gambling debts meant that when UA offered them a deal, they had to accept. Casablanca is quite a lot better than anything since Races and in a neat piece of symmetry sends Groucho back to running a hotel just like in The Cocoanuts. Sig Ruman from Opera and Races also returns (no Dumont alas) and Frank Tashlin adds some great gags for Harpo. If you can overlook the constant talk of death and injury, and try not to notice that Chico is now nearly 60, there’s some great stuff here, as well as some stuff obviously reprising earlier, better routines. What a great film to finish on.

1949: Love Happy

Planned as a Harpo film, Chico inveigled his way into the production and then the producers insisted on Groucho taking part too so they could market it as a Marx Brothers movie. He acts mainly as narrator, and nothing in the film is really that interesting, except an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe for five minutes towards the end.

If you really want to, you can count the very strange The Story of Mankind (1957) which includes all three Marx brothers but in different sketches, or the made-for-TV The Incredible Jewel Robbery (1959) which is a wordless Harpo-Chico story for 29 minutes and then has a surprise appearance by Groucho at the end – plus lots of TV appearances by one or two brothers at a time.

Which is the best?

If you want to watch a movie which is very funny all the way through with no longeurs, it has to be Duck Soup. If you want a professionally-made movie with lots of classic scenes, pick A Night at the Opera. If you want to know what the Marx Brothers were all about, watch Animal Crackers. If you want to understand them as a phenomenon, watch all three. And then all the others.