Sunday, 19 June 2016

Dumbshow in Dorset


It's been all quiet on the Dumbshow front for the best part of a year - just as it's been rather too tranquill on the blog as a whole since my review of The Breakfast Club. But now one of my favourite theatre companies, formed out of the genius of Clockheart Boy at the University of Warwick, are bringing their acclaimed creation Electric Dreams to (roughly) my part of the UK.
For those of you who didn't read my preview of the original run of Electric Dreams in 2014, its return to Camden in 2015 or its subsequent appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, the show is inspired by Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. The play revolves around Rose, who inexplicably has no recollection of the first 18 years of her life. Aided by a group of librarians whose premises are facing imminent closure, she begins a journey of discovery spanning 1950s mind control experiments, the erosion of the welfare state and the second Iraq War.
Before you accuse me of just giving a plug to my fellow Warwick alumni, I'm not the only one who's been singing the show's praises. Lyn Gardner of The Guardian called it "an ambitious piece of political theatre", while Dominic Cavendish of The Daily Telegraphy said that it was "told with conviction, theatrical ingenuity and a touching central performance." In an era of big-bucks escapism, political theatre of this intensity and calibre should be celebrated in Britain, and Dumbshow's track record for quality is impeccable.
Electric Dreams will be playing at the Dorchester Corn Exchange on July 6 from 8pm, at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis on July 7 from 7.30pm, and at Bridport Arts Centre on July 8 from 8pm. If you seriously cannot be bothered to come to the West Country (goodness knows why, it's beautiful), the show will also be performed for six nights at Battersea Arts Centre in London between July 12 and 16. To get tickets follow the links embedded here or visit for more details.


Monday, 30 May 2016

250TH REVIEW: The Breakfast Club (1985)


The Breakfast Club (USA, 1985)
Directed by John Hughes
Starring Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall 

In my now-antiquarian review of Gregory's Girl, I spoke about how coming-of-age films often become indelibly tied up with the people whose careers they helped to launch. Even before thousands of lazy "where are they now?" articles appeared on the internet, it was common for film stars to be born from a single role and then live forever in its shadow - Phil Daniels from Quadrophenia being a good example. 
Of course, this phenomenon is not something that's unique to film in general, or this sub-genre in particular. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never truly shook off the mantle of Sherlock Holmes, just as A. A. Milne failed to divorce himself entirely from Winnie the Pooh. But the effect is more pronounced here, given the strong generational identity of coming-of-age films and the speed at which such a reputation can be accrued. It is within this heightened context that we must approach The Breakfast Club, a good-natured and heart-warming film whose shortcomings have long been masked by nostalgia and the passage of time.
It's very difficult to tackle The Breakfast Club critically without in some way offending a vast swathe of one's potential audience (or at least a section which is of a certain age). In the 31 years since its release, it has become the poster child for the Brat Pack group of actors, the gold standard of 1980s teen comedy-dramas, the yardstick against which all of John Hughes' work is measured, and a by-word for insight into the teenage condition. That's a tough reputation for any film to live up to, and to expect one film to succeed at all that is to set ourselves up for a fall.
The truth is that the teenage condition - in fact, the human condition as a whole - is such a diverse subject that no one film can never successfully epitomise a generation. As much as I have praised Heathers - and will continue to do so - I would be both a liar and a fool to claim that its pitch-black humour and playful violence were wholly characteristic of the 1980s. 'Definitive' is a very dangerous word, and it's important that a reviewer's personal opinions do not become either conflated with or inflated into any wider pronouncement about a whole culture - especially when such a judgement is made on the basis of the reputation of a work, rather than the work itself.
In the case of The Breakfast Club, there are two ways in which Hughes' film can be enjoyed or appreciated. One is as a total throwback, in which we pretend that Simple Minds are still in the charts, enjoy the characters on their own terms and emerge from the darkness back to our own, complicated lives once the school day is over. The other is to delve deeper for something approaching universal insight within what the characters say and do, trying to downplay or ignore the period details. As someone who has long been opposed to escapism for its own sake, it should come as little surprise that I find the latter approach to be more effective and worthwhile.
If we choose to see this film in purely escapist terms, then it's really no better or worse than anything else Hughes put out during this period. Its storytelling style may be more understated than Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but it shares the same carefree optimism that Heathers would later tear to shreds. The fashions, particularly those exhibited by Judd Nelson, look ridiculous, even by some of the more bizarre trends being exhibited today. The music is apt in places, but Hughes' choices are still relatively safe; the cinematography is tender and understated, but nothing massively remarkable; and the script has its fair share of gems but also sections which are too slow or somewhat clunky.
If we choose the second, more analytical approach, the most curious thing which emerges about The Breakfast Club is that its character conventions are very much out of their own time. David Ansen, former film critic for Newsweek, summed it up best in his review from 1985: "Hughes obviously remembers his own adolescence, for the stereotypes he employs are virtually unchanged since the 1960s, give or take a marijuana cigarette. Parents are still the root of all evil, surly rebels hide sensitive hearts, and no problem is so great that an honest heart-to-heart won't fix it."
Hughes has always taken a warm, rose-tinted view of adolescence, but it is particularly marked in this film; Ansen even carped that he "deserved more plaudits as a social worker than a filmmaker". It may be a feature of not having grown up with the film, but by tarring all the grown-up characters with the same brush it actually serves to make the children's concerns and reactions to their problems less nuanced. Rather than just turn the principal into your standard narky bad guy, Hughes could have used his character as a mirror, showing not just what the children could grow into, but that he secretly harbours the same concerns as them (or at least once did).
Having built slowly and meandered along pleasantly for most of its running time, The Breakfast Club truly begins to justify itself at the very point when it should become most hokey - when the characters all sit down and talk about their problems. There are still little irritations along the way - Nelson's punk would never be that eloquent in real life - but the combined likeability of the performers lend this an air of credibility. Whatever generation the concerns emanate from, the fears and hopes they have are pretty universal, and the film has the confidence to be open-ended where a less confident writer-director would have opted for pat sentimentality.
The biggest emotional pull of The Breakfast Club - the element which still resonates most strongly with young audiences - is the fear of being pigeonholed or abandoned. The characters at the start of the film appear to have been painted with pretty broad brushstrokes, but as the film winds on they feel like three-dimensional people who aren't completely comfortable in their own skins. Hughes beautifully captures the way in which teenagers use fashion trends, clothing, hairstyles or even speech patterns as defence mechanisms, means to protect themselves in a society where showing your true feelings or celebrating who you really are is either discouraged or dismissed as unhelpful by those in authority.
In a way, there are six main characters in The Breakfast Club; our five protagonists, and the oppressive silence of the school itself. Hughes is clever to leave long gaps between sections of dialogue before the final act, making the school feel more like a prison; not only are the children being punished, but their surroundings act as an institutional standard against which they are being silently and implicitly judged. There is a comparison here with Jean-Paul Sartre's seminal play No Exit, which postulated that "hell is other people"; the characters' struggle is not just against each other, but against the absurd and arbitrary standards of the adult world which they are destined to enter whether they like it or not.

The Breakfast Club is a charming teen comedy-drama which retains some but not all of its punch after 31 years. Hughes' warm direction and nostalgic writing will not be to everyone's tastes, particularly to those who like their comedy on the spikier side, and both the pacing and characterisation are a little lax in the early section. Ultimately it's still watchable fare - something that certainly can't be said of every coming-of-age film - which succeeds and earns what reputation is deserves on the strength of the performers and the substance of its final act. Our memory may play tricks about how good it really is, but we certainly shouldn't forget about it any time soon. 


For more information on Gregory's Girl, Quadrophenia, Heathers, check out the archives of The Movie Hour from my time on Lionheart Radio. Click here to see the breakdown of episodes or visit

NEXT REVIEW: Juno (2007)

Saturday, 28 May 2016

ANNOUNCEMENTS: Apologies (again)


Things have been a little quiet around here since I posted my review of Tammy, and many of you who do not follow my other exploits on the internet and elsewhere may feel that you are overdue an explanation for my absence. Rather than run the risk of letting this blog become slowly mothballed by default - by way of not posting anything new until no-one is reading it anymore - I think it's best that I clear the aor and give you all an update.

The reason for the pause in posts is threefold. Firstly, and most importantly, I am in the final stages of preparations for my wedding to Aimee Braunton on July 9th. We are both really excited by the big day but there is still a lot that remains to be sorted out, and so I have had to devote all my spare time to helping out (Aimee, to her eternal credit, shouldered much of the preparatory burden during my exams and so it's only fair that I muck in more now). I had already planned a small hiatus from blogging during the month of July for my wedding and honeymoon, but for the sake of the wedding actually going ahead in the first place, film reviews have had to take a back seat.

Secondly, there have been a lot of changes at work recently to which I and my colleagues at the Western Gazette are still adjusting. Since Trinity Mirror took over Local World, we have been substantially reorganised to turn us more into a "digital first" operation, with reporters now having little or nothing to do with the print edition which appears every Thursday. We've had a number of redundancies across the group, and I've been moved to a different patch as our new website, Somerset Live, prepares to take flight on June 13. It's been a difficult and at times traumatic process, and I have often had no energy or enthusiasm left for my film reviews after spending the whole day at the local news coalface. I hope that as things settle it will become easier to balance the two, but in terms of the long-term future of this blog, we will have to see.

Thirdly, there is the simple matter of writers' block. I'm more than halfway through my review of The Breakfast Club - which will be my 250th here on Mumby at the Movies - but I've hit a John Hughes-shaped brick wall. My imagination has somewhat diminished in recent times with the demands of my job; journalism and creative writing should not be mutually exclusive, but deadlines by their nature demand simplicity, and I sometimes wonder whether my intellect is becoming exhausted. I do not say this to disparage either my job or the people who pay me to do it; it is simply a reflection of how my brain has changed. There is only so much inspiration I can have to go with my finite amount of perspiration, and often that means there is nothing left for the blog when the working day is done. So rather than fill these pages with hackneyed guff which is beneath both me and my audience, I sometimes think it best to write nothing at all until something good comes along.

All of which is a protracted and long-winded way of saying: sorry that there's been no content on the blog for a while. I will try and do better in the future, and will have more content for you very soon. Thanks for bearing with me, and God bless you all.

P. S. I'm also attempting to revive The Goon Show Guide within the new posts - watch this space...

Monday, 2 May 2016

DEBUT FEATURES: Tammy (2014)


Tammy (USA, 2014)
Directed by Ben Falcone
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Allison Janney

It's frequently the fate of Saturday Night Live comedians to follow a successful television career with an immensely underwhelming one in film. The number of SNL cast members who have successfully transitioned to the big screen is relatively small, and the number of successful films based on SNL material is even smaller. For every effort like The Blues Brothers or National Lampoon's Animal House, there are pathetic failures like McGruber, Coneheads and It's Pat! which fall well short of the required standard.
What is ultimately required for any SNL cast member seeing to making the leap is to find the right vehicle, something which can showcase their comedic talents while allowing them to break out of the confinements of TV sketches and demonstrate their potential range. Melissa McCarthy may have already found considerable commercial success since Bridesmaids, but she has yet to find a leading vehicle which genuinely plays to all her strengths. The kindest thing you can say about Tammy is that it isn't the vehicle she needs - though given how trashy mainstream taste has become, it is probably the one we deserve.
Like We're The Millers from the year before, the central problem with Tammy is a total lack of effort on the part of the director in the face of half-decent material. The fact that Ben Falcone is married to his main star may lead to any number of snide remarks about Hollywood relationships, but the problem goes much deeper than any nepotistic tendencies. Falcone's track record in TV is hardly inspiring, helming the Friends spin-off Joey and odd episodes of New Girl - both shows which think they are a great deal funnier and cleverer than they ever had any hope of being.
McCarthy is a talented screen presence, and on a shallow level it's gratifying to find a woman succeeding in Hollywood without being stereotypically skinny. But try as she might, Tammy is a film which constantly conspires against her attempts to bring depth and likeability to her character. It may be more cinematic than a direct spin-off from SNL, insofar as it doesn't overtly feel like a drawn-out series of sketches, but it fails by constantly going for the cheap, low-end gag when it could achieve something funnier and more meaningful with just a little more effort.
Buried somewhere within the misplaced (or misjudged) comic intentions of Tammy, there is a potentially tender and pathos-ridden drama. The lynchpin of the film is the relationship between Tammy and her alcoholic, diabetic grandmother, played with cantankerous glee by Susan Sarandon. Her character takes heavily after Maude in Harold and Maude, being an elderly person definitely not acting her age, and their interplay is the only thing that manages to hold our attention throughout.
Had Falcone and McCarthy, who wrote the script together, had the confidence to play to an audience's patience and intelligence, this could have been a touching comedy-drama about women struggling to find their place in a society where men don't accept them for who they are, and where superficial appearances count for far too much. There are substantial sections of the story where we feel story for Tammy as a character: for all her grotesqueness, rough edges and bad decision-making, she's someone who doesn't deserve many of the problems which befall her. The opening act, involving her husband cheating on her, is a scene that could easily have ended up in The First Wives Club.
But whether through a lack of confidence, studio pressure or a simple failure in judgement, this is not the film which has resulted. Instead these patches of decently-constructed drama are interspersed with asinine, three-rate gross-out set-pieces. Under these circumstances the central relationship between McCarthy and Sarandon becomes like the Werner Herzog sequences with the nuns in Harmony Korine's Mr. Lonely: a diverting dramatic interlude with narrative gravity, punctuating an aimless, unfunny and poorly constructed mess.
Even by the low, throwaway standards of SNL, most of these sequences would have ended up on the cutting room floor. The bee routine is lazy and goes nowhere, and the arguments which Tammy gets into make too little sense to either be funny or advance the plot. The scene where Tammy robs a fast food outlet is badly paced and shambolically assembled, with lots of needless pauses as though McCarthy was waiting for the audience to laugh. Watching these sequences not only gives you the dull, depressing ache which comes from not laughing during a comedy: you also have a solid pang of disappointment in the knowledge that, on the form of Bridesmaids at least, McCarthy can and should do so much better.
McCarthy comes across as our generation's equivalent of John Candy - not only in any form of physical comparison, but also their ability to match a goofy sense of humour with genuine pathos. Both Candy and McCarthy take heavily after the world of clowning, following on the legacy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin of marrying physical pandemonium with an underlying melancholy. In the hands of a good director, both aspects are balanced, but here McCarthy is all energy and no foundation, resulting in a performance which is increasingly aimless and arbitrary.
Sarandon's presence in the film may lead us to make a comparison with The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's admirable but heavy flawed attempt to adapt Alice Sebold's equally problematic novel. Purely on a like-for-like basis, Sarandon's 'crazy grandmother' here is better than her performance in Jackson's film, and the moral choices that the characters make, while still questionable, are not actively reprehensible. Both films also have uncomfortable tonal lurches, with the shifts from silly and serious seeming random and incongruous.
In the midst of all this disaster and wasted opportunity, there are a couple of redeeming features which prevent Tammy from being a total waste of time. Some of the supporting cast do very well with the limited material presented to them, particularly Kathy Bates in a role which brings fond memories of her appearance in About Schmidt. Dan Aykroyd's brief cameo is all pretty good fun, or at least a lot funnier than many of the projects to which he has lent himself over the last few years.
Tammy also looks pretty accomplished from a visual point of view. Russ T. Alsobrook is in familiar territory, having worked with Falcone on New Girl and lent his cinematographer's eye to the likes of Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. If nothing else, he makes Tammy's trashy beginnings look believable, and while his compositions and lighting choices are nothing special, he does provide some form of continuity to prevent the film from feeling too episodic.
Tammy is a disappointing outing for McCarthy which plays to too few of her strengths and fulfills on far too little of its potential. The central relationship, when it can get a word in edgeways, and the performances of the supporting cast prevent it from being an unmitigated disaster. But while it's basically watchable, there's precious little here to make it memorable or to generate a hearty recommendation. McCarthy remains a talent to keep on one's horizons, but this is not the project she deserves. 


NEXT REVIEW: My 250th review on Mumby at the Movies!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

LETTERS OF NOTE: Charlotte Brontë


Apologies again for a brief hiatus from content - things have been extremely busy with work and organising mine and Aimee's wedding. My review of Tammy is slowly coming together, and I certainly hope to have it out before the end of the month. In the meantime, hopefully this literary Letter of Note will fill the void.
In 1848 Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 30. Her family was greatly affected by her untimely passing, with her younger sister Anne succumbing to the same disease the following year. Charlotte, the oldest and most widely-read of the Brontë sisters, wrote to her publisher shortly after Emily's death, describing her fears for Anne and their father. It's a sad and touching read, as she struggles to reconcile her despair at her sister's passing with the knowledge that she is now at peace and safe from all the ills of this world.
You can read Charlotte's letter in full here. If you're still needing a dose of classic literature afterwards, you can check out this little morsel about Jane Austen here. Failing that, may I suggest you check out the classic 1939 version of Wuthering Heights, starring a young Laurence Olivier at Heathcliff. Check out the trailer below:

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Soul in the Machine


It's been quite a long time since I've blogged on here about the excellent work of Exeter YMCA. With me now firmly settled in Yeovil, my trips to Exeter have become sporadic at best, but I do my utmost to keep at least faintly in touch with what the charity is up to. And their latest big event, which happens next month, is something I strongly recommend you check out.
On May 21st, Exeter YMCA will be welcoming the Saltmine Theatre Company to perform The Soul in the Machine, a new production about YMCA founder George Williams. The play traces Williams' own life, from his early childhood in Bridgwater to his education in Tiverton (where I used to work) and his formative years in London. Here his exposure to the great social deprivation, lack of support for young men and the need for Christian renewal in Victorian Britain led him to found the Young Men's Christian Association in 1844.
Today the YMCA's activities are broader and different in shape in many respects compared to Williams' original vision, but at its heart its mission and values are the same: to heal this broken world through God's work, and to help people where there is neither help nor hope to be found. While Williams' own words resonated strongly in the age of steam and coal, they speak every bit as powerfully to our society. His fears for a world where people are slaves to mechanisation, a world which crushes and eradicates any sense of purpose as opposed to function, point to what is needed in our own society: a realisation of just how crucial the spiritual dimension is to understanding our world, our role in it and how to help each other.
I've had the pleasure of seeing Saltmine perform on stage only once: a production of C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, adapted by Riding Lights Theatre Company's brilliant playwright Nigel Forde. While my familiarity with Saltmine's work is therefore less so than that of Riding Lights, this is a production that will inspire and challenge you. Like all the best theatre, it will bring forth ideas which you never considered in depth before and leave you changed as a result. Check out the trailer:
The Soul in the Machine will be perfomed at Belmont Chapel in Exeter on May 21st from 7pm. Tickets are £10 and can be booked online here; for more information call Bethan Spencer on 01392 410530 or email If you can't make the Exeter show, don't despair: the production is touring from May 5th, including a date in London on May 14th, and will be heading to the Edinburgh Festival in August. You can find all the details for future dates on the Saltmine website here.


Sunday, 10 April 2016

GREAT FILMS: Still Alice (2015)


Still Alice (USA, 2015)
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth

By any measurement you care to mention, Julianne Moore has had an extraordinary career. In an industry which remains obsessed with youth and all that is fleeting, her longevity has been little short of inspirational to actors and audiences alike. And in all the time that she has been in Hollywood, she's managed to maintain a good amount of box office pull while being able to choose smaller, more offbeat projects which other actresses her age might never get offered. Mark Kermode admires her work so greatly that in his autobiography, It's Only A Movie, he cast her to play his wife in the fictional film of his life.
Moore's Oscar win for Still Alice, after being nominated on four previous occasions, could be seen as the culmination of a career which has seen her work with such stellar talents as Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, David Cronenberg, Todd Haynes and Ridley Scott. But even if you take the Oscar out of the equation - taking the Academy's decision with the typical kilo of salt - the film is a really powerful and tender experience. It's a million miles from the typical Hollywood approach to serious illness, and as its centre we find Moore at the very peak of her powers.
Because so much of its essence is about glamour and mystique, Hollywood's most common approach to terrible illnesses is to downplay the symptoms for as long as possible and then jump right ahead to the extreme endpoint. If the film is about, say, a cancer patient, the patient will look as healthy and as well-fed as any member of the cast before suddenly declining in the final reel and popping their clogs. Kermode dubbed it "photogenic movie sickness" in his review of Gus van Sant's Restless (think Harold and Maude but pretentious and unfunny). Long after the star system declined, Hollywood is still wary about letting its leading lights deliberately dress down, unless they do so in a manner which deliberately draws attention to their own so-called pain and suffering.
By contrast, Still Alice deftly avoids this enormously problematic pothole, showing Alice's decline in full and over a steady period. The first traces of her condition are so slight that they seem insignificant, the sort of thing that could be excused or attributed by her busy lifestyle and demanding personal life. But bit by bit the evidence grows and our hearts grow heavy as Alzheimer's begins to eat away at all the things that define Alice, whether it's her ability to do her job or to recognise her own family.
Moore's performance throughout the film is brilliant, refusing to go down the showy route and just letting the character unfold before us. She continuously resists any urge to fly off the handle and thereby makes her most painful and embarrassing moments ache all the more. Most painful is where we see her urinate herself because she cannot remember the way to the toilet. Like Naomi Watts' masturbation scene at the end of  Mulholland Drive, the scene takes an action which could induce a snigger and uses it to express how hollowed out a person has become.
By adopting such a naturalistic approach, the film is making a powerful point about the way that our society deals with long-term illness and a slow, painful decline in faculties. In this age of reduced attention spans, whether caused by technology or merely exacerbated by it, we want stories that cut to the chase; we don't want life to end, and if it has to end we want it to be quick and painless. Still Alice is a reminder that life isn't always like that; our perception of time can vary in speed, and in wishing for something to be over, we neglect to create the memories which in the end may matter the most to us. Our society drastically needs to decrease its pace and regain the meaning to be found in slow, close personal contact.
Still Alice is also an examination of identity, and how it can be retained through certain essential qualities even as other aspects of it are disintegrated. The title is an expression of eternal dignity towards the central character, with neither the directors nor the other characters ever drawing a line in the sand beyond which Alice no longer exists. Just as people like to characterise cancer as something which can be physically beaten back and fought, so Alzheimer's is not allowed to define or swallow up Alice: even when she can barely speak, we still believe that it's her speaking and her brain working hard to make that happen.
Much has been made of the fact that co-director Richard Glatzer suffered from ALS (motor neurone disease) while Still Alice was being made, and died shortly after the film was released. Peter Debruge, writing in Variety, speculated in detail about how Glatzer and his partner and co-director Wash Westmoreland used their personal experiences to bring realism to Alice's story. It's easy to overegg this point and conclude that the film is somehow semi-autobiographical, but what is undeniable is that every emotional development in the film feels gut-wrenchingly real. The script is tender yet understated, and the directors allow the material to speak for itself rather than force-feeding us sentimentality.
An additional theme within Still Alice is that of expectations and the relationship between culture and medicine. Alice finds herself at a confluence of both spheres of human endeavour, with her daughter entertaining ambitions of being an actress and her husband being offered a role at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. While the film tends to focus more on medicine, both are ultimately given value by Alice's experiences, and she struggles to match people's expectations of what she can still do against the high hopes she has for them. She wants the best for her husband and daughter, but her desire to support is balanced by a need to fight the self-loathing which leads her to attempt suicide late in the film.
Moore's brilliant performance is balanced in this regard by a brace of very fine supporting turns, from a pair of actors on surprisingly good form. Alec Baldwin has drifted into lazy brashness far too often recently, but here he manages to hold himself together, keeping his frustrations just below the surface and letting his posture do the talking. Likewise, Kristen Stewart has very consciously sought to broaden her range since the Twilight series concluded, and while not all her attempts at this have worked, here it pays off. We begin expecting yet another mopey, introverted china doll and end up really taking to her character.
Still Alice is also a pleasant surprise in terms of the talent involved behind the camera. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir doesn't have the greatest record, lensing such turkeys as 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill and So Undercover. But here he's on best behaviour, with some tender, bittersweet colours and compositions which serve the material very nicely. Equally good is the unobtrusive score by Ilan Eshkeri: his work here rivals his score for Stardust, adding subtle emphases in every scene without feeling the need to dominate proceedings.
Still Alice is an almost perfect film which knocks almost every other American film about illness into a cocked hat. Despite the occasionally repetitive mis-step or episodic moment, it rises to the complex challenges presented by its subject matter to leave us both heartbroken and inspired. Moore's performance is of towering brilliance and she lifts everything around her, resulting in a gripping, tender and believable drama whose importance will only grow in time.


NEXT REVIEW: Tammy (2014)

Sunday, 3 April 2016

DEBUT FEATURES: Bulletproof Monk (2003)


Bulletproof Monk (Canada/ USA, 2003)
Directed by Paul Hunter
Starring Chow Yun-fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King, Karel Roden

In my review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I spoke about the ability to enjoy the physical spectacle of a film even if the story isn't able to hold your attention. I said that much of the appeal of martial arts films lay in their physicality and skilful choreography, with many people going to see the likes of Enter the Dragon and The Raid because of how fantastically Bruce Lee or his modern-day equivalents could move.
If you could picture a graph with 'substance' on the vertical axis and 'style' on the horizontal axis, Ang Lee's film would be perched near the top right, possessing plenty of both. Slightly further down you would find the likes of Hero and House of Flying Daggers by Zhang Zimou, which are utterly breathtaking to behold but somewhat thinner in the brain department. Bulletproof Monk belongs below this group of films, having next to nothing between its ears but holding our attention with a pulpy style and plenty of silliness.
One of the first things you can say about Bulletproof Monk is that it is testament to the lasting influence of Indiana Jones. More than 20 years after Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, filmmakers throughout Hollywood were still being influenced by it, borrowing from it, and trying to recapture its magic in their own action sequences. Some films from this period, like Dungeons and Dragons, borrowed from Steven Spielberg in a very candid way, with the maze sequences blatantly ripping off whole scenes from the original trilogy. But in a more general way, the films set the template for light-hearted pulpy adventure stories, just as the James Bond series had created the default style for escapist spy films.
The best section of Bulletproof Monk is the first 20 minutes, which play out like an Indiana Jones film with martial arts. I spoke in my review of The Boys from Brazil about how Nazis have become the go-to bad guys for Hollywood films, and this opening sequence is an excellent demonstration of how this still holds true. As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, the nationality of the soldiers is irrelevant: it's funny to see narrow-minded racist bigots get their arses handed to them whatever their creed or colour. This section is what Big Trouble in Little China always should have been like, and the open air setting also brings out the best in debut director Paul Hunter.
When I reviewed Atlantis: The Lost Empire, I criticised the fact that the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade could be "easily transposed" onto its own, such was the laziness of its writing. Bulletproof Monk isn't in the same league in terms of narrative similarities: its plot does revolve around an ancient McGuffin and fighting Nazis, but the beats of its narrative are more entrenched in the buddy movie genre. Additionally, the film differs from Disney's disaster in the attitude it has towards its audience. While Disney displayed active contempt for the audience's intelligence, the film is as least partially aware of how silly it all is and invites those watching to relax and share in the silliness.
From this perspective, a more accurate (albeit general) comparison would be with Highlander, and again this film comes out pretty well. Both Russell Mulcahy and Paul Hunter come from a background in music videos, and both display this lineage in a way which affects the cinematic quality of their respective films. But while Highlander devotes most of its first hour to falling short in its exploration of potential-laden ideas, this is very clear how pulpy and trashy it is from the outset. The action sequences in the opening segment are nicely paced, and while there are no instantly memorable moves to speak off, we do at least get to see things play out without too many distractions.
Where things start to go awry is later in the film, where the fight scenes are predominately set indoors and there is a lot more talking to be done. Hunter's filmography as a pop video director includes videos by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes; rap and hip hop are genres visually distinguished by fast, flashy cuts and often distracting angles. It is possible to use these techniques in a way which enhances the storytelling - Requiem for a Dream is a very good example - but Hunter lacks Darren Aronofsky's skill with composition and lighting, and the action becomes increasingly hard to follow or invest in.
Outside of the action sequences, there is the small matter of our central pairing of Chow Yun-fat and Seann William Scott. Both were in the peak of their careers at this point, with the former riding a new wave of Western recognition after Crouching Tiger and the latter soaking up the fame (or infamy) generated by the first two American Pie offerings. It's hardly the most original pairing under the sun, riffing far too heavily on The Karate Kid for comfort and with not a shred of memorable dialogue between them. But considering how closely associated he has become with Stifler, Scott is surprisingly decent here, or at the very least isn't so overtly obnoxious that we wish he would just go away.
Once its opening sequence is out of the way, Bulletproof Monk quickly settles down into a by-the-numbers action movie-cum-buddy comedy. In terms of effort expended, it's only a hop, skip and a jump from Cradle 2 the Grave from hereon in, and had you missed the first 20 minutes and caught this on late-night TV, you could be forgiven for not remembering anything about it. None of it is offensively bad or overtly irritating, and moments in the script is vaguely witty as it takes the mickey out of pop-Tao philosophy. But beyond its desire to occasionally poke fun at generic convention, it's nothing to write home about.
This feeling of middle-of-the-road decency is reflected in the cinematography. Stefan Czapsky has had a very interesting career, lensing Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and the terrific Ed Wood, as well as working with acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) and oddball Todd Solondz (Fear, Anxiety and Depression). This work, however, is much closer to his work on Child's Play 2: the colours are bland and uninspiring, the compositions are generic and the workmanlike camerawork is ultimately compromised by Hunter's penchant for rapid editing.
Hunter has not made another feature film since this effort, and the explanation for this is more complex than may first appear. He clearly has a number of obvious gaps in his filmmaking lexicon which don't do Bulletproof Monk any favours - he's not great with character development, his visuals are shallow and uninspiring, and his camerawork has no distinctive style. But equally his fate is one of many who are parachuted into Hollywood on the basis that they can shoot quickly and handle big-name talent. The script isn't exactly first-rate, and Hunter deserves some credit for marshalling what could be a total borefest into something which is entertainingly risible.
Because Bulletproof Monk has made clear how silly it is early on, it is entirely possible to overlook its technical shortcomings and just let it wash over you as a perfectly acceptable piece of escapist tosh. Whether it is in on the joke or just trying hard to win us over, there is a fair bit of humour to be found which ultimately sees us through the running time, even if we don't care about the story. As with Highlander and Logan's Run before it, it becomes most enjoyable at the very point where we cannot take it seriously, and while it's not spirited or boisterous enough to be considered a romp, it is a pleasant hour and forty minutes' excursion.
The one further similarity that this film has with Highlander is its anticlimactic final battle. The battle combines the search for the ultimate prize (itself a lift from Raiders) and elderly Nazis getting their comeuppance from The Boys from Brazil - and like the former, the final fight from Bulletproof Monk fails to deliver on anything like a satisfying level. The setting may be more ornately pantomime than Mulcahy managed to deliver, and it is more visually impressive than two elderly hams and their stunt doubles rolling around on the floor. But having built up Strucker to such an extent, having him fall off a building and be electrocuted is  both cartoonish (in a Disney way) and disappointingly brief.
Bulletproof Monk is a divertingly silly debut feature which is nothing like as bad as critics at the time made out. Hunter's only film to date has plenty of technical shortcomings which together conspire to make it unmemorable after the first 20 minutes, and the weak script generally leaves its reasonably talented cast with precious little to go on. But there is enough both in its glee-inducing opening and the odd pockets of energy dotted throughout to pass the time and leave a smile on your face.


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