Tuesday, 25 August 2015

REVIEW REVISITED: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)


This is a reprint of my review which was published on this blog last June, with a number of minor revisions. That version of the review can be found here. Also be sure to check out the Movie Hour podcast on the film from November 2011 here. 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (USA, 2010) 
Directed by Edgar Wright 
Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Brandon Routh

When I reviewed Gregory's Girl, I argued that coming-of-age movies are both thin on substance and have a limited lifespan. Films as varied as American Graffiti and Dirty Dancing revolve around the same old stories of young love and heartbreak; the ones that last are not just those that evoke their period, but which contain some kind of deeper truth about the process of growing up.
Being a young man still somewhat within the coming-of-age bracket, it is hard for me to say how good Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will look in ten years' time, when the gaming world has moved on and young people no longer talk like extras from Juno. All that can be said right now, five years on from its original release, is that this is the one of the best coming-of-age comedies I have seen in a long, long time.
For starters, Edgar Wright has managed to make a film about video games which doesn't feel like a video game adaptation. The plot on paper does seem like a video game: defeat a series of bosses to win points and get the girl. But unlike, for instance, Tomb Raider, the film doesn't feel like you are watching someone else playing a game and expecting you to be interested. The fight sequences feel like natural continuations of the story, and the character development in-between is a damn sight more complex and insightful than the swathes of exposition in something like Silent Hill.
The film has an extraordinary visual style which is somewhere between Tron and Sin City. Like Tron, you feel at moments like you are inside a video game rather than just a spectator. And as in Sin City, the film retains a very literal comic book structure, albeit without the dull pomposity of Robert Rodriguez's film. The video game elements in both the design and content of the battles are used to complement and enhance the conflict; the powers gained and used by Scott and his foes do not become distracting goals unto themselves.
Like the comic it is based upon, Scott Pilgrim jumps from one form of reality to another without warning. There are many flights of fantasy which are either poignant or hilarious, and the film explores issues of love and death with a fascinating alacrity. It makes no bones about its comic book violence, shooting the battles in a playful and entertaining manner with minimal focus on any lingering amount of pain. We still believe the characters are in danger, but as in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies there is no real need to demonstrate their danger beyond stylised forms of suggestion.
Several moments in the film really stick in one's mind. Towards the end, Pilgrim is 'killed' by Gideon, the last of the evil exes played brilliantly by Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman. He finds himself in some kind of desert, identical to the dream in which he first saw Ramona. He then uses the 'life' he had gained before to replay all the previous events and finally defeat Gideon. Having the exes shatter into piles of coins when defeated is ingenious, as is the spectacle of sound waves forming into two dragons and taking on a giant aural gorilla during the Battle of the Bands.
Despite its large quantities of geeky references to video games and the like, the film gets away with it for the simple reason that it doesn't take itself too seriously. So many other films with video game elements fail as much from being po-faced as they do from being plotless. For all its visual style, Silent Hill is not scary, and for all its seeming intensity, Max Payne is not exciting. Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, has an incredible and knowing lightness of touch. It drifts like its central character from one scene to another, paying enough attention to follow what's going on while still finding time to escape into fantasy and have fun.
The film is laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end, with jokes coming so thick and fast that you struggle to keep up or breathe. The humour comes in all shapes and sizes, from physical slapstick to witty one-liners. We have Wallace, Scott's gay roommate, who hits on everyone's boyfriends and can seemingly text Scott's overprotective sister even whilst slipping into unconsciousness. We have Todd, the third evil ex, whose status as an arrogant vegan has given him psychic powers. We have the Japanese twins, who look like a bizarre marriage between Kraftwerk and Siegfried & Roy. And we have all of Scott's embarrassing verbal slip-ups, such as confusing 'love' for 'lesbians' and asking Ramona if she's into drugs.
Jokes like this drift very close to the more putrid adolescent comedies, like National Lampoon's Animal House, Porky's or Superbad. But despite all the moments where we cringe at the characters' actions, Scott Pilgrim is not out to make us wriggle uncomfortably in our seats. The more intimate scenes, including those of Ramona in her underwear, are shot with an underlying sense of respect. The film treats its female characters on a level playing field, not just by demonstrating they can fight as well as the men, but by refusing to fall into the trap of laughing at their misfortune during the break-up scenes.
In the midst of all its belly laughs and eye-popping visuals, Scott Pilgrim is a very tender treatment of young love, demonstrating not just how to get the girl but how to deal with the baggage that goes with all relationships. Both Scott and Ramona have issues with commitment, with the latter admitting that she went through a phase of being a total bitch. And like in Gregory's Girl, there is the faint suggestion that the girl Scott falls for may not be the one he is destined to be with. In the original draft of the screenplay, which preceded the final comics, he ends up with Knives instead.
In defeating the evil exes, Pilgrim is not just standing up to other people's demons but also confronting his own insecurities, and in doing so gaining self-respect. The film genuinely conveys the sense of heartbreak on both sides which comes at the end of a relationship, and it doesn't pretend that our heroes are perfectly compatible and therefore destined to be together. Ramona's changing hair colour and tendency to withdraw at crucial moments both represents the fragile nature of love and encapsulates the modern age of complicated relationships and how hard communication can be, despite (or perhaps because of) new technology.
The performances in Scott Pilgrim are all of a high calibre. Michael Cera, who can be annoying, puts in his best performance since Juno, taking his familiar dweeby character and refining it to make Scott genuinely empathetic rather than simply pitiful. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as Ramona, possessing a sense of mystery while being completely natural and down-to-earth. Kieran Culkin is hilarious as Wallace, and Brandon Routh is very good as Todd, turning in a performance which is a million times more charismatic than his work in Superman Returns.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the best films of 2010 and is destined to be a cult classic. It isn't quite a masterpiece, being slightly too long and feeling somewhat rough around the edges. It takes time to adjust to its peculiar execution, and I would be hard-pushed to say it was Wright's best film. But as a document of teenage love and insecurity, it edges out over Juno, and is therefore essential viewing for anyone in their early-20s.


NEXT REVIEW: The Prestige (2006)

Thursday, 20 August 2015

REVIEW REVISITED: Super Size Me (2004)


This is a reprint of my review which was first published on Three Men on a Blog in September 2011, with a number of minor revisions. My original review can be found here. 

Super Size Me (USA, 2004)
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
Starring Morgan Spurlock, Alexandra Jamieson, Daryl Isaacs, Lisa Ganjhu

Cinema is full of food-related scenes which are guaranteed to turn one's stomach. We have La Grande Bouffe, in which rich people eat themselves to death; Peter Greenaway turning cannibalism into an art form with The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; and the famously gross Mr. Creosote sequence from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. And then there is Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's appropriately queasy debut documentary.
Super Size Me follows Spurlock as he attempts to survive on nothing but McDonalds for an entire month. The rules are simple: he must eat three meals a day, he can only eat what is offered at McDonalds, he must try everything on the menu at least once, and he must answer "yes" if they offer him a super-size meal. In between tackling his alarming diet, Spurlock is closely monitored by a small army of doctors, and the only exercise he undertakes is walking the same daily distance as an average American.
Although it's an intensely personal, first-person documentary, the film has none of the self-obsession or navel-gazing which has dogged Michael Moore or late-period Nick Broomfield. For starters, Spurlock is a lot more likeable than either of these: we don't just enjoy his company, we get the impression that the film crew did as well. He is populist, rational and refreshingly self-effacing, in complete contrast to Moore who, in the words of Mark Kermode, seems mainly concerned with inflating his own ego.
Furthermore, Spurlock is pursuing a subject matter of great importance but getting under the surface with a bigger intention than scoring political points. Where Fahrenheit 9/11 frequently went off the boil for the sake of making Moore look good, Super Size Me keeps its eyes on the prize, being reasonably thorough and comprehensive in its investigations. In one of its best moments, Spurlock gets under the skin of a spokesman from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, getting him to admit that the lobbyists which he represents are part of the problem in the State-side obesity epidemic.
Like the films listed in the opening paragraph of this review, there are a number of scenes in Super Size Me which make you want to throw up. On Day 2 of the challenge, Spurlock orders a Big Mac and vomits it up in the car park. The camera looks away as he does it, but then shows the horrid yellow mess left on the tarmac. Equally disgusting are the close-ups of the food before it enters his stomach; suffice to say, it's nothing like the pictures. Worst of all, about halfway through we get to witness keyhole surgery on a gastric band operation, set to the main theme from The Blue Danube.
Critics of Super Size Me have pointed to these scenes as evidence of the film's partisan approach. Their argument goes that since Spurlock didn't test other restaurants or brands of fast food, he has a particular grudge against McDonalds and is using the film as a form of propaganda. The camera's lingering on Spurlock's discomfort, or his claims about his sex life suffering, are means of manipulating people into boycotting one company, rather than exposing deeper truths about the industry as a whole.
While the documentary may paint a far-from-rosy picture of McDonalds, such criticisms are unduly harsh. Spurlock makes clear from the start that this is not a clinical trial or a hard scientific experiment. He chose McDonalds for the reason that it has the most outlets across America, with the largest number of customers, and therefore would provide a more representative sample than a study of any other single chain. The evidence produced by Spurlock is pretty conclusive but not medically binding, which makes it all the more extraordinary when we discover in the epilogue that McDonalds has withdrawn its Super Size options.
The documentary is very even-handed in a number of points that it makes. At one of the schools examined in the film, the students are given a presentation by Jared Fogle, who lost a large amount of weight by eating Subway sandwiches (supposedly). The crew then interview a teenage girl who admires what Fogle has done, but who cannot afford to eat Subway three times a day. The positive goals which celebrities like Fogle are setting are as unhealthily unrealistic as the impossibly airbrushed bodies of girls in magazines. In terms of self-esteem among teenagers, role models of any kind are portrayed as doing more harm than good, at least in regard to this industry.
Super Size Me identifies three key areas in which there has been neglect, ignorance or cynical foul play with regards to the consumption of fast food. The first, unsurprisingly, is with McDonalds itself. Spurlock sheds light on the immense amount of money spent on advertising, which far exceeds the national budget for promoting healthy eating. The prevalence of TV advertising means that no parent, no matter how responsible, can guarantee their child isn't being poorly influenced, and individual McDonalds chains (at the time of making the film) are not displaying adequate levels of information about the nutrition content of their meals.
The second area which has fallen short is the American government. More recent documentaries such as Waiting for Superman have detailed the years of neglect and underfunding in the American state school system in a much more thorough and comprehensive way. But Super Size Me does show how the use of outside food contractors to provide school meals has led to a race to the bottom, in terms of price and in terms of quality. So much of the food served in schools requires no preparation other than reheating, and because the choices are limited children are brought up to accept nothing better, let alone healthier.
But thirdly, Super Size Me has the balls to point the finger at the individuals who consume McDonalds so frequently. Having made a very solid case against fast food companies and lobbyists, and spoken about the frightening extent of fast food advertising, the film concludes by saying that it's as much down to us not making the effort as it is the society in which we are constantly exposed to such food. This might seem like a cop-out, considering how much righteous anger the film generates through its arguments against the industry and the power it wields. But it is refreshing that a documentary has the balls to 'blame' the public without overly guilt-tripping them in the process.
On top of everything else, Super Size Me is a very entertaining piece of work. As well as making you feel angry or sick, there are at least as many moments in the film which will provoke laughter. Hearing Spurlock's girlfriend talk about their disappointing sex life is hilarious; she comments, for instance, about how she always has to be on top since he started his diet. On the day that we see him throw up, Spurlock cracks jokes about the side effects of fast food on his system, muttering about "Mc-twitches" in his arm and other such complaints. Such scenes are pleasant interludes which make the experience more bearable, and counteract any negative feelings we may have - for instance, the urge to shout at Spurlock to stop it, lest he should kill himself.
Super Size Me is a very good example of populist documentary filmmaking which is a good balance of entertainment and information. Its impact will be greater the less one knows about fast food in general or McDonalds in particular, and many may be bothered that it doesn't go into enough detail when it needs to. But as an introduction to a subject which many have barely considered, it is both admirable and successful.


NEXT REVIEW: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015



Welcome to this week's episode of The Goon Show Guide. After a brief hiatus characterised by illness and exhaustion, brought on by the office and a very nasty cold, I'm finally back and ready to make up for lost time. It's hard to believe that we're already halfway through the Goons' back catalogue, but this week we're going to take a good, long look at Series 6.
You would have a pretty good case for arguing that Series 6 was where the Goons hit their peak. With the exception of one slightly underwhelming offering (which we'll come to), there's barely an episode in this series which isn't either really good or utterly fantastic. Not only that, but this was the time when the Goons also achieved their greatest musical success: 'I'm Walking Backwards For Christmas', 'Bloodnok's Rock 'n' Roll Call' and 'The Ying Tong Song' all charted around this time.
By now the show had stopped being an utterly misunderstood little quirk and had been completely embraced by the British public. But that's not to say that the edge had gone off it, or that Spike Milligan was becoming more conventional in his approach and style of writing. Indeed, Series 6 contains some fantastic examples of surrealistic transferrence, where objects are given completely novel and hilarious uses, whether it's using an organ to set a land speed record in The Mighty Wurlitzer or sailing a prison on the high seas in Tales of Old Dartmoor.
What we have in Series 6 is the Goons at their most consistent, having enormous amounts of fun both with the scripts and amongst themselves. While the later series contain hints of Peter Sellers becoming fractious and frustrated as his film career began to take off, here he is very much in the mix and loving every minute of it. There's a fantastically sustained energy to the entire series, with the performers' enthusiasm still radiating through the lines, and the production values are pretty immaculate for the day. If you were looking for a place to start your Goon Show love, this would be a very good point of entry.

So, let's dive into the episodes and see what it is that makes Series 6 so great...

The Man Who Won The War
We start with an absolute belter. Since all three Goons served in the armed forces during World War II, it would seem logical that they would be at home parodying war memoirs from the period. The jokes are fantastic, with the memoirs' ever-more-tenuous collections to the conflict getting across the absurdity of cashing in on human tragedy. At the heart, however, there is a very touching yet hysterically funny story about someone desperately trying to get out of the army by pretending to be mad and incompetent, more than three decades before the same idea was deftly approached in Blackadder Goes Forth.

The Secret Escritoire
One of Spike's greatest gifts as a writer was taking a simple plot and spinning it out in many unpredictable directions. The central concept here is pretty barmy - Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty want to shrink Neddie down to a few inches tall so they can make a killing from selling miniature suits. But once you throw in some elephant tusks, a dead man in a matchbox and a whole bunch of ad libbing, you end up with a fun show which beat The Incredible Shrinking Man by two years.

The Lost Emperor
Much of Series 6 took its inspiration from beloved adventure stories of the period or from Milligan's childhood. Before he directly tackled King Solomon's Mines in Series 8, this was the closest he came to a pre-Indiana Jones romp, complete with ancient artefacts and running jokes about aardvarks (wait...). The funniest moments see the other actors making jokes at the expense of Harry Secombe's acting ability, and while the ending is abrupt, it's also adorable.

Napoleon's Piano
Another fantastic example of Spike's ability to turn the simple into the sublime. This episode starts with a clever ruse on the part of Grytpype and Moriarty, which leads to Neddie having to break into the Louvre to steal the piano Napoleon played at the Battle of Waterloo ("no wonder we lost"). There are some great jokes here, from Bloodnok's attempts at fishing to the raid on the Louvre itself with the large map and misbehaving clock. The ending is both a neatly contrived twist to get Bluebottle into the episode and a wonderful piss-take of third-rate melodramas. Highly recommended.

The Case of the Missing CD Plates
Another episode which combines deception with good running jokes. After Neddie is flattened by a steamroller, he vows revenge only to be thwarted by the diplomatic service. The sequence involving Henry and Minnie as incompetent firefighters is probably a bit too long, but the two acts either side of it are pretty taut. The episode sees Grytpype at his most lackadaisical: "I really couldn't say [where my piano was]. I threw it out of the window one night and the next morning it was gone."

Rommel's Treasure
Another military-themed episode, and another brilliant one. Based around an old army officer trying to locate a special box of treasure buried in the desert, the plot somehow manages to take in Christopher Columbus, Morris dancing, a pyramid salesman and Eccles taking the concept of obeying orders just a little too far. It's always fun to hear Sellers, Secombe and Milligan trying out their best German accents, and the episode benefits from several great jokes with long build-ups to cracking punchlines. And just when you think the story has painted itself into a corner with the final reveal, it pulls off one last trick to make you smile.

Foiled by President Fred
Shortly after The Goon Show ended, Spike collaborated with John Antrobus on The Bed-Sitting Room, a brilliant but nigh-on incomprehensible dark comedy which was later became a cult film. Its central idea, of English civilisation carrying on after a disaster as if nothing had happened, is pre-echoed here; the timid figure of Neddie, a gas meter inspector, is sent into a war zone to recoup an unpaid bill. Also known as In Honour Bound, this is a neat little episode which wrings the most out of its central concept.

Shangri-La Again
One of Spike's best film parodies, this episode takes aim at Lost Horizon by James Hilton, who also wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Taking pot shots at Noel Coward and the Frank Capra adaptation along the way, the script follows the plot of the novel very closely, recreating key scenes and then side-stepping our expectations. The earnestness of the characters is lovingly lampooned, such as Seagoon offering his men aspirin as they prepare to drive through a war zone, and the joke about Bloodnok's wedding involves a beautiful bit of wordplay.

The International Christmas Pudding
The Goons' Christmas shows are an uneven bunch, with Spike's various stabs at Robin Hood falling short. This one, on the other hand, is pretty good, based around an anthropomorphic pudding which has gone feral and needs to be hunted down. There are a few missed opportunities for poking fun at the British obsession with hunting, but there's still enough good material here to feast on, such as Eccles' shoe joke and Secombe tripping over his final few lines. The pay-off, for what's its worth, is arguably the funniest of the whole series.

The Pevensey Bay Disaster/ The Hastings Flyer - Robbed
These two episodes should be taken together, since they are working from the exact same script. The Pevensey Bay Disaster, which revolves around a train crash, had its broadcast delayed by two weeks because of the Milton train crash of November 1955, in which 11 people died and more than 150 were injured. The reason why it was aired again as The Hastings Flyer - Robbed is not clear, though Spike's massive workload is probably part of it. Both versions are good fun, albeit more slow-moving than a lot of episodes in this run.

The Sale of Manhattan
Introduced as The Lost Colony, this is another episode which revolves around the device of Neddie being duped by Grytpype and Moriarty. In this case, they manage to convince him that he is a Native American who rightfully owns Manhattan - a premise which would later be reworked for Drums Along the Mersey in the following series. While much of the episode is reusing old material - The Spanish Suitcase from Series 5 gets a look-in too - it's still pretty funny.

The Terrible Revenge of Fred Fu-Manchu
As you might have gathered from the title, this is one of the many episodes which are hard to justify in 2015. Borrowing the (racist) villain from Sax Rohmer's novels, this revolves around a plot to explode every metal saxophone after the title character lost a rigged music competition at the Crystal Palace in London. If you can get over the embarrassing portrayal of Asian people, which are a product of their time and not acceptable today, there is still some good stuff here, particularly the routine involving Eccles, Bluebottle and a stick of dynamite (use your imagination).

The Lost Year
This is a good example of surrealistic transferrance, in which a year - 1956 - becomes a physical object which goes missing. After a good opening routine involving Henry Crun as the manager of a stationery shop, the episode makes the most of an increasingly protracted search. The ending is a massive anti-climax (possibly a deliberately unfunny gag), and the running gags about Secombe's new single wear thin very quickly, but it's another good indication of how Spike was able to make the most he could from a single idea.

The Greenslade Story
The Goons always liked to poke fun at their long-suffering announcer and his employer, so it was only a matter of time before they gave him his own episode. The plot follows Wallace Greenslade's fictional journey from obscurity to a big star in his own right, and gives Auntie a fantastic ribbing about its old-fashioned methods and standards. Neddie's ill-fated attempts at training his own announcers and then resorting to kidnapping are hilarious, and the whole thing is lifted by the cameo appearance of John Snagge, the most respected BBC announcer and commentator of the time, who was also a big defender of the show.

The Mighty Wurlitzer
Another frequent target of the show was Secombe's Welsh heritage, send up here by suffixing every sentence in the opening act with "-bach" (a Welsh term of endearment). Once that's over and done with, the episode gradually builds with Neddie's ill-fated search of organ glory tied to Grytpype and Moriarty trying to steal the pipes for their own nefarious scheme. Like The Pevensey Bay Disaster, it's a slow-burner but worth sticking around for in the end.

Tales of Montmartre
One of the Goons' finest episodes, and certainly one of the best in the series. It story its fantastically silly, as Neddie is commissioned to paint a portrait of a 20-foot easel so that Moriarty can take the real easel for firewood without Neddie knowing it was missing. Charlotte Mitchell, who was apparently Sellers' girlfriend at the time, plays the love interest Fifi, who is hit on by everyone and then does some hitting on of her own. When you put together the wonderfully absurd premise with some fine lingual acrobatics and plenty of dry wit, what you end up with is truly amazing.

The House of Teeth
Another corker of an episode, this time with a massive horror tone to it. This episode sees the welcome return of Valentine Dyall (he of The Giant Bombardon in Series 4 and The Canal in Series 5), as the terrifying but ridiculously named Dr. Longdongle. The central idea is a great, namely that of an evil doctor luring men with false teeth to his castle, knocking the teeth out with a mallet while theit owners are asleep, and turning them into castanets so that his dancer girlfriend will marry him. Gothic horror meets typical British humour to create another instant classic, and Dyall's performance is absolutely spellbinding.

Tales of Old Dartmoor
Prison films were all the rage in the 1950s, but none of them are as enjoyable as this jolly romp which sees Dartmoor Prison take to the waves as its inmates are treated to a holiday. As with many episodes, the premise is largely an elaborate ruse on the part of Grytpype and Moriarty, whose search for a very different kind of treasure ends badly. While not all the jokes still resonate - very few modern listeners will know who David Nixon is - much of it remains irresistable. 

The Choking Horror
This is a strange little episode which isn't as scary or as tense as its title would suggest. The story doesn't make a great deal of sense, with the buildings of London starting to grow hair and then Zeppelin raids coming in out of nowhere. But for all the parts where it falters, the tone is quite appealing - think Quatermass, but with jokes (as Spike would later attempt again with The Scarlet Capsule). One for devoted fans who are already au fait with the series, if you like your humour off-piste, this is for you.

The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal
The one real dud of Series 6, which was already distinctive because it was recorded during a musicians' strike. Unlike The Starlings, which suffered without a studio audience, this falters because its story simply isn't interesting. Spike tries his best to make us care about a pseudo-Cold War conflict over the breeding of salamis as weapons, but the concept isn't strong enough on its own and in the end the episode meanders around pretty aimlessly.

The Treasure in the Lake
Also known as The Treasure of Loch Lomond, this episode features one of the best of Grytpype and Moriarty's many schemes. Neddie is attempting to outlive his Scottish relative to inherit his treasures, and is tricked by the two fiends into drinking the whole of Loch Lomond, believing that it will prolong his life. The scheme itself is very crafty, but the highlight comes in the last five minutes with excellent cutting between three locations and a few random cameos. The episode includes one of Spike's trademarks of playing bagpipes in the background whenever a Scottish character is talking (and stopping abruptly mid-sentence).

The Fear of Wages
This time Spike turns his parodic eyes to Henri-George Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, later remade by William Friedkin as Sorceror. The basic premise of characters driving trucks of nitroglycerine is replanted within a World War II environment, with the episode hinging on the notion that the British and Japanese were still fighting in Burma. There are some lovely dry lines in this well-structured episode, in which the two sides borrow each other's stores to keep fighting and Moriarty has fun swallowing money. While not the funniest episode of the series, it is very well-paced. 

If there's one thing the Goons have always done well, it's explosions - but for once, they don't involve Bluebottle. Spike combines another good premise - a substance in the Earth's crust which prevents boots from exploding - with a cunning scheme to fraud the British government and another good cameo from John Snagge. My good friend Peter Byrom's party piece is being able to recite Moriarty's gibberish-laden monologue word for word - something that has to be seen to be believed.

The Man Who Never Was
This is loosely based on the film of the same name, which was itself inspired by Operation Mincemeat during World War II. Expanding an unnamed script from Series 3, the closing episode of Series 6 is more well-behaved and respectful than you might have expected. But eventually Spike gets into his stride, taking a nicely-orchestrated pot shot at Michael Bentine and allowing the episode to build to a nice little climax. It's not a particularly grand finale for the series, but as a self-contained story it works well.

Join me next week (hopefully) as we march boldly on to Series 7!


Monday, 17 August 2015

REVIEW REVISITED: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)


This is a reprint of my review which was first published on this blog in April 2014, with a number of minor revisions. My original review can be found here.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (UK/ Germany, 2014)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrian Brody, Willem Dafoe

When I reviewed Moonrise Kingdom more than two years ago, I complained that it was hard to form strong emotional bonds with the characters because the entire film felt overly choreographed. While Wes Anderson's brilliance as a cinematic craftsman was never really in any doubt, it all felt a little too tightly controlled to pass muster as a genuinely heartwarming story about young love and free spirits.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is equally meticulous in its craft, but is a much better vehicle for Anderson. Its status as a caper comedy places a much more conscious emphasis on the various plot machinations, allowing him to show off his knowledge of and affection for cinema without undermining or overshadowing his characters. The result is a very funny slice of finely-tuned frivolity which finds Anderson almost back to his best.
As with all of Anderson's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks absolutely beautiful. There is the same powdery quality to the colour scheme as in Moonrise Kingdom, but the emphasis has shifted from summery yellows and woody browns to darker, more regal blues and frothy pinks. Anderson's compositions are as meticulous as ever, and the film utilises many of his familiar tricks, such as symmetrical wide shots, carefully timed circular pans and quirky model shots.
As with all of Anderson's films, however, there are unusual narrative quirks which can sometimes threaten to make the experience too arch and alienating to bond with the characters. In this case, there is his device of handing over the telling of the story from one person to another. The film begins with a lady reading a book in front of a statue of Tom Wilkinson; then Wilkinson (the author of the book) hands over to Jude Law (his younger self); then Law talks to F. Murray Abraham, who finally begins to recount his memories.
It's easy to understand the point that Anderson is making through this device. He is positively besotted with the art of storytelling and is trying to convey that love through a visual medium rather than a literary one. There's also a sly nod with the casting of Abraham, since Amadeus employed a similar device of its main character recounting the story in his old age. But while this device is affectionate, it is not entirely necessary to the story being told, and your enjoyment therein will depend on whether you regard it as an apt demonstration of passion or a needless indulgence.
To some extent, this dilemma is presented in the visuals of the film. While the main action takes place in the early-1930s, with the horrors of World War II still far away, the introduction takes place in the late-1960s. Interwar opulence and luxury is counterpointed with Soviet-era functionality, and by repeating mechanical actions in both periods (such as the strange transport to the hotel), an air of decline and melancholy quickly descends upon proceedings.
Having created an intriguing mood, Anderson gives us a number of quirky, interesting characters with whom we bond and whom we find very funny. Much of the praise has deservedly centred on Ralph Fiennes, who is absolutely brilliant as Gustave H.. The performance works because he believes so deeply in the character on a dramatic level; Fiennes' chops give Gustave a weight and purpose which an out-and-out comic actor would not have achieved. It's an irresitible blend of whimsy, pathos, elegance and mischief, and may be one of the best performances of Fiennes' illustrious career.
As I mentioned in my Moonrise Kingdom review, much of the pleasure of Anderson's films comes from him getting performances out of actors that no-one would have expected. It's not too much of a stretch to have Willem Dafoe as a thug in knuckle-dusters, or Jeff Goldblum as a stuffy, by-the-book lawyer (who ends up losing his fingers). But it is a pleasant surprise to see Adrian Brody as the villain of the piece, or Tilda Swinton as Gustave's elderly lover whose death sets off the entire caper.
In executing the caper aspect of the film, Anderson plays a very crafty trick. The quirkiness of his characters leads us to accept that they will speak in a manner which is different to our own; we accept this within the first five minutes as part of the overall style. This quirkiness allows him to have characters delivering exposition at break-neck speed, and yet it feels like a long joke rather than plot details.
There are numerous scenes in The Grand Budapest Hotel which are just characters reciting plot exposition directly to camera, something that would have been roundly lambasted had the film been helmed by another director. But rather than do as Alfred Hitchcock did and "sugar-coat" exposition with suspense, Anderson deliberately draws attention to it and uses it to celebrate the caper genre in all its ridiculousness. It's not so much hidden in plain sight as a Brechtian device, with the film constantly reminding you of its artificiality.
This is further reflected in the film's set-pieces. Take the hysterically funny sledging sequence, in which Gustave and Zero chase Jopling down a slalom course and ski jump, ending with Zero flinging Jopling off a cliff. The close-ups are achieved with the Hollywood technique of back projection, while the aerial shots are consciously done with detailed scale models. It's arguably just a massive Hitchcock reference, looking back to the skiing scene in the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Like Bertolt Brecht's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel draws our attention to the artificial, mechanical nature of the story in order to illuminate some deeper, universal truth. On top of being a great, frothy caper, the film is about the passing of an age and with it a particular kind of character. Gustave is characterised throughoutt as being the last of a breed, someone already out of sorts in his own time and longing for release. The film presents its own fictional take on the build-up to World War II, with Gustave coming across like a lighter, more dandyish companion to Christopher Tietjens, the protagonist of Parade's End.
The true success of Anderson's film is that it allows you to enjoy it on whichever level you please. It operates on the same principle as Gladiator: it is both a philosophical exploration of death, morality and a life beyond this, and two hours of people hitting each other. You can read into The Grand Budapest Hotel's colour schemes, seeing the pink motif as a symbol of faded passion and sexuality, or you can just sit there laughing louder and louder at the brilliant action. Both responses are valid, and while the film is not as deep as Gladiator, it deserves praise for achieving this balance.
The Great Budapest Hotel sees Anderson returning to form, delivering a film whose whimsy and quirkiness is anchored and balanced by enjoyable, empathetic characters. While some will still balk at his approach to storytelling, and it isn't as thematically rich as perhaps it could have been, it is still an immensely enjoyable, funny and rewarding watch. It is a good way to introduce newcomers to Anderson's signature style, and is one of the most enjoyable films of 2014.


For more on Willem Dafoe, check out my WhatCulture! article on his best and worst performances here.

NEXT REVIEW: Super Size Me (2004)

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

MUSICAL: Hairspray (2007)


Hairspray (USA, 2007)
Directed by Adam Shankman
Starring Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Marsden

It's widely acknowledged that adapting a source from one medium to another may cause many of its most distinctive elements to get lost in translation. On the rare occasions that an attempt is made to re-adapt the adapation back to its first form, the results can be disastrous. This is the fate that befell The Producers, which started as a great Mel Brooks film, then became a very good stage show, and finally ended up a rubbish second film at the hands of first-time director Susan Stroman.
At first glance, Hairspray should be cause for concern since it follows the same troubled route. Cult director John Waters' 1988 film was a modest hit, which became a huge, award-winning hit on Broadway, which in turn has now produced this adaptation of the musical helmed by Adam Shankman. But despite the director's lack of pedigree, and less emphasis on politics than fans of the original may like, the end result is a perky, uplifting, thoroughly entertaining romp which makes the most of both its newcomers and established cast.
The first of many surprises with Hairspray is the fact that someone as bad as Shankman could have pulled it out of the bag. Shankman's directorial roster either side of this is, in the words of Mark Kermode, "a load of old poop", containing duds like Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pacifier and Rock of Ages. His background in choreography would lead us to predict another High Society, namely a musical where the director (whether Shankman or Charles Walters) is far too concerned with giving his actors enough room to dance to worry about the small matter of capturing emotion.
A more illuminating comparison, however, is with Jon M. Chu, who directed the second and third Step Up films around this time. The differences between the directors' projects seem obvious even at first glance, with the Step Up films lacking a period setting, political ambitions or sometims even a coherent storyline. But more crucially, Shankman understands that there is more going on in a musical number than just the song or dance - and on a wider level, that a musical film has to be more than just a series of said numbers. While Chu's films are at their most basic a series of disconnected music videos, Shankman manages to keep his eye on the story even when things are at their most visually flamboyant.
For a story about civil rights and the marginalisation of the Black community in America, Hairspray is surprisingly, perhaps even refreshingly, shiny and light. The original was one of Waters' more mainstream efforts, garnering a PG rating where his previous work had been X-rated almost by default. But even given its Broadway background, where big emotions and melodramatic storytelling run riot, it is striking to find a mainstream musical this willing to enjoy itself. Certainly the campy spirit of the original prevents us from accusing the remake of 'lightening down' the premise or message.
When I reviewed High Society three years ago, I said that its biggest problem was a lack of subtext to which the central relationships could be anchored. I said that "when you have a cast of so many famous faces, we need something to believe that we aren't just watching a lot of stars enjoying themselves with no regard for the plot." For all the charm of seeing Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra together, or the historical significance of Grace Kelly's last performance, the film lacked the substance and narrative discipline of The Philadelphia Story nearly two decades before it.
It's fair to say that neither Hairspray film is going to meet your expectations if you come looking for the likes of Selma and 12 Years A Slave. Both versions are films which wear their hearts on their sleeves; they don't tease out their message through composition and clever dialogue, they flaunt it on the back of big facial expressions and catchy music. The campiness of the original is exchanged here for the wide-eyed, earnest yet carefully rehearsed optimism of Broadway. In each case, the subtext is there if you want to go looking for it, but it's presented in an entrist, accessible way for its target audience, and never feels the need to talk down to them just to make a point.
The question that immediately follows from this is whether a remake was entirely necessary. Despite being acclaimed at the time, the original Hairspray isn't as widely known as perhaps it should be; certainly it's no less. campy in some respects than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This remake is very faithful to the original in several key respects, and it's unclear how much people it will draw to the original by virtue of its existence. But it also manages to justify itself as a musical in its own right, with memorable characters, well-written songs and some good performances.
Whether to appease fans of the original or simply out of love of Waters' film, Shankman goes out of his way to include references to the original. Ricki Lake, whose career was launched by Waters, has a cameo appearance as one of the talent agents, while Waters himself gets a very brief cameo as a flasher in 'Good Morning Baltimore'. On top of the original film and Broadway cast turning up in reasonable quantities, many of the new faces seem to have been cast partly to resemble the old ones, with Michelle Pfeiffer's hairstyle and cheekbones echoing those of Debbie Harry and John Travolta carrying on the drag tradition embodied by Divine in his final film role.
In any other circumstances, this abundance of winking at the audience would either become overbearing, like the many cameos in John Landis' films, or prevent this version of Hairspray from standing on its own. But Shankman pulls it off, positioning the old faces so that the fans will appreciate them but not so that they derail the plot by self-consciously sticking out. Even with the physical resemblance, Pfeiffer still has the natural charisma to make the part her own, delivering lines about "screwing the judges" with acid aplomb.
Much has been made about Travolta's appearance in the film - an appearance which required him to spent four hours in make-up each day to apply silicone prosthetics to his head and neck, along with foam on his legs and arms, and a spandex and foam body suit. Having turned in so many lazy performances over his long and frustrating career, it's refreshing to see him throw himself into a role without any ego or self-consciousness. And while he's not as immediately charismatic or funny as Divine, neither is he creepy or unnerving. Ultimately it's not his film anyway, so you can enjoy it even if his performance rubs you up the wrong way.
This brings us on to the musical numbers in Hairspray, which are generally really good. Many musicals derived from films throw in a bunch of songs where they were never going to be useful or necessary, simply because songs are needed for it to be a musical. But Hairspray justifies its numbers very well, partly through their congruency to the background music of the period, and partly by the performers delivering them. One of the old-school highlights sees Travolta and Christopher Walken convincingly duetting on '(You're) Timeless to Me', while the climactic 'You Can't Stop The Beat' is completely irresistible.
There are a couple of drawbacks with the new Hairspray which prevent it from being a knock-out success. It is nearly half an hour longer than Waters' version, and at certain points this really shows, with scenes such as those with the different groups of children noticeably dragging out. Shankman's hardly the most disciplined director around, and his editor Janice Hampton keeps the pace of the film at the same steady tempo throughout, when really we should feel it gathering speed as it builds towards its climax. Having a much higher budget than Waters enjoyed, it's an example of how having more resources isn't always a good thing.
The other big niggle with Hairspray is its earnestness. The campiness of the original meant that it could be appreciated both with a straight face and ironically, something which isn't an option with this version. While Broadway and musical fans will be used to the style and approach to charactersation, the film's lack of any edge or hard underbelly could prove alienating. If you struggled to get through the later Step Ups, late alone the High School Musical series, this will be a difficult watch for you.
Hairspray is a highly enjoyable, light-hearted romp which, unlike many remakes, justifies its existence to a very large extent. Its main performances are enjoyable, its songs are well-written and nicely executed, the visuals are bright and perky, and despite its occasional bagginess it holds together really quite nicely. Purists and Waters fans may still clamour for the original, whether for its politics or its camp value, but for anyone just in search of a good time, this is an ideal selection.


NEXT REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)