Archive for Toby Jones

Language

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2010 by dcairns

Despite the fact that of the two popular music biopics currently on release, NOWHERE BOY clearly has the stronger cinematic credentials, we went to see SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL, the Ian Dury story as written by actor-turned-scenarist Paul Viragh and directed by TV helmer Matt Whitecross. Possibly because Fiona likes Ian Dury a lot, and possibly because she likes Andy Serkis, who plays Ian Dury, a lot.

What a remarkable figure Dury was: his music combines punk, funk and music hall, and he comes over on stage as a sort of sweary Essex Noel Coward, filtered through the wraith of Gene Vincent. Bizarre. And then there’s the wastage of half his body, caused by polio, giving him a marked limp. “On stage I try to sort of hover,” he says in the movie. “You’re putting that on,” someone once told him. “I thought I was trying to cover it up,” he replied.

The film is pretty creditable in many ways — the high-water mark for this kind of thing was set most recently by CONTROL, whose familiar structure of struggle, success and dissolution is echoed unavoidably in S&D&R&R, but the stylistic approach couldn’t be more different. In the film’s zanier scenes, deploying animation designed by the artist Peter Blake, and in its not-quite chronological structure, the movie is perhaps more influenced by 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (which also featured Serkis), although it substitutes music video japery for the more interesting cod-Brechtian antics of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s witty script. While Michael Winterbottom apparently had no clue how to use the Factory Records music in that film, Whitecross does at least find room to let Dury’s songs register, via sustained concert sequences and linking montages. The concerts, though ridiculously hyped-up in their cutting, are effective, and provide a semi-fantastical framing structure whereby Dury appears to introduce and wrap up the movie, but the montages reveal a certain desperation to be interesting, which shouldn’t be a problem with such a colourful central character.

The film is a lot like the trailer, hectic and eager-to-please but with something interesting oozing through. Except the trailer leaves out a lot of the best bits for censorship reasons.

Serkis as Dury holds the movie together, more or less overcoming a central indecision in the script — is this Dury’s story or his son’s? It’s a very effective impersonation of Dury’s singing, his manner, his disability (Dury is an almost unique example of a disabled pop star), his charm and his self-destructiveness. Dury’s main musical collaborator, Chas Jankel, produced the film’s soundtrack and reported that working with Serkis was liking attending a seance.

Supporting cast is very fine, with young Bill Milner impressive as Dury’s son (a strange effect is created by the fact that Dury’s kids never seem to age, but why let that bother us?) and Toby Jones enjoyably snarling as an underwritten villain. The women in Dury’s life present a problem, falling into the same stereotypes as those in CONTROL, long-suffering wife and fun, faintly annoying girlfriend. One has our sympathy but we don’t especially want to hang out with her when the fun is elsewhere, the other can’t really hope for sympathy and is too much of a hanger-on to be compelling on any other level. The problem is endemic to the material: philandering musicians write uninteresting roles for the women in their lives. Still, that’s no excuse to show Olivia Williams hurling crockery at her husband, a wretched cliché forty years ago, and something unworthy of inclusion in the film even if it happened. Important note to filmmakers everywhere: just because something happened, that’s no reason to put it in a film. Or as Dury himself says, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

The biggest success is the consistently entertaining dialogue — at least as long as Dury is around — a lot of Dury’s witticisms are hoary old jokes, but he has an endless supply of them and no shame about trotting them out whether the situation demands it or not. His joy in the English language is evoked in a scene where he trades synonyms for “penis” with his son (although, I note sadly, there is no English synonym for “synonym”), but really illustrated by the songs themselves.

I was pleased to find a couple of my students at the same screening, and even more pleased to learn that at least one, the excellent Oliver, was already a fan. When Dury died ten years ago the student I mentioned it to had never heard of him. Progress!

Movie lovers can see the real Dury in THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER and PIRATES.

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In-flight insights

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2009 by dcairns

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In-flight movies used to provide the very definition of the term “captive audience”. I remember reading that there are always a million people in the air, flying to various destinations, and it’s fun to picture them all being forced to watch Kurt Russell in Disney’s THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD as they scream through the stratosphere in their jet-propelled passenger tubes. Of course, they had the option of not watching anything, unless they had the misfortune of flying Air Ludovici.

Today the options are wider, so I got to pick from a range of recent product. BENJAMIN BUTTON felt like a transatlantic journey when I saw it in an earthbound auditorium, and it seemed possible that MARLEY & ME might have me tearing open the emergency exit or attempting to detonate my shoe within seconds of the opening credits, so I gave both a wide berth and started in on Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO. This seemed not bad, although the caricaturing of Clint’s family was overdone: Clint’s face creasing into that ever-so-familiar moue of distaste at the sight of his granddaughter’s pierced navel was extremely funny, but when the kid turned out to be an incredibly spoiled, insensitive brat, it seemed to let some of the wind out of the humour. Clint’s legendary hard-line stance, applied to domestic drama, is a promising trope, epitomised by his beautiful Harry Callahan line-reading, “Get off my lawn,” but it’s more effective if the stuff he’s pitted against starts very small and petty. When the grand-daughter openly laughed at Clint’s wife’s funeral, I sort of felt he’d be justified in reaching for the Magnum right there and then.

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But I can’t actually critique this film because an aeroplane isn’t the place to watch it, and I started to feel restless. Maybe you just need distracting crap when you’re hurtling about the upper atmosphere. I put on QUANTUM OF SHIT-TITLE, the latest James Bond. I’d heard that the opening car chase epitomised what I shall henceforth call the New Incoherence, that tendency of action movies nowadays to serve up ten minutes of motion-blur and impact FX and call it a brilliantly choreographed set-piece.

The film begins, with chase in media res, and I thought, “No, what’s happening here is that they’ve reduced the chase to the abstract, details and moments, and it will settle down and become specific soon.” It seemed like a nice way to start a chase.

But not, I would submit, a nice way to continue and end it. Who’s driving which car? Which car is in front? A police radio voice, obviously dubbed in to add a vestige of clarity, says something about a grey Aston Martin, so I started looking for the familiar Bond car, latest model. But Bond’s car is black, like all the other cars (a fairly basic mistake, surely?). Then the titles, full of CGI sand-storms, which are the one thing CGI can’t do at all (see THE MUMMY and sequels) and the worst Bond theme song ever, and I turn off.

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FROST/NIXON. Fiona had been keen on seeing this, and I’d poo-pooed it. Didn’t want to see no stinkin’ Ron Howard film. Fiona like Michael Sheen and Frank Langella and Toby Jones, and while I do too, I felt it would be wrong to let that sway me.

Fiona was right, in that the film is very entertaining, and perfect for those parts of your journey when the craft is buffeted by what they call “rough air” and I call GUSTS OF DEATH.

Howard is genetically bland, but skilled. He knows how to serve up his performances, catching an expression just as a door closes. He’s tasteful to the point of translucency, but the plus side of that is he didn’t slather the movie in retro-details or an oldies soundtrack. I was waiting for the one ’70s song to come in a the end though, and it did. Donna Summer.

Michael Sheen at times resembles one of his previous roles, Tony Blair, as much as he does David Frost, perhaps because he’s trying to avoid caricature, and Frost has plunged into self-caricature these days. When a member of the public accosts Sheen’s Frost with the catchphrase, “Hello, good evening, and welcome,” the presenter remarks, “I don’t actually say that.” But Frost today does. He has embraced the one-dimensional image people have of him. (Anybody can impersonate Frost by shaking there head violently from side to side as they speak; Frost doesn’t actually do this, but he sounds as if he does.)  Frost, at least in this movie, resembles Blair in that he’s an over-confident idiot who faces the world from behind a protective grin, raised before him like a Roman legionary’s shield.

Frank Langella as President Dracula is a welcome relief from the ludicrous Spitting Image Nixon puppet seen in WATCHMEN. He’s not quite as magnificent as Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s SECRET HONOR, but he’s good. His slurring is authentic, although in his drunk scene it threatens to jam the film in the projector. He sounds like a man going back in time underwater.

It turns out I’ve seen Rebecca Hall in three different things now, and liked her in all of them, but her range of accents and mannerisms is so rich I never realised it was the same person. I wonder if this will actually hinder her career. It doesn’t seem to be doing so.

Matthew Macfadyen is good as John Birt, although not to mention that he later helped destroy the BBC seems a wasted opportunity (neverwaste an opportunity to kick John Birt)  and Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt actually become the characters you care about. Impossible to really root for Frost. And I certainly hope nobody wants me to root for Tricky. Toby Jones is hilarious as Swifty Lazar, Nixon’s agent. The whole performance is reduced to a sneering expression, plus Jones’s startling appearance: bald, round, shiny and beautiful, like a woman’s knee. A woman’s knee emerging from a shirt collar. My God, that’s an arousing image.

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Oh, and Kevin Bacon is playing Clint Eastwood, although for some reason his character is called Jack Brennan.

Peter Morgan’s script is very entertaining, serving up chucklesome moments with the regularity of a tennis champ. It simplifies and distorts, of course. I liked the description of Nixon as having “an anti-democratic personality,” but the movie, like Frost, doesn’t really bring home the enormity of the man’s crimes. There is a good bit about the bombing of Cambodia, but nobody actually comes out and informs the modern audience (whom they’re otherwise quite concerned about) that it was illegal. You could walk out of this movie believeing, as Nixon wants Frost to accept, that it was simply a bit of policy that went wrong. Next to that, the film’s most obvious central lie, that the Frost-Nixon interviews made riveting, dramatic television (they were mostly a snooze) is unimportant.

Still, emboldened at my success in actually watching a film in mid-air, I decided to try something cinematically more stimulating. MILK.

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Great film, and an instructive contrast to FROST/NIXON. There’s more period flavour, much of it thanks to Harris Savides’s beautiful grainy photography. More of a melange of pop music, but some interesting and erratic choices to stop it becoming a tedious array of chart-toppers. While some critics found the film too conventional to satisfy as a Gus Van Sant movie, apart from the too-familiar device of Milk recording his testament on a tape deck, I found the narrational strategies pretty interesting: it’s a mix-and-match approach rather than a “pure” style, with mocked-up home movies, titles on screen, close-ups of campaign posters, split-screen — whatever works.

At the eye of the storm is Sean Penn, giving one of those rare performances which deserve awards and get them. It’s a major transformation without announcing itself as one. His Harvey Milk is lovable, which is something I’ve never felt about a Penn characterisation before. Those aspects of Penn that can seem unappealing — vague aspects I can’t even put a finger on, apart from his obvious unhandsomeness, which are deployed extremely well when he’s playing sleaze-bags and creeps — become endearing vulnerabilities here. His observation of the man he’s playing seems acute, and he’s not pussyfooting around trying to avoid caricature, he just goes for the essence and trusts that will stop any of the outward aspects appearing too outre.

The film I thought of most apart from FROST/NIXON (which, after all, I’d just watched) was PHILADELPHIA, which always seemed like a chickenshit movie to me — well-intentioned and anemic, and paralysed at the thought of its historical import. Jonathan Demme, a nice fellow and a skilled filmmaker, in trying to make a film that would convert homophobes, converted himself into a cartoon Stanley Kramer. Just comparing the Demme and the Van Sant in their approach to the male-on-male kiss, which seems to petrify everybody concerned with PHILADELPHIA, but which is treated in MILK just as it should be — as no big deal. Because if you see it as a big deal, it becomes one. You can’t kiss well under such pressure. And if you’re worried that your audience can’t handle this image… who is your audience? And why do you want to pander to such idiots? MILK, for all its greater “explicitness” (only the playful butt-slap might raise an eyebrow in a “straight movie”)  contains nothing that could shock a sentient human not deeply entrenched in prejudice. I think it’s about context.

Maybe on the return trip I’ll try GRAN TORINO again.

The False Good Idea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2009 by dcairns

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It’s one of my favourite concepts in film-making, the False Good Idea, and I’m indebted to producer David Brown for introducing me to it. Of course, some would say that a False Good Idea is just the same as a True Bad Idea, which is hardly a new concept, but the beauty of the phrase for me is how it encapsulates the glitter and appeal of the FGI, the thing which is presented as good, accepted as good, and leads us all to hell.

The FGI in Oliver Stone’s ALEXANDER is the principle of historical accuracy in costumes (big nappies all round) with bright, crisp, clear sunlight, exposing the full ludicrousness of the proceedings.

The guy who edited the excellent trailer for Stone’s W. identified the FGI in that one as, “Who wants to see a fair and balanced portrait of George W Bush by Oliver Stone?” The neo-con audience would avoid the film because it’s Stone, who is the anti-Christ. Stone’s admirers would avoid the film if they thought it was a whitewash. What was needed was a Michael Moore approach, playing to Stone’s percieved strengths as a maker of chaotic, pop-art satires like NATURAL BORN KILLERS (a film I despise, personally) . With NIXON, the idea of humanizing the Devil was a more interesting way to go, and the greater historical distance obviated any need for messianic urgency, but W. could and should have been a genuinely political film from a passionately held viewpoint.

Accompanying the film’s weakness on politics is an aesthetic weakness — too many scenes of Sedentary Characters in Plush Rooms, without any interesting cinematic angle on what to DO with S.C.s in P.R.s (if Stone can’t create chaos by mixing film stocks and flying around moving characters, he’s rather emasculated as a director) — and a problem of character. Stone has said that he admires Bush for conquering his addictions and the aimless lifestyle of his youth. Of course, an ability to overcome ones demons is admirable, although I do wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off had Bish not drunk himself to death (actually, I don’t wonder: I’m pretty sure we would be). And Stone can relate to Bush’s battle, which is fair enough. But I actually think being harsher on Bush would have been a better course for Stone, since if the film is to some small extent a veiled depiction of his own journey through hedonism to achievement, it doesn’t do to be too indulgent. My favourite character in NATURAL BORN KILLERS was Robert Downey Jnr’s documentarist, mainly because he seemed like a Stone surrogate in part, supplying a degree of distance in a film otherwise jammed much too far up itself.

I watched W. during our teen-watching week. It’s a largely dull film, and a dull script — as in THE DOORS, Stone seems incapable of shame even when serving up the eggiest lines of exposition of the “This is the sixties,” variety. Jumping around in Bush’s life serves no good purpose — it’s not even chaotic enough to serve Stone’s craving for “energy”, especially with explanatory titles supered up to locate each scene in space-time. But there are a couple of pleasures.

The starry cast serves to illustrate the adage that “Politics is showbusiness for ugly people,” — every actor in the film is better-looking than the personage they’re playing. Yet Thandie Newton, transfigured by makeup, does an astounding, terrifying job of embodying the walking madness known as Condoleeza Rice. The other highlight is Toby Jones, whose Karl Rove is likewise a creature of hallucination — in these scenes, Stone sometimes gets close to a kind of Strangelovian nightmare comedy (directly referenced in the war room set — see also WATCHMEN), partly because it’s impossible to evoke those personalities convincingly without tipping the film over into the realms of CALIGARI. And one scene, in which Bush tells his pastor of his intention of running for president, actually achieves a rather magnificent wit — although I couldn’t be sure if this was accidental, given the leaden writing and direction elsewhere.

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Josh Brolin’s GWB is backlit in heavenly fashion during the scene, which isn’t the witty part, although it made me smile very slightly. But Toby Jones, arranging himself in the background like a truncated python that’s swallowed a goat, is. As Bush talks of the God that’s inspired him, Jones’s preening postures and smug expression make us feel that he IS that God. Which puts the candidate’s faith in a whole new light. What’s even funnier is that nobody else in the scene appears to be able to see him.