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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

My deceptively cherubic seven-year-old nephew has, obviously, inherited nothing from me in terms of actual genetic material, but he did receive several large containers full of Lego. I should mention that much of these are now third-generation bricks, as I got them from – I believe – one of my own uncles when I was young. Nephew is at the age where he is consumed by his passion for Lego, and I must confess it is one of the things (along with his youth, financial prospects, and interesting hair) that I am almost envious of. There was a time when 6627 Convertible or 6685 Fire Copter 1 was enough to set fire to my own imagination, and to be honest I sort of miss that.

Speaking of missing things, I also managed to let the first Lego Movie pass me by, along with the Lego Batman Movie and so on. Well, it was a computer-animated children’s movie about little plastic bricks, what could there possibly be to interest a serious, mature pretend film critic? Possibly quite a lot, judging from the glowing reviews most of these films received. So with the coming of The Lego Movie 2: the Second Part (directed by Mike Mitchell, who I feel obliged to mention also did Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, but don’t let that put you off), I felt it incumbent upon me to go and check it out. (Lord and Miller, who did the first one and are regrettably perhaps best-known these days for getting fired off the last stellar conflict movie, are still around as producers and writers.)

I had done my due diligence and so had a vague idea of the premise of these movies, which certainly helped: I imagine it might otherwise be a bit confusing for newcomers. What superficially looks like a rather frantic slapstick comedy is actually a story of startling subtlety, imagination and wit, operating on a number of levels simultaneously. On the most obvious level, it concerns the inhabitants of Apocalypseburg, a gritty, harsh settlement inhabited by tough, harsh people – all except for Emmet (Chris Pratt), who has managed to retain his innate sweetness and optimism (so far, anyway). But Apocalypseburg is periodically ravaged by cute pink invaders from the Systar system, who seem to be attracted by anything not gritty and mature. In the course of their latest attack they kidnap Emmet’s best friend Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), along with Batman (Will Arnett), Benny the spaceman (Charlie Day), and several others. The abducted group are whisked off to the Systar system where Batman is threatened with a coerced marriage to Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Can Emmet, despite his general cheery uselessness, rescue them and save the day?

However, what’s also going on – do try to keep up – is that a boy named Finn and his younger sister Bianca are squabbling over how to play with their Lego collection – Finn just wants to make cool stuff, but Bianca likes things that are cute and sparkly, which is a problem when she wants to join in with him. In the end she ends up stealing some of his Lego (including the mini-figures) and incorporating it into her own games. The main plot of the movie is actually an extended metaphor for this.

Now, it’s true that the film isn’t entirely consistent in its presentation of this idea – there are points at which the Lego characters are acting out the squabble between the children, and others when they seem to have an odd, Toy Story-esque independent existence, of which Finn and Bianca seem entirely unaware. Even so, for a film to be based on such an ambitious notion, and execute it as well as it does, is still quite noteworthy. The last thing The Lego Movie 2 is is any sort of lazy cash-in.

Much of this will probably sail over the heads of the younger members of the audience – although perhaps not quite as much as their parents might think. That said, there were no children whatsoever at the showing we went to, just adults laughing uproariously and generally having a great time – this isn’t exclusively a children’s film, either. Kids will certainly enjoy the invention and visual spectacle of the film, along with many of the sight gags, and there is a reasonably straightforward storyline going on here too. But much of the fun of the film also comes from elements that children are almost certainly not going to get. There is a joke about Die Hard, there is a joke about Radiohead; there is a series of jokes about the absence of Green Lantern from the current DC movie series.

Of course, you have to be able to get all these references, but if you have the appropriate grounding in pop culture then this is an extremely funny film. In one of my meaner moments I would have said that playing a Lego figure was more or less the perfect role for Chris Pratt, but he reveals himself to be a notably good sport here, also featuring as a character named Rex Dangervest who is a parody of most of Pratt’s film career to date. The knowingness of the film is relentless and almost irresistible – the song playing over the closing credits is about the kind of song you generally hear playing over the closing credits of films, while the film’s most diabolical creation is a song called ‘Catchy Song’ (refrain: ‘This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head’), which is indeed quite possibly the earworm to end all earworms. (If observational comedy is more your thing, there is also the inevitable gag about how painful it is to stand on a Lego brick.)

Normally, the problem with doing this kind of knowing, self-referential humour is that is robs a movie of the ability to have any kind of genuine emotional impact (see either of the Deadpool films, for instance), and possibly the most impressive thing about The Lego Movie 2 is that this doesn’t quite happen: somewhere in the middle of the madly fizzing visual invention and relentless jokes is what’s actually quite a touching story about growing up (or not) and togetherness. There is also a hugely timely message about how being cool, gritty and dark isn’t necessarily better than being bright, cheerful and slightly daft – one can only hope that the film’s partners at Warner Brothers, makers of the DC superhero movies, continue to take this on board.

I suspect there are still some people who will be sniffy about The Lego Movie 2 simply because it is based on a toy line and is family-friendly. Well, this is their problem and not the film’s. This is a movie with a great script, great performances, great songs, great jokes, and great visuals; I thoroughly enjoyed it. If every movie aimed at an adult audience had this level of wit and intelligence and sophistication, cinema in general would be vastly improved.

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The official photo of the nominees for the 2019 Academy Awards was published the other day, and I for one was quite pleased to see that not all the participants appeared to be taking it entirely seriously. But then again, I realised years ago that taking the Academy Awards seriously is a mug’s game – the whole circus is basically an articulation of pompous Hollywood self-regard, made somewhat risible by too many issues to be easily enumerated. Not that they necessarily do themselves many favours at AMPAS – the whole ‘Best Popular Movie’ debacle basically shone a spotlight on the awkwardly competing desires to be both populist and refined. It’s an impossible circle to square, demanding the Academy to make many tough choices year after year, most of which they arguably get wrong.

Still, winning an Oscar does provide a quantifiable boost in a film’s take – how many people only went to see Moonlight after it picked up a statuette? I was one of them- and also, one presumes, in the asking price of any actor lucky enough to acquire one. (It must be rather frustrating that so many acting Oscars are the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, given to people for their body of work rather than any particular role, and only acquired when the performer’s career is beginning to wind down anyway.) Am I suggesting that film stars are quite so acquisitive and venal as that makes them sound? Well – maybe, I don’t know. What I am sure of is that if you really do want an Oscar, there are a few tried-and-tested routes to picking one up. Famously, if you are a man, you should play someone with a medical condition, and if you are a woman, you should play the least glamorous role you can find.

Both these things are kind of true of Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which has picked up a raft of award nominations, not just at the Oscars. Most these have gone to its leads, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant.  This is yet another supposedly true story, concerning the activities of the New York-based writer Lee Israel (played by McCarthy). Israel was, briefly, a successful writer of biographies, but as the film opens her unpromising choice of subject matter and the fact that she is basically a horrible person to everyone around her means she is not so much a failed writer as one on the verge of failing – isolated, heavily in debt, and drinking too much. The closest thing she has to a friend is Jack Hock (Grant), a similarly dubious character.

To raise money to make ends meet, Israel resorts to selling some personal effects, including a letter from Katharine Hepburn, and discovers the high prices that such memorabilia can command. The price is even better, she realises, when she makes a few small amendments to the letters herself to make them more appealing to the collectors interested in such things. From here it is but a short step to Israel forging literary memorabilia as her main source of incoming, producing hitherto-unknown works from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Louise Brooks. After a while, it becomes necessary for her to recruit Jack as her representative when doing the actual selling, simply because the dealers are growing too suspicious of her. This inevitably places further strain on what was a somewhat fragile relationship anyway, and with the FBI closing in, how long can they keep on getting away with it?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (a phrase given to Dorothy Parker in one of Israel’s fake letters supposedly written by her) is a curious film, not necessarily because of the story but because of a slight unevenness of style. On one level, it deals with some fairly serious and even quite abstract concerns – loneliness, isolation, what it means to be a good or successful writer, and above all else the notion of ‘authenticity’ and what it really means. Israel’s forged letters when writing as Coward and the others are so successful because they are more entertaining and characterful than the genuine ones – the film is big on the notion of forgery as a creative act, in this case at least – and there is a suggestion that at least some of the people involved chose not to look too closely, at least to begin with. And the tone of the film is often appropriately understated and naturalistic, with the kind of score (contributed by the director’s brother) that suggests a serious drama.

On the other hand, this is still kind of a film about various criminal capers, where the victims were basically gullible rich people who didn’t really know they were being robbed, and the audience is to some extent invited to feel complicit in Lee and Jack’s success and share it with them. Melissa McCarthy is one of those innately funny performers who could probably raise a laugh playing Hedda Gabler, and her instincts allow her to zero in on every even marginally funny moment in the script and milk it for all it’s worth. (On the other hand, there are moments in the film which almost come across as unintentionally funny, but this may have more to do with a low-quality stuffed cat employed as a prop at one point.) On the whole this is a very strong performance, but it mostly consists of McCarthy being sharp, abrasive and witty, which is essentially what she does in most of her movies anyway. As I said, actresses wanting an Oscar are wise to de-glam themselves (see Halle Berre in Monster’s Ball, Charlize Theron in Monster, and so on), and McCarthy certainly does that here – is it too harsh to suggest that her nomination is due more to an unflattering wig than any revelation about her acting ability?

I must admit to being rather more surprised about Richard E Grant getting the Academy nod for this film. That said, I’ve never been particularly impressed by Grant’s range – it always seems to me that the abiding tragedy of his career was that he was born about ten years too late to be an original cast member on The Rocky Horror Show. All his performances seem to me to be essentially the same, including here. Various scenes of domestic squalour, overindulgence of alcohol, and strained friendship inevitably put one in mind of Withnail & I (still really Grant’s signature role). It’s a funny turn, with perhaps a smidgeon more depth to it than usual, but still hardly anything really new.

Still, it would take a bigger churl than me not to be somewhat disarmed, not to mention amused, by Grant’s obvious delight at getting his Oscar nomination; no doubt Marvel will soon be on the phone to him, as well. As far as Can You Ever Forgive Me? is concerned, this is an enjoyable and engaging film which (perhaps inevitably) works better in its lighter moments than its more dramatic ones. It is a curious tale, well told, with two strong if not exceptional performances at its heart. Probably worth watching if you like thoughtful, quality films in a minor key.

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I expect I have spoken in the past of the way in which film trailers tend to get shown before movies with which they have a certain something in common, mainly because this is where they are most likely to find a receptive audience and actually do their job of making people go to see the film they’re advertising. So in a weird way I can sometimes get a sense of how much I’m going to enjoy a film from the trailers that run before it – if they all look pretty appetising, I can be more sure I’ve made a good choice. Ones that provoke a mutter of ‘Not even if you paid me…’ set alarm bells ringing. So, when I was treated in one session to the promotional material for Instant Family, Fisherman’s Friends, On the Basis of Sex and If Beale Street Could Talk, all of which look likely to be either glutinously sentimental or tediously earnest, my wariness about Peter Farrelly’s Green Book was only increased. (We also got the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel, but this doesn’t count as the Alita trailer is being shown before literally everything possible – I sense panic is setting in and the studio suspects they have a bomb on their hands, but I guess that’s what happens when you base a $200 million-plus movie on an relatively obscure manga and then release it in February.)

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Green Book is supposedly one of those marginally-true stories, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The film is set in the early 1960s and Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a slightly shady New York wise guy who – as the film opens – is working as a brutally efficient nightclub bouncer. (You have to hand it to Viggo when it comes to landing roles he doesn’t initially sound quite right for. The man is Danish, after all, and would not be, you’d think, anyone’s first choice to play Italian-American. But we should bear in mind Mortensen’s track record in performing roles of wildly varied ethnic backgrounds with great aplomb: Spanish, native American, Amish, Dunedain – this man can do them all.)

Anyway, when the club briefly closes, Tony is obliged to find a new source of income, and after a short stint participating in eating contests for money, he lands a job as driver, fixer, and general factotum for the concert pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Obviously there is the potential for a personality clash here – Tony is a streetwise, amoral, crude, profane, somewhat racist family man, while Don is cultured, restrained, fastidious, African-American and a confirmed bachelor. However, tensions between the two are secondary to those they may encounter on the road – for Tony is to accompany Dr Shirley on a tour of the deep south of the United States, where segregation is still a fact of everyday life and bigotry is openly on display. Before departing, Tony is handed a copy of the ‘Green Book’ – a list of the hotels and restaurants which African-Americans are allowed to use…

I should say that Green Book went on my list of films to look out for the first time I saw the trailer last year, but as the release got closer I must confess I grew increasingly cynical about it and moderated my expectations quite significantly. I realised that I already had a pretty good idea of the way this one was going to play out, down to some of the specific beats of the story: the two men would initially fail to connect with each other, but slowly, over the course of the film, a bond would develop in the face of the racism they encountered every day. Tony would become a better, more open-minded and tolerant man as a result of Don’s influence; Don, meanwhile, would be revealed to have some personal issues of his own, which Tony would help him begin to deal with. In the end there would be an uplifting message of friendship and acceptance of difference.

And, do you know what? I was entirely correct in this. (I shouldn’t take too much credit for this predictive feat, as most of the story is implicit in the trailer.) I feel I should also point at that the quote, prominently featured in the publicity, ‘Like no other movie’, presumably came from someone wholly unfamiliar with any of the numerous odd-couple buddy road movies of years gone by. But, and this is more important, the thing is that this actually really doesn’t matter at all.

Before going any further, it’s probably worth mentioning that many commentators have criticised Green Book on the same kind of grounds that I was thinking along: it is really just sanitised comfort-food for liberals and progressives, it skates over just how ugly and oppressive life under the Jim Crow laws was, it is even another example of the White Saviour narrative trope (according to some people, anyway). I am not in a position to say that any of this is definitely untrue.

But what does seem to me to be the case is that this is a charming, solidly-made film that never overtly seems to be preaching to the audience, never feels like it’s shying away from uncomfortable historical truths, and – most importantly – is driven along by two genuinely terrific performances from charismatic actors.

Viggo Mortensen holds the unique distinction of being the only actor that I know of to get his picture put up on my mother’s bedroom wall. This happened rather late in life for both of them, around the time that Mortensen enjoyed his highest profile due to his role in The Lord of the Rings (a film for which he was a piece of last-minute replacement casting). His rather chequered career before visiting Middle-Earth, and the fact he hasn’t been that prominent in big movies since then, might lead you to assume that this was a fluke, but even a brief look at the man makes it clear that simply being a Hollywood movie star is not something that really interests him very much – he is also a poet, musician, photographer, artist and author (in addition to speaking about seven languages, not counting Sindarin). It looks like he only makes the movies that really interest him.

This is great for Mortensen, I expect, but a bit of a shame for the rest of us, because what Green Book really underlines is that he is a genuinely great and compelling actor, entirely capable of carrying a substantial mainstream movie (I suppose his multiple Oscar, Bafta and SAG nominations might also tip one off to this). There is, as I say, the fact that Mortensen doesn’t really look especially Italian-American, but apart from this he is effortlessly convincing, and not afraid to be unsympathetic at the start of the film. One can only hope that we see more of him in future (it would make my mum happy too), but I suppose that depends on people sending him decent scripts. Fingers crossed.

Mahershala Ali is one of those actors who seems to have popped up almost from nowhere in recent years, having built a career on a series of smartly-chosen, well-executed performances. His place in history was secured when he became the first Muslim American actor to win an Oscar (for his early-exit role in Moonlight), and he now shows every sign of becoming the go-to guy for dignity, poise, and self-respect (he’s also in Alita, but a guy’s got to eat). The joy of this film is the chemistry between Tony and Don, and it really does feel like the focus is firmly on the two of them as individuals, although inevitably issues of race and culture do get raised as the story progresses.

So, in the end, yes, Green Book is a very predictable movie – but the story was such an engaging and well-crafted one that I really didn’t care, I was having such a good time with these two characters on their journey. This isn’t a particularly radical film, or an obviously angry one, but it’s a hopeful one with a positive message. It may well just be comfort food for white liberals, but it’s comfort food for white liberals that has come from a very classy kitchen.

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When the Royal Society of Abyssinia discovered ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ two years ago in the ruins of Notting Hill it was hoped that some valuable light would at last be thrown upon the final, tragic days of London. – the opening words of the book

There’s a quote from the writer Angus Wilson that frequently pops up on the back of Michael Moorcock books, praising Moorcock for his leading role in breaking down ‘the artificial divisions that have grown up in novel writing’. You might wonder just what it is that Wilson is on about – aren’t these ‘artificial divisions’ just another way of talking about genre, which is an inherent part of fiction?

Well, maybe, maybe not. But then I wandered into the local bookshop the other day and came across a copy of RC Sherriff’s 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript, which I’d never heard of. It was in the general fiction section, presumably because Sherriff is best-remembered as a mainstream writer – these days, for the much-adapted play Journey’s End and the screenplay for that classic tale of British stoicism, ingenuity and inappropriately-christened dogs, The Dam Busters (his script for Dracula’s Daughter was apparently rejected) – but it is unquestionably science fiction, and unquestionably part of a great tradition of British SF. Back in the 1930s you could write SF without ending up in the ghetto, it would seem. I am reminded of the great Olaf Stapledon, who wrote several of the greatest SF novels of the first part of the century (most notably Last and First Men and Star Maker) without ever properly being aware of science fiction as a genre, and perhaps even John Wyndham, who hit upon a way of writing SF that was liked by people who didn’t like SF. No-one seems to think about this kind of crossover any more; even the great Iain Banks seemed to be quite careful to distinguish between his SF and non-SF output.

But The Hopkins Manuscript is SF, and part of the lineage that includes such famous stories as Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Doyle’s The Poison Belt, not to mention films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire. These days, when we imagine the end of the world we tend to assume that the Horseman of the Apocalypse doing all the heavy lifting will be Pestilence, but there was a time when cosmic forces were more commonly the instrument of armageddon, and so it proves here.

The novel opens with a brief description of the circumstances in which the text was discovered: expeditions from civilised lands have begun to venture into the wastelands of the former Europe, and the manuscript is the only surviving document from the long-since vanished ancient civilisation of Britain (there are a couple of other artefacts, a ‘Keep Off the Grass’ notice amongst them). The editors lament the general poor quality of the text and uselessness of the author, and conclude that virtually everything that elapsed in the British Isles between Julius Caesar’s invasion and the collapse of civilisation has been obliterated, lost to posterity forever. It is an opening by turns both drily funny but also oddly haunting.

It soon becomes clear that the editors have a point, for we soon get to know the main narrator of the book – Edgar Hopkins, a middle-aged retired schoolteacher living in rural Hampshire. He is a settled bachelor, his life concerned with his various hobbies – stamp-collecting, metallurgy, but above all else, breeding poultry for show. Another interest is astronomy, which is how he comes to be one of the first people in the country to learn of a staggering, appalling discovery – some cosmic upheaval has dislodged the moon from its orbit, and in a mere seven months it will collide with the Earth.

The secret is kept back from the general population for a while, as preparations are made to mitigate the looming cataclysm as much as is possible: shelters are prepared, and so on. Unfortunately, Hopkins himself is supremely poorly-equipped as a recorder of these events, as he is unfailingly pompous, pre-occupied with his chickens, and unable to consider the wider picture. (When summoned to an emergency meeting of his astronomical society and told of the falling moon, Hopkins’ first response is enormous relief, as he has assumed the secret meeting concerns a risky venture he has foolishly volunteered to underwrite.) There is something of The Diary of a Nobody in Hopkins’ self-regard and petty frustration and resentment of the attitudes of the people around him, and the fact that not only does he not become an important man in his village when the truth is revealed, but it has a serious impact on the poultry show calendar as well.

Time passes, and the cataclysm comes. Obviously the world is not destroyed, as some feared – the moon strikes in the Atlantic Ocean and then collapses, forming a new landmass. Tidal waves and hurricanes devastate Britain. But, obviously, Hopkins survives, and lives through the initial aftermath of the catastrophe – before realising, too late, that the cosmic impact of a falling planetoid may pose less of a menace to the human race than human nature itself…

As I say, this is clearly part of a British SF tradition, but in another way it is equally obviously a book of its time. It was written in 1939, but it often seems to have an eerie prescience when it comes to what was to follow in the next few years. The story opens in 1945 – a startling coincidence – and there is obviously talk of people digging shelters, taking refuge in the London underground, and so on. Rationing is introduced at one point, and there is a brief mention of a war being fought in Normandy. Resonating through all this, and transcending the tragi-comic figure of Hopkins himself, is a sense of terrible sadness, an anticipation of tumult to come and the mortal wound it will inflict on a certain version of England. The night before the catastrophe, the villagers assemble to play cricket under the baleful light of the vast moon – the last time, for most of them. Hopkins laments the loss of many of the social niceties and is desperate to cling onto the others, particularly the class system – in the post-apocalyptic community he helps to found, he is palpably relieved when the only member who is working class offers to sleep in the shed rather than the house. Sherriff seems to have sensed that something terrible was on the horizon, and the England he knew would not survive it, and this book is frequently a desperately sad and moving lament for a doomed way of life.

That said, of course, there is a sense in which it also feels disturbingly timely today. There are some parts of the book which are rather simplistic (and the astronomy and astrophysics have not aged at all well), but the widespread inertia and indifference which greets the announcement of the coming disaster rings true, as people simply don’t pay attention to the world around them. Following the cataclysm, there is a brief rebirth of civilisation, and for a while it seems that Sherriff has invented the cosy catastrophe subgenre well before John Wyndham thought of it, but this is only a temporary respite, and it is a grotesquely warped sense of national pride and arrogant British jingoism which is ultimately responsible for the final downfall of civilisation. Perhaps some of the voices of an elder England which Sherriff captured so well here are still with us.

As I say, this is a profoundly sad and deeply moving book, for all of its grace notes of comedy. The only thing which leaves a sour note these days is the appearance, late on, of a plot element about a vast horde of Asians who invade the stricken lands of Europe and hasten the final end. These days it inevitably reads as racist, but again it’s a fairly common motif in a certain flavour of SF – Europe being supplanted by African nations following a global catastrophe is a key plot point in John Christopher’s The World in Winter, while Moorcock himself plays with the trope in The Land Leviathan, and as late as the mid-1990s Ian McCulloch apparently proposed using the notion in a revived version of the TV series Survivors. Perhaps the best we can say of this idea is that it arises from a deep, perhaps even subconscious awareness of how the imperial European powers abused their colonial possessions, and the guilt resulting from this.

Apart from this, and assuming you cut the book some slack with regard to a few elements that feel a little naïve nowadays, The Hopkins Manuscript is a very fine book, no matter which shelf of the book shop it ends up on. It doesn’t offer very much new as an actual piece of science fiction, but as a character piece and a snapshot of anxieties at a certain key moment in recent history, it is a book of a very high quality. An excellent novel, and one that deserves to be much better known.

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One of the nice things about our semi-regular trips to the cinema is the opportunity for some proper, high-quality discussion and debate afterwards. Last week, for example, Olinka and I had an interesting talk about the concept of normality and what it really means – should it carry a positive or negative connotation? And then today we emerged from the theatre, this time accompanied by our Contemporary Conflict Consultant (she did an MA in modern geo-politics, or something – we just call her Con-Con).

‘So,’ I said, ‘If you had to choose between being ruled by an idiot or a monster, which would it be?’

‘Neither.’

‘You have to choose!’

‘But they’re both bad!’ said Olinka.

‘Yes, but which is worse?’

‘They’re both worse than each other,’ said Con-Con, who may have an MA but probably wouldn’t last long in a philosophy seminar.

In the end they sort of refused to answer the question, which I thought was telling. The movie to provoke this unusually intense wrangling was Adam McKay’s Vice. Ten or fifteen years ago McKay was well-established as a director of smart, silly comedy films, but since then he has reinvented himself as one of the most ferociously political directors working in the Hollywood mainstream – almost like a non-documentarian analogue to Michael Moore – and has done so to some acclaim. Vice continues this, and is probably his most partisan piece of work to date.

Vice tells the story of the career of Dick Cheney, whom you may or may not recall was the Vice-President of the United States under George W Bush. You may very well not recall; the film suggests this may be part of Cheney’s dark genius. Cheney is played by Christian Bale at his most chameleonic – for most of the film he virtually disappears under layers of prosthetic make-up. We first meet the future Veep in the early sixties as a hard-drinking scumbag, kicked out of college for his bad behaviour. His intimidating wife Lynne (Amy Adams) decrees that Cheney shape up or she will leave him.

From this point on the film rattles through the early part of his political career – an internship in Washington, where he forges a long-lasting alliance with his mentor-cum-ally Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), then a stint as White House chief-of-staff, election as a Congressman, then Secretary of Defence under the first President Bush. A presidential run is contemplated, but Cheney decides against it. However, could a second act in his career be lurking on the horizon…?

Well, of course it is, and – the film posits – Cheney eventually becomes the real power behind the throne as Vice-President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), quietly gaining control of key areas such as energy, defence, and foreign policy. Following the September 11th attacks, Cheney and his cohorts see the opportunity to launch the invasion of Iraq they have already been preparing for. Various things follow which I hope you are already familiar with: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the destabilisation of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS, and much more. Did I mention that this is at least partly intended as a comedy film?

Doing a bio-pic of someone who is still alive is not entirely unheard of, especially when the person is in the later stages of their life and most likely not going to make any more notable contributions to posterity. What makes Vice somewhat noteworthy is that most biographical films tend to be upbeat, or at least fairly non-judgmental, certainly when their subject is still alive. This film is different. Dick Cheney is presented as, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster, an utterly ruthless sociopath fixated on the acquisition and use of power for its own sake. (Bale notoriously thanked ‘Satan’ for inspiration when he won an award for this role recently.) One key moment in his political development comes when a perplexed Cheney asks Rumsfeld what it is they actually believe in as politicians. Rumsfeld walks off practically screaming with laughter. Cheney, the film suggests, achieves this and facilitates many atrocities through the deployment of tortuous circular logic (America has declared it does use torture; therefore the use of stress positions and waterboarding cannot, by definition, be considered torture) and an Orwellian misuse of language (‘enemy combatant’ rather than ‘prisoner of war’; ‘climate change’, not ‘global warming’). He also makes full use of people’s tendency to ignore big, complex, abstract problems and fixate on whatever’s in front of them, like a reality TV show.

As with The Big Short, McKay’s last film, there is some quite challenging material here, the sort of thing that might make audiences switch off, and so McKay works intensely to keep the film surprising and blackly entertaining. Bale’s performance as Cheney is a masterclass in understated, underplayed menace, but Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are both essentially off the leash as Rumsfeld and Bush – Rumsfeld emerges as a kind of demented rodent, while the film sticks with the notion that Bush was a clueless figurehead for an administration basically run by Cheney: Rockwell plays him as a hapless, baffled lightweight. Some big performances here, and it does make me wonder about (and, to be honest, eagerly anticipate) the inevitable movie concerning the Trump administration we’re bound to get, probably sooner rather than later. How can any movie do that particular circus justice? One can only hope The Jim Henson Company have kept their diaries free.

Elsewhere the film cheerfully toys with the standard forms of conventional cinema in a way which seemed to me to be very clearly indebted to Monty Python in places – there’s a fake ending at one point, complete with its own credits. You do occasionally get a sense of the film stretching a bit too far for its effects, though – Jesse Plemons’ narrator admits that it’s impossible to know what was going through the Cheneys’ minds as they contemplated Dick becoming the VP, so the film opts to fill the gap by inserting a cod-Shakespearean sketch with the couple considering their options a la Macbeth and his wife.

‘This probably won’t play well with the Republican base’, you may be thinking, and the film indeed seems to anticipate this, including another sketch-like moment where one character complains he’s appearing in a film with a liberal bias and then gets into a fight with someone with an old-fashioned attachment to facts (meanwhile two onlookers ignore the developing brawl as they discuss the latest cool movie trailer to drop). But this seems more like a joke than a serious attempt at redress. One of the film’s most brilliant strokes is to suggest that, despite everything else he’s responsible for, Dick Cheney did have at least one mitigating quality, one moral principle – only to reveal that, in the end, he knowingly abandoned even this. Even so, the film does allow Cheney the last word – Bale-as-Cheney addresses the camera and justifies his actions in a manner that is not only difficult to easily dismiss, but also serves as a reminder that we are all to some extent complicit in the crimes committed in our names.

The disputed election in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq a few years later already feel like something out of the history books, but Vice is also careful to establish the part that Cheney and his generation played in creating the conditions which enabled the current slow-motion disaster in American politics. Trump and Pence appear in archive footage; they actually find footage of Ronald Reagan saying ‘Make America great again’; Cheney’s role in changing the law to allow partisan news services such as Fox News to come into existence is touched upon. There is much that is still timely in this film, even if it feels more like a howl of disbelieving anger than any kind of suggestion as to how to make things better.

This is a ferocious film, very funny, and full of ideas and energy with some terrifically entertaining performances. It’s also quite frightening and more than a bit dispiriting, which makes it an odd package, to say the least. I’m not sure it’s likely to change many minds, but I think it will be an educational experience for many people, and a roller-coaster trip through recent political history. One of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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I mentioned the other day the unusually long theatrical releases enjoyed in years past by films such as The Wild Bunch (seven years or so, in one UK cinema at least) and Reservoir Dogs (not quite as long, but over a wider area). However, as chance would have it one of the ‘high number’ TV channels in my region happened to be showing a film which puts both of these in the shade, by which I mean it was originally released in 1975 and is technically still running in some cinemas today (even if only at midnight on the weekends). No ordinary film gets a 44 year theatrical run, and whatever else you want to say about it, Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not what you’d call an ordinary film.

From a certain point of view it resembles a fairly typical film adaptation of a successful stage show, but then this is to miss the unique nature of the Rocky Horror phenomenon. Rocky Horror is, of course, synonymous with its creator, Richard O’Brien, who is something of a genial self-mythologiser (at least where the origins of the show are concerned). One version of the story has it that O’Brien was appearing in Jesus Christ Superstar in London’s West End when the creator of that show, Andrew Lloyd Webber, attended a show and was sufficiently unimpressed by O’Brien’s performance that he had him sacked on the spot – unable to get work as a result, O’Brien wrote Rocky Horror as a way of making some money (other versions are less dramatic and suggest the actor started work on the project simply to amuse himself). Richard O’Brien has also suggested that the tone of the show was a calculated choice based on the fact that the two most successful film series in British history are the Hammer horrors and the Carry On films, and that Rocky Horror is intended as a kind of mash-up of the two. This strikes me as disingenuous, to say the least – it sounds good, but the film itself doesn’t really seem to show either as a significant influence.

The film concerns the travails of (initially) wholesome young couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon); the setting feels like it should be the Fifties but there is a very deliberate choice to show the characters listening to Nixon’s resignation on the radio at one point. Anyway, having recently become engaged, Brad and Janet are travelling to visit an old friend when their car breaks down and they have to take refuge in the mansion of eccentric (to say the least) scientist Dr Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), who is hosting a gathering of like-minded friends. The occasion is to celebrate the fact that he has recently completed an extraordinary experiment, and created a man in his laboratory! Although his motives for doing so are probably best not dwelt upon…

One thing you can say about The Rocky Horror Picture show is that it has a visual identity of its own like few other films: if you come across it while channel-surfing, it’s instantly obvious what it is, perhaps (given the remarkable cultural penetration of the show) even if you’ve never seen it before. The movie is consumed by a camp sensibility in a way matched by few others, and this extends to the costumes, the set dressing, and most of the performances. It is its own thing much more than it is a spoof of any other film or genre.

As I say, I’m dubious about O’Brien’s suggestion that Rocky Horror has much to do with the Carry Ons or Hammer (though I detect a certain commonality of approach with the Dr Phibes films). The closest real link between the House of Horror and Rocky Horror (unless you count Charles Gray’s appearance) is that the latter re-uses some old props from Revenge of Frankenstein, and was filmed on location at Hammer’s old base at Bray Studios. It doesn’t really have the relentless innuendo or slapstick (or indeed the actual sense of innocence) you usually find in a Carry On film; compare The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Carry On Screaming and you’ll see that these two films are actually quite far apart in tone and approach.

The film seems to owe at least as big a debt to American sci-fi movies of the Fifties as it does to any English influence – the litany of films invoked by O’Brien in the iconic opening number is mostly American, after all. The setting is certainly American and the plot refers to things like the UFO flap of the 1950s. The clincher, for me, is the musical score, which is stuffed with pastiche rock ‘n’ roll songs intended to recall the same period. If Rocky Horror starts anywhere, it is as a piece of fake Americana, eventually subverted by notions of campness.

Whatever it’s supposed to be, I always find The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be terrifically watchable, mainly because the songs are so good. The slow ones are generally at least pleasant and easy on the ear, while the up-tempo numbers are fun and witty (the complaint that they all sound the same seems to me to be a bit unfair, given they were all written in the same rock ‘n’ roll mode). The cast put them over well, too – I can’t honestly claim to ever have been fond of ‘Let’s Do the Time Warp Again’, but I really like ‘Science Fiction Double Feature’, ‘Damn It Janet’, and many of the others.

If there’s a problem, it’s that – viewed as a piece of conventional musical theatre – The Rocky Horror Show is all over the place. It does contain ‘I Am’ and ‘I Want’ songs, but they’re often in very peculiar places – the most obvious example of an ‘I Want’ song is ‘Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me’, but it’s nearly halfway through the film (much later than is normal). The plot of the film basically falls to bits even earlier than this, at least in terms of normal narrative progression. There’s really no point in worrying too much about the story, because it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense or follow any real logic. Well before the end, the film simply becomes a collection of (pretty good) songs – tellingly, it also becomes essentially sung-through, after the opening includes a reasonable amount of dialogue.

Devotees of the film and the show would doubtless say that Rocky Horror is about an attitude more than a narrative, and I couldn’t honestly argue with them. You could perhaps make a case that the film is about the way in which strait-laced American society in the 1950s was undermined and subverted by the permissiveness of the 1960s and early 70s, symbolised here by rock ‘n’ roll music and the film’s obsession with cross-dressing and minority sexual practices, but looking for a serious subtext to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is surely missing the point by an enormous margin.

I do wonder, though, if the show hasn’t been a victim of its own success. It’s hard to get a real sense of what society was actually like back in 1973 when the stage production opened, and it may be that it was a genuinely startling and transgressive new show at the time. These days, as I say, it has achieved a remarkably high profile and perhaps this has given it a cosiness and sense of familiarity which has to some extent pulled its teeth. I saw a revival on stage in 1994 and despite the large number of slightly puerile sight-gags it was very much a family show, with people taking their children along for a pantomime-like experience of audience participation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, like its theatrical progenitor, was long ago absorbed into the mainstream and accommodated there, if never completely assimilated – but it remains an energetic piece of entertainment, and practically the type specimen of a cult movie.

 

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Films about brilliant and successful people just being brilliant and successful are not really that common, probably because they’re actually quite dull. What you really want for a tip-top movie, especially a bio-pic, are some trials and struggling – someone fighting their way to the top and winning through by dint of sheer talent and hard work. Or, possibly even better, someone facing up to the reality that their best days may be behind them, and coming to terms with the fact that they are merely mortal after all. Some proper pathos, there, a real chance for some light and shade.

I have no doubt that some of the foregoing may have influenced the thought processes behind Jon S Baird’s Stan & Ollie, but presumably also crucial is the fact that this story, as well as featuring two genuine legends of world culture and dealing with universal themes, is set in locations in the UK which are reassuringly inexpensive to reach. (So it goes when you work for BBC Films, I suspect.)

This film is about, need it be said, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who are embodied for the occasion by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly respectively. The vast majority of it concerns a peculiar interlude in the early 1950s, many years after the peak of their success in Hollywood, when the now-ageing duo reunited for a tour of British and Irish music halls. It is a rather shabby comedown for two men who are still beloved and instantly recognisable wherever they go; their promoter Bernard Delfont – very unflatteringly portrayed here by Rufus Jones – books them into seedy guest houses and second-rate theatres, preferring to favour his hot young star Norman Wisdom.

Stan and Ollie are basically just doing the tour for the money, and because they are waiting on the finance to come together for a new movie Stan has has been working on the script for (at this point, historically, the pair had made only one poorly-received film in the previous eight years). However, the tour proves unexpectedly demanding and the stresses of it open up some old wounds in Laurel and Hardy’s relationship…

A few months ago I suggested that Charlie Chaplin had a good claim to be the most recognisable person in history; well, not only are Laurel and Hardy amongst the few serious challengers to that title, they are probably held in greater affection, as well. Surely everybody knows Laurel and Hardy, the comedy double-act without a straight man, the duo who took idiocy and literally raised it to an art form. They are, surely, the greatest comedians in history, with a legacy that is likely to endure as long as our culture.

While this is, to some extent, good news for the makers of Stan & Ollie, because it means the movie comes with a built-in audience, there’s also possibly a problem – namely, why would you want to watch two other men pretending to be Laurel and Hardy, when you could be watching the genuine article? (Their films are very easy to track down on t’internet these days, after all.) It’s a mathematical fact that any new film is unlikely to be quite as joyous to watch as The Music Box or Way Out West.

The new movie tries to get round this problem by giving people what they’d expect from a Laurel and Hardy movie. Reilly and Coogan do an impressive job of capturing the essence of the duo, particularly when they are performing. Steve Coogan, it must be said, does not really look all that much like Stan Laurel, but is clearly working hard to get the voice right; John C Reilly is virtually spot-on as Oliver Hardy, though (hours in the make-up chair every day probably helped). You have to admire the actors for having the guts to recreate some of the pair’s most iconic routines – there’s a wonderful version of ‘Lonesome Pine’ – and it is almost as if they are channelling the essences of Stan and Ollie. Elsewhere, the film inserts various bits of characteristic business – their arrival at a hotel, with Stan overloaded with luggage, descends into chaos, while an attempt at carrying some heavy luggage up a flight of steps likewise does not go to plan. Given that most of the film concerns the very fact that off-screen the two men were quite different from their public personae, this is possibly a bit of a cheat, but it’s an entertaining one.

And I would imagine the makers of this film are hoping that people will be interested enough in Laurel and Hardy to want to see a film which reveals a little more about them than their status as the world’s worst piano delivery-men. I imagine the movie will probably be fairly informative for most people, making clear, for example, the real basis of their working relationship – in reality, Stan was the workaholic brains of the outfit, constantly coming up with new material, while Ollie – known to all as ‘Babe’ – was a more genial, laid-back character, a martyr to expensive hobbies like excessive gambling and alimony. Central to the plot is the fact that the duo were on separate contracts with their long-time producer Hal Roach (played here by Danny Huston), eventually leading to financial and personal tensions between them, not least because of Roach’s attempt to launch Ollie as part of a new act, Langdon and Hardy, in the now-obscure comedy Zenobia.

This failed, needless to say, but the film does play with the notion of Laurel and Hardy working with other partners, and the sheer wrongness of how this feels is significant. Laurel and Hardy epitomise the notion of the comedy double act, after all, and if the film is about anything other than simply their final performances together, it’s what it means to be in this kind of partnership – people with experience of it say it is not unlike being in a marriage, with all the affection, jealousy, interdependence and potential frustration inherent in that. (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson make a good impression as the boys’ actual wives, fully aware of the odd quadrilateral dynamic to their situation.) And there’s also that sensation of not really belonging anywhere else, no matter how you may personally feel in any given moment. The film explores this with great delicacy and tenderness, and if it does suggest that there was a dark side to Laurel and Hardy’s relationship, it also stresses that it was ultimately founded on a deep fraternal love between the boys.

Well, it’s a movie, so maybe this is true and maybe it isn’t. But you’d certainly like to believe this was so, for if anything in this world is a source of untinged pleasure, it is watching Laurel and Hardy in action. Stan & Ollie never quite reaches that level of pure bliss, but it’s a well-made, very well-performed, sympathetic and insightful portrait of the gentlemen in question. If nothing else, it should do a good job of reminding anyone who has forgotten just why the world has never stopped loving Laurel and Hardy, and that’s surely worthwhile in itself. A fine film and well worth seeing.

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