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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Winterbottom’

Michael Winterbottom’s Greed does not get off to the smoothest of starts, although this is really the product of circumstances beyond the film-makers’ control: the film opens with an added-very-late-on caption dedicating it to the memory of the late TV presenter Caroline Flack, then transitions from this into a quote from E.M. Forster. I was still too busy wondering why the film-makers had felt the need to open with the dedication to really focus on the other things that were going on, but it clears up somewhat very soon: Flack is the first person on screen, appearing as herself in the opening sequence. The film includes various other examples of other celebrities doing the same thing.

The movie is clearly being positioned as very close to reality, which I would imagine has occasioned fun times for some lawyers – representatives of Greed are very clear that the film, which concerns the life of a ruthless high-street mogul vilified for his tax avoidance and use of sweatshops in the developing world, particularly after a peevish appearance in front of a British parliamentary committee, is not directly based on the life of Sir Philip Green, a ruthless high-street mogul vilified for his tax avoidance and alleged use of sweatshops in the developing world, particularly after a peevish appearance in front of a British parliamentary committee. Of course it’s not. But you would have to be completely unfamiliar with all concerned not to see a certain resemblance.

The central character of Green – sorry, Greed – is Sir Richard McCreadie, played by Winterbottom’s frequent collaborator Steve Coogan. The bulk of the film is set immediately before and during McCreadie’s sixtieth birthday party, which is taking place on the Greek island of Mykonos. McCreadie is on the defensive and looking to make a big statement following the bad publicity ensuing from his appearance in front of the MP, and a disgustingly lavish and decadent shindig is on the cards: Roman-themed, it is to feature gladiator fights as well as the traditional disco and fireworks. Present for the occasion are various family members and other hangers-on as well as employees – Isla Fisher, Sophie Cookson and Asa Butterfield play McCreadie’s ex-wife and children, Shirley Henderson his mother, while looking on with increasing horror are his official biographer (David Mitchell) and one of the party planners (Dinita Gohil), whose family history has long been entwined with that of the McCreadie business empire. Needless to say, party preparations do not go well: cheap labour to build the gladiator arena proves hard to source, the lion they’ve hired is out-of-sorts, and there is a mob of Syrian refugees on the beach spoiling the view.

Mixed in with the build-up to the party are selected highlights of McReadie’s life up to that point: starting out as basically a con man and gambler, before going into budget fashion, launching a string of shops, and hitting upon a uniquely inventive and ruthless model of doing business (the film explains this in exemplary fashion, but basically it involves buying large companies using money borrowed from the companies themselves, selling off their assets and giving the proceeds to non-dom family members). The exploitation of workers in the developing world is also key.

Greed sounds like a slightly uneasy mixture of elements – knockabout farce mixed with angry, socially-committed agitprop. One of the impressive things about it is the way that it does manage to maintain a consistent tone where these things don’t appreciably jar with one another. Coogan, it must be said, delivers another horrendous comic grotesque, the type of performance he can do without breaking a sweat, and if David Mitchell is genuinely acting it is only to give a minimal variation on his standard public persona, but there is considerably more naturalism further down the cast list, with a particularly good performance from the largely unknown Dinita Gohil. But this is a movie with a notably strong cast, even in some of the relatively minor roles.

You do get a sense in the end that the loud, audience-pleasing elements of the film are there as a delivery mechanism for the more serious ideas which Michael Winterbottom is particularly interested in putting across: the first half is lighter in tone and more comic, focusing more on how awful McReadie is – the second explores how the system facilitates his behaviour, and is notably more serious. Perhaps the film-makers are correct to suggest this isn’t just a thinly-disguised hatchet job on a distasteful public figure, but a critique of an entire ideology. In this sense the film becomes one about people who are unable or unwilling to recognise the consequences of their actions. This applies to the McReadies, of course, who are either too stupid or too morally corrupt to admit they have a personal responsibility towards any of their employers or subcontractors. But many of us who are not multi-millionaires also engage in deeply questionable acts of all kinds – buying big label fashion, eating meat, voting Conservative – and still justify it to ourselves in just the same way. Genius, according to one definition, lies in putting together apparently disparate bits of information. The film suggests there is also a kind of genius in the ability to ignore the obvious connections between closely linked facts.

That said, it does almost feel in places that the film can’t pass by an issue without wanting to take a stand on it. The reality of the fashion industry (perhaps even capitalism in general) is appalling enough without the film also having to suggest this is also a feminist issue, and there’s another subplot about the refugees that feels just a little bit over-cooked. Winterbottom even manages to squeeze in a few breezy swipes at ‘scripted reality’ TV shows – something which now feels slightly less jolly than it once did, given Caroline Flack’s prominence at the top of the movie.

I suggested to a friend that we go and see Greed (he initially wanted to watch Parasite, but I’d already seen it) and he was a bit dubious to begin with: he thought the film looked a bit on the nose, and also that he didn’t need the movie industry to tell him that sexism and capitalism were Bad Things. In the end, though, he rather enjoyed it, as did I: I imagine that most people in Greed‘s target audience will not learn anything strikingly new from the movie, but it should do a good job of making them care more about things they are already intellectually aware of.

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It seems like every time I go on t’internet these days, Twitter is aflame with news that some TV sensation or other of yesteryear is making a comeback: last week it was Twin Peaks, at the moment it’s X Files, a Babylon 5 movie is in the works – can a thirtysomething update of Buffy be very far off? I remember the 70s nostalgia boom of the early-to-mid 90s quite well; the prospect of a 90s nostalgia boom just makes me feel dispiritingly old.

I had an oddly similar sensation while watching Michael Winterbottom’s 1995 movie Butterfly Kiss the other day, which was slightly odd given that I’d never seen it before. But some combination of factors means that it just reeks of a particular time and place.

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The lead is Amanda Plummer, who at the time was fairly fresh from Pulp Fiction (if there’s a bigger mid-90s zeitgeist touchstone, I can’t think of it). In time-honoured style, the American Plummer has been imported to give some kind of cachet to a modest British film. She plays Eunice, whom I can only describe as a wandering lunatic, following the motorways of Lancashire in pursuit of her (probably non-existent) partner Judith, leaving a trail of slaughtered checkout workers in her wake.

However, for some reason she makes a connection with one of these women, Miriam (Saskia Reeves), and opts not to beat her to death. Attracted to this mysterious stranger, despite the fact she is clearly unhinged, Miriam takes her home and the two of them hook up and set out on a blood-spattered odyssey up and down the M6…

Now, on paper, the names involved in this film suggest it must be interesting – Michael Winterbottom has carved out a niche as one of those wild talents who is always worth following, while the film is written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also has something of a reputation (even if that thing he did on telly with the trees and fairies wasn’t much cop). If nothing else, then, Butterfly Kiss shows us that everyone had to start somewhere, because this movie is not especially distinguished in any department.

Having said that, I suppose any lesbian serial killer road movie has a certain degree of originality going for it (there’s a dash of sado-masochism thrown in, too, just in case the movie didn’t seem niche enough already). There is sex and death aplenty, if either of those things are your bag, but apart from them nothing in the film really makes an impression. If the more provocative content is intended to counterpoint the central relationship between Eunice and Miriam, it doesn’t work, mainly because neither character is remotely believeable.

You can’t really blame either actress, both of whom do the best they can with the material. Well – I say that, but I rapidly found Amanda Plummer impossible to take seriously, and actually rather annoying, simply because her accent is literally all over the place: it roams from country to country and region to region throughout the film. Was this an intentional choice or is this simply how English people sound to her? I’ve no idea: apart from this her performance is okay, but then she does rather specialise in playing characters with, shall we say, atypical pathologies.

Saskia Reeves has the benefit of playing a less-outlandish character, but the script demands she behave in a wholly incredible way: Miriam may be sheltered, naive, and just a little bit thick, but that still doesn’t explain why she decides to invite a certifiable loon back to the house she shares with her infirm mother. You could probably argue they are both lost souls drawn together by mutual need, but the script doesn’t sell this idea and it just comes across as melodramatic. I have to say the treatment of Reeves and her mother seems just a little bit patronising to me: they are both working class and poorly educated, and the film treats them primarily as pitiful, victims in the making.

Then again, finding any sort of deeper theme to Butterfly Kiss is challenging: the characters are wont to talk about things like good and evil, God and sin, but not in any really consistent way. It’s all a bit teenage poetry-ish, or perhaps like a very bad episode of Cracker; I may be getting old, but lines of dialogue like ‘It’s never easy to kill someone, especially if you love them’ seem to me to be more trite than profound. The conclusion of the film is, I suspect, intended to be a poignant moment of love and loss – my reaction was more along the lines of ‘one down, one to go’.

To be honest, watching this film I was repeatedly reminded of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, and on one level the two films have basically the same plot: serial killer acquires new partner and takes them on quasi-romantic road trip. However, Sightseers is – if you ask me – vastly superior. Not only is it a very effective black comedy, but the characters actually make a bit more sense, too. But much of Butterfly Kiss feels either derivative – some reviews inevitably compare it with Thelma and Louise – or vaguely like other films which have been made since, especially Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, which also focuses on an intense, somewhat twisted relationship between young women from different backgrounds. Mostly it just feels very much of its time, though, partly due to the 90s-tastic soundtrack: Shampoo, Shakespear’s Sister and Bjork all feature, though most prominent are the Cranberries.

In the end I can’t say I enjoyed this film much – it feels like it’s straining too hard to be gritty and provocative, but it just ends up being pretentious and melodramatic. This is one of those slightly strange examples of a film where a lot of people turn up and do something sub-par by any of their standards.

 

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There’s having a bit of a range, then there’s being impressively versatile, then there’s having a CV which is all over the place, and then there’s being Michael Winterbottom. Thomas Hardy adaptations, gruelling real-world reportage, respectable hard-core, lesbian serial killers: this man has done the lot. His work is impossible to categorise, for all that he is one of those directors who makes frequent use of the same collaborators. One of the higher-profile of these is Steve Coogan, who worked with him on 24 Hour Party People, The Look of Love, The Trip (a TV show in the UK but a movie elsewhere), and 2005’s A Cock And Bull Story.

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For a man of Winterbottom’s restless ambition you can see the attraction of having a go at Laurence Sterne’s almost-definitively unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy, for that is what this is almost-always described as. The book itself has been been on my to-read list for many years , and I am usually wary of watching film versions of books I’m planning to read. A Cock And Bull Story is probably not likely to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the source material, though.

Coogan plays Tristram Shandy, an eighteenth-century gentleman in the process of telling his life story. Coogan also plays Shandy’s father Walter, who to be honest has a slightly larger role in the film as Tristam himself is not actually born in the course of the book. This, if you will, the central gag of the book – Tristram gets so easily distracted with peripheral stories about the circumstances of his conception and the lives of various relatives that he never quite gets round to his own birth.

So this is not a conventional life story, and the film initially looks like it’s going to be a little off the wall, too: there’s a scene in which a youthful Tristram gets his member trapped in a sash window, which is not the stuff of your traditional costume drama, and then a sequence in which Coogan/Shandy apologises for the poor quality of the various child actors employed to portray him.

However, the movie is just getting started, and this is why I feel describing A Cock And Bull Story as an actual adaptation of Tristram Shandy is rather misleading. There is, all right, a longish section near the start of the film portraying the confinement of Tristram’s mother (Keeley Hawes), the arrival of a doctor who doesn’t exactly inspire trust (Dylan Moran), and so on. But then the narrative suddenly takes a step back, and rather than being about the story of the book, the film is about an attempt to make a low-budget adaptation of Tristram Shandy starring an actor named Steve Coogan.

The part of Steve Coogan is played, not entirely surprisingly, by Steve Coogan, and also appearing as fictionalised versions of themselves are Hawes, Moran, Gillian Anderson and  – most prominently – Rob Brydon. Coogan is depicted as a deeply insecure individual, permanently concerned with maintaining his status as the star of the production, and very threatened by any increase in Brydon’s prominence in the film.

Anyone whose seen The Trip will probably be quite familiar with the relationship between Coogan and Brydon’s fictional alter-egos and the sniping and backbiting that goes on between them. The clever thing about this idea is that both characters are just close enough to the public perception of who these actors really are for it to be hard to tell them apart – Coogan in particular plays up to his tabloid image as a slightly dodgy character with a chaotic personal life. On the other hand, any film in which famous people play themselves is always going to be open to charges that it’s just being self-regarding and clever-clever.

As a side issue, the film also features quite a few well-known faces – Kelly Macdonald, a pre-Moneypenny Naomie Harris, a pre-Graviton Ian Hart, and others – and it can be unclear who’s supposed to be playing themself and who isn’t. It does draw attention to the artificial divisions in the narrative.

Then again, perhaps that’s the point of it all. There are some jokes which are perhaps a little too self-reflexive: the fictional Gillian Anderson, upon seeing the finished adaptation, expresses her surprise at how little she’s actually in it – Anderson herself is in the movie for probably less than ten minutes. But most of the time, the film succeeds when it tries to be funny – although this is never what you’d call broad or even mainstream humour. There’s an air of ostentatious cleverness running through this film which may not be to everyone’s taste.

And, as usual, it’s very difficult to combine this kind of conceit with genuine drama and emotion – a parallel is established between Walter Shandy’s concerns for his son, and fictional-Coogan’s relationship with his own new baby, and the emotion never quite connects, simply because one has already been made aware that these are not real people.

That said, I enjoy clever films, and the stuff with Coogan and Brydon is droll enough to be a lot of fun. It’s not the biggest or most memorable of films, and almost certainly not one of Winterbottom’s best, but it’s certainly different. And while it may not actually be a straight adaptation of Tristram Shandy, I suspect it does a better job of capturing the style and essence of the source material than many straight adaptations manage. It’s not really Tristram Shandy, but it’s a lot like it.

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It must be quite curious to be Steve Coogan: undoubtedly a massive talent, and a man with a significant international career (he tends to pop up in one or two Hollywood movies a year, albeit usually quirky supporting roles), easily capable of selling out major live tours in the UK – and yet his CV is still dominated by one comedy character he first performed on radio over twenty years ago. He might, perhaps, be forgiven for feeling that his career has faltered somewhat, certainly compared to some of the predictions that were being made ten or fifteen years ago.

And yet he can still lead, and perhaps more importantly open a movie. Many of his most interesting recent parts have emerged from his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom, an endlessly prolific and unpredictable director. It was Coogan and Winterbottom who made 24 Hour Party People in 2002, a look at a particular slice of British cultural history framed as a biopic (and possibly the only biopic in history whose subject turned up uninvited to press conferences promoting the film, solely in order to stand at the back and heckle the film-makers).

There’s something similar about Winterbottom’s new movie, The Look of Love, which Coogan also stars in – although they are unlikely to be harassed by its disgruntled subjects this time around, as most of the principals are safely deceased. Coogan plays Paul Raymond, the self-styled ‘King of Soho’ (this was apparently going to be the title of the movie until it transpired that Raymond’s own heirs were planning a biography with that title).

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The movie opens in 1958, with Raymond presented as a fairly small-time seaside impressario (his big success is with a show featuring topless lion-taming) However, a move to London and the opening of the glitzy ‘Raymond Revuebar’ leads to much more substantial success, and the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of theatrical censorship in 1968 offers much wider opportunities in the field of adult entertainment.  As the film acknowledges, you are never likely to lose money with a business plan based around charging to look at naked women, but the financial rewards Raymond reaps come at the expense of the collapse of his marriage (Anna Friel plays Raymond’s wife, and does so rather well).

New girlfriend (Tamsin Egerton) in tow, Raymond enters the seventies intent on an odyssey of bacchanalian excess and slightly shabby bad-taste glamour, branching out into property investment and adult publishing. As time passes, the film makes it increasingly clear that the only meaningful relationship in Raymond’s life is the one he has with his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots, who I believe we can legitimately refer to as a rising star following her many recent successes), but the involvement of a fragile young woman in the world Raymond inhabits comes at a price.

As I mentioned, Steve Coogan is best-known as a comedy performer, and the shadow of the Partridge to some extent hangs over his work here – it’s hard not to conclude that his history playing pompous and slightly absurd figures was one of the factors which led to his being cast here. And, apart from the three women already mentioned, he’s backed up by a supporting cast which is essentially a who’s who of contemporary British comic talent – everyone from David Walliams to Dara O’Briain (who, somewhat oddly, appears to have been cast as Alexei Sayle, though this is left implicit).

So, as you’d expect, this is a film containing some very funny moments, most of them admittedly in questionable taste – the subject matter of Raymond’s businesses and lifestyle has resulted in the film getting an 18 certificate (which, incidentally, has doubtless impacted on its box office returns – I was the only punter at the afternoon showing I attended). Coogan carries all this off with the aplomb you might expect.

However, the strange thing about The Look of Love is that the casting doesn’t really reflect the main thrust of the story, because this is not at its heart the off-colour farce or jolly mickey-take of Raymond you might expect. This is really a tragedy, of sorts, and an attempt to examine the paradox at the heart of Paul Raymond – an absolutely devoted, loving father, who nevertheless uses and exploits women on a literally industrial scale, his success as a property tycoon, entrepreneur, and pornographer making him the wealthiest man in the UK.

Then again, I may be misreading the intent of the film, as this element of the plot takes a while to really get going, prior to which we are treated to various jolly japes and escapades featuring Raymond and his relationships with the characters played by Friel and Egerton. On the other hand, the film is framed by an absolutely desolated Raymond recalling his relationship with his daughter, so…

Anyway, Coogan gives a fantastic performance, managing to find some humanity behind Raymond’s ridiculous image, and he’s genuinely touching when confronted by the failures of his various relationships and the various tribulations in his daughter’s life. Imogen Poots is as classy as ever as Debbie Raymond.

Despite all this, I didn’t find this as satisfying as some of Coogan and Winterbottom’s previous collaborations. Partly this is down to the unevenness of tone, partly due to a sense of having seen this kind of film done numerous times before. I think perhaps it’s also down to the ambiguity of the film – on the one hand there’s a lot of implied criticism of Raymond’s overblown lifestyle and business concerns, but on the other we’re treated to a lot of shapely female flesh in various poses and combinations. As ever, there’s a thin line between making fun of prurience and simply being prurient yourself.

However, this isn’t a bad film, by any means – the period settings are convincing, the story rattles along engagingly, and the performances are accomplished. It never quite gets to the heart of its central character, but it still does a good enough job of telling his rather peculiar story to be worth a look.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 18th 2002:

Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People is the vaguely true story of 15 years in the strange double life of Anthony Wilson, by day a local TV news reporter, by night a self-declared visionary pop impressario and music business mastermind, a man who played a crucial role in the rise of club culture (and drug culture), a man fundamental to the regeneration of Manchester, the man who gave the world Factory Records, the Hacienda nightclub, New Order, and the Happy Mondays.

In the film Wilson is portrayed by the comedian Steve Coogan, a shrewd choice as Wilson’s image – a pretentious, middle-class faux-intellectual prat surrounded by working-class pop warriors – isn’t too far removed from that of Coogan’s most famous creation, Alan Partridge. Coogan plays the image, and neither he nor the script try particularly hard to uncover the real man. The film openly admits to being more interested in legend than truth – at one point Wilson discovers his wife (Shirley Henderson) in flagrante with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, at which point the real Devoto pops up and makes it absolutely clear he doesn’t remember this actually happening. It’s a neat post-post-modern moment, but this kind of deliberate, ironic distancing means that serious events such as the suicide of singer Ian Curtis (played by Sean Harris) lack any real emotional impact.

It’s played mostly for laughs anyway, by Coogan and other TV comics like John Thomson, Peter Kaye, and Keith Allen. Obviously some impersonation of quite famous people is required, with variable results: John Simm is spookily convincing as Barney Sumner, but the guys playing the Happy Mondays have only a fraction of the charisma of the real Shaun and Bez, and Ralph Little is simply too young-looking and un-hairy to play Peter Hook. There are cameos from survivors of the scene, too: the real Tony Wilson, Horse from the Mondays, Mani from the Stone Roses, Clint Boone from the Inspiral Carpets, and many more.

It’s all shot on digital video (which if nothing else allows archive concert footage to be edited in less incongruously) and Winterbottom’s direction is suitably sardonic and arch. But there are no real insights into the 80s Manchester scene, and probably not much to attract those who aren’t already into this kind of music. It’s really not bad at all, but for a film with this kind of raw material to work with, the fact that in the end 24 Hour Party People is only not bad and quite amusing is in its own way a significant criticism. Fantastic soundtrack, though.

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