Dear, beloved, gentle readers I confess I fear for the very sanctity of my precious immortal soul, as this trailer made me cackle like a cacodemon;
New film from Martin In Bruges McDonagh, I thought his last effort Seven Psychopaths somewhat missed its mark, here’s hoping he’s back on target. A good cast and I think this trailer should make you chuckle a couple of times, especially if you admire spectacular swearing;
Yes, I know, more trailer filler, but this has just been revealed at a midnight Sundance screening and it got punters very excited, managing that almost impossible mix of deft comedy and disturbing horror which is exceptionally rare outside of An American Werewolf In London and the Evil Dead franchise;
Firstly, some context – German cinema can be considered a trailblazer in many respects during its long and illustrious history, as the cradle of such epoch defining talents as Fritz Lang, Murnau, and Pabst, or more recently the post war new-wave of Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders, to name just three. When you cast your eyes over these figures and historical movements there is one function and formula which doesn’t exactly spring to mind – rib-tickling, grin inducing comedy. A little research on my part hasn’t exactly excavated a vast, untapped chasm of Teutonic titters, although to be fair Fack Ju Göhte looks like it might be worth a watch, and Goodbye Lenin made some waves during its release back in 2010. That is pretty much it as far as I can see, until a modest film was revealed at Cannes last year which has upturned the nationalistic nerve of accusing the krauts of having no sense of humour. As I’ve mentioned here before the marketing for Toni Erdmann didn’t exactly molest my funny bones, so as usual I have been ignorantly bemused by its steep ascendancy to perhaps the most acclaimed film of 2016, featuring in the ascendant of hundreds of critics, academics and film industry professionals all over the world. Still, I am humble enough to accede to my elders and betters, so when a special advance screening and post viewing Q&A sprang up in the esteemed Curzon Bloomsbury I snapped up a ticket, eager to finally see what all the fuss was about. Rather than director and screenwriter Maren Abe being frozen in the spotlight the Curzon have secured the services of Austrian actor Peter Simonischek for their promotional parade, he plays the titular character in this frankly bizarre but repeatedly amusing oddity, one of most original films I’ve seen for quite a while.
When we first meet Winfried (Simonischek) we quickly process that he’s something of an eccentric of advancing years, a pithy prankster, as he imitates a disheveled unabomber clone while collecting a ticking parcel from a confused delivery man in the film’s opening scene. It is quickly ascertained that he is a part-time teacher, divorced but remaining cordial with his ex-wife, and warmly tolerated by the members of the community and his extended family whom roll their eyes in mock-exasperation at his silly jokes and foolish personas. One family fissure strikes a genuine raw nerve which can’t be concealed with well-intentioned levity, with Winfried’s uncomfortable relationship with his high-flying corporate daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) a source of regret between the two. She is constantly on the mobile while negotiating a particularly sensitive deal on behalf of her consulting company, a Romanian outsourcing scheme which inevitably lead to redundancies that the cowardly CEO is anxious not to be publicly responsible for inflicting. After Winfried’s unexpected visit to Romania where Ines barely has any time to spend with her father he unconventionally adopts the wig-couiffered, false teeth sporting persona of Toni Erdmann, professional life-coach and possible German Ambassador, and inseminates himself into her corporate circle to the bemusement of her unsuspecting colleagues and friends. The results, as they say lead to hilarious consequences, in an embarrassment of situations which are not a million miles from the cringe-inducing chortles of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm…….
Toni Erdmann wasn’t quite what I had in my mind when I sat down in the opulent surroundings of the Renoir Screen Numero Uno, and thankfully, having slept on it I’m quantifying that statement in a throughly complementary fashion. As expected the film begins as a rather straightforward dramerdy, the clear spine being the lukewarm, stilted relationship between an emotionally estranged father and daughter, warily circling each other and yearning for a deeper connection but unsure how to broach their shared apprehension. After establishing the initial story contours however the film pushes off into an almost Dada influenced farce, an occasionally hysterical playground with bizarrely comic interludes and incidents. Two scenes in particular are spectacular specimens of the comedic form, quite unlike anything I’ve seen at the cinema for quite a while, and judging by the raucous reaction of my fellow patrons I wasn’t the only audience member throughly smitten with the droll absurdity. Technically the film is a straightforward affair, organic coverage captured in wandering hand-held close-ups, with a specific lack of any manipulative soundtrack or diagetic interference, letting the intrinsic comedy ooze through from the situations and reactions rather than signposting reactions through editing or punchlines. I’ve never seen either central performer before so there is no screen baggage to weigh down their performances, and they are both throughly convincing as two lost souls slowly acclimatizing to a new phase of their father / daughter relationship, and beautifully playing it straight no matter how absurd the circumstances.
I am utterly baffled by some of the readings I’ve gleaned from some social media streams for this film, specifically those interpretations citing Toni Erdmann as some sort of political riposte to our recent political turmoil, an analysis which I cannot detect at all. Yes, there is some sly undercurrent of corporate satire running beneath the absurdity, an examination of the modern office culture which inflicts such anxiety and distress on its drones at the expense of genuine, warm human interactions, a reduction of all discourse to commerce if you will. Extrapolating that further to encompass wider contemporary concerns seems like a stretch, it doesn’t need any deeper analysis other than a face value appreciation of a frequently hilarious, original and highly touching if slightly overlong (160+ minutes) movie. During the Q&A Simonischek came across as a cheery and avuncular fellow, explaining how they suffered numerous takes and were encouraged to improvise by their brilliantly precise director, during a challenging but rewarding shoot. He also explained how some of the particular strains of humour had been carefully researched – and I have to dance around some certain plot points here – but a certain, erm…well, ‘creature’ is culled from a Romanian fable which signals the waning of winter and the coming of spring, a symbol of a rebirth and new horizons which slots neatly into some of the characters evolution and growth. This is an almost unique offer, it’s difficult to parse with any recent film in terms of intent and tone which I suspect is why it has generated such international affection, and while it wouldn’t have charmed its way into my top ten I am curious to see it again and assess how some of the nuances and performances may be reinterpreted and assessed a second time around. So much cinema, even of an international variety follows formula so it was refreshing to be blessed with a story which was largely unpredictable, apart perhaps from a final conclusion which cleaves to the usual mandate of character growth and life lessons learnt. Now, after this highly amusing aside I will go and check out what’s been happening in the news and international affairs before resuming the fetal position, and be sure to continue the whispered moaning and praying that this is all some feverish nightmare, I mean you’ve got to laugh….right?;
Ah, sad news, and some of the circumstances of his passing make it clear while he withdrew from public appearances some years ago. He was the second ‘celebrity’ I ever saw in interview at the BFI way back at the birth of the last decade, and I remember him as being warm, gregarious but slightly distant interviewee, I think it was Jonathan Ross who was the master of ceremonies. In terms of tribute no doubt the usual suspects will be quite rightly scorching through social media – Wonka, Blazing Saddles, his collaborations with Richard Pryor – but I’ll always remember hm for this, one of the great all time cinephile comedies;
I’ve been reading numerous reports that Spielberg tried to coax him out of retirement to star in Ready Player One, which makes me wonder what kind of part he thought might be appropriate for Wilder. Mark Rylance for the part;
Jeez, and I was only making one of those perennial British jokes about Christmas decorations appearing earlier and earlier in the lift this morning. My annual Christmas movie list mostly revolves around re-watches of Die Hard, It’s A Wonderful Life and Menagerie favourite Scrooged, but I’ll always find time for the original Bad Santa as it was deliciously bad taste funny. Now we have a sequel, although it seems a little early to start trailing this?;
After banking some serious dollar from his 2013 smash Iron Man 3 Shane Black is back, with an initially welcome respite from the shimmering spandex and super heroics polluting the multiplexes. At first glance The Nice Guys could be a shimmering emerald buried beneath this summers unholy dreadnaught of failed reboots, remakes and sequels, aiming for a revival of the buddy action-comedy in the vein of Midnight Run or 48 Hours, double crossed with an engineered nostalgia bullet of Boogie Nights or Chinatown. You know the drill, I’m talking the kind of movie where the grizzled/drunk/divorced/unkempt hero uses unorthodox methods but gets results, where his partner, usually of an alternate ethnic background to enable comedic misunderstandings, is just three months away from retirement. Although the prospect of that quiet beachfront property down in the Florida Quays is mere months away he just can’t renege on a chance to take down their shared nemesis Mendoza, the Colombian copperhead who controls all the contraband entering the docks, the cartel kingpin whose goons killed our heroes girlfriend just as he was getting sober. Meanwhile the Precinct Chief, an African-American gentlemen with a particularly volatile temper, forbids their meddling as the pencil necks down at City Hall are still investigating the millions of dollars of property and vehicle damage their last obliterating gunfight on Hollywood & Vine caused last Memorial Day. That’s a quick peek in the genre crib of those well rehearsed cliches that Black so eagerly ambles through like a particularly boisterous toddler, fitfully amusing and charming, but more often exasperating and exhausting in this unfortunate misfire.
Despite the title these are the kind of guys that you’d could imagine partying with John Holmes rather than John Craven. It’s 1977 and the Sunset Strip is sizzling in a blizzard of disco, debauchery and gas-droughts, while a noir nixed voiceover guides us through a turbulent tale of double crosses and deceptions which attempt to conceal a throughly conventional redemption narrative. Frazzled and cowardly private-eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is incompetently seeking missing porn star Misty Mountains, a DOA whose Aunt is obsessively claiming to have seen alive despite the authorities citing her death in an opening act car crash. Meanwhile brutish enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is hired by another starlet named Amelia (Margaret Qualiey) to intimidate Holland into staying away from her, causing our twin heroes to lock comedic foils for the first time. Healy has a run in with two well coffered goons Blue Face (Beau Knapp) and Older Guy (Keith David), who are also anxious to locate Amelia, for some dark and probably unhealthily purpose. Propelled by the haranguing of Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland’s young daughter the decadent duo team-up to find Amelia before the syndicate does, in an intermittently funny, more conventional than first appearances suggest, disappointing addition to the Shane Black playlist.
Only last year I revisited the entire Lethal Weapon series after a very cheap boxed-set acquisition, and I have to say that the initial 1980’s charm of ‘vintage’ Black faded quite quickly, as the series quickly deteriorated into a limp succession of lazy jokes, irritating characters and pulse neutering action set-pieces. It gives me no pleasure to report that The Nice Guys suffers the same trajectory, a film I eagerly wanted to like and was actively cheering on from the opening credits, which slowly lost pressure and purpose like the air escaping a razor slashed tyre. The primary problem is tone, a spectrum of emotions and styles which stagger through the film like a coke-drunk stripper navigating a particular undulating Sunset Strip, shifting from genuine hilarity to toe-curling pathos as the narrative tries to maintain a sense of mystery amid the hunt for a missing woman, a noir archetype which only reminds one of better and more cognitive tomes. Black wants his cake and eats it, moving from genuinely funny slapstick to violent viciousness, exposing the daughter to the rigours of the 1970’s world (Hookers, porn, narcotics) which is mined for all due to comedic reaction, but then he has the audacity to think some long mournful close up in the rain after a melancholic plot turn will actually install some genuine emotion in the audience, or the slaying of a certain character has any real weight after gleefully mowing down innocent bystanders with all due Hollywood action orientated hysteria. The leads are adequate with Gosling outshining Crowe in the quips and broader comedic zone, he is always watchable and unafraid to betray his cool guy image, playing a very convincing drunk with some seriously sublime slapstick.
Still, maybe one in three scenes actually has something to recommend it, an intriguing detail, a revelatory line, a good gag, some narrative function. Instead many of the sequences hang limply on the frame with jokes that misfire to the point of embarrassing indifference, with some plot contortions and in particular a third act transition which feels like the work of panicked scribes rather than confident craftsman. That said there are two or three superb manipulations of genre tropes which Black has made his raison d’être, the main attraction of his auteur intimacy, its just such a shame he couldn’t have buttressed these triumphs with a more effective blend of comedy and character. The movie antagonist remains enigmatic and absent which also dilutes the dark narrative that is trying to squirm under the search, with a surrogate super efficient assassin who pantomimes through a curiously misdirected performance. yet still I guess the film does sport Keith David which as any human knows immediately awards another half star. Also strong is the evocation of LA which is tangible is excellent, funnily enough I wasn’t snorting my way through Mulholland Drive in 1976 but I’ve seen enough documentaries and devoured enough books on the subject to get a feel for the aura, so as a pure L.A. film it just about squeezes into the ‘interesting’ canon while obviously linking as a companion piece to Crowe’s memorable turn in LA Confidential twenty years ago. Other reviews have been much more forgiving and enjoyed the film immensely, so I think I’ll withdraw and maybe take a look at The Last Boy Scout or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to remind myself that when Black’s on form he’s quite a formidable force, for me The Nice Guys just didn’t quite work, but your mischievous mileage may vary;
I think it was the exclamation point in the title that first aroused my suspicions, as any film ‘insisting’ upon itself in such a manner should always be treated with a wide berth of scepticism. My second warning sign was that rather lacklustre trailer, whilst my interest was piqued I didn’t find myself chuckling along to the usual Coen parade of goofballs and grotesques, but I figured we’d give the team the benefit of the doubt given their pedigree. It’s been 3 years since the last film Inside Lleylyn Davis which I found one of their more successful recent pictures, a film with just enough ambivalence and to retain an interest and ponder over the Coen’s increasingly obtuse ideological indictors. As independent operators the duo have forged success through an uncompromising attitude, writing their own scripts which have been occasionally blessed with academy award recognition, working within the system in terms of studio financing but resolutely taking their idiosyncratic look at established genres, from the gangster movie to spy-caper, the screwball comedy to windswept Western. Alas however with great pride can come great arrogance, and I fear that we might have come to the point were the Coen’s are at risk of disappearing within their own orbouros, as for me Hail, Caesar! is their worst film since The Ladykillers. There have been some faint rumbling of discontent recently with a some commentators wryly observing how very, very white and middle class their universe is, and maybe some of the same exasperated characterization modes that are similarly problematic in the likes of Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne projects – broadly spread, unrealistic spirits that they treat with barely concealed distain, divorced from any empathy or recognisable human traits beyond the cartoonish, the bumbling boisterous. But in Hail, Caesar! The Coen’s start with a real person, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), studio development director , a man whom is as happy greasing the palms of a few policemen to look the other way as he is chairing a religious summit with members of the faith from across the spiritual spectrum, in order to glean their ecclesiastical opinions on his currently shooting biblical epic starring the dashing leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) It’s 1951, the peak of the studio system, when such bloated widescreen epics were seen as the silver screens bulwark to the growing power of television, with Mannix ricocheting from one production crisis on the back-lot of Capital Pictures, a fun but unexploited link to their earlier dalliance with the Hollywood history in 1991’s Barton Fink.
All the usual ingredients are here – Carter Burwell on strings, Roger Deakins on viewfinder vectors, the Coen’s own editing nom-de-plume Roderick James on the Stienbeck. It is something of a mystery then that Hail, Caesar! is such a catastrophic chore, a comedy without jokes, a mystery without mystique. The plot attempts to pinion its charms on the kidnapping of Baird by a loose affiliation of communist screenwriters, demanding a a ransom to support the comrades cause in the mother country. These designs promise an ocean or merriment and mirth emerging from the whole concept of HUAC, the blacklist and the paranoid perambulations have forged the spine of many a movie, but the approach and tone is as flippant to be irritating here, as the plot can’t decide whether it’s a farce, a comedy, a drama on Mannix’s existential crisis or some balanced combination of the three. The script seems to care less for cause and effect, of yearning to build a mirthful, mechanical momentum, as instead we are forced to endure chains of scenes featuring some wretched and lazy Hollywood archetypes limp from one misfire to another, and crucially the words and interactions just aren’t funny, the story meandering and malignant in its pointlessness. Comedy in this broadest sense is a difficult entity to critically conceptualize as one man’s hernia inducing hilarity is another man’s James Corden, but if judging by the reactions of my peers is anything to go by the wider praise that this film has generated is just inconceivable and they must have seen another picture – my crowd was stone cold silent throughout the film, before shuffling out of the auditorium during the end titles in a rather bemused daze. OK, fine, at a push the crooning cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) suddenly dropped into the Noel Coward alike costume drama directed by a cameoing Ralph Fiennes does just about prompt a weary grin, but this was the only smirk in the entire picture, all 106 minutes of it. Tilda Swinton plays identical twin gossip columnists in the vein of the talon typewriter twittering of Hedda Hooper or Louella Parsons in their heyday, the comedy seemingly emanating (or not) from the fact that they arrive at each location roughly thirty seconds after each other. Cameos from the likes of Scarlett Johansson as an aqua-musical mermaid star in the mould of Esther Williams or Channing Tatum stepping into Gene Kelly’s dancing shoes in some Anchors Away clone give the Coen’s an excuse to throw in a lavish musical montage, but these asides yield no narrative nor comedic rhyme nor reason, conforming instead to the awful comedy trend of merely referencing something and assuming this is funny purely by the act of reference alone – quite frankly boys, I expected more of you.
You don’t need to be some cultural Sherlock Holmes to discern that there is a twin agenda here, as the themes of the movie can be broadly allocated into one of two, conjoined conceptual headings. The first is a ramble through the intersection of art and commerce, the ideology of crafting mere entertainment through a powerful medium while wider political warfare rages across geographies of the land and intellect, the propaganda potential of cinema during its cultural apotheosis before younger and sleeker media models such as Television and the Internet eroded the foundations of the tinseltown film factory . This is framed through the existential crisis that Mannix is enduring with significant job offers on his plate from more substantial industries, such as Lockheed Martin who are courting outstanding logistical and resourceful talents as his, a man whom in one moment is helping a starlet get dressed after an ill-conceived photoshoot, the next is manufacturing a romance between two of his leading players to misdirect attention for an unexpected, and unmarried scandalous pregnancy. This has trapped Mannix in a confessional, catholic tryst in the scene which tellingly opens Hail, Caesar!, as he grapples with the urge to do the right thing, to be a good father and husband and protect his extended studio family, all for the good of the company, a good man keeping the faith which also finds its clumsy mirrors in the staidly staged epic which the Coens have modelled on the likes of King Of Kings or Quo Vadis, the Hollywood epics which were the last desperate grasp for relevance and spectacle as the studio system started to dismantle itself. This is all well and good but an engine needs energy to run upon be it amusing gags, fun characters of something resembling a engaging and entertaining plot, three crucial spearheads which Hail, Caesar! simply and irrevocably fails to formulate.
There is a strange preoccupation for punctuality and timekeeping in the film which one assumes is intended as a signifier of some deeper, mercurial mediation on the concepts of the infinite and the ethereal indiscrimancy of time, or it could just by the Coens throwing in some oblique references that they haven’t particularly thought through, moving by instinct rather than intellect which can, on occasion be an efficient and effective form of prose. Take the opening of A Serious Man for example, a picture that they are on the record as stat9ing they were never entirely sure how the historical fairy tale prologue connected to the Californian setting of the remainder of the film. It isn’t clear how that sequence plugs into the wider mosaic, the narrative jigsaw of what I consider one of their absolute best films, but it all seems to flow organically and occupy the same thematic and artistic eco-system. These instincts seem to have got lost in the wilderness of pre-production planning, resulting in this confused and chaotic chore of a film, which from about forty minutes into I was actively willing to end. It reminds me of Inherent Vice as well as the lesser works from the Coens such as The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, films where the genesis is gloamed with potential glory, where the idea seems ripe for exploitation but something has curdled between concept and script, resulting in a flagging, fitful work which never achieves anything approaching a chortle cruising altitude. It gives me no pleasure as a major fan of the Coens to report that rarely has the dream factory been so dulled by dogma and doubt, in a tale which more closely resembles the failure of the very films they are mocking than you’d want to believe;
The 1980’s reboot programme continues, except this time around Sony are playing with a radioactively rabid fan-base, and one of the more beloved films of the Reagan generation. Of course all the keening and wailing about it being a ladies fronted picture is utterly immaterial, as the one and only thing this film should be measured against is this – is it funny? As a fan of Kristen Wig and some of the other comedic actresses here I was mildly looking forward to this. Not in a ‘I’ve put the release date in my schedule’ kind of way, but more in a ‘oh I’m pleasantly excited to see this is coming out next week’ sort of way. If that makes sense. Anyway, here;
Do we have any word yet on potential cameos? Well, erm, certainly no major laughs in that preview, so the best I can say is I hope they’re left the gags for the film? Hmph……
Whilst I’m fairly sure that the world has not exactly been plunged into a hideous famine of Lucasfilm related parodies this is very well done, right down to the sound editing and use of exploitative marketing pull quotes;