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FROM THE SIXTIES TO THE EIGHTIES
StudioCanal have an admirably eclectic list of titles they put out on Blu-ray and DVD but sometimes this makes for a rather strange variance in tone and quality. Recently I received three titles from three different decades and so I thought I would review them together.
First, chronologically speaking is Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), starring Dirk Bogarde, James Fox and Sarah Miles. Bogarde plays servant Hugo Barrett who gets hired by dilettante Tony (James Fox) to keep his house in West London. When we first meet Barrett, he seems like the perfect manservant but there is a dark side to him which manifests itself as the film progresses. Barrett is incredibly possessive about Tony and he manages to alienate his girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig). In fact, Barrett succeeds in alienating Tony from anyone but his own hand-picked group of oddballs. Bogarde is excellent, managing to come across as sinister but strangely likeable while Fox turns in a decent performance as the upper class dupe who Barrett becomes obsessed with. Based on a novel by Robin Maugham and adapted by Harold Pinter, The Servant feels very claustrophobic and director Losey does a wonderful job of maintaining the tension. It’s not all perfect: Sarah Miles as Vera, Barrett’s co-conspirator, sometimes goes a little too far over the top on screen and she does detract from the greatest strength here, the interplay between Tony and Barrett. But The Servant is still a classic and it is good to see it on DVD…
Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970), based on Joe Orton’s classic play, shows the difference almost a decade can make in terms of filmmaking. Like The Servant, this film has a very small main cast (Peter McEnery as ‘Mr Sloane’,  Harry Andrews and Beryl Reid as demented brother and sister Kath and Ed and Alan Webb as their father Dadda) but unlike The Servant, this adaptation of Entertaining Mr Sloane shows its limitations when moved to the big screen. McEnery is decent as chancer ‘Mr Sloane’ and Andrews and Reid both make the best of a bad situation but the script feels dated, the directing looks like an early seventies sitcom and there’s even the obligatory cringe-making title song by Georgie Fame. It is interesting to see London in 1970 but it really isn’t enough to warrant sitting through all 90 minutes of this. So unlike The Servant, Entertaining Mr Sloane is only for hardcore aficionados of esoteric British seventies cinema…
Finally, we have Blood Simple (1984). The first Coen Brothers collaboration, nearly thirty years ago, is a strangely uneven affair, dealing with the noirish love triangle between Abby (Frances MacDormand), Ray (John Getz) and Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya). Classic character actor M Emmet Walsh has a turn as the sleazy private eye Loren Visser. It’s very primitive, very slow-moving and the Texan accents are hard to understand sometimes but it does contain a few pointers to the assured film-makers the Coen brothers become, with their distinctly idiosyncratic approach to characterisation displayed here. This is a director’s cut too so there is no argument that this historically important film deserves such treatment. It is interesting to watch a young Frances MacDormand (the future Mrs Joel Coen) and a young Dan Hedaya on screen together and Emmet Walsh is great as ever.
So The Servant and Blood Simple are both recommended and Entertaining Mr Sloane is recommended with extreme reservations…
Studio Canal

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JUST TOYING WITH US?
Seth MacFarlane has made a career out of going seemingly beyond the pale with animation and trying to shock as many people as he can. Family Guy, after being given the chop by its network, managed to claw its way back and it’s now a regular fixture on TV. So when I went to see Ted, his film starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, it was going to be interesting to see if he could maintain his own brand of shock humour for ninety minutes. Ted is the story of John Bennett (Wahlberg) who made a wish as a young boy for his teddy bear to come to life but the problem is that Benett’s a man in his thirties now and his teddy bear has become this degraded, potty-mouthed pervert who he can’t seem to shake. Ted is as over-the-top and as foul-mouthed as Family Guy and MacFarlane as the voice of Ted shows his talent for crude humour and Kunis (from Family Guy) as Bennett’s long-suffering girlfriend Lori Collins shows that she continues to be a talented comic actress, whether as voice talent or when we see her on screen. There isn’t much of a plot here, but you didn’t really think there would be, did you? Ted is filthy fun and Wahlberg shows he does have a little bit of a talent for comedy, so maybe it’s something he should do a little more often and MacFarlane’s Ted is a likeable comic creation. It’s a refreshing antidote to the hordes of maudlin kid’s films that flood the market each year and it’s filled with enough slightly uncomfortable laughs to pass ninety minutes in a pleasant way…

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LONDON CALLING PART TWO

As promised, here’s reviews of the two other films I caught at press screenings at this year’s London Film Festival.
First is The Descendants, directed by Alexander (Election, Sideways) Payne and starring George Clooney, Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges. Clooney plays lawyer Matt King in Hawaii and the film opens to reveal the fact that Matt’s wife Elizabeth has just had a terrible boating accident and she is in a coma in a hospital. As well as dealing with her wife’s predicament, King is also the head of the family trustees and the entire family has to vote what to do with a large unspoilt piece of land in Hawaii, whether to sell it to developers or leave it unspoilt. It turns out that King and his relatives come from a family whose wealth can be traced back to the fact that their ancestor married a Hawaiian princess in the 19th century. Unfortunately, as King battles with what his and his family’s future holds, certain things come out about his wife, causing him to rethink his life with his two daughters. The Descendants shows the same sharp and keen eye for dialogue and getting the best out of actors that Payne displayed with Election and Sideways. Clooney, a little inconsistent in his film choices, made a smart move here as he is very sympathetic and very human as the father and husband whose world has suddenly changed in an instant. The rest of the cast are also very good including a particularly degraded looking Beau Bridges as King’s cousin, Shailene Woodley as King’s difficult teenage daughter Alexandra and Payne uses the idea of Americans with a foothold into Hawaii very effectively. We see Hawaii as a place with the same problems as the US mainland. Bittersweet and funny at the same time, The Descendants is a well-made and accomplished drama with a very likeable cast and a strong script…
A Dangerous Method is the latest effort from David Cronenberg and looks at the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and how modern psychoanalysis was created. This is the third collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, who plays Freud. The ubiquitous Michael Fassbender (X-Men First Class, Shame) is Jung while Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a troubled Jewish Russian girl who comes to Jung for treatment. There are a number of flaws in A Dangerous Method: it feels too much like a play rather than a film with its theatrical setpieces and Knightley just doesn’t convince here, pushing her chin out to show the audience that she’s not all the ticket. The tone is rather arch, cold and self-important too which is a shame because the story of Jung’s friendship with Freud is one that should be intriguing and engaging. Mortensen and Fassbender do have some chemistry as the doomed friends but none of it really gels. Cronenberg is a strange director and while he should be applauded for trying to move outside of his comfort zone, A Dangerous Method really doesn’t work although it does look stunning…
Here’s a few pics from the press conferences for both film with Cronenberg, Payne and others…

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FROM OUTER SPACE TO THE OLD WEST
January was a quiet month for movies but I did go to see two films at press screenings at the end of the month. First we have True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ ‘remake’ of the much-loved John Wayne western, sticking more closely to the book that it was based on. Now the Coen Brothers are amongst my favourite directors and I have loved them since I saw Barton Fink at the cinema (I came to them a little late) but they have this strange tendency to follow a great film with a competent but pointless one. A Serious Man (2009) was a very good film indeed so unfortunately True Grit follows this pattern. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the irascible Marshall retained by young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to bring the killer of her father to justice. Matt Damon is Texas Ranger Laboeuf here, who falls in with Cogburn and Ross on the trail of killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). The problem with 2010’s version of True Grit is not that it’s badly made or poorly acted. Bridges is very capable as Cogburn, Steinfeld acquits herself very admirably on screen and Damon is excellent almost as usual and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is wonderful but it doesn’t add anything really: the John Wayne version still holds up pretty well over four decades after it was released. The fact that lots of praise has been lavished on it is a little bit of a mystery as it is a competent and well-made but ultimately pointless exercise. Let’s hope that their next film comes out of left-field a bit more. True Grit is a decent, 3-star film but it doesn’t leave you with anything and so will be forgotten very quickly by posterity…
Paul, directed by Greg Mottola, is the latest Simon Pegg/ Nick Frost collaboration. With Edgar Wright off to the US, it’s the first of their movies not with him. Paul deals with two English geeks taking a roadtrip pilgrimage to all of the weird places in the West and Southwest of the USA, places where UFOs and strange happenings have been reported over the years. Kicking off in the nerd mecca of San Diego Comic Con, Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) get more than they bargained for when they meet a real-life extra-terrestrial in the shape of Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul won’t appeal to everyone and it’s not perfect by any means. Frost is annoying but Pegg is likeable on screen and Rogen’s ET-with-attitude is entertaining. Jason Bateman as the FBI agent with the humourous name (I won’t stick it in here) is suitably hard-bitten and Sigourney Weaver as the evil US government agency head looks like she’s having fun here. Kristen Wiig stays the right side of annoying as a one-eyed Christian girl who takes a shine to Willy. For the people who dream of things like going to San Diego Comic-Con and writing their own science fiction or fantasy novels, Paul
is an enjoyable slice of knowing nonsense which, while it won’t change the world, will pass an hour and a half pleasantly enough…

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WHATEVER DOESN’T WORK
Woody Allen’s career has taken a definite downturn over the last twenty years. He has retreated to directing and moved off screen in his own films, something that hasn’t really helped the consistency of his recent work like Match Point, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream. In 2008 he had something of a mini-renaissance thanks to the very likeable Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which had a great cast and a very strong script. So when Whatever Works came along, I was hoping that it would continue that return to form. But unfortunately that film was just a blip and Whatever Works, starring Larry David, is horribly misconceived. David plays Boris, another Allen analogue, who lives a futile existence until he meets displaced Southerner Melody (Evan Rachel Wood). He marries her, triggering off a series of more and more improbable events until they split at the end of the film. Melody’s mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) appears, looking for her daughter and embraces the bohemian New York lifestyle as does her estranged husband John, played by Ed Begley Jr. It’s obvious that Boris and Melody are mismatched but the humour is laboured and uncomfortable here and by the time she runs off with Randy, probably the worst name for an English character ever, you are relieved. Despite some decent performances and the odd funny line, despite David seeming like an obvious successor for Allen to pass the Jewish New Yorker comedian mantle onto on the big screen, Whatever Works just doesn’t. David’s character is annoying and there are some idiotic sequences that just don’t ring true peppered throughout the film. It was originally written for Zero Mostel and perhaps that’s why it’s such a total mess. David is an adequate actor but mostly he’s just himself. Allen may have lost his magic touch completely now but let’s hope that’s not the case. File under missed opportunity…