Sunday, 29 June 2014

Dirty Dancing (1987)

Hungry Eyes

I may not have quite had the time of my life but I must confess feelings of innocent joy in watching Dirty Dancing on the big screen.

As a single adult male, such emotions are not easy to admit. Indeed, it is fair to say the staff at City Screen were rather amused when they saw my awkward figure walk through the door.

The cult 1980s chick flick is a better film than those outside its insanely devoted following can appreciate. It took me 21 years to finally see Baby and Johnny Castle (what a name!) strut their stuff. After an amiable afternoon at the cinema, I’m glad I put my reservations aside and took the plunge.

Of course, the story itself is complete tosh. A rich teenager (Jennifer Grey) falls for her hunky dance teacher (Patrick Swayze) while on holiday at a luxury country resort. But because it is the early 1960s, anything more adventurous than holding hands between partners is taboo. The twists and turns of these young lovers’ summer affair is easily predictable, though it is a proven formula for success at the box office.

Equally unsurprising, based on the film’s famous reputation, is the booming soundtrack. Typical eighties dance tracks are one thing but the sixties soul which dominates the first act is something much closer to my own heart. Smooth, cool and very groovy, each piece of period music sets the tone for a bouncing and satisfyingly energetic show.

Less expected is the skill with which Emile Ardolino directs his various sequences and montages. Everyone knows about the lift in the water but what about the rest of the Rocky-esque routine, the fleeting landscape shots and the perfection of Johnny Castle’s leather jacket? The dance movements do not match the suffocating precision of Black Swan or cheese of Grease but are still infectiously fun.

Patrick Swayze embodies seduction in sunglasses, his swaggering lothario rocks around the screen, swooning audience members’ hearts in the process. His on-screen partner Jennifer Grey reaches a career peak with her role as the idealistic teenager. Reckon you have seen her before? Well, arguably her most famous other movie appearance was as Ferris Bueller’s sister.

Watch the trailer for more Dirty Dancing action.


Friday, 20 June 2014

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station is a rare example of a film based on a true story that feels politically essential.

Too often Hollywood dishes out factual stories from several decades ago that have little relevance to the contemporary political landscape. In films like The Butler and Mandela for instance, the central message seems to be: ‘look how racist people were back then? Thank goodness things aren’t like that anymore’

Director Ryan Coogler made Fruitvale Station not with the aim of celebrating some past American ‘hero’, but with an urgent sense that modern racial injustice needs addressing. His film documents the day in the life of young black man Oscar Grant before he fell victim to a trigger-happy policeman, an incident that occurred as recently as New Year’s Day 2009. In light of other high-profile police killings, this film reminds us that institutional racism is a problem of today, not just yesterday.

Despite being such a politically charged film, Fruitvale Station is characterised by a sense of compassion rather than anger. Coogler makes an effort to understand and sympathise with every character involved, and as a result his film is full of richly drawn, believable people. What impresses most is his positive view on people and his clear fondness for the characters – his enthusiasm is infectious and we find ourselves easily relating to them, which makes the devastating moment at Fruitvale Station that the whole film is building to all the more heartbreaking.

Coogler is aided by an excellent cast, most of all Michael B. Jordon as the protagonist Oscar. As anyone who has seen him as Wallace in The Wire will know, Jordan, with his wide smile and soft eyes, exudes a natural likeability that renders him immediately sympathetic. His character is flawed and has spent time in prison, but possesses an innate childlike goodness that Jordan evokes effortlessly. Melonie Diaz, meanwhile, is similarly impressive as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina, and Octavia Spencer shares some great emotive scenes with him as his mother.

One of the reasons these characters feel so real is through Coogler’s use of naturalism. The dialogue has the stuttery feel of real talk, and the use of hand-held camera enhances the realistic flavour of the action. The scenes depicted are drawn from such mundane occurrences as dropping his kid off at school and buying groceries, which, rather than boring us, create a warm feeling of intimacy with Oscar and affectively immerses us in his day-to-day world.  Events are never sensationalised and characters never sentimentalised, all of which helps put authentic human faces to the names surrounding the incident.

The political context of the film also comes through in these grounded scenes. Oscar’s  choice between scraping a living for his daughter by attempting to get his poorly-paid job at the supermarket back or to risk prison again for a large payday selling a stash of marijuana hints at the limited options available to a young working class black man in America. But it is on a personal level that the film works best, and its powerful and moving ending will leave you with a genuine sense of outrage and injustice.

Like the cell-phones that recorded and made famous the incidents the film is based on, Fruitvale Station aims to present something that feels like an authentic depiction of reality. Coogler understands the power of the camera - both the phones and the grainy footage they capture and the one used by him to make the film – as a tool to broadcast reality on a large scale, and uses it to draw our attention to issues of racial injustice and police brutality that must be constantly reiterated. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

A Tribute to Rik Mayall

After his sudden, and still unexplained, death on June 9th of this year, Caitlin Moran succinctly summed up the appeal of the late Rik Mayall in five lovely minutes on Newsnight (see below).

Like Moran, my own impression of Mayall was developed from chortling with laughter whilst watching Bottom, The Young Ones and his cameos in Blackadder as a pre-pubescent child. The undeniable warmth of the tributes paid in the wake of his demise testifies to a writer and actor that could evoke strong emotions from  those he met and total strangers alike.

Such a following was won by Mayall through his work with Adrian Edmondson, combining extreme levels of brutal slapstick with a sense of juvenile naughtiness. No matter how vile Eddie and Richie’s antics might seem, they always had the viewer’s sympathies and attention. My own favourite moment from Bottom has to be during the Christmas special when the chaotic couple try to reattach a severed thumb with a stapler.

All  those who have ever played the severely under-appreciated video games Hogs of War will be aware of Mayall’s excellent taste for the irreverent. Although critics won’t pay it any attention, the actor’s voice-over work gave a lot of pleasure to many children. Even though such plaudits rarely make headlines, they are exactly the type of feat to focus on when summing up a figure’s lifetime contribution.

One of my Dad’s most repeated anecdote is the time he sat next to Mayall on a plane from London to Newcastle. The famous flyer was apparently chatty and frank ahead of his stand-up gig in the city and related a few insightful stories of his own during the trip.

The last decade saw Mayall slip from the limelight and find novelty roles in beer adverts and the odd television series. As it rises up the charts in posthumous celebration, his 2010 World Cup song, Noble England, is better than most anthems, fully deserving of its place above lesser acts. It might not be a shade on Lord Flasheart but it certainly evokes the same bolshie spirit.

British comedy is not the same without its alternative hero. Our island’s queer sense of humour was a perfect fit for his energetic antics, unleashing the big kid in all of us.

There has simply never been anyone else quite like Rik Mayall.


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Fading Gigolo

Pretty Woah-man

Jesus, Mr Deeds’ butler, a Palestinian assassin: all have been played to side-splitting effect by the excellent John Turturro. His legendary character cameos have gone down in history as moments of comedic genius.

And now, in an unexpected twist, Turturro tries his hand at writing, directing and starring in his own film. A middle aged male prostitute can henceforth be added to his roster of eclectic roles. Make of that what you will.

Admittedly, Fading Gigolo appeals to particularly niche tastes. A ready appetite for black humour and delicious cinematography will leave you wanting extra courses from the debut filmmaker. The majority of viewers, on the other hand, probably won’t appreciate its delicate nuances.

Working part-time as a florist leaves lonely Fioravante (Turturro) short of money. Once his long-time friend Murray (Woody Allen) likewise falls on hard times, the older man suggests pimping his pal as an escort for an exclusive clientele of rich women. Of course, being granted many men’s ideal vocation pleases the unassuming Fioravante until a meeting with a timid widow (Vanessa Paradis) sparks the light of love in his heart.

It is not hard to see where this new auteur’s cinematic inspirations originated. A deep passion for New York’s urban scenery, tales of Jewish cultural neuroses, and sex all feature prominently in Allen’s body of work.

The multiple Oscar-winner must have been doing his co-star a big favour by appearing in a film not of his own creation. Or rather, it served as a nod of recognition to an artist of identical methods. Anyhow, it is nice to see Woody play Woody again rather than Owen Wilson or Jesse Eisenberg.

Some viewers might disagree with the overly talky approach of the script and relatively subdued tone. Sure, certain scenes drag to a finish but there is an inventiveness at play here which might mature with future outings.

For one thing, the dialogue is a lot less crude than you would imagine from the title. In fact, the stress is very much placed on drama rather than comedy. Most of the selected jokes are aimed at the social oddities of an enclosed community of orthodox Jews. Otherwise, the remaining humour resembles light banter between the two friendly stars.

In many ways Fading Gigolo tackles the issues of sex work with better focus than Pretty Woman but will still stretch the viewer’s imagination. As far as I know, Turturro has never been perceived as an especially handsome figure. Neither is he ugly. What else am I supposed to say?

After recently reading about his membership of the prestigiously exclusive “I don’t rate Shawshank Redemption” Club, I respect TV mentalist Derren Brown’s opinion on films. He tweeted as follows:

“Perfect afternoon watching John Turttoro's [sic] great Fading Gigolo. Woody Allen phenomenal. Very moving & beautifully done.”



Edge of Tomorrow

Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection: repeat.

We need to talk about Emily Blunt. Since making her name in The Devil Wears Prada, the British starlet has consistently delivered great performances in films of both big and small proportions. Needless to say she is my favourite actress of any screen era.

In Doug Liman’s new high-concept crowd-pleaser Blunt once again excels in a role completely against type. She provides the cojones aplenty in this cross between Groundhog Day and Saving Private Ryan.

At the climax of an apocalyptic war against alien invaders, Colonel Bill Cage (Tom Cruise) has a comfortable existence as the army’s suave PR man. But after a heated disagreement with a military bigwig he is forced to lead a make-or-break invasion of enemy territory as a regular grunt.

Through various convoluted circumstances (which I refuse to explain here) this reluctant trooper is condemned to relive the same day over and over again, dying on each occasion. The only person who understands Cage’s plight is Rita Vrataski (Blunt), a heroic warrior, known as the ‘Angel of Verdun’ or the less complimentary ‘Full Metal B****’. Somewhere beyond these mortal plains Stanley Kubrick is laughing like me.

My weighty expectations for Edge of Tomorrow were matched by an intelligent script, displaying a high level of geek enthusiasm and self-awareness which is necessary for any science-fiction piece. Credit to Christopher McQuarrie (whose Jack Reacher was treated unfairly) and his fellow screenwriters – Jez and Henry Butterworth – for having an easy relationship with movies of the same ilk.

Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel was clearly ideal source material for the big screen but, like so many other bold literary pitches, required Mr Cruise’s guiding hand to shepherd its way through the doors of cautious production companies.

On screen, the genre veteran’s presence is similarly influential. This is territory the A* of A-listers could sleepwalk through barefoot and coated in honey, though Cruise has the conviction to go beyond the call of duty and offer an all-out action movie more pathos than it rightly deserves.

In spite of such a stellar effort from the leading man, however, his female co-star hogs all the headlines. All I will say is that a certain someone impressively invokes memories of Linda Hamilton by hitting the gym big time for their part – and it sure isn’t Brendan Gleeson.

Even though the plot ultimately takes a few wrong turns, the visual spectacle alone is enough to offer good entertainment. With exo-suits every nerd will want for Christmas and full-blooded revelry of battle, the ‘cool factor’ is alive and well in Edge of Tomorrow.

Come on; if the thought of seeing Blunt wield a humungous sword does not persuade you to see it then nothing will.