Tag Archives: British films

Mindhorn

mindhorn_finalCanadians are consistently the funniest people in the world as far as I’m concerned, which is hard to reconcile with the stereotype that we’re boring and forgettable.  So I don’t try, I just think of us as funny and the stereotype as another example of how Americans are just not as good as we are.  Above all else, Canadians specialize in satire.  I have to think that is inherited from our former colonizers, as the British may love satire more than we do.

But just as Canada is not Britain (because in 1867 we asked politely if we could be our own country from then on, and the Brits were like, didn’t you already leave when the Americans did?), British satire is a whole other thing from ours.  I have always been fascinated by how there really is no middle ground in North America – either you devour British satire or you think it’s unbearable.  Personally, I find Steve Coogan a good test for one’s tolerance for British satire.   If he cracks you up then you are going to enjoy Mindhorn, whereas if you’re thinking, “Who the hell is Steve Coogan?” then you should probably give Mindhorn a pass.

I think Coogan is hilarious so of course Mindhorn made me laugh.  As a bonus, Coogan is not just a random reference I decided to use.  He’s also a bit player in Mindhorn along with a ton of familiar Brits (including a great cameo by a guy nicknamed “Kenny B.”).   But Mindhorn is co-writer Julian Barratt’s vehicle, and he is terrific as Richard Thorncroft/Mindhorn, a washed-up actor/TV detective.  Mindhorn’s gimmick is his bionic eye that is a lie detector, allowing him to literally see the truth.  Mindhorn made Thorncroft a huge star in the 70s and early 80s but he hasn’t exactly been tearing it up since then.  In fact, he’s just lost his last endorsement contract (for orthopedic socks).  So when a call comes in from the police department requesting Thorncroft’s help (as Mindhorn) in solving a murder case, he jumps right in, seeing it as a great way to kickstart his career.

In the finest British tradition, we quickly learn that Thorncroft is a grade-A idiot (maybe even grade-AAA if you use the meat grading system).  Still, as tends to happen, Thorncroft manages to bumble his way to (moderate) success despite not having a clue at any time.  And while Mindhorn’s way forward isn’t particularly innovative or clever, Barratt is clearly having great fun bringing Mindhorn to life and that fun is infectious.  The satire is spot on, as Mindhorn takes every opportunity to poke fun at the real TV shows from Mindhorn’s day, like Knight Rider and the Six Million Dollar Man, and there are some good shots at the cheesiness of those shows as well as the spin off products from them (such as Mindhorn’s best-selling rock album).

You’ve seen this all before but it’s good fun and I don’t think satirizing David Hasselhoff will ever get old.  So if you have 90 minutes to spare and think Coogan is a funny guy then you should check out Mindhorn on Netflix.

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SXSW: Prevenge

Alice Lowe has stumbled upon a new kind of body horror: that of a heavily pregnant woman. Ruth is on a murder spree, guided by the wee voice in her womb who just happens to be a misanthropic areshole. The little voice chimes in, pointing out the bad people, or the disappointing people, or the less than desirable people, and encouraging mom to kill, kill, kill. Apparently there’s blood lust in umbilical cords these days!

Alice Lowe is my hero. She wrote (and starred in) Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, appeared in Adult MV5BN2EzNTdlOGEtNWViZC00MmE5LWFiNzgtOTIzODNlMjBjM2M2L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1399,1000_AL_Life Skills and Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and lent her voice to Locke, among a flurry of other activity, including fucking. That’s crude, but the end result is that she found herself pregnant, and instead of taking maternity leave like a sane person, she wrote and directed herself, at 7.5 months pregnant, in this film about a homicidal fetus. And it’s her first feature as director!

Ryan Reynolds became murderous when his cat Mr. Whiskers told him to, but Alice Lowe has done him one better. Prevenge is blackly comic and wryly British, if I may say so. Ruth’s unborn baby seems to be holding the world accountable for her absent father, slyly suggesting to her mother that certain someones might be deserving of a gory end. Ruth seems to indulge baby’s every whim but does struggle with her conscience. Is this a new kind of pre-partum, um, madness? And what the heck is going to happen when the baby comes out? Yikes!

Shudder, “Home of Horror” hosted a screening in NYC where all pregnant women were admitted free. I suppose those who weren’t superstitious attended, and hopefully saw the humour in a pregnant lady killing for two. If that’s something you might be into, the good word is that Prevenge is streaming on Shudder right this very minute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 39 Steps

I love how old this movie is – Canadians are measuring distance in miles, and are actually slicing bread. You know the saying “the best thing since sliced bread?” – well safe to say this movie came before it!

The 39 Steps is technically “early Hitchcock,” early in terms of success anyway, but is his 19th film or so. It was his follow-up to the 1934 quasi-39steps_3142653bsuccessful (at the time) The Man Who Knew Too Much and used “imported” American actors who were supposed to help him break into that coveted American movie-going market.

Richard (Robert Donat) goes to the theatre to see “Mr. Memory” perform, and while there, meets a mysterious woman who claims to be in dire straights, evading secret agents. He agrees to hide her in his apartment, but in the night she is murdered. Richard takes off running, in part because he’s a suspect in her death, but also because now it falls to him to break up the elusive spy ring. He’s got few clues to work with, but “the 39 steps” is one of them, if only we knew what that meant. Along the way he becomes encumbered with an unwilling but fetching participant, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).

Carroll’s Pamela is a quintessentially Hitchcockian female character, perhaps the template for those to come: she was blonde. She was icy and remote. She was mesmerizing. And she’s not the only familiar element you’ll find here. There’s the suspense. Hostility in every day objects (a ringing telephone did it for me). The dizzying plot twists. The innocent man on the run. The witty dialogue. The unrelenting pace. And of course, the infamous Hitchcock cameo. He pops up early on in the movie – can you spot him?

The 39 Steps successfully made Hitchcock an international name, solidifying his reputation as a master story-teller and a thrilling director. This is considered his first major oeuvre, and Hitchcock always counted it among his favourites.  His stars proved worth the extra £20,000 he spent on their salaries. Donat’s suave, smiling, smoking son-of-a-bitch puts the swagger back into leading-man territory.

The 39 Steps is essential Alfred Hitchcock filmography and can be seen on the big screen this Saturday July 16 at TIFF.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

45 Years

When I first got married, I used to fantasize about a 40th wedding anniversary. As one character in 45 Years puts it, a good marriage is “so full of history”. I couldn’t wait to start living forty or more years of history with the woman I was marrying and to one day hopefully celebrate how we beat the odds and stood the test of time. We lasted a little more than four years.

I knew that marriage would be hard. Literally everyone I knew who had ever walked down an aisle warned me of this and I really did think I understood what they meant. But nothing could prepare me for the seemingly impossible choices and challenges that awaited me. If I, as keen and committed as I was, couldn’t last 5 years, what does it take to make it to 45? I’ve often thought about the kinds of compromises the couples that last would have to make, the things they’d need to talk about, and the things they’d need to avoid talking about.

45 Years looks at what happens when a happily married couple are faced with one of those subjects that they got along just fine without talking about just one week before their 45th anniversary party. Five years before he married Kate, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) lost his girlfriend in a tragic hiking accident. Fifty years later, he gets a letter telling him that her body has been found.

Initially, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) can’t understand why Geoff is so preoccupied with this development. Once she realizes how much he wants to talk about his memories of her, she tries her best to be supportive and starts to ask questions about her husband’s former lover. Although she seems genuinely curious at first, she starts to regret her questions when his answers make it more and more clear that her husband’s previous relationship may have been more serious than she’d been led to believe.

Kate’s jealousy of a woman that died fifty years ago is fascinating. She always knew that Geoff’s last relationship didn’t so much end as was cut tragically short but she seemed to always avoid asking herself the hard questions. Would he have married her had she lived? How often does he think of the life he could have had with her?

What makes a good marriage? 45 years seems to suggest it’s as full of little white lies as it is of history and explores whether a seemingly strong partnership can withstand being shaken up by a little truth. Of course, these are polite old British people in a British movie so the distance that begins to develop between husband and wife may not express itself explosively enough for some audiences. This is a restrained film with restrained performances where the drama comes as much from what is NOT said as from the dialogue itself. Luckily, Courtenay and Rampling are masters of subtlety. Oscar-nominee Rampling in particular is captivating both with the brave face she puts on and the unshakeable doubt that she occasionally shows us. She gives a performance that is way too honest and low-key to ever win her an Oscar. But she gets my vote.

NHFF: The Best For Last (Chicken)

The New Hampshire Film Festival was full of great movies – in retrospect, we didn’t see a single bad one, and that’s not supposed to be possible when you’re ingesting just as much film as possible in a single weekend. There has to be a dud in there somewhere – that’s science, isn’t it? Or mathematics? Law of averages? Just my luck? But no, not a bad one in the bunch. There were, however, some super duper standouts.

chickenYou’ve already heard Sean crow over his favourite, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, but you haven’t yet heard me swoon over Chicken, the absurdly titled (and I should know) movie that will break your damn heart. There is no way to summarize this movie and do it justice. It’s about a 15-year-old kid named Richard (Scott Chambers) who suffers from some unspecified developmental delay. He lives in a trailer with his brother Polly, who is neglectful at best and I’ll let you use your imagination for his worst. Richard’s only true friend is a chicken who gets included on his many adventures about the property he and his brother (Morgan Watkins, Kingsmen: The Secret Service) are illegally squatting upon. But then one day he meets the daughter of the new owners, Annabel (Yasmin Paige, Submarine), whose abrasive tongue might lose its barbs for such a gentle creature and his faithful chicken. Now take that inadequate synopsis and sprinkle it with magic.

Director Joe Stephenson absorbs us into Richard’s world immediately, and we can’t help but fall in love. There isn’t much plot wasted on this character-rich drama, but you’ll never be bored. Richard is MetSomeonenot quite like any character you’ve seen before, aptly and considerately brought to life by the excellent Scott Chambers who wisely chooses empathy over pity. Stephenson knows that Richard is the key to the audience’s heart, but he’s not after some melodramatic tear-jerker, he’s looking for honesty, and he finds it in unlikely places. You’ll be startled to find such compassion from such a young filmmaker but he’s brave enough to give his actors lots of room – literally and metaphorically. You’ll see this translate on the screen as he often takes full advantage of his scenic location rather than closing his characters into too-close shots. He injects a strong cinematic element into what was once a play and has room to spare. Though there’s some Chicken-1unevenness to the script, I easily forgave all not because I cared for Richard, which was easy enough to do, but because I came to care for the brute Polly. And once you have seen Polly in action you will appreciate the enormity of  Stephenson’s accomplishment of making you care about both brothers.

You don’t always feel it, but the movie is lathering up to something bigger than the sum of its parts, and once you get there, you won’t want to watch but nor will you be able to look away. At the climax, just as through the whole movie, the characters are complex, sympathetic, and real, and that’s what sets this movie apart and elevates it to a whole new level.  These wonderful characters make this movie one you have to watch and one that will stick with you long after you leave the theatre.

IMG_2851Both Chambers and Stephenson were in attendance for this, its North American premiere, and the audience was all too glad to be able to reward their effort with a heartfelt standing ovation. And yet, as I’ve found myself thinking back on this movie even as I’m attending other film festivals, and in fact have watched more than a dozen movies in the week since, I realize that it’s not enough. It’s not every day that a movie gets under my skin, and I’m probably more cynical than most.

This film took home the Narrative Grand Jury prize, and jury member John Michael Higgins Chicken-1-456x320presented the award to Stephenson noting “It was a very special experience for me to watch. This film had an incredibly delicate tone, sustained over each event, which is very hard to do.” I’m glad these guys have a trophy to lug home, because this movie’s not going to win an Oscar but it does deserve something that will sit on a mantle and proclaim: I made something moving, and people saw it, and they fucking loved it. Because all of us who were lucky enough to see this film loved it and I have no doubt that you will love it too.

Bronson

03_bronson_blu-rayTom Hardy portrays England’s most notorious prisoner in a film that, through theatrical fictionalization, becomes an indictment of celebrity culture and a tribute to the cult of personality.

A young man named Michael Peterson robs a post office and ends up serving three decades in solitary confinement. How does this come to pass? Well it turns out that in prison, Peterson adopts a survival mechanism we in the business call “being a truly awful person.” He relishes his bad reputation and works at it, actively.

He fights prisoners and guards equally, Hardy often seen “lubing up” with war paint, aka, butter. A real problem prisoner, he’s sent to serve out his sentence, now doubled, in segregation. Upon his release, he takes up bare-knuckled boxing and a pseudonym more suitable to his ultra-violent alter-ego: Charles Bronson is born (again). A mere 69 days later, he’s back in prison and worse than ever, instigating some pretty crazy hostage situations if the movie can be believed.

The film does an interesting thing where it has these asides where Hardy appears to be in a one-man Broadway show, painted into the various characters we’re introduced to, proud as a 06_bronson_blu-raypeacock to show off his many crimes, his escalating violence (in reality, he is still imprisoned to this day). The surreal soliloquies are little bites peppered among a buffet of horrid reality. It reminded me of a freak show, though I suppose that’s the message colouring the medium (or was it the strongman’s physique, or the ringmaster’s mustache?) I wasn’t always sure what to make of it and felt it was probably a bit overstylized, but if nothing else it is trying to be genre-defying, and it is.

The film makes no excuses for inexcusable behaviour, which is fortunate, but still manages to leave some upset in its wake – that old art vs exploitation theme snakes its way into this movie, and it’s hard to shake. But it is firm in one respect: whatever the spectacle, Tom Hardy is undoubtedly the star.

 

 

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On a related note, the real prisoner Charles Bronson was transferred to Parkhurst in 1976 after trying to poison the guy in the cell next to him. At his new facility, he met the Kray twins, who would become his lifelong friends – “the best two guys I ever met” (not actual good guys, of course, they were England’s mafia). Tom Hardy is about to portray both Kray twins in the movie Legend, set to screen next month at TIFF.

 

 

’71

'71

I only had time for one movie during our week of having my picture taken with beloved movie characters, visiting famous movie locations, and riding movie-themed attractions. I had been wanting to see ’71 since its screening at TIFF last year and when my brother bought the DVD at LA’s Amoeba Music (my new favourite place), I finally had my chance.

Set mostly over one eventful night in 1971 Belfast, ’71 tells the story of a new recruit to the British army (Jack O’Connell, from Starred Up and Unbroken) who is left behind by his unit during a conflict with angry Irish Catholic Nationalists.  The film follows the soldier’s fight to stay alive in hostile territory while injured and scared shitless which sets off a bloody chain of events with far-reaching consequences.

First-time director Yann Demange takes no violent act for granted and is careful to acknowledge the personal and political cost of every punch thrown, every bullet fired, and every bomb that goes off. There are a lot of interested parties here and Demange shows compassion to members of each group. It’s refreshing and admirable even when the increasingly complex narrative eventually loses some momentum with a heavy-handed finale.

’71 works best as a thriller. When Demange is reminding us of the very real danger that the soldier finds himself in. Violence is used sparingly and usually following an extended build-up of tension. Hand-held cameras masterfully capture foot chases through apartment complexes, sides streets, and back alleys. it doesn’t hurt that O’Connell is up for the challenge. There’s not a trace of old school heroism with this guy as he limps through Belfast with genuine fear in his eyes.

This film may not be perfect but it is a very good one. Good enough to take a 99-minute break from my vacation.