0245 | Lincoln

lincoln daniel day lewisPerhaps I’m not giving my fellow cinemagoers enough credit, but I do find it surprising that this long, dense account of Abraham Lincoln’s role during the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution became a box office success a couple of years back, given that it’s not exactly the kind of film that usually packs out cinemas. Despite its numerous qualities Lincoln is, at times, extremely heavy going, in stark contrast to most films generating similar levels of profit: it demands your concentration throughout and, if you really want to know who’s who and understand what is happening in the film, a degree of familiarity with the subject matter is required beforehand.

Then again it is a Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg’s popularity with the general public has rarely waned, regardless of genre, and that’s one of the reasons he is now enjoying a fifth decade as a successful, august and relevant filmmaker. Jaws, the movie that launched a thousand-and-one summer blockbusters, is 40 years old this year, yet Spielberg still appears to have the magic touch, and his films continue to achieve both critical acclaim and commercial results. Who else could wring $250 million out of a long, dialogue-heavy historical epic such as this? Incredibly, even after adjusting for inflation, Lincoln has proven to be more popular worldwide than one of his biggest sci-fi earners (AI: Artificial Intelligence) and it’s not too far off two other notable efforts (Minority ReportClose Encounters Of The Third Kind). Granted this is about one of the most important periods of American history (if not the most important), but there’s been plenty of apathy toward such films in the past, and few would have predicted this level of financial success.

I say all of this with the usual caveat that huge profits may not necessarily reflect great quality, but Lincoln is the kind of film that demands your admiration for several reasons, and deserves the recognition it received from various critics and judges. It’s not a picture I’m desperate to sit through again anytime soon, but I did lose myself in its grandness, with Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance as the 16th US President an obvious highlight.

Even though it was only released two years ago it’s interesting to note the famous faces joining Day-Lewis who have since moved on to bigger roles. The prologue, for example, includes a scene-stealing turn by David Oyelowo as Union soldier Ira Clark that foreshadows his more recent role as Martin Luther King, Jr in Selma. Dane DeHaan appears in the same scene, albeit with a small speaking part, while Adam Driver enjoys a minute or two in Lincoln’s presence later on as telegraph operator Samuel Beckwith.

The famous names and faces stack up beyond the opening credits: Spielberg and Avy Kaufman mined TV’s second coming for notable character actors, including Mad Men’s Jared Harris (playing Ulysses S. Grant), ER’s Gloria Reuben (playing dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley), Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlbarg (playing congressman George Yeaman, though admittedly he is equally well-known for his big screen roles) and The Wire / Breaking Bad’s David Costabile (playing congressman James Ashley), among others. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: the cast also includes established film actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook and David Strathairn.

I mention all these names for a reason: many of the actors only receive a short amount of time on screen, but nearly all are given a scene or two in which they are allowed to dominate, or shine, a factor that shapes Lincoln and Day-Lewis’s remarkable performance as much as anything else. These actors all get to shout, argue, demand, flounce and complain, and when this is happening outside the House of Representatives you’ll often find Day-Lewis’s President quietly listening, effectively playing second fiddle. Lincoln is depicted throughout as a calm, measured thinker who is happy to let others say their piece while he quietly retains control, a permanent fixture in the metaphorical driving seat; he rarely shows his hand and is a contemplative, steady presence during this period of intense turmoil.

Not that a singular talent like Day-Lewis must feed off the scraps tossed his way by others, of course; there are speeches, there are savoured triumphs in the House of Representatives and on the battlefield, and he’s required to vent his fury on a couple of occasions (not politically, as it happens, but during clashes with son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) and wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Field)). This is all delivered with the authority and presence we have come to expect from the actor; yet even though Lincoln appears in the centre of the frame in many a shot, and even though he is lit dramatically throughout, for a sizeable portion of the film Day-Lewis must hold back and let others hog the limelight. It’s a performance of great restraint, while simultaneously impressing through the actor’s physical and vocal consistency: the stoop and slow shuffle describe a man whose age is catching up with him, while the mellifluous voice suggests ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and the end of the Civil War will be the last of tired Honest Abe’s major political battles.

Equally impressive is Spielberg’s own restraint: he could have dumbed down Lincoln, which is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, but chose instead to merely include a few audience-friendly concessions to counter the confusion that stems from watching various bearded white men debate, plot and invoke the rights they believe to be God-given. It may be difficult to get a handle on all of the characters but occasionally a caption will reveal important figures and locations, which certainly helps. There’s also just enough expository dialogue to carry you through to the end without any lasting damage done to the film’s carefully-crafted and meticulous realism.

Spielberg also chooses to leaves out two very significant moments in particular: the Gettysburg Address was delivered two years before events depicted here and is only quoted back to Lincoln by Ira Clark, and instead of showing the President’s assassination at Ford’s Theater the director concentrates on the reaction to the news by Lincoln’s youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath). Leaving out these events is a good move; as with other recent and notable biopics Lincoln focuses on a short, important period of its subject’s life – four months in this case – and the screenplay doesn’t get bogged down with unnecessary attention elsewhere; this is a film about the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, first and foremost, and that’s what it sticks to .

Spielberg has made other historical dramas in the past, of course, and has tackled slavery before, though understandably here he focuses almost entirely on the power held by white politicians (‘if you only watch one white saviour movie this year…’ etc). Lincoln still feels like a surprising move, though, in the sense that the director’s films tend to be inclusive, made for everyone to enjoy; here he isn’t compromised by his usual desire for across-the-board appeal, and seems barely interested in pleasing those who have little in the way of patience at all. On top of that even by Spielberg’s standards the efforts made with regard to the period production design are quite staggering: there are a number of beautifully-decorated sets and carefully-made costumes that appear (to my untrained eyes at least) to accurately re-create the era in question, while natural lighting throughout also appears to have been engineered with a painstaking attention to detail.

Of course you know beforehand what it’s going to be like: flags will be raised, John Williams will reserve the most bombastic minutes of his score for the scenes of political and military triumph, and the importance and weight of historical events will ensure an understandably po-faced, serious affair from the first second to the last. As such Lincoln is entirely predictable, but thankfully because of the quality of the performances on offer – Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn and Sally Field in particular are perfect foils for the star – there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had if you appreciate good acting, and it’s great to look at (something of a pre-requisite, I know, but worth stating). The supremely confident Spielberg has few peers at this elite level, and he continues to make impressive, relevant films while many of his 1970s contemporaries have all but retired or have faded into obscurity. His role in this construction is admirable.

The Basics:
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Lee Pace, David Costabile, Hal Holbrook, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, Gulliver McGrath, Stephen Henderson, Jared Harris, David Oyelowo
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 150 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 9.1

0244 | Dog Day Afternoon

dog-day-afternoon‘Attica! Attica!’ cries Sonny Wortzik at the massed ranks of cops pointing their guns toward him, making reference to the excessive force the police used in response to the Attica Prison riot in the early 1970s. The largely-sympathetic crowd that has gathered outside the First Brooklyn Savings Bank cheers along as the wound-up Sonny, warming to the idea of being the centre of attention, prowls the pavement with menace. The cops duly holster their weapons and back off, looking around nervously as the crowd reaches fever pitch. With the media spotlight suddenly upon him Sonny has become a far more unpredictable and dangerous prospect outside the bank than he was inside it, despite the fact he and his partner-in-crime have taken a dozen or so employees hostage.

This is widely regarded as one of the best moments in Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet’s terrific 1975 tale of a real life heist that went horribly wrong; confirmation of its iconic status can be seen in the number of subsequent ‘Attica!’ spoofs in popular culture, such as The Naked Gun. Up until that point Lumet has kept Dog Day Afternoon’s anti-establishment leanings largely under wraps, but this uproarious scene suddenly confirms the director’s intentions; Wortzik (played by an infectiously wiry Al Pacino) is instantly transformed into one of cinema’s more memorable antiheroes: an unelected spokesman for the man on the street, an outnumbered underdog, a gay rights icon, a spokesman for disenfranchised and poorly-treated Vietnam War veterans and even a counterculture revolutionary (albeit one who is ultimately cowed by the authorities, not to mention his ex-wife and his ma).

Crucially, Lumet keeps us in Sonny’s corner throughout: the character draws the audience’s sympathy despite his actions and the hostages always appear to be safe from harm, despite any public threats made to keep the police and the FBI at bay. While the film doesn’t exactly underplay the peril of the cashiers, security guard and bank manager, or the effects the robbery has on their health, it is littered with scenes in which the innocent victims appear to be at ease with their captors: they watch television, for example, chat confidently and even have fun by practicing army marching manoeuvres (with Sonny even handing over his rifle to a cashier at one point). However, as Sonny’s notoriety increases, the police and the FBI become more and more frantic; though there is concern for the welfare of the cashiers and bank manager the real issue is figuring out how to shut Sonny up.

Lumet’s film was inspired by The Boys In The Bank, an article by P.F. Kluge for Life Magazine that told the story of an armed robbery perpetrated by John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturale in 1972. Wotjowicz separated from his wife and had publicly married Ernest Aron (later known as Elizabeth Eden) a year earlier. The bank job was supposedly undertaken to pay for Aron’s gender re-assignment operation, and the inexperienced duo based their plan around scenes from The Godfather, ironically starring a certain Mr. Alfredo James Pacino. The robbery didn’t go to plan, but during the ensuing 14-hour standoff Wotjowicz and Naturale became media celebrities. Wotjowicz was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison – he served six – but was paid $7,500 for the rights to his story, and 1% of the film’s profits, which did actually pay for the surgery in question.

Kluge’s article explicitly referred to Wotjowicz as ‘a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman’, which went some way to making the casting decision a no-brainer, though Lumet had of course worked with Pacino on Serpico. (Interestingly, when the actor briefly quit the production, Hoffman was actually offered the role.) The quietly-steady John Cazale was cast as Sal, despite the fact he was 39 at the time of filming and the real-life cohort was only 18 at the time of the robbery, and Charles Durning signed on to play Sergeant Moretti, the cop who initially negotiates with Wortzik.

Quite rightly this is regarded as one of Pacino’s finest performances, a showcase for the kind of gleefully-delivered over-the-top bluster that has drawn a degree of criticism in his later career, perhaps due to its familiarity. It gave him his fourth Academy Award nomination for acting in as many years, but he lost out to Jack Nicholson, who deservedly won for an equally-magnetic turn in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Pacino’s energy ensures that Dog Day Afternoon – a film that mainly takes place in one room and on one stretch of pavement – never loses its audience, keeps interest levels high, and most importantly sells the character as a fundamentally decent human being… albeit one who just happens to have robbed a bank.

It’s a fun performance to watch because of the sudden bursts of physical comedy, first and foremost, but the actor brings so much more to the part: there’s the withering, irritated sarcasm of your stereotypical New Yorker, there’s thoughtfulness, there’s desperation and ultimately there’s sadness – the ‘sinking feeling’ look on his face at the end of the film, soundtracked by the roar of jet engines, is as good an ending as I’ve seen anywhere, the kind of image that you can clearly picture in your mind long after the movie has finished.

Pacino, Lumet and writer Frank Pierson, who won the film’s only Oscar, collaborate effectively in order to change our perception of Wortzik as the film progresses. At first he is depicted as an incompetent clown, comically struggling to get his gun out of a box as the heist begins, before setting off the fire that tips off a neighbouring business. The lack of planning also means that Sonny is robbing the bank after a daily security pick-up has occurred, meaning there’s hardly any cash left in the vault to steal anyway. This sense of haplessness is enhanced by the jittery nature of his fellow thieves Sal and Stevie (Gary Springer), neither of whom have the stomach for armed robbery, and Lumet sticks with flashes of slapstick for a good fifteen minutes or so. There’s one great little shot during this phase of the film that sums the robbers up perfectly: Sonny and Sal are trying to communicate with each other across the room, but they seem incapable of establishing eye contact due to the presence of a couple of pillars. It’s not really important, it’s over with in a second or so, but it’s funny and it tells you everything you need to know about their credentials as bank robbers.

Though the film almost resembles a Three Stooges homage at the beginning, Lumet et al soon take a different tack. Sonny isn’t an idiot, and is apparently streetwise enough to know when he is being played: first he stops the bank manager Mulvaney (Sully Boyar) from deliberately tripping a vault alarm, while shortly afterwards he chastises a cashier for trying to give him a dye pack and the last dollar bill in till, the removal of which would also set off an automatic alarm. Later, when the FBI attempt to pass off one of their agents (Dick Williams) as a civilian limousine driver, Sonny guesses the ruse and insists on a replacement (played by Lance Henriksen).

This game of cat-and-mouse that takes place between Sonny and the authorities is a major reason why Dog Day Afternoon is so enjoyable. When FBI Agent Sheldon (James Broderick) takes over from local cop Moretti as chief negotiator, Sonny clearly becomes more frantic, perhaps because he is aware there is a greater immediate threat and perhaps because he is no longer dealing with someone from a similar background. A period of emotional button-pushing results: Sonny must partake in a sad conversation with Leon (the character based on the lover Ernest Aron, played by an Oscar-nominated Chris Sarandon) and a very public one with his mother (played by Judith Malina); at one point she becomes so desperate she quietly implores him to run, despite the fact the locale is teeming with police officers, news crews, civilians and circling helicopters. It’s a tragi-comic scene that plays out wonderfully, with the FBI agents standing yards away.

Lumet – whose final film came 50 years after his first and, incredibly, was almost as good – plays on the increasing mania of his main character. There’s a great sequence, for example, where Sonny realises that the police are attempting to enter the bank via a back window. The character fires a warning shot through the glass at the cops, and the director captures the ensuing panic via a series of consecutive fast cuts, showing the reactions of Sal, the cops, the hostages and the public in the space of a few seconds. It may be a simple editing technique but it looks very, very cool.

Like Lumet’s next film Network, there’s a downbeat feel to Dog Day Afternoon. The film goes to great lengths to establish a clear counter-culture icon before pitting him against the establishment, in the form of the bank, the police and the FBI. He loses. And you know all along that Sonny’s going to lose; he repeatedly attempts to convince Sal that all will be fine, and they’ll be able to fly away and start a new life, but really we know he’s not even convincing himself.

Network also took the topic of celebrity, witheringly criticised in Dog Day Afternoon, and ran with it. News cameras and reporters are in the background here, but we are reminded of their presence often, and the style of their reporting has clearly helped to develop Sonny as a ‘sensation’ in the eyes of the public. Playing to the gallery – ‘Attica! Attica!’ – proves to be irresistible to Sonny, and his visits to the growing crowd and news teams outside increase in frequency the longer the heist goes on. He represents a disenfranchised sector of society that ordinarily has little influence on public affairs, or any notable voice, therefore when he is given a public platform to sound off he understandably feels important for the first time in his life and becomes addicted to the experience; the robbery and the hostage situation become secondary concerns, something he repeatedly leaves for Sal to handle.

The crisis has the full attention of the media, albeit temporarily, and various negative effects of instant celebrity – heavy breathers and other cranks phoning the bank, invasion of privacy of loved ones, etc. – are included. Then there are the bizarre reactions of characters such as the pizza delivery guy (Lionel Pina), who jumps up and down in front of the rolling news cameras and screams “I’m famous!”, forgetting the seriousness of the situation.

The film does have flaws. It has been criticised for its attitude to women (pretty much every female character of note is depicted as a nagging ‘shrew’ type) while Kluge’s praise for the fast-paced story was tempered by the argument that it resulted in a lack of reflection. Both are valid points; the women (and even the gay lover) are seemingly just there to rile the main character so that we get to see more of Pacino being Sonny as a result, while the film does rattle along without much pause for thought. The energy, though, is part of the enduring charm of Lumet’s film; as with many of this great director’s movies there’s discernible buoyancy throughout, most notably in Pacino’s enjoyably manic performance.

The Basics:
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Frank Pierson
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, James Broderick, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 119 minutes
Year: 1975
Rating: 9.3

0243 | Tracks

tracksAs I mentioned recently in a review of Wild, at present we’re not exactly short of films about long, arduous solo journeys across unforgiving terrain, ostensibly undertaken with the aim of ‘finding oneself’. There’s a reason for that: they tend to be very interesting stories, and invariably detail extremities of human strength and determination as well as any other kind of drama. This steady, well-acted 2013 Australian contribution to the sub-genre tells the story of Robyn Davidson, who in 1977 trekked 1,700 miles across some of the country’s deserts from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, accompanied for the most part by a dog named Diggity and four camels. Davidson, played here by a committed Mia Wasikowska, sought funding for the journey from National Geographic, and for several months the magazine regularly dispatched photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver, who grows into the part) to document her long walk; his photos illustrated Davidson’s subsequent article for National Geographic, which proved to be so popular it was elongated and published as the best-seller Tracks.

John Curran’s dramatisation of Tracks and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild have several things in common; aside from the obvious links (both stories are adapted from memoirs, both are about lone female trekkers, both end with photo montages of the real-life writer during their journey) the two films also incorporate flashbacks that explore the reasons behind their protagonists’ respective decisions to walk such great distances. Curran, who wrote The Killer Inside Me and directed box office flop Stone, builds these in far less flamboyantly than Vallée, but interestingly both films arrive at similar conclusions: that motivation comes from the death of a mother and, perhaps to a lesser degree, from a father’s rejection. (Davidson’s father (played by Robert Coleby here) was an explorer himself, and the film’s suggestion at least – I haven’t read the book – is that Robyn is apparently driven to equal or better his achievements.)

Wasikowska’s Robyn is independent, tough and resourceful, presumably an accurate reflection of the real person. Her lack of fear is established in the film’s opening scene, in which a man passing by on a jeep points a gun at her, and she barely rises to this sick, provocative joke. This mental toughness is further explored as the film summarises Robyn’s next two years; she works for two camel wranglers, one honest and one untrustworthy, learning how to handle the animals as she goes along. Eventually, sufficiently prepared and with the necessary funding secured, she is able to set off from central Australia on the long walk to the west coast. The remainder of the film addresses the many difficulties of that journey and details her very occasional meetings with a few of the people living in this scorched, barren part of the world. Rick drops by from time to time, initially causing problems by photographing Aboriginal Australians against their wishes and forcing Robyn to pose on her camels, something she is uncomfortable with. The relationship between photographer and walker softens over time, though, and when Robyn briefly falters near the end Smolan is there to provide support.

The bond that develops between these two (or indeed the bond that develops between Robyn and temporary guide Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) as she passes through sacred Aboriginal sites) is very much a secondary concern, and commendably Curran keeps his focus on Robyn’s incredible journey; a brief fling, for example, leads nowhere, and the main relationship in the film is actually the one that exists between Robyn and Diggity, her black labrador. The emphasis on the walk is one of the notable differences between Tracks and Wild; while watching the latter I found it frustrating when Vallée left Cheryl Strayed’s journey in order to repeatedly concentrate on her past, as I think it happens too often in that film, although it’s understandable; Strayed has the kind of salacious background that gets writers and directors all hot under the collar, for one thing.

The landscape seen in Tracks is largely desolate and flat, as in Tulpan, and the horizon is unbroken for miles, while places to hide from the sun are few and far between. Davidson’s achievement beggars belief when contemplating the extreme heat she faced every day, not to mention the many other natural hazards faced or the distance covered. Obviously water was scarce and food was also hard to come by, ensuring that management of the camels was paramount to survival. The panic Robyn experiences in the film when they suddenly disappear, or when an wild, angry bull camel is heading for the party, is not without good reason.

Wasikowska has built up an impressive filmography considering the fact she’s still in her mid-20s. This is one of her best roles to date, and she tackles it with the requisite confidence, grit and determination, showing no signs of fear around the camels, some of which look pretty ferocious indeed. As such Davidson gets the performance she deserves, and thanks to Marion Nelson’s deft screenplay, the adaptation she deserves. Unfortunately Tracks failed to set the box office alight, which presumably will make things difficult for John Curran in the future; if that turns out to be the case it’ll be a shame, as on this showing he is a talented director. His quiet, meditative film captures the stillness of the Outback well.

The Basics:
Directed by: John Curran
Written by: Marion Nelson, Robyn Davidson
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 112 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.0

0242 | Kingsman: The Secret Service

kingsman-the-secret-service-officialThough Kingsman: The Secret Service is ultimately two entirely disposable hours of nonsense, spoofing the most obvious elements of James Bond while largely lacking the winning silliness of Mike Myers’ Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, it does at least fizz along with regular sparks that just about keep interest alive. Chiefly this is because writer-director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman have added to the (already substantial) levels of swearing and cartoon violence that were contained in their previous collaboration (and Mark Millar adaptation) Kick-Ass; as with that earlier film, it’s all delivered with relish by the actors, most notably in this case Taron Egerton as young spy-in-the-making Eggsy and Colin Firth as his suave mentor Harry Hart (aka ‘Galahad’).

The Bond franchise is low-hanging fruit; an easy and oft-abused target, though its prevalence as a subject for satirists is understandable given its many familiar and recurring tropes, character types and scenarios. It’s interesting to note that the films lampooning Bond’s dafter moments are usually equally happy to steal its better ideas too, and Kingsman is no different. It does make some attempts to distance its world from that of Ian Fleming’s spy hero; the self-aware characters repeatedly riff on the fact that ‘it’s not that kind of movie’, for example, while there’s also a (failed) attempt to bring in an urban, streetwise edge via the young hero’s background, which unfortunately suffers from inauthentic-sounding dialogue. However the film cribs far more than it innovates: the gadgets, the upper-class debonair Englishness, the preposterous villains, the hollowed-out mountain lairs and several other motifs are all present and correct, and they’re not actually being spoofed all of the time.

‘The Kingsmen’ is a secret service, a near-invisible collection of spies, and its members operate out of a tailors in London. (Of course they do; why wouldn’t they?) Agency boss ‘Arthur’ is played by Michael Caine, who excels in The Michael Caine Role once again, delivering a performance of such exquisite Michael Caine-ness it’s impossible to stop thinking ‘That’s Michael Caine’ whenever he is on screen. A drive for new Kingsmen recruits results in Eggsy, sponsored by Hart, enrolling in the agency’s brutal training programme; under the watchful eyes of Merlin (Mark Strong, enjoyably deadpan) Eggsy must compete against a number of one-dimensional foppish rivals for a place at Hart’s side, and the film hits its stride as the candidates are cruelly put through their paces in a series of perilous boot camp training scenarios.

Eventually Eggsy and fellow new recruit Roxy (Sophie Cookson) are allowed to join the old hands in tackling mobile communications magnate Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), a megalomaniac with the usual large-scale nefarious intentions who has the ears of many world leaders. Jackson affects an exaggerated lisp throughout to let you know he is evil, which is as annoying as it is ridiculous, although he is at least gamely playing against type here as a squeamish nerd. On Oddjob / Rosa Klebb-style sidekick duty is Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), a vicious killer with bladed prosthetic legs.

For the most part Kingsman: The Secret Service fails to break any new ground with its satire, and the co-writers becomes increasingly reliant on swearing and violence as the film wears on; there’s more than a hint of desperation, for example, in the now-infamous scene in an American church. This sequence sums the film up perfectly: there is a palpable kinetic energy at play as Colin Firth does his best impression of Jason Bourne, but the extreme violence on screen simply serves to distract attention away from the fact there’s little originality or substance here, even in the laughs.

There’s nothing new in the film’s depiction of class differences, either, which pits the ‘haves’ against the ‘have nots’ in a disappointingly unoriginal fashion (thereby fitting in with the British film industry’s dictat that 90% of all working class characters must be criminals and everyone else must be the kind of toff that fa-fa-fas their way through life with an accent that makes Keira Knightley sound as rough as a badger’s arse). Naturally, wealthy Kingsman agents wear tailored suits and drink fine scotch, while Eggsy’s London is the direct opposite: all car crime, tracksuits, afternoon lagers and domestic abuse. Even EastEnders writers wouldn’t stoop so low, a fact unfortunately emphasised by the presence of EastEnders actress Samantha Womack (née Janus) as Michelle, Eggsy’s mum.

Still, the film isn’t intended to be taken particularly seriously, so I’ll concede it’s a little unfair to criticise it for failing to enlighten, and perhaps unrealistic of me to expect anything other than a stereotypical picture of two supposedly opposite classes in a film largely designed to amuse through its offensiveness. (Plus I’ve seen enough to have low expectations when British writer-directors from more privileged backgrounds head toward the inner cities with cameras and scripts in hand.) Childish final shot aside there are a few half-decent jokes in Kingsman: The Secret Service and, in fairness, it does crackle along at a rollicking pace; Firth’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek throughout and there are similarly knowing cameos by Jack Davenport and a barely-recognisable Mark Hamill. If you’re not sick to death of spy spoofs by now then you might well enjoy this but, considering it’s a satire, for me it ends up relying on 007’s idiosyncrasies more than it ought to.

The Basics:
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar
Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 128 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 4.8

0241 | Love Is Strange

LoveisStrange2In Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange the ever-dependable Alfred Molina and John Lithgow deliver fine performances as George and Ben, a New York couple who are forced to live apart from one another due to circumstances beyond their control. It’s a moving, tender and heartwarming portrait of two people in a sudden state of flux when really they ought to be enjoying the ongoing stability of their long-term (40-year) relationship, and the film is beautifully-written, keeping your attention throughout with its believable, interesting and often witty dialogue. It’s also edited in an intelligent fashion by Affonso Gonçalves and Michael Taylor, who elicit shifts in tone and imbue earlier scenes with extra meaning through their astute work.

We first see George and Ben on their wedding day, and they are joined in celebration during and after the ceremony by various friends and family members. However, rather than subsequently carrying on as per normal at home, they enter a period of upheaval: first news of the marriage causes George – who has always been open about his sexuality – to lose his job as a music teacher in a Catholic school; without that salary they are unable to hold on to their apartment and must ask those same family members and friends to put them up temporarily while they seek alternative accommodation. Unfortunately no-one has enough space for the two of them, so George moves in with cop neighbours Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), a younger, party-loving gay couple obsessed with Game Of Thrones. Meanwhile artist Ben moves in with his nephew Elliott (Darren Burrows), who lives in Brooklyn with novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their increasingly-withdrawn son Joey (Charlie Tahan).

The film concentrates on this period of forced separation, and the tension it causes, though the relationship at the heart of the film is largely unaffected, (although the separation does upset both men). George is too old and too introverted to enjoy life with his friendly, younger neighbours, who like to be at the centre of their own social hub and are unable to offer any private space to their guest, or even any peace and quiet; meanwhile Ben ends up imposing on the already-tense household he stays in, with Kate’s frustrations at being disturbed while writing adding to her general unhappiness with largely-absent Elliott, and Joey’s ‘difficult period’ further souring the atmosphere.

During their time living apart from one another Ben and George meet regularly, as you would expect: for dates, chats with affordable housing authorities, impromptu late night visits, etc. In each of these scenes the warmth the two characters exhibit for one another is infectious, helping to create a bittersweet tone that courses through the film.

Sachs, who wrote the screenplay with Mauricio Zacharias, subtly explores public projections of love and solidity with private realities. Privately, Ben and George appear to be every bit as much in love as they publicly profess to be on their wedding day. Meanwhile, Kate’s simmering disenchantment is completely at odds with her slightly self-centred speech at the wedding reception, in which she paints a somewhat rosy picture of her own marriage. She is a sympathetic character, though, and her frustrations are explained and understandable. (It must also be remembered that we’re only privvy to a short period of time in the lives of these characters; in the case of Kate and Elliott it’s a snapshot after more than fifteen years together and in the case of George and Ben it’s a brief glimpse of four entire decades as a couple; Sachs reminds us of this via a conversation Ben and George have in a bar, during which the subject of Ben’s old infidelities crops up.)

The film does not neglect its supporting characters, and Joey in particular gradually becomes more important as time passes, particularly with regard to the film’s final sun-kissed moments, which are wonderfully shot by Christos Voudouris. His friendship with a slightly-older teenage boy named Vlad (Eric Tabach) is a concern for his parents, who believe the secretive pair are stealing. However the main focus is on Ben and George, a pair of well-written characters who are expertly-realised by Lithgow and Molina; at times I was reminded of the married couple in Michael Haneke’s celebrated film Amour, in the sense that the elderly Parisians of that film, Georges and Anne, had been together for a long time and interacted with a comfortable ease that’s rarely carried off so believably. Here it is just as credible; you can tell just as much by the eye contact the two share as anything they say, and I was totally taken in by the depiction of this relationship.

You could argue that Lithgow and Molina have never been better, and Tomei certainly equals the quality of her turn in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Unfortunately it’s yet another very good film that failed to make an impression on The Academy this year, and while enough has been written on that award ceremony of late to last a lifetime, it’s worth briefly mentioning that Love Is Strange is just as deserving of attention as any of the other ignored works; in an alternative universe Molina, Lithgow or Tomei could have picked up Oscars yesterday evening and no-one would be able to say they didn’t deserve them.

A limited release (only 130-odd screens across the US, for example) has seemingly put paid to wider recognition, but my advice is that you don’t let this film slip by unnoticed, even if you have to watch it on the small screen: it’s a warm, rich account of two people in love, it ruminates gracefully on the cyclical nature of life, and it examines familial discord very well too. Added to that, Sachs’ attitude towards New York City is redolent of some of Woody Allen’s better moments, and his latest film is just as amusing.

The Basics:
Directed by: Ira Sachs
Written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Charlie Tahan, Darren Burrows
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 94 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.0

Your Academy Award Questions Answered, With Terence Fletcher

Dear Terence,
Hello. I’m one of the directors of a popular Lego-oriented kid’s movie from 2014 that many adults also took to their hearts thanks to the film’s family-friendly good humour and catchy songs. Unfortunately the movie was overlooked when it came to the Oscar nominations, and there’s been a suggestion that the make-up of the Academy voters is to blame, as it’s heavily weighted towards human beings. Did you know that there isn’t a single Lego-fabricated character on the voting panel? Is this somehow indicative that the Academy is institutionally Legoist? Is there a way that a complaint can be filed? Do I need to be more vocal about this kind of thing?
Yours in film,
Phil L, Los Angeles

Dear Phil,
You are a worthless, friendless, faggot-lipped little piece of shit whose mommy left daddy when she figured out he wasn’t Eugene O’Neill and who’s now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a f**king nine-year-old girl! So for the final father-f**king time…say it louder!
Hope that helps,

Dear Terence,
You gotta help me man. I am so nervous. I’m due to host this year’s Oscar ceremony but during the past few weeks I’ve been having crazy panic attacks at the thought of it all. I mean, there are going to be some seriously famous and powerful people there, right? Bieber, Tony Danza, Jackie Stallone…and that’s just the front row. Plus I’ve agreed to perform a number with the orchestra but I keep getting it wrong. Sometimes I’m too fast, sometimes I’m too slow. It must be the nerves. What advice do you have for performers?
With best wishes,
Neil Patrick H, Los Angeles

Dear Neil,
Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig. Oh my dear God…are you one of those single tear people? Do I look like a double f**king rainbow to you? You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a nine year old girl.
Good luck,

Dear Terence,
Sorry, but I’m terribly, terribly ashamed to say that I recently referred to Lego figures as ‘those little dot-eyed yellow fellas’ during an interview, and even though I publically apologised straight away for this faux pas, I fear that the comment has somehow endeared me to those damn racists who vote for the Oscars each year. I don’t want to win the Best Actor award any more, because I just don’t want to be associated with their awful, narrow-minded xenophobia. Sorry. It was a simple, honest mistake, a direct result of my sheltered upbringing in the Castle of London, and I am in no way Legoist. Terribly, terribly sorry. Any tips for staying politically correct, particularly with regard to the use of archaic, offensive terminology or, more generally, racial slurs?
Terribly, terribly sorry,
Benedict C, London

Dear Benedict,
Now we got ourselves our mick f**king paddy-cracker. Did you know you look like a f**king leprechaun? I think I’ll call you Flannery.
Hope that helps,

whiplash6Terence Fletcher is a band leader, teacher and amateur freelance agony uncle. His advice column appears in 467 newspapers around the world every week.