Thursday, April 30, 2009


I first saw ‘Sideways’ at my local multiplex in February 2005; I went to see it again two weeks later. I bought the DVD on the day of release. I’ve watched it two or three times a year since then. On first viewing, I came to the conclusion that Alexander Payne was the next great American director. Simple as that.

‘Sideways’ made it three in a row after ‘Election’, one of very few films set in a high school that’s nonetheless intelligent, sophisticated and razor-sharp in its satire (seriously: if Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ distils the whole brutal ethos of the adult world into a juvenile microcosm, ‘Election’ does the same for American politics, emerging as cleverer, funnier and more acute than an entire series of ‘The West Wing’) and ‘About Schmidt’, the unlikeliest road movie this side of ‘The Straight Story’, wherein Jack Nicholson turned in a late period performance of such understated pathos that you rediscover what a great actor he is. By turns humorous, whimsical and melancholy, ‘About Schmidt’ is also honest, featuring the quietest yet the most devastatingly poignant ending.

Hard to believe it’s been four years since ‘Sideways’ and with the exception of a contribution to a portmanteau film about Paris, we’re still waiting for Payne’s follow up, ‘Fork in the Road’ from Dennis Hamill’s novel about an Irish-American film-maker’s relationship with a passionate but unpredictable gypsy woman and the correlation between life and art. With a little bit of luck, a fair wind and a huge amount of talent (and Payne has the latter, lordie yessum) ‘Fork in the Road’ could be a classic in waiting.

But for the moment we have ‘Sideways’, a bona fide classic and a production that I am convinced will be remembered as the best American film of this decade. Beautifully scripted, impeccably acted and oh the direction! In an era of film-making where most directors seem to scream at the camera “LOOK AT MEEEEEEEEEEEE! I’M DIRECTING!!!”, Alexander Payne does something radical and wonderful that I’d like to give him a great big hug and buy him a pint for: he assumes his audience are intelligent and sensitive and can think about what they’re watching instead of being told it.

This is how good the direction is: you forget that it’s a film and somebody directed it. That’s it. End of. I can’t think of higher praise. The best books I’ve read have made me forget I was turning pages and looking at printed words: I’ve lived inside them and known the characters. The best paintings and photographs I’ve seen haven’t been contained within a frame and held permanently in stasis: they’ve made me think that I’ve just blinked and still have imprinted on the retina a scene that’s even now changing and spilling out and generating a new dynamic.

I know the characters in ‘Sideways’. I’ve spent time with them. I recognise myself in them. That neither of the protagonists are, on the surface, particularly sympathetic makes Payne’s achievement – by the final frames, all sins are forgiven and you desperately care about them – all the more impressive. Miles (Paul Giametti) is a middle-aged high school teacher, would-be novelist and wine snob. He’s self-important, depressive and not above ripping off his mother for a couple of hundred dollars. His best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a once-successful actor now reduced to doing voiceovers and prepared to take a soul-destroying job in his prospective father-in-law’s real estate business.

Taking off for a week-long wine-tasting holiday before Jack finally ties the knot with his society-girl fiancée, ‘Sideways’ plays out as a finely observed study of failure, self-doubt and the occasional small moment of redemption. The humour and the melancholy derive in equal measure from the ‘Odd Couple’-style relationship between the mismatched protagonists. Miles is given to snobbery (“quaffable,” he opines of one vintage, “but a long way from transcendence”), while Jack’s retinue of comments strikes out no further intellectually than the succession of women he eyes up for his final fling (“God, that chick's hot”).

You’d have every reason not to like these guys. But they’re real. They are flawed and recognisable and all too human. The women they meet and get involved with – once-bitten-twice-shy Maya (Virginia Madsen) and uninhibited free spirit Stephanie (Sandra Oh) – throw their rumpled and compromised humanity into sharp relief. They are the real heroes of the film: women who hold out hope in the face of the failures of men.

Am I making ‘Sideways’ sound heavy? Not so. It’s intelligent. It’s perceptive. That doesn’t mean it’s not eminently watchable, very entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny. Alexander Payne has cited Luis Buñuel as an inspiration (that shot of the ostrich means so much more in this context) and delivers an inspired sequence towards the end of the film – key components: sexual embarrassment, class barriers, quasi-voyeurism and the shock of the absurb – that would have made his idol proud.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Top ten drinkers

Billy Bob Thornton as Willie in ‘Bad Santa’

Jack Lemmon as Joe Clay in ‘Days of Wine and Roses’

Ray Milland as Don Birnam in ‘The Lost Weekend’

Dean Martin as Dude in ‘Rio Bravo’

Paul Giamatti as Miles in ‘Sideways’

David Farrar as Sammy Rice in ‘The Small Back Room’

Susan Hayward as Angie Evans in ‘Smash Up: the Story of a Woman’

Ben Gazzara as Charles Serking in ‘Tales of Ordinary Madness’

The entire cast in ‘Whisky Galore!’

Richard E. Grant as Withnail in ‘Withnail & I’

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


There are some film books that effortlessly pin down an era in cinema history, such as Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’. There are some that chronicle in car-crash detail the disastrous consequences of a misconceived, miscast, all round flop – Julie Salamon’s ‘The Devil’s Candy’. There are some autobiographies that are so staggeringly egomaniacal (Michael Powell’s ‘A Life in Movies’) or so elegantly persuasive (any of Dirk Bogarde’s memoirs) that the truth hardly matters. There are diaries that reveal the day-to-day frustrations of even the greatest directors (Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Time Within Time’). There are biographies that so effectively get under the skin of their subject (Kevin Brownlow’s book on David Lean; John Coldstream’s on Bogarde) that they remain unforgettable.

Then there’s a book like Robert Sellers’s ‘Hellraisers: the Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed’, which is an unapologetic way-hey-the-lads celebration of the collective boozing, brawling and bad behaviour (womanizing needs to be added but I can’t think of a synonym beginning with “B” which will preserve the alliteration) of four of the most devil-may-care talents ever to grace the silver screen.

Because believe it or not, between the bars and the arrests and the brawls with paparazzi and the on-off romances (mentioning no names, Mr Burton) these boys actually made the odd film or two.

In fact, between them, they clocked up some of the most visceral, intense, challenging, dynamic and kick-ass performances in cinema: think of Burton losing it on the pulpit in the opening scene of ‘The Night of the Iguana’, Harris looking like he’s about to ask the fucking camera outside in just about every frame of ‘This Sporting Life’, O’Toole casually announcing “we have taken Aqaba” in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Reed getting stuck into a little nude wrestling with Alan Bates in ‘Women in Love’. And that’s just for starters …

From next month I’ll be running an ongoing series on The Agitation of the Mind, celebrating the bad boys of British cinema. There will be booze. There will be blood. There will be some fucking great movies. It all kicks off first week in May but until then the bar is open at The Agitation of the Liver, so raise your glasses to these gentlemen, drink to their hellraising and rue the fact that we live in a world where Zac Efron headlines movies, launches a thousand merchandising products and doesn’t even have the common decency to trash a restaurant, shag for England (oh all right then, America) and wake up in a holding cell wondering what time the pubs open.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Top ten debonair villains

John Huston as Noah Cross in ‘Chinatown’

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in ‘Die Hard’

Joseph Wiseman as Dr No in ‘Dr No’

Fernando Rey as Alain Charnier in ‘The French Connection’

Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker in ‘Laura’

James Mason as Phillip Vandamm in ‘North by Northwest’

John Malkovich as Tom Ripley in ‘Ripley’s Game’

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

Dirk Bogarde as Anacleto in ‘The Singer Not the Song’

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’

Apropos of yesterday's entry

I realised a year ago that I cheated by including ‘The Godfather’ Parts I and II as a single choice in the Personal Faves list, just so I could also shoehorn ‘Apocalypse Now’ in and not break the two-films-per-director rule.

I realise today that I’ve not so much cheated as sold myself (and the film!) short by trying to squeeze ‘The Godfather Part II’ into yesterday’s article. It deserves more thought, more consideration, more comment. I will revisit it next month.

It wasn’t personal, it was strictly laziness.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: The Godfather and The Godfather Part II

‘The Godfather’ is not so much an adaptation as an act of alchemy, taking the base metal (or rather purple prose) of Mario Puzo’s potboiler and rendering it into cinematic gold.

‘The Godfather’ is quite simply one of American cinema’s finest achievements, an instant classic on its original release and a film that continues to improve with age. Its sequel, if anything, is even better.

Both films (let’s leave the occasionally inspired but mostly just average ‘Godfather Part III’ out of it) are about family, honour and loyalty. They’re also about how these concepts are variously rationalised, compromised and bastardised.

‘The Godfather’ opens with an extended set-piece in which Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) is obliged, on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, to grant favour to any who seek it. “I believe in America,” the craven Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) declares, then goes on to ask the Don to do violence on his behalf where the legal system has failed him. Like anyone else granted favour, he is counselled that “some day, and this day may never come, I might call upon you to do me a service”. All of this takes place in a darkened room, while the celebrations unfold in bright daylight outside. Still, even as a heart-throb crooner entertains the crowd and guests applaud the bride, tension is in the air: the Don’s son Michael (Al Pacino) has arrived – in uniform.

Unlike his natural brothers Sonny (James Caan) and Fredo (John Cazale) and his adoptive brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Michael Corleone has elected not to join the family business but enlist in the Marine Corps. And when the family business is crime and the credo, as the Don chastens Sonny early in the film, is “never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking”, this is a decidedly unSicilian thing to do. In fact, it’s downright American, patriotic and commendable. No wonder Michael’s the black sheep of the family. Oh, then there’s the matter of the white-than-white nice girl, Kay (Diane Keaton) he gets involved with.

Then there’s an assassination attempt on the Don and Michael finds himself filling the breech. What happens like is like ‘Richard III’ if the Richard III was quite a likeable and all-round kind of guy in the first act. Michael’s transition from war hero to mob boss, from hero to anti-hero, from humanity to villainy isn’t a gradual or incremental thing; it all hinges on one act. Michael proposes and carries out the execution of rival mobster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the guy who ordered the hit on his father, as well as Sollozzo’s partner, the corrupt policeman McCluskey (Sterling Hayden).

Michael is quickly whisked off to Italy while the heat dies down. Deserting Kay in more ways than one, he romances and marries local beauty Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). When she dies in a car bomb meant for him, Michael returns to America and glibly takes up with Kay again. Sonny’s betrayal and death at a toll booth ambush (I’m not bothering with any spoiler alerts in this post – really, if you haven’t seen ‘The Godfather’ there’s no hope for you), and the Don’s retirement following a reluctant making of peace with his enemies, sees the family business turned over wholesale to Michael.

Here’s where the real ‘Richard III’ stuff kicks in: Michael becomes corrupted by power and villainy, not in an egomaniacal or even necessarily a psychotic sense, by characterised more by an utter coldness and inhumanity; a complete moral and emotion disconnection.

One of the most quoted lines is “it’s not personal, it’s strictly business” – a sentiment Michael certainly adheres to, and with bitter irony since those were Sollozzo’s words to him following the unsuccessful hit on the Don.

Coppola continues to chart Michael’s heinous premiership of the Corleone clan in ‘The Godfather Part II’, contrasting his barren life against the rise to power of the young Don Corleone (Robert de Niro). The Don’s actions, while undeniably criminal, are socially motivated (his murder of a neighbourhood crime boss is done for the betterment of the community). The seeds of the first film’s focus on family and loyalty are sown here. And also cut down as Michael alienates his wife – after losing her baby, Kay confronts Michael with the truth: “It wasn’t a miscarriage, it was an abortion. An abortion, Michael … I had it killed because all this must end … this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for two thousand years” – and, in the most shocking scene, orders the death of his brother, the weak-willed Fredo after he’s coerced into a business agreement than compels him to betray Michael. That he has this order carried out after feigning forgiveness and welcoming Fredo back into the household is the final bastardisation of everything his father held sacrosanct. It is this – and never mind the quasi-religious musings of ‘Part III’ – that completes Michael’s transition to the monstrous; that places him beyond redemption.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Olivier Marchal’s old-school police thriller ‘36’ takes its title from the address of a Parisian police headquarters, 36 Quai des Orfevres. The opening scene has the plaque identifying the building stolen by two motorcycle riders. They turn out to be police: the plaque is gift-wrapped and presented to a retiring detective. It’s a terrific scene, one that sets the tone for a film concerned with moral compromise, the thin line between the cop and the criminal, and the bad things that are done under the cloak of authority.

Think James Ellroy on a continental breakfast and a thirty-a-day Gitanes habit and you’re about there.

Two ambitious and unapologetically unorthodox career cops, Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) and Klein (Gerard Depardieu) vie for a high-ranking promotion. Both have crossed the line, personally and professionally, on more than one occasion. The rivalry turns personal after Klein, trigger-happy and given to drinking on duty, spectacularly botches a take-down. The ensuing shoot-out is as jolting and visceral as the one in ‘Heat’, a film ‘36’ was justifiably compared to by most critics on its belated release (it was made in 2004 and didn’t show up in UK cinemas until late ’06).

The aftermath of this brilliantly shot and edited sequence takes ‘36’ into different territory, though. Vrinks uses Klein’s unprofessionalism against him, and the other officers send him to whatever the French version of Coventry is. Then fate intervenes and Klein finds something he can use against Vrinks … I’m going no further with the plot synopsis here. Suffice it to say that things get progressively darker and more interesting. And if the set-up seems to point to pure melodrama as the denouement approaches, don’t worry. The pay-off is as memorable as it is unpredictable.

‘36’ is dark, gritty, compelling stuff and when Hollywood gets its finger out of its arse delivers another long overdue Ellroy adaptation (‘White Jazz’, anyone?) it could do a lot worse than emulate Marchal’s blistering directorial style.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Top ten creative geniuses

Anatoli Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev in ‘Andrei Rublev’

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in ‘Frida’

Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer in ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’

Gary Oldman as Ludwig van Beethoven in ‘Immortal Beloved’

Derek Jacobi as Francis Bacon in ‘Love is the Devil’

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker in ‘Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle’

Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown in ‘My Left Foot’

Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare in ‘Shakespeare in Love’

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in ‘Sylvia’

Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde in ‘Wilde’

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jack Cardiff

I’ve sounded off on these pages before about the genius of cinematographers like Roger Deakins, Chris Menges and Robert Elswit. Yesterday, one of the giants of the art, Jack Cardiff, died of natural causes at the age of 94.

His debut as director of photography was Powell & Pressburger’s timeless classic ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, lensing half the film in sumptuous technicolour and the other half in steely monochrome. Of his two subsequent collaborations with Powell & Pressburger, ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘The Red Shoes’, the former won him an Oscar.

He worked with Hitchcock on ‘Under Capricorn’, John Huston on ‘The African Queen’ and Laurence Olivier on ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’.

Jack Cardiff’s achievements in directing peaked early, with his D.H. Lawrence adaptation ‘Sons and Lovers’ in 1960. His fifth film as director, it was to be his greatest achievement in the field. Although he continued directing for another decade an a half, helming another nine films, perhaps the only standouts are boy’s-own action thriller ‘The Mercenaries’ (from a Wilbur Smith novel) and the Marianne Faithfull ogle-fest ‘Girl on a Motorcycle’.

He continued working as cinematographer, either in films or on prestige TV series such as ‘The Far Pavilions’, until he was in his 90s. IMDb gives his last credit as 2007 - 68 years after he took his first job in the industry (as a clapper boy!) in 1929.

He published an autobiography, ‘Magic Hour’, in 1996 and received an OBE in 2000.

in memoriam Jack Cardiff, 18th September 1914 – 22nd April 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Incoherence is the sincerest form of flattery

I posted a review of ‘The Damned United’ twelve days ago. Today, trawling the internet while I should have … I dunno … been working or something, I came across this.

It’s basically my ‘Damned United’ review, but as it would look if someone translated it into Serbian, translated that into Russian and had someone translate the Russian version into English only to demonstrate a notable lack of facility in either language.

I’m not sure who the blogger is, or even why they’ve done this, but it makes for hilarious reading. Two examples:

My original review:
So it was out of curiosity as to how well Michael Sheen’s performance captured Cloughie’s trademark admixture of charm and belligerence that me and my friend Aidy headed to the Broadway Cinema last Saturday night for a screening of ‘The Damned United’. Our better halves evinced no interest in the film and occupied themselves otherwise while we attended the screening, then enthusiastically discussed the film in the pub afterwards.

The plagiarist’s version:
So it was antiquated of bric-a-brac as to how cordially Michael Sheen’s portrayal captured Cloughie’s trademark admixture of assuage and belligerence that me and my bosom buddy Aidy headed to the Broadway Cinema up to date Saturday blackness as a servicing to a screening of ‘The Damned United’. Our cured halves evinced no fire in the mizzle cloud up and occupied themselves in another setting while we attended the screening, then enthusiastically discussed the mizzle cloud up in the saloon afterwards.

My original review:
The verbal stand offs between Clough and Longson, particularly when Longson suggests that Clough give Leeds an easy victory so they can play a stronger side against Juventus in a forthcoming European match, are tour de forces.

The plagiarist’s version:
The oral last offs between Clough and Longson, outstandingly when Longson suggests that Clough pass Leeds an unpretentious supremacy so they can subtract up a stronger side against Juventus in a anticipated European contest, are drive de forces.

“Antiquated of bric-a-brac”. “Our cured halves evinced no fire in the mizzle cloud up”. “Drive de forces”. Marvellous!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Top ten hard-ass military types

Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore in ‘Apocalypse Now’

James Coburn as Sergeant Steiner in ‘Cross of Iron’

Lee Marvin as Major Reisman in ‘The Dirty Dozen’

R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in ‘Full Metal Jacket’

J.T. Walsh as Sergeant Major Dickerson in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’

Clint Eastwood as Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway in ‘Heartbreak Ridge’

Harry Andrews as Sergeant Major Wilson in ‘The Hill’

Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes in ‘Platoon’

Nick Nolte as Lieutenant Colonel Tall in ‘The Thin Red Line’

Nigel Green as Colour-Sergeant Bourne in ‘Zulu’