Elvis & Nixon (Johnson, 2016): The main draw of Liza Johnson’s comedy-drama is the chance to see Michael Shannon play Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, two men who wielded considerable power in 1970, when this film is set. Both are quite entertaining. In terms of the former I’m reminded of Bruce Campbell’s turn as The King in Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep, which is a good thing; and Spacey gets Nixon’s physicality and harassed air just right. The screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes offers up a potential story behind the most requested photo from the National Archives and they have fun exploring a few myths relating to both men, but there’s not much here in the way of genuine insight into either singer or politician, or their respective careers. The best scenes come late in the film and feature both of the actors in the White House’s Oval Office, and they’re light and frothy enough to pass the time, but I was left with a feeling of ‘so what?’ at the end.
Speedy (Wilde, 1928): Harold Lloyd’s final silent comedy is an entertaining lark, particularly the middle section, wheupon his character Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift takes a job as a taxi driver in New York (and ferries a petrified Babe Ruth to Yankee Stadium). Another sequence set in Coney Island is very charming, and the intertitles (written by Albert DeMond) are funnier than your average silent comedy, too. Pretty good.
Io Sono L’amore (I Am Love) (Guadagnino, 2009): People who’ve seen this film regularly argue that it’s Tilda Swinton’s finest performance, and I must admit there were times that I forgot that I was watching someone acting while it was playing; during an interview on BBC Radio earlier this year Michael Caine suggested that that was the Holy Grail for performers, and who am I to argue? Swinton really is excellent here as a Russian-Italian woman who has seemingly grown tired of married life; as the matriarch of a wealthy Milanese family she is expected to keep up certain appearances, but she appears to have had her fill of social gatherings and she is neglected by her businessman husband Tancredi. An affair with a young chef reignites her passion, but it also inadvertantly causes a tragedy that rips an already-faltering family unit apart. Guadagnino’s film is mostly subtle as it shows the pillars of this bourgeois clan – the marriage, the family business – beginning to crack, and its very stylishly shot and well-written. In fact the director and his writing partner Barbara Alberti developed the screenplay over 11 years, so it’s no wonder the characters feel real and lived-in. I liked this one very much.
The Amazing Spider-Man (Webb, 2012): This Spider-Man reboot was deemed unnecessary at the time of release by fans of the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi version, and at the time of writing it’s about to be rendered obsolete by another re-imagining of the enduring web-slinger, but I’m glad I finally got round to it as there are bits of it that I quite enjoyed (mostly because I’m a sucker for Spidey’s origin story and the teenage travails of his alter-ego, Peter Parker). Andrew Garfield’s pretty good at acting the sullen teen – or at least he was five years ago, when this was made – and he makes a decent fist of Parker, the vaguely nerdy high schooler who develops his powers after he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Sadly Garfield’s not really a natural quipper, so I guess my main criticism of his performance is that his Spider-Man lacks a bit of wit and verbal pizzazz; in fact it’s a bit like watching the tennis player Andy Murray attempting to play a wise-cracking superhero, at times. Emma Stone is passable as Parker’s classmate Gwen Stacy, Rhys Ifans is necessarily over the top as villain Curt Conners/Lizard, while Sally Field and Martin Sheen ease their way into Kind Older Person roles that don’t really stretch either actor. It’s not as good as Raimi’s first two efforts with the hero, though hardly the disaster some claimed it to be, either.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Webb, 2014): Ah. This one though… they didn’t really capitalise on the promise of the first film, did they? The second of Marc Webb’s blockbusters to feature Andrew Garfield as the friendly, neighbourhood super-hero is messy, overlong and riddled with risible acting performances, notably from the two men playing villains (Jamie Foxx as Electro and Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn). Again Garfield plays the tormented teen hero well – the spider suit weighs heavily on his Peter Parker, because he understands that he is putting loved ones around him in danger – and the star is at his best during his scenes with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, their on-off relationship propelling the narrative forward in a far more effective way than any of the good guy vs bad guy shenanigans that unfold. There are some obvious attempts to include some extra humour – notably during the opening sequence – and as with the first film this doesn’t work particularly well. Overall it’s a poor effort, so wiping the slate clean and starting again makes some sense.
Learning To Drive (Coixet, 2016): A low-key drama about an-about-to-be-divorced book editor (Patricia Clarkson) and her Sikh driving instructor (Sir Sir Ben Kingsley), which basically concentrates on her ability to pick herself up in the wake of her husband leaving for the arms and bed of another woman, and the way in which his race and religion shapes his life in New York. It may overplay the metaphor of ‘getting back behind the wheel’ a little, but it’s well acted, told in a pleasantly straightforward fashion and a solid little drama (no back-handed insult intended by that) that’s filled with optimism. The two leads are pretty good.
A Hologram For The King (Tykwer, 2016): It’s a shame that this glimpse into Saudi Arabian commercial practices and the rapid development taking place within the wealthier Middle East nations focuses on a fairly dull and entirely familiar American protagonist as a prism through which we must view the country and its customs – a conferencing technology salesman named Alan Clay, who is played by the everyman’s everyman, Tom Hanks. Alan is going through a mid-life crisis and – like Bill Murray’s actor in Lost In Translation – he must grimace his way through a bleary, jet-lagged week of business meet-and-greets, stressy phone calls from home, cultural misunderstandings and a brief fling, all while staying at a posh hotel. He gets increasingly frustrated as meetings are cancelled at short notice and his techy colleagues are denied wi-fi and food, and his stress levels are exacerbated while he worries about a large cyst that has developed on his back. Ultimately Alan may be a decent guy trying to make sense of his life, but I’m a bit tired of fish-out-of-water stories, and this one typically engages with local issues as reticently as its confused protagonist, who mostly veers between surprised confusion and confused surprise at everything he sees and hears. There’s something a little different toward the end as a second, more intriguing love story develops between Alan and his temporary doctor, Zahra (Anita Choudhury), but sadly the film finishes just as this romance enters its most interesting phase. I’m not surprised that it flopped, despite Hanks’s box office pull, though it’s not without its merits; Sidse Babett Knudsen is typically impressive in her supporting role, for example, but marks off for casting Alexander Black – a white American – as Yousef, a Saudi tour guide, and also for the terrible opening sequence, where an uncomfortable Hanks awkwardly trots out the lyrics to Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime.
These Final Hours (Hilditch, 2016): I probably shouldn’t have watched this mid-apocalyptic hints-of-Ozploitation flick on the same day that Donald Trump won the presidential election, though it did at least make me consider what I’d do if I had twelve hours left to live on Earth (there’d be at least four cups of tea involved). The main protagonist here decides to go a bit wild before an explosion from a massive meteor wipes out Western Australia and beyond, and the start of the film features violent episodes and hedonistic abandon as society breaks down and wonders what to do with itself. Cue a lost little girl to show him the error of his ways and the clear path through a redemptive story arc, leading eventually to some emotional moments as a massive ring of fire approaches. It has a few powerfully-violent scenes but I don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking here and I hated the yellow filter applied throughout; it just looks tacky.
The Kiss In The Tunnel (Smith, 1899): A couple share a kiss as their train passes through a dark tunnel. It’s simple, and we all know it isn’t a clandestine moment, because the camera is there recording, but isn’t it amazing that people can still watch their smooch a hundred and seventeen years later? I wonder how they’d have felt if they’d have known about that; now they’re on YouTube, and people can see their kiss on their mobile phones, or their computers, or their TV screens. It has been viewed by thousand and thousands of people in the years in-between, and although it wasn’t the first screen kiss, it is still notable for being one of the earliest edited films, with continuity shots of the train entering and exiting the tunnel framing the ‘private’ moment. Brief and interesting from a historical perspective.
Le Manoir Du Diable (The Haunted Castle, aka The Devil’s Castle) (Méliès, 1896): The great thing about this short film by Georges Méliès – free to watch all over the internet – is that it’s impossible to resist the director’s obvious excitement as he employs rudimentary but utterly fun special effects; it’s also technically the first ever horror film, and within that genre the first ever vampire film, given that it includes a bat transforming into a man. It’s short, by today’s standards, but in 1896 the running time of just over three minutes was incredibly ambitious. Who can honestly say that they have done more than Méliès for the special effects industry?