Classic Films I’ve Only Just Got Round To Seeing #1: ‘The Untouchables’

For this, the first in a poorly-titled series, I finally caught Brian De Palma’s classic crime drama The Untouchables last night.  It’s a brilliant, confident, astute piece of filmmaking. Here’s my thoughts, in handy numbered form.

  1. Fantastic casting throughout. De Niro as Capone = genius casting, and an incredible performance.  He embodies the crime lord so completely, yet still somehow managing to bring something new to gangster acting.  Sean Connery is the classic father figure, and does a decent job, although his pisspoor Irish accent makes the Oscar a little surprising.  Hell, even Kevin ‘Waterworld’ Costner is good, a solid lead.
  2. Brian De Palma’s camerawork is legendary. The director’s lens is like another actor in this film.  His use of the steadicam is legendary, but it’s his little touches which impress – he uses POV like a horror film to create tension.  Which leads me onto:
  3. It’s suspenseful as hell. You can tell De Palma is a Hitchcock fan; his influence is everywhere.  The showdown scenes are terrifically epic, and the famous scene on the stairway in the train station is an extraordinary slow-mo mesh of editing.  Which also leads me onto…
  4. I now get the parodies. Just like I didn’t quite get the Simpsons Halloween spoof until I got round to seeing The Shining, watching this film has opened up a world of references to me.  Admitting this on Twitter had me justifiably lambasted:
  5. It’s classical Hollywood. Despite De Palma’s nifty camera moves, this is old-school filmmaking, with elements of the noirish crime thrillers found in the pre-Hayes code era of the forties.  And with that comes the occasional cliché – one of the main characters dies, spluttering blood from his gunshot wounds, in Costner’s trembling arms, like a classic war movie death.  It’s either brilliant or laughably unoriginal.  I can’t decide which.
  6. It’s a bit dated. I was born in the year The Untouchables was made.  And although it is a period piece, and displays admirable attention to detail, viewing twenty four years on means it sometimes slips up – the music occasionally dips into bizarre, jarring synthesisers melded with jazzy horns which was probably a great idea at the time.  And there is the odd eighties haircut.
  7. It reminds you of the time when Brian De Palma made great films. A cursory glance at the man’s Wikipedia page shows he hasn’t really made a decent film since 1996’s Mission: Imposssible, and even that’s up for debate.  What happened, Brian? Marty, Steve and George are doing fine!  Well, Marty and Steve, anyway.  Here’s hoping the Capone-centered prequel gets made.

The King of Limbs: first impressions

In common with everybody in the entire knowable universe, I have spent most of the afternoon listening to Radiohead’s eighth studio album The King of Limbs, which was released for downloading today.  R-Day, as no-one is calling it, was pushed forward 24 hours, and just like that, there it is.  A week ago we weren’t even sure when the hell it would be released. I’ve already listened to it about four times.

It is still early days, of course, but first impressions are very good.  The direction they’ve chosen is a shift, obviously – Radiohead are never a band to rest on their laurels.  They burn their laurels and invent new ones.  After the more comfortable indie stylings of 2007’s In Rainbows this is an album going back to electronic experimentation, a move which this rather bitter review slightly missed: “It’s rock music as mime: all the posturing and none of the substance. Or humour.”  Forgetting, of course, that Radiohead haven’t made a full-blown rock record in about fifteen years.

It’s experimental alright, but not maddeningly so.  Only track 5, ‘Feral’, is a tough listen.  This features none of the wildly glitchy noises from Kid A (an album now very close to my heart, but like many Radiohead fans, was tricky to begin with).  It’s clearly informed a lot from Thom Yorke’s electro and two-step heroes; there are elements of The Eraser. But it’s a richer, more textured album than that solo effort.

‘Bloom’ is a typically brave opening track, an off-kilter drum beat and a discordant wail in the background.  ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ goes in the opposite direction, filled with a pacy bass flicker and light percussion, whilst Thom sings “You got some nerve…”,  poking with the sharpness his lyrics are so often infused with.  ‘Little By Little’ goes in another opposite direction, typifying the plurality of the tracks on this album – it’s a real broad mix.  ‘Little By Little’ may be the best track on the album, an amazing blend of guitars and Beatles-esque sampling.  If Radiohead were a band ostentatious enough to release a greatest hits (their former overlords EMI have done, without their permission), this would surely be on it.

But then so would the beautiful ‘Codex’, a stunning little song composed largely of a simple piano refrain, and further proof that this band have not lost their grip on portraying the alienation felt by many.  So, too, would ‘Give Up The Ghost’ probably feature on this hypothetical Best Of, as would the terrific ‘Lotus Flower’ which has a slightly laughable video of Thom dancing like a maniac to accompany it.

As mentioned earlier, only ‘Feral’ falls a little flat, an exercise in electro-experimentation slightly too far, and the only other criticism I can muster is that the album is not long enough – at eight tracks and thirty-seven minutes, I can’t help feeling like they’ve been too hard on themselves leaving so much out.   But I can hardly complain – there’s a new Radiohead album out, and it’s completely, utterly brilliant.

P.S.  This spoof review from Vice magazine is admittedly pretty funny.

World Press Photo Awards 2011

[More here.]

Review: ‘Paul’


Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have made a career out of eulogising their favourite elements of pop culture. Their much loved TV Brit-com Spaced was wall-to-wall with knowing references, and the duo’s first two forays into cinema, along with director Edgar Wright, were both affectionate tributes to genre movies; Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were less parodies than they were a wry British take on the zombie and action genres, respectively. There was no sense of spoof – rather they transposed a familiar Hollywood blueprint into a suburban British context and comedy flowed successfully from this clash of cultures.  When the heroes in Shaun are faced with the prospect of a zombie attack, their uniquely English solution is first, to have a cup of tea, and second, to go to the pub.

All of the Spaced team have seen their profiles rise in recent years and so Paul represents the first joint Hollywood effort from Pegg and Frost, whose longtime acting partnerships has here extended to a writing one. The pair play comic book geeks who, whilst embarking on a holiday visiting alien tourist attractions, encounter a real alien at Area 51, and endeavour to help him get back to his home planet. This is their take on sci-fi, and now at their disposal is a big budget, an all-star cast, a Hollywood director and the benefit of vast American landscapes as the backdrop of this road trip movie.  Gone, more or less, are the quaint British sensibilities on the Hollywood model – this is an affectionate tribute on a grand scale.With Paul, however, it’s less affectionate than it is frenzied lust and admiration for its subject. In interviews Pegg and Frost have accurately called their film a “love letter” to sci-fi, and they have done so with obvious zeal.  But there is certainly a very real danger that a sizable portion of their audience won’t get the jokes.  This is a film rammed with knowing, nerdy references, and for those yet to see Close Encounters or E.T., the crux of the gags will potentially fall on deaf ears, and frowning faces.

This is also a much broader brand of comedy than we’re used to from this team. The eponymous Paul, a slacker, stoner alien voiced by Seth Rogen, is a plentiful source of humour, but on the proviso that you find childish, frat-boy comedy funny. Indeed, much of Paul’s success rate is largely subjective to the viewer – are you the sort of person who finds a CGI alien mooning funny? Are you the sort of person who will understand the nerdish significance of a character telling Sigourney Weaver to “get away from him, you bitch”?

It could be said that the British pair have lost their edge. Part of the blame must rest on Greg Mottola, whose presence in the director’s chair only amplifies Edgar Wright’s absence. Where Wright’s style called for frenetic, pacy action, Mottola opts for a slower, eighties style, aiming for (and missing) John Hughes. It’s surprising considering his first two films were rich in semi-improvisational wit and keenly observed teen characterisation. Here, his directorial stamp seems lacking. He appears to be more of a gun for hire, a Wright-lite.

Still, that’s not to say that Paul can’t be occasionally entertaining. Pegg and Frost have always managed to surround themselves with a fine calibre of comic actors, and the supporting cast here is uniformly excellent – from Saturday Night Live, the sublime Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig; from Arrested Development, the marvellous Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor; and from sci-fi of yore, the legendary Sigourney Weaver, whose pantomimic villainess is only seen is Blofeld-esque close-ups until the final showdown. All are on excellent form and bring an extensive comic mix to the table.

And though Pegg and Frost may have lost some of their subversive edge, they have retained their heart. Their last two films together could both be read as a love story between two straight men, and here that theme is played up to full extent. The characters allow for their best homoerotic chemistry yet seen on screen, and their twenty year real-life friendship provides ample warmth and humanity amidst the madcap comedy. Paul is far from perfect, and certainly their worst film, but it’s nonetheless a big, fun, dumb movie, which should more than adequately indulge their geeky target audience, and may even provoke smirks from those outside it.

This article originally appeared on The Ooh Tray.

I can’t decide what I like more about this photo

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