Friday, 26 February 2010

An interview with Richard Herring

"I didn't want to preach to the converted."

Hitler's moustache will be on show in Harrogate on Monday.

The offending square of facial hair, once modelled by Charlie Chaplin but now more associated with pure evil, will be attached to the face of the excellent stand-up comedian, Richard Herring. Herring’s excoriating, sporadically childish assault on racism and liberal mores – Hitler Moustache – comes to Harrogate Theatre this week.

The comedian says he had been wondering “why this once quite fashionable moustache wasn’t allowed any more”, so last year he decided to fashion one for himself, reporting the results in his weekly podcast, recorded with broadcaster Andrew Collins. He says: “I did it in the podcast – I had a Hitler moustache in the house, just to see how that felt. I was a little bit nervous about what would happen to me and how liberals would respond. I was thinking about whether that would make racists more liberal than liberals and I came up with the routine from that.”


The show changed direction after the BNP’s election success in June, with the comedian taking aim at voter apathy. “I had the moustache for a week and I thought I would have to do it again, but the day I had chosen was the day of the BNP’s success,” Herring says. “I had to think: ‘Is this going to mean something else today?’ It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for people to assume I was celebrating the BNP’s success. They had been successful because people hadn’t gone out and voted and I wanted to talk about how voting is important and how there must be something better than being represented by a racist.”

The show also plays around with its audience’s prejudices and preconceptions. “It has to have a substance to it, otherwise it’s just a 42-year-old man with a Hitler moustache,” Herring says. “And I didn’t want to be preaching to the converted, so a lot of it is about liberalism.”

Not that the show is remotely po-faced. “It’s funny all the way through and a little bit childish. My comedy isn’t for everyone – this is quite an edgy show,” he says.

Racism row

Hitler Moustache caused a brief storm last year, after Guardian journalist Brian Logan claimed Herring was one of “the new offenders”, quoting lines from the comedian’s show that the comic says were taken out of context and portrayed him as racist. “I thought it was awful, that I could get killed in the street after the way I appeared in that article – and justifiably so,” Herring says. “A man with a Hitler moustache, who supposedly hates Pakistanis? I can understand why that might make someone angry. But it worked out alright in the end - it meant everyone was talking about the show and coming to see it. I should probably give Brian Logan a cut.”

Herring, who was a TV regular in the ‘90s as part of a double-act with Stewart Lee and has written for and appeared in sitcoms, sketch comedy and panel shows, says stand-up is his favourite medium. “Stand-up wasn’t really my forte - it is now,” he says. “It’s about that immediate reaction from an audience. If I had to choose one thing to do for the rest of my career, it would be stand-up.”


Herring has also embraced podcasting - creating audio shows that can be played on a computer or MP3 player. As well as making more than 100 podcasts with Andrew Collins, he has created a topical sketch and stand-up show - As It Occurs to Me (AIOTM) - with each episode written during a single week and recorded live at the Leicester Square theatre in London.

“I quite like the rawness of it,” he says. “It’s very stressful and it uses up a lot of time, but I really believe that eventually talent and hard work will pay off and things will happen for you. The great thing about podcasts is that I can just do it, rather than sitting at home waiting for people to OK my script.” Eight more episodes of AIOTM are planned for May and June, with another to be recorded at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As for the Hitler Moustache tour, Herring says it’s been “pretty good” so far, and he’s looking forward to coming to Harrogate. “You don’t really get much idea of a place when you only come for a day, but the theatre is really lovely,” he says. “I remember some swanky looking shops, as well.”

That’s more of a commendation than the town got from Sean Hughes, anyway. When he played Harrogate last year, he said the town was "the kind of place they hide Nazi war criminals". So does Richard think that will help him fit in? “Hopefully, yes, ” he says, laughing.
This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 19 of the Harrogate Advertiser, February 26, 2010.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Truffaut hunting - Reviews #17

Since my most recent ventures into the French New Wave have concerned the work of Jean-Luc Godard, I was worried I might not be able to make sense of contemporary Francois Truffaut, with his coherent plots and properly-rounded characters. I attempted to navigate this problem by tackling one of his most maligned films, Mississippi Mermaid (Francois Truffaut, 1969), but darn me if it wasn't rather good. Jean-Paul Belmondo is a lovelorn factory-owner with big sideburns and an apparent predilection for carrying a mounted camera in the back of his car. Incidentally, so have all the other characters. Oh I see, it's Truffaut's new toy. Catherine Deneuve, as strawberry blonde as she ever got, is Jean-Paul's scribe of a bride - a pouty penpal who looks a bit different to the one he thought he was wooing. Some half an hour in she scoots with his fortune, and the rest of the film skips from revenge fantasy to romantic drama and crime thriller, the whole thing climaxing with a snow-bound reconciliation that's both touching and doggedly unsentimental. Belmondo, the most handsome ugly man (and vice-versa) I've ever seen is typically brusque and brilliant, and there's a real charge in his relationship with Deneuve. The film isn't always coherent, or clever, or even that well-conceived, but there's an agreeable conviction in its presentation of a couple who love - and need - each other far more than they can tolerate one another's foibles, and Truffaut finds time for some attractive self-contained vignettes. The sequence in which Deneuve records a love message for her beau is particularly incisive, with a smart, ironic punchline. I can see why the film has struggled to find an audience, since its genre-hopping is unlikely to satiate either crime fans or romantics, but it's an unusual, engrossing and rewarding film. Albeit with too much in-car camera. (3)

Monday, 22 February 2010

Neo-noir, the Nicholas Brothers and frog kissers - Reviews #16

One Dangerous Night (Michael Gordon, 1943) was the second-to-last of Warren William's nine appearances as The Lone Wolf, a reformed jewel thief who tackled crooks and enjoyed oddly platonic relationships with damsels in distress. After the absolutely sensational Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, arguably the greatest B movie of all time, the series found a slightly lower groove in a series of undemanding mystery-comedies with premises of varying ingenuity. The generically-titled One Dangerous Night (giving a clue to the content for patrons who might have missed the trailer; the next year's Boston Blackie was called One Mysterious Night) is fairly standard jewel robbery stuff and notable only really for the timeframe, with the crime solved over Independence Night. There's too much exposition at the start, particularly for a film that only runs 77 minutes, though as soon as The Lone Wolf tells his oxymoronic companion, valet Jamison (Eric Blore), that the pair should "go off to crash a party together", it picks up. The cast is stuffed to bursting with familiar B-movie faces, including Frank Sully (who played Sgt Matthews in several of the Blackie films), noir legend Ann Savage (Detour) and Louis Jean Heydt, along with returning Lone Wolf alumni Thurston Hall and Fred Kelsey. Williams, meanwhile, is his usual delightfully irreverent self. The scene where the star suddenly whips open a door displays his trademark sense of danger - that commodity someone silly once said was required of every great actor (ah yes, like Lillian Gish, or Gary Cooper) - and he bounces off Blore as well as ever. Despite its formulaic nature and the slow opening, the film remains good-natured fun. A weaker series outing, perhaps, but if you've come this far with The Lone Wolf, you'll want to check it out. If you haven't, you probably won't. (2.5)


Widely held as Pixar's weakest, Cars (John Lasseter and John Ranft, 2006) is unexceptional but easy-to-take, with a well-worn plot given bright treatment. As has been said before, it's Doc-Hollywood-but-with-cars, as a speedy, superficial young buck - race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) - gets stranded in a small hick town where the residents' goodheartedness and easy-going nature start to work their magic. As in the Michael J. Fox-starrer, our conceited hero is asked to repair the damage he caused during his noisy arrival, and ends up dating a female lawyer who wound up in the area after an unhappy stint in the big city. (Having said that, Doc Hollywood itself is a hybrid of Local Hero, The Secret of My Success, a Dr Kildare, and a complete mess, so it's hardly the essence of originality.) Cars is well-short of the studio's best: Up, WALL-E, Ratatouille and Monsters, Inc., but the usual spark is periodically apparent, particularly in the treatment of tractors and a hysterical epilogue in which Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and A Bug's Life are given a new spin (pun intended). Elsewhere, colourful characters and cut-to-the-chase races compensate for the sometimes slack narrative and muddled motor-y message. Nice James Taylor song, too. (2.5)


Pixar typically include a spin-off, direct-to-video short on each feature film DVD. The one for Cars is DTV SHORT: Mater and the Ghostlight (John Lasseter and Dan Scanlon, 2006), in which the principal comic relief character from the movie is apparently pursued by an unearthly blue glow. I'm not sure quite what the point is, but it's an OK watch, and the final gag is fairly chucklesome. (2)


Being a made-for-theatres outing, SHORT: One Man Band (Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez, 2005) is understandably better. Set in a lushly-realised Italian piazza, it sees rival musicians face off in a fight for a peasant girl's penny. The battle is as imaginative as you'd hope, and the whole thing has a great sense of place, but it takes an ill-conceived, unexplained turn near the close that's, like, well random, and trips the whole thing up. Shame. (3)


- "Did you guys come over here to arrest me?"
- "It kind of looks that way, Wayne."
Red Rock West (John Dahl, 1993) was made by the director a year before he wowed most everyone alive with The Last Seduction, a dazzling, resolutely nasty neo-noir that would presumably have taken home a bevvy of Oscars had it not been screened on TV first. Whoops. The earlier film is an effective, smirkingly fatalistic thriller about a drifter (Nicolas Cage) who's mistaken by lowlife Wayne (J.T. Walsh) for the hitman (Dennis Hopper) he's just hired to take care of his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle). Dahl is a gifted director and for the first hour it's pretty triumphant: atmospheric, exciting and riotously enjoyable, with an interesting treatment of creeping moral corruption and little clue given as to where it's heading next. But then the tightly-wound plot starts to unravel, with improbable (and therefore uninteresting) twists creating the enduring mental image of Dahl at his writing desk, scowling and scratching his head with the end of his pencil as he wonders how we got from that to this. It's still fine viewing, with a brooding, ever-present score and Hopper's excellent performance as Lyle from Dallas, a Johnny Cash look-alike of a hitman with an inferiority complex and a sentimental attitude to the Marines. It picks up for the last five, too. (3)


Bridge to Terabithia (Gabor Csupo, 2007) is perhaps the loveliest film I'll see this year - at least until I dig Remember the Night out for New Year's Eve. Josh Hutcherson is a fifth-grader (he's about 10) who finds solace from schoolyard bullying and home troubles with new classmate AnnaSophia Robb. The pair close their eyes and open their minds, conjuring a mythic land in a nearby forest that helps them confront their real-world problems - but tragedy is just around the corner. Former animator Gabor Csupo's understated handling, subtly incorporating fantastical elements, is perfect for the material, and he's aided by a trio of fine juvenile performances: from Hutcherson, Robb and Bailee Madison - playing Hutcherson's younger sister. T2 villain Robert Patrick is also very good, playing a gruff dad presumably not fashioned from liquid metal. There are very minor weaknesses, like a slight overreliance on musical montage and Zooey Deschanel's underwritten part as a teacher, but this is an extremely assured, intelligent, sensitive film with a believable and immensely touching friendship at its core. (3.5)


Harold and Fayard Nicholas dance for the Sheik of Araby.

Tin Pan Alley (Walter Lang, 1940) is a superior example of those composer biopics that were all the rage in golden era Hollywood - but with fictional songsmiths! It also appears to be employing the WWI-as-WW2 dynamic somewhat ahead of time. John Paine and Jack Oakie are musical publishers in 1915 New York. John's romancing tuneful Alice Faye, while Jack's got his sights - somewhat unrealistically - on leggy dancer Betty Grable. They all hit the big time, but it takes America's entry into WWI (late as usual) to iron out their differences. Attractive performances, top-drawer songs and an appearance by spectacular hoofers Fayard and Harold Nicholas, doing yet another eye-popping routine, make this well worth catching. (3)


CINEMA: The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009) - A lazy prince and a workaholic waitress fall in love after being turned into frogs by a voodoo spiv. That’s the premise of Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation, an enjoyable ride set in Jazz Age Louisiana that smells suspiciously like progress - that and swamp water. Waitress Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), the studio’s first black heroine, dreams of opening her own restaurant, while her best friend Charlotte fantasises about marrying a prince. The arrival of a ukulele-playing royal (Bruno Campos) promises to help them both achieve their ambitions - if only a rakish occultist hadn’t just turned him into a frog. It’s an enjoyable ride, with a rich New Orleans flavour that extends to an agreeable jazziness in the film’s many new tunes, while the forays into art deco animation are nicely handled. And if too many supporting characters seem to be based on those from previous Disney hits, at least there’s Cajun firefly Ray, a funny and touching comic foil. But the film’s side-stepping of the real difficulties facing black Americans in the 1920s seems hamfisted in the extreme, undoing much of the good done by its bold setting. Also, fireflies can’t talk, but we’ll let that slide. (3)

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Gromit, aliens and the hilarity of radiation poisoning - Reviews # 15

DTV SHORT: Your Friend the Rat (Jim Capobianco, 2007) - The Black Death, arf. Nuclear fallout, chortle. Yes, that's the appealing sense of humour flowing through this grossly disappointing Ratatouille spin-off, which largely neglects computer animation, and decent jokes, as it argues the rat's case. It does pick up at the end, with a fun song and some fitfully hilarious disclaimers, but it's not enough. (2)


SHORT: Lifted (Gary Rydstrom, 2006) - An isolated farm. A sleeping man is lifted from his bed by a beam of electric blue light from a mammoth spaceship. He levitates towards the open window, and smacks his head on the wall. He moves back - and does it again. Cut to an apprehensive-looking alien twiddling buttons on a vast keypad, as his boss shakes his head and makes notes on a clipboard. That's the opening of this typically brilliant short from Pixar, which takes a simple premise and works wonders with it, displaying the anarchic sensibility and understated sentimentality that makes the studio's output so different from the saccharine, mugging, modern-day Disney*. From start to finish, it's just uproariously funny. (4)

*I know Disney now owns Pixar, but the point still stands. Pixar's internal autonomy continues to keep its terrific films distinct from the main Disney fare with its smugness and superficial emotionalism.


SHORTS: Cracking Contraptions (Loyd Price and Christopher Sadler, 2002) - This run of Wallace and Gromit shorts debuted on the Internet a good eight years back, though I caught them on BBC3 this year. Each film introduces one of Wallace's inventions, which wows you with its ingenuity, before going entirely, gloriously wrong. The films are staggeringly good, playing to the series' strengths - sight gags, slapstick and a nice message about the value of friendship - without the spoofering, poor celebrity voicework and cumbersome plotting that has hampered their more recent efforts. The sight of Gromit, dressed as a sheep, bouncing through the floor of amnesiac Wallace's room, as his owner sleepily counts his appearances is perhaps my favourite half-a-minute of Aardman ever. Fast, funny and fiercely inventive. (4)

Rats, ribs and rabbits - Reviews #14

My idea of fun: Anton Ego relaxes on set while filming Ratatouille.

At the moment, the best films on planet Earth are coming from Pixar Studios. And if Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) never scales the heights of the dream factory's sporadically dazzling follow-up, WALL-E, it's an altogether more consistent film that leaves you with that familiar warm glow. Remy is an aspiring chef who dreams of emulating the late, great Gusteau, a legendary Parisian gourmet. Unfortunately his family - and the new owner of Gusteau’s eaterie – don’t think he’s cut out for it. After all, he's a rat. Enter his saviour: an endearingly geeky garbage boy who’s just landed a job at the restaurant. Seizing the hair of the young dogsbody, Remy seizes his chance, operating the kid like a puppet and turning him into a culinary wonder – and the toast of the town. Unfortunately, deathly food critic and Will Self look-alike Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole) is lurking, and after consigning Gusteau to an early grave, he’s hoping to do the same to his restaurant. Spectacular animation breathes glorious life into a script that mixes anarchic comedy, pathos and slam-bang action sequences in the vein of those meticulously-charted Fred and Ginger films of the '30s. There's one absolute gem of a flashback at the film's pivotal moment that simply takes the breath away. As with so many of Pixar’s best, the movie pays notable homage to classic Hollywood, with a black-and-white Parisian romance glimpsed briefly on a TV. There’s also a knowing nod to the Topper series in the ridiculous, jerky way our faux-chef moves around when being rat-operated. (3.5)


The Sure Thing (Rob Reiner, 1985) is about as good as teen romance gets: a smart update of It Happened One Night that sees college classmates John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga fall in love during a 3,000-mile road trip to California. She’s off to spend the holidays with her uninspiring boyfriend; Cusack’s been promised a "sure thing": one night of fun with a leggy blonde and no strings attached. The script is realistic, with just the right concessions to absurdism, off-kilter observation and broad comedy to balance its underlying earnestness. The film is also extremely well-paced, its story unwrapping gradually and rewardingly towards an inevitable, very welcome climax. And Cusack and Zuniga are both excellent – check out her nervous, disarmingly genuine laugh as the pair share a bed for the first time. If the film isn’t as subversive as Say Anything, it’s just as sweet and very trim, without the later film’s weak, unconvincing crime subplot. Admittedly it's missing a scene where Cusack holds a radio above his head, but you can't have everything. Anthony Edwards plays Cusack’s bawdy mate Lance, and there’s a cameo from Tim Robbins as showtune-singing Gary Cooper (“not the one that's dead!” as he charmingly observes). Just lovely. (3.5)


Adam's Rib (George Cukor, 1949) is often hailed as the best "battle-of-the-sexes" comedy on celluloid, but it's beset with the same problems as the bulk of these Tracy-Hepburn vehicles: dated social observation that's tricky to navigate today, a lack of laughs and dramatic sequences that are just too heavy. The leads are a blissfully married couple who clash when they take opposing sides in a murder trial: assistant DA Spence leads the prosecution of wronged wife Judy Holliday (who is magnificent), while crusading feminist Kate leaps to her defence. Holliday plugged philandering husband Tom Ewell, you see, then fired wildly around the flinching floozy he was nuzzling up to, Jean Hagen. The acting is absolutely stunning - universally superb - and there's smart use of newspaper inserts and a puppet show motif, but the material is spotty and chunky, with humour arriving in slabs rather than being weaved through the narrative. Kudos to former stage star David Wayne (he played Og in the smash Broadway version of Finian's Rainbow) for being so formidably irritating as Hepburn's extremely camp confidante and suitor. His reading of Cole Porter's specially adapted song Farewell, Amanda is a rare moment of respite in a teeming sea of annoyance. Hepburn asked her favourite director, Cukor, to favour Holliday in the filming of their scenes and leaked stories to the press about Judy's revelatory performance enraging both the leads. The ploy was designed to land her apprentice the lead in the screen adaptation of Born Yesterday, which she had initiated on stage. It worked - and she took home the Best Actress Oscar the following year. As for Adam's Rib, it's impressive and memorable but, despite all that, resolutely not a classic. (3)


DTV SHORT: BURN-E (Angus MacLane, 2008) is an enjoyable short with a BTTF 2-style re-exploration of its source, Pixar's excellent WALL-E. There's probably a more highbrow analogy than Zemeckis' underrated 1989 sequel, but I can't think of one. The story follows a robot whose maintenance work is continually interrupted by WALL-E and EVE's escapades. It's high-concept stuff, and it works well, with a handful of hilarious jokes. There's not much of an emotional hook, compared with the feature, but it's lot of fun. (3)


SHORT: Presto (Doug Sweetland, 2008) is one of the best short films I've ever seen: a succession of inspired quickfire gags, as a conjuror with a magic hat is outsmarted at every turn by the rabbit he's just deprived of a carrot. In its simple set-up and endless variation it recalls the best of Looney Tunes and in its theatre-setting the climax of A Night at the Opera. The punchline is just astounding. Clever, imaginative and quite outrageously enjoyable. Thank you, Pixar. (4)


I also watched the epilogue and prologue shot for the (heavily-cut) re-edited version of A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell, 1944) - made for American release. The scenes are fine in themselves, but belong to a different film, with a Wilder-esque stats-heavy opening detailing the exploits of various f(r)actions of American GIs, and a curtailed end sequence that's too literal and robs the finale of its gentle poetry. Both Sgt John Sweet and Kim Hunter - the latter about to start filming on Powell's much-celebrated A Matter of Life and Death - are fine, but the character of the girlfriend is most effective in the original work precisely because we don't see her. I imagine the trimming of the film's more idiosyncratic, British elements turned the whole thing into a bit of a lurchy mess, like the US version of Stazione Termini, re-titled Indiscretion of an American Wife! Still, it's fun - and illuminating - to see, and the one big plus is an extended version of the shot that twists around the cathedral bells.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Lady for a Day - Reviews #13

Please note: despite appearances, Warren William is not evil in this film.

Lady for a Day (Frank Capra, 1933) was, as his son proudly points out in his DVD intro, the first Capra film to be nominated for an Oscar. It was up for four gongs, though ultimately won none. Don't feel too sorry for the beetle-browed sentimentalist, though, his follow-up - It Happened One Night - became the first film to take home all five major Academy Awards: picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay.

As a film based on a Damon Runyon story, Madame La Gimp, directed by Capra and scripted by his regular collaborator Robert Riskin, Lady for a Day is pretty much what you'd expect. It takes place in a world of likeable hoods, good-hearted ordinary folk and overly suspicious cops. It's frequently very funny - and it's deeply sentimental. May Robson is Apple Annie, a downtrodden old woman who lives in a barely-lit flop house, drinks too much and sells fruit out of a basket to survive. The only thing on this good earth she cares about is her daughter (Jean Parker), who was sent to a convent school years before and is now living in Spain. To shield the girl from her plight (she says a couple of times that the shock would kill her, though the shame - you imagine - would mostly be on Annie's part), she steals stationery from a swanky hotel and pens letters boasting of her exploits in high society. When the girl writes to say she's returning to America with a fiancee and a prospective father-in-law (Walter Connolly, unusually restrained as a Spanish count with a generic foreign accent), it's left to good-hearted gangster Warren William and his ragtag band of affable goons to turn her into a lady.

The plotting is extremely deft and well-paced and Riskin's script provides plenty of memorable dialogue. He could overwrite and reject brevity for speechifying, but at his best he was among the finest screenwriters in Hollywood. Here he's at his best. There's a lovely moment when Annie appears at the dockside, looking every inch the society lady, and one of her friends says: "I remember when she looked like that all the time." It's such a simple line, but so stunningly effective. Later on, there's a wonderful exchange between William and his moll, Glenda Farrell. "I love you for what you're doing," she tells him. "Oh shut up", says William. Near the close, as plot threads are being tied up, we cut from one car to the next. For a second you think Riskin's completely lost it, with a series of brief, nondescript exchanges in which the authorities resolve not to prosecute William and the governor and the mayor make up. Then comes the sting. "I'm sorry I've been so harsh on your guys, I know you're doing your best," the irascible police chief tells his men, as they grin sheepishly. Riskin's scripting is so skilful that potential pitfalls - a dearth of daytime scenes between Annie and her daughter, little screentime for either of its romantic couples - are effortlessly avoided.

There's a lot to enjoy in the acting. William, perhaps best known today for his role in the delightful mystery-comedy series The Lone Wolf, makes the most of what is essentially a supporting role. Farrell, fast becoming one of my favourite performers, is also a joy, sparking brilliantly with the eternally deadpan Ned Sparks (who resembles an old Buster Keaton). And Robson, nominated as Best Actress, is simply superb. She's utterly believable as the tragic alcoholic venturing, terrified, into high society. The first 15 minutes, in which we see her peddling, lying by letter, then growing increasingly desperate as her daughter's latest message goes missing, are an acting masterclass. Capra fills the cast with familiar faces, each given a couple of scenes to absolutely nail their character. As well as the sardonic Sparks, there's Guy Kibbee playing a billiards shark with the gift of the gab, Nat Pendleton as a very supportive henchman and Halliwell Hobbes, doing a Blore-ish bit as Robson's adopted butler.

Capra's handling is typically assured: perfectly balancing the different story elements and drawing the viewer in via some expressive direction. The backwards tracking shot following Robson as she goes off to ruin her life in the living room is really effective, and the lush romanticism of his soft-focus close-ups on the lovey-dovey couple recall Mitchell Leisen's soppier moments. I'm a big fan of Capra, and Lady for a Day is one of his best - a marvellously-acted tearjerker that allows plenty of room for character comedy. It was remade by Capra himself as A Pocketful of Miracles, incidentally, then later by Jackie Chan, as Miracles. (4)

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Paris, Play Time and Caggers' last stand - Reviews #12

Good Girls Go to Paris (Alexander Hall, 1939) was the second of three movies pairing two of classic Hollywood's best light comedians: Melvyn Douglas and Joan Blondell. Though all three films were made at Columbia, the stars seemed to epitomise their more regular employers. Douglas was suave, elegant, sometimes stuffy, like America's biggest studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Blondell played down-to-earth, a touch raunchy but essentially good-natured - Warner Bros' censor-baiting product in a nutshell. In Douglas and Blondell's other vehicles - There's Always a Woman and The Amazing Mr Williams - he was a detective, while she played his wife. Good Girls Go to Paris offers something a little different. Joan is a waitress with a masterplan: she's going to date a rich boy, secure a marriage proposal, then blackmail his parents and skip to Paris with the funds. As you might expect, there's a catch: the "flutter" in her stomach, a pang of conscience that flares up at just the wrong time. It doesn't help that she's secretly in love with college professor Douglas. That set-up is a springboard for genre fun, but the writers aren't happy with just one surefire premise, so they throw in another. In common with numerous films of the period (Merrily, We Live, My Man Godfrey for starters) our hero(ine) ends up being adopted by a wacky upper-class family - whom she teaches a life lesson or two. The script isn't always as sharp as you'd like, with some one-dimensional characters - Joan Perry's Sylvia isn't very well-realised compared to Gail Patrick's similar character in My Man Godfrey - and an inability to maximise the situations it creates, but the leads are very bright, with an effortless chemistry. And it's great to see divisive blowhard Walter Connolly shouting his head off. One curious aspect of the film was making Douglas' professor English. He doesn't make much of a stab at the accent and his nationality is the basis for nothing save a throwaway joke. Most odd. (2.5)

NB: Douglas tired of films shortly afterwards, saying he had played too many identikit roles in romantic comedies, and after 1943 made only irregular screen performances, devoting himself increasingly to the stage - though also to TV. He made a triumphant return to films in the early 1960s, and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hud in 1963. He repeated the success with 1978's Being There.


Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967) - Firstly can I just say:

I'd seen just the one Tati film prior to this: Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, which was pleasant but thin - and not that funny. Still, Play Time intrigued me from first mention. A two-hour satire on modern life loaded with sight gags, set in a futuristic Paris and shot on a six-acre set nicknamed Tativille? Sounds great. Only it isn't. It's monumentally boring. Play Time is a message movie with nothing to say; a comedy with almost no jokes. There isn't a plot to speak of: we simply travel around the city, alighting on various minor incidents, like Hulot waiting to speak to someone in an office, or being recognised by a war chum, or some package tourists getting on a bus. And it's all in long shot, so sometimes a few things happen at once and you're not sure which you're supposed to be watching. And for long stretches absolutely nothing happens, and you begin to wonder what's for lunch. I've made a list of the bits I liked, most of which last for a matter of seconds.

* Hulot getting lost in an office block (extended set-piece, about five minutes long)
* Hulot breaking a man's glasses with a handshake
* A silent door slamming (twice)
* Landmarks being reflected in a glass door (twice)
* A bouncing bus/sky reflected in an opening/closing glass window
* A traffic carousel (twice)

The method of storytelling is original, and the film attains a certain realism, but the result is mostly unwatchable. It feels like monitoring CCTV. Or watching someone play The Sims (with the same inane verbal soundtrack). Or just wandering around town. It's difficult for me to attack something so obviously personal and so evidently ambitious, but it's not as difficult as watching Play Time. Chalk this up as the biggest disappointment of the year so far. (1.5)


"They took away Coalhouse's wife, child and pride. He made them pay in a way America will never forget. It was a tough time... It was Ragtime."
Ragtime (Milos Forman, 1981) is one of the few films I've wanted to see for even longer than Play Time. Thank goodness it was any good. Based on E. L. Doctorow's novel, this portrait of 1906 America weaves together a series of stories, some historical, others fictional. A millionaire loses his cool - and his mind - over his wife's sordid past (an incident previously dramatised as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing), a middle-class family is hit by seismic cultural change, and a young black man (Howard E. Rollins Jr) seeks justice against the bigots who sleighted him. The film starts superbly, with an assured grasp of the various narrative threads and a use of real and faux newsreels that's positively inspired. That footage is even justified on screen, being backed by the instinctive slumming of Rollins Jr's theatre accompaniest. But after about an hour the film loses its sprawl, focusing increasingly on Rollins Jr as he goes from ivory-tinkling bounder to gun-toting renegade, and letting other narratives peter out. As good as Rollins Jr is - and as compelling as his character's tale becomes - the film needs that scope, that grandeur, to make sense of its pet story. Out of context, the plight of its terrorist protagonist feels confused and unresolved. The other disappointment is James Cagney's final performance. He came out of retirement for the film - it was that element that excited me as a 15-year-old Caggers obsessive - but he's given little to do in terms of screen time or dramatic material. If that sounds overly critical, there's a very good reason. Those drawbacks wouldn't be so noticeable, nor so infuriating, were it not for the film's frequent forays into the sublime. Ragtime is a bold, often brilliant near-epic, stuffed with memorable vignettes and aided by some excellent acting. James Olson's repressed patriarch is particularly memorable - if Daniel Day Lewis wasn't influenced by his performance/moustache in preparing for There Will Be Blood, I'll be very surprised - while Mary Steenburgen and Moses Gunn offer startlingly good support. I just wish the film had the courage to tell every story it started. (3)
NB: There's plenty for star spotters to do here. Cagney's frequent co-star Pat O'Brien plays a lawyer, while Donald O'Connor is the stage performer and dance trainer. Jack Nicholson has a cameo during the pirate movie sequence.


Four's a Crowd (Michael Curtiz, 1938) is a really fun screwball comedy that pits a newspaper reporter against millionaire Walter Connolly and his daughter, a la It Happened One Night and Libeled Lady. The first 15 minutes are blisteringly funny. Journo Rosalind Russell schemes to get editor-turned-PR-man Errol Flynn to return to his ailing paper, which the managing director (Patric Knowles) is trying to close down. Flynn agrees, and wages war against Connolly, hoping to turn him into the most-hated man in America, so he can repair his reputation via a publicity campaign. After that, the plotting goes a bit awry, spending quite a bit of time in Connolly's country mansion, where Flynn ends up trying to steal butter whilst mollifying heiress De Havilland and being chased by dogs. Well, I said it went a bit awry. Still, while the screenplay hops from one situation to the next without stopping to consider its internal logic, it moves so fast and so funnily you'll probably be swept along. Flynn and Russell are both near peak form, and they make a delightful team. (3)

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Wes, WALL-E - Reviews #11

That's a pun on Where's Wally. Not a very good one, but a pun nonetheless. Two more reviews for your reading pleasure, he said presumptuously.


SHORT - Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1992) was the director's first film, later expanded into a 1996 feature featuring colour photography, impeccably stylised visuals and James Caan. Owen Wilson is Dignan, a neurotic young robber embarking on a mediocre crime spree with his brother and his friend Bob. This original is low-budget, but despite the absence of Anderson's trademark look, the black-and-white cinematography is crisp and his script - co-written with Owen Wilson - hints at the quiet absurdity and deft sentimentality of his phenomenal subsequent movies. Though slight, it's pretty rewarding, and valuable as a sign of things to come. (3)


WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) is another gem from Pixar, following the travails of a lonely waste disposal robot who travels to a space station in pursuit of the girl he loves - a reconnaissance droid called EVE with big blue eyes and a "shoot first, bleep questions later" mentality. The first half hour is utterly dazzling, featuring a hero who's superbly drawn in terms of both animation and character, plodding around a startling, post-apocalyptic Earth, salvaging interesting items from the rubble and relaxing in his trailer with regular blasts of Michael Crawford. After WALL-E blasts off into space and humans enter the picture, it's marginally less compelling (and occasionally a little confusing), though the quality gags continue to come thick and fast and the studio's commitment to delivering effective, non-saccharine pathos is much in evidence. There's one particularly moving moment employing EVE's video memory bank that's judged to perfection. Pixar was to scale even greater heights with Up, one of the best films of recent decades, but WALL-E is no small achievement: an ambitious, lovingly-etched narrative elevated by breathtaking visuals, with a plucky, resilient, touching star who'll live long in the memory. (3.5)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The trouble with Godard - Reviews #10

Une femme est une femme (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961) conjures that feeling of acute frustration unique to the work of Jean-Luc Godard: as soon as it achieves some kind of clarity or emotional attractiveness it goes off somewhere else. But if that new diversion isn't working, don't worry - there'll be another one along in a minute. Anna Karina is good as the playful, big-eyed protagonist, who loves her boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) but wants a baby so much she might just have one with her ex (Jean-Paul Belmondo, in another winning performance). The film is brightly-coloured, imaginative and littered with movie in-jokes, containing references to the movies of Godard and his Nouvelle Vague contemporary Francois Truffaut and nods to old Hollywood musicals (Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse are namechecked, Belmondo's surname is Lubitsch). And every so often everything clicks into place: like the terrific snippet in which Belmondo is accused of dodging the rent, the barrage of peculiar noises preceding his anticipated bathroom tryst with Karina or the series of visual gags based on manipulated book titles. But the movie frequently unravels, with long stretches that offer nothing but vivid direction and a feeling that Godard should really watch some of those musical comedies he claims to be homaging. The film's incoherence is mistaken by some critics for freewheeling brilliance, which is a pretty stupid mistake to make. (2.5)

Monday, 1 February 2010

"You don’t come out of my films with a wonderful glow"

- An interview with Terence Davies

“When I look at the films that I love, mine just seem inferior,” says Terence Davies, regarded by many as Britain’s greatest living director. “How can I compete with Singin’ in the Rain? 56 years later and people still go and watch it. And you come out with the most wonderful glow. You don’t come out of my films with a wonderful glow.”

Yes, there is misery aplenty in Davies’ work. He began with The Trilogy (1984): an hour and a half in the company of a depressive, self-loathing homosexual. The bleakest film in his canon, it’s gruelling and confrontational, with a surprisingly graphic treatment of sexual degradation. It culminates in Davies’ alter-ego coughing himself to death, alone. “The Trilogy was written at a time when I had reached an absolute low spiritually,” he says. “I hate being gay. It’s ruined my life. I will never come to terms with it and I don’t like it. There are times when you need to be that frank.”

And yet in all Davies’ movies there are moments of such transcendent joy that the gloom simply evaporates. Take the umbrellas sequence of Distant Voices, Still Lives, scored by ‘Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing’. Or the ‘Tammy’ segment from The Long Day Closes. Or indeed, the Trilogy’s own concession to that wonderful glow – a funeral sequence featuring the most inspired, plaintive use of Doris Day’s wholesome voice that cinema has seen. The action may be upsetting, but the treatment is exalting.

The Trilogy, comprising the short films Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983), follows a Liverpool man from cradle to grave. For a film that’s often bracingly autobiographical, it seems strange that Davies’ siblings – so much a part of his next project – don’t feature in the Trilogy. “I don’t know why that is,” he says. “I hadn’t really thought of it. They all got married and moved out, so I felt like an only child, even though I was one of 10, seven surviving. Also, the Trilogy was my apprenticeship, so I wanted to concentrate on just the one child. I couldn’t deal with other characters – I was inexperienced."

His next picture - and his first feature proper - was Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), voted the best British film of the previous 25 years in a 2002 Sight & Sound poll. The film is like a family photo-album brought to life, with all the misery slung back in. It shows Davies’ eldest siblings united by group sing-alongs but terrorised by their abusive father. A savage memoir of domestic violence, the film evokes an uneasy nostalgia, reinforced by snippets of archive song. A spellbinding opening sequence sets the tone.

“All the music, every track[ing shot] and every dissolve – everything – goes into the script,” Davies says. “I wrote the opening of Distant Voices, Still Lives and I knew there was something wrong. The shipping forecast was in there, and my mother’s song, ‘I Get the Blues’, because she always sang that song. But there was something missing.

“I was listening to the radio and on Radio 3 one lunchtime the concert finished early and they played Jessye Norman singing ‘There’s a Man Goin’ Round Takin’ Names’ and I knew that was the missing element. That part of filmmaking has got to be instinctive. Sometimes you hear something and think: ‘Yes, that’s what it needs.’”

And what of Distant Voices’ status as a staple in many critics’ and filmgoers all-time lists? “I’m always surprised, because all my films were made with modest intentions and budgets,” he says, sounding pleased.

An informal sequel, The Long Day Closes (1992), followed four years later. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it received a ten-minute standing ovation. The film chronicles the end of the period in Davies' life, aged seven to 11, when he was “just ecstatically happy”. That blissful parade of family get-togethers, daydreams and trips to the pictures was punctured by the intrusion of adulthood and the shame he felt at his sexual awakening.

The Long Day Closes was about the emergence of my sexuality, which was frightening and mysterious,” he says, then pauses. “I think the film largely succeeds in capturing the feelings that I had then.”

It has the structure of memory, its vivid vignettes flowing one into the next, linked by theme, not time, and scored by films and songs from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

In the film’s most arresting sequence, Davies’ 11-year-old alter ego, Bud, wrestling with guilt and tormented by loneliness, walks along his grey, deserted street. Leaning over a stairwell, he lifts his arms and begins to swing from a bar. The lush strings of Debbie Reynolds’ ‘Tammy’ start to soar, as the camera moves slowly, majestically, over the boy and, next, the rooms that rule his life: school, church and cinema.

“The idea was very, very simple,” Davies says. “I wanted to encapsulate his entire world – which was my entire world – the house, the street, the movies, the school and the church. I thought: ‘If I do it that way, then I can bring them all together.’

“It just seemed right – binding that whole world in what is essentially an incredibly romantic song, in a Liverpool that was anything but romantic. You remember things and then you combine them, because you feel instinctively that they go together. They complement by their contradiction.”

The song also represents a last hurrah of happiness, one – Davies says – stained with the realisation that Bud can never understand or experience the emotions that Reynolds’ heroine is singing about. “It’s about the impossibility and the strangeness of romantic love – certainly because I’ve never found it,” he says. “When you’re a child, you don’t understand what love is. Even if you are attracted to someone and you feel very profoundly towards them - in this case, my love for my family - it’s something you still don’t understand.”

That collision of escapist fantasy and cruel reality, infused with a reverence for old Hollywood, typifies Davies’ work: peppered with passages of sweet lyricism, but driven by pain and torment.

“I see life as a struggle and I see moments of happiness,” he says. “But the reality is that my years of ecstasy between seven and 11 – that will never return. It can’t come back.”

He told one interviewer he made films to come to terms with suffering in his own life. Have they helped? “Oh they don’t at all. I thought it would be a catharsis but they just...” He tails off. “All that suffering, and for what? All that suffering has no meaning. So it doesn’t help you come to terms with it, it just... it throws it into...” He tails off a second time. “The point is, it hasn’t.”

Another of The Long Day Closes' unforgettable passages has a daydreaming Bud drenched by waves as he listens in his classroom to ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’, the signature song of tragic British contralto Kathleen Ferrier. “Her voice has got a very special place in British music,” says Davies. “It’s one of the very, very great voices. As a child, occasionally we were allowed at primary school to hear radio from the BBC. I can see it being switched on and we would be sitting at our desks and the announcer would say, ‘Miss Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’,’ and it’s just very potent, very, very potent. The salt sea and imagining seeing the ship, and all that, is my invention. But that – that song, that voice, oh goodness.”

Davies’ first venture away from autobiography was The Neon Bible (1995), a stunning take on John Kennedy Toole’s book, set in 1940s Louisiana. The film is fanciful, dreamlike and virtuosic, with an intensely moving death scene that ranks among cinema’s greatest. The imagery is remarkable. And, as ever, there are flashes of euphoria.

One sequence shows a clear white sheet billowing on a washing line, before segueing into the Stars and Stripes, to the strains of Gone With the Wind’s ‘Tara’ theme. “Those things came out of my imagination,” Davies says. “A lot of it is my interpretation of the book, and all the films that I saw growing up about the South. Those were coming through my consciousness refracted. They were prompted by the book, but were inspired more by things that I remembered, like the flames outside the tent from Elmer Gantry. But The Neon Bible is not a successful film. It’s a transitional work.”

Even so, while the film may appear something of a departure, its symmetrical frames and familiar subject matter link it stylistically and thematically to Davies’ other work. The House of Mirth (2000) offered something entirely new. Greeted with rapturous reviews upon release, Davies’ fifth film was a meticulous, surprisingly conventional adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel of manners, wealth and revenge.

And, curiously, Davies’ most atypical film is also his favourite. “The House of Mirth is the film I’m most proud of, because that’s my most mature film,” he says. “I think it’s technically probably the best, and though the autobiographical films are awfully close to my heart, it’s very difficult to have aesthetic distance when you're writing autobiography, because you’re emotionally involved."

The themes of The House of Mirth intrigued him, he says. “Though it’s set in early 20th century New York, it’s not just about that epoch. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, so to examine from the outside what’s really a hermetically sealed world – where there are lots and lots of rules – seemed fascinating. And if you transcend those rules and break them, the retribution is swift and deadly. It’s a metaphor for what it seems to be like in Hollywood. I didn’t move in that world. I’m both fascinated and appalled by it, because when you see that vengeance, then you see its essential cruelty.”

But although he is fond of The House of Mirth, Davies says he never watches his films. “I can’t watch them. I had to see Distant Voices, Still Lives and the Trilogy, because of putting them out on DVD, but no, I don’t watch them. Well, I can run them through in my mind because I know them so well.”

Last year, he said that seven years of trying, unsuccessfully, to secure funding for new projects had left him bitter. A film of the Scottish book Sunset Song had fallen through. He was touting a romantic comedy script, Mad About the Boy, without success. “There’s an audience for my work," he said. "It’s not a huge one, but I don’t think therefore that I should be dismissed as elitist and not allowed to make films, or left in the hands of some 25-year-old woman from television who doesn’t know anything.”

Going further, he said the success of his first five films was irrelevant – he had no interest in leaving a legacy. “Oh bugger posterity. I’m sick of being constantly in debt. Those successes don’t matter now. They don’t compensate. I still need to work. I’m sick of not working and having no money.”

“Work is my raison d’etre,” he continued, “and if that’s taken away from me I don’t have a reason to be alive.”

Happily, Davies’ long absence from the screen should soon be over. In February he received a commission from the Digital Departures scheme to make a new £250,000 documentary, Of Time and the City, which will be shot in Liverpool this year. Yes, our homegrown genius, the Humphrey Jennings of his generation, is returning. Not that he will acknowledge such platitudes.

“I have no genius,” he says. “Genius is Bergman. It’s Dreyer. Hitchcock. Ophüls. Oh, Ophüls! Letter from an Unknown Woman is the most wonderful film. I look at things like Singin’ in the Rain and I think: 'Oh to have made that, or The Happiest Days of Your Life or It Always Rains on Sunday.' ”

“I love sharp dialogue,” he continues, improbably. I cast my mind back to his freeform, dialogue-light hymns to the past, and can barely remember a standout line.

“I was watching Clash by Night, by Fritz Lang, with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan. There’s a wonderful bit where he says: ‘Will you have a drink?’ and she says: ‘Keep your money, hard times are coming.’ Wonderful dialogue. I love that.

“I love the dialogue in The Man Who Came to Dinner. The wonderful, wonderful dialogue in Kind Hearts and Coronets. And I don’t think I can match them, because I suppose I think that the great days of cinema have gone.”

But he must like some bits of his films? He thinks. “I like ‘Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing’ in Distant Voices, Still Lives, I like Christ on the cross in Long Day Closes and I like the transition from New York to Monte Carlo in House of Mirth. Yes, I do like those.”

I take him back to the Trilogy, where he pioneered that unique meshing of head-in-the-clouds fantasy and nose-in-the-dirt realism. Is he proud of that formative triumvirate? He sounds uncomfortable. “Well, I’m glad I made them,” he says, faltering. “I learned a lot, and I suppose I’m proud of bits of them. But,” he continues, returning to a favourite theme, “when I compare them to the films I love, mine do seem a bit wanting. I would love to have made Young at Heart, On the Town, or Gypsy.”

Davies’ films could barely be further in tone or style to those fast-moving, carefree excursions. “Well, I think you have to make the film that’s inside you,” he says. “You have to be true to that vision.”

He considers this for a moment. “Obviously every filmmaker wants an audience. I would like my films to be seen by all those people who went to see Four Weddings and a Hysterectomy, or Truly Madly Boringly, but I haven’t got the talent. That’s not what I do, that’s not how I see cinema. But I’ve tried to be truthful to what I’ve either experienced or felt.”

And has he managed it?

“Yes. If it doesn’t sound arrogant, I think I have."
This article was written by Rick Burin and published by MovieMail in May 2008.

Lubitsch, pre-Code Mary Astor and Dick Powell's quadruple chin - Reviews #9

Scratch that, this is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year:
Smart Woman (Gregory La Cava, 1931) – Mary Astor is terrific in this mature, intelligent pre-Code comedy-drama, playing a trusting wife who returns from an overseas visit to her ailing mother to find husband Robert Ames has fallen for a platinum blonde gold-digger (Noel Francis). She falls apart, but then comes out fighting, inviting Francis and her pushy mother up for the weekend, and concocting an affair of her own with steamship friend John Halliday, a British millionaire. Astor became a star as John Barrymore’s principal love interest in Beau Brummel, with the actor famously remarking that she was the “most beautiful creature” he had ever seen. Though she’s probably best known today for one of her weaker performances – as a nervy femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon, which seems a bit ill-judged – she was a consistently interesting performer. Rangy too, shifting from flirty maneaters (The Palm Beach Story) to stoic matriarchs (Meet Me in St Louis, Little Women (1949)) and doing some of her best work as a good-hearted, alcoholic call girl in the unsatisfying noir, Act of Violence. In Smart Woman she is better than I have ever seen her: as adept at handling the tongue-in-cheek banter as the simmering undercurrent of abject misery. The film doesn’t take Ames’ adultery lightly. Though Astor’s wronged wife swans around in a posh frock, saying she’s “a modern woman” to whom divorce is but a trifle, we see how she’s feeling during her secret, periodic breakdowns. Astor delivers the dialogue effortlessly, but it’s when it’s down to her to articulate feelings with a single glance or a nuanced expression that she excels, putting her silent screen experience into practice. Halliday is also spectacular as Astor’s smitten acquaintance, who comes to her aid despite his feelings, while Edward Everett Horton is characteristically excellent, umming and aahing a little less than usual. Francis is also well-cast and amusing, though Ames is something of a weak link in a nondescript performance. If the film’s stage origins are sometimes clear, La Cava’s mobile camera (used to great effect in classics like My Man Godfrey and Stage Door) does help to open the action up. As Mamoulian would in the following year’s Love Me Tonight, the director seems to be doing whatever he wants with the heavy sound-enabled camera and hoping that the quality of the film distracts from the humming and juddering caused by moving the damn thing. The result is an exceptional little film, the incisive material elevated both by that strong direction and the remarkably fine performances – particularly from Astor. (4)


Just Off Broadway (Herbert I. Leeds, 1942) was the sixth of seven Michael Shayne mystery-comedies made at Fox during the early 1940s starring Lloyd Nolan. The first is the best, with detective Shayne babysitting a spoiled heiress (Marjorie Weaver) and getting embroiled in a murder investigation, but Sleepers West, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die and particularly Dressed to Kill are all entertaining, well-written films buoyed by Nolan’s engaging, amusing, irreverent central turn. This penultimate outing is less engaging, largely because of an unrealistic story in which Shayne does jury service and winds up having to solve a double murder. Movies aren’t usually scrupulously faithful to legal procedure, but the way Shayne is allowed to take over in the courtroom in the final reels is perhaps a step too far. The pacing is also less assured than usual, though Nolan is great fun to watch and it’s good to see him re-teamed with Weaver, who’s playing a spirited reporter. Phil Silvers, with an unfamiliar thatch of hair, is a freelance photographer who won’t leave Shayne alone. (2.5)


Flirtation Walk (Frank Borzage, 1934) is an entertaining if disjointed salute to the West Point military academy that flits from romantic comedy to putting-on-a-show musical to sentimental drama. Dick Powell is a happy-go-lucky private who joins officer training when he thinks he's lost the girl he loves (Ruby Keeler). Though the film doesn't really gel, there are some great sequences: Powell and Keeler falling in love in hazily-romantic Hawaii, his speedy rendition of Mr & Mrs Is the Name and the penultimate scene: an emotional encounter between the forlorn Powell and gruff, good-hearted sergeant Scrapper (Pat O'Brien). The rest is comprised of broad comedy, petty squabbling and lots of enthusiastically-choreographed marching. It's a wonder any young girls continued to idolise Powell after seeing him manufacture a quadruple-chin here - then maintain it through an entire montage. Incidentally, the curious, antiquated title comes from a romantic pathway in the film, which has a legend attached.(2.5)


A Royal Scandal (Otto Preminger, 1945) was Lubitsch's final, uncompleted film, finished off by everyone's favourite teutonic tyrant, Otto Preminger. For an hour it's a revelation: clever, amusing, often anarchically funny; then it strays into fraught drama and falls down a bit. Legendary bon vivant Tallulah Bankhead is commanding as Catherine the Great, who takes a fancy to a young soldier and promotes him way above his station, provoking the ire of his fiancee, lady-in-waiting Anne Baxter. Meanwhile, traitors circle, led by conniving Sig Ruman, looking uncannily like Claude Rains' King John. The supporting cast is loaded with superb character players: Charles Coburn as the practical, thieving chancellor, Mischa Auer in a hysterical recurring bit as an obsessive guard ("I just want to watch the east gate!") and Grady Sutton, playing the most Tennessee-sounding Russian bumpkin you'll ever hear. Vincent Price overdoes it a little as the supercilious French ambassador, but he's still fun to watch. For Lubitsch fans, this is a treat, combining his knowing treatment of sexual politics with a lighter variation of the deft satire he employed in Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be. Even if the troubled production means the movie's momentum isn't maintained to the finish, I laughed out loud a dozen times in the first hour - and you can't really argue with that. (3.5)