Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Celtic mythology and the Wu-Tang Clan - Reviews #27



The Secret of Roan Inish (John Sayles, 1994) - On the soundtrack to Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 1, rapper RZA dedicates his witless contribution to character O-Ren Ishii, "half-Chinese, half-Japanese-ie". Well this review is dedicated in its entirety to the isle of Roan Inish, all Irish, no Japan-inish.

John Sayles has spent most of his stellar career as a writer-director documenting the making of modern America: with the searing, masterfully-woven race relations dramas Lone Star and Sunshine State and the classic coming-of-age film Baby It's You, which doubles as a portrait of the immigrant experience.

This change-of-pace outing finds him amidst the myths and mysteries of rural Ireland, where a 10-year-old girl is hunting for the baby brother who was swept to sea when her family evacuated its remote island home. The film builds slowly, mesmerisingly towards a cathartic act of mercy, incorporating several nuanced diversions which either bolster the narrative or flesh out its highly evocative portrait of a sea-faring community.

Medium Cool director Haskell Wexler's lustrous cinematography and a soundtrack of Celtic folk songs add to the very special atmosphere, while the sensitive performances remain doggedly unsentimental, young Jeni Courtney representing the movie's poetic but earthy sensibility as the resourceful, single-minded heroine.

Meanwhile, Sayles' unmatched ear for dialogue is as attuned as ever, his empathy for the characters reinforced by inventive direction that sees the world from Courtney's height for its first five minutes. Roan Inish is a tender, affecting and ultimately magical film - and one of the best few I'll see this year. RZA was unavailable for comment. (4)

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Scouse noir, Lee Tracy and the coward Robert Ford - Reviews #26



Gumshoe (Stephen Frears, 1971) - or Scouser on the Third Floor, as I shall insist on calling it - is a skilled pastiche of classic film noir, with Albert Finney as a bingo caller and part-time comedian who fancies himself as a private eye. In his first day as a self-styled Sam Spade, he receives a mysterious phone call, plunging him into a superbly-realised world fusing the mundanity of Liverpool life with the Chandler-esque yarn going on inside Finney's head. It's deftly done, with a ready wit and the deep knowledge of crime flicks (and the odd Western) essential to such genre explorations, while the script fairly drips with zingers. The narrative seems to house elements of Chinatown, Charley Varrick, The Cheap Detective, Hammett and Brick, but this was released before a single one of them. Another similar work, Play, It Again Sam, had played on Broadway but would not reach the screen for another two years.

Finney is faultless in the lead, delivering his hard-boiled patter in a sliding hybrid of Bogart and Scouse, and keeping us guessing as to just how far gone his character is. The supporting cast includes Porridge favourite Fulton Mackay, making an ideal heavy as the Scottish hood on Finney's trail, Frank Finlay as our hero's menacing brother and Samuel Beckett alumnus Billie Whitelaw, playing a morally ambiguous woman caught between the siblings and sporting a hairstyle that would be impressively '80s were it not so resolutely '70s. Also cropping up in bit parts are Maureen Lipman as our bookshop floozy and Wendy Richards, speaking nineteen-to-the-dozen in a way that's very hard to decipher. Andrew Lloyd Webber's score - containing a rock 'n' roll parody written with Tim Rice - is also good fun, and if the eventual uncovering of the film's central conspiracy is a touch too small-scale to pack the requisite punch, that's a minor price to pay for 80 minutes of tense, superbly-scripted British noir. (4)

***



The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) has the stamp of authenticity, but is let down by sloppy pacing and a lack of focus. Casey Affleck is nothing short of brilliant as the 19-year-old Robert Ford, who's drawn into outlaw Jesse James' (Brad Pitt) dwindling band of confidants, only for his awestruck subservience to morph into dreams of revenge, betrayal and greatness. It's a plausible premise: if one was craving approval and was met only with insensitivity, the snub would be intensified by the accompanying feelings of servility. Add to that the lure of fame and the opportunity for Ford to finally seize the mettle and become a man, and you can see why a shifty young kid might grab the revolver his idol gave him and stick a bullet right through his brain.

We start with the build-up to James' final heist, and that night-time train robbery itself is shot with impressionistic flair by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Indeed, there's plenty of great imagery in Dominik's film, as the work oscillates between painstaking realism (via impressively-detailed sets and a busy, factual voiceover) and a sort of heightened otherworldiness. But such sporadic artistry sponsors a narrative that gives the impression of being methodical, whilst leaping all over the place. The filmmaker's debt to Terrence Malick is obvious in the meticulously-composed wide shots, but the movie lacks the hypnotic rhythm of Badlands - and therefore its weighty cumulative impact. Apparently the film was taken out of Dominik's hands and recut into various versions, which might explain the rogue pacing, as well as a shapeless extended epilogue that seems to undermine the film's point of view, as its voiceover artist takes to providing an audio commentary.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to like in this ambitious, arthouse take on the James legend. Affleck and Sam Rockwell - as screen brother Charley - offer definitive portrayals of the Fords, compensating for Pitt's charismatic but empty lead turn, and there are passages of great insight and truth, even as the film takes to hurtling through history at the close. But despite the inevitable tension in its slow, stately presentation of the titular deed itself, the little gem to be found within the film's largely worthless coda - Ford's qualified success on the New York stage - and the fine Nick Cave/Warren Ellis score, it looks more like an interesting failure than a modern classic. It's still a lot better than the Tyrone Power version. (2.5)

***


More than enough teeth for two.

Tea for Two (David Butler, 1950) - I like Doris Day, but her cheery singing and cartoonish sensibility can't save this average musical, which is hamstrung by excessive comic relief, an unsuitable setting (the onset of the Great Depression - what an amusing scenario) and characters it's very difficult to root for. The set-up is this: Day dreams of being a Broadway star, and will get her big break if she can win a bet with uncle S. Z. Sakall to say "no" to every question she's asked for 36 hours. Not only do the writers fail to mine this promising premise to convincing dramatic ends, but they hardly wring any laughs out of it either. It's left instead for Billy "Oh no, not Billy De Wolfe" De Wolfe to provide the comic relief, which is not a situation I would like to revisit any time soon.

The lack of thought that went into the script is epitomised by the staggeringly artless way a gaggle of fun late-'20s songs are crowbarred into the narrative. Still, the film is lit by that good score, much of it performed by frequent co-stars Day and Gordon MacRae, and some impressive hoofing from Gene Nelson - with his staircase dance the obvious high spot. Terence Davies' favourite character actress, Eve Arden, snipes agreeably in support. Tea for Two is based on the stage musical No, No, Nanette (filmed in 1930 and 1940), which is the show-within-a-film here. (2)

***

... and a potboiler featuring your favourite actor* and mine**, Lee Tracy:


Barbara Read - never knowingly underaged.

The Spellbinder (Jack Hively, 1939) - For the first five minutes of this Lee Tracy vehicle it looks like we're in for The Nuisance Part II, which would be a thing of unquestionable greatness. Cast familiarly as a shifty lawyer, the great man is running rings around his rivals in the courtroom, with the aid of a bunch of actors posing as his client's desperate family. Then Patric Knowles (memorable as a would-be media mogul in Four's a Crowd) turns up in Tracy's office and the film suddenly shifts into soap opera. Telling us that he's about to snuff out his auditor, Knowles blackmails Tracy into fashioning his defence, then starts sniffing around the shyster's daughter. What a twat.

Tracy could make anything look good and while he’s some way off his irresistible peak here – occasionally looking uncomfortable spouting the kind of piousness his characters usually spent their time puncturing – he’s never less than compelling. Unfortunately the material is at once predictable and contrived, with a climactic shift into melodrama that seems to have been conceived by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's little brother. Agreeably, if not credibly, the uncertain narrative does allow for some lurches back into comedy which, while at odds with the main story, are generally much more entertaining. Tracy's scene with his "guardian" is very funny and Chester Clute offers amusing support as the world's worst prosecution witness.

The film is notable amongst Tracy's films in casting him as a father, just the second of 22 I've seen where he played a dad, and the first giving him a (possibly) grown-up kid. Barbara Read, who was one of the Three Smart Girls in the classic musical-comedy, is of indeterminate age as the daughter. In his desk photo she looks 25; at school she looks about 14, but since she then shacks up with Knowles, I'm guessing she's not. The actress herself was a fresh-faced, faintly cross-eyed 22. If you're a Tracy fan worried about his lesser performance here, rest assured: he was probably just cross to be back at work after his European honeymoon. The star returned to his whizz-bang comic showboating soon afterwards in the super crime comedy The Payoff. (2)

*probably not your favourite actor
**definitely my favourite actor

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Swaziland and Sid James' French revue - Revues #25

Yes, we reach a quarter-century of review updates, with a pair of delicately contrasting British flicks.


This is in no way a misleading poster.

Lady Godiva Rides Again (Frank Launder, 1951) is a disappointing comedy from the Launder-Gilliat team responsible for penning The Lady Vanishes and Millions Like Us. Pauline Stroud is naivety itself as a competition winner who crashes the big time and finds the showbiz world is a tad unpleasant. Her Ruby Keeler-esque performance fuses big-eyed posturing with nauseating delivery to no visible end, as her character leaves behind good guy George Cole to rub shoulders with film star Simon Abott (Dennis Price at his most foppish) on the slippery slope to Sid James' dodgy "French revue". But at least pineapple salesman John McCallum hasn't deserted her. Launder and Gilliat aren't sure whether they're dishing up a comic romp or a cautionary tale and the result is a largely laughless, frequently miserable, ultimately patronising film. On the plus side, there is one atypically fantastic scene around the hour mark featuring Alastair Sim as a broken-down producer, formerly "the Mr Murington", now "that Mr Murington". Marrying pathos and belly laughs, it's one of the most perfectly rounded sequences I've seen and presumably provided the template for Peter Sellers' pathetic, hilarious scene-stealing bit as The Wrong Box's Dr Pratt. It's also fun to see Richard Wattis, Sim's Happiest Days of Your Life co-star, putting in a couple of minutes as the sardonic Otto Mann, while the pneumatic Diana Dors has a showy bit-part as a bikini-clad model. Elsewhere, the casting is bizarre, both wilfully so and in retrospect. As well as featuring Googie Withers in its film-within-a-film and boasting a walk-on from Trevor Howard, it offers a first glimpse at Joan Collins, gives future DJ Jimmy Young a chance to croon and presents Ruth Ellis - later notorious as the last woman to be hanged in Britain - as a beauty contestant. Such pub trivia aside, Lady Godiva is a bit of a damp squib, cantering completely off the road in the final reels as the makers strive for some sort of grand neorealist statement, and find only Sid James. (2)

Trivia note: Dors played a character based on Ruth Ellis in Yield to the Night, though Ellis wouldn't get a real biopic until Dance With a Stranger in 1985, starring Miranda Richardson - who appears in Wah-Wah (see below).

***



Wah-Wah (Richard E. Grant, 2005) is a delightful film about writer-director Grant's childhood during the final throes of colonial Swaziland. Balancing fraughtness - as his alter-ego's mother (Miranda Richardon) leaves and his father (Gabriel Byrne) descends into alcoholism - with superbly judged comic passages, it transports the viewer into the head of the young protagonist, perfectly articulating his feelings without the need for speechifying or voiceover. Such a feat is testament to the economy and precision of the script, Grant's subtle but expressive direction and Nicholas Hoult's excellent performance as the 14-year-old Ralph Compton. That Hoult can hold his own against Emily Watson, the most gifted dramatic performer of her generation, is as high praise as I can think of. Watson is ideal, as ever, playing the boy's ballsy American step-mum, who's threatening to turn high society on its ear if she can stand the scotch-swilling company long enough. The film does suffer from a dearth of geographic context in the mid-section and has some structural problems in the second half that seem to saddle it with several false endings, but it's clever, subtle and formidably unsentimental, with superb acting across the board. Its more painful exchanges have the unmistakeable ring of truth and grim memory, and there's a great set of scenes in which Hoult sees A Clockwork Orange and starts idly apeing McDowell's eyeliner-wearing sociopath. I really liked it. (3.5)

Friday, 26 March 2010

Bob Dylan to headline Kent festival



Bob Dylan's first UK date of 2010 has been confirmed - and it's a biggie. The husky-voiced little poet and his whirly keyboard will be headlining the Hop Farm Festival on Saturday, July 3. Other acts playing at the event are Pete(r) Doherty, Seasick Steve and Mumford & Sons. Tickets work out at around £76 after various confusing charges and are available here. We've got ours already.

I don't usually do breaking news on the blog, but I've made an exception, because it's you. And me. And Bob.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Review: Suede at the Royal Albert Hall

Wednesday, March 24, 2010



I saw Suede just once during their reign as the high-cheekboned articulators of alienated urban angst and drug-addled, idiosyncratic Britishness - playing the Manchester Apollo on the Coming Up tour back in 1996. So when they announced this one-off (?) reunion show at the Royal Albert Hall, I leapt.

It's seven years since they broke up, 16 since their greatest record, 18 since they blitzed the British music scene with the camp, intensely sexualised glam rock of The Drowners. What to expect in 2010?

Following a brief set by the noisy, boring These New Puritans (like a geeky Joy Division with two drummers and no tunes) and some touching contributions from various Teenage Cancer Trust speakers - the gig being held as part of the charity's annual series of concerts - Suede strolled on to a burst of choral music.

From the start they seemed supercharged: four talented, laid-back musicians* fronted by an outrageously expressive, bum-wiggling extrovert - singer and lyricist Brett Anderson. First they tore through a trio of tracks from their spotty, populist third record - She, Trash and Filmstar - then a pair of stomps from earlier LPs. Animal Nitrate, one of the best pop songs of its decade, was as blisteringly indulgent as on record, Heroine given an overhaul that switched it from needy yearning to white-hot morbidity.

The Drowners

Pantomime Horse was a moment of blissful tranquility before I was back to getting sweated on by strangers, as the first five rows heaved to The Drowners - a blast of joyous sleaziness. Throughout the gig, Anderson responded to cherished choruses by leaning or leaping into the audience - a ball of emoting, mincing, oddly hip energy. He clasped hands with fans, then declined to take exception when others took to stroking his hair. He said at the concert's close it had "been fun" - a pretenseless statement that struck me as utterly charming.

That sense of fun played into an escapist version of So Young that rolled back the years in an instant, whilst doing nothing to dim the pained, eroticised splendour of The Asphalt World, here given the epic treatment.

Three straight songs from fourth album Head Music climaxed with a spellbinding version of the literal-minded, effectively straightforward He's Gone, dedicated by Anderson to his friend Jessie who passed away three weeks ago, and ending with him on his knees, before segueing - touchingly - into The Next Life.

The band found space for two B-sides. Killing of a Flash Boy, which sounded - now as in 1994 - like the theme song to a British exploitation movie, was admirably riotous and impassioned, but it was the other rarity that left the greater impression. The Living Dead, a superb number included on the stand-alone single Stay Together, was performed by Anderson on acoustic guitar, accompanied by keyboardist Neil Codling. Though the singer seemed to be wincing at some of his vocalising as he fiddled around with the rhythm, it was a real highlight.

Encore

That was the last song of a 19-song main set. After a brief, unconvincing exit, they returned for a stellar encore, beginning with an exultant take on The 2 of Us, before escalating/degenerating into a massive singalong to Coming Up single Saturday Night (not the Whigfield one). Anderson spent most of it standing on a speaker at the edge of the stage, feyly, euphorically, conducting proceedings.

And then they were gone. I hadn't really been sure what to expect, but the result snapped the intervening 14 years into nothing, it was so exciting, invigorating and entrancing. Happily, Suede are a band with a firm grasp of what their best work is - and the enthusiasm and gift for performance to put it across on stage. While we didn't get The Power, or Breakdown, the set leant heavily on their earlier work, containing just three tracks from their last two albums (Can't Get Enough, Everything Will Flow and He's Gone, all from Head Music), compared to six from debut record Suede, five from Dog Man Star and five from Coming Up. I don't really care for the three songs that opened the show, but they work well in a live setting.

The whole two-hour show had a heightened, celebratory feel I haven't encountered too many times (the Manics at the Manchester Nynex back in May 1997, Tom Waits at the Edinburgh Playhouse in July 2008, Dylan in Sheffield last April) - relief and happiness for young fans who thought they'd never see them, a chance for others to say thanks again for that record they put on repeat for 10 years. It's also the only gig I've seen where the band got a standing ovation halfway through.

Great stuff.

And I missed Thursday deadline. Score.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

*Those musicians are: guitarist Richard Oakes, once a swaggering pretty boy, now looking just like Any Old Bloke though his dazzling guitar skills remain intact; the currently bearded bass player Mat Osman with his Easter Island head; Neil Codling, a keyboard player and backing singer who appears to be younger than when he joined the band in 1995 and gazes into the middle distance with an emotionless expression no matter what he's playing; drummer Simon Gilbert, who has quite pointy sideburns.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Setlist:

She
Trash
Filmstar
Animal Nitrate
Heroine
Pantomime Horse
The Drowners
Killing Of A Flashboy
Can't Get Enough
Everything Will Flow
He's Gone
The Next Life
The Asphalt World
So Young
Metal Mickey
The Wild Ones
New Generation
Beautiful Ones
The Living Dead
The 2 Of Us
Saturday Night

Monday, 22 March 2010

Partie time - Reviews #24



Partie de campagne (Jean Renoir, 1936) is one of the great unfinished films. Usually such projects exist in tantalising snippets because a director snuffed it before realising his vision, or failed to get a movie off the ground due to short-sighted financiers. In this case, Renoir quit because it kept raining. Admittedly it rained for much of a six-week shoot, but even so... Happily, the 40-minute Partie de campagne doesn't seem unfinished, with an intriguingly-paced three-act structure that works just fine and a heady summer atmosphere that stands as perhaps the most inspired example of its director's quiet lyricism. It's an often breathtaking pastoral film, creating a fully-realised rural world a la Tol'able David and Louisiana Story (see #24) into which to throw our protagonists.

Sylvia Bataille is Henriette, a Parisian girl who decamps to the countryside for the weekend with her parents, her grandmother and her fiance. There, she and her mother (Jane Marken) encounter a prospective-family-man-cum-intense-romantic and his caddish mate, who sweep them off their feet and onto a pair of rowing boats. But this is 19th century France, and the ties that bind won't slacken just because someone's fallen in love.

The film is gentle, entertaining and sometimes very funny, benefiting from superb performances by Bataille, Marken and young romeos Georges D'Arnoux and Jacques B. Brunius, a luscious musical score composed for its 1946 release and Renoir's effortless, transcendent handling of the material. Its coda is absolutely heartbreaking: the perfect wrap-up for a film that's shot through with unshakeable conviction and a tangible love of the countryside. Renoir's fondness for Bataille's expressive, elfin face is just as obvious - he would return to it later the same year in his fascinating serio-comic polemic Le crime de Monsieur Lange. A set piece here that sees her guilelessly embrace the pleasures of a swing is slight but somehow unforgettable. Elsewhere, Renoir's script matches the exalted treatment, encompassing as it does themes of nostalgia, teary joy and the essence of being.

But Partie de campagne does have one - perhaps major - flaw, so bizarre as to be unintelligible. That's the presentation of the father and the fiance, Anatole, as music hall imbeciles. The younger is particularly ridiculous, resembling a young Stan Laurel as he repeatedly squawks and wobbles his bottom lip. For that matter, the dad looks not unlike Oliver Hardy. Really odd. Perhaps Renoir, adapting Guy de Maupassant's novel, is making a satiric point about the unredeemable unsuitability of the young couple, or the ineptitude of Parisians cast adrift several miles from the big city, but it's a directorial decision that's never really justified.

Still, that's the only gripe about this amazing piece of work, which largely hums with brilliance and ultimately stands shoulder-to-shoulder with La grande illusion (see #62) as the director's greatest achievement.(4)

Trivia note: That's Renoir himself as the restaurateur, Poulain.

Rita, Cyd and The Godfather Part III - Reviews #23


Well you try to find a decent colour still from this Technicolor movie...

Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian, 1957) is a neat musical update of Ninotchka, perhaps the best romantic comedy of them all. Brilliant ballerina Cyd Charisse is in the Garbo role, playing a Russian envoy who's sent to Paris to bring home the nation's greatest composer, but is seduced by the city - and the American movie producer she meets there (Fred Astaire). Most of the plot and many of the best lines remain intact, while Charisse's communist commissar affects a Garbo accent, rather than a Russian one. While that does highlight the obvious superiority of the original film, there's still a great deal to enjoy here. Taken on its own terms, Silk Stockings is sleek and breezy entertainment.

Astaire, about to make his second of four retirements, is in good form and his numbers with Charisse are very attractive - if lacking the spark and sizzle of those in The Band Wagon. All of You is the obvious stand-out, both in its original incarnation and a glorious warehouse reprisal, though Cole Porter's score is positively littered with fun tunes. Charisse does some sensational work to the lyrically slight Red Blues, brassy Janis Paige sings the smutty stomp Josephine, and she and Astaire poke fun at cinema's passion for frightened innovation in Stereophonic Sound. The climactic Ritz Roll and Rock is both impressive and quite silly, as it suggests that fleet-footed Astaire and his high society pals from the stage-show-within-a-film can rock out far more comprehensively than Elvis. I don't really buy it.

As a special treat for Golden Era buffs, Silk Stockings also features a most peculiar and welcome sight: Peter Lorre dancing. The star of M, a recurring Hitchcock heavy and all-round mercurial wizard of the screen - by this time displaying a latter-day wideness rarely seen outside of James Cagney's films - Lorre great fun as a fibbing, carousing rogue of a Russian diplomat. Arriving in a distressed state in the early hours, he rubbishes suggestions from his colleagues that he's been out on the town by claiming he's been having a manicure. "At two o'clock in the morning?" a comrade enquires. "I cannot sleep with long fingernails," he replies. Lorre also does one of the silliest dance routines I've ever seen, hoisting himself up between two chairs and swinging his legs back and forth in time to Porter's Too Bad.

Silk Stockings isn't a classic to rival Ninotchka, but as these musical remakes go, it's good value - with attractive leads and a handful of great numbers. Charisse, who passed away in 2008, is really something to behold when she's in full flow. Usually it's impossible to wrench one's eyes away from Astaire, but she's a most inspiring diversion. (3)

***



Cover Girl (Charles Vidor, 1944) is worth it for the dancing - much of it choreographed by co-star Gene Kelly, in just his fourth musical. Rita Hayworth is a stage-star who spies a path to the big-time via a magazine beauty competition. Though she gets the gig, thanks to the sentimentality of a big shot who once dated her grandmother, it puts a strain on her relationship with boyfriend and former boss Kelly. That hackneyed but involving plot, which borrows from the Jessie Matthews musical Evergreen, is a springboard for some very interesting routines. The lovely Make Way for Tomorrow sees Hayworth, Kelly and comic foil Phil Silvers dashing around a vast set, arm-in-arm, while the ebullient Put Me to the Test is an energetic stage-set number teaming Gene with a succession of partners. The absolute highlight is Kelly's Alter-Ego Dance, in which he hoofs opposite a transparent version of himself. Until you've seen the screen's second greatest dancer leap over his own head, you haven't really lived. Elsewhere, the staging is just peculiar. During the title number, Hayworth descends the biggest staircase this side of The Great Ziegfeld. When she gets to the bottom, she just sort of waves her arms around a bit. I take it Kelly didn't devise that dance. Poor John, dubbed by Martha Mears, as were all Hayworth's numbers, features the oddest (Cockney?!) accent I've ever heard. The choreography and costumes are almost as weird.

Cover Girl is too spotty and muddled to be ranked with the best musicals of the period, but it's a valuable snapshot of one of cinema's greatest creative forces at an important stage in his career. In the film's key numbers, Kelly's sense of ambition is already much in evidence - though it was only once he was given bigger budgets and more significant talents to work with that he really came into his own. Even so, he reportedly cited the Alter-Ego Dance as the most difficult routine he'd ever crafted, and it is a phenomenal achievement*. Hayworth, who Fred Astaire regarded as the best of his own partners, is good value in the lead, and displays a depth of emotion that transcends the slightly stale script, while Phil Silvers and especially Eve Arden provide exemplary comic support. Silvers - later TV's Sgt Ernie Bilko, of course - even does a couple of song-and-dance bits. (3)

*Trivia note: Fred Astaire would offer his own variation on the routine two years later - Puttin' on the Ritz - backed by no fewer than nine Astaires. The way Kelly and Astaire pushed one another to ever greater heights during this period is exhilarating.

***



"I would burn in hell to keep you safe."
*SOME SPOILERS*
The Godfather Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990) is an unnecessary follow-up to the devastating gangster epics that defined the '70s. Al Pacino, who in the intervening 14 years had begun shouting a very lot, returns as Michael Corleone, the mafia don who's going legit - with a little help from the Catholic Church. Also along for the ride is his brother Sonny's non-legit offspring, Andy Garcia, whose unquestioning loyalty just about makes up for his appalling temper - and the fact he's got the hots for his cousin, Michael's daughter (Sofia Coppola). The film begins with a set of sumptuous tracking shots around various unpopulated ruins that suggest this is going to be "Terence Davies' The Godfather". Alas, no. Instead, we're pitched into an overambitious story concerning high finance, Papal assassination and moral absolution that dwarfs the curiously uninvolving Garcia-Coppola romance.

Screenwriters Coppola and Mario Puzo strain to make each line a killer - when they're not penning exposition - meaning that the script is clunky and often lacking insight. Take the scene between Corleone and estranged wife Kay (Diane Keaton). "I don't hate you, Michael" she says. "I dread you." So far, so agreeably unexpected, but they won't shut up - and the resulting exchanges are first overdramatic and then superfluous. "I did what I could, Kay, to protect all of you from the horrors of this world," he says. Her reply? "But you became my horror. The children still love you, though. Especially Mary." Err, great. Mary, for her part, has come in for a bit of flak - some of it deserved. Though the director's daughter has an interesting face and excels during one heartbroken exchange (the "I'll always love you" bit), her delivery is often distressingly wooden in a way you rarely see on screen. And while her beau Garcia is unquestionably charismatic, he's also cliched and dull: if he's his generation's answer to James Caan, perhaps we should rephrase the question. Robert DeNiro was turned down for that part, while Robert Duvall's character was killed off after he asked for $5m and Coppola threatened to write Pacino out of the series unless he settled for $2m less than he wanted. That wrangling - and the director's threat therein - betrays the poverty of vision here, with use of footage from the earlier films suggesting desperation rather than an epic sweep, as well as showing exactly how far Coppola had fallen.

The film isn't a complete write-off, though, boasting a hit-by-helicopter that's utterly unexpected and thus entirely great, some fine individual scenes - like Pacino's confession at the Vatican and his son's performance of the series' famous love song - and that certain brown wood-panelled glossy look unique to these films. It's also rarely dull, moving at a fair clip and balancing plot, action and character drama in the traditional manner. But it's rarely special - and within the context of this trilogy, that's pretty damning. (2.5)

***



I'm All Right Jack (John Boulting, 1959) is a celebrated British comedy about industrial relations that's sunk by the biliousness of its "anti-everything" attitude. It's also not that funny. Ian Carmichael is a toff who enters his uncle's business at the low end and finds he's fatally distrusted by his working class colleagues - including shop steward Peter Sellers (who's as good as ever). There are some impressive moments, but its sporadic joviality can't mask an appallingly low opinion of its subjects - and of British industrial workers in particular - that's extremely hard to swallow. (2.5)

***



Tomorrow at Seven (Ray Enright, 1933) is like a Monogram Chan before the fact: a creaky, archaic mystery with a none-too-surprising culprit - but fun just the same. Chester Morris (later Boston Blackie in Columbia's exceptional B movie series) is a novelist investigating the inspiration for his latest book, a killer known as The Black Ace. He travels to see wealthy Henry Stephenson, who's also researching said homicidal maniac, and before you can say "when you finish that jigsaw, it's going to contain a threat from the killer", Stephenson's secretary finishes a jigsaw, and finds it contains a threat from the killer. This is a slow-moving production that recalls movies made in the early days of sound cinema, but the name cast keeps the questionable narrative afloat and it's a delight to see legendary character actors Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins as a pair of thick cops. "Anyone touch the body?" a creepy coroner enquires of them. "Nobody," replies McHugh confidently. "Only Dugan and me and Drake and that guy Henderson and Broderick." (2.5)

***



Guest Wife (Sam Wood, 1945) reunites the stars of the brilliant romantic comedy Midnight, as happily married Claudette Colbert ends up spending an inordinate amount of time posing as the wife of her husband's best friend (Don Ameche) in a bid to save the guy's job. It's OK, but the comic situations are often more stressful than funny, and the usually reliable Ameche is both cartoonish and flat. Still, Colbert does her best with the material, while character comedians Charles Dingle and Grant Mitchell work wonders in their supporting parts. Dozens of familiar faces crop up in small roles, including Irving Bacon, Harry Hayden and Chester Clute, playing a town gossip accused of voyeurism. The climactic sight gag is the best joke in the film. (2.5)

Thursday, 18 March 2010

MovieMail: Toffs and terror

A pair of reviews written for the April 2010 MovieMail catalogue:



The Night My Number Came Up (Leslie Norman, 1955)

The Night My Number Came Up is one hell of a ride: a suspense yarn with a supernatural flavour that builds to a terrifying climax. The opening scenes are shrouded in mystery. Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern) barges into an RAF base in Hong Kong and demands to see the officer in charge. He thinks he knows where a missing plane has downed, but he won’t say how. In flashback, we find out.

It is the week before, and Lindsay is recounting a chilling dream in which a flight carrying eight passengers, including air marshal Michael Redgrave and civil servant Alexander Knox, crashes by a snowy fishing village, with all lives lost. At first, they laugh it off, but as the film unfolds, each detail of the premonition seems to slot into place, until they’re hurtling through a storm in the pitch black, their fuel supplies perilously low and with nowhere to land.

It’s an ominous, insidiously eerie film with an ingenious script from Journey’s End playwright R.C. Sherriff, supposedly based on real events. The characters, from cool-headed Redgrave to nervy war hero Denholm Elliot, neurotic first-time flyer Knox and showy salesman George Rose, are neatly etched, each with a clever back story and a different take on the question of fate. Knox wants to tinker with the passenger list, Rose wants to throttle the pilot and Redgrave – though sceptical about the supernatural – isn’t sure he’s going to sleep tonight.

The tight, atmospheric direction boasts tremendous use of sound, employing a portentous score and Hordern’s words of warning to often startling ends. The actor had a unique gift for voiceover – witness the gold dust he sprinkled over Young Sherlock Holmes through nostalgic narration – and he’s just the man you want to soundtrack your worst fears.

This is another gem from Ealing Studios and further proof of the film factory’s ability to craft unforgettable dramas as well as first-rate comedic fare. Not that The Night My Number Came Up is without humour. Its pay-off line, with more than a nod to past hits Dead of Night and Green for Danger, is both absolutely petrifying and utterly hilarious. (3.5)

***

The Divorce of Lady X (Zoltan Korda, 1938)



“How are you, dear fellow? Terribly well? Don’t ask me – terribly unwell!” Ralph Richardson steals the show in the battle-of-the-sexes comedy The Divorce of Lady X, playing a cuckolded Lord whose divorce case causes untold difficulties in the burgeoning romance between barrister Laurence Olivier and judge’s niece Merle Oberon.

Olivier plays a woman-hating lawyer who can "dissolve a marriage quicker than an aspirin". Taking on a case for buffoonish Richardson, he gets the wrong end of the stick and thinks his new girlfriend (Oberon) is the adulterous wife. Though made at Denham Studios, the film presents a Lubitsch-esque view of England, beginning in a pea-souper and taking in swanky hotels, hunting trips and the sexual peccadilloes of the nobility.

This delightful slice of escapism, produced by Alexander Korda, was shot in three strip Technicolor, showing off both the expensive sets and Olivier’s green-shirt-and-brown-suit combo to best effect. Oberon, by this time a major Hollywood player, is sparkling in her playful role, while the offbeat casting of two Shakespearean stage stars as a romantic lead and his diim client works a treat. (3)

No tin ear - Reviews #22



*SOME MINOR SPOILERS*

Tin Men (Barry Levinson, 1987) is a nifty examination of the American Dream, focusing on a pair of aluminum-siding salesmen in early-'60s Baltimore who engage in an escalating campaign of retribution after their Cadillacs collide. Richard Dreyfuss is a sharp-shooting huckster in a powder blue suit, Danny DeVito a down-on-his-luck nighthawk trying to stay in the game. Just as they rely on sheen and trickery to flog their wares, so the film inveigles its way in with a succession of comic episodes, before revealing itself as an incisive take on the artifice of materialism and machismo - and a compelling character piece. It flirts with the hustlers' romanticised image of themselves, but also shows the reality: they're just a bunch of fraudsters, flogging the American Dream.

Tin Men is a subtle, masterfully-crafted little film, boosted by strong performances from the leads (rough edges and fluffed lines intact), nice supporting turns - including Barbara Hershey as DeVito's put-upon wife - and writer-director Barry Levinson's terrific ear for dialogue. His script is realistic but finely-honed and, years before Tarantino provided his own post-modern take on eaterie conversation (and some five years after Levinson's own Diner), offers several servings of pop-culture-savvy squabbling that complement the movie's more ambitious elements.

There's one excellent exchange in which DeVito tells his friends he'd never seen Dreyfuss before the crash, only to find that pal Stanley Brock won't let it lie. "You musta seen him. He hangs out with Carly Benelli, Cheese... you know, that group," he says. "Don't you remember, he was up at the Corral one night when we there... he's a good dancer. You must have seen him." Eventually DeVito tires of being told what slick moves his adversary has, retorting: "What do you want me to do, date him? What do I give a shit if he's a good dancer?" "I tell you, if I was a girl I would be very impressed," Brock replies. "You're not a girl and you're impressed," counters friend Jackie Gayle.

Another of the film's strengths lies in its original plotting: it's almost impossible to second-guess where the story is heading, particularly in the first half. While the next hour does offer some concessions to conventionality, they're entirely in keeping with the characters' shifting mind-sets, and there's generally another trick or two up Levinson's apparently bottomless sleeve. The subplot about the Maryland Home Improvement Commission clamping down on bad practice is perfect. That's not to say the film doesn't have flaws - there are occasional lulls, and a bit more context wouldn't go amiss - but that it's welcome to find a movie so assured in its value, intelligence and razor-sharp sense of humour that the director lets you discover its qualities for yourself. A movie so well-handled that even the way busted scammers hand in their licenses is a snapshot of their characters. Levinson also makes a neat job of paraphrasing the era, with simple but effective production design, smart credits and a first-rate song score by '60s-soundalikes Fine Young Cannibals.

What starts off as a lively story of obsession and revenge - a funny spin on The Duellists, if you will - ultimately ends up as something more intriguing, durable and worthwhile. And the draft drawings of my revamped house look just about good enough for Life Magazine. I'm covering the place in siding. (3.5)

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Steve Martin arguing with himself, and Borat - Reviews #21



All of Me (Carl Reiner, 1984) - "He's in conference with Miss Cutwater, also with her doctor, her nurse, Mr Mifflin, an English girl with no bra and a Hindu holding a bedpan on a stick. I don't think you should go in there." And with that little speech from receptionist Selma Diamond, All of Me finally gets going. The plot, somewhat reminiscent of I Married a Witch, sees friendless, dying millionairess Lily Tomlin enlisting a Swami with a poor grasp of English to transfer her soul to a sparky young blonde (Victoria Tennant). As you might imagine, the plan gets botched, and Tomlin's griping newly-dead becomes housed in the body of unhappy lawyer Steve Martin - whose soul is in there as well.

The first 20 minutes are pretty dry, but once Diamond starts drolly lecturing, Dana Elcar begins two-facedly badmouthing his wealthiest client and Martin takes to bickering with 'himself', it settles into a fun - if unexceptional - groove. There's one absolute gem of a sequence in a courtroom, which is set-up with panache and expert timing and builds to a dizzyingly absurd climax. The rest of the film skirts by on the talents of Martin - very good and indulging his fondness for outlandish physical comedy - and Tomlin, with her Kate Hepburn-ish delivery. I rather like Tennant as a romantic lead, too, and her line: "I love it when you talk like a beer commercial." (2.5)

***



And then we have Borat (Larry Charles, 2006), one of the most popular - and most widely-loathed - movies of the last decade. Sacha Baron Cohen plays the Kazakhstani TV reporter of the title, who travels to "the US and A" in a bid to understood his American cousins and finds that while they'll put up with rank bigotry, they're not so keen on you bringing a bag of poo down to dinner. Though Cohen is acting, the bulk of his encounters are with real-life folk, from drunken, misogynistic fratboys to strait-laced politicos. The movie doesn't have a coherent viewpoint, deliriously lampooning anti-semitism whilst ripping the piss out of poor eastern Europeans, but it does shed some light on the prejudices apparently ingrained in several strata of US society, and offers a dozen big laughs. Most come from stunts and interviews, rather than the straight-to-camera material, which is often smug and obvious.

Happily, Cohen's quick wits and use of a well-judged pause can turn even the most unpromising chat into a goldmine: witness Borat's effortless misunderstanding of "...not" as a comic suffix. Intriguingly, some scenes are cut off almost as soon as they begin, suggesting that a few of the subjects may have been onto him. That heavy editing contributes to the general bittiness. The film's highlight is Cohen's performance at a rodeo, in which he turns the entire crowd against him in four appallingly cringe-worthy minutes. The sequence ends with him singing the 'Kazakh national anthem' to the tune of the The Star-Spangled Banner: "Kazakhstan greatest country in the world/All other countries are run by little girls/Kazakhstan number one exporter of potassium/Other countries have inferior potassium." Personal taste dictates that I found such silliness more engaging than all the crap about "retards", however post-modern the comic might claim it is. I also felt uncomfortable at his needling of perfectly reasonable folk, like an unfailingly polite driving instructor and some friendly feminists.

While Borat is neither a great film nor an important one, and is saddled with myriad shortcomings, it is often deeply funny. The sight of Cohen sprinting along a crowded New York street as he attempts to kiss a very unhappy all-American man on both cheeks, his crashing of a mortgage brokers' dinner stark-naked and his whipping up of the rodeo crowd ("May George Bush a-drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq") are considerable compensations for moral inconsistency, some duff jokes and a mock-introspective narrative (featuring Pamela Anderson) that really sags in the second half. (2.5)

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

L.A., France and The Last of England - Reviews #20



The Last of England (Derek Jarman, 1988) - "On a green hill, mourners stand and weep for the last of England," intones Nigel Terry at the start of this arresting mission statement from arthouse enfant terrible Jarman. The film is a barrage of striking imagery, mixing old Super 8 footage of a child playing in the back garden with shots of a teenage punk shooting up in a garage, and the middle-aged Jarman, apparently chronicling vanishing species of plant in some kind of futuristic warehouse. Then there's clips from news reports, audio of Hitler, some staged stuff about paramilitaries and - of course - a naked yuppie having sex with a soldier on a massive Union Jack. An air of paralysing despair permeates this one-of-a-kind movie, which takes on state-sponsored violence, the Thatcher government, misguided building projects, the trashing of the environment and American cultural imperialism - all in the opening half hour. Not all of it hits the target, and some of it may only make sense to Jarman, but for every piece of self-mythologising pretentiousness there's a pithily employed phrase (courtesy of T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg) or thought-provoking juxtaposition. Like the sounds of a Nazi rally segueing into a vicious sideswipe at military discipline, then military pageantry. Or widow Tilda Swinton ripping her wedding dress to shreds - even as she wears it - on a nuclear beach. The Last of England plays like the forlorn, obscene bastard child of Humphrey Jennings' hymn to the nation - Listen to Britain. I liked it. Great soundtrack too, put together by Simon Fisher-Turner, and containing Elgar, Marianne Faithfull and a spot-on pastiche of '30s musical numbers called Broadway Boy. (2.5)

***



L.A. Story (Mick Jackson, 1991) is like a Woody Allen film relocated to the West Coast: a series of comic observations about contemporary L.A. life, with a romantic pentagon attached. The plot, which is barely there at all, has self-styled "wacky weatherman" Steve Martin falling out with adulterous girlfriend Marilu Henner and falling in with bubbly annoyance Sarah Jessica Parker, while he pines for English journo Victoria Tennant - who's being woodenly wooed by ex-husband Richard E. Grant. It's probably worth mentioning that Martin is aided in his quest by a chatty road sign. The film is disjointed and uneven in tone, with two delightful - even magical - scenes set to Enya's Exiles that are completely at odds with the rest of the movie, but the jokes are mostly sublime. There's the mugger who accosts Martin by declaring: "Hi, my name is Bob, I'll be your robber", Parker's justification for becoming a spokesmodel ("I always liked pointing") and the solution to the film's central riddle: "That's the mystery of the ages?" says Martin, incredulously; "I had 2 think up something fast," the signpost flashes back. A bit more emphasis on plot and character, along with some pruning of its more insular asides, and this could have been something very special. For all its flaws, it's still top escapism. (3)

***



The Chorus (Christophe Barratier, 2004) is an utterly beguiling French comedy-drama about a failed composer who takes over as supervisor at a boarding school populated by war orphans and channels his young charges' frustration and unhappiness into music. As a simple, uplifting movie it's sometimes predictable, but it's never naive, with a disarmingly offbeat sense of humour that contrasts neatly with its lovely, sentimental vignettes. The shower of farewell notes and the scenes featuring young Pepinot are particularly moving, while the film is underscored by some suitably affecting music. The casting is also spot-on, with Gerard Jugnot ideal as the teacher, and the kids uniformly fine. My favourite joke: "He wrote 'Mr'?" "Err... no." A straightforward, heartfelt and winning film. (4)

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Mafia kingpins, thieving vicars and Scorsese's latest - Reviews #19



SHORT: Knick Knack (John Lasseter, 1989/2003) is an early Pixar short that was dusted down, cleaned off and given two boob reductions (yes really), before it was considered fit to open for the studio's Finding Nemo. It's a funny, imaginative little film about a snowman trapped in a snow globe who dreams of relaxing with the tasty honeys (their breasts now markedly smaller than in 1989) over on the other shelf. He tries drilling his way out, then using a blow-torch, then TNT, each with hilariously unsuccessful results. Then he starts thinking outside the globe... The computer animation looks a little primitive compared to the delights Pixar have since provided, but that's the price of progress. Subsequent advancements aside, it's another cracking short from the closest thing we have to a modern-day dream factory. (3.5)

***



Two Way Stretch (Robert Day, 1960) was a dry run for The Wrong Arm of the Law, which also featured Peter Sellers and Bernard Cribbins as crooks tangling with law enforcer Lionel Jeffries. But while that later film is tightly plotted, offbeat and consistently hilarious, this one is mostly tame, laboured and lethargic. Sellers, Cribbins and heavy-set pal David Lodge are inmates roped into a scheme by phoney vicar Soapy Stevens (Wilfrid Hyde White) to commit a £2m diamond theft, then return to their cells, thus fashioning the perfect alibi. Jeffries is the blowhard who replaces their pushover prison officer, throwing the scheme into jeopardy. There are only a couple of good jokes in the first hour - a gag about Kipling and a puerile marrow/penis routine that becomes funny about fourth time around - but once the robbery arrives the film finally kicks into (low) gear, sparking an ironic ending and a coda that recalls the classic Road films. It's an uninspired but pleasant movie that paved the way for a minor classic. (2)

***



CINEMA: Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010) - The fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio is first-rate for an hour, until it takes a disastrous left-turn and its credibility topples into the sea. DiCaprio plays a federal marshal called to a mental hospital on the remote, storm-ravaged Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a female murderer. There he’s driven half-mad by an apparent web of conspiracy - perhaps led by doctor Ben Kingsley - and vivid hallucinations about the wife he recently lost (Michelle Williams). For an hour this is a stylised, gripping thriller with an oppressive atmosphere and some bravura moments. There’s an absolute knock-out of a dream sequence, with DiCaprio and his wife in the apartment where she died, ash raining down upon them. When he moves to hug her, she crumbles to dust. Another disquieting set-piece in a crypt recalls the classic ‘40s Val Lewton chiller Isle of the Dead, employing the elements and one very loud bang to maximum effect. But then the film falls apart, with a growing emphasis on Holocaust imagery that’s crass and offensive, and a hideously ill-judged twist that negates everything that’s gone before. Whereas The Pawnbroker was respectful and effective, showing glimpses of concentration camp horrors colouring the life of its protagonist, Scorsese relatively wallows in the iconography of genocide. It’s a real pity that what begins as a masterclass in terror and suspense ends up as such gratuitous, derivative trash. An apt title would be Shlock Corridor, as Scorsese takes Sam Fuller’s state-of-the-nation 1963 film, Shock Corridor, set in an asylum populated by A-Bomb scientists and haunted civil rights poster boys, removes the elements of social commentary and offers endless, needless portrayals of unspeakable crimes. Is there honestly anyone who enjoys seeing that stuff? The director’s treatment is heightened and expressive, lit by nods to Frankenstein and Bedlam and aided by a bombastic score from former Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, but the fascinating first hour appears to have been made by accident, en route to a far less interesting conclusion. (2)

***



The Amazing Adventure (Alfred Zeisler, 1936) is an earnest but muddled independent film featuring Cary Grant just as his star was about to go stratospheric. He plays a wealthy, despondent layabout challenged by his doctor to go for a year without relying on his riches. There are effective vignettes, notably those featuring selfless working class folk, but the film is ultimately a bit unsure of itself, suggesting that "money isn't everything" while its newly philanthropic protagonist spreads joy through his generous use of the paper stuff. The movie also lacks universality, with an absence of real insight into the society it is depicting and a heavyhanded, cliched romantic subplot. As a chance to see Grant working on his home turf it's interesting, but as a British variation on contemporary Capra fare, it falls well short. (2)

***

Speaking of Capra...



Here Comes the Groom (Frank Capra, 1951) - By '51, Frank Capra's heyday had passed. No other director has ever possessed the certain magic the Italian-American sentimentalist had from the early-'30s to the mid-40's, but such things don't last forever. Not even for John Ford. Once the alchemic magic dried up, Capra sometimes tried to recapture former glories - he'd already started remaking past hits - and sometimes served up such engaging, undemanding trifles as this one. Bing Crosby, who'd starred in the director's Broadway Bill update, Riding High, the previous year, is Pete Garvey, a newspaperman (hurray!) who returns to fiancee Jane Wyman after three years in France, with two war orphans in tow (a then-timely theme which served as the basis for a slew of films, including Sun Valley Serenade). He can keep them for good if he's married within five days, but darn it if Wyman isn't getting hitched to multimillionaire Franchot Tone - who's got laser-vision when it comes to seeing through Crosby's schemes to win her back. It's enjoyable stuff, with a couple of pretty good songs (including In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening), a scene-stealing part from Alexis Smith as Tone's dowdy cousin, given an eye-grabbing overhaul by Bing's dodgy Pygmalion, and a great gimmick in which a tiny Princess Leia-esque hologram of Wyman appears atop a gramophone as Bing listens to a record of her voice. The scene ends as you'd want it to, with her whizzing round and round the turntable. Another interesting aspect of the film is its barely-disguised crudeness - this was the same year of A Streetcar Named Desire after all - with a couple of sex gags that wouldn't have passed the censors 10 years before. A couple of unbilled star cameos add to the film's likeability and its "everything, including the kitchen sink" feel. The film's resolution is too rushed, and Wyman is bland in her lead role, but this is a welcome reminder that even when Capra no longer made great films, he could still fashion lively, attractive entertainment. (3)

***



The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) is a brilliant film full of unforgettable moments, if marginally less coherent and effective than the original. Set seven years after the events of the first movie, it traces the increasingly alienated don, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), as he expands his criminal empire into Nevada and Havana, while fighting congressional hearings, assassination attempts, and betrayal from within his very family. His cold existence is contrasted with his father Vito's early years, as the future godfather (Robert De Niro leaving an indelible impression) escapes persecution in Sicily and finds a new life in America - where his neighbourhood is dominated by a grasping, merciless small-time Mafioso. The first half of the movie is slightly disjointed, but lays the groundwork for a final hour that is utterly unimpeachable - much like Michael Corleone himself. The visceral violence and quotable dialogue ("You keep your friends close, but your enemies closer") are obvious surface pleasures, but once more the film's greatness lies in its more reflective, verbose moments. There's a superb scene between Michael and Fredo (John Cazale) that recalls the apex of the first film (Brando and Pacino's garden two-hander), with Cazale apparently trapped in his chair by rage and regret at being passed over by his father. "It was the way Pop wanted it," Michael says. "It ain't the way I wanted it," Cazale shrieks. "I can handle things; I'm smart. Not like everybody says like dumb; I'm smart, and I want respect!" The sequence in which Michael's wife (Diane Keaton) reveals the truth about her 'miscarriage' is also extraordinary to behold. Pacino doesn't just slap Kay across the face, he launches himself at her from across the room - like a coiled spring, or a cat; though really like nothing else on earth. Usually such concessions to melodramatic domestic drama are tawdry, upsetting and unbelievable, but Pacino's remarkable handling of the material makes it chilling, horrifying and impossible to forget. This is a superbly-scripted, brilliantly-acted study of absolute moral corruption, but just as Michael is colder and more ruthless than his father, so The Godfather Part II is more clinical and less emotionally resonant than the first film, provoking a sense of melancholia in place of tears. That's unquestionably fitting, and it feels like nitpicking to point out shortcomings in a film so intelligent, incisive and compelling, but I am going to reverse a long-held view and contend that the sterility and occasionally haphazard plotting of this sequel makes it inferior to the first movie, if only by a fraction. It's still a masterpiece. (4)

***



Personal Property (W.S. Van Dyke II, 1937) - When the Hays Code was introduced, Hollywood found it couldn't re-release hit films from 1934 and earlier as it wanted to, as they were laced with newly inappropriate content, from cheery adultery to big themes that were now off-limits, like rape and homosexuality. The solution? To re-shoot them, with most of the rude stuff chopped out. Personal Property is a charming, occasionally genuinely peculiar romantic comedy based on the 1931 film The Man in Possession with two of the same cast members - Reginald Owen and Forrester Harvey. Owen plays a stuffy, impoverished factory manager who plans to marry widow Jean Harlow - unaware that she's saddled with massive debts. His brother (Robert Taylor) doesn't care about the money. In fact, the ex-con is so smitten that he installs himself in her house as a bailiff, playing butler as he waits for her to pay her bills. If Taylor's comic persona isn't distinct from other stars, playing like a melange of Robert Montgomery, Gary Cooper and a young Jimmy Stewart, he's immensely likeable and creates sparks with Harlow. She had come to the screen as a wooden performer, but left it as an actress of some flair. Sadly, Personal Property was to be her final completed film. It's a stagey but very entertaining slice of escapism that features a possible first for movies: a character so posh that all of his dialogue is entirely (intentionally) unintelligible. Nice. (3)

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Our Friends in the North - TV review

I watched the whole series over four nights this week. Here's a write-up:



Our Friends in the North (Simon Cellan-Jones, 1996)

*MAJOR SPOILERS ALL THE WAY THROUGH*

Peter Flannery's journey through three decades of working class history is a passionate, astute and astonishingly sure-footed drama, tracing the contrasting fates of four Geordies in a vividly-realised world of police corruption, ill-conceived town planning and vice. The four stars roughly represent archetypes of the period - a Labour chameleon, a Thatcherite self-made man, a radical and an apathy factory - but they're much more interesting and well-rounded than that.

Nicky (Christopher Eccleston) is our radical. In 1964 he wants to change the world. By 1979 he's part of the militant tendency, having gun-run for the anarchists. Eight years later, he's all burnt out: a self-centred, unhappy academic jettisoning happiness for a cheap thrill and trying to connect with a father lost to Alzheimer's. Mary (Gina McKee) is the childhood sweetheart he let down back in '64, leaving her to the clutches of wannabe musician Tosker (Mark Strong). She grows up to be a Labour stalwart, while Tosker morphs into a wealthy developer thanks to Thatcher's tax breaks. The apolitical Geordie (Daniel Craig, in startling form) is a likeable likely lad who becomes immersed in a Performance-like world of strip clubs and Soho hoods (including Malcolm McDowell) and pays with his sanity.

Each of the nine episodes covers a specific year (from 1964 to 1995), containing apparently major events that crumble to dust and supposedly minor ones that grow in significance as they echo through the decades. The series is extraordinary in that it never goes where you expect it to and yet always rings completely true.

Fact and fiction

Mixing fact and fiction in a sur-Ellroy manner, the narrative encompasses the John Poulson public housing scandal rooted in the 1960s, successive investigations into police corruption and - in a bravura, largely self-contained episode - the miners' strike of 1984. There may be concessions to conventionality in the shape of three or four one-dimensional right-wing "baddies", but Flannery's glorious, deep writing creates an overwhelming number of compelling, multi-faceted characters, several of whom are among the greatest in television history.

Austin Donohue (a vivid characterisation from Alun Armstrong) is an arrogant, bribe-taking, bribe-paying councillor in bed with a property developer. And yet "Mr Newcastle" - based on the disgraced T. Dan Smith - is utterly human, with frailties that can't be papered over by an unmatched gift of the gab, and justifying arguments that are as practical as they are unpleasant. He gets a glorious send-off too, with a final line that's one of the high points of the series. "Oh no, not on the street, man, not on the street," he says, as the cops arrive to arrest him.

Nicky's father Felix (Peter Vaughan, Porridge's Grouty and one of Straw Dogs' more reprehensible villains), meanwhile, is haunted by the failure of the Jarrow March and incapable of showing love or respect for his son, whom he describes as "useless", as Alzheimer's later takes hold. Geordie is the story's Sebastian Flyte: attractive, sympathetic and laid low by drink, with his friends powerless to help.

Interestingly, Tosker follows a similar path to redemption as Soames, Eric Porter's enduringly controversial character in the 1966 Forsyte Saga. Admittedly the musician-cum-mogul doesn't rape his wife, but there is an extremely uncomfortable scene in which he accuses Mary of "ripping him off", and then has his way with her as she looks on boredly. By 1995 he is as successful in his homelife as in the business world, becoming a fully-fledged family man and possessing enough empathy to give his old pal Geordie not only a job, but also a place to stay.

Emotional wallops

This novelistic work, based on Flannery's 1982 play, is incredibly engrossing - try thinking about anything else between episodes and you'll see what I mean - and extremely moving. Donohue's exit is a killer, but there are numerous other wallops, like Nicky's photographing of a bearded vagrant in 1984, his hug with Geordie in the final episode, as Colin Towns employs his wonderful theme music within the action for the first time, and the pair's unforgettable talk about the love of Geordie's life. "When I was with her, everything made sense," he says. While the series is bleak and emotionally draining, it's also blackly funny, with an oft-hilarious 1979 episode that suggests the whole of Britain was engaged in some sick joke designed to destroy itself across 11 joyless years. Elsewhere, Flannery jazzes up the history lesson with thriller elements - check out the scene where Geordie returns to London after laying low: a masterclass in nausea-inducing dread.

Our Friends in the North is meticulously constructed, with elements that slot perfectly into place and a heavy sense of fatalism. But it's never forced or artificial, and boasts memorable, brilliantly-drawn characters elevated by some sensational acting. Craig, as the unconquerable Geordie, is the stand-out, retaining the character's essential spark, guilessness and penchant for silly jokes even when he's beaten down by life. The scene in which the booze-addled arsonist tells the cops he and a few other lads "set fire to a guy once" is superbly judged. "When was this, Geordie?" asks the officer. "Bonfire Night," he replies, exposing filthy teeth as he breaks into a delighted guffaw.

The series is, simply, magnificent - astonishingly ambitious, intelligent and impassioned, with inspired use of symbolism as it charts the fluctuating fortunes of Newcastle's working class since 1964 and, really, since the Jarrow Crusade of '36. Without ever labouring the point, it draws a parallel between Felix's dementia and the collective amnesia of the proletariat about its proud shared heritage. It's no coincidence that his character's condition is brought on by a crass, belittling thug and his Alsation - the alienated, unthinking '80s man lashing out in the only way he knows how, and savaging the spectre of working class resistance in the process. In his police interview, Geordie says the Labour Party told him to set fire to a mattress - "and that's why I don't vote for them, because they tell you to do daft things", suggesting that for vast swathes of the working class, the party's stance has proved to be unsuitable, wrong-headed and ultimately unintelligible.

Dazzling, heart-rending and uncompromising, with inspired use of music (including, of course, Don't Look Back in Anger by Oasis in the climactic scene), it's a landmark piece of work and one of the most profoundly affecting experiences of my life. It's also slightly dispiriting, as I'll never be able to write anything a tenth as good. (4)
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Our Friends in the North is currently unavailable on DVD and VHS. I'd advise you check your local library, rather than forking out £145 for a second-hand copy. Though it's certainly worth that, if you're loaded.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Why the Oscars are worthless


"And the award for the most stultifying, simplistic, unchallenging guff of the year goes to..."

What have Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Mitchum, Cary Grant and Judy Garland got in common? Here's another clue: it's the same thing that unites The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Double Indemnity, It's a Wonderful Life, The Searchers and Hoop Dreams. They've all played a crucial role in the evolution of movie-making. They've all brought joy and heartache to countless millions. And not one of them has grabbed a single competitive Oscar.

The Academy Awards is the annual ode to gaudity and mediocrity that chose Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, that decided Marty was a more important film than Rebel Without a Cause, that gave Bogart his Oscar for The African Queen and Scorsese a gong for The Departed.

As the gold dust settles on this year's ceremony, the results are being met with the usual cries of surprise and dismay. Why? The Oscars has been getting it so completely wrong since its inception, the only mystifying thing is that anyone takes it seriously at all.

But even aside from the subjective argument that the Oscars consistently fails to reward "great movies", their more troubling flaw is a refusal to recognise important, era-defining ones - an issue that goes to the very heart of its purpose. Its continual embracing of the bland is not by coincidence, it's by design.

Set up in 1928 with the express purpose of mollifying censors and right-wing critics who saw Hollywood as debauched and amoral, the Oscars has always returned to that offensively unchallenging remit. The Academy had been established the previous year by MGM head Louis B Mayer as an anti-union move. As early as the first ceremony, its awards overlooked King Vidor's progressive liberal drama The Crowd in favour of the dazzling but apolitical romance Sunrise. It's barely deviated since. If in doubt: play safe.

Social polemics, state-of-the-nation dramas and movies that with one fell swoop have created entire genres have been - and are - consistently ignored, in favour of unchallenging, box-ticking, hateful, award-ogling guff. That underwhelming, simplistic fare can be so easily dismissed as "awards fodder" is a damning indictment of what these events represent. This is the awards ceremony that heralded Rocky over both Taxi Driver and Network, that decided Kramer vs Kramer was not only better than Coppola's Vietnam opus Apocalypse Now, but also knocked the Tin Drum into a cocked hat. That has just overlooked In the Loop. That seems to think Gandhi isn't shit. (The film, not the man).

The awards are reactionary, even regressive, with pet fixations that members think compensate for their general blinkeredness. Disabled people are sort of alright, and gays can get up to what they want - so long as we don't have to really see it - but keep the dissidents and the self-possessed blacks away at all costs. The Oscars have always prized the worthy and the preachy above the challenging or the new, consistently celebrated the cautious, the mawkish and the dull. The awards are pointless and redundant, irrelevant and obscene. And did you see what Sandra Bullock was wearing?

Friday, 5 March 2010

Comedy review: Richard Herring at Harrogate Theatre - March 1, 2010

The comedian's Hitler Moustache show is extraordinarily good. Here's why...



Richard Herring is worrying about how history will remember him.

The comic, in Harrogate for the latest leg of his Hitler Moustache tour, has recounted the fear that if he went to his parents' golden wedding anniversary with the square of facial hair he'd grown specially for the show, that might well spoil the celebrations.

"And I know that would be the only photo of me left in 200 years," he says.

"My family would be looking at it, saying: 'Your great-great uncle Richard? My best guess is that he was a Nazi paedophile.'"

Once more Herring is making himself the butt of his gags and while his edgy humour might not be to everyone's taste, the 300 people who've snapped up tickets for his Harrogate Theatre show are laughing fit to burst.

The main focus of his set is racism and judging people by appearances, centred on his attempt to reclaim the toothbrush moustache for comedy, but loaded with broadsides at the BNP and liberal culpability in their recent successes.

Big commitment

He acknowledges that the moustache "is a big commitment, to make what is essentially quite a glib point".

Still, he hopes the look will take him from playing small beer halls to headlining stadiums, as it did for the last guy.

The material dealing with racism is staggeringly good, with an extended bit on 'why racists are less racist than you' that's positively inspired.

"The most extreme racists only see two kinds of people: black and white," he says.

"You see about 170. They're so much closer to thinking that everyone is the same."

In his 90-minute set, he'll ruminate on religion, his commitment to his art and the theft of his iPhone, though his freewheeling style allows for numerous absurdist asides and some concessions to pure childishness.

Heaven

He tells the audience that Hitler is looking down at him from heaven, launching a routine about Michael Jackson's supposed entry to the kingdom of God that passes into gleefully silly territory.

"I heard about the die-hard fans gathering outside the hospital after Jackson's death," he said.

"I thought: 'What are the Die Hard fans doing there?'

"That's completely inappropriate. When Bruce Willis dies, that will be the time for them."

Emerging after the interval, Herring says mock-apologetically: "There aren't really any jokes in the second half of the show, I just have a go at you", but it's just a sign that the blistering, deeply funny deconstruction of racism and racist language is about to resume.

A sequence analysing a BNP election leaflet satirises the claim that the main parties are proposing mass immigration, before Herring returns to aiming digs at his audience's inconsistency.

Race

Jokes about Nick Griffin's appearance are not OK, he says, but it's alright to do a generic German impression.

"Is that racist? No, Germans are not a race. They wanted to be, but hey are not."

That throwaway remark epitomises Herring and his show - dark, challenging, informed and with a sense that this swaggeringly assured comic knows exactly where he's heading.

The theme of Hitler Moustache, emerging quietly and seamlessly from the gimmicky set-up, is that all we must do to see off fascism is to vote.

Herring is just about the best comedian we have right now, his incisive material elevated by apparently effortless delivery.

And if he occasionally attempts to play on a Harrogate-Leeds rivalry that doesn't really exist, that's a minute price to pay for an extraordinary show: important, enthusing and consistently hilarious.
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This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 25 of the Harrogate Advertiser, March 5, 2010. For our interview with Richard Herring, click here.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A bit about me - because it's probably time (Part One)


Steve Bull - a formative figure in my li(f)e

Hello there - and thanks for wandering in from the vast, grubby landscape that is the world wide web, with its empty crisp packets blowing every which way and its proliferation of naked women. This, he said with barely merited pride, is my blog. Back in the day - that's a phrase I nicked from the sporadically lively 1995 heist flick Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead - I used to do a weekly film column at the newspaper I work for, the Harrogate Advertiser. Since I did it in my free time for no additional moolah, it got to be a bit of a bind, so after 12 exhausting months I jacked it in and transferred my extra-curriculur efforts to this here piece of work. I've posted a full 24 updates in the first nine weeks of this year - reviews of around 50 films, plus some archive pieces and a pair of star interviews. And there's more on the way. Now I've decided to waste a good five minutes of your life by telling you about mine.

I was born at the age of four round the back of a caravan in the West Midlands. Abandoned by my parents Robert Lindsay and Millicent Fawcett (the mother of modern feminism; forget Emmeline Pankhurst) who couldn't stand the scandal, I was raised instead by Wolves. Not vulpine philanthropists, but the Wolverhampton Wanderers backroom staff. Shanghaied into their strike-force opposite in-form goalscorer Steve Bull, I was continually frustrated by their inability to break an apparently self-enforced glass ceiling and win promotion to the Premier League. So I left. Touring the country with a marching band, I accidentally won a scholarship to a leading independent school, ultimately leaving with eight GCSEs and a car-full of ground maintenance equipment.

That was good enough to get me onto the newsdesk at the Harrogate Advertiser, where I've managed to acquire a lifetime of (presumably false) memories in just two-and-a-half years. I like films, football and pasta and my favourite colour is still red.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Godfather and Caggers on fire - Reviews #18

Five reviews in this latest update. For newcomers: movie ratings go from one star (Spice World) to four (The Searchers). Thanks for reading - comments are very welcome below.



Houseboat (Melville Shavelson, 1958) - Romantic comedies with kids attached rarely get it spot on. As a rule, they're too fraught, a tad preachy and with a dearth of genuine laughs. Though there's One Fine Day and Listen, Darling, products of the genre tend to turn out more like Please Don't Eat the Daisies. But despite boasting fraughtness, preachiness and only a smattering of giggles, Houseboat succeeds on the strength of its sheer charm. Cary Grant is an estranged father-of-three who returns from Government business abroad after his ex-wife's death and finds his children don't want to know him. Enter fiery Sophia Loren, a prospective governess who can't cook and can't sew, but might just be able to bring the family back together - so long as she doesn't fall for her charges' father. It's flabby and sentimental, but that meandering and manipulation is part of its charm, and though there are obvious story flaws - like Martha Hyer (the other woman) turning into a scumbag for no reason other than dramatic convenience - the leads are effortlessly likeable, the setting is pleasant and there's a showboating supporting part from Harry Guardino as a handyman with two roving eyes. John Litel, who played Carson Drew in Warner's Nancy Drew series, appears briefly. Loren sings Bing! Bang! Bong! a hatful of times. (3)

***



One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961) is a lightning-paced Cold War comedy from writer-director Billy Wilder. In Ninotchka he flirted with the more palatable aspects of communism, whilst embracing capitalist Paris. Here he's had it with the Bolshies entirely, siding with Coca Cola's man in west Berlin (James Cagney) as the executive tour-de-force schemes relentlessly to land a top job in London, despite the fact the boss's daughter left in his care is now up the duff by a shouty communist (Horst Buchholz). Playing like an update of those glorious pre-Code Lee Tracy vehicles - most obviously Clear All Wires! - it's an uproarious, often startlingly inventive comedy, with rat-a-tat dialogue that shoots down subservient civilians, commie interrogators and ex-Nazis in a shower of well-chosen words. In addition, Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond throw in a frenzied variation on the Lady for a Day makeover challenge, a bunch of great movie in-jokes (there's a classic referencing Cagney's starmaking turn in The Public Enemy) and quite a bit of finely-honed smut, pitched between the wink-wink approach of classic Hollywood and the uncomfortable fleshiness of Avanti! The script is matched by the performances. No-one, with the possible exception of Tracy, could have brought such manic zeal to the central megalomaniac as Cagney. He expended so much energy here he needed a liedown for 20 years. This was his last film until 1981's Ragtime, his final screen appearance. Arlene Francis is perfect as Cagney's wife - shorn of her lust for life - while Pamela Tiffin (that's her name, don't tell Sid James) is suitably annoying as the boss's daughter and Sig Ruman has a funny voice-only cameo, if you're wondering why his unmistakable Germanic tones are emerging from an unrecognisable fizzog. (4)

***



Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, 2003) is an episodic entry from Pixar, inexplicably hailed by many as the studio's best. In a moving prologue, we see the wife and unborn spawn of clownfish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) eaten by a predator. He aside, the sole survivor is an offspring with a weak fin: Nemo (Alexander Gould). The attack - and birth - has a profound attack on the formerly carefree Marlin, who becomes absurdly, embarassingly protective of his son. When the youngster is captured by a diver, his father must embark on a revelatory quest, braving shark attacks and jungles of jellyfish in a bid for reunion. The film is exciting, moving and stunningly animated, but has too many incidental characters who aren't sufficiently well-drawn, and a habit of hitting you over the head with its message. "You can’t never let anything happen to [Nemo] - then nothing would ever happen to him," says periodically annoying comic relief Dorey (Ellen DeGeneres). That would be pithy had we not already got the point. It's still a good film. (3)

***



"I believe in America..."
*MAJOR SPOILERS*
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
would appear to be the best film I've seen so far in 2010. I hadn't watched it for a good five years, incidentally, during which time it seems to have got even better. Marlon Brando is Vito Corleone, the mafia don whose empire starts to crumble when he opts out of a move into narcotics, only for war-hero son Michael (Al Pacino) to enter the fold, jettisoning his father's dream that he'd become a senator. It's grand and sweeping, and yet intensely personal: a wonderfully-acted fusion of family saga and human tragedy whose key players inhabit a vivid world of fierce ethics and bloody violence. Coppola and co-scripter Mario Puzo (who wrote the source novel) have plenty to say about family, honour and the American Dream - and the classic scenes are just legion. Some have argued that Brando's Oscar-winning performance is really a supporting role, but, despite a lack of screen time, he dominates the entire film and provides many of its finest moments. There's the moment he learns of Sonny's death, then calls in an emotional favour ("Look how they massacred my boy"), and a simply staggering two-handed sequence in which he maps out past and future to his successor. "I thought that... when it was your time that - that you would be the one to hold the strings," he says. "This wasn't enough time, Michael, it wasn't enough time..." The old-fashioned storytelling, complete with impeccable production design, is augmented by Coppola's use of '70s innovations, like overlapping dialogue and informal out-of-focus close-ups, as well as Nino Rota's unforgettable score. The staggering ensemble includes not only Brando and Pacino (who is simply brilliant), but also James Caan as the last word in likeable hotheads, Robert Duvall playing pragmatic family lawyer Tom Hagen and veteran Richard Conte, superb in his key supporting role as Don Barzini. It's a magnificent movie. (4) Parts II and III to follow as soon as I can free up the time.

***



James Cagney described Torrid Zone (William Keighley, 1940) as "Hildy Johnson goes bananas" - that is, The Front Page on a fruit plantation, though in its portrayal of tough men and women slugging it out in unbearable heat, it also recalls Only Angels Have Wings. The story sees manager Pat O'Brien conniving to keep sparky, moustachioed underling Cagney in the tropics, while the want-away heel relaxes from the toils of his job by romancing two morally dubious women and chasing a revolutionary around the hills. For the most part it's fantastic entertainment, with exceptional badinage between Cagney and card cheat Ann Sheridan and a plot that offers endless twists and turns; though on first viewing there were a couple of dry spots. I'm going to revisit this again very soon to get the rapid-fire gags I missed, so I'll see how it measures up second time around. George Tobias is fun as the bandit Rosario; Joseph Calleia, George Reeves (who takes a supporting role) and Alan Hale were among those who auditioned for the part. This was the last of eight Cagney-O'Brien pairings at Warner (including, of course, Angels With Dirty Faces) - both later appeared in Ragtime, though they didn't share the screen. (3.5)