Thursday, 15 April 2010

Pick-ups, party people and Punch-Drunk Love - Reviews #29

When I compiled a list of my 100 favourite movies for the Harrogate Advertiser last October, this first film came in at #98. Truth be told, I’d only seen it once, about six years previously, but it had a massive impact on me. So at the weekend I belatedly got around to cracking it open again and sat there with an expression of gobsmacked wonder, and smugness at my excellent choice of film.

"I've got to make a living, so I can die."
Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953) – Former tabloid reporter Samuel Fuller knew his way around a grabby intro and Pickup starts with a classic: a wordless subway sequence that chucks us right into the story. Three-time loser and two-bit pickpocket Richard Widmark lifts a purse from unwitting commie mule Jean Peters, unaware he’s nabbed a strip of microfiche containing state secrets. The commies want him. The feds want him. And him? Well, he wants 25 grand. But as the net tightens, Widmark finds Peters is sticking – and sticking her neck out – causing him to rethink his nihilistic worldview.

From his explosive arrival as a giggling psycho in the tepid noir Kiss of Death, through Yellow Sky and Night in the City, to this slab of murky cool, Widmark was the archetypal anti-hero. An obnoxious smartarse. A bilious hothead. A real lowlife. In Pickup, Fuller periodically subverts that image, allowing us to see the central ‘cannon’ as the women in his life do. “He got under your skin too?” aged information peddler Mo (the peerless Thelma Ritter) asks Peters. Indeed, the relationship between Widmark’s cocky, pathetic outsider and Peters’ smitten dupe is one of the most affecting on celluloid. Their early exchanges fairly sizzle, crackling with noirish badinage. That heady, hazy, sweaty lust – articulated in some memorable close-ups – then turns to tenderness, as Widmark realises the girl isn’t playing any angles, she just loves him.

Great as the leads are, though, it’s Ritter who walks off with the film, delivering an unforgettable characterisation as a police informer whose sole ambition is to avoid a pauper’s grave. Her heartbreaking monologue to the commie hood who’s come to bump her off is as good a piece of screen acting as you’ll ever see.

Fuller fans continue to bicker over his greatest work, but for me, this is the one, an untouchable fusion of humanist romance and Cold War thriller that provides a vivid evocation of New York City, depicted here as a festering hellhole. The director’s screenplay seems to have been fashioned in the gutter, with wall-to-wall slang (you’ll pick it up) that casts the viewer into this foul, fascinating, fully-realised world. That goes for the direction, too, as Fuller’s camera swoons into kisses and lingers on telling details, the whole movie slipping into the shadowy palette of film noir as we visit Widmark’s waterside hole.

The anti-commie rhetoric is admittedly one-dimensional, but that’s hardly unique for the period, and it's employed in a way that works dramatically. Less satisfying is the slightly abrupt action climax, ending with a spot of face-pummelling that recalls Dick Powell’s meltdown in the 1945 noir Cornered. The sequence isn’t bad, but it’s a little uninspired and not very well executed. Perhaps it merely pales beside the film’s real calling cards: a pair of unbearably tense set pieces that see Widmark going about his daily business. (4)


The following review includes a bit of swearing, so if that’s likely to offend, please scoot down to the next one.

Tony Wilson: "You know, I think that Shaun Ryder is on a par with W.B. Yeats as a poet."
Yvette: "Really?"
Tony Wilson: "Absolutely. Totally."
Yvette: "Well, that is amazing, considering everyone else thinks he's a fucking idiot."
24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) – Highbrow literary references and obscenities litter the script of this exuberant, freewheeling take on the Madchester scene of the 1980s. Steve Coogan is Tony Wilson who, according to the movie, was the slightly twattish Svengali behind seminal musical acts Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays. And A Certain Ratio, who I have literally never heard of. It’s a complete mess, with Winterbottom throwing in everything from dream sequences and drug trips to novelistic pastiches and sitcom scenarios, but in this context, it largely works. He’s helped by Coogan, who – to borrow from a review of George Sanders’ turn in All About Eve – inhabits the role as snugly as a banana does its skin. Alternately all-seeing and a know-nothing blinkered shambles, Coogan’s Wilson provides a running commentary on goings-on, offering post-modern direct-to-camera addresses, including one on the post-modernism of what he’s doing. That might sound smug and wearying, but when dealing with the maelstrom of bullshit surrounding musical celebrity (much of it generated by people like Wilson), it seems legit. The pitching is slightly more troublesome, with a dearth of information for the uninitiated and some distractingly artificial characterisations of supporting characters (particularly members of the bands) for those in the know. Happily, though, when one recalls the frankly risible depiction of Johnny Rotten in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, the incomparable Sex Pistols are shown only in archive footage, as they blow the scales from Wilson’s eyes and set him on the path to enlightenment.

There’s a great bit of whimsy detailing Happy Mondays lyricist Shaun Ryder’s excursion to Barbados (‘The Adventures of Ryderson Crusoe’) that packs a killer punchline, and it’s fun on a personal level to see the beloved, detested haunts of my teenage years (The Ritz, Jilly’s Rockworld) cropping up, undisguised, as various incarnations of Wilson’s clubs. As a history lesson, 24 Hour Party People is gleefully unreliable and the bitty structure throws up its fair share of dead-ends, but it's often invigoratingly entertaining, from the self-mocking opening metaphor and shuddering, woozy credits, past a hysterically uncomfortable sex scene and some low-rent extortion, to the climactic appearance of God. “Tony, you did a good job,” he tells Wilson. “Basically, you were right. Shaun [Ryder] is the greatest poet since Yeats ... It’s a pity you didn’t sign The Smiths, but you were right about Mick Hucknall, his music’s rubbish and he’s a ginger.” (3)


"You're talking to the man who defended Camelot with a cardboard sword."
Hollywoodland (Allen Coulter, 2006) – TV SUPERHERO, OUT OF WORK, KILLS SELF. Or does he? That’s the question at the heart of this stylish, ‘50s-set thriller, which does a nice job of recreating star George Reeves’ final years, but provides a clich├ęd treatment of the subsequent investigation that simply peters out. The material is irresistible to old film and TV buffs. The hero of young America, former small screen Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck), is found shot. The cops says it’s a suicide, but rumours abound that notorious MGM “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) may have had a hand in his death. After all, Reeves had been screwing Eddie’s wife (Diane Lane).

The film has a dual narrative, with Reeves’ story unfolding in chronological fashion, each chapter sandwiched between a slice of lone wolf P.I. Adrien Brody’s impotent inquiry. It's an interesting, perhaps correct decision to keep the two story threads distinct, Brody’s fantasy theories about the shooting aside, but it means that the film doesn’t always gel. Even so, it’s blessed with a handful of memorable scenes. The ones concerning the filming of Superman are enjoyably tongue-in-cheek, whilst providing much of the film’s subtext about Hollywood, hero worship and human fallibility. There’s also a magical sequence that seems to have drifted in from another movie, as an entire street’s worth of kids dash through the white picket fences and into their houses to see Superman, which is about to begin. For old movie afficionados, it’s also fun to see Reeves incorporated into From Here to Eternity (admittedly quite sloppily), then to squirm as an infamous test screening draws titters from the audience.

Hollywoodland is a movie with some superior dialogue and interesting performances: Affleck is quite good, Brody very effective given the peculiarly disjointed, hackneyed material and Lane extremely strong in her key supporting part. But given the subject matter – which is pure dynamite – it winds up being a disappointment, stumbling to a close in a blur of compromise. (2.5)


Swearing's pretty big and clever, so I've quoted some foul-mouthed dialogue in this next review. Please avoid if you're sensitive about such things.

"I didn't ask for a shrink - that must've been somebody else. Also, that pudding isn't mine. Also, I'm wearing this suit today because I had a very important meeting this morning - and I don't have a crying problem."
Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002) - This is a magnificent foray into romantic comedy from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), that lends his stylistic sensibilities to a script with definite echoes of his namesake Wes. And as Wes did in The Royal Tenenbaums (see #60), so P.T. wraps the understated sentimentality and off-kilter humour around a central reinvention of a one-note comic performer: there Ben Stiller, here Adam Sandler. Expressing an intention to "make an arthouse Adam Sandler movie", the filmmaker coaxes a nuanced, attractive turn from his star that's entirely at odds with the performer's irritating blockbuster persona.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a quiet businessman prone to fits of rage, who confesses to his brother-in-law: "Sometimes I don't like myself very much." Plagued by seven gossipy sisters and - in an extremely odd subplot - the phone sex operator he ill-advisedly rang for a chat, his life is turned on its head by the appearance of sweet divorcee Emily Watson - who loves him despite his anger problems, and the fact he won't stop buying pudding. It's an extraordinarily good film, with a heap of elements one rarely finds in any type of movie, let along a genre so discredited by identikit entries. Characters say words they don't mean ("I'm very food," Sandler replies, when asked how he is), the hero is a mass of feeble excuses who lies near-constantly to cover his myriad eccentricities and, though we get nary a point-of-view shot in the whole thing, the flaring up of Sandler's neuroses is represented by pounding music that comes close to obscuring the dialogue. Invariably hating whatever it is he himself has just said, Sandler's Barry provides a particular high point by walking down a corridor repeatedly muttering, "well bye-bye, well bye-bye", before adding: "you stupid motherfucker".

This is a one-of-a-kind film: gloriously filmed and flawlessly played by the leads (as I've said before, Watson is the best actress we've seen since Lillian Gish), with an incisive examination of mental illness - and abject loneliness - that's light years away from the crude, ignorant treatment in Sandler's other, one-dimensional vehicles. It's also completely hilarious. (4)


We're Not Married (Edmund Goulding, 1952) is a series of star-studded short stories that's at its best when it's being sweet - not cynical. While its structure recalls If I Had a Million, which gave each of its main characters $1m to spank on the ventures of their choice, the story is reminiscent of Hitchcock's impressively tedious screwball comedy, Mr and Mrs Smith. Victor Moore sets the plot in motion as an over-eager, though slow-speaking, justice of the peace who starts marrying people before his licence permits. When the error is uncovered a couple of years later, five marriages are struck out, with the explanatory letters arriving at some critical juncture, giving the couples the chance to stick or twist.

As with perhaps my favourite anthology, Night on Earth, we start with the weakest story. The 'Glad Gladwyns', radio DJs Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers, are luvvy-duvvy on the air, bicker in the office and don't speak at home. Their story is mostly predictable and mostly miserable, stuffed with those leaden barbs that cinema enjoyed aiming at its rival medium during this period (see also: A Letter to Three Wives, It's Always Fair Weather) - including a string of audio adverts that seem to go on forever. Hmm. Anyway, onwards and upwards... The second chapter compensates by being pretty darn great: if you can imagine a good version of Lady Godiva Rides Again, made in America and lasting about 10 minutes - then it's like that. Marilyn Monroe is the reigning Mrs Mississippi, gunning for the regional beauty queen crown until she gets that letter, rendering her ineligible. David Wayne is in good form as her stay-at-home husband, changing nappies and avoiding sarky remarks from the postman until his trump card arrives. There are a couple of fantastic jokes in this one, which has a modern sense of humour along with its very '50s trappings, and buzzes with an energy most of the other segments don't possess.

Paul Douglas and Eve Arden are the next couple: again we're on slightly bleak ground, with the husband's motive for staying put leaving a sour taste - quite aside from not being that funny. Better, if no less cheery, is part four, in which multi-millionaire Louis Calhern is given the run-around by canny 'wife' Zsa Zsa Gabor, only to find a most unexpected escape route. The scene in which Calhern is framed by his partner's cohorts is funny, but we're ultimately asked to root for a bland if trusting financial weasel who's put a third of his money in secret accounts. Admittedly his wife is even more objectionable than he is. Happily, the movie saves its best for last, with a comic and moving segment reminiscent of star Eddie Bracken's collaborations with Preston Sturges - if lacking the touch of genius associated with that director. Bracken plays a soldier who's about to sail for overseas when he finds out that the baby he's expecting is going to be born out of wedlock. So he calls for his girl to join him and goes AWOL, dodging the Military Police as he tries to get hitched. It's madcap, in an agreeable way, with Bracken ideally cast as the eternally unlucky, put-upon little guy trying to do the right thing. There's also a small part for Lee Marvin, playing Bracken's army buddy. Finally, we get a brief coda giving a delayed wrap-up to the Rogers-Allen sequence that possesses more charm than the whole of the earlier chapter, and providing a fitting finale for Douglas and Arden. It's not a great film, but two of the five segments work really well and there's enough star power for the others to just about skirt by. (2.5)

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