Friday, 28 May 2010

Douglas Sirk plays it for laughs - Reviews #40

I'll be honest, there are a lot of SPOILERS in this review. I even mention the final scene.

Has Anybody Seen My Gal (Douglas Sirk, 1952) is a winning comedy from the soon-to-be master of romantic melodrama, Douglas Sirk, who went on to make the smash-hit "women's pictures" Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. Just as those films pack a notable satirical bite, so Has Anybody Seen My Gal has a few choice things to say about greed and the worship of money, even if Sirk gets his message across in an overly broad manner. Charles Coburn, who could do "crustily avuncular" like no-one else in Hollywood, plays a multi-millionaire with a novel idea about what do with his will. Having made his fortune after losing the only girl he ever loved, he resolves to give the money to the late woman's family: daughter Lynn Bari, her husband Larry Gates - who runs a grocery store - and their likeable children, Piper Laurie, William Reynolds and Gigi Perreau. But he wants to make doubly sure he's doing the right thing, and inveigles his way into their household posing as a surrealist painter.

The film is extremely entertaining and the scriptwriters generally make the right decisions within scenes, knowing when to play for laughs (almost always), when to deliver a little jolt of emotion (like Coburn seeing a portrait of his lost love) and when to curtail an encounter. It's also genuinely funny, with Coburn an absolute joy as the film's good-hearted centre, alternately omniscient and naive. The scenes where he's reprimanded by judge Paul Harvey for supposed immorality are particularly strong and there's a hilarious, ridiculous sequence in which the paternal old cove is accused of necking with young woman Laurie in a cinema that's masterfully-handled. Coburn, in career-best form, also generates an easy chemistry with both the wide-eyed, red-headed Laurie (later of The Hustler, Carrie and Return to Oz) and the charming Perreau, who reminds me of Margaret O'Brien. Being a Douglas Sirk film, this one looks absolutely great, while it's also significant in movie history as the director's first teaming with frequent collaborator Rock Hudson (playing Laurie's soda jerk boyfriend) and for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it turn from James Dean as a kid ordering a soda. That's if it takes you 10 seconds to blink.

But the film falls short of greatness in several ways. The narrative, which sees Bari turn into a nouveau riche monster, is apt to offend people of all political persuasions, with the idea that money is evil being a socialist concept and the suggestion that poor people can't handle the paper stuff an old-fashioned right-wing one. There's also the problem of Bari's character, who is crucial to our investment in the story. Familiar as the "other woman" from countless Fox films of the '30s and early-'40s, the actress is poorly-cast in a badly-written role and delivers a one-dimensional and unsympathetic performance. Though the '20s setting is enthusiastically utilised, it's also a little synthetic, while little jokes about rising prices and changing fashions are largely meaningless today to all those without a PhD in early-20th century American history. Perhaps most frustratingly, the film ends in an unorthodox manner that doesn't suit the material, taking the peculiar decision to keep the identity of Coburn's millionaire a secret. A climactic unmasking has obvious comic and dramatic potential, but instead all we get is Coburn walking down the street and out of his adopted family's lives.

Has Anybody Seen My Gal is top entertainment, powered by Charles Coburn's lovely performance and packed with good jokes. But it's let down by the simplistic, slightly negative central message, Bari's weak characterisation and a refusal to play ball with its audience, which would have turned this period piece into prime Americana. (3)

Trivia note: The film's title refers to a '20s hit, sung here by a bunch of kids at a soda fountain. It's one of several tunes tossed into the mix, apparently at random.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Capitalism, and Leslie Nielsen - Reviews #39

Occasionally I write rude words and then don't delete them. There are two in this first review - please avoid if that's likely to offend.

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009) is an important, immensely enlightening movie, even though it's hamstrung by Michael Moore's usual problems: a scattergun approach, a slight disingenuousness and an unfortunate propensity to exploit his subjects, even as he fights their corner.

The first half of the movie has some great things in it, but it's a mess, jumping from one idea to the next in a haphazard manner that suggests a stream of consciousness. It includes a gutting section showing families being turfed out of their houses, a hilarious if obvious juxtaposition of Presidents Carter and Reagan, a succession of revealing statistics about rising executive bonuses and spiralling foreclosures and an incongruous comic song about Cleveland. The highlights are an investigation of corporations benefiting from the deaths of employees that's chilling, if sometimes a little playful with the facts, and a focus on Citibank's notorious leaked memo in which they lamented the fact that the poorest 95 per cent of the country still had 95 per cent of the vote. The apparently indiscriminate jumble of scenes in this first hour is what the whole film would doubtless have looked like had the banking crisis not intervened, handing Moore a peerless example of exactly what's wrong with the current financial system. And what he does with that subject is great.

You can quibble with the filmmaker's cameraman zooming in for a greedy close-up of a sobbing child, or lampoon the frankly crap stunts that play second-fiddle to the main narrative here, but the portrait of the banks screwing the little people that dominates the film's second half is utterly superb: scrupulously researched and passionately presented. Beginning with some heavyhanded editorialising about banking terms like "derivatives" being used to hide dodgy practices - a point that's pretty poorly made - we quickly move onto the good stuff. Moore explains how Alan Greenspan and the U.S. Treasury encouraged Americans to obtain subprime mortgages, investigates Countrywide Financial's VIP loans programme and zeroes in magnificently on the bailout of major banks pushed through in 2008. Some of his revelations are just gobsmacking, like the FBI's estimate that 80 per cent of mortgage foreclosures during the financial meltdown were lender-induced. Moore also implies that Obama attracted widespread support because he was accused of being a socialist, which is clearly bollocks, but the last hour of this film is so sure-footed and insightful we'll let that slide.

As someone who studied history to degree level (I won't go as far as calling myself a "historian"), I found three backwards-looking segments of the film particularly rewarding. Moore holds up Dr. Jonas Salk - who discovered a vaccine for polio and gave the patent to the country - as a personal hero, and you can see why. When Salk explained away his utter selflessness by saying: "Could you patent the sun?", I burst into tears. I was at it again (and I don't regard myself as someone who cries that easily) when Moore recounted Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision to send in the National Guard in support of striking workers in 1936 Flint, before the director utilised extraordinary footage - long-thought lost - of the greatest President of the 20th Century unveiling his plans for a Second Bill of Rights. The proposals, identified by Karel Vasak as representing the 'second generation' of human rights, would have guaranteed all Americans "a useful job, a decent home, adequate health care, and a good education".

I would question whether Moore is really railing against capitalism itself, or just the model favoured in the US and Britain since the late-'70s. He frames the debate in terms that suggest a socialist government would be incompatible with capitalist society. That's obviously not true - take a look at Attlee's administration in Britain. What the director is actually questioning is a system of largely unregulated capitalism; bowing to the free market. Though a form of capitalism, it's an economically liberal strain, known as "monetarism" or "Thatcherism". Self-defeating to the last, Moore also keeps suggesting that America needs a revolution - nice way to scare the shit out of anybody who might think you've got a point, Michael.

Despite its obvious shortcomings, though, Capitalism: A Love Story is an important, even landmark work. That's because the subject is so crucial, the movie so timely and the high-spots so damn high. (3.5)


The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (David Zucker, 1988) - Bad joke. Bad joke. Worse joke. Bad joke. Good joke. Great joke. Great joke. Bad joke. Worse joke. And repeat. That's the template for this admirably relentless collection of spoof gags and non-sequiturs (I know it says non-sequiturs on Wikipedia, but I thought of it first, honest I did), which rose from the ashes of cancelled TV show Police Squad. Leslie Nielsen is Frank Drebin, the incompetent cop trying to thwart the assassination of the Queen, who's on a state visit to L.A. Ricardo Montalbian - a leading man for Esther Williams in his early days - is the crimelord, while George Kennedy plays Nielsen's sidekick. We begin with a particularly unfunny fight scene, but the film soon gets into its stride via a hilarious credits sequence and O.J. Simpson's slapstick dunking, before reaching a peak around the midway point, with Nielsen's dressing down by the mayor, the dockyard shoot-out ("I can't hear you! Don't fire the gun while you're talking!") and the banquet stop-and-search. The film draws on slapstick, satire and spoofery to similarly variable ends, aided by a cast that's ever-game, if only as good as the material. As I've said before, spoofing is generally the preserve of the lazy, but at least Zucker and co are selective, and largely parody deserving targets. (2.5)

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The young Norma Desmond - Reviews #38

Tonight or Never (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931) was the early talkie that brought stage and screen legend Melvyn Douglas from Broadway to Hollywood. Viewed through the prism of history, it's also a chance to see Sunset Blvd. (see #76) titan Gloria Swanson as a conventional leading lady, blessed with talent, charm and an impressive modernity. Though her character in the Wilder classic is a silent star who was thrown on the scrapheap when the movies learned to talk, the real-life Swanson actually made the transition more easily than most, winning the Best Actress Oscar for The Trespasser in 1929. It was age, rather than sound, that ultimately derailed her career. Here Swanson plays an opera singer whose performances are technically proficient but ultimately cold, leaving her way short of international success. The problem, her coach tells her, is that she's never been in love. So she concocts an affair with admirer and possible gigolo Douglas, hoping it will spark her into life. The film is less escapist and more challenging than later variations on the subject, with a script that's sometimes witty and sporadically insightful, though it does betray its stage origins in the simplistic structure and largely internal settings.

The main draw here, along with the pre-Code shenanigans, is the acting. Swanson is invigoratingly natural as she shrugs, winces and flirts her way through the movie, matched by Douglas, whose familiar man-about-town persona is undercut by a danger and brusqueness that's completely new. Support is provided by Alison Skipworth (who played the Sidney Greenstreet role in the screwball version of The Maltese Falcon, Satan Met a Lady), along with Broadway cast members Ferdinand Gottschalk, eternal butler Robert Greig, Greta Meyer and Warburton Gamble. Boris Karloff appears as a hotel employee who slyly warns Douglas of Swanson's imminent arrival in his room, while the radio announcer is an uncredited J. Carroll Naish! A further boon for classic film buffs is the photography from Citizen Kane cinematographer and Samuel Goldwyn alumnus Gregg Toland. Though he's not working at full pelt here, his silver-tinged, superbly-contrasted images give a little taster of just what Toland was capable of. And just to show that there's something for everyone here (except perhaps football supporters and Ted Danson afficionados), fans of vintage fashion should get a kick out of the striking costumes, designed by Coco Chanel.

Tonight or Never was passed with cuts before the Hays Code clampdown of 1934, then subsequently refused for re-release in 1935 and 1937. Lamar Trotti, later a Fox executive and a superb screenwriter on films including John Ford's Judge Priest and Young Mr Lincoln, was at that time working for the Hays Office and said censors had found the key seduction sequence particularly offensive. And you can see why. It wasn't until the gradual lifting of restrictions in the early '50s that a woman could waltz into a man's flat, accuse him of being a gigolo and then insist he have sex with her - albeit in elliptical terms. And even if the symbolism and language appear very dated today, the subject matter is the sort that would be off-limit for most of the next 20 years, so it's fascinating to see it peddled by a leading man so associated with simple, romantic Golden Era fare as Douglas. An earlier scene, sadly truncated by the censors, depicts Swanson lying on her bed, listening crossly to the honeymooners next door. Apparently the original cut had her writhing around excitedly as they set about consummating their marriage. There's a scene as bold as that in the Hungarian film Extase, featuring a young, decidedly naked Hedi Lamarr, but I can't think of one in contemporary American film.

Tonight or Never isn't a Pre-Code classic to rank with say, Little Caesar or Counsellor-at-Law, but it's a very watchable film and intriguing for both its sensuality - check out the leads' first kiss or Swanson's nightwear - and the meeting of two great stars heading in opposite directions. (3)

Monday, 24 May 2010

Tom Petty, ghosts and living on blood - Reviews #37

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream (Peter Bogdanovich, 2007) attempts to do for the Heartbreakers what Scorsese's No Direction Home did for Dylan - and turns out astonishingly well. Bogdanovich weaves his epic tale of artistic integrity, human tragedy and lasting friendship via interviews, live footage and a wealth of home video and in-studio footage that stretches back to the band's formative weeks. Petty and the group - including fellow founders Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench - are often bracingly candid as they chart their journey from young upstarts bundled in with the burgeoning punk scene to wiser, though no less ambitious, old-timers. Their story takes in ego-driven rifts, substance abuse and the death of bassist Howie Epstein from heroin addiction, as well as the frontman's personal battles with industry bigwigs. There's one telling moment where the singer says: "People ask if it seems like 30 years. It seems like a hell of a lot longer", but this four-hour portrait has entirely the opposite effect, fairly flying by in a blaze of irressistible melodies and telling soundbytes. Fittingly, each band member is given an introductory sketch and a significant amount of screentime. There are also sub-sections dedicated to key themes, like the source of Petty's ambition (a single-minded drive that sees him pinch songs and band members from various collaborators) and the creative process.

Though the movie's first three or four musical clips may make you wonder just how the group acquired such a fanatical fanbase, the next 40 will leave you in no doubt, as Petty emerges as a composer and performer of rare talent, happening upon songs as timeless and diverse as Don't Do Me Like That, Here Comes My Girl, The Waiting, Southern Accents, The Best of Everything, Free Fallin' and Learning to Fly. Bogdanovich occasionally fixates on the wrong details uncovered during interviews (surely Petty's descent into drug abuse is more interesting than the fact he broke his hand?), certain passages don't pack the wallop they rightly should and there's a slight dip in the last 25 as the director takes us up to date, but for the most part this is a fascinating film that gives one of America's greatest songwriters his due and reveals the inestimable part the Heartbreakers have played in his legacy. It's also an arresting portrait of a nonconformist - or "a badass", as Dave Grohl calls him - with Petty fighting MCA for the rights to his songs, stopping them from hiking up the price of his 1981 record Hard Promises and preventing his hero Roger McGuinn from selling out. If Runnin' Down a Dream isn't in the same league as No Direction Home, that's largely because Dylan's story has no equal in modern popular culture. This is still a major work - and a hugely entertaining one at that. (4)


Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredon, 2008) is one of the best films of recent years: a heartbreaking coming-of-age tale about a 12-year-old boy who falls in love with a vampire. Kåre Hedebrant is the victimised, white-haired Oskar, who ends up "going steady" with quiet, pale neighbour Eli (Lina Leandersson) before a series of grisly murders and an ill-advised attempt to become her "blood brother" alert him to her real identity. Alfredon's lack of affinity with the horror genre means he zones in one the story's more reflective elements - loneliness, sorrow, love that knows no boundaries - allowing the nerve-shredding suspense and appalling blood-letting to form an offbeat, brilliantly-realised backdrop. Let the Right One In is a one-of-a-kind movie: superbly plotted and full of breathtaking imagery, while the leads offer two of the finest kids' performances I've ever seen - despite the fact Leandersson is dubbed. (4)


There really aren't many pictures from this film knocking around.

That's the Spirit (Charles Lamont, 1945) is an absolutely delightful ghost comedy, among the best of the succession made in the '30s and '40s. Jack Oakie plays a vaudeville performer in the early-1900s who gives up his life for that of his wife (June Vincent), as she suffers complications during the birth of their daughter. Unfortunately, he's seen shuffling off this mortal coil with a not unattractive (though bloody creepy) woman who just happens to be the spectre of death. Oakie spends the next 15 years begging to be sent back to Earth to mend his wife's broken heart, and finally heavenly bureaucrat Buster Keaton relents, allowing the chubby comic a week to clear his name and rescue the happiness of his hoofing offspring (Peggy Ryan), herself desperate to climb out from beneath the thumb of grandfather Gene Lockhart.

The film wears its heady sentiment lightly, aided by Oakie's unexpectedly poignant, powerful turn, and there's top support from peerless, pug-faced villain Lockhart, Keaton - well-used for once in a talkie - and Vincent, in a quiet, affecting performance. Ryan, well-known to '40s audiences as part of a double-act with future Singin' in the Rain dancer Donald O'Connor, is also ideal in her key role, starring in a handful of superlative numbers alongside Johnny Coy, with How Come You Do Me Like You Do the absolute standout. That's the Spirit isn't as sophisticated or as slickly-plotted as - say - Here Comes Mr Jordan, placing a greater emphasis on sheer silliness, but I found it completely winning, and was taken aback by Oakie's touching central characterisation. (4)


Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977) is a compelling portrait of life in an inner-city L.A. estate - and of listlessness and depression. The rich atmosphere, often brilliant eye for poetic detail and stunning jazz-blues soundtrack makes up for the occasionally confusing plotting. There's a fantastic shot of kids chasing a train that recalls the euphoria of the most celebrated sequence in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, while the images of youngsters leaping between buildings are stunning. The film also makes occasional nods to surrealism and absurdity that have influenced countless subsequent films. Like having the put-upon young girl suck her hand whilst wearing a cartoonish dog mask. The leads are superb: director Burnett uncovering a couple of real talents when casting from amateurs, even if some of the supporting players tend towards woodenness. Many have hailed the film as a masterpiece. I think it's too bitty and erratic to earn that tag, but you're unlikely to have seen anything like it before - or since. NB: the abbatoir scenes are stomach-turning, says this veggie weakling. (3.5)


The Leather Boys (Sidney J. Furie, 1964) is a moderately-interesting period piece notable in its day for the atypically frank treatment of homosexuality, which means a lot of innuendo, one spat epithet and a strange scene in a bar with two overbearing sailors. The film combines elements of Victim (it's not afraid to just about mention gays), The Wild One (it's not afraid to overtly mention bikers) and A Taste of Honey (it's not afraid to feature Rita Tushingham as a schoolgirl claiming to be up the duff), but it's nowhere near as good as those films. Colin Campbell is the bike-crazy young man who weds the 16-year-old Tushingham, then realises that probably wasn't wise.

The film has a decent sense of the unexpected, with Campbell being the compassionate, thoughtful one and Tushingham's fictional pregnancy backfiring terribly, but it's badly-written and inconsistent in both tone and quality. Added to which, Tushingham is incredibly irritating, save for during a brief reconciliation with Campbell in the final 30 that's appealing and extremely well-acted. Goodness knows what direction she was getting from Furie the rest of the time. The second half is dominated by Dudley Sutton, giving a formidably peculiar performance as Campbell's gay mate. He has screen presence and produces several moving moments, but consistently undermines himself through whatever-that-voice-is-that-he's-doing. If you do decide to check out the film, stay with it till the end: the climax is surprisingly strong. (2)


SHORT: That's the Spirit (Roy Mack, 1933) is an OK Vitaphone one-reeler showcasing yet another forgotten jazz group, this time Noble Sissle and His Band. It's pretty much par for the course, with future Monogram Charlie Chan foil Mantan Moreland and F.E. Miller as spooked nightwatchmen who discover the (inexplicably miniature) Sissle and co playin' hot jazz inside a warehouse. The band are above average, with vocalist and dancer Cora La Redd particularly impressive, but the setting is uninspired and the comic bookends aren't funny. Didn't black people scare easily in '30s America compared to whites? (2.5)

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Tracy and Hepburn do America - Reviews #36

Keeper of the Flame (George Cukor, 1942) - National hero Robert Forrest is dead. As America mourns, idealistic hack Stephen O'Malley (Spencer Tracy) arrives at the Forrest mansion, promising to do right by the heroic statesman with a comprehensive biog. That sounds reasonable, so why is Forrest's white-clad widow (Katharine Hepburn) acting so strangely? The film starts off fantastically, the first 30 bristling with energy and intrigue as sparks fly between reporter Tracy - just back from Berlin - and old flame Audrey Christie. There's some super interplay between the leads as well, and Tracy spouts spare, world-weary wisdom as only he can. But then Kate starts whispering behind closed doors to press agent Richard Whorf and it all falls apart. The blame really lies with Donald Ogden Stewart's script, which slips from wit, originality and humanism to cliche and blandness, though Cukor (Hepburn's favourite director) doesn't help matters by signposting all his plot twists.

There's a good idea at the heart of this film, but it's lost in the muddled production. The effect is as if Tracy and Hepburn were offered four disparate projects and decided to film them all at once. Beginning with a sort of inspired cross between Citizen Kane (see #88) and His Girl Friday (see #100), we traipse through tedious gothic melodrama (the mid-section playing like a flabby Jane Eyre as the meeting with Forrest's mother just goes on and on and on), and wind up in a heavy-handed, unconvincing thriller, Hepburn frantically incinerating her late husband's papers. To my eyes, few films are "unintentionally hilarious", but there's a bit in the climax where Whorf bounces off the front of a car that's really badly handled and did elicit a slight chuckle. Considering the film's opening, I have to chalk up Keeper of the Flame as a major disappointment. Revel in the opening third, with its scintillating badinage and Percy Kilbride's hilarious supporting turn, but don't expect that momentum to last. By the final reels, there's just the performances to take solace in, as the screenplay loses the plot. Perhaps that's what Hepburn was chucking in the fire. (2.5)


For our review of Hepburn and Tracy in Adam's Rib, why not clicky here.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Four Lions, toy stories and Terence Davies on Liverpool - Reviews #35

Six films in our latest roundup, including Chris Morris on the big screen, Toy Story re-appraised and X-Men going out with a very loud whimper.


CINEMA: Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010)
is a movie about four homegrown jihadists that plays its confrontational premise largely for laughs. Chris Morris, the main brain behind The Day Today, Brass Eye, Nathan Barley and the short film My Wrongs, has played down suggestions that his film is a satire, saying his intention was to try to make sense of a world in which Yorkshire is breeding suicide bombers. The result is an Ealing-style farce that celebrates the comic incompetence behind terrorism, whilst stressing the confusion and human frailty of its subjects. It lacks more universal insight and has no real teeth beyond its arresting raison d'etre, but it is - as the promotional material has made clear - "funny". It is also unexpectedly poignant.

Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a young Muslim from Sheffield. He has a wife, a kid and a plan to create mass carnage through a programme of suicide bombings. (Un)fortunately he's surrounded by idiots and, from Ponds Forge to Pakistan, his earnest, misguided plans are sabotaged by bleach stockpiler Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), theme park enthusiast Waj (Kayvan Novak) and maniacal convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay). The script, co-written by Morris and Peep Show creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, is stuffed with great one-liners and ridiculous comic episodes, Morris building on real-life events to create absurdist flights of fancy that are often breathlessly funny. The scene in which Barry tries to justify his plan to blow up a mosque will surely go down as a classic and Fessal's adoption of various vocal disguises passes into sublime, deadpanned silliness, while his demise is inspired.

The film may not be the incisive, all-encompassing spearing of the subject matter that fans of the director had hoped for, but it's bold in another way, asking us to empathise with its characters - and to try to understand them. Though their grievances are shown as hypocritical and wrong-headed, the protagonists are fundamentally likeable (Barry aside), and the subversive presentation of Omar's homelife is particularly affecting. There's a fantastic sequence in which he tries to justify his actions to his young son by transplanting them to the world of The Lion King, while the farewell to his wife in a crowded hospital is just heartbreaking. The film has no strong message, with a final shot that manages to be both clever and frustratingly unclear, but it's extremely well-written and frequently hilarious. And if Four Lions is an altogether different beast to the one most people were expecting, on its own terms it's pretty great. (3.5)


Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008) - The fifth feature from Britain's greatest living director, Terence Davies, was shot for just £250,000 as part of Liverpool's European Capital of Culture celebrations. His first movie since 2000, it followed years of failed, thwarted projects. Anyone familiar with Davies' work will recognise his pet concerns here, as he uses the city as a canvas on which to paint memories of childhood and lost innocence. He no longer recognises the city; barely recognises himself. Davies delivers an intensely personal voiceover that's tragic, verbose (he has a nice turn of phrase) and ripe for parody, offering one part incomprehensible wordiness to every dose of pithy poetry.

Some have hailed this as the director's greatest achievement, but it is only when Davies stops yapping and dedicates himself to those unparalleled fusions of music and nostalgic visuals - passages of lyricism, irony and sorrow - that the film really approaches the brilliance of his earlier work. The sequence set to Peggy Lee's 'The Folks Who Live on the Hill', charting the move from terraced housing to the false dawn of high-rise blocks, is one of the best things he has ever done. Oddly, though, the continuation of that thread, which seems to stress the terrible human cost of such schemes, as young children return to the hellish towers, is interrupted by Davies going on about municipal architecture being a bit of an eyesore, comprehensively undercutting the effect. On second viewing, Of Time and the City looks the same as first time around - only more so. It's erratic, lurching from truth to redundant repetition, though when it works, it's glorious. (3)


"Would you like more tea, Mrs Nesbit?"
I enjoyed Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) a lot more than when I was a kid, which might be a criticism. The plot revolves around cherished sheriff toy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), who's tossed over by Andy in favour of shiny new space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Buzz, meanwhile, is convinced he's the saviour of the galaxy, as opposed to just being a toy. It's on a smaller scale than later Pixar efforts, and of course digital animation has developed a lot in the past 15 years, but it's very well done, with appealing characters, clever jokes - including a great recurring gag about Woody being a murderer - and a lot of heart, reinforced by Randy Newman's lovely song score. One complaint: as Lasseter points out on the DVD, Woody's monologue in Sid's room, perhaps the best scene in the film, shouldn't have been trimmed. The extended scene is even better. (3.5)

Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter and Ash Brannon, 1998) is often cited as part of that select band of superior sequels: along with Aliens, X2, Grease 2 and Look Who's Talking Too, but to this reviewer it falls just short. Sure, it builds on the original in a host of ingenious ways, with the arrival of Emperor Zurg a stroke of genius, but the pay-off to that sequence is clunky, stupid and unfunny in a way that Pixar never is, stopping the film in its tracks. And despite the multitude of great running gags (like Rex becoming a computer games nut) and imaginative action sequences (the cones set-piece, that stunning opening scene), the film is never quite as sharp, dark or exciting as the first entry. It's still pretty much fantastic, though - the risible Empire Strikes Back spoof aside - and I enjoyed the film's concessions to heavy sentiment, including Sarah MacLachlan's song When She Loved Me, which soundtracks a moving flashback for Joanna Cusack's cowgirl character Jessie. (3.5)


The Dust Factory (Eric Small, 2004) is an interesting fantasy film with a genuinely peculiar, unsettling middle section. Ryan Kelley is engaging, playing a young boy who gives up talking after a series of family tragedies. Falling from a bridge into the river, he awakens in The Dust Factory, a place between Heaven and Earth inhabited by free-spirited dawdler Melanie (Hayden Panettiere) and his grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl), robbed of speech in the real world due to Alzheimer's. The only way out of the world is via a leap of faith from a circus trapeze, above a pit of quicksand-like dust.

Panetterie is more conventional and less ethereal than Annasophia Robb's similar character in Bridge to Terabithia, while the film itself is somewhat less coherent and affecting. The characters' method of escape also doesn't seem that tricky (surely they should return to Earth if they're caught, not if they fall?), while the lure of the Dust Factory itself is somewhat dubious. But the acting is good and the friendship at the heart of the movie works really nicely. Kudos too to director Eric Small for making the material in the big top so formidably odd. (3)


X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, 2006) is alright in itself, but undoes some of the braver, more interesting and satifying elements of the second film to create a somewhat underwhelming "end of days" action scenario. Though watchable, it's also misanthropic and lacks the sense of fun prevalent in the first two entries. Hugh Jackman is typically good value, but the treatment of Storm (Halle Berry) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) is frankly a travesty, and the introduction of Vinnie Jones as The Juggernaut is going to have to go down as a bit of a misfire. Ellen Page is notably underused. Let's pretend this one didn't happen, like we do with The Godfather Part III. (2)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Mona Lisa, Nanny McPhee and how to train a dragon - Reviews #34

A full nine reviews for you to digest in this update, including a pair of family films - both showing at a cinema near you - an embryonic Crying Game, del Toro's Hellboy and Ginger Rogers choosing between three fanciable metaphors. Plus: MGM remake Fred and Ginger, Mike Shayne waves goodbye and the world explodes. Comments are welcome below.


CINEMA: Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (Susanna White, 2010) - Emma Thompson’s wise, warty heroine returns in this enchanting children’s film. It is 1940 and Britain is at war. So too are the children of Mrs Green (Maggie Gyllenhall). With their father fighting overseas and their home under threat, the last thing the put-upon youngsters need is a visit from their snooty urban cousins. Arriving weighed down with designer labels and familial angst, the Londoners proceed to infuriate their rural relations, dubbing their farm “the land of poo” and destroying an irreplaceable jar of jam. Cue a massive free-for-all, and enter Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), the magical troubleshooter who's determined to teach the kids five crucial life lessons. This sequel to the 2005 hit is an extraordinarily well-written, unpretentious, intelligent children’s movie that strikes just the right balance between fantasy and reality, with impeccably-drawn characters who develop in believable and touching ways as they’re brought to life by a hand-picked cast.

Engaging performances from the children are supported by pitch-perfect turns from Gyllenhall, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Smith, villain Rhys Ifans - a spiv in the George Cole mould - and Ralph Fiennes, the pick of the bunch playing an arrogant, emotionally-repressed War Office bigwig. Thompson, who also scripted, is a delight as the titular saviour, ideas brewing endlessly beneath that thatched grey hair. The film gets its many laughs without resorting to spoofery or lazy pop culture gags - offering slapstick, observation and effective character comedy - and packs a real emotional wallop. The scene between the uptight Fiennes and his unhappy son is the highspot, made all the more moving by being so doggedly unsentimental, while the movie's bittersweet climax yanks on the heartstrings in an entirely agreeable manner. Ultimately, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang is everything that kids’ films should be and yet so rarely are, wearing its prestigious influences lightly as it casts a gentle spell over the viewer. It also features an Esther Williams-style synchronised swimming dance number performed by pigs - and movies don’t get much better than that. (4)


CINEMA: How to Train Your Dragon 3D (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010) is a spirited animation that puts a smart spin on a familiar story. A sensitive, apparently weedy teenager struggles to escape the shadow of his overbearing father - a dragon fighter. After the youngster shoots down a dragon, he's crestfallen that no-one believes his story, and sets out to find the beast. What he finds instead is a friend - the inaccurately-named Toothless - their relationship giving him the insider knowledge needed to mollify the monsters he faces in Dragon Training. The film shares something of its sensibility with Dick King Smith's comic novel Tumbleweed, while the fine premise is augmented by action sequences and anarchic humour in the manner of a Pixar film. While this can't touch Up or WALL-E, it's a distinguished take on the ‘boy and his pet’ yarn with a vivid backdrop, appealing characters (they may be stereotypes, but they seem real) and good jokes. And there's imagination to spare in the production design, which includes some memorable monsters - the main baddie being a particularly formidable chap. Though it's all CGI, it looks lovingly crafted, with a distinctive visual style. As Hiccup, Jay Baruchel is occasionally too old and studied, but the voice cast is mostly good, handling the chatty material well and proffering a multitude of energetic whoops and yells. Those cries, of course, are lent to the action set-pieces, which possess a genuine sense of magic. The scene in which Hiccup takes Toothless out of a tailspin is absolutely euphoric - a real gem. As for 3D, it's not really 3D, it’s 2D objects in front of one another, but it works nicely here, particularly when it's subtly employed to draw us into the centre of the drama. (3)


Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)
is a fantastic piece of work: a quiet, touching love story framed against a sordid, squalid London underworld full of underage prostitutes, drug addicts and pitiless gangsters. Bob Hoskins is magnificent as a former mob driver and Nat 'King' Cole fan who gets out after seven years in stir and seeks a helping hand from his old bosses. What he gets is a job ferrying around high class call girl Cathy Tyson, with whom he falls in love. So perhaps he's not thinking straight when he agrees to track down a friend the "tall black tart" promised to look out for years before, taking him deep into the underbelly of the capital. Jordan establishes many of the concerns he'd conclusively nail in The Crying Game - unlikely friendships, game-playing and moral courage awoken within a lost soul by undaunted love - but his view is bleaker, even nihilistic, as the unconventional, sweet-hearted hero struggles to breathe in an appalling, stifling universe that's impossible for him to comprehend. Then gets royally screwed.

The acting is universally superb, though Hoskins is unquestionably the stand-out, trading on his great gift: the ability to transmit his very thoughts through that intelligently expressive fizzog. Tyson is also terrific, while Michael Caine is stunningly utilised in what's essentially a glorified cameo as a colourful, rabbit-loving crime lord. Jordan's script, co-written with future Wish You Were Here director David Leland is exceptional: poetic, funny, quotable and frequently profane, while his direction is laced with idiosyncratic, left-field touches. The film also casts its net a little wider than you might expect, dealing with the artificiality of the '80s and the rise of consumerism through Robbie Coltrane's comic foil. He peddles fake spaghetti that goes "like hot cakes" and winds up apologising for his friend's language to a glow-in-the-dark statue of the Virgin Mary that he thinks could be the next big thing. It's a nice, offbeat subplot that offers solace from the grime, though Mona Lisa's calling card remains the unforgettable love story at its centre, which has a nod to film noir and carries a devastating sucker punch. (4)


Peculiar to look at: MGM might have had "more stars than there are in the heavens", but look what their poster artist just done did.

Lovely to Look At (Mervyn LeRoy, 1952) is a remake of the Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne romance Roberta that trims and polishes Alice Duer Miller’s plot, reworks the musical numbers and winds up a whole lot more satisfying. It’s also something of a dry-run for the phenomenal Kiss Me Kate (see #73) (the source play of which is referenced in the script) uniting three of that movie’s stars a year ahead of time: tenor Howard Keel, soprano Kathryn Grayson and curvy tap dancer Ann Miller. The toothy Keel, my mum’s favourite movie star, plays an aspiring Broadway producer, trying to get a new musical off the ground. When his fellow impresario, comic Red Skelton, inherits Parisian dress shop Roberta’s, they and pal Gower Champion decide they’ll sell up and splash the cash on their stage show – until they catch a look of the tasty co-owners (Grayson and Marge Champion).

The film dispenses with much of its predecessor’s plottiness, using Roberta’s as a metaphor, rather than thinking a dress shop is massively important in itself. Howard Keel is more like Coward Heel, you see, and the selfish showman needs to learn how to do right by his friends, and the gownerie they hold so dear. Keel, who went stratospheric after Annie Get Your Gun and starred in several key musicals of the period, including Calamity Jane and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, had a wonderful voice and fair comic instincts, but appeared to lack dramatic range. That’s not necessarily true, evidenced by his commanding performance in Kiss Me Kate, but he was one-dimensional unless otherwise encouraged. Skelton is asked to truly act, as well as provide the usual buffoonery, and his scenes of heartbreak contrast nicely with his over-the-top comic shenanigans. As Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler (see Punch-Drunk Love) would after him, he finds a sentimental dramatic groove through intelligent underplaying, and confounds expectations. He still puts paper in his ears and shoots a woman’s fur, though, if you're worried. Skelton also has the funniest line of the picture, reminiscing about the girl he “could have married”. In support, Kurt Kasznar is the pick, playing the buffoonish Max, who holds hidden depths. The way he approaches a business meeting is hilarious.

Roberta featured the incomparable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as cinema’s most attractive second leads. They’re replaced here by husband-and-wife dance team, Marge and Gower Champion. MGM apparently planned to remake all of Fred and Ginger’s movies using the married hoofers, but this was the only one to come to fruition. They offer a pair of brilliant dance numbers, the joyous I Won’t Dance – which is all done in one take – and a spot in the finale that sees them scrapping over a diamond bracelet. I was really taken with their agility, slinkiness and easy on-screen chemistry. The best number of all, though, is from Ann Miller, whose Hard to Handle is an absolute knockout: the leggy hoofer shoving aside wolfish admirers in a display of shimmering bravado. It could barely be more different from Ginger Rogers’ version back in ’35, which was performed in a heavy Russian accent, into a standing mic. Lafayette, a jaunty number that sees the three male leads bouncing around Paris, is great fun. The film also allows Grayson and Keel – never the most enthusiastic dancers – to stick to their strong suits and bellow two American standards introduced by Roberta. The title tune is sung by Keel, while Grayson does a touching reading of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which is modestly staged and perhaps performed at the wrong time, but lovely to listen to.

Several of these performers would scale greater heights the following year in the dizzyingly, dazzlingly inventive Kiss Me Kate. While Lovely to Look At isn’t in that league, it remains an accomplished slice of high-grade entertainment, complete with some eye-popping numbers. (3)

Trivia note: As well as leaning on Roberta, the film borrows a couple of tricks from an MGM classic of decades past: Ninotchka (see #32), which was also set in Paris. Grayson’s straight-faced recollection of stats about the Eiffel Tower is taken straight from that masterpiece, while the shot of Keel upon his return is pure Lubitsch.


Time to Kill (Herbert I. Leeds, 1942) – Lloyd Nolan’s final outing as Michael Shayne, Fox Studios’ cocky private eye, is one of the earliest Raymond Chandler adaptations, drawing its inspiration from The High Window. Shayne – the irrepressible, quick-witted, appealing Nolan – takes on an apparently simple assignment from the wealthy Mrs Murdoch (Ethel Griffies) and finds the bodies piling up around him. Fox’s lack of faith in the series is evidenced by the slim running time, with this one playing barely more than an hour. That means you get 56 minutes of tightly-scripted thriller – with a sardonic sense of humour – before the scripters have to cram in a wordy, five-minute explanation of Chandler’s convoluted plot. It’s an absolute riot until then, though, and a return to form after a slightly disappointing sixth outing.

The series opener – Michael Shayne, Private Detective – is a classic of its type, with a hilarious script and slick, fast-moving direction, making a virtue of its low budget. The second film put him on a train (Sleepers West), the third took him to a theatre (Dressed to Kill) and the fourth and fifth appeared to have been made with spare Charlie Chan screenplays someone had left lying around. There’s something of the Warner Oland Chan about the ship-bound Blue, White and Perfect, while The Man Who Wouldn’t Die – set in a haunted house and with a genuinely ingenious mystery – is pure Toler. Just Off Broadway, which had Shayne solving a case whilst sitting on a jury, was less accomplished, but this one ends the Nolan series on a high, effortlessly recapturing the flavour of the first film. Tracing a murky investigation from the second Shayne gets pitched into the mystery – fielding the call in his dingy office and reeling off a list of made-up references – to the moment he wraps it up, it’s a real treat. It’s also nice to see Shayne get a girlfriend who can handle him. An extra 10 minutes would have been welcome, allowing the whodunit to be unwrapped in a more leisurely fashion and providing time during the climax for something other than solid exposition, though given half a chance I'm sure Nolan would have spent it all wisecracking anyway. (3.5)


Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro, 2004) is an offbeat comic book film that boasts strong characterisation and an impressive aesthetic, but suffers from some incomprehensible plotting. The title character, very well-played by Ron Perlman, is the son of Satan, brought to earth in 1944 by Nazis (who've invaded Scotland), only to be adopted and reared for good by kind-hearted FBI scientist John Hurt. Returning in the present day, the fascists - who include an ageless woman, bald wizard Rasputin (I have no idea), and a man made of sand - unleash a heap of monsters and a can of high-grade whup-ass on the US. Their ultimate aim, as becomes sort-of-clear, is to lure Hellboy to Rasputin's tomb on the outskirts of Moscow, where they'll force him to open a portal to his Dad's place. Or something. The hero is a fine creation, impressively realised by Perlman and make-up maestro Rick Baker, while there's commendable support from Hurt, Doug Jones and love interest Selma Blair. The scene in which Selma's Liz replies to Hellboy's pledge of everlasting faith by murmuring "I like that" is really something. And though the action sequences are inconsistent, with tedious, by-the-numbers scraps included alongside some tense, thrilling set-pieces, del Toro taps into the mythology of the conceited but self-aware cigar-chomping hero and his singular world, the nature-versus-nature debate cast into the centre of that murky universe, shown through the eyes of its brooding outsiders. Sadly those praiseworthy elements are hamstrung by an often baffling narrative that goes seriously awry in the final reels. It's hard to care about what you're watching if you've only a faint notion of what's going on. In addition, the idea that Perlman is able to put the smackdown on supernatural baddies via his big stony fist doesn't really make sense. Hellboy remains an interesting movie, but the iffy, tacky plotting and unimaginative climax keep it firmly in the lower reaches of the superhero canon. It still wipes the floor with Spider-Man. (2.5)


A first viewing in years of Kubrick's celebrated Cold War comedy:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1963) is such a bold, arresting and confrontational comedic take on an unfathomably awful subject that you can forgive its imperfections. Sterling Hayden is the crazed brigadier general who blames the Russkies for his impotence, saying it’s because they fluoridated his water. So he sends over some bombers to nuke them. If they succeed, the commies’ Doomsday Machine will see the whole world go up in smoke. George C. Scott is Hayden’s warmongering boss, while Peter Sellers excels in three roles: playing the President, madcap ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove and, best of all, stiff-upper-lipped British captain Lionel Mandrake. The scene in which Mandrake tries to explain what on earth has been going on to endlessly suspicious colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) is a comic masterpiece. There are slow stretches, and Kubrick’s notorious anal impulse means we get a lot of tedious detail about how exactly one would drop a bomb, but there’s genius at work here, and it’s a movie everyone should see. (3.5)


Tom, Dick and Harry (Garson Kanin, 1941)
is an incisive examination of the American Dream, masquerading as a fun romantic comedy. Ginger Rogers could really screw up a comic romp if she was given free rein (see Howard Hawks' Monkey Business, or probably don't bother), but working in tandem with director Garson Kanin - a famed screenwriter - she gives a nuanced, likeable, often very funny performance. Rogers plays a scatty, indecisive young woman who becomes engaged to three very different men: go-get-'em salesman George Murphy, brooding ambition-vacuum Burgess Meredith (one of my favourite actors) and charming, slightly aloof moustachioed millionaire Alan Marshal. Murphy epitomises the American Dream and Marshal the Hollywood ideal, but it's the cynical, down-to-earth Meredith who has the purest ideas about love, and sets Ginger's bell a-ringing. The story keeps you guessing, while Kanin includes three bizarre, subversive dream sequences showing the pitfalls of married life with these three vividly-etched archetypes. Phil Silvers also has a funny bit as an intrusive ice-cream salesman who's "a little obnoxious". From the jumbly credits to the neat surprise ending, this is a wildly entertaining comedy with a latent satirical bite. (3.5)


A four-year-old showgirl. That might not be fine.

SHORT: Our Gang Follies of 1936 (Gus Meins, 1935) was the first musical entry in the enduringly popular series, a key touchstone of American popular culture. Spanky, Scotty, Buckwheat, Alfalfa, Darla and the gang put on a variety revue, which is disrupted by a mischievous little monkey, leading to an uproarious final routine. The racist gags that mar the series are in evidence (at least in the print I've got: see the films as they were made, flaws and all), though Buckwheat was treated as an equal by the youngsters, unlike most black characters of the period. Some may be offended by the sight of four-year-old Darla pouting and wiggling like a showgirl. If you like Our Gang, you'll have a ball. Otherwise, steer well clear. (3)