Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Summer round-up* - Reviews #44

*sung to the tune of 'Woody's Round-Up' from Toy Story 2. Because I say so.

I've been on holiday for a couple of weeks. Here's a round-up of everything I've seen since the last update. I know I watch a lot of movies. Post contains owls.



Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957) - This Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn musical has a sizeable following, but to me it's one of Fred's weakest, with poor plotting and the great Gershwin song score given largely disposable treament. A real disappointment, with just some nice shots of Paris and one memorable Fred dance to compensate. (2)


Bob Fosse (serving) hatches a plan to help Janet Leigh (in the pink).

My Sister Eileen (Richard Quine, 1955) - This blissful musical version of the 1942 film was Bob Fosse's first as choreographer. The story sees sisters Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh move into a rundown apartment in Greenwich Village and run into a host of colourful characters. It's funny and energetic, with great numbers, including an unforgettable challenge dance between Fosse and Kiss Me Kate co-star Tommy Rall. Garrett's love interest is a young Jack Lemmon, who neglects to throb with nervous energy as he would in so many comedies. Instead, he's rather appealing, and even gets the chance to sing, performing It's Bigger Than You and Me. (3.5)


Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947) is an exceptional police procedural, with inspector Louis Jouvet investigating the murder of a dirty old man, his suspicions alighting upon a stage star, her jealous husband and a female photographer caught between the two. It's witty and well-played - each character imaginatively, convincingly written - while the direction is simply startling. The setting and story reminded me of the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Lady of Burlesque, though that's a vastly inferior film. (4)


The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006) tops the overrated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (from the same director), with affecting characterisations from Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, great 'homemade' production design and hilarious support from Alain Chabat as the most ridiculous boss on film. The scene where he picks up one of his underlings and puts them in the bin is hysterically funny. Bernal is a graphic artist whose shyness sees him continually retreat into a fantasy world. His vivid dreams start to affect his real life, particularly when he imagines that he's written a confessional letter to neighbour Gainsbourg and must deliver it in the nude. A lovely, uncategorisable film whose emotional intensity and off-kilter sensibility should appeal most acutely to adolescents. (3.5)


Broadway Melody of 1936 (Roy Del Ruth, 1935) was the second of four Melodys, each with a slender plot but massive musical numbers. This one begins with a spectacular take on Got a Feelin' You're Foolin set in an Art Deco hotel suite where pianos rise up through the floor. Eleanor Powell stars: her sensational solo tap sans accompaniment and climactic routine are other major highlights. But while this 1935 instalment is great fun, it took another four years for the series to strike the perfect balance between music, plot, comedy and romance. (3)


Fur-le Oberon. Sorry. The film is in Technicolor, incidentally.

Over the Moon (Thornton Freeland, 1939) is pleasant fluff, with Yorkshire lass Merle Oberon inheriting £13m, putting her at odds with fiance Rex Harrison. It's not especially well-written and the interiors jar with the pleasant location shots, but the leads are bright and Peter Haddon is amusing in support, playing an idiotic lord. (2)


Tirez sur le pianiste (Francois Truffaut, 1960) aka Shoot the Piano Player, is playful, joyful and ultimately heartbreaking, Truffaut's endlessly inventive direction bringing to life a fatalistic, pulpy story about a nihilistic pianist (Charles Aznavour) being pulled into the criminal underworld. (4)


Broadway Melody of 1938 (Roy Del Ruth, 1937) can't quite match the previous outing, despite reuniting leads Robert Taylor and Eleanor Powell and treading much of the same ground, albeit with the gossip columnist subplot replaced with one about horse racing. The main problem is that the knockout numbers are fewer in number, though chubby Judy Garland is aces in an early role, performing Everybody Sing and Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You), while Powell and George Murphy (the star of the next Melody) perform a superb routine in the rain: I'm Feeling Like a Million. (3)


Nanny McPhee (Kirk Jones, 2005) isn't perfect, but offers sub-Poppins fun as its titular governess comes to the aid of Victorian funeral parlour worker Colin Firth and his seven naughty children. There's warmth and humour, but also some rough edges (like putting a baby in peril) and other elements that simply jar (the donkey dance, anyone?). The excellent sequel ironed out those problems. (3)


Cry of the City (Robert Siodmark, 1948) is an unexpectedly fine film noir from a director whose ventures into the genre could be sublime (The Killers, Criss Cross) or, well, not (Christmas Holiday). The story follows a cop killer (Richard Conte), struggling to protect his innocent lover (Debra Paget) as a dragnet closes in - led by the hood's flipside, law enforcer Victor Mature. Conte, later a star of Joseph H. Lewis' immaculate crime picture The Big Combo as well as The Godfather's Barzini, gives surely his greatest performance, a devastating characterisation thats quiet malevolence creeps upon the viewer almost unnoticed, replacing a certain twinkly-eyed charm. His screen adversary, Victor Mature, was never the most compelling screen presence, but has an ideal face for the expressionist, shadow-drenched photography of noir and exudes nobility in one of his better turns. The presentation of Conte's family suffers from cliche and the plotting ultimately goes a little off-track with the appearance of muscly stick-up merchant Betty Garde, but this is a fascinating, gripping little film, blessed with a stunning central performance. (3.5)


The Bride Came C.O.D. (William Keighley, 1941) was released by Warner Bros the same year as Torrid Zone and for 30 minutes delivers the same bruising characterisation and lightning-paced banter. But then James Cagney's plane - carrying cargo Bette Davis - crash lands and soon afterwards the plotting goes the same way, getting caught up in the desert with ghost town hotelier Harry Davenport, whose character should surely have been sad and wise, rather than sporadically malevolent. The story picks up again before the end, with a fun last 20, but remains hampered by that draggy mid-section, light in ideas. Still a (3) though.


Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957) is an underrated romantic comedy from the great writer-director, stuffed full of gags inspired by his hero, Ernst Lubitsch. Like the the emphasis on doors opening and closing, the running gags with waiters and gypsy musicians and Audrey Hepburn's scheming, which cleverly inverts the plot of Lubitsch's One Hour With You. The star of that film, Maurice Chevalier, is delightful here, playing a private investigator oblivious to the infatuation of his daughter (Hepburn) with a key source of his livelihood, inveterate philanderer Gary Cooper. The age difference between Coop and Hepburn is too pronounced, but everything else about the film is just right. (3.5)


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945) is impossible to fault, an utterly draining movie about teenager Peggy Ann Garner's coming-of-age in early-20th century New York. Dorothy McGuire excels as Garner's mother - hardened by poverty - with Joan Blondell superb in a rare dramatic role as the girl's oft-married aunt. Best of all is James Dunn, playing Garner's dad, an alcoholic pipe dreamer who oscillates between euphoria and desperation. His reading of the folk song Annie Laurie soundtracks one of the most wondrous sequences I've ever seen on film. This is a very special film: the direction flawless and the performances simply immense as every detail, every gesture rings true. (4)


Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka, released the same year as Tell No Tales.

Tell No Tales (Leslie Fenton, 1939) is a crisp B picture that shoots out of the blocks but fails to maintain that momentum. It's still well worth seeing, with a fast-moving plot and some bravura moments, including a powerful sequence set at a black boxer's wake that features the great African-American actress Theresa Harris. The plot has Melvyn Douglas as a newspaper editor trying to save his paper by solving a kidnapping case. This is probably your only chance to see Halliwell Hobbes (who almost always played butlers) as a psychotic cuckold. He's scarier than familiar Golden Age villains Gene Lockhart and Douglas Dumbrille put together. (3)


Let's Make It Legal (Richard Sale, 1951) isn't as bad as you might have heard... but it's still not great. Claudette Colbert, newly-divorced, starts dating old flame Zachary Scott, as ex-husband Macdonald Carey, daughter Barbara Bates and son-in-law Robert Wagner buzz around. The script is strictly standard and the best joke is accidental - an overbearing breakdown of just how young grandmother Colbert is (the actress was notoriously touchy about her age) - though the cast gives it a decent shot. Marilyn Monroe appears briefly as a bathing beauty trying to crash the jet set. (2)


Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958) features Cary Grant at his most unbearable, stuck in that pre-North by Northwest rut where the lightness of his early performances had been replaced by vanity, superficiality and a big, smug magohany face. He's a banker who wins the heart of actress Ingrid Bergman, but says he can never marry her. It isn't until the final 20 minutes that the film really delivers as a comedy. Until then it's just a miserable romantic drama: uninspired and uninvolving. David Kossoff (the tailor in A Kid for Two Farthings), Cecil Parker and Phyllis Calvert offer notable support. (2)


Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953) is, by contrast, an absolute wonder: escapism of the highest order, with journo Gregory Peck romancing incognito princess Audrey Hepburn during one glorious day in the Italian capital. It's funny, moving and full of fine location work. The leads are an utter joy and Eddie Albert is hilarious as Peck's photographer pal. (4)


The Cowboy and the Lady (H.C. Potter, 1938) is thin, but saved by the cast. As the 1998 action-comedy Rush Hour boasted the tagline: "The fastest hands in the East meet the biggest mouth in the West", so this one could have gone with: "The smallest mouth in the East meets the slowest mouth in the West". In the event they opted for: "Straight-shooting GARY meets flirting MERLE - and it's the fireworks! Battle of the sexes! Man and girl in East vs. West love duel!", which is also pretty cool. As you may have guessed, Gary Cooper is the taciturn cowhand who finds love with "maid" Merle Oberon, little realising she's the daughter of a Presidential hopeful (Henry Kolker). Kolker and Harry Davenport (as Oberon's black sheep of an uncle) are both fine providing pathos, though Patsy Kelly is a bit underused. Cooper's mime scene is great fun. (2.5)


La gloire de mon père (Yves Robert, 1990) aka My Father's Glory charts the early life of playwright Marcel Pagnol, his idolising of his schoolteacher father and the forging of his character during a long summer holiday in the wilds of Provence. Based on the writer's memoirs, it's light, entertaining and utterly true, with sumptuous photography and first-rate acting across the board. There's a scary owl, too. (4)


Confessions of Boston Blackie (Edward Dmytryk, 1941) is one of the best B movies of all time, and featured in the Top 100 I compiled last year (see #89). Chester Morris is the former crook chasing a gang of murderers in a bid to clear his name. A fun script and a neat double-ending provide serial-like thrills, while all the series regulars are at their best in this, the second of 14 Blackie films. (4)


Born to Dance (Roy Del Ruth, 1938) - or Broadway Melody of 1939, as it was really - follows the usual template, with starry-eyed hoofer Eleanor Powell making good, and finding love, on the Great White Way. The big draw for classic movie fans will be the chance to see screen titan Jimmy Stewart singing and dancing - his take on Cole Porter's Easy to Love was a smash hit - along with the usual big budget production numbers. A host of familiar faces appear in support, including Una Merkel, Raymond Walburn, Virginia Bruce, Alan Dinehart, Buddy Ebsen and Sid Silvers. This is a notch above the Broadway Melodys of '36 and '38, thanks to funny running gags and consistently strong dance showcases. (3)


Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) is a peerlessly witty Lubitsch comedy, with jewel robber Herbert Marshall forced to choose between thief Miriam Hopkins and heiress Kay Francis. The whole film exists on a heightened plain, where lush romanticism jiggles for space with thousands of sex jokes. (4)


We're not sure what this is or why it's in Mexican.

This Thing Called Love (Alexander Hall, 1941) is a cut above the rest of those Columbia comedies directed by Hall and starring Melvyn Douglas, like The Amazing Mr Williams and Good Girls Go to Paris. Comedienne Rosalind Russell plays an insurance agency statistician who believes marriage should begin with a three month trial period free of sex. Douglas is her fiancee, who consents to act as guinea pig, thinking he can win her round through sheer charm. The first hour is terrific - smart, sophisticated and packed with laughs - before the film settles into standard farce. Douglas, by this time tired of such roles, must have recognised the superior quality of the script, as he gives it his all. This was Lee J. Cobb's first movie, he plays a Peruvian financier who's obsessed with parenthood (not the film). (3)


Affectionately Yours (Lloyd Bacon, 1941) is a daft but amiable comedy about foreign correspondent and all-round affable rogue Dennis Morgan trying to win back ex-wife Merle Oberon from under the nose of Ralph Bellamy (who else?). The script isn't that sharp, but it's all very pleasant and Rita Hayworth offers fine support as Morgan's scheming admirer. Oddly, the ending is virtually identical to that of the Ann Sothern-Gene Raymond RKO film The Smartest Girl in Town. For a livelier movie about an amoral roving reporter messing womenfolk around (this time in Stalinist Russia), catch the incomparable Lee Tracy in Clear All Wires! (2.5)


TVM: The Iceman Cometh (Sidney Lumet, 1960) is a televised record of the Broadway adaptation that sparked interest for the first time in Eugene O'Neill's then-neglected masterwork. It's a phenomenal reading, blessed with arguably the greatest actor of the 20th century - Jason Robards, Jr. - at his zenith. He plays the pivotal character, salesman Hickey, who looks to reform his barfly pals, the gallery of lost souls baffled by his unwavering commitment to abolishing their "pipe dreams". It's difficult - perhaps even fruitless - to compare this with Frankenheimer's cinematic version 13 years later (see #35 in my Top 100), as both are so special in their own way. So see both, if you can. (4)



A bouncing sheep confronts the harsh realities of life in Pixar's Boundin'.

I rented the Pixar Shorts, Vol. 1 DVD and watched a heap of those. The Adventures of Andre and Wally B (Alvy Ray Smith, 1984, 2) has a single joke, and it's not very funny, though the establishing shot is great. Luxo, Jr. (John Lasseter, 1986, 2.5) explains how Pixar got its lamp - and provides a bit of pathos. Red's Dream (John Lasseter, 1987, 3) is oddly melancholy, creating an impressive universe but offering no glimmer of hope for its dreaming unicycle. The first film with the recognisable Pixar sense of humour is Tin Toy (John Lasseter, 1988, 3), a clever, funny short dated by its computer technology, including a primitive take on a baby that's frankly terrifying. Geri's Game (Jan Pinkava, 1997, 3) is a smart film about an aged chess fanatic (and "cleaner" - see Toy Story 2) playing a game against himself - and using every trick in the book to win. For the Birds (Ralph Eggleston, 2000, 3) passes in a blaze of appealing sight gags, DTV: Mike's New Car (Pete Docter and Roger Gould, 2002, 3) is top slapstick, but runs out of gas before the end, while Boundin' (Bud Luckey and Roger Gould, 2003, 3.5) is sentimental Americana of a sort, a narrative poem about a dancing sheep, with spirited presentation. DTV: Jack-Jack Attack (Brad Bird, 2005, 3) - a spin-off from The Incredibles - is good value, providing several belly laughs. Happily, as WALL-E and Up! are among Pixar's very best features, so their shorts continue to improve - recent additions Lifted, Presto and Partly Cloudy are my three favourites.


The Jane to Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan, Maureen O'Sullivan, appears in this next one. So does Chico Marx.

Hollywood - The Second Step (Felix E. Feist, 1936) is a self-obsessed short that repeatedly appears as if it's about to disillusion any young starlets watching, before reverting to the slightly irresponsible contention that anyone can become a star. It also blends fact and fiction in a confusing manner: central focus Jane Barnes was a real Hollywood bit player, but she never did get the lead role she's promised here. (2)


And a couple of early works from one of my favourite moviemakers, the great Humphrey Jennings (standing):

S.S. Ionian (Humphrey Jennings, 1939) is an odd propaganda film from the future master of the medium, which follows a merchant boat around the globe, repeatedly observing in an off-hand manner that the British sure do have a lot of warships positioned absolutely everywhere. There are a couple of glimpses of the filmmaker's genius, including a shot of a crew member simply re-arranging his hat that gives real insight into his character, but this is generally little more than a politically-charged travelogue, and it's hampered by a stolid voiceover. (2.5)

Spring Offensive (Humphrey Jennings, 1940) is a portrait of rural Britain readying for war, similar in some respects to Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale. It ebbs and flows, and the non-professional actors are wooden as anything, but just as the country was finding its feet in our time of need, so was the country's greatest state filmmaker: the passages here fusing music and image are nothing short of wonderful. (3)

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Toot toot. That's the sound of my own trumpet.

Yours truly (right) posing with Marlon Brando as the O2 Media Awards nominations were revealed. I just happened to have that Oscar with me.

I'm delighted to report that I've been nominated in a pair of categories at next month's O2 Media Awards for Yorkshire and the Humber. I'm up for Digital Journalist of the Year and Young Reporter of the Year (Weeklies). Readers who were with us back when we were called Films on Friday and appeared at might like to know that those weekly movie columns formed part of my portfolio for the digital award. I gave this blog a mention too.

The results will be revealed in a swanky event at The Loft in Leeds on Thursday, July 22.

Next up on this here blog is a round-up of the last 30-odd movies, shorts and teleplays I saw, featuring French noir and a man putting another man in the bin.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A goldmine of flubbing bloopers

By Rick Burin

Remember the scene in Jezebel where Bette Davis finds out that the love of her life has married? “You’re funnin’,” she says incredulously. “Hardly,” he replies. Davis pauses. “Well I’m a son of a bitch,” she says. If that isn’t quite how you recall it, don’t worry. It's just how it appears in the Warner Bros ‘Breakdowns’, the blooper reels that reveal the cursing and corpsing behind some of the greatest films ever made.

The Breakdowns comprise fluffed lines, pranks and in-jokes omitted from Warner movies. They were compiled annually by the studio's social club, open to all Warner employees, and from 1935 to 1949 formed the centrepiece of the group's Christmas party, held at LA's Biltmore Hotel. The reels are now surfacing on DVD.

Film historian Leonard Maltin says the Breakdowns are revealing because they are genuine. “Back in the 1930s the studios protected their stars, quashed scandals-in-the-making, coordinated and supervised their interviews with the press, and even scripted their banter when they appeared on radio shows as ‘themselves’,” he says. “Given that, the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Bette Davis or James Cagney flubbing lines, and seeing how they respond to the situation, is fascinating.”

Bogart and George Brent seem prickly and short-tempered, while Cagney laughs off his mistakes. Pat O’Brien appears to enjoy slipping up: whether he’s forgetting dialogue, choking on a drink, or pulling off his own hairpiece during a fight. Bette Davis, meanwhile, is engaged in a running battle with the wardrobe department. She trips over her costume, complains she can’t move her head without her wig falling off and spoils an otherwise exemplary take by becoming caught on a co-star’s buttonhole. Edward G. Robinson, so frequently cast as a pitiless gangster, looks most affable, often grinning widely after a gaffe.

“The Breakdown reels are a very insightful view into the overall spirit of Warner Bros in its formative years,” says Warner’s George Feltenstein. “No other studio could let their hair down and have a little fun at their own expense the way this company did.”

Much of the material is extraordinary. There’s Gary Cooper breaking off from his Oscar-winning performance in Sergeant York to wonder: “That’s sure some accent I’ve got” and Carole Lombard destroying the delicate artifice of cinema as she sits down to a supposedly sumptuous screen meal. The food’s too tough to cut, she says, laughing, and it’s not warm.

The Breakdowns capture the breakneck pace of filming, with actors repeating a single line until it’s passable. The sense of fun on the lot is evident in the stars’ jokes. Errol Flynn responds to a dialogue cue by retorting: “Who the hell’s happy about getting a wife back?”, while convicts James Cagney and George Raft opt for a waltz instead of a punch-up in Each Dawn I Die, only for prison warden George Bancroft to weigh in. “Say, just a minute,” he says, “this is supposed to be my dance.”

As well as contracted players, stars loaned to the studio also appear, like James Stewart and Claudette Colbert. There are specially-filmed inserts too, including a Porky Pig animation that begs the question: does it feel more inappropriate to hear Porky or Jimmy Stewart say “son of a bitch”?

For fans of classic movies, the Breakdowns are a goldmine. They present an alternate universe where stars mangle their sparkling banter, Western heroes can’t climb on their horses and the sexual tension of Dark Victory evaporates as Bogart’s brooding stablehand somehow contrives to burn himself on a boiler. And in which other ‘30s film can a socialite return from a concert and regale party guests with this account of her evening: “Absolutely magnificent: seven curtain calls, the banquet on the stage, the farewell to Toscanini… ah balls!”

Eight ‘Breakdowns’ are available across the Warner Gangsters, Vol. 2 and Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection Vol. 2 box-sets (only available on Region 1 DVD). Breakdowns of 1938 appears on the Adventures of Robin Hood DVD in the UK.
This article was published on p. 4 of the Guardian's Film and Music section on September 5, 2008, and can also be viewed here.

Monday, 14 June 2010

MovieMail: Normans, gothicism and Debbie Reynolds

Here are a trio of 350-word reviews I've written for MovieMail over recent months.

Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson, 1943)

The history books will tell you Orson Welles received no directing credits in the four years between The Magnificent Ambersons – the 1942 masterpiece RKO so unwisely took its scissors to – and The Stranger, his only box-office success. But Welles’ prints are all over a pair of fascinating films made in the interim: the disorientating Journey Into Fear, and this richly atmospheric take on Charlotte Bronte’s novel.

It was during the shooting of Jane Eyre that Welles reportedly took to barging director Robert Stevenson away from the camera, helming the movie in all but name. The finished product, with its outlandish camera angles, chiaroscuro lighting and masterful sense of visual composition, would seem to bear this out.

The young Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) isn’t dealt much of a hand in life, having to contend with not one but two formidable golden age villains – Agnes Moorehead, the aunt who despises her, and Henry Daniell, playing the last word in fundamentalist bullies as the head of Jane’s school. But drawing on an inner steeliness, she wins through and, eight years on, leaves to find her own way in the world.

What the adult Jane (Joan Fontaine) finds is a position in a country manor owned by Edward Rochester (Orson Welles), a brooding, temperamental soul with a dark past. She’s instantly smitten, but what’s the banging and screaming going on behind those locked doors?

This flavourful adaptation focuses on the book's central romance, whilst retaining a dash of mystery and gothic intrigue that’s tastefully handled. Fontaine has just the right mixture of innocence and resolve as our heroine; and was there anyone who could deliver a self-hating bon mot better than Welles? “Are you never serious?” his fiancée asks. “Never more than at this moment, except perhaps when I’m eating my dinner,” he booms back.

The other contributors are just as impressive. Aldous Huxley worked on the screenplay, Bernard Herrmann did the music, and the supporting cast includes not only Margaret O’Brien – an Oscar winner as the year’s best juvenile performer for Meet Me in St Louis – but the young Elizabeth Taylor, as Jane’s ethereal, doomed school friend. (3)


To read about when we met Debbie Reynolds, please go here. Now here's a piece on one of her signature movies:

Tammy and the Bachelor (Joseph Pevney, 1957)

"I hear the cottonwoods whisperin' above; Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love,” coos Debbie Reynolds as the camera moves over the rooms that rule a young boy’s life in Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes. If you've ever wondered who inspired such misty-eyed devotion in the songstress and lent a heady sense of yearning to that key passage in British cinema, the answer can now be revealed. Leslie Nielsen. Yes, he's the wannabe tomato mogul who wins Reynolds' heart in the bright romantic comedy that introduced the song to the world.

Tammy (Reynolds) is a sheltered young woman living on a houseboat in the Mississippi swamps with grandpa Walter Brennan, a lay preacher peddling corn liquor on the side. Fishing downed flyer Nielsen from the swamp one day, the pair nurse him back to health, and Tammy becomes smitten. But Nielsen is soon on his way and it takes Brennan’s incarceration to thrust Tammy into high society, and into the arms of her square-jawed hero.

The fish-out-of-water set-up is pleasant, balanced by a genuinely touching romance. And has there ever been a more enchanting screen presence than Reynolds, with her wide-open face, soft ‘r’s and cartoonish sensibility? Her apparent guilelessness suits Tammy's talent for offbeat observation, while her distinctive voice lends an affecting homeliness to both her dialogue and song. The
Tammy number, performed by Reynolds as she gazes tenderly from her window, is three minutes of pure elation. Debbie’s comic smarts are also on display: witness the hilarious way she puckers up for the initially uninterested Nielsen, or deadpans expertly while talking sex with professor Sidney Blackmer.

Veteran Blackmer, effectively cast against type as Nielsen's sympathetic father, is one of a league of top-flight golden age players offering support, including King Kong screamer Fay Wray, three-time Oscar-winner Brennan, John Ford regular Mildred Natwick and Louise Beavers. Nielsen is surprisingly effective as a romantic lead, while there's frequent comic relief from an unfailingly amusing goat.

This is an entertaining, affecting romantic comedy, boasting a simply lovely lead performance, and with an unequivocally fantastic pop song at its centre. (3)


The War Lord (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1965)

Norman war lord Charlton Heston is sent by Duke William of Ghent to keep a group of marsh-dwelling peasants in order, while protecting them from Frisian raiders. Instead, he falls for a blue-eyed pig farmer (Rosemary Forsyth) betrothed to one of his subjects, and all hell breaks loose. Aided by a duplicitous dwarf, the serfs decide to make peace with their pillaging tormentors and lay siege to Heston’s high tower, as the lord’s brooding brother (Guy Stockwell) stalks the stronghold, looking shifty.

Franklin J. Schaffner’s ambitious drama, set in the 11th century, is a genuinely unusual piece of work, with a rich period flavour and an intriguing plot that casts light on an under-served area of European history. The opening scenes are impressively creepy, paving the way for The Wicker Man in the way they tease and taunt the viewer: is Forsyth really a witch, or her people devil-worshippers? Then Schaffner shifts to character drama, coupled with an insightful look at Middle Age rituals, before leading us into the excellent action sequences, which appear utterly authentic. The superbly-paced siege, recalling the climax of George Stevens’ classic Gunga Din, must surely have informed Peter Jackson’s filming of the Helm’s Deep set-piece in The Two Towers.

Schaffner coaxes some great performances from his actors. Stockwell, continually peddling dreadful advice to his troubled sibling, is excellent in a showy role, displaying just the right mix of menace and quivering insecurity. But top honours go to Richard Boone, underplaying to maximum effect as Heston’s trusted lieutenant. As for Chuck, he’s well cast and adopts his popular persona, while there’s a chance for fans to hear him anticipate the most famous line of his career, complaining to Stockwell that he’s sick of “that damned dirty armour”.

The film is blessed with spectacular Panavision cinematography by Russell Metty and a breathtaking score from Jerome Moross. The music can be listened to in isolation on the DVD, interspersed with the soundtrack’s impressive effects, like a gargantuan, flaming wood pile rumbling deafeningly towards a fortress.

The War Lord is an absorbing, marvellously-photographed historical drama: offbeat, original and very satisfying. (3)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Him and Orson Welles - Reviews #43

By his 26th birthday, Orson Welles had conquered the worlds of theatre, radio and film. I am 26 and still eat cereal for my tea. That is why no-one makes films about me.

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008)

It's little wonder that Awesome Orson, that mercurial, self-destructive titan continues to excite and energise independent moviemakers like Tim Robbins (who dealt with Welles in the exceptional Cradle Will Rock) and Richard Linklater. Fiercely individualistic at a time of rigorous studio control, Welles was cut down by jealous rivals, blinkered bean counters and a virulent strain of egomania that prevented him playing the Hollywood game. Like Robbins, who charted the remarkable story of Welles' 1937 musical of a similar name, Linklater focuses on the great man's theatrical work - in this case the update of Julius Caesar that transplanted Shakespeare's work to Fascist Italy and proved the making of its director.

When a new project dealing with the Welles legend emerges, the first thing you want to know is: 'Who's playing Orson?' Who can hope to inhabit the character, with those instantly recognisable mannerisms, the peculiar speech patterns, that snub nose, that booming voice? At least 31 actors have taken on the challenge in TV and film, including Angus Macfadyen in Cradle Will Rock, Jean Guerin in Heavenly Creatures and Vincent D'Onofrio (dubbed by Maurice LaMarche) in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Here it's RSC alumnus Christian McKay, in his feature debut. Having played Orson in the solo show Rosebud, at Edinburgh and off Broadway, McKay has had years to hone the characterisation, to transcend mimicry and caricature and tap into the very essence of the man.

He is absolutely phenomenal.

Whether seducing his players via sweetly-spoken flattery or heaping opprobrium on them, slotting cherished sections of The Magnificent Ambersons into a radio serial or lamenting his amorphous, shallow nature, McKay is Welles. He twinkles, he yells, he laughs, he poses and he booms. And in that one moment of heartbreaking self-awareness, he reveals a Kane-like tendency to play the chameleon. "If people can't find you, they can't dislike you," he says. It's a remarkable characterisation - and whenever McKay is on screen, the film radiates excitement. Sadly, that's not the whole story.

Coming of age

The movie is pegged as a coming-of-age tale, unfolding against the backdrop of Welles' legendary Caesar. Our coming-of-ager is Zac Efron, fresh from the High School Musical films. He's cast as a 17-year-old drama student who blags a way into Orson's latest show, where he finds romance with ambitious production assistant Claire Danes. At the same time, he has half an eye on aspiring playwright Zoe Kazan, who hangs around the local museum, staring at an urn. Though Efron is quite good, these conventional, unconvincing, essentially uninteresting romantic elements are given equal billing with the Welles material, leading to dips in quality and a general listlessness whenever Orson - sorry, Christian - is off-screen. That said, the scenes where Welles' influence bleeds into the behaviour of impressionable Efron are amusing and well-handled.

Shot at the Gaiety Theatre, Douglas, in the Isle of Man, Me and Orson Welles does a good job of transmitting both the stress and euphoria of life on the stage. Observer critic Philip French said of the film's Caesar: "Never before have I seen a theatrical production so brilliantly re-created". But while the film does capture the thrill of opening night and the gobsmacking ingenuity of Welles' staging, the acting in that play-within-a-film isn't as impressive - with the notable exception of McKay's Welles-doing-Brutus. In the film too, the rest of the cast appear pretty lacklustre when up against McKay (well, except for Claire Danes, but she's habitually amazing). Ben Chaplin provides moments of pathos and truth as George Coulouris (who went on to play Thatcher in Citizen Kane), but his performance is often just peculiar, while Eddie Marsan appears miscast as Welles' regular backer John Houseman, and Leo Bill is a touch one-note. At least James Tupper gives a fair approximation of the young Joseph Cotten, playing him as an incorrigible skirt-chaser.

The film has a decent period atmosphere, its lively score packed with familiar period tunes. And though there's a torrent of clumsy and distracting '30s pop culture references in the first 10 minutes, the writers are thereafter more discriminating and inventive, incorporating a clever nod to The Third Man - with the character of Cotten emerging from the shadows - and an incredibly moving scene with Welles that foreshadows the ruination of his second masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons.

The movie is a long way from being perfect, hampered as it is by a conventional romantic subplot that eats up too much screentime. But at its best it's dazzling and in Christian McKay's Orson Welles it boasts one of the best performances of the last 10 years. (3)

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

'Lost' John Ford film discovered in New Zealand

Some incredible news broke today. Film historians in New Zealand are celebrating the discovery of 75 classic American films, several of which have long been thought lost - including John Ford's Upstream.

The film was made during the short period in the director's life when he was trying to be someone else: namely the German director F.W. Murnau. In 1927 and '28, Ford spent weeks talking to the famed innovator - newly arrived in Hollywood - and studying him at work. Ford's 1928 film Four Sons (shot the previous year) is very obviously inspired by his then mentor, the melodramatic WWI narrative lit by dizzying directorial ticks and an uncharacteristically mobile camera. It retains traces of Ford's key thematic concerns, but the presentation is pure Murnau.

Ford's Upstream, which was filmed just before Four Sons, is thought to owe a similar debt to the German filmmaker, the stylistics this time lent to a lighter story about a Shakespearean actor and a woman who travels with a knife-throwing act.

The film is being restored, along with the rest of the newly-discovered collection.

I can't bloody wait.


To read about an alternate cut of Ford's My Darling Clementine, containing footage snipped from the final movie, please go here.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Some thoughts on... Shark Attack 3: Megalodon

This was written for a friend's technology website:

I first saw Shark Attack 3 in May 2005, whilst theoretically revising for my history finals. I like Trotsky, Cecil Rhodes and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, but cheating on them with a shark just felt right. Energised by what I'd seen, I embraced my gargantuan inner nerd, scooting off to set up an SA3 fanpage at Empire Online. It transferred to the new boards a few months later, where it's still the most viewed (250,000 hits) and commented on (5,600 posts) film thread on the forum. As RollZero readers, you'll doubtless know what all those words mean.

There are many great films. The Searchers. Legally Blonde. The first episode of hideously offensive sitcom Heil, Honey I'm Home, which prompted the show's immediate cancellation. And then there is Shark Attack 3: Megalodon.

Following in the tradition of Jaws and Deep Blue Sea, SA3 pits its toothy protagonist against a pair of orange Americans, several poorly-dubbed Russians and a former naval officer with a torpedo in his garage. It was financed by South Africans, incidentally - proof of what we can achieve if we all work together. The film begins, as all great films do, with a scuba diver finding a shark's tooth in a fibre optic cable. From then on in, all bets are off. Unless you're betting that a man will water-ski into a shark's mouth, or two fully consenting adults will boff in what looks suspiciously like a church. In that case you're spot on.

I was introduced to the film by a lovely chap called Hugo. Spring was in bloom, fairy cakes were on special offer at Tesco (not a euphemism) and Hugo was wearing plastic bags on his feet for a reason lost in time (smelly feet?). He kept tittering in anticipation of The Line, as it shall henceforth be known: John Barrowman's appalling, ad-libbed assault on the ears of co-star Jenny McShane. I won't reveal it here. I don't ruin great art. It would be like pooing on The Hay Wain. And I should know.

Working from a script by William Hooke (famous for The Making of Spy Game featurette) and wunderkind producer Scott Devine (the man behind Jessica Tandy: Theatre Legend to Screen Star), director David Worth weaves a tale of death and destruction like some modern-day Neith. The Egyptian god of weaving, I had to look it up.

Back to the plot. Having found the shark tooth, Ben (Barrowman) sends a picture off to a research centre. Scientist Cat (McShane) takes one look at it and heads for the scene. She knows there's a prehistoric, man-eating shark out there, and she wants it captured on film, ideally by two goofy All American perverts called Davis and Freidman (both played by Russians, naturally). So far so good, but when the shark devours a para-sailing group, the gang realise they have to call for back-up. Enter ex-navy submariner Chuck Rampart, who's a bit miffed that his shady employers have hushed up the megalodon threat. Thank goodness he's got a Mark 44 torpedo in his shed.

As you'd expect, the characterisations are pretty sweet. I've tried my best, but it's hard to forget such inexplicably sweary characters as joshing jocks Davis and Freidman ("You are the ass man - and you'd do ANYTHING for that ass!") or ex-naval psycho Chuck, with his calling card of "Bull-fucking-shit". The script mixes wisdom with terse poetry: "My lawyers are the REAL sharks", "Always carry a spare - it's the navy way," "You're my bitch" and - of course - The Line. It's testament to the film's universality that you can say almost anything and claim it's from SA3. When I lent my copy to call-centre chum Tim, he claimed in all seriousness that his favourite line was: "He's going hand-gliding? He better not do anything sexy." If that isn't in the film (and it categorically isn't), then it certainly should be.

What Jaws and Deep Blue Sea never had, aside from a bit where Roy Scheider spouts filth at his wife in a car park (see: The Line), is a shark that can grow and shrink at will. Having secured around three seconds of shark film and a copy of Foto$hop (Korean import), Worth and his team of technical wizards simply use the same clip over and over again, regardless of what the Megalodon is swallowing. So sometimes the shark is as big as a man, at other times the length of a yacht. It's proof, as if any were needed, of the commitment to freewheeling, bravura uselessness that runs through the very centre of SA3. That and The Line. A quarter of a million clicking nerdfingers can't be wrong.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Marie Antoinette, Mickey Rooney and real estate salesmen - Reviews #42

Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992) – David Mamet’s searing study of alpha males on the brink has one of the best ensembles ever assembled. Jack Lemmon is the desperate, pitiful Shelley “The Machine” Levine, hot favourite for imminent redundancy at a realty office that straddles the line between pushiness and con artistry. He’s one of four salesmen given a sobering ultimatum: buck up, and get a Caddy, or fall down and get the chop. Ed Harris is Monk, whose sense of persecution is getting of hand, and Alan Arkin the meek George, an obvious fall guy should a planned break-in go ahead, with Al Pacino rounding out the quartet as hotshot Ricky Roma – first shown putting the moves on scam fodder Jonathan Pryce in a brightly-lit bar. Their boss is Kevin Spacey – apparently in the post due to nepotism. One minute he’s superior, the next like a shamed child.

Mamet’s script is pungent, littered with acerbic one-liners, trenchant observation and four-letter words, while the sting in the tale elevates the film – adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play – to the level of epic tragedy. The highest praise I can think of is that it recalls Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which also ripped apart the American Dream, along with Barry Levinson’s fascinating Tin Men, though that work was more reconciliatory and less abrasive. The direction is claustrophobic if a little limited, relying as it does on just the one camera-manoeuvre, but it’s the acting you’ll remember, with exceptional performances across the board. If I had to pick a stand-out, I’d go for Lemmon. In this, and the following year's Short Cuts, he was faultless. (4)


The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown, 1943) is a wonderful slice of Americana about a small western town living in the shadow of war. Ray Collins is the fond father, two years dead, who introduces us to his family: wife Fay Bainter and sons Marcus (Van Johnson), Homer (Mickey Rooney) and Ulysses (the great child star Jackie “Butch” Jenkins, making his debut). Johnson is being shipped abroad to fight, while Homer has to shoulder new burdens as the man of the family - and isn’t sure he can cope. Ulysses, meanwhile, is confused about the disappearance of his father and his brothers, but finds solace watching the railroad. Homer’s night shifts at a telegraph office introduce us to soft-hearted manager James Craig and alcoholic operator Frank Morgan, along with Craig’s sometime girlfriend Marsha Hunt, as Marcus crosses paths with rootless orphan John Craven, who longs for his friend's sense of belonging.

The film effortlessly juggles its diverse elements, encompassing romantic comedy, coming-of-age tale and Home Front drama in its sentimental, episodic manner. Heady sing-alongs jostle for space with pre-marital patch-ups and scenes of school life, while a cinema trip becomes not just an escape from the every day - but from the horrors of war. Countless passages show the gutting, life-changing intrusion of conflict, and of the adult world it represents. The highlights are frequent and enduring: Jenkins’ opening scene, Rooney’s classroom spat with his love rival, Johnson and Craven’s night-time chat about Ithaca, and the heartbreaking ending, which recalls C. Aubrey Smith welcoming his son into Heaven in Beyond Tomorrow’s finest passage. Best of all is Rooney’s devastating chat with his mother about the pain of adulthood (“it seems like everything you learn is sad”), after he returns from delivering a telegram to a Mexican woman whose son has died in action. The movie's sole misstep is a drive-thru celebration of the many cultures within America, but you can see why it was included in time of war. There are few films I’ve seen that so poignantly, potently juxtapose light and dark, balancing knockabout comedy with crushing emotional blows. This is what we are fighting for, it says, but a lot of you are going to get hurt.

The characterisations are uniformly superb, with Jenkins at his most appealing, Johnson never better and Rooney delivering one of his two greatest turns (his other was for director Brown in the following year’s National Velvet, also featuring Jenkins). Morgan, who had a lifetime contract at MGM, is best remembered today as The Wizard of Oz in the 1939 film, but he was a staggeringly gifted, versatile performer, and he’s great again here. Among those turning up in small roles are an alarmingly young, short-haired Robert Mitchum – who resembles a seven-foot lizard – and Our Gang’s Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, playing the leader of a small gang nicking apricots from an old man’s yard.

That exquisitely-judged sequence typifies this tender, richly atmospheric, superbly-observed movie, which qualifies for the top bracket of Americana alongside such exalted hymns to disappearing or imagined worlds as Stars in My Crown, The Vanishing Virginian (which stars Morgan), On Borrowed Time and One Foot in Heaven. Superbly-scripted, wonderfully acted and with transcendent use of music, it's an emotionally draining experience - and one I'll be revisiting many times over the coming years. (4)


One Sunday Afternoon (Stephen Roberts, 1933) is a small masterpiece, vastly superior to its better-known remake, The Strawberry Blonde – which starred James Cagney. Gary Cooper plays a dentist besotted with the flirtatious, hateful Fay Wray. When she marries his rival, Cooper weds sweet-hearted admirer Frances Fuller, but he’s unable to forget his great love. Then, years later, she walks back into his life. Cooper was a fine comic performer, adept at screwball fare like Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, but also able to inject humour into his straighter work. He’s ideally suited to this wonderfully-scripted movie, an incisive marital drama laced with irony that offers considerable concessions to character comedy. Stage star and future acting teacher Frances Fuller is arguably even better in a rare screen role: loving, faithful and stoic, though she knows her husband's heart lies elsewhere. As the other woman, Wray is only fairly good, possibly overdoing it in the last scene, though Roscoe Karns offers his usual combination of laughs and laconic sentiment in support. The film has a singular feel, with the plot concisely, intelligently handled, allowing each scene to play out effectively, despite the short running time. It is book-ended by contemporary scenes showing the greying Cooper plagued by his nagging wife, shown only in silhouette, making us complicit in his bitterness – at least at first. One Sunday Afternoon is short but not slight: delightfully played, perfectly-formed and with a lovely message somewhat atypical of ‘30s Hollywood. (4)


Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006) looks great, and has some interesting directorial touches, like Coppola’s handheld camera following queen Kirsten Dunst backwards down a corridor, into her quarters and up against a door, where she stands, sobbing. Sadly the central conceit, presenting Antoinette as a simple, fun-loving teenager with no real concept of her duties to state or humanity, doesn’t really work and the script is extremely weak, engendering no empathy for its empty characters. With nothing invested in the protagonists and no clear dramatic tension in a story that should be loaded with it, Coppola’s film is ultimately completely disengaging, with just a handful of bright spots amidst the deadening, sparkly tedium. (1.5)


TVM: The Evacuees (Alan Parker, 1975) is a little gem from the pen of Jack Rosenthal, based on his experiences of leaving Manchester for Blackpool during the dark days of World War Two. Gary Carp and Steven Serember are the youngsters who are casually brutalised after changing the city for the seaside, but resolve to keep their unhappiness from their put-upon mother. The film has moments of levity and humour, particularly in the opening minutes, but emerges as a much darker and more troubling work than Rosenthal’s teleplay set in the aftermath of war: the joyous P’tang Yang Kipperbang. Its considerable impact is aided by acute observation and the sense it has been ripped from life, exemplified by the quietly horrifying scene in which the boys are forced to eat pork by their unthinking hosts. As well as being an insightful look at a phenomenon of wartime not ill-served by popular culture, the film doubles as a portrait of an inner-city Jewish community, with Rosenthal fashioning a gutting contrast with the plight of Jews being heaped onto trains in other countries – one of their orphaned children a recent arrival in Manchester. Such heavy subtexts are balanced by showing the story largely through the eyes of children, meaning we also get several scenes based around the older boy’s picture of a woman in a swimsuit and an escape sequence set to the strains of the Dick Barton theme, in which the boys wear one roller-skate and one shoe each. This intensely personal, doggedly unsentimental film, which grabbed a BAFTA for the year’s best script, is slightly disjointed and loses some momentum in the final third, but it’s full of lovely little touches and there are superb turns from Maureen Lipman – as the boys’ mother – and Paul Besterman, playing the boys’ resourceful pal Zuckerman. He cropped up in Parker's Bugsy Malone the next year, as Yonkers. (3.5)


Pretty good, eh? Imagine what it looks like in glo-ri-ous Technicolor.

Million Dollar Mermaid (Mervyn Le Roy, 1952), which gave splashy star Esther Williams the title of her autobiography, is a standard Hollywood biopic lit by several stupefying water ballet set-pieces. Williams is Annette Kellerman, the Australian swim star who became an international celebrity after first tackling the Thames and then outraging American society with her one-piece swimsuit. Victor Mature is the rough diamond of a promoter who takes her close to the top, then bails – wanting to prove it’s he, not she, who’s the architect of that success. Walter Pidgeon plays Kellerman’s supportive father, a music teacher who's dreaming of his own conservatory once more, while Jesse White is particularly strong in his sympathetic supporting part. Williams does quite well in a role that demands more than her usual pouting and foot-stomping, though to quote the script: “Wet, she’s sensational; dry, she’s just a nice girl who should settle down and get married.” The main draw, as ever with Williams' work, are the swimming showpieces. The ones here are particularly good, including a gilded number commencing Kellerman’s residency at the New York Hippodrome, and Busby Berkeley’s 'Fountain and Smoke', which is just spectacular. Berkeley, who pretty much invented the kaleidoscopic musical number in films like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 - each routine stuffed with surreal overhead shots of dancing girls moving in sync - is here employed as a sort of ‘specialty director’, contributing just one extraordinary number – perhaps because his eye-popping extravaganzas were so expensive to film. (2.5)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A pair of shorts - Reviews #41

RICK BURIN is offended by two different shorts, each released during less enlightened times. Tell him to lighten up and acquire a grasp of social history.

SHORT: Cupid Takes a Holiday (William Watson, 1938) is an OK Danny Kaye short (stop, stop, I'm killing me), with the star playing an implacable Russian who must wed before his 25th birthday - or else descend into madness. Mental illness, lol. Kaye is essentially doing Erik Rhodes in The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat (Italian accent and all), and quite well at that, as he courts a variety of '30s female archetypes. The material is very much hit and miss. Though a couple of Kaye's beaus raise a giggle, the final scene is - sadly - really unfunny and offensive, even given contemporaneous attitudes towards issues of mental health. (2)


SHORT: Reducing (Pete Smith, 1952) - I usually enjoy Smith's stuff, even when his voiceover crosses the thick line between elaborate wordplay and self-satisfied nonsense, but this is pretty weak, essentially consisting of him being rude about an overweight woman as we see her (fictionally) struggling to lose weight. It's unusually nasty and notably short on laughs - or interest. (1.5)