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)

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