Monday, 12 July 2010

Anvil, The Leopard and Fred Astaire - Reviews #43

“I can tell you in one word. No, two. Three words. We don't have good management..."
Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)
is a sweet little documentary about the forgotten '80s metal band, seen playing to audiences in double figures, still waiting for the break that never came. It's been hailed as one of the best films of recent years and the best documentaries of all time, which is frankly pushing it, but it's a fine film, with plenty of heart alongside the abundant humour. And though it begins like a spoof - drummer Robb Reiner even shares his name with the director of This Is Spinal Tap - by the end you'll be willing the group to succeed, rather than smirking at their increasing ill-fortune. The film's focus is on frontman Lips - an eternally optimistic dreamer who rocks by night, but delivers children's school lunches by day - and childhood pal Robb, the band's drummer. As they tour Europe then travel to London to record their 13th album, we pay witness to their deep and lasting friendship, punctuated as it is by bouts of yelling and violence.

There's one particularly telling, hilarious moment when Robb speaks about the gold drumsticks he wears round his neck, given to him by his father, an Auschwitz survivor. "My father was a jeweller and he gave these to me when I was 13 years old, as a gift. And I've never had them off from round my neck since they were given to me," he says. "Except the odd time I've had a few scraps with Lips and he's ripped them off my neck and stuff, but I've always repaired it, you know." Later on, they come to blows in the kitchen of their recording studio and Lips decides he's had enough, petulantly telling the director that Robb is "fired". They're a likeable pair, with a passion for music that's truly invigorating - even inspirational. A particularly memorable passage has Lips bothering his heroes at a rock festival. "Do you remember that? I played with a woman's vibrator," he tells guitarist Michael Schenker, in a way that somehow makes those words endearing. Schenker gives him a bemused smile.

Directed by fan and former Anvil roadie Gervasi, the film also finds time to meet the band's loyal followers. They include a sales executive - responsible for sponsoring Lips' short, unhappy sojourn into the world of telemarketing - and the Swiss-Italian Tiziana, who appoints herself as the band's manager via email and organises the European tour, complete with a gig to just 17 people and another where payment comes in goulash. Their fervour - like that of the band - is truly infectious, backed up by insightful interviews with the group's families. The scene where Lips' elder sister forks out the money for their new album, saying that all she has ever wanted "is for him to be happy", adds further weight to a film positively crammed with pathos.

The whole thing climaxes in truly winning fashion. I didn't go in expecting to find myself desperate for a happy, heartwarming ending, but having been through the wringer with the band, I was. My only real quibble is with the brevity of the film: more than 300 hours of footage condensed into 80 minutes. It covers the main ground well, sometimes delving deeper than you might expect, but is slightly lacking in context, detailing little of the band's decline from 1984 to 2005, and is inconsistent in where it decides to elaborate. Despite that slight shortcoming, Gervasi has collected a veritable treasure trove of footage and is a skilful storyteller, transcending his film's apparent limitations to confound non-metal fans (myself included) with his portrait of hopeless, dildo-wielding dreamers. (3.5)


And then I watched three films that I'd seen before...

"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."
Il Gattopardo (Luchino Visconti, 1963) aka The Leopard - For around an hour-and-a-half, you might struggle to see what all the fuss is about, as Visconti's huge, meticulously-devised adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa's novel unfolds at a snail's pace - albeit in sumptuous style. It's not just the slowness, either: there's the convoluted Sicilian politics, and the unwavering focus on Burt Lancaster's prince, a "vigorous" adulterer living in opulence as his subjects survive in squalor. But as in a later masterwork where the power games of Sicilians were soundtracked by the incomparable Nino Rota - The Godfather Part II - so the slow-moving, slightly aloof first 90 turns out to have been groundwork, a foundation to be laid so the stunning second half could exist. Then, when the curtain falls, that first section too appears elevated, its events coloured by what has come since: resonant and important, echoing through time.

It is 1860 and Sicily - like Italy - is changing, the middle class coming to eclipse the old order. As Lancaster and his impoverished nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) realise, the aristocracy can only survive through compromise, whether that means joining Garibaldi's marauding forces, who are agitating for change, or marrying into the nouveau riche. A chameleon in both the personal and political spheres, Tancredi can ultimately write-off his former comrades as easily as break the heart of the girl who loves him. Lancaster himself, while acting as matchmaker for Delon and the loaded, faintly bawdy Claudia Cardinale, appears to view the new world with quiet detachment. But it's just an act, his facade evaporating behind closed doors in the utterly extraordinary 45-minute ball sequence that ends the film. There he laments the changes, shedding tears for the loss of an age, and for his departed youth.

Il Gattopardo is a remarkable movie, loaded with symbolism and significance, while being as far away from the groundbreaking neorealist films that made the director's name as it's possible to be. Well, almost as far. While Senso appeared to completely jettison Visconti's preoccupation with the working classes, he does acknowledge them here, suggesting that the upper classes protected the church and therefore the poor, while the nouveau riche would have no such lofty role. A Marxist and an aristocrat, Visconti oscillated between those apparently contradictory states, drawing heavy fire from left-wing critics after this one for supposedly revealing his true colours. But it seems curious to suggest that a socially-conscious filmmaker should only be allowed to make pictures within a narrow thematic and polemic framework. The world would be a poorer place if Il Gattopardo didn't exist, and no-one could have made it quite like Visconti.

Quite aside from its breathtaking ambition, its glorious score and the exquisite cinematography, the movie scores as a human drama, perfectly blending the grandiose and the personal as all great epics do. That's largely down to the acting, much of which is simply superb. Lancaster, Delon and the great French character actor Serge Reggiani are all dubbed, but expertly so, with even Burt acknowledging that the Italian soundtrack essentially completed his performance. Delon, pretty enough to turn even the most macho reviewer a little bit gay (and I am far from being the most macho reviewer), is utterly seductive. Tancredi must draw on charm in his slippery quest for greatness - Delon makes him irresistible. Cardinale too is at the peak of her powers, superbly cast as his swarthy, widely-idolised lover. And Lancaster is towers above all, giving perhaps the most deep and nuanced performance of his illustrious and varied career. Admittedly Rina Morelli is annoying and one-note as his constantly-sobbing wife, but one can't have everything. (4)


Station West (Sidney Lanfield, 1948) is a noir with Western trappings, as smart-mouthed investigator Dick Powell pries into the murder of two soldiers - and finds pouty mogul Jane Greer probably had something to do with it. The script views the story as secondary, not even bothering to fashion it as a whodunnit, instead exerting its energies on the dialogue, which is pungent, bitter and breathlessly funny in the best noir tradition. Powell, a musical lead before he reinvented himself as a violent smartarse with 1944's Murder, My Sweet, made a heap of cracking crime pictures throughout the '40s and early-'50s. If this one isn't quite in the top bracket, it's still high-grade entertainment, lit by his classic, sardonic persona and boasting a bloody tussle with Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams that's one of the Golden Age's toughest. Greer is also good value, following her definitive femme fatale performance in Out of the Past (see #74), while Agnes Moorehead and Burl Ives offer support - the latter providing an on-camera song score. (3.5)


The Belle of New York (Charles Walters, 1952) - There's no denying that this is a lesser Fred Astaire flick. I've seen 31 of his 32 musicals (Dancing Lady has evaded me thus far) and this would be in the bottom five. That's really down to the weak script and uninvolving story, which pits affable womaniser Fred against mission house worker Vera-Ellen. Though it's fun to see Astaire reprising the man-about-town image upon which he lent so heavily in the '30s, the story is completely lacking in dramatic drive, with scenes that don't go anywhere and hardly any good jokes (one notable exception is Fred's peanuts/diamonds routine, which Vera-Ellen rebuffs so effortlessly). As ever with these minor Fred musicals, it's partially rescued by the numbers. Though there was little chemistry between Astaire and Vera-Ellen when they played dramatic scenes in their previous film, Three Little Words, they sparked memorably as a dance team. They're at it again here, performing three joint numbers full of exuberance and invention, even if the music itself is below Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer's usual standard. The solo routines are just as good, set to the movie's two best songs: Naughty but Nice - performed in vampy style by Vera-Ellen (before being reprised by chinless comic foil Alice Pearce) - and Fred's simple, delightful I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man. For added insight into his consummate skill, check out That's Entertainment, Part III, which shows the number in both its original form (with Fred dressed as a waiter) and this re-shot version. They're virtually identical. All in all, you can see why The Belle of New York flopped on release, but Fred fans will want to catch it, primarily for the hoofing. (2.5)


... before another new one:

The Doctor Takes a Wife (Alexander Hall, 1940) - This is another fun screwball comedy from Columbia, the studio boasting in the trailer that it had recently been responsible for such fine films as The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and His Girl Friday - and rightly so. Loretta Young is cast against type as a hard-boiled authoress, who pens a manual for fellow singletons, the idiotically-titled Spinsters Aren't Spinach. Forcefully hitching a lift with single-minded, old-fashioned research scientist Ray Milland ("romantic Ray Milland", as he's billed in the trailer), events quickly take a turn for the ridiculous, and soon the pair are having to pretend they're married, as bosses, friends and lovers come to visit. Gail Patrick is a bit under-used as Milland's real girlfriend, and Reginald Gardiner rather one-dimensional as Young's suitor and publisher, but the leads are great fun, with Milland showing a real flair for comedy. I've seen very few funny drunk scenes - Frank McHugh's belligerent daredevil act in I Love You Again (see #29) is surely the best on record - but Milland's is a belter, an ideal ending to a hilarious routine that sees him stealing Young's possessions to the value of $4.95. "Ten years old," Milland says approvingly, sizing up a vintage bottle of whisky. "That's more than I can say for you," replies Young. The film is a little wild, its characters' behaviour not always coherent, but the set pieces are fine and there are great lines scattered all over the place. "He's a prowler," Young tells reporter Charles Lane, after he enquires about the man in her bedroom. "Lady, I don't care what your husband does for a living," he replies. Arf. It's also great to see the underrated bit player Ed Gargan as a suspicious doorman. Very enjoyable stuff. (3)

Trivia note: As well as being an entertaining example of Golden Era marketing, the trailer includes a few snippets of scenes cut from the final release, with more footage of Patrick at her engagement party, an amusing line about Wallace Beery and Young being presented with a large wedding cake. It's always worth checking out these classic trailers for such nuggets - or for alternate takes of famous scenes - if you're a bit of a geek like me.

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