Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Avatar, Viv Stanshall and Wendy Hiller being amazing (again) - Reviews #52

Hello there. I've been on holiday - a joyous break, and without a film in sight. Don't worry, though, I've been spending quite a bit of time in a darkened room since, and the results are transcribed for you below. Several of my most-recently-watched were shot on location in places I visited: Paris, Venice and Rome.



Forget Paris (Billy Crystal, 1995) is a rather chilly examination of how tricky it can be to forge a happy marriage, with a few cartoonish episodes chucked in alongside. Billy Crystal does his usual schtick as he romances Debra Winger, though the structure is pure Woody Allen - the whole film told by a group of friends at a party - and the foreign funeral set-up half-inched somewhat obviously from Billy Wilder's underrated Avanti!. The result is somewhat unsatisfactory. It's certainly no Moonstruck or Broadway Danny Rose, but it's not even When Harry Met Sally - and the Paris-set sections were disappointingly brief considering I'd just returned from my travels and was secretly hankering for a glossily-photographed sight-seeing tour. There are comic compensations, though. Playing a basketball referee, Crystal's meltdown on the court is the obvious highlight - along with his senile father-in-law's fondness for regurgitating ad slogans. "You asked for it... you got it. Toyota. You asked for it... you got it. Toyota. You asked for it... you got it. Toyota." (2.5)

***



Summertime (David Lean, 1955) has a thin plot and a dubious grasp of Venetian geography, but benefits from the glorious on-location filming and Katharine Hepburn's wonderful, nuanced performance. It seemed there was no leading lady stronger in the '30s, nor more frail thereafter. For Lean it's a transitional work between the small-scale, largely studio-bound films of his early career and the sprawling epics with which he became synonymous. Rossano Brazzi is effective as Hepburn's leading man, particularly when he chastises her for seeking perfection. (3)

***



PARIS... Gay... Alluring... Deadly!
The Man on the Eiffel Tower (Burgess Meredith, 1949) is really, really odd, perhaps due to the troubled production, with Irving Allen replaced by Meredith and future Night of the Hunter director Charles Laughton taking charge of the scenes featuring his co-star. The story is fragmented and the direction wildly erratic - sometimes vividly expressionistic, at other times consisting of the cast simply standing in a big line - but at least we've got a restored copy now. Previous touring prints had degraded to such an extent that they had turned sepia, except for Meredith's bright red hair. The plot sees manic depressive Franchot Tone - yes, apparently bipolar disorder is the same as megalomania if you've got it not only in your heart, but "also up here" (I have no idea) - repeatedly taunting useless detective Inspector Maigret (Laughton) en route to a climactic confrontation up Le Tour Eiffel. Laughton is lacklustre, Meredith peculiar and Tone looks about 108 - his grey hair dyed chestnut - though he's quite effective in a one-note role. English leading lady Patricia Roc is also among the bafflingly illustrious cast, but she's given virtually nothing to do. The real star is the Ansco Color photography (unsung MGM masterpieces Kiss Me Kate and Brigadoon were two one of the few other films shot in the short-lived process) shot at sites around Paris, from the banks of the Seine to Les Deux Magots (an old haunt of Hemingway's) and the eponymous monument. (2)

***



Zazie dans le m├ętro (Louis Malle, 1960) is a joyous, freewheeling barrage of gags and cinematic tricks, several years ahead of its time. Perhaps surprisingly, the director is Louis Malle - better known for more contemplative fare like Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud (aka A Trip to the Scaffold), with its classic Miles Davis score, and Au revoir les enfants. Nine-year-old Catherine Demongeot - now a historian, trivia fans - is the grinning, foul-mouthed protagonist, who goes to stay with her drag queen uncle (Philippe Noiret, later of Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino) in Paris and proceeds to cause absolute mayhem. Commencing with a delightful, jaunty credit sequence, the first half-hour is simply brilliant - subversive, hilarious and matchlessly energetic - with the next 30 just a notch below. The whole thing appears to run out of energy in the final third, with a weary, overlong slapstick sequence in a restaurant*, before a lovely final reel. (3)

*It's still better than the one in Tati's risible Play Time.

***



"Lilliput!"
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (Steve Roberts, 1980) was the brainchild of writer, musician, comedian, drunkard and visionary Vivian Stanshall, growing out of his work on John Peel's radio show. And very English it is too, in the true spirit of the word: absurd, poetic and - on occasion - devastatingly satirical, underscored by a rich sense of history and a caustic sense of humour. Trevor Howard is typically commanding as the title figure, a colonial relic plagued by booze, indoor polo and the ghost of his adulterous brother, who's looking for his trousers. Then there are the cultured German PoWs he keeps in a cage at the bottom of the garden, who are intent on escaping, and the bodies of the hedonists he offed during a heady night of paganism climaxing with his appearance in a Viking hat, bellowing "Son of Raw!" The dialogue is sublime, the plotting generally more coherent than I'd heard - though it doesn't all work - and the snippets of music truly wonderful. Cracking sepia cinematography too. I just wish it were longer - the running time is a decidedly slender 71 minutes, not nearly long enough to investigate all the fascinating ideas Stanshall casts into the mix. (3.5)

***



Three Coins in the Fountain (Jean Negulesco, 1954) is a disappointingly artificial romantic drama about three women looking for love in Rome. The plotting seems synthetic, with the great Dorothy McGuire given nothing to work with, while almost all the colourful location work is second-unit material employed using process screens. It's rarely objectionable, and it passes the time, but if you're yet to see McGuire in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Spiral Staircase, don't waste your time on this one. Incidentally, the titular water feature is "The Fountain of Trevi", or Trevi Fountain - as everyone else on planet Earth calls it. (2)

***



The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945) is a neat little procedural that's hampered by an over-earnest, flag-waving voiceover that lauds the FBI and celebrates the dropping of the atom bomb (this was 1945, after all), but benefits from a new level of realism in American film, its exteriors all shot on location in New York. The story, about a college boy infiltrating a Nazi spy ring, is fitfully exciting, though personal favourite Lloyd Nolan has little to do of any note, despite his considerable screen-time playing an FBI operative. Hathaway continued to shoot crime movies on location for Fox, including the flawed-but-fascinating Kiss of Death - with Richard Widmark's unforgettable debut performance as a giggling killer - and Call Northside 777, which is the pick of the bunch. (2.5)

***



As a cheerleader for the possibilities of cinema, I thought I should probably check out CINEMA: Avatar: Special Edition (James Cameron, 2010), what with the original, unspecial edition being the Jazz Singer/Brothers in Arms/Matrix of the resurgent 3D medium, as well as the highest-grossing film of all-time. It's sort-of-alright, interest ebbing and flowing as an enjoyable first quarter - with some eye-popping live-action 3D work - gives way to an awful lot of silliness. The premise is predictable but diverting, as American soldiers attempt to colonise a land they make no effort to understand, with obvious echoes of the treatment of Native Americans, and solitary nods to Iraq (the country is rich in natural resources) and Vietnam (a soldier incinerates the vegetation). The dialogue is lousy - patronising, sloppy and full of pseudo-hip one-liners - but that's no surprise. It's the much-touted visuals that are the big letdown: sporadically impressive, but too often false and cartoonish, considering they're the film's main (only?) selling point. And though Cameron serves up a handful of good action sequences, they can't make up for a chilling absence of heart, his script playing like an exercise in formula screenwriting: calculating, unbelievable and empty.

On a more trivial note, I'd also caution against employing a villain who looks quite so much like Derek Acorah, though one can only admire Stephen Lang's adherence to the Cameron-baddie template, jettisoning all credibility by the 30-minute mark then becoming increasingly silly over the next two-and-a-half hours. There was some laughter in the theatre, much of it from me, when he shouted "Shut your pie-hole!", a word that's generally the preserve of jolly northerners, rather than psychotic American hawks. The only decent acting on show comes, predictably enough, from Giovanni Ribisi - good value as an eerily fresh-faced, bloodthirsty back-office bastard - and Michelle Rodriguez, who has a good five seconds of decent material to get her teeth into: a final scene for her character that's really nicely played. For the rest of it she's given little to do except say "bitch". And occasionally "shit". I wish people would let her act. Anyone who caught her arresting debut turn in Girlfight and is familiar with anything she's done since will want to take her agent to one side and shout at them. As regards Avatar; Titanic was the subject of one of the most vicious backlashes in living memory. Really unfair, given that it's one of the best blockbusters of the '90s. If any influential arbiters of taste are reading, you can do what you like to Avatar. Incidentally, the specialness of this re-release comprises several minutes of travelogue-ish padding and a sterile sex scene. (2)

***



SHORT: The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1941) - John Ford's celebrated 19-minute documentary about America's first major victory of World War Two earned him a shrapnel wound, a Purple Heart and an Oscar. The first 10 is impressive without being that interesting - hard-won battle footage that largely consists of some stuff setting on fire, the camera shaking, the film cutting, then something else setting on fire - though the raising of the flag is a lovely moment, narrator Irving Pichel intoning: "Yes, this really happened". The second half is more obviously Fordian, the elegiac tone reinforced by hymns, slanting shadows and Jane Darwell's frenzied, corny, but effective narration. Audiences wept and fainted during the passage where she urges ambulance-men to rush injured soldiers to a hospital. Ford would make his definitive statement on the war, and the nature of heroism, with 1945's They Were Expendable, but this short is well worth a look. (3)

***


This movie is really good. Honestly.

"Where are you from, Bitchville?"
I Love Trouble (Charles Shyer, 1994) - Nick Nolte says this is the worst movie he's ever made. Julia Roberts says he's the poorest actor she's ever worked with. It scores 5.0 on IMDb and garnered 17 per cent of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Well, they're all wrong - it's actually really good. Of course this pastiche of '30s and '40s newspaper comedies comes up short compared to His Girl Friday, but that was like capturing lightning in a bottle. The best light comedian of all-time giving his greatest performance. The sassiest leading lady in Hollywood on top form. The sharpest, zingiest script from the finest writers of comedy-drama in cinematic history, helmed by the fastest, funniest comedy director we've ever seen. All that and a stellar supporting cast including such luminaries as John Qualen, Helen Mack and Roscoe Karns at their peak. But I'd say I Love Trouble would easily slot into the third tier of Golden Age comedies, with pleasant interplay between the likeable leads, fast-moving, stylish direction and a script that mixes intermittently sharp banter with genuine suspense. The action/exposition climax is slightly weak, but I enjoyed the gimmicky coda, like something from a Lee Tracy movie. The quote I've picked out above the review isn't indicative of the script, but its general witlessness made me chuckle. (3)

***



Separate Tables (Delbert Mann, 1958) is an acting masterclass, a stunning adaptation of Rattigan's two single-act plays set at a Bournemouth hotel. David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Wendy Hiller (my new favourite) are flawless in their sensitive, layered performances: he an army major with a dark secret, Kerr the meek, downtrodden girl who loves him, Hiller the hotel manager fighting disappointments of her own. Shooting on home soil, American stars Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth are very good in somewhat less interesting parts. Taking dead-aim at intolerance, as well as examining the disappointments and compromises of adulthood, this is a remarkable piece of humanist drama and one of the most intelligent films to come out of Hollywood in the '50s. Charles Lang's cinematography is a big plus; the only duff element is the wearisome theme song. (4)

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