Monday, 31 January 2011

Harold Lloyd, The King's Speech and Tarzan's most annoying friend - Reviews #53

You know Harold Lloyd. Dark hair. Glasses. Smart suit. Hanging from a clock. I've been watching a heap of his films of late. Here's some stuff about them.

Harold Lloyd in...

For Heaven's Sake (Sam Taylor, 1926) - Wow. This will take some beating. A genuinely beguiling, hilarious Harold Lloyd comedy about a spoilt millionaire getting involved with a mission, to win the heart of a girl (Jobyna Ralston). I find Lloyd's work pretty variable. This is one of his less ambitious films but - along with The Kid Brother - the best I've encountered, with a touching romance, stunning set pieces and the funniest drunks that side of Frank McHugh. And the Robert Israel score is one of the loveliest things I've ever heard. (4)

Grandma's Boy (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1922) - Reactionary but charming and pastoral Harold Lloyd vehicle. Nearly missteps with a flashback sequence, then pulls it out of the bag, before climaxing in typically exciting fashion. (4)

A Sailor-Made Man (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1921) - Lloyd's first feature, coming in at a trim 47 minutes, isn't as good as Chaplin's (The Kid), but turns out better than Buster's (The Saphead), with neat characterisation, clever sight gags and an exuberant action climax. Pretending you're a cushion and then kicking someone up the bum so they fall into a swimming pool is always going to be funny. Special mention too for the penultimate scene, where Lloyd just can't get a kiss. (3)

Dr. Jack (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1922) - Unwaveringly pleasant Lloyd vehicle, with our hero as an idiosyncratic country doctor trying to save a sensitive, cloistered girl (Mildred Davis) from her fraudulent doctor, who keeps her dosed up and in the dark. Lots of gentle jokes, before a frenetic finale with more than a hint of Keaton's classic short The Goat, released the previous year. (3)

Why Worry? (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1923) - The first half of this much-praised outing is flatly disappointing, with a super set-up - a hypochondriac gets caught up in a revolution - thwarted by a succession of forced gags. Then suddenly the film bursts into life, climaxing with three hysterical fight scenes and some desperately tender, affecting romantic scenes opposite the wonderful Jobyna Ralston - by far the best of Lloyd's leading ladies, with an easy humour and tremendous natural warmth. There's a sublime closing scene too, which is anarchic, absurd and just plain old nice. (3)

The Cat's Paw (Sam Taylor, 1934) - *SPOILERS* Fine fish-out-of-water Lloyd talkie hampered by a notoriously bizarre final act in which he becomes a dictator. Una Merkel is a glorious leading lady. (3)

Movie Crazy (Clyde Bruckman, 1932) - I read a very enthusiastic review of this sound feature, which is what inspired me to dig out the Lloyd box-set in the first place (I bought it when it came out, watched half of the stuff on it, then got sidetracked and stuck it in a cupboard). Ironically, it's one of his weaker features, with its dearth of genuine belly laughs extending to a notably laughless, scoreless finale, which is essentially just a brutal fight. That's not to say the film doesn't offer plenty of enjoyment. Harold remains an engaging hero, Constance Cummings is a likeable and agreeably modern leading lady and there are some funny set-pieces, like our hero accidentally ruining her car, and his famous "magician's coat" sequence. But the Hollywood setting isn't adequately exploited (it hurts a little that there are no gag cameos; sometimes being independent must suck) and the highs just aren't as high as you'd hope, meaning it can't come close to matching Lloyd's silent classics. It would take Preston Sturges to give him the talkie - and the swansong - he deserved, some 16 years later. (3)

Hot Water (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1924) - Little-seen Harold Lloyd comedy is disappointing, disjointed and stressful rather than funny, at least in its first half. Picks up a bit in the second, with a couple of nice thrill sequences. (2.5)

... and here are the rest of the January reviews:

CINEMA: The King's Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) - Brilliant stuff. As my girlfriend said: "I thought Colin Firth would be Oscar-worthy, but I didn't know he'd be good as well." And he is. Astonishingly good. The script isn't always faithful to the history, we could have used a little less symbolic Churchill and there's a slightly saggy bit at the end of the first third full of Gambon and Pearce, but for the most part this is stirring, funny and riotously enjoyable, with super support from Bonham Carter, Rush and the ever-underrated Anthony Andrews. (4)

The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman, 1998) - I dismissed this somewhat on first viewing, as it can't touch Stillman's other entries in the "doomed bourgeois in love" trilogy, Metropolitan and Barcelona. Also, three of the characters look pretty much identical, which meant I found the plot a little hard to follow. Silly old me. A rewatch reveals it to be a minor classic, with Stillman's typically fine ear for dialogue, another brilliant Eigeman performance and plenty of astute commentary on youth, romance and popular culture. I'll catch it again soon. (3.5)

Let Him Have It (Peter Medak, 1991) - Excellent but virtually unwatchable recounting of the Derek Bentley miscarriage of justice. Powerful, polemical and superbly acted across the board, with Paul Reynolds (Press Gang's Colin) matching Eccleston and veterans Courtenay and Atkins. I'll never watch it again, though, as I still feel bloody dreadful a day after seeing it. (3.5)

Quick Change (Howard Franklin and Bill Murray, 1990) - Considered by everyone to be "the great lost Bill Murray comedy", which I think makes that untrue. It's funny, entertaining and offbeat, with a particularly strong opening 15 and plenty of surprises thereafter, even if it's marginally less compelling than Scorsese's unjustly neglected After Hours, with which it has much in common. (3.5)

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) - Not quite great, but fascinating and entertaining, with a strong script and performances. (3.5)

The Night They Raided Minsky's (William Friedkin, 1968) - Not much story, but a dazzling evocation of burlesque in the '20s, with a wonderfully eclectic cast: Jason Robards, Jr., Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz), Britt Ekland, Norman Wisdom and Fender from Bilko. (3.5)

Flushed Away (David Bowers and Sam Fell, 2006) - I avoided this first time around, due to the apparently unappealing subject matter (I'm as up for a poo gag as the next man who finds poo really funny, but I wasn't sure I wanted to spend a whole film down the toilet), so it's nice to find that it's actually a really refreshing movie. The animation looks a touch primitive compared to recent ventures and Hugh Jackman is all wrong voicing our toffish protagonist, but Winslet's love interest is appealing, the supporting characters are really funny and the chase sequences are genuinely thrilling. (3)

CINEMA: The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry, 2011) - It seems half-finished, with iffy retro-fitted 3D, extended comic interludes crowbarred in pretty much indiscriminately and a minimal amount of Gondry magic. I really didn't care, as it made me laugh a lot. (2.5)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010) - Flashy, memorable and yet still a bit disappointing really, given the fields of lovingly-tended hype surrounding it. There are loads of good things in it (sight gags, non-sequiturs, one-liners - "Your bad is saying 'My bad'"), but it doesn't quite work as a whole - like Igby Goes Down. And Kieran Culkin is the best thing on show - like Igby Goes Down. Wright's uber-stylised direction and cut-to-the-quick editing provides plenty of colour while cramming about eight hours' worth of stuff into just two, and the supporting cast is really strong, but Cera is uncharacteristically annoying (and, no, I don't think that's intentional) and his chemistry with Lucy McClane is non-existent. Added to which, her character isn't developed beyond a cool wardrobe. And most of the music is a bit weak. Sorry. Still quite good though. (2.5)

Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) - Knightley is surprisingly good, as is the kid, and the Dunkirk sequence is a knockout (Wright is clearly a fine director), but I'm not sure what the point is. Is it clearer in the novel? (2.5)

Starsky & Hutch (Todd Phillips, 2004) - Good fun, with a few big laughs. I'll watch Owen Wilson in anything (except Meet the Little Fockers). Snoop Dogg has quite a high-pitched voice. (2.5)

Con Air (Simon West, 1997) - Vivid characterisations make this OTT actioner a touch better than average, but the last half hour is pretty boring, and capped off with a hideously ill-judged coda. Cusack and Malkovich are really effective, but then they always are. (2.5)

The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) - There are impressive things in it - particularly Mirren - but it's overly repetitive and, like so many of the supporting performances, contrives to just miss the target. Peter Morgan can only write one type of film, can't he? And this is no Frost/Nixon. We could probably all live long and happy lives without the stag metaphor. (2.5)

Torchy Blane.. Playing with Dynamite (Noel M. Smith, 1939) - We wrapped up another series with this one, the final entry in Warner's popular B-movie run of the late 1930s. Blane was the inspiration for Superman's Lois Lane, the name partly drawn from Lola Lane, who played the character in one outing. Glenda Farrell was the only true Blane, though, appearing in seven of the nine entries and getting it supremely, effortlessly right each time. Absent here, Farrell is obviously missed, but Jane Wyman does an unexpectedly strong job of deputising, and Allen Jenkins is very good as her cop boyfriend, replacing Barton McLane. Absent-minded desk sergeant George Guhl is also elsewhere (literally this time), but ever-present Tom Kennedy is back for more as Gahagan, the soft detective with a yen for composing verse. The key for the series was really the performances. The first Blane film, Smart Blonde, benefited from snappy, clever dialogue, but generally the scripts were rushed, meaning the plots were full of holes and the patter erratic. Here, the story is better than usual, with Blane getting slung in jail to befriend gangster's moll Sheila Bromley, though her tactic of getting there - raising 11 false fire alarms - is slightly questionable, and her supposed rivalry with the police evaporates after about 10 minutes. Still, it's tense and enjoyable, with an abrupt ending that works quite well. (2.5)

She Knew All the Answers (Richard Wallace, 1941) - Fun romantic comedy with Franchot Tone, Joan Bennett and such familiar faces as William Tracy (Pepe from The Shop Around the Corner), Thurston Hall, Chester Clute and Billy Benedict in support. Bennett is a showgirl trying to get her boyfriend's stuffy uncle (Tone) to approve of her, so as to free up his mammoth inheritance. He's inheriting money, incidentally, not mammothseses. Instead, Tone takes a bit of a shine to her. The film borrows liberally from Easy Living in its stocks-and-shares subplot - and can't approach the majesty of that cast-iron classic - but it's all very pleasant, and they go to a fair at Coney Island. (2.5)

Dark Alibi (Phil Karlson, 1946) - Unusually well-directed Monogram Chan with an atypically coherent plot. Among the best of the series, then, though still dirt-cheap, with the familiar paucity of scriptwriting class reflected in the cut-price aphorisms. It's worth repeating that these Poverty Row programmers aren't a patch on the Fox films, which are simply wonderful, but fans will probably want to investigate them, once they've worked their way through those earlier classics. (2.5)

I'll Be Yours (William A. Seiter, 1947) - Pretty weak remake of The Good Fairy, with excessive re-writing losing the essence of the original and Tom Drake completely miscast in the Herbert Marshall role. It's one of the final four Deanna Durbin films, which she derided in her 1983 interview with David Shipman. It's perhaps not quite as bad as she made out, but it's streets behind Three Smart Girls or Mad About Music. (2)

Pulp (Mike Hodges, 1972) - A smug, disengaging and often incoherent homage to pulp fiction. There are a few bright moments, a handful of funny in-jokes (that nevertheless betray a certain desperation) and Lizabeth Scott's only movie appearance since 1957, but really it's just a massive disappointment - like a failed version of Gumshoe. (2)

Turner & Hooch (Roger Spottiswoode, 1989) - I saw bits and pieces of this when I was little (I'm 6' 3" now), but thought it deserved a proper go because I read a post on Empire Online raving about it, albeit with the caveat that it had a nostalgic pull. It was alright: Hanks was pretty decent, I'm really not sure about the ending. (2)

Bridget Jones's Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001) - A zeitgeisty novel becomes undemanding, conventional romantic fare mining the comedy of embarassment. The three leads are all decent, but the script isn't. The Auschwitz joke made me wince. Death camp uniforms, lol. (2)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008) - Oh dear. Annoying dialogue, action scenes largely shorn of their trademark wonder, a laughably awful plot and a terrible baddie. Even John Hurt's rubbish in it. It makes Temple of Doom look nearly good. Half a mark for the ghost village and old times' sake. (1.5)

"Through the forest I carry the mail/Singing better than a nightingale/As great a lover as postman/And particular friend of the mighty Tarzan."
Tarzan and the Mermaids (Robert Florey, 1948)

The last, and by far the least, of the Weissmuller Tarzans. It's stultifying, truth be told, with a risible storyline utilising a hammy George Zucco, and an inexplicable number of terrible songs (please see above), crooned by John Laurenz. The only brightspots are the snippets of Robert-Florey-does-Robert-Flaherty faux-documentary footage, some decent underwater photography, a bit where loads of stuntmen leap off a cliff and the unexpected octopus duel (it won't be unexpected anymore; sorry). The remaining 61 of the 64 minutes consist of Tarzan swimming and people getting into and out of boats (calling to mind that famous review of They Were Expendable; alas, the similarities end there), as well as those bloody songs. Even Johnny Sheffield and the decent Cheetas had buggered off by this time. RKO's revival of the popular MGM series ultimately created one minor classic of its kind (Desert Mystery), two enjoyable timewasters (Triumphs and Huntress), a pair of iffy, cheesy romps and this dud. (1.5)

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