Monday, 28 February 2011

Ellroy, Never Let Me Go and the brilliance of Enid Coleslaw - Reviews #54


Ghost World's Enid. A favourite of mine.

*FILM OF THE YEAR SO FAR*
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001) - You can take your Juno, your Scott Pilgrim, even your Heathers, and chuck them in a skip, because Ghost World just does it all so much better. Well, all of it that's worth doing. I'm beginning to think this melancholy, bitingly hilarious crystallisation of teen ennui might be the only film I'll ever really need. (4)



The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick, 1928) - Buster's last great film and probably his sweetest, both in terms of the wistful, heart-rending romance and the victory he was striking over his clueless new employers at MGM. Light on stunts but full of staggeringly brilliant set-pieces: the bus ride, the phone call, the reflex test, the solo ball game, the tong war and the parade. Knowing what happened to Buster next lends the final shot a particular resonance. (4)



I Know Where I'm Going! (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1945) - A Valentine's Day treat - an umpteenth viewing of P&P's superlative Hebridean romance. Hiller is fast becoming my favourite actress and if she doesn't quite match the form she displayed in Pygmalion and Major Barbara (I'm coming round to the opinion that that's one of the two greatest performances ever given by a British actress*), she's terrific nonetheless, while her chemistry with Livesey is an utter delight. The evocation of the wind-ravaged Western Isles is also extraordinary (this was the Archers' third excursion to the area) and Pressburger's script is largely bang on the money. Though money isn't everything, of course. (4)
*Breaking the Waves. Obviously.

The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942) - My girlfriend wanted to rewatch this, and who am I to quibble? A terrific, incisive comedy-drama with a legal theme and a decidedly dark undercurrent. The three stars are simply wonderful and there's a superb supporting cast led by Edgar Buchanan and Glenda Farrell. (4)

Along Came Jones (Stuart Heisler, 1945) - A simply extraordinary comedy-Western written by Nunnally Johnson: doggedly offbeat and bursting with imaginative plot-twists and crafty gags. Gary Cooper, the most criminally underrated comedian of his era, is a joy in the lead and there's a showy part for the wonderful bit player Willard Robertson (the flamboyant defence barrister in the Leisen-Sturges masterpiece, Remember the Night and sheriff in the classic lynch mob drama, The Ox-Bow Incident), playing a super-cool, uber-cynical express company agent, who's both creator and recipient of some killer reversals. (4)



CINEMA: Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) - Its world may be chilly but Never Let Me Go is anything but, thanks largely to a quietly electrifying performance from Carey Mulligan. She’s one of a trio of young friends whose singular, ominous destiny is somehow tied to their time at a mysterious, cloistered school. Beginning with fixed smiles in a hospital theatre, the film casts us into a parallel Britain of perpetual rain - so what’s new? - and major medical advancement. A world where life expectancy has passed 100, but terrible secrets lie behind closed doors. A world where the word “completion” has a devastating significance. A world of “donors” and “carers”. It’s an immersive, compelling blend of sci-fi, love story and state-of-the-nation brilliance that treads a perilous path with virtuosic skill. Its impact is akin to being repeatedly punched in the stomach. The film is director Mark Romanek’s third feature and his first since 2002, but it delivers fully on the promise he showed in a succession of arresting music videos - including the only promo assured to make us all burst into tears, Johnny Cash’s 'Hurt'. Shooting in a palette of greys and pale blues, he alights on telling details - a blank tower block, a fluttering map and a lost ball, all getting rained on to varying degrees - and coaxes first-rate performances from an exceptional cast. Mulligan, whose tremendous subtlety of expression is ideal for such a paean to blank-faced, very English stoicism, is the obvious standout. But Andrew Garfield - fresh from The Social Network - is also on top form, delivering another nuanced, memorable turn, and Keira Knightley continues her unexpected creative upswing in an agreeably enigmatic part. The interaction between the three is faultless and their understated playing ideal for a film that takes in perceived betrayal, fits of anguish and possible redemption, before arriving at whatever the opposite of melodrama is. There’s also an eye-catching bit from that stalwart of genuinely peculiar fare, Charlotte Rampling. From eerie opening to gutting denouement, it’s the feel-bad film of the year. (4)

Le dîner de cons (Francis Veber, 1998) - This were foony. Pointed too. (3.5)

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A couple of films dealing tangentially with the later years of Howard Hughes:

The Hoax (Lasse Hallström, 2006) - An incredibly entertaining re-telling of the Clifford Irving affair, in which the roguish con man (is there any other kind?) sold a faked autobiography of Howard Hughes for $1m. Richard Gere, for all his limitations, is ideal in the lead, Hallstrom's handling is perfect and the script has plenty to say about the changing face of America, without ladling it on. There are some changes to the story that I can't fathom (why relocate large portions of it from Ibiza to the New York suburbs?), but the only real weakness lies in its portrayal of the two women in Irving's life, who appear as little more than ciphers. (3.5)

and



Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980) - I had high hopes for this, but it doesn't quite hit the target, largely going astray because it's just too offbeat (and that's not a criticism I level at many films). In any other period than the New Hollywood era it would have focused largely on Melvin's fight to be taken seriously as an heir to Hughes' fortune, and not on his humdrum life beforehand. It's still entertaining and quite illuminating, with strong turns from Robards and Mary Steenburgen, who's the closest thing modern cinema has to a Jean Arthur; alas, not close enough. Trivia stuff: the real Melvin Dummar turns up behind a cafe counter and there's a brief appearance from former noir siren Gloria Grahame (she has one word of dialogue: "One!"), who died the next year. (3)

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The Milky Way (Leo McCarey, 1936) - Screwball comedy is a difficult genre to pull off - Hitchcock's notoriously wank Mr and Mrs Smith being a case in point. Happily, McCarey was a master and this effort, starring an all-talking, all-dancing, all-dairy-delivering Harold Lloyd as a milkie-turned-pugilist, delivers way above any expectations, particularly in its first half. The script is fresh and funny and there's a hilarious supporting performance from Verree Teasdale in an Eve Arden-esque role. (3)

An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009) - Enjoyable if unremarkable coming-of-age picture, with a strong script and performances, including a star-making turn from Carey Mulligan. It raises questions it never adequately resolves, but since they're about the nature of education, the role of women in Britain and the nature of life itself, perhaps we can let it off. (3)

Serendipity (Peter Chelsom, 2001) - A sweet romantic comedy with a smart premise and another fine Cusack performance. Its incidental pleasures are few and it's not particularly funny, though Eugene Levy scores big in one of those overbearing, one-joke appearances that never usually work. (3)



My Best Friend (Patrice Leconte, 2006)
*SOME SPOILERS*
- Aka 'The other Who Wants to Be a Millionaire movie'. A touch neat and I'm not sure that quiz show finale works, but pleasant and fairly funny, with nice chemistry between the leads. (3)

Of Human Hearts (Clarence Brown, 1938) - Enjoyable Americana, light on story but rich in flavour. It might have benefited from a subtler script, but Beulah Bondi is as brilliant as ever and there are a few spectacular moments. A rewatch should determine just how good it is. (3)

The Last Gentleman (Sidney Lanfield, 1934) - Snappy little comedy-drama about an ageing millionaire who gathers his clan to determine which of them will inherit his fortune. Mostly notable for George Arliss' grandstanding performance, which includes much posh-voiced posturing and a trio of lovely reflective moments. The supporting cast includes Edna May Oliver, Ralph Morgan, Edward Ellis (The Thin Man) and Donald Meek. (3)



The Last Gangster (Edward Ludwig, 1937) - A really unusual hybrid of gangster flick and "women's picture", made at MGM, with Edward G. Robinson as the Capone-esque kingpin who spends 10 years in Alcatraz obsessing about the son he's never held. His powerhouse turn is the film's major strength, though the smart ending was echoed in films like Le quai des brumes and Carlito's Way. Douglas Scott is curiously cast as Robinson's English-accented offspring, while Jimmy Stewart does quite well in an early role. (3)

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007) - I hadn't seen this. Now I have. Like most of Apatow's stuff it's pretty funny and possesses moments of great emotional clarity, but it's also meandering and not quite as good as it should be, with an overly sentimental wrap-up. I still like Drillbit Taylor the best of his films. (2.5)



Ice Age (Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, 2002) - Disjointed but fairly engaging update of the old Three Godfathers story*, lit by a fun ice-slide set-piece and an endlessly amusing squirrel. The final scene, which thaws him out on a desert island, is the highlight. (2.5)
*Filmed most memorably in 1936 - with one of the greatest endings you'll ever see - and by John Ford in 1948, the lush Technicolor cinematography there by Winton C. Hoch.

Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller, 1998) – Utterly bizarre sequel in which Babe moves to America and becomes benevolent dictator of a run-down neighbourhood. Terrifying chase sequences, a litany of damaged characters and an early scene in which Mrs Hoggatt is accused of being a drug mule make this the least suitable children’s entertainment since The Exorcist. It's too incoherent to be great, but too original to be ignored, with a handful of brilliant moments, including a desperately moving boat rescue. (2.5)

Speedy (Ted Wilde, 1928) - This slightly hackneyed Harold Lloyd vehicle - his last silent - really feels like several shorts stitched together, though it's good fun and features some fine sequences, including a gently inventive train ride. Oddly, the mass brawl (which is overlong and lacking in inspiration) and the climactic thrill sequence feel muted and overly familiar, with the latter relying far too much on process shooting. (2.5) For tons more on Lloyd, please clicky here.



Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005) - There's a great story here - locked to a glorious evocation of nauseating, mounting dread - but it's let down by cartoonish visuals (Yoda is terrible), interminable, banal action sequences and dialogue that's utter sith. The acting is erratic - the best performance coming from R2D2 - but while Hayden Christensen's gimmickry is easy to mock, it's often quite effective. (2.5)

Sailor of the King (Roy Boulting, 1953) - For 15 minutes, rather wonderful, then Wendy Hiller wanders off, we skip 20 years and it turns into a standard, though pretty tight WWII actioner. Michael Rennie - who's buried less than a half-mile from here - and Jeffrey Hunter are a bit stiff, but Hiller's typically glorious characterisation more than compensates. (2.5)

Sirens (John Duigan, 1993) - Considering that it's a comedy with no laughs, not bad. Loads of boobs hanging around (I'm teasing) and Hugh Grant's as good as ever (that's very good, if you were wondering). Still, I preferred The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill. (2.5)

Dark Blue (Ron Shelton, 2002) - James Ellroy wrote the story for this between The Cold Six Thousand and Blood's a Rover. It treads familiar ground for him, spotlighting a bent, alcoholic cop (Kurt Russell) whose marriage is on the rocks and whose quest for redemption is going to destroy him. Though his novels are cinematic, the demands of filmic convention generally rob Ellroy's material of its grandeur and cause it to fall apart at the end. The backdrop of the LA Riots is very effective here in terms of atmosphere (the Watts Riots form a key part of Ellroy's first major work, Blood on the Moon), but also pretentious and unilluminating. The film's major strengths are Russell's performance and a storytelling style that braids various contrasting, interesting story strands, though elements of agreeable realism are sadly overwhelmed by the daft finale. The film bears more than a passing resemblance to Training Day, from the same scriptwriter. If you like it, check out Sidney Lumet's meticulous Prince of the City. (2.5)



The Black Dahlia (Brian DePalma, 2006) - Admittedly I don't have any cinematic credits to my name, but you'd think it would be quite easy to make a decent film version of Ellroy's dazzlingly cinematic novel. Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential doesn't do justice to the transcendent source - for all its qualities it's too neat, too trite and has too little going on under the surface - but The Black Dahlia is largely about cinema and has a single strong narrative packed with simple but effective set pieces. And say what you like about Brian DePalma (his films are usually crap, he has a stupid beard) - he knows his way around a sleazy narrative with glossy trappings. As it is, the movie has few of the book's virtues (labyrinthine plotting, complex character study, rich atmosphere and an incredible twist) and most of its flaws (reams of grisly detail and a notably weak wrap-up). The principal strengths here are the fascinating setting, slick production design and directorial approach - a pastiche of classic noir that strongly recalls Black Angel, which is explicitly referenced - along with a powerful supporting bit by Aaron Eckhart. We also get a couple of super-stylish touches, including the completely unnecessary crane shot over the store, weighed against DePalma's typically idiotic homages, including a stupid nod to The Birds. Which he even feels the need to repeat. It is the film's other flaws, though, that are the catastrophic ones: the dense plotting is dismantled to the point of being unintelligible (perhaps you can just about tell what happened without knowing the book, but you won't have a clue why), Hartnett is physically incapable of emoting convincingly, while the final act is as bad as the one in The Blue Dahlia. And surely if a key tenet of a book is that two characters look eerily alike, you'd cast the same actress in both parts - or at least two actresses who slightly resemble one another? So it turns out you can make a very underwhelming version of The Black Dahlia, it just takes an ill-judged script, thin characters, a mishandling of the central twist and a melodramatic rendering of a muddle-headed ending. A shame, really, as the first half hour is really promising. (2.5)

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (S. Sylvan Simon, 1945) - I revisited this having first seen it nearly 10 years ago and I rather wish I hadn't. It's pretty unfunny and it struck me as particularly sad that MGM carpet-bombed the career of Buster Keaton, then cast completely unsuitable comics like A&C in pastiches of his thrill-comedy, realised through terrible back-projection. There's the odd good gag, the celebrated dummy routine and some cameos and MGM lot shots for Hollywood-on-film buffs, but that's about it. (2)

***

SHORTS:

The Goat (Buster Keaton and Malcolm St. Clair, 1921) - Perhaps the greatest Keaton short of all. Breathless and breathtakingly funny, even on 10th viewing. I'd nominate it as an ideal one-stop introduction to silent film (indeed, Paul Merton included it in his Buster doc): it dispels all the myths about the period and could surely win anyone over. Wonderful in every way. (4)



The Boat (Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, 1921)
*SOME SPOILERS*

Very good Keaton short, if a touch below his best, largely due to some intrusive model-work. Many excellent sight gags, including the unforgettable sight of him going down with his ship - twice. The spinning ship sequence is genuinely inspired and presumably influenced Inception. (3.5)

Cinderella (Lotte Reiniger, 1922) - This early Reiniger silhouette film is a touch hard to understand - doubly peculiar given the well-worn material - though it's impressively crafted and with eloquent inter-titles. No music on the BFI version, strangely. (3)

The Pink Phink (Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt, 1964) - The first Pink Panther short. Simple in style and theme, but well-developed and funny. (3)

***

TV:

My New Year's resolution was to watch more telly. It's been going well so far. In chronological order, here's what I've seen:

Sherlock (S1, 2010) - Yeah, I finally saw this. Extremely well-written, with a pair of flawless leads, though the second episode is a bit of a weak link. The other two, needless to say, are spectacular. I literally can't wait for it to return. (3.5)



Press Gang (S3, 1991) - The first two series are pretty much the best thing I've ever seen on telly (Brideshead excepted). The third's not quite as strong, but it's still of a very high standard, especially the opener, 'The Big Hello', while Paul Reynolds gives another masterclass in heightened farce in 'Chance Is a Fine Thing'. (3.5)

Press Gang (S4, 1992) - It starts and ends patchily, with an unrealistic first episode and a final one that betrays a certain poverty of ideas, but 'UnXpected' is fascinating and 'The Last Word' is perhaps the greatest Press Gang episode of them all. (3)

Press Gang (S5, 1993) - A bit too cartoonish, all in all, but I enjoyed it a lot regardless. That's aside from the final episode, which is very disappointing - overly ambitious, with jarring shifts between comedy and nightmarish fantasy. (2.5)



Coupling (S1, 2000) and (S2, 2001): Continuing my Moffat extravaganza, I got the Coupling box-set set on Amazon (£12 - bargainous). I saw the first two series over a few nights back in 2003 or 4 and they play the same now as then. They're not inspired, as Press Gang and Sherlock are, but they're diverting, with some really good moments and ideas and Richard Coyle's hysterical characterisation as Jeff. 'The Man With Two Legs', apparently inspired by the Peter Cook sketch 'One Leg Too Few', is transparently the best episode, with several passages of sustained hilarity that are among Moffat's best comedic work. The main criticism of the series is that the female characters aren't that funny and there's a slight absence of heart, though this is remedied somewhat in the second series. (3)

Coupling (S3, 2002) - More of the same, really: Jeff's still entirely hilarious, the hit:miss gag ratio is still pretty high and Moffat continues to revel in the possibilities of flashback, split-screen and generally messing around with episode structure. Curiously, the best two episodes feel like partial retreads of earlier favourites: 'The Girl with One Heart', which recalls 'Inferno', and 'Unconditional Sex', which is essentially 'The Man with Two Legs', but with death replacing the unidexter. The Patrick-Sally relationship moves on nicely in this series, providing a few touching moments alongside the rofls. They're hardly Press Gang's Spike and Lynda, though. (3)

Coupling (S4, 2004) aka Coupling (The Universally Reviled Series 4, 2004) - Losing the best character and replacing him with a guy who isn't that funny was a risky strategy, but it pays off. No it doesn't. I still enjoyed this series, despite its obvious shortcomings (no Jeff, the massive inconsistencies in Jane's character, a tedious subplot about pregnancy pain relief...), though the first three episodes are much better than the last three and - like Press Gang - the final one devotes half its running time to muddled fantasy. (2.5), just about.

Spaced (S1, 1999) and (S2, 2001) - The first series is good, but the second is brilliant, with every episode seemingly better than the last. The bit where Daisy walks into the restaurant in 'Dissolution' is just amazing (I won't say any more than that). (3) and (3.5)



The Glittering Prizes (1976) - The script's the star of this sprawling six-part series from Frederic Raphael: probing, caustic and matchlessly witty, particularly in the two most successful episodes, the Brideshead-esque 'An Early Life' and the frankly outlandish 'A Past Life', which features Eric Porter as a fascist sympathiser. The acting is variable (Tom Conti's bravura central performance is the obvious standout), the worldview sometimes unsavoury and the penultimate episode has passages that really drag, but it's a work touched with a rare brilliance and the dialogue is simply spectacular. I picked it up after hearing Nigel Havers (who has a small but memorable role) say it was the best script he'd ever read. (3.5)