Friday, 22 July 2011

Half Nelson, oldsters and Paul Merton on Hollywood - Reviews #80



Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006) - Inner-city history teacher Ryan Gosling may be a crack addict, but "one thing doesn't make a man", as he tells the 13-year-old student (Shareeka Epps) who finds him lighting up and falling down in the school toilets. Half Nelson is a simply brilliant drama about loneliness, self-destruction and mutual reliance, boasting two of the most remarkable performances I've ever seen. As the hollow-eyed lost soul stumbling from one catastrophe to another, Gosling offers a method masterclass that blends quiet tragedy with wry black humour. Epps is the perfect antidote: completely naturalistic, straightforward and unschooled, as her damaged, impressionable teen reaches out for some hand to guide her and finds only a hopeless case and an unrepentant dealer (Anthony Mackie). The writing is intelligent, subtle and devoid of cliche, while Fleck's handheld camera creates some truly arresting imagery: Epps on her bicycle, winding her way through a city block; our protagonists glimpsing one another through a science park slide; and Gosling crouched, red-eyed in a doorway, as the film reaches its overpowering emotional climax. The best first viewing I've seen this year, and a shoo-in for my next all-time top 100. (4)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
- When Leo McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for 1937's The Awful Truth, he had some harsh words for the judges. Right filmmaker, he said. Wrong movie. And if The Awful Truth - also written by Viña Delmar - is the funniest film ever made, then McCarey's preferred movie is one of the saddest. Just ask Orson Welles. "It could make a stone cry," he said, which is, like, impossible. Victor Moore and queen of the character actresses Beulah Bondi play an old married couple whose house is taken by the Depression - and by the bank manager he stole her from all those years ago. Bondi goes to live with their eldest son (the impressive Thomas Mitchell, cast against type as not a drunk judge), while Moore moves in with intolerant, insecure daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon). All concerned find the age divide impossible to overcome. The first half of the film is pedestrian, stilted and not always enjoyable, but that's rather the point. Bondi and Moore are so used to one another's company, one another's rhythms and foibles, that with others she seems self-pitying and lacking in self-awareness, he closed-minded and possessing little faith in youth. It's only when they reunite that they make sense. There are many wonderful and timeless moments, a few scattered through the first hour (Bondi facing facts, a poignant letter and Mitchell's rueful line about being mighty proud), but most in that dazzling third act, as the couple's load is lightened - if just for an hour or two - by acts of kindness, before a gutting, brilliant ending. (We'll skirt over some decidedly dubious back-projection.) The leads are superb. Bondi, aged just 49 but playing 70, produces another memorable, nuanced, utterly human characterisation, while Moore - who elsewhere did just the one thing, playing affable and absent-minded in comedies like Swing Time, Louisiana Purchase and Star-Spangled Rhythm - shows that there's a great actor under all that strangle-voiced umming and aahing. In support, Fay Bainter is formidably cold, though Barbara Read is a bit one-note as the shallow granddaughter, while the severely-limited Minna Gombell does her patented "massive bitch" routine. There are very few films about oldsters, but this deeply moving humanist drama - semi-remade by Ozu as Tokyo Story - is kind of the last word. (4)

***


Those groundbreaking special effects.

Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004) - The first one is rubbish, but since Roger Ebert (the fella who reckons Hoop Dreams is the best film of the '90s and Ghost World is a cast-iron classic) said this sequel was the best comic book movie since 1978, I thought I'd give it a tumble. And I'm so glad I did. The fight scenes are still a bit jerky and cartoonish, there's too much slapstick in the early reels and Raimi's horror background can result in gimmickry, but the story is incredibly interesting - as Spidey (Tobey Maguire) struggles to juggle his responsibilities to family, friends and his public - with a real emotional pull. Maguire is unexpectedly excellent in the lead, both wide-eyed and world-weary, and the train sequence is an absolute wonder: bringing a lump to the throat as it comprehensively triumphs over the portentous paraphrasing of the same idea in The Dark Knight. Special mention also to the fire rescue, for its simple sentiment and the way that's undercut by the bleak pay-off. Alfred Molina is fairly weighty as villain Doc Ock (though he's been better elsewhere) - I like the way we can hear him before we see him, a sign of Raimi's horror roots working in his favour - and Kirsten Dunst is good in a role that requires her to play both ethereal and girl-next-door. Despite its flaws, a minor classic. (3.5)

***



Bells Are Ringing (Vincente Minnelli, 1960) represents the end of an era. This was the last film for MGM's musical producer Arthur Freed (the guy behind Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon and The Wizard of Oz), director Vincente Minnelli (responsible for masterpieces like Meet Me in St Louis) and star Judy Holliday - the greatest female comic of the Golden Age by a country mile. An adaptation of a Broadway show that ran for three years, it was her only colour movie (save the last scene of The Solid Gold Cadillac, more of which below) and her only musical. In a role written especially for her by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Holliday plays an operator at answering service Susanswerphone who tries to solve the problems of her many clients (including a boozy playwright, a short-tempered theatre director and a dentist-turned-songwriter), while falling in love and trying to avoid the government agents who're convinced she's a hooker. There's not much plot and nor is it developed by the songs - beyond articulating the characters' emotions or the atmosphere of falsity at a society party - but what there is is nicely handled. Similarly, while the hoofing isn't of the standard you'd get in a Fred and Ginger picture, or one of Freed's movies with Gene Kelly, the Jule Styne tunes (including The Party's Over and I'm Going Back) manage to be both complex and catchy, and they're performed with tremendous feeling. Indeed, the acting is far better, not to mention more central and more important, than in most MGM musicals. Since it's Judy. Yep, she's just brilliant again, leaning on that recognisable persona while doing something entirely new. Despite the familiar delivery, she's not playing dumb, just terribly sweet. There are two small moments that sum up what a special actress she was. With anyone else, the first would be a nothing line amidst much exuberant comic playing - in her hands it's perhaps my movie moment of the year so far. Her squeeze (Dean Martin) explains that he needs to greet (i.e. kiss) a number of pouty ladies from his past. In a moment of beguiling tenderness, understanding and encouragement, Judy just murmurs: "I know, s'alright". Later, she embarks on a spirited cha-cha-cha and, rather than break her stride, greets Martin by just mwah-mwah-mwahing him in time. Such moments of sensitivity, vulnerability and hilarity are offset by sequences highlighting her facial expressiveness and gift for mimicry. A couple of neat comic sequences ended up on the cutting room floor (the one in which she spins a tale of woe for investigator Dort Clark is a gem) and as co-scripter Green acknowledges, this outing could have been a bit more cinematic, but it's a lovely film regardless, with a simply wonderful performance at its centre. (3.5)

Trivia note: Look out for '30s and '40s crime and comedy regular George E. Stone (Runt in the Boston Blackie series), playing a blind bookie in the steamship number.

***



*SPOILERS*
The Solid Gold Cadillac (Richard Quine, 1956)
is a solid comedy celebrating the small shareholder and the self-made man. Judy Holliday is a minor investor at a major business who creates so much trouble at meetings that she's given an office, a secretary and a pretend job. When she finds out that the new heads of the business are total crooks, it's up to her to save the day, and the legacy of founder Paul Douglas. The material isn't Broadway legend George Kaufman's best - the stakes aren't that high and it's not that funny - but the film is lifted by Holliday's usual charm, charisma and comic smarts, playing both capitalist crusader and romantic matchmaker. Incredibly, her part was originated on stage by spherical character actress Josephine Hull. A couple of minor gripes: the final scene is in eye-popping colour, but it's dramatically and thematically incongruous and you can barely make out the actors, and while I'm aware that the film is essentially a fairytale, rudimentary calculation suggests Holliday would have had to stall the meeting for almost two weeks to make the climax possible. The Solid Gold Cadillac is a fun ride, but compared to other Holliday vehicles, it's more a [insert name of slightly above-average car] than a [insert name of very expensive car]. Sorry, I know nothing about cars. (3)

Trivia note: This was Holliday and Douglas' only film together, though they'd previously been teamed on stage in the production of Born Yesterday that made Judy's name. When it transferred to the screen, he was replaced by Broderick Crawford. A similar fate had befallen Crawford himself in 1939, when Of Mice and Men was made into a movie, only for Lon Chaney, Jr. to take on the role of Lenny, which Crawford had originated on Broadway.

***



"Monogamy!"
How Do You Know (James L. Brooks, 2010) - Dismissed on release, this romantic comedy-drama from Brooks - who makes features so rarely that each one feels like an event - is no classic, but it's sprightly and engaging, lit by three of the most appealing mainstream actors of recent decades. Reese Witherspoon is a pro softballer coming to terms with missing the national team cut, while trying to decide between perma-grinning ballplayer Owen Wilson and tender, trusting, slightly odd financier Paul Rudd, the subject of an FBI investigation. The characters' actions don't always make sense and Jack Nicholson (who has a wobbly, out-of-proportion body like a Pixar character) keeps taking big bites out of the scenery, but there are some nice ideas and one-liners, Rudd is terrific in his tricky part and Wilson is just hysterical. When he took to commentating on his own life, with asides like "Good phone call", I had to pause the film to catch my breath. With three lesser performers, this mightn't have added up to much - as it is, I enjoyed it a lot. (3)

***



The Big Bounce (George Armitage, 2004) - A laid-back, ramshackle adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, transplanted to Hawaii, with Owen Wilson as a small time housebreaker lured into a big play by the leggy, deeply annoying Sara Foster. There's virtually no plot, aside from an astonishingly dense five minutes of confusing exposition near the end, but Wilson is reliably amusing as he ambles towards disaster and Morgan Freeman has a nice supporting part as a pipe-smoking district judge. (2)

***


The film is precisely this funny.

My Father, the Hero (Steve Miner, 1994) - Witless comedy about an intensely annoying 14-year-old (Katherine Heigl) who tells a hunky guy at a beach resort that her oft-absent father (Gerard Depardieu) is actually her lover, and a career criminal. Depardieu gives his best, and there's a neat cameo at the close, but the potentially amusing premise is torpedoed by awful plotting that mixes idiotic slapstick sequences with tasteless jokes about prostitution and drug addiction - in what's supposedly a family film. And if you think a camera moving lecherously up a pubescent girl's legs is acceptable, then why not pick up a copy on your way to prison? (1.5)

***



*CONTAINS ONE NAUGHTY WORD. I'M WARNING, NOT BOASTING*
TV: Paul Merton's Birth of Hollywood (2011)
is a highly watchable series on early American film, but very much a personal journey - and a polemical one. If you're expecting a detailed history, you'll find it maddeningly incomplete and slim in scope. There's also the Griffith problem. The first episode deals with the roots of Hollywood, focusing on Thomas Edison and his bully boys, Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Birth of a Nation director D. W. Griffith. The second seeks to rescue the reputation of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, whose career was destroyed by scandal, while examining censorship and the elegant perversion of Cecil B. DeMille. The final instalment concerns itself with commerce-versus-art, profiling MGM's wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg and the egomaniacal, teutonic part-time ventriloquist Erich Von Stroheim, the chap who turned in an eight-hour film (1924's Greed). The series features a great range of clips. Many of the excerpts from features are in astonishingly good shape, considering they're almost a century old. There's Griffith in his acting debut (Rescued from an Eagle's Nest), examples of Mary Pickford's subtlety as a silent actress, and footage of the supposedly humourless von Stroheim smoking and drinking, while talking through a puppet. Merton and his researchers go as far as to match clips with fascinating contemporary spoofs, and serve up great little nuggets (both visual and otherwise) alongside the rehashed facts, including the blacklisted Arbuckle's split-second cameo in Buster Keaton's Go West. The snippets of behind-the-scenes footage are beyond great. The best of the lot is the only existing film of Chaplin directing: coaching his leading lady almost toe to toe, as she apes his mannerisms into the camera. Great stuff. These sequences are sometimes augmented by reconstructions, which can be effective, but are a little overused. The Arbuckle ones are genuinely eerie because of their nature, and the sequence showing "Griffith" behind the camera is worthwhile, but a reconstruction of Thalberg dying in a hospital bed is perhaps a bit much.

Where the series comes unstuck is in its construction and its spotty editorialising. Weirdly, it seeks to diminish the role of D. W. Griffith, the appalling bigot and pioneering visionary who effectively created the modern movie. It disingenuously ridicules selected scenes from his phenomenal one-two of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance and says - in an offhand manner - that his reputation as a trendsetter is undeserved, as European filmmakers really made the innovations credited to him. That's not really borne out by the facts. John Ford, who based his directing style on Griffith's after working as an extra on the Klan-promoting Birth of a Nation, regarded him as the father of film. Chaplin called him "the teacher of us all". Orson Welles believed: "no art form owes so much to a single man". Yes, Griffith was arrogant, racist and grossly irresponsible, and it would be nice if the creators of cinema-as-we-know-it were progressive, tolerant sorts, but you can't dismiss his achievements on those grounds, and it's offensive to try. The idea that it was Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries that gave The Birth of a Nation its grandiosity and power is frankly utter bollocks and the facile illustration of that nothing point is laughable, pointless and doesn't actually work. Merton also heaps superlatives upon Mary Pickford, but declines to even mention the influential, incomparable Lillian Gish (an ally of Griffith), though she is shown, with our host taking the piss out of the film in the voiceover. She was, simply put, a genius.

Now, on to Merton. He's a talented chap, has done a lot to promote silent film and is an avuncular, passionate presenter. Here, his narration is accessible but fairly detailed, some of his observations about unconvincing props and lookalikes are funny (though there are perhaps too many gags at the expense of silent film, as if he's a little embarrassed by what he's doing) and it's fun to see him touring the studios, Ellis Island and still-standing locations from films like Greed. But he isn't a natural interviewer - appearing not to understand the purpose of such inserts - and his nodding shots are like a parody. These problems come to a head in the unilluminating chats with the ubiquitous Carla Laemmle (a B-movie actress in the '30s and the niece of Universal's production chief). On those grounds you could argue that the dearth of interviews is for the best, but the archive talking heads like King Vidor work nicely, and really we needed more. Without them, the series feels light on eyewitness testimony and insight.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed this: it was consistently entertaining, the rare footage was a treat and I appreciated the BBC, and Merton, devoting time and money to such an endeavour. But it seemed a bit short, a touch thin, a little hurried and a lot subjective. Will someone please put out Kevin Brownlow's near-mythic 15-part Hollywood series on DVD? Thank you. (3)

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