Sunday, 29 April 2012

Tabu, Thor, and Fred dancing with Gene - Reviews #113

Murnau, stupid comedy and a massive hammer. Look upon my works, ye Maltin, and despair.


*SOME SPOILERS*
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty, 1931) - At first glance this last-gasp silent appears a perfect meeting of minds, bearing the hallmarks of both famed documentarian Flaherty (ethnography, hunting and boats) and German Expressionist pioneer Murnau (dream sequences, love and shadows) - but really it's Murnau's show all the way. Having moved permanently to Bali and invited Flaherty to join him as director of photography, the director grew tired of his cohort's indulgences (particularly booze and fags) and angered him by asking that he wear felt slippers on his newly-waxed yacht. Flaherty jumped ship, meaning that Floyd Crosby shot virtually the entire thing (and won an Oscar for his efforts), while Murnau's positive experiences saw him set up a deal with Paramount for five sound features shot on the island. Sadly they'd never come to fruition, as the director died in a car crash the week before Tabu's premiere. The film is heralded as the last hurrah of a genius, but while it has countless remarkable facets, it's also heavily flawed. The story is a simple one, with Polynesian virgin (and Mrs Rick lookalike) Anna Chevalier's happy existence shattered as she is declared "tabu": off-limits forever, unless you want to piss off the gods. Her boyfriend, a fun-loving fisherman (Matahi, who looks nothing like me), whisks her away, but complications concerning a scary old man, a sizeable party bill and a man-eating shark threaten their happiness. The film is really a string of lengthy set-pieces, some considerably more interesting than others. At its best, it's up there with the finest of '30s cinema, and like little else you've seen, humming with ambition (it was shot entirely on location) and dripping with visual inventiveness: silhouettes navigating shimmering waters, ominous crafts gliding into busy ports, women jiggling their boobs.

The trip to the ship is exhilarating (there's stock footage in The Falcon in Mexico that was apparently shot by Orson Welles for his uncompleted It's All True that seems to purposefully ape it), as dozens of natives mount homemade crafts in a rush to greet their visitors, and so is the inappropriate dance sequence, while events build to an unforgettable climax. But Tabu is a film that's sporadically extraordinary, rather than consistently engaging. Part of the problem concerns the direction of Murnau and associate Walter Spies. They based tableaux on classic German paintings and asked their actors to move in a style they dubbed "architectural choreography", which is what a dance would look like if it was incredibly slow and not that fun to watch. It does create some arresting imagery (such as the homoerotic image of Matahi lying back on a cascading waterfall), but I swear that a third of the running time is devoted to Chevalier lying on the ground crying. It's a shame, because she's clearly a really talented actress - she creates moments of absolute wonder on the occasions that the shackles are off and her more naturalistic mode of acting is allowed. It's also worth mentioning that when she's actually dancing, she's just mesmerising, as you might expect of a former Follies hoofer. Matahi isn't terribly expressive - he's more an athlete than an actor - but the fact that he's slightly out of his depth rather suits the character. A second notable shortcoming is Murnau's persistence with his gimmick of not using title cards. They're almost always necessary in silents and he must know it, as he cheats terribly by incorporating countless scenes of an army officer writing in a diary, which is frankly a joke and slows the action to a crawl every time he and his calligraphy pen appear. The director does add a lively sync score, with constant music and effects, which is quite effective, but it can't make up for some seriously iffy pacing. Still, erratic acting and a narrative that doesn't always sustain interest are offset by the film's obvious virtues: Murnau's invigorating visual sense and the sheer scale of his ambition. (3)

See also: I slagged off Murnau's The Last Laugh here, for being boring. Come laugh at me for being a philistine. Flaherty's astonishing Louisiana Story turned up in my favourite films list.

***


*SPOILERS*
Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) - Well, that was fun. A collision of grand-scale, po-faced fantasy and fish-out-of-water comedy, as cocky, hammer-wielding prince Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished from his realm by stern father Anthony Hopkins and crash-lands on Earth, where he's immediately run over by feisty research scientist Natalie Portman. The action set-pieces are lively, but largely confined to the opening and closing half-hours - the exception is a memorable beat-em-up in a cordoned-off FBI zone - with the middle part devoted to character drama, refreshing comedy and learning. Met with suspicion and confusion, Thor learns to be a nicer, humbler person, while the audience learns how utterly heinous and devious his brother (Tom Hiddleston) is. The film doesn't grip like the greatest of comic book movies - it never approaches the richness of character or emotional complexity of, say, Spider-Man 2 - but it's cleverly scripted and framed, and very well cast, with Hemsworth ideal as the square-jawed lead, Hopkins better than he has been for a while and Hiddleston (Woody Allen's F. Scott Fitzgerald) making for an eminently hissable villain. The whole thing is directed with admirable panache, a confident tone mixing myth-making and mirth, and some deliciously slanting cameras, by the somewhat improbable figure of Kenneth Branagh. (3)

***


Ziegfeld Follies (Various directors, 1945) - Broadway legend Florence Ziegfeld (William Powell) is in Heaven. He’s happy enough up there with his memories, but dreams of putting on one last show – which coincidentally consists almost entirely of performers contracted to MGM. It’s an absolutely beautiful opening, with Powell’s wonderfully warm, moving, nostalgic performance (a reprise of his part in The Great Ziegfeld nine years before) complemented by a gobsmacking evocation of Broadway past, peopled entirely by puppets. After that it’s middling comedy and good musical numbers all the way, with unlinked skits and songs paraded across the screen for close to two hours (it was three, before test screenings proved absolutely disastrous). The first two “comic” sequences are more like Kafkaesque nightmares – as Keenan Wynn repeatedly fails to place a phone call and Victor Moore is sentenced to death for spitting on the subway – though the Red Skelton one builds from being alarmingly weak to agreeably potent, simply by adding alcohol. The best numbers are Lena Horne’s sultry ‘Love’, set in a Jamaican bar, Judy’s ‘A Great Lady Has an Interview’ – originally intended for Greer Garson, hence the relative lack of singing – and three of Fred Astaire’s four contributions. The opening ‘Here's to the Girls’ is a bit lacklustre after he exits stage left, but the next two – pairing him with Lucille Bremer – are epic, self-contained stories: ‘This Heart of Mine’ – in which his jewel thief falls in love – is both touching and theatrically ambitious (with rotating floors and travelators), while ‘Limehouse Blues’ is a tragic, dazzling tale of unrequited love in Chinatown. With Fred made up as a Chinaman. Fans of MGM musicals will know, however, that if there’s one compelling reason to check this one out, it has nothing to do with moving floors or Chinese Freds: it’s the landmark pairing of cinema’s two greatest dancers: one near the top of his game and the other getting up there to meet him. Fred was once asked who had been the best dance partner of his career. That’s easy, he said (I’m paraphrasing), Gene Kelly. They only ever shared the screen twice: in That’s Entertainment II, when their combined age was 141, and here. It’s an amusing quirk of cinema history that the two most inventive dancers ever to grace the screen would spend a fair chunk of their only real routine together knocking knees and kicking each other up the arse. But it’s a joy to watch – from the teasing intro (in which Fred claims not to know who Gene is, and Gene claims not to have been rehearsing) to a bearded, harp-wielding climax set in Heaven. If you’re wondering, in direct competition Fred looks that fraction more precise, graceful and exciting. As with most of these MGM anthologies (of which Words and Music is probably the best), Ziegfeld Follies is a mixed bag, but for every dreary, dated or needlessly overblown routine, there’s a goody around the corner. (3)

***


The Brothers Solomon (Bob Odenkirk, 2007) – Incredibly weird comedy about two self-styled “male brothers” (Will Forte and Will Arnett) who try to fulfil their dying father’s wish of having a grandchild by teaming up with potential surrogate Kristen Wiig (in a disappointingly straight role) and her massive, sweary ex-boyfriend (Pushing Daisies’ Chi McBride). The characters and the story make absolutely no sense – Forte and Arnett are playful innocents one minute, cynical bullies the next – which may be why most people hated the movie (this was the first film Richard Roeper ever walked out of), but it periodically bursts into life, with brilliant jokes that come out of nowhere. The best – and genuinely one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a movie – is where Arnett tries to make a clean break from a former crush, first playing it cool, then shouting: “Sick burn!” at her and finally sprinting away in slo-mo, grinning maniacally, as Odenkirk throws another ill-fitting power ballad onto the soundtrack. I have no idea why it’s as funny as it is, but I had to pause the DVD for a minute or two to recover. I think the film's worth checking out if it’s ever on TV, but be warned that to get the good stuff – a blissfully creepy credits sequence, high-fives at a fertility clinic, Arnett’s “romantic” meal in a corridor and the “bull-headed brother” set-piece – you have to sit through some real dross, including a few horribly misjudged jokes about disabilities. (2.5)

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Little Fugitive, Superman II, and the birth of the gangster movie - Reviews #112

Coney Island, lipstick and beautiful boredom in this week's reviews round-up.


Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley and Morris Engel, 1953) - Spellbinding, utterly original indie, shot on location in NYC, about a seven-year-old boy (Richie Andrusco) who believes he's killed his brother (Richard Brewster), and so flees to Coney Island. Wracked with guilt and fear, he finds temporary solace in carousels, sea-front games and all things equine, even getting a job as a bottle-collector to fund his pony-ride habit. It's a quiet, lyrical, funny and affecting film about childhood and the bonds between brothers that attains a simple truth about growing up and finds the visual poetry in everyday life. In doing so, it influenced everything from Les quatre cents coups to Killer of Sheep. A little masterpiece. (4)

***


*SPOILERS*
Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)
- The first modern gangster film, and still one of the best, with its engrossing love triangle immersed in a vividly-realised underworld. Overbearing bank robber Buck Weed (George Bancroft) helps alcoholic attorney "Rolls Royce" (Clive Brook) back on his feet, only to see his moll - the excellently named "Feathers" McCoy (Evelyn Brent) - fall for the articulate, sad-faced college man. The first 50 is merely good, but the climactic half-hour is spectacular, with von Sternberg's exciting, imaginative visual sense going into overdrive as the story reaches its crescendo. The crime film formula may have been refined with Warner's Little Caesar four years later, which introduced the familiar rise-and-fall narrative (here, Bancroft is already at the top of his game when we come in), but this box-office sensation established the template with its tough-but-honourable hero, flavourful Jules Furthman dialogue and Tommy-gun-toting climax. Its influence can be seen on Scarface and its dreadful remake ("The City Is Yours," screams a flashing billboard) and Miller's Crossing, while its central dynamic of an unrefined bruiser with a big personality and a heap of dough losing the girl he loves to a quiet guy who practises law was also recycled for the saga with the last word on '30s crime pictures, The Roaring Twenties. Underworld, which made that decade's whole run possible, is gripping, amusing (though not when it's leaning on some dubious comic interludes) and even sexy, with superb performances from the central trio (especially Brook, who stank the place out in von Sternberg's snail-like Shanghai Express) and a bravura ending: a frantic, sweaty, emotionally draining reunion amongst a hail of bullets. (3.5)

***


Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, 1957) - Advertising ideas man Tony Randall hits the jackpot with his latest ruse - now he just needs to convince pouty, bleached-blonde movie megastar Jayne Mansfield to use Stay Put lipstick on those "oh so kissable lips". She, meanwhile, is in the mood to make her cheating muscle-man jealous. Director Tashlin - a former animator who brought a uniquely cartoonish sensibility to films like Son of Paleface and The Girl Can't Help It and was a major influence on Joe Dante - chucked out almost all of George Axelrod's source play (a satire on the movie business) and replaced it with an exhilarating script that speaks its own language and takes aim at anything he fancies, starting with celebrity, corporations, conformity, marketing, materialism, Hollywood producers, TV and radio. Randall is excellent as the overnight success story wrestling variously with a tabloid nickname ("lover doll"), an oversized suit and the attentions of dozens of teenage girls, and there are two exceptional performances in support: a deliciously mannered turn from Henry Jones as a superficial executive with his own theory on success, and Joan Blondell giving a masterclass in old-style movie acting as Mansfield's world-weary secretary. Her monologue about the love of her life - a milkman-turned-movie-producer - is absolutely heart-stopping, a perfect marriage of tender sentiment and off-kilter humour. It's a definite, sorethumb-of-a-highpoint in a bright, funny film that doesn't strive for dramatic resonance too often, preferring instead to bombard the viewer with in-jokes, satiric barbs, absolute filth and moments of post-modern inspiration, as Tashlin hammers down the fourth wall like his old chum Wile E Coyote. (3.5)

***


Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980) – “You’ll believe three men and a woman can fly!” This extended advert for Marlboro cigarettes and camp villainy turns Lois into a smoker, hurls Supes (Christopher Reeve) through a branded lorry and pits our hero against a trio of baddies with the same powers as him: greasy, bearded General Zod (Terence Stamp) - who seems to have walked off the set of Carry On Superman - his missus and his henchman. The film has serious problems, lacking a consistency of tone, as original director Richard Donner’s promotion of the character’s mythos clashes with Lester’s annoying, tongue-in-cheek approach, while a vapid Lois (Margot Kidder) fails to bring anything to the movie except a nicotine addiction. But it remains a watchable – if disposable – superhero flick, thanks to good work from Reeve and Gene Hackman (as returning megalomaniac Lex Luthor), a fast-moving, pulpy storyline and a tour of some of the world’s top tourist attractions, including the Eiffel Tower – which is wired to explode by French terrorist... Richard Griffiths – and Niagara Falls. (2.5)

Twitter things: I asked whether original director Richard Donner's cut of the film was any better. Simon Underwood (@SiFoulaReel) said it was "less stupid" but "still not great", while Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz), TV columnist at New York Magazine, called it "a modest improvement", while acknowledging the series was "always problematic", despite being lifted by Reeve's work. Happily, we're in agreement over the majesty of Bryan Singer's bafflingly underrated Superman Returns. His superlative video essay on that oft-overlooked classic is here.

***


The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924) – Hotel doorman Emil Jannings loses his job due to old age, and falls to pieces. This legendary silent film – which dispenses with dialogue cards altogether – is visually astounding but actually quite boring: everything happens very s-l-o-w-l-y and the performances are all completely over-the-top. There are some effective dramatic moments – enhanced by cameraman Karl Freund’s technical wizardry – but it’s not enough; particularly in a film that has an epilogue this silly. I like Murnau and admire Jannings as an actor (it's tough to feel too affectionate towards him as a man, what with him being such a MASSIVE NAZI), but this is no Sunrise or Last Command. (2)

***


*SPOILERS*
Buffalo Bill (William A. Wellman, 1944)
– Mediocre biopic of the famed Indian fighter and showman (Joel McCrea), who battles eastern idiocy and romances flame-haired Maureen O’Hara, as a Native American with pigtails (Linda Darnell) looks at him through various windows. McCrea and O’Hara give it their best, but the film is poorly-paced and badly-scripted – the death of a child is mishandled dreadfully and whoever decided that a boy on crutches should stand up and yell: “God bless you, Buffalo Bill!” after the final show was frankly taking the piss. Still, Wellman does create some memorable tableaux by drawing on classic Western paintings, and the battle sequence with hundreds of horses thundering through water is very arresting. I presume Darnell was only crowbarred into this one because she was boffing producer Daryll F. Zanuck. (2)

See also: I've got a bit of a thing for Joel McCrea Westerns. Well, usually. Here are a handful of reviews: Four Faces West, The Tall Stranger and South of St Louis.

***


Kicking & Screaming (Jesse Dylan, 2005) – Abysmal Will Ferrell sports comedy that sees his put-upon vitamin salesman take over a youth football team and go head-to-head with his own dad (a braying Robert Duvall). The film has no understanding of football, narrative or characterisation, swinging randomly between mawkishness, supposed realism and desperately unfunny ‘comic’ set-pieces. There are about three jokes in the whole film, with modern comedy hero Martin Starr turning up briefly to provide one of them, sarcastically muttering “Yay!” in a coffeehouse. Bowie's son made Moon and Source Code; Dylan's did American Pie: The Wedding and this - the worst things to come out of that household since Saved. Duvall essentially reprised his performance in the similarly dreadful Four Christmases. (1)

Twitter things: I shared a bugbear, lamenting: "I wish there was a way to tell which Will Ferrell films are going to be rubbish." Damo (@Damo_24) hit back with this devastating one-two. If the reference escaped you, you've either forgotten or avoided Anchorman. Roger Armstrong (@StudioLAX) made reference to the magic of The Other Guys, my favourite Ferrell flick, but Peter Hughes (@peelyjhughes) said a very hurtful thing. Still, he is in the majority there.

See also: There is a great film called Kicking and Screaming. It's reviewed here.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Damsels in Distress - Reviews #111

The first night of the Bradford International Film Festival, featuring a singing frog, some magic glasses and the triumphant return of the great Whit Stillman.

CINEMA: Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)


Whit Stillman is back. The writer-director of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco was thought to have retired, his career having not stirred since 1999. But no. Apparently he’s just been writing scripts that no-one would fund. Until this one.

Damsels in Distress is a college comedy about a group of girls – all named after flowers, as it happens – who spot vulnerable new additions to the roster and try to help them, through their Suicide Prevention Centre (“They say with illness, prevention is nine-tenths the cure. With suicide, it’s actually ten-tenths.”) There’s no counselling or medication, just free doughnuts, unlicensed aromatherapy and tap dancing. A whiff of free motel soap does prove to be a pleasant contrast to the nasally-damaging sensory assault of frat boys, but the other methods are less successful, as student “conmen” keep pretending to be depressed for the free food. This being college, and this being Stillman, plenty of the story also regards romantic entanglements – with frat boys, a “playboy-or-operator-type” and a Spanish religious zealot.

The film is brimming over with that unique, hilarious Stillman dialogue we’ve been missing for the last 13 years: cool people “lacking humanity”, confusion over the spelling of the name “Zorro”, and references to a time before anyone “started being nice to weird and unpopular kids”. He’s a wildly subversive writer, with a distinctive and fiercely individual viewpoint, seeing everything from a fresh angle. In Metropolitan his characters criticised “public transport snobs” who wouldn’t take taxis, called socialist philosophers “patronising” and pontificated on the discreet, oft-overlooked charm of the bourgeoisie. In Barcelona, the virtues and vices of American imperialism were dissected in typically offbeat fashion. And in The Last Days of Disco, Stillman espoused the theory that the death of Bambi’s mother was a formative incident for an entire generation that consequently embraced animal rights. It makes you think that Stillman would make one hell of an essayist. He’s certainly one hell of a filmmaker. Here he offers an absurdist take on pushy parents and laments the degeneration of homosexual culture, from Wilde to macho posturing.

As always, he gives his characters absurd, unforgettable back stories. In the past we’ve had a supposedly gifted student fail a crucial exam because a girl kept snapping her bra strap, and the tragic tale of Polly Perkins (“It’s a composite – like New York Magazine does”), which shed light on the many wrongdoings of Metropolitan’s heinous Rick von Sloneker. Here there are several, including those of queen bee Violet (Greta Gerwig), slickster Charlie and the blank-faced Thor, who’s going to “hit the books really hard” in order to learn his colours. Stillman makes much in his films of affectations and the projected image: in The Last Days of Disco, Chris Eigeman pretended to be gay for convenience’s sake, while Chloe Sevigny made a Scrooge McDuck-themed hash of playing it sexy. There are big lies again here, as Stillman returns to his favourite theme: the search for identity and a purpose in life. These are characters in flux: they change and solidify before our eyes. And then, quite often, they pair off.


It’s hard to describe the plot of Damsels in Distress. Really it’s the antithesis of formula filmmaking: novelistic and unpredictable, with constant diversions and twists you can’t anticipate, as in real life. And in a sense it is like real life, only with better dialogue and a taste for the fantastical. Stillman has always had a delightfully unselfconscious fondness for dancing. His films have had limbo competitions, “bible-dancing”, a formal dance and an entire film based around disco, with a climax set to Love Train, in which people shimmy along a train carriage. In Damsels, all Gerwig wants to do in life is help people – and start an international dance craze. Her unskilled jaunt down a dorm room corridor is a highlight, before the film passes into genuine musical territory for its closing five minutes, as it builds on those nods to Fred Astaire – tapping, a character who insists on being called “Freak Astaire”, the film’s title and occasional blasts of the old Gershwin standard Things Are Looking Up – by exploding into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. That song is one of the loveliest from A Damsel in Distress, the London-set 1937 musical that gave Fred a brief break from Ginger, and almost destroyed the career of the 17-year-old Joan Fontaine. Leaping into musical territory is a filmic trick that can go very badly wrong, but it’s done with such sincerity and such a genuine love for the genre that it’s a move of complete inspiration.

The cast is largely excellent. Gerwig – who strongly resembles Stillman’s last leading lady, Sevigny – was a heroine of the “Mumblecore” genre before her break-out performance opposite Ben Stiller in Greenberg. Speaking in that curious way common to all the director’s central characters and asked to essentially carry the film in an extremely tricky part, she’s absolutely magnetic: juggling conflicting, contrasting character traits from one moment to the next, as her character variously finds and loses herself, helps and hinders others and may be either a life-saver or a joke. Analeigh Tipton – who was the babysitter in Crazy, Stupid, Love – plays Lily, and has much in common with Gerwig, in that her strikingly large features appear to be trying to escape from her face. As a new addition to the group, her character is forced to wrestle with their peculiarities, whilst negotiating a love life that sees her periodically deceived, confused and asked to have sex in an uncomfortable way. It’s another busy part and she’s fine in it. It took me a little while to acclimatise to the English Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), but she, erm, grew on me increasingly throughout the movie. The fourth member of the group, Heather (Carrie MacLemore), a principle-light dummy, seems a strangely conventional part, at least on first viewing, but MacLemore tackles it with admirable gusto.


The performances from the men aren't as uniformly strong, though Stillman does at least share out the great lines. Adam Brody is good as strategic developer Charlie (yes, the familiar Stillmanian names Charlie and Fred appear again), and Billy Magnussen makes an amusing idiot, but Ryan Metcalf – as the blue-eyed, fairly unattractive, fairly unintelligent Frank – is a touch inconsistent, and Hugo Becker isn’t great as Lily’s unconventional latin lover. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Zach Woods in a cinematic first: the Chris Eigeman character not played by Chris Eigeman. His potential baddie (yes, another Stillman villain called Rick – and this time he’s a journalist as well) is reminiscent of Eigeman’s Nick in Metropolitan, who I can confidently say is the funniest movie character of all time. Even funnier than Lee Tracy in Blessed Event. While Eigeman doesn’t turn up this time (which is a crying shame), two other members of the Whit Stillman Stock Company do appear: Taylor Nichols – a key part of his first two films – and Carolyn Farina, the Jane Austen-loving love interest in Metropolitan, whose career inexplicably failed to ignite in the early ‘90s. Fans of modern TV comedy will also be glad to see appearances by Arrested Development's Maeby (Alia Shawkat) and deadpan Parks and Rec star Aubrey Plaza, playing Depressed Debbie, who is – if anything – even more sardonic than her small screen character April.

Damsels’ treatment of mental illness is confrontational, but it’s unusual in that it's neither sensationalist, simplistic nor in bad taste. While some characters utter troubling or controversial views (a street cleaner memorably says that people who commit suicide are selfish, thinking only of themselves, as he has deal with the "mess"), Stillman credits his audience with enough intelligence to see the potential irony in such statements, and draws humour not from the plight of depressed people, but from the in-film battle over those people’s minds, and from farcical details - like an unhappy student leaping from the top of a fairly squat building and hurting his leg. Characters who have mental illness, obsessive personalities or psychotic episodes have often peopled Stillman’s work. It takes a great writer, and an empathetic one, to mine humour not from their predicaments, but from their circumstance, and question perceived wisdom about how they should be treated.

I like Whit Stillman more than any other modern filmmaker: for his glorious dialogue, challenging, surprising worldview and superbly-drawn characters. With this belated return to the screen, he had plenty to live up to. So how does Damsels measure up? Well, on a first viewing, it’s a worthy addition to the canon, with the slightly underwhelming digital visuals – a touch too bright and TV movie-ish – quickly forgotten thanks to an engrossing, meandering story, superb work from Gerwig and a script that has more great lines than anything I’ve seen so far this decade. But who watches Whit Stillman films just once? Barbarians, that’s who. Metropolitan (a romantic comedy-adventure in the land of the aristocracy and one of my favourite 10 movies of all time), the exceptional Barcelona and the finale to his “doomed bourgeois in love” trilogy – The Last Days of Disco – have all got better and better with each watch: revealing telling lines and sublime jokes you missed first-time around, highlighting the perfectly-rounded characters, and showcasing the cleverness and coherence of his themes and his singular viewpoint. It’s only repeat viewings that will reveal the precise depths of Damsels’ myriad charms. (4)

***


SHORT: One Froggy Evening (Chuck Jones, 1955) – Hysterically funny cartoon about a builder who finds a singing frog from the 19th century and tries to make a fortune. The gag about the “psychopathic hospital” doesn’t play so well today (I know I'm touchy), but the rest of it is amazing. (3.5)

***


SHORT: 2:20 (Jason Wingard, 2011) – The winner of Virgin’s shorts competition is an OK sci-fi snippet about a man who inherits a pair of glasses that show him when everyone around him will die. I think you know where this is heading. (2)

***

A big thumbs-up to the organisers, who had put real thought into the launch, with a pianist playing old standards, tap dancers, and Damsels-themed freebies for everyone attending: doughnuts beforehand, and a bar of soap and a sheet of dance steps on the way out. Our two tickets only set us back £11. We also got complimentary popcorn from Virgin Media, which makes up for that time they messed up our bill and then threatened to sue us. Just about.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Douglas Fairbanks, Dogtooth and lots and lots of pirates - Reviews #110

Swashbuckling - silent style - a couple of trips to the cinema and one of the most unsettling films I've ever seen. The odd rude word, so if that offends, skip this one.


*SPOILERS*
Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922) – The Earl of Huntingdon (Douglas Fairbanks), who's ace at jousting but scared of girls, goes off to fight in the Crusades as Richard the Lionheart's (Wallace Beery) second-in-command. Then his new bird (Enid Bennett, who’s a perfect Marian) sends word that replacement monarch Prince John has turned into the most terrible tyrant, inspiring our hero to leg it back to Nottingham – though not before being shot and imprisoned in a tower. Once home, he reinvents himself as the bouncy, proclamatory, green-wearing outlaw of the title, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, and generally running around imploring people to chase him. This lavish, wonderfully entertaining swashbuckler offers a different and arguably more realistic portrait of the hero than the more well-known talkie versions – not even introducing the "Robin" alter-ego until the 74-minute mark – but myth-makes through moments of spellbinding imagery. The film is set in “the time of faith” and its arresting visual sense draws memorably on Christian iconography, particularly when Robin and Marian are reunited in the grounds of a nunnery under shafts of light streaming through the trees and, later, when she cowers by an altar in Richard’s castle. Such artistry is complemented by a serious sense of fun, with Fairbanks in irresistible form and his usual fondness for a good stunt much in evidence – the scene where he leads John’s men on a merry dance around the castle is a delight, and the climax spotlights both his athleticism and his idiosyncratic swordsmanship. "Five-year-old in the back yard” – that’s all I’m going to say. The music by Victor Schertzinger might not quite match Erich von Korngold’s famous score for The Adventures of Robin Hood (the 1938 film, with Errol Flynn in the lead), but it’s pretty damn great. Old movie nerds will want to know that the costumes were made by cult ‘30s and '40s director Mitchell Leisen, while fellow helmer Robert Florey has a rare bit-part as a peasant. Alan Hale reprised his role as Little John in the 1938 film where, unlike here, he got to fight the hero while standing on a log. (4)


*MAJOR SPOILERS*
The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926) – A mysterious black-clad stranger (Douglas Fairbanks) with a curious aversion to piratical pursuits joins the gang of plunderers who killed his father, planning to exact revenge. Then a sexy, virginal laydee (Billie Dove, let’s just say tastes have changed) enters the picture, and our hero is forced to think – and climb, and swim – very fast. This staggeringly ambitious silent, the first to be shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor, is gripping, visually opulent and full of devastating stuntwork: including the classic set-piece in which Doug takes a merchant ship single-handed. There's also a bit where he rides to the rescue on a massive fucking longboat. Donald Crisp, sporting some slightly unconvincing glued-on facial hair, is wonderful as his only ally. (4)

See also: I've also written an excited review of Fairbanks's first swashbuckler, The Mark of Zorro.

***


Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009) – Audacious, unsettling, deadpan black comedy about a father “protecting” his three grown-up children by keeping them captive in the house, where he fills their heads with nonsense and their lives with bizarre rituals. This Greek film may be tough to like, and its subtext is truly alarming, but it’s disarmingly, outrageously funny – the only other film I’ve seen that walks the horrifying/hilarious high-wire so expertly is Todd Solondz’s Happiness. (4)

***


*SPOILERS*
CINEMA: 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012) is a post-modern comic update of the ‘80s cop show, from the directors of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – one of the best animated features of all time, and perhaps the only other film to employ YouTube to such hilarious ends. Fresh-faced officers Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are sent undercover to a high school to bust a drug syndicate. There, Hill experiences for the first time what it’s like to be a popular kid, while Tatum gets a crash-course in being an outsider. The laughs are frequent and from unexpected sources (“Fuck you, science!”, eyebrows that snake around a man’s face, a Korean Jesus), Tatum gives an unexpectedly fine comic performance, the relationship between Hill and Brie Larson is nicely realised and there’s even an appearance from Ron Freakin’ Swanson – in perhaps the film’s funniest scene. The only real missteps were Ice Cube’s unfunny supporting part, which just consists of him swearing in various yawn-worthy ways, and the cameos near the end – which stop the film in its tracks. That’s perhaps why it’s not quite as good as The Other Guys. But hey, what is? (3.5)

***


CINEMA: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, 2012) - An ineffectual pirate with a glossy beard, a pet dodo and an obsession with ham tries to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award - setting him on a collision course with rough, tough Queen Victoria. Also along for the ride is neurotic naturalist Charles Darwin - who just wants a girlfriend - and a Gromit-esque silent clown of a monkey, who delivers his dialogue by flicking through title cards, like Bob Dylan in Dont Look Back. Aardman has followed up last year’s Arthur Christmas with another minor classic, an animated gem so fast, so funny and so full of ingenious comic touches that you can forgive its rather slight story. As The Pirate Captain, Hugh Grant makes a seamless move into voicework, and he’s ably supported by Martin Freeman - who has become one of the best actors in the country - playing his second-his-command, and the heart and soul of the picture. Built around Grant’s gleeful performance, The Pirates! is genuinely hilarious, with a constant barrage of irressistible one-liners (“The friends you make after you become famous are so much better than the ones you have before”), quick-fire visual gags (the fish in a hat) and exuberant genre spoofery, like the silly way the characters mark their journey on a map. The pirates’ laborious explanations each time they slip into disguise are also breathtakingly funny. A few of the jokes are in questionable taste - one about leprosy was changed after complaints over the trailer - which is distracting and seems unnecessary given the boundless invention elsewhere, while the performances of Lenny Henry and Salma Hayek aren’t great, and there’s no denying that the narrative is a bit thin. But The Pirates! is such great fun I can’t imagine anyone would care. Fantastic title too. (3.5)

***


*SOME SPOILERS*
50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011) – Powerful comedy-drama about a 27-year-old radio journalist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s diagnosed with spinal cancer and muddles through the next few weeks with the varying support of his overbearing best friend (Seth Rogen), stressy mum (Anjelica Huston), sympathetic counsellor (Anna Kendrick) and fixed-smile girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard). It’s well-written, with some remarkable moments, if not without its flaws – particularly the subplot featuring Howard – but what really makes it are the beautifully-judged performances from Gordon-Levitt (arguably the best young actor on the planet), Rogen and Huston. The latter only gets two significant scenes, but boy does she make the most of them. (Just to clarify: yes she does.) The original ending was junked after negative test screenings, but it’s on the DVD and is seriously strong stuff. (3.5)

***


Girl Crazy (Norman Taurog, 1943) – One of the best musicals ever made, with femme-fixated Mickey Rooney sent to a college out west to get his mind off girls, only to meet steely, singing Judy Garland. The plot is strictly standard and the comic interludes are merely OK, but the leads are on top form and the music is simply sensational, including distinctive arrangements and stagings of numerous Gershwin classics. Busby Berkeley’s climactic, eight-minute I Got Rhythm is the most famous number – and that rootin’, tootin’, teeth-heavy Western-themed behemoth is admirably bonkers – but Judy’s tearful But Not for Me, slidey, glidey Embraceable You and unforgettable, laid-back Bidin’ My Time – complete with white guitar and close harmonies – are even better. There’s also a terrific version of Could You Use Me? with Rooney clambering all over a car, June Allyson does a rambunctious, mussed-up Treat Me Rough and, while Big Bands aren’t really my thing, Tommy Dorsey’s version of Fascinating Rhythm is pretty special. A jolt of pure joy. (4)

***


*MINOR SPOILERS*
Sunshine Cleaning (Christine Jeffs, 2008) - Unusual indie drama about two sisters - each with their fair share of problems - who establish a crime scene clean-up business and begin to appreciate one another's contrasting characters as their fortunes start to look up. It's a slow-burner, with an interesting story, memorable characters and an emotional pull that increases as it develops. Leads Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are both excellent in their well-scripted roles, and the film has an amusing, offbeat sense of humour - though that takes a back seat towards the end. It reminded me a little of Gas, Food, Lodging - one of the most interesting indies of the '90s - and it's actually somewhat more articulate and well-rounded than that film, if lacking in Fairuza Balk's emotional pyrotechnics. (3.5)

***


*MINOR POO-RELATED SPOILERS*
Hall Pass (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 2011) is essentially the anti-Old School, as a pair of restless married men get permission to live the Frat Boy dream for a week... only to find out they're not very good at it. It's the usual Farrelly Bros cocktail of genuine sweetness and boring, gross-out excess, though at least the latter isn't quite as prevalent as usual: there is just the one instance of a drunk woman pooing up a wall. The story reminded me a bit of One Hour with You, the old Lubitsch musical, which deals neatly (if datedly) with the question of adultery - though I doubt that was intentional. There are some good jokes, appealing performances from Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis, and a more subversively mature outlook than you might expect from what looks like a typically laddish affair, with the leads' sexist bantering repeatedly undercut by their partners. Richard Jenkins - who gave one of my favourite ever performances in the superlative Thomas McCarthy drama The Visitor - is somewhat wasted as a wrinkly lothario with a Sherlock-like ability to read strangers. If you do see it, hold on for a post-credits sequences that's the funniest scene in the film, with Stephen Merchant imagining what would happen if he was given a hall pass. (2.5)

***


"Your body says 'no'/But your mind says 'sexy'..."
Semi-Pro (Kent Alterman, 2008) - This is a below-par Will Ferrell vehicle, set in the world of basketball: a strange mixture of silliness and sincerity, with his usual shouty schtick coupled to a story about bruiser Woody Harrelson enjoying a final shot at success. Harrelson is very good, but his segments really don't fit here. He is essentially just doing the film Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg, and that's not terribly funny. There are plenty of minor pleasures: Ferrell telling a burnt-out druggie that he needs "a big bank" to cash his oversized cheque, or lying in a skip eating an old pancake, or performing the worst novelty song of all time: Love Me Sexy. The pay-offs to the caged animal-wrestling scene - a joke that's at least 67 years old, as it's in Road to Zanzibar - are nicely delivered ("Your refund is getting out of here alive") and he does that usual bit where he runs around in a circle, while the commentators, a nervy, weirdly-bantering host and an underused Will Arnett, are worth a few laughs. But the story is essentially uninteresting and there are long stretches between laughs, with entire scenes that add nothing: like an accidental shooting in a bar that seems like it's only there to pad out the running time. These Ferrell sports comedies have thrown up the odd classic of sorts - Blades of Glory is a very funny film - but they're a mixed bag and overly samey. This one's also quite a lot like Dodgeball, which is not a compliment. (2)

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Buster Keaton odds 'n' ends - Reviews #109

... in which I grab a few of the Buster DVDs on the floor of my room, watch them and then write about them. Featuring a lesser early short, two cheapo efforts, a TV drama and what would have been a perfect swansong, had he not then done a few other things.

FRAGMENTS OF AN EARLY SHORT



The Frozen North (Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1922) - The least of Buster's early shorts, I suppose, if only because around six minutes of the film are missing - apparently the six minutes needed to understand what on earth is going on. There are good moments (particularly the two-men-fishing bit) and some amusing spoofery - of Nanook of the North, of Erich von Stroheim and apparently of William S. Hart, though I've never seen more than snippets of his work - while the nice closing gag prefigures Sherlock, Jr., but it's hard to get a handle on the story, while Buster's brutish, selfish character is at odds with the put-upon, stoic little guy we all know and love. (2.5)

***

IT'S BEEN EDUCATIONAL...

... in which Buster pitches up at Poverty Row studio Educational Pictures, having been sacked by MGM. I've reviewed his personal favourite of his 16 films there already - Grand Slam Opera. Coming up are reviews of his first two shorts at the studio:


Phwoarr.

The Gold Ghost (Charles Lamont, 1934) – Buster pitches up in a ghost town – becoming a Ghost Buster? – where he proves himself as a man by taking on some claim jumpers. His first short at Educational is a lively Western spoof. There’s too much of him walking into things and then holding the afflicted body part, but he has fun trying out a lolloping Western walk, there’s a wonderful bit with a fantasy shoot-out and the action climax is nice, even if you’re willing him to do something truly Buster-ish. The closest we get is a neat, two-footed jump on a seesaw, to disarm a gunman. But my favourite bit is a reference to Buster's most famous stunt: a neat, tiny double-take he does when it looks for a second like the front of a building may be about to fall on top of him. (2.5)

Buster's second outing, Allez-Oop (Charles Lamont, 1934), is strangely melodramatic and a little threadbare, as his watch-repairer tries to woo customer Dorothy Sebastian – his sometime real-life girlfriend and the star of his last silent feature, Spite Marriage. There’s a super gag at the start where Sebastian’s face is distorted by an eyeglass, and the last minute is good (does anyone know if that’s Buster on the trapeze?), but what’s in between doesn’t quite cut it. When it becomes clear that Buster Keaton – yes, that Buster Keaton – is off to the circus, you expect more than him just asking the guy next to him to pass some refreshments and a cushion. And as unexpectedly nifty as the tenement climax is, it unfortunately calls to mind his 1921 short Neighbors, to which most things would pale in comparison. (2)

***

BUSTER AS BUSTER. SORT OF


One of those passable flashbacks.

TV: The Silent Partner (George Marshall, 1955) - A forgotten silent comic (Buster Keaton) has a quiet beer in a Hollywood bar, while next door at the Oscars a legendary movie producer (Joe E. Brown) dedicates a lifetime achievement award to the absent stoneface with whom he made his name. The Silent Partner is a moving, fascinating TV drama from the Screen Directors Playhouse series - made by Hal Roach Studios, a key player in pre-talkie days - with an amazing dramatic performance from Buster, interspersed with reasonable comic moments, and a cast that includes Greed grasper ZaSu Pitts, fellow silent players 'Snub' Pollard, Heinie Conklin and Spec O'Donnell, Western regular Jack Elam and regular Oscars host Bob Hope, whose sequences were shot especially. It does a slight disservice to the brilliance of silent comedians - there are none of Buster's surreal leanings, meticulous set-ups or dazzling stunts in the flashbacks, it's all ladders, pratfalls and being kicked up the arse - and he isn't portraying a genius in slap shoes, but an unwitting clown a la Marion Davies's character in Show People. (It's also worth pointing out, if this is supposed to be a thinly-veiled account of the star's own demise, that it wasn't really the talkies that put the skids on Buster's career, it was MGM and alcoholism.) But this 25-minute drama is a lovely piece of work, with fantastic framing scenes where his middling delivery contrasts with a facial expressiveness that's a thing of utter wonder and beauty. The moment where he silently, almost imperceptibly, raises a glass to his old comrade is a real choker. (3)

***

... AND A NOSTALGIC TREAT (WITH ADDED CANADA)



SHORT: The Railrodder (Gerald Potterton, 1965) - Buster's warm, funny tribute to his own silent films of the '20s was funded by the National Film Board of Canada in a bid to attract more moviemakers to the country. It's a charming little colour comedy - dialogue-free, but with cartoonish sound effects - that sees our hero zipping around the country's railroads on a little orange contraption, seeing the splendid panoramas and the shipyards, cooking lunch aboard and trying vainly to shoot geese after covering his 'train' in leaves. There are at least three big laughs - the absurd opening, in which he decides on a whim to visit Canada, jumping off a bridge and swimming there, and a couple of cleverly-timed tunnel gags - along with many amusing comic touches, and nods to The General (the premise), Sherlock, Jr. (some near-misses with vehicles and a water-tower), My Wife's Relations (the old-time camera) and The High Sign (Buster being overwhelmed by an improbably large sheet of folded paper). This is a man in touch with his own mythology, as evidenced by the glorious moment in which he fishes a porkpie hat out a bottomless compartment, pops it on his head and sits back (see above). There's little stuntwork, of course, and some of the material is a little samey, but it's a valuable and welcome nostalgic treat, with ample evidence that Buster's comic imagination was still firing, a year before his death. (3)

***

Still yearning for more?



For some reason I haven't reviewed Buster's features for the blog (aside from a bit on The Cameraman here as well as The Goat and The Boat), but there's a piece about some of his early shorts here, some things about his even earlier shorts here, and reviews of Cops, My Wife's Relations, Grand Slam Opera via those different coloured words there.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Yuen Biao, Josef von Sternberg and what you DIDN'T do - Reviews #108

A sumptuous silent, a kung fu classic, and the mellifluously-voiced problem that is Frank Sinatra, in the latest reviews round-up.



*SOME SPOILERS*
The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
is a stunning silent drama about a ship stoker (George Bancroft) who fishes a fallen dame (Betty Compson) out of the drink and makes an honest woman of her. When he wakes up sober the next morning he’s ready to move on, but fate intervenes. There are periodic lulls in the narrative during the first half and some of the comic relief is a touch tiresome, but the film delivers a half-dozen emotional hammer blows and both Bancroft and Compson are wonderful. Best of all are the sumptuous visuals: packed with shadows, fog and eye-popping tracking shots, von Sternberg ladling on the atmosphere and cranking up the latent sentiment as he elevates the slight story to something truly unforgettable. This glorious movie was surely a key thematic and pictorial influence on two of the best films of subsequent decades: Marcel Carn√©’s Le quai des brumes and John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home. (4)

***



*SPOILERS*
Hallelujah I’m a Bum (Lewis Milestone, 1933)
– Bizarre, brilliant Depression-era comedy-musical-cum-drama about supertramp Bumper (Al Jolson), who gives up his post as the “Mayor of Central Park” for the love of a good amnesiac (Madge Evans, who only ever seemed to appear in great films). Rodgers and Hart provide the rhyming dialogue and songs, Milestone’s vivid direction brings the period to life and former silent clown Harry Langdon appears as a communist binman called Egghead. Written by Ben Hecht and S. N. Behrman, the film was a notorious flop on release, as workers who were being laid off in their millions didn’t buy into its lounge-around ethos, but it’s joyous, subversive and, ultimately, heartbreaking. (4)

***



*SPOILERS*
The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung, 1981)
is a joyous kung fu comedy about famed fighter The Street Brawler (Yuen Biao), who discovers that his whole life is a lie – and joins a theatre troupe as he tries to persuade an asthmatic female impersonator (Ching-Ying Lam) with fists of fury to be his master. The unusually inventive storyline has a pinch of vengeance, but also a neat, morally complex climax that recalls Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now, a back-flipping calligrapher (Hung), a hero and villain who are both frauds – at least at first – and, of course, an army of ninja assassins. The comedy is also very strong for films of this type, in that some of the jokes are actually funny. Especially Biao getting beaten up by an eavesdropper. And the chicken innuendo. Aside from such petty concerns as the risible ‘injury’ make-up, these old school martial arts flicks helmed by Hung hold up pretty well – things like The Victim, The Magnificent Butcher and Knockabout, which has long been a favourite – and this is arguably the best of the bunch. Much of the stuntwork has to be seen to be believed and the fight scenes are amazing – particular the final one, in the ruined remnants of a fort. It's also great fun seeing Biao in a title role, even if it ultimately becomes more of an ensemble piece. His athleticism, energy and good humour light up every film he's in. (3.5)

***


A still from the film.

Pal Joey (George Sidney, 1957) has one of the great soundtracks, with Sinatra delivering nigh-on definitive versions of several classic Rodgers and Hart songs, arranged by his frequent collaborator Nelson Riddle. The film's less of a triumph - though still good fun - with the contemptible little scrote cast as a supposedly irressistible womaniser and nightclub singer severely in need of a slap in the face. Branching out from a town-centre dive to his own swanky club, he's forced to choose between warm, wide-eyed innocent Kim Novak - who's good - and snooty stripper-turned-socialite Rita Hayworth, who's somewhat below par, though she does get to mime to a bowdlerised version of perhaps the greatest R&H song of them all, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. Most of the numbers are bunched together at the start of the film and my aversion to the star's smug face, nasty underbelly and bad patter somewhat undercuts the utter majesty of its score, but it's breezy and enjoyable, and he becomes less of a dick towards the end, unlike in real life. (3)

Fun fact: This is the only film I've ever seen where Elizabeth Patterson uses the phrase "sex fiend".

***



The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011) – “It doesn’t matter what you thought. It matters what you DID, it matters what you DIDN’T do!” “Is this your personal theory? ‘Cause I can shoot holes in it.” “I’ll do or say anything if I believe in it, but I have to believe in the cause.” I saw the trailer for this movie about a dozen times last year, but somehow only just caught up with the film. It’s a decent political drama, in the faux-‘70s vein so beloved of George Clooney, about an idealistic political consultant (Ryan Gosling), who may have to trade his soul for a shot at glory. Clooney is a whiter-than-white liberal gunning for the White House, while the supporting cast includes heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti – and Marisa Tomei, who is now contractually obliged to appear in every film in the world. The story is a bit too melodramatic, which lessens rather than heightens its impact, but the acting is excellent and the final scene is suitably chilling. (3)

***



F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973) – Welles’s final film is a freewheeling, bitty treatise on fakery that never quite gets to the point, but is skilfully edited within itself and provides many incidental pleasures – such as the director’s mini-remake of Citizen Kane, his ruminations on death and Notre-Dame Cathedral, and a climactic story about Picasso. (2.5)

***



My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011) – Well this is all very silly. Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) comes to England to make a film with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and falls in love with third assistant director Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). According to him. It’s not as deft as it should be or as profound as it wants to be, the direction is boring, Redmayne is dreadful, Emma Watson is worse and I’m pretty sure most of it never actually happened. But there are compensations in the performances of Williams, Judi Dench and particularly Kenneth Branagh – whose voice is so steeped in Olivier-esque tics that he sounds foreign. The Norman Wisdom was good too, and it's not often you get to say that. (2)

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Errol Morris, Twilight (not that one) and fear eating the soul - Reviews #107

Fassbinder pays homage to Douglas Sirk, Errol Morris aims his lens at the British tabloids and Uma Thurman bullies Luke Wilson. Reviews:



Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974) – A widow (Brigitte Mira) finds a kindred spirit in a much younger Moroccan man (El Hedi Ben Salem), and they begin an affair, only to spark outrage and anger amongst her family and friends, one of whom kicks the TV in. Then, as the tide starts to turn in their favour, they begin to drift apart. Fassbinder’s film – based on Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, and a key influence on Todd Haynes’s Sirk pastiche, Far From Heaven – is wise and sometimes poignant, though his neat, calculated plotting increasingly gives it the feel of a deft satire, rather than a realistic portrait of human emotion, before he drags it back at the death. Still, it has some interesting things to say about racism and also classism in ‘70s Germany, while Fassbinder’s slow-and-steady visual style leads to some arresting imagery. There’s also a nice romantic bit where the couple get patronised by a posh waiter at Hitler’s favourite restaurant. That’s the director sporting the worst moustache of all time as Mira‘s son-in-law. (3)



SHORT: The City Tramp (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1966) – Fassbinder’s first film is a pretty good short about a homeless man (Christoph Roser) who keeps being interrupted whilst trying to shoot himself. Across 10 minutes, it blends neorealism, poetic imagery and humour that’s alternately stark and Chaplin-esque, and it’s nicely shot in monochrome, though Roser’s acting isn’t always very good – and he’s often the only one on screen. (2.5)

***



Tabloid (Errol Morris, 2010) – Typically brilliant Morris documentary about “barking mad” ex-beauty queen Joyce McKinney, who may or may not have kidnapped and raped a fat Mormon missionary in the late 1970s, but who certainly did become a tabloid sensation after her arrest in London. Full of fascinating insights, half-truths, remarkable details (you might not want to know how McKinney first attracted the press’s attention) and hilarious asides, with testimony from the woman herself – who in the journalistic parlance is “great copy” – one of her would-be accomplices, a former Mormon, a couple of tabloid hacks and a Korean scientist – as the film takes one of Morris’s famous left-turns near the close. The Mirror photographer, Kent Gavin, clearly thinks he’s a charming rogue spinning a cracking yarn, but actually just comes across as a complete scumbag. (4)

***



The Lincoln Lawyer (Brad Furman, 2011) – Legal thriller about a greedy attorney (Matthew McConaughey) who reconnects with his soul as he tries to uncover the truth behind two sickening attacks on women, while defending the rich boy (Ryan Philippe) accused of one of them. Also, his office is some kind of flashy car, which frankly is a rubbish character trait. This is a welcome and long overdue return to form for McConaughey, on similar ground to his breakthrough in the John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill: a role that saw him compared to the young Gregory Peck, if only because he was playing a lawyer defending a black man. And while he’s only a fairly good actor, he has that intangible old-fashioned star quality. Yes, that really is what I am claiming. There’s also a good supporting cast, including Marisa Tomei – displaying effective sensitivity – William H. Macy, John Leguizamo and Bryan Cranston. The production is self-consciously hip in a slightly embarrassing way and the story is a little lacking in credibility, but it’s slick and very entertaining, aside from one extremely silly scene near the end. (3)

***



Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968) - The Monkees are plunged into a nightmarish, psychedelic whirl of genre-flipping '60s-ness in this trippy carousel-of-a-film, which sees the Prefab Four satirising their status as "God's gift to eight-year-olds" while sprinting through a succession of rapidly-changing scenarios, from Western to war film, musical to horror, sci-fi to post-modern, neurotic on-set shenanigans. Timothy Carey appears as a disabled Western villain, Davy Jones fights Sonny Liston, and Victor Mature plays a 100ft version of himself, who won't leave The Monkees alone. There are also cameos from the likes of Frank Zappa, Dennis Hopper, a Green Bay Packer and choreographer Toni Basil, while Jones performs a weird, sort-of-bravura song-and-dance version of a Nilsson song, flitting between varying versions thanks to some virtuosic editing. It all sounds amazing, but it's not really: its agreeably offhand manner and sense of playful originality offset by periods of serious self-indulgence and resulting boredom, before it's all cleverly tied-up at the close. Incidentally, writer-producers Rafelson and Jack Nicholson gave the film its non-sequitur title solely so they could announce their next collaboration with the words: "From the people who gave you Head". (2.5)

FUN FACT #1: Micky Dolenz looks like a squashed, gnomic Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
FUN FACT #2: Rafelson and Nicholson's next film together was Five Easy Pieces. They didn't use the tagline.

***



Twilight (Robert Benton, 1998) - Mopey Bella (Susan Sarandon) must choose between pale, blue-eyed vampire Edward (Paul Newman) and avuncular werewolf Jacob (Gene Hackman) in this first adaptation of the Stephanie Meyer novels. Actually, this is a laid back, likeable neo-noir, with Newman perfectly cast as a down-on-his-luck PI living in a rambling house with dying former actor Hackman - the housebound General Sternwood figure, for genre buffs - and his saucy, fatale-ish wife Sarandon. They and freelance fixer James Garner are all in their "twilight" years - except Sarandon, obviously, who's a lot younger and generally more naked. When Newman runs an errand for his landlord, he finds the bodies piling up around him and guesses it's something to do with an unsolved disappearance from decades before. The film has a formidable-looking cast and the performances from Newman and Garner make it, backed by a spectacular, woozy Elmer Bernstein score, but the photography and the script are strictly TV-movie standard, with cliched, clumsy lines galore. Stockard Channing is decent in support, while Reese Witherspoon appears in an early role, though she has little to do except take her bra off. (2.5)

***


Their faces are not this eerily-unlined in the film itself.

Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007) - Weird, pointless, shapeless sequel to one of the finest superhero flicks of the past decade, with three baddies - four if you count Spidey himself going off the rails - lots of domestic unrest and a montage in which newly violent, smarmy emo Tobey Maguire dances down the street, clicking his fingers at passing women. It's funny in itself, but it doesn't really belong here. The first Spider-Man film was one big letdown, but the second did everything right, with a riveting, character-driven storyline, arresting action sequences and scenes of startling emotional resonance. This third outing is entertaining, but it seems to stumble from one set-piece to the next, with little cohesion or coherence, and frequent, wild shifts in tone. There are excellent moments and Raimi's handling of Spidey's climactic ride to the rescue is typically thrilling, but Spider-Man 3 is still destined to be one of those sequels you pretend don't exist (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Godfather: Part III) so that the run finishes on just the right note. (2.5)

***


Nice tagline.

*SPOILERS, BUT NOT REALLY*
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (Ivan Reitman, 2006)
- Everyman Luke Wilson gets on the wrong side of neurotic superhero G-Girl (Uma Thurman) by breaking up with her, in this lively but unfocused comedy. (The break-up is actually in the second half of the film, so the title is quite a big spoiler, as is that last sentence.) It's a fairly funny premise, the chemistry between Wilson and next girlfriend Anna Faris is superb, and there's good support from Rainn Wilson, Wanda Sykes and Eddie Izzard, but the laughs aren't really as frequent as they should be and the ending - while going where you want it to - is pretty dull. The best jokes are Wilson trying to get Thurman to leave their date to head off a runaway missile, villain Dr Bedlam (Izzard) hissing "Stop calling me that", after being addressed by his real name, and the shark. (2.5)

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Senna, Anna Friel's accent, and the dude going West - Reviews #106

Cars going vroom-vroom, Brendan Gleeson swearing and Rainn Wilson wielding a wrench, in our latest round-up of reviews. I say "our", I mean "my".



The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011) – Fun comedy about a sweary, pill-popping, apparently racist provincial Irish cop (Brendan Gleeson) with his own code of ethics, and what happens when he’s asked to help an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) bust a drug-smuggling ring. The film has an irreverent if sometimes predictably contrary sense of humour – I particularly liked the taunts in the briefing and Gleeson’s “milkshake headache” – an excellent performance from its star and the odd, oddly-moving moment, even if those concessions to sentiment seem somewhat shoehorned in. It also treats its crime plot lightly, not allowing it to unbalance the film, and – having seen the various scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor – knows when to quit. It isn’t in the same league as the dazzling In Bruges, to which it’s constantly compared, but it’s a charming and amusing film, and an enjoyable way to spend an hour-and-a-half. (3)

***



The Dude Goes West (Kurt Neumann, 1948) – Thoroughly likeable Western spoof, similar in tone to the Gary Cooper classic Along Came Jones, about a bookish gunsmith (Eddie Albert) who tangles with Indians, gunmen and an endlessly-suspicious hottie (Gale Storm) after swapping Brooklyn for Arsenic City. Albert, best remembered today for his part as Gregory Peck’s mate Irving in Roman Holiday, is good value in the lead, the script is full of sly, affectionate digs at the genre – the audience discovering this alternate West alongside its hero – and there’s a superb supporting cast, including Binnie Barnes as a nefarious saloon-keeper, Gilbert Roland playing her fast-drawing henchman and, best of all, Barton MacLane – spectacular as Albert’s guardian angel, a heavy-set murderer with a price on his head. The only shortcoming is the heavy-handed score, which flags up every big gag or ominous development with unnecessary bombast. (3)

***



*SPOILERS*
Super (James Gunn, 2010)
– A massive loser (Rainn Wilson) loses his wife (Liv Tyler) to a badass drug dealer (Kevin Bacon, obviously), then loses the plot, reinventing himself as a wrench-wielding superhero called The Crimson Bolt. This DIY spin on comic book mythos is truer, darker and more subversive than Kick-Ass, boosted by Wilson’s surprisingly deep, complex characterisation as a man at the end of his tether. It’s also very funny for the most part, though harmed somewhat by a troubling scene in which the excellent Ellen Page, as Wilson’s slightly unhinged kid sidekick, effectively rapes him. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be funny or sexy, but it’s neither, it’s just illegal. A shame, as the murals with tiny hands, Wilson’s hilarious catchphrases (“Shut up, crime”) and Page’s acerbic, excitable jabbering (“Unless you’re laughing at how gay it is...”) show a sharp and silly wit at work. That mystifying misstep aside, it’s a good film, with a genuine heart beating beneath all of its hilariously excessive violence. Great credits sequence too. (3)

***



*SPOILERS*
Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010)
– I was a big Senna fan as a kid and I was devastated when he died. I actually had two Senna matchbox cars in his McLaren days, because I didn’t realise that they all had his name on one side and Alain Prost’s on the other – and I thought I’d bought the Prost one by mistake, so my mum got me another (thanks Mum). Anyway, that meant they could race each other on the window-sill, so that was cool. This hagiography is exciting, engrossing and affecting, if slightly slim in scope and painting the somewhat controversial Senna as little less than a saint. I particularly liked the sequence set around his first Brazilian Grand Prix win, an extraordinary feat of endurance that sent much of his upper body into impotent spasm. We learn little of Senna’s childhood or private life and the spoken contributions are largely from journalists (the rare insights from insiders like Sid Watkins are generally far more interesting), but there’s a wealth of classic racing footage and some revealing behind-the-scenes film of the hero sticking it to that prize-one-dick-of-an-FIA-boss, Jean-Marie Balestre. Alain Prost, portrayed here as a snooty, boring and calculating hypocrite, also makes for a great villain. The final 20 minutes, dealing with Senna’s untimely death on the track at Imola, are virtually unwatchable, taking me back to that awful Sunday and walking onto the field behind our house to tell my dad that Senna was dead. (3)

***



The MatchMaker (Mark Joffe, 1997) – This much-maligned comedy is actually quite appealing in its brainless way. It’s another in the seemingly endless line of “uptight city slicker decamps to the country, is won over by its quirky charms and falls in love” movies. That classic set-up has given us I Know Where I’m Going, Local Hero and Seducing Dr. Lewis, but its increasingly formulaic sub-genre also houses all manner of mediocre and slapdash efforts. Here, filling in the blanks, it’s Boston political assistant Janeane Garofalo (in her short career as a mainstream romantic lead) who decamps to Ireland and falls in love with bartender and former journalist David O’Hara. Conflict is presented in the shape of pouty Saffron Burrows, Garofalo’s thankless task of digging up Irish roots to help win her senator an election, and her colleague Denis Leary, who looks and acts like Alastair Campbell. The title figure is Milo O’Shea, who hosts an annual match-making festival, and bets £100 that he can get Garofalo and O’Hara together.

The plotting is muddled, with contrivances so clumsily foreshadowed it's like all the characters have Donnie Darko-style tubes coming out of them, and so many threads left untied it’s difficult to keep count, while the jokes range from the genuinely offbeat and amusing to the grindingly obvious. In terms of atmosphere, there really is a crane shot of Garofalo running along by the coast, whooping and waving her arms about as the strings soar. And the film’s knowledge of traditional Celtic song is based almost entirely on Van Morrison’s album Irish Heartbeat. But I thought The MatchMaker was nice: easy to take in its meandering, sloppy way, that hoary old set-up still as winning as it ever was, the lovely scenery, gentle pace and constant, pleasant diversions compensating for a script that’s essentially a bit of a mess – perhaps because it was comprehensively re-tooled by a second writer before shooting. Garofalo is alright – I usually really enjoy her schtick, but I think she’s slightly miscast here, or else struggling with inconsistent characterisation – though it's O’Hara, O’Shea and David Kelly (who only turns up for a minute or two) who lift the spotty material. It's... cosy. (2.5)

***



Land of the Lost (Brad Silberling, 2009) – Binge-eating scientific genius Will Ferrell, leggy assistant Anna Friel and vest-wearing fireworks salesman Danny McBride find a porthole to a parallel world filled with dinosaurs, monkey men and lizard people in this resounding box-office flop. Another comic reboot of a straight ‘70s TV show, it features bizarrely amateurish special effects for a film that cost $100m, but it’s fairly funny – especially Ferrell’s delivery of dialogue – and lacks the mean-spiritedness present in too many of his collaborations with Adam McKay. I also like Friel’s voice – it’s nice to hear a Rochdale accent in a Hollywood film, even if there’s no such thing as Manchester Zoo. Rounding out the trio, McBride is less irritating than usual: I still think he’s completely talentless, but at least he tones it down a bit. It’s quite a lazy film, and there’s not much story to speak of, but as a Sunday afternoon watch it’s kind of fun. (2.5)

***



30 Rock (Season 2, 2007-8) - Mediocre second season of the somewhat overrated hit sitcom. It's not a bad show, but it isn't in the same league as Parks and Rec, Community or Party Down - perhaps because it's constantly eyeing those big ratings. The main problem is a complete lack of character development, at least until they try to cram loads of the stuff into the last episode. These are just cartoons who learn nothing. Season 2 offers nothing more than further adventures from the lives of TV show writer Tina Fey, corporate slickster Alec Baldwin, troublesome stars Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski, page Jack McBrayer - a toothy, deferential yes-man from the sticks - and arch nerd Judah Friedlander. There are a couple of big laughs in most episodes, and a handful of smaller ones, but there's little heart or depth, and a surprisingly amount of pointless nastiness begins to creep in by the close. The worst episode is still the first one, which Jerry Seinfeld clearly agreed to do in exchange for them letting him relentlessly promote Bee Movie. It's pretty embarrassing and I didn't come back to 30 Rock for about three weeks afterwards. Ultimately, there are no genuinely classic half-hours here, though the best moments belong to guest star Will Arnett (G.O.B. from Arrested Development), as Baldwin's gay, conniving nemesis. Matthew Broderick also has a hilarious part in the season finale, while Friedlander and Morgan are always good value - the latter consistently breathing comic life into his vain, preening, ludicrous megastar. All in all, a bit disappointing, really. (2.5)