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)

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