Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Avengers assemble, Borzage keeps silent, and Mark Twain has feet (and everything else) of clay - Reviews #114

Hulk smash, singing flea. Those are my best Prefab Sprout lyrics. Also in this update: Homeland reviewed! Robert Morley tied up! Janet Gaynor celebrated!


*HUNDREDS OF SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Avengers Assemble 3D (Josh Whedon, 2012)
– When sideburn-less intergalactic meanie Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals a big cube made of energy, it’s down to a supergroup of superheroes to stop him – and to save the Earth. The most hyped movie since The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (“Oh no, it’s coming right at us!”) can boast fine performances, strong character development and some good dialogue, but has a slight, slightly frustrating storyline and a disappointingly conventional action climax, in which most of New York blows up – again. Whedon and Mark Ruffalo make a great (smashing) fist of portraying the Hulk, who’s amusingly deployed, while, as alter-ego Bruce Banner, possessing an affectingly quiet, shambling and damaged manner. The best moment in the whole film comes when Banner loses his rag for the first time and Whedon cuts for a perfect second to a close-up of Ruffalo’s weary, terrified eyes. The second best is when he lamps Thor. The interplay between Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr, who’s extremely palatable in this context and these smaller doses), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk is also particularly persuasive – a mixture of banter and underplayed pathos – while Scarlett Johansson gives what must be her best performance since Ghost World, though the bar isn’t terribly high. Captain America looks absolutely ridiculous, and his dramatic potential as a character isn’t realised – Whedon’s one big effort is to hammer home a point we already understood about Nazi Germany – but his attempts to understand modern America are quite funny. And as the preening, sallow villain, Tom Hiddleston nails it again, with his posturing, Shakespearean diction and smirking malevolence.

Unfortunately the story can’t do justice to what’s going on inside it. It’s too brief and bitty, showing its hand too much and then not enough, with scenes that don’t need to be there (people going on a lot about energy) and others that seem to be missing. And while some of the action is really inventive and exciting (Johansson’s first fight, where she’s tied to a chair), elsewhere it’s strictly formulaic. It’s particularly noticeable in the climax. There’s one minute-long tracking sequence within it that must be among the greatest bits of action ever created, as we fly behind Iron Man up the side of a building, and follow each hero in turn, finishing by riding backwards as Thor and the Hulk beat up some bad guys in transit. It’s absolutely exhilarating and I don’t understand why more of the finale wasn’t made with that gleeful sense of abandon. Such is the excitement around the film, that I feel like either a killjoy or a pretentious idiot (both?) saying that it just isn’t that amazing. So I will say this: it’s as good as The Dark Knight. And a lot better than Iron Man. It’s just not quite as good as Thor. (2.5)

***


CINEMA: A Monster in Paris (Bibo Bergeron, 2011) – Paris, 1910, and a mishap at a botanist’s lab creates a giant, singing flea – dubbed “The Monster” by a crooked commissioner and his tabloid friends. The appearance of this mellifluous, gentle, red-eyed beast turns on their heads the lives of a cinema projectionist, his best friend, his would-be girlfriend, a nightclub chanteuse and a confused monkey. This ensemble adventure is wonderful to look at and fun to watch, with pleasant tunes and an incredible centrepiece, set to the title song, in which the Monster’s making is chronicled in POV flashback: it’s as thematically clever and dizzyingly inventive as Dumbo’s pink elephants. The other key song, 'La Seine', comes in standard and duet editions: the latter is joyous. I presume it’s coincidence, but fans of The Pirates! will note a hero who looks just like Aardman’s Charles Darwin, and a monkey who communicates via written cards. (3)

***

You know that thing that happened in The Artist? Yeah, that thing. That was, in fact, this thing.

7th Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927) - A sewer worker (Charles Farrell) rescues a tortured waif (Janet Gaynor) from the point of oblivion and they fall in love, but war is just around the corner. This touching, compulsively-watchable romantic melodrama, from the master of the genre, has an astonishing opening 70, but suffers a little from its change of tack, which begins with a frankly rubbish five-minute montage about taxi drivers going to war and climaxes in notably maligned fashion. I do think the somewhat far-fetched ending succeeds, though, thanks to Gaynor's peerless sense of conviction. While Farrell is merely good as the self-styled "very remarkable fellow", her staggering performance (part of a three-film Oscar-winning bundle) must be one of the greatest in all of silent cinema. I can only think of one other actress who conveyed such a fragility and emotional sensitivity, and that was Dorothy McGuire. Yes, 7th Heaven could have been even better given a script tweak or two, but it's still a metaphysical romance of extraordinary potency. And as with so many of Borzage's earlier films - he was somewhat sucked into hack jobs in the '40s - the screen just shimmers. (4)


*SPOILERS*
Street Angel (Frank Borzage, 1928)
- Director Borzage reunited with the stars of 7th Heaven for this heightened drama about a Neapolitan circus performer (Janet Gaynor) trying to shield her smitten boyfriend (Charles Farrell) from her past as the world's worst prostitute. Gaynor's unmatched expressiveness wrings every last drop of emotion from a vividly-etched story that builds to a violent, outrageous and ambitious climax, while Borzage's quick, mobile camera makes it all seem timeless and yet modern: strongly atmospheric without the snail-paced showboating of much Murnau. Farrell's woodenness does undercut a couple of key moments near the close (most humans don't move like Nosferatu, even when they're cross), but it's a minor shortcoming in a bewitching film. (4)

***


*MINOR SPOILERS*
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
– After her teenage son does a Very Bad Thing, Tilda Swinton reflects on their relationship, from the maternal instinct failing to kick in, to a new contender for the movies’ Most Uncomfortable Dinner Date Scene. It’s a gruelling, chilling and upsetting film, brilliantly directed by Ramsay – who made perhaps the best British film of the previous decade, Morvern Callar – and anchored by Swinton’s pitch-perfect performance: flinty, meek and desperate in turn, to meet the film’s peculiar requirements. The various Kevins are equally good ("Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah"), each inhabiting the character's particular brand of pale-eyed sadism. As the elder version, Ezra Miller’s two-handers with mumsy are jawdroppingly awful. And his one-hander’s pretty unpleasant too. John C. Reilly rounds out the family unit (at least until another little 'un comes along) in a clever turn as Kevin’s incredibly deluded father. It’s a horrific film; almost unwatchable. But it’s also another major accomplishment for one of the country’s truly great directors, whose ability with actors, fondness for an old pop song (in this case a heap of ‘30s country) and confrontational visual sense creates movies you’ll never forget – as much as you might like to. (4)

***


Big (Penny Marshall, 1988) - This was one of the only films I saw as a kid. I loved it then, have watched it rather too many times since, and still get a lot out of it now. It's the best of the "make me an old dude" body-swap comedies, with a normal 13-year-old kid waking up to find he is 30, has a hairy chest and is played by Tom Hanks. It's surprisingly if agreeably dark to begin with, while a sappy romance somewhat commandeers proceedings towards the end (and never gets over its problem of a grown woman boffing a kid), but the considerable middle is tremendous fun, with Hanks' brilliant comic performance, the famous giant piano set-piece and one of my favourite jokes in any movie. "She'll wrap her legs around you so tight you'll be begging for mercy," sleazy Jon Lovitz tells Hanks, pointing at a co-worker. "Well, I'll stay away from her then!" says Hanks gratefully. The delivery is amazing. (3)

***


*SPOILERS*
Outcast of the Islands (Carol Reed, 1951)
– A batty colonial Third Man, as raffish thief Trevor Howard winds up at a trading outpost, where he falls for a female warrior (Kerima) and proceeds to betray his best friend (Ralph Richardson). This strange, intense drama – complete with broad comic interludes – lacks a consistency of tone, oscillates between profundity and pomposity (though some of the commentary on imperialism is fascinating) and is too low-budget to realise its ambitions, leading to continuity problems and some iffy back-projection. But it has a whole deck of wild cards that make it a must-see for fans of classic British film. Where else would you get to watch Robert Morley trussed up in a cocoon-like hammock, swinging, whooping above a bonfire? Or Richardson – in full Captain Birdseye make-up – trudging up a mountain, unsure whether to shoot or lecture his protégé? Indeed, much of the acting has to be seen to be believed, with a masterclass in madness from Howard, a poignant part from Richardson, Morley’s bilious turn as a barking, greedy trader, and one of Wendy Hiller’s rare film appearances: impossibly touching, in what could have been a hackneyed part, as the unhappily-married woman looking to trade in one bastard for another. Strange, then, that Reed sometimes gets sidetracked with devious George Coulouris (a Mancunian of Greek heritage, wearing a lot of slap) and his band of colonial rebels – a supporting story that’s a bit too simplistic to really engage. This Conrad adaptation is a film of rough edges and odd diversions, but it’s very interesting, and at it’s best, it’s just great. (3)

***


*REVIEW CONTAINS ONE FAINTLY RUDE WORD*
The Three Musketeers (Fred Niblo, 1921)
– When devious Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel De Brulier) sets in motion a plan to control the French throne, it’s up to violent yokel D’Artagnan (Douglas Fairbanks) and his three muskehounds – one of whom is Eugene Pallette! – to kick his arse. This one lacks the epic sweep, visual grandeur and compelling character-driven narrative of Fairbanks’ greatest films, but it’s very entertaining, and Niblo – who had been behind the star's career reinvention in The Mark of Zorro – is a fine director of action, with a penchant for fun stuntwork. He also has a nice eye for detail: the opening shot of a symbolic chess game being a case in point. (3)

***


From the Ashes (James Erskine, 2011) is an enjoyable documentary about England's 1981 Ashes victory and the heroics of Ian Botham - who was so good at cricket he got two nicknames: "Beefy" and "Both", which is pronounced differently to the first syllable of his surname. The film is well-framed, pitching the action as a simple story of redemption, and it's strong on player sketches (though the pretend Bob Dylan music accompanying all footage of Bob Willis is a little unnecessary), while the talking heads do a decent job and the footage is - of course - a treat. Unfortunately, the attempts in Erskine's narration (read by Tom Hardy) to give a wider societal context are confused to the point of just being complete nonsense. He manages to mention the wedding of Charles and Diana, the Brixton riots and Thatcher's decimation of the manufacturing sector, but in the most baffling way imaginable. I think we drafted in Charles to keep wicket for the third test, with Thatcher bowling medium pace at the Aussies' Arthur Scargill in front of a burning sight screen, but I can't be sure. Oh well, it's still fun. (3)

***


The Adventures of Mark Twain (Will Vinton, 1985) - America's most famous writer came in with Halley's Comet in 1835 and left with it in 1910, as he'd promised. This film, the first in Claymation, reimagines his last days, spent here aboard an airship, chasing the comet in the company of his stowaway creations Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher. It's a magical premise, and at the film's centre lies an intriguingly rich vein of darkness and despair, but it doesn't quite work. The inventive visuals - coupled to treatments of some of Twain's lesser-known works - result in some wonderful moments: the chapter showing the Devil at work is both wise and frightening, and the affecting climax to the second Adam and Eve sequence must surely have been an influence on Up's unforgettable 'Married Life' segment. But, aside from James Whitmore's Twain, the voicework is poor, while the hero's dialogue - consisting almost entirely of epigrams from his work - becomes tiresome after a while and there are too many aspects that fail to engage, like the initial Adam and Eve vignette (which is poorly realised and goes on forever), on-board contraptions that add nothing, and a faithless, annoying, very '80s version of Tom Sawyer, who hogs the screentime. The film's occasional brilliance only makes those unfathomable stretches all the harder to swallow. (2.5)

***


*MINOR SPOILERS*
TV: Homeland (S1, 2011)
- When US marine Damian Lewis is fished out of a hole in Syria, eight years after being seized by terrorists, he's paraded before the nation as a hero. It's only bipolar CIA operative Claire Danes who thinks he might be up to something. This 12-part thriller is stronger on its central story than on subplots and dialogue (some of the exposition in the earlier episodes is really heavy-handed and the necessary vagueness of language is sometimes laughable), but the main mystery is so riveting, and the performances from Danes and Lewis so compelling, that Homeland simply blasts those shortcomings to kingdom come. There's a strong supporting cast too, including Mandy Patinkin as field agent Saul, and Morgan Saylor as Lewis's stroppy daughter. And who can quibble with a programme that uses Yorkshire Tea as a key plot point? (3.5)

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