Thursday, 31 May 2012
Sunrise, Louise Brooks, and stars in disguise - Reviews #118
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927) – Perhaps the most famous silent film of all, and one of the best, equipped with an emotional tractor beam too often absent from Murnau’s eye-wideningly inventive works. George O’Brien is a farmer driven to the point of murder by a devilish flapper (Margaret Livingston). He takes his wife (Janet Gaynor) on a boat ride with the intention of killing her, but relents in the face of her terror – and, during a day in the city, falls in love with her anew. The film begins in matchlessly oppressive, moody fashion, morphs into a romantic comedy and then takes a hard left with the introduction of a great big storm. If you can accept a romantic drama with such wild shifts in tone, and in which boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy attempts to strangle girl and then boy relents and decides he really, truly and everlastingly loves girl – and I really can, such is the majesty of Murnau’s masterpiece – then Sunrise is just about as good as movies get.
To be honest, it’s almost impossible to conceive how talkies ever got off the ground, novelty aside, when you compare something like Sunrise with almost any sound picture made before 1930. Silent cinema had reached a startling apex of visual creativity, particularly in these Fox films where visionary artists were given completely free rein, with restlessly mobile cameras, jawdropping trickery and as much atmosphere as one can conceivably cram into several cans of film. Early talkies consisted of someone nailing a camera to the door like some Ozu-obsessed DIY fanatic and then not being able to move it because it was too heavy. The central performances in Sunrise are unspeakably wonderful. Gaynor won the most well-deserved Oscar you could ever possibly imagine for her work here, and in Borzage’s 7th Heaven and Street Angel, giving a more stylised performance than usual, while still exhibiting much of the breathtaking naturalism that was her forte. O’Brien, who had starred in John Ford’s The Iron Horse and went on to be one of his famous stock company, had clearly been directed to give a more expressionistic turn, at least in the earlier scenes, moving like a prototype Frankenstein's Monster – all high shoulders and odd, jerky movements, as if manipulated by some heinous flapper puppeteer – before freeing himself from the chains of destructive, avaricious lust, and consequently loosening up a bit. He's bafflingly attractive in the middle third of the film – considering what his character has just been up to – and appealingly repentant and lost in the frantic climax. By way of contrast with such wordless majesty, you can watch someone start to say a word in an early talkie, go downstairs, make some toast, put the kettle on, have a cup of tea, nip out to the shops because you’re out of milk, catch a bus to the park as it’s a nice sunny day, come back home again, wash up, go back upstairs, and find that the person is still saying the same word. There are vowels in The Black Watch that last longer than a typical working day.
Sorry, I forget where I was. Sunrise! Of course, Sunrise. It’s the best film Murnau ever made, from its swampy opening, through the moral quagmire of premeditation, to the rediscovery of love and life, and the affirmation of everything dear in the world. There’s also a bit with a runaway piglet. It really is very good. (4)
Skeletons (Nick Whitfield, 2010) - Bickering best friends Davies (Ed Gaughan) and Beckett (Andrew Buckley) make a living from psychically uncovering the skeletons in people's closets. Metaphorical skeletons, but real closets. As the intense Davies nears a nostalgic meltdown, his amiable, lumbering companion yearns for a normal existence, and their boss (a gruff, northern Jason Isaacs, in a flat cap) eyes them for promotion, they're pitched into the trickiest case of their career. The film starts off in a precise, literate comic manner, with hilarious scenes of obscure bureaucracy and awkward revelations, then gets stranger and stranger as it progresses. Though the whydunit isn't terribly mysterious, the film's frequent dips into the world of weird - dizzying diversions that drop the characters into one another's dreams and reminiscences - are satisfyingly original, the largely unknown cast is excellent and the film never forgets to be funny. "Going Bulgarian" must be my favourite comic invention of the decade so far. A high (3.5).
*ABSOLUTELY GARGANTUAN SPOILERS*
Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929) – Pabst and star Louise Brooks’ follow-up to the legendary (and rather unpleasant) Pandora’s Box is a bizarre mix of tawdry melodrama and social comment that manages to keep an entire cake in its cupboard, while scoffing it before your very eyes. Brooks plays a nubile, bob-haired innocent who undergoes a litany of horrendous experiences, including being raped twice, losing her child and being widowed (even von Trier never put his heroines through so much), before becoming a kick-ass social stateswoman. Elsewhere, Pabst incorporates voyeurism, sadism and quiveringly lascivious lesbianism – a drooling, butch authority figure smacks a big gong and licks her lips as a group of abused young women bounce up and down in front of her – as well as a bald workhouse enforcer being bopped repeatedly on the head, and a baddie wearing a bobble hat on the beach. Pabst is clearly infatuated with his lead actress, and as she slips from backless evening gown to backless bathing suit and back again, a paragon of flapper fashion, it does sometimes appear that he made a list of costumes that he might quite like to see her wear, and then built the story around those. But his handling is stylish and sometimes striking, and Brooks is magnificent – sweet, steely, alluring and iconic, guiding the film through some uncertain, morally confused territory on the way to a stunning last half hour. (3)
Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009) – Gun-toting hermit Robert Duvall, who has neglected company since a mysterious incident 40 years earlier, decides to hold a party prior to his imminent death, and enlists the help of local funeral director Bill Murray – who doesn’t suit the ‘30s setting – and assistant Lucas Black (the boy from Sling Blade). This mixture of mystery and character study, with some concessions to wry humour, is reminiscent of The Straight Story, but never quite hits the heights, despite an interesting set-up and Duvall’s best performance in ages. Perhaps it’s the pace, which seems too leisurely by half, or a succession of half-hearted subplots that distract from rather than enhance the central story. It’s still worth a look, though, largely for the commanding central turn, and it’s always nice to see Sissy Spacek, who has a couple of good scenes as Duvall’s old flame. (3)
"White folks sound so stupid when they get mad. They be like, "Hey... I'm going to kick your B-hind'."
Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001) – It’s the last day of summer camp, and as director Janeane Garofalo begins a nervy relationship with astrophysicist David Hyde Pierce, and awkward Michael Showalter falls unwisely in love, most of the key American comic actors of the newly-minted decade pop up to engage in messy kissing (Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks), gay marriage (Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black), amateur dramatics (Amy Poehler) or last-gasp child rescue (Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio). It’s part teen movie spoof, part summer camp reminiscence and part complete nonsense, and though sometimes it doesn’t work, and it never amounts to anything more than a series of sketches, it's often very funny. Many of the cast had worked on the MTV sketch show The State, and re-teamed four years later for a brilliant little romantic comedy called The Baxter, starring Showalter and Michelle Williams. This comedy, which is now a cult phenomenon in the States (there’s a full episode of the underwhelming podcast The Nerdist devoted to it), isn’t in the same league, but it’s diverting and amusing, with a discombobulating habit of subverting the very thing it’s partway through emulating. (3)
City for Conquest (Anatole Litvak, 1940) is an over-ambitious Warner film that tries to create a symphony of New York via three inter-linking stories, but lacks the eloquence to match its size and sense of self-importance. The main narrative sees truck-driver-turned-boxer Jimmy Cagney losing childhood sweetheart Ann Sheridan to her relentless, nagging ambition, while his little brother (Arthur Kennedy) composes an ode to the city and their neighbourhood pal Elia Kazan becomes a slick gangster. The portentous tone is set by Frank Craven’s garbled monologue, which kicks off the picture, uses the phrase “seven million teeming masses” and concludes with him bafflingly proclaiming: “I know this town, brother, because I got clothes on my back”, which turns out to be his catchphrase. Still, it’s a very handsome production, well-shot by Sol Polito and James Wong Howe, with a solid performance from Cagney and a fantastic one from legendary (and indeed notorious) director Kazan, in a rare acting role. (2.5)
*SOME SPOILERS, I SUPPOSE*
New Orleans (Arthur Lubin, 1947) – Patronising, racist fiction about the birth of jazz - years in gestation - that features one of the most embarrassing stories you will ever see, and truly execrable performances, but scintillating music from Louis Armstrong, his band and the incredible Billie Holiday, insultingly cast as a maid in her only feature. Annoying, white opera starlet Dorothy Patrick falls in love with both smug white gambler Arturo de Cordova and the ragtime played in the back of his casino, and together they popularise jazz. Well, with a little help from Woody Herman (who on earth is Woody Herman?), who’s also white, not that good and – like Satchmo – playing himself in a film set in 1916. Frankly, I have no idea. The whole thing is pretty hideous, but as a rare chance to see Billie on screen, it’s unmissable. She sings three songs, including Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?, which is comfortably one of the best musical numbers ever put on film. Predictably, it’s reprised for the climax by a bunch of white guys playing in front of a white audience at Symphony Hall. Yuck. (2.5)
SHORT: A Rhapsody in Black and Blue (Aubrey Scotto, 1932) - A jazz-loving layabout gets thwacked over his head by his nagging wife and dreams that he's the King of Jazzmania, receiving a command performance - at a foam party - from a leopard-skin clad Louis Armstrong. This was Armstrong's second appearance on screen, and I've never seen him play with this level of intensity. There's a sense of fun about his performance, but also a sense of fire - he's not twinkling and goofing around, he's tooting, scatting and singing as if his life depended on it, shaking through blistering renditions of I'll Be Glad When You're Dead and Shine. The framing device is mildly amusing (I liked the last gag), but this is all about the exhilarating middle, and the chance to see a bona fide legend when he was keen, raw and almost impossibly magnetic. (3.5)
SHORT: Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life (Fred Waller, 1935) - These musical shorts usually require a little gimmick that leads into the main business of jazz musicians cutting loose. This one strikes upon the incredibly lazy idea of showing Duke Ellington writing some music at his piano, which segues into his band playing the pieces on stage, with some cuts to occasionally thrilling imagery. The footage of black labourers shovelling coal in time to the music at the beginning works superbly, but this idea of marrying the music to culturally significant visuals isn't really sustained. Still, Ellington's rhapsody is engaging and, while the film's various elements don't quite click, this 10-minute short does include Billie Holiday's mesmerising reading of I've Got Those Lost My Man Blues. (3)
The List of Adrian Messenger (John Huston, 1963) – Gimmicky thriller that puts a gaggle of stars – including Mitchum, Sinatra and Tony Curtis – under elaborate make-up, as George C. Scott wanders around Britain trying to work out why Kirk Douglas keeps killing people from a lengthy list. It starts off intriguingly, promising plenty, and Scott is very good indeed, but the film goes completely off the rails in the second half, with a coincidence-heavy plot and lots of boring footage of fox hunting. Added to that, the film’s USP sounds fun, but doesn’t really work at all. According to Lee Server, of those disguised, only Mitchum and Douglas actually filmed their parts in full, with Sinatra and Curtis just turning up for the reveal. The supporting cast includes two stiff Englishman of the Golden Age – the excellent Herbert Marshall and the often less excellent Clive Brook (though get a load of his performance in the silent gangster classic Underworld – wowsers) – along with Dana Wynter. (2)