Sunday, 30 September 2012

Rita Hayworth, This Means War and tuna - Reviews #130

An indie triumph, Loki in a low-key drama, and three absolutely rubbish movies. Plus: The Office (US), Michael Cera and Carmen Miranda.

Who Loves the Sun (Matt Bissonette, 2006) is an exceptional debut from Matt Bissonette, who went on to make the tremendous two-hander Passenger Side. Lukas Haas is a taciturn, unhappy and mysterious 30-something who returns home after five years away, and reconnects - in less than reconciliatory fashion - with ex-wife Molly Parker and cocky former friend Adam Scott. Growing in confidence and resonance as it progresses, it's an eloquent, moving and funny film, traversing apparently well-worn ground, only to find new avenues of exploration, and new insights. Haas and Parker are both very good, though once again it's Scott who takes top honours. His comic abilities have been front and centre of late, in TV sitcoms like Party Down and Parks and Recreation, but he's a tremendously gifted dramatic actor, and displays a heartbreaking vulnerability beneath his white-suited character's smarmy exterior. It's a fantastic film: effective as a character study; even better as a treatment of universal themes, arguing that most people face disasters of some magnitude, and we can only move forward by making peace with the past. (4)


Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010) - An unhappy middle-class family decamps to the Isles of Scilly, where its frailties and internal tensions simmer and leak out across one gloomy week. The mother (Kate Fahy) is falling apart, her daughter is a stuck-up, self-hating bitch (Lydia Leonard) and sensitive younger brother Edward (Tom Hiddleston) is beset by bourgeois guilt that sees him trying to make friends with the hired help, prior to setting off for an 11-month aid mission in Africa. There's a touch of Festen in there, a bit of Bergman, perhaps even some of Woody Allen's Alice, but its concerns - particularly its preoccupation with class - are overridingly British. Hogg's second feature is acutely well-observed, and filmed in a way that suggests a series of overheard conversations, but it's also wilfully undramatic: there are barely any close-ups, narrative peaks are invariably followed by long silences and the stylistic gimmick does sometimes give the impression that someone has accidentally left the camera in the other room. While the slow stretches are integral to the film's purposefully faltering rhythm, they're not that interesting to watch: the film is at its best when bursting into restrained conflict, as in its awful, brilliant centrepiece, in which Leonard decides to send back her guinea fowl. (3)


Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta, 2009) - Ineffectual teenager Nick Twist (Michael Cera) needs to get kicked out of his mum's house, so he can hook up with the girl of his dreams, idealistic Francophile, Portia Doubleday. Enter his Belmondo-esque alter-ego, Francois Dillinger (also Cera), a moustachoied, smart-shirted sociopath with a ciggie permanently on the go. This adaptation of an early-'90s novel plays like a less successful version of Richard Ayoade's Submarine. It has the same interesting pictoral sense, dry sense of humour and amusing, introverted, sometimes obnoxious hero, but lacks focus and wastes the talents of an exciting supporting cast, giving Steve Buscemi and Justin Long very little to do. Taken as a whole, then, it's frustrating, but it has wonderful moments: its hero gawping, lovestruck in the shower as French music swells, two fine animated sequences and a handful of belly laughs. Those familiar with Cera's work should take to it more than most, and fully appreciate the rather heavy-handed subversion of his persona. (3)

See also: Cera also appeared in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which got a bit tiresome after a while.


The Thief Lord (Richard Claus, 2006) - When protective, tousle-haired Prosper (Aaron Johnson) rescues his little brother, Boniface, from unfeeling relatives, the pair head for Venice, a place special to their late mother. Looking to elude their pursuers, including PI Victor Getz (Jim Carter), they fall in with the The Thief Lord, a masked teenager who gets by on his wits and acts as mentor to a group of orphans camping out in a derelict cinema. This by-the-numbers family film lacks the complexities and nuances of Cornelia Funke's source novel, leaning instead on cartoonish villainy and broad humour, but Johnson is a class act - particularly when asked to emote with face, not voice - and it's always nice to spend time in Venice, even if the locales could have been used more atmospherically. It's certainly nothing like the horrendous failure that was the adaptation of Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker, though it would certainly have benefited from more subtle and adventurous handling. The supporting cast includes Vanessa Redgrave and Alexei Sayle. (2.5)


That Night in Rio (Irving Cummings, 1941) - Fox's mainstream musicals were never in the same league as MGM's: the budgets weren't as large, the songs weren't as good and, crucially, the talent involved just couldn't compare. The Gang's All Here may have a cult following of Californian acid casualties due to its trippily garish visuals, but it's really no better than the rest: films like Down Argentine Way and Sun Valley Serenade, which only truly come to life when the incredible Nicholas Brothers make their typically brief appearances. (Ironically, Stormy Weather, an African-American musical which the studio didn't even deem worthy of Technicolor stock, is by far its most enduring and exciting outing.) This colourful but pedestrian remake of Folies Bergère de Paris - a near-classic Maurice Chevalier vehicle - has a typically charismatic Don Ameche taking on a dual role, as his American cabaret entertainer comes to the aid of his Brazilian baron, while almost nabbing the baroness (Alice Faye). Yes, you're right, quite a lot like The Prisoner of Zenda. It's actually a better farce than a musical (I swear Carmen Miranda does the same two songs in every film), though Faye's rendering of They Met in Rio is lovely - with some awesome blue notes. (2.5)


Down to Earth (Alexander Hall, 1947)
– Silly semi-sequel to Columbia’s dazzling 1941 fantasy Here Comes Mr Jordan, which sees the goddess of song and dance, Terpsichore (Rita Hayworth), coming down from above to destroy a Broadway show that paints her as a horny everywoman. Larry Parks, fresh from his success in The Jolson Story, is the show’s producer, who falls head over heels for the scheming, hoofing psycho. Hayworth is good, and the film looks amazing, with vast, vivid sets and sumptuous, sensitive early Technicolor. But after a fun beginning featuring Jordan alumni James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton, the story slows to a crawl, and just sort of sits there as Parks flounders and a game cast tries to enliven a set of tunes ranging from the forgettable to the downright poor, and keep afloat a plot with a ridiculous third-act twist. It’s worth a look for old movie nerds, but it isn’t a fitting follow-up to one of the most unusual and memorable Hollywood movies of the decade. (2)

Trivia notes: Here Comes Mr Jordan was based on a play called Heaven Can Wait, and was remade under that name in the 1970s. There is an unrelated ‘40s film called Heaven Can Wait, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Don Ameche. A third version of Here Comes Mr Jordan arrived in 2001, featuring Chris Rock in the Robert Montgomery role. That film was called... Down to Earth.


This Means War (McG, 2011) - This dire attempt at a date movie is a creepy, bombastic romantic-action-comedy, full of teeth-achingly awful dialogue, about CIA agents Chris Pine and Tom Hardy using their security clearance to stalk mutual girlfriend Reese Witherspoon. Speaking of agents, hers must be about the worst in the world. The script includes a joke about bipolar disorder, Hardy calling someone a "spaz" and an incredibly irritating supporting part for Chelsea Handler. Occasionally the film becomes halfway entertaining in a kind of pathetic, witless way, but most of the time it's just grating, offensive nonsense. The best bit is in the final scene, when Hardy has to shout above the noise of a plane, and briefly turns into Bane. Watch the unjustly maligned I-Spy instead. (1)


Mustang Country (John C. Champion, 1976) - Extraordinarily bad Western about milky-haired ex-rodeo champ Joel McCrea (in his last film) trying to catch a wild horse, avoid a bear, and bond with one of the worst child actors I have ever seen: Nika Rita, whose Native American foil redefines the concept of the wooden Indian. The film is shot in some pleasant locales, and McCrea does his best with what he's given, offering one nice moment of quiet grief, but the script, story and editing are atrocious. Hardly a fitting swansong for an icon of the genre, and of the American screen. (1)


Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985)
- This might be the most '80s thing that has ever happened. And one of the worst. If you found the scene in Sixteen Candles where Dong gets stuck up a tree hilarious but a little highbrow, then you'll love this steaming pile of hairsprayed, incomprehensible shit, in which Bill Paxton does literally and incomprehensibly turn into a steaming pile of shit. The premise - which sees two horny teenage geeks conjure up a hot 23-year-old with their computer - is great, but what John Hughes does with it is the exact opposite of great. It's sexist, racist, homophobic, and has a completely different message to the one it claims to espouse. I'm a big fan of Hughes, but this one's impossible to defend. And Anthony Michael Hall's drunk scenes are the most annoying on film. (1)


SHORT: The Campus Vamp (Harry Edwards, 1928) – Embarrassingly awful Mack Sennett two-reeler about a college boy ignoring his frigid girlfriend to consort with an annoying flapper (a young, brunette Carole Lombard wearing a cloche hat, who gets groped by a lobster). The plot makes no sense, the jokes are rubbish (with the sole exception of a man looking for his wife in a chest of drawers) and the characters are really annoying, though film nerds might enjoy a couple of the sequences being in two-strip Technicolor: love those reds and greens. If you want to see it, my copy is now at a charity shop and also contains three Our Gang shorts and the racist Harold Lloyd film, Haunted Spooks. (1)



This is what I have been mostly doing lately:

The Office (US): Season 2 (2006-7) – The series at its zenith, with Michael becoming more human (and slightly less annoying), the Jim-Pam relationship developing in beautiful and poignant ways, and just one great episode after another. My favourite bit has to be either Jim flicking on his messages after a lousy day at work, or the scene in the road at the end of the final episode. (4)

The Office (US): Season 3 (2007-8) – The third season is less realistic and more sitcomish, causing the dramatic scenes to lose a little of their resonance, while Jim and Pam seem to be kept apart more through dramatic necessity than credible plot development, and there’s an inability to fully capitalise on some of the more promising premises, like the convention visit. For all that, it’s still top entertainment, with as many fine comic moments as Season 2 (my personal favourite is Dwight’s impression of Jim) and an absolutely irresistible pay-off. (3.5)

The Office (US): Season 4 (2008-9) – Only one of the opening four, double-length episodes really works (Launch Party), but after that it really kicks into gear. Kevin saying “toona toona toona” may be the funniest moment in the show’s history. Bizarrely, Carell’s inconsistent, irritating central character remains the weak link in what is a riotously enjoyable series. (3.5)

The Office (US): Season 5 (2009-10) – A step up from Season 4. At its centre is the most successful episode ever, and one of the best, Stress Relief, which compensates for a deeply unfunny film-within-a-show with two very involving narratives and one of the most amazing cold opens I have ever seen. The season as a whole serves up the usual mixture of escapism, invention and affecting sentiment, and just when you think the basic format may be getting tired, Schur and co shake it up again. John Krasinki's spectacular comic timing remains something to behold. (3.5)

Friday, 14 September 2012

Ben Johnson v Carl Lewis - Reviews #130

Hello there. Here's a quick review of a book about one of my favourite subjects: the 100m final of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The Dirtiest Race in History (Richard Moore, 2012) – On September 25, 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won the 100m at the Olympic Games in Seoul, smashing his own world record and humiliating his arch rival, the American Carl Lewis, in the process. The gold medal meant more than the record, he said, “because no–one can take that away from you”. Two days later he was being bundled out of the country in disgrace, having been stripped of his title and his time, after testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanazolol. When I was eight, I asked my dad who the best sprinter was that he had ever seen. “I suppose Ben Johnson,” he shrugged. “Because he was the fastest.” I raided the local library, looking for anything about Johnson, and emerging with a second-hand biography that pre-dated the Olympics – I fairly revelled in its eeriness, and Johnson’s denial of drug use accompanied by a picture of him with bulging muscles and yellow, watery eyes – and a review of the year in athletics, published in early 1988, that waxed lyrical about his recent World Championship win. The story has fascinated me ever since.

Moore’s account, which due to the author's background in journalism often reads like an extended newspaper feature rather than a history book, is well-researched and very well-written, exhibiting a strong turn of phrase and a good grasp of how the story should be paced. We get the back story on Johnson, Lewis and their rivalry, fine sketches of the supporting cast (you can’t help but feel for Calvin Smith, who regards himself as the moral winner of the ’88 final) and a sure-footed, extremely insightful look at the history of drugs in athletics, showing just how prevalent they were – and how they worked; something of an eye-opener for me. While Johnson remains unable to take responsibility for his actions, Moore suggests that – though guilty – he was a scapegoat, and there was something deeply fishy about his failed test. Steroids take around 11 days to clear the system. Johnson had taken his last dose 26 days before the final. Only the pages dealing with the days leading up to the race seem oddly rushed.

Moore has spoken to most of the key players in this story, though he has only a fleeting meeting with Lewis, and is hamstrung by the fact that Charlie Francis – Johnson’s brilliant, controversial coach – died in 2010: we get a lot of quotes from his self-justifying memoir, but theres no chance to challenge what he says or divert him from a carefully constructed line of defence. Still, it’s a gripping read: if not a genuinely great sports book, then not far off. It's full of superb quotes (future anti-doping chief Dick Pound’s recollections of representing Johnson are unforgettable – when you get to the “repressed renal function”, not usually the stuff of poetry, it makes the hairs on your neck stand up), memorable characters flung around by history, and intriguing subplots – not least the appearance of a “mystery man” at Johnson’s positive test. (3.5)

See also: BBC4 ran a documentary about the same story in July.

John Barrymore, Buster Keaton, and the Playboy Mansion - Reviews #129

In this latest reviews update: a scintillating, sad biography of a theatrical great, the Isle of Man, and the continued adventures of the young Fairuza Balk.


Damned in Paradise – The Life of John Barrymore (John Kobler, 1977) – I like a good actor biography and this is one of the best: a brilliantly researched, superbly written tear through the life of John Barrymore, the charming stage comedian who became the most celebrated Hamlet of his generation, before selling out the stage for the movies, and descending into an alcoholic abyss. Kobler is a fond but even-handed chronicler, and lays out some convincing mitigation for both Barrymore's consummate misogny ("I’ve fucked her. She’s nothing but a whore," he says of his brother's second wife) – he was seduced by his stepmother at the age of 14 – and his drink problems, which flow through the family. Still, the last hundred pages are almost unbearably sad, as Barrymore is consumed by his demons, with some help from his fourth wife, and winds up playing a caricature of himself, boozy and bloated, in low-rent Hollywood potboilers. By contrast, the chapters dealing with Jack’s nine years of theatrical triumph, from John Galsworth’s Justice to Peter Ibbetson, Richard III and Hamlet, are absolutely thrilling, crackling with life and atmosphere as they chart the meteoric ascent of a singular talent in a vibrant, masterfully-evoked Broadway. Though Barrymore’s take on Hamlet was a greater success in the US than in the UK, it was seen by both Olivier and Gielgud in London and formed the basis of their celebrated interpretations.

Throughout, the narrative is peppered with cameos from the likes of John Wilkes Booth, Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, and a succession of stinging one-liners. My favourite is either Jack losing his temper with warbling opera star Jeanette MacDonald – “If you wave that loathsome chiffon rag you call a kerchief once more while I'm speaking, I shall ram it down your gargling throat” – or his father, Maurice, snapping out of a growing paresis to deliver a withering putdown to a Shakespearean actor. When Jack's dad appears in outlandish garb, a decision attributed to his illness, the ham asks if he's wearing it for a bet. “Yes, I am,” he replies. “You must have given the man long odds, Barry,” the actor says. “I did,” answers Maurice, “I wagered him that you were not the most mediocre reader of blank verse alive on the globe, and he proved me wrong and won.” Zing.

According to those who saw him tread the boards at the peak of his powers, Barrymore’s films don’t seem to have quite captured his gifts – or indeed stoked his imagination – and Kobler isn’t overly concerned with them. He does praise the Pre-Code drama Counsellor at Law, which features arguably Barrymore’s best dramatic performance, but, while acknowledging that Twentieth Century was Jack’s “funniest” work, the author doesn't give that screwball classic the praise it really deserves, and his implicit dismissal of the superb romantic comedy Midnight, which boasts a colourful supporting performance from Jack at a time when he was accepting all offers of work, suggests it might not have been an easy one to find when the book was written in 1977.

There is the odd minor lull across the book’s 400 pages – the sections dealing with Barrymore’s crackpot spiritualism occasionally drag and I don’t think we needed the unabridged, slightly racist honeymoon diary – but it’s nevertheless a gripping, exhilarating read that takes you to the very heart of its subject: in other words, definitive. (4)


Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat (Edward McPherson, 2007) – McPherson is a skilful, amusing writer, but his Buster book is largely just a rehash of second-hand material – and the odd newspaper cutting – a recap of the star’s silent films, with some trivia from other sources thrown in. I learnt a few new things – like the fact that Buster added the boulder climax to Seven Chances after the second preview audience laughed at something he’d done by mistake – but a lot of it is merely elegantly-phrased synopsising. His summary of the difference between Buster’s greatest film and his most successful (The Navigator) is wonderful, though: “To love Sherlock, Jr., you have to love movies, anyone can laugh at a guy falling of a boat." (2.5)



The Bride Wore Red (Dorothy Arzner, 1937) – Joan Crawford grandstands, mopes and plays alternately gooey and unattractively fierce in this tailor-made MGM melodrama, apparently about Spaniards, where her down-and-out cabaret performer is given the chance to masquerade as a lady, then to choose between smug gentleman Robert Young (who treats his fiancée notably shabbily) and poetic, working class postman Franchot Tone. The first scene is a gem, promising plenty, as cynical aristocrat George Zucco sets the wheels in motion by becoming Crawford’s sponsor, but then he disappears and it becomes a conventional story of love vs security, with a notably overwritten script that takes rather too long to wind itself up. There’s the typical MGM gloss, though – Crawford’s white dress with the veiled hood wouldn’t have been seen anywhere else on the planet – Tone is good in a part suited to his talents, and little Dickie Moore turns up as a telegram-delivering blackberry fiend. (2.5)

See also: Crawford and then husband Tone also appeared in Love on the Run, with Clark Gable.


The Street with No Name (William Keighley, 1948) – After the sensational success of Fox’s The House on 92nd Street, the studio produced a series of films in the same semi-documentary manner, shot memorably on location and featuring scrupulously-detailed voiceovers that hammer home the authenticity of what you’re seeing but – much like the FBI officers woodenly playing themselves – aren’t necessarily very cinematic. This one, which sees Lloyd Nolan reprising his 92nd Street role as FBI Inspector Briggs, isn’t as good as Call Northside 777, but it’s slicker, more confident and faster-paced than either its predecessor or Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! and benefits from a dynamic Richard Widmark performance – he was something special in those early days. Mark Stevens plays a G-Man sent in by Nolan to pose as a lowlife and infiltrate a robbery gang. After a pounding in the boxing ring and a spell in the cells, he’s taken on by Widmark’s local kingpin, and the two generate an apparently accidental homoerotic charge, due to the peculiar, flirtatious way that Widmark commands his subordinates, particularly this new one. It’s well-photographed in the chiaroscuro style, high in suspense and has a nice supporting bit from Ed Begley as Stevens’ grubby shadow, and while the pro-FBI tub-thumping and glimpses into the bureau’s operations do sometimes break the film’s momentum, they’re more coherent and sensible than before. (3)


Keeping Mum (Niall Johnson, 2005) – A vicar’s family appears on the brink of collapse, until a homicidal housekeeper (Maggie Smith) arrives on the scene. After a fun prologue with Emilia Fox as the young Smith, this black comedy proceeds to immediately trample over any hopes you might be holding for it: it’s set in a village called Little Wallop, it features that guy who looks like Rowan Atkinson but can’t possibly be because Rowan Atkinson used to be funny, and there’s a Carry On-style scene in which Patrick Swayze teaches Kristin Scott Thomas to play golf and says he’s going to keep his eye on her hole. Then, somewhere along the way, perhaps halfway through, I realised I was starting to rather enjoy it. That’s partly down to some familiar, lovely Isle of Man locales, but also an emotional attractiveness which emerges from beneath the lazy English stereotyping and Arsenic and Old Lace-style shenanigans, and the introduction of some jokes that were actually funny, to go along with all the rubbish ones. Swayze’s performance is a bit of a write-off, but Atkinson really grew on me, and I’ve a perpetual weakness for both Scott Thomas and Smith, the latter clearly relishing the chance to play this murderous Mary Poppins. (2.5)


Imaginary Crimes (Anthony Drazan, 1994) – Touching coming-of-age story set in the ‘50s and sparked by a typically fine performance from the young Fairuza Balk. She plays a teenage writer, recalling her mother’s passing in flashback, who strives to make something of her life – and her younger sister’s – despite feckless father Harvey Keitel, a pipe dreamer always a technicality away from fame and fortune. Like James Dunn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Tom Hulce in Parenthood. There’s nothing new here, the script tends towards cliché and the production values seem closer to a TV movie than a feature film, but Balk’s assured, appealing and unglamorous characterisation carries it right through to a very satisfying conclusion, which is beautifully filmed and played. I’m not a big fan of Keitel, but he’s quite good, particularly in the later scenes, and there’s very strong work from Kelly Lynch (as his late wife), Elisabeth Moss – as the other sibling – and Vincent D’Onofrio, playing Balk’s inspirational teacher. (3)


CINEMA: Brave 3D (Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, 2012) – Little Rebekah Brooks fights for her freedom against the evil, demon bear Leveson, and the clans of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, in this pungent media satire. I think that’s what was happening, anyway. On one level, Pixar’s latest – concerning a flame-haired princess learning the meaning of responsibility and courage as she tries to avoid getting married, spends some quality time with her mum, and raises the ire of the aforementioned bear – is difficult to fault, with the same clever visual gags, anarchic tendencies and involving plotting as before, but it’s somehow lacking the magic of Up, WALL-E and the studio’s other classics, feeling a touch too mechanical, a little uneven (there’s a 20-minute stretch that seems to dispense with jokes entirely) and, well, a bit too Disney, with an over-baked sentimentality that the studio usually keeps well at bay. It’s still a fun ride, blessed with some thrilling action sequences, plenty of good jokes, and those hilarious – though underused – red-headed triplets; but from the mighty Pixar, that’s not quite enough. (3)

It was screened with this brand new one-reeler:

SHORT: La Luna (Enrico Casarosa, 2012)
– Typically wonderful Pixar short about an Italian boy learning the secrets of the moon from two crusty old-timers. It’s strikingly imaginative and original, with a brilliant pay-off, though I wonder if the backwards cap is perhaps a little too American. Still, magical. (4)


Passenger Side (Matt Bissonette, 2009) – Exceptional indie about wry, downbeat writer Adam Scott ferrying around his junkie brother (Joel Bissonette) for a day, all to serve some mysterious mission. There’s little in the way of conventional plotting, and a couple of the later excursions into absurdism feel forced (particularly the sweary, bestial garage attendant), but the characterisation is rich and original, the dialogue is absolutely extraordinary - eloquent, witty and genuinely offbeat - and the whole thing plays to a suitable, striking soundtrack. (4)


Agatha (Michael Apted, 1979)
– Interminable, fictionalised nonsense about Agatha Christie’s mysterious 1926 disappearance, which eventually saw her discovered in Harrogate. A similar thing happened to me in 2007, and I still haven't been found. This was originally meant to focus on the relationship between the mystery writer and her husband’s mistress, until the producers decided to crowbar in a (made-up) American journalist, played by Dustin Hoffman, to sell the film across the Atlantic. Not to worry, both narrative threads are equally terrible, while the film itself is poorly directed, dreadfully photographed (everyone seems to be either in shadow or standing in front of a window) and has some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard. The performances from Vanessa Redgrave and Hoffman aren’t much better. The film was shot partly in Harrogate – yeah, Harrogate! – though there are some brilliant anachronisms for anyone familiar with Yorkshire. York railway station doubles for both Harrogate and London King’s Cross, while Hoffman’s mercy mission sees him sprinting to save Redgrave by going from his hotel room in Harrogate to the nearby spa, via the city of Bath. (1)


The House Bunny (Fred Wolf, 2008) – Don't judge me. I know it's hard not to. Confused, offensive comedy, produced by Adam Sandler, about centrefold wannabe Anna Faris being booted out of the Playboy Mansion when she hits 27, and ending up as house mother to a fraternity of nerds. Faris and Emma Stone are both quite good, particularly given the material, which contains a couple of laughs but is - overwhelmingly - both insultingly weak and muddled beyond belief. (1)