Thursday, 29 November 2012

Jagger, Judy and Jonah Hill - Reviews #137

Also, in this latest reviews update: Dragnet, drugs and lots of people in blackface. Just a short one this time.

Crossfire Hurricane (Brett Morgen, 1972) – Very watchable but shallow documentary about the Rolling Stones, executive-produced by the band, that begins (for no apparent reason) in 1972, flashes back (for no apparent reason) to 1965 and then provides the expected mix of anecdotes, rare clips and occasional insights across a couple of enjoyable hours. The Stones are my dad's favourite band, so I was brought up listening to them (and hearing that they were better than the Beatles), and their show at the Don Valley Stadium in 1995 was the first big gig I ever went to. But while I'm grounded in the music, and read a couple of biographies at an unsuitably young age, this is the first proper doc about them that I've seen. Beginning with a disingenuous disclaimer that "no cameras were alllowed in the room" while new interviews took place – true, but only because the director said so – the film overlays a wealth of archive footage (much of it culled from previous Stones films like Gimme Shelter) with voiceovers from the band. Charlie Watts proves as cool and dry as you'd expect and Richards is unexpectedly articulate (some of the time), offering the strong image of the Stones as a black-hatted Western baddie, while Mick Taylor explains why he quit the group, Wyman outlines their bluesical alchemy in technical terms, Ron Wood turns up briefly – accompanied by photos of him looking like a drug-crazed scarecrow – and Jagger, in the film's most moving moment, says he doesn't know "how many months" it was after Brian Jones was kicked out of the band that he turned up dead. "It was three weeks," says the interviewer. "Fuck," replies Jagger, as if someone has just kicked him in the ribs, his usual aloofness shattered for a fleeting moment. There are other telling details too: the rivers of piss flowing down the aisles as excitable teenage girls wet themselves in droves, Jagger describing his fear and abject helplessness at Altamont, and Watts revealing his embarrassment at being chased down the street by schoolgirls (them again). It's also interesting to hear how Jones would mercilessly mock the working man – the same sort of man you see claiming that the Stones are "like us; not like the Beatles, spending eight days in bed".

As with any film about '60s musicians, there are also lots of clips of clueless, middle-aged journalists asking these hip young upstarts completely idiotic questions (the only artist who ever came out of that situation badly was George Harrison, whose interrogation about his mystical beliefs, featured in the Scorsese doc, was hilariously incoherent). But while those parts are amusing, and do a fine job of articulating the yawning generation gap that the Stones understood, epitomised and exploited, watching a young Jagger being constantly if handsomely evasive palls after a while. The film is also oddly shapeless, with no clear dramatic narrative aside from an "everyone hated us, then everyone loved us" angle shoved in near the close, an over-reliance on unsatisfying musical montages (Morgen just isn't very good at them) and a rather slapdash approach to what should and shouldn't be included. Most disappointingly, the film fails to delve into the Jagger-Richards relationship, surely the most interesting thing about the band. I should add here that I find all the mythologising of Richards' life incredibly tiresome - so he took a load of drugs and didn't die, whoop-dee-fucking-doo - but the love-hate dynamic between the two, forged at a young age over a love of blues, and mutating and twisting ever since, while producing some glorious music, is fascinating. We're never really told who the Stones are, where they came from and how they came together, aside from Wyman's line that the others "met in jazz clubs". I'd also quibble with Morgen's idea that talking head interviews aren't worth seeing: seeing how someone says something, the range of emotion on their face, is often as intriguing and revealing as what they're saying. Sadly we'll never see Jagger's expression as he disclaims, "Fuck" (presumably one of dumbstruck horror), as, well, no cameras were allowed in the room.

There's no denying that Crossfire Hurricane is a fun watch. There are blistering versions of several key tracks, including the legendary take on Sympathy for the Devil from Rock and Roll Circus (which I have seen), Morgen does do a good job of finding film of events that at the time seemed minor, but echo through history (like Jones' last relevant contribution to the band), and with the volume of fine footage available - allied to a few interesting interviews - it would be hard not to make an entertaining film. But Crossfire Hurricane is also sanitised and slightly aimless, which isn't something you could say about the Stones themselves - or their best records. Still, I suppose you can't always get what you want. (3)



Dragnet (Tom Mankiewicz, 1987)
- A flat, misguided homage to/spoof of the wildly popular '60s police procedural show, with Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday, the uber-officious nephew of Jack Webb's character, and Tom Hanks playing his new partner, a relative loose cannon. Hanks is good, fans of the series may enjoy seeing Harry Morgan reprise his role, and a few of Aykroyd's lines - translating events into coldly and excessively factual police-speak - hit the target, but there are long, laughless stretches, an air of un-earned smugness pervades, and the intentionally far-fetched plot is unintentionally shit. I can't decide if Christopher Plummer's creepy, perma-laughing moral crusader is good or not. The funniest thing about the movie is that the encounter with the pagans and the subsequent tunnel escape - guns blazing - is virtually the same as the one in Kill List! Veteran character actress Kathleen Freeman also turns up to call Aykroyd a "jizzbucket", which is funny if you pretend that she's reprising her rosy-cheeked, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-Scandinavian-mouth role from Annie Was a Wonder. Just me then?

Trivia note: Director Mankiewicz is the son of Joseph L., and had worked as a writer on several Bond films and the Superman series. (2)


This seems fine.

Not sure about this.

Babes on Broadway (Busby Berkeley, 1941) - No, it might not be strictly necessary for Mickey and Judy to do quite so many impressions of deceased theatrical greats. No, I don't know why he's doing a weak take-off of Carmen Miranda. Yes, the plot about sending inner-city orphans to the country is unbelievably corny. And no, perhaps everybody shouldn't be in blackface. But this was 1941. And America. So, yes, this decent putting-on-a-show musical leans on plotting that's almost self-parodical, and features a climax that is simply baffling to modern audiences – while it's worth adding that the blackface finale is in the theatrical tradition of minstrel shows, which were hardly out of the ordinary in 1941, and it's naively celebratory rather than mean-spirited, the image of a blacked-up Rooney impersonating an African-American pensioner and mugging as if his life depended on it whilst playing the banjo makes his performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's look like a model of PC restraint. But the flabbiness is part of the fun, Garland is in terrific form (compensating for Rooney, who's very talented but just too OTT here) and there are some wonderful numbers. Especially How About You?, which has long been a favourite, is beautifully staged in a tenement flat and features a brief flash of Rooney-doing-John-Barrymore. Elsewhere, Busby Berkeley's direction utilises his beloved crane shots to impressive if unnecessary effect, and there's a top supporting cast that includes tap dancer Ray McDonald, future director Richard Quine, Fay Bainter and the talented Virginia Weidler, who's largely just asked to cry and pout. A tiny Margaret O'Brien also makes her debut here, playing a wannabe actress who greets theatrical impresario James Gleason with the words: "Please don't send my brother to the chair, warden." If you ever want to see a Mickey and Judy film – and they are resolutely NOT FOR ALL TASTES – Girl Crazy remains the one to go for. (3)


Accepted (Steve Pink, 2006) – Lazy smartarse Justin Long fails to get into college, so he invents one of his own - which soon becomes horribly real. This campus comedy starts off very funnily, goes nasty and offensive (the college is a former psychiatric hospital, resulting in a slew of mental illness gags), then settles into mediocrity, before turning oddly pious at the close, as Long launches an impassioned defence of his establishment's non-conformist method of learning, which as far as I can tell involves listening to broad if agreeable anti-corporate sentiments, and watching people ride motorbikes into swimming pools. Still, Long and especially Jonah Hill make the most of it. "This is awesome," Hill says as they enter the abandoned hospital for the first time, "'cause now I can finally get hepatitis!" (2)

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Noir, nosh and Nelson Eddy - Reviews #136

Plus: POLITICS! DINOSAURS! OLDSTERS! Yes, you read that right. Oldsters. Coming right up.

Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948) - An escaped convict (Dennis O'Keefe) heads for a confrontation with his double-dealing former accomplice (Raymond Burr), accompanied by the two women in his life: a fresh-faced, idealistic lawyer's assistant (Marsha Hunt) and an age-worn, beaten-down floozy (a perfectly cast Claire Trevor), who spins her tale of woe in a poetically gloomy voiceover. This punchy crime flick is the best of several cult noirs made by Mann in the late '40s: well-plotted and played, with stunning photography by the legendary John Alton (who did as much as anyone to define the genre, shooting Mann's T-Men and Border Incident, and The Big Combo for Joseph H Lewis) – and atmosphere to burn. (3.5)


Let Freedom Ring (Jack Conway, 1939) - A soaring Hechtian drama about immigrant America and the power of the press, starring a singing Nelson Eddy. He plays a Harvard lawyer who returns to the New West to find his father (Lionel Barrymore) – and his fellow pioneers – under siege from a corrupt railway boss (Edward Arnold) and his firebug flunkies. Posing as an effete, greedy dandy, Eddy decamps to the mountains periodically to produce a subversive newspaper designed to win over the immigrant workforce and sway the election away from Arnold's craven candidate (Guy Kibbee). The film occupies a similar world to Howard Hawks' Barbary Coast, but whereas there Hecht was asked to bowdlerise a saucy book, here he's working from scratch, and the results are spectacular. His script is powerful, eloquent and often furiously funny, building to a striking, shamelessly patriotic but strongly humanist climax. Eddy is often derided as a limited actor, but I've never bought it, and here he equips himself superbly at the centre of a preposterously strong cast that includes heavyweights Arnold, Barrymore and H B Warner (terrific as an ailing casino owner), a sparky love interest in Virginia Bruce and a pair of classic character comedians – Charles Butterworth (Floppy in The Nuisance), and Raymond Walburn, who always excelled playing dodgy politicians. Eddy also puts that wonderful voice to good use singing a succession of tuneful songs, including Dusty Road and My Country 'Tis of Thee, the anthem that gives the film its name. And he punches Victor McLaglen in the face. A transfixing and triumphant little oddity from Hollywood's greatest year. (3.5)


The Patsy (King Vidor, 1928) - A charming silent comedy, with Marion Davies utterly disarming as a romantically neglected young woman who gets Pygmalioned – sort of – by the man of her dreams. A couple of the gags are in questionable taste (one has Davies feigning mental illness, another pretending she's at risk of rape), but she's in irressistible form and her Lillian Gish impression is one of the funniest and most brilliant parodies I've ever seen. (3.5)

See also: I reviewed Davies's most celebrated film, Show People, here.


A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt (Sally Rowe, 2011) - An interesting doc about an intense, driven and pioneering chef, raised in London but trying to make his name in New York, whose gastronomical concoctions bring him fame, but put him at loggerheads with his profit-driven backers. The film meets him first as a floppy-haired 26-year-old, working at what one food critic dismissively labels "a dump", then tracks his progress across the following five years, ultimately focusing on the opening of an ambitious new restaurant, Corton, at which he'll be head chef. Moving quickly from one year to the next, then spending rather too long on the lead-up to the launch, it's a bitty and imperfect documentary, but blessed with a fascinating subject who can be unnecessarily abrasive but is easy to relate to if you're someone who feels compelled to do something creative with their life, but encounters countless frustrations along the way. Which is all of us, I think. Liebrandt's story has a happy ending, anyway. I'm glad his ambitious concoctions... Corton. (3)


Primary (1960) - JFK and Hubert Humphrey face off in the Wisconsin primary, during the 1960 presidential election campaign. Humphrey's tactics mostly involve starting every speech by mentioning what he's just been eating, and telling everyone that he fancies their wives. JFK was probably boffing them on the side, but at least he has the decorum not to mention it. I'm not sure how great this is as a film - the editing's mediocre and the sound's frequently dreadful - but it's a technically groundbreaking documentary (the first to use portable cameras, some held by D.A. Pennebaker), and a valuable piece of history, with remarkable access to its subjects and a habit of zoning in on telling visual details, like the strange ways JFK and his missus move their hands when they're speaking. (3)


Dave (Ivan Reitman, 1993) - Archetypal everyman Dave (Kevin Kline) bears a remarkable resemblance to the President (Kevin Kline). So when the big man suffers a massive stroke, his political adviser Frank Langella spies an opportunity to seize power, placing Dave in the Oval Office. All goes to plan until our hero meets the idealistic, long-neglected First Lady (a short-haired Sigourney Weaver), and begins to impose his authority. Considering it's a comedy-drama that isn't funny, Dave is very appealing, with a familiar universe that's fun to play in - and ripe for wish-fulfilment - and a strong second half that happily takes a few chances: at first Dave is just in favour of homeless children, it's only later that he announces the largest job creation scheme since the New Deal. Kline is OK when he isn't trying to show off (he reminds me of untalented but attention-seeking drama students at school), Ben Kingsley has a nice bit as the vice-president and Weaver is very good in an atypically tender characterisation; at least until she tries to do comedy; I wish Dave had passed a law making that illegal. Of course this pales in comparison to Mr Smith Goes to Washington or even Washington Merry-Go-Round, but it's on a par with The Distinguished Gentleman, and far better than something like Legally Blonde 2. As are most things. (3)


Women of Glamour (Gordon Wiles, 1937) - Hollywood used to love re-releasing movies, but in the mid-'30s it had a problem: there were certain questionable films made before the 1934 censorship crackdown that not even judicious cuts could render palatable. So they remade them instead. This is a toned-down reworking of Capra's 1931 movie Ladies of Leisure, with Virginia Bruce in the Stanwyck role as a nightclub dancer whose thriving – and rather tame – one-woman escort service is thrown into jeopardy when she falls for brooding artist Melvyn Douglas. The film is somewhat disjointed, its low budget is a problem rather than a virtue, and the cleaning up of to the storyline stops it from making perfect sense (is what Bruce has been doing really enough to make her a social liability?), but the leads are good, Reginald Owen is quite amusing doing his usual "drunk toff" bit, and Leona Maricle provides a refreshingly likeable spin on the character of the thwarted fiancee. (2.5)


The Royal Family of Broadway (George Cukor and Cyril Gardner, 1930) - This screen version of the hit Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman play – dealing with a theatrical family clearly patterned after the Barrymores – is stagy, inexpertly adapted and slightly stilted in that early talkie fashion, but worth it for Fredric March’s amazing, Oscar-winning performance as “Tony Cavendish” – or rather, titanic hellraiser John Barrymore. Occasionally March’s own tones creep through the edifice, but everything else about the take-off is spot-on, from the crooked finger to the vocal tics, and that famous habit of turning an exquisite left profile to the audience. Barrymore loved it. Obviously. (2.5)


Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier, 2009) - The gang (that I don't really feel any warmth or nostalgia for) reunites to save Sid the Sloth from a big scary dinosaur, in this seriously patchy animated adventure. The first 15 is hilarious (particularly Scrat pulling at his skin, trying to fly) and the last 20 isn't bad, but the middle really drags, and Simon Pegg is surprisingly lacklustre in a showy part. He also says "butt", rather than "bum", twice, for which he should be thoroughly ashamed. Mark Kermode described this film as "the death of narrative cinema", which is clearly incorrect, as narrative cinema still exists – and anyway, did The Long Day Closes have a narrative? No it did not. That is a great argument, shut up – but it is a bit of a mess, and includes a song from the point of view of a lovelorn acorn, which is not some piece of Lynch-like invention, but actually a load of rubbish. It's also a mistake to have Scrat falling in love: there's something truly profound about his sole, slight and simple ambition being perpetually thwarted, and diluting it with such extraneous elements renders it uninteresting and trivial. This isn't as bad as Madagascar. Or Heat. But it's a bit of a waste of your life. (2)


Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)
- A passable portrait of a damaged war veteran (Neil Maskell) picking up his career as a hitman, which goes completely and irredeemably shite as soon as its horrible, ludicrous, Wicker Man-apeing twist kicks in. There are a few strong sequences of psychological study and suspense, but this must be about the most overrated film I've ever seen. As genre-bending British buddy movies of the past few years go, I think Skeletons is more my style. (2)


I hoped I might entice you in with this hot beefcake shot.

Cocoon (Ron Howard, 1985) - A bunch of fogeys find the Fountain of Youth in a nearby swimming pool, courtesy of some sentimental aliens, in this occasionally interesting sci-fi. The premise is sufficiently original to draw you in, the oldsters (including Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Maureen Stapleton) are pretty good and there are some affecting ruminations on the nature of mortality, but the story is rather aimless, the dialogue is atrocious and the cast members in their 20s are appallingly wooden. Yes, Steve Guttenberg, I am looking at you. Also you, Tahnee Welch, though you did convince me that you can make someone have an orgasm without even touching them. (2)



The Office: Season Seven (2010-11) - The weakest season so far, and the one in which the series finally falls off its pedestal. There are a few of the best episodes yet (Todd Packer is a classic; "Who is Justice Beaver?" and all), but most of the worst, including a few largely laughless ones towards the end. Threat Level Midnight is particularly unrealistic and unsatisfying, while Michael's exit - and accompanying character transplant - is clearly powered more by real-world necessity than dramatic sense. Added to that, Will Ferrell is absolutely dreadful in his four episodes, proceeding to derail the entire show in a fit of uncontrollable egotism. This series built up a lot of goodwill over the previous five seasons (the first of which is an absolute classic), but one of the finest ensembles on TV is rather ill-served this time around by some seriously erratic writing - and some odd decision-making behind the scenes. My favourite characters in previous seasons tended to be Jim and Kevin, but Creed has now overtaken them, while both Dwight and Darryl are firing on most cylinders, the latter revealing previously hidden comic chops. (3)

See also: I whizzed through Seasons One to Five here, and there's a review of Season Six here.


Downton Abbey: Series 3 (2012) - Fellowes writes largely in banal platitudes, his worldview is restrictive and shallow, several of the performances are phoned in (not least Hugh Bonneville's), and I laughed as much at the programme as with it, but the third series of ITV's silly period soap is rather entertaining. Maggie Smith is in peak form throughout, Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan are a great team, and the rivalry between two of the series' nastiest characters creates an enjoyable, bitchy subplot that escalates superbly, filling much of the final episode and shifting our sympathies in an effective and unexpected manner. Hardly high art, but tons better than Series 2 and the Christmas special, and enough to get me coming back for more. Always nice to see a dog's bum eight times too. (3)


Songs of Sandy Denny at the Barbican (2012) - I'm a massive fan of Sandy Denny - I'd say she's in my top three all-time artists, with Dylan and Tom Waits - but I decided against going to the Manchester leg of this tribute tour, as her voice was always the key draw, and that wouldn't be on show. I'm glad I did, as this concert was pretty crap. Thea Gilmore was brilliant, as she always is - so charismatic, original and talented - and both Dave Swarbrick (the best in the world at what he does) and Lavinia Blackwall (who murdered her first number, but did a heartstopping Quiet Joys of Brotherhood) rose to the occasion. But the rest of it was dire, failing to do justice to Sandy's superb self-penned songs, and serving only to remind me what a unique and inimitable vocal talent she was. (2)

Next time: Wow at the Rolling Stones! Thrill at Jonah Hill dressed as a hot dog! Feel uncomfortable about Mickey Rooney in blackface!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Lincoln on film: 1915-2012

"I... emancipate... your... milk-slave!"

To shamelessly piggy-back on – sorry, "celebrate" – the release of Spielberg's Lincoln, I've compiled a maddeningly incomplete round-up of big-screen appearances by the only president you can imitate by taking some old hair off your hairbrush and holding it up to your chin with your thumb.

As anyone who's just been searching on IMDb knows, Honest Abe has appeared as a character in more than 300 movies and TV shows. He's been given the biopic treatment from three pivotal figures in cinema: noted racist and inventor of movies as we know them, D. W. Griffith, the greatest American director of them all, John Ford, and now the creator of the popcorn movie (and possibly popcorn itself), Steven Spielberg. He's fought vampires, been saved from assassination by John Kennedy and needlessly contravened the separation of powers just to please Shirley Temple. Here are some of the most memorable Lincolns on film (i.e. the ones I've seen).

Joseph Henabery in The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915) – Griffith's hateful, bilious epic sees America overrun by scary black people after the assassination of Lincoln. It's morally repugnant but technically groundbreaking, while Henabery makes for an excellent Abe – he certainly wears more eye-shadow than any later incarnation. Griffith's first talkie was Abraham Lincoln, a biopic starring Walter Huston.

Frank McGlynn, Sr. in The Littlest Rebel (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), The Plainsman (1936) and many others – McGlynn first played Lincoln on stage in 1919, toured in the part for two years, revisited the role for a short film in 1924 and featured as the president in a slew of '30s movies. The Littlest Rebel has him as an avuncular, folksy figure who loves kids and has time for everyone. Will he grant a last-minute reprieve to adorable curly top Shirley Temple's widowed father? If he doesn't, Depression-era audiences are probably going to be a bit miffed. John Ford presented Lincoln as an almost Christ-like figure throughout his work. In The Prisoner of Shark Island, which deals with the supposedly wrongful imprisonment of Dr Samuel Mudd - the physician who treated Lincoln's killer - McGlynn reprises his most famous role, getting a band to play Dixie, before a chilling, unforgettable and low-key restaging of the assassination that feels eerily like the real thing. He was miraculously reincarnated for Cecil B. De Mille's The Plainsman later the same year, kicking off that festival of questionable history in fine style.

John Carradine in Of Human Hearts (1938) – For those who found the Lincoln in The Littlest Rebel a bit too grittily realistic, here's John Carradine as The Great Emancipator, who has a few words to say to Jimmy Stewart about how he should be nicer to his mother. It's possible this may be a misuse of Lincoln's image. Let's see if the scene crops up in Spielberg's film too.

Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln (1939) – Having featured Lincoln as a supporting character in his epic "coming of the railways" Western, The Iron Horse, John Ford gave him a film of his own: a peerless slice of Americana. Wearing the iffiest false nose this side of Looper – making him look a lot like Gary Neville – Fonda makes for a touching, funny and, well, young Mr Lincoln, who expounds much of his energy standing up for the little guy, but has an extraordinary predilection for laying down zingers. The star had expressed some reservations about being cast as the former president, saying it would be like playing Jesus, only for Ford to put him in his place. “You think Lincoln's The Great Emancipator?” he said derisively. “He's just a jack-legged lawyer from Springfield.” Written by Lamar Trotti – who'd penned a similar piece of legal-minded myth-making for the director, Judge Priest – this semi-fictionalised hymn to Ford's favourite president is overflowing with symbolism, humanism and subtle foreshadowing. It also contains arguably the most beautiful and moving scene of Ford's career, a wintry graveside chat, with Fonda bidding goodbye to his lost love. Simply put, it's by far the best Lincoln movie I've ever seen.

A giant piece of marble as the Lincoln Memorial in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – He's just a bit of marble. He doesn't even move. He's being back-projected in a Hollywood studio. But he inspires our hero. Sob. Since 1939, a succession of filmmakers have basically stolen Capra's idea, which is used when anyone is in Washington in a film and feeling a bit sad. A statue of Lincoln comes to life in Night at the Museum 2. The less said about that, the better.

Leslie Kimmell in The Tall Target (1951) – He wouldn't be so tall if he took off that sodding hat. Can Sgt John Kennedy (Dick Powell) prevent Lincoln being shot? For now, I suppose.

A massive stone carving of Lincoln's face in North by Northwest (1959) – Hitchcock's best film of the '50s (no, you are wrong) includes a terrific suspense sequence at Mount Rushmore. It's also worth mentioning that the crack squad of Team America are based inside the mountain and exit via Lincoln's mouth, which is frankly a brilliant touch.

Charles L. Brame as Lincoln in Heaven in Happy Gilmore (1996) – If you ask me, this is where Lincoln officially sold out, looking down from Heaven to congratulate Adam Sandler's annoying golfer.

Tom Willett as the resurrected Lincoln in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) – Hurray - all the characters are alive again! And so's Abraham Lincoln!

Pete Antico as The Ghost of Abraham Lincoln in Black Dynamite (2009) – One of the more laboured non-sequiturs in this spotty spoof has Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) aided by the ghost of Lincoln in a White House fight-to-the-death against President Nixon. Honest Abe karate-chops Tricky Dicky.

Benjamin Walker in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2011) – I saw a trailer for this. It looked a bit crap.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012) – A faithful 90-minute biopic, followed by a superfluous hour in which Lincoln helps a child thwart his parents' divorce and then they send a homesick alien back to his folks. Probably.

I know I missed out Abe Lincoln in Illinois. That's because I'm watching it tomorrow. The actors who've appeared as Lincoln most often are, if you're interested, Frank McGlynn, Sr. (14), Benjamin Chapin (14), Ralph Ince (9), Francis Ford - John's brother - (8) and Raymond Massey (5). Thanks for reading. Let me know your favourite below. Ah, gwarn.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Douglas Fairbanks special - Reviews #135

I've been steadily working my way through this year's largest extravagance, Flicker Alley's monumental box-set: Douglas Fairbanks - A Modern Musketeer, a purchase I could only justify by working both Jubilee bank holidays.

After being comprehensively wowed by When the Clouds Roll By and enjoying His Picture in the Papers, the tasteless, boring Flirting with Fate came as something of a nasty surprise. So how would the rest of the set shape up?

With two still to play (I've seen The Mark of Zorro before), it's looking like my unpatriotic (and possibly treasonous) decision not to celebrate the Queen's big day was one of the best decisions I ever made, just above buying Fletch, and just below giving away Fletch to a charity shop.

It's also worth mentioning that the restoration jobs on these films, as well as the tinting and the accompanying scores are absolutely wondrous, and there are a few fun extras peppered about the discs (though nothing to rival the wealth of material, including deleted scenes (!), on the Fairbanks swashbucklers set). Hats off to Flicker Alley for that.

The Matrimaniac (Paul Powell, 1916) – An uninspiring early Fairbanks vehicle predicated on a knowledge of anti-elopement laws of the 1910s that most of us simply don’t possess. There are a few good gags and stunts dotted about the place (a mule that runs backwards and climbs on people’s backs, Doug riding under a train), but it’s largely dull and not in the same league as His Picture in the Papers and When the Clouds Roll By – or even close. (2)


SHORT: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (John Emerson, 1916) - A notorious, nightmarish Sherlock Holmes spoof, devised by Freaks director Tod Browning, about detective Coke Ennyday (a preposterously hammy Fairbanks), who wears a chequered suit and hat, drives a chequered car, and keeps injecting cocaine into his hand. By way of a climax, our hero forces the baddies to take drugs, and comes out on top because he has a higher tolerance for opiates. The film is no classic - even at 26 minutes it has several dry stretches, Doug hated it and there's little of his famous persona on show - but the gags with the compactible telescope, the room full of money and the photo of the suspect are clever, the coda is a little post-modern gem, and the film's matchlessly irreverent approach to Class A drugs unquestionably makes it a fascinating curio. Does anyone else think his hopped-up jittering is also quite Chaplinesque? (2.5)


Wild and Woolly (John Emerson, 1917) – A very fun Western send-up, written by Anita Loos, in which urbanite, railroad president’s son and complete moron Douglas Fairbanks gets to indulge his unrestrained passion for the wild and woolly West after being sent to Arizona to broker a deal. The inventive plot – which sees the villagers giving the visitor exactly what he wants to see – has been used countless times since (Local Hero, The MatchMaker, Seducing Dr Lewis), Doug is in exuberant form, and the action climax delivers, without quite scaling the heights (quite literally) of Fairbanks’s period classics. Charles Stevens, who appears as Pedro, was one of Doug’s best friends and appeared in many of his films, but is perhaps best known for playing Indian Joe in My Darling Clementine – and being the grandson of the famed Native American warrior, Geronimo. (3)


Reaching for the Moon (John Emerson, 1917)
– Hopeless dreamer – and button factory worker – Douglas Fairbanks finally gets the chance to amount to something, after it turns out that he’s the new ruler of Baltic nation Vulgaria. The only trouble: a cabal of rivals now want him dead. This slightly confusing comedy was clearly designed to try out Doug’s now famous swashbuckling persona on audiences, thrusting the star into a world of pageantry (which at this stage he treats with the amusing, dismissive air of a 1910s New Yorker), and giving him the chance to fight up and down a staircase and engage in a swordfight. And while it's never quite as slick, funny or exciting as it should be – and some of the comic set-pieces fall flat – its moral is very sweet, and there’s plenty to enjoy in the star’s unusually sarcastic performance. Doug appeared in an unrelated talkie of the same name in 1930. (2.5)


A Modern Musketeer (Allan Dwan, 1917)
– Fairbanks’ first collaboration with Dwan – who would direct the star in two of his finest, most lushly romantic swashbucklers, Robin Hood and The Iron Mask – is a strange, important and really rather wonderful adventure movie. Doug is a modern-day D’Artagnan, born during a cyclone and raised on Dumas’s stories, who devotes his energies to rescuing damsels in distress. When a pretty, virginal flapper (Marjorie Daw – not the same as Marjorie Dawes) is taken riding by a moneyed bigamist, then kidnapped by a Native American psychopath, it’s up to Doug to muscle in and win the hand of fair lady. Beginning with an awesome, spoofy, action-packed period prologue with Doug as D’Artagnan, designed to position its star as a potential swashbuckler should audiences go for it (which they unreservedly did), and proceeding to leap forward and back in time at will, it’s both narratively original and tonally bonkers – but completely charming with it – tossing elements of slapstick, satire and melodrama into the mix, before turning into a Western for the last half-hour. If the movie has a shortcoming, it’s that the anticipated action spectacular of the climax never quite arrives – the finale seems oddly slow and disjointed, despite a neat abseiling stunt and a chase on horseback – but it’s a relatively slight shortcoming in a delightful film that manages to cram in two superb bar brawls, a touching romance and even a visit to the Grand Canyon. The Flicker Alley release also comes with a stunningly beautiful score. (3.5)

Monday, 12 November 2012

Ronald Reagan, a docfest and Dan Harmon's kids film - Reviews #134

In the first update for a little while, we're also talking documentaries, Ronald Reagan yelling about his legs and a really useless romantic comedy.

Reagan (Eugene Jarecki, 2011) – Simply one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen, an endlessly illuminating, virtuosic study of one of the most fascinating American figures of the 20th Century – a B-movie star turned General Electric salesman turned President – that seeks to tear down Reagan’s constructed image, and explain who he was, what he stood for and whether he’s worth celebrating. The wealth of footage available from Reagan’s life means he’s eminently suited to this kind of profile, and the movie takes full advantage, using archive clips to exalting, chilling and hilarious effect. The sequence illustrating Ronnie’s faltering film career is amazing, including not only a scene with Reagan as a traffic cop that features the worst back projection of all time, but also a clip of him shouting: “Attaboy, Bonzo!” at a chimp, and hugging him. Through intelligent interviewing, sure-sighted polemic and staggeringly brilliant editing (a nuclear war montage cut to 99 Luftballons is a marriage of image and music worthy of Terence Davies at his best), Jarecki creates a dynamic, compelling portrait of a complex figure who made Americans feel good about themselves and their country, but whose simplistic and destructive “Reaganomics” resulted in a massive transfer of wealth to the wealthy that put millions out of work and destroyed entire towns. If your film is described on Twitter as both a “hatchet job” and a “glowing portrait”, then you’re probably doing something right. Really, it’s an incisive, insightful and even-handed documentary that speaks – and listens – to both sides. Reagan's son, Ron, offers an extremely interesting, thoughtful and balanced assessment of his father’s legacy, while Mark Hertsgaard may be the most handsome man in the world. It’s an astonishing, haunting movie - and a must for modern history buffs. (4)


Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008) - An impressive doc about an astonishing story: Philippe Petit’s unsanctioned tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. Marsh famously frames the story like a heist movie, cutting between time-frames, and mixing compelling interviews (Petit himself is a wonderful subject: poetic but straightforward) with unusually effective reconstructions, and idyllic archive footage, albeit none of the central stunt itself. The images of Petit in his element – hundreds of feet up, framed against the sky – are mesmerisingly beautiful, as if he were walking on air. (3.5)


My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, 2007)
– Four-year-old Marla Oberman is an abstract artist whose paintings sell for thousands. But what starts as a treatise on the nature of modern art turns into a mystery movie midway through, when her family is accused of guiding – or actually just doing – her celebrated works. It’s a fascinating, gripping, sometimes eerie film, laced with moments of cringe comedy (watching Marla’s dad squirm after she tells him, “Your turn to do it”, may be the most uncomfortable I’ve felt in a film this year), that throws up some interesting questions about the skill and mindset required to create great – or successful – art, though perhaps not in the way it originally intended. (3.5)


One Day in September (Kevin MacDonald, 1999)
– MacDonald’s Oscar-winning – and career-making – documentary tells the story of the group of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics taken hostage by Palestinian revolutionaries. It’s extraordinarily well-researched, securing an interview with the only surviving terrorist, forensically dismantling the Germans’ atrocious handling of the hostage situation and unearthing some remarkable new information, which should really be given greater prominence. But it isn’t particularly well put-together: it spends more time dealing with Nazism than the complexities of Israeli-Palestinian relations, places too much emphasis on certain hostages ahead of others – dictated largely by who agreed to be interviewed – and has montages that range from the daft (confusing race clips, and split-screen images with squashed heads) to the appallingly tasteless, climaxing with a horrific, unjustifiable sequence in which photos of bloodied corpses (partly smudged out) are cut to Child in Time by Deep Purple. It’s really handy if you can’t imagine what a dead body covered in blood looks like. (2.5)


Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004) – Wine is probably the most boring subject on Earth, so how come Payne’s film about a lonely, bitter best man (Paul Giamatti) taking the soon-to-be-groom (Thomas Haden Church) on a week-long tour of vineyards is so bloody good? Perhaps because of Giamatti’s astonishing characterisation, which imbues an arrogant, self-destructive, self-hating pseud with a completely disarming humanity. Or perhaps because it’s not really about wine at all, but love and friendship and the choices that people make that end up deciding and defining their lives. It’s the antithesis of formula filmmaking: incredibly entertaining, but also about something, and featuring – quite unexpectedly – a handful of brilliant sight gags. (4)


Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1942)
is like Our Town’s weird, moody little brother, an overwrought, attention-seeking movie that – much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet – offers us a small-town idyll, only to immediately destroy it. While censorship restrictions put paid to the source novel’s interest in incest and necrophilia, there’s still melodrama and strangeness aplenty in this visit to the titular turn-of-the-century town, including a mysterious, over-protective father (Claude Rains), a surgeon who seems more than a bit crap (Charles Coburn) and a frustrated good girl who wants to have sex with Ronald Reagan. The film is best known today for featuring the 40th President of the United States’ finest performance (at least before he entered politics, LOL) and while “finest” is a relative term, both Reagan and fellow woodenite Robert Cummings – the nominal star of the piece – are uncharacteristically decent, carried along by a story so packed with incident, so full of vivid light and pitch-black shade, that you can’t help but be swept up by it too. Cummings is the superbly-named Parris Mitchell, a French-American pianist, trainee doctor and orphan who's beset by tragedy. His grandma dies, his mentor poisons his own daughter (and Parris’s girlfriend) before shooting himself, and his best friend (Reagan) has his legs sawn off by a psychopath – prompting his never-to-be-forgotten cry of “Where’s the rest of me?!”, unquestionably the best moment of the movie, and a rare example of Right Wing Ronnie doing something good on screen. Despite its cosy, distinctly Sam Wood-ish trappings, the film – and its emphasis on dark secrets – has far more in common with Douglas Sirk’s “women’s pictures” of the 1950s than with wartime Americana like One Foot in Heaven or The Human Comedy, gleefully embracing soapiness and Gothic melodrama, as well as stopping to rest, periodically, on mile-high corn. It’s not subtle, but it’s very entertaining, powered by a remarkable cast – including doomed child star Scotty Beckett, Betty Field as the last word in nervy young recluses, and Ann Sheridan playing a girl from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks – and an unshakeable commitment to its bowdlerised, batshit story. (3.5)


American Madness (Frank Capra, 1932)
– A minor classic from Capra and regular collaborator Robert Riskin, in which liberal bank president Walter Huston stands up for the little guy against corporate greed, only for a robbery to force a run on the bank (foreshadowing It’s a Wonderful Life), and his marriage to head for the rocks. It’s expertly directed – particularly in the expressionistic robbery set piece and the overhead shots of an increasingly frantic crowd demanding their deposits – features an atypically cool characterisation from Pat O’Brien, and has a progressive view of both capitalism and convicts, but suffers slightly from a familiar problem with Riskin’s work: he sees himself as a liberal, but he sees ordinary people as stupid and easily manipulated. It remains a fascinating film, great to look at (the art deco sets are sumptuous), but with a brain and a heart: lecturing, in a still-timely manner, that when financial institutions put profit before people, everything goes tits up. (3.5)


Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009) – After Maya Rudolph gets pregs, she and her boyfriend (Big Tuna from The Office) visit various friends and family – trying to decide where to set up home. The leads are both very good, but their memorable, attractive scenes together are really the film’s sole selling point, and their appealing relationship is the only thing about the whole enterprise that feels real. Aside from their old college pals (including Melanie Lynskey, who performs a stylised but nonetheless gutting "pole dance of grief"), the supporting characters range from the sitcom-ish (his parents) to the completely unrealistic (her former boss), with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ludicrous caricature-of-an-almost-cousin, which belongs in the latter category, spectacularly tiresome: unbelievable, annoying and unfunny, as far away from entertaining as it’s possible to be, and such a cartoon that she’s ultimately meaningless. In all this, the film rather recalls Jim Jarmusch’s unsatisfying Broken Flowers – another downbeat road movie on the subject of family, populated by the sort of people who only exist in indie films. Away We Go is also saddled with a horribly overbearing song score that signposts emotion at every turn. A pity, as Rudolph and Tuna are really good together, and their conversations – treading an affecting line between grown-up decision-making and child-like concerns – frequently feel so genuine and unforced. (2.5)


Monster House (Gil Kenan, 2006) – An incredibly inconsistent comedy-horror-for-kids, co-written by Community creator Dan Harmon. The characters are rather poorly conceived and most of it is surely far too intense for under-10s, but it’s fairly well-animated in that underwhelming motion-capture way, the story is quite original and it has its share of good jokes, as well as some completely incomprehensive ones, like a 12-year-old boy saying he feels like he’s having a stroke. (2.5)


The Accidental Husband (Griffin Dunne, 2008) - Absolutely pathetic. (I was going to watch Bring It On, but the disc was broken.) (1.5)

Next up: a Douglas Fairbanks special!