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)

***



*SPOILERS*
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)

***

TV:



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!

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