Monday, 25 February 2013

A Star Is Born revisited, Jennifer Lawrence and how to start an argument - Reviews #148

Hello, and welcome to a special Oscars-themed update, as the Oscars happened yesterday and it would be negligent of me not to piggy-back pointlessly on that kind of publicity. To celebrate, I've reviewed a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, who won Best Actress last night, and another starring the first winner of that award and featuring an Oscars ceremony of its own. That this was all just a coincidence shouldn't stop you reading on. JOIN ME.

A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937) - The initial incarnation of this Tinseltown tragedy is right up there with Judy's, and holds up superbly on second viewing, revealing - most rewardingly - additional layers to the stunning central characterisations. We first meet Norman Maine (Fredric March) as he's toppling off his mantle - and his chair - and it's largely downhill from there, via a sanitarium, a night court and three of the saddest and most uncomfortable scenes I've ever had the good fortune to dread coming round again. Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) is introduced as a feisty fighter of a farm girl - not unlike Gaynor's character in Lucky Star - if one with a sensitive soul, but once she gets to Hollywood, with stars in her eyes, we see her as the naive, innocent dreamer she really is. What the film does next is magnificent, but so seamlessly, subtly done, that it's only when the credits roll that you appreciate the shifting, sliding, dynamic: Esther growing in confidence, authority and compassion - growing up, if you will - and Norman sinking, faster than you keep up, his chilling forecast that he has lived too much to have anything left being proved tragically true.

Evelyn Waugh said of Brideshead Revisited that he wanted to write a book about people brought low by nothing more than love and drink. Add a bit of masculine pride into the mix and you have A Star Is Born. The film is perhaps a test of empathy (as I feel something like The Kid with a Bike may be), as its success - or otherwise - is based on how much compassion you feel for a good-looking millionaire whose greatest problem, at least that he will acknowledge, is that his star is slipping. Really, though, he's a man being consumed - from the inside - by demons and disease, slipping into dissolution even as he appears to have it all, as would his contemporary John Barrymore, and their spiritual successor, Errol Flynn. March makes Maine - and his problems - seem utterly, desperately real, in a gutting characterisation that may well be the best thing he ever did. It's only in the final third that the human cost really becomes apparent, though, and up until then it's a lighter proposition, a revealing snapshot - in early Technicolor - of Hollywood in the '30s, and just as fun as that sounds (I'm aware that some people may not think that sounds very fun). I still think Adolphe Menjou's benevolent producer is too good to be true, and Edgar Kennedy's comic sequences seem incongruous, but Lionel Stander brings just the right mix of amusing irascibility and sadistic insensitivity as a kind of hybrid press agent/fixer, perhaps patterned after MGM's Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix, and Andy Devine is just lovely as Gaynor's first friend in Hollywood. It's a superlative film, wonderfully conceived and scripted - with some of the best barbs coming unmistakably from Dorothy Parker's poisonous pen - and with an emotional clout like little else in '30s cinema. (4)


Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Herbert Brenon, 1928) - A gifted clown (Lon Chaney) finds a little girl in the rushes, makes her laugh with his cockerel-based shadow puppetry and takes her under his wing (pun intended), naming her Simonella. When she grows to adulthood, and reveals a bit of shoulder, he realises he loves her in a different way - but then so does the count and reformed cad with whom he shares a psychiatrist. This intensely moving melodrama sticks to the familiar Chaney formula, strikes a few questionable notes (having the count's deep unhappiness manifest itself in bursts of manic laughter seems an unnecessarily gothic touch), could do with a scene showing the children's connection to the comic that would give its final line even greater resonance, and fails to explain its characters' motivations at some key junctures. But who cares? Chaney is sensational, the 15-year-old Atilla the Nun, Loretta Young, is at her ethereal best as Simonella, and the film is stuffed to bursting with unforgettable images of love, longing and desolate desperation, many focusing on Chaney's matchlessly expressive face - painted or otherwise - and all showcasing legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe's unique eye for contrast and composition.

Some viewers may feel queasy about Chaney's sad clown trying to "do a Woody Allen" and cop off with his adopted daughter (legal disclaimer: in Woody's case, it was his long-term partner's adopted, of-age daughter), but these were different times, Young isn't playing a 15-year-old. and the film is so persuasively acted that you can't help but feel for the sad-eyed Chaney, and wish for him some modicum of happiness. It's a gutting, wonderful film and an important one too: in telling the story of a gifted mime who wins every heart except the one he wants, it must surely have influenced the ultimately incomparable Les enfants du paradis. It was Chaney's favourite of his pictures, and with good reason. The TCM release features a wonderful addition in H. Scott Salinan's beautiful new score, which recalls Howard Shore's classic work on The Lord of the Rings. (4)

See also: The other two films in TCM's Lon Chaney Collection are reviewed here.


Hard to Handle (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933) - An anarchic Cagney comedy, with Jimmy cast (once again) as an inveterate go-getter for whom the Depression is little more than a mild inconvenience. Having lost the takings from an epic dance marathon to an unscrupulous partner, his versatile promoter spents the rest of this fast-paced, sex-fuelled jolt of Pre-Code hilarity putting his quick wits and absent morals to good use by hoodwinking the ordinary folks of America into taking part in a phony treasure hunt, smearing meritricious gloop over their wobbly bodies or buying up acres of grapefruit groves (a nod to that notorious scene in The Public Enemy). Like Groundhog Day's Phil Connors, he subscribes to the somewhat damning notion that people are morons.

There's little of Warner Bros' famed social conscience at work here, but it's delightfully unpredictable and extremely funny with it - its laughs, unusually for the studio, coming more from the performances and the situations than the repartee - while providing a fascinating glimpse of how my favourite comedy of all-time might have panned out, reuniting sassy Mary Brian and sardonic Ruth Donnelly from the previous year's Blessed Event, originally set to star Cagney. His chemistry with Bryan is both appealing and electric, Donnelly proves a perfect(ly unscrupulous) foil and sometime ally. and Cagney is, of course, magnificent: a whirlwind of energy, playing every comic scenario to the absolute hilt. (3.5)


The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) - It's Winter's Bone meets Battle Royale meets The X-Factor in this tense futuristic thriller, as Jennifer Lawrence takes the place of her terrified little sister in a televised fight-to-the-death against 23 other kids and teens. The only other contestant from her district is dishy, slightly wood-prone Josh Hutcherson, whose character has so many contrasting facets that I stopped thinking he might be realistically complex and decided he wasn't particularly well-drawn. The plotting, which inserts breathless action sequences at regimented intervals, seems a bit too clinical, the lead-in goes on too long (check out The Wages of Fear for how to properly execute an hour-long prologue to your suspenser), and the gaudy world fashioned around the game is tacky and heavy-handed. But the film has a wild card like few others, allowing you to spend two hours in the exultant company of Jennifer Lawrence. The whole thing hinges on her performance, and she's simply mesmerising. I've seen her in four movies so far (including Winter's Bone - the best of the decade so far - and Silver Linings Playbook, my favourite film released last year), and she hasn't struck a false note in any of them. Here, the story takes the toughest decisions away from her character, Catnip Evergreen, but she's wondrous nonetheless, creating an affecting, kind-hearted, ass-kicking protagonist with an innate emotional intensity who keeps the film grounded and real, even when being interviewed by a man with a blue ponytail in front of the crowd from Take Me Out.

It isn't exactly original - it riffs on the superior Battle Royale, there are shards of Logan's Run in there, and it occupies a similar world to the hugely silly Equilibrium - but it is very entertaining, and has one particularly fine, powerful scene, rather dubiously utilising Holocaust imagery, in which Lawrence volunteers for those there Hunger Games. It's also a well-directed film, in a showy sort of way, employing warped images and aggressive jump cuts while Lawrence is tripping on wasp bites, and fantastic use of sound throughout. It's clearly aimed at a teenage audience rather than an adult one, and perhaps a film like this should do more with its subtext of anti-establishment rebellion and social degradation, but when it tries to it feels forced and shallow, and Ross doesn't really know how to handle crowd scenes (he seems to be taking pointers from tea-time dramas on ITV), so it may be for the best. For all its imperfections, I enjoyed it a great deal, and Lawrence's performance confirms her status as one of the three most exciting actresses around, along with Carey Mulligan and the mighty Michelle Williams (Emily Watson doubtless remains the finest, but can't seem to land too many strong roles nowadays). This has really whetted my appetite for a sequel. Though apparently the "book" is better, whatever "books" are. (3)


Undefeated (Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, 2011) is like Hoop Dreams remade by Disney. It's an Oscar-winning doc about a volunteer high school football coach (Martin Clunes) who whips his troubled African-American charges into a formidable team, as they cope with injury, anger issues and everything else that comes with growing up in black, inner city ghettos (see The Interrupters and The House I Live In for yet more chilling detail). Compared with the benchmark for all documentaries of its type, Steve James' unforgettable Hoop Dreams, it's too much a surface look at the issues it raises - and a calculating, sometimes staged one at that - to be a real contender, but it is slickly done, emotionally stirring when not opting for easy sentiment (Chavis's speech is a wonderful moment), and in entertainment value alone deserves its place in the play-offs. Also, "Why you gotta sit by me for bro? You gay" is my favourite ever way to start an argument. I've spotted a goof, though, they're not undefeated - they lost their first match. What's that you say? A metaphor? (3)

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Wreck-It Ralph, Kathleen Turner and the Great Depression - Reviews #147

We went to Wreck-It Ralph (and Paperman) for Valentine's, and I managed to fit in a few other things during the week as well. Tonight I'm planning to catch a Lon Chaney movie, Laugh, Clown, Laugh - I'll let you know what it's like.

CINEMA: Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012) - Ralph isn't such a bad guy. Well, he is a bad guy, but he's not a... bad guy. His job is to smash up an apartment block and he's been doing it for 30 years, as the villain in the arcade game Fix-It Felix, Jr. But tired of being excluded, overlooked and feared - as well as having to live in a dump - Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) strikes out on his own, in a confused attempt to switch games and win the medal that he thinks will prove his worth, and see him accepted into society. Fate, though, has other ideas, chucking him into the tooth-achingly sweet world of racing game Sugar Rush, where he's forced into an unlikely alliance with an acerbic, sweet-natured and flickering little girl, known as The Glitch (an unexpectedly affecting Sarah Silverman). The first half of this Disney animation is very good, if a little inconsistent, typified by the way that the fantastic opening voiceover segues into a hit-and-miss meeting of the "bad guys anonymous" group. But the second is simply stunning, its various strands dove-tailing delightfully, the jokes coming thick and fast, and the relationship upon which the whole thing hangs drawn so effortlessly and beautifully that it takes your breath away.

We've seen a friendship between a hulking monster with a heart of gold and a sweet, brown-haired little girl before - in exec producer John Lasseter's Monsters, Inc. - and yet this feels so fresh and funny and original. We've been pitched into a 3D video game world packed with peril and racing cars, in the execrable Spy Kids 3: Game Over, but that was a film that did almost everything wrong, just as this one does almost everything right. There's a sense of ambition and imagination here that's been missing from most Disney animations since its brief renaissance in the '90s - I haven't seen them do anything this good since The Lion King. Take that first, swooping trip into Game Central Station, during which I genuinely craned my neck in a bid to take in the jaw-dropping spectacle across the right side of the screen. Or the amazing "going Turbo" sequence, a masterpiece of comic timing that riffs expertly on the rapidly changing world of gaming. That breathtakingly sad moment at what looks like the spot in the des(s)ert where Ethan and Martin face off in The Searchers. Or the sublime pay-off, which threatens to drown the film's message in a blast of Disneyfied treacle, only to emerge, triumphant, with its convictions intact.

Someone at work expressed surprise that I was off to see a kids' film, but Wreck-It Ralph - like so many contemporary animations - is a movie wholly undeserving of such a tag: it's about disability, anger and alienation, has a hero who's undergoing a mid-life crisis, and features at least a joke a minute that will whizz over the head of anyone under the age of 18. It's about video games, but it's about so much more than that. A good job, as I've only ever played on arcades about three times in my life. (3.5)

And this is the short that's screening with it:

SHORT: Paperman (John Kahrs, 2012) - Wreck-It Ralph is in the unenviable position of having to follow this intoxicating short, a silent, black-and-white masterwork that pays oblique - and then overt - homage to The Red Balloon, as a paper plane with a mind of its own (and a fair few friends) tries to unite two lonely souls. It's extraordinary. (4)


Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) is a sweaty, scintillating neo-noir, in which the horniest woman in America (Kathleen Turner) shags a moustache (William Hurt) into killing her husband. You almost want Hurt to die or go to jail so his willy can have a rest. While it's an homage to vintage '40s noir like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past and The Postman Always Rings Twice (right down to a nattily incorporated fedora), Body Heat also stands superbly on its own two feet: the dialogue is colourful, the plotting keeps you guessing - despite being rich in fatalism - and Turner is dynamic as a woman so warm that she must take off her clothes at every opportunity. Hurt is wooden in places (particularly his penis), the revelations near the end - while gripping - are perhaps revealed too conveniently, and the film should really have ended on a freeze-frame of that photo, but it's still a classy, compelling crime flick, with a sweltering, stifling atmosphere and showy supporting turns from Mickey Rourke and Ted Danson - almost unrecognisable with a fringe that disguises the sheer length of his Easter Island head. And while the writer-director's idea of his hero keeping an illicit affair under wraps is to have him lob a chair through a plate glass window at his lover's house, that scene with the contract discussions is worthy of Wilder. They don't call his Law-rence Kasdan for nothing. (3.5)


Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (Philippe Mora, 1975) - An impressive, impressionistic and immersive collage of the Depression and its aftermath, arranged in roughly chronological order and mixing newsreel footage with classic movie clips, the majority from Warner - the studio most pre-occupied with the real world - and many featuring Jimmy Cagney, who's used as a recurring character. It gets across, like little else I've seen, the feel of the '30s: a world in flux, with its poverty, violence, confusion and raw ideological fervour, its vivid contrasts, a decade where fantasy and reality clashed, as contemporary concerns bled into movies, and movie stars came out to endorse politicians. And it's chock-full of classic Franklin D. Roosevelt speeches, America's greatest president providing a virtual narration - idealistic, flavourful and funny - even if he looks at his notes a bit much.

It's frequently stunning, then, but not perfect. Some of the thematic and visual juxtapositions are startlingly imaginative - like footage of Joe Louis spread-eagled on the canvas, segueing into Billie Holiday singing prostrate on the floor - but with others it isn't always clear what Mora's getting at, if indeed he knows. The accompanying music is as great as you'd expect - incorporating most of the standards that sum up the era, like Ruth Etting's Ten Cents a Dance and the title tune, delivered in three contrasting versions (including Rudy Vallee's unsuitably effete reading) - though curiously the songs don't always match the pictures: having Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out play out partly over footage of a flooded New York seems simply incongruous, but then it cuts chillingly to film of homeless, hungry kids beaten down by life at five years old. A simple sequence that runs together clips of the dustbowl at its most unlivable crystallises the horrors facing farmers in chilling fashion, but you can't help but wish they'd had the rights to throw in a bit of The Grapes of Wrath alongside. And wouldn't it make sense - in the same way that That's Entertainment! utilised the An American in Paris ballet - to climax with the most stunning evocation of Depression-era America ever to grace a movie screen, Remember My Forgotten Man from the Warner musical Gold Diggers of 1933, rather than merely offering a couple of snippets, and using a pointless recap of America from 1941-75 as the film's big pay-off?

It has its flaws, then, and you really do need to know something about America in the '30s to follow what's going on, but really it's a bit of a treat, especially if you're a history nerd with a special interest in this period - as I categorically am. The clips of William Wellman helming A Star Is Born, Dillinger's dad defending his boy, and Roosevelt's armed assailant trying to explain what he's been up to are astonishing historical documents. (3)


The Mouse That Roared (Jack Arnold, 1959)
- A tiny, English-speaking state buried in the French Alps declares war on America, hoping that - following an immediate surrender - it will be flooded with the aid needed to revive its ailing, wine-based economy. Unfortunately, the Duchess (Peter Sellers) and Prime Minister (Peter Sellers) send over-earnest military chief Tully Bascomb (Peter Sellers) to execute their plan, and he returns with hostages and a nuclear bomb. This '60s satire, with faint echoes of Passport to Pimlico, has an absolutely uproarious first 20 minutes (including a perfect opening gag), before settling into a less exceptional groove, making a few wry points about Cold War paranoia and the '60s power balance, but getting most of its pizazz from Sellers' sublime comic gifts - witness the way he turns the Duchess's theoretically unpromising harpsichord performance into a comic highlight, simply by adding a confirmatory "ye may" at the end of a line. Jean Seberg isn't altogether hideous as the love interest. (2.5)

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Breakfast Club, Rocky VI and my concerns about your heart - Reviews #146

After an explosive start to the year, brimming over with four-star films (four being the highest star rating known to (Leonard )Ma(lti)n), this latest bunch of movies rather brought me back down to earth. Still, it was nice to hand out with the Breakfast Club again - sort of - and Delicious gave me one of my favourite movie moments of 2013 so far (82 years after the fact)...

The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1984) - A geek, a squeaker, a ginger, a sex pest and a moron bond during Saturday detention, dancing, giggling and smoking weed, but mostly just moaning about their parents. Hughes's high-concept talkathon - and his most fondly-remembered film, belying its bleakness - is surprisingly stagy, makes strange excuses for its characters (Estevez's jock taped a boy's buttocks together to impress his dad) and climaxes with a horrid makeover scene that calls to mind Rosemary's Baby, but it's also funny, quite poignant and frequently spot-on about teen angst and the quirks of adolescent behaviour. And it's all done in the typical Hughes style - bright colours, bombastic '80s tunes and stylised sound - which you'll either love or hate, depending on whether or not you're cool. This being Hughes, there's also a sadistic teacher, and, this being the '80s, there's a bit where the club pull a Michael J Fox (TM), running along a corridor and then having to quickly change direction, skidding noisily across the shiny floor.

It's Judd Nelson's film, really, as the archetypal bad boy: a crowing, abused bully whose aggressive sexual advances sadly tip him over, apparently unnoticed by Hughes, from misunderstood kid to dangerous weirdo. He's the worst actor of the five, prone to woodenness and gormless facial expressions, but he has undeniable presence, and throws himself into the eye-catching and sizeable role with considerable gusto. Of the other club members, Emilio Estevez struggles a little as a supposedly sensitive wrestler, but Molly Ringwald is ideal as the pouting "princess", Anthony Michael Hall proves superb as "the brain" - aside from a brief outing for his "blues" voice (showcased at length in the abysmal Weird Science) - and Ally Sheedy makes for a truly excellent attention-seeker.

It's an easy film to pick holes in, and Hughes would make better movies, but in pop cultural terms it's a towering achievement, a Rebel without a Cause for the '80s, which forms vivid stock characters - a Mount Rushmore of recognisable American teen types - only to send them crumbling into dust. (3)


The Firm (Sydney Pollack, 1993) is a very watchable, sometimes exciting Grisham adaptation that lacks credibility, and is beset by a certain vagueness, but gets by on the strength of its cast. An ambitious young Harvard law graduate (Tom Cruise) signs up with a high-powered, secretive Memphis firm, only to find that they're really corrupt, and he's never allowed to leave. Cruise and Jeanne Tripplehorn do their starry bit, but the real draw is a ridiculously good supporting cast, with a realistic turn from David Strathairn as Cruise's jailbird brother, an eye-catching performance from a red-permed Holly Hunter (the same year as The Piano), who seems to have wandered in from a '40s dime novel, and an overpoweringly sleazy one from Gene Hackman, who's simply excellent, twinkling ominously as Cruise's lascivious mentor. (He fancies Tripplehorn, not Cruise. I think.) Elsewhere, Ed Harris turns up as an irascible fed, Wilfred Brimley is gruffly intimidating as the firm's security chief and there are bits from Gary Busey, Hal Holbrook and Paul Sorvino. I've no idea why it's two-and-a-half hours long, but it's good fun for the most part, and the padding comes at the start rather than during a particularly well-edited final third, packed with snippets of action and suspense, cross-cut for maximum effect. (2.5)


Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006) - An old man has a fight. (2.5)


Things are about to get rubbish...

The Flight of the Navigator (Randal Kleiser, 1986)
- A 12-year-old boy (Joey Cramer) falls into a ravine and wakes up eight years later, having not aged a day. This maddening slice of mid-'80s sci-fi has a sensational premise and milks it for most of its worth in a spectacularly eerie opening (at least once the interminable doggy credits are over), with a scattering of false scares worthy of Val Lewton, and a couple that are all too real. After that, it morphs into alarmingly obvious family fare, serving up a quick explanation, a friendly (and incredibly irritating) robot and a sentient mail truck that exists only to chivvy the plot along. And the 21-year-old Sarah Jessica Parker, who turns up to flirt with the little boy.

By the halfway point, it's obvious that it's all going to be a big missed opportunity - vapid, plotless and pointless, albeit with an excitable Alan Silvestri score - but the film does at least remember what it's about at its finale (note to the kid: if you do want to be left alone, probably best not to adopt an alien), and I do think it's worth it for that strikingly original opening 30 - one of the creepiest things Disney has ever done, even taking into account the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Pinocchio's questionable subtext and the way they treated little Bobby Driscoll. (2.5)


Delicious (David Butler, 1931) - Janet Gaynor and Charlie Farrell co-starred in three of the best dramatic movies of the late silent period: Frank Borzage's breathtaking metaphysical trinity of 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star. With the advent of sound, the pair were peculiarly reinvented as a musical-comedy team - albeit one not averse to heavy melodrama - and placed in movies like this one, an antiquated but fairly enjoyable vehicle in which Gaynor's Scottish waif falls in love with rich boy Farrell while en route to start a new life in America, only for the immigration authorities (and his horrendous fiancee) to put a dampener on things. The story isn't the strongest and the comic relief from El Brendel is very dated (aside from his surprisingly funny song, Blah Blah Blah), but Gaynor is incredibly charming - even taking into account her unusual Scottish accent - particularly when shyly crooning Somebody From Somewhere direct to camera, the transcendent highlight of the Gershwins' first full movie score. A vocal coach would tell you there are lots of things wrong with her voice, and whether by accident or design she starts singing ahead of the beat, but that certain quality in her singing, and the subtle emotion she invests in the words just blew me away.

While the movie stops and starts, and rather creaks in that early talkie way, there's curiosity value to spare. Virginia Cherrill, who played the blind flower seller in Chaplin's City Lights the same year, is a massive bitch as the love rival. There's a peculiar dream sequence in which Gaynor is welcomed to America by nine dancing Uncle Sams. And the ambitious climax, set to New York Rhapsody (a second gem from the erratic musical material), is really quite impressive - Gaynor wandering the intimidating city at night, the citizens, the buildings and even the river grasping at her - though it pales alongside similar sequences in Street Angel and Murnau's rather silly film, The Last Laugh. It's weird, it's wooly and there's a daft Russian-themed song called Katinkitsha that seems to have been staged by the world's laziest drunk choreographer (why does Gaynor end the number with a chair round her neck?), but if you aren't won over by the leading lady's wide-eyed characterisation - and that short, earnest tune she sings from under a blanket - your heart may well have stopped beating. (2.5)

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Imposter, Lon Chaney and the impossible job - Reviews #145

In this latest reviews update: four documentaries, two silents, Mandy Moore, Ken Loach and Mack Sennett. Join me (please)...

The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012) - Like Man on Wire, The Imposter features a charismatic Frenchman explaining - direct-to-camera - how he pulled off the impossible. But unlike Philippe Petit - the visionary (and admittedly adulterer) - who walked above cities to bring a sense of wonderment to people's everyday lives, this guy is a sociopath. And a twat. And he is most certainly not Nicholas Barclay. Or "Nick-oh-las Bar-clay", as he would pronounce it. And does. You may know the story by now. In 1994, Nicholas Barclay, a blonde, blue-eyed 13-year-old Texan, went missing without trace. Three years later, he was found in Spain, and welcomed back into the bosom of his family. Only it wasn't him. It was a swarthy, brown-haired, brown-eyed, 23-year-old French-Algerian. What you're probably thinking is: "What?" And then presumably: "How could this happen?" This astonishing documentary cuts to the heart of the matter in invigorating fashion, allowing the imposter (the consummate unreliable narrator) to guide us through much of the early action, before letting the family, American diplomats and even the FBI have their say, as the story gets increasingly dark - and stays just about the same level of strange.

Looking at Layton's credits (which include several episodes of Banged Up Abroad), critics have sought to say that it's the story gaining him plaudits, not the way he tells it. I'd disagree. Almost every decision he makes is the right one. If you're asking how the subject established and sustained his audacious ruse, then much of the answer surely lies in his mesmerising charisma and his unshakeable self-belief. By putting him front and centre, and letting the imposter draw us into his weird logic, his plays for sympathy and his bizarre, sad life, we're put in the same position as the family. Crammed in alongside the director's incisive interviews, and some immaculately incorporated home video snippets, are superb reconstructions, which, since Layton offers no objective truth, bring to vivid life the interviewees' claims, lies and suspect memories. And finally there's the measured, intelligent withholding of information, which keeps the viewer guessing - and laughing, incredulously - as the knot in the stomach tightens.

If there is a shortcoming, it's that the cross-cutting in the final third - presumably meant to provide a kind of hypnotic rhythm and cumulative impact - feels forced and distracting, while the digging-in-the-backyard climax doesn't really come off. Still, Layton saves a wallop for the coda: not his imposter's much-quoted line hinting at psychopathy (which we'd kind of got anyway), but that chilling clip of him in the detention centre, where he'd been giving false hope to thousands of parents. What a dickhead. It's an incredible story, though, and a brilliant, compelling and ultimately unforgettable film. (4)


The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)
– A Wall Street timeshare shark and his trophy wife start building the biggest house in America – patterned after a certain French retreat – only to see the recession hit their finances. Hard. This "riches to rags" tale is a film about everything: love, greed, ambition, relationships, the financial crisis and – above all – the American Dream, providing vivid character portraits of the pair, their kids, their in-house staff and their employees, none of whom are quite what they seem at first glance. The former Miss Florida really loves her husband (goodness knows why), their adopted daughter starts by being a voice of reason before wealth consumes her – if not her self-awareness – and his bolshy businessman of a son turns out to be a lost kid desperate to side with his father even when it risks ruining the lot of them. It’s one of the best documentaries of the decade so far, full of hilarious details ("I didn't know we had a lizard," says one of the eight kids after they're admonished for not feeding it), but also blessed with a sadness, melancholia and wisdom that renders it far more than mere Schadenfreude. (4)


Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, 2005) - This typically superb polemic from liberal documentarian Jarecki takes its name from Frank Capra’s World War Two propaganda films and its cue from Eisenhower’s farewell speech of 1961, in which the departing president warned of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex”. What he spoke of, what he feared, was the possibility of the country's foreign policy being dictated by its swelling, corporate-sponsored defence sector. Speaking to DC insiders, war veterans, Iraqis and left-leaning theorists, while peppering his film with apposite archive footage (Eisenhower’s statistics about the cost of weaponry compared to schools and hospitals feel particularly resonant), Jarecki presents a bleak, often brilliant portrait of a nation that claims to fight for freedom, but is locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of war-mongering, habitually lying to its citizens and engaging in conflicts out of avarice, political expediency and self-interest – both national and personal. It’s unlikely to sway anyone not already attuned to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it’s extremely well done, and far more focused, articulate and well-argued than Michael Moore’s similarly-themed Fahrenheit 9/11. (3.5)

See also: Jarecki's masterpiece, Reagan, is reviewed here. There's a write-up of his latest, The House I Live In, here.


I was going to be all clever (sorry, "clever") and write this next review in Helvetica, but my computer doesn't have it. Sorry.

Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007) – Perhaps I might have had a better time if I was more interested in fonts. What promises to be an intriguing look at the most divisive typeface this side of Comic Sans – the all-conquering Helvetica – too often turns pretentious and self-indulgent when trying to evaluate the role that fonts play in articulating, obscuring or subverting the message they’re meant to convey; in theory a very interesting idea. Much of the problem lies with the interviewees, who are mostly pretty insufferable, either talking very pedantically about letter shape or spouting hideously superficial Sugar Ape-like bollocks. One very confusing American graphic designer says, hopefully joking, that Helvetica was “the font of the Iraq War”. Tsk, you can sponsor anything these days. There are some insights about the homogeneity of corporate identity, and the very likeable David Carson tells an amusing story about a Bryan Ferry interview, but the film is saturated with a self-importance that isn’t merited, loaded down as it is with industry chat, vague historical analysis and endless footage of signs written in the titular font. It’s also a bit difficult to tell what most of the people are saying (I had the subtitles on; they weren’t in Helvetica), while the guy who argues that a font on your MySpace profile (lol, MySpace) is as a great an expression of identity as your haircut has terrible hair. I got a bit bored. (2)


The Angels' Share (Ken Loach, 2012) – A new father (Paul Brannigan), struggling to make ends meet and keep his violent temper under wraps, develops a taste for whisky-tasting, then spies the chance for a new start, in the shape of a priceless cask of the stuff. What a lovely film this is: a humane, charming but hard-edged collision of typical Loach fare and caper comedy, with a very understated, impressive central performance. As with On a Clear Day, another Scottish-set film that makes you earn its cheerier moments, the more cartoonish comic elements seem to have wandered in from a different movie, but it’s a minor complaint about a bruising, winning and wonderful movie blessed with a touch of sentiment and great performances across the board. (3.5)


A Lon Chaney double-bill:

The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927) - When the police pitch up at a gypsy circus to look for the criminal who's just strangled the ringmaster, they don't suspect foot-centric knife-thrower Lon Chaney - after all, he seems quite armless. Meanwhile, the big fraud's plotting to marry swarthy Joan Crawford, the victim's daughter, who's sworn off sex after encountering too many sleazeballs, and really, really hates men's hands. Still, at least Chaney doesn't have a double-thumb. Oh wait. This classic silent horror from Freaks director Tod Browning is short, sharp and spectacularly eerie, with a superb premise (more than compensating for some overly convenient plotting), a fantastically charismatic performance from Chaney and a frantic, fitting and discordant score on the TCM release that can best be filed under "completely bonkers". The ending is a bit rushed, and features one notably un-special effect, but it is gloriously intense. Two thumbs up. And that's just on my left hand. (3.5)

The Ace of Hearts (Wallace Worsley, 1921) - Love and jealousy among the anarchists, as gloomy, lank-haired Lon Chaney and romantic John Bowers compete for the hand of single-minded revolutionary Leatrice Joy, while their terrorist cell plots to blow up a restaurant. It's an interesting but imperfect mix of drama, love story and thriller that's a bit too ponderous, and foolishly telegraphs some of the cards up its sleeve through spoiler-heavy on-screen chapter titles, though Chaney and Joy are good, the story is timely and original, and there are a couple of very tense set-pieces. (3)


Private Detective 62 (Michael Curtiz, 1933) – William Powell goes from spy to PI in this fast-paced Pre-Code crime comedy, before riding to the rescue of society girl Margaret Lindsay, who’s suspected of murdering his crooked boss. The story is nothing out of the ordinary and the love interest in introduced hurling a string of snobbish invective at what she thinks is a doorman, but the dialogue and direction both have a bit of class about them (aside from the above), with the latter incorporating a powerful montage depicting job-hunting in the Depression. It’s also interesting to see a ‘30s film with a “snowbird” (cocaine addict) for a hitman; such grimy, realistic touches would be shorn from the genre by the following year’s censorship clampdown. The real reason to watch, though, is Powell – among the best leading men of his or any other era – whose inimitable delivery could inject untold humour, pathos or even menace into whatever material he was given. He’s simply excellent here, fashioning a tough, sardonic but good-hearted private detective more world-weary than his Philo Vance and more likely to brutishly threaten a drug addict with a gun than Nick Charles. (3)


Baby Face Harrington (Raoul Walsh, 1935) is a rare starring vehicle for Charles Butterworth, one of the most popular character comedians of the ‘30s. He’s perfectly cast as a meek, downtrodden insurance agent who’s reinvented – through misunderstanding and via a rabid tabloid press – as the eponymous gangster, a transformation he rather enjoys. The film turns too dark near the close, before lurching into slapstick, but for the most part it’s a delightfully funny, offbeat and engaging comedy, similar in tone to Three Men on a Horse, which gave Frank McHugh a rare leading part, and lit by Butterworth’s hilarious performance, Una Merkel’s touching characterisation as his loving wife, and a funny supporting bit by Stanley Fields (who appeared in Little Caesar), playing Harrington’s cell mate. The script, co-written by Nunnally Johnson and with extra dialogue by Charles Lederer, is as sharp as you'd expect, and equipped with an agreeable fondness for sly genre subversion. The scene in which Butterworth is interrogated by the police is just brilliant. “Take him back to the cell,” says chief Eugene Pallette, as their questioning proves fruitless. “That’s a good idea, Uncle Henry,” replies Butterworth. “Where I’m sitting there’s been a light shining right in my eyes.” (3)


Saved! (Brian Dannelly, 2004) - A lively satire about religious intolerance, in which Jena Malone's cloistered teen tries to save her boyfriend from gayness through the power of sex, setting in motion a chain of events that rock her evangelically-minded school. At times it feels a little too conventional - the prom night surprise wouldn't be out of place in She's All That - but at its best it recalls Heathers, Election and Mean Girls, with the same predilection for stinging one-liners and taboo-busting, and a prize one bitch (Mandy Moore, compensating marginally for A Walk to Remember) with more than a touch of the Heather Chandler/Tracy Flick/Regina George about her. It's also nice to find a film so focused in its viewpoint and, on a personal level, to find that its message is: if there is a God, he wouldn't want you to hate everybody who's different to you. Malone is good in a role that never tends towards cliche, though the real acting honours go to Macaulay Culkin, superb as her comrade-in-arms, a poster boy for unfailingly acerbic wheelchair users everywhere. (3)


2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy, 2012)
- 2 Days in Paris was a perceptive, intelligent and richly entertaining film about a Franco-American couple bickering, splitting up and getting back together across 48 hours in the City of Light. This sequel joins up with Julie Delpy's artist five years on, to find her separated from the father of her daughter, living with talkshow host Mingus (Chris Rock), the only brother who doesn't smoke weed, and welcoming a trio of familiar to the Big Apple: her eccentric father (Delpy's dad Albert), vindictive sister (Alexia Landeau) and ex-boyfriend (Alex Nahon). When they arrive, all hell naturally breaks loose, while Delpy turns into a "psycho bitch". (She also sells her soul, but I'm not telling you who to.) It’s difficult to know how to rate this one. In a way it’s a disappointment: it's conspicuously lacking the effortlessness, energy and curiously profound meanderings with which the original fairly overflowed, the subplot about Delpy pretending to have a brain tumour is completely misguided and approximately half the running time consists of her sister just repeatedly saying "Mingoooose", but Rock, Nahon and Delpy, Sr are great value, there are sporadically insightful observations about relationships both familial and romantic, and I was certainly never bored. (2.5)


I've started working my way, happily, through Treasures V: The West, the incredible NFPT box-set that Mrs Rick bought for me at Christmas. So many exciting-looking movies still to come. First up were these...

SHORT: The Tourists (Mack Sennett, 1912) – Pretty funny Sennett half-reeler about Mabel Normand and her family visiting a Native American tourist town. Their plan is to buy as many bowls as possible and get the hell out of there, but fate, lust and misunderstanding intervene, and they end up being pursued by a lot of indigenous folks with hatchets. The primitive production techniques count against the film, and it doesn't live up to the promise of the first minute, but it’s an interesting snapshot of the time and quite subversive in its own silly way. (2.5)

SHORT: The Sergeant (Francis Bogg, 1910) – A strictly standard plot about a sergeant restoring his reputation – after a pesky Indian steals his horse and makes it look like he’s shagged the colonel’s daughter – coupled with an unfortunate propensity to shoot everything in medium to long shot might have done for this one, were it not for the stunning locations. It was shot entirely in the Yosemite Valley, which looks frankly astonishing. (2.5)

SHORT: Sunshine Gatherers (George E. Stone, 1921) – It’s from the ‘20s! It’s in colour! It was made by Del Monte to publicise the way they picked and packed fruit, but includes a prologue about the discovery of California! I enjoyed the outdoor photography and historical recreations more than the bits about which fruit salads are the nicest and how to preserve a tinned peach, but the steaming machine was pretty nifty. (2.5)



An Impossible Job (1994)
- Rick: "This legendary documentary about Graham Taylor's disastrous reign as England manager paints him as an avuncular, unlucky and only occasionally misguided figure - rather than the clueless idiot portrayed by the tabloid press - and remains remarkable for the level of access to training sessions, press conferences and, most extraordinarily, the matches themselves. One thing that really struck me, and which may count against Taylor, is that he's often seen on the bench during a game just having a bit of a chat, rather than planning his next masterstroke. That might be why his planned masterstroke is usually just "Bring Wrighty on" or "Bring Nigel on". There are countless great moments, though Lawrie McMenemy's classic repetition of "I don't believe it... I don't believe it" is a personal favourite, along with that famous bit of the three men on the bench all giving John Barnes the same instructions. (3.5)"

Phil Neal: "This legendary documentary about Graham Taylor's disastrous reign as England manager paints him as an avuncular, unlucky and only occasionally misguided figure - rather than the clueless idiot portrayed by the tabloid press - and remains remarkable for the level of access to training sessions, press conferences and, most extraordinarily, the matches themselves. One thing that really struck me, and which may count against Taylor, is that he's often seen on the bench during a game just having a bit of a chat, rather than planning his next masterstroke. That might be why his planned masterstroke is usually just "Bring Wrighty on" or "Bring Nigel on". There are countless great moments, though Lawrie McMenemy's classic repetition of "I don't believe it... I don't believe it" is a personal favourite, along with that famous bit of the three men on the bench all giving John Barnes the same instructions. (3.5)"

Thank you to Phil Neal - the human echo, history's most virtuosic yes man - for contributing to that review. Some great insights, if I do say so myself.


Bored to Death (Season 3, 2011-12)
- The first season of Jonathan Ames' deadpan, post-modern noir series – something like Wes-Anderson-does-Raymond-Chandler – was very good, especially the pilot. The second was even better. So when I heard the show had been cancelled after its third season, I was gutted. Watching the final run, though, I can see why, and really it doesn't feel like a great loss. The cast tries hard, the Brooklyn locations are great and some of the dialogue still zings ("The rat's on fire!" and "We still have the briefcase" both made me guffaw), but Ames seems completely out of ideas when it comes to story. Jason Schwartzman's central PI has hardly any crimes to solve, aside from an exciting one near the start that's over too soon, and an over-arching mystery to do with his biological dad that's badly-paced and has a horrible, indefensible pay-off. His sidekick, Zach Galifianakis, “breastfeeds" a baby whisky, accidentally steals another child and shags a pensioner (a shame, as when he’s given anything halfway decent to do, like skipping down a street or arguing with arms dealer Patton Oswalt, he’s hilarious). Ted Danson, meanwhile, spends most of the season sparring with his irritating, needy daughter and her over-aged boyfriend. The rest of the season is just spent going on and on and on about weed. Bored to Death used to be about writing, crime-solving and witty one-liners. Now it's about incest, granny sex and making a baby drink alcohol that a grown man has smeared on his nipple. And weed. Lots and lots of weed. Bored is right. (2)