Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Clint, more Clint and back to the Southern Wild - Reviews #151

Dearest reader,

I haven't got around to that other Dardenne brothers film just yet, but I have watched a documentary about a chimp, a horror-mystery starring Joan Blondell and a lot of movies featuring Clint Eastwood. I hope that this in some way compensates.

Respectfully yours,


Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

"For the animals that didn’t have a daddy to put them on the boat, the end of the world already happened. They’re down below, trying to breathe through water."

What a stunning, dreamlike film this is, and what a beautiful, credible and unique performance lies at its centre, courtesy of the then six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, whose Hushpuppy is one of the great characters of recent decades. On second viewing, Beasts' many wondrous strengths seem greater, its few shortcomings slighter and its plotting more cohesive ("I wanna be cohesive") than at first glance.

The story sees Wallis's tiny titan facing down flooding, fire and famishment – while dealing with the busted remnants of her family – as the beasts of the title course towards her slum area, trampling all in their wake. These fearsome creatures, unleashed when Hushpuppy knocks her seriously ill father to the ground, almost certainly exist only in her mind, and – depending on your point of view – represent either rampaging global warming, the enormity of death or, to my mind, the need to "fix what was broken": her relationship with her impulsive, troubled but loving father (the excellent Dwight Henry) – and perhaps her 'gator-eating mother too.

Beasts is remarkable in every way: stunning to look at, full of jaw-droppingly lyrical dialogue and blessed with a triumphant, eminently hummable Cajun soundtrack. Lit by a multitude of brilliant sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but don't, and dominated by Wallis's heroics (including some excellent screaming), it packs an emotional punch like nothing else I've seen in years. (4)

See also: My original review of the film is here.


Project Nim (James Marsh, 2011) - Project Nim is like Au hasard Balthazar, as an innocent creature is tossed around by the whims of humans, only it's all real and its hero isn't a doleful donkey but a chimp who smokes weed. Nim is wrenched from his mother at birth and adopted by an annoying hippy, who breastfeeds him for two years. It's all part of a plan, put in place by a Columbia professor, to see whether a chimp - raised as a human - can be taught to construct sentences in sign language. But personal conflicts and simmering jealousies throw the (questionable) venture into disarray, and Nim is variously abused, disorientated and admonished for his animalistic behaviour, as he passes through the hands of various handlers - many of them well-meaning and most still moved to tears by his plight - only for events to take a truly chilling turn.

It's an absolutely fascinating, remarkable story that's fairly well told. Marsh mixes reams of excellent archive footage with forthright, often insightful interviews, while introducing a great gimmick, central to our understanding of the film, in which the signing between Nim and his handlers is presented in subtitles. I do feel, though, that the film is hampered by focusing so tightly on Nim's life. It's a bold decision by the filmmaker, presumably informed by the idea that Nim's problems were caused by treating him in a human way, not a humane way, and failing to acknowledge how events were affecting him, a mistake the film is keen to avoid.

While we hear a lot about how Nim must have been feeling, complete with close-ups of his face - which is expressive, but perhaps not enough to sustain this approach - we don't get enough of an insight into the back-stories of the professor, Nim's adopted mother or the various students, doctors and philanthropists who come in and out of the chimp's life, whether they're providing moments of comfort and escape, encouraging him to try cannabis, or dragging him to the depths of despair. It means that we're asked to view the many shocking and alarming things that happen without proper context. You could argue that context is irrelevant when you're dealing with a project this misguided, or something as horrific as the Lemsip centre, but I think the wider picture is essential to our understanding of the story.

There's also a certain vagueness in some of the sequences near the beginning, coupled with imprecise pacing, though this is offset by later set-pieces that are variously affecting (aww, Nim's hugging a cat), amusing (no Nim, don't hump the cat) and utterly chilling, including one of the most upsetting 10-minute chunks I've ever encountered. And I've seen Blues Brothers 2000. So while it's an imperfect film, it's also a very interesting, compelling one, with a sometimes overpowering emotional charge. Project Nim, not Blues Brothers 2000, which is a terrible sequel in which Dan Aykroyd turns into a zombie.

Of course we don't hear from Nim himself, aside from various whoops and clapping noises, but if he could speak, I know that he would say, "Nim, hug, banana, play, banana." (3)


You'll Never Get Rich (William A. Seiter, 1941) - "Exciting loveliness and rhythm in a star-spangled army musical!", promises the tagline. Astaire's first film with his favourite movie dance partner, Rita Hayworth, is an ever-underrated trifle blessed with some astonishing hoofing. She said later that her two movies with Fred were the only "jewels" in her career, proper prestige productions that cleaned up at the box-office. He plays a dance director who gets entangled in philandering boss Robert Benchley's web of lies, jettisoning Hayworth's affections due to a misunderstanding over a diamond bracelet, but finds a way out of the frying pan thanks to the draft board, resulting in various in-the-Army-now shenanigans.

The story is silly and disjointed, and the humour is variable - one-joke comic relief Cliff Nazarro briefly becomes the star of the film to entirely tiresome ends - but there's a pleasingly irreverent tone, the leads are in peak form, and much of the dancing has to be seen to be believed. The two best routines are genuinely unusual, with Fred tapping explosively in a guard house to jazz and blues numbers played by an African-American group called the Four Tones. There's also a brief but brilliant rehearsal dance representing the stars' first collaboration on screen, a handful of lively propagandist numbers and a Latino-tinged routine set to Cole Porter's devastating So Near and Yet So Far. Hayworth is also one good-looking lady, but so might you be if you'd undergone a beautifying process that included having your hairline altered (I often wonder if that intensive programme of electrolysis led to her early-onset Alzheimer's).

In the back catalogue of cinema's greatest ever dancer, this isn't a classic to rank alongside Top Hat, Broadway Melody of 1940 or The Band Wagon, but it's still a joy to behold, the genuine care that went into it visible right from the clever, inventive credits sequence. "Exciting loveliness" indeed. (3.5)


Miss Pinkerton (Lloyd Bacon, 1932) - A static, muddled Old Dark House rehash that crams an awful lot of confusing plot and awkward pauses into its 65 minutes. If you want to see Joan Blondell dressed as a nurse, you won't be disappointed, and her bright, brassy performance does provide a sprinkle of Golden Age gold dust, but it's held captive in a slow and unsatisfying mystery given the usual perfunctory treatment by one of Warner's least creative directors. Bacon throws in a couple of Expressionistic shots he's lifted from Nosferatu, but does nothing to quicken the action or make the story clearer. George Brent's detective seems overly preoccupied with how handsome his number one suspect is. (2)

See also: This is in Vol 5 of the magnificent Forbidden Hollywood series, along with Hard to Handle.


And, of course, the rebranded ClintFest '13 (check out that upper-case 'F') has been continuing apace:

The Enforcer (James Fargo, 1976) - The third in the Dirty Barry series lands Clint with a female partner (Tyne Daly), who carries a fucking handbag everywhere and runs about one mile an hour (13.5 in her gym shorts, my arse). It's as deep as a puddle, as credible as a cartoon and as stupid as open day at Idiot World, but it's incredibly entertaining, building to a climax involving Alcatraz and a rocket-launcher. "Marvellous." (3)


Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983)
- This unbelievably nasty fourth outing for Dirty Barry makes the original look like Dixon of Dock Green. San Francisco's growliest man is sent out to a small town after annoying the mob, where he ends up tangling with a rape victim (Sondra Locke) who's murdering her attackers one by one. The first half is like a compilation of 10 Dirty Barry movies, with only the bits where he crosses the line and then gets bawled out left in. The only recourse to excessive unpleasantness is the sickening rape scene, but that's probably as it should be. Clint's earlier vehicles tend to treat the subject (which turns up as a plot device with alarming regularity) far too lightly, even allowing his anti-hero in High Plains Drifter to rape someone and then joke about it. Here, the sequence is virtually unwatchable, which, even if the treatment is gothically sensationalist, seems a step forward. But there's absolutely no justification for flashing back to it a further four times in the film's second half. Presumably it's meant to hammer home to Clint's more neanderthalic fans that this time we're on the side of a murderer/rape victim/woman, but surely even they could remember back to when the film showed it half an hour ago.

Though the film's first hour has no narrative coherence, features the worst line of dialogue of all time ("Call D'Ambrosia in the DA's office - ask him if coffee is psychic") and includes a scene in which Clint drives around with his car on fire, it's indecently fun. What follows is just horrific. Who enjoys watching a woman being raped, punched repeatedly in the face, and then faced with being raped again? There's a stunning shot near the close, when Barry arrives at a closed-down fairground like a gunslinger at high noon, silhouetted in the night by vivid white light, and Lalo Schifrin pipes up with a super, noir-tinged theme every time we head for Locke's house, but such concessions to class offer scant consolation in a quite hideously misjudged second half. For what it's worth, the performances are a mixed bag. I couldn't tell if Audrie Neenan was good, because her character made me feel too ill, and Pat Hingle was absolutely terrible as the small-town chief (he really needs to take bigger breaths before talking), but Clint and Locke always work quite well together and Wendell Wellman offers an interesting portrait of a supposedly reformed character who still gets shot in the head. And also the balls. (2)


Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood, 1985)
- A grizzled mystery man (Flint Lockwood) saves a homesteader (Michael Moriarty) from a shellacking at the hands of a gold tycoon's hired goons, and becomes a symbol of hope to the community of brutalised miners, while sending Moriarty's fiancee (Carrie Snodgress) and her 14-year-old daughter wild with lust. If Clint's High Plains Drifter was a delirious subversion of the "outsider hero" seen in such films as Shane, then this is basically just a remake of Shane, right down to the kid yelling "Come back! We love you!" at the close, an act of outlandish thievery that frankly amounts to taking the piss. There's also a slight lack of dramatic tension that comes with having a hero who can teleport. Still, it's a solid, entertaining allegorical Western - Clint's "preacher" being a messenger of death sent from God - that boasts some truly iconic imagery, particularly during its climactic shoot-out, and a pair of very good performances from Clint East-woooooood and his new best mate. A young, svelte Chris Penn turns up as a bad guy, looking eerily like his Argentinean brother Sean. (3)


Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974) - Michael Cimino's attempt to make a '70s action movie in the New Hollywood style is a memorable, fascinating and beautifully-acted existential buddy flick that gets rather sidetracked by its second-half heist. The opening is as good as any you'll ever see, as a Brylcreemed preacher (Clint Eastwood) is forced to flee for his life across a wheatfield, while across town a grinning tearaway (Jeff Bridges) with a possible wooden leg jacks a car from a dealership. They're about to collide - literally - sparking an unlikely, truly affecting friendship that will get them laid, shot at and beaten, before they join forces with the two hoods on their trail (George Kennedy and the quite brilliant Geoffrey Lewis).

It's then that the film, an astonishing piece of Americana, full of fluttering flags and vast, arid landscapes, and met by an extraordinary theme song from Paul Williams (who wrote the Bugsy Malone score), turns into a Hot Rock-ish heist film: above par for the genre, but nothing like as interesting or unusual as the movie we were watching. Almost fatally, the focus shifts from the smiling, weary Eastwood and the young friend who "came along 10 years too late" and gives too much screen-time to the blustering Kennedy, diluting the film's power by simply forgetting its strong suit. You can shout "What about The Big Lebowski?" all you want, but I've found that Bridges is usually the best thing in a bad film or the worst thing in a great film. Here he's just brilliant, and it isn't his fault that the movie's steering goes awry, or demands that he dress up as a woman. While that's not very entertaining, it's no slight on her to say that he looks a bit like Laura Dern.

Then, when the film seems to have died out in a fit of cross-dressing and a flurry of skidding motorcyclists, it crawls out of the wreckage, towards a magnificent, dreamlike coda that leaves you slack-jawed in amazement. Cimino straddled two worlds, having co-written the second Dirty Harry film and gone on later, of course, to make The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate. This, his debut behind the camera, doesn't sustain its fusion of the mainstream, the modern and the avant garde as successfully as genre-fucks like Charley Varrick, Fat City or Electra Glide in Blue, but at its best it's gobsmacking: Williams on the soundtrack, a car on the endless highway and Eastwood at the wheel, looking dead ahead, a canvas for our own emotions, like a John Ford hero. (3)


Thanks for reading.

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