Monday, 15 April 2013

Maurice Elvey, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Clint going to a girls' school - Reviews #154

Yo homeslice. Mo' reviews all up in yo' grill, starting with my birthday present from Mrs Rick.



The Life Story of David Lloyd George (Maurice Elvey, 1918) - Intended as a morale-booster in the wake of World War One, this staggeringly ambitious British epic simply disappeared when Elvey and his team were paid £20,000 by parties unknown to bury it just prior to release. Considered lost for decades, it was found in the house of Lloyd George's grandson more than 75 years later, and finally screened in 1996. Such is the film's scale of ambition and level of success that silent film scholars argue that if it had been released in 1918 as planned, it may have altered the course of British cinema forever.

Viewed almost a century on, it's a remarkable achievement: storytelling on a grand scale. The sequence depicting a riot at Birmingham Town Hall utilises 10,000 extras, intelligently orchestrated (well, once some of them stop grinning); there are victory parades, fog-shrouded war scenes and symbolic tableaus: France's Marianne raises her sword triumphantly upon a Great War battlefield, we flash back into American history, and receive a visit from the ghost of premiers past. There are rural scenes of breathtaking bucolic beauty, and tours of wartime factories which, even if they go on a bit, offer a valuable history lesson, and provide a glimpse of Elvey himself.

Made with the blessing of Lloyd George's family, and featuring a distinctly hagiographic tone, the film begins by showing his genuine birth certificate and snapshots of his parents, shoots extensively at genuine locations, and features numerous details and anecdotes from his career, shared by friends and confidantes, alongside his notable political triumphs. From a humble background, he becomes a solicitor, before his gift for oratory finds him a place in the House of Commons, then the cabinet, and then the hot-seat. He fights for the poor, runs away from the Suffragettes like a big girl's blouse, and then inspires his nation to triumph against the empire-builders of Germany - while lamenting the human cost of the conflict - in what may be a slightly fanciful retelling of the Great War. (I also can't help but notice that the French celebrate his uplifting wartime speech in Paris by waving white handkerchiefs in the air; typical French.)

Lloyd George is played, as an adult, by Norman Page, with Alma Reville - Hitchcock's wife and sometime collaborator - as his spouse, and Ernest Thesiger, the great Golden Age character actor, best-known for The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, as Joseph Chamberlain. It's Page's show, though, he's rarely off-screen and proves a charismatic screen presence, with a perma-pointing finger.



Such is its antiquity that the flaws are obvious to the modern viewer: there's little dramatic tension throughout the narrative, the scenes of ordinary people's lives being transformed by the beneficent title figure are heavy-handed in the extreme, and where the writers don't have access to speeches from the late 19th century, they're resistant to speculation, and so simply show Lloyd George speaking with no intertitles. There's also a truly baffling scene in which the film breaks off from its story about social reform to let us know that Dave enjoyed a day off and scored a bogey on the first hole of the golf course, an impressive achievement that's then expressed pictorially. Sadly, no mention is made of Lloyd George's greatest attribute; greater even than his golfing prowess. In his diaries, Tony Benn recalls how he was showing a group of students around the Strangers' Gallery at the House of Commons when he happened to mention the former prime minister. At this point he was interrupted by a very old man, who rose to his feet and announced, "Lloyd George had a prick like a donkey".

As a director, Elvey shows extraordinary promise, but also comes up short compared to, say, Griffith, due to a marked lack of close-ups. The film is rousing and frequently compelling, with an eye for a crowd scene and an ear (or another eye?) for a great line of speech-making, but it's missing the human touch that comes from photographing the face. Elvey is a whizz with a long shot and a wonder with a montage, but a film is often too aloof if you can't read people's expressions. Having said that, on one of the rare occasions when we do get a medium close-up, it's in order to view what must be the most unconvincing false beard I've ever seen. Lloyd George's dad looks like someone has affixed a doormat to his face.

For all the film's highlights - which while strung together rather episodically are great in number - stretching from little Lloyd George shaking his fist at a grown-up buying off the family furniture, to refusing to say the catechism at Sunday school, through speeches in the Commons, a genuinely funny scene about a big liar, and that huge riot, my favourite is by far the short procession sequence, tinted in red, lit by night fires and accompanied by the loveliest portion of Neil Brand's beautiful score, in which Lloyd George's supporters celebrate his election with a sign that reads, "VICTORY FOR YOUNG WALES". Shot from high above, masterfully-composed and effortlessly moving, it's the highlight of an inevitably dated but extraordinarily confident and mightily impressive landmark in British silent cinema. (3.5)

See also: I was alerted to this wonderful movie by Elvey expert Lucie, who spoke about it on the Silent London podcast.

***



CINEMA: The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012) - People Magazine's two sexiest men of 2011, together at last.

It begins as Drive, turns into Prince of the City and then becomes a film all its own, and all the better for it: an epic tale of fathers and sons, heading inexorably for that place beyond the pines. Ryan Gosling stars as a stunt biker turned bank robber, with Eva Mendes as his ex-girlfriend - and the mother of his child - and Bradley Cooper a dedicated cop who turns up on his tail. Their actions, whether pre-planned or decided in a split-second, echo down the decades, informing the lives of their children, one a gentle loner stoner (Dane DeHaan), the other probably the most irritating character ever in a film (Emory Cohen).

Cianfrance's follow-up to the remarkable Blue Valentine is a vividly-directed movie full of invigorating action sequences, moments of pathos, and surprises in both plotting and characterisation. Yes, it strikes false notes on occasion and threatens to get bogged down in genre rehashing at others, but it's cerebral, emotional and visceral in the tradition of something like Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and has a sense of ambition that keeps it afloat - as well as some of the best performances we'll see this year. Gosling is extremely good, if doing something we've seen rather too many times, Mendes gives arguably her first showing of note, and Cooper builds on the goodwill he began stockpiling in Silver Linings with an extremely unusual, effective performance (and by wearing a nice shellsuit). There are also impressive supporting turns from the red-eyed Dane DeHaan, and particularly Ben Mendelsohn, as Gosling's confidante, while Middle-Aged Spread's Ray Liotta appears to have turned into Ed Balls.

Though the narrative is beset with a certain bittiness, there are a great many fine scenes, and the film acquires a considerable cumulative power as the emotions rise in the final third, culminating in that stunning scene at the titular spot. Having said that, I do have a problem with the film's message. As a teenager, I would have found Gosling's stylish, self-destructive hero an admirable and exciting alternative to his son's strait-laced adoptive father, but now I just think he's a bit of a prick. The idea that we should side with someone just because they look really fucking cool smoking a cigarette is one that I've largely dispensed with, and the suggestion that someone's bond with their biological father effortlessly and unquestionably overrides one with their loving, adoptive dad is hideously offensive. I do admire the film's sense of grandeur, though, its scope and scale, the energy of the action interludes, the artistry of much of the storytelling, and the intensity of the performances. And obviously the two really cute babies and the dancing dog. (3.5)

***



The Verdict (Don Siegel, 1946) - This superb Warner whodunit, set in Victorian London, stars Sydney Greenstreet as Scotland Yard's finest, who finds himself out of a job after sending an innocent man to the gallows. As he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, another body is found and the investigators begin to drown in a sea of red herrings. Siegel's first film behind the camera sags slightly in the middle, but it's astmospheric, meticulously-plotted and boasts a pair of stunning performances from Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, stealing the show as usual as the hero's macabre best friend. (3.5)

***

ClintFest '13



The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971)
- The worst thing about the American Civil War was that nobody got to have any sex. Yankee soldier Clint Eastwood is picked up in the woods, dying, by a girl picking mushrooms (Pamelyn Ferdin, who voiced Lucy in the Charlie Brown cartoons). Though her father perished at the hands of the Union, she takes him back to her schoolhouse, where the brooding invalid becomes a target of love, lust or both for the lonely, sex-starved, all-female inhabitants, including an incestuous headmistress (Geraldine Page), her naive protégé (Elizabeth Hartman) and a transparently horny coquette (Jo Ann Harris). Siegel's film may not paint on the broadest canvas, but it has as good a feel for the Civil War as any film I've seen, from the sepia-toned credits to the vivid snippets of battle, and, most tellingly here, the realities of living with but not within the conflict: tying a ribbon to your gate as a code for passing soldiers, consuming rumour and counter-rumour of the latest shifts in dominance - a war shadowed in the schoolhouse - and trying to balance one's humanity, or selfish needs, with one's duty. This vividly-recreated world is a backdrop for mind games and power games heated by a bubbling cauldron of awakening sexuality, and heading who-knows-where. It's a highlight of ClintFest so far, and jostling with Dirty Harry as the best of the Siegel-Eastwood collaborations. (4)

See also: If you only became aware of ClintFest '13 mere seconds ago, you can catch up here, here, here and here. Or not. Your choice. ***



Entertaining Mr. Sloane (Douglas Hickox, 1970) - This perverse adaptation of Joe Orton's play takes complex, loaded material that should really be played as a black farce, with elements of satire, kitchen sink drama and offbeat chiller, and turns it into a blunt, garish sex comedy, full of wobbly women, lascivious, lip-smacking businessmen and aggressively bespectacled old men shouting: "Bollocks!" It's as if The Servant had been taken off Harold Pinter and turned into Confessions of a Servant, starring Robin Askwith. Peter McEnery - who played Boy Barrett in Victim, the groundbreaking social drama that led to the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain - is Mr Sloane, a toned, blonde-haired murderer who charms his way into the house of a flabby, sexually frustrated housewife (Beryl Reid, far too old for the part and being outrageously irritating), shags her, and then sets about seducing her wealthy, repressed older brother (Harry Andrews). There's enough of the censor-baiting play, its themes and its sardonic one-liners to make it just about tolerable, and Alan Webb is amusing as the ailing Dadda, but it's far too broad, simplistic and ugly-looking to really score, and the scenes where the three main players really click into gear - McEnery asking Andrews for guidance, or Reid staring at her withered reflection in a mirror - are far outnumbered by those consisting of nothing but hamming and repetition. The bowdlerised ending is just an embarrassment. (2)

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