Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Clara Bow, Mighty Joe Young and the guy who made Reefer Madness - Reviews #162

I think I might be addicted to Clara Bow. She's the new Clint. When I haven't been watching Arrested Development, I've been mowing the lawn. Or watching these things: five Bow flicks (plus a documentary), and a film about a gorilla.

Wings (William Wellman, 1927) - Wow. Just wow. The first Best Picture winner is still one of the best: an exhilarating actioner lit by amazing flight scenes and stirring performances, and I don't think I've ever seen a 1920s movie look so good; the restoration job would make you think it's been released this week (other than for the fact it's in black-and-white and there's no talking, but, y'know: The Artist). Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen play small-town rivals for the affections of city girl Jobyna Ralston (a frequent co-star of Harold Lloyd), who become daring, celebrated fly-boys - and firm friends - in the latter days of World War One. Also along for the ride is Clara Bow, the (literal) girl-next-door whose enduring love for Rogers is obvious to everyone except him. Staggeringly shot and sincere in its cliches - several of which it may actually have created - Wings begins with some breathtakingly beautiful scenes of pre-war life, takes us briefly through training, then pitches us into battle, its engrossing narrative studded with stunning airborne sequences that are as good as any ever filmed, and some ground-level ones that lack personal investment but bring home the horror and chaos of war.

There was no "Best Picture" in 1927, but this film scooped the equivalent (Best Production), while Murnau's extraordinary Sunrise won an award for a "Unique and Artistic Production". It's a telling distinction, one that does a good job of explaining what Wings was, and what it was designed to do. Despite its undoubted brilliance and its sometimes thoughtful approach to war, it isn't a film of great complexity in either its story or characterisation. Rather, it's a Titanic for the '20s: a lavish, no-holds-barred, no-expense-spared crowd-pleaser with a great sense of conviction that overcomes any quibbles you may have with its plotting or performances. There isn't a challenging, meaty role here, like Janet Gaynor's in Sunrise or, say, James Murray's in The Crowd; it's a film that requires a certain type of characterisation, and gets it.

Ralston, a wonderfully tender, often very funny actress, isn't in the film much, but Rogers and Arlen are both ideal as these vivid archetypes - a hot-headed braggart and a quietly-spoken gentleman - and Bow lights up the picture as the pure-hearted, lovelorn neighbour who throws herself into the war effort as fully as any of them, pitching up as an army driver. Her entrance into the film is a joy, and the scene in which she toys with the idea of jealously punishing the man she adores, before her love for him wins out, is an absolute wonder: a masterclass in emoting that puts a lie to every ill-informed criticism of silent screen acting. (And then she gets her boobs out. Paramount had insisted that her part be beefed up as an insurance policy against the huge budget - she said the film was, "a man's picture and I'm just the whipped cream on top of the pie" - and her topless scene was part of the same deal.) I also love the richly emotional farewell between Arlen and his parents, as the father struggles to articulate his feelings, then wells up as his son gives him a peck on the cheek. Old movie nerds will doubtless want to note the appearance of Gary Cooper as a fatalistic flyer (you won't be surprised to learn that he began an affair with Bow on set), the first instance of product placement (Cooper's chocolate bar) and a walk-on by the director, "Wild Bill" Wellman, who's the guy saying: "Atta boy. Them buzzards are some good after all", while his wife and daughter appear as praying peasants. They may also like to know that Arlen and Ralston married during production, who can say.

The film does have a little of the usual incongruous comic relief (courtesy of El Brendel and Roscoe Karns) and the imaginatively-conceived "bubbles" sequence seems to be based on a six-year-old's idea of what being drunk is like, but it's a remarkable, enduringly entertaining movie, a landmark of action cinema that perfectly blends jaw-dropping spectacle, intense bromance and compelling human drama. And features a lovely little teddy bear. (4)


Helen's Babies (William A. Seiter, 1924)
- A very slight, mild silent comedy that sees supposed parenting expert Edward Everett Horton babysit his sister's kids, with predictably disastrous results. Traversing now-familiar ground, it's an amiable if only occasionally very funny mix of slapstick, exasperation and improvisation, as Baby Peggy (now the only living silent star) engages in much ad hoc messiness and accidental mischief-making, similar to scenes from Truffaut's Small Change. Legendary character comedian Everett Horton's patented double-takes are nowhere to be seen, which is a shame, but he and Peggy - who with that haircut looks like a 3ft Louise Brooks - are a fair team, and the film gets sporadic injections of life from the incomparable Clara Bow, cast against type as the girl next door (who's still turned on by violence) - and love interest. Her magnetic supporting performance is by far the best thing about the movie; and all I'll say is that Eddie is batting considerably out of his league. Sadly the film goes completely off the rails in the final reel, by leaving its young charges near the rails - and so in mortal danger - but for the most part it's fair going, particularly for fans of the stars. (2.5)


Parisian Love (Louis J. Gasnier, 1925)
- Utterly dreadful silent about common thief Clara Bow and her educated lover (PFA Player of the Year, Gareth Bale) who try to rob a house, only to find - well, I'm not really sure where to begin, as everything that happens after that is so completely preposterous. After Bale saves his life, their target takes him in as his "prisoner" and sets him up with a new girlfriend. Bow pretends to be a maid at the house for a day, then goes home and almost gets murdered. Having beaten up her assailant, she exits by a window just seconds before her lover returns; in disappointment, he decides to immediately leave the country, and so it goes on, as if it were all being made up on the spot. The film is characterised not only by those ludicrous, arbitrary plot developments, but by jarring shifts in tone (one minute a heavy-set old women is trying to strangle Bow to death, the next we're supposed to be chuckling at her tipsy antics?), hammy acting and terrible comic relief, while it's all so primitive in style that it could easily have been made a full decade earlier. Gasnier went on to direct Reefer Madness - well of course he did. The film's sole selling point is Bow's performance: the iconic star is fairly good - if markedly underused in the first half - and offers a nice dance and a strong sequence where she outwits a cop, though when the film lurches into laughable melodrama for its climax, her acting is almost as bad as the rest of them. Bow was a great star - one of the greatest - but it's a lousy picture, boring as hell; just watch Mantrap instead. (1)


The Plastic Age (Wesley Ruggles, 1925) - A simple, charming campus romance, with an ace up its sleeve: the unimpeachable Miss Clara Bow. The Plastic Age - a 20s euphemism for youth (youth-phemism?) - reunites the leads of the hopeless Parisian Love to altogether more successful ends: Donald Keith is a naive fresher who heads to college dreaming of track glory, but is sidetracked by a goal of another sort, in the shapely shape of Bow. Keith is OK as the clean-cut hero, but it's Bow's show all the way, another example of her unique talent, in a role that asks her to be flirty, flighty and real. Her character - a terrifyingly seductive flapper reformed in the face of goodness - enters every scene either horny or in love, two modes that she plays as convincingly and all-consumedly as any actress I've ever seen. The film begins in a comic vein, very easy-to-take, but serving up gags that are variously impenetrable to modern minds, curiously feeble or must have been old-hat even then: certainly there's nothing here to worry the silent high-point of the college comedy - Harold Lloyd's The Freshman - or even Keaton's College. Then the movie shifts tack, adopting an overbearing preachiness, allied to a very Hollywood duplicitousness that verges on the absurd. There should be a title card that reads: "Hey-hey, catch a load of these sexy laydeez, aren't they a disgrace and a danger to modern society?" And, finally, the film serves up the obligatory American football finale, which is pretty rousing, despite the imperfections of its staging.

What I like most about the film, aside from Bow's preposterously good performance, is its unfailingly sweet nature. Though it does tend to club us over the head with its message, I admire its belief that self-sacrifice of all kinds can be a powerful weapon, and that good, mild-mannered men aren't always trampled in the dirt. Yes, Keith brawls in a speakeasy and proves his love for Bow by twatting someone in the head, but then there's that lovely speech she does in between those two acts of violence, giving him up because she doesn't want to change him. And that's something precious. The film is also an interesting snapshot of campus culture between the wars, has an American footballer whose party piece is throwing himself onto his arse, and offers considerable curiosity value for star-spotters. The villain is a young Gilbert Roland (who would start an affair with Bow during filming), David Butler - one of the best comedy directors of subsequent decades - has a supporting role as a sports coach, and superstars-to-be Clark Gable, his future wife Carole Lombard, and the great Janet Gaynor appear in bit-parts as students. That's Gable smirking behind Butler's left-shoulder as he gives his charges a dressing down. In an objective sense, The Plastic Age has its definite drawbacks: it isn't funny enough to be a comedy, and its drama is beset by a certain sanctimoniousness. But it's very entertaining, has a good heart, and boasts another in a long line of classic Clara Bow performances: her love interest so charismatic and appealing that she sucks the attention away from everyone else in the picture each time she appears, while lending real weight, emotion and dizzying charm to that wonderful ending. And who can dislike a film that describes an attractive woman as "the real 'hotsy-totsy'"? (3)


The Wild Party (Dorothy Arzner, 1929) - This early talkie from the biggest studio in the world (Paramount), starring the most popular actress in the world (Clara Bow), still has no right to be as entertaining as it is. Why, you ask? Because most pre-1930 talkies are barely-watchable guff. And while this formative venture into sound comes loaded down by an absolutely idiotic story, its fun atmosphere and Bow's megawatt charisma make it leap from the screen, even in archive.org's hissy, fuzzy public domain print. Bow plays a sexy party-hound, and sorority house queen bee, who regards college as, well, one big sexy party, a view which puts her at loggerheads with an uptight professor, played by a very young, very moustachioed Fredric March. The plot manages to be both laughable and predictable, and the film is deeply hypocritical, revelling in bad behaviour before endlessly moralising about it, with almost all of Bow's dialogue just being about what a terrible, aimless tramp she is (surely a destructive experience for someone of her fragile mental state). But for all of that, it's a surprisingly zippy offering, with a technical proficiency largely lacking from its rivals (the trend-setting female director Arzner created the boom-mic during filming), a pleasingly caustic Pre-Code worldview - one character is dismissed as "sex-starved", March utters the phrase "mewling morons" - and a central performance that's touched with gold dust.

Bow's Brooklyn twang wasn't what audiences were expecting, but her voice is very easy on the ear, and The Wild Party proves that she had what it took for a successful career as a talkie actress, had she wanted one. Ironically, the stricter imposition of the Code from mid-1934 may have posed more of a threat to her career than the advent of sound, rendering her kind of suggestive fun verboten. And of course, aside from her pleasing voice, she had - in the Sunset Blvd. parlance - "a face", a silent movie visage capable of registering a wealth of complex emotion, but also an expressive body, with a natural, unadulterated, physically affectionate acting style that creates an intense feeling of warmth and solidarity between the sorority house sisters, particularly Bow and her better self, Shirley O'Hara. As you'd expect, the love scenes between the star and Fredric March also possess her usual erotic charge, flitting between coquettishness and passion in the blink of an eye. And it's little wonder she's fallen for him: "'Love his 'stache", coos one of her roommates, appreciatively. In support, there's a bit for Jack Oakie as a lecherous fool; he would return to higher education four years later for the rather wonderful College Humour, opposite Richard Arlen and Bing Crosby.

The Wild Party isn't a great film - I'm not even sure it's a good film - but it's a fascinating historical curio, an unexpectedly entertaining piece of fluff, and a chance to see one of the movies' most remarkable performers positively bursting from the screen - a bit like that Japanese woman in that film I won't name because of spoilers. (2.5)


Clara Bow: Hollywood's Lost Screen Goddess (2012) - Very good BBC4 doc about the iconic sex symbol, "3D movie star" and fine purveyor of "flesh impact", who bucked every Hollywood trend going, quit movies in her 20s, and then fought manfully with mental illness before her death at the age of 60. It features some good film clips, a few insightful talking heads (including Leonard Maltin, her biographer, and former co-star Baby Peggy - now in her 90s) and - best of all - some incredible snippets of home videos, archive radio and the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1924 immortalised by newsreel cameras. The doc could have done with being 12 times' longer, as sometimes it felt we were just brushing the surface of the story, but within its constraints it's an extremely nice piece of work. Also, they show that bit from Wings where you see her boobs. (3.5)


Mighty Joe Young (Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1949)
- On one level it's just King Kong for Kids, as the creators and their male lead reunite for a less complex, less ambitious and less frightening action-adventure, with a more obviously sympathetic gorilla at its centre, but in some ways I prefer Mighty Joe Young. For while it lacks its forebear's iconic imagery and groundbreaking experiments in special effects and music, it's rather more fun to watch: pacier, more convincing and immersive, and with less of the stiltedness that mars Kong some 80 years on. Cooper and Schoedsack had already reunited for a sequel, Son of Kong, a film that features a memorable disconnect between its brooding, mesmeric opening third and the rest of it, which centres on an insipid romance and a very cheeky monkey. Mr Joseph Young, who according to the jolly credits plays himself, is pitched somewhere between the terrifying Kong and his inanely cuddly son: he has sentimental ties to his owner (the pretty, chubby-cheeked Terry Moore) but he remains a fearsome beast - at least until the final five seconds, which are frankly a bit silly.

The film sees Robert Armstrong, who clearly hasn't learned his lesson, as a theatrical promoter who wants something special for his new nightclub. He hires a bunch of cowboys to go to "Africa" with him (the film never gets more specific than that) - including one Ben Johnson - but they find themselves somewhat in the way of a marauding, 10-tonne gorilla with a fit girlfriend. Produced by John Ford (in a rare venture away from his directing chair), with effects by Ray Harryhausen and a cast that includes the great character comic Frank McHugh, I've rarely seen a movie with more impressive credentials. And while another film of the same year, The Red Pony, rather failed to live up to the promise of its collaborators (Myrna! Mitchum! Milestone! Steinbeck! Copland!), this one winds up not too far off.

The first half is reasonable but somewhat unremarkable, a nice prologue with a cute baby gorilla segueing into a fairly standard set-up: the accent on wooden drama - interspersed with unremarkable action - the model work excellent but somewhat uncertainly incorporated into the live action, and the story featuring clumsy bits of characterisation that simply jar: Johnson twatting Joe with a branch for no reason, his immediate reconciliation with Moore just minutes after he was planning to shoot her mate, and her instant decision to up sticks and head for Hollywood. But once we get back to town, the film is largely amazing, with one incredible set-piece after another. There's Joe's incredible stage entrance (only slightly undone by the ludicrous tug-of-war sequence that follows, featuring genuine former heavyweight champion of the world Primo Carnera trying to box Joe, in clear contravence of the rules), the heartbreaking scene in which he's pelted with money, the prison break, the extraordinary nightclub destruction sequence and a perfectly-conceived action finale that comes out of nowhere.

Though Joe's eyes still look as cartoonish and artificial as Kong's (a recurring problem for special effects teams right through to Toy Story and Final Fantasy) and the necessities of integration seems to mean an awful lot of scenes where he or his co-stars stand with their backs to us, he's still an absolute marvel. Despite the film's more obvious highlights, Harryhausen's genius is most evident in the scene where Joe - sitting in the back of a canvas-covered truck - reacts to his pursuers by roaring, posturing and pounding his fists. Then, when they've disappeared, he briefly, nervously checks the truck for further threats, a gesture that lasts for just a second, but imbues him with a greater humanity, and inspires another swelling of sympathy. In a way, his brutalisation at the hands of unthinking humans is similar to the one we see in the documentary Project Nim, particularly the way in which his supposed friends continually endanger his well-being through a lack of understanding or empathy. More trivially, I love the texture and movement of Joe's hair, a tactile bristling that you only get with stop-motion.

The rest of the cast is a varied bunch. Armstrong is no great actor, but brings plenty of welcome baggage to the role (surely if you can use the dufus from Kong for Kong 3, you would) and Moore manages to be completely one-note and yet completely appealing, though the young Johnson appears ill-at-ease away from a Western setting. He would go on to become one of the greatest actors in the movies (from his understated lead turn in Wagon Master the following year to his Oscar-winning part as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show), a progression that seems almost inconceivable when viewing his alarmingly simplistic if likeable turn here. I'm not asking him to method-act his way through a gorilla movie, just to register up to three different emotions. Most disappointingly of all, McHugh - playing a press agent, as he had in the incomparable Blessed Event - is given almost nothing to do. Not even his "one, two, three" laugh. Shameful. Still, you do get to see Joe swing across a nightclub on a rope, like a big, angry, furry Tarzan, so that's some compensation.

The re-release trailer pegged Joe as "mightier than King Kong" and the film as "the most astounding movie since the movies began" and while neither of those things are true (Kong would win in a fight, Remember the Night is the best picture ever - and featured Joe's drunk tormenter Paul Guilfoyle as a level-headed DA), it's an excellent entertainment that gets better and better as it progresses - right up until the coda, in fact, which is so sweet that you can't help but let it off. And how about that action climax, which kicks In Old Chicago back to the Stone Age? It throbs with excitement and danger, throws in a succession of surprises and features a classic call-back to Kong, in which Joe is forced to climb and climb and climb, flames licking at his toes.

And in case you were wondering, it wasn't Moore and co who saved Joe, it was baby saved the beast. (3)


Thanks for reading.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Arrested Development: Season 4 - Reviews #161

Some musings on everyone's favourite Happy Days spin-off, now back for a fourth season, only on your local interweb.

Arrested Development (Season 4, 2013)

You are Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of the most revered American sitcom of its era. Your baby, Arrested Development, may have bowed out ahead of time, but it's constantly held up as a model comedy, endlessly invoked as a classic of its type, and frequently features in lists of the best TV shows of all time. Do you:

a) Leave it
b) Wait seven years - until anticipation is at fever pitch, but you would naturally be forced to account for the gaping gulf in plot terms - circumnavigate your cast's scheduling conflicts by constructing wildly diverging narratives for each and every character, then dump a sprawling eight-hour pseudo-mystery sequel onto the internet, its story a farce of truly epic proportions, packed to bursting with misunderstandings, double-crosses and delirious attempts to pull the rug out from under your audience. And, of course, make the show's original moral centre a desperate, needy loser living in his son's dorm-room. All this, despite the fact that your show traded heavily - and dangerously - on the line: "I've made a huge mistake."

Obviously you do the second. You are Mitchell Hurwitz.

Such is the scope of Arrested Development Season 4 that a plot summary is nigh-on impossible. But here goes: Michael (Jason Bateman) becomes a movie producer at Ron Howard's company, planning to film a movie of his family's life (that this never amounts to anything appears a sly dig at reunion cliches), while his son (associate producer Michael Cera) becomes a man. As Lucille (Jessica Walter) languishes in prison, George and Oscar (Jeffrey Tambor) unwittingly trade personalities - the former's masculinity failing as he tries to build a wall between the US and Mexico - and Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) falls in love with an ostrich-farming militant, as well as having an affair with an adulterous politician (transparently patterned after Herman Cain). Her husband Tobias (David Cross) is accused of being a sex offender, starts dating a heroin addict, and stages a musical of the Fantastic Four. G.O.B. (Will Arnett) becomes a hanger-on to a clean-cut pop star (and thinks he might be gay, after experiencing friendship for the first time), Buster (Tony Hale) rejoins the army, and Maeby (Alia Shawkat) amounts to nothing. Steve Holt! (Justin Grant Wade) works in pest control.

These stories are split into 15 episodes of between 28 and 37 minutes, each told from a single character's point of view, but with others strolling in and out. Though the stories wander as far as India, they're steeped in a familiar claustrophobia, reinforced by the fact that the characters share plane journeys, tents and partners, without their knowledge - a comic fall-back that Roger Ebert speared so memorably in his review of Big Business. The time-shifting narrative sees us begin each episode at some crucial juncture, before flashing back. And the whole thing is meticulously constructed, its plotting so labyrinthine it makes Pulp Fiction look like Ice Age: throwaway lines take on significance hours later, garbled phone calls only begin to make sense in retrospect, and the truth behind various mysterious encounters (like the spirit of an ostrich appearing to George and Oscar) is ultimately revealed.

That wasn't really what Arrested Development was about, was it? No it wasn't. As well as brutish unsentimentality and stinging satire, it was more about jokes. It crammed in a lot of plot (courtesy of Ron Howard's fast-paced voiceover), but that was a way to get us to the funny stuff. And really we could have done with more of it here, particularly in the early part of the run. Episodes two and three are almost entirely bereft of laughs, and were presumably the point at which fans took to social media, saying: "This is shit." It gets a whole lot better, and there are some stunningly brilliant gags in Season 4 - the pay-off to G.O.B.'s first episode may be my favourite thing that the show has ever done - but I still found I was only laughing two or three times during some of these super-sized helpings, and that isn't really enough. Nodding in appreciation of a clever plot development doesn't really plug that gap. That's what she said.

There's another problem too. I'd class myself as a fan of Arrested Development, but I have always had a problem with its more unpleasant elements. I can stomach, if not really enjoy, Lucille's malevolent misanthropy, as it's central to the show's identity. What I don't like is the way that the programme mines humour from the supposed grotesquery of people with problems. The subplot with Tobias being suspected of being a sex offender is hilarious (despite the notably appalling undercurrent), because it's set up with such panache and finesse, all leading to a perfect confrontation at the model home. The subplot about his girlfriend - a heroin user - is, by contrast, just gratuitously nasty: there's nothing sharp, insightful or intelligent about it, it simply involves laughing at the degradation of drug addicts' bodies. Even in the unlikely event that you can find something funny about a heroin addict's teeth falling out, I think there's an argument that a show like this should pick its targets, not just because of its privileged position, but because it smacks of incredible laziness. Though it aims some barbs at Christianity (at least a strong target, if a familiar one), Arrested Development makes just one concession to the politically-charged subversion that characterised much of its earlier work: Buster's apt new job, which is devastatingly satirical in a way that the show seemed to have forgotten how to be. Elsewhere, it's just happy to take a funny, fairly timely punchline - let's make The Social Network starring George Michael Bluth, but he doesn't have any software except half a woodblock app, and his hangers-on are all sex offenders - and works out how to make it so.

So, swelling with ambition but a little light on jokes and with a mid-section that's simply too mean-spirited, how does it work as a whole? Actually pretty well. There's little to touch its Season 2 high-spots, but nor is there anything worse than the Charlize Theron sub-plot of Season 3, the second-half of Hand to God (i.e. everything that follows that majestic Gloria Grahame gag) or the Ed-Begley-Jr-has-alopecia running joke that bored everyone to tears. There are some excellent episodes here, and I for one found the block-viewing rewarding, the series gaining momentum - and confidence - as it progresses. At first it feels like we're treading water: the characters are the same, but they're not, and too many of the early episodes trade on our well of affection for the series. Then it begins to get a life of its own: its callbacks feel clever rather than desperate, our emotional investment is cranked up, and as the two funniest characters - G.O.B. and Buster - get to take centre-stage, the gag-rate increases (if not quite enough).

There's G.O.B.'s amazing call-to-arms on an Evangelical TV show, his periodic breakdowns, his badgering of George Michael with the words: "Are we good?" and his roofie-ing of his brother ("Poor, forgetful Michael"). There's also "Anus tart", Steve Holt! shouting "Dave Holt!", Buster shouting at some Afghan nurses and a Taliban wedding, and George Michael appearing at the back of a college crowd, joining in with the group who are laughing at the stair car wedged under a low roof. Even in the opening episodes, there's the classic exchange: "That was a low blow, Bob Loblaw", "That was a Bob Loblaw law bomb" (a recycled gag, but a great one), the freeze-frame-or-you'll-miss-it test to be a religious leader, and Ed Helms' pushy catchphrase of: "That way you have it." That appearance is an exception, though. While the returning cast are in pretty good form - particularly Shawkat and Arnett - on the whole the roster of guest stars add very little; still, special mention to Andy Richter and his fictional brothers for continuing to baffle me with their irrelevant unfunniness. Perhaps you have to be familiar with his TV work, in that insular American way. And while the stuff with Ron Howard does allow for that rather brilliant Imagine sign, and a sublime outburst from Tobias, for the most part it feels too much like Julia Roberts pretending to be Julia Roberts in Ocean's Twelve - and no-one wants that.

What I will say, though, is that I watched eight hours of Arrested Development in less than two days (and I might have fitted it into one if I didn't have some Clara Bow movies I wanted to watch); I didn't get past episode six of Modern Family, and I sold a 30 Rock box-set after finishing Season 2. And this wasn't just curiosity value, or getting the most for my money - after all, my Netflix trial was free. I really got a lot out of the show: I found it consistently entertaining, admirably original and sometimes superb. I don't think Arrested Development Season 4 was ever likely to recapture the magic of the show's heyday, but nor does it tarnish its remarkable reputation. People seem increasingly compelled to say that everything is brilliant or terrible, but - like almost everything - this lies somewhere in-between; happily a little closer to "brilliant". Make no mistake, this venture was risky; balls-out bold, even - a stylistic and structural departure that at the same time embraced a new medium. It's far from perfect and it should be funnier than it is, but when it works, it works, and that final image is a thing of absolute beauty.

I'll see you in the queue for the movie. We can meet afterwards and discuss what's wrong with it.

(3 out of 4)

Monday, 20 May 2013

Robert Mitchum, To Rome with Love, and Gollum moonwalking - Reviews #160

Last time I forgot to include any films where you can hear what the people are saying. Sorry! #pre1927fail. This time around I've made no such mistake.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum, 1973)

"Count your fuckin' knuckles."
"All of 'em?"
"Count as many as you want. As many as you got, I got four more."

So goes my favourite exchange in this uniquely flavourful, downbeat crime classic, which topped my "to see" list for a good five years from 2003 onwards, and even then exceeded my expectations when a copy dropped in my lap. Second time around - and on Criterion! - it's even better.

Bob Mitchum, that cobra-lidded titan of the screen, who more than anyone personified the laconic anti-hero of the film noir, is Eddie "Fingers" Coyle. He's a low-life, he knows it, and with friends like his, who needs enemies? Some of them are bank robbers, one of them's an arms dealer and another is a permanent fink (Peter Boyle), peddling information to an ambitious young cop.

George V. Higgins' source novel received instant acclaim for the authenticity of its dialogue, steeped in the vernacular of the '70s underworld, and attuned to its lazy rhythms and repetitions, but with perhaps a dash more poetry. Those in the know say he took the praise so much to heart that he proceeded to flood his subsequent novels with extraneous chatter, causing them to sink without trace. Here, the balance between story and yakking is spot on: there are five great suspense sequences and, around them, a wealth of rich characterisation, much of it devoted to the mighty Mitch.

Bob was one of David Lean's favourite two actors (the other was William Holden) and for me he's the outstanding male screen star of the 20th century. Though he's best known today for one of his worst performances - offering only pantomime theatrics in the otherwise transcendent Night of the Hunter - he gave dozens of great performances across five decades: like his philosophical fall guy in Out of the Past, his jaded ex-rodeo champ in The Lusty Men (pervy title by Howard Hughes!) and a trio of great performances during a mid-'70s renaissance. This was the first of the three, and it's the best of the three as well, the finest crystallisation of his world-weary persona, because this time he's got plenty to be weary about. He's no honourable ex-detective looking for redemption in Japan (The Yakuza) nor an aged, smart-aleck Philip Marlowe (Farewell, My Lovely). He's just a two-bit con who gets around so much, "you'd think he was some fuckin' stray dog", who "works about as much as Santa Claus", and who's thinking of climbing into bed with the cops, now he's facing three-to-five. (And if you're wondering about his knuckles, someone slammed his hand in a drawer.)

Mitchum's only on screen for around half the running time, but he couldn't dominate the movie more completely if it was a direct-to-camera monologue. His every utterance and gesture rings true, whether twinkling with Irish charm, throbbing with menace or stinking of pure desperation. It's a testament to Yates' sure-footed direction and that spirited ensemble that the other set-pieces stand up around such bitter majesty. Mitchum is so good, his dialogue so bleakly, swearily lyrical, that it takes something special to stop you from just wishing he were back on screen. Perhaps there's a smidgen of that - I just can't help myself - but the rest of it is extraordinarily original, unsentimental and apparently realistic, full of ingenious details about the minutiae of law-breaking, coloured by an unrelenting gloominess, and - since it's the 1970s - populated by grubby men with big sideburns wearing brown, and meeting in vivid, sometimes hideous Boston locales. The best of the supporting bunch is surely Boyle. I won't say I've never seen him give a bad performance, because he was in Everybody Loves Raymond, but he was certainly among the best character actors of his age.

The '70s produced a slew of great crime movies. This one doesn't seek to mythologise its characters like The Godfather, bathe your eyes in blood and beauty like Badlands, or gleefully obliterate genre archetypes like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye. Instead, it shows the criminal world at its most grasping, desperate and dishonourable. There's no code of ethics here, no sentiment and no heroes: even Coyle drops the n-word in the first five minutes, shops a contact and is tempted to sell out his best mate. This is real life. But with better dialogue. (4)


State of the Union (Frank Capra, 1948) - Idealistic industrialist Spencer Tracy runs for president, though can you really trust a man who's married to Kate Hepburn but wants to boff Angela Lansbury? Capra's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play hasn't been dulled by decades of similar fare. Even aside from its staginess, it has its flaws: some incongruous comic relief, Van Johnson's irritating wisecracks (though the scene in which he gives Hepburn a peck on the forehead is lovely) and a tiresome aviation scene full of broad visual humour, but it's powerful, savvy and chock-full of snappy dialogue, while much of the acting is first-rate. Spence is impressive, if not quite at the peak of his powers, as the politico selling out his ideals for a shot at the White House, while Adolphe Menjou makes for an agreeably slimy kingmaker, and Lansbury is icily imposing in a less than nuanced role. It's Hepburn who steals the show, though: she's simply mesmerising, as she so often was in those early days. Few actresses could match her when it came to quick-fire badinage, and fewer have ever possessed such rich emotional articulacy in either delivery or facial expression. To be honest, she bypasses my critical faculties altogether, and goes right for the tear-ducts: not just here, but always. Her speech at the end of Stage Door absolutely destroys me, every single time.

For those familiar with the Tracy-Hepburn story, there's also an added feeling of melancholy to the scenes of marital strife. The pair began a long-term relationship in 1942, while filming Woman of the Year, but never married, as Tracy's Catholic beliefs prevented him from getting a divorce. It's not for me to say who was right, but knowing that all that is bubbling under the surface gives it an added kick: they were a couple who could only ever play at being married, on a movie-set. The film is also, of course, a fascinating companion piece to that landmark of American political cinema, Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington. This one's less iconic, perhaps less optimistic, and makes you wait just as long before releasing the pressure valve, but it's up there with the best of the Hepburn-Tracy collaborations, fuelled by that cocktail of idealism and cynicism upon which all great political dramas run. It has a couple of lulls across its two hours, but incredible high-spots too: that night-time heart-to-heart, the bitter scene on the plane, and the knock-out ending, in which Tracy takes centre-stage for a "fireside chat" with the electorate. Ultimately it's a film in which the forcefully articulated message will always ring true, that parties should appeal to the best, not the worst in people. And obviously Raymond Walburn is in it, because he is in every film about crooked politicians. (3.5)


Zombieland (Ruben Fleishcer, 2009) - An excellent horror-comedy, a bit light on plot, but with a couple of good performances and a hysterically funny script that finds time for romance, pathos and an awful lot of zombie-killing. Jesse Eisenberg is brilliant as an anxious nerd and zombie apocalypse survivor who joins forces with gun-totin' warrior-of-vengeance Woody From Cheers (in fine form), before stumbling across foxy Emma Stone and her sister (Abigail Breslin), who are in all sorts of trouble. Stone isn't as great as usual - and has had an inexpicable image overhaul - Breslin is disappointing, and the movie isn't very scary (not that I like scary movies) until its cleverly-conceived finale, but it's a fun, pacy ride with some neat directorial flourishes and a multitude of big laughs, many from a slyly post-modern slant. My favourite gags are Eisenberg's line: "Someone's ear is in danger of having hair brushed over it", his attempt to ride to the rescue, and Harrelson's amazing farewell speech, probably the hardest I've laughed at a film this year. And then there's that cameo. (3.5)


This picture is tiny, but it's also brilliant.

13 Going on 30 (Gary Winick, 2004) - What a lovely film. I'm a sucker for these sorts of body-swap movies, and if it's not quite the equal of 17 Again, this one's still great fun. A 13-year-old girl hides in a closet during her disastrous birthday party and, thanks to some wishing dust (I'm not sure whether this is a real thing), wakes up to find that it's 17 years later - and she's 17 years older; in fact, she's Jennifer Garner, a magazine editor and a bit of a bastard. Sometimes the film calls to mind Diana Lynn's withering line to Ginger Rogers' child impersonator in The Major and the Minor - "You're 12, you're not six" - by overplaying the central character's naivety, and occasionally it trips up on girly fantasy or excessive triviality, but for the most part it works, helped no end by Garner's unusually charismatic, appealing performance, an injection of pure class from The Gruffalo as the (rather dreamy) best friend she hasn't seen in years, and a story that has a few surprises, some positive things to say about female role models and the way we treat other people, and an atypically mature appreciation of life's missed opportunities and disappointments. There's a great soundtrack too, which inspires a memorable recreation of the Thriller dance - including The Gruffalo hoofing and Gollum moonwalking - and a John Hughes-ish framing device that works an absolute treat. (3)

See also: All of Me and Big are a pair of '80s body-swap movies.


To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012) - Is this a Woody Allen film? Yes it is. Is the main story about a nervy, neurotic Jewish chap becoming smitten with his steady girlfriend's best mate, a flirty, neurotic culture vulture? Yes it is. And does this latest European excursion resume the torrent of cinematic disappointment momentarily stilled by the rather excellent Midnight in Paris? Incredibly not.

For while it starts poorly, suffers through its fair share of dud lines and developments, and remains a long way from vintage Woody, To Rome with Love is nonetheless a decent entertainment, with three story strands of varying interest and amusement, and a little beauty featuring Roberto Benigni as a middle-class clerk who becomes an instant celebrity for no apparent reason, much to his perpetual confusion.

The stories, which are told alternately but never interweave, are these:

- In the most typically Woody-ish segment, Jesse Eisenberg falls for girlfriend Greta Gerwig's flighty friend Ellen Page, while cynical observer Alec Baldwin - returning to Rome after 30 years - sits in on their scenes, offering his jaded, suspicious, post-modern commentary on proceedings. I don't really care for Baldwin (who in his earlier incarnation as a thin, sleepy-looking young man had a very effective bit in Woody's 1990 movie, Alice), but he's pretty good here. Page, who I like very much, struggles to walk the line between intriguing and irritatingly capricious, cast in the recurring role of the attractive woman in her 20s who has to spend her time essentially saying, "I fancy men who are like Woody Allen", while Eisenberg is a fair if uninspiring surrogate Woody. It's all been done a lot of times before - usually by Allen - but it's OK.

- A retired opera director (Woody Allen), come to Rome with his acerbic wife (Judy Davis), finds that a prospective in-law has the greatest voice of his generation. But only in the shower. It's a one-joke bit, and that joke is rather pilfered from Chuck Jones's One Froggy Evening, but it's mildly amusing, and the back-scrubbing gag works every time. Woody, on screen for the first time in a decade, is less agreeable. He has one very funny bit in which he keeps saying that he won't mention the singing again, then does, but the overriding impression is that he either hates his own dialogue (and much of the time here, who can blame him), or has been out of acting for so long that he's forgotten how to speak properly. He also creates a first: negative chemistry, his interactions with the usually excellent Judy Davis so awkward that you suspect one of them may have been green-screened in. It's the weakest of the four narratives.

- The most ambitious and interesting storyline follows a pair of newlyweds from a small Italian village, who arrive in Rome, where they'll meet his wealthy family and try to get a foothold in the business world. Instead, she wanders off to get her hair done and ends up in a movie star's bed, while he introduces a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) to his wife. The influence of Fellini is felt throughout - the seduction performed by the actor recalls Masina's meeting with Amedeo Nazzari in Nights of Cabiria, while finding oneself in a movie set is pure 8 1/2 - though the segment also recalls Lubitsch, particularly The Marriage Circle (musicalised as One Hour with You), and there's a laid-back sexiness about the pay-off that really reminds me of Rohmer. Hardly original, then, and filled with contrivance, but also light, appealing and with a sense of place that's sorely missing from the rest of the film, aside from its brief bookends.

- The best chapter, and the one given least screentime, deals with the obvious (people who are famous for being famous) in inspired fashion, as Robert Benigni's everyman suddenly finds himself a phenomenon, whose choice of breakfast and underwear is the stuff of news programmes and talk shows. I'm not sure that we need the heavy-handed wrap-up - which follows a delightful explosion of desperation - or that the moralising really makes sense (being a celebrity is better than not being a celebrity? How... profound?), but it's a minor gripe about a rather wonderful little diversion that recalls Woody's "early, funny" films. Lots of people hate Benigni. I don't, I think he's great.

Woody is arguably the greatest writer-director in the history of American cinema (surely only Preston Sturges and Buster Keaton come close), but his powers began to fade in the mid-'90s, then fail in the next decade, resulting in absolute toss like Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. To Rome with Love doesn't rank with the classics he could churn out in his sleep in the 1980s, but it's better than most of his films since his last truly great one (Sweet and Lowdown).

He has a tin ear for other cultures and generations (Italians refer to "blocks" as if they were Americans, Page utters the immortally dreadful line, "There's something attractive about a man who's sensitive to the agonies of existence"), but Woody seems to have regained his zest for filmmaking. Yes he still wants to work with any pretty young woman who happens to wander past, and remake Annie Hall with them as the star, but compared to what we've had to endure over the past 10 years, To Rome with Love is a light, lively affair. Its tone is frequently sunny and carefree, its sense of humour doesn't rely solely on bad aphorisms (though there are a few), and then there's Benigni, yelling "white and baggy" in the middle of the street as he shows everybody his boxer shorts. That would have enhanced Cassandra's Dream no end.


Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944) - "Mitchum was film noir," Martin Scorsese once said of a certain sleepy-eyed leading man. But for other fans of the genre, the star has competition from a namesake: Robert Siodmak, the director who devoted most of the '40s to making vividly-shot, expressionistic crime flicks. When they worked - like The Killers, Cry of the City and Criss Cross - they were simply extraordinary. And when they didn't quite, they still had their compensations: like seeing Gene Kelly as a murderer and Deanna Durbin as a prostitute in the bizarre Christmas Holiday.

Siodmak's first excursion into the genre came in '44, the year that produced such cynical, shadow-drenched fare as Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet, and, at its best, Phantom Lady is a match for either, with two sequences as distinctive and arresting as noir ever produced. In the first, steely Ella Raines sits, unmoving, on a bar-stool, like some furious, one-person flashmob, as the world whirls around her. Then she starts to shadow her prey - a balding bartender - haunting him like his conscience, only for the tables to turn at a deserted railway station. The second is the film's infamous "sex" scene, in which lascivious drummer Elisha Cook, Jr bashes out a jazz number in a dingy basement, with the most alarming look on his face.

Raines is unequivocally fantastic as a secretary who sees her boss - and prospective partner - wind up on death row, after he's accused of strangling his wife and can only offer a flimsy alibi about a woman in a funny hat who's disappeared into thin air. What follows is a crackling thriller: a sour, sweaty suspenser with all those Siodmak trademarks. There's the stripping away of the heroine's safety net that we see in The Spiral Staircase, the same seedy milieu as The Dark Corner, and that habit of drawing fine performances from overlooked actresses which enhanced the work of Durbin, Ava Gardner and the naturalistic leads of his astonishing debut, People on Sunday.

The plotting's not perfect and Franchot Tone rather overdoes it as the villain, but, shot by Woody Bredell and replete with hard-boiled dialogue in the best genre tradition, it's an atmospheric, nerve-shredding noir that offers still more proof of its director's singular gifts. Now who's going to tell Scorsese? (3)


Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Silent film special: City Girl, Clara Bow and cross-dressing - Reviews #159

As promised, here are some films without any audible talking.

City Girl (F. W. Murnau, 1930) - Murnau's follow-up to Sunrise is a pictorially stunning comedy-cum-melodrama that reunites the leads of Frank Borzage's The River, made at Fox the previous year. Charles Farrell is a mummy's boy who travels to the big city to sell his family's wheat crop, where he meets waitress Mary Duncan, her incredible emotional attractiveness (in a kind of proto-Jean Arthur vein) not even hampered by her subliminally Satanic hairdo: the numbers "666" spelled out in big curls across her forehead. They fall in love, amidst much sweet interplay and gentle comedy, and decide to marry. But uh-oh, what's this? Farrell's dad is a complete twat? And he hates her? What's he going to do, make a film about how all girls from the city are pure evil, and call it Sunrise?

Some great European filmmakers never quite fulfilled their potential in the States: Lang and Renoir moved too late, finding a studio system that shackled visionaries. Not Murnau, he pitched up at just the right time, and in just the right place, being given carte blanche by producer William Fox, and creating films in an altogether different league to those that had come before. 4 Devils no longer exists (apparently Mary Duncan lost it!), but Sunrise and City Girl are vastly superior - far more nuanced, engaging and entertaining - than his German movies like Nosferatu, Faust and The Last Laugh, one of the worst films to have ever attained "classic" status. I think part of that is down to the extraordinary speed of technical advancement during this period, part of it is down to the talents and resources he was surrounded by, and part of it is attributable to both his thirst for innovation and his growing desire to tell human stories.

City Girl - which is essentially Sunrise, if the characters had made different choices - can't equal that earlier film, but that's hardly a criticism: Murnau's first American film remains one of the enduring high-points of soundless cinema. City Girl is still a remarkable achievement, a slight sagginess in its mid-section compensated for by Mary Duncan's terrific performance and some astonishing direction, including a dizzyingly brilliant "bringing in the harvest" montage, the central couple's joyous run through a wheat field - one of the most intoxicating things I've ever seen on screen, the score rising to meet it - and the entirety of the final reel, a vivid, painterly portrait of a rural idyll lit by lamp-light.

In The River - or what remains of it - Duncan gives one of the greatest performances I've ever seen, starring as an eye-wateringly seductive "kept" woman who's watched over by an absolutely terrifying crow. Here her pet bird is rather cuter, and she is too, instantly entranced by her visitor, then repeatedly brutalised by the environment that she has idealised for so long. There's a definite parallel with Sjostrom's The Wind - perhaps the greatest silent film of them all - but whereas Lillian Gish was a virginal waif, Duncan is a pure-hearted but hardy sort with a smart mouth and a Suarez-sharp set of teeth. Duncan didn't really make the transition to talkies, and jacked in movies when she got married (one of her final films was 12 Women, a notorious entry in Myrna Loy's "ethnic psycho" oeuvre, that also starred Irene Dunne and the tragic Peg Entwistle), but City Girl shows just what she was capable of.

Murnau never actually finished the film - his assistant completed it, after the director had a row with the studio - but his fingerprints are all over its many and varied highlights. The blissful, stunningly-directed rom-com opening is like a mini-film in itself, completely at odds with anything else Murnau ever did, and oozing with invention, romance and charm. While the film does dip a little in the middle, as its penchant for unsmiling melodrama becomes almost self-parodical, I was still absolutely entranced by it, especially the way Duncan's displacement from the cruel city to the cruel country is so evocatively and heartbreakingly rendered. Then, after a slightly iffy passage in which some of the plot threads are tied up in less than convincing ways, Murnau drops the big one: a finale that's among the most intensely moving and beautifully-shot I've ever seen. (3.5)


Clara Bow:

Mantrap (Victor Fleming, 1926) - Ah, Clara Bow. Often you'll find yourself watching a '20s movie, and see all the men in it cooing over some pan-faced woman with bad hair. "Well, tastes have changed," you'll shrug conciliatorily, because you're a nice guy. Eighty-seven years on, though, and you can still see why Clara Bow was the defining sex symbol of her era: it's not so much her looks, though these have never gone out of fashion, it's more the erotically-charged way she carries herself: her kittenish manner, the way she winds men around her little finger, or just jumps into their lap.

Here she's at her absolute best as a combustible bundle of sex who heads to the country, and proceeds to drive all the men completely wild, including her new husband (Ernest Torrence) - a gurning lunk of a man - and an uptight New York divorce lawyer (Percy Marmont), who's driven to distraction by her coquettishness. And also her legs. Mantrap may be the name of the town where she pitches up, but really it refers to the woman who arrives there, and from whom there appears to be no escape.

Such heroics, though, wouldn't be worth much if the film as a whole didn't pull its weight. It does. Mantrap is a comedy, with a few concessions to drama, and it's a marvellous one, full of clever gags, witty intertitles and solid comic characters. Torrence, who began as a singer, became a stage comedian and was then reinvented as a towering bad guy in the immortal Tol'able David, is ideally cast as Bow's husband, who becomes an awkward "aww shucks" kind of patsy in the city, but is in his element back home. Marmont's character is interesting in that he performs none of the roles you would expect if this film had been made 10 years later: he isn't terribly dashing, but nor is he devious or a disposable idiot: instead he's a moderately charming man whose mannerisms (and money) make him stand out in an uncouth environment, and whose relationship with Bow becomes impossible to predict as a result. In support, there are bit parts for two actors who would make a successful transition to talkies: the ever-popular Eugene Pallette - whose gravelly voice and big belly were yet to be unleashed on audiences - and Tom Kennedy, the character comic who appeared in countless films of the '30s and '40s, including the Torchy Blane series, and my favourite movie, Remember the Night, where he played Fat Mike.

As well as being amusing and well-acted, the film is also breathtaking to look at, thanks to the work of director Victor Fleming (who had made his name helming Douglas Fairbanks vehicles and would go on to direct The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind) and - more importantly - his cinematographer, the incomparable James Wong Howe. Some of the interior sets and shots are a bit bland, but when the film ventures outside it looks absolutely phenomenal, right up there with Louisiana Story, The River and, yes, Tol'able David, as a pastoral fantasy. The finest sequence is a gobsmacking journey, the same one taken by Torrence, in which Howe's ever-moving camera takes us from the bucolic tranquility of a boat on a lake, to a train flying past fields, then past houses, before the footage melts into a city scene, following at first a car and then a streetcar, before showing Torrence's shambling figure trying to avoid being run over. Several films of the period, including Murnau's Sunrise and City Girl, vividly juxtaposed city and country living, and Mantrap, despite its modest intentions, does it as well as any.

While 1927's It remains the definitive Bow vehicle: the one that engraved her on the public consciousness and lives on in the public memory, Mantrap was her favourite of her films, and you can see why. It's lovely to look at, zips by in a flash and has at its centre one of the funniest, sexiest and most startlingly charismatic performances I've ever seen. (4)

It (the marvellously named Clarence Badger, 1927) - Clara Bow is in luminous form playing the embodiment of "it" (sex appeal) in this legendary silent movie, which popularised the concept of the 'It Girl', first mentioned in Cosmopolitan. Bow plays a salesgirl who wants to marry the boss (Antonio Moreno), and decides the best way to go about this is to basically just throw herself at him, if a little slyly at times. In the judgemental Hays Code days, her character would have been a villain - women using sensuality as a weapon usually met terrible or risible ends - but here she's the heroine, a good, moral person who just happens to drive men to distraction with her plunging neckline and come-hither-now-get-in-my-bed-let's-do-a-sex expression. The film has a qualified reputation as a crucial pop cultural artefact that's likely to disappoint, but the criticism regularly levelled at it - that it's boring, dated, disposable - is a little unfair. Certainly it's no cast-iron classic: its baggage includes a daft walk-on by the author, a love rival who actually seems quite nice, and a slew of melodramatic improbabilities, but it has greatness in it.

I'm happy to stomach a silly ending and that unintentionally amusing scene in which Bow essentially goes off on one about how terrible it is that her prospective husband thinks she might have had an illegitimate baby - right in front of her mate, who's had an illegitimate baby - given what other treats the film provides. There's that iconic set-piece in which Bow first catches Moreno's eye, after snagging a date at the Ritz, the fairground sequence, shot with an intoxicating joie de vivre that elevates it almost to the level of similar passages in Sunrise and Les quatre cents coups, and an aggressively sexual scene in which Bow cuts her work clothes to shreds with a big pair of scissors - whilst wearing them.The BFI cassette also comes with a stunningly beautiful Carl Davis score (from the Thames Silents run); what a wonderful composer he is.

Moreno is bland as hell, his pleasant best mate gets a raw deal and the plot degenerates into complete nonsense (partly courtesy of a young Gary Cooper, in a bit part as a reporter), but this romantic comedy is well-filmed, good fun for the most part, and has a game-changing, near-mythic performance at its centre: bubbling with life, individuality and "it". Not bad considering I was expecting a film about a scary clown who worked in computing. (3)


Early Lubitsch:

Die Puppe (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919)
- One-of-a-kind Lubitsch comedy, supposedly set in a toybox, about an aristocrat who's so scared of girls that he decides to marry a life-size doll - but marries the model instead.

Like the baron's son, the film takes a little while to get warmed up, but once Ossi Oswalda appears, it sparks into life. She's simply wonderful as the impish heroine, walking on tiptoes, dancing on command (or whenever she feels like it), and finagling her way into the heart (and pants) of her frigid husband. When's she's not playing a doll, there's something charmingly natural and unmannered about her acting and, when she is, she resists the temptation to over-do the part, a restraint that few comedians of the period would have exhibited.

Lubitsch, too, is at his most playful, introducing the film by (supposedly) assembling the set before our eyes, and including cartoon inserts, dotty chase sequences (which aren't particularly funny) and even a "hair-raising" gag that Harold Lloyd used in Hot Water five years later. I don't know whether Die Puppe was ever screened in the States: if not, it's merely coincidence that the aristocrat is forced to flee on foot from a large group of prospective brides, as in Buster Keaton's Seven Chances. It's a shame that Chaplin didn't get in on the act by nicking that bit where a group of monks all stand around a cardinal, rubbing his head.

The film pokes fun at the titled, the greedy and the Catholic Church, but those satiric elements feel rather unnecessary and a little strained: the film is at its best when telling its slight story, and throwing in a bit of silliness alongside. The inventor's amorous assistant - not unlike Pepi in The Shop Around the Corner - is hilarious (at least until he toys with the idea of breaking his boss's neck), the gag with the pantomime horse is wonderfully surreal, and there are some very funny sex jokes that Lubitsch wouldn't have got away with in his later Hollywood career, as well as an, erm, climax in a monastery that he couldn't have tried even before the Code.

Die Puppe isn't as streamlined or finely-tuned as Lubitsch's later triumphs, but it's a very fun excursion, with a fantastically stylised aesthetic (partially revisited in Lubitsch's The Merry Widow), some big laughs, and an absolutely lovely performance from that charming vanity-vacuum, Ossi Oswalda. (3)


I Don’t Want to Be a Man (Ernst Lubitsch, 1918) - Gender-bending one-joke comedy from the legendary Lubitsch, with Ossi Oswalda deciding that the only way she can party as hard as she'd like is by pretending to be a bloke. It's not Ninotchka, but it's not bad, with a very funny opening scene, a game central performance and a brilliant ending - a clear influence on the denouements of Wilder's The Major and the Minor and particularly Some Like It Hot - that puts the capper on a delightfully unusual final third. And Ossi's right - women have it easy, not having to wear starched collars. (2.5)

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Somewhere in Time, John Candy, and my hero - Reviews #158

I've been on holiday, can you tell?

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) - What was the best movie of last decade? Well, Ghost World, obviously, silly. But how about that coveted second spot? For me it's a straight fight between two films. In the sky-blue corner, we have the Irascible American, Mr Fredricksen, accompanied by a chubby kid called Russell and smelling rather strongly of prunes. And in the red-and-green-hued corner, his opponent, the Perky Parisian, Amélie Poulain, cracking creme brulee with a spoon and eating strawberries off her fingers. They're pretty special, Pixar's finest and that Gallic fairytale turned rom-com: both completely escapist, endlessly rewatachable and among those few precious films that change the way you see the world.

For the uninitiated, Amélie (Audrey Tautou in her signature role) is a painfully shy, insular Parisian waitress whose singular charm and vivid imagination are kept largely to herself. But, after chance inspires her to try an act of random kindness, she begins to engage with the world, transforming the lives of those around her, while yearning to connect with the dreamer - and fellow loner - who just dropped his eccentric photo album in the street. It was all quite a departure for Jeunet, who had made his name with co-directed parades of grotesquery and was going it alone back home for the first time.

Taking place in a beautifully-realised Parisian neverworld redolent with mystery and magic, anchored by Tautou's astonishing performance (never underestimate how hard it is to pull off this kind of intense, impish, sometimes sad-eyed whimsy) and with a masterful, innocent story overflowing with invention and emotion, Amélie is one of the greatest joys that the cinema has to offer. I could watch it every day. Actually, I might start doing. So Ghost World must be pretty good, right? (4)


Somewhere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980) - It's the hotel guest from hell (Christopher Reeve), re-arranging his room, bothering the guests and waking up the caretaker in the middle of the night, demanding to go in the attic. And all because he's fallen in love with a woman from 1912 (Jane Seymour). This time-travelling love story was panned on release, but has since attracted an obsessive following, and with good reason. It's wonderfully imaginative, extremely sure-footed, and has a heightened romantic sensibility reminiscent of both Brief Encounter and The Ghost and Mrs Muir, with a strong sense of conviction and an engaging unpretentiousness across both the performances and direction.

I thought I might struggle to accept Seymour as the greatest actress of her age, but she's surprisingly good in this - with a warm, semi-regal quality that's perfect for the part - matched by the charming, slightly bumbling Reeve, and Christopher Plummer, in an ominous supporting part as her brooding, possessive manager, recalling John Barrymore's green-eyed character in the "Singing Sweethearts" movie, Maytime. Incredible nerds will also want to note that the first scene features not only Teresa Wright from The Best Years of Our Lives as the older Seymour, but also the young William H. Macy and Norm from Cheers!

Perhaps the biggest treat of all, though, is John Barry's timeless score, boasting a glorious central theme and some liberal helpings of Rachmaninov. It's so good, in fact, that it might still be the best music Seymour has been associated with - and she let Radiohead record OK Computer in her house. A society devoted to this film has penned 1,800 articles about it, and also paid for Christopher Reeve's Hollywood star. A tad excessive, I might argue, but it is a little gem, and one that will doubtless linger in my mind over the coming days. (4)


Good pictures from Four Hours to Kill! are in short supply. This one hasn't even been scanned in straight.

Four Hours to Kill! (Mitchell Leisen, 1935) - Terrific, ingenious little thriller, adapted by Norman Krasna from his own play, about a vengeful killer (former silent star Richard Barthelmess) spending his last few hours of freedom in a theatre, handcuffed to a cop. Around the pair play out various domestic dramas - neat slice-of-life portraits - enacted by the likes of Ray Milland, Helen Mack and Henry Travers. The first of these seems a bit melodramatic (and lets its obnoxious adulterer off too lightly), but it's crucial to much of what follows, which is smart, slick, compassionate, moving and even induces a genuine gasp. The script is first-rate - and funny - the direction from one of the great filmmakers of the Golden Age is suitably atmospheric, and there's a ridiculously strong cast for what's just a 70-minute B-movie. Barthelmess is extremely good, especially considering he was robbed of much of his great expressiveness by a botched facelift in the late '20s, Roscoe Karns has one brilliant scene on the phone to the hospital where his wife's expecting, and both Charles C. Wilson and Gertrude Michael stand out amongst the more well-known names. Clever title too. (4)


Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987) - John Hughes's first non-teen movie is a hysterically funny bromance: a Bringing Up Baby for the '80s, but with Katharine Hepburn played by John Candy. He's the avuncular, optimistic blabbermouth who makes uptight Steve Martin's life hell as they travel by land from New York to Chicago, all flights having been grounded. That "nightmare journey" template is given surprisingly deft, stress-free treatment, with a good mixture of Grumpy Old Men-style gripes about the modern world and extremely effective, old-fashioned character comedy.

Martin is OK, peddling his usual schtick (and looking oddly like Malcolm McDowell when his face gets frozen), but the film gets most of its charm - and almost all of its laughs - from Candy's hilarious performance. Only he could make a sing-along to Ray Charles' Mess Around so uproariously funny, but barely a minute goes by without him eliciting a smile, a chuckle or a belly laugh through some facial expression, inspired piece of delivery or ad-lib ("the Grand Wizard of China"). The scene where he won't stop talking about how annoying it would be to be stuck with someone who won't stop talking is a thing of beauty. In support, a mulleted Kevin Bacon has a bit as a commuter trying to beat Martin to a taxi, and Dylan Baker appears - improbably - as a tobacco-chewing hillbilly, in a weak segment that makes light of domestic abuse. The film also has possibly the most simplistic musical score ever, occasionally missteps in its plotting (like when Martin is forced to trudge through snow), and has a finale that opts for schmaltz over humour, but it seems heartfelt, it's fairly well done and the rest of the film made me ridiculously happy, so we'll let it off.

Incidentally, I was watching the film on a train, and found its humanistic message so persuasive that I paused it halfway through to talk football with the bloke next to me. It turned out that his mate, sitting in front of us, was the last player beaten by Eric Cantona before he chipped the keeper to score that famous goal against Sheffield United. So there you go. Without Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I might never have found that out. (3.5)

Which makes this re-teaming of director and star all the more disappointing:

Uncle Buck (John Hughes, 1989) - Weak John Hughes comedy about feckless John Candy babysitting his brother's kids; less a movie, more a collection of vaguely connected scenes in which nothing happens. On the rare occasions where it does alight on something insightful or amusing, it tends to jettison the goodwill by throwing in an idiotic and unrealistic routine straight away. Lol, kidnapping and torture. Candy does his best, but the material is completely lifeless, and his charges consist of a dislikeable teenager and two kids who can't act. It's difficult to believe on this showing that Macaulay Culkin went on to become the highest-paid child star of all time. In his first film, his line-readings are just rote recital of unsuitably arch, grown-up dialogue. Interestingly, though, there is one scene in which he finds himself home (almost) alone, and imagines three thuggish blokes turning up at the front door, trying to gain entry - you can almost see the cogs whirring in Hughes's brain. Uncle Buck isn't as bad as Weird Science (what is?) - and, oddly, its incredibly mawkish ending is rather moving - but from a writer-director who made several of the best comedy-dramas of the era, it's still pretty bleak going. If only they'd remembered to include any jokes. Or a story. (1.5)


Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006) - A riot of camp, colour and cleavage, concerning the power struggles within the ruling family of Imperial China. Zhang Yimou's follow-up to Hero and Flying Daggers dilutes its superb Shakespearean story with soapiness and a climactic shift into impersonal spectacle, but it's imaginatively conceived, it's stunning to look at and Gong Li is just magnificent (again), as a steely, feverish adulteress being slowly poisoned by her husband, the emperor. She can suffer better than any actress since Garbo. After a set-up that's slow, even stodgy, the film plays its hand extremely well, the increasingly engrossing story packed with intelligent twists and turns - and even a few short, sharp fight scenes - until its focus switches to grand-scale battle scenes and lots of people performing actions in unison (which is basically Yimou's favourite thing ever), a decision that rather stalls its momentum. It's still a very good, bafflingly underrated movie, blessed with a compelling story and one of the finest performances of recent years. (3.5)


Sicko (Michael Moore, 2007) - Moore takes on the American system of healthcare (as was), in a film as gratuitous, sanctimonious, disingenuous, uneven, entertaining, impassioned and correct as all his others. Mixing horror stories from people cut adrift with intelligent interviews (hurray, Tony Benn!), historical analysis and those attention-grabbing, usually overwhelmingly pointless stunts, he creates an erratic, patchwork portrait of a sickening, profit-driven industry that leaves society's weakest to fend for themselves. And then he ventures further afield, to see how other countries care for their citizens. I could do without Moore's camera zooming in greedily as soon as anyone starts crying - a hideously exploitative affliction - his mock-ignorance becomes a little tiring after a while, and his films would be a whole lot better if they were a whole lot more straightforward ("I asked them to give us the same exact care they give their fellow Cuban citizens. No more. No less. And that's what they did." Did they? Well I'm completely convinced), but his thesis is essentially sound, and I admire him for telling stories that need to be told, regardless of whether or not his films are objectively great. I think Moore's best movie so far is actually 2009's Capitalism: A Love Story, a real step up, in which his vices as a filmmaker and polemicist were less prominent, and his virtues more pronounced. And I've got the fragments of quotes and slightly suspicious-looking statistics to prove it. (3)

See also: Tony Benn is pretty much my hero. I wrote about his favourite movies here.


Fearless (Ronny Yu, 2006) - Jet Li's best film since Fist of Legend (admittedly neglecting the handful I haven't seen, like War) is a nevertheless frustrating affair that flirts with greatness, but also fancies greatness's sister, mediocrity. And also its cousin, silliness. Apparently intended as a summation of Li's stellar if wildly erratic Hong Kong career, it tells the story of Huo Yuanjia, who brings tragedy on his family through sheer recklessness, moves from the mean streets of the city to Hobbiton, then returns to find the place teeming with soldiers, tourists and Christians.

In many ways it feels like a precursor to Ip Man and its weak sequel, in which Donnie Yen fought against Westerners and the Japanese for the pride of China. More interestingly, though, it can be viewed as a companion piece to the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy, those three unassailable epics in which Li personified the folk hero Wong-Fei Hung. Here he's asked to subvert his screen image, and thus that role (as he had admittedly done in the sporadically magnificent but mostly moronic Last Hero in China), by depicting a selfish, arrogant carouser who wants to instill fear in all those around him, and be declared the best fighter around. Yes, that's right, he's playing a complete idiot. It's a handsomely-mounted, dramatically ambitious movie stuffed with brilliant fight scenes -staged by Yuen Woo-Ping, in agreeably sensible form - but it's nevertheless brought down by a few major flaws.

First off is the script, worthy of Basil Exposition, in which most things are over-explained (why exactly is Huo nicknamed "Ox"? Oh yes, I remember they explained that it's because he sleeps as much as an Ox, that's why they call him Ox). Second is the treatment of tragedy, which feels like it's being brought to us fifth-hand, through recycled bits of other films. It's hackneyed and calculated, and keeps us at a distance, muting its emotional clout. And, thirdly, there is Li's performance. He's a sublime martial artist, but the price we pay for those skills is a rather limited acting ability. His typical mode of being vaguely impassive suited the stoic, noble Wong Fei-Hung, but here he's asked to emote, and repeatedly gets caught acting. It's not that he's bad - he has a couple of good scenes - but broad strokes aren't usually found in great films. It's only when he resumes his typical screen characterisation for the powerfully-realised homecoming scenes that we really buy him as this character.

And, finally, there's one of those uniquely crap sequences in which a Chinese martial artist fights a massive white guy. It was stupid in Born to Defend, it was about to be stupid in Ip Man 2, and here it's just sort of embarrassing. I've spent such a large proportion of the review cataloguing the film's flaws precisely because the rest of it is so good: the story of a man remade is an intriguing one, those shots contrasting the city and country are breathtaking (a little like Murnau's City Girl, which I watched the other day), Li's final adversary is admirably admirable, and there are a succession of spectacular fight scenes among the finest the star has ever committed to screen. For a film that feels like a lost opportunity, there's a great deal to enjoy. (3)


Sunnyside Up (David Butler, 1929) - It was a funny old year, 1929, as Hollywood shifted its emphasis from silents to talkies, the former medium having reached its artistic zenith, and the latter yet to find its feet. In August, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell made their final silent - the transcendent Lucky Star; two months later they released their first sound film, the all-singing, partially-dancing musical, Sunnyside Up. They even have a number on the timely subject, the rather meta If I Had a Talking Picture of You. With the glorious exception of King Vidor's Hallelujah!, I don't think that there was a truly great sound film made until 1930, when All Quiet on the Western Front, Little Caesar and The Big House were released, and it's true that Sunnyside Up is afflicted by some of the early problems with the new medium. The dialogue scenes are often rather stilted, and the material is very stagy, as the writers struggle to grasp exactly what they should be doing with movie dialogue. For all that, though, it's a cut above most films of this uncertain period, with a number of virtues that make it well worth seeking out

The principle one is Janet Gaynor, who's simply adorable as a diminutive tenement girl who falls in love with a socialite (Charles Farrell) and agrees to appear in his charity musical, while trying to make his flighty fiancee jealous. We all have those movie stars whom we think can do no wrong, and for me Gaynor is top of the list. I think she's simply the greatest actress in the history of Hollywood and, while I'd say her three best performances were in her three silent movies for Frank Borzage (7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star), she was just wonderful in everything. Here she overcomes some rather dubious scripting through sheer force of personality, and whether she's being compassionate, playing daft or welling up with her tears as her hopes of matrimonial bliss are dashed, she's just a tremendously affecting, appealing presence. Farrell wasn't much of an actor, and he's even less of a singer, but I don't end up watching Gaynor's co-stars anyway, as they're never nearly as interesting. On the rare occasions I did deign to cast my eyes sideways, I did note that El Brendel - who in Delicious seemed to embody every single damaging misconception that people have about '30s comedy - was surprisingly bearable, while legendary child star Jackie Cooper appeared unbilled in only his second feature, as a grumpy little boy who curtails his poetry recital because he's desperate for a wee.

Second among the film's strengths is an admirably gung-ho attitude towards direction. The heavy, noisy sound cameras made complex shots difficult, but Butler doesn't seem to care, beginning with an incredibly ambitious crane shot that takes us to the heart of the tenement (it's kind of Dead End meets the start of Ghost World!), and, while that precedent isn't really built upon, there are a few nice shots during the film, despite the images moving at the snail's pace necessitated by the fledgling technology. And then there are the numbers. The songs won't rival Top Hat or Kiss Me Kate for tunefulness, lyrical wit and ambitious staging, but they're a decent bunch - easily above average - and I really like Gaynor's limited, untutored voice. The first few routines we see are charmingly low-fi, as the actors appear to just do whatever they thought might be cool - shuffling across the stage, skipping over a top hat, turning around a bit - rather than the meticulously-choreographed routines we have since come to expect. But then the show-within-a-film kicked off, and I had to scrape my chin off the floor, because Turn on the Heat must be the dirtiest, most overtly sexualised number in the history of Hollywood musicals, a tasteful ditty in which a large group of horny women in bikinis gyrate in unison as they urge some penises - sorry, "palm trees" - to rise through the earth. Then they crawl about in the dirt, humping the ground until it sets on fire. It's AWESOME. I would, however, caution against believing the claims that the song makes about eskimos, as most of them are patently untrue. I haven't seen any evidence that the hottest girls in the world are of Inuit extraction, nor that they all possess "dancing feet", while all of the "eskimos" on the stage shaking their arses are clearly Caucasian dancing girls. It was 1929, though, so they may not have been entirely clued up. So how to follow that incongruous smut-fest, you might wonder? Well, with a spot of crooning from the central couple, a nice solo number for Gaynor, and the rather long-winded unwinding of the film's misunderstandings.

Sunnyside Up isn't a classic to rival Gaynor and Farrell's silent films, but it's a fun diversion, those typical early-talkie flaws overcome by one lovely performance, a gaggle of singable songs and one absolutely filthy production number. (3)


Police Story 4: First Strike (Stanley Tong, 1996) - Painfully bad fourth Police Story film, apparently made for those Jackie Chan fans who think he's at his best when he's driving around or moaning that he's cold. There's one good chase around an apartment block and a busy fight scene in a warehouse, but the novelty action scenes (Jackie on a snowboard! Jackie on stilts! Jackie in shark-infested waters!) are pathetic, the story is muddled and boring, and the comedy is almost entirely unfunny. Cute koala, though.


ClintFest '13:

Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton, 1968)
- "Broadsword calling Danny Boy." A truly exceptional, nerve-shredding action-thriller, set during WWII, in which a crack team of Allied agents - led by Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood - try to break a top officer out of a Nazi compound atop a mountain. It's light on characterisation and features a bit of dodgy process screen work, but it's massively entertaining, extraordinarily well-plotted and full of cracking action scenes directed by none other than Yakima Canutt, the stuntman who performed THAT fall in John Ford's Stagecoach. Burton had many talents that aren't required by a film like this, but for once he gives his best to some less obviously artistic material, injecting untold class and charisma into proceedings, not least in that classic scene where the double and triple-crosses pile up so quickly that you can hardly keep your head above water. It's cool, jtoo, to find a war movie with such a kick-ass female character (Mary Ure). This is a Boys Own adventure that passes the Bechdel Test! Fantastic stuff. (4)

"Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!”

Joe Kidd (John Sturges, 1972) - Minor but enjoyable Tex-Mex Western, with Kidd (Clint) drawn into the hunt for an icon of Mexican resistance (err, John Saxon), which is being led by psychotic land baron Robert Duvall. The story, written by Elmore Leonard and ultimately recalling his classic 3:10 to Yuma, doesn't quite work, having little emotional pull, though that may not be the writer's fault: several of Saxon's scenes were cut to give greater prominence to the two big names, accounting for the peculiarly brief running time. Despite that central failing, the film still manages to entertain. Sturges exhibits his usual sure hand with an action sequence: not just the scene with the train that I'm legally obliged to mention, but a neat little bit with a trap door, and one absolute wow of a suspense sequence in which Clint tries to assemble a sniper rifle with his whole company under fire. The star is in very good form - displaying a delightfully offhand sense of humour and the acting ability that had begun to surface in Two Mules for Sister Sara, and looking his most like Stan Laurel - his regular cinematographer Bruce Surtees throws in a handful of masterful shots, and the whole thing is accompanied by one of Lalo Schifrin finest scores. Check out how excited he gets whenever Clint does anything brave. (2.5)


Thanks for reading. Next time it'll be a silent film special (I'm holding a few reviews back, because I'm like that.) Expect Clara Bow, Lubitsch in Berlin, and F. W. Murnau, because that's what you'll be getting.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Unforgiven, Kathleen Turner and men shouting: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!" - Reviews #157

Welcome! Eight reviews for your delectation/disgust, including three from ClintFest '13, one of Dustin Hoffman's best, one of Coppola's worst, and the definitive Michelle Yeoh movie.

ClintFest '13:

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

"Well, I guess they had it comin'."
"We all have it comin'."

Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood's masterpiece: a towering dismantling of Western mythos, extraordinary in every way. It's the best and most important oater since John Ford's supposed "last word" on the genre - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - and arguably the most morally and thematically interesting since The Searchers, the Ford film that cast John Wayne as a violent racist hell-bent on revenge, and for once held him to account. It's a film so complex, in fact, that I still don't know how to read its ending, pitched somewhere between Dirty Harry and Gran Torino, with that lingering shot of a cut-up face expressing... what? Gratitude? Longing? Disillusionment?

Eastwood is cast as Will Munny, a merciless killer turned stumbling pig farmer who gets in the saddle once more when a bounty is placed on the heads of two cowboys who beat up a prostitute. The film begins as a fascinating ensemble piece - dealing with Morgan Freeman's past-it partner, a young gun full of bravado, Richard Harris's extravagant liar, English Bob, and the sadistic sheriff who sets in motion this chilling chain of events (Gene Hackman) - before zoning in, tighter and tighter, on its unforgettable anti-hero.

Superbly scripted by David Webb Peoples, who also wrote Blade Runner and Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, it's a film that subverts just about every stereotype in Western history. This isn't contrariness for its own sake, but a clear and singular vision of the re-writing of reality. There's that old Western town - built in that New Hollywood way, rather than the synthetic efforts of the '40s - the departing stagecoach and the central saloon, but the people who populate this familiar world are like nothing that the movies have ever seen before. Eastwood can barely get on his horse and can't shoot for shit, while the bloodthirsty young gunhand is a short-sighted blowhard who's never pulled the trigger, these characteristics coming to a head after they gun down an unarmed man who's on the toilet, before a haphazard escape that has more to do with Munny's fabled good fortune than any traditional Western virtues. Also key to the narrative is Hackman's brilliant speech about the irrelevancy of being quick on the draw, a point expertly made by the closing set-piece. Meanwhile, in a sublime development, Harris is accompanied by a hagiographer who writes historical novels based on the patriotic old soak's accounts of his exploits. Magnificently, the journo seems to tire of "printing the legend" after he hears the truth from Hackman, but ultimately plans to turn the ugly events of the final reel into a lyrical new book, with Munny the star.

It's a movie that's endlessly preoccupied with death, as evidenced by those remarkable visions that accompany Eastwood's fever, all the more striking for arriving only through dialogue: the ghost of a blameless victim with his head blown off, an Angel of Death coming for Munny, and his wife's corpse crawling with worms. In those passages, Eastwood achieves a level of performance unlike anything he's ever approached, in its authority, sincerity and emotional resonance. Of course Clint's no killer in real life, but you do sense in these later films that he is atoning for the bloodlust of his early vehicles, with their reductionist view of human nature and plethora of unsavoury character traits. This, he's saying, is the cost of killing: the damage that it does to a man's soul.

As a director, too, he's operating in a heightened mode. I love High Plains Drifter (aside from its dodgy sexual politics) and I like Pale Rider, but Unforgiven knocks them both into a ten-gallon hat. Right from the opening scene, with its spare score, stately sense of composition and masterful title card, written in archaic, flavourful Western language, it's clear that he's reaching for a definitive statement - and finding it. This isn't just a solid genre piece or a lively revenge flick with vivid stylistic trappings. Not this time. Unforgiven is a character study of epic proportions in which a reformed man, clinging to sobriety and the morality of his late wife, still haunted by past deeds committed in a fog of booze, slowly begins to transform back into that hollow-eyed compassion-vacuum: an Angel of Death who revels in blood-letting and mythologises murder.

He's blessed, too, with one of the best casts of the decade. Jaimz Woolvett is formidably annoying as the "Schofield Kid" - but his whining, bragging and repetitive dialogue is rather the point - while Hackman is magnificent as the malevolent sheriff, and Freeman stays mercifully clear of the cliches that have dogged his later work. Saul Rubinek, as the nervy writer trying to navigate a world he really doesn't understand, brings something altogether new to the genre, but best of all - almost as good as Eastwood, in fact - is Richard Harris. Yes, his English accent falters a little during his farewells, but it's an irrelevant quibble with a jaw-dropping performance. Arriving in the film as that Western ever-present, the gunfighter with a past whose mere name results in widespread quivering, he moves from garrulous theatricality - recalling Alan Mowbray's heroics in My Darling Clementine - to despondent self-loathing, and then bitter verbal recrimination. The sequence in which Rubinek passes him a gun with which to shoot Hackman, is one of the most unusual, arresting and memorable scenes in Western history, shot through with tension, sadness and a gleeful contempt for genre convention. You think it's reached its zenith when Harris places an emphatic hand on his cell bars, as an admission of defeat, only for Hackman to prolong his misery, dropping the shells onto the floor, each one prompting a jerk of agony from the "Duck of Death". Sorry, "Duke".

Of the women who earn their living "playing billiards" with strangers, only Frances Fisher and Anna Levine really get anything to do. Fisher is a sort of player-manager madam, whose escalating, even horny, desire for revenge is cleverly juxtaposed with Levine's apparent apathy: she may be the real victim in all of this (even without her ears being cut off), but the only wish she expresses in the whole film is to give Munny "a free one". Incidentally, Fisher's fairly broad performance and the staging of the pivotal beating remind you how far Eastwood has come, calling to mind the nasty harpies and knife-wielding psychos who tended to turn up in his lesser work. Happily, we're light years away from the offensive triviality and gratuitous unpleasantness of Play Misty for Me and Sudden Impact. There's a reason why Unforgiven is the film that Clint chose to dedicate to his mentors: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

The '50s was the Golden Age of the Western, a decade when filmmakers like John Ford, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher took every old-hat notion going, and sat it on its head. Mann turned Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper into vicious killers, Ford x-rayed John Wayne's screen persona, and Boetticher and his screenwriter Burt Kennedy created a series of fascinating antagonists often more human than their nominal hero (Randolph Scott). Unforgiven takes those movies, rips out every romantic notion and leaves the bloodied, rotting carcass in front of the saloon. No-one need ever make another Western, because Eastwood's genre epitaph says it all.


The Rookie (Clint Eastwood, 1990) - Near the start of this film, you think that Clint's talking about a car, but really he's talking about a woman. Classic. As you might expect, he plays a tough cop who's on the trail of one of the Scousers from Harry Enfield (Raul Julia) and his nympho bird, but finds himself saddled with a blazer-wearing foetus haunted by a voice in his head saying "Jump, Joey! Jump!" (Charlie Sheen). Aside from his moustache and three-stripe tracksuit, Julia may be the least interesting adversary of Eastwood's career, largely because of the laughable disconnect between his main avenue of work (stealing and re-spraying cars) and the measures he takes to cover it up: namely shooting everyone in sight.

Many regard The Rookie as Eastwood's worst ever movie: perhaps swayed by the atrocious dialogue (it's essentially just people saying "motherfucker"), his preposterous partner, and the bit where he's (perhaps) raped by the razor-wielding Sonia Braga. There's certainly further evidence of the nastiness that pervades most of Clint's lesser movies, as well as sort of hypnotic idiocy in excess of almost everything else he's ever done. But, for all that, the first half is great fun, lit by a neat freeway chase staged by Dead Pool director Buddy Van Horn - in which Clint has to dodge swanky sports cars being shoved off the back of a moving lorry - and the star's masterclass in grizzly growling. Then the focus shifts almost entirely to Sheen's titular cop - a man so tormented that he headbutts a mirror - and the bottom falls out of the film. Still, at least Sheen, one of the only Brat Packers to miss out on The Breakfast Club, gets to moan about his dad. That final hour of the film is almost entirely stupid, though a special mention is required for the hilarious set-piece in which Charlie Sheen runs around shouting, "Come on! Come on", and then shoots a dog.

It's an inauspicious re-teaming for Julia and Braga, who won international plaudits in Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spiderwoman, but Clint's motivations are rather clearer. Hollywood folklore has it that he had to make this one, a kind of Dirty Harry 6 (albeit with a pay-off in which his Nick Pulowski makes Callahan look like a Liberty activist), in order to get the backing for Unforgiven. That seems a reasonable trade-off, even in light of the woof woof bang bang. (2)


And here's one I wrote a few weeks back, but forgot to tack up. Note the poverty of my invention, as I again justify a lousy Clint film by harping on about Unforgiven:

Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, 1971) - When a smug radio DJ - who would be faithful to his girlfriend if only he didn't have so many demons (wanker) - opts to boff Lucille Bluth, little does he know that she's going to go all Stabby Titmus on him. But that's what happens, as Lucille graduates from behaving a bit like me as a teenager - needy, desperate, not very good at dealing with rejection - to behaving like me now: scary, fond of lounge pyjamas and weirdly obsessed with Clint Eastwood.

The star's debut behind the camera isn't my sort of film, and isn't very well-directed - goodness knows how he went from this erratic, of-its-time slice of slasher silliness, full of clunky cuts, extraneous coastal footage and ostentatious crane shots, to High Plains Drifter in the space of a year and using the same DP (Bruce Surtees) - but if he hadn't made Play Misty, then I suppose we might never have had Unforgiven, so sitting through it seems a small price to pay.

Lucille (oh, OK, Jessica Walter) brings a dynamism and an appealing vulnerability to her role, alongside all the silly shouting and stabbing, but it's not enough to sustain a film this dated, dislikeable and tiresomely sensationalist - especially when Clint and Donna Mills are so utterly dreadful. The "twist", which is set up with an almost insulting lack of subtlety, is fairly well handled once it arrives, though my favourite bit was when the movie decided to dispense with its plot for 15 minutes while everyone went to the Monterey Jazz Festival. Had I been enjoying it up to that point, I might have felt a bit more annoyed. The musical footage includes that popular number, Willie and the Hand Jive. Smirk. (2)


The Raid (Gareth Evans, 2011)


Some men run towards a cop, shouting.


They fight.

Repeat for an hour and a half.



Wing Chun (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1994) - Kung fu meets Benny Hill in this delirious helping of cartoonish nonsense from Yuen Woo-Ping. It's a bad, magnificent, beautiful, stupid mixture of jaw-dropping wire-work, abysmal comedy and shambolic plotting that expects us to accept Michelle Yeoh as a bloke and Donnie Yen as goofy comic support. Yeoh is the allegedly mannish kung fu supremo and spinster Wing Chun, who becomes entangled with a wronged woman, a gold-digger and a gang of marauding bandits, whilst falling for guileless wally and childhood sweetheart Yen, resulting - of course - in all manner of airborne martial arts mayhem.

It's Yeoh's definitive role, as her lone, aloof fighting machine allows her defences to crumble - though only in romantic terms - leading to some wonderfully sweet moments alongside the film's more visceral delights. Though the plot is all over the shop, the film is grounded and imbued with real resonance by her dynamic performance: not just the whirling, diving and high-kicking that you'd expect, but her subtle expressiveness, variety and swagger too, Wing's calm, personable persona swelling with bravado whenever she's compelled to fight. It goes without saying, of course, that most of her action scenes are stunning. The fiery duel is rather a non-event - and utilises a double due to competing filming commitments - but her rescue mission is nicely done, the tofu fight is a wow and her three scenes with a rather vague villain are just absolutely gobsmacking.

There's also a nice night-time scrap featuring Donnie Yen, who shot the action scenes. He's cast against type as a thick, endlessly grinning comic character - and unlikely love interest - and does OK, coming to life in the fight sequences as you'd expect. Incidentally, he was disappointed that Woo-Ping - his mentor - barely used any of the titular style in the movie. Wing chun was spotlighted memorably in Yen's 2008 film Ip Man, and its sequel, prompting a resurgence of popularity in China. Here, I do think Woo-Ping sometimes pushes too far with his innovative action staging, going past fantastical to unsatisfyingly artificial. I'm far fonder of Crouching Tiger's magical flights of fancy than Kung Fu Hustle's knowing excesses, and there are hints of the latter throughout. There is, though, a respect for Yeoh's balletic grace and mastery of the medium that seems to rein him in. Well, a bit. Some of the time.

Wing Chun is a mess, and appears almost proud to be so, wearing its low comedy, negligible story and transparent improbabilities like a badge of honour, and regarding a running gag about halitosis as at least as valuable as its actual strong suits. But the film is also staggeringly brilliant, full of virtuosic fight scenes, striking location photography and moments of quiet, tender revelation, and lit by the mother of all performances from the mother of all female action heroes. To illustrate the film's problem with its own brilliance/ineptitude, take a look at the film's gender politics, which include not only the initially contemptuous treatment of Kingdom Yuen's smelly sidekick, but also a female hero who bows to no man, and an unexpectedly mature treatment of female sexuality that comes out of nowhere in the movie's second half. Or have a listen to the score: part rousing battle music, part nostalgic love theme and part what appear to be outtakes from The Benny Hill Show that were thrown out for being too heavy-handed. The whole thing is just ridiculous. It should be better than it is. But it doesn't care. (3)


Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) - A brilliantly-scripted, very old-fashioned comedy about a frustrated actor and full-time chauvinist (Dustin Hoffman) disguising himself as a woman to land a part in a soap, then falling for co-star Jessica Lange. It's incredibly witty, slyly satirical in both its take on sexual politics and modern entertainment, and positively reeks of greasepaint, recalling such fine movies about the thespian trade as Twentieth Century, A Double Life and John Osborne's The Entertainer (the poster of which is tacked above Hoffman's bed). The film gambles on a rather conventional trip to the country (with one notable exception) to affirm the central relationship, but pulls it off magnificently, the diversion so well-handled that it draws comparison (perhaps intentionally) with my favourite film of all time, Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night, while the wrap-up - always the hardest part in a film of this type - is simply flawless.

Movies about cross-dressing tend to be a drag (pun very much intended), or at least to fall down in those sections - I Was a Male War Bride and Love Crazy are a pair of fun comedies that stop firing when Cary Grant and William Powell put on women's clothes, but Tootsie belongs in that rarefied bracket that don drag for their entire length, and yet succeed superbly, a Some Like It Hot for the '80s. Of course, whether it works depends a great deal on whether Hoffman can convince as a woman. He can, while exhibiting impeccable timing, displaying that effortless ability with quick-fire dialogue, and unleashing a succession of magnificent reaction faces. The supporting cast is also note-perfect, with Lange tremendously appealing as the self-deprecating love interest (this was before she decided to get a different face), Charles Durning and director Pollack excelling in well-written parts, and Bill Murray scoring big as Hoffman's roommate, his humour so dry it's in danger of catching alight. It's just an absolute joy from start to finish. (4)


Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986) - This is an astonishingly awful spin on Back to the Future, with middle-aged divorcee and mother-of-two Kathleen Turner passing out at her school reunion, and waking up back at school, a few weeks shy of graduation. That promising premise is given the most appallingly flat, confused and meaningless treatment, with no apparent dramatic stakes, no plot developments of even the slightest interest, and Turner repeatedly vocalising her plight - and her considerable life experience - for no apparent reason, much to the general bafflement of every other character in the film. She also keeps saying that she loves and misses her kids, but toys relentlessly with the idea of dumping their father (Nicolas Cage), meaning that they wouldn't - of course - ever exist.

Turner is actually very good, but she's powerless against a script that's more concerned with churning out smug one-liners than giving us anything even resembling an engaging story, and a turn from Cage that may genuinely be the worst performance I have ever seen in a movie. As a whining, bleached-blonde crooner, Cage behaves in a way that bears so little relation to how humans actually act that I think he may have been sent by robots to destroy our movies. You know how bad Gary Oldman was in Leon, with every conceivable recognisable trait replaced by some fucking terrible twitch? Well that's what Cage is like here, only he's so committed to sinking Coppola's melancholy sci-fi romance that he can't even speak properly. Bizarrely, though, he can sing - actually rather well. It's a good job that Cage (Coppola's nephew) is so bad, though, because otherwise I'd be forced to round on the ever-wooden Sofia Coppola (the director's daughter) and the perma-gurning Jim Carrey (apparently no relation), whose mindless supporting characterisation makes his part in The Mask look like the very model of restraint.

There are a couple of nice moments dealing with Turner's late grandparents (now, of course, in her life once more), but both times the film immediately jettisons the emotional impact by doing something unfathomably stupid. When Turner breaks down at hearing her grandmother's voice on the phone, and proceeds to touchingly discuss mortality with her mother, the writers decide that now is just the right time for a cock joke. And after she opts to visit her grandparents ('30s movie legends Leon Ames and Maureen O'Sullivan), the lovely set-up is spoilt by a shallow conversation about reincarnation, partially redeemed by the revelation that Turner's daughter is named after O'Sullivan, and then trampled into the dirt by a deus ex machina of a lodge meeting that's so fucking dreadful I thought my eyes were about to start bleeding. All that, and an ageing make-up job in the book-end scenes that appears to have been done by the team responsible for Brokeback Mountain - and my primary school nativity play.

Helen Hunt's in the movie - looking the same age she does now - Joan Allen does a bit, John Carradine has a walk-on and John Barry contributes a reasonable if repetitive score, but whatever the film's promising credentials, it remains a load of absolute fucking shit. (1)


Millions (Danny Boyle, 2004)
- This is a magical, charming fable written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and shown through the eyes of a hallucinating child - much like The Butcher Boy or In America - that, sadly, starts to falter in its final third. The story sees a fortune fall from the sky into the laps of little Alex Etel and his elder brother. The catch: they have 12 days to spend the lot, before the Euro comes in. The other catch: someone wants it back. And while Etel is desperate to help the poor, guided as he is by visions of the saints, his brother wants a scuba suit, a bike chauffeur and someone to hang up his coat for him at school. Boyce's script is whimsical, wise and clever, recapping and re-writing Bible stories to supplement its vivid view of the world, which is sentimental and idealistic whilst still practical and rooted in realism. The portrait of young minds is recognisable and attractive, and there are loads of good jokes and some very funny supporting characters, including Pearce Quigley as an incredibly ineffective PCSO ("Statistically, you're going to get burgled," he tells a roomful of unhappy looking residents).

Unfortunately, after that glorious bus ride with a papier-mache donkey, the film slightly loses its way: the only thing that really works in the muddled last half-hour is a devastatingly effective chat by the railway tracks that gave me a lump in my throat the size of a football. Most of Boyle's films run out of steam before the end, but I think here the problem is with the script, which vehemently rejects formula, but sadly kicks out clarity at the same time, whilst incorporating an overbearing subplot about a nasty bank robber, and a familial disagreement that's interesting at first, but doesn't pan out well enough. Perhaps Boyce's much-lauded novelisation does a neater and more coherent job of developing and tying up the story. I wasn't impressed by Etel in Cranford, but these first roles are usually more effective because the young actor is just right for the role, and so it is here. His limitations lend his character an earnestness and slight detachment from the real world that suits the material. I'm not really sure what accent James Nesbitt is attempting to approximate as the dad, but he's quite an underrated actor, and he's very good here in a relatively challenging part.

This low-key, low-budget movie does a lot right, but after that wonderfully engaging first hour - notable for a delightfully light touch - it does somewhat lose its way, becoming muddled and a little draggy. And a Cartman figurine is frankly an inappropriate Christmas present for a child. Still, a film this unusual, literate and appealing is always welcome, and kids should love it, especially since the film's youngsters are so adept at outwitting their adult counterparts. (3)

See also: Slumdog Millionaire, my favourite Boyle film, is reviewed here. I didn't think quite so much of Trance.


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