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.
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.