Sunday, 23 June 2013

Reese Witherspoon, Superman III and ice ballet - Reviews #166

Some shorter reviews this time, as you're busy and I don't want to be a nuisance.

Well, you can't accuse them of misrepresenting the movie, anyway.

Superman III (Richard Lester, 1983)
- Every so often you'll come across a film that you've always heard is terrible, and find that it's actually an undiscovered gem, a little masterpiece, a bafflingly overlooked beauty fully undeserving of its terrible critical reputation. Superman III is not that film. Superman III is shit.

Let me ask you a question: would you like to see Superman strangled to death by Clark Kent? Let me ask you another: did you think the problem with Superman II was that it didn't have Richard Pryor in it? Now let me ask you a third: would you like to see Superman fight a computer? If the answer to all three questions is 'yes', then I have exciting news for you: you're a moron, and I've just found your new favourite film.

The first half-hour of the film is actually alright. The slapstick ballet, while completely incongruous, is quite cleverly conceived (I like the fiery penguin, anyway), the sequence in which Supes gets changed in a passport photo booth is neat, and the two scenes shot at Clark's high school reunion - despite some weak comedy and an attack of the smugs - are genuinely very persuasive. Is it a bird? Yes, it's Annette O'Toole as lonely single mum Lana Lang, and she's really rather affecting, dancing with Clark to Earth Angel, one of the songs used so memorably at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.

These sequences are interspersed with some high-grade idiocy and poor writing, but even the baffling inclusion of Richard Pryor doesn't feel like too much of a problem at this stage. He's walked into the wrong film by mistake, but he's still being mildly amusing. Come the 30-minute mark, though, and things start to go very wrong. Watching Superman II and III, you'll believe a man can fuck up a promising film series - and that man is Dick Lester. In this outing, the director's visual gags work reasonably well at first, with a Tashlin-ish sense of invention tied to a nicely rhytmic editing style. But boy can his stuff get irritating fast, partly because he has no conception of moderation. And partly because lots of his ideas are atrocious.

He isn't helped by one of the worst scripts of the decade. Granted, there's the odd zinger in there - "I ask you to kill Superman, and you couldn't even do that one, simple thing" - but such concessions to class are overwhelmed by reams of clumsy voiceover, risible exposition ("Kryptonite - I remember reading about it in an interview with him") and boring story. While Pryor's get-rich-quick gimmick is a clever touch later borrowed by Office Space, the bulk of the plotting is oppressively tedious and seems to bear the unmistakable mark of having been made up the night before shooting.

Though Reeve has fun as "Bad Superman", straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic flame and - best of all - trying to shag Lana instead of saving a lorry that's hanging off a bridge, very little of what he does in the film makes any sense at all. Why would he accept a gift that is quite clearly Kryptonite? Or think that his alter-ego could be destroyed in a trash compacter? Oh, I know: HE WOULDN'T.

On paper, the film sounds fun, despite possessing perhaps the most singularly unpromising poster of all time. There's Superman going rogue, Pamela Stephenson cropping up as a pneumatic, deceptively intelligent moll, and a script that promises frequent recourse to some very '80s Doomsday predictions about artificial intelligence. In practice, it's just one long, embarrassing exercise in tedium and mythos-trashing, ill-conceived in just about every way. It even has the gall to offer a rather charming final five minutes, an inexplicable "look what you could have won", with a modicum of respect for its hero, and everything. It's all too laughably little, too ludicrously late, clocking in a full hour-and-twenty after the bottom fell out of the movie. And no matter how sorry he was afterwards, Supes still ruined the Olympic opening ceremony, didn't he? Wanker. (1.5)


Self-proclaimed "US citizen" Reese Witherspoon, showing off her insolent, wither(spoon)ing glare, back when the various components of her head were more in proportion.

The Man in the Moon (Robert Mulligan, 1991) - A flawed, familar but very worthwhile coming-of-age story, set in the rural South during the '50s and focusing on a 14-year-old tomboy (Reese Witherspoon in her screen debut) who falls in love for the first time, only for her 17-year-old heartthrob to become smitten with her sister. This final film from To Kill a Mockingbird director Mulligan is overly melodramatic in story terms and overly schmaltzy in presentation: shot in soft, sunny, TV movie-ish hues by Freddie Francis and cursed with an overbearing musical score that only really works in one scene - when its young heroine is gazing forlornly through a cemetery fence. But it's blessed with sincerity and self-confidence, has some unforgettable moments amidst the corn, and is lifted far out of the ordinary by Witherspoon's imperfect but brilliant debut turn. While she's still learning how to transmit complex emotion, there's something very genuine and attractive about her performance, illuminated as it is by a rawness and honesty that's since been eroded by the Hollywood machine. The film's shortcomings are clear, but it casts a spell: one that lingers. (3)


Yes, it's the most disingenuous film poster of all time, featuring a tantalising comic tagline and Rosalind Russell's X-ray vision.

The Velvet Touch (Jack Gage, 1948) - An unusually erudite mix of noir, thriller and melodrama, with a predictable, poorly-paced plot but a credible theatrical atmosphere and a very strong cast. At its centre is one of Ros Russell's best dramatic performances, as a stage star who accidentally kills her despicable director (Leon Ames). Her character is making a transition from comedic roles to meatier ones, and so was she; despite the wealth of familiar faces on show, this is unmistakably a star vehicle, tailored to her talents. But while Russell makes a deep impression with her powerful, commanding performance, the film's greatest joy is Sydney Greenstreet, as wonderful as ever playing an omniscient, belly-laughing, theatre-loving cop. Incendiary noir icon Claire Trevor fairly devours the sets as his self-pitying chief suspect. (3)


Phwoarr, Baloo.

Melody Cruise (Mark Sandrich, 1933) - An imaginatively-directed, super-stylised musical comedy, made by Mark Sandrich a year before he started working on the Fred and Ginger films, with inventive sequences based on the rhythms of everyday life - the first of which is a gem - some shimmering photography and the snazziest wipes I've ever seen. The Pre-Code story, full of women in their underwear, risque dialogue and arse-slapping, sees Phil Harris (later the voice of Baloo the Bear) bizarrely cast as an irressistible lothario and "gay boy type" who chases dames on a big boat, as his pal Charlie Ruggles tries to dissuade him from settling down with any of them - including a bright-eyed schoolteacher (the ever-appealing Helen Mack). The story's much too slight, there are only a couple of laughs and the love interest thinks nothing of throwing litter in the sea (boooo!), but it's also musically innovative - with plenty of rhyming dialogue - possesses the blueprint for Born Yesterday's closing gag, and is just amazing to look at: get a load of that sheet music in the night sky, made out of shining stars. Due to the paucity of plotting, there's even time for Sandrich to crowbar in an ice ballet number, shot from above in a slightly imprecise tribute to Busby Berkeley. (2.5)


Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Man of Steel, Superman Returns and Edward Everett Horton - Reviews #165

Two helpings of Supes, plus a good comedy from the '30s and a bad one from the other week.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)
- It'd serve us right if Man of Steel was rubbish. Bryan Singer gave us the great Superman movie in 2006, and how did we all respond? Well my hands are clean, but you lot hated it.

Man of Steel isn't rubbish, though, far from it. It's a frequently brilliant origin story with a fertile imagination and a firm grasp on both its characters and its hero's mythology, resulting in several of my favourite passages from any superhero movie. But it's also infuriatingly flawed: in trying to correct the "mistakes" (scoff) of Singer's Superman Returns - an artistic success but a commercial flop, at least in the context of its genre - it drowns us in action scenes that are far too multitudinous in number, and ultimately just quite tedious, characterised by poor editing (about half the time it's completely unclear what's going on) and the slow-paced fetishing of equipment. Snyder clearly thinks it's fascinating how a Krypton spacecraft would be assembled. Anyone else? Thought not.

We begin on Krypton, with a fairly good prologue that's heavy on anti-communist barbs straight out of a Cold War-era comic book, but also has a few nice, morally complex ideas about how people exist and behave within both ailing democracies and totalitarian regimes. As Krypton sleepwalks into catastrophe, its lawmakers too uncertain to act, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) spies the chance to safeguard his race's future, in the shape of a secret son (unnecessary shot of a baby's willy alert) who will be spared the usual pre-determination (commie alert) and can instead do whatever he wishes - once he's found a new home, having been ejected from the exploding planet in a little pod. As sound as this plan seems, it doesn't go down well with General Zod (Michael Shannon), an obsessive self-proclaimed protector of Krypton. Thankfully his plans to kill the kid are thwarted at the last instant quite by chance; he's enraged the government by trying to stage a coup, and now they want a word. Though Shannon will soon be scuppered by a rather uninteresting part - not to mention his unvarying line readings - there's one fantastic piece of acting from him, after Crowe laments his former ally's transition from hero to misguided villain. Though he always just looks like a mob heavy, there's something both subtle and dynamic about his physical acting, particularly his facial expressiveness. It's a shame the film requires so little of him beyond yelling and thumping.

Fast forward between 33 and 18,000 years (the movie is a little scatty on this point) and Kal (Henry Cavill), aka Clark, is a beardy, ridiculously ripped trawler fisherman who can't resist responding to distress signals, resulting in a powerful sequence on a burning oil rig, topped off with some notable Christian imagery (later he'll give himself over to his moral inferiors to save a people). Thankfully the film fills in the gaps through a series of beautifully-realised flashbacks that paint the young Clark as an outcast. Unsure of where he's come from, tormented by his terrifying abilities and local bullies fascinated by those perverse gifts, he's a brooding, unhappy child whose life is beset by uncertainty and dominated by that most underrated superpower: self-restraint. Beautifully-shot and perfectly cast - with Diane Lane and a superb Kevin Costner as his adoptive parents - these passages are uncommonly brilliant, bearing comparison with similarly affecting sequences in Batman Begins and the underrated Amazing Spider-Man. A perfect coda conjures a very pure, heightened form of Americana, recalling Field of Dreams and Terence Davies's 1995 pastiche of Southern cinema: The Neon Bible.

Nor does the film falter when it throws together Clark and Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who in a novel spin knows all about his abilities, almost from the off. While her first two scenes are remarkably poorly-written - Adams herself seems to be audibly cringing whilst spouting off about people "measuring dicks" - once the lovebirds are united, their relationship is convincing, appealing and affecting. Cavill is as good as Routh and Reeve in the part, while Adams has delivered on much of her indie promise since graduating to the big leagues. Kal, that troubled, haunted, lost soul has discovered his true identity - a solid scene with Crowe doing his Brando/ice crystals bit - and is sharpening his powers, courtesy of an exhilarating sequence in which he soars, swoops and pings over cities, deserts and savannahs, on the wings of Hans Zimmer's triumphant score. Snyder's handling of the emotional material is unexpectedly excellent, he has gathered the finest collection of dimple-chins ever put on screen, and now the action scenes are firing too. The oil rig rescue? This super set-piece? Is he about to run Bryan Singer close? No, he's about to slightly bollocks everything up, right from the moment Zod starts "terra forming".

When the final hour of the film finds time for quiet moments of character drama amidst the escalating mayhem, it scores big. And when it goes for Supes-savvy humour, as in the final scene at the Daily Planet, it's utterly charming. But when it romanticises the American military, lingers laboriously on its various uninspired technical creations, or serves up scene after scene after scene of CGI carnage - buildings crumbling (is this the first post-9/11 superhero movie?), glass flying everywhere, Supes and Zod crashing out the other side to a cacophony of yawns - the effect is deadening. I didn't allow my spirits to soar throughout the first 80 minutes so I could be clubbed over the head with disingenuous idiocy. The effect is akin to eating a delicious savoury meal, only to be interrupted halfway through by Zack Snyder shoving a whole six-pack of cupcakes into your mouth.

And that's a shame. Obviously. Because there's greatness at work here. It's just tossed aside by a director who doesn't credit his audience with the patience or intelligence to watch a whole film consisting of proper characterisation, vivid, incisive myth-making and grounded, weighty action sequences. And perhaps he's right, because that's what Singer gave us, and everyone said it was shit. (3)


So then I watched Superman Returns for the first time in four years, to see whether it deserved all that praise I've been slinging at it. And it did, sort of.

Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)
- It's baggier than I remembered, and Superman is a bit of a creepy stalker, but by Grabthar's hammer (sorry, wrong film), Singer's ambitious, effective pastiche of the Richard Donner originals is still the Man of Steel's best big screen outing to date.

It's 26 years after Richard Lester ruined Superman II - or five years after Superman left Earth, depending on how you look at it - and our hero (Brandon Routh) is back. In the interim, his nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has got out of jail, his country has moved on, and so has the love of his life (Kate Bosworth). Lois also has a little boy, whose father may or may not be unfailingly pleasant newspaper executive Richard White (James Marsden), her new boyf. As Lex plans to branch out into real estate with the help of some stolen crystals, a piece of Kryptonite and a plan to kill billions, Supes decides to use his x-ray vision to spy on his ex, while getting reacquainted with the business of saving folks and lifting as many heavy things as he can find.

This strange, melancholy film blew me away when I first saw it in 2009 (late to the party as usual) and since then I've held it as my favourite superhero movie. A second viewing perhaps doesn't justify that billing - X2 and Spider-Man 2 are probably better, and Batman Begins just might be as well - but it is a very interesting, sometimes exhilarating, and ludicrously underrated film that boasts several fine set pieces, an eye-opening handling of superhero mythos and an exuberant, definitive villain in the shape of Spacey's petty, sarcastic and malevolent baldy.

Routh certainly looks the part - he's a virtual doppelganger for Reeve, aside from making Supes look like he's ageing in reverse - though I wasn't as impressed by his performance this time around. He lacks the dynamism that Cavill recently brought to the role and sometimes seems to be merely aping his predecessor's mannerisms, rather than putting his own spin on the character. Though this was presumably the way he was asked to play it, for the sake of the film's curious grasp of continuity (it's a sequel to Superman and Superman II, of course, but has flown all around the world to erase the third and fourth instalments), it can feel a little gimmicky, keeping us at arms' length. He also looks weirdly artificial and CGI-d in too many of his airborne sequences, more like the Superman character in a PS2 game of the movie than the real thing. The flashback sequence, showing his younger self leaping corn in a single bound, suffers from the same problem, playing more like a Pushing Daisies video game than a scene from a $200m movie.

As the feisty, Pulitzer Prize-winning heroine, Bosworth gets a raw deal, tending to be the first stick that anyone uses to beat the film with. While her filmography looks singularly unpromising and she isn't a very distinctive or bolshy Lois, lacking both the Torchy Blane factor that's surely central to the character and a certain facial expressiveness, as a sadder, wiser incarnation with the same idealistic, romantic centre, I think she mostly works.

Where the film really scores, acting-wise, is with Spacey's perforrmance. While I like Gene Hackman as an actor, he was a pathetic Luthor, neither funny nor scary. Spacey is both, revelling in the possibilities of the role. His weary put-downs to his moll (Parker Posey) are a joy, and the scene in which he boots Supes in the ribs is gloriously dark, though best of all is the scene in which he taunts Lois, caught adrift on his boat. "Say it," he encourages her, after sharing his dastardly scheme. "You're insane," she spits. "No, the other thing," he asks, coyly. "Superman won't let you-" "WRONG!" he roars back, his playfulness giving way to a snapshot of the darkest part of his soul. This whole passage, which begins with the faint sound of Bizet's Carmen eerily imploring Lois to investigate, takes in that confrontation between reporter and maniac, moves through a superb suspense sequence in which she tries to fax for her freedom beneath the strains of Heart and Soul, and climaxes with someone being killed by a massive fucking grand piano, is brilliant in just about every way.

It's followed by two similarly special set-pieces: the first, which kicks off with a euphoric costume change in a lift shaft, sees Supes racing through the city at breakneck speed, saving a falling construction worker, putting out fires with his breath and catching the Daily Planet's iron-wrought globe, which is about to kill everyone in the vicinity, including editor Perry White (Frank Langella). The second sees our hero brought low by Kryptonite - which is like Kryptonite to him - his fingers bleeding (an inspired touch), as a bunch of goons and their psychotic master simply kick the shit out of him. And then shiv him.

It's bravura filmmaking: mythmaking of the highest order and, in symbolic terms, perhaps an illustration of the incredible feats and crippling weaknesses that characterise anyone's life. It's certainly significant in terms of Singer's religious conception of the character, who possesses superhuman abilities and an intense sense of empathy, but is also hampered by the physical frailties of his form. The sequence in which his feeble body is beaten to a pulp, the vicious mockery of his former greatness ringing in his ears, has clear New Testament overtones, alluding to Christ's ordeal prior to his crucifixion.

The film ends in weirdly anti-climactic fashion. There's no final confrontation: Luthor is merely stranded on a desert island, his girlfriend having chucked his crystals out of a helicopter - a move that's perhaps intended to show how Supes' good-heartedness can convert anyone, but just feels like lazy writing - but I do absolutely love the scene in which Supes shoves a rock riddled with Kryptonite into space, his face fixed in agony. This is a Superman who suffers, who feels pain and suffering, loneliness and fear, and even if those emotions are expressed more through Singer's visual invention than Routh's middling performance, that stunning conception of the character still comes across.

It's a film full of iconic imagery - some of it drawn from the 1978 movie, other bits based on classic comic covers - and the greatest piece of all is that unforgettable reveal of Superman at the rock face, the weight of the world on his shoulders. He has never had to suffer like this before, unless you count appearing in Superman III and IV. And once more its basis is biblical, echoing the Stations of the Cross, in which Jesus - a former carpenter - is shown carrying his cross to his own crucifixion. Here Superman may be ultimately freeing himself of his burden, but he's still shouldering it, for the sake of humanity.

For those who like their superheroes straight-up super, performing simple feats of derring do on the streets of the city, Singer also throws in a handful of other treats. There's an invigorating little piece of action that sees Supes face down a bank robber who's wielding a minigun and a pistol: if you've ever wondered how hard his eyes are, you're about to find out. We're treated to a dazzling collection of clips supposedly culled from newscasts across the globe, complete with fuzzy footage of our hero plucking a falling man from in front of a skyscraper (echoes of 9/11, which was more directly recalled in Man of Steel). And then there is the runaway plane sequence, which even those who misguidedly hate Superman Returns will tell you is something of a wow. They're right. Though only about this. As Lois attends the launch of a new craft, a power outage caused by a certain dome-headed megalomaniac causes everything to go haywire. If only Superman could turn up, cast some of it into space and then lower the out-of-control remnants, full of journos, into a packed baseball stadium, prompting tumultuous applause. What's that? He can. Awesome.

One thing I really like about this sequence, aside from the fact that it's completely amazing, is how tiny and insignificant Superman looks, flitting around the outside of this gargantuan sardine can, tumbling to earth. There's a sense of peril here - and not just mild peril - that's enhanced by the frequent cuts to Lois getting slung about inside, that's too often missing from these set-pieces. Man of Steel was also at its best when it rooted its action sequences in realism. Realism, in this context, is of course a relative term, but there's a weight and basic believability to the runaway plane scene that renders it utterly thrilling. The flipside of this is that too much realism is as unwelcome intrusion: the most ordinary action sequence in the film, where Marsden rescues Superman in his plane, doesn't really belong in any movie, let alone this one, because it's really boring.

I have mixed feelings about the film's personal relationships. While the basic idea of making Superman a flawed hero who'll just fuck off for five years is a really fascinating one, rendering his return a public triumph but a personal struggle, the relationship with his possible son feels cliched and Hollywoodised. And while the scene in which he sees his mother (a brilliantly-cast Eva Marie Saint, basically the biggest treat that you can give someone who loves On the Waterfront and North by Northwest) is beautifully done, having him spy on Lois by looking through the walls of her house is a misstep: however affecting his alienation (incidentally the word that leaps out from Saint's Scrabble board upon his reappearance), it's undermined by the essential creepiness of the concept.

As a Brando fanboy, the use of archive footage and off-cuts from '78 - allowing him to posthumously reprise his performance as Superman's father, Jor-El - is a joy. Just his voice, with that cod-English accent, is enough to cause the hairs on my neck to stand on end. I do feel, though, that when his son recalls his words of wisdom, as he lies dying in the sea, Singer has essentially just swept up all the random Brando clips he could find and stitched them together into a slightly confusing audio montage.

Similarly, though the scene in which Supes plummets to ground, throwing up a dust cloud and a making a single dull thud, is wonderfully unsentimental, the medical climax is as uninteresting, unwelcome and coldly clinical as the one in E. T. The film's awkward comedy interludes at the Daily Planet, torn right from the Donner original, are also a mixed bag, though I do love the bit where Jimmy asks Clark how pissed off he thinks Superman will be about Lex Luthor walking free. "A lot," says Routh, with impeccable comic timing. "A lot," agrees Jimmy.

There are things wrong with Superman Returns: Routh and Bosworth are somewhat lacking in panache and verve, and a smattering of unnecessary scenes and redundant set-pieces stop the film from hanging together as well as it might. Its pacing is peculiar and its hero spends too long off screen - despite the majesty of that Lois-Luthor face-off. Viewed as a whole, it's as lumpy as a bag of Christmas presents, though it's also just as full of goodies.

This is a superior superhero movie, and a high water mark for the man in the red undies ("ovies"?): a homage that surpasses its influences - while lifted by the same soaring score - and a feat of epic, widescreen mythmaking, chock-full of iconic imagery, great ideas, and scenes of both weighted, breathless action and stomach-tightening suspense. I don't think it holds up on second viewing as well as it did on the first, but it's a hell of a lot better than its reputation suggests, and I can't wait for the sequel: roll on summer 2009! (3)


Other stuff:

I Give It A Year (Dan Mazer, 2013) - He's a Timothy Spall-faced loafer of no fixed character who dances like Beyonce and talks like Ricky Gervais (Rafe Spall). She's a fickle, faithless shrew who'll jeopardise her marriage for her job (Rose Byrne). And, nine months in, their marriage is on the rocks - perhaps because together they make the most dislikeable movie couple since the heady days of What's Your Number?. Or Downfall. One could argue that these characters are supposed to bring out the worst in one another, such is the film's proud status as a self-proclaimed "anti rom-com", and Spall's tender scenes with ex-girlfriend Anna Faris are more agreeable - she remains a talented actress with either the world's worst agent or a masochistic streak a mile wide. But Byrne's romance with a similarly smug American (Simon Baker) is utterly joyless, and I did spend most of the film hoping that they would all just fuck off (apart from Faris), which is a notably weak basis upon which to build a movie.

Kicking off where most rom-coms finish, and filmed in a sickly way that suggests the bastard offspring of Hollywood product and a Richard Curtis movie, I Give It a Year is smug, annoying and as unrealistic and unsatisfying as the movies it purports to spear, following its lumpy but lively first half - essentially just a string of comic set-pieces connected by the barest thread of story - with a second that's pointlessly plotty and both overly and overtly gloomy. Its rather horrible approach to marriage is typified by Minnie Driver's hideous supporting character, who revels in loathing her husband. The film toys with the idea of this being an affectionate quirk, then decides it would be funnier if it isn't. It isn't. And, curiously, her best line ("I'm not calling you a whore, but I also am") is in the trailer but not the film.

For all its problems, though, the film can be very funny, for which you can forgive it a little of the above. That's exclusively down to the bit players, and one in particular. Stephen Merchant has crafted a very specific persona in his film work - a garrulous idiot oblivious to the almost universal disapproval that greets his every pronouncement - and he's fantastic here. Whenever he's on screen as Spall's best man - mostly in the first 20 and last 10 minutes of the film - the movie starts firing, and its clumsy fusion of cliche, cynicism and bawdy and bad taste humour morphs into something rather charming. Recalling Nick Frost's heroics in Shaun of the Dead, he's a buffoon liked only by our nominal hero: a man not averse to public rapping, mistakenly chatting up children, or "accidentally" (the quote marks are his) walking in on his best friend's fiancee when she's getting changed. I'd say that it's even just about worth it for those moments and for a couple of moderately funny bits with Olivia Colman and Tim Key - when the former's marriage counsellor isn't drifting disastrously into painful predictability.

As a whole, it's not really any good, serving up characters who are too unpleasant to care about, even if they were believable enough for you to try, while its "anti rom-com" posturing is as wearisome as the leads' performances. But it isn't a total write-off, providing a handful of big laughs and another fine showcase for Merchant, who tends to be the best thing about every comedy in which he's criminally underused. (2)


Man in the Mirror (Maurice Elvey, 1936)
is a charming starring vehicle for the peerless Edward Everett Horton, America's greatest Golden Age character comic. In the 1930s, Horton - a familiar face in many of the decade's best Hollywood comedies - crossed the Atlantic to make two films for Maurice Elvey, the British craftsman-turned-hack whose career might have been oh-so-different if his silent epic, The Life Story of David Lloyd George, had been released before 1996, some time after the heyday of soundless cinema. Their first collaboration, Soldiers of the King, was a lifeless musical in which Horton was given unforgivably little to do opposite star Cicely Courtneidge. But this second go, filmed between the star's wildly successful films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is a vast improvement: an altogether slicker, more prestigious affair that makes considerable use of his considerable talents.

Horton was rangier than you might expect - check out his beautiful performance in George Cukor's Holiday for proof of his dramatic chops (he was the only actor to reprise his role from the 1930 adaptation) - but usually he traded on a very distinct persona: fretful, gently neurotic and sometimes agreeably petulant, equipped with a gallery of hilarious expressions and vocal tics, and the most outrageously protracted double-take in cinematic history. Here he's ideally cast as Jeremy Dilke, a henpecked husband who's used to being trampled on, both at home and at work. That changes when his roguish reflection (also Horton) steps out of a mirror and proceeds to teach him a few things about life: like how to succeed in business, get drunk, and seduce a married woman.

Attempting to build on a rather wonderful gimmick, the plotting is predictable - and not as clever and ambitious as it might be - though it is nicely tied up in the final scene. Part of the problem is that the film has some extended set pieces that are neither central to the story - except through subsequent contrivance - or very funny. Where it scores, though, is in letting Horton roam free. There was always a slightly wistful quality about his dominated characters in films like The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat: it wasn't that Horton didn't want to carouse - in brief moments of catharsis he "knocked knees" with Betty Grable (how incredibly Pre-Code) and accidentally confessed to an affair that took place at a zoo - it was more that he was terrified to. While the script is lacking in belly laughs, all of which come from the star's distinctive line-readings and facial contortions, Horton is exactly the right choice to play its hero, who's both transfixed by and extremely worried about his "other self", an uber-confident cad doing all the things he's always secretly wanted to. As the film makes clear - and this is unusually heavy for what appears to be a bit of froth - Horton's weary doormat has subjugated his desires to such an extent that his alter-ego is as much himself as what he has instead become; his true personality, and the one that will bring him what he wants now he has been set on the right path, lies somewhere in the middle.

The rest of the cast isn't bad. Genevieve Tobin - who played (oh that) Mitzi in Lubitsch's adultery musical One Hour with You - is attractive as Horton's wife, whose apparent impetuosity is just the result of her being sexually neglected, and statuesque stage star Ursula Jeans is quite good, except when hamming it up in her drunk scenes. There's also an early bit for Alastair Sim, playing a con man's interpreter, who makes the most of a rather slight, silly part. These sequences, typically bearing a pattern of "gobbledygook followed by-translation", quickly become tiresome (shades of Godard's Le Mepris in that respect), but are enlivened a little by Sim's booming voice and little smirks. Elvey once lamented that not a single one of his films was any good (his Lloyd George biopic hadn't seen the light of day at that stage), but it depends on what you mean by "good". This one doesn't break any new ground, but it does serve its purpose: providing bright entertainment in a faux-Hollywood vein.

Elvey handles the film's tricky visual conundrum very well (aside from one shot of a lousy double being shut out a room!) and it's a handsome production, full of stunning art deco sets that wouldn't have looked out of place in one of Horton's RKO films, lit by stylish wipes, and featuring a pair of attention-grabbing earrings (sported by Jeans), that twinkle tantalisingly as she tries to seduce Horton's meek married man. Interestingly, the sexual frankness in this adulterous relationship is something that Hollywood would really have struggled to get away with in 1936, a time when the excessive censorship crackdown had sent married couples to separate beds. Perhaps the film could have done more with its promising premise - it certainly could have provided some bigger laughs - but it's a pleasant, good-looking movie that makes close to the most of its very special guest. (3)

Monday, 10 June 2013

Peter Boyle, All the President's Men 2, and Clara Bow talks! - Reviews #164

Joe (John G. Avildsen, 1970) - A bristling, unpredictable drama from Rocky director John G. Avildsen about the relationship between an advertising executive (Dennis Patrick) who's just beaten his daughter's drug dealer boyfriend to death, and the racist rent-a-gob (Peter Boyle) who admires him for it. In some ways it's a prototype Dirty Harry or Taxi Driver, though it's less bloodthirsty and more intriguing: a complex character piece, laced with pitch black comedy, that doubles as a state-of-the-nation treatise - as Falling Down would in the 1990s. I'm not sure if the film's politics are confused or just purposefully veiled, as it appears to oscillate between liberalism and fascism, but that moral muckiness rather plays in its favour, drawing us into an ugly, complex world with few easy answers; even if the ones Joe suggests are almost certainly wrong. Boyle disagreed: after hearing that audiences cheered the revenge sequences, he vowed never to make another film that glorified violence - if indeed this one does.

There are elements that seem cartoonish to a modern viewer - whether they were ever realistic, I'm not sure - but it is a fascinating film, a gripping evocation of a time in American life when the generation gap was at its greatest, a breeding ground for suspicion, outrage and contempt. America always seems to be at war with itself: in 1970 the enemies of the right were hippies, permissiveness and black benefit claimants, and it's all three that are making Joe mad. As the damaged furnace worker rising to boiling point, Boyle is absolutely sensational, even if, like Ron Burgundy, he has never heard of the phrase "When in Rome..." Incidentally, this was Susan Sarandon's first film. She's Patrick's daughter, a speed freak who ODs in a chemist after drawing all over her own face. (3.5)


Dick (Andrew Fleming, 1999) - From the title, I was expecting a biopic of Kelvin MacKenzie. Instead I got a passable teen comedy with a Watergate backdrop. Wouldn't it be funny if Richard Nixon ate cookies laced with weed? Not really, no. But that joke does have a clever pay-off, and the film comes equipped with some sharply satirical barbs, albeit 27 years too late. "Papier-mache is a hobby of mine," claims Nixon when his aides are caught shredding documents - actually one of his more credible lies of the period. Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst are ditzy 15-year-old friends who unwittingly stumble across the Watergate scandal, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tricky Dicky, Henry Kissinger and those "radical, muckraking bastards", Woodward and Bernstein (Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch), who are easily the funniest thing about the film.

At its worst, it's shallow and silly - the sing-along with the Russians is a dreadfully weak concept, Devon Gummersall is wasted as a pothead, and the jokes about "loving Dick" get very tiresome very quickly - but it has an agreeably original premise, carried through with enough enthusiasm to sustain it for 90 minutes, and possesses a narrative that amusingly accounts for memorable details and enduring mysteries surrounding the scandal - including the blank 18-and-a-half-minutes on the Watergate tapes, which leads to a big laugh near the movie's close. Williams is very good as a naive, nervously-giggling nerd, and though Dunst sometimes fails to convince as her more confident friend - playing too broad, and too young for 15 - a supporting cast that includes Dan Hedaya, Saul Rubinek and Harry Shearer has fun bringing to life various infamous political figures of the early 1970s. The best thing about it, though, are those sequences riffing on All the President's Men: the sets are lovingly recreated, from the newspaper office to the garage where the investigative reporters meet Deep Throat, but now Woodward is an irritable, arrogant headline-hogger, and Bernstein is a needy, childish incompetent who keeps trying to steal his stories, and his notepad. It would be another 16 years after the film's release before Mark Felt, the FBI's former associate director, revealed that he was the pair's mysterious source, rather than two teenage girls, somewhat trashing the film's gimmick.

It's a bit too trivial and superficial, typified by a heap of annoying song choices (You're So Vain is a notably wonderful exception) and a bizarre disco coda - completely at odds with the rest of the film - in which Dunst and Williams lick lollies emblazoned with the legend "Dick" and stroke themselves, but it's still worth a look as a sporadically sharp fusion of teen comedy and political satire: two genres that are usually kept rather further apart. (The only other one that springs to mind is the exceptional Election, released four months earlier.) Just call it Romy and Michelle's All the President's Men.




Call Her Savage (John Francis Dillon, 1932)
- So... much... plot. Clara Bow's comeback, after her nervous breakdown in 1931, kicked off a two-picture deal with Fox. Depending on who you believe, her intention was to restore her battered reputation following a series of scandals and dud pictures, or to make as much money as possible before retiring for good. It may have been both.

After years of being shoved around by Paramount, who increasingly put her in inferior vehicles with nothing co-stars, her new contract at her new home gave her the final say on material, cast and director. What she chose first was this absurd Pre-Code melodrama - as Pre-Code as Pre-Code gets - which introduces her braless and furious, bullwhipping the hell out of "half-breed" Gilbert Roland in a sexually-charged frenzy. While the film can't maintain the breathless momentum of that classic, bizarre sequence, it does take in adultery, venereal disease, prostitution, paedophilia and attempted rape, as well as the first gay bar in cinematic history and more melodrama than you can crack a whip at.

And for anyone familiar with Bow's tragic life, the film is even odder than it may look at first glance. Her heroine makes a glib reference in a party scene to "a nervous breakdown", bursts into tears at the mention of mental illness - Bow's mother and two aunts were all institutionalised, as she had just been - and falls into destitution, the life of grinding poverty that would have been the actress's lot had she not won a magazine contest in 1921. She talks about mending her promiscuous ways and settling down - precisely the life that she had mapped out for herself at this juncture of her life - and is begged by her best friend (Bow's former fiancee, Roland) to try to sleep, recalling the insomnia that plagued the actress's life, after her mother attacked her in her sleep, aged 16.

As with so many of the star's films, this one also tried to head off or cash-in on scandals in her colourful private life, resulting in a perverse scene where her character frolics on the floor with a Great Dane. For those who need to brush up on their tabloid smears of the 1920s, it's a reference to an allegation that Bow frequently copulated with her dog - also a Great Dane - a claim that ultimately cost its author eight years in prison.

As a stand-alone film, rather than a historical curio, Call Her Savage is rather less compelling. Though it has superb moments, including a thrillingly-directed opening that sees a bunch of marauding Native Americans attack a wagon train, Bow's unforgettable entrance, and a slew of short sequences in which arguably cinema's finest silent actress gets to emote without those troublesome words, it's a haphazard movie that jumps from one rather unconvincing development to the next, buoyed only by its censor-hurdling tawdriness and Bow's charismatic performance. I'm not sure that, taken as a whole, her combustible character makes for a convincing human being: her fiery temper, fiery hair and plunging neckline seem to be the only constants across her various contrasting personas. But she does command the attention most of the time, and if she's hardly the force of nature that she was in silent films like It and Mantrap, she's still a fascinating performer.

Sadly, she isn't helped in her noble bid to defeat the dodgy material by a flat, uninteresting supporting cast. I bow to no man in my admiration for Willard Robertson, the lawyer-turned-actor who graces my favourite movie, Remember the Night, as a flamboyant defence attorney, and gave one of the coolest characterisations of all time in the comic Western, Along Came Jones. Here, asked to play an authoritarian father, he's just completely dull, an affliction that he shares with every one of his fellow cast members, aside from Bow. Even the smouldering Roland and the usually reliable Thelma Todd fail to spark much interest, perhaps because of the company they're keeping, but almost certainly because the script and story - while loaded with adult themes and moments of unspeakable tragedy - are so terrifically pedestrian in execution.

So, if you're after a '30s movie that still stands up well today, look elsewhere. But if you're a film historian, a Pre-Code buff or a Clara Bow fan, then this incredibly miserable movie - endlessly preoccupied with "the sins of the father" - is worth 85 sordid minutes of your valuable time. (2)

Hoop-La (Frank Lloyd, 1933) - Clara Bow gives one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in this, her final film, an otherwise standard carnival romance. Movies set around this seedy, colourful world were ten-a-penny in the '30s, from Borzage's dreadful Liliom (based on the same play as Carousel), to Tod Browning's Freaks and The Mind Reader, Ruth Chatterton in Lilly Turner, and a couple of films starring the extraordinary Lee Tracy: Carnival and Fixer Dugan. This adaptation of a popular Kenyon Nicholson play, filmed before in 1928 as The Barker and twice later by Tokyo Story director Yasujiro Ozu, tells the story of a sexually-savvy dancer (Bow) who agrees to seduce the carnival manager's callow son (Richard Cromwell) for a hundred bucks. Naturally, she falls in love with him, putting her at loggerheads with her boss - and the broad who stumped up the dough.

Bow, despite frequently sporting a risible hairdo that makes her look plump and 50, is absolute dynamite, shifting between playful sensuality, heartfelt emotion and coarse threats in the blink of an eye, taking what's little more than flax, and spinning it into pure gold. As usual, she's hilarious and sexy (despite the hairdo), but there's also that wonderful sincerity and vulnerability in this performance that lights up her very best work. In sound films like The Wild Party and Call Her Savage, she seemed to be succeeding in spite of the new-fangled need to vocalise her feelings. Here, she's finally at ease with the medium, producing a stunning, startling characterisation that leaps off the screen and proves that the talkies were hers for the taking, if only she'd had the temperament to go with her talent. Instead, she bowed out at the top of her game, leaving us with this: a dynamic starring role that dominates the movie to the point of parody and recalls the very best of her silent work, but, y'know, with talking too.

The rest of the cast is thrown into shadow by the brilliant Bow and her sparkly bikinis, but Cromwell - equally adept as a pure-hearted juvenile (Emma) or an appalling coward (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer) - makes for a likeable leading man, and I was extremely surprised by how good the often bland Preston Foster was as his father, navigating the rather overwrought material with considerable skill. Minna Gombell, who essentially played the same role throughout the '30s, is also well-cast as Bow's pal, a spoilt, selfish fellow dancer who wants her to win Cromwell, so she can get back to boffing his dad. When Clara's off-screen, Hoop-La looks like a conventional carnival flick, with a decent, nicely-detailed backdrop, but a slightly pat, cliched story. But when she's centre-stage, and she usually is, it's something else entirely: a mesmerising, affecting, often exhilarating ride, and a staggering swansong for one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the silver screen. (3.5)


Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn (1988/2000)
- The definitive Bow book is a brilliantly-researched account of her desperately sad life, written with a fair amount of style, and only detracted from by a slight sensationalism and some excessive armchair psychology. The enduring impression is of a sad, haunted soul with a miraculous gift whose career - and life - were destroyed by rampaging inner demons fuelled by her heartbreaking upbringing. The manipulative, selfish Paramount executive B. P. Schulberg comes out of the book terribly, though not as badly as Bow's hateful father. Ironically, when MGM made a fun film loosely based on her life in 1933, Bombshell starring Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy, he was portrayed by popular character comic Frank Morgan as an affable bumbler. (3.5)


Louie Bluie (Terry Zwigoff, 1985) - This was the first film from Ghost World director - and blues buff - Terry Zwigoff, an odd little documentary about the leader of America's last black string band, Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, a painter, pornography afficionado and tall-tale teller whose suspect anecdotes (usually directed at someone who has heard them before, such are the necessities of the medium) are alternated with exhilarating jamming sessions featuring many of his wizened, laid-back contemporaries. In striving for intimacy, the film suffers from a distinct lack of context - despite a nice effect which sees his stories accompanied by his evocative artworks - and though we hang out with Louie, playing cards, shooting the breeze and buying a poster of a dragon, we never really get a sense of the man beneath the bullshit. Still, while the audience is kept at arm's length, and Armstrong can unquestionably be a bit irritating, he remains an interesting character, and it's hard not to admire a man with such a cool signature, such a colourful lexicon, and acquaintances called things like Bumblebee Slim. The music, which is stunning throughout, climaxes with a beautiful version of Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, performed on a Chicago street in front of 20 people and a sign about lampshades. (3)


Another from the Treasures V: The West box-set:

Womanhandled (Gregory La Cava, 1925) - A sporadically entertaining comedy about pampered New Yorker Richard Dix pretending he's a Western he-man to impress a woman he met in the park (Esther Ralston). He heads out to his uncle's lamentably modern ranch and then, when she decides to follow, tries to make it all seem a bit more "Western". The version on the Treasures V box-set is only 55 minutes long, as it's missing both the lost "cattle stampede" climax and a scene that the compilers cut out because they thought it wasn't very interesting (what the hell?!), but it has a few laughs - including a fun bit in which the ranch hands try to ride horses for the first time - and a couple of nice meta gags ("All the real cowboys have gone into the movies," laments Dix's uncle). It's all very reminiscent of Doug Fairbanks' 1917 film, Wild and Woolly - an embryonic version of those trick-the-visitor outings like Seducing Dr Lewis or Local Hero - but not as good. Dix's clean-cut appearance and sprightly manner may surprise those who only know him as a tired-looking '40s B-actor in films like the Whistler series and Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship, and he does a fair job with what he's given. Sadly the script, co-written by director Gregory La Cava, is rather hit and miss, with too much time given over to a destructive little kid who isn't very funny. Still, there was enough about Womanhandled for Variety to say of its director: "It is safe to predict he is going a long way in making the pictures of the future", and they weren't wrong. Within 12 years, La Cava would have made both My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, two of the defining achievements of '30s American cinema. (2)


Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

RIP Esther Williams - The Million Dollar Mermaid

Esther Williams, who has passed away aged 91, was the legendary star of MGM musicals, a wartime pin-up and former swimming champion whose wet-through routines in movies like Bathing Beauty, Million Dollar Mermaid and Dangerous When Wet (opposite Tom & Jerry) essentially created the Olympic sport of synchronised swimming. It's not often you can say that an actress did something quite unlike anything that came before or since, but Williams did: she created an entire genre of which she was the only proponent. She was a limited actress, but a magnificent star, whose stunning, startling water ballets - which she co-choreographed - created many of the defining moments of '40s and '50s cinema.

She also wrote one of the great books about Hollywood at its height.

So what would you imagine that the autobiography of Esther Williams, MGM’s beloved musical swimming sensation, would be like? Well, the middle section of the nattily-titled Million Dollar Mermaid (2000) is like that: fun, splashy, gossipy, though with an unexpected feminist edge. We learn that producer Joe Pasternak ate spaghetti with his hands, Stanley Donen liked to eavesdrop on conversations about himself from behind a curtain, and Joan Crawford wasn’t averse to wandering around a deserted MGM at night, dressed as a bird. And then there are her tales of Johnny Weissmuller, superbly debunked by Cheeta the Chimp in the index of his autobiography.

But the book isn't just froth: it's tough, bleak and sometimes just plain old weird.

It begins, bizarrely, with a chapter in which Williams and ghostwriter Digby Diehl recall the time she scored LSD with the help of Cary Grant, and then hallucinated that she’d consumed the identity of her brother – who died tragically young – and was turning into a hermaphrodite. I can imagine the hordes of American movie fans at their local bookshop, protesting: “When I bought the autobiography of beloved MGM musical swimming sensation Esther Williams, I didn’t expect that the first chapter would include her saying: ‘I felt my penis stirring’.”

The next chapter, detailing her abuse at the hands of her adopted brother, is simply horrific – desperately sad – before the book proceeds to morph almost instantly into the light, undemanding read you might have anticipated. Well, until her second husband gambles away all her money.

I’ve read a fair few Golden Age autobiographies and Million Dollar Mermaid is one of the best, full of the kind of delightful detail that colours your perceptions from then on. The first thing I think when I see director Mervyn LeRoy's name on screen nowadays is that he apparently gave a single piece of advice before every camera-roll: “Let’s have a nice little scene”.

Williams has a slightly self-serving writing style and doesn't come out of the book as the saint she envisages: one can query her heartlessness in the treatment of a boyfriend's wife, the way she hangs poor old Jeff Chandler out to dry with tales of his cross-dressing, and the fact that she hung around with Franco's mates in Spain, but for all that it's a hell of a good book and she's an engaging, amusing companion: one who lived a full, fascinating and often fearlessly feminist life.


Esther Williams on...

... her LSD trip:
"When I looked in the mirror again, I was startled by a split image: One half of my face, the right half, was me; the other half was the face of a sixteen-year-old boy. The left side of my upper body was flat and muscular, like the chest of a boy. I reached up with my boy's large, clumsy hand to touch my right breast and felt my penis stirring. It was a hermaphroditic phantasm that held me entranced as I discovered my divided body. I don't know how long I stood there touching and exploring, but I was not afraid. Finally, I understood completely: when Stanton had died, I had taken him into my life so completely that he became a part of me."

... her movies, and those of Judy Garland, and Tracy and Hepburn: "People stood in line to see these films not because of the title or the plot, but because we were in them, and the revenue from these 'predictable' movies financed the production of a lot of turgid dramas and bad comedies that nobody stood in line for."

... Jeff Chandler: "'Jeff, are you getting help? Are you seeing a therapist?'
'Yes, of course.'
I felt a strong intuition and blurted it out: 'Your therapist is a cross-dresser too, isn't he?'"

... Joan Crawford: "Joan Crawford, feeding off the adoration of sycophants and decked out in her turqoise bird outfit, begging an imaginary public not to abandon her, is just one of many stars who became almost pathologically unable to deal with growing older." Ouch.


And here's a quick guide to her best movies:

A Guy Named Joe (Victor Fleming, 1943) - Williams made a good early impression with a dramatic role in this transcendent WWII fantasy, later remade by Spielberg as Always, starring Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne.

Bathing Beauty (George Sidney, 1944) - Her breakout success began life as a Red Skelton comedy called Mr Coed. MGM's third floor brains were no mugs, and changed the title when they saw who was sprinting away with the movie.

Ziegfeld Follies (Merrill Pye - uncredited, 1945) - Williams' smiley, water-lily heavy ballet is one of the highlights of this all-star compendium.

On an Island with You (Richard Thorpe, 1948) - Cheery Hawaii-set fun with a good cast and some great numbers: Williams in the water and Cyd Charisse hoofing on dry land.

Neptune's Daughter (Edward Buzzell, 1949) - This standard Williams vehicle is best remembered for foreshadowing her move into swimsuit design (after her career dried out, she became a hard-nosed businesswoman), and for her passable, Oscar-winning take on the classic Baby It's Cold Outside.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Busby Berkeley, 1949) - On the Town, but with baseball, with Williams crowbarred into the movie at short notice. She was miserable throughout filming; it doesn't show.

The Million Dollar Mermaid (Mervyn LeRoy, 1952) - Williams gave her best dramatic performance in this biopic, playing Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. She was cast opposite Victor Mature, with whom she promptly began an intense affair.

Dangerous When Wet (Charles Walters, 1953) - Charming story about a Channel-swimmer (Williams), lit by that classic dream sequence in which she swims with Tom & Jerry, and the draining action climax.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Some thoughts on Lulu in Hollywood

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1982)

I find Louise Brooks a little over-hyped as an actress. Yes, she was a distinctive, even iconic performer, with her helmet of black hair and that aggressive, feline sensuality. Yes, she attained a naturalism rare in silent cinema, even if she only starred in a handful of pictures. But was she really that much better than Bow, Gish and Gaynor? No. No, she wasn't. Like Johnny Guitar and The Girl Can't Help It, she was taken up by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd in the '50s and elevated beyond all others of her age in a blaze of hysterical hyperbole. In a way, that's gratifying: after all, she had been unfairly dismissed - then unjustly forgotten - after Pandora's Box died on its arse at the box office. But in another way, it's extremely silly. "There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks," French film archivist Henri Langlois once said, which translates into English as, "I have an erection."

As a writer on film history, though, I think Brooks may have no equal. This intuitive, incisive and staggeringly insightful collection of essays, written in her inimitable, jaggedly beautiful prose style, turns everything you thought you knew about movies and the movie business on its head. W. C. Fields was a sad loner with eczema whose stage humour was killed stone dead by the realism of his film persona. Bogart was a gorgeous, well-bred, perpetually-exhausted thespian transformed by the sexual anguish of his third marriage. MGM purposefully ruined Lillian Gish's career through a programme of purposefully lousy vehicles and fan magazine smears. Marion Davies wasn't the carefree socialite of legend, but constantly consumed by the green-eyed monster. And Louise Brooks - that cloche-haired monument to flapperish, pure-centred bodily liberation - will never write her memoirs, because she "cannot unbuckle the Bible Belt" and reveal the sexual obsessions that defined her life as, she argues, they do everybody's. (She is a bit preoccupied with sex. After all, she had rather a lot.)

Brooks is brilliant on everything from acting to the studio system, her own career, the singular directorial technique of G. W. Pabst, the hypocrisy of Hollywood and even - most trickily - the downfall of her friend Pepi Lederer, brought low by societal pressures, selfish companions and substance abuse. She offers a vivid picture of location filming, rips apart the widespread predilection to mythologise two familiar types of star, and crafts perhaps the most alarming synopsis of a film's ending that I have ever read. She's also intimidatingly knowledgeable about literature - pegging herself as "the best-read idiot on the planet" - and augments her prose with apposite insights from many of the world's finest writers.

She can be pedantic, and bitchy, even vindictive, but she's also forthright and honest, with a devastating turn of phrase and real things to say: perfectly-formed theories full of wisdom, augmented by first-person knowledge and set aflame by righteous anger.

The book also contains Kenneth Tynan's classic history-lesson-cum-interview-cum-love-letter, The Girl in the Black Helmet, and a brief, hagiographic epilogue by one of Brooks' friends, the German film critic Lotte Eisner. If you have any interest in '20s and '30s cinema, Lulu in Hollywood is one book that you have to read. And, suitably for such a trendsetting screen siren, its many insights are housed within a wonderfully striking front/back cover combo.


Brooks on her character's fate in Pandora's Box (*SPOILERS AHOY*): "It is Christmas Eve, and she is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac." (I find this possibly the most troubling couplet in the book, because of the sexualisation of youth and the fact that Brooks herself was abused as a child.)

Brooks on Lillian Gish: "Marked first for destruction [by Hollywood bankers] was Lillian Gish. She was the obvious choice. Of all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realisation of their greed and self-aggrandisement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr as well, being Hollywood's radiant symbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star."

Brooks on Hollywood folklore: "In 1922, when I first arrived in New York, I heard all sorts of gags, jokes and anecdotes, and over the past twenty years of reading I have been brought to a condition of nausea as I have found them 'assigned successively' to various film celebrities. There are two categories of celebrities - fitted with appropriate anecdotes - that writers and readers appear to dote on with foolish, untiring enthusiasm. They are the tramp-type woman star delineated by her outrageous conduct and the drunken actor whose cruel antics are considered hilarious."

Brooks on Bogart: "Humphrey Bogart spent the last twenty-one years of his life laboriously converting the established character of a middle-aged man from that of a conventional, well-bred theatre actor named Humphrey to one that complemented his film roles - a rebellious tough known as Bogey."

Brooks on Marion Davies: "To be a true Marionite, one had to hold the belief that mr Hearst had been to bed with no other woman since he met her. Obviously, I did not believe this."

Brooks on understanding her past: "[Film historian Richard Griffith] identified me as 'Louise Brooks, whom Pabst brought to Germany from Hollywood to play in Pandora's Box, whose life and career were altered thereby.' When I read that, thirty years after I refused to go back to Hollywood to do those retakes on The Canary Murder Case, I finally understood why."

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The King of Kong, Mads Mikkelsen, and the theatre in the '40s - Reviews #163

In this week's update: Danish drama, a "great fantastic man", and BBC2 serving up all manner of Golden Age hijinks, via a trio of rarities.

The King of Kong (Seth Gordon, 2007) - Hell-raising musical genius Chet Baker once mused that the purpose of life was to find something you like doing, and do it better than anyone. For loveable everyman Steve Wiebe and hissable villain Billy Mitchell, that thing is Donkey Kong, a near-mythic arcade game that saw the first appearance of a certain red-hatted plumber. Mitchell is the long-reigning world champion, Wiebe the challenger whose posting of the first million score attracts the suspicions of the video game world's self-appointed record keepers. Seth Gordon's documentary takes a promisingly odd premise and does wonderful things with it, creating a film that's hilarious, affecting and likely to make you rail at the sheer injustice of what you're seeing.

The relationship between Wiebe and his wife is right up there with The Thin Man in terms of understanding, perfectly compatible screen couples, Mitchell couldn't be a better character if he tried (actually, he seems to be trying quite hard), and there's one of the most hysterically subservient sycophants I've ever come across, in the shape of his acolyte, Brian Kuh. The scene in which he phones his hero to painstakingly describe the sight of some people watching a (significant) video is horrendously embarrassing in the best possible way.

What could in the wrong hands have been a sneering portrait of eccentrics is instead a compassionate, insightful movie that examines self-worth, the pursuit of dreams both big and small, and - by extension - the way that we live our lives... whilst making a little man jump out of the way of a barrel being thrown by a pixellated gorilla. (4)


A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012)
- Imagine if Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette was Danish and any good. Ta-da! Set during the Enlightenment, when progressive ideas about tolerance, individuality and self-determination swept across Europe, and swept away the status quo, it finds small town doctor Mads Mikkelsen inveigling his way into the Danish royal household, and exerting his influence on a manic, feeble king and his free-spirited English-born queen, the former in the state room, the latter in the bedroom. And while his Machiavellian tendencies may leave a nasty taste in the mouth, it isn't as simple as all that: for who can deny that his actions are having a greater good, or claim that those who seek to replace him have higher ideals? It's an unusually deep and intelligent period drama.

There's a proverb often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt that says: "Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and little minds discuss people." While many corseted chronicles concern themselves with the private lives of the aristocracy, and Downton takes in numerous historical happenings, it's a rare type of costume drama that considers the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or regards as integral to its identity the battle to abolish serfdom. And all the while it deals with an unspoken, ever-timely theme: the disconnect between a man's personal and public life, and whether sexual transgressions should be a barrier to work that enhances the greater society. But for all that, it isn't stodgy or worthy: it's an entertaining, fast-paced story with a few sharp jokes and an incisive narrative both loaded with fatalism - reinforced by its flashback structure - and equipped with a great many short-term surprises. The film's clever plotting is epitomised by the significance of a black kid working in the palace kitchens. When we see him first casting a suspicious glance at Mikkelsen, as the physician makes a nocturnal visit to the queen's chamber, the obvious suggestion is that he'll lead to them getting caught. Instead, Mikkelsen works the fleeting encounter to his own advantage, presenting the novelty servant to the king as a personal mascot (cue some hilarious prodding), before the subplot is rounded off in gutting fashion.

While the film doesn't always attain the intense pitch that one might like, it's an atmospheric production full of shimmering photography with a reverential respect for the detailed palatial sets and luxuriant locales, juxtaposed however briefly with the wider world. There are also some directorial flourishes, including a brilliant PoV shot in a pivotal final scene, and a trio of jump cut close-ups of Mikkelsen in his room, battling his darkest thoughts, a trick I've only ever seen once: when Scheider spots a disturbance in the water in Jaws. Though Mikkelsen dominates as the brooding, brilliant reformer dicing with danger - with that deathly pallour, those deep lines etched into his face like a Gerald Scarfe drawing, and intense, sometimes merciless eyes topped off with white brows - Alicia Vikander and Mikkel Boe Folsgaard are also excellent. She's affecting in a role that's often unshowy, though punctuated by gasps of delight or despair, while he's the finest emotionally-unbalanced giggler since Richard Widmark shoved an old woman down the stairs in Kiss of Death. There's more than a touch of Tom Hulce's Mozart about his performance, but I found it rather more layered. The film has an admirable aversion to cliche, and finds the good and bad in all three of its central characters, shuffling and shifting our sympathies with consummate skill.

A Royal Affair does have a few minor shortcomings - it's a little overlong, occasionally lacks urgency and has a disappointingly one-note villain played by Trina Dyrholm - but it's an extremely impressive, enjoyable and intelligent period piece that deals with important ideas while never forgetting to entertain. The exact opposite of Marie Antoinette, then. (3.5)


Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1993) has a reputation as Crouching Tiger's cooler older brother: he doesn't spend his time moping over women, ruminating on the sentimental value of an antique sword or fannying about up a waterfall, he just fights. A lot. In reality, though, it isn't as simple as all that. Iron Monkey is a deeper, sadder and more leisurely-paced film than you might think: a politically-charged, mythologically-astute martial arts movie that nevertheless houses a fair amount of cartoonish comedy and some of the best fight scenes ever beamed onto a movie screen. Yu Rongguang, described on his Wikipedia page as a "great fantastic man", is Iron Monkey, a respected physician and moonlighting socialist (oh, OK, "Robin Hood figure") who responds to governmental corruption by kicking ass and taking jewels. When a newcomer with fast fists (Donnie Yen) arrives in town, he is suspected of being the famed outlaw, and arrested alongside his son Wong Fei-Hung (Sze-Man Tsang) and a gaggle of local residents with tangential links to all things simian (a rather fine little comic scene). Yen wins their freedom, but at a price, agreeing to arrest Iron Monkey within a week.

Dealing with father-son relationships, childless couples and a starving populace deserted by their superiors, there's something of real substance beneath the gob-smacking action sequences - but what sequences they are. The whirling Rongguang, ever-advancing Yen and pole-savvy Tsang are a spectacular central trio, with the latter - a 14-year-old girl - giving one of my favourite child performances of all time as the 10-year-old boy who would become the most famous of all China's near-mythic martial arts heroes. She's technically precocious but dramatically grounded, lending lines like "Monks aren't monks and officers aren't officers? Bullshit!" - followed by an exquisite pole attack - an exuberant form of angry gravitas. The brief duel between Rongguang and Yen is an absolute wonder, and numerous fine fight scenes follow, spotlighting Woo-Ping's growing mastery of the medium, hinted at in Last Hero in China, then further exhibited across Tai-Chi Master, Wing Chun and Crouching Tiger. I particularly like Tsang's impish dash across a market, duelling with all-comers, the scene where Rongguang's wife (Jean Wang) battles some avaricious monks - cue Tsang's sweary interruption - and the sequence in which Rongguang and Yen battle solo against their arch nemesis.

In fact, it's only the final fight that seems like a letdown, an underwhelming spectacle highlighting Woo-Ping and Yen's fondness for fire, which informed the worst action sequence in the following year's Wing Chun. In story terms, it's dramatically satisfying for the former rivals to team up, but needing an assistant to help you fight one guy - whose second-best trick involves having long sleeves - is not the stuff of legends, and what essentially amount to a bit of pole-dancing (not in that way) is rather disappointing, even if the poles are on fire. Still, despite that shortcoming, Iron Monkey remains one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made. It can't match Crouching Tiger - what can? - but it's a heady blend of action, involving drama, and excessive but above-average Hong Kong comedy that gets a shot of adrenaline every time the fists and feet start flying, and benefits from one inspired piece of casting. (3.5)


And here are those three theatrical comedies that BBC2 very kindly showed on Saturday morning:

Curtain Call (Frank Woodruff, 1940) - Fairly good B-comedy about theatrical impresarios Alan Mowbray and Donald MacBride purchasing a terrible play by starry-eyed country girl Barbara Read, in order to manipulate their rebellious star (Helen Vinson). It has too much exposition across its 60 minutes, and too many jokes about violence and suicide (if that one about MacBride's brother is what I think it is, it's horrible), but there are some very funny one-liners and reaction shots, and there's an interesting juxtaposition of the sweet and caustic - even if the subtext is likely to mortally offend anyone with the slightest feminist bent. Mowbray, an underrated actor usually found in character parts - as a butler in the Topper series, a Charlie Chan suspect, and the drunken Shakespearean actor in My Darling Clementine - is good, while MacBride, who looks like Spike from Tom & Jerry, mostly just shouts, though his "trustworthy" face is hilarious. Barbara Read's career never amounted to much - despite co-starring with the likes of Deanna Durbin, Lee Tracy and Randolph Scott - and you can understand that. She's pleasant, and her romantic subplot isn't bad, but she's unable to elevate the so-so material in the way that Mowbray can. This no-budget comedy doesn't work as a whole, and has some serious longeurs, but there is a little something about it: in its clever premise (with shades of Mel Brooks' dreadful film, The Producers), occasionally sharp scripting and Mowbray's spirited if erratic performance. Its relationship with the theatre is, interestingly, alternately affectionate and completely toxic. (2.5)

Footlight Fever (Irving Reis, 1941) - Equal sequel to Curtain Call, with Alan Mowbray and Donald MacBride scheming to get their latest play made, and deciding reclusive heiress Elisabeth Risdon is their best bet for a backer. There are a couple of mental health gags that were probably offensive even then, the romantic subplot is uninvolving, and the film goes too broad too often, but Risdon is terrific as the lovelorn old spinster with a partying past, and her scenes as a Miss Havisham brought back to the world are very funny - at least until she pours that cocktail and the laughs suddenly dry up. The supporting cast is stuffed with familiar faces, from Charles Halton as a biscuit mogul to Manton Moreland as an elevator boy, Charles Lane, Jimmy Conlin, Chester Clute and the great Keye Luke - who has a few choice words to say about fortune cookies. As theatrical comedies go, it's hardly Twentieth Century or It's Love I'm After, but it's diverting enough, and blessed with that strong cast. (2.5)

Sing and Like It (William A. Seiter, 1934) - A very funny Pre-Code comedy in which sentimental gangster Nat Pendleton tries to make a Broadway star out of plain, talentless ZaSu Pitts, after he overhears her singing a tuneless ode to mothers while he's breaking into a safe. Pitts has little to do except strangulate that ditty five times, but Pendleton, his terse, deadpan, cigar-chomping sidekick Ned Sparks, and Edward Everett Horton - playing an exasperated theatrical producer - are a fantastic team and they're working from a superior script (well, aside from a couple of dated, unpleasant gags about domestic violence). It's nice to see some of Hollywood's best character comedians take centre stage, and they're joined by a couple more, in the shape of Matt McHugh (brother of the immortal Frank) and John Qualen, while the wide-faced Pert Kelton gets a run-out as a sly, ambitious moll. And for a film with no obvious stars, it's a handsome, thoughtful production. The bright white art deco sets are nicely photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, the film noir pioneer who went on to shoot Out of the Past, and there's music from the legendary Max Steiner - a year on from crafting that classic King Kong score - though sadly it's rather nondescript. Sing and Like It isn't a masterpiece, not one of those '30s movies tinged with a rare genius, but it's excellent for what it is: an unambitious comedy, with almost no story to speak of beyond its amusing premise, that nevertheless provides a succession of big laughs thanks to a strong screenplay and a trio of simply wonderful comic actors. (3)


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