I've been busy lately: house-hunting, eating my tea, going on holiday, but I also consumed this stuff:
Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929) - An intoxicating romance from the incomparable Frank Borzage, starring the immortal Janet Gaynor and featuring the inconsistent Charlie Farrell, who gives arguably the best performance of his career. The director and his two leads made three films together between 1927 and '29 - silents made when that soon-to-be defunct genre was flourishing, then peaking, then almost dead.
The first two, 7th Heaven and Street Angel, helped win Gaynor the inaugural best actress Oscar, but this one - widely regarded as the least of the bunch, is in many ways my favourite; it's certainly the first I wanted to rewatch. Its metaphysical story is the simplest and sweetest, its characterisation sharply realised and unbearably poignant, and its presentation in both narrative and pictoral terms pitched between hopeless romanticism and the practicalities of real life, the former naturally winning out, as they had throughout this seminal triptych. The photography is nothing short of breathtaking. It is simply perfection, so crisp, clear and meticulously but warmly composed (check out the shot of the virginal, grubby, grinning Gaynor looking fondly back over her shoulder through the window she's just smashed); I've honestly never seen anything like it, though snow-bound films like Lady on a Train have aimed for a similiar look, as did Stanley Cortez with a couple of sequences in The Magnificent Ambersons - another film that stands head-and-shoulders above any competition it could conceivably have had. Here, the snow provides not only a climactic obstacle for Farrell, but also lends that mesmeric finale a lush, gobsmacking atmosphere, all leading to a heart-melting pay-off.
As these Borzage films invariably will, it does tend towards melodrama at the death, but it's nevertheless superbly put together, full of solid foreshadowing and scenes that build story but are more concerned with character, playing out at leisure but never outstaying their welcome, and evoking the heady, consuming feeling of a romantic dream. An incalculable amount of that is down to Gaynor, who was a strong sound actress but a sensational silent one: perhaps the most talented mute ever to parade before the cinema-going public, with a subtlety and an effortless transmission of complex emotion that gives the lie to every stupid spoof of early screen acting you've ever seen. Everything she does is remarkable on one level or another; it's also entirely true - one of those flawless, enrapturing, once-in-a-lifetime performances that she gave once or twice a year in those late silent days. If the film intoxicates - and it does - then that's because Gaynor does, thriving, blossoming in that unique arena that Borzage fashions solely for her. (4)
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) - Or 'Hug a Hoodie: The Movie', which angered half the people who saw it by presenting inner-city muggers as human beings making disastrous decisions, rather than tabloid caricatures shorn of social context. I loved it, and my favourite film of 2011 still looks magnificent, any flaws it might have overpowered by the strength of its convictions and of its central storyline, following alien-killing, tower-dwelling hoodie Moses (John Boyega) on an unlikely journey of redemption. Boyega is little short of astonishing, and while a few of the young cast are a touch wooden and the balance between the various subplots and disparate elements isn't always spot-on, Attack the Block remains a heady cocktail of post-modern humour, crackling suspense and humanist social comment, flashily directed by Dr Sexy. Perhaps most significantly of all, this piece of exceptional, unusual entertainment shows a side of Britain usually ignored on film, namely disenfranchised kids betrayed by both their country and themselves. (4)
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) - Moon rocks. Rockwell moons. (4)
See also: There's a longer/better review here.
The French Lieutenant's Woman (Karel Reisz, 1981) - An exquisitely-sideburned scientist (Jeremy Irons) with a dishy but shallow fiancee falls under the spell of a melancholy "whore" (Meryl Streep) - their unclear relationship echoed in a dual narrative by the actors recreating their parts for a movie. Pinter's script is fascinating, the story frequently gripping and the parallels between the two worlds - the running time slanted massively towards the former - are mercifully free of over-egging (it probably wasn't necessary for Streep's modern day partner to be French, mind). Two scenes stand out: in the first Irons delivers some bad news to his fiancee (Lynsey Baxter), her performance exploding into life, her character's traditional reserve abandoned as she moves through self-pity, to desperation, and finally pure rage, her words ringing in the ears - and on the soundtrack - long after Irons has left the room, and we've left the scene. The second, the final sequence in what is technically a film-within-a-film (though I've never cared more about what happens in one), is a powerhouse from Irons, laying waste to the still fashionable idea that he is a commanding voice in search of some acting chops.
Streep's performance is obviously integral to the piece and by far the most showy in the picture, at times protruding like the most painful of thumbs. In simplest terms, she is half-great: far better than usual, and excellent when asked to emote solely with that pliable, hollow face - lending the film a haunting, haunted undercurrent - but still focusing too much of her energy on her accent (pure Thatcher) and her hands, rather than making the audience feel. You'll catch her acting a half-dozen times, while trying to keep yourself immersed in the story, and that's a problem. The scene in which her fallen woman first opens up to her saviour is pure choreography and mannerisms, with nothing behind it. The Oscars love that sort of stuff, and doubtless there's a textbook somewhere citing it as the apogee of thespianism, but it's not acting in any credible sense, because it constantly wrenches you out of the scene and into an objective analysis of what she's doing. Everything else about the film is first-rate, from Karel Reisz's handling to Carl Davis's majestic score, and Streep is more measured, less domineering and more nuanced - in emotion, rather than in superficial gesturing - than in many of her starring vehicles. Indeed, at her best and most restrained, perfectly utilised by a smart director, she lifts the film to a level it might not otherwise reach. And yet at other times she's a liability: with another actress in the part it would be a smoother, more immersive experience, and perhaps a masterpiece, rather than the merely excellent film it is. (3.5)
Emil und die Detektive (Gerhard Lamprechet, 1931) - This early talkie take on the classic kids' book, made in Germany from a script by Billy Wilder and Emeric Pressburger, is both remarkably accomplished and true to the spirit of its source. Stylish, airy and with some great location shooting, it's also a kiddie companion to the adolescent People on Sunday, that gobsmacking slice of summer escapism that had come a year earlier. The story sees mischievous, resourceful Emil (Rolf Wenkhaus) being put on the train to Berlin by his mum. In his pocket is the 140 marks he must give to his grandmother: a fortune to their impoverished family. Enter the most suspicious-looking man in the world (creepy Fritz Rasp), who drugs Emil with a poisoned sweet - cue a stunning Expressionist dream sequence - and makes off with the money. When our hero comes to, he chases the criminal across town, before falling in with a gang of young ruffians (the "detectives" of the title) with whom he hatches a plan to take back the dough. There's a wonderful sense of immediacy to the film - the novel was only two years old when it was shot - tied to an understanding of how children actually behave (their dogged determination, instant alliances and unselfconscious eccentricities) and, during parts of the picture, a semi-documentary atmosphere that allows these broadly realistic characters to flourish, while offering a vivid snapshot of pre-Nazi Berlin.
At the same time, and for all the film's intelligence, entertainment value and humour, there's an undeniable eeriness to it. That same poverty which drives the plot forward helped to usher in the Nazis, while blonde-haired, blue-eyed Wenkhaus went on to star in one of the Third Reich's first propaganda shorts - playing a member of the Hitler Youth - before perishing off the coast of Ireland in 1942, when his bomber was shot down. Those notorious events you've read about in history textbooks took place on these streets, down which pad the footsteps of these spirited young performers, who in the coming years will each be affected in their own way by Hitler's accession to power. Ignoring such inevitable intrusions, Emil is an excellent piece of work: often technically dazzling - though not without some stiltedness and a few rough edges - and superbly written, with Wilder inventing a bizarre, brilliant silent prologue centring on the taunting of a local lawman, and filling his script with funny set-pieces (special mention for the "Native American" messenger-boy visiting Emil's grandmother) and at least one unbearably tense set-piece. There's also considerable quote appeal in the shape of Emil's love interest, Pony Hutcheon: barely a minute goes by without someone imploringly or excitedly declaring: "Purny Hurrcheon!" Incidentally, the BFI disc includes a scene-for-scene British remake from 1935. Perhaps that was what Truffaut had in mind when he asked Hitchcock whether the words "British" and "cinema" were incompatible. (3.5)
The Big Steal (Don Siegel, 1949) - While His Kind of Woman and Beat the Devil would send up film noir itself, The Big Steal is content to reunite the stars of Out of the Past, slip them into a crime caper template, turn down the lights and inject a dry, healthy, and often uproarious dose of humour. The result is pure escapism, from that wilfully mysterious opening onwards, with the leads clearly having a ball - Greer was enjoying a rare break from blacklisting for refusing to sleep with studio head Howard Hughes, Mitchum embraces his screen image unilaterally - their relationship thawing out as they trade zingers across Mexico, in pursuit of Patric Knowles's utter spiv, while chased by scary, bulldogish Army heavy William Bendix, whose pupils are bigger than most people's heads. A running joke about the police chief learning English is long-winded, and the action ranges from superior to dorky, but it's a neat, cohesive and modest movie made before Hughes's obsessive tinkering caused the studio's films to simply fall apart. Jet Pilot, it's worth remembering, was in post-production for seven years. The Big Steal doesn't strive for the fatalism or bleak romanticism of Out of the Past: rather, it's that film's cheeky, irreverent, warm-hearted little brother - wanting little more than to have fun, and taking you along with it, whatever your mood. (3.5)
Slightly Dangerous (Wesley Ruggles, 1943) - A very enjoyable, affecting comedy-drama about soda squirt Lana Turner faking her death, getting a '40s makeover that makes her look 70% less attractive and posing as a lost heiress - much to the delight of her new 'father' (Walter Brennan), and the chagrin of her boss (Robert Young), who sets out to unmask her and so save his unjustly sullied reputation. The film sets itself a considerable challenge - our sympathies are hardly with the heroine at the start of her ruse - but comes out on top, handling the tricky material remarkably well. Turner is exceptional in a deceptively demanding part, the Lederer/Oppenheimer script is way above average and so is the slapstick - with Young playing it sillier than usual - while there's superb support from Dame Mae Whitty, Alan Mowbray and particularly Brennan, offering a deft take on his familiar persona: that irascible, soft-centred old duffer. My only real complaint is that it would have been nice to have had more scenes of Turner and Brennan, giving us a greater sense of their burgeoning relationship, perhaps at the expense of those amusing but relatively uninvolving sequences featuring Turner and Young. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Slightly Dangerous is both the best and the worst name ever for a film. Except perhaps for Half Past Dead. (3.5)
Good News (Charles Walters, 1947) - A slight but tuneful, utterly charming campus musical set in 1927 - and based on a 1930 film - in which football star Peter Lawford chucks over librarian June Allyson for a lousy snob, then belatedly realises he loves her. Allyson's as good as ever mixing husky-voiced vocalising with homespun sentiment, and Lawford does his usual suave bit - though he can't sing - but it's a long time since I've seen a supporting actor run off with a movie as completely as Joan McCracken does here, the bouncy, cartoonish and irrepressible Ellen Page-alike singing, hoofing and goofing with such boundless energy that it's like someone's set off a firework in the studio. Sadly she rather disappears in the second half, after tearing up the screen with Pass That Peace Pipe, the only one of scriptwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green's new songs to make the final cut. As college musicals go, it's not quite The Affairs of Dobie Gillis - which had Bobby Van, a be-hatted Bob Fosse and a peak-form Debbie Reynolds on hand - but it's still a little gem, recovering after an uncertain opening reel thanks to the exuberant numbers, gentle period spoofery and evocation of a delightful, self-contained little world that are the unmistakable hallmarks of legendary producer Arthur Freed. (3)
Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, 2010) - Top-heavy supervillain Gru (voiced by a Slavik-sounding Steve Carell) adopts three girls as part of a long-term plan to shrink the Moon, only to find the children a distinctly humanising influence. This lively, sentimental animated comedy isn't as strong on second viewing - despite a few neat gags I'd missed first time around (special mention for the Minion sexy-dancing, and Doctor Nefario barking "Who is this?") - as it sticks too rigidly to formula and pushes a little too hard in its quest for emotional high spots, but it's still a good film, striking a successful balance between comedy, drama and action, and offering a few choice Minion moments, my favourite being Kevin's impression of a water cooler. The sequel is a funnier movie, but less impressive overall, with a comparatively dull, contrived storyline that gives Gru fewer chances to shine. (3)
"The door's locked! McGinty, you clever dog!"
Mystery Team (Dan Eckman, 2009) - What happens when child detectives grow up? According to this endearingly stupid movie from the Derrick comedy troupe, they carry on solving kids' crimes, being treated with a mixture of irritation, concern and amusement by the teachers, drug dealers and strip club bouncers whom they encounter. There's the master of disguise (Community's Donald Glover) - who kits his team out in top hats and monocles to visit a gentleman's club, the "boy genius" (D. C. Pierson), who knows exactly 1,001 pieces of redundant trivia, and "the strongest kid in town" (Dominic Dierkes), who insists on tackling minor feats of strength that he can't accomplish. After being patronised for the umpteenth time - and now technically adults - the Mystery Team resolve to tackle their first grown-up case, a double murder, bringing them into contact with a couple of psychos, and the victims' deadpan daughter (Aubrey Plaza, naturally), to whom Glover is oddly drawn. "I think we had sex," he confides to his friends, after standing quite close to her in a closet.
It's a great concept, and the film works best - really rather brilliantly - when riffing on the improbabilities of detective fiction and its heroes' magnificent lack of wordliness, but flops when trying to offer further contrast with the adult world through bad taste (and mostly unfunny) jokes about child porn, cancer, suicide and anal intrusion. For a movie from a sketch troupe, it actually hangs together fairly well as a whole - perhaps due to the very safe formula it employs - and its thriller aspect, while slight, predictable and at times simply illogical, is also oddly suspenseful. Perhaps I'm just a sucker for those cliches. The reason to see it, though, is for the gags. I reckon I laughed 10 times and completely lost it a further three, which is a great strike rate. When it doesn't work, it really doesn't, but when it does, well... “Following your dreams is never stupid! Unless you dream about water and then you pee the bed last Thursday. For example.” (2.5)
One Touch of Venus (William A. Seiter, 1948) - This otherwise mediocre fantasy comedy - based on a Broadway smash, and concerning a nervy window-dresser (Robert Walker) who falls in love with a statue of Venus come to life - is given an almighty kick up the arse by Ava Gardner, delivering a performance of luminescent, feline sensuality that bursts out of the screen almost in 3D. Like Clara Bow, she was an actress with "flesh impact", to borrow a colourful phrase from Billy Wilder. Eve Arden also turns up to peddle one-liners in her usual tart fashion, the two actresses compensating for an unimpressive script, lacklustre numbers and Walker's acute discomfort as the male lead. The ending makes as little sense as the rest of it. (2.5)
*A FEW MINOR SPOILERS*
The Whales of August (Lindsay Anderson, 1987) - The Whales of Snorefest, more like: a movie that moves at the same pace as its geriatric characters - living out their dotage on a Maine island - with a script that mistakes mundanity and mawkishness for profundity, given soporific, bland treatment from Lindsay Anderson (adjectives it seems bizarre to even consider in his presence) who pads the action with endless shots of nature and soundtracks it all with a trite, overproduced score. "I was afraid you would be bored," says Lillian Gish at one point, and her fears are well-founded, though her final screen performance - at age 93, some 75 years after her first - is the film's great virtue, a fittingly reflective, deceptively steely turn at once simple and deep, lending an inferior play a touch of the sublime, as Fonda and Hepburn had done for On Golden Pond. She also reminds me of my nanna, adding an extra poignancy to proceedings.
There are a handful of moments that are genuinely insightful, moving and special, and they all involve Gish: the years falling off her as she pretties herself in combing out her long, snowy hair, an exchange with Vincent Price about whether she has "lived too long", a conversation with her late husband on their wedding anniversary and the simple business of righting the room she has resolved to retain. These pieces of art, timeless and important, lie adrift - like the blocks of ice she clung to in her 1920 film Way Down East - in a sea of snail-paced, repetitive, often meaningless banality. The rest of the promising cast fails to register: Price and Ann Sothern are boring, Bette Davis weirdly and irritatingly motonotous and Harry Carey, Jr simply cliched. Perhaps revisiting it in my twilight will reveal layers of meaning invisible to me now. I waited 15 years to see this one, which I think is about how long the film lasted. (2.5)
This sort of thing is basically no good.
Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983) - The first 10 minutes, in which supposed adversaries Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung team up to fight a smorgasbord of rampaging armies, is an utter joy in the old-school manner. The rest is plotless, deadening, effects-driven rubbish, director Tsui Hark having hired experts from Hollywood in a bid to spruce up that side of Hong Kong cinema. Pity. (1.5)
The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Henry King, 1952) - A boring, unconvincing and thematically incoherent version of the Hemingway novel, with a thoroughly dislikeable Gregory Peck bitterly recalling his relationship with Ava Gardner - though never once mentioning her terrible hairstyle. It's all rather ugly to look at, with the sloppy pasting together of location footage and studio shots giving the whole enterprise an insultingly slapdash feel. Bernard Herrmann's beautiful score is the film's only plus point. Just listen to that instead, while doing the washing up or something. (1.5)
Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow
Orson Welles: Hello Americans by Simon Callow
The first two volumes of Callow's mammoth, as-yet-unfinished trilogy on the life of Orson Welles are required reading for anyone the least bit interested in one of the key cultural figures of the American Century. The Road to Xanadu (1995), climaxing with the release of Kane, does an extraordinary, unprecedented job of stripping away the thick layers of myth around Welles, at long last getting to something like the truth. It's arguably at its best in the early chapters, tracing the development of Welles from tormented, annoying child to tormented, annoying "boy genius" of the Irish stage, lying extravagantly at every stage to boost his public profile. If there's a complaint, it's that while Callow does a stunning job of recreating his subject's subsequent stage triumphs in America (the initial focus of his book), his fastidiousness does sometimes cause him to lose sight of Orson the man, while his observations about Welles' flaws as an actor and director (that he has no emotion, that he offers merely a "fireworks display") are a little repetitious. It's a masterful book all the same, exhaustively researched, superbly-written (an addiction to semi-colons and the actorly phrase "inner life" aside) and remarkably insightful, full of fact and mercifully free of the armchair psychology that seems to dog most writing on Welles. Hello Americans (2006), which begins with the heartbreaking tale of The Magnificent Ambersons - and an accompanying human tragedy in Brazil - and ends with Welles' departure from the US in 1947, shows him in flux: his stock as a filmmaker sharply declining, as his engagement in politics as a broadcaster, commentator and activist takes over his life. It's a brilliant story, remarkably told, with perhaps a few too many lengthy excerpts from the subject's newspaper columns, but an abundance of telling detail packed into a pacy, invigoratingly entertaining narrative. Across the two books, Callow delights in playing devil's advocate, or perhaps just offers a sense of balance - whether talking down flaws of the lost Ambersons, talking up various forgotten radio broadcasts or arguing that The War of the Worlds was essentially a fluke - and as the first looked to show that Welles' meteoric rise did include failings both personal and professional, so he argues that the director's fall from grace wasn't exactly clear-cut either. In tribute to Welles, I think the third volume should be taken out of Callow's hands, every second page removed and the ending changed so he doesn't die. (4)
See also: I've written my own epic treatise on Welles in the shape of a 2,700-word blog post about The Magnificent Ambersons. It should be up sometime next week. Actually, "should" is the wrong word... perhaps "probably will be".
Thanks for reading.