Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Way Way Back, Greta Gerwig and hating the moo-er - Reviews #171

I haven't seen many movies over the past three weeks, but the ones I have seen have almost all been fantastic. I think my good film radar must have been fixed. Ratings are out of four, if you weren't aware of exactly how I rolled.

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, 2013) - This is like a big hug in cinematic form, as awkward, taciturn teen Duncan (Liam James) is taken under the wing of a flamboyant motormouth (Sam Rockwell) whom he happens upon at a rundown waterpark. It's a bit like Adventureland, a lot like every other coming-of-age film you've ever seen - the stifling domestic strife, the pubescent blushing, then the sudden blossoming of one's self-confidence - and there are familiar lines and some unconvincing readings to go with the trite, cliched character of the boozy, easy next-door neighbour. But damn it if this isn't the funniest, loveliest film I've seen in ages, with a perfectly-pitched central relationship, a sure-footed story leading to a hugely satisfying climax, and a staggering performance from Rockwell as the wise, reflective, comically phantasmagoric Owen: a true screen maverick but one with a real and recognisable human frailty. If he doesn't win every award going, this world can do one. (4)


Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013) - What a great film: Baumbach doing his thing, and Gerwig doing hers, this plotless ramble through the life of a 27-year-old dancer - who encounters assorted epiphanies and disappointments - shot like Woody's Manhattan or À bout de souffle, scripted with a nod to Whit Stillman and emanating its writer-director's usual good-natured angst, uncertainty about contemporary life and warm-hearted, off-kilter sentimentality.

It wobbles briefly with the introduction of Adam Driver as the poorly-enunciating would-be lothario Lev ("Ahoy, sexy!") who lacks charisma and mangles his dialogue, but that's a minor quibble in a movie dominated by Gerwig's arresting, appealing, frankly extraordinary performance, and nailing a multitude of experiences and emotions ill-served by cinema. Not just its headily romantic sensibility, epitomised by Gerwig's monologue about what she's looking for in life, but the comfort and painful nostalgia of visiting your childhood home, the premature internal ageing of 20-somethings who feel their boat has passed, and the acute anguish that comes with feeling entirely lonely and alienated in a theoretically idyllic place. It cares about in-jokes, the intensity of true friendship (in the shape of Mickey Sumner, whose chemistry with Gerwig is absolute), and the random, aimless but fulfilling way in which we muddle through this world in a way that's very unusual. It's also a very funny film in that shambling Baumbachian way, jokes tossed this way and that, muttered, thrown away and occasionally properly milked: like the beauty that closes the picture.

In the same way as the director's debut, Kicking and Screaming, it seems at first to be a succession of mild comic sketches, but is really a character study of a conflicted, grown-up child afraid of the world into which she's been unceremoniously dumped. As such, its cumulative impact is considerable, though its tactics are somewhat different to that earlier Baumbach film, setting Gerwig up for a fall that we can see coming a mile off, but she apparently can't - or perhaps won't. Eschewing melodrama but not afraid to confront real life, the film then leaves us with an ending that's pure Woody - in fact, pure Manhattan - but which works perfectly, without feeling like a '70s cast-off in the way that, say, a J. J. Abrams film does.

All that and Gerwig's dancer spinning and striding to the strains of Bowie's Modern Love, jump-cutting through New York, oblivious to everything except the joy of movement.

Like I said: it's a great film. (4)

See also: Gerwig also appeared in Baumbach's Greenberg. She's similarly fantastic there.


The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (Orson Welles, 1952) - In 1948, Orson Welles left Hollywood, the town in which he had arrived with such fanfare eight years earlier. After the success of Kane, he watched - helpless - as his next three projects were taken out of his hands, recut and sometimes even re-shot. His fifth picture, Macbeth, was a travesty that he failed to deliver for two years, apparently disillusioned with movies and burnt out at 33.

What he did next was startling. The former boy genius, who had conquered the worlds of theatre, radio and film by his 26th birthday, simply became a nomad, pitching up in Europe to fashion fiercely independent projects, which he funded by taking on any - and every - acting role that came his way.

Othello, his first film free from the shackles of Hollywood, took a staggering three years to complete, with filming in Venice, Tuscany and Morocco, and even now isn't exactly finished: there are at least five versions in existence, including the one that won the Palme d'Or in 1952 (available solely on French VHS), the enduringly controversial 1992 "restoration" - the only one I'd previously seen - and this edit, an American cut released in 1955, which was issued on a Criterion laserdisc in the '90s, and has been handily uploaded to YouTube.

I haven't seen the restoration since 2005, so I'm afraid I can't be too specific on the differences here (perhaps a blessing), but this version uses different takes or angles of several scenes, overdubs Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier with the pure, imploring tones of Gudrun Ure - a Scot - and features some very out-of-sync dialogue, due to Welles' endless tinkering in the post-Cannes editing process (a problem remedied somewhat in the restoration).

A restless innovator, egomaniac and improviser who had repeatedly tried to make films with a pre-recorded dialogue track (oh Orson), he never seemed to regard poor syncing as a problem - perhaps figuring we'd be so wowed by everything else that we wouldn't notice - but it's a basic technical flaw that detracts a little from some of these mid-period pictures. This '55 cut also has written rather than spoken credits - at the request of the distributor - and the original recording of the score, which was perhaps unwisely re-done in 1992.

Welles, his hair thickened, his face subtly darkened and his voice booming in the unmistakable manner, is Othello, a world away from the peculiar greenface, cod-Caribbean routine that his Shakespearean rival - Olivier - would follow 13 years later. Emoting not wisely but too well, and overcoming a frankly odd, declamatory reading of the "It gives me wonder" speech, he's in rare form, throbbing with torment as his mind is poisoned by his malevolent aide. Biographer Simon Callow has long suggested that Welles was a great speaker rather than a great actor: a mellifluously-voiced reader of dialogue who rarely engaged with his characters. It’s often true, but here his performance seems deeply felt: perhaps something about a great man laid low by whispering campaigns and his own insecurities chimed with him – or perhaps his great and lifelong love of Shakespeare is to thank. Opposite him, Cloutier is a somewhat overly angelic Desdemona, though Micheál MacLiammóir - Welles' friend and nemesis from his first professional assignment at Dublin's Gate Theatre - is a magnificent foil, making for a scintillatingly cynical Iago.

The film's troubled production makes it a genuinely weird experience - it's a film whose abrupt, disjointed style takes some getting used to, and even then can prove something of a liability. At times its bitty form adds to the sense of a fragmented nightmare unfolding at strange angles, in snippets of prose often spat, strained or strangled, but at other times it's simply flawed filmmaking, the director once again robbed of the tools, the time or the money to meet his vision - but at least left largely to his own devices within those limitations.

Despite that patchwork quality, which includes non-matching reaction shots that flicker for a mere instant, it's still a film of overpowering intensity and rich atmosphere, set entirely around the castle and its puddled environs and lit by rich, chiaroscuro visuals both gothic and baroque. Welles' typically imposing use of sound, is, if not always exactly in sync with the pictures, at least a striking tapestry of haunting music and arresting, often intensely involving oratory.

His fabled script-editing skills, meanwhile, which here involve snipping a four-hour play to 90 minutes and would find a still more testing challenge with Chimes at Midnight, are much in evidence, with the story stripped down to its central conflict, and beginning and ending with the funerals of Othello and Desdemona, a claustrophobic, fatalistic move that essentially turns Shakespeare into a writer of film noir.

This clever framing and the film's disorientating, shadow-drenched, perma-dripping presentation - alive with misery, malice and a mounting horror - form the perfect environment for Welles and MacLiammóir to wrestle with one another, their genuine mutual obsession and antipathy fuelling a deliciously unhealthy screen relationship in which Shakespeare's greatest baddie tries to destroy his boss's life. "I hate the moo-er," MacLiammóir so memorably draws at the play's opening, and indeed he does. He's sensational, so is Welles – giving arguably the greatest performance of a long career marred by minimal quality control – and so is the film: still its director's most underrated movie, and back in 1952 a telling statement of intent from a true maverick. (3.5)


Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Ten observations about Lincoln:

1. I heard tell once of an actor from London who was vastly overpraised for his work in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood, after emerging from the studio every day with bits of the scenery stuck in his teeth. Then, one day, this actor got to play Abraham Lincoln and he turned out to be the greatest Lincoln that the big screen had ever seen - and I'll confess that I've made rather a study of them, Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln being the previous high watermark - playing not the myth, but the man, and providing new insights into a character we thought we knew. The moral of the story, gentleman, is that despite being the most appalling luvvie, he's also one hell of an actor. Sometimes.

2. It's an unusually mature film for Spielberg, with the jaw-dropping caveat that only he would show Lincoln's assassination from the point of view of the President's youngest son, which is self-parodical to the point of tears. The most striking screen presentation of the murder remains that at the start of John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island.

3. The score is horrible. Every time the film approaches some genuine moment of understated, human truth, John Williams pops us to tip a mixture of cheese and treacle over it.

4. The script has been both lauded and derided, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It's intelligently devised and sometimes admirably complex in its morality, but also has concessions to cliche, alternately explains too much and too little of the political developments integral to the plot, and unwisely plays out the voting climax in real time, and with a distinct lack of realism. As a result, the film - despite many fine moments - has no dramatic climax.

5. David Strathairn is one of American cinema's greatest treasures and is never less than thoroughly fantastic. Here, his affectionate uber-pragmatist is a fine counterpoint to the ambitious, single-minded Honest Abe.

6. The rest of the supporting cast is ridiculously good, with Hal Holbrook turning up to gobble scenes like a jowly old lizard, Sally Field proving a fragile, combustible Mary Todd, and Tommy Lee Jones peddling that usual brand of hard-earned wisdom.

7. I like the bit where Jones takes off his wig and you realise he's Lex Luthor.

8. In the opening battle scenes, Spielberg has a delightful time using a trick John Ford once told him about: holding the horizon at either the top or the bottom of the frame. The surrender sequence seems to bear the stain of Sam Fuller's Run of the Arrow too.

9. That hagiographic, drippingly sentimental opening scene, which seeks to "print the legend", before the film sets about getting to the truth, is still extraordinarily awful, and makes The Littlest Rebel look like the height of neorealism.

10. It's sorely missing a scene where Day-Lewis yells: "I emancipate yoooooouuuuur milkslaaaaave!" and beats John Wilkes Booth to death with a bowling pin.


See also: I did that last joke in this piece about "Lincoln on film" too. It traces depictions of Lincoln on the big screen from The Birth of a Nation to Black Dynamite, and it's got clips and everything.


Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)

"You been in Hollywood long?"
"Long enough."
"Trying to crash the movies or something?"
"Something like that."
"I guess that's pretty hard to do, huh?"
"I guess so. I never got close enough to find out."

Preston Sturges' immortal Hollywood satire stars Joel McCrea as a frustrated director who sets out to craft "a true canvas of the suffering of humanity", but first has to find out what trouble is - and gets more than he ever bargained for. Veronica Lake is the acerbic wannabe actress who buys the phony tramp some ham and eggs.

This was the thousandth film I ever saw (I can't remember whether that was by accident and design, though it was number one on my "to see" list for years, back when Sturges' films were unavailable on any format in the UK). Though I must have seen it seven or eight times now, I'm still discovering new things: a line or an industry in-joke here or there that gets caught in the maelstrom of razor-sharp dialogue, or Sullivan's sneezing fits and itchy clothes calling back to the titles of his early hits: Hey Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939. Robert Greig's magnificent monologue about the foolishness of the director's opus also seems to grow wiser and more insightful with each passing year.

Sturges' most serious-minded work, Sullivan's Travels remains one of the best, most ambitious and most thematically dizzying films ever made, being a message movie that argues that comedy is as important as any message movie, but which turns into a bleak portrait of social degradation at its midway point.

Its first half is just astonishingly funny: full of unforgettable, rapid-fire dialogue that seems to spear a different target each time - pretension, hard-luck stories, privileged upbringings, Hollywood's obsession with sex and suspicion of communism, and that's just in the opening scene - and topped off with the great supporting actor Eric Blore falling into a swimming pool. The second is heavy, emotionally draining and full of haunting, Expressionistic imagery, before the gloom is lifted in that legendary sequence at the gospel church, Mickey Mouse and Pluto - projected onto a cotton sheet - giving ex-cons a moment of transcendence from their brutal everyday lives.

Significantly, while Sturges is more celebrated today for his incredible exchanges than his beloved slapstick ("a pratfall is better than anything," concluded his rules of cinema), the film has no fewer than four extended silent sequences. While the "jackrabbit" set piece isn't really my sort of thing - above-par though it might be - the others are superb: a gutting, wryly comic montage of vagrant life, a thriller sequence shot like a noir, and a madcap, lightning-paced, brilliantly-choreographed "studio tour", complete with a cameo for Sturges, Lake pushing over two "Red Indians" and Franklin Pangborn getting bummed by a door.

Pangborn was one of Sturges' stock company, many of whom turn up here - Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest, Alan Bridges, Porter Hall - and all of whom are in fine form. Perhaps above all his other, more celebrated talents, Sturges was a great director of actors, magnificent at drawing laughs from them, just as good at eliciting a beguiling sincerity that they would never match with anyone else (take a look at Eddie Bracken's two lead performances for him, then watch Bracken elsewhere). "There's always a girl in the picture," McCrea says at one point, and while he's as good as ever, an extraordinary amount of the film's charm and timeless appeal comes from Lake, belying her bruised critical reputation, whose impeccable comic timing, considerable natural gifts (that voice!) and faultless underplaying give the film an immeasurable amount of punch, emotion and charm. I'm a vegetarian, but even I might have to give in to Lake's pouty demand of "buy me some ham and eggs, before I bite you".

Few directors have ever produced a film as unusual, incisive or original, a film whose disparate elements - slapstick, satire, social drama and polemic - congeal into such a staggering, successful whole. The great irony is that while Sturges' message is "It's OK to just make people laugh" - and his films have given me inutterable joy over the years - he had more to say than just about any other American filmmaker of his era. And that while Sullivan never made a serious, "important" film, Sturges did. (4)


The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924) - Lubitsch's favourite of his own films, musicalised by the director eight years later as One Hour with You, is a perfectly crafted comedy-drama on his favoured topic of adultery. Monte Blue, in the role later immortalised by Maurice Chevalier, is a happily married man who's powerless under the spell of his wife's best friend, the saucy, vampish Mizzi (Marie Prevost). Meanwhile, his spouse is enthusiastically if sexlessly pursued by his own best friend. It's missing the catchy tunes and lush romanticism of the later film, but it's funnier, sexier and more resonant (thanks to its greater realism): masterfully conceived and directed, and with an exceptional turn from Prevost. (4)


Ramrod (André de Toth, 1947)
- This early "Western noir" - a delicious bastard genre that emerged in '47 and seemed to disappear just two years later - is one of the oddest films ever to come out of mainstream Hollywood, a brooding, perplexing, morally murky film that fills its standard genre template with strange details, peculiarly abrupt plot developments and weird, censor-baiting characters, including a femme fatale who gets turned on by making men die for her. Bizarrely paced and packed with liars and cowards - somewhat at odds with the preferred presentation of the West - it's also notable for reuniting the leads of Preston Sturges' astonishing Sullivan's Travels (see above), giving a lie to Joel McCrea's famous line that "life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake".

Lake, with her iconic "peekaboo" hairstyle wrenched into a sort of glamourless cob loaf, stars as a strong-willed woman who declares war on her sadistic ex-boyfriend (Preston Foster) and gruff rancher father (avuncular, dithering comedian Charlie Ruggles - what the hell?!). Meanwhile her "ramrod" (ranch foreman), reformed alcoholic McCrea, has his own axe to grind, and comes complete with an erratic, hot-blooded second-in-command (Don DeFore).

Starting with a sequence that's more confusing than mysterious, subsequently hitting us with a solid minute of improbably expressed exposition, and displaying almost no conception of when to cut a scene off or let it run, De Toth and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (who loved to start in the middle) seem almost reluctant to give their movie a chance. And yet, despite a litany of narrative problems, it is a fine film, featuring some of the most unusual, unconventional and multi-layered characters of the era. Is Lake cold, calculating and manipulative, or just beaten, lonely and out for what's hers? DeFore thinks nothing of shooting a man in cold blood and provokes a land war through lust alone, but he's also a fiercely loyal friend who'll risk his life for his love rival. And McCrea, for all that nobility that came so easily to the actor, says only of his friend's admission that he committed pre-meditated murder: "I thought you did."

McCrea is always good, but the same can't be said of all his Westerns, which are often more comfort movie than classic. He made almost nothing save oaters from 1946 onwards (when he himself bought a ranch), and if we except the transcendent Stars in My Crown on the grounds that it doesn't really count, then the only one that's truly great is Ride the High Country. This is comfortably in the second tier, though, with offbeat entries like Four Faces West and Colorado Territory. In fact, it's so good that he isn't even the best thing about it. Though he delivers another of those wonderfully understated performances so memorably described here as "Joel McCrea mumblecore" - which she meant as an insult, but I regard as high praise - he's competing for attention with both Lake (the director's then wife) and DeFore.

The 4' 11" Lake, that most '40s of actresses, was far, far more talented than she is ever given credit for, but her strange, mercurial gifts seem almost entirely natural. There's that exquisite voice, which pitches you as surely into the realm of old movie escapism as Jean Arthur's, and that pouty, unmoving, deceptively intense face with which she insistently, beseechingly if hardly expansively emotes. Here, she's terrifyingly steely, imploringly vulnerable and seductively passionate, often all at the same time, and she's matched, perhaps at times exceeded, by DeFore, whom I have never seen do anything comparable to his performance here: deep, complex, moving, and alive with danger, compassion and a smirking grasp of his own mortality. Incidentally, he made one of his first appearances as a soldier in The Human Comedy, with Western noir icon Bob Mitchum as one of his wingmen.

Ramrod is a film of weird longueurs, complete with generic, boring sequences of people riding or climbing. It explodes into life in fits and starts, cramming in plot one minute, going quiet the next. And it ends in somewhat conventional style, despite a strangely erotic final close-up. But it's a mad, wonderful, ferocious little Western: starkly shot, often devastatingly played and full of brilliant moments: perhaps the best and most sensual has the diminutive Lake cradling the sleeping, injured McCrea's head, her expression the very model of inscrutability.

If not quite the sum of its parts, Ramrod is - at least - a film of remarkable parts. (3)


"He's got a shooter!"
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney, 2013) - When I first read the premise of the Alan Partridge movie, my reaction was: "He... err, what now?" Turning Norwich's finest nasally-whistling, self-preserving, leather-gloved "disc-J" into a hostage negotiator seemed perhaps a step too far, even for someone who's driven to Dundee in his bare feet, threatened his former boss with a wheel of cheese and been de-bagged at a pharmaceuticals conference.

In the event, the movie milks the outlandish and surprisingly apt premise for much of its worth, trading on Alan's resurgent egotism as he becomes the centre of a media storm, and giving Coogan's monstrous creation free rein to posture, fantasise and bore to his heart's content. It seems entirely fitting that Alan would only find swelling fame and a captive audience through something as horrific and transient as an armed siege, and that he would have no qualms about turning it to his advantage.

But while a sitcom character can be almost unredeemably unpleasant across a half-hour, you can't get away with that in a movie. This can be where big screen translations fall down, slipping into slack sentiment or misguided mawkishness. Alpha Papa generally avoids that and, in one extraordinary scene, produces a depth of emotion you would have thought impossible for Alan. In a moment that reminded me of those text exchanges between Chris Huhne and his estranged son that turned up in the papers the other month, he offers a muddled final message to his kids, while being threatened (jokily?) by a loose cannon of a cop - a fellow siege history afficionado, as it so happens. Another beautifully-played scene sees Lynn reacting wth barely-restrained euphoria to being named as Alan's next-of-kin.

But a solid plot - quite imaginatively spun out across 90 minutes - fidelity to its central character, and a welcome, subtle emotional edge would be worth nothing if it wasn't funny.

It is.

Replete with Alan's familiar preoccupations (himself, FM rock), prejudices (gays, gypsies, the Irish) and disappointments (his children), it's full of inspired one-liners and pathetic parable-like reminiscences - I, Partridge having apparently stirred something in the writers. There are also plenty of visual gags, which are mostly good, and a few gross-out jokes, a touch above what you might expect, but not much more than that. Crucially, it retains a resolutely British, parochial sense of humour, refusing to broaden the characters' narrow worldview in search of a global audience. And for those who've worked in local news in recent years, there are some sharp, well-aimed barbs at tieless, downsizing, tech-obsessed management types. It is perhaps better in its first half, which is breathlessly funny, or perhaps you just can't laugh at that frequency, intensity and volume for an entire film. Except The Other Guys.

While Colm Meaney offers a bit of dramatic weight as Alan's psychopathic counterpoint, and there are a couple of nice moments with Tim Key and I'm Alan Partridge's Lynn and Michael, the rest of the supporting cast is rather lacklustre, with Phil Cornwell's recovering alcoholic seeming completely out of place.

So the whole thing has to be powered by Coogan, and it is: a nasally-whistling, self-preserving, leather glove-slapping tour-de-force that makes the weaker stuff bearable, the fair stuff good, and the good stuff great.

If it's possible to compare such disparate media, my favourite Partridge is still the Knowing Me, Knowing You radio show, but they did a far better job with the movie than I could have hoped for. Especially when I read the premise. (3)


Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)
is famous for featuring one of the most terrifying screen villains of all time: bespectacled little girl-next-door Gloria, who reacts to being called a "monster" by shouting and throwing saucepans on the floor. It also features Alan Arkin as a homicidal maniac.

Sporting a pudding-basin and some very '60s shades, he's one of a trio of hoods terrorising repeatedly self-proclaimed "bliiiahnd laihdy" Audrey Hepburn in search of a doll stuffed with heroin. Any idea where it might be? I have, but this stagy film still plays some neat tricks on its audience, on Hepburn and on Arkin, even if these might have worked even better in the oppressive, pared-down atmosphere of the theatre.

Aside from excessively informing us that Hepburn is blind - "I go to blind school," she explains, in case anyone hadn't quite grasped what was going on - the script is nicely done: an erudite, high-concept scareathon in the Spiral Staircase mold that begins with an absolutely irresistible scene featuring the three crims and illuminated by Arkin's electrifying presence. After that, he's given surprisingly little to do except wear some disguises, until a disappointingly nasty, conventional climax that sees the tables repeatedly turning in a room littered with broken glass and lit by matches, but bottoms out with a knife-crazed frenzy and an attempted rape, an overlong, poorly-directed sequence notable only for one exceptional scare (you'll know it when you see it).

Instead, the bulk of this cleverly-plotted suspenser is built around an elaborate game of role play, as Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) - hopefully named after William Talman, who gave us one of the screen's great baddies in The Hitch-Hiker - appears to come to the aid of the smart, naïve, deceptively resourceful Hepburn, whose beloved husband is supposedly at the centre of a gathering storm. To help her, though, he needs that doll.

Crenna and Hepburn are both very good, with a very thin Audrey overcoming a little woodenness by amping it up in a way she rarely did, but the film is dominated by Arkin's presence, such is the majesty of that opening sequence. It's only when his malicious megalomaniac gives up his aura of omniscient control that the film fails to satisfy. Despite that underwhelming pay-off, this analogue Panic Room does a good job of playing on our fears, giving us a character to really root for, and then putting her in jeopardy through a deft mixture of gimmickry, stock shocks and invention, effectively rooted in the character's ocular deficiency.

This movie got me thinking about which senses are underrated by the cinema. I have an idea for a film in which Janet Leigh is tormented by androgynous, sex-crazed, drug-fuelled bikers, hampered all the while by having no sense of touch. I call it... Touch of Evil. Sorry. (3)


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