Plus: '30s America, Katharine Hepburn and acute disappointment, in the latest batch of reviews of stuff I've just watched.
CINEMA: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn, 2013) - If the original Cloudy was like one of those Heston Blumenthal dishes that's both outrageously odd and utterly brilliant - I don't know, perhaps fried egg with jam and Rice Krispies - then this misguided, saccharine sequel is a pointless pudding, an overly sweet dessert that makes you sick up a bit of the main course.
Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) lands a job with a shady corporation run by his childhood hero - funny how he wasn't mentioned in the first film - who decides to send Flint back to his home island for the post-first-film clean-up, whilst playing him off against his friends. The island itself is now inhabited by living beings made of food, including a spider comprising Big Mac and fries, a taco-dile that spits vegetables everywhere, and a cute little strawberry with the voice of Eric Cartman. Are you sure this script is ready? The problem, no doubt, is that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were only on hand to provide the story and exec-produce, with former South Park staffer Erica Rivinoja botching the writing job, and Cody Cameron (Shrek, Madagascar) and Cloudy contributor Kris Pearn taking care of the rest.
There are a few good jokes - the fishing trip, the translation, Steve the monkey generally - but it's largely overbearing sentiment, food creatures with punny names (essentially a Twitter hashtag that got out of hand), and Steve Jobs-based villainy, a sort of Robots/Wreck-It Ralph/Jurassic Park III hybrid, with a minimum of heart, wit and invention. I wanted something as anarchic and genuinely original as the first movie. Instead, I got a film that's not only aimed at kids, but doggedly conventional and insultingly predictable, both in its re-treading of old ground and its telegraphing of old jokes. It's the most disappointing movie I've seen for a couple of years at least. (1.5)
Union Depot (Alfred E. Green, 1932) - Wow. This is a fantastic movie, a rich tapestry of early '30s America, masquerading as a melodrama. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is a dirty-faced vagrant who pitches up at the titular train station, looking for a break. He gets a new suit of clothes courtesy of a drunk who's obsessed with the Navy (Frank McHugh), then finds a case stuffed with cash belonging to a calculating counterfeiter (Alan Hale), upon whom the police are closing in. Not that Fairbanks senses the danger, opting to play "Santee Claus" to a down-on-her-luck dancer (Joan Blondell) he mistakes for a good-time girl. What sounds on paper like a frothy entertainment - and may have been in the hands of MGM - is exactly the opposite: a hard-edged, cynical, brutish movie full of violence, bitter barbs and truly adult themes, several personified by the limping, porn-obsessed sexual maniac who won't leave Blondell alone (George Rosener), a truly terrifying creation.
Luchino Visconti later did a similar thing with Stazione Termini: a central romance set almost entirely around a station, and supplemented by tangential, even unrelated moments of human drama concerning those round about, but this is even better. Fairbanks slapping Blondell across the face is likely to cause a sharp intake of breath, but everything else about their relationship is perfectly judged, leading to one of the most moving endings I've seen in a long while. Fairbanks, still a bit toothy and goofy, before the studio make-up men properly got their hands on him, was a very underrated actor, and he's dynamic here, laying the blueprint for his spectacular turn in Ben Hecht's Angels Over Broadway - the performance I tend to think of as his definitive one. There's one particularly brilliant scene where he lays into a slapper who's trying to touch him for a meal (in more ways than one), in which he exhibits a vitriol pretty much unmatched in '30s cinema. The big-eyed, curvy Blondell pretty much owned the Pre-Code era, and she's every bit Fairbanks' match here: her pep and sardonism is toned down, the forlorn, vulnerable and melancholy aspects of her persona are dialled up, and the result is startlingly effective.
Around this unusual, desperate pair are many of Warner's best stock players: McHugh hilarious, the erratic Guy Kibbee as funny and agreeable as I've ever seen him, and David Landau brusquely imposing as a straight-talking cop. The film doesn't tackle the Depression head-on like Gold Diggers of 1933, or go for the novelistic approach to a period like, say, 1981's Ragtime (set a little earlier), but it does evoke the essence of the era more strongly than just about any film I've seen: a time of poverty and want, the people of America looking back confusedly at the Great War, and uncertainly towards the future. For many, it was a period of cynicism and individualism, people grabbing what they could, doing it to the other guy before he did it to them. Cultures were colliding in a way they hadn't before, and the depot is awash with faces from different races, some Americanised, others anything but. The supporting snippets aren't all of the same standard, some a little too broad or clichéd, but in totality it emerges as a remarkably real film, with an almost semi-documentary feel.
I've always regarded director Alfred E. Green as a bit of a hack: he made some very impressive films like Baby Face and Four Faces West, but also a lot of lifeless, stylistically-barren dreck. Here, working with the Sicilian wizard Sol Polito, he manages to create a stunning, self-contained world, opening with a simply mesmerising POV tracking shot, and keeping the action fast and credible, as the film juggles drama, horror, comedy, romance, suspense sequences, social comment and even some awesome stuntwork. A couple of the plot points may be a little forced, but it's still an absolute knockout: an entire era boiled down to 66 minutes, with a timeless, off-kilter love story at its heart. (4)
Many thanks to Owen for sending this one to me.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941) - A flavourful Faustian folk tale, vividly directed by William Dieterle, evocatively scored by Bernard Herrmann, and featuring fine work from a notably unglamorous lead duo: weighty, crusading lawyer Edward Arnold, and devilish, exceedingly hammy Walter Huston, who seems to be having the time of his life. They're fighting over the soul of farmer James Craig (just about the most unpopular actor in '40s Hollywood), who's traded his spirit for wealth and fortune, and traded doting wife Anne Shirley for puggy sexpot Simone Simon. It's a familiar story, obvious even, but given a timeless presentation, and particularly arresting when Dieterle's visual imagination goes into overdrive, or the commanding Arnold moves centre-stage. Unfortunately, the film's climax has little to say about man's nature or the bonding together of the oppressed - a key theme earlier in the film - instead peddling the same trite "Land of the Free" platitudes as countless other movies of the period, at odds with much of what we've seen. After all, isn't it the servitude of poverty that drives the callow Craig into the arms of Huston's "Mr Scratch"? That shortcoming leaves you feeling unsatisfied, despite the film's clever, irreverent final image - fully in keeping with Dieterle's Gothic but homespun, jocular tone - though the botching of the big finish doesn't diminish the brilliance of much of what precedes it. The scene in which Arnold himself is tempted by the Devil is a minor classic. (3)
A Katharine Hepburn double-bill:
Undercurrent (Vincent Minnelli, 1946) doesn't have a reputation to speak of. Hardly anyone's seen it, and those that have tend to think it's a bit rubbish. I enjoyed it, though, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's essentially entertaining: you can see where the story's going ahead of time, and it's certainly strung out a bit, but it's enjoyably devised, well-handled by Minnelli, and well played by a couple of screen legends. Because, secondly and most importantly, it's one of those "wouldn't it be great..." films. In this case: "wouldn't it be great if Bob Mitchum and Kate Hepburn made a film together?" Two actors that it's hard to believe ever inhabited the same world, let alone the same film. There were so many movies made in the '30s and '40s that a fair few of these perfect pairings did become a reality, for which we have the studio system to thank. So, you've got Mitch and Kate signed up for your fantasy film - when would you like it to be made? How about '46, when he was still young, lean and hungry, and looked killer in a trenchcoat, and she was graduating from desirable young women to vulnerable spinsters, proving equally adept at the new mode. You know how it'd play out: you'd think her acting was as good as it gets, until Mitchum turned up, all effortless authority and insouciant cool, underplaying to the hilt, and then you'd realise he's probably the best actor the American screen ever threw up, even in these early days, between his only Oscar nom and Out of the Past.
They wouldn't have to have long together: just a couple of scenes, he only one other in the whole film, but it would be a joy to behold: their first meeting like the coffee shop scene in Heat, but for nerds, and not terrible. Even if the second one was hackneyed as hell, over-lit and embarrassing, it wouldn't matter too much, not for the chance to see this coupling come to life. The story, since you ask, has Hepburn as the sheltered daughter of an academic, who marries millionaire and all-round legendary figure of industry, Robert Taylor, but becomes besotted by his notorious, ne'er-do-well brother, a man she's never met. Mitchum is the caretaker she happens upon at the mystery man's old place. Aside from the horsey finale and the pat pay-off, which we can safely file under "stupid endings", it's a really fun film: an MGM melodrama tinged with noir and thriller elements, the heavyhandedness in much of the scripting compensated for by slick direction, an agreeably exciteable score and a couple of fine performances. Taylor, forever pushed by the studio as the new Gable, is better than usual in a role that subverts his carefully-developed image, but it's the chance to see two titans of the cinema sharing the screen that makes this something a bit special. (3)
Without Love (Harold S. Bucquet, 1945) - Katharine Hepburn starred in three movies based on Philip Barry plays and adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart: the immortal Holiday, the incomparable Philadelphia Story, and this one: a witty, involving but disjointed affair that's somewhat over-reliant on contrivance and coincidence. It was written for the actress and, after playing it for four months on Broadway, she took it to Hollywood. The story sees her hardened, 28-year-old widow (Hepburn was 38) swearing off love and life after the untimely death of her husband, only to be reawakened by a straight-talking scientist on a Government mission (Spencer Tracy). They marry for the sake of companionship and convenience, their union being one Without Love, but naturally it doesn't end there.
I've now seen seven of Tracy and Hepburn's nine films together, and while none are genuine classics, all are interesting and entertaining to some degree: Woman of the Year is the best, despite an overwrought subplot and a weak ending, and State of the Union and Adam's Rib have much to commend them, the former lit by a raw emotional power, the latter sparked by Judy Holliday's supporting pyrotechnics. This one's a touch below, but well worth seeking out for Hepburn. She's alternately harsh, fragile, funny, clever and naïve, displaying that rare gift for rapidly-quickening delivery and shaky-voiced honest sentiment that was her calling card. Playing a very well-written character within a not always coherent drama, she gives one of her finest ever performances - and that's saying something. Tracy is also in very good form, if not quite his greatest, while Lucille Ball works wonders with a colourful if minor supporting role, playing a self-proclaimed "bad girl" who seems oddly smitten with the bespectacled, tippling Keenan Wynn.
Hepburn's the main draw, though, her familiar mannerisms employed to serve a memorable character, even if beyond all Barry and Stewart's astute philosophical ruminations my favourite moment is just Kate laying down one of her magnificent, self-mocking "haha"s. (3)
Full Of Life (Richard Quine, 1956) - When you insist on seeing every film starring a favourite actor, you usually end up watching a dud or two. Aside from some early bit parts, Judy Holliday made just eight movies, but this is hers: a static, unfunny comedy-drama, drenched in self-pity, that's perhaps commendably unusual in trying to deal with the misery and awkwardness of pregnancy, but isn't at all fun to watch. It's also rather upsetting to see Holliday puffing away, not because her character is pregnant, but because this uniquely brilliant performer died so tragically young from cancer.
The story, if you can call it that, was adapted by John Fante from his novel, and sees Holliday's husband Richard Conte warring with his larger-than-life Italian father (Salvatore Baccaloni), amidst various other uninteresting misadventures. Even Judy isn't up to much in this boring, genuinely painful film, rife with poor writing, lifeless direction and dislikeable, deeply irritating characters. As her co-star, Conte proves that his strong suit was playing reptilian gangsters, not curiously sour family men, and throughout it all there's that same inane musical theme, played over and over and over again.
Then, bizarrely, with 10 minutes left, something in Judy and her character stirs - a baby, and a previously untapped joie de vivre - and we get a fairly pleasing finish alive with her distinctive warmth. All a bit late though, really, isn't it?
See also: Conte was rather more at ease in the quite brilliant Cry of the City.
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