Thursday, 17 October 2013

Sergeant York, Andie MacDowell and a really, really bad film - Reviews #172

Nowadays I mostly just watch films on a little computer on the train. Like a boss, as I believe they say. That's how I saw most of these - as the director intended.

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) - If Ball of Fire is Howard Hawks' best film - his most enchanting, entrancing and affecting - then Sergeant York has a claim to being his greatest: an astonishingly ambitious piece of storytelling, with sweep and style and a tremendous universality, that's also rooted in the personal. Though the DVD cover features Cooper in full-on battle mode - tin hat on, revolver out, face fixed in stoicism, a hero for the Father's Day market - Sergeant York is much more than a mere war movie.

Its first half is a pastoral masterpiece (pastorpiece?) in the vein of Tol'able David, staggeringly shot in charcoal tones by Sol Polito, and chronicling hellraiser Alvin York's conversion to Christianity, within an isolated mountain community. The second follows Alvin (Gary Cooper) as he wrestles with his conscience upon being drafted during WWI, and winds up a war hero, via one of the greatest battle sequences ever filmed.

If you can stomach the film's patriotism and justification of war as a means to peace, and an unselfconscious sentimentality in much of its dialogue (some written by John Huston), then the film is nigh-on perfect, with even the "in the Army now" sequences possessing the absolute minimum of incongruous character comedy. The immortal Cooper does perhaps his best dramatic work in the lead - it was his favourite of his films - Walter Brennan's performance as the local pastor is another masterclass (pastorclass?) from one of the great supporting actors, and the 16-year-old Joan Leslie - probably the prettiest actress in '40s cinema - is extraordinarily effective as Alvin's fiancée, Miss Gracie, her naturalism and remarkable gift for reaction creating the usual alchemy with her leading man.

Beautifully conceived and rendered, from the stunning sets - at once stylised and realistic - to Max Steiner's astonishing score, the film is a triumph as Americana, as a character study, as a portrait of religious conviction to rank alongside Becket, as a romance, as an entertainment (it was the highest grosser of 1941) and as a - perhaps unwitting - piece of propaganda, its respect for pacifism and conflicted relationship with conflict barely registering with the thousands who saw it just after Pearl Harbor and headed straight for the recruiting office.

To modern eyes, the film may seem fanciful, hackneyed or hokey, but I found it spellbinding: an immersive experience that conjures up a whole lost world. A work of art. (4)


Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949) - Harrowing drama about Scottish people's reliance on alcohol. (3.5)


Green Card (Peter Weir, 1990) - An old-fashioned romantic comedy with a certain intangible, unaccountable magic. Andie MacDowell wants a greenhouse, Gerard Depardieu wants a green card, and so these strangers marry, then bid farewell forever, little knowing they'll be flung back together by suspicious immigration officials. Written, directed and produced by Peter Weir - an enduringly class act - the film isn't particularly funny, but it is a cut above usual romantic fare, partly because it's rooted in the real world and in credible characterisation, partly due to the chemistry of the leads, and partly because of Weir's skilful direction, which fails only in two regards: if MacDowell gives you a handful of wooden line readings, you ask her to re-take, and if you've got a flipping recurring musical motif inspired by a burgeoning love affair, you flipping play it over the flipping climax. While Bebe Neuwirth from Cheers is fun in support, casting off that unsmiling sternness in an infectiously vivacious performance, this is a movie that zones in on its leads. MacDowell comes in for a lot of stick, but she's often very good here, when not relying on that stock smile or fluffing the odd infuriated riposte. Depardieu's first English-language performance seems nothing special in itself - while those sorts of barbs aimed at vegetarianism and clean-living may have been old-hat when they were used in the 1916 movie, His Picture in the Papers - and yet the film is ultimately entirely winning, and its central romance unusually and comprehensively affecting. (3)


Man on the Moon (Milos Forman, 1999) - There are three basic ideas about stand-up comedy: 1) That it's about making people laugh, 2) That it's about hauling down the powerful, 3) That it's both an art and a science, a medium in which the element of performance is integral and the self-aware, post-modern deconstruction of comedy is funny in itself. The last one of those doesn't sound at all funny, but it can be in the hands of the right comic, as the numerous critical bouquets flung in the direction of Stewart Lee will attest.

Andy Kaufman thought a little of the first idea and a lot of the last. He thought that dying on stage was hilarious, that making his audience unsettled or outraged was at least as worthwhile as getting them to giggle, and that the only way to respond to requests for his TV catchphrases was to read the entirety of The Great Gatsby aloud on stage. He prefigured the "ironic" un-PC humour of Ricky Gervais by a couple of decades during a peculiar venture as a sexist wrestling bad guy, figured that if he found something funny that was more than enough, and took very much to heart the Wildeism, "I put all my genius into my life", a Withnailian get-out for those who lack the discipline to create anything of genuine worth. I'm rather fond of it myself.

This superior biopic, another portrait of a genuinely odd iconoclast from the People Vs Larry Flynt team, is, if not quite the film that Kaufman would have made of his own life (that doubtless would have been out-of-focus for the second half, which came at the start of the film), at least alive with the perverse glee of his comedy and the sincerity of his erratic artistic vision. Played by Jim Carrey with a level of complexity and dramatic intelligence that proved The Truman Show was no fluke, the film follows Kaufman from his discovery by super agent Danny De Vito, through Saturday Night Live and sitcom fame, onto a relationship with a one-time wrestling adversary (Courtney Love) and then down through professional disaster and failing health.

This standard narrative, shot through with about the right amount of Kaufman's own penchant for rug-pulling and getting somewhere close to an understanding of quite a strange man, is also cleverly bookended, kicking off with a frankly amazing mock-ending and climaxing in about the only way it can. My main criticism is that the film loses a little of its vitality and fondness for invention as it progresses - certainly there's too much wrestling and too much Tony Clifton (a one-joke character whose one joke is funny once) - and may have benefited from a more adventurous, non-linear screenplay: perhaps of the type that Andy's namesake Charlie might have provided. Despite the quality of the acting, despite Forman's gift for montage and comic timing, despite the erudition of the dialogue and the quality of the R.E.M. score, it all comes a little close to storytelling-by-numbers in the second half.

But while playing it safe wasn't exactly his style, a biopic that's often funny, sometimes infuriating and ultimately kind of brilliant does seem about right for Andy Kaufman. (3)


20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1932) - Golden Age legends Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis made their only appearance together in this powerful but deeply flawed prison movie from Warner Bros, based on the memoirs of Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes. Tracy is an underworld big shot who gets sent down for 5 to 30 (they had vague prison sentences back then) after an armed robbery, leaving big-eyed Davis on her lonesome. Naturally she spends her newly freed-up calendar trying to spin nefarious fixer Louis Calhern around her finger, so Tracy can be sprung, but it doesn't quite pan out like that. The star - who had already been sent to prison in his debut film, Up the River - is superb when the part calls for him to play sincere, noble or troubled, but struggles with the malevolent material, seeming somewhat miscast in a role originally intended for Jimmy Cagney. The film's essential toughness is also diluted by weak comedy and studio gloss, while Warner's reputation as a progressive studio doesn't extend beyond a slightly cautious supposition that not all prisoners are evil; "You've got to be useful to live," says the warden at one point, which is the sort of thing Hitler might have said.

The film does get a kick from the stars, though, and includes a nice bit part for future Plan 9 alumnus Lyle Talbot as a complete psychopath, while the fast-moving story is diverting enough - despite a rather daft gimmick concerning Tracy's loathing of Saturdays - and there's one absolute knockout prison break sequence shot in vivid Expressionist style by Curtiz and journeyman Barney McGill: pure film noir, some eight years before the fact. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing can't compete with the bleak, grown-up I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, released by Warner Bros the same year, nor The Big House - one of the first great talkies and still the daddy of all prison films - nor even Cagney's own penitentiary pic Each Dawn I Die, but for a brief, low-budget programmer, it's pretty punchy, and all builds to a gutting pay-off. I still love that title too. (2.5)


The Flame and the Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) - A handsome Technicolor swashbuckler in the familiar Warner Bros style, with Burt Lancaster taking over from Errol Flynn, who was getting too old/debauched for this shit. Lancaster is a free spirit in 12th century Italy - with frankly resplendent teeth - who starts fighting for the little guy after his son is taken prisoner by the ruthless German tyrant who's married his ex. Virginia Mayo is Lancaster's sassy feminine foil (who spends a fair bit of the film with a chain around her neck, like a kind of sexy dog), Frank Allenby is the hissable aristocratic villain and Robert Douglas has a potentially interesting role as a duplicitous swordsman that he doesn't do a great deal with. The star's regular sidekick and former big top buddy, Nick Cravat, also gets a showy part, effective as the star's mute, fiercely loyal right-hand man.

The film is a bit too talky and the action is variable - half awesome circus moves, half bog-standard scrapping - but it's intelligently cast, frequently entertaining and builds to a very satisfying conclusion. At its best, such as in those exuberant opening scenes, it fairly throbs with energy and vigour - much like its leading man. It's also attractive to look at: while Tourneur was no auteur - and cinema is after all a collaborative medium - his films peg him as a fine visual stylist, especially when working with a talented cinematographer like film noir pioneer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, Cat People), Charles Schoenbaum (Stars in My Crown) or Ernest Haller (this one), who went on to shoot Rebel without a Cause. (3)


Tall Man Riding (Lesley Selander, 1955) - A formulaic but fun Randolph Scott Western, one of a pile of identikit offerings the oft-wooden star made from the late-'40s to the mid-'50s, before Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy made a cult figure out of him. The best of these is probably A Lawless Street, directed by B-movie wizard Joseph H. Lewis, while the interminable Coroner Creek must be the worst. This one's placed midway between the two, beginning in a confusing, slightly tedious vein, gradually improving, then getting hijacked by a silly twist that feeds into an unexpectedly strong triple-ending.

As usual, Scott is a quiet, stoic gunman, bent on revenge, who's suspected of various nefarious doings (including shooting his ex-lover's husband in cold blood) while finding that his thirst for vengeance abates as more important considerations intrude. That story is rather over-familiar and Scott is at his most oak-like, but the supporting cast has its compensations to atone for the mediocre males - the still-brunette Dorothy Malone is very forceful if clichéd as Scott's ex, and Peggie Castle (the femme fatale in the Mickey Spillane adaptation, I, the Jury) gives a decent performance as a saloon singer and gangster's moll who finds her essential goodness sparking up again - and it's a fast-moving, quite well-directed movie that's wrapped up in an appealing way. For all its shortcomings, Western buffs should find it an enjoyable enough ride. (2.5)


Walk, Don’t Run (Charles Walters, 1966) - A fittingly pedestrian remake of George Stevens' The More the Merrier - that classic comedy about an ageing romantic bringing together two young people during a housing crisis - updated to the sexually franker '60s and the hustle and bustle of Tokyo during the Olympics, and notable only as Cary Grant's swansong.

While Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton are no Arthur and McCrea, hers is actually the stand-out performance, beginning in an uptight, officious manner, then blossoming charmingly. The mahogany, lazily suave Grant - once the most gifted light comedian in screen history - is fairly good but largely coasting, as he so often did later in his career. He hadn't lost his timing (that "... then I'll stay" sequence is beautifully played) and he has fun belting out the theme songs of a couple of his most famous films before waving us goodbye at the end, but he's unable to summon the enthusiasm or the resources to breathe much life into the more trivial, sitcomish material, which mistakes endless repetition for humour (especially in the interminable "timetable" set pieces), thinks the volume of a TV being turned up is in itself hilarious and has characters constantly behaving in incredible ways: like climbing up the side of a building rather than waiting to be let back into an apartment.

There are a few laughs and a few nice romantic moments, while the curious homoerotic undercurrent in the early scenes between Grant and Hutton is sort of fascinating (Grant was long rumoured to be gay, a reputation he'd cheerily spoofed in Bringing Up Baby), but unless you're a Grant completist, distrust black and white films or resent having a good time, you'd be better off just watching the original. (2)


Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950) - Silly, arbitrarily-plotted Hitch film, set in London, his first British movie after leaving for Hollywood a decade earlier. Jane Wyman is a stage-struck kid who risks it all for the man she loves (Richard Todd) after he's framed for murder by his lover (Marlene Dietrich), getting entangled with the investigating officer (Michael Wilding) and going deep undercover as a maid, with the help of an extraordinarily bad Cockney accent. The story is so scatty that it seems as if they came up with the set pieces first and then just tried to tie them together - the director and his writers did sometimes work that way, successfully on North by Northwest - the balance of comedy and tension is never quite right, and rarely has Hitchcock's stairs fetish been so boringly employed as in the sequences of Wyman running up or down steps, trying not to let people see her face. It's a passable entertainment, though, thanks to a few directorial flourishes and a very special home-grown supporting cast, including Kay Walsh as a chain-smoking blackmailer, Wilding giving a masterclass in smitten but hard-edged suavity, and Joyce Grenfell playing her (incongruous) stock character of a toothy incompetent, this time in charge of a shooting gallery. Best of all is Alastair Sim as Wyman's rascally father, a man always in control despite his bumbling manner and disordered appearance: a sort of Boris Johnson for the suspense set. (2)


The Saint Meets the Tiger (Paul L. Stein, 1943) - This late, British entry in the Saint series starts and ends quite well, but has an incredibly boring, extended middle, full of secret passages, dull characters and awkward pauses. Hugh Sinclair is an underrated, enjoyable Templar - debonair and amusingly offhand - but no match for Louis Hayward's definitive characterisation. The supporting cast is mostly weak, though Jean Gillie isn't bad as the love interest, and Charles Victor has a fair scene in which he tries to frame the Saint for murder. All in all, though, this cheap, poorly-scripted comedy-mystery is a bit of a chore. (1.5)


Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2012)
- Oh fuck off. There's the germ of an interesting idea in Zoe Kazan's screenplay, concerning the collision between the adolescent ideal of a lover and the reality of sharing your life with someone, flaws and all. Unfortunately it's swamped by buckets and buckets of utter bullshit, a heap of ideas nicked from Stranger Than Fiction and The Purple Rose of Cairo and a veritable avalanche of manic pixie dream girl posturing.

Paul Dano plays a frustrated "boy genius" - a once-renowned writer who expresses the usual fondness for Fitzgerald and Salinger (a familiarly shallow way to imbue your screenplay with faux-intellectual credibility) while being hampered by block as he tackles that Difficult Second Novel. After a dream about an annoying ginger (Zoe Kazan) - sorry, a beautiful dreamer (Zoe Kazan) - who couldn't fit the MPDG stereotype more perfectly if she was wearing a Smiths t-shirt (I have several, but that's not the point) and scrawling Rimbaud verse on her arm with a sparkly pen, he begins to write about her, only to find that she has come to life, and is in his house.

The first 15 minutes is genuinely the worst opening to a film I've seen since Mamma Mia!, full of dreadful dialogue and risible acting. The opening exchanges left me slack-jawed in amazement. Does this kind of pointless writing, combining lazy juxtaposition (dreamy girl says mundane thing) with clumsy attempts to subvert non-existent expectations, honestly merit being filmed? Then suddenly the film seems to get a grip of itself - and so its audience - as Dano's brother (Chris Messina) delivers a neat little speech about the difference between a dream girl and a real woman. Ah, so Kazan's character is supposed to be shallow and ridiculous? Finally we're getting somewhere. Actually, no, the film's not sure. Let it just consider that for a moment, then completely change the subject.

After that, I'm not sure what happens. I mean, I watched it, but it passed in a cacophony of white noise, as deep as a trailer, the sort of wildly inconsistent nonsense that's very difficult to judge, as I've no idea what it's supposed to be, and Kazan has no idea what she's trying to say. Or else hasn't the skills to say it. The film embraces the one plot development you're urging it to, as Dano is overwhelmed by the desire to "perfect" his creation (again, a mature analogy for relationships in general), only for the results to be instantly sunk by gimmickry and bad acting, the "comic" scenes in which Kazan is consumed by joy being the more embarrassingly overacted since Ginger Rogers became a little girl in Monkey Business.

It's never clear whether the Ruby who appears is supposed to represent a real woman or merely a literary creation - surely the crux of the piece - or whether she grows apart from Dano because she has become more human or simply because he is unable to adapt to her inexplicable arrival. There's also a gaping great hole in the way that he is unable to correct her increasingly unrealistic flaws. I don't think it's a critique of perfectionism (if it was, surely he'd answer her request to start over in the final scene with, "It doesn't have to be perfect") and nor does it seem to be dealing with any lack of realism in literature. It's just a flaw.

Somewhere along the way there's also a fucking road trip, of course, with meaningless bit parts for Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. Bening's character, the Incredibly Irritating Earth Mother familiar from just about every disappointing indie film of the last 20 years (Broken Flowers, Away We Go), handily represents nothing, serving only to inform us that people who excessively embrace a New Age lifestyle are probably quite annoying, which I think we already know. Steve Coogan pops up every so often too, as Dano's overbearing mentor, affecting an accent perhaps best described as "Americunian". There are a couple of laughs in there, Messina is good and the film occasionally alights on something more universal than "man fancies Zoe Kazan" - whether by accident or design, I'm not sure - the idea of a writer paralysed by his own success remains interesting, and certainly the climax to the "human puppet" sequence has a wonderfully manic energy to it, but it's not enough, not nearly.

The film's argument seems to be that we shouldn't try to change people, but that if we don't, they'll leave us. How life-affirming. And also that Zoe Kazan is Zoe Kazan's idea of the perfect woman, in all her cooky capriciousness. It's like (500) Days of Summer, but without the self-awareness or charm, and with all the flaws turned up to 11. Or like Weird Science for pretentious, posing tossers. (No offence intended if you liked it, though you are wrong.) Like I said: fuck off. (1.5)


Thanks for reading.

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