Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Clueless, Sam Rockwell, and Steinbeck done right - Reviews #176

I've been busy trying to finish the first draft of my kids' book (around 7,000 words to go, thanks for asking) and even pitched it to a grown-up (that's me in the tie), so movies have taken a long overdue backseat (there are 13 here, but that's in the last month). I still love them, of course, but every once in a while you have to try to achieve something with your life. This book is my thing. Also, several of the films I've seen lately have been absolutely appalling. They're in this round-up, along with the good ones. I've been doing some freelancing about films too - I'll tell you more about that some other time.

Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995) - I saw this at the cinema when I was 11, when I found the whole thing slightly too grown-up and confusing, and then later when I was perhaps 15, at which time it seemed like a slightly superficial teen comedy. In fact, it's kind of the opposite: a satire, based on Jane Austen's Emma, about a spoilt, self-centred teen (Alicia Silverstone) who reinvents the new girl at school (an unrecognisable Brittany Murphy), but has to make over her own personality in order to get the man she wants (Paul Rudd).

I'm 29 now, and I can see where my confusion set in, as the film does rather want to retain its cake while scoffing it whole, taking place around vast mansions and revelling in Silverstone's eye-catching outfits, while telling us that really such things don't matter at all. It takes a lot of side-swipes at her Cher ("I've divided them into aperitifs and mains," she says, after collecting food for a charity appeal), but her transformation is a little unconvincing and hardly complete.

The reason I revisited the film is because it's heralded as something of a classic nowadays, and recently topped The Guardian's list of the 10 best teen movies of all time: a list that couldn't find space for Ghost World, Brick, Knock on Any Door - hardly a great film, but unquestionably a crucial one, popularising the "live fast, die young" catchphrase - Some Kind of Wonderful or Rebel without a Cause.

So, 17 years on, should it be troubling a list like that? As if! It's essentially a stick-thin comedy in eye-watering colours that has just about enough good gags, fun semantic inventions and wordy, erudite one-liners to secure a decent report card, but is a long way off that coveted A-grade, even given Cher's gift for wrangling. Rudd, then looking like he might turn into a slightly bland leading man rather than an offbeat improv king, is good value, and his sparring with Silverstone provides the film with its best moments, but even then he appears extraordinarily uncomfortable when forced to negotiate the soppy, clichéd wrap-up.

Compared to writer-director Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (see below), penned by Cameron Crowe, Clueless is simply too light, inconsequential and lacking in heart, its characters caricatures rather than real people. It's entertaining and distinctive, sure, but hardly one of the best teen films ever made. (2.5)

See also: My review of Knock on Any Door is on the MovieMail website here.


Of Mice and Men (Lewis Milestone, 1939) - Two drifting ranch hands blow across California during the Depression. Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is huge, hulking and slow-witted, with a childlike innocence; George (Burgess Meredith) is his protector: a smart, selfless man who's happy to keep telling that same old story: one day they'll own their own place, and Lenny can pet the rabbits. Having fled the town of Weed (it isn't a marijuana metaphor, but imagine if it was), the pair pitch up at a ranch fairly teeming with trouble, most of it coming from the owner's son Curley, and his sexually frustrated wife (Betty Field).

Lewis Milestone's translation of the Steinbeck novella is an immersive, extraordinary powerful experience, exceptionally well-acted, particularly by Chaney and Meredith, and shot in painterly tones by Norbert Brodine, even if his and Milestone's visual sense sometimes seems to have more to do with aesthetics - the re-sizing of the frame by shooting between trees or with machinery in the foreground - than alighting on details actually integral to an understanding of a scene.

That's not much of a problem, though, and it's not always the case: the two key scenes here - the first concerning the potential shooting of a dog, the second the potential shooting of a man - are dealt with perfectly, eliciting a nauseating dread and bitter anguish quite unlike anything I've felt watching a movie before. Those sequences, and indeed the whole film, are also extremely well-scored by the modern musical visionary Aaron Copland, who would write the soundtrack for Milestone's next (and far inferior) Steinbeck adaptation, The Red Pony, a decade letter.

Somehow Hollywood managed to make an even better Steinbeck film the year after this one, as John Ford and Darryl F. Zanuck brought The Grapes of Wrath to the screen with a vivid scope, political punch and sense of photographic realism that this one just can't match. It isn't bad for starters, though: another incredible triumph from Hollywood's greatest year, with an emotional impact that's all too rare. (4)


Lawn Dogs (John Duigan, 1997) - In simplest terms, it's like Sundays & Cybele relocated to the Scissorhands universe, but Lawn Dogs is very much its own film, its familiarly fatalistic story full of strange details, the characterisation fresh and original, and the perfectly-judged introduction of fantasy elements paving the way for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Mischa Barton is Devon, a weird, precocious 10-year-old girl who's just moved to a bright, idyllic gated community with her parents, but quickly becomes obsessed with a terse, tortured piece of trailer trash (Sam Rockwell, exceptional in his breakout part) who tends the lawns of this rarefied estate.

As with all films of its type, from Cybele to Sling Blade to Half Nelson, you know it's unlikely to end well, but the story is doggedly unsentimental, the idiosyncratic, generation-spanning friendship is truly affecting and Duigan has an eye for curious, subversive imagery - an American flag dropped on the gravel or used to mop up after a crime, a hysterically funny "war" scene, a tree dressed in ribbons - that drags his film to some glorious hinterland where folk story, fantasy and class-conscious America somehow sit side by side. (4)


Indisputably the best bathtub on film.

"Wherever there's smoke, there must be... somebody smoking." Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, 1937) - My favourite movie of all time is Remember the Night. This is writer Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen's other collaboration. It's also amazing. Light on plot, long on Leisen getting a bit distracted by nice clothes and the coolest bathtub in the history of the world, but amazing nonetheless.

The one and only Jean Arthur, possessor of the best voice in movies - an instrument of purest husky-hinted squeak - is Mary Smith, an ordinary working stiff who's mistaken for the mistress of New York's third biggest banker (Edward Arnold) and finds that now everybody wants to give her things for free: a hotel room, a new wardrobe, a supper for two... She's in love with an ordinary Joe, though (Ray Milland), little realising that the apparently homeless ex-automat employee is Arnold's son.

This effortless mix of satire, slapstick and romantic comedy lacks the combination of light and shade that makes Remember the Night such a staggering film, and which you'll find in all of Sturges' best films as director, but it is extraordinarily clever, hysterically funny and irresistibly charming, with Arthur at her unapproachable best, Milland a fairly fun love interest, and a trio of classic supporting turns from Arnold, butler Robert Greig, and Luis Alberni - as an incompetent, scheming hotelier called Louis Louis. (4)


This bears very little resemblance to anything that happens in the film.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982) - I was watching this on the train, but I had to stop, as people were staring at the boobs. Whether they were gazing in slack-jawed disgust at the appalling pervert or whether they just like boobs, I'm not sure, but it was making me uncomfortable, so I finished it at home.

It's a trendsetting, hugely enjoyable teen movie, scripted by Cameron Crowe from his book, that gave a break to a half-dozen future stars, and influenced everything from John Hughes' run of school-set comedy-dramas to Bill & Ted, and Dazed and Confused.

It's an ensemble piece, but the focus is weighted towards Jennifer Jason Leigh's virginal 15-year-old Stacy, making her first ventures into the world of romance and boffing. Mike Backer is a sweet classmate who's stuck on her, Robert Romanus the smooth-talking ticket-scalper helping him out, Judge Reinhold her hard-working, perpetually unlucky brother, and Phoebe Cates her worldly-wise best friend - the latter two combining to great effect in the obligatory wanking scene.

Almost everyone in the cast went on to fame and fortune to some degree: Sean Penn plays a bolshy stoner named Spicoli - battling memorably with authoritarian history teacher Ray Walston - Forest Whitaker is imposing as a combustible football star, Nicolas Cage's big, stupid face looms into view a few times, and there are small parts for Eric Stoltz, James Russo, Anthony Edwards, Crowe's wife Nancy Wilson and future Beverly Hills Cop director Martin Brest.

I realise that so far I've mostly just listed some people's names and talked about boobs, so how about a review? Fast Times is a real breath of fresh air, like a bonus Hughes film made before the fact, peopled by welcome faces, soundtracked by catchy tunes and touched with that Crowe earnestness that can send everyone running for the hills - but here suits the subject matter, and these characters, just fine.

It's an episodic film, with a bit of '80s gimmickry - check out that football scene - and I was often surprised at the way it curtailed scenes, sometimes after an abrupt punchline, but it's heartfelt, true-to-life, largely unsentimental and extremely entertaining: full of memorable encounters, likeable characters and funny sight gags.

The performances vary in quality: Backer is OK, and Cates, Reinhold and Romanos all manage to be slightly wooden and yet very convincing, but Leigh and Penn steal the show: she very affecting as a sweet-natured, uncertain, resourceful but deceptively strong young woman, he the last word in massive stoners, with the undulating intonation, delayed laugh and wavy hair used by just about every screen weed-smoker since.

The last third perhaps takes a bit of a dip. Though it does resort to some of the teen film staples I was impressed it had avoided, it deals with them in an unusually unmelodramatic, matter-of-fact way. A more significant problem is its inability to satisfactorily tie up some of its many story threads, though, if I'm being charitable, I suppose teenage life is a bit like that. Despite a few shortcomings, it is both tremendous fun and one of the key films in its genre: if Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful are better still, I doubt they'd exist without this one. (3.5)


The Man Who Came to Dinner (William Keighley, 1942) - Caustic columnist Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) fractures his hip whilst on a lecture tour, leaving him holed up in the home of a ball bearings manufacturer and his shrill wife, where his brand of self-centred posturing, empty sentimentality and slightly tiresome insults changes the lives of those around him - for better or worse.

This celebrated comedy, from the Kaufman-Hart play based on the character of theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, starts off in an alarmingly one-note vein, but gets better and better as it goes along, culminating in a memorable tussle between Whiteside's long-suffering secretary Bette Davis and his superficial protegee Ann Sheridan for the heart of country newspaper editor Richard Travis, incorporating hilarious supporting parts for Reginald Gardner and Jimmy Durante - the latter playing a fun-loving movie star called Banjo, patterned after Woollcott's best friend, Harpo Marx.

There are rather too many of those archive one-liners rendered meaningless by changing comedy tastes and Woolley's massive performance falls the wrong side of greatness for me, but it's an entertaining film that builds to a typically funny, frantic climax, and Davis is absolutely excellent as an acerbic, lovelorn woman with little faith in her ability to keep her man. (3)


Old Small Chin doing her big-eyed bit.

Young Bess (George Sidney, 1953) - Perhaps Jean Simmons never fulfilled the potential she showed as a young actress, from that film-stealing bit in Give Us the Moon as a chain-smoking teenager, through Great Expectations, Black Narcissus and Olivier's Hamlet, where she was a mesmerising Ophelia.

There are great performances dotted about her career, including in Elmer Gantry and The Grass Is Greener (both 1960, the year she also made Spartacus), but at times she struggled for work and struggled to make an impact when she found it, seeming to possess a fragile confidence to go with her delicate, distinctive appearance: sweeping black eyebrows over huge violet eyes, a long, slender nose, and a full, wide mouth above an extraordinarily tiny chin.

There were certainly two serious factors contributing to the erratic nature of her career: her mental health problems - including serious bouts of depression and accompanying alcoholism - and the unwanted attentions of megalomaniac RKO owner Howard Hughes, who blacklisted her at the peak of her powers, after she repeatedly rebuffed his advances. The situation was so extreme that Simmons and her husband, Stewart Granger, fantasised about murdering Hughes. In the event, they chose a less extreme method of redress, with Simmons winning her freedom from the mogul in 1952.

Young Bess was made by prestigious MGM the following year and, while it isn't a great film, it is a fabulous showcase for her abilities. Simmons is very, very good as the lonely, impetuous, improbably attractive future Elizabeth I, triumphing over a rather flimsy romantic narrative - with a hint of intrigue - through sheer force of personality.

There's a steeliness to her performance, removed from the bitterness of Great Expectations or the shallow histrionics she exhibited in the overrated Angel Face that I found really eye-opening, particularly when she purposefully recalls the mannerisms and proclamations of her father (Charles Laughton, recreating his Oscar-winning role), chest out and hands on hips, or spouting off, dreamy-eyed about the greatness of Britain.

Despite a cast that also includes Granger and Narcissus alumni Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, the film feels very much like an old-fashioned star vehicle, attuned to Simmons' gifts, and simply allowing her to express and articulate a great breadth of emotion - as well as to prove a remarkably dishy redhead - rather than providing a terribly noteworthy or cohesive narrative.

Having said that, there are other notes of minor interest: a little mileage to be got out of villain Guy Rolfe's Fassbender-like fizzog, and a performance by over-enunciating child star Rex Thompson that's either the best or worst thing I've ever seen. He had me in hysterics repeatedly - I think by accident. It's also quite a handsome production, and there's one particularly brilliant shot near the close, in which Simmons' shadow grows and grows until she's as tall as the castle wall. It's an absolute beauty.

Young Bess isn't good history and lacks the ambition in its storytelling to provide much beyond solid entertainment, with a narrative that's rather too slight, low-key and initially bitty, but it is a diverting watch, as well as an effective showcase for one of Britain's most interesting and attractive actresses. Having said all that, Miranda Richardson remains the definitive Elizabeth I. "It's up to you: either you can shut up, or you can have your head cut off." (3)


Thieves' Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949) - An apple-flavoured film noir, with war vet Richard Conte hauling crates of Golden Delicious over to San Francisco, where he wants a few words with the greengrocer (Lee J. Cobb) who left his dad in a wheelchair.

Its mechanics are sometimes a little obvious - like the shallow fiancee or the self-righteous cop punching us in the face with a moral - it gets slightly bogged down when we first arrive in San Fran, a symptom of pacing issues, and there's some of that violence towards women that always makes you wince, but it's an interesting, unusual movie with a great many virtues.

As well as the genuinely original setting - an agreeably banal backdrop for the story of an avenging son - there's a nice supporting performance from the oft-ridiculed Valentina Cortese, playing a jaded prostitute with bad hair, some deliriously perilous trucking scenes that may have influenced The Wages of Fear, and fine turns from both Cobb and the forceful, intense Conte, their scenes together crackling with menace. There are also a handful of nice visual flourishes from Dassin and photographer Norbert Brodine, including a perhaps unrealistic but nevertheless striking bit of staging that sees Cobb back-pedalling through a bar-room, dispensing scrunched-up bank notes as he goes.

This isn't in the top tier of Fox films noir, with Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends, nor can it quite compete with Cry of the City - which Conte made the same year - but it's pulpy, sweet and sour in equal measure: not ideal for an apple, but about right for the genre. (3)


Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen, 1922) is a silent Danish drama-doc in seven parts: an outrageous, confusing, sometimes quite scary movie about witchcraft, demons and the Devil - part reconstruction, part dramatisation, part vintage PowerPoint presentation.

Three years in the making and overflowing with ambition and naked bottoms, it focuses chiefly on a witchcraft scare in 15th century Germany, but also seeks to provide a wider context, regaling us with officiously sourced tales from the dark ages, drawing parallels between 20th century "hysteria" (mental illness) and symptoms of possession, and throwing in another short story for good measure, in which a horny maiden tries to seduce a fat monk using some cat poo and a dead sparrow.

The film is illuminating on a subject of which I knew little, has a richly toxic atmosphere thanks to some very impressive imagery - most showily the animated money set-piece and a fantastic flying sequence that predates Murnau's Faust by four years - and includes a scene in which a gaggle of witches queue to literally kiss the Devil's bum (I was heartened to find that the monks conducting the inquisition found this just as funny as me). But it's also quite hard to follow, can be tedious and poorly-acted, and suffers from both a muddled viewpoint and a short attention span: I'm not sure any of the stories ever actually got finished.

All this is probably compounded by the fact that I don't have much stomach for the subject matter or for horror movies in general. Certainly I found it more impressive than enjoyable, and struggled to get or stay engaged with the narrative. It did bolster my self-esteem, though. The sky is made of steel? Ancient Egyptians were idiots. (2.5)


Madame X (David Lowell Rich, 1966) - Top tip: if you've faked your own death, don't forget to buy a newspaper with your photo on the front, and stand in the middle of the street shaking your head at it.

Madame X is a preposterous, sometimes persuasive Sirk-like soaper, based on a hoary old melodrama and featuring Lana Turner's biggest performance, though hardly her best. It's camp beyond belief, coincidence-driven beyond credibility and has a pay-off that's only about half as good as it has to be in order to justify the sacrifices made to get there. It's also pretty watchable, with a few nice moments towards the end.

Turner is a shopgirl who has married into a wealthy, powerful family. While her husband (John Forsythe) is away in North Africa, she enjoys an ill-advised dalliance with a notorious playboy (Ricardo Montalban), which naturally ends with him dead and Turner staging her own demise, helped by the mother-in-law (Constance Bennett) who despises her. Years later, and having become a massive fan of absinthe, Turner again has a few legal difficulties, bringing her back into the lives of her husband and her son, who's now all grown up (and is Keir Dullea).

The presentation is Sirk-ish, with the same fondness for filtered lighting and big emotions, but there's little of the artistry and none of the nuance, the quiveringly intense cast - all subscribers to the "more is more" mode of acting - operating remorselessly at fever pitch, so there's nowhere for them to go, and no way for you to become invested or immersed in their incredibly unrealistic plight.

Burgess Meredith probably fares best, as an absolute twat, but both Dullea and Turner do pretty well with a script that drifts into the realm of the very silly at regular junctures. The moment where she realises his true identity in the penultimate scene is as effective as it should be - if only the film had properly followed through on the promise of that moment. As soapy anti-climaxes go, this one gives Frank Capra's Forbidden a run for its money.

Incidentally, Turner dyed her hair blonde near the start of Slightly Dangerous (actually her best performance, at least of those I've seen), having just faked her own death, so as to live the high life. Here she dyes it brown to slide down the social ladder. Typically disgraceful anti-brunette/redhead bias. (2)


Big Jake (George Sherman, 1971)
- This late-period John Wayne vehicle is absolutely terrible - even in the context of his early '70s movies like Chisum and Cahill U.S. Marshal - a film for casually right-wing middle-aged men whose children need to show them some respect.

Wayne phones it in spectacularly as Big Jake, a man so tough, unsentimental and generally John Wayne-like that he's named his dog "Dog". When the grandson he's never seen is swiped by a gang of baddies who for some reason require a very long and boring introductory voiceover, he sets off in pursuit, accompanied by his idiot offspring, who aren't as cool or clever or as good at punching people in the face as he is. One is played by Wayne's own son Pat, Freud fans, while the other is Bob Mitchum's son Christopher, a sweet-natured man who couldn't act for love nor toffee. There's also a lone Native American amongst the hunting party, of course, with the usual negligible life expectancy.

It's real by-the-numbers stuff: Wayne is proved right about something, Wayne is proved right about something again, one of his Moron Children fires a gun badly and Wayne has to jump in some water, Wayne gets into a fight with a big man and the music goes all silly, the Native American gets killed. Where there is novelty, it's misjudged to the point of comedy, like Mitchum taking advantage of the 1909 setting by piddling around the hills on a motorbike during a gunfight, and not actually getting at all involved, but just doing some jumps. It's very hard to believe the script came from the husband-and-wife duo who wrote Dirty Harry the same year. The only real plus points are leathery old Richard Boone as the villain, acting everyone off the screen even though he doesn't look very interested, and a rousing, tuneful theme by Elmer Bernstein.

The film does pick up a little towards the end, when some Actual Things Happen, but it never shakes that hideous tone of youth-hating, reactionary self-congratulation, which has far more to do with 1971 and John Wayne than anything that ever happened in the Wild West. (1.5)


Track of the Cat (William Wellman, 1954) - The things a Mitchum completist has to sit through... William Wellman's attempt to make a black and white colour film - about a panther stalking snowy ground - is pictorially striking but otherwise a total write-off: talky, static, laughably melodramatic and painfully boring, somehow managing to waste a cast that includes Mitch, Beulah Bondi, former child star Diana Lynn, who had transformed from a wry, sarky kid into a throaty, elfin ingénue, and Alfalfa from Our Gang playing a 100-year-old Native American. It's a contender for Mitchum's worst film, right up there with White Witch Doctor, though I haven't seen the one about a boxing kangaroo yet. (1)


Penguin Pool Murder (George Archainbaud, 1932) - I'd heard great things about this one - the first film in the Hildegarde Withers comedy-mystery series - but it's absolute drivel. I didn't laugh once. The infernally annoying Edna May Oliver is a schoolteacher who witnesses the aftermath of a murder, and muscles her way into the investigation, helping out a detective (James Gleason) who keeps leaping to the wrong conclusions. Oliver's line-readings are all exactly the same - a sort of posh, strangulated, sphincter-tightening wail - Gleason had yet to learn how to tone it down a bit, and the culprit becomes painfully obvious from about a third of the way through.

Its only virtues are that you get to see some penguins and the final half a minute is mildly pleasant. I may get around to the sequels, but only when I've watched all the other films in the world. Twice. (1)


Thanks for reading.

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