Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Joan Crawford, Nebraska and the B-movie actor, Jack Nicholson - Reviews #179

A mammoth round-up of recent cinema releases, things I watched on a tiny laptop on a train, and a few we had on in the run-up to Christmas.



CINEMA: Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) - I saw this in a triple - yes, triple! - bill with Gravity and Don Jon, and I think it was my favourite of the three, a(nother) road movie about old age and family: an unsentimental, monochrome variation on the likes of Don't Come Knocking and The Straight Story, a bit overburdened with non-sequitur comedy, but nonetheless bearing the unmistakable handprint of the mighty Alexander Payne, whose films Election and Sideways are about as impressive as writer-director calling cards come.

Bruce Dern - the cult performer who once greeted Jack Nicholson's belated rise to prominence with the contemptuous remark: "Jack Nicholson's a star now? That B-movie actor?" - is an aged alcoholic trying to wander off to Lincoln, Nebraska at every opportunity, convinced he's won a million dollars in a patently phony mailing scam. In a bid to shake him to his senses, and perhaps enjoy some quality time with his old man, his gentle son Will Forte agrees to drive him there, the trip taking in family members, old watering holes and Dern's childhood home.

SNL regular Forte is best known for his comedy work, and he has that slightly simplistic way of rendering dramatic emotion onscreen common with crossover performers, but for this material that actually works very well, his sad-eyed puppy-dog routine an effective counterpoint to Dern's complex performance as an unrepentant, unyielding old man with none of Alvin Straight's hard-won gravitas, but rather the full gamut of human virtues and flaws: a proud, ailing, bitter individualist who did more for his friends than his kids and is now trying to atone for those failings - perhaps - while not willing to admit a single one of them.

June Squibb's comic relief as his wife, while sometimes very funny, detracts from the film's realism and quality when pushed too far, and there's one very misjudged joke that turns Forte's cousins from affable wallies into something else entirely, but Nebraska is mostly very good indeed, doing a few new things with one of the oldest of indie chestnuts, aided by fine acting, crisp photography of an alternately lovely and ugly America, and a typically incisive, amusing Payne script. The line "one and a half days" made me lose control of my face entirely, and the ending does absolutely everything right. (3.5)

***



CINEMA: Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013) - Woody Allen’s erratic latter-day renaissance continues with this throbbingly neurotic update of A Streetcar Named Desire in which a deluded, substance-abusing depressive (Cate Blanchett) moves in with her relatively unrefined sister (Sally Hawkins), only to clash with her host’s boorish working-class boyfriend.

But whereas Tennessee Williams’ landmark play – which made a star out of Marlon Brando, as an overly hunky incarnation of legendary slob Stanley Kowalski – gave equal prominence to the interloper and her rival, this one focuses almost unwaveringly on the sisters. For someone periodically dismissed as a bit of a sexist, Allen has always been a great director of women, and a great writer of female characters. Here, with Blanchett, he has potentially found another Mia Farrow: a muse for his mercurial gifts.

Her Jasmine (born plain Jeanette) is a dynamically nervy, pill-chomping conduit for Allen’s fevered examinations of a crumbling psyche, a fully-realised character, rather than a plaything of fate, as so many of his more recent creations have been. Flitting between time frames, she’s variously a red-eyed freak incapable of holding it together, or an airy, graceful hostess with just about the perfect existence. That perfection, though, is a fantasy, as surely as the films that Farrow sought solace in in Purple Rose, or the transparently false rewritten history that allowed Blanche Dubois to just about function in Streetcar. While the other key theme of Williams’ play: the death of purity in a masculine world (“You didn’t know Blanche as a girl – nobody but nobody was as tender and as trusting as she was, until people like you abused her and forced her to change”), is nowhere to be seen, the central, Allen-ish toss-up between self-delusion and brutal reality is beautifully handled, a performance every bit as good as Dianne Wiest’s in September or Gena Rowlands’ in Another Woman: two of the high points of the director’s dramatic oeuvre.

Because, despite a few broader moments and some concessions to black comedy, this is Allen on firmly dramatic ground. With Midnight in Paris he showed he could still pull off the kind of deceptively deep whimsy that came so naturally to him in the ‘70s; with Blue Jasmine, his other outstanding film of the past decade, he proves that he still has what it takes to be something like the dramatic writer-director he always imagined himself – even if it never felt quite so effortless as when he could lace the narrative with jokes.

The other notable performance is from Sally Hawkins, Allen making up for giving her a dog of a part in his worst movie, Cassandra’s Dream, by providing her with a meaty role as Blanchett’s working class counterpoint, a loyal, conflicted woman easily led astray, whose one chance of climbing out of her rut was pissed up a wall by Blanchett’s conman of a husband (Alec Baldwin). The rest of the cast is solid rather than remarkable. Baldwin is good if hardly stretching it as a slimeball, Peter Sarsgaard gets a taste of his own medicine following An Education, and Louis C. K. essentially reprises his part from Parks and Rec as a clumsily earnest bachelor – at least at first.

For anyone who’s familiar with the blow-up over Allen and his relationship with his long-term partner’s 17-year-old adopted daughter (the pair are now married), there’s a fascinating subtext to some of the later revelations. If Baldwin is Allen and Blanchett is Farrow, then, well… I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but the allegory isn’t very thinly-veiled.

There is some of the clunkiness and clumsiness that has marred Woody’s later work: the staging of a pivotal party is so unconvincing as to be faintly embarrassing, the scene outside the jewellery store is a very mechanical, convenient piece of writing, and everybody talks like Woody – fine for Blanchett, not so suitable for the macho, blue-collar types surrounding her – but there’s a confidence and a general realism in the story and the characterisation that makes an invigorating change. Back from Europe, he proves at home in San Fran, with a central character he understands, and who feels completely human, thanks to a writer on form and an actress on fire. (3.5)

See also: Woody's previous film, To Rome with Love, isn't quite the turkey it's been described as.

***



CINEMA: Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013) - This film turned me into the aliens from Toy Story. 3D tears in zero gravity? "Oooooooooooooh."

It's a solid but standard Hollywood script - disaster, fleeting romance, somebody running from their past - taken to a whole new level by Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki, whose gobsmackingly beautiful photography creates a litany of unforgettable images, and features by far the best use of 3D that cinema has thus far found. It sounds incredible too, an ominous score and some adventurous editing foreshadowing and soundtracking several of the most exciting and nerve-wracking sequences you'll experience on the big screen this year.

As you may have heard (I came to this one rather late), Sandra Bullock is an engineer, haunted by personal tragedy, who becomes stranded in space with astronaut George Clooney after their mission goes tits-up. She's got to stop spinning and somehow get home, via ruined space stations and blasted craft, facing fires, her personal demons and a terrifying barrage of flying debris. The film takes a while to find its rhythm, and it does sometimes turn too Hollywood-y, but Bullock is good, it's frequently thrilling, and it has a visual beauty that's often simply staggering to behold. The ending is perfectly judged too. (3.5)

***



CINEMA: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013) - There's nothing here to match Riddles in the Dark, and the whole thing is a little shapeless - lacking a clear focus or a real climax - but there are some effective emotional moments, most resulting from Ken Stott's nicely judged performance, and Jackson's talent for directing action is much in evidence, especially during the wonderful "barrel riding" set piece. Stray observations: the Leicester Square Odeon is very swanky - I hadn't been before - Gandalf's staff is a giant asparagus spear; I hope Sherlock and Watson make it up before New Year's Day. (2.5)

***



Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) - I watched this as a Christmas treat. It's one of the great films. I wrote a proper review earlier this year, so this is just a happy recap: Hoffman is sublime, Lange is the last word in love interests, there's superb comic support from Bill Murray and George Gaynes, and the film refuses to treat any of its characters as a joke (not Durning and not Garr), dealing deftly but properly with every serious issue it raises. It's a rare film that employs drag to interrogate gender stereotypes, not to sit lazily with them, smirking away. It's streaked with greasepaint, charmingly scored, richly romantic, hysterically funny and remarkably poignant. And the last 40 minutes is just utterly sensational. (4)

***



Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) - My two favourite films of the decade so far are movies of water, poor folk and poetry, centred on a young female character of undefeatable tenacity. One is Beasts of the Southern Wild. The other is this bleak, humanist masterpiece, mixing character study, thriller and a portrait of social degradation and moral courage. It's beyond brilliant. (4)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)
- Payne's greatest, and one of the finest of the decade so far, a stunning, beautiful and utterly unpredictable comedy-drama that's about nothing if not life itself.

Clooney is a self-absorbed lawyer - a descendant of genuine Hawaiian royalty - who's forced to take charge of the situation after his wife has a boating accident, and lapses into a coma. Whilst reconnecting with his opinionated daughters, he's also considering a land deal central to the future of the island... then he discovers that his wife was having an affair.

Whilst rarely original in conception, where Payne's films are truly distinctive is in their execution: that off-kilter humour, heart-melting sentiment and ability to immerse you in the lives - and the world - of his characters. Here he's adapting with the help of Way, Way Back creators Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, to unfailingly spectacular effect.

I'm not a huge Clooney fan, but, as with his idol Cary Grant in his later career, when his smug facade is scratched, cracked or punctured, he becomes an entirely different proposition. He was very good in Up in the Air, and he's absolutely exceptional here, asked to play between the lines, and to nail just about every emotion known to man. The results are extraordinarily affecting.

Nebraska has been bafflingly hailed in some quarters as Payne's "return to form". Following what? A perfectly-pitched rumination on existence, in all its chaotic, tragi-comic complexity? The Descendants is a unique and brilliant movie: intelligent, incisive and poignant, its nuanced plotting, distinctive dialogue and glorious central performance accompanied by one of the most exquisite scores of recent decades, a Cooder-ish guitar accompaniment rich in authentic Hawaiian flavour. (4)

***



The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, 2012) - Aardman's best feature to date, packed to the gills with gags that exhibit a sharp, silly and deliriously post-modern sense of humour. The "sea monster" line is a thing of genius. (3)

***



The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973) - Something like the Spanish Whistle Down the Wind: a story of childhood innocence and imagination in which a girl becomes convinced that the murderer in a nearby barn is a cherished figure: there Jesus, here the spirit of Frankenstein's Monster. Set in Franco's Spain, saddled with some deeply uninteresting adults and at times both slow-moving to the point of tedium and narratively confusing to the point of impenetrability, it also contains utterly wonderful performances by the two nippers at its centre, and a few of the most visually and emotionally beautiful passages I've ever seen on film, blessed by a rare and special understanding of childhood in all its intense, sentimental, nonsensical glory. (3)

***



The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919) - Ernst Lubitsch was a master of endings, even in these early days, and the final reel of this live-action cartoon is just brilliant. The rest of it, dealing with oyster heiress Ossi Oswalda's attempts to wed a prince - but accidentally marrying his imbecilic, chrome-domed butler - is a bit too self-consciously quirky, riddled with amusing but shallow non-sequiturs like female boxing matches, split-screen foxtrotting and drunken wanderings choreographed in meticulous fashion. With his amazing catchphrase of "I am not at all impressed", oyster king Victor Janson would steal most pictures, but this one - as ever - belongs to Lubitsch's unconventional, unpredictable and hugely likeable leading lady, who's completely lacking in vanity, falsity and synthetic celluloid glamour. She's fast becoming one of my favourite movie stars. (3)


See also: Two earlier films that Ossi made with Lubitsch.

***



Nativity! (Debbie Isitt, 2009) - It's formulaic to a fault, and the nativity sequences go on for far too long - and with far too much cheap sentiment - but Freeman is superb, it's very, very funny during the first hour, and its heart is unquestionably in the right place. It also makes me feel proper Christmassy. Typical BBC, though, eh, funding a movie about a multicultural state school whupping a bunch of privileged white-os. (3)

***



Father of the Bride (Vincente Minnelli, 1950) - This is one of those films so ingrained in cinematic folklore that it’s a little difficult to really get a handle on it: so fondly half-remembered that its mere mention turns a certain sort of audience dewy-eyed and gooey-hearted, and so much a part of Hollywood history that it was one of the three films shown on the big screen during The Last Picture Show.

Removed from all that, and seen as merely another movie, it’s essentially another addition in the “stressful family comedies” sub-genre (Mr Blandings et al), which has a fair amount to say about family and ‘50s America, missteps every now and then, but gets by on the strength of its convictions, and its performances.

Spencer Tracy is the patriarch and lawyer forced to foot the bill for daughter Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding, while speculating blackly about his new in-laws, the unsuitability of wife Joan Bennett’s plans, and the spectre of bankruptcy – which he imagines is just around the corner.

A lot of it is just Tracy grumbling about money or being frustrated in his attempts to join in, and some of the sitcom-ish cuts and fades are rather smug and annoying, but it is a fundamentally decent, good-hearted and often incisive film about family, aspiration and the necessities of adult life, with a few amusing moments thrown in. I did find it a little galling to see what 1950s Hollywood imagined a “small house” and an average lifestyle to be, but then I am perpetually broke.

Tracy was a far better dramatic actor than he ever was a comedic one, lacking a lightness of touch and often coming across as sullen and awkward rather than sardonic or witty, but he’s good here, dealing with the funny moments pretty well – the sequence in which he tries to squeeze into an old, excruciatingly tight suit sees him display an unexpected flair for visual comedy – and the emotional ones just as superbly as you’d expect.

The film’s real ace, though, is the young Elizabeth Taylor, who displays a heartbreaking sincerity, an intense sensitivity – everything so keenly and purely felt – that would soon be eroded by who knows what (Hollywood? Her lifestyle? Her lack of discipline?). She had played a similar role in Julia Misbehaves two years previously, and done it very well, but here she’s simply exceptional: wracked with unhappiness, shaking with anxiety, bursting with love.

Just look at the scene she has with Tracy near the close, navigating material that saddles her with nerves about the service, when something deeper and more profound, rendering her more fragile, might have worked so much better. Despite that, she handles it superbly, eliciting a strong, believable and memorable connection with Tracy, who’s just experienced a vivid Expressionist nightmare of his own. And then there’s her acting in the pay-off, which, is just, y’know... *bursts into tears*

Her performance is something very real at the centre of a film that has a few too many cop-outs and weak gags to justify its lofty position in the cinematic canon, but also some great and enduring strengths that periodically lift it way out of the ordinary.

And the church looks just like the one where I got married. Cool. (3)

***



The Mask of Dimitrios (Jean Negulesco, 1944) - An intriguing, boldly non-linear biography of pure evil (Zachary Scott), as writer Peter Lorre delves Citizen Kane-style into the past of a man washed up dead, bumping into a hulking mystery man (Sydney Greenstreet) on the same trail. It's not quite as successful as The Verdict, as its raison d'être is less clear and its destination less impressive, but there are many enjoyable performances and scenes within its less than perfect story. (3)

***



"I beg your... complete pardon."
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (Woody Allen, 2001) - Woody's much-maligned version of a battle-of-the-sexes screwball comedy, set in 1940, is overlong and rather repetitive, but full of nice period flavour and good music, and sometimes simply hilarious. The scene in which his investigator searches rival Helen Hunt's office is one of the funniest things he's ever done. The film as a whole is minor, a little one-note, and has too many gags that fall flat, but it's still a fun watch, and certainly undeserving of its sullied reputation. (2.5)

***



The Conspirators (Jean Negulesco, 1944) - I realised halfway through this film that I'd seen it before, which says a little about me and quite a lot about the movie.

It's a solid but unremarkable Casablanca knock-off made by the same studio, Warner Bros, and featuring Paul Henreid as another freedom fighter engaged in a relationship with a brooding, accented mystery woman (Hedi Lamarr going all Ingrid Bergman on us). Whereas in Casablanca he was striving to get to Lisbon, here he's trying to leave it, but gets drawn into the local espionage scene, encountering such superb character actors as Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, in another of their fine teamings.

The incomparable Lorre is actually a little underused, but Greenstreet is superb, Joseph Calleia has a nice bit as an understanding detective, and both Henreid and Lamarr give it their best, despite the rather formulaic and overly propagandist material. Lamarr is frequently derided nowadays, but I think she could be a decent actress when not asked to merely be a clothes horse. In King Vidor's H. M. Pulham, Esq. and her nudey breakout role, Extase, (I've already seen everything), she was absolutely excellent.

Director Negulesco also creates a handful of memorable suspense sequences, as well as a few tedious ones. While the action finale is completely uninvolving, Henreid's attempted prison break is a knockout in the Mesrine vein, and the climactic, Hitchcockian roulette sequence is cleverly handled, despite the obviousness of the culprit, which seemed like a muddle-headed cop-out even on first watch. I'm sure I'll enjoy another first viewing one day. (2.5)

***



Fancy Pants (Charles Walters, 1950) - A very loose, slightly racist remake of Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap, re-imagined as a Bob Hope vehicle. He's an American actor who poses as an English butler, then an earl, while tangling with various Western sorts, getting to meet Teddy Roosevelt, and taking the mickey out of how Chinese people speak.

It's slight and very inconsistent, but overall not bad. Lucille Ball is excellent as the combustible love interest gradually falling for our hero (while cultivating her new screen persona), and the best moments see her giving Hope a peck on the cheek - one of those small, sweet touches that can make a film - and the amazing punchline to his story of imperial derring-do, which is as good (and subversive) a gag as he ever delivered.

There's also a fun appearance early on from the great character comic Eric Blore, playing a sort of embryonic version of the Fast Show's Rowley Birkin QC - perhaps based on a character from the 1937 comedy Personal Property - a largely unintelligible aristo with strange moments of clarity. (2.5)

***



*SPOILERS FOR THIS AND WHEN LADIES MEET*
Susan and God (George Cukor, 1940)
- On paper this sounds pretty good: a comedy-drama based on the most celebrated work of grown-up playwright Rachel Crothers - whose play When Ladies Meet was made into one of the most intelligent American films of the '30s - adapted by one of the best screenwriters of all time, Anita Loos, and featuring a promising cast that includes the likes of Fredric March, Ruth Hussey and Rita Hayworth. Unfortunately it rarely catches fire, due to weak writing and a disastrous choice of leading lady.

Was there ever a more dislikeable actress than Joan Crawford? That's a rhetorical question. No there wasn't. Kudos to Crawford for taking a part turned down by Norma Shearer because she wouldn't portray a character with a teenage daughter, but that's where the praise ends. With her maniacal stare, grating sanctimoniousness, shiny head, massive shoulder pads, innate lack of warmth and critical lack of talent, Crawford managed to torpedo many a movie from the mid-'30s onwards. She is a disgrace to people like me everywhere with slightly large jaws. I actually quite like some of her earlier work: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Grand Hotel, Rain, Love on the Run and The Women (cast most convincingly against type as a bitchy adulteress), when she was a proper performer rather than a riotously vain star upon which to pin entire films. After that, she was usually a bloody nightmare (Mildred Pierce is an exception of sorts) - and that's before we even consider her noted aversion to wire hangers.

So why do I persist with her films? Because there's often so much good stuff filling up the rest of those vehicles: like everyone else in The Last of Mrs Cheyney and Sudden Fear, Melvyn Douglas's engaging antics in They All Kissed the Bride, John Garfield's pyrotechnics in Humoresque, and as much quality in every area, in just about every film, as America's biggest studios could conceivably sling at a picture. Incidentally, the secret to Crawford's longevity was partly contained in The Greatest Put-Down of All Time - "She was the original good time that was had by all" ((c) Bette Davis) - and while the unusual, indomitable and outrageously talented Davis seemed to sum up Warner Bros, the earthy, socially-conscious studio where she made her name, so Crawford epitomised the magnificent, ugly and terrifying monolith that was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Here she's cast as a deluded, maniacally-staring socialite with a shiny head who returns from a jaunt to England full of fervour and constantly mouthing off about God. Her alcoholic husband (Fredric March) wants to reconnect - and have them spend some time with daughter Rita Quigley - but she's more concerned about self-righteously condemning the behaviour of all her friends, including a pair of dating divorcees (Bruce Cabot and Rose Hobart), a former actress (Rita Hayworth), who's thinking of cheating on her husband (Nigel Bruce!), and the stoical spinster in love with March (Ruth Hussey).

While it's tagged as a comedy-drama, I'm not sure I spotted a single joke. Rather, Susan and God is a wearying, single-note film, obvious in the extreme, about a selfish person being very annoying for two hours, and then quite nice for five minutes. And while Hussey is very good and March is absolutely exceptional, it's hard to stay on good terms with a movie that sees Crawford's ultimately repentant egomaniac as better marriage material than the caring, compassionate, empathetic, witty, intelligent and good-looking Hussey. (What is it with pretty brunettes with sticky-out ears getting their hearts broken in Crothers adaptations? It's a conspiracy.) But maybe I'm projecting again. Still, a word on Crawford's hilarious outfits. There's one featuring a miniscule satchel that makes her look like a giant postman, a second that seems to feature several lassos, and another that's like a beekeeper's outfit, but topped off with a Dick Whittington-style bundle on a stick.

Certainly the film as a whole is nothing better than a low-rent, unconvincing American spin on Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara - an immaculate work that deals with faith, femininity and moral want in spectacular fashion - which squanders a good cast on a muddled script with a simply dire characterisation at its centre. Incidentally, that's Joan Leslie in a non-speaking part as one of Quigley's friends. Within a year she would be one of the biggest stars in the world at just 16. And within a year Crawford would take the Myrna Loy role in a remake of When Ladies Meet. *Punches own face*

***



The Impatient Years (Irving Cummings, 1944) - War bride Jean Arthur and her husband Lee Bowman, with whom she's only spent four days, are reunited after 18 months. He's grown a moustache, she's now a dedicated mother with a fixed daily routine, and frankly they don't like each other much. But instead of being granted a divorce, they're forced into a court-ordered courtship - thanks in part to her father Charles Coburn, whose character oscillates between very wise and completely stupid - retracing those four days in San Francisco, where they begin to reconnect.

I reckon I could have written a better script than this: most of the gags concern Arthur and Bowman inexplicably half-explaining their plight to character actors like Grant Mitchell, Charley Grapewin and Charles Arnt, then - having being met with complete confusion - saying something vague and petulant before leaving the room. The only scene where the gimmick works is a nightclub sequence featuring amorous sergeant Frank Jenks, because at least here Arthur has a proper reason for misleading him.

The other good scene has the couple meeting justice of the peace Harry Davenport and his wife Jane Darwell. It's very sentimental, but it shifts the viewpoint of the film from a shallow celebration of the first flowering of romance (which I believe may have been done becore) to the less escapist but more timely subject of building a marriage in the face of adversity, which, given the characters it's dealing with, feels completely right.

And, while the film isn't very funny or romantic or particularly credible, it does at least have the almighty Arthur, one of the great Hollywood actresses, who can make anything look - and particularly sound - a whole lot better, squeaking her way through every contrived situation with the absolute maximum of charm. Aside from perhaps Garbo in Ninotchka, who has ever pronounced the word "silly" in such a marvellous manner?

Sadly, the other central players are disappointing. Bowman is simply weak: he was a passable second lead who should never have become a star (and didn't stay as one for long), while Coburn is completely coasting, and few of the many familiar faces who turn up in support are given anything memorable to do, with several of them being actively annoying.

I don't really ever say "meh", but "meh". (2)

***


Great poster. Weak film.

The Family Man (Brett Ratner, 2000) - Nic Cage is high on my list of least favourite actors, a little below Joan Crawford. He just can't do anything that isn't massive, which is a Bad Thing. He's asked to carry this Christmas fantasy (which riffs on It's a Wonderful Life) and does a predictably hamfisted job. The second half's a lot better than the incredibly flat, pointless first - with an agreeably nuanced approach to its premise - and Tea Leoni is pretty good as the one who got away, but it never quite comes together, and the ending doesn't really work. (2)

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