Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Lucille Ball, The Hunger Games and the strange case of Benny Wilder - Reviews #178

Plus: Wes Anderson flailing, and noir icons directing pirate capers, in the latest reviews update. Feel free to argue or agree with me below or on Twitter.



CINEMA: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013) - There were two reasons why I wanted to see this film, and to pay 10 quid for the privilege.

The first was Jennifer Lawrence's startling expressiveness, that deftness of delivery and effortless evocation of complex emotion that makes my critical faculties exalt, and which has so far turned fair scripts into good films, and stronger ones into masterpieces. She lit up Winter's Bone and Silver Linings Playbook - two of this decade's best five, for me - and transformed the original Hunger Games from a potentially daft, trivial film built on formulaic lines and obscured by ephemeral trappings into something sporadically vital, exciting and real.

The other reason was that I'd forgotten I wasn't a 12-year-old girl.

Of course, in the event that I'd made a big, G.O.B. Bluth-like mistake, I wasn't going to suffer alone, so I dragged my mate Owen along too, violently kicking and deafeningly screaming, and a very good time was had by all (except Owen).

This sequel picks up a short while on, with Katniss (Lawrence) haunted by memories of that legendary killing contest, and caught between the man she loves (Liam Hemsworth) and the one she claims she doesn't (Josh Hutcherson, whose unlikely status as a sex symbol gives hope to those of us with jutting chins everywhere). Unfortunately, the president (evil Donald Sutherland, whose facial hair is distractingly asymmetrical) has his own reasons for wanting a hot Lawrence-Hutcherson love match, so they're forced to carry on the charade, whilst trying not to start a revolution on their national "victors' tour".

The film - and presumably the book - makes a good case for the eponymous event being "just games", but the fight against oppression being real... then decides to have some more games anyway (they're fun, aren't they?), prompting a partial retread of the first film, though with a few arbitrary threats that are in the vein of Cube (electrocution, poisonous fumes) and one that isn't (baboons).

It's paced like a drunk guy in a pub trying to walk to the toilets, the script by Full Monty creator Simon Beaufoy and Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt doesn't go anywhere terribly revelatory, and I don't think Hutcherson (phwoarr) can really act. But there's just something about it I liked - and I think again it's to be found at the feet of Lawrence. I'm not sure she's as good as we've seen her here, but it's all relative. She's still magnetically watchable, completely persuasive no matter what dubious dialogue she's being forced to recite, and able to signify more with a single look than most actresses could with a Robert Towne monologue. There really may as well be no-one else in the film.

As it happens, the cast has a couple of strong additions from last time around: Jena Malone as an axe-wielding rival whose vote-winning horniness evaporates remarkably quickly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the mysterious new "games master", who may quite conceivably be a massive bastard. Of the returnees, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci are both good if slightly narrowly-defined, while I found Elizabeth Banks' returning Effie extraordinarily irritating to begin with, only for this to prove one of those rare occasions (Tommy Steele in Finian's Rainbow was another) where I was won round by an avowedly eccentric turn, as it opened up to reveal something a little more human. Those lively characterisations compensate for a less compelling narrative than first time around, and the film's enduring preoccupation with fashion as a means to fight oppression, which is probably something 12-year-old girls think, but isn't anything I've seen any evidence to support.

Directorially, Francis Lawrence proves less interesting and distinctive than Gary Ross, though his Ben-Hur homage is good fun, the set-piece with the archery training is nicely edited and there's one lovely scene near the end featuring a shaft of daylight and an almost motionless (Jennifer) Lawrence. That passage made me wonder why the rest of the film often felt so functional, rather than trying to grab us by the throat.

It's no Empire Strikes Back, no Godfather: Part II, no Aliens, but it's no Cloudy 2 either. Beyond the "ooh, I know, how about this?" plotting, the "I'm not sure this bit's aimed at me" window-dressing, and the fact that we don't end up much further along than when we went in, I liked it. Most of that's down to Lawrence. I doubt there's a filmgoer out there not in thrall to her ability but, if there is, the final few frames of the film should win them around: leading to one of those abrupt endings that makes you go: "Hey wait, that can't be the... actually, yeah, OK."

I am a 29-year-old man. (2.5)

***



The Big Street (Irving Reis, 1942) - An often exceptional Damon Runyon story, in his familiar style and filled with his usual affable crooks, about two inhabitants of New York’s Losers’ Street: a selfish showgirl (Lucille Ball) consigned to a wheelchair by her violent ex-boyfriend, and the meek busboy (Henry Fonda) who appoints himself her protector, idolising her beyond all reason and continuing to stick by her even when everyone else gives up.

The production and direction is disappointingly bland – too cheap and yet not cheap enough – but the dialogue and characterisation is utterly remarkable, with Ball and Fonda both in spellbinding form, each proving amusing, heartbreaking and unfailingly convincing, cast boldly against type in doggedly unconventional parts.

Fonda played dupes and mugs in plenty of films during this period – The Lady Eve, Rings on Her Fingers, The Magnificent Dope – but never a character as innocent, stoical nor blindly loyal as Little Pinks, allying the naivete of Sturges’ “Hoppsy” to something like the high-minded view of humanity espoused by Tom Joad. It’s a really beautiful performance.

On a more trivial note, fans of his singular diction will also enjoy hearing Hank say “huh-wheeels” and “ve-heercle” in a single sentence, and Ball gets a cracking new love song to sing, Who Knows. There’s fun support too from Eugene Pallette (as a competitive eater), Sam Levene and Citizen Kane alumni Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins.

The film isn’t perfect – it sags a little at the beginning of the final third, taking Ball off screen for too long, and I’m in two minds about the ending – but, at its best, its blending of the seedy, the funny and the warmly humane reminds me of my favourite movie, Remember the Night, and I can’t think of any higher praise than that. (3.5)

***



The Front Page (Billy Wilder, 1974) - An unnecessary but enjoyable third screen version of former journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's immortal 1929 play, The Front Page, filmed in '31 under that name, and by Howard Hawks nine years later as His Girl Friday, one of the fastest, funniest comedies ever made, with an added sexual charge due to its ingenious gender swap.

This version of the tale, which as in the source sees unscrupulous Chicago editor Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) trying to persuade ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) to drop his fiancee (Susan Sarandon), and cover a hot murder case, is as much a homage to the play and the era than it is a film in its own right. There are references to All Quiet on the Western Front (a year early), Jimmy Cagney (at least two years early), Ruth Snyder, Lindbergh and the rest, and the film looks at least as '30s as the first version - aside from a curious softness in the cinematography, the light fairly streaming off Lemmon's white boater. That jaunty ragtime theme tune is one hell of an earworm too.

Wilder's main innovations are the typical ones when adapting material from a more censorious era: swear words and bad taste gags, this time about paedophilia, prostitution and diabetes. He's also on curiously juvenile form, with a running gag about a cub reporter wetting himself, and a bafflingly unfunny, sped-up sequence concerning a runaway hospital bed that seems to suggest an oft-overlooked influence on his work from Benny Hill.

Wilder and co-writer I. A. L. Diamond put Walter and Hildy behind bars near the close, which isn't in the original work and rather slows thr momentum, while letting the mayor get away with his nefarious doings: a perhaps unsatisfying but nevertheless smartly cynical touch rather typical of the director. The only entirely new sequence I found amusing and worthwhile was Burns posing as a parole officer to tell Peggy that Hildy was a convicted flasher, though it strays from the blackly comic to the unpleasant towards the end. Wilder's only other additions of note are a nice gag about the operetta The Student Prince (adapted into a film by his hero, Ernst Lubitsch, in 1927) and having the central murderer taking rather too literally the suggestion that he pose in a manner befitting a "caged animal".

The film's basic material remains amazing, though - its cynical reporters and crooked politicos enduringly fascinating, as much for Hecht's murky morality as his blistering dialogue - and the acting's good. When Lemmon does his "yadda yadda" scatting, I still want to punch him in the face, but he's very charismatic and adept at nailing Hildy's curious blend of the hard-bitten and the compassionate, as his character shoulders the burden of the story in the way he doesn't in the other versions. Matthau isn't anywhere near as good as he was elsewhere in the decade (this was shortly after that glorious one-two of Charley Varrick and Pelham One Two Three), but he's decent enough, there are interesting spins on murderer Earl Williams and his "girlfriend" Molly Malloy from Austin Pendleton and Carol Burnett, while Vincent Gardenia provides funny if sometimes a little overripe as "Honest" Pete, the sheriff. Veterans of '40s comedy also crop up, with David Wayne as Bensinger - now unmistakably a homosexual - and the great Allen Jenkins as the wizened telegrapher in the final scene.

There's no real reason for the film to exist, and Wilder's abilities were clearly flagging - he seemed somewhat uncertain how to adapt to a permissive industry where he could say whatever he wanted as a writer - but it's good fun and, in an odd way, an interesting, perhaps unwitting experiment in the Far from Heaven vein: taking a near-legendary template and performing it in a largely faithful style while using the new moral code to try to inject it with a greater realism. Well, apart from the bit with the hospital bed. It's ultimately the least of the three versions, but worth it regardless. (3)

See also: My favourite actor, Lee Tracy, originated the role of Hildy on stage. I wrote this piece about him for EatSleepLiveFilm.

***



*A FEW MINOR SPOILERS*
The Crimson Pirate (Robert Siodmak, 1952)
- Or 'The Crimson Pirate in an Adventure with a Scientist', this film's peculiar third act presumably the inspiration for the Gideon Defoe novel brought so wonderfully to the screen by Aardman. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Really this fondly remembered flick is a mix of Doug Fairbanks' 1924 cutlass-clasping classic, The Black Pirate, and the 1950 actioner The Flame and the Arrow, marrying the story of a Seven-Seas-scourge who turns noble for the sake of a woman, to the kind of colourful, stunt-heavy, circus-flavoured fun in which Burt Lancaster was briefly typecast. But unlike the sumptuous, seductive Fairbanks film, this one is aimed squarely at a Saturday morning kids' audience. (By a quirk of studio workings, both this and The Flame and the Arrow were directed by men more commonly associated with film noir: Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and Robert Siodmak (The Killers).)

The film is basically and solidly entertaining without often exploding into life the way it might. The one thing you really need in a pirate movie is ingenuity: think of Depp hopping onto the second ship or Fairbanks riding down the main sail on his sword. There are brief flashes here, but only really in the final reel, as Lancaster slices a rope to fly skywards and his sidekick Nick Cravat takes out a bunch of soldiers with a swinging mast. The rest of the film is consistently enjoyable, but not perhaps escapist or imaginative in the way it should be. It feels somewhat tied down: by its obvious, overly serious plotting, by Lancaster's irritatingly simplistic acting, and by a strange insistence on subverting its trumpeted credentials by wandering ashore or just getting a bit distracted.

Don't get me wrong: it's a solid, eventful watch and it throws just about everything into the mix - from a mutiny to a submarine, cross-dressing to nitroglycerine - while there's happiness to be found in the stars' stuntwork: the massive, energetic, hilariously twinkle-toed Lancaster and beardy, well-built little Cravat leaping, rolling and tumbling (not a sex thing). I'm just not sure it's quite the unassailable genre highpoint it might seem when viewed through a haze of nostalgia. In fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't. (Sorry for being such a misery.) (3)

***



*SPOILERS*
SHORT: Castello Cavalcanti (Wes Anderson, 2013)
- I'll defend Wes Anderson pretty much to the death. Aside from the baffling misfire that was smugness's Fantastic Mr Fox, I love every single one of his magnificent, micro-consistent movies. The features, that is. I'm not sure he's very good at shorts. The Moonrise Kingdom animations were transcendent, but quite how much of a hand he had in those, I'm not sure. Hotel Chevalier, the brief precursor to The Darjeeling Limited, was faintly affecting, but pretty pretentious and seriously slight. Castello Cavalcanti, bankrolled by Prada, is so minor it's barely even there.

The tranquility of an Italian square (pan shot, pan shot, yes, it all looks rather pretty) is rudely interrupted by rally driver Jason Schwartzman, who writes off his car against a wall. He chats briefly - in the most painfully mannered way - to some folks who turn out to be his ancestors, has a fun phone call with his mechanic, then talks to a girl. The end. In the right role, I like Schwartzman a great deal: in Rushmore, in Huckabees, in much of Bored to Death. Outside of those limitations (Slackers, Shopgirl, Bored to Death Season 3, here), he can often appear to have forgotten what acting is. He probably isn't helped by a film that has nothing to say except "shop at Prada". (1.5)

***

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