Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tom Hiddleston, Unbreakable and that movie about LEGO - Reviews #188

Plus: mixed fortunes at the cinema, nice music and Lindsay Lohan. Some of these reviews have been knocking around for a little while, for which I profoundly apologise.



CINEMA: Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) - Only Incredibly Pretentious Vampires Left Alive, more like.

The bar for what constitutes a great film nowadays seems to have fallen in the toilet. Jarmusch's last really dragged the depths, but this is the worst of his others, a lot of pop cultural posturing with a story about toothy haemogobblers attached.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are Adam and Eve, age-old vampires enduring tricky, bloodthirsty lives, she in Tangiers with friend Kit Marlowe (John Hurt; shades of Dead Man's William Blake), he as a reclusive rock musician in Detroit.

They reunite, and that's it for a desperate first half, as Jarmusch employs showy camera angles for no reason, has his characters spout synthetic philosophy about science and art, and tediously fetishes old guitars for what seems like about three years, a single diversion about the Michigan Theatre hitting the mark.

Then Mia Wasikowska turns up as Swinton's little sister, Eva, and the film splutters into life, becoming first an amusing domestic comedy, then a bleaker, more arresting proposition, leading to some tender exchanges, a few more longueurs, and an excellent ending.

But while Hiddleston is good and a few bits work well, the overall effect is of a maverick who has mislaid his unique talents somewhere along the way, and can find only a plethora of Stax, Tesla and Byron references to plug the gap.

What ever happened to vampires who were happy to just sneak into virgins' rooms at night and drink their blood? (2)

***



The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014) - "Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you're part of a team..." So goes the anthem of the establishment in this subversive, upliftingly imaginative animation, in which most things are indeed awesome.

Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) is a little, yellow-faced Lego man, a construction worker like thousands of others, only less distinctive. Then one day he falls down a big hole whilst gazing at a gothy ninja, and happens upon the Piece of Resistance, fulfilling a fairly recent prophecy, and being hailed as "The Special One" (like Jose Mourinho but less annoying). That unsurprisingly sets him on a collision course with tycoon, media mogul and megolamaniac Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who was planning on destroying the world in three days' time.

This, ladies and gentleman, is the real Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. While a film bearing that name was unleashed on unsuspecting, presumably underwhelmed moviegoers a few months back, it had almost no input from the creators of the first film, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Instead, they were working on this one, a consistently delightful action-comedy that allies the anarchic sensibility of that modern masterpiece to the post-modern, multi-world universe of Wreck-It Ralph.

The first 15 minutes is dizzyingly brilliant, introducing a Lego-infused style of animation every bit as good as you'd hope for, while unwrapping a story that spears conformity head-on, firing off dead-on zingers as it goes. Emmet, like most of his compatriots, is happy to lead a constricted, restricted and uniform life. He follows the instructions, watches Where Are My Pants? on the telly, and sings Everything Is Awesome until the uncertainty goes away. When Business's right-hand thug, Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), asks Emmet's best friends about him, he finds that they're not sure who he means.

While the film doesn't quite maintain the pace or the comic invention of that opening, spending more time on clever action set-pieces than in fostering the tear-jerking emotional undercurrent of Wreck-It Ralph, and delivering a message that's frankly very confusing, its chaotic, haphazard approach to comedy and storytelling contains a thousand little reasons to love it. And every time it flickers across your mind that you haven't laughed in a few minutes, it does something so outrageously brilliant that you fall in love with it all over again.

I think I could seduce you into watching the film by listing just a few of the fanboy-pleasing characters who make an appearance in Lego form (the film is basically a pub quiz question waiting to happen), but that would be to ruin a succession of joyous surprises. And while there's a little lazy spoofery now and then, trading on catchphrases and the like, that obviousness is overwhelmed by the amount of unexpected, truly new off-kilter iconography attached to these familiar faces. At times its daft, quickfire, ceaselessly satirical atmosphere reminded me of Hellzapoppin' - the 1941 film borne of a Broadway revue that journeys into Hell and manages to incorporate Lindy Hopping, Frankenstein's Monster and a gag about Citizen Kane.

You might think from the title that this one would be more akin to The Lorax (pure bland kiddie fodder) than Cloudy (no more a kids' film than Inception is), but that would be wrong. Voiced by Ferrell, Parks and Rec stars Pratt and Nick Offerman, as well as Elizabeth Banks, Arrested Development's Will Arnett and Community's Alison Brie, it very much trades on a sense of humour both hyper-intelligent and knowingly stupid. Pratt is a wonderfully gifted, completely natural comedian, and his voicework simply couldn't be better.

I don't think the film can quite compete with its great rivals in terms of emotion - a sharp left-turn near the close is bold and largely successful, but perhaps not universal enough to get you where you live - but for laughs and Lego-heavy spectacle it can't be beat: right through to that killer closing gag.

Now I just need a pun to close with. It's brick-liant? It's highly constructive? No... Ooh, I know. Le-go and see it. (3)

***



Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) - Note to Tod Browning, Kristen Stewart and Jim Jarmusch: *this* is how you do a vampire movie. (4)

***



Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000) - What an interesting, entertaining and unusual film this is. But is it a comic book "origins" story or a tale of aimless urbanites losing their grip on reality?

Bruce Willis is a stadium security guard who miraculously survives a train wreck. Was it luck, fate or something else? A comic book obsessive (Samuel L. Jackson) with a rare bone disease posits a theory of his own: Willis is his polar opposite, a new kind of superhero who is, well, unbreakable.

Some of the film's surprises aren't really surprises, Shyamalan's cameo is Tarantino-esque in its ineptitude, and a couple of the climactic sequences are too revolting, sensationalist and lurid to enjoy, but it is a consistently engrossing and fascinating film, with many unexpected qualities, as Shyamalan serves up a worthy successor to The Sixth Sense.

Beyond Die Hard, I don't really like Willis - I find him smug, annoying and light on talent - but his performance here is agreeably thoughtful and nuanced. And Jackson is just excellent: way out of his comfort zone as an intense, hobbling nerd, but commanding every scene with that awesome gift he has for emphasis and using silence like a sledgehammer.

The film is great to look at, too. At times it seems almost over-directed, with Shyamalan constantly searching for a way of shooting a scene that hasn't been done before (through the gap between two train seats, with a cape-ish curtain in the way), but that sort of enthusiasm for the medium, coupled with a sense of genuine invention and imagination is very exciting to watch, while rarely getting in the way of the material.

There is a bit of an issue with some of Shyamalan's writing. Would a man really fail to notice that he hadn't been ill for 30 years? Would a kid really try to prove his dad was magic by shooting him? Probably not, but it's a minor gripe with a film of such conviction and originality that you can't help but be pulled along with it. And that ending? Even if you guess some of what's coming, it's a chilling, exaltingly cinematic and beautifully executed pay-off. (3.5)

***



Freaky Friday (Mark Waters, 2003) - This remake of a fondly remembered but actually pretty dire Disney comedy from the '70s works so well because it never descends into cartoonish slapstick or caricaturish characterisation, instead rooting its body swap shenanigans in the real.

Lindsay Lohan plays an archetypal teenager plagued by an annoying little brother, an unrequited crush and a vindictive English teacher. Her mum (Jamie Lee Curtis) loves her to pieces... but also regards her as a sullen, awkward and combustible child who needs to pull her weight in the family, and be protected from gorgeously greasy emos. On the eve of Curtis's wedding, a meddling woman at a Chinese restaurant puts a spell on them, leading them to inhabit one another's bodies for the eponymous "freaky Friday".

There's cheesiness here, some overly convenient plotting and a posturing regard for mediocre guitar music that's a little wearying, but also charm, sincerity and some very good acting. It had never really occurred to me how talented Lohan actually is (was?), but she does a great job with her character here: particularly when trying to comprehend her daughter's plight from within her body, which can't be an easy thing to play. It led me to think of other Lohan performances I'd seen, and though there hasn't always been scope for her to reach for grand emotion or high art, she carried or enhanced several enjoyable mainstream films, from The Parent Trap to Mean Girls, before discovering how much fun it is to get plastered. The last time I saw her she was being bizarrely and rather thanklessly employed in Machete. Perhaps some day she'll be rehabilitated in more ways than one.

If Curtis's role had gone to someone like Sigourney Weaver, it would have been played with an unwatchable broadness. In her hands, though, it largely works. There are a few concessions to teen-mocking stereotypes, along with the requisite "bloody awful makeover scene" but there's a subtlety and sincerity to her performance that I found very winning. She and Lohan are supported by an unexpectedly tolerable ensemble, with slightly mannered little brother Harry Coleman and grandpa Harold Gould proving a fun pairing.

The film isn't in the same league as 17 Again, which I really do think is the best and most original body-swap comedy around (shut up), but it's comfortably in the second tier with Big and 13 Going on 30 (shut up more). While belly laughs are in short supply, that's perhaps because it isn't quite that sort of film, instead delivering a bright human story with characters you actually care about. (3)

***



True Grit (Joel Coen, 2010) - If everything about this film was as good as its score and Hailee Steinfeld's performance as the implacable Mattie Ross, then I'd be clearing a space for it in my top ten at this very moment.

As it is, it's a rather frustrating watch, those exaltant twin virtues - alongside some gloriously inflected exchanges, Roger Deakins' bleached-out photography and an invigoratingly executed long-distance shoot-out - simply lying around in an aloof, sloppy and poorly-paced story hampered by the Coens' usual vices: excessive unsentimentality and self-satisfied comedy that stalls dramatic momentum.

The story, as in the curiously celebrated 1969 film, has 14-year-old Mattie enlisting the help of gruff, garrulous marshal Rooster Cogburn (an unintelligible Jeff Bridges) to hunt down her father's killer, assisted and thwarted in almost equal measure by a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon).

I do prefer this version to the flaccid, clichéd Henry Hathaway one, in which John Wayne was merely eye-patched Oscar bait for an Academy keen to reward him for past accomplishments. I just wish it lived up to Steinfeld's forthright, heartfelt performance, perfectly pitched between naturalism and precocity, Carter Burwell's lush, gospel-influenced score, and the stunning employment of Iris DeMent's peerless rendering of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms (also the key song in Night of the Hunter, hymn trivia fans). (3)

***

Busby Berkeley double-bill:



Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933) - Warner made a heap of great musicals in the early '30s, with the likes of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler crooning and hoofing, Guy Kibbee and co providing the comedy, and the incomparable Busby Berkeley designing the numbers.

This one sometimes gets overlooked alongside 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers series, but it shouldn't, not least because it throws Jimmy Cagney into the mix and climaxes with the unique spectacle of three big back-to-back Busby Berkeley numbers.

Honeymoon Hotel is tiresome smut, but the climactic number - Shanghai Lil - is great fun, with Keeler and Cagney tapping on a bar, and the middle one, By a Waterfall, is a sumptuous, extravagant, kaleidoscopic affair that shows the choreographer at the peak of his powers.

The story isn't as convincing or compelling as elsewhere, with Cagney running a company putting on theatrical prologues between cinema fearures, but it has a fantastic atmosphere: vast swathes of it taking place before or around realistic rehearsals, as dance director Frank McHugh wails "It can't be done!" and Cagney fires off a succession of ideas, commands or smartarse remarks.

William Keighley is credited as the "dialogue director", but I wouldn't be surprised if Berkeley shot plenty of this, as the beautiful, fluid camera movements showcased throughout the film are hardly the calling card of studio hack Lloyd Bacon. Buzz was, of course, responsible for the other full production number, with Keeler dressed as a sexy cat.

Aside from the spectacular songs, the biggest treat is the chemistry between Cagney and the charming, big-eyed Joan Blondell, who's absolutely wonderful in a part she played several times: a tough, wise-cracking secretary with a secret yen for her boss. (3.5)



Gold Diggers of 1937 (Busby Berkeley, 1936) - After the popular 42nd Street, Warner Bros made their musical masterpiece, a Depression-era beauty called Gold Diggers of 1933 that mixed somewhat risqué comedy with astonishing production numbers, including the greatest one ever filmed: Remember My Forgotten Man.

Its outrageous success led to a series of Gold Diggers films: arguably including Dames (Gold Diggers of 1934 in all but name), as well as Gold Diggers of 1935 (poor plot, jawdropping songs), this one - actually released in 1936 - and Gold Diggers in Paris.

The story here has the crooked partners of Victor Moore's ailing theatrical impresario - including Anthony Perkins' dad - taking out a massive insurance policy on his life, then trying to off him with the help of chorus girl Glenda Farrell, who memorably laments: "It's so hard to be good under the capitalist system." Meanwhile, Farrell's former colleague Joan Blondell gets a secretarial gig at the insurance firm in question, thanks to a lazy salesman (Dick Powell), who ends up handling Moore's case.

The film finds Berkeley and his Warner cohorts at a strange time. The putting-on-a-show story that had served his style of musical number so well was fast going out of fashion, so he was forced to create a couple of promising plot-driven numbers that never quite get there, partly because Blondell and Powell could hardly dance. The censorship clampdown was also by now in full effect, meaning little of the scurrilous humour that made earlier comedies at the studio such fun. And as well as stifling the sex gags, the Hays Office ensured that the politics of the period were no longer fair game for comment, with the chorus girls now having to bail out a former millionaire!

It's still a decent watch, though, with two good numbers and two great performances. Joan Blondell is rarely cited as one of the best actresses of her era, presumably because - like Myrna Loy - she complemented rather than annihilated her co-stars. The more I see her, though, the more I love her. Not just her assured sexiness, but also her ability to effortlessly shift mode and mood from lovelorn to sassy to sardonic. She was comfortably and contentedly the best thing about numerous films of the 1930s, and here she walks away with every scene she pitches up for during for the first hour.

After that, it's over to the adorable, snub-nosed Farrell (whose Torchy Blane was the inspiration for Lois Lane), here combining her talent for the cynical and sentimental to unforgettable ends. The scene with Moore in his dressing room is absolutely sensational, as he throws off his familiar comic persona (which here is far more grating than usual), to deliver a heartfelt speech, and she matches him every step of the way.

Berkeley's best two numbers are the most familiarly Berkeley-ish - a poolside medley reminiscent of his work on the Eddie Cantor film Roman Scandals - and the fondly remembered All's Fair in Love and War, in which an army of women memorably gas their male adversaries with perfume, presumably causing war veterans in the audience to say, "What the actual hell?" and Powell to pull a face like Franklin Pangborn. Some of the number just consists of women walking around or pouting, but it has passages of wonderfully imaginative, regimented imagery, particularly some bravura flag twirling - and that bizarre trench warfare. (3), just about.

***


This is one hell of a nice poster.

Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976) - Hitchcock's final film is no classic, just a watchable, often lighthearted thriller: a bit lazy, a lot padded, but with enough of his usual pizzazz to keep your attention. It's kind of odd seeing him at work in an era of flares, gargantuan sideburns and a strange fondness for the colour brown, though. Also, I thought the title might have a clever double or triple meaning, but it doesn't.

The ironic story has phony psychic Barbara Harris and taxi-driving sidekick Bruce Dern on the trail of the mysterious "Eddie Shoebridge". They want to give him a fortune - and collect a 10 grand commission - while he thinks they know about that kidnapping, and that double-murder.

The interminable kitchen scenes between Harris and Dern have no real reason to be there, her supposedly comic psychic readings are a big bore, and Hitch spoils one suspense sequence about a runaway car by trying poorly to play it for laughs, but there's plenty to enjoy, with a fair story, a good supporting turn from Karen Black, and a handful of the Master's trademark flourishes. This one isn't all that tense for the most part, but it does have a handful of nerve-shredding moments (Black's painted fingers on the door handle of a car!) and some exciting visual reveals.

It's just a shame that Hitchcock died before anyone could tell him that: a) that back-projection he uses looks terrible, and b) blood really isn't that brightly coloured.

Sadly the toothy, pipe-wielding Dern is only 1976's third best cabbie, after De Niro, and Barry Evans in Adventures of a Taxi Driver. (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Veronica Mars: The Movie - Reviews #187

Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas, 2014)



*NO REAL SPOILERS, BUT IF YOU'RE A FAN, BEST TO GO IN BLIND*

She's back!

The ballsy, whipsmart heroine of this iconic '00s teen noir series finally returns, thanks to the determination of creator Rob Thomas, and the cheque books of some 91,000 fans (me included).

For the uninitiated, Veronica Mars was one of the defining shows of the last decade, and certainly my favourite, creating a Hammett-style hero who just happened to be a teenage girl, and mixing equal parts mystery, high school drama and absurdly sharp comic writing. If you're wondering why some of us continue to root for that blonde girl with the distinctive schnozzola as she endures yet another dodgy romcom (including the other school reunion flick with Jamie Lee Curtis, the bowels of hell's You Again), then this is your answer - she's Kristen Bell, and she's cool as flip.

The show lasted just two spellbinding seasons in its true form before its poor ratings caught up with it. The third was a botch job that provided many memorable moments but smelt of compromise. The pilot for a divergent fourth was never picked up. There was talk of a novel or a comic book, before all went quiet. Then one day a Kickstarter page appeared...

The film picks up nine years after Season 3, with law graduate Veronica tempted out of retirement when her ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring, flexing that sad smile once more) is suspected of murdering his pop star girlfriend. He thinks an obsessive fan might be responsible, but her alibi isn't letting in much air.

Thomas, who directed as well as co-scripting with Diane Ruggiero, struggles to find his footing a little for the first half hour: his script inevitably exposition-heavy and overly compacted, needing stakes high enough to justify Warner Bros' backing, but having just 100 minutes to tell its tale.

But as it unfolds, toying with stock series tropes, dropping loving in-jokes and breathing life back into its strong, combustible human relationships, you see that it's doing everything right by its characters, right the way through to a simply stunning pay-off. The best evidence I can give? Boring old Piz is now likeable: a wry, smart and self-aware young man, rather than an interloping wet blanket with bad hair. Certainly the packed screening I was in seemed to go for the film completely, from the playful theme songs at the kick-off to the real thing over the end credits.

The performances are just a treat, Bell effortlessly recapturing Veronica's inimitable combo of bad-assery and off-kilter sentiment, Dohring slipping back into Logan's pec-boobs and sardonic asides (but where's his cool necklace?) and Rico Colantino giving the whole enterprise that lovely Keith Martian warmth. The clear affection that these actors have for their creations, abandoned seven years ago, extends right across the cast, to Mac (ace hair), Wallace (love that file gag) and Weevil, whose journey to respectability mirrors Veronica's own. Dick Casablancas is basically now just comic relief writ large, and who could object?

There are some things that maybe don't work (James Franco's cameo is funny but utterly incongruous) and others that certainly don't, including a mundane supporting performance from Martin Starr (one of *four* Freaks & Geeks alumni, including Percy Daggs III), and a smattering of clunky lines that would doubtless have been ironed out with a longer shooting schedule. Truth be told, the mystery itself is only middling, squashed into this shorter format instead of playing out over 22 shows.

The things that matter, though, it gets right: Veronica coming to terms with her past and herself - negotiating the ties that fray but never break, and facing the part of her personality that has lain dormant for seven years. Increasingly, those choices are presented in the most invigorating, viscerally exciting way, with Thomas all over his show's singular mythology in a way that should satiate even the most hard to please fans.

Is it objectively a very good film? How can I be objective? She's back. (3)

See also: Dohring also went to a school reunion - and tried to solve a mystery - whilst Scouting for Sonny. I'm sure I've reviewed it somewhere. Link to follow. Brief reviews of Veronica Mars Seasons 1 to 3 are via that link just there.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Hitchcock, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Jim Jarmusch losing the plot - Reviews #186

Advice to the Lovelorn - stay awhile amidst its ancient charms. This reviews update features not only the above, but also: six Woody Allen films, a rather lovely romantic comedy from the soft focus mid-'90s, and Danny Kaye overacting hysterically, as per usual.



CINEMA: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) - Wes Anderson says in this week's Time Out that he tries to do something completely new with every film, and yet within 10 seconds everyone can tell it's one of his.

You can see that here, as he explores a new setting, a pastel-coloured hotel in the Lubitschean '30s, and new themes - nostalgia, civilisation and the lot of the writer - but in that inimitable style, full of droll, deadpan acting, steady, stately shots, and nods to filmmakers past, including an extended homage to Hitchcock.

The story, told as a flashback within a flashback, focuses on Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) - the fey, perfumed concierge of the titular establishment - his friendship with an earnest young lobby boy who's moving from Zero to hero (Tony Revolori), and their improbable escapades upon the death of a wealthy dowager and hotel regular (Tilda Swinton).

Across five chapters packed to bursting with daft details and familiar faces, emerges one of Anderson's very best films, at first glance his most broad and accessible, but with a latent cumulative impact derived not just from its late proliferation of beautiful sentimental scenes, but also its portrait of a vanishing world and a man born out of time, as thuggish fascists begin to maraud across Europe, destroying what remains of his way of life.

Some of the supporting players are underused, others simply aren't very good and Anderson has a habit of dragging out even his best running gags, but this is still a classic to rank alongside Tenenbaums, Rushmore and the rest (basically just not Fantastic Mr Fox), with two beautiful central performances - as well as fine ones from F. Murray Abraham and Tom Wilkinson - numerous comic high spots and a bewitching evocation of a mythical world not glimpsed on screen since the mighty Lubitsch passed on. (4)

***

WOODFEST '14 - Continuing adventures through the back catalogue of Woody Allen:



"You can't learn to be real. It's like learning to be a midget, it's not a thing you can learn."
The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985) - Purple Rose is Woody's masterpiece about movies and the lure of fantasy, with downtrodden Depression-era housewife Mia Farrow romanced by a movie character (Jeff Daniels) who walks off the screen and into her life.

It's ingeniously conceived and beautifully executed, with a rich period flavour - enhanced by Gordon Willis's photography - Farrow's best performance, and a script that expertly examines the appeal, value and attendant danger of escapist cinema.

There's room for a fun, well-designed film-within-a-film too, along with some killer gags about actorly pretension, a stunning supporting performance from the incomparable Dianne Wiest, and a magnificent dual role for Daniels. Allen wrote the first half of the movie years earlier and then got stuck, consigning it to a desk drawer. Then one day inspiration struck: what if the actor playing the rogue character also pitched up in New Jersey...?

The result is one of his enduring achievements, from the ironic opening juxtaposition, through ugly threats of domestic violence and tuneful musical interludes, to the mother of all bittersweet endings. (4)



Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen, 1992) - One of the best films ever made about marriage, as Woody and Mia Farrow witness the break-up of their best friends (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis), and begin to see that dissatisfaction reflected in their own relationship.

When people say that Allen's more recent dramas have been a pale imitation of his best work, this may well be the "best work" they have in mind: a bristling, brilliant examination of adulthood, romance and the conflicting emotions held within the heart of every human being.

Though filmed in a somewhat peculiar manner - as a mockumentary complete with handheld photography, jump cuts and talking head inserts - it remains a simply staggering achievement, building exponentially in power and resonance as it progresses, its bleakness and cynicism balanced masterfully by shards of sentiment and Woody-ish wisdom on the subjects of love, lust and loneliness.

The performances are uniformly superb, with strong early credits for Liam Neeson and Juliette Lewis (who basically provides what Allen seems to imagine Scarlett Johansson brings to his films), while the writing simply showcases one of cinema's true greats at the absolute peak of his powers, every scene serving some definite purpose - whether insightful, blackly comic or deeply poignant. The moment where Farrow murmurs, "We both know it's over" is one of the biggest emotional wallops I've ever known in a film.

It isn't always an easy watch, but it is an extraordinarily worthwhile one, tackling an almost impossible theme in a remarkably intelligent, astute and complete manner, without recourse to cliché or easy answers.

Hurray, I managed to write the whole review without mentioning Soon Yi-Previn. Oh damn it. (4)



Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen, 1996) - Allen's musical is an almost complete delight, with a bright, attractive cast vocalising versions of old standards in New York, Paris and Rome, while dealing with the usual Woody staples of love and death.

There are several superb comic scenes, as Allen seduces Julia Roberts with the help of some inside knowledge, as well as a few of the director's funniest innovations (Lukas Haas' Young Republican, Tim Roth's intense convict), and the novelty of these typical Woody creations bursting into song is simply a joy. (Their dancing is, erm, 'charming'.)

Though there's a little too much mugging in the big numbers - an irritating excess you'd more commonly find on stage than on film - and Julia Roberts is completely tone deaf, the whole cast is in good form, and the rest of the principals (sans Drew Barrymore, who was dubbed) are in great voice, their lack of polish adding to the appeal.

Alan Alda is tuneful while retaining his nasal delivery, Allen sings in a pleasant, almost inaudible tenor, and Edward Norton croons his numbers with no shortage of style. I remember reading in Empire when the film came out that he had been asked to tone down the cheese, because he sounded like Perry Como.

Some people may find the story hard to care about: there isn't much of it, and though Allen has a completely unfair reputation for only dealing with privileged characters, the central family here is unusually affluent. But I've seen the film a bunch of times, and it's always a pleasure to return to, full of brilliant jokes, beautiful songs and some breathtaking imagery, like Goldie Hawn gaining the power of flight on the banks of the Seine. (3.5)



Celebrity (Woody Allen, 1998) - If Stardust Memories is Woody Allen's version of Fellini's 8 1/2, and Radio Days his Amarcord, then Celebrity is his La Dolce Vita: a freeform treatise on religion, society and, yes, celebrity, as a journalist (Kenneth Branagh) travels the city, mixing with models, movie stars and moral dissolutes, as his ex-wife (Judy Davis) undergoes an improbable transformation.

Sadly, it isn't anywhere near as good as Fellini's landmark drama. In fact, at the time of release it was Allen's worst film since the early '70s, and by some considerable margin, with little to say, almost no laughs - merely a gallery of grotesques - and a terrible Branagh performance, with the star just delivering a weird, intensely embarrassing facsimile of Allen. In fact, every time the film alights on some promising idea - at the reunion, on the boat or by the kiosk - either the director or more commonly his star contrives to foul it up.

Sven Nyqvist's monochrome cinematography is nice, Davis is good as Branagh's damaged, furious ex-wife, and the closing shot is unexpectedly inspired, but this is nevertheless the first serious sign of Allen's serious decline. His next film, Sweet and Lowdown, was a stunning return to form, after which the wheels properly fell off. (2)



Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999) - Allen's last great film is a tuneful, funny and terribly poignant drama-mockumentary about Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), the second best guitarist of the 1930s, and his relationship with a sweet, mute young woman by the name of Hattie (Samantha Morton).

It begins as a collection of tall tales, rich in period flavour, brings a pleasant, amusing romance into the picture, then shifts gear for the climax, leading to one of the most stunning, heartbreaking denouements in movie history, as Penn drops the cartoonish detachment and gets you right in the tear-ducts.

Allen seems on top of his game, and in full command of his gifts, revisiting the sight gags of his youth, homaging the lobster revival from Annie Hall - as Emmet is unable to replicate the idyllic time spent with Hattie - and referencing the central theme of Deconstructing Harry: that of a great artist who is rubbish at life. But he floundered for a decade after this one, as if he'd poured everything he had into one last great film and simply had nothing left.

For a director who spent the noughties trying vainly to think of something to say, the sheer depth and diversity of themes here is mind-boggling. The main one is the idea of suffering being intrinsic to artistic transcendence, but Allen is also interested in self-obsession, self-destruction and the treatment of the innocent in a selfish, emotionally violent world.

Though Uma Thurman is mediocre at best in an important supporting role, the running jokes are ace, the script and period presentation first-rate, and Morton beyond sensational as the guileless, be-hatted Hattie, her face like an open book. (4)



Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) - Allen's best film since his last great one - 1999's Sweet and Lowdown - is a clear-sighted takedown of nostalgic delusion with some wonderful moments.

Owen Wilson is Gil Pender, a Hollywood hack turned aspiring novelist who pitches up in Paris with his "pre-tty sexy" fiancée (Rachel McAdams), but finds that the city fails to live up to his illusions, until he takes a midnight taxi to the past, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and Salvador Dali.

I'm not convinced that the film fully exploits the possibilities of that premise - at times we're merely in box-ticking, name-that-vintage-celeb territory - while McAdams, her parents and her smug admirer (a bearded Michael Sheen) are too hateful to convince or be in any way tolerable.

And yet the film has a certain something that Woody was conspicuously missing across a decade of misfires: a skill, a confidence, a comfort in its easy humour and breezy fantasy, helped by Wilson's amusing, naturalistic performance and a gallery of well-cast supporting actors embodying the great and good of the Jazz Age City of Light.

Then, as you wonder how he's going to tie it up satisfactorily, out comes one of those brilliant, ironic, unmistakably Allen-ish ideas, in which he holds everything up to the light, and the scales fall from his characters' eyes.

Midnight in Paris isn't a classic to rank alongside The Purple Rose of Cairo, but those last 20 minutes are the sign of a true artist becoming reacquainted with his fearsome talent, and the ending is one of his greatest - no small feat when you consider the competition. (3.5)

See also: My original review of Midnight in Paris and an earlier review of Sweet and Lowdown can be read via those links just there.

***

Alfred Hitchcock double-bill:


You know the hotel where Finch and Massey do a sex? This is how it looks today - I made a detour on my way home from work the other day.

Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972) - One of Hitchcock's nastiest films - and that's saying something - but also one of his best, with the director back on home soil for the first time since 1950, and revelling in the seediness of both location and story.

As in his 1926 triumph, The Lodger, the story concerns a frenzied psychopath (terrifyingly haired Barry Foster) who's murdering women in London, and the innocent chap (Jon Finch) accused of the crimes.

Written by Sleuth's Anthony Shaffer, it's an almost unrelentingly mean-spirited ride, with one of the most repulsive scenes in cinema history, among the most toxic rape jokes, and a subplot about dodgy faux-European cuisine that made this vegetarian utterly nauseous.

But it's also a textbook thriller, with solid performances - including an excellent supporting performance from Anna Massey, who starred in the not dissimilar Peeping Tom - a very effective musical score, and an air of near-constant menace manufactured by a master of suspense.

The set pieces are extremely memorable: that shocking, revolting scene in Barbara Lee Hunt's office, the horrifying, off-screen sequel capped with a shot worthy of Ophüls, the outrageously devised potato truck sequence, and a neat ending culminating in a deliciously dry closing line.

But this isn't just a film of great set pieces, like the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, it's a first-rate film throughout, the odd dated element and some occasional woodenness in the supporting cast ultimately irrelevant in the face of such sheer malevolent mastery. (3.5)



Torn Curtain (Alfred Hitchcock, 1966) - An underrated, entertaining Hitchcock film, with Paul Newman as a defecting scientist with a secret and Julie Andrews as a most improbable Hitch Girl. It has lapses in logic and takes a dip in the last quarter with that long, nonsensical bus sequence and a mawkish bit about an old woman who needs a sponsor to go the US, but it's full of enjoyable - if hardly top-tier - suspense sequences, handled with the director's usual flair, imagination and dry wit. (3)

***



Sabrina (Sydney Pollack, 1995) - This expanded remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina, from the director of Tootsie, is perhaps a little bit better, but has most of the same qualities and flaws.

The plot once more concerns a waif-like chauffeur's daughter (Julia Ormond), who harbours a mammoth crush on the boss's playboy son (Greg Kinnear). When she comes back from abroad transformed into a hottie, he falls for her, but his powerful family decides to put a stop to it, with the other, business-minded son (a grey-faced Harrison Ford) setting about seducing her.

Wilder's film is agreeably tender and features one of Audrey Hepburn's best - and loveliest - performances, but it's let down by weird pacing and miscast male leads, including a vapid William Holden and an incredibly uncomfortable looking Humphrey Bogart (in a role written for Cary Grant).

This remake is tonally awkward, dramatically inconsistent and fails to make you care for either Kinnear's caddish layabout or Ford's manipulative moneyman, but it's also variously funny, romantic (especially on the subject of unrequited love) and appealingly far-reaching and incisive in its themes and observations, particularly in the scene where Ormond writes a final letter home from Paris.

Ormond's career as a leading lady was short-lived, partly because Smilla's Sense of Snow tanked so explosively, and partly because she found something more rewarding to do with her time and talents: campaigning about AIDS and people trafficking. Here, during her brief dalliance with stardom, she's absolutely charming, creating a believable, attractive character without the merest trace of Hepburn. Shakespearean actor/all-round journeyman John Wood is also rather good as her proud, protective father.

This isn't in the same class as something like Tootsie, with Pollack leaning on music too heavily, shooting in that weird, soft-focus way so popular in the mid-'90s, and wrestling with a story that simply sags too often, but it's a pleasant, poignant watch: sweet and soppy, with a very nice performance at its heart. (3)

***



Smart Money (Alfred E. Green, 1931) - They dominated the landscape of 1930s cinema, and were both signed to Warner Bros, but incredibly Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney made just one movie together - this one.

The simplest explanation I can think of is that the studio needed just one big star in any one film and, after Cagney's breakthrough in The Public Enemy several months later, there were no vehicles that required two such names - especially when they occupied such similar ground.

There's also the possibility, of course, that the amazingly energetic Cagney could make absolutely anyone look sluggish, particularly someone with Robinson's acting style, and the studios weren't in the business of letting their stars look silly.

Here, though, Robinson takes the lead, and the whole film is played at his pace, with Cagney fun as his sparky sidekick. Not that Caggers doesn't trip him up a few times, responding to a potentially scene-stealing little gesture by Robinson by nuzzling a fist homoerotically into his kisser.

Despite a lack of depth and a few dull gambling scenes, it's well above par for an early talkie, with some fun supporting parts (including Noel Francis shining among innumerable blonde actresses, who all look confusingly similar), a few ambitious shots and a gratifyingly unpredictable story, up to and including the pay-off.

Its key draw, though, remains the chance to see two legends bouncing lines and repartee off one another for the first and only time. (3)

***



The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (Anatole Litcak, 1938) - This is an enjoyable Edward G. Robinson vehicle with a bit of everything, as his studious criminologist perpetrates a series of robberies to investigate the physical effects of crime. His efforts attract the attention of a foxy fence (Claire Trevor), while evoking the ire of the tough guy now forced to play second fiddle (Humphrey Bogart).

Robinson is in peak comic form, playing a role a little different to anything he'd tried before - Clitterhouse's unshakable assurance borne not of brute force but intellectual superiority - while Litvak's handling is sporadically stylish, and the script, co-written by John Huston, is a touch classier than usual for one of Warner's crime comedies, as it blends mild humour, fair suspense and admirable erudition.

The film takes a sharp left turn with 20 minutes left, only to make the most of its change of direction, leading to a stagy but satisfying wrap-up. Sadly that's not the end of proceedings, as the strict rules of the Hays Code necessitate a dreadful, tacked-on five-minute ending complete with Irving Bacon as an irascible jury foreman.

For all that, it's good fun for old movie buffs, particularly those who harbour a fondness for the wide, effortlessly commanding Robinson. Or want to see character comic supreme Allen Jenkins pretending to lose his voice.

Haha, 'Clitterhouse'. (2.5)

***



Hollywood Hotel (Busby Berkeley, 1937) - Beyond the extravagant sets, Johnny Mercer's clever lyrics and a typically cool supporting performance from Glenda Farrell, there isn't a great deal to love about this Warner musical, directed by cult favourite Busby Berkeley.

The story sees sax player Dick Powell arriving in Hollywood hoping to make it big, but tangling unfortunately with an egomaniacal star (Lola Lane), and winding up providing vocal tracks for hammy Alan Mowbray to mime to.

Though it borrows from the Jean Harlow comedy Bombshell (perhaps MGM let them crib away if they'd big up Metro star Clark Gable in the opening shot proper) and prefigures Singin' in the Rain, it has none of those movies' bite or intelligence, while Lane is poor in a role that Harlow or Carole Lombard would have smacked out of the country, seeming to hold back at important moments, as if bereft of the confidence to give it the necessary oomph.

There are also no visually ambitious numbers after the endearingly daft opener, Hooray for Hollywood, a song which has notably transcended the film that birthed it. Compensation comes only from Mercer's witty words, laced with '30s pop culture references, and even those disappear for long stretches as we watch all-white jazz bands tootling away, and get bogged down in weak slapstick, dated verbiage and obtrusive plotting, too much of it featuring poisonous gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

It isn't really a bad film, and it gets a proper shot of acerbically sexy cool whenever Farrell shows up to wink or crack wise, but it's just too unfocused and flabby, rarely playing to the stars or director's strengths. (2)

***


Vera-Ellen and friend, kindly advertising this blog.

Wonder Man (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1945) - Humour's a very subjective thing, and so if you like Danny Kaye, you'll almost certainly like this. I don't much, so I didn't really.

The redheaded comic plays the dual role of nightclub entertainer Buzzy and the bookish twin brother Edwin he haunts after being knocked off by a mob henchman (Allen Jenkins). Vera-Ellen, meanwhile, is Buzzy's girl, Virginia Mayo is Edwin's, and Steve Cochran is the gangster who ordered the hit on Buzzy in order to shut his mouth, and now wants Edwin dead too.

There was clearly no expense spared with this one, which features lush Technicolor photography and Oscar-winning special effects that mostly hold up well today (the one exception is a bizarrely huge Buzzy drunkenly wandering through a nightclub like a camp ginger Godzilla).

But the film just doesn't quite work for me. I found the minority of the comedy that grew out of the characterisation funny - like the sequence with the sailor, and Edwin's police interview - but the manic slapstick overbearing, the non-sequiturs tiresome, and the mugging to camera just embarrassing, with the opera finale particularly painful.

Having said that, Kaye does do a good job of crafting two distinct and convincing personas, knows his way around wordy dialogue, and belts out his comic numbers very tunefully, suggesting that he certainly had talent, but he didn't always know what to do with it beyond cartoonish attention-seeking.

In the end, my favourite things about the film didn't have much to do with Kaye or the central story at all, being Jenkins' hitman - wearing a hearing aid in order to look "distingué" - and that stunningly gifted dancer, Vera-Ellen. It's always a joy to see her, and she's awesome here making her debut, especially in the spectacular specialty number, So in Love, arguably the best thing she ever did. (2)

***



The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009) - What the hell happened to Jarmusch? This infuriating, excruciating, existential spy movie has five minutes of good stuff, five minutes of pretentious monologuing and 100 minutes of Isaac De Bankholé glaring, walking around and putting away his suit jacket. I like to think that the opening scene is Bankholé trying to work out how to use a Dyson Airblade hand dryer. (1)

***

Thanks for reading. The next update will include a heap of things I neglected to tell you about, including The LEGO Movie, a Busby Berkeley spectacular, and Jarmusch's latest - The Limits of Control is the only film that can make that look like a return to form.