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.

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