Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Maurice Chevalier, 22 Jump Street and old boxing movies - Reviews #191

Hello dear reader. I am on my summer hols, so I finally have time to tack up all these reviews that have been hanging around on my computer for aeons. Lucky you. This is the first of three - yes, three - upcoming updates.

CINEMA: 22 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2014) - This sequel to one of the most cheering surprises of the past decade goes the Gremlins 2 route, sacrificing a bit of heart and any minor semblance of reality for a lot of jokes – the overwhelming majority of them extraordinarily good.

Picking up with a brief recap of the first film (with the addition of an Annie Hall reference that later pays off in considerable style), 22 Jump Street sends undercover cops Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill to college, and pitches them into a hyper-intelligent, deliriously stupid, homoerotically-mannered meta-textual subversion of/homage to the original movie, every bit as clever, idiotic, intensely gay and pop culturally astounding as that sounds.

The gags are simply legion and many surely soon to become legendary, from Hill’s beautiful contention that “it’s so refreshing to have a black victim” to the references to his advancing years, an insanely brilliant trip scene, Tatum losing it entirely outside Ice Cube’s new office (which is like “a big cube of ice”) and a post-credits sequence that’s frankly the last word in post-credits sequences.

It’s nothing new in plot terms, but it also keeps telling you it’s nothing new in plot terms, which is something new. And if the slightly repetitive, bleak and overzealous mirroring of marital breakup that forms its centrepoint is no substitute for the real human emotion at the core of the first film, the prison stuff is basically just revolting, and it has a fair few lulls to accompany its immense sense of invention, it is at least brilliantly, bracingly and blissfully funny.

“Are you going to strangle me with your liver-spotted hands?” (3)

... and I'd rewatched this to prepare myself:

"What kind of bullshit do they say about cov... coviolent bonds in this school?"
21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012) - One of the nicest surprises - and the funniest films - of the past few years, with the creators of Cloudy, and screenwriter Michael Bacall, sending cops and best buds Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum back to school to bust a drugs ring.

The results are imaginative, intensely funny and just the right side of laddish, mixing sentiment, comedy and action with a smart subversive streak that extends to both meta parodies of the action-comedy genre and a brilliant, incisive examination of changing youth culture.

The stars are sublime, that YouTube video incapacitates me, and while the first half is better than the second, which gets a little bogged down in peril, plot and cameo, the pay-off - starting with Hill having to front up and take the killer shot - is just extraordinarily good.

So obviously I'm excited about next week and 22 Jump Street, whilst praying that Lord, Miller and Bacall keep away from the fratboy bobbins with which they briefly flirt here. Praying to Korean Jesus, naturally. (3.5)


Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932) - Mamoulian's musical masterpiece was at least a decade ahead of its time in terms of imagination and innovation, and still looks sensational today. Poking fun at Lubitsch's films in which millionaires masquerade as paupers, Mamoulian casts Maurice Chevalier as a penniless tailor mistaken for a baron by princess Jeanette MacDonald.

From the ingenious opening number - which seems to have influenced everything from Once Upon a Time in the West to Dancer in the Dark - it's an unstinting barrage of joy and invention, full of dazzling shots, hummable tunes and classic Lorenz Hart lyrics, with a gorgeous Myrna Loy just about stealing the show in her breakout role as a witty, sex-hungry countess. (4)


Delicacy (David and Stéphane Foenkinos, 2011) - A few sitcomish elements sometimes intrude - not least the improbable event that commences the central relationship - but this romantic comedy still doubles as a deep and resonant study of grief, with several unforgettable scenes, some very well-drawn characters and a magnificent performance from Audrey Tautou.

It's a film in which the female lead's best friend cries in happiness at her emotional rebirth, then makes the boyfriend feel like dirt when he isn't the vicariously enjoyable heartthrob she'd envisaged, a film where people hold a loyalty to people and events long past - despite how it's tearing them to pieces - and a film in which being polite about some soup is a one-way ticket to Sexytown.

A very good film, in other words. (3.5)

See also: I wrote a longer review the first time I saw Delicacy. It's here.


Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen, 1996) - I finally got Woody's musical on DVD (my ancient pan-and-scan VHS was looking a bit peaky), so it seemed ripe for a rewatch not long after my last one. It was also a first viewing in widescreen, meaning that the choreography and visual composition of the dance scenes made a little more sense.

This time around, Allen's romance with Julia Roberts fell the wrong side of creepy and a few of the characters and numbers got on my nerves, but the film remains fine entertainment - and parts of it are just pure cinematic magic, particularly that climactic song and dance on the banks of the Seine. (3)


Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942) - Mark Kermode quite often reviews a movie with the rather vague phrase: "It's not a great film, but it has great things in it." Well, that's Gentleman Jim.

The great things, almost exclusively, are the intoxicating, invigorating fight sequences, strikingly conceived and stunningly executed, as the art of boxing graduates from two meatheads smacking each other on wasteground, to relative respectability, thanks in no small way to Gentleman Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn), a fleet-footed, working class bank clerk sponsored by an aristocratic club.

The pièce de resistance is an intense, brutal slugfest on a riverside platform, but every single scene in the ring is marked by stylish photography, credible choreography and no small amount of panache, whether in the extended set pieces or the flashes of freeze-framed, overlayed action in the various montages, which still look startlingly modern.

Taken as a whole, the film isn't quite a contender, let alone a champ. Flynn is fun but rather one note in his favourite role, the story has little dramatic tension outside the ring, and the film is full of extremely grating comic relief - which even intrudes on the fight scenes at times.

It all looks great, though, thanks to Walsh and cinematographer Sid Hickox's eye for detail, while Ward Bond gives surely his finest - and possibly his biggest - performance as legendary prizefighter John L. Sullivan. If his boxing style is perhaps a little cartoonish, he atones in the beautifully tender presentation sequence near the close, which is followed by Flynn and Alexis Smith's touching heart-to-heart as the film finally serves up two scenes away from the ring that can compare to those inside it. (3)


Invisible Stripes (Lloyd Bacon, 1939)
- This is a surprisingly effective mix of social drama and crime film, not because it's from Warner Bros - who specialised in both - but because it starts off so unpromisingly, and stars George Raft.

Raft, a genuine hood spotted by a talent scout while the future star was scouting land for the mob, has always been among my least favourite classic actors, along with Joan Crawford and Charlton Heston. He's good in Scarface and cleverly used in Some Like It Hot, but elsewhere he's simply a plank of wood with an almost immobile face and an inability to generate any emotion beyond intense dislike.

I may have to make one of my periodic about-faces, though, as Raft is very persuasive here, playing a parolee who struggles to get a job once he's out of the big house, then becomes re-acquainted with his old mobster mate (Humphrey Bogart) as he strives to keep his callow brother (William Holden) on the right path, and out of the pen.

After a promising opening scene, the film becomes waylaid by some syrupy, over-written domestic drama, featuring another of Holden's characteristically terrible early performances. Was there ever an actor who improved so much - or so suddenly - as Holden, who some time in the late '40s got some cynicism, some stubble and some meaty roles, and became one of the key American screen actors of the 20th century.

But as Raft gets brutalised, patronised and ostracised by a succession of employers and co-workers, the film starts to grab a hold of you, and doesn't let up or let go, even when he starts robbing banks, and all realism goes out the window. Though the ending is essentially dictated by censorship restrictions of the period, in which all wrong-doing must be punished, its fatalistic air works largely in its favour, even going so far as to anticipate film noir.

In support, Flora Robson has some fine moments in a rather clichéd part as Raft and Holden's saintly mother ("When they were little I could always help them. I could pick them up when they fell down...", sob), and Bogart enjoys perhaps his best role of the '30s: an agreeably nuanced part bridging the gap between his straight out villains and the anti-heroes he would play from High Sierra onwards.

Invisible Stripes is predictable and preachy, with a rather hackneyed backdrop and some weak sequences, but it's also compelling for much of its length, with fine work from Bogart and Raft, and a few enduring things to say about how society breeds and treats its criminals. (3)


Kid Galahad (Michael Curtiz, 1937) - It's in the standard studio fodder, rather than the prestige pictures tailored to her talents, that you can truly see what a special performer Bette Davis was.

In Kid Galahad, a boxing film made about a decade before Hollywood learnt how to do them properly - exploring the fighter's psyche in classics like Body and Soul, The Set-Up, and Champion - she injects middling, even hokey material with both a wit and an enrapturing sincerity, as a conflicted, selfless moll knocked out by the hand of fate.

While everyone else is in a slightly superior gangster movie; Davis's film is timeless, an arresting, heart-wrenching tale of mutual reliance cast to the wind, crippling self-sacrifice and unrequited passion. The scene in which she packs her bags and attempts to leave Robinson contains some of the finest acting I've ever seen: remarkably modern and naturalistic. As in The Man Who Came to Dinner, another film where she played a supporting part, there are no histrionics and there's no grandstanding, she's just real - and really brilliant.

Director Michael Curtiz (or more likely his studio paymasters) must have known Davis was on the cusp of greatness - and of superstardom - as she's afforded the final shot here, despite playing essentially a supporting character who doubles as a plot catalyst.

Robinson is a fight promoter who builds and manipulates the career of a naive farm boy (Wayne Morris) with a good right hook. Fresh-faced Jane Bryan is Robinson's sister, for whom he has somewhat Scarface-ish protective tendencies, and Humphrey Bogart plays Robinson's gangland rival, the actor still stuck in villainous parts that largely required him to wince and bare his teeth. Rounding out the cast is Harry Carey, John Ford's first leading man, playing the now familiar role of the weather-beaten old trainer.

The plot is both predictable and rather corny, but the film as a whole is slick and entertaining, with good performances and a memorably nauseating pugilistic climax, fuelled by what I think we can safely call homoerotic sadism, with Robinson at his absolute best, shifting between panting malice and chubby-faced encouragement.

Kid Galahad is more a gangster picture with a ringside seat than a real boxing film, while its fight scenes, though commendable, pale alongside its '40s rivals (let alone Raging Bull). It's also rife with contrivances, right down the line. But if you're an old movie nerd looking for solid studio product, with a top-notch presentation and a cracking cast - including Bette Davis at her best - then you'll find yourself very much in luck. (3)


Seven Ways from Sundown (Harry Keller, 1960) - Audie Murphy's character in this film is called Seven. I wish I was called Seven. And Seven Days from Sundown is just a great name for a film, if not for a man.

The movie as a whole is one of a slew of interesting Audie Murphy Westerns made in the '50s and '60s, forming a loose, cool gang with those offbeat, complex and mature Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott starring vehicles shot around the same time. Seven Ways from Sundown starts poorly, but just gets better and better.

The baby-faced Murphy - in real life the most decorated American soldier of World War Two - plays a dogged, baby-faced Texas Ranger who tracks and then babysits a charming, loquacious killer (Barry Sullivan), little imagining that the toothy, reptilian bastard just murdered his brother. (Incidentally, what the film does with that information creates a stunningly astute counterpoint to the overtly, often overly personalised approach taken by so-called "revenge Westerns".)

The studio-shot footage here is seriously garish and ugly, and the acting has regular recourse to woodenness (Murphy's love interest is simply terrible), but Sullivan delivers a fine spin on a familiar character, and the sensational game of psychological cat-and-mouse between hunter and quarry - as mutual antipathy turns to homoerotic admiration - keeps it afloat during some spells of dodgy dialogue, aided by a few punchy, cleverly-conceived action interludes.

There's also one early, almost iconic shot of the star: his foot resting on the stone grave he's just made, his titular figure framed against the mountains and the grey-blue sky. It's actually just a set-up for some uninspiring gunplay, but in hindsight a sign that the film is about to burst into rather glorious life. (3)


Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007) - Two lonely, fatherless kids - one a troublemaker, the other a God-fearing mummy's boy - bond over a shared love of First Blood, and decide to remake it, but with the addition of an evil scarecrow.

Garth Jennings' hymn to friendship, film and the 1980s is best when rooted in the real - and articulating the upbeat - less effective when opting for (amusing but incongruous) comedy interludes concerning a cool French kid, or serving up a good half-hour of authentic but excessive human misery.

It is original, though, within the constraints of its formulaic structure, while exhibiting an invention, a humanism and a heightened sense of humour that reminded me of Danny Boyle's Millions, right down to the third act wobble.

From the sporadic flights of visual fantasy to Jessica Stevenson's heartfelt performance as a protective, conflicted mother, it's a movie studded with admirable attributes, if not ultimately an entirely successful film.

It's basically like Super 8 but English and good and with a flying plastic dog that attacks Adam Buxton instead of aliens. (3)


Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2010) - A shy, improbably handsome photographer in his 20s befriends an eight-year-old painter and then begins a passionate online affair with her beautiful, artistic older sister - a relationship that seems too good to be true. And is.

This documentary is unquestionably seminal - having added the term "catfished" to the lexicon - and is by turns entertaining, disingenuous, tacky, poignant, sensationalist, exploitative, intrusive, funny and weird (that chat on the cable car - shudder).

Because while it has something to say about the way we create online personas (after all, I'm really an eight-year-old girl), it's really a story of extremes: extreme naïvete, extreme self-delusion and ultimately extremely dubious investigative journalism that's fuelled by a search for answers but completely fails to engage with the rather serious questions it raises about mental illness.

It's sustained as far as it is by the novelty value of its story and the way that tale was tracked every step of the way, rather than being a particularly proficient piece of filmmaking, though it's ultimately worth seeing, if only to engage with the enduring debate about its themes, its potential fakery and its undeniable rubbernecking. (2.5)


Thanks for reading.

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