Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Birdman, Jean Harlow and a bear called Paddington - Reviews #200

Yes, that's right! Look on my works, ye mighty, and rejoice, for this is the 200th irregularly-sized reviews update since I started Advice to the Lovelorn five long/short years ago (do not delete as applicable, time is a mystifying abstract entity). Which is your favourite? All of them?! You are too kind or I too deluded. I've done some more reviews, here you go:


CINEMA: Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)
- A former movie icon (Michael Keaton) strives for respectability by adapting, staging and starring in a Raymond Carver story on Broadway, his endeavours periodically interrupted by crashing drums and a bass-heavy voice in his head telling him what to do, and by the nagging questions of middle-age. Is his life in vain? Is his girlfriend really pregnant? Is his play rubbish? And how come he can levitate, and move things with his mind?

In crudest terms, it's like Unbreakable - a grubbily real superhero origin story - on the set of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, with its nervy ingenues and pretentious thesps; but it's a far better film than either. For one thing, it's a true original, in its distinctive dialogue - as unusual and flavoursome as, say, Brick - its virtuosic direction, comprising almost nothing but unbroken, Ophülsian tracking shots, and its completely unpredictable storyline, bursting with brilliant characters.

The key three are played by Keaton - giving the performance of his life as the insecure, arrogant, quite possibly insane protagonist - Edward Norton, who hasn't been this good in years, as a kind of immature, unprofessional, permanently horny stage-era Brando, and Emma Stone as Keaton's daughter, fresh from rehab and increasingly centre-stage as her self-possession and maturity finally arrives. Lindsay Duncan is also worth a mention as a waspish, poisonous critic.

Boyhood was my favourite film of last year. Birdman is clearly a very different proposition, but it did give me the same feeling of euphoria that comes from seeing something utterly new and startlingly ambitious. Whereas Linklater's movie was wise, universal and steeped in contemporary Americana, this one is pin-sharp, blackly comic and streaked with greasepaint, with at least two scenes of fantastical wonder, one of underpants-based humiliation, and a dozen comprising stylised human drama between vivid, unforgettable characters.

It'll take some beating this year. (4)


CINEMA: Paddington (Paul King, 2014) - I came to this movie not as a film fan, but as a fan of Paddington Bear. During my 30 years I’ve read each and every Paddington book, from A Bear Called Paddington to Paddington Here and Now – including even that anthology of stories where Blue Peter is either directly or tangentially involved – revelling in their sense of simple, ingeniously-drafted escapism and underlying warmth (effortlessly sidestepping the sentimental), and finding in Peru-born Paddington a paragon of Englishness, in every good sense of that word.

I also came to the film with reservations. I’m fiercely protective of any art that I truly love, and having seen the utter, disgusting travesty that Disney has made of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s immortal Winnie the Pooh – akin to watching someone lie about your best mate to seven billion people – I was concerned that a genre as rightfully discredited as the British family film might be about to do something unspeakable to Windsor Gardens’ finest.

I needn’t have worried.

It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t necessarily always Paddington as we know him and his world, but it is an exceptionally charming, touching and funny film, directed not with the perfunctoriness of a cash-in, but with the considerable style of a rising star, in this case Bunny and the Bull’s Paul King. He litters the movie with ingenious effects, from a flashback scene played out on a table top, which hints at Mr Gruber’s past as a Holocaust refugee, to a wondrous, intensely moving sequence in which Paddington – seeing grainy monochrome footage of Peru for the first time since his hasty departure – walks towards the screen with paw outstretched, then passes through it into a world of glorious Technicolor. Which British kids film – scratch that, which British film – of recent years would attempt something so artily, emotionally ambitious, let alone pull it off in such luxuriant fashion?

The story combines elements of Michael Bond’s first novel, A Bear Called Paddington, with bits cribbed from the Paddington Bear: My Scrapbook spin-off book, Pixar’s Up and Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. In the opening newsreel footage, a British explorer teaches a pair of Peruvian bears the ways of Englishness, and it is their descendant, a marmalade-loving bear by the name of “Oooooaaaarrrrgoooohhhhgggghhh” (voiced by the wonderful Ben Whishaw), who flees his home after a ruinous earthquake, pitching up in the near-mythic ‘London’, a place that doesn’t prove as friendly as he’d expected. Enter the Brown family, led by grouchy risk assessor Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville), hippyish, open-hearted Mrs Brown (a delightful Sally Hawkins) and their kids Jonathon and Judy. Enter also a complete psycho (Nicole Kidman), sort of reprising her Golden Compass role – or else updating Cruella de Vil – who wants to stuff Paddington for the Natural History Museum, at which she is the director. (I actually do some work with the museum, and she hasn’t come to any of the meetings, so she’s not only horrible, she’s also lazy.)

The movie starts rather shakily and gambles heavily on a somewhat unpleasant, hackneyed subplot, but from 15 minutes in, it’s something like a complete delight, comprised of involving plotting, marvellously moving interludes and an abundance of absurd, literate and genuinely funny gags. “What are you planning to do?” Hawkins asks Paddington when she first meets him at the eponymous train station. “I thought I might sleep in that bin over there,” he says. Such cheering exchanges are combined with imaginative sight gags augmented by comedy-savvy editing, including a cleverly heightened version of the book’s bathroom sequence, and a scene in which an accidentally airborne Paddington does battle with Peep Show’s Super Hans, playing a pickpocket frequenting Gruber Antiques. Those visceral delights are offset by a thoughtful pro-immigration message that doesn't whack you over the head, rhythmically reinforced by a calypso band who are often to be found on street corners, accompanying the action.

As the voice of Paddington, thankfully replacing Colin Firth at the 11th hour, the multi-faceted Ben Whishaw is just about perfect, with sound comic smarts, a beguiling naïveté and a gift for moments of rug-pulling pathos that’s just about unmatchable. Though the first appearance of the CGI Paddington on posters sparked a #creepypaddington meme, I’d heard from a couple of people at Elstree that the film was about to knock everybody’s socks off, and this computerised creation is indeed a wonder: amusing and completely credible, with an understated expressiveness that lights up just about every scene. In comparison, not all of the cast fares so well. The minor changes to characters are mostly sensible – Mrs Bird is now a relative, not a housekeeper, Mr Gruber serves tea from a cool toy train rather than sticky buns and cocoa, and Judy is fleshed out as a troubled teen – but Jim Broadbent is an unconvincing Hungarian, the kids are a bit wooden and Kidman is one-note as the icy amateur taxidermist with the blonde bob. The sight of Julie Walters pretending to be an old woman will also delight a sizeable demographic who I will never understand, nor do I want to.

On the plus side, Hawkins is perfect, playing a selfless soul alternately enraging or embarrassing her family, without a note of caricature. Bonneville is also very good as a man made boring only by his love for his children (a slightly mawkish idea on paper, but it’s sweet – and funny – on screen), and Peter Capaldi makes for an amusing Mr Curry, transformed from a selfish busybody into a lovelorn, stingy plot catalyst who’s putty in Kidman’s scalpely hands.

The overall effect for a Paddington fan is as if we’re seeing a fictionalised version of his life, but one that’s admirably and unexpectedly inventive, exceptionally entertaining, and contains much of his unique persona, an accomplishment that’s not to be underestimated – and one that I can’t wait to enjoy again. (3.5)


Downstairs (Monta Bell, 1932) - John Gilbert was the most popular male star of the late silent period, but the talkies wrecked his career, revealing that the great lover had a thin, nasal and laughably high-pitched voice, a real-life Lena Lamont.

That's the story still told almost 90 years on, and it's complete nonsense.

Actually Gilbert was undone by hubris, a drink problem, a $250,000-a-picture contract and the emnity of all-powerful MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer. What Downstairs proves beyond any possible doubt is that Gilbert had everything an actor in the nascent sound era could possibly have needed to succeed - were acting all it took.

As a thoroughly unscrupulous, skirt-chasing chauffeur using a mixture of roguish charm, sexual magnetism and blackmail to get money, power and laid, he's absolute dynamite, his expressive face - educated in the silent era - allied to a confident, almost Colman-esque sense of delivery. Subtle but commanding, alternately sympathetic, deliciously immoral and utterly appalling, it's a rare treat of a performance. And for all the showier moments, it's a quieter one that shows his range. As his employer, an adulterous baroness, slams a door in his face, he registers first humiliation, then fury, then a sinister, offhand playfulness as the cogs whirr, and he considers how best to turn the situation to his unique advantage.

The film was actually based on an idea by the star, and is as provocative, mature and comically raunchy as any made during the Pre-Code era, even that paean to sadism, Call Me Savage. Gilbert not only has his bottom rubbed by a smitten, surprisingly wealthy cook, but also inspires married maid Virginia Bruce (his real-life wife) to speak about feminine desire in a graphic, straightforward manner not heard anywhere else in Golden Age cinema.

It isn't always as strikingly written, and not all of the performances score - Paul Lukas is a bit stiff as Bruce's husband, while my tolerance for Reginald Owen's toneless yelling is practically zero - but it's a pointed, fascinating and enduringly entertaining film with a startling central performance that destroys at a stroke the story we've all heard of John Gilbert's demise. (3.5)


China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935) - Red Dust on a beat-up boat, with good Gable, bad comedy and amazing Harlow. He’s an absurdly manly captain running from his Navy past, she’s a fearsome showgirl who loves and hates like no-one else, and Rosalind Russell is – somewhat improbably – the dame who comes between them, a clipped, upper-crust Englishwoman who knew Gable way back when. You’d never mistake it for great art, but it is great fun in that stylish MGM style, with a bit of everything thrown in, including – but not limited to – a typhoon (a promising action sequence squandered on weak gags), a torture set-piece and an explosive battle with pirates, as outwardly avuncular Wallace Beery tries to save Gable the worry of carrying all that gold on his boat, with the help of some faceless Chinamen.

In 1930, Jean Harlow had pitched up in Howard Hughes’ aviation epic Hell’s Angels, only her second role of any note (after The Saturday Night Kid) and her first lead. The critics absolutely savaged her, and if that’s ever justifiable, then it was then, as she’s bloody awful. Beneath those striking if now no longer fashionable looks, though, lay a keen intellect and an almost matchless desire to learn – and learn quick – and by 1933 Harlow was one of the best actresses, and best comedians, in Hollywood. In Dinner at Eight, she stole the show from Beery and Marie Dressler (then the highest-paid actress in America). In Bombshell she traded wisecracks with the immortal Lee Tracy, and threw tantrums like they were going out of fashion. And here she simply destroys the competition; not that the sweet-natured, self-effacing and alarmingly insecure Harlow would have acknowledged it.

You could have been forgiven for thinking that, like Warren William and Lee Tracy, Harlow’s star would have waned with the coming of the Hays Code, those strict, joyless censorship restrictions encouraged by the Catholic League of Decency. And yet she adapted effortlessly. Indeed, the best moment of China Seas is a very Code-y bit in the denouement that showcases her remarkable emotional sensitivity, turning a potentially contrived coda into something extraordinary. As for the rest of it, she’s simply in her element, playing raucous, impetuous and flirtatious, all those things that she wasn’t in real life. The other leads acquit themselves well too. I’m not a huge fan of Gable, but he undeniably had presence, and he makes a very strong fist of his role here, while Beery – who was quite possibly the most loathed man in Golden Era Hollywood – is extremely good in a rather broadly-written role, playing his final scene with a panache and a subtlety not usually attributed to him.

This isn’t a top-tier MGM movie, but it’s arguably the best example of those rip-roaring, star-heavy productions in which the studio specialised from the mid-‘30s to the mid-‘40s: easy to take and in some ways easy to forget, were it not for the efforts of one extremely talented 24-year-old woman. (3)

See also:

BOOK: Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow by David Stenn (1993) - This exceptional book by Clara Bow biographer Stenn is brief and suffers from his penchant for presenting credibly-assembled conjecture as unassailable fact, but it is extremely well-researched and written within those limitations, creating a vivid portrait of a sweet, immature soul subjected to unspeakable tragedy, as well as the obsessive attentions of her own overbearing mother - the last word in stage parents.

It's upsetting at times, as it should be given the subject matter, but also extremely readable and admirably lacking in sensationalism, with even the photographs of a weeping William Powell and a dead Paul Bern justified in narrative terms, the former for the sake of characterisation and the latter in order to posit Stenn's conclusions as to his killer. For fans of the doomed star - adored by everyone she ever met, except from Joan Crawford, who doesn't count - it's simply as good as it gets, circumventing the trashy approaches of Arthur Landau or the notorious Kenneth Anger to present something that often reads very much like the truth. You'll finish it mourning the loss of a lovely lady, quite aside from her staggering talent. (3.5)


A Medal For Benny (Irving Pichel, 1945) - This heartfelt story of American 'paisanos' and wartime heroism, devised by John Steinbeck, is ultimately too unfocused, patronising and artificial to get anywhere close to achieving its goals.

It's something like Hail the Conquering Hero relocated to Tortilla Flat, as a town - and in particular a young couple there - exists in the shadow of good-hearted hellraiser Benny, who got kicked out a year back... and winds up a war hero.

Not a bad idea, as far as it goes, but that isn't very far, and the execution is singularly unconvincing. Everyone in the town speaks in the generic 'foreign' accent favoured by Spencer Tracy in (the admittedly amazing) Captains Courageous, where every word is said in full and every inflection in every line-reading is the same. And while on paper the cast is promising, including the chameleonic J. Carrol Naish - who played every race except Inuit during a frankly bizarre career - regular Bing-and-Bob love interest Dorothy Lamour, and character comic supreme Frank McHugh, no-one really stands out, largely because the material is so spotty and vague.

One or two satirical jabs do land, including a dark gag about Native Americans losing their land, but it's slim pickings, and in the end it's a film that despite a certain something in its premise, its atmosphere and its polemicising, is almost insultingly unsatisfying. (1.5)

See also: This movie ended up in my 'Worst films I've seen this year' list for 2014.



Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818) - Anne Elliot has decidedly lost her 'bloom', seven years after being talked out of marrying kind-hearted sailor Captain Wentworth, but after fate demands that she decamp from her childhood home to nearby Uppercross, she finds him back in her life, and romancing a relative, while a mysterious stranger takes an unexpected fancy to her...

This is only the second Austen book I've read, after Pride and Prejudice. Though occupying the same world - of likeable young women, capricious fools, noble sailors and the odd utter, utter bounder - its purpose is altogether different, and therefore so is its approach. Austen's intention here seems greater and more absolute: not to serve up a delicious entertainment laced with pathos, but the articulation of her entire worldview, albeit within the boundaries of a conventional romance.

Her language is more varied ('felicity' and 'sensibility' litter Pride and Prejudice), her jokes more sparing, the gleeful absurdism of Mr Bennet jettisoned, and in their place? A more serious story, perhaps a little less light in touch, but with her purposeful diversions into the twee and trivial unfailingly undercut by some stinging, sardonic or self-aware one-liner, and the whole plot - for all its sudden clumps of action - commandeered to serve her aims. Those aims? To exalt selflessness and honesty, to damn duplicity and vanity, and to forget about that on the last page and go on about the navy instead.

It remains a masterful book: affecting, engrossing and with an extraordinarily appealing heroine whose attitude to life - while defined to some degree by 19th century parameters - remains a blueprint that most of us might live by. (4)


Thanks for reading. And Happy New Yearly 200th reviews update.

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