Further adventures in popular culture.
CINEMA: Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014) - For once, the hype barely goes far enough.
Whiplash is a tense, taut thriller - with periodic explosions - that has four things sorely missing from most movies:
1. A purpose: in this case a worldview that's tough, confrontational, unforgiving and punched across without equivocation.
2. A lead who'll play the part without needing to be liked: who'll act sweaty, ugly, arrogant, selfish and sweaty again.
3. The ability and the desire to consistently surprise, within the boundaries of its familiar up, down, big up, big down… formula, but without ever betraying either its characters or its raison d'être.
4. At least a solid hour of J. K. Simmons shouting.
Miles Teller is Andrew Neimann, a talented, driven drummer who wants to be "not just great… but one of the greats". His passport to success? An obsessive, abrasive, black-suited, bald-headed and apparently psychotic professor (J. K. Simmons), who takes him under his wing, only so he can slap him repeatedly in the face.
Crucially, the film knows what its strong suit is: the dynamic between the combustible conductor and his potential protégé, whose development from a taciturn up-and-comer to a bleeding-handed, budding Buddy Rich not afraid to stand his ground, is invigorating to watch.
When the discredited intrusion that is a romantic subplot rears its head, you wonder if writer-director Chazelle knows what he's doing. He does. And just when you begin to think that he may have mislaid the plot with a change of direction in the final third: BOOM.
Chazelle's handling is unobtrusive but exceptional throughout, drawing you into the action through frequent close-ups, sensational music and a succession of jump cuts that help keep up the film's breathless pace. His direction is… well, I suppose… tight as a drum. He also elicits two of the best performances I've seen in age.
Andrew is closer to his mentor than he might imagine, his egomania, cruelty and self-obsession pouring out increasingly as he nears his goals. That we side with him is not only testament to the vicarious power of cinema, but also to the broad-nosed, scar-faced Teller, who communicates the film's essential idea: that sacrifices have to be made for art, not just in terms of time and talent, but perhaps also in basic humanity.
And, as Fletcher, Simmons is simply sensational, dominating every scene, keeping the knot in your stomach nice and tight as it becomes increasingly clear that he can flip out at absolutely any time. Blessed with an easy superficial charm and something intangible beneath the surface - which comes out in one memorable speech to his Studio Band - he's otherwise a monument to malevolence, darkly hilarious when spewing a torrent of Malcolm Tucker-ish invective at anyone who deems to play out of time or tempo, still more terrifying when stoking a silence.
I said it'd take something special to top Birdman this year, but Whiplash has done it already. As an antidote to innumerable 'inspirational teacher' of insurmountable treacliness, it's undeniably welcome. But more than that: it's not just great… it's one of the greats. (4)
I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941) - Let’s just dwell for a moment on that title. Brilliant, isn’t it? One of my favourites. It doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do with the plot, but it strikes a pleasing note of terror and despair, which I think we can all get behind.
I Wake Up Screaming.
The film itself is a little less wonderful than its name, but only a little. It’s also extremely important, especially in the evolution of one of classic cinema’s most modern diversions: the swerve into the abyss that was film noir.
Noir, memorably described by Lee Server as “the genre that didn’t know its own name”, was a hybrid of German expressionism, French poetic realism and post-isolation American malaise, peopled by poetic PIs and deadly dames. It fully congealed, and reached its popular zenith, in 1944, with Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet, but its inception was probably – and admittedly arguably – a full four years earlier, as the release of Stranger on the Third Floor introduced photographer Nicholas Musuraca’s pioneering visual approach to slack-jawed audiences. The following year saw a slew of crime films that traded either on the staple storylines of noir (The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra) or else the stylistic traits (Out of the Fog, this one), but rarely both.
I Wake Up Screaming, directed by Charlie Chan veteran H. Bruce Humberstone, is an extremely engrossing mystery about the death of a model (Carole Landis, herself sadly subject to an early demise), with the mystery being whodunit, and why. The chief suspect is promoter Frankie Christopher (never trust a man with two first names), a sweaty, understandably angsty man embodied by Victor Mature, the big-browed, man-boobed Italian-American leading man who remains celluloid proof that stars who couldn’t really act are nothing new.
Also in for questioning are the victim’s sister, Betty Grable – a Fox musical star making a foray into crime films, as Alice Faye would do in the exceptional Fallen Angel – and a former Shakespearean ham (Alan Mowbray), as our suspicions also alight on an urbane columnist (Allyn Joslyn) and a massive cop (Laird Cregar) with an intense interest in proving that Mature dunit.
Tragically, Cregar’s screen career lasted barely five years. After brilliant supporting parts in Rings on Her Fingers, This Gun for Hire and Heaven Can Wait, the 21-stone actor lost 100 pounds for his first marginally romantic role – in Hangover Square – and his body simply couldn’t take the strain. Here, as the laconically witty, mellifluous, hulking, terrifying detective, he simply destroys the competition, negligible though it is.
Still, while Cregar is the only truly great actor in these ranks, Joslyn has an excellent bit as a George Sanders type spitting sardonic one-liners, William Gargan is fine as the archetypal 'good cop', and both Mature and Grable give credible if rather limited performances. A deleted scene, in which Grable sings ‘Daddy’ while working as a music sheet saleswoman – rather than a stenographer – is so incongruous that it may have succeeded in killing film noir had it not been consigned to the cutting room filing cabinet. The finished film does, however, contain the frequent - and baffling - use of Over the Rainbow, which was hardly a little-known song even before the invention of VHS, since The Wizard of Oz had only come out two years earlier.
Despite that, I Wake Up Screaming remains a richly atmospheric movie that forms an essential part of the noir canon, replete with impressive, shadow-drenched imagery and poetic, hard-boiled dialogue touched with black humour. If the plot stretches credibility a couple of times, and the absence of a Mitchum, Dick Powell or Richard Conte is keenly felt, it’s still a cracking little movie, which paved the way for others to follow. (3.5)
The Beast of the City (Charles Brabin, 1932) - This is a film as sanctimonious and heavy-handed as its hero: a crusading police chief (Walter Huston) who vows to destroy the city's criminal element. His starting point? An oily kingpin played somewhat improbably by Jean Hersholt, who made for one hell of a twinkly-eyed mentor, but was hardly Edward G. Robinson.
Beginning with a blurb from President Herbert Hoover, and intended as a response to sensationally popular gangster movies like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and especially Scarface, The Beast of the City is a fitfully exciting film sadly undone by its overburdening sense of self-righteousness and a litany of fairly basic problems. Roger Ebert has argued that a thriller is only as good as its villain. If that's the case (and it's a debate worthy of a book rather than one review), then The Beast of the City is in trouble, as Hersholt is barely on screen and deathly tedious when he is. The movie is also bedeviled with a by-the-numbers plot littered with improbabilities and lapses in logic, like a car chase in which the bank robbers presumably have a five-minute head-start but can be caught within seconds thanks to some keen-eyed grocers pointing out the way they've gone.
I'm also not overly enamoured with Huston, who seems to attract a reverence far greater than most of his contemporaries for reasons that remain a little unclear. Perhaps it's his status as the head of an acting dynasty, perhaps his stage past, or perhaps it's just The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but he's not especially effective for the bulk of this one.
The film has a few aces up its sleeve, though. The first is an excellent opening montage which graduates from some slightly sexist, allegedly-comic control centre banter to a portrait of police across the city, the whole thing underscored by the familiar intonation of Ed Brophy (usually found on the other side of the law), flatly bellowing car numbers and crimes. It's strange that this triumph of sound editing, as well as some stunning, rather fascistic fetishing of the police ranks later on, sits alongside the kind of extremely boring visual compositions that genuinely wouldn't have looked out-of-place in 1915.
The second of its calling cards is Jean Harlow, who's quite good as the braless gangster's moll who seduces and corrupts Huston's detective brother (Wallace Ford). Though not quite fully into her stride, she does exhibit considerable charisma and presence, and performs an impromptu dance that manages to be both oddly sensual and hilariously, ridiculously of-its-time.
Finally, there is the climactic scene, which I won't spoil here, but which is worth waiting for, however much contrivance, cliché and moralising you have to sit through on the way. Let's just say that it seems unlikely that Sam Peckinpah had never seen The Beast of the City.
I'm sorry to disappoint Herbert Hoover, but Scarface is way better than this. (2)
A collection of fakes.
It Happened in Hollywood (Harry Lachman, 1937) - In the late '30s, you could hardly move in Hollywood for movies about movies, like Stand-In, Crashing Hollywood, A Star Is Born and this one: a harmless comedy-drama co-written by future B-movie legend Sam Fuller. Richard Dix - best-remembered nowadays (if at all) for Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship and the Whistler series - plays Tim Bart, a hero of silent Westerns who gets the boot when the talkies come in, then has to make good to impress an orphan with a poorly leg.
The first half, detailing his triumphs, his fall, and the subsequent rise of his frequent co-star and lifelong love (Fay Wray, who's in good form), is quite nicely done. It's not as funny as it might have been, wasting the sort of set-piece about talkie techniques that Singin' in the Rain famously slamdunked, but as a sort of embryonic version of The Artist, it's not at all bad, and also throws in some interesting if broad ideas about an artist's responsibility to his public, as Dix chucks away the chance to reinvent himself as a screen gangster.
Then the kid (Bill Burrud) turns up in Dix's life and it all gets too horribly literal, director Harry Lachman spooning syrup over everything, before Fuller and his cohorts serve up an absolutely atrocious ending. Surely, surely the ending that this one needs is a scene in which Dix either performs or thwarts a bank robbery in the vein of the scene he earlier refused, then the director yells cut and we pull away to Wray and the kid watching him on the set, hand-in-hand. Instead we get… well, 'idiotic' barely covers it.
Ironically, though, the film's main selling point is a sequence in its second half: about the only thing the movie does right from the midway point. In order to impress Burrud, Dix holds a party at a ranch, peopling it with lookalikes. The twist? The pseudo-stars are played by Garbo, Dietrich, W. C. Fields and Chaplin's real-life doubles - along with a dozen more. It's extremely surreal and, despite not really being mined in any inventive way, fascinating enough in itself to satisfy any classic film nerd. (2)
A lot of it is precisely this unbearable.
God Help the Girl (Stuart Murdoch, 2014) - Stuart Murdoch has spent a small part of the past six years working on his side project, God Help the Girl, in which a rotating roster of female vocalists sing the kind of irresistible pop tunes indelibly associated with the Belle and Sebastian founder. Now Murdoch has created a spin-off movie inspired by the idea, which proves beyond doubt that he is both an extraordinary songwriter and a very bad writer-director. Just as Bob Dylan’s wretched, nonsensical novel, Tarantula, proved that sublime compositional skills aren’t necessarily a transferable skill, so Murdoch’s debut venture into moviemaking shows that a sensibility that’s essentially appealing within the somewhat intangible, uncodified arena of pop music can become stale as soon as it becomes solid, and that a superb ear for lyrics can become a tin one for dialogue.
Emily Browning is the anorexic Eve, a young woman with an apparent gift for songwriting, who – after checking herself out of hospital via an open window – forms a band with misanthropic guitarist James (Olly Alexander) and an extremely poorly-defined character named Cassie (Hannah Murray), leading to a film not unlike We Are the Best, but with music which springs from the air, as per the tradition of the screen musical, and also nowhere near as good. The endlessly pouting Browning is quite persuasive as the damaged protagonist, but Murray is bland as anything – with what must be one of the worst singing voices I’ve ever heard – while Alexander is a frankly dreadful actor playing an utterly unbearable hipster who speaks in hollow clichés. It’s also a failing of Murdoch as a screenwriter that we don’t see Eve as a great composer, Alexander as someone for whom comfort is paramount, or Cassie as a potential mate for. We're simply told things and reflect: "Oh, I had no idea that was what was happening." That old “show, don’t tell” adage has rarely seemed more relevant. And essentially none of it makes any sense.
Occasionally there’s a moment that rings true or undercuts our expectations, like Browning’s line to Alexander when it looks like they may finally be about to get together, but otherwise the only real joy is to be found in Murdoch’s frequently excellent songs - which shine even when filtered through this cast - and flashes of invention in the choreography, though again it's limited by the people he’s found to articulate it. (Whether that’s why there are so many fast-cuts in the numbers, I’m not sure.)
Indeed, one of the oddest things about the film is Murdoch’s boring visual sensibility. While falling into the amateurish trap of shooting every scene in a different style, he also fashions an aesthetic that’s simply nowhere near as distinctive as the one frequently glimpsed in his lyrics. That richly-textured world of middle-distance runners, lazy line painters and girls who “smell of milk” , fashioned in a 1980s Glaswegian adolescence, is infinitely more interesting than the sort of yuppie-ish, Stylist Magazine dress code enforced throughout God Help the Girl, as well as derivative passages that lean on 'Swinging '60s' excursions like Smashing Time and Les Bicyclettes de Belsize.
If it’s worth seeing at all, it’s really for Browning’s relatively interesting characterisation and for the songs, including Pretty Eve in the Tub, which starts and ends in astonishingly witless fashion, but has a breathtaking middle. It’s enduring proof that Murdoch remains a virtuoso in one medium, if not really any good at making films. (2)
Josie Long – Cara Josephine (Soho Theatre) – This new show from my favourite stand-up isn’t her strongest, but largely works – thanks chiefly to the Kent-born storyteller’s enormous personal appeal. Even at her finest, she doesn’t make me laugh as much as Richard Herring, or kick in the boundaries of comedy like Simon Munnery, but I’d rather spend 90 minutes in Long’s company than anyone else on the current circuit. She's a performer who makes an intense personal connection, locking personalities and drawing you into her singular world. She’s also warm, clever and self-effacing, all the qualities I prize in a comedian and/or human.
Largely dispensing with the political material that has dominated her recent shows, save for a hysterical fantasy about feeding Nigel Farage to death with marshmallows, Long instead talks freely and unusually frankly about the personal crisis that enveloped her during 2013, clouding her easygoing persona and destroying her insatiable appetite for intellectual and cultural engagement. It’s a show that takes in despair, philosophy, and at one point a torrent of menstrual blood, the gag-stuffed narrative - as ever - interspersed with post-modern observations about how the show is going, and self-mocking asides that reveal a performer completely in control of her audience and her talent, if not her apparent sense of self-doubt.
I was mostly chuckling rather than creased up with laughter – as in Be Honourable – and wasn’t knocked sideways by the freshness of Long’s current worldview – like in The Future Is Another Place – but this sweet, sincere and mature show is still well worth seeing, and contains one of my favourite lines of recent years: “If you are mainly interested in making money, I’m going to assume there is something sexually wrong with you.” (3.5)
Incidentally, I felt compelled to address Josie's contention that her favourite impression is of "a 1930s film noir detective".
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003) – Henry meets Clare for the first time when he is 28 and she is 20. She has known him since she was six, and he was 38. The reason: a neurological condition that sends him spinning through time, arriving naked and often vomiting. One of the more rapturously received novels of recent years, this sci-fi romance has a superb premise, an original and meticulously-executed approach to time travel and some passages of real emotional potency, but also possesses an abundance of superfluous material about what everyone was wearing or eating, uniformly weak dialogue and a fatal inability to make us fall in love with either of its protagonists; Clare is essentially a cipher whose only characteristics of note are a capacity for great love and understanding, and a lot of festishisable red-blonde hair. I have never met a man who thinks or acts like Henry. It’s one of those books destined to stay with you, for its novelty, its narrative cleverness and its sporadic ability to bring a lump to the throat, but you wish Niffenegger had the same way with language, character and humour that she has with complex plotting. The pay-off, with shades of both Forever Young and The Whales of August, gambles on Hallmark-style sentiment and somehow comes out well on top. (3)
Thanks for reading.