Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Unrepentant pop - your choices



All it took were these words, and I was bombarded with nominations for neglected pop classics, some familiar (Tiny Dancer, What Is Love, Would I Lie to You?), and some not (Together Forever, Fortress Around Your Heart, Thinking of You by Sister Sledge).

So I bunged them all on a Spotify playlist for you, to make those commutes all the bouncier.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Humphrey Jennings, Vera Drake and my new favourite voice - Reviews #205

My continuing adventures in popular culture, both high (movies) and low (EVERYTHING ELSE):

FILMS:

Humphrey Jennings revisited:



Spare Time (1939)
- "Spare Time is a time when we do what we like." Yes it is.

Humphrey Jennings' first great film shows a documentarian in transition. The opening two passages, set in Sheffield and Manchester, are altogether mesmerising, but show a somewhat aloof fascination with the working classes - a species previously alien to the Cambridge graduate - which had grown during his time working on the Mass Observation project. He seems sympathetic, but not empathetic, observing their rules and rituals without truly engaging with his subjects. That's especially true, I think, of the still contentious 'kazoo band' sequence, which hints at Jennings' past as a surrealist and manages to be utterly unforgettable, aggressively bizarre and also a little cold.

It's the final chapter, 'Coal', where Spare Time comes into its own, as Jennings alights in a Welsh mining village and something in his soul is stoked: the result a warm, tender portrait of soot-choked generations finding release through music in church halls and romance in sweetshop doorways, the whole piece scored by a beautiful amateur rendition of Handel's Largo. I've seen it on the big screen, the small screen, and in my mind's eye a thousand times, and it still takes the breath away.

The film also contains a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance for my all-time favourite newspaper headline: "Her scent was bats' delight". (4)



A Diary for Timothy (1945) - A masterpiece from Britain's most poetic propagandist, Humphrey Jennings, with an E. M. Forster script read by Michael Redgrave and directed at a newborn baby, who hears a chronicle of his first six months on Earth: of the sacrifices of WWII and the challenges ahead. It's more literal and staged than most of Jennings' others, but full of his sublime visual juxtapositions and the understated, heart-melting vignettes that became an increasing part of his wartime work. It also contains the only existing footage of John Gielgud's Hamlet (ooh sir), perhaps the most celebrated of the century. (4)



The Dim Little Island (1949) - Humphrey Jennings' reputation as "the only true poet that the British screen has yet produced" (Lindsay Anderson, 1954, that quote being the one that's always wheeled out) is based largely on his wartime work.

After an outrageously colourful career as a poet, surrealist and Mass Observationist, Jennings joined the General Post Office as a documentarian, which upon the outbreak of war was renamed the Crown Film Unit and started making propaganda films, including Jennings' calling cards: Listen to Britain and A Diary for Timothy, the latter a mainstay in my all-time top 10 since I first saw it in 2005.

The Dim Little Island, his penultimate film, was made four years after the end of the war and is preoccupied with what happens next, as the country is at once patronised and accused of going to the dogs. In turn, a comic artist (Osbert Lancaster), an industrialist (John Ormston), a naturalist (James Fisher) and the legendary composer Ralph Vaughan Williams give their thoughts on their chosen subject - and therefore on Britain itself - before Jennings starts cross-cutting, drawing some unexpected parallels between their ruminations.

The film lacks the seamlessness and effortless poetry of Jennings' best, not least because of the mannered, awkward voiceovers from Ormston and Fisher, clunky in both content and delivery. But the vivid footage and discussion of Britain at a turning point in its history, busily shedding its influence and relevance, makes it a fascinating historical piece, while the marriage of Vaughan Williams' beautiful music and erudite thoughts to Jennings' incisive, instinctive feel for imagery leads to some truly wonderful moments towards the end of this short, sometimes very special film.

It also shows my lovely office, which made me very proud. (3.5)

***



CINEMA: Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004) - Vera Drake has the feel of one of those campaigning films of the 1950s and ‘60s – such as Victim, which lobbied for the legalisation of homosexuality – but made some 40 years after the law was changed. In that sense, perhaps it has no real reason to exist, but as a character piece and a historical document, it’s sort of fascinating. It’s also exceptionally well-acted.

The title character (Imelda Staunton) is a housewife and domestic cleaner who also works as a freelance, free-of-charge abortionist, helping out girls who get into trouble by pumping them full of soapy water, thus helping them to miscarry. But one day things go wrong, and her poor but idyllic working class existence implodes.

It’s really an ensemble piece, and though some performances do tend towards caricature (the shallow sister-in-law, the rapacious middle-woman, the stupid Irishman), they’re mostly extremely good, as the film effortlessly evokes the atmosphere of a working class community very similar to the one in which my dad grew up. Phil Davis is absolutely superb as Vera’s husband, Adrian Scarborough creates a multi-faceted, multi-layered character as his aspirational brother, and Eddie Marsan is the last word in anxious suitors as the adorable bundle of nerves courting the Drakes’ daughter. If Daniel Mays is caught acting a few times, he still makes a good fist of his conflicted character, wrestling with what he sees as his mother’s betrayal of her family, and of basic decency. As the middle class counterpoint to Drake's working class charges ("you had to have that, it was in no way extraneous," says Leigh a little defensively in the Q&A accompanying this screening), a compelling, breathless Sally Hawkins does at least enjoy a more pampered termination, having suffered through hell to get there.

Best of all, though, is Staunton, who has spent rather too much of her screen career playing wittering gossips. As the saintly Vera, who spends the first half of the film basically acting like your nanna and the second half choking back tears as her world crumbles to dust, she is little short of revelatory, Leigh’s intensive preparations – including an 11-hour in-character improvisation of the film’s turning point – provoking a wealth of complex emotion, impeccably captured by a series of immaculate, uncompromising close-ups.

In some ways, the film is almost nostalgic for the Britain that was, before pop culture hammered a rivet between the generations and Thatcher sounded the death knell for society, but there are untold horrors lurking beneath that cosy, perkily poverty-stricken surface, and Leigh isn’t afraid to show them all, ably assisted by an oft-overlooked actress at the peak of her powers. I don’t think it’s necessarily a great movie – I’m not sure quite what its point is, except that the law should have been changed in 1967, which it was – but it’s gripping and gruelling, while casting light on an under-reported chapter of British history.

(PS: I saw this as part of the Tricycle Theatre's British Screen Classics series, and at the end I got to meet Leigh, Staunton and Davis, which was just awesome. Thanks to my excellent wife for bringing a pen with her for autograph purposes.) (3.5)

***

BOOKS:

As well as the two Sandy books, this one:



Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2011) - Wow. Just exquisite. Hilary Mantel's follow up to Wolf Hall is a fast, sleek, linear sequel without a wasted page. Bloody and brilliant. (4)

***

TV:



Wolf Hall (Peter Kosminsky, 2015
- It's a little hard to tell how good this edited highlights package is; without the bits between the bits that we know from Mantel's Booker Prize-winning books, perhaps it wouldn't work so well. It's also fair to say there's a little too much of people just walking around, while Bernard Hill and Jonathan Pryce are both largely going through the motions. Those shortcomings are largely blown away, though, by Mark Rylance's astonishing performance as brooding courtier Thomas Cromwell, his acting the most mesmeric I've seen since Rebecca Benson tore up the Apollo Theatre in last year's Let the Right One In, and reminiscent of Jason Robards at his early '60s peak. His voice is also utterly seductive, it may well be love. Kosminsky's unusual visual sense also grew on me, as did the sparing, simple traditional score, and the female characters were perfectly cast across the board. (3.5). I think.

***

THEATRE:


Sometimes starring Beverley Knight.

Memphis (Shaftesbury Theatre) - An explosive first half, full of stunning stagecraft, gives way to a somewhat muted second that's set too much around a sterile, uninteresting TV show. The story - about an interracial couple in '50s Memphis - is also rather slight, but the numbers are strong without being sensational, and the cast is first-rate, especially alternate female lead, Rachel John. (3)



Antigone (Barbican) - A frequently dazzling introduction to Greek tragedy, with Juliette Binoche a beautifully compromised heroine, and seamlessly modern staging. A few lulls, though also - surprisingly - a few lols. (3.5)



"There is no present or future - only the past, happening over and over again, now." A Moon for the Misbegotten (film, 1975) - In 1956, Jason Robards exploded onto Broadway in a then-neglected play by Eugene O’Neill by the name of The Iceman Cometh. As Hickey, the play’s bruised, brooding, evangelical salesman, flogging temperance to a bar-load of barflies, he gave a performance of bristling intensity that’s among the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, thankfully captured in a 1960 live TV broadcast that’s essential for anyone who cares about theatre or drama or really life in general. That revival, directed by Jos√© Quintero, led to the comprehensive rehabilitation of a play that up until then had been regarded as one of O’Neill’s weaker efforts.

Thirteen years later, Robards and Quintero returned to O’Neill in A Moon for the Misbegotten (Robards had also appeared in a film of Long Day's Journey Into Night, playing a younger version of his character here), and once again it was filmed for broadcast, with one set, a minimum of credible make-up and a pair of Irish accents so improbable that you could sue the actors for lying. Regardless of how you feel about those things – and I’m pleased with the first, apathetic about the second and got over the distraction of the third after 20-odd minutes – it’s a stunning achievement, a remarkably grown-up, literate and moving film with the writer’s usual damaged souls marinated in alcohol, spewing out their skeletons as the liquor tips them into despair.

Colleen Dewhurst is Josie Hogan, a rough, big-breasted farmhouse girl with a reputation as a slut, who attracts the attention of a charming Broadway actor (Jason Robards), plagued by dark moods and a bleak past. Her father – played by Ed Flanders, 10 years her junior – is a drunk who may be a tyrant or a bastard or a great dad – it’s a play of shifting perceptions – and whose unconvincing ageing make-up has gone a bit crusty. Dewhurst and Flanders both struggle to come up with anything approaching a credible Irish accent – her attempt is particularly baffling – and yet both performances are nothing short of astounding, blessed with a vast depth of emotion that comes out in subtle inflections and fleeting gestures. Rather that way round than the other (hello, Meryl Streep, I am looking at you – when did you last make me feel anything).

And Robards, that eternally underrated actor, who played few lead roles in films because he was considered a bit ugly (how could anyone that talented be ugly? I suppose he did have an enormous head), is simply amazing, inhabiting O’Neill’s avuncular, semi-autobiographical boozehound, ravaged by self-loathing, while surely drawing heavily on his own fertile experiences as a substance-abusing manic-depressive. Swinging from uncertainty to euphoria to tenderness to bitterness, self-recrimination and finally self-awareness, he’s desperately moving and unwaveringly, compulsively watchable.

I’m not sure it’s for all tastes: the camera generally goes to the right places, but there’s little in the way of staging or action, just lots and lots of talking, some of it cyclical, some of it funny, most of it profound in O’Neill’s familiarly sad, elegiac and battered humanist style, lent an unbearable, unforgettable weight by two actors in exceptional form, and another who has probably never been surpassed. (4)



Maxine Peake in Hamlet (film, 2014) - Maxine Peake is a Hamlet of relentless game-playing, caustic sardonism and frequent spit-flecked fury in this engrossing, arresting Royal Exchange adaptation of Shakespeare’s finest. The story, as you may know, is that “a ghost and a prince meat, and everyone ends in mincemeat”. While the script is recycled from a West End production in 2009, and the supporting cast is a little bland, causing attention to wander when its hero(ine) is off-screen, that scenario is lit by staging of minimalist invention – including an ingenious ‘apparition’ scene featuring oversized yellow lightbulbs lowered to the stage floor – some perturbing grace notes (the Prince of Denmark mock-wanking), and the hottest Hamlet since John Barrymore. (3)

and sort of theatre, in a way:



Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies... Live! (2011) - I'm generally a fan of Stephen Merchant, but I found this document of his first - and so far only - stand-alone stand-up show strangely slight, hackneyed and lacking in ambition. It includes newspaper clippings from 10 years earlier, which are funny but suggest a certain paucity of invention, and laboured gags about his height, his stinginess and Ricky Gervais. At times you can see the working, as he moves laboriously or unconvincingly from one topic to another. There are a few good jokes, though, and he has excellent comic timing to make up for a comic persona that's rather less appealing than the real-life Merchant appears to be. (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Lady: 14 favourite Sandy Denny vocals


Sandy at my office, 1975.

The greatest singer I’ve ever heard is back in the arts pages due to a new biography by Mick Houghton. Though billed as the definitive work on the life of Sandy Denny – it’s the first to be authorised by her estate – it isn't really. It’s sweet and more even-handed than Clinton Heylin’s mean-spirited, typo-ridden book, No More Sad Refrains, and insightful about the folk-rock world that Denny inhabited during the 1960s and ‘70s, but it's noticably weaker on Sandy herself and has problems with properly articulating her tragic demise at 31: while Heylin’s ghoulish account was gruelling to read, this one almost skips over it.

What it may yet do, though, is catapult Sandy back into the public consciousness, a feat not even achieved when a song that she wrote but never recorded ended up soundtracking the BBC's 2012 Olympics coverage. Or, for that matter, when she guested on a record that sold 37 million units.

For the uninitiated, Alexandra Elene MacLean "Sandy" Denny was a pioneering vocalist who battered down the divisions between British folk music and electric rock, firstly by joining Fairport Convention and turning them from a homegrown Jefferson Airplane into the most dynamic traditional band in the world, then with her short-lived Fotheringay ensemble – who threw some age-old American and Australian influences into the mix – and finally with four solo records (and a brief return to Fairport) that scaled unfathomable heights and then plumbed a few depths, as hard living took its toll on her mind, her sense of artistic assurance and her voice, previously an instrument of unique clarity, emotion and power.

Before that fall from health, relevance and grace, though, Sandy was simply untouchable, particularly in the period from 1968 to ’71, when she was completely in control of her mesmeric gift, having built its power, harnessed its mesmeric tone almost free of vibrato, and learned to sing from the depths of a sadly tortured soul.

I still remember the first time I heard her. I must have been about 10, and I thought I'd never heard anything more beautiful. I still think that.

Here, then, are 14 Sandy vocals to enrich your existence (13 of them are on this Spotify playlist):


Buy this record, look how much effort we've gone to with the sleeve.

14. White Dress – Fairport Convention (1974) – By the time Sandy rejoined Fairport in 1974 - by all accounts largely because her womanising husband was now in the band, and she wanted to keep an eye on him, though she also enjoyed the camaraderie - her flawless voice had begun to betray her. This one's a gem, though, as she plaintively pleads with her lover to kiss her and take her dancing. His reward? She might, might, put on a white dress. She's not promising anything. Like Billie Holiday before her, Sandy could at least compensate for her ailing vocal powers with breathtaking emotion and matchless technique. And unlike Billie Holiday, she didn't sound like a frog dying of laryngitis, even when the fags and booze began to bite.
(YouTube / Available on: The Rising of the Moon by Fairport Convention, 1974)

13. Lord Bateman (1971) – The Great Lost Sandy Song is now The Great Found Sandy Song, discovered on the end of an unlabelled reel nearly 40 years after its recording. It's one of the few completely unaccompanied recordings in her canon, with a hypnotic quality similar to the title track of Dylan's Tempest or Anne Briggs' traditional Young Tambling (recorded by Sandy's Fairport as Tam Lin in 1969). Stir yourself from the trance long enough, and you might notice just how long she could go without breathing, and how powerful and on-pitch she stays while doing it.
(YouTube / Available on: The Notes and the Words: A Collection of Demos and Rarities, 2012)

12. It Suits Me Well (1972) – For her second record, Sandy tried writing in a more straightforward style, and the result was many of her best songs. The penultimate track is not about a fabulist, as I'd hoped, but written from the PoV of three different itchy-footed wanderers - a gypsy, a sailor and a circus-hand - for whom "the living it is hard, oh but it suits me well". She apparently dreamed of that existence, with its obvious freedoms, but lacked the temperament (and the mental balance) to ever approach it. Her laidback delivery makes it a delight, and it's ultimately one of her most upbeat numbers, despite the usual tug of melancholia.
(YouTube / Available on: Sandy, 1972)



11. John the Gun (1971) – One of three anti-war songs that Sandy wrote, and the best of the lot, as she takes on the persona of all-time arsehole John the Gun, an amoral if poetic braggart who declares that "ideals of peace are gold which fools have found upon the plains of war", perhaps the finest single line of her songwriting career. There are numerous live versions and alternate studio takes doing the rounds, but none are better than the one which ended up on Sandy's debut solo album, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens. The first three songs from that record are unassailably great.
(YouTube / Available on: The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, 1971)

10. Who Knows Where the Time Goes – Fairport Convention (1969) – Sandy's signature song ("It was one of my first songs, and I just wish people would listen to some of the other ones," she complained in 1973) has taken on an almost unbearable poignancy following her early death. She had demoed it in 1965, recorded it during a brief stint in The Strawbs in 1967, and watched as Judy Collins' version hit the American charts the next year, but the definitive recording is on Fairport's Unhalfbricking. People keep covering it, but I've no idea why, for how could they possibly improve upon it.
(YouTube / Available on: Unhalfbricking by Fairport Convention, 1968)

9. A Sailor's Life (first version, 1969) – Fairport Convention – Sandy used to sing this song in the dressing room as a warm-up. On 26 February 1969, backstage at Southampton's Adam and Eve Club, the rest of Fairport joined in, and that night they played it for the first time. The recorded version on that year's Unhalfbricking is celebrated for its guitar and violin 'duel' - the kind of thing that folk-rock aficionados find irresistible and everyone else finds unbearable - which takes over after just a couple of verses of Sandy. In the early '90s, this alternate version finally came to light. Free of Dave Swarbrick's exuberant bow-work, it is instead a vocal wonder, with our heroine permitted to belt or breathe out every last lamenting word. Then there's an awful lot of guitar. Such is the all-consuming nature of the redone version that no-one interviewed for Mick Houghton's new book could even remember recording this one.
(YouTube / Available on: The Notes and the Words: A Collection of Demos and Rarities, 2012)

8. The Quiet Land of Erin (BBC session, 1968) – A rare excursion into Irish Gaelic, at least in the choruses, Sandy's version of this beautiful Celtic staple is nothing revolutionary, but bypasses my critical faculties entirely, hitting me in the heart. Having joined Fairport a month earlier, she would soon drag them into the folk realm, and they'd turn her acoustic world electric.
(YouTube / Available on: Sandy Denny: Live at the BBC, 2007)



7. Fotheringay – Fairport Convention (1969) – I can't imagine anyone not being transfixed by the opener from What We Did on Our Holidays - Sandy's first album with Fairport - a picturesque, wintry song about Mary, Queen of Scots' imprisonment, with perhaps Sandy's most accessibly lovely vocal.
(YouTube / Available on: What We Did on Our Holidays by Fairport Convention, 1968)

6. Tam Lin – Fairport Convention (1969) – Seven solid minutes of narrative magnificence, and one of the most exciting things I've ever heard, as mysterious sexyman Tam Lin spars with bolshy young Janet, and Fairport surge endlessly forward, powered by Sandy's perfectly-paced, delicately rampaging vocal. Something like the high point of electric folk.
(YouTube / Available on: Liege & Lief by Fairport Convention, 1969)

5. The Music Weaver (no strings, 1972) – The closer to Sandy's best solo record, 1972's Sandy, is perhaps autobiographical, perhaps about Richard Thompson, but either way a stunning artistic statement couched in her usual elliptical, pastoral language. This version is shorn of the trite, slushy strings that mar many of her greatest later songs, and accompanied only by her piano and Swarb's haunting violin.
(YouTube / Available on: Sandy Denny, 2010)



4. Farewell, Farewell – Fairport Convention (1969) – The highpoint of the immortal Liege & Lief is this Richard Thompson ballad, set to the tune of the traditional song Willie O’ Winsbury, and dealing abstrusely with a van crash the previous year that took the lives of both his girlfriend and Fairport’s drummer, Martin Lamble. Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, and operating at a consistent intensity of backwards-looking chilliness, it doesn’t demand every ounce of Denny’s staggering, multi-faceted talent, but what she does with the song is just about perfect.
(YouTube / Available on: Liege & Lief by Fairport Convention, 1969)

3. Percy’s Song – Fairport Convention (BBC session, 1969) – In the hands of Sandy-era Fairport, Bob Dylan’s unreleased, anecdotal polemic about a careless driver getting banged up for 99 years becomes an unremitting wail of anguish, Denny’s mega-lunged performance driving it onwards with a repeated cry of “Turn, turn again”, to which she adds grace notes, massive notes and bluesy flourishes, the result a song that’s chilling in content and euphoric in execution.
(YouTube / Available on: Fairport Convention: Live at the BBC, 2007)

2. Bruton Town (Live at the Paris Theatre, 1972) – Here's what regular collaborator Dave Swarbrick had to say about Sandy's singing:

Listen to Bruton Town and try to disagree.
(YouTube / Available on: Sandy Denny: Live at the BBC, 2007)

... and the #1 is...



1. The Banks of the Nile – Fotheringay (1970) – Not just Sandy’s greatest, but a performance largely unmatched in the annals of British popular song, a vocal of crystalline purity that grows in majesty, magnificence and heart-rending desperation as it progresses. This epic traditional ballad is a tale of colonial wars, love and the possibility that it might be OK to disguise yourself as a man, join the army and go to Egypt, in order to be with your boyfriend. The conclusion: it would not be OK, or as Sandy acknowledges: “But your waist it is too slender, and your fingers they are too small/In the sultry suns of Egypt your rosy cheeks would spoil”. It’s Martin Carthy’s favourite Sandy performance, and Linda Thompson’s too, her voice at its unapproachable best, and every line a breathtaking, unwavering wonder packing a devastating emotional punch.
(YouTube / Available on: Fotheringay – Fotheringay, 1970)

***

Thanks for reading, now go and make her a national treasure. Then I can complain and say that I liked her first.

And let me know your own. You started here.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Crying Game, Jennifer Lawrence, and perhaps the worst film of the 1940s - Reviews #204

In this, your my latest reviews update: great films, bad films, and a book about whether some people are now or have ever been members of the Communist Party.



The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)

The twist.

That twist.

This mercurial masterpiece of ‘90s cinema has now been reduced to just one thing. Not that its twist isn’t magnificent, but it’s certainly not the film’s raison d’etre, or its reason to be celebrated. It doesn’t explain why the film continues to enrapture, enthral and grow in emotional resonance as the years pass and the viewings rack up. And, unlike most twists, it doesn’t come at the end, but at the halfway point, meaning that if you’ve avoided seeing the film because you think you know how it ends – you really don’t.

The Crying Game is essentially a redrafting of director Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, but transferred to the world of the Troubles, as an IRA volunteer (Stephen Rea) helps take a British soldier (Forest Whitaker) hostage, then promises to look up his quarry’s girlfriend (Jaye Davidson), should they have to put a bullet through his brain. Nothing pans out as you’d expect, but Rea does end up seeking out the troubled, brutalised and lovelorn Davidson in a vividly-realised East London, and appointing himself her protector.

The film has an Achilles’ heel that’s larger and weaker than almost any other film deserving of classic status, and that is Forest Whitaker. His performance is so hysterically awful that all you can do is gaze in slack-jawed disbelief as you try to come up with credible theories as to how he a) didn’t get sacked, and b) didn’t get banned from Equity. Asked to portray a Jamaican-born Londoner, he opts for an accent that sounds like Dick Van Dyke’s character in Mary Poppins pretending to be Nelson Mandela.

Everything else about the film, though, is perfect. Rea is in the form of his life, delivering one of the performances of the decade as the kind, gentle foot-soldier moved by love and loyalty, particularly in the terrific scene where, asked to provide solace to a condemned man, he leans on Corinthians 13:11 (“When I was a child, I thought as a child…”), only to find it’s no solace at all. “Not a lot of use, are you Fergus?” mangles Whitaker. “Me?”, whispers Rea, his eyes holding an almost unbearable sadness. “No. I’m not good for much.” Davidson proves his equal as an erotically-charged, good-humoured and endlessly appealing creature who works as a hairdresser and moonlights as a torch singer, hinting at a basic duality and the pain searing through her soul. It’s a film about game-playing, identity, mutual reliance and the healing of scars; in her debut, Davidson is asked to carry an astonishing amount of that, and doesn’t put a foot wrong. Adrian Dunbar, Jim Broadbent, Ralph Brown and a bobbed, flawlessly-accented and terrifyingly psychotic Miranda Richardson round out a phenomenally impressive cast.

It’s also a brilliantly plotted film, one of the few movies of recent years that’s both consistently unpredictable and overwhelmingly satisfying, as it shifts location, genre and mood, beginning as a moral thriller, lighting a sensual slow-burn that casts the early London scenes in a woozy, gorgeous glow, then fashioning a love story of uncommon brilliance and breathtaking originality.

It's a cast-iron masterpiece.

And yet all anyone talks about is that bloody twist. (4)

***



"Now, you know I've got the legal right to go in there hunting the man any place I want?"
"I know you'd be wasting your time and pissing me off."
CINEMA: Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) - I went to see this at the cinema on Saturday, and I'm going to keep doing it until someone makes a better movie.

Debra Granik's feminist masterwork is the key film of the decade so far: an unorthodox, spine-tingling thriller, a humanist fable, and a staggering study of a good person under almost intolerable pressure. In her breakout role, Jennifer Lawrence is Ree Dolly, a strong, selfless, smart-mouthed 17-year-old living with her vacant mother and two young siblings in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. Once it ran with bootleg moonshine, now this here's Meth Country, and if her crystal-cooking father doesn't turn up for his court hearing, they're going to lose the house, the woods and the whole family unit. So Ree sets out in search of him, facing threats, silence and regular beatings from pinch-faced people who share a lot of the same blood that runs in her veins, and down her face.

There's brutality and violence to spare, but it's the humanity you remember: Lawrence's pleading chat with her mother in the woods, her silent screaming, that beautiful final scene: Ree's essential goodness flawlessly intact despite the intrusions of a cold and often heartless world. There's lyrical imagery - a little girl hopping her hobby horse around on a trampoline, oblivious to the mounting horrors swarming around her sister - Christian bluegrass music that roots you as firmly in this world as a red pin on a Google Map, and a script whose singular, sparse vernacular feels almost intrusively authentic.

Granik finds no nobility in poverty, but she finds plenty in the poor; her vision of a rural community still clinging to some semblance of life as it's ravaged by substance abuse shocking but compassionate. Even the stylistic trappings of Ree's family - grubby clothes, toys outside and tyres in the yard - are synonymous in American film with problem neighbours deserving our fear and contempt; here they're the everyday belongings of ordinary people living their lives the best they can. The director's boundless sense of empathy even extends to Ree's coke-snorting, wife-beating uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), a sort of satanic update of the good-bad sidekicks Dan Duryea used to play in '50s Westerns.

Simply everything about Winter's Bone operates on some profound and lofty level, from Lawrence's mesmerising central turn - still by far the finest thing she's done - to its evocation of an insular and restrictive world, deadly to outsiders and even those who belong, and its high-handed attitude to thriller conventions: "Yeah, we can use that; no, we'll sling that; for this bit we're just going to set fire to the rulebook". Movies don't get any better. (4)

***



A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929) - A late, great British silent: a dizzying tale of romantic and sexual obsession, its slight story dazzlingly directed by Anthony Asquith.

Uno Henning drops from the sky onto Dartmoor and his silhouetted figure sprints full-pelt across the plains towards his destiny. His destiny? That cottage. The door opens, he advances on a terrified brunette (Norah Baring), she shouts: "Joe!" and suddenly we're flung into their back story. He was a shy, taciturn hairdresser, she a flirtatious manicurist, but were they friends or lovers or is something altogether darker going on?

You could sketch the scenario on a postage stamp and still have room to praise the direction, but what direction it is: surely an influence on Asquith's contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock, and analogous to Murnau's Sunrise in its swaggering confidence and desire to exploit the dying form in every conceivable manner, from a PoV camera vibrating as it receives a head-massage, to a frankly terrifying cacophony of cross-cut paranoia, as Baring goes to the cinema with her new fella, and Henning has a few dark thoughts, all - rather gloriously - whilst watching a Harold Lloyd film.

It's a little masterpiece, and it'll keep you guessing right up to the finish, while exalting you through its refusal to recognise the limits of late silent cinema. (4)

***



I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) - This bruising, brutal slab of social realism was made during that brief period when Hollywood had the opportunity, and the inclination, to take aim at the nation’s ills. In 1932-3, films like Heroes for Sale, Wild Boys of the Road, The Mayor of Hell and Gold Diggers of 1933 (ostensibly a throwaway musical) held a mirror up to Depression-era America, in all its cruelty, drudgery and despair. Packed with righteous rage, these explosive movies went off like dynamite, helping to set the national agenda and changing laws and lives. Then the Hays Code came in, and the mainstream simply wouldn’t touch progressive pictures (with the very rare exception, like Ford and Zanuck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1940).

Paul Muni is James Allen, a returning soldier who wants something more than a dead-end factory job, but in his quest to become somebody finds only poverty, hunger and wrongful arrest. Sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang, he is brutalised and beaten down, but never beaten. Then, one day, he makes a run for it. The opening 10 is somewhat corny and clunky, and tonally at odds with what follows, but in this context it kind of works: in the eyes of the writers, Muni’s perma-winking mummy’s boy has to be that way for us to root for him; that’s no longer true – if it ever was – but it does make his dehumanisation even more bracing.

The chain gang footage is simply like nothing before or since: figures in striped suits toiling in the boiling sun, treated as less than human by sadistic authority figures. The anti-establishment message, showing the system as corrupt, vindictive and peopled by sociopaths, dispenses with the usual benevolent prison wardens or governors familiar from The Big House and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. Here, the only people with an ounce of decency are the crooks: jug-eared Allen Jenkins – who leaves the bunk house for the last time striking a match on a coffin – Everett Brown as a hulking black sledgehammer-swinger who whacks Muni’s shackles and his ankles, and Edward Ellis (who played The Thin Man), exceptional as an ageing con who shows Muni the ropes.

Though the film seems to ask us to swallow a lot, its more incredible plot points are actually torn from real life, the whole thing based upon Robert E. Burns’ best-selling memoir, I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang. And though it has a handful of obvious flaws, including a smidgen of the obligatory comic relief (thankfully kept to a minimum) and Helen Vinson’s weak, wooden turn as the love of Allen’s life, it remains one of the key movies of its era, with a stunning performance from the stocky, punchy Muni – a proto-John Garfield fresh from Yiddish theatre, via Scarface – virtuosic photography from LeRoy and Sol Polito that perfectly evokes the milieu, and among the all-time great, unresolved endings.

Plus Glenda Farrell as a blackmailing nymphomaniac. Yowzer. (4)

***



Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014) - For the first hour, Woody Allen's latest is a frothy nothing: a light, tone-deaf excursion, with pleasant period trappings but precious few laughs, that sees an exceedingly rational conjuror and professional debunker of mystics (Colin Firth) pitting his wits against a supposed psychic (Emma Stone), who may be preying on a wealthy ex-pat family.

It suffers from all the flaws we came to associate with Allen in the noughties: a tin ear for dialogue, supporting actors playing in the wrong key (Simon McBurney, who's dreadful), and an inability to mine a premise for what it's worth, instead getting caught up in repetition, inanity or gags that would have been chucked out at the redraft stage a couple of decades before.

Then, miraculously, the film arrives at its true purpose, and everything changes. The final third is, simply, magic: genuinely funny, intensely romantic, and with a real point and purpose every bit as poignant and clever as the morals Woody was dishing out in his '80s heyday. It takes a while to get there, but boy is it worth it.

Firth, to his credit, is very good throughout, though especially in that dazzling last half-hour. (2.5)

***



The Dog (Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, 2013) - This potentially fascinating documentary about the gay bank robber portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon doesn't really work, partly because the filmmakers don't seem able to discriminate between the insightful and the irrelevant, and partly because their garrulous hero is an annoying, dislikeable, overbearing idiot - a fact they fail to utilise in their favour.

John Wojtowicz is a self-declared "pervert", a fact we derive less from his confession that he's pre-occupied with sex, than the way he keeps trying to kiss strangers on the face, apparently oblivious to their raging discomfort. The film charts his idiosyncratic existence: how he had his first gay experience whilst in the army, how Vietnam turned him from a Goldwater Republican into a peacenik, and how, in 1972, he took seven hostages at a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn, in an attempt to fund a sex-change operation for his 'wife', Ernie.

What the film doesn't do is ask him how he'd tried to get the money beforehand, how he alighted on the idea of robbing a bank, how he planned the heist, how he recruited his accomplices (beyond meeting them in a bar) or, really, most of the things you'd genuinely be quite interested in finding out about. What it does do is hang around with his mother - once a liberal-minded matriarch, now a wizened, terrifyingly embittered old crow - chat to a couple of his ex-wives (one male, one female), and offer scattershot reminiscences from various gay rights activists and eyewitnesses.

The film took around seven years to finish (Wojtowicz died in 2006, the movie didn't emerge until 2013) which perhaps hints at the unsatisfying and incomplete nature of the footage they'd acquired. Sometimes it will alight on an interesting idea - like the suggestion that its subject's life was dominated for the final 30 years by Dog Day Afternoon - but more often than not, it stumbles around in the dark. In the closing minutes, it seems to be suggesting that Wojtowicz was really a fabulist, but the most incredible thing he ever talks about clearly happened. It was on the news. They made a film about it, with Al Pacino. It's the point of this documentary.

I was looking forward to this one a great deal, and it just didn't really deliver. In some ways that's personal taste - nobody in it seems very honourable or nice or clever or fun to spend time with, and its world is one of pointless debauchery and sickening, senseless violence. But on a more universal level, it's just poor journalism, with key questions left unanswered, meaningless diversions, and a fatal lack of focus. (2)

***



The Marrying Kind (George Cukor, 1952) - Aside from some early walk-ons, Judy Holliday made just eight films, but her name still endures today due to the second of them, a rom-com par excellence by the name of Born Yesterday, for which she won the 1950 Best Actress Oscar.

Half of the eight were scripted by Garson Kanin, an erratic but talented screenwriter and director who often worked in partnership with his wife, part-time character actor Ruth Gordon. Holliday had torn up the screen as a nervy, murderous wife in Adam's Rib, starred in Kanin's Born Yesterday on stage and screen, and would go on to appear in It Should Happen to You, a superlative satire that triples up as an affecting romance and knockout comedy.

The Marrying Kind is sadly the weak link in their collaboration: a dreary, stressful film - co-written with Gordon - about a marriage on the rocks, which has a clever gimmick juxtaposing past reality and self-justifying voiceover, one immensely powerful melodramatic scene, and a memorable monologue from a butcher with his own take on the American Dream, but is largely just footage of Holliday and screen husband Aldo Ray arguing. About everything.

Ray is introduced here as an exciting new screen personality, and - bizarrely - receives a solo credit at the end, telling us to watch out for his next picture. It's wishful thinking: he has a couple of passable moments, but simply can't hold his own against an actress of Holliday's quality, and strangles line readings with a voice like a drunk, chain-smoking Moose Malloy.

Not that this one would have worked anyway: it poses as a realistic examination of a marriage, then throws ludicrous, unrealistic and cartoonish obstacles into the mix, with no apparent comedic or dramatic gain. Then we seem to get to the crux of the matter, only for the film to almost forget the dark ground it's traversed. It's not as bad as Full of Life, the 1957 domestic drama that marks the definite low-point of Holliday's screen career, but it's pretty weak, and there's little of her fire, sparkle or sentimental side on show here, nor director George Cukor's famed sophistication. (2)

See also: I wrote a little bit about Kanin's memoirs in my review of 2014. They came out in 1974, it sometimes takes me a while to catch up. ***



Power of the Press (Lew Landers, 1943) - A hopeless, excruciating collision of small-town patriotic wisdom and WWII propaganda flick, as folksy newspaper editor Guy Kibbee takes over a New York paper infested with fascist fifth columnists, including Hearst-like businessman Otto Kruger, who's in preposterous form.

It's legitimately one of the worst films of the '40s, with a patronising script of relentlessly insulting stupidity, actors repeatedly falling over their dialogue, and an approach to visual composition from minor B-movie legend Lew Landers (name-checked in Gremlins!) that mostly consists of just standing people in a line; some of it isn't even in focus!

Having said that, the film is sort of fascinating from a historical perspective for its snapshot of contemporary politics (including pro-Soviet sentiment), an early Sam Fuller story, and the fact that the blacklisted radical framed for murder is played by an unbilled Larry Parks - the Communist actor who eight years later was fitted up by the HUAC and became one of its most craven informers.

I only watched it because I want to see every movie starring my favourite actor, Lee Tracy (who plays a snappy but spineless, circulation-chasing editor). Unless you're doing the same, which would surprise me, I'd steer clear.

If you want a good old movie about newspapers and ethics, watch Deadline - U.S.A., or Fuller's own Park Row; for the small-town-paper stuff, see It Happens Every Thursday; or to catch Tracy as a newspaper-world whirlwind, try the comic masterpiece Blessed Event or his trivial but entirely entertaining B-movie, The Payoff.

Basically just don't watch this.

***

BOOK



Naming Names by Victor S. Navasky (1980/2003)
– “It was a question of choosing to be a ‘hero’, or a shit,” said Ring Lardner, Jr. In 1947, he and 10 other Hollywood screenwriters and directors were jailed and blacklisted for refusing to name and denounce the fellow left-wing radicals with whom they’d consorted during the previous decades. Four years later, when their legal hearings finally ended, the second tranche of subpoenaed witnesses – including actor Larry Parks – were found to be made of somewhat bendier stuff, and so the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) got its names, and Tinseltown proceeded to tear itself to pieces in a seven-year orgy of betrayal and despair. Navasky’s book could perhaps do more to place you in those chilling public testimonies – as cinematic as they were – but is in all other ways the best telling of this story that one could imagine: a forensic, scrupulously even-handed examination of the climate, people and organisations that enabled this to pass: part history, part journalism, part theory (both psychological and sociological), and part devastating moral audit: an angry, righteous polemic about a mass dereliction of duty that destroyed countless lives. Periodic light relief is provided by the pen of Dalton Trumbo, the hilarious blacklisted writer whose witheringly sarcastic letters to his agent and to co-conspirator Albert Mantz occasionally interrupt Navasky’s more methodical prose. (4)

***

Thanks for reading.