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.

2 comments:

  1. I will surprise you -- I share the quest to see every movie with Lee Tracy. He's my favorite actor, too. It's just part of the texture of his career that he was often far better than his material. As you said, THE PAYOFF is engaging; I especially like the bar scene with Evelyn Brent. Thanks for your original thinking on movies, old and new.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Em. Thanks for the lovely comment, and glad to hear that someone else is on the Tracy quest! Let me know how it goes. :-)

    ReplyDelete