Thursday, 23 April 2015

Ryan Gosling, While We're Young, and a letter from Samuel Beckett - Reviews #206

I had a week off work, which I spent writing, reading, watching movies and occasionally leaving the house to watch plays or buy food or ask a hospital to look at my foot (long-standing injury, no cause for concern). Yes, it was lovely thanks. Here's everything I did that didn't involve my kids' book (third draft, 79 pages through, lookin' alright).


Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996)
- A middle-class black woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) goes in search of her birth mother and finds a coarse, tearful, loving, unhappy, chain-smoking working-class white woman (Blenda Blethyn), whose family is a powder keg just waiting for a match.

Mike Leigh's lengthy treatise on family, love and life has more to say on all three subjects than just about any other movie, fitting snugly into that exalted bracket alongside the likes of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Les enfants du paradis. His work can sometimes lapse into caricature, whether intentionally or otherwise, but this one is perfectly modulated and full of devastating long takes, including a two-shot in a café between Baptiste and Blethyn that's as good as any scene in '90s cinema - and probably better.

Blethyn doesn't really do small, but here she's simply sensational - and utterly real - as a character who hits very close to home, with Baptiste wonderfully measured and sanguine as her counterpoint. Perhaps the best performance of all, though, comes from Timothy Spall, as Blethyn's kind-hearted, protective and troubled younger brother, whose marriage to a haughty amateur decorator - who hates his sister's guts - is flecked with misery.

There aren’t many films that change the way you see the world. Or many pieces of art, for that matter. Secrets & Lies does just that. It's brilliantly conceived, bracingly authentic and emotionally overpowering, opting at its climax not for soap or sentiment, but something truly remarkable: the truth. It's simply a masterpiece. (4)


Paddington (Paul King, 2014) - I would like every UKIP voter to watch Paddington. Because of its inclusive message, not because I think they deserve a treat. (3.5)

My review from the cinema release is here.


The London Nobody Knows (Norman Cohen, 1967) - This messy, unfocused documentary, from the director of Confessions of a Driving Instructor, is an entrancing jumble of elegy, history tour, meretricious Swinging '60s crap, lies and James Mason being brilliant. The 'Boy I Love' sequence is one of the best, most moving things ever put on film. (3.5)

Someone seems to have uploaded it here. My favourite bit begins at 00:01:24.


It Always Rains on Sunday (Robert Hamer, 1948) - This near-legendary meller, telling interlocking stories around London's East End, is full of cuppas, crime and grimy poetry. Googie Withers - as a sexually frustrated housewife harbouring a fugitive - John Slater and Indiana Jones cinematographer Douglas Slocombe are all in peak form, and the climactic action sequence is absolutely pulsating. Jack Warner's acerbic cop could hardly be more different from Dixon of Dock Green, the detective he played on TV for 21 years. (3.5)


CINEMA: The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, 2014) - A mentally ill former chess champ takes over a club full of disadvantaged kids, and prepares them for the national junior championships. Sounds like a typical Hollywood fantasy, doesn't it? Now imagine it being made by the Dardennes, with a bit of Sling Blade thrown in, and lots of people being punched in the face. That's better, isn't it? This multi-garlanded Kiwi film, based on a true story, has occasional moments of wish-fulfilment or woodenness, but it pays for them a hundred times over, and Cliff Curtis's central performance as the bipolar Maori genius is an absolute gem.

The director used to play Red DinoThunder Ranger on Power Rangers. (3)


All my strangely tall, Swedish-looking sons.

All My Sons (Irving Reis, 1948) - A solid version of a classic early Arthur Miller play concerning a plant owner (Edward G. Robinson) who may have shipped dodgy parts to the army during World War Two. That potential scandal casts a pall over the romance between his son (somewhat improbably Burt Lancaster, as many have observed) and the daughter (Louisa Horton) of his former partner, jailed for the crime.

It's a little Hollywoodised: neither quite faithful nor cinematic enough to hit as hard as it should, wasting some of its energy on that tedious romantic subplot and underscoring each emotion with overbearing music, but the material remains superb and Robinson is absolutely excellent, flexing his acting muscles as another of Miller's flawed fathers, for whom the American Dream is ultimately just that. (3)


Inspector Hornleigh double-bill:

Inspector Hornleigh (Eugene Forde, 1939) - A threadbare British comedy-mystery, with too much plot, a weak supporting cast, and the great Alastair Sim completely overdoing it in a poorly-written role as a bumbling sergeant. Gordon Harker's quite good as Hornleigh, though - when not asked to merely denigrate the Scots - there are a handful of funny lines, and the culprit is genuinely surprising. I also liked the final gag. There are some things that a production budget of £2.50 can't spoil. (2)

Inspector Hornleigh Takes a Holiday (Walter Forde, 1939) - A slightly superior sequel, written by the great (if erratic) Launder-Gilliat team, that sees Hornleigh (Gordon Harker) and his sidekick Bingham (Alastair Sim) getting embroiled in a murder mystery while on holiday in Brighton. It has moments of real invention and quality, and then long passages where the plot drags and the humour feels incredibly forced. At least Sim gets a slightly better role this time, and there's a decent supporting bit for familiar character actor Edward Chapman. (2.5)


I also watched a couple from this Sam Fuller box-set, a mixture of movies he wrote, directed or for which he provided the story or source novel. It's an interesting but ragtag, slightly unsatisfactory collection with no classics except for The Crimson Kimono.

Scandal Sheet (Phil Karlson, 1952) - A passable noir about broken-nosed newspaper editor Broderick Crawford accidentally murdering his ex-wife, then sweating a lot as his protégé (John Derek) gets close to unmasking the killer. Based on a novel by former tabloid reporter (and future director) Sam Fuller, it knows its milieu and has some tense moments, but loses its momentum as the plotting begins to stretch credibility. Crawford is typically good while never going beyond type, Donna Reed is typically pretty and uncharismatic, and Derek looks like an 11-year-old Jef Costello. It's probably Henry Neill who leaves the greatest impression, though I think that's more because I'm a sucker for that kind of Fuller character - a beaten-down 'rumbum' who once won a Pulitzer - than because his performance is that great. (2.5)

Adventure in Sahara (D. Ross Lederman, 1938) - I don't even know why this film exists. It's the story of a flyer (Paul Kelly) who joins the French Foreign Legion to avenge his brother's death, and plots the murder of sadistic general C. Henry Gordon. Then his girlfriend crashlands her plane in the desert nearby. It manages to be both predictable and ridiculous. And boring. Not bad for 56 minutes. And yet bad in every way. Including the title. Based on a story by Sam Fuller, but that's no guarantee. Directed by Sam Fuller, that's a guarantee. (1)

See also: I've reviewed some of the other films in the set too: It Happened in Hollywood, >Power of the Press and Underworld U.S.A..


CINEMA: A Little Chaos (Alan Rickman, 2014) - A doggedly conventional period film that’s fairly likeable within those limitations, as working-class gardener Charlie Dimmock (Kate Winslet) gets a job with the King of France, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen (director Alan Rickman), and attracts the attention of hunky slice of Euroblandness, Matthias Schoenaerts. It's a bit like when Ground Force did up Mandela's place.

Winslet is excellent (isn’t she always?) and there are three really good scenes in the middle of the picture, where she spars with Rickman – who’s in predictable but amusing form – and bonds with his female courtiers, but beyond that it doesn’t amount to an awful lot, just solid, by-the-numbers romantic fare, with the usual pinch of tragedy, rainy action sequence and sex scene where the female lead covers her boobs with a sheet. (2.5)


CINEMA: While We're Young (Noah Baumbach, 2014) - The great thing about Frances Ha was that it gave you enough, but not too much. It created a fully-realised monochrome universe and the sort of late-20-something character rarely articulated on screen, but radiated with the exhilarating feeling that you could explore this world for yourself. There was no spoonfeeding, just credible events and experiences from which you took what you wanted - without that nasty hunch that you were doing all the work, extracting worth from what might all be meaningless bollocks (hello Jean-Luc Godard). Baumbach's follow-up isn't like that. It spoonfeeds you from the off, while leaning heavily on characters and situations we've seen before.

Documentarians Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are a stale married couple aroused from their stupor by up-and-coming, trilby-wearing hipster annoyance Adam Driver and his ice cream-making wife, Amanda Seyfried. Stiller is entranced by Driver's sense of freedom and open-mindedness, at odds with his older friends' newfound obsession with their newly-minted children, and via various unorthodox new-age experiences, they drift towards collaboration - and crisis.

There's some really good stuff here, and at times the tone is just right. Take the scene in which Watts ends up at a hip hop dance class. In most films she would be a) secretly amazing, or b) laughably terrible. But here there's no revelation of a hidden talent, nor humour at her character's expense: instead she unleashes a latent, white-hot sensuality that covers for her obvious lack of expertise. That scene is then reprised to cast light on her relationship with her husband, which is shifting - perhaps for the better, perhaps not - in the light of their renewed zeal for life and all it can offer.

Some of the jokes are brilliant too, with a special mention for the sequence where Stiller meets a hedge fund manager who may want to invest in his second film, 10 years in gestation. "What proportion of African-American males are currently in jail?" asks Stiller. "I don't know," says the man. "Sixty per cent?"

There's also quite a lot that doesn't work, including a lengthy scene in which most of the characters are vomiting, Driver's leaden performance - I've yet to see him do anything to suggest he's not just a deeper, less engaging Justin Long - and a sense that we've seen a lot of this before, whether in Crimes and Misdemeanours, All About Eve or Catfish.

At his best, Baumbach is funny, eye-openingly original and capable of making you look at the world in a different way. At his worst, he's derivative, long-winded and middle-class in a slightly embarrassing way. He's also prohibitively prescriptive. But he's rarely less than entertaining, and While We're Young - I still can't get over what a nothing title that is - does entertain, while offering insights into growing old that are never quite as multitudinous or profound as he seems to imagine. (2.5)


"White folks didn't give the Indians much of a break."
Massacre (Alan Crosland, 1934) - This story of a conceited Native American stunt rider (Richard Barthelmess) who gets in touch with his proud heritage and ends up fighting pervy white racists, isn't particularly well made, but is fascinating for its progressive politics and interracial romance, both of which would soon be rendered omerta by the strict enforcement of the Production Code.

Its message, that powerful capitalist interests have made "diseased beggars" out of America's indigenous people, remains extraordinarily resonant, and shockingly confrontational for a mainstream Hollywood film from a supposedly less enlightened time. And as if to confirm that it really was a less enlightened time, its trailer is by contrast incredibly racist and unbelievably stupid.

Barthelmess, the great silent actor of the 1920s, is quite good, though his best moments are wordless and created as much by intelligent visual composition as thespian skill. His disastrous facelift in the late '20s rendered his face virtually immobile, though he did give decent performances in Four Hours to Kill! and particularly Only Angels Have Wings. Pre-Code firecracker Ann Dvorak - who acted even Paul Muni off the screen in Scarface - is largely wasted as his new girlfriend, another Native American who's been to college. (2)


The Yearling (Clarence Brown, 1946) - A psychotic deer tries to starve a family of settlers to death after they murder his mum.

This handsome adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel dealing with 19th century frontier life is partly a coming-of-age story about a boy and his pet, and partly a Tree Grows in Brooklyn-style domestic drama concerning an idealistic kid (Claude Jarman, Jr) caught between an affable father (Gregory Peck) and a hardened ma (Jane Wyman), but despite a couple of moving moments and some stunning Technicolor photography, it doesn't quite come off.

The main problem is that it's all too mawkish, substituting Brooklyn's often brutal unsentimentality for mile-high corn, its weepier tendencies hammered home by an oppressively naive string-and-choir score. And while I like Peck's performance - he didn't really convince as an actor until Yellow Sky and The Gunfighter, and even then was more of a star, but his sensibility suits the role down to the ground - and Wyman is very good, Jarman simply can't act, the extensive coaching he's clearly being given for each scene also robbing his character of any unity or coherence of purpose.

Considering he's the focus for vast swathes of the film, that's a major shortcoming. And while it seems cruel to lay into a kid, it's more director Clarence Brown and MGM I'm questioning (they supposedly auditioned 19,500 potential Jodys), as well as the Oscar voters, who gave Jarman an inexplicable award. Perhaps his two big scenes near the end stuck in their mind, they're certainly the only ones where you don't catch him acting.

I'm also waiting for some of the plot threads to be tied up - it's been 69 years, but I'll keep you posted.

There are a handful of lovely sequences here, including a joyous, sun-dappled dash through the woods, Wyman being moved to tears by her husband's profligate kindness, and Peck ruminating wisely about life and death, but as a whole it's rather unconvincing and trite, despite looking like a million dollars. (2)


The Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006) - A mediocre period piece in broad strokes, with high-pitched conjuror Ed Norton invoking the ire of Austrian crown prince Rufus Sewell by getting off with his girlfriend (Jessica Biel).

Paul Giamatti is the best thing about it, as an ambitious, compromised, morally complex butcher's son angling for the chief of police gig. He doesn't attempt a Viennese accent, but neither did Jimmy Stewart in A Shop Around the Corner, and he was excellent too.

By contrast, Sewell is shouty as one of recent cinema's most one-dimensional villains, Aaron Johnson is wooden as the young Norton, and the illusions are almost all tedious CGI. Writer-director Neil Burger seems to think the whole venture is redeemed by its ending, but it really isn't.

Just watch The Prestige instead. Or A Royal Affair. (2)


Mission to Moscow (Michael Curtiz, 1943) - "Mr Stalin, I believe history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind."

Surely the most notorious movie ever to come out of a Hollywood studio: a pro-Soviet propaganda film made by Warner Bros under the express instruction of President Roosevelt.

Walter Huston is Joseph E. Davies, the US ambassador to Russia, who was infamously duped by Stalin's show trials, in which countless senior politicians confessed under duress to false, often farcical crimes (I did my undergraduate thesis on them). Here, of course, his word is taken as gospel.

It's a chilling, entirely fascinating film, and full of hilarious, unintentional black comedy in its portrayal of peace-loving Stalin, whose nation - in ironic foreshadowing of the Cold War - apparently represents "the iron wall of human freedom". Since Churchill is depicted in the movie, and was a proper film buff, I do wonder if that phrase stuck in his mind.

Mission to Moscow has to be seen to be believed and is a must for history nerds, even if it's not, in any objective sense, a good movie. Still better than Police Academy 7, though. (2)


CINEMA: Lost River (Ryan Gosling, 2014) - Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, set in a ravaged, partially flooded Detroit, resembles a disaster area in more ways than one.

The imagery is stunning and the sound is superb, but the story is so vague, pretentious and boring it makes Stalker look like Casablanca.

It was massively exciting to see Gosling do an in-person Q&A after the preview, as I'm a huge fan of his in general, but I have no idea what most of this is supposed to mean, and I'm not sure he has either.

Just call it BS of the Midwestern Wild. (1)



The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
- "It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing." Hemingway's first novel has great moments, particularly when he turns to introspection or descriptive passages about bullfighting, and the divisive, distinctively terse style was fully-formed even then, but his story of rootless, boozing ex-pats is self-indulgent to the point of comatose tedium, with almost every page flooded by witless pseudo-badinage between dislikeable, indistinguishable characters. Or the narrator telling us that he got either dressed or undressed. (2)

Tinseltown by William J. Mann (2014) - In 1922, clean-cut movie director William Desmond Taylor was killed by a single bullet fired in his living room by an unknown assailant. In Tinseltown, film historian William J. Mann finally works out whodunit. Perhaps. This novelistic saga is extraordinarily well-researched, occasionally presumptive, frequently a little tacky, but never less than utterly gripping, as it tells the stories of Taylor, the three women in his life, his employees, his megalomaniacal boss (Adolph Zukor) and the battle for the heart and soul of Hollywood. It's essential for anyone possessing the slightest interest in this period of cinema and a fairly strong stomach. (3.5)

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969) - In 1945, Kurt Vonnegut witnessed the bombing of Dresden as a PoW. This freewheeling book, 24 years in gestation, is a comically dizzying, intensely moving, utterly singular treatment of his experiences, which takes in raffish, well-fed English prisoners, alien abduction, time travel, and a Nazi collaborator who certainly has America's shortcomings down pat. I haven't read a book since Catch-22 that made me laugh so hard, reel in amazement so regularly or grasp so strongly that whatever you do as a writer, you just have to be yourself. (4)

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck (1936) - A muddy, hungry, violent chronicle of a strike, as two reds stir travelling labourers to action, and Steinbeck wonders what the point of it all it is, alighting on a couple of possibilities by the end. The first of three Steinbeck novels looking at organised labour in California (the others were Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath), he wrote it on three levels: as reportage, as a study of the 'phalanx' - whereby men working as a whole acquire different though not necessarily better traits, and as a metaphysical examination of the failings of man. It works best on the first and most immediate, which is still fresh and fascinating: ultimately a study of conviction and the need to live for something. Steinbeck wasn't a communist, and claimed to have little time for those who were, but he makes a great case for his reds, Mac and Jim, who will use everything at their disposal to better the lot of the working classes as a whole, even if it means that individuals are starved and beaten and killed. It's bracing, poetic - if perhaps containing a touch too much about how the sun made the trees look - and utterly, utterly compelling, a neglected classic simply too abrasive, gloomy and superficially cynical to ever find much of an audience. Or to be made into a movie, though self-aggrandising talent vacuum James Franco is apparently on the case. (4)



Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe (2015) - Perhaps the funniest series so far from a presenter who as a satirist, social commentator and smartarse fixated on 'your mum' jokes currently has no equal. Guest spots featuring a phony vlogger and a fake Russell Brand (both Morgana Robinson) are merely mild extensions of something quite annoying, neither of which probably need spearing and both of which result in something largely unwatchable, but those are rare duff spots in a hugely enjoyable series that made me feel like I'm not a lone voice banging my fucking head against the wilderness. And breakout star Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan), a woman of endless wonder but no brain, remains a constant and enduring delight. (3.5)


A View from the Bridge (Wyndham's Theatre)
- Arthur Miller followed up The Crucible with another play dealing allegorically with the communist witchhunts: A View from the Bridge, a story of Freud and informing in which longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) is tempted to turn in an illegal immigrant for daring to romance the niece he idolises (Phoebe Fox).

It's probably no coincidence that this all takes place 'on the waterfront', as had the Oscar-winning apologia for informing made by Budd Schulberg and Miller's former friend and collaborator Elia Kazan the previous year, both of whom had named names for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Ivo von Hove's production opts for minimal staging but maximum power, with a small, square, boxed-off set, scenes bleeding one into the next through intelligently-paced entrances, and a finale in which no-one is left untainted.

There are a couple of strange decisions, including a seriously protracted five-way conversation that fails to generate the requisite tension despite percussive interludes, and a narrator reading the stage directions during one pivotal, usually fast-moving sequence - but these are minor quibbles with one of the most thrilling, gripping and invigorating evenings I've ever spent in a theatre.

The shaven-headed Strong, facial muscles twitching, disappears into his character entirely, inhabiting this tortured, conflicted Sicilian, polemicising endlessly, though whether to convince himself or others isn't clear. As the nymph whose sexual blossoming has set tragedy in motion, Phoebe Fox is also exceptional, with impeccable delivery and a sensuality that's careless, studied and insecure.

Miller's first draft of the play was a bitter indictment of Kazan, with no room for maneouvre or misunderstanding. His final is much more reconciliatory, with a heartfelt pay-off more concerned with the human condition, more preoccupied with a man's soul. Here, informing isn't seen as the right thing to do, but it isn't seen as the easy thing to do either, and ultimately the play is less about what happened in a Washington committee hearing than a timeless meditation on the emotional forces that may blow a man away from his principles. That's why a Freudian motive, redolent of Greek Tragedy, might at first glance seem incongruous, but actually makes perfect sense.

This gobsmacking production, powered by two performances of exquisite clarity, nails both its specifics and its wider resonances, leaving you feeling exhausted, destroyed and yet curiously euphoric. (4)

See also: For anyone interested in the Communist witchhunt in Hollywood, Victor S. Navasky's Naming Names is definitive.

Letters Live (Freemasons' Hall) - Have you ever had a dream about a show and wished it could really have happened? Well that's essentially what I experienced on Saturday night: extraordinary letters by writers, statesmen, soldiers and poets, performed by a mystery line-up that ultimately included several of the most exciting actors on the planet. Benedict Cumberbatch read Basil Rathbone's heartbreaking, angry ruminations on his brother's death, Toby Jones was Ted Hughes - making me see the world another way as he talked to his son of the child within - Lisa Dwan delivered Beckett's elliptical words of condolence, which spoke of the "gales of grief", Tom Hiddleston played Marlon Brando, and Ferdinand Kingsley said the C-word. There was a wartime romance articulated by Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey, Kylie as Nick Cave, and Matt Berry as a hilariously reactionary Elvis, who was applying to be a federal agent and had got Richard Nixon a present. And there was music too, including Tom Odell playing songs about letters by Cave and Fats Waller. Three hours, it lasted, and I never wanted it to end. Next time it comes, beg, steal or borrow the money to get a ticket. It's magnificent. (4)

Then for my birthday, my work friends got me the book, because they are brilliant.

Clarence Darrow (Old Vic) - I was lucky enough to see Kevin Spacey's final performance on the Old Vic stage, after 12 years as the theatre's artistic director. He inhabits Darrow, the crusading defence barrister, almost completely, and this one-man show is entertaining, compelling, even inspiring, as he harnesses an invisible cast, aided by lighting and staging that's evocative but never intrusive or gimmicky. For all that, the play never quite hits the heights you'd hope: when it asks Spacey to turn impassioned and emotional ("We... w-o-n," he recalls a few times), the sentiment of it slips him up and comes off as phony, and there's nothing sharp or edgy about the play - facing off against old American wrongs like racism and fundamentalist religion is about as safe as it gets when playing to a modern, cosmopolitan audience. I liked it, and feel privileged to have witnessed the occasion, but it was ultimately glossy entertainment rather than the confrontational polemic that Darrow himself might have preferred. (3)


Thanks for reading.

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