Monday, 24 August 2015

Bette Davis, Mistress America, and Bogart poisoning his wife - Reviews #214

I've been to an exhibition, to the theatre and to my bed, where I reclined whilst watching the following movies...

BETTE DAVIS TRIPLE-BILL



I'm starting to acquaint myself better with the movies of Bette Davis. The big-name highlights - All About Eve; Now, Voyager; Jezebel - I know, and I'm au fait with a lot of her earlier work at Warner's... but her less high-profile star vehicles have thus far eluded me, and seem a suitable subject for my next obsessive venture in the world of classic film. I revisited All About Eve - because why wouldn't you? - and then made in-roads on this rather attractive box-set.



*I'VE TRIED TO AVOID SPOILERS, BUT TAKE CARE JUST IN CASE*
All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)


“How about calling it a night?”
“And you pose as a playwright? A situation pregnant with possibilities and all you can think of is ‘everybody go to sleep’.”

The greatest film ever made about the theatre (or the best I’ve seen, anyway): a movie I love still more every time I watch it, whilst wrestling with my continuing astonishment that anyone could write anything this good. That anyone was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the verbose writer-director responsible for such enchanting, weighty and ominous fare as A Letter to Three Wives and People Will Talk, before he rather forgot what his strong suit was and started adapting other people’s work.

In arguably her definitive role, Bette Davis is seasoned Broadway star Margo Channing, whose mentoring of mousy, stage-struck kid Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) inflames her demons whilst causing small explosions in the lives of her boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill), a playwright and his wife (Hugh Marlowe and Celeste Holm) and an acidic, vicious but extraordinarily charming columnist by the name of Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).

The script is as good as any ever written. It’s steeped in the theatre, in a hypocrisy and misery and masochism offset by the electrification of applause. It’s wise yet devilishly witty, giving as many unbeatable lines to its villains as its heroes. It’s about love and ambition and mistakes and chance and the cleansing power of celebrity. Its story – of effortlessly shifting fortunes and sympathies, of breakneck turns – is timeless, full of surprises and grips like nothing else: the fate of its villainess as chilling as a man being bricked up alive in a Val Lewton horror.

The cast, too, could scarcely be better, with career-best turns from everyone involved, aside from perhaps Thelma Ritter, who’s characteristically superb, but had rather more to do in The Mating Season and Pickup on South Street. In a characterisation stripped of glamour, playing a bitter, bitterly funny heroine, caked in make-up remover, drenched in self-pity and marinated in booze, Davis is the last word in fading stage stars. As her potential replacement, the bright-eyed Baxter gives a performance that came from nowhere and which she never approached again, nailing a succession of chilling, unforgettable scenes to which the word ‘ruthless’ really doesn’t do justice. Marlowe was always a little bland, but Merrill shows an unexpected force and conviction as Davis’s patient – but not limitlessly patient – beau, tiring of her complexes, Marilyn Monroe has a hysterical bit as a savvy starlet, while Holm is simply the archetypal Mankiewicz character: sad-eyed, good-hearted and ultimately omniscient, but entirely shorn of the power to act.

Sanders, meanwhile, is just... wicked.

From the astute, literate voiceover and classic freeze-frame that launches the story, via stinging one-liners, sublime reaction faces and a litany of unimprovable set-pieces, to one of the most memorable, satisfying (and scary) endings in the history of movies, All About Eve is a landmark of Hollywood’s Golden Age: an unassailable classic with the kind of dialogue that a moviegoer dreams about. (4)



The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding) - A somewhat far-fetched but moving story of warring Southern cousins Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, and the four weddings and a funeral that define their lives. Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it's extremely episodic but very entertaining and sometimes artistically valuable, lit by Davis's star turn, as she ages from a bright-eyed belle to a harsh, scolding shrew alienated from her beloved daughter, aided by atypically convincing make-up, characteristic charisma and that ability to immerse herself within the particular, peculiar minutiae of a role, without forgetting to emotionally connect. She has one line near the end that is liable to absolutely floor you.

The supporting cast is variable: George Brent is better than usual, but only as good as George Brent can be, which is not very; his principal mannerism being sighing and looking down (like Mark Kermode says that Richard Gere does), while Jane Bryan is too vague and broad as Davis's grown-up daughter, though there are decent performances from former silent star Louise Fazenda, and veteran Scottish character actor Donald Crisp.

Really, though, it's about Davis and to a lesser extent Hopkins, their convincing characterisations housed in a good-looking, sensitive and sometimes bitterly explosive movie that throws the stereotype of the 'old maid' askew, whilst delivering some universal truths about love, happiness and self-sacrificial devotion. The stars reteamed for Old Acquaintance, which was altogether lacking in nuance, with Hopkins cast as one of the most annoying characters in the history of anything.



In This Our Life (John Huston, 1942) - Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland play sisters named Stanley and Roy (what is going on?) in this excitable melodrama, which sacrifices truth for dramatic dynamism.

Bette's an amoral, husband-stealing whirlwind who takes after her ruthless capitalist uncle (Charles Coburn), Olivia's more like her softly-spoken, kind-hearted father (Frank Craven), at least at first, though both women are entirely free spirits, a pleasant antidote to the conformity peddled so frequently during Hollywood's Golden Age.

As is Ernest Anderson's character, a young black trainee lawyer who gets a stirring but understated speech about the lack of promotion or recognition typically offered to African-Americans. Meanwhile, Dennis Morgan - as an unhappy puppet of lust - and the ever-wooden George Brent, playing a lawyer made of wood, are your male leads this evening.

The plotting becomes increasingly unrealistic in the second half, but a strong cast helps (including an uncredited cameo from Walter Huston, the director's father), as well as Ernest Haller's atmospheric photography. Just try to take your eyes off Bette. (2.5)

(Incidentally, movie folklore has it that John Huston - directing this, his second film - included most of the cast of his debut, The Maltese Falcon, in walk-ons: Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. Sadly it's not the case.)

***



The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925) - King Vidor's emotionally overpowering WWI film - of layabout aristo John Gilbert going off to fight in a fug of patriotism, falling in love with French farmgirl Renée Adorée, then finding that war is hell - was a critical and box-office sensation in 1925, and remains unsurpassed in the genre.

With a lighthearted first half followed by a brutal second, it's a seamless whole formed of countless unforgettable vignettes, its knockabout comedy and beguiling romance giving way to taut, then horrific action sequences emphasising the brutal lottery of battle.

Adorée learning to chew gum; Gilbert arsing about with a barrel on his head, then later sharing a shellhole with the dying German he's just shot; that astonishing ending - its classic scenes are legion, each blessed by an astounding visual poetry.

Best of all is the lovers' devastating farewell, one of my favourite scenes in movies, in which a departing Gilbert - finally prised from Adorée's grip - flings his treasured possessions at her from the back of a truck. Finding that he has nothing else of value to throw, he takes off a boot, and chucks that instead. She cradles it in her arms, before collapsing on the road, alone.

She's great, as the sexy, pure-hearted, then bereft love interest. And Gilbert's excellent too: this is Exhibit A for the case that his damaged reputation is ill-deserved. The Big Parade made a star out of him, and made the career of Vidor, who would create another contender for 'finest film of the silent era' - The Crowd - and then the first great American talkie (and singie), Hallelujah! (4)

(Thanks to DirectorsCut for suggesting that I pick up the recent Region 1 Blu-ray of The Big Parade, which is surely a high watermark in terms of print, music and presentation.)

***



CINEMA: Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) - This is a major return to form for Pixar: an extremely creative, wilfully different movie that draws on inspirations as diverse as The Beano’s Numskulls, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, but has an existential imagination and emotional sensibility more akin to an arthouse movie.

The film takes place largely in the brain of 11-year-old Riley, who moves from an idyllic existence in Minnesota to a cripplingly different one in San Francisco, where her ties to friends and family start to sever. And that’s about it.

Within her brain, the emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger try to restore equilibrium (or merely fight for supremacy), abetted or distracted by a litany of imaginative - even imaginary - supporting characters, as they carry core memories, brave the subconscious or ride the Train of Thought.

A few of the jokes are broad or bad – didn’t Toy Story 2 teach Pixar that incongruous movie spoofs are far beneath the standard that the studio prizes and so often meets? – and it seems odd that the script feels it needs to explain gags about broccoli but not about neurological functions.

On the whole, though, it’s a triumph: extremely funny and intensely moving (oh Bing Bong!), with superb animation, apposite voicework from the likes of Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith, and a melancholy disposition that punctures and subverts the appealing but naïve character of Joy, who regards putting a brave face on a situation as a universal panacea.

(Stay around for the credits too, the cat joke is amazing.) (3.5)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)
- After a little while apart so he could make the patronising misstep, While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach is reunited with Greta Gerwig, the stunningly gifted comedian who is to screen humour what Michelle Williams and Jennifer Lawrence are to drama – i.e. better at playing it than anyone else on the planet. And for Mistress America, the director has reinvented himself as Howard Hawks for a fast-talking, ultimately old-fashioned screwball comedy of absurdism and interruption in which Gerwig is essentially his Ros Russell.

Lola Kirke is college starter Tracy, for whom campus life is not really that much fun. Enter her new big step-sister Brooke (Gerwig), a shimmering beacon of compulsive likeability, spurious theorising and increasingly apparent neuroses, who envelopes and enraptures the strait-laced, closeted Kirke, her influence unlocking a side of ‘baby Tracy’ that didn’t necessarily need to be seen. The first half is fairly Baumbachian in structure – with his usual slight self-satisfaction and spirited subversion of genre cliches – before he kicks off his shoes, rolls up his sleeves and essentially slips in a disc of ‘30s screwball mayhem, Hawksian in pace and volume, but inhabiting the ‘wacky family’ world of something like Merrily We Live.

The film isn’t in the same league as Frances Ha, the monochrome masterpiece that established Gerwig as an actress of almost unparalleled if strictly parametered ability, but it is full of great ideas and one-liners - from “’Adultery’? Since when do you have such grown-up ideas about morality. You’re 18, you should just be touching each other all the time” to "I like compressed MP3s", a perfect, contrarian rebuke to the tiresome fetishisation of vinyl in indie cinema - as well as rug-pulling twists that consistently brook convention. It manages to be extremely touching whilst refusing to fall back on almost any of the stock scenarios that even independent movies lean upon to generate emotion.

Particularly welcome is Tracy’s pathological lack of remorse when she does what’s widely agreed upon to be A Very Bad Thing. Like Whiplash’s Neimann, she just doesn’t really care, an approach borrowed from a sublime exchange earlier in the movie where Brooke encounters a girl she bullied at school, refuses to apologise and still come out on top.

It’s that kind of moral and narrative daring that sets the film apart and sustains it even when the frantic, frenzied exchanges risk degenerating into shrillness or pastiche. That, a vivid NY atmosphere and a pair of exceptional performances: Kirke’s pretty, pretty lost freshman holding her own against Brooke, another superb entry in Gerwig’s gallery of appealing, aimless young women, drifting attractively towards oblivion. (3.5)

***

WENDY HILLER DOUBLE BILL

... in which I investigate some more obscure entries in the sporadic, highly odd career of screen legend Wendy Hiller, whom I adore.


Sorry about the watermark, but you try to find a picture of Hiller in this film.

Something of Value (Richard Brooks, 1957) - A sincere but muddled movie about the Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya, with Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as childhood friends caught on opposite sides of the conflict. It's a gruelling watch and its narrative flaws are legion, but there are some very powerful moments, Poitier is superb and Wendy Hiller steals the film (doesn't she always?) being variously sexy and transcendent and covered in blood and shooting a gun. Phwoarr. (2)


Same deal with this pic.

Toys in the Attic (George Roy Hill) - Toys in the attic and skeletons in the closet: a very entertaining slice of Southern Gothic from commie playwright Lillian Hellman: a little ripe, a little familiar, but extremely well done.

Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller are spinster sisters in New Orleans whose sheltered life is shaken by the return of ne'er-do-well brother, Dean Martin, suddenly flush with cash but somewhat reticent to say why. In his company is his neurotic young wife (Yvette Mimieux), whose harsh, strident mother (Gene Tierney) may have made the match.

It's largely shot on one set, but future New Hollywood hero George Roy Hill directs it all extremely nicely, and much of the acting is an absolute treat, with Page and Hiller dominating in two mesmerising characterisations.

Both play women who are blind and deluded, though in quite different ways, Page hitting a peak of quivering self-loathing, Hiller shuffling the moods as she did so superbly in these mid-career characterisations that she loved to (infrequently) take on: not the shimmering archetypes she had embodied in Bernard Shaw plays, but starkly real characters made beautiful by their flaws and contradictions. Though billed fourth, it's actually a rare instance during her postwar career that she was front and centre, and the results are simply sublime. (3.5)

***



The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960) ... whereas Toshiro Mifune's mysterious, whistling avenger is up till all hours.

Kurosawa's homage to '40s Warner gangster movies is long and mostly enthralling, doubling as a furious indictment of corporate corruption, as Mifune goes undercover in a crooked administration, then finds himself tormented by love, his own growing cruelty and the stone cold psychopaths he's dealing with.

The plotting wobbles a bit here, especially in the second half, but it's tough, intriguing and - as usual with AK - provides an insightful look at the structures and strictures of Japanese society.

It's also quite brilliantly directed, distinctively shot in widescreen Tohoscope and showing both another side and the very definite fingerprints of a master filmmaker.

The first half hour, as Scorsese observes on the DVD case, is an absolute knockout. (3)

***


Well, yeah.

The Two Mrs Carrolls (Peter Godfrey, 1947) - Silly, joyless thriller about psychotic painter Humphrey Bogart offing his first wife and trying to do the same to his second (Barbara Stanwyck). It's derivative, particularly of Gaslight, and frequently makes no narrative sense, though there are lolz to be had from a terrifying villain being called Geoffrey, and Alexis Smith is really rather hot as Bogie's mistress. She transmitted complete horniness better than anybody in classic Hollywood, except for perhaps Mary Astor. You can kind of see why Bogart's poisoning his wife for her, especially as Stanwyck is being so very shrill. (1.5)

See also: To read about Bogart being rather more in his element, here's my piece on the original cut of The Big Sleep, complete with graphic I made on MS Paint.

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Gish and Stanwyck - Reviews #213

Assorted bits and pieces from the careers of two of my favourite actresses, Lillian Gish and Barbara Stanwyck. You can click on those links for a bit of background.

GISH:



*MINOR SPOILERS*
Broken Blossoms (D. W. Griffith, 1919)
- This slow, bleak D. W. Griffith melodrama has achieved classic status, but I find it so completely over the top, in both its material and Donald Crisp's ludicrous villainy, that it's hard to get into.

Richard Barthelmess is a Chinese pacifist who travels to London to share the Buddha's teachings, but winds up a lonely opium addict instead. When he falls in love with a 15-year-old girl (Lillian Gish) who's terrorised by her father (Crisp) - a malevolent, embittered boxer living in squalor on the waterfront - you get the idea that it probably won't end well.

Crisp is farcical - constantly facing the camera and frequently mugging - and it all feels very aloof and detached compared to Griffith's usual work. Having said that, Barthelmess does a good job of inhabiting his part - if tending to display very little emotion or rather too much, and walking with a stoop that I hope he doesn't think is characteristically Chinese - while Gish is absolutely excellent, playing young yet world-weary, abused yet enduringly innocent in some essential way, and masterfully articulating everything from the flowering of self-worth to a cacophony of head-spinning terror. The 'finger smile' she does here - improvised on the set - quickly became iconic, and it's a flash of genius.

Broken Blossoms is also quite a progressive movie for its time, especially considering it was made by Griffith, is subtitled 'The Yellow Man and the Girl', and stars a white man as a Chinese guy. (2.5)



*MINOR SPOILERS*
Way Down East (D. W. Griffith, 1920)
- When I was a newspaper reporter, there was a local woman in her 90s who used to sometimes ring me up on newsdesk on a Friday (I think she was lonely), and it turned out that her earliest memory was chasing Maltesers down the aisle of Harrogate's Royal Hall as a toddler, while this film played in the background.

She seemed slightly confused when I told her it was one of my favourite movies, perhaps not realising that, at heart, I'm 103. "You can't mean the same film," she said. "It's very old."

It is.

It's also something of a miracle: a hoary Victorian stage melodrama transformed into enrapturing screen art by the skill of the father of film, D. W. Griffith, and the genius of his leading lady, the incomparable Lillian Gish.

The movie is a lengthier variation on Griffith's pastoral poems of the previous year - A Romance of Happy Valley and True Heart Susie - and a fitting vehicle for Gish, in her definitive role as the embodiment of womanhood, a virginal waif who's tricked into sleeping with caddish Lowell Sherman, and can't start anew with boy-next-door Richard Barthelmess (ideally cast), due to the secret forever hanging over her.

Griffith's title cards are hysterically preachy and the supporting slapstick is moronic, but the rhapsodic, beautifully photographed central story remains utterly mesmerising, with Gish evoking every emotion under the sun, before drifting away on the ice floes, her hair and hand trailing in the freezing water as she heads for a waterfall.

That dazzling climactic set-piece, which has transcended the film to become one of the passages most associated with silent cinema, was filmed essentially for real across three weeks in Arctic temperatures, and left Gish with permanent nerve damage. A tour-de-force of iconic imagery, bravura editing, and stunning stuntwork by the leads themselves, it's the capper to a quite wondrous movie.

The only thing I can think of that's more enjoyable would be chasing Maltesers through a theatre. (4)



The White Sister (Henry King, 1923) was silent screen phenomenon Gish's first film away from the auspices of D. W. Griffith, the pioneering director who had cast her initially in The Unseen Enemy (1912) - a daft short that's a little bit like Panic Room - elicited her first truly great performance in The Mothering Heart (1913), and then collaborated with her on epic smashes like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), before finding vehicles tailored particularly to Gish's incomparable talents in movies such as True Heart Susie (1919), Way Down East (1920) and finally Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Breaking away with his blessing, Gish then signed with the independent company, Inspiration Pictures, excited by the chance to work with the director (Henry King) and producers of the stunning pastoral drama, Tol'able David (1921), which had been one of the biggest box-office hits of its year, and starred Gish's Way Down East and Broken Blossoms co-lead, Richard Barthelmess. And so she, King, a relative newcomer by the name of Ronald Colman and the rest of the company decamped to Italy to shoot their new film on location, discovering when they got there that there were only two klieg lights in the entire country, though they did at least have both of them.

The story Gish had chosen for her mission statement was The White Sister, dealing with a young woman who believes her soldier lover has been killed, and renounces the outside world to become a nun - only for him to reappear. In typical proto-feminist fashion, the star fought with distribution companies who pooh-poohed the project, scouted all the locations for the film and attended innumerable religious ceremonies by way of research, while fostering an unfailingly, appropriately "spiritual" atmosphere.

"How is it on the set between scenes?" Gish asked Helen Hayes a decade later, when her friend was shooting a talkie remake. "Oh, you know, the usual stories and jokes," Hayes replied. "Then you're not going to get it," Gish told her. "You cannot set up a camera and take a picture of faith."

It's that commitment to the project, and her instinctive genius, that makes the film work, when it does work. There are moments of visual and actorly poetry here as good as anything that the cinema has ever produced: the moment where Gish, hearing of her lover's death, shudders in the breeze of an open window; her heartbreaking encounter with his portrait in a hospital ward; her transfiguration when he later calls on her to recant her vows. It's a performance of extraordinary power and nuance: in the early reels boasting a sensuality very rare in her characterisations - which have been derided for their sexlessness - and in the later ones, so shot through with pious eloquence that you seem to be staring into the face of God through the eyes of Gish.

The rest of the film, somewhat unfortunately, is a bit of a hodgepodge, never quite gelling. There are scenes that go on too long or are cut oddly short, other bits of 'business' (as silent directors termed character colour) that have no real right to be here - so a boy tied a girl's hair to her chair, is that really relevant right now? - passages that are awfully talky for a silent, and an action climax that seems to exist only because of faddish convention and narrative convenience, dragging its feet as it serves up, at best, a feeling of mild peril. And though Colman is fairly effective in a tricky part, we also have to endure a highly silly villainess (sillainess) and a convenient subplot about an ailing scientist notable only for the fact that when a volcano eruption is on the way, he has some thermometers that light up the word "TIIIIIT" on his wall. Sorry, this is a film about nuns, I do apologise.

As a movie, then, it isn't altogether the seamless, ceaselessly credible experience that one truly desires, but as a piece of art about faith and love, it can be both wrenchingly powerful and truly profound, thanks almost entirely to the talents and exertions of Lillian Gish, perhaps the best screen actress we've ever seen. (3)



The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928) - A spectacularly uncommercial silent melodrama, with Lillian Gish driven mad by chauvinism and the desert wind. There's some incongruous comedy and a divisive re-shot ending, but the rest is gobsmacking, with peerless atmospherics and Gish's biggest, arguably best performance. (4)



One Romantic Night (Paul L. Stein, 1930) - This stilted, very talky early talkie is notable only as Gish's first excursion into the nascent medium, cast somewhat against type as a snappily dressed princess caught between two very different men, Rod La Rocque (an actor memorably name-checked in Singin' in the Rain) and Conrad Nagel.

Adapted from a Ferenc Molnár play called The Swan, it possesses dated mores that are difficult to follow today, and creaks like hell, everybody speaking with that weird just-learning-to-use-these-crap-new-microphones intonation, though some of Gish's facial acting is characteristically excellent, and that first kiss is a good moment.

The star made just one more movie in the next 12 years - the no-budget New York-shot film, His Double Life (1933) - tired of and dismissed by Hollywood, before her triumphant return as a character actress in the 1940s. (1.5)



Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) - An ethereal, inspiring fantasy-romance in the vein of The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Somewhere in Time and The Time Traveller's Wife, with listless artist Joseph Cotten finding a muse in the shape of a mysterious girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones), who seems to belong to another era, and is growing up too fast.

Its feel is transcendent, with seductive visuals, a relentless, lushly magical Dimitri Tiomkin score (with a debt to Debussy), and persuasive performances from one of the casts of the decade, including memorable supporting roles for Lillian Gish, David Wayne and especially Ethel Barrymore.

The only parts that didn't work for me on first viewing were the confusingly conceived 'taking of the veil' sequence, and the waterlogged ending, which is impressively staged but thematically unsatisfying. It's still an extremely evocative and affecting film, and one I'll doubtless return to, time and again. Maybe next time those elements will strike me differently.

Incidentally, that's Nancy Reagan making her screen debut in the final scene - she's the teenage girl on the left, viewing the eponymous artwork. (3.5)



*SOME SPOILERS*
Follow Me, Boys! (Norman Tokar, 1966)
- Erratic but engaging small-town Americana starring three of my favourite actors, Fred MacMurray, Vera Miles and silent screen legend Lillian Gish, about a touring musician (MacMurray) who jacks it in to put down roots, becoming a beloved scoutmaster.

After that delightful opening, the first half follows the Boys Town template - or The Parable of the Lost Sheep, if we're going further back - with the stern but loving MacMurray becoming father figure to a bunch of boys, only to end up spending more time on one problem case (the young, freckled Snake Plissken) than the rest of them put together.

The remainder of the film is rather odd: shapeless and episodic, with an extended war games set-piece set in 1944, some courtroom drama, and a finale that could never be accused of subtlety, as it hammers home the idea that only a sense of civic duty can lead to true happiness, and that you get a parade and everything.

One can rail against the film's Disneyfied, Republican view of the world - where a white community solves its problems through temperance and Christian values - mock its tending of mile-high corn, and quibble with the stealing wholesale of a memorable moment from Goodbye, Mr Chips, but I think the film caught me in the right mood, as I rather enjoyed it.

I watched it chiefly because I'm continuing to explore the career of Lillian Gish. For the most part, her performance as a wealthy, benevolent widow is suitable but unexceptional, until one very good scene near the end, where she opens up about her past. The rest of the movie is sincere and competently done, without ever pulling up trees, and MacMurray and Miles work really nicely together. (Though the beginning of their courtship reminds me a *little* of Travis and Betsy at the start of Taxi Driver.)

Also, for fans of unimportant facts about movies - 'trivia', if you will - Up wasn't, as is often claimed, the first Disney film to feature a character who can't have children, as that's the case with Vera Miles here.

Follow Me, Boys! is likely to be Hell on Earth for any unremitting cynics out there, but for everyone else, it's all pretty pleasant. If you were only going to ever watch one Disney drama from the 1960s, though, go for Pollyanna, as that's an exceptional piece of work which throws this film's more everyday shortcomings into sharp relief. (2.5)

***

STANWYCK:



This is My Affair (William A. Seiter, 1937) - President McKinley sends naval officer Robert Taylor deep undercover to foil a bunch of bank robbers and expose their inside source, in this handsome but lumpy thriller. It’s a great premise, but Allen Rivkin and Lamar Trotti – the latter the writer of Ford’s seminal Young Mr Lincoln soon afterwards – skimp on the psychology, jumping right into Taylor’s quest, without the need for him to shed his attachments or sink from the service, a dynamic of public disgracement that worked so well in Batman Begins. Instead, he drops us straight into a suspense-free period crime drama – intended to cash in on the success of San Francisco and In Old Chicago, the second of these written by Trotti – as Taylor spars with criminals Brian Donlevy and Victor McLaglen, each of whom has a claim on songstress Barbara Stanwyck.

There are passages of pure Americana, allied to some lush love scenes (Stanwyck and Taylor simply can’t stop kissing, and married in 1939, though their courtship here begins with some charmless rom-com stalking), and a succession of painstakingly-recreated dance hall numbers from 1901 – several unfortunately enunciated by the leading lady. Stanwyck’s speaking voice – at least before she smoked her one millionth cigarette – was an instrument of rare beauty. Remember the Night and Ball of Fire are all about her voice, but even lesser films like My Reputation (below) and this one hinge upon it. The way she'd drop it out, crack it or throw in a kind of blue note. It’s exalting to listen to. Her singing was dreadful, though, no matter how much training she had, nor how sensitive the arrangement, and that’s never going to stop being true.

There’s a more central problem here, though, and it’s in the writing, which is too often cartoonish, flat and simplistic: words one would hardly associate with Trotti’s work on Judge Priest and that polemical classic, The Ox-Bow Incident. There’s a risible bit of ‘business’ about McLaglen being an inveterate practical joker, which is poorly conceived and idiotically executed, a comfortable shorthand for the film’s narrative failings.

Then, about an hour in, Taylor tries something outlandish in a bid to catch the traitor supplying safe codes to the robbers, and the film turns into something else entirely: a shadowy thriller complete with psychological torture, a nifty twist and some race-against-the-clock shenanigans: again enjoyable enough to watch, but not especially novel, nor evoking the requisite emotional response – partly because Taylor is so wooden, always operating at the same simplistic level, which broadly translates as “wait one sec, I’m just going to do an act”.

A few more weeks spent on the script, and this movie could have been something special. As it is, it’s a good-looking mash-up of various disparate genres that never quite gels or hits the heights it might, but consistently entertains, providing moments of beauty amidst its peddling of affable mediocrity. (2.5)



My Reputation (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946) - Decent, handsome 'woman's picture' about widow Barbara Stanwyck falling in love with patronising know-it-all George Brent, their romance upsetting her mother (Lucile Watson, so purposefully annoying she's unwatchable) and setting local tongues wagging.

It works better as a mature drama than when trying to be a rom-com, but it's really about Stanwyck's excellent performance, James Wong Howe's photography and Max Steiner's score, the three combining to particularly powerful effect in the early scene where she reads a letter from her late husband, and during that moving climactic monologue. The ending proper is sadly a double cop-out representing unreconstructed Hollywood at its worst, but those last 15 seconds are stylised perfection. (Incidentally, if Stanwyck looks unexpectedly young, and you're flummoxed by the unnecessary wartime setting, that's because this one was shot in 1943 then caught up in the Mass WWII Backlog.) (2.5)



The Bride Wore Boots (Irving Pichel, 1946) - Mean-spirited, astonishly unfunny comedy about horse-mad Barbara Stanwyck and historian Robert Cummings having marital troubles, probably because they're both so utterly unbearable. There's one touching scene near the start, but it's mostly shrill, hateful rubbish, and in the end I just gave up. You know a movie's in trouble when even a horny Diana Lynn isn't helping. (1)



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Lady Gambles (Michael Gordon, 1949)
- A gruelling, laudable film about married photographer Barbara Stanwyck becoming addicted to gambling, turning from an affable careerwoman to a two-bit criminal lying bruised on a hospital bed.

The makers were allowed to shoot on location in Vegas, so there's no indictment of organised gambling, with the hoteliers and pawnbrokers proving absolutely delightful, but for the period this is an unusually heartfelt and perceptive examination of mental illness, with Stanwyck playing her problem as if it were a drug addiction, which it absolutely is. You get the sense that she cared more about this role than most of those she got in the late '40s: there's a fragility, a hopelessness, a perpetual vulnerability that she didn't often go for, and it inspires pity, uncertainty and unhappiness in the viewer - not the ingredients for a cracking night in with a DVD, but fitting for this type of film.

Frank Skinner's score is rather patronising. the flashback structure has Robert Preston's character recalling details he wouldn't really know about and the story moves somewhat in judders, with an unnecessary subplot about horse-racing and a weak ending utilising Stanwyck's incredibly neurotic older sister (Gothic horror regular, Edith Barrett), but it's a largely solid 'problem picture' with a fatalistic, ever-present atmosphere of gnawing dread, and a strong central performance that sees Stanwyck doing something a little different from her norm.

Incidentally, I do genuinely wonder if there was something in her contract saying that at least once a film someone had to comment on how ravishing she was. Either that or the studios were just trying to brainwash us. (2.5)



East Side, West Side (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949) - Glossy, unbelievably entertaining Hollywood meller set in New York, with Stanwyck as a wronged wife, Charisse the girl-next-door, Heflin's effortlessly modern performance, Gardner's feline sensuality, Mason's voice, colourful bits for William Conrad, Beverly Michaels and Gale Sondergaard - her last film before being blacklisted. For what it is, close to perfect. (4)



The Furies (Anthony Mann, 1950) - A disappointing adaptation of Niven Busch's novel (which comes in the Criterion set): not as clever, atmospheric or claustrophobically, Freudianly bonkers, and missing the book's most deliriously dark character, the mute, merciless, yellow-eyed blood-lusting 70-year-old psychopath gunman, Quintinella, who should clearly be played by J. Carrol Naish.

43-year-old Barbara Stanwyck is Vance Jeffries - at the start of the book, 19 years of age - who takes after but lives in the shadow of her tycoon father, T. C. (Walter Huston), owner of the titular ranch. Their intense relationship is fractured but not destroyed by two romances: the first her affair with a gaunt gambler (Wendell Corey), the second his visit from gold-digger Judith Anderson, and soon they're trading in increasingly bitter revenge.

That famous scene with the shears is great and there are some strikingly composed shots, but neither those nor the talents of Stanwyck and director Mann can compensate for Charles Schnee's pale, toneless, often brainless script. A couple of his changes are for censorship or commercial reasons, but most of the others are just stupid: Anderson's character is now a villain rather than a charming victim of circumstance, Quintinella is replaced by a generic fat Mexican guy called El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), IOUs are legal tender known as 'TCs', and The Furies is the endlessly-repeated name of the ranch, not a clutch of demons gathering poetically in the sky.

What remains of Busch's story is sufficiently original to explain some of the film's reputation, Stanwyck is good in one of her late-period 'strong woman' roles and Beulah Bondi - her co-star from my favourite movie, Remember the Night - turns up briefly to predictably excellent effect, but it is an extremely flawed movie, equipped not only with narrative shortcomings, but four principal males who are either overrated if commanding (Huston), off-form (Gomez) or just rubbish (Corey and the ever execrable Gilbert Roland).

Mann made a few of my favourite Westerns, particularly Man of the West and The Naked Spur.

This isn't in the same league, though perhaps when the book has faded from my mind I can take it on its own terms and enjoy it more, luxuriating in that chiaroscuro photography. I'm not sure, though. Gilbert Bloody Roland, ffs. (2)



To Please a Lady (Clarence Brown, 1950) - This hilariously-titled movie is the motor-racing film that Gizmo likes watching in Gremlins: a stale star vehicle about speedway, with as much badly back-projected footage of Clark Gable in goggles and a little hat as you'd expect.

The story's the usual sexist Gable rubbish, rather late in the day, with a jumped-up dame (Barbara Stanwyck) causing him trouble until he slaps and kisses her, after which she immediately falls in love with him.

The stars' hearts clearly aren't in it, there's a disconcerting scene where they have phone sex with him watching her in the mirror and then he pretends she's his aunt, and though the film's harnessing of sporting clichés -incorporating some unexpectedly involving race sequences - keeps it moving for a while, it all runs out of gas a long way before the finish.

That speedway episode of Malcolm in the Middle is much better, especially the sight gag with the lap numbers. (1.5)



Jeopardy (John Sturges, 1953) - Nasty little thriller about an all-American family on holiday in Mexico: Barry Sullivan gets trapped under a pier, wife Barbara Stanwyck goes for help, only to get waylaid by complete psycho Ralph Meeker. Starts slowly, picks up when Meeker appears and Sullivan gives his son a moving pep talk about coffee, then ends rather strangely.

The best thing about the film is that Sullivan smells his wife's perfume and then says "Mmm, sexish", which I shall be doing from now on. (2)



All I Desire (Douglas Sirk, 1953) - An affecting drama in Douglas Sirk's familiar style, with Barbara Stanwyck given one of her best later roles - and so giving one of her best later performances.

As in the pair's other film together, 1956's There's Always Tomorrow (below), she's a woman returning to a town she left years before, complicating the lives of the married man she once loved (Richard Carlson), his son and his two daughters. This time, though, the kids are hers and the man was once her husband.

It's not quite as effective, unusual or stylistically striking as that later film, which made vivid use of the wide screen then de rigueur, with compositions rich in symbolism (hello Rex, the Walkie Talkie Robot Man), but it largely succeeds, Sirk again leaning on archetypes - the cowardly cuckold, the surrogate mother, the stage-struck kid and the sexually voracious single man - but usually finding real emotions between the lines.

At times the film tips over into unconvincing melodrama and overbearing sentiment, the supporting comedy is as laboured as ever and the score gets very ominous and silly whenever ex-lover Lyle Bettger turns up, but the film's very Sirkian themes - that good people tossed around by their emotions can do bad things, that gossips should shut up and go away - are very persuasive, and articulated by Stanwyck with a conviction and nuance she rarely managed later on.

During the early '40s, she was absolutely on fire: in 1941 alone, she got three parts showcasing both her beguiling emotional sensitivity (cased in cynicism) and her sexual smarts, and aced them all. Then movies changed, she got old, she got an awful new haircut, all that smoking wrecked her voice, and nothing worked so much any more. Some superficiality on my part perhaps, but that spark, that energy seemed to have sapped away, the star so removed in her Hollywood bubble from her tough upbringing in Brooklyn that it was like she no longer knew how to play ordinary people. All I Desire isn't in the same league as those earlier films, and neither is her performance, but there are moments of genuine clarity and beauty - the start of the conversation with her confused, distraught son; the "I'd love you to come with me" that she utters to herself after purposefully wrecking her daughter's image of her; bits of the Browning poem she reads - and that's far more than we usually get.

And as it's set in the past, even her hair is OK. The slang of the period is better than OK: "He's a regular Lemon, from Lemontown," a student warns a girl he likes. "Ah, 23 skidoo," replies his rival.

All I Desire isn't an unassailable classic, but as a vehicle for a truly great actress it works better than most, helped by a solid script, Carl E. Guthrie's thoughtful lighting and an unusually convincing supporting cast - these aren't exceptional performers, but for the most part they fit their roles well and so never distract from a woman who is.

I find it enduringly fascinating, however, that Sirk and his writers so consistently fetishised the importance of small town family life to an almost hysterical degree, whilst wallowing in the unhappiness of its stifling nature and eyeing the attractions of the alternatives. It's a dichotomy deserving of a book that would perhaps contain no definitive conclusions.



Witness to Murder (Roy Rowland, 1954) - A minor annoyance (Barbara Stanwyck) looks out of her window, sees a homicidal ex-Nazi (George Sanders) commit a murder, and helpfully informs the police. They don’t believe her, but he does. This unpleasant sleeper has a good premise, well-matched stars – with Sanders hamming it up enjoyably if lazily – and some handsome shots by pioneering noir cinematographer John Alton, but it gets more and more illogical as it progresses, leading to an absolutely farcical climax. It also has a sensationalist approach to mental illness that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The Window - that 1949 classic about a boy who cried murder - did this sort of thing a whole lot better. As did Rear Window, actually, rather unfortunately released the same year as Witness to Murder.

On a minor note, this is another later Stanwyck film in which someone says completely incongruously how hot she is. It’s now my life’s ambition to find out if this was actually written into her contracts, as it’s getting a little ridiculous. (2.5)



There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956) - Douglas Sirk tries to dissuade us from having children, #37.

An incisive, if not exactly subtle study of conformity and the American Dream - the director's pet theme - with successful, married father-of-three Fred MacMurray growing tired of his stifling life, and seeking escape with old flame Barbara Stanwyck.

It's brilliantly directed and sensitively played: the ultimate showdown between MacMurray's eldest kids and his mistress providing both dramatic fireworks and rhetorical resonance. His other child, Frankie, is basically the worst person in the world.

This may be the last and least of the three Stanwyck-MacMurray collaborations that I've seen (they made four films together), but since the others are my all-time favourite film (Remember the Night) and Billy Wilder's sublime film noir, Double Indemnity, I think we can let it off. (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Bob Fosse, The Third Man and Marvel being truly marvellous for once - Reviews #212

Assorted pickings from the past month or so, minus the Lillian Gish and Barbara Stanwyck movies, which will get an entry all their own...

FILMS:



CINEMA: The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) - This titanic achievement occupies an odd, lone position within cinema: an English film with American leads that stands head and shoulders above other home-grown stabs at noir, with its stunning Graham Greene script - full of poetic sardonism, cynicism and sadness - Reed's vivid direction, laden with atmosphere and populated by dizzying, off-kilter camera angles, and a flawless cast at the peak of its powers.

Joseph Cotten is Holly Martins, "a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls". Flat broke, he arrives in the postwar vice-world of Vienna to accept a job from his pal Harry Lime, who he hasn't seen in nine years. When he gets to Lime's place, Harry's just been taken out in a coffin, and Cotton wants to get to the bottom of it, collaring his pals, falling in love with his girl (Alida Valli) and sparring endlessly with a sharp-minded officer British officer (Trevor Howard) and his sweet, lumpy sidekick (Bernard Lee) - who's a big fans of Holly's work.

Orson Welles once said that Cotten was a star, but he'd never make an actor. Welles, though, talked a lot of nonsense, and Cotten is thoroughly excellent as the bull-headed everyman several leagues out of his depth. His scenes with Valli form the emotional centre and substance of the film, soured with the unmistakably sad flavour of unrequited love. "I wouldn't stand a chance, would I?" he asks, drunk and lost in her apartment, the pair living forever in Lime's hefty shadow.

Then Welles himself enters as the villain - smirking in a doorway, lit from an open window - and the film enters the realm of the spectacular.

I'm not overly fascinated by new prints and the like, but the 4K restoration (I don't know what that is, I'll google it later) of The Third Man means that it's happily on the big screen once more, and looking very handsome. The main thing I got from the clean-up job - or perhaps just the size of the screen - were the scars on Howard's face and the visual beauty of that chilly closing scene.

I've seen the film probably 10 times before, but not for a few years, and was completely bowled over by it once more. I love Cotten's taxi ride from hell, Welles' panicked scarper away from the café, and the unprecedented mythmaking that prefigures his arrival in the film. I love his menace rising as the Ferris wheel that he and Cotton are riding reaches its zenith, then slipping back into easy, chubby-cheeked charm as they return to the ground. I love the big shadows on the run, the film's tone - poised between idealism, world-weariness and bristling anger - Howard's beautifully modulated performance, and that highly imitable zither tune. I love the way the spiral staircase looks from below, and the joke about the parrot. I love the faces of the villains, the best rogues' gallery since Casablanca, the kind of supporting players that you imagine the midwife looked at and said: "Congratulations, it's a character actor."

Most of all, I love its depiction of Lime: another Charles Foster Kane in his way, seen by those who knew him in a dozen different ways, with deadly charm, an irresistible boyishness and a way of trampling over everyone who loves him without thinking twice.

It's a fascinating, brilliant movie: original, gripping, entertaining, lyrical, devilishly funny, visually expressionistic and with one of the most extraordinary endings ever devised, which takes Hollywood wish-fulfilment and kicks it down the stairs, as the autumn leaves fall gently on a cemetery path, and Cotten leans on a truck, waiting for the girl he loves. (4)

***



All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979) - A singular insight into the mind - and genius - of Bob Fosse, the choreographer, director and performer who revolutionised dance on both stage and screen.

It's all here: the bowler hats, cigarettes, clicking fingers, angular knees and leading shoulders that typified his routines. His obsession with sex. His fear of death. The drug habit, the insecurity, the arrogance and the obsessive drive to succeed and create and endure.

Roy Scheider gives the performance of his career, inhabiting the skin of Fosse's alter-ego, Joe Gideon, who's mounting a show and cutting a film (similar to Fosse's Lenny) whilst on his way to a massive coronary.

Full of self-justification, self-loathing, self-obsession, dream sequences, pathos, personal philosophy, rapid-fire cutting, and dazzling dance sequences - with Fosse using avant garde angles and, particularly, creative editing to help convey the sheer ecstasy of movement - it's one of the most personal and compelling personal statements ever put on film.

Whether you regard it as one of the all-time great musicals or a pretentious piece of unbearable onanism, though, is likely to depend on how much time you have for Fosse. I adore his work and admire his honesty and chutzpah, so for me it's right up there with the best that the genre has ever had to offer.

That's not only because of its unusually incisive, adult storyline, but also the jolts of joy that come from its numbers. From On Broadway - the groundbreaking montage that opens the film proper - through the rwo-part experimentation of Take Off With Us and the simple, charming emotionalism of Everything Old Is New Again, to the four back-to-back hallucination sequences near the close, it has moments as thrilling as those in any musical, even if its tendencies are darker than almost any other. (4)

***



Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) - I'm finding it hard to keep up with the Marvel films, largely because I can't really be arsed, but I've caught around a third half of them. The only ones I've really loved before now have been X2 and Spider-Man 2, fair contenders for the crown of Best Superhero Movie Ever Made, the latter possessing two of the most intensely brilliant, heartbreaking action sequences I've seen: that astonishing train set-piece, and the rescue from the burning building. But apparently those film aren't canon, or something.

Of the recent batch, Thor was a stand-out, but I found Iron Man particularly wearying and Avengers by far the most disappointing, as I'd heard so many great things about it. Gloriously, Guardians of the Galaxy blasts the shit out of those laboriously tagged 'Marvel Cinematic Universe' films, and feels like everything Avengers should have been but wasn't. It's irreverent where Avengers was smug, deft where that film was portentous, and unpredictable where its rival was ponderous and pompous.

The story is practically the same: a bunch of disparate, essentially noble badasses try to get their mitts on a power source, while stalked by various nefarious parties, including a slightly camp psychopath. But whereas Avengers seemed overwhelmed by its formulaic story, James Gunn's film delights in diverting from it, and its sense of humour is genuinely intelligent and subversive, punched across by vividly-drawn characters, from Chris Pratt's motherless, rather guileless mercenary, to a bazooka toting raccoon ("What's a raccoon?") voiced by Bradley Cooper, and a perpetually furious vigilante (Dave Bautista's Drax) who's bent on wreaking vengeance against that fey megalomaniac I mentioned (Lee Pace).

Occasionally the humourless villainy intrudes, and it's weird to see a supporting Peter Serafinowicz playing such a conventional, unfunny part, but for the most part it's magic, the tone set perfectly by Pratt's little dance sequence at the start, and the film striking a fine balance between action, humour and human emotion. (3.5)

PS: Feel free to correct my understanding of what constitutes a Marvel movie, I don't know much about it. (3.5)

***



The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978) - The sound. That sound. Made largely by Canadians masquerading as authentic Southerners it may be, but I could happily drown in it.

The Band were Ronnie Hawkins' backing group and then Bob Dylan's band during his first electric tours, before becoming a force - a tour-de-force - on their own terms, fashioning an audial aesthetic that was basically 'the Cool, Slightly Troubled, Quasi-Biblical Rock Band of the Confederacy', their consummate individual musicianship somehow creating a whole where there were no joins, just a perfectly balanced, immersive, swampy, swinging, dingy, timeless, nostalgic, new and overwhelming sound.

The Last Waltz, much lauded, much parodied - not least by Spinal Tap - is theoretically, and according to most anyone you ask, a concert film about their final gig. But it's not really. The gig went on for four-and-a-half hours, while this film comes in at under two, including interviews conducted in the weeks before and after, and a few numbers shot separately, while the bits that are from the show are broadcast in a completely different order, aside from the opening and closing songs. Added to that, that staple of the concert film, audience reaction, is conspicuously absent: there are - at most - five crowd shots in the entire thing. The focus is on the band, and that focus is tight.

Because what The Last Waltz is, is a loving portrait of the group, with some sensational if slightly uprooted performances, and an intimacy that I found very attractive and completely unexpected. The group's camaraderie, its quicksilver chemistry, its union of perfect, complementary personalities is captured - apparently effortlessly, though almost certainly not - by Scorsese's intuitive camera set-ups, his incisive, intelligent editors, and a love of performance, of music, and particularly of his subject that's utterly beguiling, without getting dragged down by hagiography or hyperbole.

I'm lucky enough to work at probably the most famous rock venue in Britain, and I see a lot of gigs all over, but there's very little that can match the potency of The Band here, when they're really cooking. The performances of Up on Cripple Creek, The Shape I'm In and Ophelia are absolutely outstanding, and there are strong versions of their instant standards, The Weight, featuring Mavis Staples - though that one was shot later in the studio - and that immortal Civil War song, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

Staples isn't the only guest star here, it's worth pointing out. Clapton turns up for a scintillating guitar duel with the coolest man on earth, The Band's Robbie Robertson; Muddy Waters sings Mannish Boy; Van Morrison leaps all over Caravan, complete with high-kicks; Joni Mitchell delivers a tender, coyly sexy Coyote; Neil Young is absolutely coked off his tits and had to have a big blob of the stuff removed from his nose in post-production; while an out-of-tune Dylan sings two of his own, before an all-star version of I Shall Be Released. There's also Emmylou Harris crooning the heartbreaking Evangeline from an MGM soundstage.

Not bad, really. I wouldn’t mind mates like those. Apart from the drugs.

At the same time, the film does have a few shortcomings. There are a handful of duff numbers, with Dr John and Neil Diamond a little out of their league, and a couple of the Band's own songs falling relatively flat. In addition, while they do share colourful stories and moments of honest boorish braggadocio and musical insight in the interview snippets, Scorsese's earnestness and poor questioning technique can be both embarrassing and lacking in results.

It also disrupts the flow of the film. There are some clever cuts between performance and back-story, but the choppy structure tends to halt the movie's momentum and prevent us from feeling as if we're really at The Last Waltz for any longer than a song or two at a time. Because when we are, and when The Band are on form, I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be. (3.5)

***



Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011) - I saw this when it opened the Bradford Film Festival in 2012 and was rather overwhelmed: not by the film itself, necessarily, but by the return of one of my all-time favourite filmmakers, ending a 14-year hiatus from the screen. The word had been that Whit Stillman, the writer-director behind Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco would never make another movie, and yet here it was. I said then that I loved Damsels, but with reservations, and that only repeat viewings would reveal the precise depths of its myriad charms. Well here's repeat viewing #1.

It starts off pretty poorly, introducing us - via naïve new pupil Analeigh Tipton - to a clique of three girls, led by the self-assured, opinionated Violet (Greta Gerwig), who run a suicide prevention centre at a college largely dominated by masculine frattery. Wobbling and hobbling through its early stages, it seems to be firing off ideas almost at random, leaving little clue as to where we're supposed to stand with any of these characters, some of whom are barely sketched in at all. Then cracks appear in the edifice and it starts to click, and for the final hour just gets better and better, proceeding to completely charm the pants off anyone who'll let it (or indeed stick with it for that long).

I do think it's Stillman's weakest film by quite some distance: though the fratboy characters can be funny, they're so unrealistically stupid that they undermine the film; the misogynistic Xavier is hateful to watch, but not in any important way; and while it makes many small points, each reached through Stillman's singular, ceaselessly questioning mind, I'm not sure it has an overarching one.

It is, though, illuminated by the incomparable Gerwig, speaking in that unmistakably Stillmanish way and every bit as good as she was in Greenberg and would be in Frances Ha. It's also full of memorable theories, off-kilter ideas and thoroughly unexpected delights, including a final reel that comes out of nowhere and offers some of the most immersive escapism of recent years.

I can understand why people would hate it, especially if they mistake the quirks of the characters for the quirks of the writer - Stillman is sympathetic to his leads, though not blinded to their faults - but I kind of love it, aware as I am of its many failings. (3)

***



Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990) - It took me a while to see this one. As you'll know, it's an engrossing, exciting sci-fi actioner, based on the usual cumbersomely-titled Philip K. Dick's story, with Arnie as an amnesiac mystery man whose past is tied up with a colony on Mars. There's director Verhoeven's usual superb action editing, heavy-handed but effective social commentary - this time about imperialism and the plight of the poor - and strong if overly sexualised female characters, along with a narrative that's genuinely original and really keeps you guessing. The film is slightly of its time, a little excessive, and not particularly pretty to look at, while Arnie's as wooden as a front door, of course, though he is good at pretending to kick people. (3)

***



Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) - I hated this film when I was first saw it as a teenager, perhaps because of my discomfort with its sleazy milieu, perhaps because you need to have known more of love and life to appreciate it. Since then, though, I've developed something of an obsession with Bob Fosse, from his personal pyrotechnics in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and Kiss Me Kate, to his dazzling choreography in The Pajama Game et al, and that slice of unforgettable autobiography, All That Jazz (see above), so I thought I better revisit it, and I'm glad I did.

Cabaret tells the story of an upright, dinosaur-faced plank of wood (Michael York) who comes to Berlin in 1931 to teach English, and finds himself drawn into the world of the cabaret, largely by his saucy next-door neighbour, the flighty, capricious Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). But on the streets, the power of the Nazis is rising...

It's a baffling mixture of the sublime and the drab. Minnelli is simply magnificent, the numbers are absolutely superb - especially her two solo spots and the stunningly choreographed Mein Herr - with Fosse's genius filtered through the strictures and style of 1930s cabaret, and the director's distinctive, virtuosic editing (in conjunction with David Bretherton) masterfully snaps, shoves and manhandles us into this vividly realised world, where Joel Grey's playful, androgynous master of ceremonies takes glorious centre stage.

And yet the rest of it often barely works at all. The political sequences are erratic - Tomorrow Belongs to Us is superb, but the film's employment of patronising hindsight is not - while the domestic sequences are shot in an artificial, lifeless, soft-focus manner, and dragged down by York's complete lack of credibility, which consistently thwarts the dramatic momentum that Minnelli is managing to swing from rather substandard material.

While life may be a cabaret, old chum, it's only in the cabaret where this film actually comes to life. (3)

***



The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014) - Not much happens, Julianne Moore phones it in insultingly, and the script's anti-authoritarianism engages on only the most juvenile, superficial level, but Jennifer Lawrence's pretty nose, sincere, throaty singing and immense, shimmering talent make so much of it work.

Throw in a couple of unexpectedly touching moments with Hensworth, a seductive Lord Haw-Haw-style subplot and one big shock, and it all proves very watchable: a touch better, I think, than the reheated Catching Fire, if less bracing and compelling than the initial film.

Mockingjay: Part I isn't as deep, important or weighty as it often appears to imagine, but when Lawrence is on screen, it seems oddly and unexpectedly real, and - with it - unusually affecting.

The score's lovely too. (2.5)

***



Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997) - Have you got half an hour, because Ethan Hawke wants to read a voiceover to you. This sci-fi movie, which would almost certainly work better as a book, is intriguing and on the cusp of being gripping, as it imagines a world in which life expectancy is all, but its frequent lapses in internal logic and plausibility tug at your attention. Still, it's hard to be too harsh on a movie that features Tony Shalhoub, Alan Arkin, Ernest Borgnine and Gore Vidal. (2.5)

***



Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992) - A noisy, nasty, cartoonish and confusing sequel to Burton's largely unbearable Batman (1989), with the Ineffectual, Slow-Punching Crusader (Michael Keaton) facing two new villains: an amphibious crimelord called The Penguin (Danny DeVito) - who has serious issues about childhood abandonment - and a dazed, high-kicking PVC sex kitten, Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is sort of sexy but sort of just looks like Felix the Cat. Christopher Walken's also hanging around for no good, as per usual.

While Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters play almost every scene for laughs, grotesquery or innuendo, the moments of character insight are genuinely touching - especially those between Bats and Cats - there are a handful of good lines, and Pfeiffer's transformation is handled with the neat grasp of iconography that occasionally illuminated the first film. And if it's a film that's rarely anything special, it's also rarely dull, at least until a witless and overlong climax (Burton has no aptitude for directing action), somehow redeemed by a sentimental coda.

The acting is also pretty good, if you like broad, heightened comic book shenanigans, with DeVito effectively disgusting as the lascivious, insane warlord, and Pfeiffer close to dynamic, neatly offset by Keaton's underplaying, the star making for a compellingly understated Wayne if a completely uninteresting Batman.

For all that, though, I like the incisive, exalting montage of footage - cut to the score - in the touring Danny Elfman show far more than I can stomach either of Burton's Batman pictures in full. (2.5)

***



CINEMA: Minions (Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin, 2015) - On the one hand, this should really be the best movie ever, because… well, because it’s Minions. The Minions material in Despicable Me 2 was quite hysterically funny, the stand-alone shorts they feature in are a joy, and now they’ve got a whole film to themselves. On the other hand, it could have all gone disastrously wrong, since devoting an entire film to characters that are essentially comic relief is a gamble in artistic if not commercial terms (the marketing behemoth that is the Minions continues to conquer all), especially when they can’t actually speak, at least not in any recognisable terms.

As it is, Minions is a mild disappointment but by no means a catastrophe: a functional film with a promising premise, a decent prologue and some very funny moments, which gets bogged down with hideously bland supporting characters, an insistence on presenting the same tiresome idea of Britain perpetuated by innumerable, interminable American films, and setting the bulk of movie in 1968 for no other reason than its final scene. Wouldn’t it be funny if the Queen could do karate, though? No, that wouldn’t be funny at all, that would be crap.

The story sees Minion favourites Kevin, Stuart and the enthusiastic, child-like Bob going in search of a new supervillain to serve, after accidentally killing a dinosaur, a vampire and hundreds of Egyptians. Enlisted by pouty, posing darling of the criminal underworld Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), they travel to England to steal the Queen’s crown, but not everything goes to plan...

Sometimes there’s the sharp, offbeat sense of humour that lit up the Despicable Me films – that amazing joke on the news report about the new king is worthy of Lord and Miller – and there are also a couple of really sweet moments near the close, but more often than not it’s safe and rather blunt, with jokes that are amusing but ephemeral, and the feeling of a missed opportunity, especially when they came up with such a neat little set-up.

If you do see it, stay around for the credits, and not just the first bit - there's a rather lovely curtain call at the close. (2.5)

***



Shockproof (Douglas Sirk, 1949) - This maligned mixture of 'women's picture' and noir is actually an interesting story of nice guy parole officer Cornel Wilde falling in love with one of his charges (Patricia Knight), a murderess besotted with a slimy criminal (John Baragrey).

There are touches of Remember the Night and Cry of the City, but this Douglas Sirk movie - with a script by Sam Fuller, who didn't like what was done with it - is generally fresh, involving and humane, until a formulaic final third capped with a stupid ending. (2.5)

***



Ladies In Love (Edward H. Griffith, 1936) - A fair film about the romantic escapades of three young women - Loretta Young, Constance Bennett and the great Janet Gaynor - sharing an apartment in Budapest.

It veers between facile comedy and gloomy drama, but I enjoyed its ultimate unpredictability and lack of naïveté, and the cast is interesting, including up-and-coming stars Don Ameche and Tyrone Power, as well as moon-faced Simone Simon playing a smitten schoolgirl.

I watched it chiefly due to my Gaynorfandom. It's not one of her best roles, but she has decent chemistry with Ameche, especially when they're bickering, and was always an appealing screen presence even when she had little to work with. (2)

***



Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen, 2015) - Kurt Cobain: Montage of Crap.

I can't believe they even put this out, it's so poorly done. A pretentious, unilluminating and tedious treatment of a fascinating subject, filmed in a witless, muddled montage style full of found footage, disingenuous editing, dated MTV-style cuts, and animated, decontextualised journal entries, these elements together apparently intended to approximate the mind of the manic depressive, heroin-addicted voice of a generation.

Plus Courtney Fucking Love.

There are occasional highlights - a few live flourishes, Cobain singing And I Love Her, Dave Grohl telling Love she has a round face - but seriously, no, watch Amy and then go back and try again. And if anyone watching wants a real insight into Cobain's mind, just listen to In Utero.

I didn't think you could make a boring film about him, but I've been proved wrong at least twice now. (1)

***

BOOKS:



Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
– My dad’s favourite Vonnegut book sadly isn’t mine. The author’s second novel is about the relationship between omniscient, perhaps omnipotent philanthropist Winston Niles Rumfoord – who appears on Earth for an hour every 59 days – and his embattled plaything, a feckless, fortunate billionaire by the name of Malachi Constant, who across the course of his life will travel from Earth to Mars to Mercury to Titan (a moon of Saturn) and then back to Earth, being variously venerated and eviscerated by the strange cult that Rumfoord seems to be manufacturing. Operating within a sci-fi universe that Vonnegut would ultimately shape into something more human and relatable, it’s superbly put together, but its bleak, fatalistic, meticulously-constructed narrative makes the whole experience feel slightly stunted and static, its incisive, extensive existential ruminations and withering social comment offset by a sense of nastiness and detachment, and most damagingly the absence of that freewheeling joie de vivre that marks his better, later books. (3)

***



The Furies by Niven Busch (1948) – An enjoyable wallow in Busch’s world of Freudian Western weirdness, as the author of Duel in the Sun and the movie Pursued introduces us to the unforgettable Vance Jeffries, a strong-willed, erratic young woman yanked around by her alarmingly intense relationship with her father: the overbearing, ever-guffawing megalomaniac known to all as 'T. C.'. The book is frequently overlooked nowadays in favour of Anthony Mann’s risible cinematic adaptation, a favourite of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd (more of which in my next post), but it’s far more worthwhile: narratively uneven, but atmospheric and full of great characters and bravura moments, written in the punchy, hard-boiled prose style you’d expect from one of the most sought-after screenwriters of his era. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Amy, Kurt Vonnegut and Back to the Future live in concert - Reviews #211

The first of three updates, as I haven't done any for a while. This one has a great new film, a great old-ish film with good George Lucas dialogue and a few books, one of them compulsively horrible.

FILMS



CINEMA: Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015) - A haunting, heartbreaking and stunningly brilliant film from Senna director Asif Kapadia, which takes us into the confidence of Amy Winehouse, as the bolshy, big-voiced, jazzy Jewish girl from North London becomes a megastar, while her personal demons, her relationship with a drug addict, and a ravenous, amoral press proceed to rip her to shreds.

Thanks to an abundance of revelatory home video footage, soundtracked by incisive interviews, we see her not only as the beehived, cat-eyed chanteuse or the alarmingly ribbed tabloid quarry, tumbling out of a club at 3am, but as a shy, spotty teen with a seductive offhand confidence in her vocal gift.

I’m not an enormous fan of Winehouse’s music, I think because her deeply personal writing and distinctive, expressive voice tended to be masked by such contrived, Americanised pastiche – trading first on ‘30s jazz and then ‘60s girl groups – but the portrait that emerges here is uncompromising, thrilling and frequently devastating: of an unhappy girl equipped with a massive talent, but none of the stability or serenity to deal with the perpetual media storm that her success brought upon her.

We see stand-ups and TV presenters laughing at her bulimia and drug abuse, her management pushing her out of rehab and onto foreign stages, and – in the second half – a rapacious, vulturous paparazzi incessantly stalking her, an essential decency chillingly absent. If that was my job, I think I would struggle to watch this film and think: “Yes, what I am doing with my life is essentially fine.”

By contrast, Kapadia’s film is quite beautifully lacking in sensationalism. Though it essentially doubles as an indictment of a society almost entirely lacking in basic compassion and empathy, it’s a work that possesses both virtues in apparently limitless amounts, surely compressing and simplifying an impossibly complex narrative, but attaining something that seems awfully like the truth – and apparently is, according to her closest friends.

Amy is a tough watch, but it feels essential, not just for its vivid picture of a fascinating, deeply troubled young woman, but also for its wider significance: as a plea for people to stop being so horribly selfish, to stop seeing excess and illness as ‘rock and roll’ and drug abuse as a joke, and for the media to realise that if it wants to paint itself as a crusading Fifth Estate, then some basic humanity wouldn’t go amiss. (4)

PS: the director thanked me for this review, which I found very exciting.

***



The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940) - This translation of John Steinbeck's immense novel about a Dust Bowl family searching for work and dignity in California is a major work of art in its own right: bristling, poetic and throbbing with anger at the injustice visited upon working people, and filled with stunning imagery and some wonderful acting.

Though centrist screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, (then) left-wing director John Ford and union-bashing producer Darryl F. Zanuck juggled the narrative to remove its more salacious, censor-baiting elements and to end the story on a relative high, it remains by far the most radical film ever to come out of the studio system.

Given the strictures of the period, it's incredible that Steinbeck's view of humanity and of his country remains largely intact, culminating in one of the most breathtaking sequences of that or any other era, a monologue by Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) which is both an affirmation if Steinbeck's "phalanx" theory (that we are all part of one soul) and a call-to-arms echoing out across the nation.

It's Fonda's performance that dominates, for me, even if Jane Darwell is an effective though overly folksy Ma Joad, and John Qualen fantastic in a small part as the haunted, 'touched' Muley Graves. The film's other great and timeless virtue is Gregg Toland's spellbinding cinematography, inspired by the work of Dorothea Lange, whose photos had accompanied one of Steinbeck's first non-fiction treatments of this subject matter.

Toland had collaborated with Ford earlier in the year for the expressionist O'Neill adaptation, The Long Voyage Home, and the director's understanding of music and emotional cues, as well as his keen eye for distinctive visual composition, made them ideal collaborators. The shot of Darwell watching Fonda cross the deserted dancefloor as Red River Valley quietly plays is pure gold, and pure Ford.

His film may lack the scope and depth of the source novel - its climactic catharsis is less Biblical, less revolutionary - but it's still one of the great American movies, its confrontational portrait of dirty, desperate and despairing souls finding solace in socialism being something altogether new from the sun-drenched Republican stronghold that was Hollywood in 1940. (4)

***



American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) - Magical, lightning-in-a-bottle stuff: a flavourful, nostalgic and sentimental movie - somehow made by George Lucas - with a cast of future stars as high school kids whose stories interweave on the last night before college in 1962.

They dance, drive, make out, drink, race, spar, bicker and try to get laid, to a constant soundtrack of impeccably selected singles from the era.

There's sexy James Dean-alike, Paul LeMat, a boy racer who spends most of the film with a cross, underage girl (Mackenzie Phillips) - my favourite of the tales. Sensitive chauvinist Ron Howard, meanwhile, is busy breaking his long term girlfriend's heart, while thoughtful, insecure Richard Dreyfuss has struck up an unlikely friendship with some teddy boy gangsters, and Charles Martin Smith is serving as a blueprint for foolishly bragging needs everywhere - particularly Martin Starr's Bill in Freaks and Geeks.

Utilising the talents of New Hollywood heroes like Coppola, sound wizard Walter Murch and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, it's a deft, amusing and completely charming film, with improbably credible Lucas dialogue, a fantastic period atmosphere and an undercurrent of poignant wistfulness: a desire to return not only to innocent youth, but to pre-Vietnam idealism.

Its influence can be seen on countless films since, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Diner, Dazed and Confused and even Tin Men, but this cusp-of-college story is better than any of them.

And it has Harrison Ford as a grumpy drag racer in a cowboy hat.

It really is a shame that Lucas has devoted the last 30 years to making his Star Wars universe slightly worse, rather than creating something as warm and wondrous as American Graffiti. (4)

***



CINEMA: Back to the Future Live in Concert (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) - We held the English premiere of Back to the Future Live in Concert at the Royal Albert Hall earlier in the month: two screenings of the movie for around 4,500 people at a time, with Alan Silvestri's score (plus 15 minutes of new music) played on stage by a concert orchestra.

It was a great experience and as well as providing one moment of absolute, jaw-dropping wonder - as the orchestra struck up for the end of Earth Angel, and everybody in the audience promptly burst into tears - also revealed to me the exciting news that everybody else loves George McFly's laugh too.

The film is a textbook, if formulaic, example of cinema as entertainment, which expertly juggles genres, delivers a slew of euphoric set pieces, and features some of the most memorable performances of its decade. There's Christopher Lloyd's archetypal mad scientist Doc Brown, time-travelling, none-more-American teen skateboard whizz Marty McFly, and his mother, the coquettish Lorraine (Lea Thompson), whom he meets after unfortunately travelling back to 1955, and who really fancies him. Best of all is Marty's hideously awkward dad, George, brought to the screen with a glorious gawkiness by the incomparable Crispin Glover.

It's funny, highly romantic and sometimes very moving, with moments of broad wish-fulfilment that are going to make most people between the ages of 12 and 102 punch the air with delight, from Marty lamping arch villain Biff Tannen and escaping on an improvised skateboard to his Johnny B. Goode guitar heroics and Doc riding a zip wire to destiny. Marty's arrival in 1955 Hill Valley is wonderfully handled, the Oedipal subplot is amusing - and refreshingly odd - and the cast breathes all possible life into a script that doesn't look half as good on paper.

The only thing I'm not quite sure about are its oddly macho sexual politics and its worldview, which is most obvious in the coda and couldn't be more typical of '80s America if Reagan was narrating it whilst doing the Thriller dance. Not only does the film hinge on thumping an attempted rapist in the face, not only is Marty's principal quest to save himself - a suitable shorthand for the 'me' decade - but in order to do so he has to avoid some nameless Libyan terrorists, and his ultimate rewards are parents affluent enough to play tennis, a brother who wears a suit and works in an office, and a 4x4. Harrowingly, though the film doesn't seem to realise it, at its close, Marty has also erased his entire existence up to this point, as he understands it.

But it is really cool when they play The Power of Love and he hitches a ride on his skateboard from a passing car and then waves to that aerobics class. As I mentioned, this film is from the 1980s. (3.5 for the film, 4 for the experience)

***



The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924) - Put a shirt on, man.

Doug Fairbanks' fourth period film is sensual, opulent and often thrilling, with staggering sets, luscious cinematography and some stunning action, but it's also too slow, and lacking the narrative seamlessness that marks the star's best work, while his charismatic, balletic performance tends towards over-acting.

Based on a story from the Arabian Nights, The Thief of Bagdad is a spirited, ambitious, frequently eye-popping fantasy adventure complete with Fairbanks' usual lengthy lead-up, and definitely worth seeing - sort of Intolerance meets Robin Hood meets a fair number of uninteresting supporting characters - just not quite the classic I was anticipating.

Perhaps it's because one of the most fun things about Fairbanks' historical pieces was the sense that all this could really have happened, and effects-driven wizardry is just much less exciting than seeing him swing from things. Perhaps it's because the whole things feels slightly aloof: more an exercise in spectacle than a story that one can invest in or relate to.

Also Ahmed is such an idiot for using his magic chest to get some bread and a silver lamé suit, rather than doing something for that nice, Obi-Wanish hermit who's been helping him. (3)

***



CINEMA: Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015) - Jurassic Park IV (or Blackfish II: The Revenge) - another 24 awkward hours in a theme park gone awry, as a genetically modified dinosaur goes AWOL and apeshit, complicating the lives of an ex-Naval recruit (Chris Pratt), park employee Bryce Dallas Howard and her two nephews, who need to Grow and Learn, whilst dealing with Family Problems.

The plot and characterisation are purely functional - even patronising - and it goes on rather too long, but Pratt is a likeable hero, there are a few big laughs, and the film's understanding of action and iconography is impressive, with some smart innovations (that much parodied 'taming'), several imaginative fight-or-flight sequences and a rightful reverence for Spielberg's 1993 classic that happily feels more like homage than thievery, especially when the kids happen on some archive merchandise...

I only went because a friend fancied seeing it, but it was quite a bit better than I expected. (2.5)

***



Arizona (Wesley Ruggles, 1940) - Racism, gun worship and a finale where all feminist credentials go to the wind - it's all par for the course in this overlong, artificial but fairly watchable Western. Jean Arthur is a rifle-toting, ranch-ogling businesswoman who meets her romantic match in grubby, bearded drifter William Holden (in an unusually robust early role), while tangling with duplicitous crimelord Warren William and his slimy front: nervy saloon-keeper Porter Hall. It's poorly-paced and rather one-dimensional, but Arthur's incredible charm and irresistible voice manage to sustain it most of the way, and there are three particularly good scenes: her shakedown of two thieves, Holden's moonlit serenade and an exciting stampede set-piece in lieu of the tedious gun battle I was expecting. (2)

***



Tower Heist (Brett Ratner, 2011) - Fat jokes, seizure jokes, suicide jokes, prison rape jokes, police brutality jokes, product placement, people constantly saying "bitch" - this stuff's now so ingrained in American popular culture that I don't think they even realise they're doing it.

Apart from those unsavoury aspects, Tower Heist is actually alright: a slightly self-congratulatory, sort-of-socially-conscious heist movie set in a big glitzy tower, directed by Brett Ratner, and starring Ben Stiller and a lot of people who popular in 1999. Curiously, it's also shot by the much-lauded Michael Mann cinematographer Dante Spinotti, whose talent is obvious, but whose results are often superficial and cursed with the same slightly nauseating colour palette.

Stiller is the general manager of the New York tower, which boasts the most expensive real estate in North America. When the owner - slippery, smarmy Alan Alda - robs the employees' pension fund, Stiller and his acolytes try to get the money back, and perhaps a little extra, enlisting the help of the only thief they know, who's obviously black (Eddie Murphy).

For all its flaws - like a lack of jokes and suspense, thin characterisation and a twist basically nicked from David Mamet's Heist - the film seems sincere rather than opportunistic in its topicality, which gives it a novel twist. The performances are also committed, transcending some smug, clichéd writing, with decent work from hissable villain Alda, bankrupt financier Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni - as an FBI agent - and the leads.

It's hardly Topkapi, and while it's sometimes stupid, it's rarely boring. All in all, definitely worth the 80p I paid for it. (2)

***

BOOKS



God Bless You, Mr Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut (1965) - Perhaps Vonnegut's best and most polemically dazzling book: an absurdist, turbo-charged spin on Mr Deeds, concerning the eccentric life of multi-millionaire Eliot Rosewater, an alcoholic volunteer fireman of limitless patience and generosity. A prescient, withering critique of capitalism, inherited wealth and American society, it contains some of the satirist's most memorable characters, inspired and incendiary jokes, and - particularly in the 'babies' speech (above) - a simple profundity that takes the breath away. (4)

***



Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963) - "Science is magic that works." That oft-quoted line, out of context, misses the point by, ooooh, about a million miles. Vonnegut's Atomic Age comedy isn't a book about the wonder of science and the futility of religion, but often quite the opposite: the solace of lies and the horror of the truth and the bomb. But nice try, atheists-who-just-found-a-quote. This one has a great first half, with some stinging satire and the introduction of some of his finest ideas ('granfalloons': "seeming teams that are meaningless in terms of God's way of getting things done", like the Communist Party and people from Indiana), then begins to stutter a little, though the remainder has many fine passages and ideas, and it's interesting to note how the author's experiences during the bombing of Dresden saturated his writing so completely even before he dealt with them directly in his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. He also closes on a wonder of a paragraph. (3.5)

***



Emma by Jane Austen (1995) - If Jane Austen were writing today, I'm sure she'd doubtless be pilloried for regurgitating the same plots, if not quite the same characters - largely drawn, of course, from her narrow experience - while society's changing mores mean that to modern she may seem to decry snobbery on one page, then exhibit it on the next. She's bloody fantastic, though, I love her to bits, and in some ways Emma is perhaps her most rounded book. Dealing with the affairs and imaginings of a self-possessed 20-year-old romantic, it's not her most philosophical (Persuasion), funny (Sense and Sensibility) or romantic (Pride and Prejudice), but it's perhaps the one that balances those virtues most expertly and effectively, offering the same familiar but delayed wish-fulfilment, while effortlessly juggling its disparate and engaging story strands. Sometimes her characterisation here can be too reductionist, with supporting players relegated to a single attribute, then given too much time, but it's a minor quibble with an excellent book. Emma, said Austen, "is a heroine only I could love". Oh I don't know about that. (3.5)

***



The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) - A horrible, compulsively readable book, about a bunch of young scholars, schooled in Classics, who transgress every moral boundary, ending in murder. It's sort of 'Leopold and Loeb Go to Brideshead' or 'Whit Stillman's Crime and Punishment', not without repetition in the writing and gaps in the characterisation, but meticulously plotted and perfectly paced, chilling you to the bone, like the Vermont winters it so bitterly, viciously evokes. (3.5)

***



Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre (2010) - It lacks the strong, single human story that illuminates Macintyre's best - he's an author man in perpetual search of a moving bromance - but this novelistic, impeccably researched, often very funny chronicle of the greatest deception of World War Two, in which British intelligence officers dressed a corpse in military uniform, gave him some misleading documents about the upcoming invasion of Sicily, and then floated him towards the enemy, is for the most part quite monstrously entertaining. Macintyre is also the only person I know who goes on about how great his own place of work (The Times) is more than me. (3.5)

***



The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000) - This professor looks to be gloomily wrestling with an existential crisis, I wonder if by any chance he could be a character in a Philip Roth book. It's yet more dazzling brilliance from Roth: another book about sex, death and the unknowability of everyone, masterfully plotted and infuriatingly intelligent, with its every notion and idea and character interrogated, stripped to pieces and then barely put together again. A masterpiece. (4)

***

Thanks for reading.