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