Thursday, 26 November 2015

Truffaut, Pulp Fiction and how to spot a psychopath - Reviews #218

Here are all the books and films I've consumed lately. And here's a piece I wrote about actor-director combos to flog tickets in my day job.

Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973) - I love François Truffaut beyond almost anyone else who has worked in the medium of film. There’s that quote – “I always loved the reflection of life more than life itself” – which seems to crystallise an essential truth about those of us who live through film, or have at one time or another. His movies radiate a love of cinema, its possibilities and its pleasures, its ability to transport us, bewitch us, change us. He also seems to have been invented to cater for my specific tastes: sentimental about love, art and childhood, whilst understanding and articulating the limitations of all three.

This film is the only one he made that’s explicitly about the movies, or as he put it: “The subject of Day for Night was, quite simply, my reason for living.” It’s a deceptively deep ensemble comedy-drama about the making of a melodrama, starring Truffaut himself as the director, his regular cinematic alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud as his callow leading man, and Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese and Jean-Pierre Aumont as the other principal cast members, each with their own insecurity, their own past.

Examining and celebrating the artifice, the potential for perfection and yet the compromise of cinema (a collaborative medium in which logistical improvisation is king), the film starts with a scene that needs to be retaken and goes on from there, tipping us a wink as it wheels out a gentle set-piece about a misbehaving cat or a hairy stuntman doubling for Bisset, tightening the knot in your stomach as a cast or crew member begins to go to pieces, and then slowly but surely revealing its subtle depths: an ability to move, enchant and beguile, as all truly great movies do.

It’s light and playful – impeccably constructed, as Truffaut’s roaming camera drops us into one conversation, one story, then another – but it’s also substantial, with myriad delights that encompass administrator Nathalie Baye’s abrupt, laidback seduction technique, montages of moviemaking that draw you in to a walled-off world, and a breathtaking speech by Truffaut to Leaud about the disparity between fantasy and reality that is one of the most affecting (and clearly autobiographical) things that the director ever did. As, in fact, is the dream sequence so tantalisingly previewed early on, and then revealed in its full majesty near the close.

Not every scene has the same emotional charge or conviction of performance as Truffaut’s urgent pep talk, but for fans of the director – or of cinema in general – it’s still a rare sort of treat: stuffed with in-jokes and fun nods to cinematic icons like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Jean Vigo, but more importantly underscored by an implicit understanding of the responsibility of the filmmaker, the collision between art and life, and the joy of the film set itself: what Orson Welles once called “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had”. No-one else could have made this film. (3.5)


English, motherfucker. Do you speak it?

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) - This film is just so, so good. More than 20 years on, the freshness and effortlessness of it all is still astounding. Its vernacular. Its spiky, absurdist humour. Its moments of heart. Those long, wordless takes. The diner. The toaster. The watch up Walken’s ass. The legion of stylised lines that never feel mannered or forced. Actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Travolta and Uma Thurman producing performances from nowhere that continue to reward and astound. QT hasn’t done anything comparable since. Nowadays I will him to succeed – and with Django he did – but there was a brief time when all you could do was watch in slack-jawed amazement as he created dizzying, dazzling films that re-wrote the rules of genre cinema. (4)


Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013) - A simply wonderful movie about journo Steve Coogan trying to trace the adopted son of Irish pensioner Judi Dench, a victim of the notorious Magdalene laundries. It’s often desperately bleak, but also unstintingly warm-hearted, full of the most brilliant jokes, and as emotionally and intellectually rewarding as anything I’ve seen this year. It’s also a little formulaic in structure, looks pretty much like every other British drama made in the last 10 years and has some final-reel villainy that’s a little too on-the-nose (not to mention hysterical), but the story is utterly fascinating, the acting and script exceptional, and its ultimate question of how best to move on is one answered with nuance, dignity and grace. (3.5)

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) - Computer programmer Domhnall Gleason wins a company competition to hang out with Google-but-not-Google CEO Oscar Isaac in his remote headquarters, where he's introduced to an AI called Ava (Alicia Vikander), and encouraged to submit her to the Turing Test. But seriously, America, it's pronounced "Tyouring", not "Too-ring", show some fucking respect.

There are plot holes in Alex Garland's zeitgeisty thriller, along with a few obvious 'surprises' to go with the more novel ones, but it's an entertaining, immersive, quite thought-provoking film that maintains the courage of its convictions right up to a superb twisty-turny ending. And then carries on for another five minutes for absolutely no reason. (3)


The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) - I watched The Leopard Man for @ValLeween, the Val Lewton-based live-tweetathon that happens every Halloween (this reviews update has been a while in coming), and the whole thing was a lot of fun.

The film isn’t one of my favourites from the pioneering producer – this tale of a black cat terrifying a Mexican village is a little disjointed, with some iffy acting – but Lewton does a good job of creating a world through scripting, scoring and a handful of sets, and his horror high points are exhilarating, the moments of sustained terror as poetic, beautiful and self-contained as Astaire and Rogers dance numbers.

The blood under the door? Wow. (3)


The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999) - Soderbergh’s malevolently playful editing illuminates this brooding thriller, helping to turn it from a potentially straightforward Get Carter transplant into something rather more interesting, aided by an imposing central turn, intelligent use of footage of the star as a younger man – taken from Ken Loach’s debut film, Poor Cow – and a surprising, surprisingly affecting pay-off.

Terence Stamp is a seriously violent ex-con who comes to LA straight from the slammer, plotting revenge on the criminals what caused his daughter’s death, a group apparently led by counter-culture beancounter Terry Valentine (a perfectly cast Peter Fonda). Sometimes the script flounders, especially when resorting to cliché or having Stamp repeatedly use and then explain Cockney rhyming slang – he is a British character written for American audiences – but at other times it’s extremely strong, especially when Fonda is explaining the ‘60s (a speech that passes from the sort of platitudes you can basically mouth along to, to something poignant and surprising) or Stamp is lamenting his mistakes.

Where it really works, though, is in the presentation: fragments of action that drop us forwards or back in time, flashes of pathos at unexpected moments, action scenes that take place off camera or in the back of the frame, Soderbergh drawing thematic parallels like a young Terence Davies, or flicking between scenes in a way that recalls nothing as much as... Easy Rider: the film that launched Fonda and defined a generation, at least in cinematic terms. Stamp’s good too: some of his line readings seem wooden, but he catches the eye and holds it, and that scene in the warehouse still has the ability to shock and appal and rather worryingly excite. All together now: “Tell him I’m coming!” (3)


The Chocolate Soldier (Roy Del Ruth, 1941) - This wasn't the gay porn I thought I'd ordered.

Worse than that, it's not even a bona fide operetta. Though its songs come from the 1909 work, The Chocolate Soldier, the writer of the source story, George Bernard Shaw, objected to its being adapted, so they were grafted onto a play by the oft-adapted Ferenc Molnar, The Guardsman, occasionally intelligently, but more often completely incoherently.

Still, at least Nelson Eddy's here, right? A lot of people are sniffy about Nelson Eddy nowadays, in the unlikely event that they've heard of him at all, but I'm quite a fan. He was an underrated actor (catch his performance in Ben Hecht's liberal drama, Let Freedom Ring, for evidence of that) and a magnificent singer, especially vital and appealing when paired with regular leading lady Jeanette MacDonald.

What he wasn't, was a comedian. He proves that beyond any doubt here, playing a jealous husband who - in typical early '40s comedy style - tests his wife's fidelity by posing as an amorous Russian. That stock device of masquerade occasionally worked, but needed subtle writing and intelligent playing, neither of which it gets here. Eddy is so broad and flat it hurts, Metropolitan Opera diva Rise Stevens simply transmits none of the spark required for such battle-of-the-sexes comedy, and Nigel Bruce is really beginning to annoy me now.

The result is a pathologically unfunny film: bitter, laughless, joyless and sexless, with only a handful of reasonable musical numbers relieving the oppressive tedium. And no gay sex. (1)


Gunsight Ridge (Francis D. Lyon, 1957) - This atrocious oater plays rather like a parody of B-Westerns by someone who's hardly seen any, as Wells Fargo agent Joel McCrea tries to root out a highwayman in a small town and finds a frustrated pianist prone to fits of hysterical anger (Mark Stevens). Ernest Laszlo's photography is unusually handsome for a movie from a no-name studio, but the ageing stars can do nothing with the abysmal script from MGM veteran Talbot Jennings and his wife Elisabeth, which manages to be both clichéd and completely ludicrous, hopping from one silly scenario to the next with barely a credible line of dialogue to be heard. The great McCrea comes off merely as trivial and smug, but Stevens manages to set fire to the huge pile of goodwill left over from the bristling noir The Dark Corner, crossing over into ridiculousness early on, and never returning. The scene in which he is out-acted by a confused horse is a particular low. (1)




The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1905) - This beloved children's story has a mother who's good to be true, some understandably stuffy contentions about the way the world works and a rather clunky writing style to which it takes some adjusting, but it's also full of vivid characters, fine sentimental moments and thrilling scenes of escapism and middle-class adventure: virtues that ultimately win out over its shortcomings. (3)

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (1975) - I liked this kaleidoscopic portrait of early-20th century New York, drawn to its world, its scope, and its moments of terrible clarity (particularly concerning lovelorn depression and the everyday poetry of squalid urban life), but found its quasi-Hemingway, quotation-free style rather one-note, contrived and detached. (3)


Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford (1960)
- This memoir from The Communist Mitford is good and sometimes brilliant, trespassing into the latter territory when it deals with family dynamics and human emotion, or when the author punctures pomposity with some lancet-like line. I admire Decca's perfectly pitched irony and sense of poignancy, borne of a complete lack of sentimentality. And I like her names for her siblings, such as Boud (Unity), Debo(rah) and the delightful Tudemmy (Tom). Her journey around America is ultimately a lot less interesting than what predates it, though, with many of the tales notably lacking a sufficiently strong punchline. But I'll now be reading absolutely everything about the Mitfords anyway, beginning with Decca's second volume of autobiography. (3)

Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson (2005) - More a collection of pre-9/11 features than a coherent work, but an immensely readable, blackly comic journey through the world of political and religious extremism that sees Ronson rubbing shoulders with Muslim fundamentalists, KKK members and David Icke, and finding that - hey guys, maybe you're not all so different after all. Which I suppose is heartening. In a way. (3)

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (2011) - Ronson's study of psychology, psychiatry and psychopathy is fast-moving, consistently hilarious, and completely and utterly fascinating. It's also a little unfocused: a scattershot treatment of the subject in which his angle seems determined by the eccentric people he can find to interview, before he attempts to drag together some conclusions at the death. I did bloody love reading it, though, and I learned a lot: the revelation about the official classification of mental illnesses is absolutely astonishing. (3.5)


Parks and Recreation: Season 7 (2014-15)
- I'm sad to see my favourite sitcom go, but it's probably about time, as towards the end this started to feel very familiar: at times fuzzily, more often in a rather worn way. These final 13 episodes kicked the story into 2017, a scenario occasionally exploited for poor non-sequitur gags about fictitious world events, but more often used to up the emotional ante, as in a genuinely affecting storyline about the estrangement between central character Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her former boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Its flaws are evident, almost all the sign of an enterprise that's gone on for too long - the Johnny Karate novelty episode doesn't really work, Craig (Billy Eichner) remains a horrendously unfunny, one-note character, and the walk-ons by real politicians give the distinct impression that the programme is now on the inside (rarely the best place for a show with a satiric bent) - but it's still hard to say goodbye to a show that's given me so much joy, and which still makes me laugh out loud and tear up with some regularity, even in its seventh and final season. (3)


Thanks for reading.

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