Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Totoro, Les 400 Coups and in the desert with Donald Cammell - Reviews #222

I've had the chance to watch quite a few movies and some TV. I've written you some reviews. Back to the books now: there'll be some of those in the next round-up. Thanks, as ever, for reading.


Les quatre cents coups (Francois Truffaut, 1959) - When I was 14, I knackered my knees by doing too much road running (what has this got to do with Truffaut? Don't worry, I'm coming to that), meaning I could no longer spend all my time playing sport. Looking for a new hobby, and energised by the re-release of Star Wars the previous year, I was knocked to the floor by two old movies that I caught in quick succession: On the Waterfront, dominated by Marlon Brando's totemic performance as conflicted informant Terry Malloy, and then Les quatre cents coups, which we watched in a French lesson. I quickly became completely obsessed with the latter, getting the VHS for Christmas in 1999, and spending Millennium Eve watching it, whilst eating some cheese. Back then, it was the film's unease, its portrait of the loss of innocence, its non-conformist central character that bewitched me. Seen as a 31-year-old - again on New Year's Eve (I know how to party) - its 14-year-old protagonist is at times more obviously comic, which only makes the film's sense of heartbreak more acute.

Jean-Pierre Leaud is Antoine Doinel, director Francois Truffaut's 14-year-old alter-ego, caught between a disinterested mother and a weak father, bored by school, too unlucky or preoccupied to make anything of himself, and descending into a life of petty crime. This irresistible but intensely moving portrait of his life utilises Nouvelle Vague tics like jump-cuts and improvisation, but only to subtly enhance the narrative not, as Truffaut's contemporary Jean-Luc Godard would over the next few years, to replace it. Shooting vividly on Parisian locations, Truffaut intersperses Doinel's downward spiral with passages of charming, poetic whimsy: Antoine in a fairground spinning wheel, a Punch-and-Judy show where his growing cynicism is contrasted with the simple pleasure of younger children, and a school P. E. lesson in which the pupils peel away to leave the teacher jogging through town accompanied only by two students.

It's a film that's almost casually iconic: its unforgettable imagery - Antoine peering through the bars of a police van, rolling his polo neck over his mouth, or caught in that astonishing final freeze-frame - all grown from this completely credible character, Leaud (but for a few phony chuckles) inhabiting his role absolutely. Every decision Truffaut makes, like the journey from the active to the passive that Antoine makes upon crashing the adult world, is just perfect, as he punctuates the story with humour (I particularly like the fate of the Michelin Guide, and Doinel's friend Remy talking back to their teacher), further prevents it from passing into Bressonian territory with moments of catharsis, and deals in the kind of confusion, introspection and sense of injustice that dominates the world of the 14-year-old.

Godard seemed to love politics, post-modern gimmickry and himself; Truffaut loved cinema and children, and sentimentalised both without naivety; it's little wonder I prefer the latter. Les quatre cents coups is his first, best and purest: a masterpiece on any terms, and my gateway film to the joys of world cinema, and indeed to cinema as a whole. (4)


One of our villains, who is basically a walking (though currently seated) Michael Rooker character.

Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1977) - Documentary maker Barbara Kopple lived with coal miners’ families for a year in order to make this startling, far-reaching film, which uses a desperate localised strike – called by workers seeking union recognition – to examine the way America treats its poor. Alongside vivid footage of a conflict spiralling out of control, she examines corruption and compromise within the union, the duplicity and heartlessness of the coal companies, and the impossible odds stacked against the workers, in the shape of a police force, legislature and judiciary all conspiring to keep them under foot.

Impassioned, committed but also willing to acknowledge the complexities of the situation and the personal shortcomings of some campaigners, it’s ultimately a valuable, inspiring and upsetting film, a hymn to the virtues of authentic unionisation, when America still had such a thing. For an outside observer, it also highlights just how damaging US firearms laws are in a situation like this, making the escalation from placid to dangerous all the steeper – and infinitely more destructive. And Kooper soundtracks the whole thing with a succession of beguiling, soot-choked renditions of bluegrass songs about mining, some done professionally, others sung with an overpowering intensity by minor players in the film. (4)


My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988) - A wonderful, uncategorisable Miyazaki film about young sisters Satsuki and Mei, who move to the country while their mother is in hospital, and deal with growing pains, fear and disappointment - while finding solace in pastoral beauty, one another's friendship and a smiling, furry, 20ft grey-blue troll called Totoro.

The opening is perhaps a little shrill (at least in the Japanese-language version I saw), but it's a sumptuously-animated, emotionally overpowering movie full of charm, magic and humanity, without the superficial need for an antagonist, and with no formula in sight. I'll be seeing it again, and more than once.

Totoro still clutching the umbrella while he leaps over the growing plants. <3 (3.5)


CINEMA: Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
- This is a really sweet, affecting and mature film that sneaks up on you, with a central performance, a subtly subversive sensibility and a latent, growing power that catch you off guard, compensating for a look and storytelling technique that often stops you forgetting that you’re watching a movie, not observing real life.

Saoirse Ronan is absolutely exceptional as Eilis, who leaves her Irish hometown for a job and a new life in New York, where she begins a romance with Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen in a sort of Brando-lite performance), an experience that changes her from a callow, homesick stray to a composed, confident young woman, nattily attired in a succession of pastel-shaded dresses. Then tragedy intervenes, trapping her in a conflict between two irreconcilable worlds.

Aside from two sumptuous shots – snow falling on a slow-motion Ronan, dust motes flailing in a sunbeam – the film has the same artificial look as many contemporary British and Irish movies (a problem shared with the largely magnificent Philomena), and some of its comic set pieces and supporting characters are too broad and inauthentic to truly engage. Yet there’s something in the script that is special, richly rewarding, that lifts it out of the ordinary: a realistic romanticism, a desire to engage with the scope of human emotion, and an agreeable allergy to fashioning superficial antagonists. When the film does make one concession on that ground, tossing a blackmailing villainess into the mix, the pay-off is so unexpected, arresting and unusual – yet so rooted in the real – it makes you want to whoop with joy.

The great virtue, though, is Ronan, who always goes for the subtle gesture over the grand one and, playing a character more remarkable for what happens to her than anything she does herself – carved more by events than her own will – keeps us in rapt attention: her evolution a series of small, meaningful moments, epitomised by that stunning moment early on in which she beams with broad but overstated pleasure at her friend’s blossoming love affair, before the look freezes on her face, declines and ebbs away, replaced only by uncertainty. Even when the events around her seem to be happening on a soundstage, in front of a camera, she is utterly genuine: eliciting sympathy, empathy, humour – the centre of everything here that works. It’s an extraordinary performance: the beating heart of a film that isn’t always great, and yet leaves more of a mark than many that are. (3.5)


The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015) - Colin Farrell checks into a hotel populated by character actors. If he can find a mate within 45 days, he gets a yacht; if not, he gets turned into an animal (an animal of his choosing, though).

It’s an interesting, sometimes intelligent allegory about love, relationships and the attendant social constructs and personal compromise, which is somewhat undermined by its self-consciously post-modern, deadpan presentation: one of those films that trumpets itself as a true original, and yet travels a stylistic path so well trammelled that it’s almost bare. Even Farrell’s appearance appears modelled after Joaquin Phoenix’s similarly alienated hero in Her.

It’s worth it for the flashes of incisive social comment, the welcome narrative surprises and a few brilliant jokes, but the mass critical circle jerk seems a little much. (3)


The Face Behind the Mask (Robert Florey, 1941) - This threadbare effort from Columbia has quite a cult following; I'm not sure why - probably just because of Peter Lorre. He plays a wide-eyed Hungarian immigrant whose face is destroyed in a flophouse fire. Unable to find work, due to his hideously scarred visage, he enters the criminal underworld, only for a succession of clich├ęs and coincidences to prove his undoing.

The incomparable Lorre is very good (if not close to peak form) and there's one unexpected plot development that took a reasonable amount of balls, but otherwise it's a rather dull and drab affair that doesn't bother depicting any of the gang's exciting-sounding crimes (it seems they took that Hays Code edict a little too far) and saddles its cast with an abundance of lousy dialogue. *shrugs* (2)


Lucky Night (Norman Taurog, 1939) - I’d only heard negative things about this movie, and yet I’d wanted to see it for years. Why? Completism. It’s the only film starring Myrna Loy that I hadn’t seen (well, aside from Night Flight, if that counts). The arch, wry, stunningly attractive Loy had the most requested profile of the 1930s (source: plastic surgeons), was the favourite movie star of Bonnie and Clyde’s C. W. Moss, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Dillinger – who broke cover to see her in Manhattan Melodrama, being unfortunately shot for his troubles – and was crowned Queen of Hollywood in 1938, following the biggest poll of its kind ever conducted. She isn’t especially well known today, but from her breakthrough comic role in 1932’s Love Me Tonight, she occupied a unique place in the Hollywood firmament: sexy, playful, a master at manufacturing chemistry with leading men from Gable to Spencer Tracy to her beloved William Powell – and better at flirtatious, knowing badinage, flecked with sentiment, than anyone else in movies.

I was pretty obsessed with her for a while, and her best movies are still knocking around my all-time top 100: the first two Thin Man films, the screwball comedies I Love You Again and Libeled Lady, the underrated disaster epic, The Rains Came, that immense postwar drama, The Best Years of Our Lives, and arguably the apogee of studio excellence: Test Pilot. Though she made a fair amount of dreck (The Squall and the hideous rape apologia, The Barbarian, are the worst offenders), the vast majority of her films are a joy, and almost of them are improved immeasurably by her classy presence. Between The Prizefighter and the Lady in 1933 and Belles on Her Toes in 1952, she made 38 movies – until now, Lucky Night was the only one I hadn’t seen.

Myrna plays an affable but frustrated, unhappy young woman who flees her privileged upbringing in a search for the excitement of romantic love, which she has never felt. In a faintly risible ‘meet cute’, she happens upon fellow broke job-hunter, Robert Taylor, on a park bench. Proving to be his good luck charm, they spend the night winning big at a casino, get a reward for foiling a robbery, and then get hammered, waking up married – at which point they decide to make a go of it, only for their differing viewpoints to tug at the delicate thread of their union. It’s often rather inane, and it really drags towards the end, but for the most part this notorious flop isn’t actually too bad, with a few nice observations about love and life that remain intact 77 years on (I particularly like the way she mutters, "You're very attractive" during a deep discussion, and the way their dynamic shifts between the cerebral and the physical), a handful of reasonable gags and a very nice performance from Loy, looking largely great and sparkling whenever she can, especially during that scene in her father’s office, which she literally steals from behind Robert Taylor’s back, working with almost nothing. (2)

See also: The Impatient Years brought this story (uncredited) into a wartime, home front setting. It isn't very good.


A committee designed by a Cammell.

Wild Side: Director's Cut (Donald Cammell, 1995/2000) - When Donald Cammell shot himself in 1996, his final film - Wild Side - was seen as merely a footnote, a direct-to-video erotic thriller that barely anyone had bothered to watch, and which the critics who had regarded as a travesty. Cammell, too, had regarded it as such, as it has been taken out of his hands before he had had the chance to put his usual woozy, kinky, non-linear stamp on it, and tossed onto the home video market (pun intended). Four years later, after a painstaking restoration project led by producer and editor Frank Mazzola, this director's cut finally made its bow, doing the festival circuit before a major cinema release in the UK. It's only ever once appeared on DVD: in a Tartan release in the UK that same year. I managed to find a copy of that long out-of-print disc for a fiver, so I gave it a go.

It's basically not very good. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw gave it five stars. Kim Newman in Empire gave it four. I don't share their taste for excess. I find huge performances tiresome and pointless, because anyone can hoot and yell and twitch and shout as Christopher Walken does here. The plot (and I am being kind in suggesting that the film has a plot) concerns a part-time hooker and full-time bank loan manager (Anne Heche) who catches the eye of her latest client (billionaire Walken, looking and acting a lot like Tommy Wiseau), as well as his estranged wife (Joan Chen) and his repulsive chauffeur (Steven Bauer). Across almost two hours, they bicker, flirt, discuss high finance and rape one another, in an almost endlessly repulsive parade of pretentious nastiness.

But amidst that oppressive unpleasantness, and its undisputable ridiculousness, it does have saving graces: Cammell and Mazzola's brilliant editing, Ryuichi Sakamoto's sleazy, neon-lit score, Heche's impressive performance, and the richly sensual love story between her and Chen which, while incomplete and slightly muddled, is also very affecting. Despite those artistic compensations, I won't be watching it again - ever - because a wallow like this simply isn't for me. Cammell's Performance (1970), on the other hand... (1.5)

SHORT: The Argument (Donald Cammell, 1999) - The script and acting are absolutely abysmal, but this unfinished short from Donald Cammell (shot in 1971 but released in 1999) is worth watching for the jawdropping desert cinematography and bravura editing, which create a succession of staggering juxtapositions that essentially define the phrase "acid Western". Editor Frank Mazzola and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond used some of the effects again - with frankly dizzying results - when he worked on Peter Fonda's majestic, eternally underrated mid-'70s oater, The Hired Hand. (3)



Making a Murderer (2015) - What else is there to say? Gripping, immersive, bleak, gruesome, important, harrowing, compulsively watchable and perhaps a little disingenuous, with an astonishing cast of characters. Something like Serial + True Detective + Winter's Bone. If only it weren't all true. (4)

Charlie Brooker's 2015 Wipe (2015) - I'm a big fan, but the last few episodes have felt cobbled-together and uninspired. It had its moments, but the feeling of being variously educated, righteously enraged and weary with laughter by the end seems to have long departed. Please don't stop doing it, just do it better. (2.5)

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016) - I'm still undecided about this one. It was variously delightful, hilarious, self-indulgent, pretentious, confused, fascinating, embarrassing, irritating and exhilarating, and managed to be all of those things at once in the stunningly staged waterfall sequence, which ended with a moment of fitting, knowing and utterly exalting television. Mrs Rick, the world's biggest Sherlock fan, said it "felt like a teaser trailer for the next series", which sounds about right. (2.5)

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013) - The Private Life of Liberace, with Michael Douglas in imperious form as the flamboyantly, secretly gay entertainer, and Matt Damon as his live-in... assistant. Soderbergh's biopic, made for HBO but screened in cinemas over here, is stylistically spot-on and very well-acted by the leads, but doesn't necessarily amount to all that much, largely because it seems to have almost no wider significance. (3)

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