Thursday, 4 February 2016

Lillian Gish, Henry V, and Woody Allen in 2015 - Reviews #223

A few reviews. Next time: a journey through the back catalogue of Francois Truffaut.


Irrational Man (Woody Allen, 2015)
- In 1989, Woody Allen created one of his greatest movies, Crimes and Misdemeanours: a bleak, gently blistering drama in which Martin Landau kills his mistress then tries to deal with the guilt of it all. Since then, Allen has made three serious crime movies and, to a greater or lesser degree, they are all terrible. This latest one is perhaps the least terrible of the three (the others are the tone-deaf Match Point and the brain dead Cassandra’s Dream), but it still falls down an elevator shaft after 50 minutes.

Joaquin Phoenix is a brooding cliché of a philosophy professor – dark, sexy, dangerous – who attracts the attention of both an unhappily married lecturer (Parker Posey) and a guileless student (Emma Stone) while toying with the idea of murder. At first you can forgive the film its flaws: lazy exposition, laughable lines and erratic performances (often helpless in the face of the dialogue), because the story is surprisingly involving and watchable, but after a while even that starts to go wrong, and there’s nothing left to cling to.

The movie’s conformity is a problem for me: it purports to wrestle with serious philosophical quandaries (albeit like a low-rent Rope), then goes for the easiest possible way out. And it conforms in its characterisation too. Phoenix’s professor disastrously calls to mind Half Nelson, a film against which almost everything looks unoriginal and somewhat pathetic. In that movie, Gosling’s crack-addicted teacher tries to impress his sister-in-law with his magnetic brand of nihilism and she literally laughs in his face. Here, no-one laughs in Phoenix’s face, they just want to boff him.

In the one interesting choice Allen makes, he has Joaquin’s penis misfiring early on, but when he gets the chance to build on this later, he falls short of pushing the character as far as it will go – they both do – and the results are just unbelievably frustrating. Watch the end of Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class for an example of how you kick your film into another gear, with a seductive, beguiling paragon of evil.

As I have said at least once before, I prefer the ever-underrated In My Father’s Den to the widely-praised You Can Count on Me because the muscular, avenging angel of an anti-hero gets kicked down some stairs and called a prick when he tries to do the right thing, rather than winning out in some pyrrhic but vital way. I prefer Half Nelson to Irrational Man for about 800 reasons, but it starts with Phoenix’s drab if extremely charismatic caricature, and the hypnotic effect his character has on everyone, with his hilariously stupid malt-swigging.

He is also the only actor I’ve ever scene who has scenes stolen from him by his own tummy, Phoenix’s funny little pot belly arriving in the room shortly before him, with a kind of scene-stealing grace that Peter Lorre might have admired. Stone, meanwhile, does her best, and has a handful of truly, unexpectedly impressive moments (considering she’s in a film that simply doesn’t work), but more often than not she is – well – powerless to act, her line readings sounding like something from a 1930s B-movie actress. Or a porn star.

Another problem with the film (and there are many) is Allen’s superficial understanding of philosophy, which both undermines the serious message he is attempting to impart and, more prosaically, means that his brilliant professor is often just spouting rubbish, or paraphrased platitudes. Allen has read the chapter headings in his textbook, it seems, but gone no further epitomised by the frankly embarrassing scene in which Phoenix says the class will consider “Sartre’s classic line, ‘Hell is other people’”, which is as much Sartre as we get. Woody also has no idea how to build a crime narrative, as evidenced by the sequence in which Stone explains that everyone a murder victim knew “couldn’t have done it” – an equivocal shorthand that is frankly insultingly stupid.

I suppose he is 80 now.

At this stage in his career, Allen is desperately in need of a script editor who can tell him: a) You don’t know how teenage girls speak; b) You can’t write working class characters in a contemporary setting; c) You’ve forgotten how to subtly interweave exposition; d) Your plotting is built on contrivance and coincidence, not anything that resembles real life.

In the excellent 2012 documentary detailing his life and work, Allen fascinatingly reveals how he decides which film to do next, emptying a drawer onto his bed and then searching through scraps of paper on which are written one-line summaries of possible projects. He used to dress and augment these frameworks, until the incidental joys were as great as the story they adorned. Now – with the exception of Midnight in Paris and perhaps Blue Jasmine – that isn’t really true: from photography to performance to dialogue to sound, it all feels perfunctory: we simply travel from A to B, his hand revealed well in advance, the minor pleasures few and far between, if they are there at all.

As far as bad dialogue goes; well, it simply doesn’t get any worse than this:
Phoenix: “I’m just… too far gone.”
Stone: “I’m going to be late for my piano lesson.”

And then there are the Allenisms that pepper his work: stock phrases that emerge from the mouth of so many of his characters, no matter how different they are supposed to be. Will he ever again make a film in which someone doesn't say, "This is cra-zy."

The film isn’t funny, either. Not in the way that the first hour of Magic in the Moonlight isn’t funny: this one isn’t even supposed to be. In Crimes and Misdemeanours, among his greatest masterstrokes was to run a hysterically funny narrative in parallel to the main affair, with Allen’s self-righteous documentary maker outfoxed by his insufferable rival (Alan Alda), his character receiving a devastating final sting that threw him and Landau together, and cast the central story into a different light. Here, everything is in the same tone – visual, verbal and philosophical – with no wit or nuance to leaven the po-faced, self-serious quasi-moralising.

These problems are epitomised by a potentially interesting scene near the close, which somehow manages to be taut and tense but also completely embarrassing, with apparently improvised dialogue that has to be heard to be believed, and an action pay-off that’s like a Byker Grove outtake. It’s a fitting climax to an unredeeming, tacky and obvious third act that just about explains itself but is as uninteresting as Allen has ever been. Except for Cassandra’s Dream<, which is the caveat that keeps on giving, and the worst film that Allen will ever make.

In Allen’s hands, it seems that fatalism – predicated on chance – has none of the danger, cynical humour or dark poetry of noir, it’s merely predictable coincidence, playing out in bright colours and dull words. (2)


The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926) - A year before their towering masterwork, The Wind, director Victor Sjöström, writer Frances Marion, and stars Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson made another film – The Scarlet Letter – a flavourful, somewhat fanciful adaptation of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. Miss Gish is ideally cast (though perhaps wearing a bit too much make-up, historical accuracy fans) as Hester Prynne, whose illegitimate child outrages Puritan, 18th century New England, visiting tragedy upon her restrictive community. Hanson is her troubled lover, the outwardly respectable Rev Arthur Dimmesdale.

MGM’s films from this period never quite seem to match – say – Fox’s in terms of their scale or authentic set design, and the plotting sometimes comes off as forced or convenient, but Sjostrom's imaginative staging leads to a succession of visually striking passages (he was a great director of shadows and of feet) and the acting grabs your attention and holds it, with Gish’s inventive, intuitive gesturing creating a Hester who’s flirtatious, resolute and also feels intensely, every thought transmitted by the actress’s peerless evocation of the inner life.

Her innocent seduction of Hanson is the sort of scene she so rarely got to play - not that you'd know it from her effortless, uncompromised sensuality - while the sequence in which she reveals the scarlet letter, if plumb in the centre of her comfort zone, is a masterpiece of subtle expression and heart-wracking poignancy. (3.5)

A thousand thanks to Owen for getting hold of this one for me. I’ve been after it for years.


Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944) - Olivier’s near-mythic adaptation of Henry V is a film of dazzling, bravura moments, but not altogether a great film. Beginning with a brilliant gimmick – a framing device that presents the action before an audience at The Globe in 1600 – it then abandons the conceit at exactly the right time, with a staggering fade that takes us from London to the sky above the ocean, where a swelling British fleet is moving stealthily, hazily towards France. Once they get there, though, we face a world that lurches weirdly from fantastical castles to earthily realistic battlefields, as the narrative mixes Henry’s rousing speeches and introspective ruminations with some of the broadest, most unbearable comedy imaginable (at one point a Welshman wears a leek on his head while ending every sentence with the words, “Look you”), culminating in a wooing scene that seems to go on for ever.

Despite those shortcomings, there are scenes as rich in beauty and emotion as just about anything British cinema produced in the ‘40s, thanks in no small part to the sumptuous Technicolor photography and Olivier’s astounding performance, which – despite the occasional recourse to simply yelling – is full of tenderness, steel and imperious regality, while exhibiting his unique gift for Shakespearean delivery: his understanding so rich, his interpretation so clear, that the dialogue could just as well be in modern slang, were it not for its power, its consequence and its ability to stir anyone with a pulse, an English birth certificate and, ideally, a sword. He also has one hell of a way with a battle sequence: the long take of advancing French cavalry moving from a trot to a murderous gallop is just an astonishingly exciting piece of action cinema.

Olivier adapted two further Shakespeare plays as director and star – Hamlet and Richard III – and while both are better than this celebrated first effort, Henry V still has moments that simply take the breath away. (3)


All Through the Night (Vincent Sherman, 1941) - This is the other film in which insular isolationist Humphrey Bogart has a change of heart to battle despicable Nazi Conrad Veidt. But unlike in Casablanca, he’s a gangster who gets in over his head while searching for the killers of his favourite cheesecake supplier.
This weirdly pitched yarn is a curious mixture of heavy-handed propaganda, mannered dialogue and variable suspense: a melange of Hitchcock, Damon Runyon and what we now recognise as ‘WWII Warners’, as the studio warms to the cinematic possibilities of the conflict. It starts oddly and ends badly, but what’s in between is often good fun, with a frankly astonishing cast doing what it can with a peculiar script that promises much but delivers relatively little.

Though he’s given rather too many visual gags for a performer whose talents lay elsewhere, Frank McHugh’s line deliveries are – of course – an utter joy, while Peter Lorre is perfect as the mirthfully malevolent gunman, Pepi, the diminutive, sleepy-eyed legend having turned this type of playful, cigarette-led scene-stealing into nothing short of an artform. (2.5)



The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1965) – This story of a Scottish schoolteacher engaging her charges in twisted adult games is slim, spare and economical, warped, waspish and filled with malevolent, brilliant throwaway jokes, its nastiness masking a poignancy and perception that linger, along with the bitter taste of betrayal. When Spark’s Sandy talks about the virtue of economy, as a way to live and to create art, she may as well be commenting on the book in which she finds herself. (4)

Orson Welles: One Man Band by Simon Callow (2015) – The third volume of Callow’s biography is another stunning achievement: fast-paced, fascinating and immensely readable, the author expertly juggling disparate sources to not only document and explains Welles’s triumphs and disasters, but also to discern the truth behind his endless self-mythologising, coming as close as anyone has to explaining who Welles was, and why he was like that.

Dealing with Welles's life between his estrangement from Hollywood in 1947 and the release of his intensely personal Chimes at Midnight in 1964, it’s often sad, occasionally punch-the-air inspiring and - for the most part - wonderfully written, with Callow a fond but wise and moral adjudicator with a rare insight into the art of acting. And for that, we can forgive him some excessive use of Latin, an occasional recycling of his pet theories and the suggestion that classic ensemble dramas include “Casablanca and Four Weddings and a Funeral".

Sometimes I did wish we could linger longer on the majesties of those things that work - Othello, Touch of Evil, et al - before moving onto the next backstage debacle, but by any standards it's an exceptional work, and for fans it's pretty much essential.

I'm not sure I will ever get over not seeing Welles's stage play of Moby Dick. (3.5)


Thanks for reading.

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