Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Spotlight, Barbara Stanwyck (again) and Ibsen doing funnies - Reviews #227

Another few reviews. The next post will be about Alfred Hitchcock.

FILMS



CINEMA: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) - All the Pederasts' Men, with an exceptional ensemble bringing to life this true story of the Boston Globe's investigation into child abuse by the Catholic Church. It makes me proud to be a (lapsed) journo and a Tom McCarthy cheerleader, ashamed to be a Catholic.

The film is grown-up storytelling at its best: a methodical procedural, unglamorous and unsentimental, with a similar '70s Hollywood feel to Fincher's Zodiac - the same great character faces and rumpled outfits - though perhaps a little more sheen in its cinematography.

Everything about the movie is classy and convincing, but particularly the performances from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber, McCarthy's spatial awareness and use of montage, and his characteristically superb dialogue: memorable without being stylised, realistic without being mundane.

McCarthy, like Alexander Payne, has that rare gift for making films that entertain as you watch them, then reward you a dozen times over in retrospect. This one diverges considerably from the tried-and-tested formula of his first three - and is perhaps more obviously weighty and virtuous - but once more gives the impression of having not just passed your time pleasantly, but left an indelible mark upon you, with its quiet anger, compassion, and hard-won wisdom, never dampened by naïvete or sensationalism.

Occasionally it's too conventional, occasionally it's touched by cliché, occasionally McAdams looks out of depth in a cast this strong, but mostly it's just magnificent.

Imagine being Tom McCarthy - I've seen four of his movies, and the worst one was Win-Win. Win-Win, which was brilliant. (4)

See also: I loved McCarthy's first three films: The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win-Win. I haven't seen The Cobbler yet. Apparently it's... divisive.

***

I'm a bit obsessed with Barbara Stanwyck. But not blind to her failings. I've ranked her movies here (or the 50 I've seen, anyway).


Bit sexist, but OK.

The File on Thelma Jordon (Robert Siodmak, 1950) - This is my 50th Barbara Stanywck movie, but though she’s often associated with the film noir genre – due to Billy Wilder’s darkly coruscating Double Indemnity – I think it’s only the second time I’ve seen her play a femme fatale.

She’s playing one for Robert Siodmak, the noir pioneer and impeccable visual stylist who gave each of his exercises in the genre a frazzled atmosphere and a dazzling chiaroscuro look, but wasn’t the sort of filmmaker to draw great performances from his actors or triumph totally over incoherence or mediocrity. So when the script and the producer were superb (The Killers, Criss Cross), so was he; when they were middling (The Spiral Staircase, Phantom Lady) he could still create passages of intoxicating fear amidst the silliness, but when the writing wasn’t up to scratch (Christmas Holiday, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry), his films didn’t amount to very much at all.

This one’s an above-par noir that benefits from a surprisingly (and intensely) sexy beginning – aside from some thin ‘lol he’s drunk’ comedy – an unusually fresh later performance from Stanwyck and a twisty-turny narrative that while not entirely novel is still pretty good fun. Wendell Corey is a drunk, married assistant DA who falls in love with the niece (Stanwyck) of a wealthy dowager, only for their affair to lead to lies, mystery... and murder. Obviously, since it’s film noir.

The central section dealing with the crime is weirdly weak, but Corey’s story, placing him between two women that he loves – one crazily, the other fondly but with reservations strengthened by familiarity – is very nicely realised, the legal tricks peppering the climactic trial are neatly done, and there are some brilliant flourishes from Siodmak, including an exhilarating build-up to the verdict, in which a key character leaves their cell in a fug of sympathy and sadism, and marches through the gathering storm of reporters, through the crowded lobby and up the steps of the courtroom. The use of exteriors and intelligent angles, the effortless rhythm of the cutting and the purposeful pacing of the actors creates a dazzling synthesis.

But if there are three problems with old movies – the main offenders being racism and reactionary politics, to be honest – then one of them is undoubtedly the restrictions on criminal characters enforced by the severe application of the censorious Hays Code from mid-1934. The need to punish all wrongdoers (and often to climactically soften their characters) leads either to predictability or simply ludicrous denouements, and here it’s the latter, with the film singularly failing to deal with the constraints of the Code in an ending that we can charitably describe as “fucking stupid”. Cool closing shot, though. (3)

***


What a very shiny face.

No Man of Her Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1950) - A mediocre melonoirma re-teaming the director and star of my favourite film, Remember the Night, to rather minimal effect.

Barbara Stanwyck is a gloomily intoning woman who receives a phone call saying that either she or her husband are about to be booked for murder – then in flashback we learn her story: how she stole the identity of a dead woman so she could move in with rich in-laws and get the best start for her kid.

The voiceover is atrocious and the story no great shakes, but Stanwyck gives one of her better later performances – diverging from the ‘whiny victim’/’one-dimensional strong woman’ stock types she increasingly played – and the ending is oddly and unexpectedly satisfying.

Still, the echoes of the immortal Remember the Night, in which Stanwyck also shepherded a secret while staying with a kind, protective surrogate family, don’t help it, and nor does the fact that its basic framework – a lonely woman poses as a man’s wife after he has an accident, only to fall for his brother – was recycled for the exemplary ‘90s rom-com, While You Were Sleeping.

Here the story just seems far-fetched and, even more problematically, neither particularly affecting nor very enjoyable to watch. (2.5)

***


I think the marketing department may have slightly misunderstood what this film is about.

Trooper Hook (Charles Marquis Warren, 1957) - A wildly, even fascinatingly erratic Western, featuring the twin delights of Joel McCrea threatening to shoot a child in the head and talking about when he once pretended to be a dog for a month – a monologue so silly that you can scarcely believe it’s actually happening.

The mighty McCrea (one of my favourite actors) is the mildly haunted cavalry soldier of the title, who rescues a white woman (Barbara Stanwyck) from a Native American chief, and takes her and her mixed-race (sorry, “half breed”) son back to her husband, the group being joined on their journey by various racists, hypocrites and fugitive Injuns bent on revenge.

The basic story is fine – the sort of thing Randolph Scott was currently doing in the seven celebrated Ranown movies – but the dialogue is flat, most of the supporting cast are dreadful and ultimately the low-budget tells, culminating in some farcical back projection.

Despite that, it’s not a film you can dismiss completely: its racial politics are interesting enough, the leads are both pretty good and though the narrative founders for a while following a magnificent opening shot, the arrival of Earl Holliman’s dissolute young cowboy really gets things moving. His character is extremely well thought-out, and his interplay with McCrea is lovely, giving the film the heart it had been missing, and which up until then had been replaced by treacle. (2.5)

***

THEATRE



The Master Builder (The Old Vic, Friday 19 February) - After a long week at work, you don't necessarily feel like an exercise in chilly existential horror from Henrik Ibsen. So David Hare's decision to include a few jokes was welcome, though whether it made the madness and guilty more acute by throwing it into sharp relief, or simply served to undercut it, I'm still not sure.

Ralph Fiennes is the Master Builder, a brilliant but difficult man who refuses to relinquish his hold on his apprentice, Ragnar, or Ragnar's fiancée, Kaja. Is he in love with her, or jealous of his protégé, and just what is the truth of the leggy blonde woman (Sarah Snook) who just appeared in his front room. Fiennes is a fine actor with a remarkable stage presence, though I was surprised - perhaps even a little disappointed - at how similar his performance was to the one he gave in Man vs Superman at the National last year, in what was a very different role, right down to the anguished whispery shouting. We didn't get a breakdown there, though, and the moment in which he collapses to the floor, like a man with an ulcer of the soul, is wrenchingly powerful. In fact, this adaptation does the big moments well, and sometimes just creates big moments for itself, as when Snook's Hilde leaps onto a table to bellow her beliefs, or flies above the stalls on a swing. There's an unselfconsciousness from her in those big moments that compensates for a saminess in her sonorous Scandinavian line readings, and she and Fiennes have great chemistry that gives this production most of its best moments.

Most of the worst ones come from Charlie Cameron as Kaja. She brings an enviable list of credits and an abundance of little girl mannerisms and unbearable stage school inflections, creating a cipher of naivete that could convince an agnostic they hate the theatre within half a minute. As the Master Builder's wife, Linda Emond is quite the opposite of Snook: thoroughly believable but without the flashes of brilliance that can light up a theatre.

Those flashes are spectacular, but between them - and despite them - this production doesn't ever really nail its points: the mystery of love and human connection, the nature of madness, the chasm between what we do and should feel, between what we want and how we feel when we get it, the Rothian idea of man's basic unknowability. It's repetitive, rather than incisive, even if its fatalism does strike one more as grand tragedy than mere predictability.

Beyond Hare's script with its humour, modern vernacular and occasional moments of unforgettable lamenting ("It's like being chained to a corpse"), the play benefits from Simon Baker's familiar but effective use of soundscapes underscoring references to the film's central tragedy - until the idea becomes too literal and obvious - and a striking set of charred wood somewhere between planks and branches: tangled minds and the basis of construction, all touched by fire, a permanent backdrop to the action that will hang there as long as the Master Builder's life lasts. The set is lightly dressed - desks and chairs for an office, tall thin book shelves and a table for a living room, wisps of foliage for a garden - and the lighting sensitively done, most impressive in the climactic coup de theatre, which is nothing groundbreaking yet done with an immense conviction: the denouement this flawed but spirited adaptation needs. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

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