Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Douglas Sirk, Hail, Caesar!, and the truth about The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair - Reviews #230

Plus: Warhol, a sleeper and the development of an unexpected crush.

CINEMA: Hail, Caesar! (Joel Coen, 2016) - The Coens’ 17th movie is a sort of Hollywood-on-film cartoon, following Capitol Pictures’ head of physical production, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), as he deals with a litany of problems, some of them day-to-day – an ingenue posing for soft-core shots, another getting pregnant (shades of Loretta Young) – and some not, like his principal star (George Clooney) being kidnapped by ‘The Future’.

It reminds me a little of Boy Meets Girl, the excellent behind-the-screen comedy written by the Spewacks and made by Warner in 1938, and the studio world it depicts has rather more to do with that period than the 1950s, an incongruous setting apparently required by its plot about fifth columnists.

In fact, as much as it may appear to capture the Old Hollywood era, little of the film really does: Scarlett Johansson’s splashy number utilises Busby Berkeley effects that he never threw into his Esther Williams numbers – from kaleidoscopic formations to bubbly cuts – Channing Tatum’s ‘No Dames’ routine has none of the imagination or escalation of a proper Gene Kelly dance number, and the principal film-within-a-film, Hail, Caesar!, is just a standard knock off of Wyler’s interminable Ben-Hur. Still, they understand how aspect ratios work, which is one up on most people who try to take off old films, and the name-check for Blessed Event was very welcome.

Some bits succeed, with Alden Ehrenreich giving a simply lovely performance as a Western hero ill-at-ease on a drawing room set (his “Would that it were that simple” conversation with director Ralph Fiennes is gold, as is his spaghetti lasso) and the scene between Mannix and his various religious advisors is extremely funny, but neither that nor the post-modern material about Hollywood communists is going to make much sense to anyone without an in-depth understanding of Hollywood history – and anyone who has that is going to see the holes in the rest of this pastiche. Added to which, some of it is frankly just rubbish, including Tilda Swinton’s bit as twin gossip columnists (give me strength), and a dreadful scene with Frances McDormand, one of those smug Coen routines that pranks the audience for daring to care about the characters.

Incidentally, the real Mannix – who gives this character his name and half his job-description – was basically the worst human being in Hollywood. I’m in love with the studio era, for all its flaws (and both its flaws and its virtues are handily summed up in a brilliant little discussion between Clooney and Brolin), but this insubstantial film doesn’t evoke it in any meaningful way, preferring instead to heighten its depictions to the point of parody, and then rip the piss out of the result, a smug, duplicitous relationship that colours too much of the Coens’ work. It could have been great, but it’s not. (2.5)


Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012) - An unexpectedly fantastic movie – based on a classified ad – about journo Jake Johnson and intern Aubrey Plaza going in search of eccentric Mark Duplass, who believes he’s built a time machine. It has a distinctive (and hilarious) sense of humour, a penchant for the unexpected and an abundance of genuine human emotion, thanks chiefly to the chemistry between Duplass and Plaza – both of whom are superb, though especially her. The way she looks at him when they’re by the campfire is worth five stars by itself. (4)


The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk, 1957) - An atmospheric, hard-as-nails Sirk film, adapted from William Faulkner's Pylon, about the seedy, booze-soaked world of carnival flyers. Robert Stack is an embittered war hero racing for chicken feed, Dorothy Malone his lonely, lovelorn wife, Jack Carson the mechanic in love with her, and Rock Hudson a journo who falls under their spell. It's astonishingly well-directed - a bit of dodgy back-projection aside - with a stunning look, nasty, brooding performances, and a texture and toughness that's all its own. A bruising little classic. (3.5)


Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amy Berg, 2015) - I've been listening to Janis since I was a kid, but my knowledge of her life was piecemeal, cobbled together from various magazine features. This was a well-rounded, affecting portrait that went down a couple of blind alleys (the Summertime segment is really muddled) but left a strong impression.

Assorted thoughts:

- How fucking sexy was Janis Joplin on stage?
- The version of Ball and Chain at Monterey may be the greatest five minutes of film ever shot (no hyperbole, honest). Trust Pennebaker to get her heels coming up off her shoes too - which other filmmaker would have thought of that? I'm saying he's a great documentarian, not a foot fetishist.
- Chan Marshall's readings of Janis's letters aren't nearly as good as Ellie Bamber's was at Letters Live.
- American women referring to their boyfriends as "daddy" during sex is quite weird.
- I'd never thought of Pearl as vastly expanding what was asked of Janis's voice, but they're right - it really did.
- No rise-and-fall music doc can apparently match Amy (and I've seen a *lot*), but this one lifts you higher and cuts you deeper than most. The clips of her arsing around are delightful, the live footage is exhilarating... until Woodstock, but the 'ugliest man' anecdote, the school reunion interview and the telegram absolutely floored me.




The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker (2012)
– This publishing sensation comes with a blurb quote from Philip Schofield (“It’s a terrific story and I’m loving it”) and another from the German press, saying that it’s better than Philip Roth. Frankly if you think this is better than Philip Roth, you should not have any job, let alone that of a book reviewer. It is a bit like Philip Roth, though, chronicling tragedy in an effectively evoked small American town, with our tour guide a novelist exploring his hero’s past – shades of the incredible American Pastoral, the best book I read last year. It’s shallow, often cliched hokum written in trite prose (at least in the English translation), not as funny as it imagines nor nearly as profound, while its book-within-a-book – supposedly the defining literary achievement of the past 50 years – is frankly bobbins, but if Dicker’s novel is nothing but plot, thank goodness that its labyrinthine plot is crafted with virtuosic meticulousness, making it a gripping and compulsively readable book, impossible to put down and almost as tricky to second guess. If you don’t go in expecting high art, you should find the rewards considerable. It’s a terrific story and I loved it, with considerable reservations. (3)



Andy Warhol (Ashmolean Museum)
- A small, brilliant celebration of Warhol's work, from striking but superficial tracings of socialites and celebrities to loops of experimental films and bold, brilliant, perfectly contextualised prints, the best of which finds him sticking great big honking portraits of his friend and polar opposite Joseph Beuys on a cheap laundry bag. From this vantage point, he seems more like a conflicted commentator on his times - bemoaning the unthinking acquisitiveness of art collectors while being commissioned to draw titled millionaires - than a hypocrite, pushing the boundaries of both imagery and popular culture, and exploring his own obsessions and failings, as he cuts a singular swathe through counter-culture and then mainstream America. (4)


Thanks for reading.

Beggars of Life - Reviews #229

CINEMA: Beggars of Live (William A. Wellman, 1928)
with live accompaniment from the Dodge Brothers; Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall

A grim but intoxicating silent wonder from William Wellman, with a rough-and-ready storyline, Louise Brooks' best American performance and a first 45 minutes of almost perpetual motion, as our heroine kills an attempted rapist, dresses as a bloke and then hops freights with hobo Richard Arlen, trying to shake the "dicks" on their tail (stop sniggering).

Wellman made most of the best movies about trains and though Wild Boys of the Road remains one of the finest - and most violent - Pre-Code movies around, he never bettered the stunning, rolling, juddering, smoking, dangerous, desperate, hypnotic and free, wonderfully free evocation of the rails that he achieves here.

It's the backdrop to a timeless story of love and another of redemption, as sleazy, hulking, kind-of-cool hobo Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery, giving the performance of his life) sees the lengths that the fugitives will go to for one another, and decides that maybe he should stop being a bastard. As 'the girl', Louise Brooks is modern, touching, beguiling, sexy, sweet, unaffected and quite outrageously steely.

There are grace notes aplenty, good gags, smooth but breathless tracking shots that take you to the heart of action, love scenes of refreshing originality - including a beaut in a haystack - and the bloodiest meet cute of all time, followed immediately by a frankly staggering murder montage that recalls (or anticipates) Abel Gance at his best.

I saw it, at long last, at my office, with astonishing, apposite accompaniment from Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers that added immeasurably to every scene: a rollicking, raucous, nuanced soundtrack bursting with energy and emotion. If you ever get the chance to experience that: leap. Leap like a hobo going for the last freight to freedom. (4)

See also: I wrote about Louise Brooks' wonderful essays here: the book includes a superb, upsetting rumination on her experiences filming Beggars of Life. Richard Arlen also starred in Wellman's Wings, which I discussed here.


Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Steve James, Cry Danger and the burning of books - Reviews #228

My last post was about Alfred Hitchcock. Here's an 11th fact about him: the worst silent movie inter-title he ever wrote (according to Hitchcock himself) was in Easy Virtue, in which Isabel Jeans's Larita is deluged by photographers outside a courthouse. Spreading her arms, she cries: "Shoot, there's nothing left to kill!" The other 10 things I learnt about Hitchcock are here.

I don't spend many weekends nowadays just watching films, but I did this past weekend. Some reviews for you, ranging from a heartbreaking documentary to a rip-roaring ride.


Cry Danger (Robert Parrish, 1951) - One of my favourite noirs: a trim, cynical and brutal film, with insanely good dialogue, an unmatchable LA atmosphere and a great low-key ending.

In the best of his many fine excursions into the genre, Dick Powell (who also directed most of the film uncredited) is Rocky Malloy, who comes out of prison and tries to find out who just cost him five years of his life.

The scenes where he spars one-sidedly with Wiliam Conrad − banging his head on the floor; playing Russian Roulette with him − are superbly nasty, Rhonda Fleming is a fine female lead, and Richard Erdman (Community's Leonard) brings the pathos as Powell's Marine buddy.

A short, sharp shock, and a brilliant one at that, but not without a dark vein of wit leading to its beating heart.

In the whole of film noir, I think there's only one movie I prefer, and that's Out of the Past. (4)

Incidentally, I wrote to Rhonda Fleming about this film in 2011 and she sent me surely the loveliest letter I've ever had from anyone in the movies.


Yes, he is basically Dwight Schrute.

Stevie (Steve James, 2002)
- Steve James's first documentary since Hoop Dreams (my favourite of all time) wasn't supposed to turn out like this.

After embarking on a piece about his estranged "little brother" − the damaged kid to whom he'd acted as a mentor while at college − his subject, Stevie Fielding, was charged with raping his own eight-year-old cousin.

This harrowing profile examines the circumstances that shaped Stevie: how he was beaten by his mother, raped by people at his foster home, and then successively abandoned by anybody to whom he forged close ties.

As a portrait of a thick, poor, rural guy charged with a horrific crime, filmed across several years, it reminded me a lot of Making a Murderer, and it's just as upsetting and compelling, though in this case there's no ghoulishness yet little doubt that he's guilty, so the point of the movie is not to weigh up the evidence (or to dwell endlessly on it), but to try to understand what went so very, very badly wrong.

Atypically, James inserts himself into this story (something he didn't do in Hoop Dreams or The Interrupters), but that makes perfect sense in the context, and his balancing of different viewpoints, integration of expert testimony (via Stevie's mental health case files) and completely unsensational treatment make it a tough but extremely valuable watch, full of insights but without trite or simplistic psychology.

Incidentally, Patricia, the old schoolfriend of Stevie's fiancée whom they stay with in Chicago, is my absolute hero. (3.5)


Rush (Ron Howard, 2013) - An astonishingly entertaining movie about the rivalry between playboy English F1 driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and his ruthless, driven Austrian counterpart, Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), as their rivalry sparks, mounts and then spins completely out of control.

Howard’s film occasionally stalls when allowing bit part players to utter stock platitudes, hurling us out of the story, but for the most part it’s a dizzying combination of thrill ride and compelling character drama, that makes you care – really care – about a pair of toffs who drive too fast for a living.

Writer Peter Morgan offers us that strong if formulaic adversarial narrative he does so well, the visual tics take you to the heart of the action in exhilarating style, and there’s some absolutely exquisite lip-pursing from Brühl. It's also nice to see Christian McKay on cinema screens again: his last scene of note is a little gem.

It's as much fun as any film of the past few years. It almost made me like cars. (3.5)


Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (Kenneth Bowser, 2011) - A heartfelt, brilliantly edited documentary about the magnificent '60s protest singer Phil Ochs, who helped give a voice to a generation, while suffering the innumerable setbacks of his generation, flirting periodically with performance art, and wrestling with the manic depression that ultimately killed him at 35.

I first heard him when I was a teenager, after Thea Gilmore covered his signature song, When I'm Gone, at the Manchester Academy, and I've been a fan ever since, even if the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of much of his music makes it a lot more dated than Dylan's (his contemporary, friend and rival).

In this tender but by no means rose-tinted portrait, he comes across a mass of contradictions: a socialist patriot who went to military school and idolised Kennedy, an egomaniac who wrote the definitive song of the anti-Vietnam movement, appeared at every left-leaning benefit he was ever asked to, and spent his free time in foreign bordellos.

Seen on stage or heard in voiceover, he's an extraordinarily clear-eyed and intelligent commentator on his times, brilliantly lampooning the absurdity of government policy, bitterly acknowledging the canniness of his opposition and displaying a greater understanding of how to connect with the working man than almost any of his contemporaries.

By the end, having fall in love with him, you watch him fall to pieces, a bloated, alcoholic wreck in rectangular shades, babbling about conspiracies on a street corner.

It's impossible to do justice to a life as full (and as full of triumphs and sorrows) as his in just an hour and 36 minutes, whilst mapping out the social and political changes that shaped Ochs and allowed him to flourish, but this impressive film gives it a good go, with insightful contributions from his family and friends (plus Jello Biafra and Christopher Hitchens!), perfectly chosen clips and a near-constant soundtrack of remarkable music. (3)

See also: I reviewed Martin Scorsese's astonishing Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, here.


Limitless (Neil Burger, 2011) - What would you do if you had unlimited brainpower? "I would get a haircut and becomes a stockbroker, then maybe a politician" − Bradley Cooper in this film. What a staggeringly limited amount of ambition.

This was quite fun while I was watching it, but it didn't amount to much. The trick photography with the continuous zoom was fucking ace, though. (2.5)


You can stand there until you stop shrugging.

Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008) - Errol Morris's documentary takes you vividly inside the hellhole that was Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison − through interviews, reconstruction and those unfortunately iconic pictures of detainees being tortured by US soldiers − but it has almost no answers, or even suggestions.

Maybe it's just too big and difficult a topic to tackle, even for one of cinema's great documentarians. He underlines the almost arbitrary definitions of torture used by the US military, but fails to hold anyone to account. The result is a very sad, frustrating film; its 'highlight' − if there is such a thing − the testimony of the apparently gentle, sweet-natured Sabrina Harman, whose complicity in the abuse, whether partial or otherwise, is chilling to comprehend.

Morris's brilliant command of that narrative shows that his powers have merely come up against something insurmountable, not deserted him entirely. (2.5)


The Ladykillers (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2004) - The Coens' worst film by some considerable distance − the main problem: it's not funny. I'm not a big fan of the Ealing original, but it's a fair bit better than this childish, cartoonish Southern misfire, in which loquacious 'professor' Tom Hanks moves his gang of misfits into the basement of an old house so they can knock off the casino next door. The catch: his new landlady is a slightly batty old woman (Irma P. Hall), who keeps getting in the way. I only laughed twice. Marlon Wayans shouts endlessly. The gospel soundtrack and a neat PoV American Football game are among its few virtues. (1.5)



Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1954)
- Bradbury’s vision of a dystopian world in which books are banned feels a little clichéd now, and never quite lives up to the literary promise of its opening (his economical, gently experimental prose style quickly becoming repetitive), but it offers a solid story with a strong anti-conformity message, a selection of breakneck twists and a simply perfect final page. And as much as it’s a heavyhanded book, with a hero whose job as a “fireman” is to burn books, houses and the people inside them, the atmosphere surrounding that lifestyle is immaculately rendered, while there are also moments of deft, deceptively astute satire, including the stat’s claim that the first “fireman” was Benjamin Franklin. It’s curious how much of a fool Bradbury decided to make his hero, Guy Montag, his erratic, childish behaviour frequently commented on by other characters: perhaps the author’s point is simply that a world this stifling would create men ill-equipped to offer resistance; perhaps it was merely the demands of plotting. I don’t read much sci-fi – aside from Vonnegut – but this stark, admirably unsentimental book didn’t seem big or bold or ultimately coherent enough to justify its exalted reputation, while its equation of nature with moral purity had been done to death, even then. Its treatment of the printed word is alternately pretentious and profound. (3)


Thanks for reading.