Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review: Sunset Blvd at the London Coliseum

'This production did something to me'

Saturday 23 February 2016 (matinee)



Though I didn’t unequivocally laud the ENO’s production of Sunset Blvd, I did love it – or at least bits of it – intensely. I loved the melodies, the minor explosions of inventively choreographed dance, the pairing of Michael Xavier – playing cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis – and Siobhan Dillon, as his possible lifeline, bright-eyed studio scribe Betty Schaefer. So I went to see it again. The ticket was £105, but that’s exactly how much I’ve made recently from selling old DVDs and books, and one of the three remaining stalls seats was, erm, on the front row.

The one false note for me the first time out was Glenn Close’s former silent siren, Norma Desmond: her voice seemed to be a bit off – at times flat or thin – and her formerly Tony award-winning characterisation was fairly one-dimensional. From last Wednesday to Saturday, including the matinee show that I caught, she was replaced by understudy Ria Jones. And she was very good, with a big voice and an ability to pull a little pathos from the part (an opportunity that Close conspicuously missed), particularly during a scene in which Norma visits Paramount Pictures and an old crew member picks her out with a spotlight. It’s a potentially great moment, but it took Jones’s stoic, wordless and largely internalised emoting to put it across. There aren’t many moments like that in the show, though, as unlike Wilder’s poignant, pungent and ultimately profound satire, it tends to find tragedy in her situation, rather than her character. Here, Norma’s often seen to be acting, not truly suffering, which could make her subsequent nosedive powerfully abrupt or heightened through juxtaposition, but actually just makes it fairly unconvincing. There’s a broadness, a campness in the denouement, and in the play as a whole, that prevents you from truly engaging in her plight. (I also wondered if, as good as she was, the prolonged standing ovation that Jones received was as much about her status as an understudy, and of the audience trying to convince themselves that they had got value for money. There were no refunds offered, while an on-stage ENO functionary took the unusual step of saying that he was "delighted" Jones would be appearing: an ambitious gambit.)

Where it does score is in enveloping Gillis in an unfolding nightmare: a sad and seedy Hollywood evoked with minimal staging and blessed with a beguiling counterpoint: a handful of gloriously escapist scenes featuring Xavier and Gillis. As much as I enjoy the music as a whole, its high-points are unquestionably those two songs: the 'Girl Meets Boy' number that causes their love to bud and blossom, and captures it as it does; and the haunting, exceptionally moving 'Too Much in Love to Care': a soaring evocation of a futile love affair, and one of my favourite songs in musical theatre. The chatty, informal parts of Xavier’s delivery at times rob 'Girl Meets Boy' of some sonically sublime moments, but he has one hell of a voice, and Dillon’s exceptional balladeering carries to the back of the Upper Circle, matched to an utterly appealing performance that gives the play the moral centre it so desperately needs, before proceeding to smash your heart to pieces. When 'Too Much in Love to Care' is fleetingly reprised close to the death, it’s the characterisation here – Xavier’s self-loathing, Dillon’s transformative selflessness – that allows it to land with such devastating results.

The other numbers are good, and given oomph by a 48-piece on-stage orchestra, though I do find the two makeover scenes in Lloyd Webber’s version rather trite and artificial. Staged as they are here, they have no real place in Wilder’s world and come off merely as chick flick fluff, despite the uneasy subtext. Those songs – 'The Lady’s Paying' and 'Eternal Youth Is Worth a Little Suffering' – are also hampered by some weak and clunky couplets that sound like they were dashed off in a few minutes (the rhyming of ‘kosher’ and ‘brochure’ is particularly lousy), though they’re enjoyable enough in themselves, and there’s no faulting the composer’s melodies. The ballads dealing with Norma (from 'With One Look', vocalised by her, to 'The Greatest Star of All', sung by her butler Max) are fine, even show-stopping in their slow, windy, epic way, but they're not exactly my sort of thing.

All in all, though, it’s a fine play and this production – with its heady air of stifling desperation, of bitter, bullet-ridden, waterlogged wisdom, of redemptive love flailing in the face of fate – did something to me. I’ve never been back to see a show a second time, but with this the pull was too strong. Its wry sense of humour, sour celebration of Hollywood narcissicism and enrapturing songs got under my skin. And while it’s not perfect by any stretch, I doubt I’ll see another show this year that affects me so deeply.

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Robert Bresson, Porco Rosso and an unexpectedly fantastic musical - Reviews #234

Plus explosions, an early talkie that everyone says is rubbish, and hoo-hah.

FILMS



Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967) - Bresson's film about a neglected, abused teenage girl is difficult, gruelling and magnificent: an unrelenting, excoriating examination of human cruelty in a pitiless world (as was his previous film, Au hasard Balthazar): a flood of pain shaping its heroine into a malformed, spiteful, confused, unhappy and vicious young woman, but the director never losing sight of her basic humanity. As such, this must surely have been a huge influence on the Dardenne brothers, particularly the intriguing Rosetta and their 2011 masterpiece, The Kid with a Bike.

Lead actress Nadine Nortier apparently couldn't cry (so we always see her after the 'tears' have begun), but is otherwise note-perfect in her only film, and if a subplot about the violent rivals for a barmaid's attention occasionally distracts from the central story, that main narrative is so unsentimental, so intensely moving, so boldly and perfectly rendered that it barely seems to matter. Perhaps the best bit, ironically, is at first the lightest: a Truffaut-esque sequence on fairground dodgems that promises catharsis then offers quite the opposite. (4)

***



Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992) - A wonderfully unpredictable, imaginative Studio Ghibli film about a former WWI flying ace, since turned into a pig, who battles pirates, evades fascists and unwittingly steals hearts in Mussolini's Italy.

It took me a while to warm to Ghibli's style: the stark simplicity of the foreground figures not as obviously attractive as, say, peak Disney (around about Bambi), but I've grown to love it: the stunning, sumptuously realised backdrops, the love and evocation of movement, those moments with the quality of a dream in which the bottom falls out of your world or you're lifted to improbably, unbelievable heights.

There are countless moments like that in Porco Rosso: the aerial dogfights, a fly-by over chanteuse Gina's remote house, and a flashback to the war that is simply one of the most ambitious, intensely moving animated passages I have ever seen on the big screen (today at London's legendary Prince Charles Cinema).

The film is an unashamed mixture of genres, moods and tones: from unapologetic (and sometimes slightly long-winded) comedy to existential rumination, epic romance to knockabout action, as Miyazaki develops a typically odd premise into a barnstorming, characteristically moving study of what it is to be human. (3.5)

***


It's better than it looks.

Kismet (Vincente Minnelli, 1955)

I saw your face, and I ascended
Out of the commonplace, into the rare
Somewhere in space, I hang suspended
Until I know there's a chance that you care.
- Stranger in Paradise


A surprisingly excellent, even magical later MGM musical with an Arabian Nights flavour, adapted by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis from their own hit Broadway play, about Baghdad-based thief Howard Keel setting himself up as a kingmaking sorcerer, while his daughter (Ann Blyth) falls in love with the incognito caliph (Vic Damone).

Its world is rather gaudily realised and, since the admittedly cheesy Keel can't dance, his songs generally feature him striding or crawling around, but the story is engaging, the script is pretty funny and the exuberantly-performed score is absolutely and unequivocally fantastic, with complex melodies coupled to either witty, intricately-rhymed lyrics or a surfeit of genuine emotion, in numbers like Stranger in Paradise, And This Is My Beloved and the spectacular Not Since Nineveh, a knockout dance number featuring the flexible, Fosse-ish 'Princesses of Ababu' (Reiko Sato, Patricia Dunn and Wonci Liu). The latter is vocalised by Dolores Gray who is, as usual, bloody amazing.

I've had this for ages but had never gotten around to it, imagining (with no good reason) that it would be bloated and self-serious, with little resonance beyond its immediate story. It's anything but, and, while it remains extremely divisive − particularly among fans of the play − I really loved it. (3.5)

***



The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott, 1991)

"Jake attacks his job with a certain exuberance."
"Shit, we're being beat up by the inventor of Scrabble."

An unbelievably entertaining action-comedy, filled wall-to-wall with Shane Black zingers, as PI Bruce Willis and disgraced ex-quarterback Damon Wayans team up to investigate the murder of an exotic dancer, amidst an endless succession of exploding cars.

It's formulaic, with a rather nasty denouement, and - for an action director - Tony Scott just isn't that good at directing action, framing fine individual shots in his hazy, slo-mo, sunset style, but never knitting them together with any great sense of spatial awareness.

Thankfully the film is also incredibly funny, emotionally persuasive in its heavy-handed Hollywood way, and well played across the board, with Willis giving an appealing, charismatic star performance, before his wisecracking and stylised wincing traversed far the wrong side of smug.

Black has written a few of my favourite actioners, including the bonkers feminist amnesiac thriller, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the post-modern masterpiece, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This one may be a fraction below the latter, but - misogny and familiarity aside - it's pretty damn great nonetheless. (3.5)

***



Tempest (Sam Taylor, 1928) - Wonderful silent hokum, set in the lead-up to the Russian Revolution (presented here more like the French), with John Barrymore in his element as a peasant-turned-commissioned-officer, who falls for a princess (Camilla Horn), whose Horn-iness manifests itself as sadism.

The background is patently phony and the story a little far-fetched, not helped by Boris de Fast and Ullrich Haupt's one-dimensional (though charismatic) villainy, but what's in the foreground is immediate, intimate and irresistible, with Barrymore commanding the screen - and perhaps giving us a glimpse of one of his great stage roles, Galsworthy's Justice, in the prison scenes - while generating stunning chemistry with Horn, and Louis Wolheim's faithful sergeant and George Fawcett's sentimental general offering well-written, deftly-rendered support.

It doesn't touch art, as Barrymore's preposterously underrated film, The Beloved Rogue, did the previous year, but as entertainment it's tough to beat. (3.5)

***



Mr. Skeffington (Vincente Sherman, 1944) - A long, glossy but rewarding Bette Davis vehicle, adapted from a contemporary bestseller, with the star as a vain, cold flirt who marries (but doesn't love) measured, doting banker Claude Rains to save her feckle brother's reputation. It's a bit uneven, with a cartoonish supporting cast and a score that's initially too overbearing, but the leads are amazing, with Davis completely commanding and convincing as she ages to 50 then falls apart, and Rains playing a devastating scene in a restaurant that's as good as anything he ever did (except when he said, "Oh-thank-you-veddy-much" in Casablanca, obviously). (3)

***



Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest, 1992) - Rain Man Goes Blind. Hoo-hah.

It's cynical at first, then almost hypnotically naive (and silly), but Pacino's massive, Oscar-ogling performance works. (2.5)

***



Night Flight (Clarence Brown, 1933) - I just watched this because it's the only film that Myrna Loy starred in which I hadn't seen. It's one of a slew of ensemble dramas with interlocking stories made at MGM in the early '30s (typically starring one or more Barrymores), and this time focusing on aviation, a zeitgeisty subject about which dozens of movies were made that decade, some great (Only Angels Have Wings, Test Pilot) and many, well, not.

Set a few years previously, before night flights became standard, it's a heavily flawed movie that leans far too much on mediocre flight footage, and, when it does set foot on the ground, it's frequently too unrealistic (Helen Hayes having an idiotic dinner party by herself), too saccharine (Helen Hayes being all mawkish about husband Clark Gable) or too boring (people just talking about planes).

Drably directed by Garbo's favourite, Clarence Brown, it's at its best when dealing with human emotion in an understated or unsentimental way: flyer Robert Montgomery's decision to take boss Lionel Barrymore out to dinner, Loy casually expressing her deepest concerns to husband William Gargan about his safety; or imperious, uber-tough John Barrymore barking out his views on employee safety. It's not one of the stage legend's best performances (The Beloved Rogue, Counsellor-at-Law<, A Bill of Divorcement, Twentieth Century), but nor is he phoning it in as he would so often later on: though there's a bit of raised-eyebrow laziness, his voice and presence are so commanding that − almost invariably standing before a huge map of South America with moving lights − he dominates the film.

By contrast, Helen Hayes − another Broadway titan, whose accomplishments dwarfed Barrymore's − is playing a character so badly-written and unconvincing that she's ultimately just irritating, no mean feat when you consider that we would usually root for a blameless woman who's husband has gone missing while piloting a perilous night flight. That's a pity, as she made fewer than 20 proper appearances in films, and her first scene here is really promising.

Though billed above the title for the first time, Myrna's actually only in the film for about six minutes, and the rest wasn't really worth the effort, despite a cast that on paper is almost uniquely impressive. (2)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Born Reckless (John Ford and Andrew Bennison, 1930) - I don't usually watch films that I think will be rubbish, but I made an exception in the case of the infamous Born Reckless, a film synonymous with early talkie stiltedness.

Why? Partly because I already had it on DVD (I bought it for the other film, Pilgrimage), but mostly because it was made by my favourite director (John Ford, best known for his Westerns) and features my favourite male actor (nasal Pre-Code motormouth, Lee Tracy) - the only time the two ever worked together.

And it's actually a bit better than its reputation suggests. Yes, much of the actors' delivery is hesitant and uncertain in that unmistakable early talkie way - almost all sound films made between 1927 and '29 have this problem, though particularly those staged by Andrew Bennison, the dialogue director here - but hero Edmund Lowe and sardonic reporter Tracy (but of course) are both fairly good, and there are some effective visual flourishes, particularly during a Western-style gunfight in which Ford dispenses with the fourth wall entirely, dragging his camera back through the flapping saloon doors (if we're being charitable, we can credit the movement to the off-screen barkeep, Needle, but it's a stretch).

Lowe, heftier and earthier than he would be in later roles (and without his pencil moustache), is Louis, a second-gen Italian immigrant who knocks over jewellery stores as part of Warren Hymer's mob. Given a choice between going 'up the river' (coincidentally the name of Ford's next film) or joining the army, he plumps for the latter, becoming a WWI hero. Upon his return to the city, he turns (fairly) respectable, opening a nightclub. But when his old flame's daughter is kidnapped, he has no choice but to grab a gat and head for the hideout where some old pals may be hanging out...

The allegedly comic 'in the army now' scenes are dreadful, but the ones in the city - while hamstrung by some slow dialogue exchanges and flat staging (Lowe and Hymer come face to face near the end for what appears to be a 'bad acting' competition directed by a blind man) - are often quite atmospheric, emotionally convincing and (whisper it) enjoyable.

And if Dudley Nichols' script is a bit too soft - would a murderous gangster really repeatedly dismiss a love rival as 'four eyes'?! - and a bit too clichéd (undermining its 'honour among thieves' material through melodrama and muddy motive), it's by no means the unmitigated disaster as which it's usually painted, and about as good as Roland West's daft but handsome Alibi, released the same year and still hailed by many as a great gangster film. It's interesting too to see Hymer playing a straight heavy, rather than the comic characters he was usually handed.

Fans of the genre would do better checking out the late silent Underworld or the early(ish) talkies, Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, but for Ford completists this one isn't too much of an ordeal. (2)

***



The Case of the Black Cat (William C. McGann, 1936) - The fifth entry in Warner's spectacularly underwhelming Perry Mason series has a smug Ricardo Cortez replacing a bizarrely leaden Warren William, as he investigates a series of murders related to the will of a rich old man (veteran character actor Harry Davenport).

These films are really flat compared to later B mystery-comedy series like Boston Blackie and William's own Lone Wolf, though this entry does get better as it goes along, until a baffling denouement in which Mason manages to win the case without a shred of evidence. That oversight was by second-rate staff writer F. Hugh Herbert, though he does at least throw in a decent twist that I didn't see coming.

I can't be bothered watching the last one in the series, especially as it stars Donald Woods, an actor so uninteresting that he makes Cortez look like Jason Robards. (2)

***



Smarty (Robert Florey, 1934) - A notoriously nasty Pre-Code 'comedy' about how you should slap women around a bit. It was a major flop on release, and deservedly so: though it features the two best character comics of the era, Frank McHugh (who's great) and Edward Everett Horton (who isn't) and has a few amusing bits unrelated to the main story, its central narrative about capricious, flirtatious Joan Blondell deserving − and enjoying − being beaten up by husband Warren William should never have been put on screen. This debacle exacerbated William's sharp decline from Pre-Code behemoth (in films like Skyscraper Souls and Employees' Entrance) to bit-part-playing has-been. Blondell's actually rather good, which is problematic. (1.5)

***

SHORTS



One Run Elmer (Charles Lamont, 1935) - Aside from Grand Slam Opera, this is the Buster Keaton short from his stint at Educational Pictures that has the best reputation: a spirited salute to the joys of baseball, the filmmaker's other enduring passion.

Barely uttering a word, with his pork-pie hat re-established atop his head, and his imagination firing, Buster makes up for a lack of budget and a poor supporting cast as he gets involved in a gasoline price war, destroys most of his possessions in a baseball warm-up and then takes part in a climactic match that's full of fun and charm, if rather lighter on innovation, athleticism and genuine movie magic than the solo game in his classic feature, The Cameraman.

When his desert shack starts to wobble, you can't help but think wistfully of One Week, the sensational short that effectively shot him to megastardom when all was well with the world, but on its own terms One Run Elmer isn't bad, especially if you're a Keaton obsessive. (2.5)

***



Palooka from Paducah (Charles Lamont, 1935) - An excruciatingly bad Buster short - one of 16 variable, no-budget films he made for Educational Pictures in the mid-'30s - with Keaton and his family as thick, dirt-poor rednecks who get involved in pro-wrestling.

Most of the 'jokes' are just embarrassing and those that aren't - Buster giving his brother all the dishes at dinner time, or performing a mock manicure in the ring - are largely no funnier than something you might do yourself if you were bored. The one exception is the last gag in the arena sequence, which isn't particularly funny in itself, but is recognisable as Buster's sense of humour, and so poignantly recalls happier times.

A real nadir. (1)

***

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Basia Bulat, Sunset Blvd: The Musical, and confessions of a completist - Reviews #233

I've been out of the flat a bit. See:

LIVE:


Photo by me, can you tell?


Basia Bulat (Hoxton Square Kitchen) - Since I last saw her properly a year ago, giving my favourite live performance of 2015, Polish-Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat has undergone a quite startling transformation. There were hints of it in the Rough Trade mini-gig she did in February: a strident, rocky performance of songs from her new record, Good Advice, somewhat removed from that earlier folksy set played chiefly on the autoharp. Nothing prepared for me this, though: the whispery, wispy, baby-faced Bulat reincarnated as a power-pop diva in a gold cape, charisma bursting from her, as she belted out crowd-pleasers from behind a keyboard, like some improbable, magnificent union between Janis Joplin and Carly Simon.

Across the 90-minute show, and backed by her Canadian band (comprising support act The Weather Station and a bonus lead guitarist) she played six instruments on songs from the past 11 years, her voice everything from a sweet seduction to a tortured wail, including a stomping dance version of Let Me In (first heard as a Leonard Cohen-esque ballad last year), Fool - with its smooth falsetto replaced by a new arrangement that allows her to vocalise over a full band) - and, best of all, a Springsteen-like version of Five, Four, last heard as a faintly neurotic folk song. Between, there were autoharp versions of four beloved Bulat standards, including In the Night and Heart of My Own, the pop explosion that is Tall, Tall Shadow (title song of her 2013 record) and persuasive renderings of the hopeful Someday Soon and the furious, self-mocking La La Lie, two of the best songs from her current album.

The only track that didn't quite land was Good Advice, partly because of some sound problems at the venue, and partly because it's the least interesting song on her current LP. The encore - It Can't Be You played on a ukulele - was familiar, but little else about this show was, aside from its sheer mindblowing quality. With Yasmine Hamdan, she must be the best and friendliest live act around. (She also had an adorable smear of lipstick on her cheek for the entire show - marry me now, Basia.) (4)

SUPPORT: The Weather Station were happily in that 5% of support acts who are really good, particularly singer and guitarist Tamara Linderman (who sang backing vocals for Basia). They sound like a compact Canadian Fairport, though the songs I liked best were the stripped-down ones using Linderman's ethereal voice to full effect. Their less conventional elements are, unusually, also the less successful. (3)

***



Sunset Blvd. (London Coliseum) - A good first half gives way to a sensational second in this headline-grabbing revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical (based, of course, on Billy Wilder's seminal 1950 movie), which features Glenn Close in the role that won her a Tony and made her a musical star: Wilder's repulsive, tragic silent movie queen, Norma Desmond. Close is merely OK, struggling (literally) to hit the high notes or wring much of the implicit pathos from the role, but the 48-piece on-stage orchestra creates a sensational sound as it brings to life some of Lloyd Webber's most exquisite, affecting melodies, and both Michael Xavier (as Joe) and Siobhan Dillon (as Betty) are superb, Xavier articulating the character's inner conflict and broiling self-loathing in a way that I snobbishly thought might be beyond a West End musical star, while vocalising the numbers impeccably and looking terrific in a little pair of swimming shorts. There's a nice performance from Fred Johanson too, as Max, Desmond's imposing, unhappy butler.

Lonny Price's staging is imaginative, while relying on the imagination - consisting primarily of a metal gantry with two staircases and platforms - and I particularly liked both the use of archive LA footage (beamed onto a translucent screen) and, less obviously, the 'car chase' effect, which consisted of two people running down the steps in the semi-darkness, each holding torches in both hands (they never got around the second problem, though, which is that when they're 'parking' at the back of the stage, they just look like two men with their backs to the audience). A minor shortcoming of the musical adaptation is that Christopher Hampton's rhyming lyrics lack the bitter, sardonic poetry of Wilder's dialogue (some of which remains intact), while the recurring motif - while sumptuous - is perhaps ultimately overused. On the whole, though, I found the show hugely entertaining: a richly atmospheric evocation of Hollywood malaise, immersive, periodically exuberant and ultimately triumphant, if not quite for the reasons I expected. (3.5)

***



The Caretaker (The Old Vic) - I'm not a massive admirer of Harold Pinter's work: his way of writing (just start and you can figure out what it means later, or else not bother and just wait for critics to admiringly tell you) may have heralded a new type of theatre, but what if that type of theatre was a bit, you know, shit? Having said that, I can't watch The Servant - the 1962 Joseph Losey film written by Pinter - without being irredeemably sucked into its psycho-sexual confrontation of class politics, and much of that brilliance is to be found in the text, and between and underneath its abrasive lines.

I thought I'd see The Caretaker for my birthday though, as I like Timothy Spall, and his performance in Secrets & Lies (which I finally saw last year) has stayed with me like little else. Sadly this interminable production is one of the worst I've seen since I started regularly going to West End shows a couple of years ago. The second act provided its fair share of pathos and comic discomfort, thanks chiefly to George MacKay's barking, aggressive, leather-jacketed Pinter surrogate, though Daniel Mays' monologue at the close was extremely well received. Spall was dreadful, though, torpedoing the majority of the play with a single grating, borderline-unlistenable affectation of a line delivery that made me pray for the show to finish.

Three hours it lasts, including two intervals: that's a long time to be incredibly irritated. (1.5)

***

FILMS



What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) - Two of Hollywood's greatest actresses together at last: Bette Davis and Anna Lee. Joan Crawford's in it too.

Robert Aldrich's deliriously nasty Gothic thriller has Hollywood in its bones, and Hollywood stars in their element. As film historians have observed before, Davis's persona was as the great sadist, Crawford's the great masochist, and their roles here are tailored perfectly to their mismatched talents: Bette as ghost-faced former child star, Baby Jane Hudson, who has recently gone mad and taken to persecuting her sister, crippled Golden Age legend, Blanche (Crawford). Lee - who gave three of my favourite performances, in Ford's How Green Was My Valley, Lewton's Bedlam and Fuller's Crimson Kimono - is rather underutilised, though perfectly fine, as their solidly suburban neighbour, while big-boned Victor Buono plays Bette's new musical collaborator with an agreeably repellent, sickly charm, though also quite a bad English accent.

After a masterful prologue (magnificently utilising footage from Davis's most loathed studio potboiler, Parachute Jumper), Aldrich tips us into a rotting mansion, where Davis proceeds to isolate, starve and generally terrify her big-browed nemesis - and if that manifestation of the stars mutual dislike is rather fanciful, the animosity itself was genuine. No two stars ever took bigger lumps out of another than these two (except perhaps for Tom Neal when he kicked Franchot Tone's head in), with the mercurial, sometimes monstrous Davis memorably dubbing her bed-hopping rival, "The original good time that was had by all."

I'm not sure that Aldrich's celebrated, trendsetting and meticulously well-directed film necessarily delivers on all of its early promise, as its story settles into a slightly repetitive rhythm, but it has many passages of nerve-shredding tension, some big dollops of pitch black comedy and two stars in fantastic form. I'm not generally a fan of Crawford, but there's no faulting her work here - she had, as the meme goes, one job, and did it very well - while Bette, that little black love heart on her blanched face, is in simply rampaging form, playing the last word in difficult siblings, though not one without an extremely latent sentimental side. (3.5)

***



La peau douce (François Truffaut, 1964) - Frustrated author Jean Desailly, bored with wife Nelly Benedetti, begins an affair with an air-hostess (Françoise Dorléac), and - worried about being unmasked - proceeds to make some foolish decisions.

It's Brief Encounter meets The Third Man, with nouvelle vague flourishes, fragments of Truffaut's own philosophy and some Hitchcockian suspense: note how the director immediately pitches us into a heart-stopping sequence that we really shouldn't care about, just as he'd envisaged when he spoke to Hitchcock about this very subject in 1962.

The film, Truffaut's fourth, was a critical and commercial failure upon release, with him lamenting that it had been too cold and unsentimental, with a protagonist no-one could care for, but it's full of great details (like Dorléac distractingly examining her reflection in a table knife), fine location flavour (a break-up on a Parisian rooftop!) and intuitive, intelligent female characters.

I'd class myself as a big fan of the director, but I don't think he actually made that many great films: acclaimed movies like Jules et Jim, Anne and Muriel, and The Last Metro leave me cold. This one, though, is mature, intriguing and quite brilliantly directed, if not exactly likeable.

Does the end fit the rest of it? I'm not sure. It's bloody good, though. (3)

***



Kiss and Make-Up (Harlan Thompson, 1934) - This plays almost like a parody of 1930s cinema, with white art deco sets, stylish wipes and an abundance of slightly stilted chorine types with fixed smiles, singsong voices and few clothes. Those bit parts are played by the entire roster of the 1934 WAMPAS Baby Stars, but unlike Clara Bow and Dorothy Mackaill (1924), Mary Astor, Mary Brian, Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray (1926), and Joan Blondell, Constance Cummings, Frances Dee, Rochelle Hudson and Karen Morley (1931), none of this bunch would go on to major stardom: 1934 was the most fallow crop, and the last.

Kiss and Make-Up is a bit sexist, a bit racist and a bit silly, concluding with an idiotic, pointless slapstick chase. But it's also surprisingly funny and full of novelties: slick, mobile direction, Edward Everett Horton and Helen Mack singing a duet about cabbage, and a neat POV opening where you get to be Cary Grant.

The story is that old chestnut - done best in Capra's Platinum Blonde - about a professional (beautician Grant) who loves a boring, shallow woman (his Galatea, Genevieve Tobin), not realising that he should be with his doting, lovelorn secretary. It would be a bit less disingenuous if Hollywood itself didn't routinely prize beauty over character, and the secretary was relatively unattractive, rather than a brunette Helen Mack.

Cary Grant only really became Cary Grant with Leo McCarey's hysterical 1937 film, The Awful Truth, one of the funniest movies ever made, but this is probably the closest he came before that, and it's definitely among his best early performances, with an easy charm, an aloof, offhand wryness even when the joke is very much on him, and even a couple of tuneful performances of the song, Love Divided by Two.

The best thing about the film, though, even acknowledging its attractive look and above-average dialogue, is Horton, who is at the peak of his powers: the scene between him and Grant in Tobin's room is genuinely hilarious. (3)

***



Sherlock Holmes (Albert Parker, 1922) - Here's a novelty: a Sherlock Holmes film without a mystery in it. It's based on a play by William Gillette - who popularised some of the iconography we associate with the character - but it's more true to the incidentals of the character than his essence, the detective portrayed as a romantic sentimentalist who'll go to the wall for the woman he loves.

An extraordinarily handsome John Barrymore - about to embark on his legendary stage triumph as Hamlet - is Holmes, who comes to the aid of a foreign prince and fellow Cambridge University student (Reginald Denny), bringing him into conflict with a nefarious, hairy Limehouse resident by the name of Moriarty - who seems to have been taking style tips from Barrymore's own Mr Hyde (unleashed on an unsuspecting public the previous year).

As a fan of film history, it's fun to see Barrymore as Holmes, to see a debuting Roland Young (as Watson) and William Powell (as a thief in the detective's employ), to see Moriarty introduced in the centre of a spider's web, and the likes of Denny, future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and D. W. Griffith's mistress and leading lady, Carol Dempster, playing off one another. I'm glad the film was rediscovered in the '70s after being thought lost, and that Hugh Hefner stumped up the money for the restoration (!).

It's not actually very good, though. There are trick walls and secret passages (in my experience, a fail-safe indicator that I'm watching a shit film), the Holmes-Watson relationship - so integral to a successful adaptation - has but a single moment of genuine warmth, and the story is just really boring, because there's no mystery and not really any suspense: it's just people squabbling over some letters for 85 minutes. I think so, anyway: I'm not sure if there are frames missing from the existing print, but it all gets quite confusing towards the end, before a completely incomprehensible climax.

Barrymore was a truly great actor, but a lot of the time he couldn't really be arsed, and with Hamlet on the horizon, you get the feeling that his thoughts were over Elsinore rather than at 221b Baker Street. (2)

***



The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003) - Philip Roth's magnificent novel about a professor with a deep, dark secret, becomes an extravagantly bad film starring Anthony Hopkins, who does at least bother to do some acting, which I know he regards as something of a chore nowadays.

The scenes in the '40s about the professor's past are actually rather effective, but square-jawed, long-faced Wentworth Miller - though fine - looks and sounds nothing like Hopkins (who is orange and Welsh) and Nicole Kidman's irritatingly shallow performance sinks the rest, the portentous, overrated actress playing a one-dimensional stock character, rather than the fascinating one Roth wrote.

Compounding the misery is Sinise's Nathan Zuckerman (a recurring figure in the author's work), who must be about the most nondescript character I've ever seen in a film. The source novel may well be unfilmable, but it could be filmed quite a lot better than this. (1.5)

***

TV



The Kingfisher (James Cellan James, 1983)
- One of the loveliest things I've seen in ages: a magical, marvellously escapist made-for-TV drama with a cast of three and a tender score, as a lonely bachelor (Rex Harrison), living with his gay old butler (Cyril Cusack), who makes a move for the one that that got away a half-century ago (Wendy Hiller), following the death of her husband.

The material is good if imperfect - there's a touch of pointless slapstick and an ill-advised diversion about Harrison's fatal conquests that seems in rather bad taste given the actor's involvement in Carole Landis's suicide - while the direction is fairly standard and unimaginative, but the performances are an absolute joy, with Harrison and Hiller sparking as they had in Major Barbara (one of my favourite 10 films) 42 years earlier, and Cusack providing memorable though not exactly hilarious support.

Sexy Rexy plays the unrepentant but genuine, wistful old cove you'd expect, dialogue still like honey on his lips, while Hiller creates another of those impeccable, distinct characterisations she could turn out at will: a twinkly-eyed, joshing, witty, knowing and self-aware woman who's happy to get sloshed but blessed with tremendous emotional intelligence (a pensioned-off, very English version of Myrna Loy's character in Libeled Lady, perhaps).

The filmed legacy of this renowned stage actress is a strange and spotty thing: she made just 18 movies, along with 40-odd TV appearances, during a career that spanned from 1937 to 1992, but what remains is of inestimable value for anyone who admires the artistry of acting. Through the nuanced control of her incomparable face, a stage-honed understanding of gesture that she adapted for the all-seeing camera, and that deep, modulated and inimitable voice, she thought out loud, and what she thought was usually extraordinarily beautiful. I really do think she's the greatest sound actress of all time. And this TV drama that I supposed would be a mere footnote for this completist is a wonderful thing. (3.5)

***



All Passion Spent (Martyn Friend, 1986) - This three-part adaptation of Vita Sackville-West's most popular novel is quiet, contemplative and ultimately extremely rewarding: the story of an 85-year-old widow (Wendy Hiller) - previously wedded to the establishment - who finally gets to show her innate non-conformity.

It takes ages to get going (the first half of the mini-series is basically just her purchasing and redecorating a house), but the music's nice, the script is unusually classy and meditative, and the scenes between Hiller and her eccentric longtime admirer (Harry Andrews) are extraordinarily moving.

This portrait of a stoical, accepting and non-judgemental woman, blessed with a gentle power that comes from deep within, is among the great achievements of her incomparable career. What surrounds it isn't generally in the same league, but it's worth seeing for the central performance alone. (3)

***

BOOK



The Entertainer by Margaret Talbot (2012)
- The story of 20th century America, told through the prism of the author's father, Lyle Talbot, whose career mirrored the transition from localised to mass market entertainment, as he went from tent-show star, carny performer and stage actor to Pre-Code leading man, Ed Wood alumnus and TV sitcom favourite. His daughter Margaret is a New York staff writer, and the book does often feel more like an extended magazine feature than a weighty non-fiction tome - it's wide-ranging, thoughtful and interesting, whether documenting the early 20th century paradigm from character to personality, or dissecting the shortcomings that prevented Lyle from becoming the star that Warner Bros expected him to be - but sometimes rather slight (its anecdotes range from the memorable to the truly mundane), increasingly shows its working, and occasionally branches off into pretentious speculation (as in a simply dire passage imagining the later life of the actor's first girlfriend).

His biographer is broadly a good writer, though, her occasional weird, mannered, nature-themed metaphors compensated for by her ability to be witty, psychologically insightful and often subtly and deeply affecting (the final paragraph of her introduction is wonderfully realised). Sometimes she goes off on a mystifying tangent about a minor character in Lyle's life, and at times takes us into territory probably only interesting to her immediate family, but she writes movingly about both of her parents, knowledgeably about her father's minor Pre-Code triumphs, and perceptively -about everything from sexual attraction to Nebraska to the appeal of the sitcom Lyle appeared in, Ozzie and Harriet, and about the America it played to. Lyle himself had a remarkable life, rather than being a particularly interesting person, but in this ambitious, readable and slightly flawed book, he plays a new role: a man through whose long and diverse career we can better understand America, and the American century. The cover is absolutely beautiful too: a perfect pastiche of 1932 movie credits. (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Bogie, High-Rise and another astonishing Philip Roth book - Reviews #232

Here's that update I promised.

FILMS



CINEMA: The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

“You go too far, Marlowe.”
"Harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he's walking out of your bedroom."

I saw The Big Sleep on the big screen for the first time, revelling in Bogie and Bacall’s badinage, the great gallery of desperate supporting characters – especially Agnes (Sonia Darrin), a wry, selfish accessory to blackmail who keeps betting on the wrong guy – and the sheer sardonic poetry of the dialogue, provided by no fewer than four exceptional writers: original author Raymond Chandler, legendary southern novelist William Faulkner, Hawks regular Jules Furthman and the extraordinary Leigh Brackett, who went on to co-write Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back.

There’s an awful lot of plot, and the sets could be better, but this notoriously troubled production – two years in the making, with whole chunks of story chucked out and replaced by love scenes after it had already screened to troops overseas – is a heady proposition: sometimes sleazily, hazily nightmarish in the vein of Mulholland Drive, at others so frenetic and sarcastic that there’s nothing quite as much fun. While it’s not my favourite Marlowe film, and Bogart isn’t my favourite Marlowe (Murder, My Sweet and its star Dick Powell take those honours, and Altman’s The Long Goodbye gives this one a run for its money), there are new things to discover even on the fifth time round – the sixth if you count a recent viewing of the compromised original cut – including a throwaway line I’d missed that reveals just why Eddie Mars has held onto that crap henchman of his: it’s to keep the decent one company.

“My my, such a lot of guns around town, and so few brains.” (3.5)

See also: I've done a scene-by-scene breakdown of the differences between the pre-release and finished versions, on the off chance that you are also a big nerd.

***



In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)

"Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult."

"'Climb the mountain of conflict'? You sounded like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews."

"Within your purview? Where do you think you are, in some fucking regency costume drama?! This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel."

"Yeah, apparently your fucking master race of highly-gifted toddlers can't get the job done."

This alternate-universe spin-off from The Thick of It is a little less specific, vitriolic, rapid-fire and British than the unimpeachable TV series that spawned it, but in dealing with the prelude to the Iraq War in that rough-edged, foul-mouthed, shamblingly cynical style, it comes armed with a hefty black comic edge that's simultaneously hysterical and chilling. Plus some of the best one-liners in the history of anything.

The story sees Tom Hollander as an ineffectual, gaffe-prone British government minister caught in a tug-of-war between the doves and hawks, as America limbers up for war.

Though not everyone is up to the standard of regulars Chris Addison, Paul Higgins and particularly Peter Capaldi (as the series' breakout character, psychotic spin doctor Malcolm Tucker), Hollander and a cameoing Coogan are in fine form, and at its sporadic best Armando Iannucci's satire is as funny as just about any film I've ever seen. (3.5)

***


This is actually one of the better bits of the film.

*MINOR SPOILERS*
Merry Wives of Reno (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1934)
– A mediocre Warner Bros programmer in the studio's usual slangy style, with cheating wife Glenda Farrell causing two other couples to break up, sending Margaret Lindsay and Ruth Donnelly to Reno, with all the men involved (Donald Woods, Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert) pitching up too.

It's dated more poorly than most of the studio's comedies, with too much time spent on Herbert's familiarly irritating persona, and unfunny running gags about a sheep and a mentally fragile attorney, but there are a handful of very funny lines, and while the wonderful, fast-talking Farrell is largely wasted, Kibbee is good value playing his usual slightly pathetic ruddy-faced philanderer, and the great character comic Frank McHugh has a funny part as a hotel fixer, strolling off into the sunset with a wad of cash, two hotties in fur coats and that unmistakable 'one-two-three' laugh - as he called it - "Haaerrr haaerr haaerrrrr." The bit where he is chased by the sheep almost justifies that whole endless subplot. (2)

***



SHORT: Les mistons (Francois Truffaut, 1957) – Well this could be better. Truffaut's second film deals with the preoccupations that dominate most of his best (kids, eros, American gangster movies) without much of the instinctive genius evidenced by his debut feature, Les 400 Coups, released two years later.

Partly it's the bad dubbing, partly the charmless, faceless performances from a bunch of kids who never did anything else, partly the voiceover-itis that afflicts too many of his misfires, though at least the narratSuch ion here is erudite and in the first person.

Bernadette Lafont (later the star of the director's risible A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, arguably his worst film) is Bernadette, whose nascent love affair with the blameless Gerard inspires an explosion of confused, spiteful jealousy in the gang of pre-pubescent children who idolise her.

Shot outdoors, mostly in the woods but also in a striking, part-ruined amphitheatre, it's atmospheric but bitty, and hampered with curious gimmickry, including a sped-up sequence with a hosepipe that wouldn't look out of place in a Benny Hill episode (though he would have turned it on Lafont). Despite that, the 'shoot out' sequence is a little gem, and the ending is poetic and oddly profound, if not quite satisfying.

By 1959, Truffaut's ingenuity and innovation had reached a white-hot peak, allied to a pitch-perfect semi-autobiographical narrative of aimless adolescent alienation. That breathtaking film makes Les mistons look like the largely amateurish effort it is. (2)

***



CINEMA: High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015) – Wheatley's supreme visual sense, gift for juxtaposition and staggering use of sound can't rescue Amy Jump's aloof, incoherent script, which is neither a capitalist critique nor a study of man: just a senseless, pointless wallow in moral and material degradation. The first 40 and the final two minutes are quite good, the rest is just extremely boring. Watch Skyscraper Souls instead. Or Attack the Block. (2)

***

BOOKS



The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)
– An astounding, chilling, completely believable piece of alternate history, with heroic aviator and fascist sympathiser Charles Lindbergh ascending to the US presidency in 1940 and agreeing an ‘understanding’ with Adolf Hitler. Against the slow-burn of burgeoning anti-semitism, the young Roth comes of age, while the older brother he idolises is co-opted by the establishment, his cousin is crippled by war and his parents are torn between pragmatism and self-respect. Occasionally the context that makes it so credible can drag, as you slog through the names and roles of those on opposing sides of the debate, but Roth’s gift for phrasing, impeccable personalisation of the narrative and jolting handbrake turns are beguiling to behold, while the unpredictable explosions of futile violence peppering the work are no mere plot devices, but rich manifestations of the irony central to Roth’s worldview. It's also the perfect time to read the book, as another racist demagogue approaches the White House on a wave of public euphoria. (4)



The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (2011) – When millions of people simply disappear in the Sudden Departure, the residents of a small American town try to come to terms with their losses, some looking for love, some going off the rails, others seeking answers or solace as they join cults like the Guilty Remnant or Holy Wayne’s Church of the Healing Hug. Perrotta’s novel, since adapted as an HBO mini-series, is very readable, excellently plotted and frequently moving, with memorable, sometimes surprising characterisations and a few superb vignettes, but its sense of humour is bafflingly blunt and broad considering it’s from the writer of the intensely funny Election, while the suburban backgrounds and preoccupations of its characters can be irritating and trivial, even as Perrotta uses them as a subversive counterpoint. Studying a major catastrophe on such a small-scale is a smart juxtaposition (Roth did much the same in The Plot Against America, above) but a re-draft cutting out some of the clichéd language and putting in a few decent jokes would have kicked this up a level. (3)



Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938) – A smug, underwhelming comic novel about journalism, with nature correspondent William Boot erroneously sent to cover a pre-war conflict that could have global ramifications. It's too much a self-satisfied hymn to language, with innumerable thin characters about whom it's difficult to care anything at all, though there are some funny passages, particularly in the mid-section. (2.5)



Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode (2013) – A lively, self-justifying polemic that's at its best when articulating its author's sheer love of film, but is ultimately both repetitive and shapeless, hopping from one subject to the next with a curious lack of narrative clarity, and grating when he ill-advisedly strains for comic effect. (2.5)



Duel in the Sun by Niven Busch (1944) – I read Busch's 1948 book, The Furies, last year and was impressed by his economic prose, sharp, shrewd characterisation and fatalistic plotting born of a bracing, cynical and deeply Freudian view of humanity - virtues familiar to anyone who's come across his peak-era screenwriting. A shame, then, that his earlier bestseller, Duel in the Sun, seems to be mostly descriptions of horses. The story sees fiery 'half breed' Pearl Chavez welcomed into the bosom of the powerful McCanles family, where her overpowering sexual connection to the nasty, feminine Lewt turns brother against brother, and unsurprisingly leads to cold-blooded murder. This one's a real slog, though, full of dislikeable characters, dense phrasing and tedious specifics relating to the minutiae of Western life, creating not a richly-textured evocation of a vanished world, more a shopping list of items seen on various ranches. Afterwards, you'll feel like a bath and probably something with which to prop open your eyes. Incidentally, the film adaptation (nicknamed 'Lust in the Dust') became one of the biggest hits of the decade, and gave Lillian Gish one of her few notable sound roles, as the gentle but opinionated Mrs McCanles, pickled by drink but still sure she knows what's best for her sons. (2)

***

TV



The Thick of It (2005-7)
– Season 1 is an unpolished gem, Season 2 the programme at its darkest - the 'special needs' episode so extravagantly cynical and cruel that you may temporarily forget to breathe – and the specials slightly compromised by circumstance but a convincing, non-stop parade of back-stabbing, finagling and Machiavellian intrigue. At the centre of it all is Capaldi's exquisite, hard, impeccably nuanced performance, which could so easily have been cartoonish, but never is. Each of these early episodes is magnificent to some degree, though even better was to come. (4/4/3.5/3.5)



Elementary: Season 1 (2012-3) – One of the biggest TV-themed backtracks in recent memory concerned Elementary, the Conan Doyle update that followed lukewarm on the heels of BBC's Sherlock, sending Holmes to present-day New York and giving him an American, female Watson (Lucy Liu), a move that was ridiculed by everybody with access to a computer, telephone or broadcasting station. Imagine their surprise when it turned out to be really quite good. This first season takes a while to hit its stride, but the self-contained mysteries become increasingly neat and the warm, evolving friendship between recovering heroin addict Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and his sober companion (Liu) increasingly moving, helped by a pair of largely irresistible performances. Miller is occasionally gimmicky, Liu sometimes less than assured uttering putdowns, but mostly their story of mutual reliance and growing respect is persuasive and affecting, augmented by Miller's often intense emoting and Liu's innate implacability. The guest stars are largely a disappointing bunch (the first one I recognised was Vinnie Jones, and he couldn't act his way out of a Premier League midfield), though towards the end F. Murray Abraham adds some big-pored class to proceedings, a coup that augurs well for Season 2. I'm in two minds about the double-length final episode, with its ambitious reveal, but it certainly wasn't dull. And while the programme's look is rather too gory and murky for my tastes, the way it treats Holmes, his struggles and his addictions manage to warp Conan Doyle's creation without losing sight of who and what he is. A flawed but compelling first season. I'll be back for more. (3)



Harry Hill's TV Burp Gold (2008) – Between it being a late-night cult favourite and a dying staple of Saturday afternoon TV, this show managed to occupy a cherished place in the country's affections whilst also being pretty good. This first DVD captures that period of peak popularity, and while the programme had lost any teeth it had ever had and begun to lean on formula, it's still a diverting watch with a handful of massive laughs. "Marlon. Lanky Marlon." (3)

***

LIVE


(c) Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall

CHVRCHES at the Royal Albert Hall (31 March 2016)
- One of the best gigs I've seen at the Hall in my ongoing capacity as resident PR weasel: an irresistible collision of loud, satiating synth pop (in a Scottish accent), endearingly irrelevant between-songs verbiage and as much hopping, twirling and attention-swallowing stagecraft as you could possibly want. An intense, intensely enjoyable and extraordinarily cathartic experience. (4)


Probably the least interest thing in the exhibition... but the only picture I can find.

States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness (Wellcome Collection) - This study of the fringes of the mind begins simply enough, with paintings representing synaesthesia and photos attempting to capture dreams, then becomes increasingly unsettling as it journeys through somnambulism, resistance to anaesthesia, temporary paralysis and memory disorders, augmented by eerie soundscapes and alarming, atmospheric installations. If you want to be terrified by reality, I would highly recommend going. (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Mulholland Drive, more Douglas Sirk and a Shakespearean swearathon - Reviews #231

I have been otherwise occupied of late, but now I am back, so here's the first of two medium-sized review updates, featuring Rock Hudson, David Lynch and a sub-par Vonnegut novel.

FILMS

Douglas Sirk double-bill




*SOME SPOILERS*
Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
- Douglas Sirk specialised in lush love stories about frustrated adults with awful children: films like All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow and his masterpiece, All That Heaven Allows. Written on the Wind is nothing like those films. Instead it’s about those children, grown-up though they might be: boozy, inadequate Robert Stack and his nymphomaniac sister (Dorothy Malone), tormented by their sex lives and so making life hell for the people around them. In the opening scene we see Stack overacting to the nth degree, speeding in his roadster, smashing his corn liquor bottle on the wall of his mansion, then going inside to shoot someone. In flashback, the story: how he married a strong but lovestruck ad exec (Lauren Bacall), breaking the heart of his best friend (Rock Hudson) before careering off the rails.

It’s a noisy, expertly-directed piece of trash: measured in places but massive when it needs to be, with big performances, big plot points and a cacophony of sounds and tricks whenever it wants to bash you over the head with debauchery (which is fairly often), from fast cutting to off-kilter angles, garish sets and breathless whip pans. Sirk brought Malone, Hudson and Stack back together the following year for a more literary, classy work, the brutal monochrome drama, The Tarnished Angels, and it’s interesting to compare their work here.

Hudson is Hudson – no great actor, but in the hands of someone who knows how to use his hulking frame, limited range and radiation of essential decency. Malone was convincingly conflicted there: unhappy, ravaged by life, sapped of her energy and basic self-worth; here she’s the opposite: powered by desire and malice: exuding avarice, her hurt channelled into barbed vengeance. It’s not subtle, but it’s exhilarating to watch and she plays, famously, the first person to ever limbo someone to death, a long way from the mousy, sheltered women she portrayed before a notorious but agreeable transformation into a peroxided sexpot.

Stack’s less successful: in The Tarnished Angels his sullen brooding and identikit line readings are enough to suggest rampaging demons – the script and his co-stars doing the rest; here he’s asked to act and the results are extremely silly. The only person who can handle Malone, in fact, is Bacall, whose beautifully restrained performance is the best I’ve ever seen her give, steeped in an emotional realism that lends the film more credibility and heart than it necessarily deserves. I’m not generally a big admirer of hers (aside from the way she looked), and I wasn’t expecting such an excellent, unshowy characterisation.

Especially in a film that ends with Malone stroking a giant wicker phallus.

Bacall's turn here is a rare instance of one performance fashioning a film's themes before your eyes: it's no longer just a wallow in unpleasantness, it's a film about choices, and the irrationality of love. But only occasionally.

All That Heaven Allows is a planet. A thing of wonder, perfectly formed, to which you’re irresistibly pulled; the summation of Sirk’s style, the last word on his themes. Written on the Wind isn't that. It's a piece of garbage flying past, but when the sun catches it at the right angle, it looks pretty damn good. (3.5)



Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) - Douglas Sirk's most famous film is a splashy remake of a '30s melodrama in his usual sumptuous, fitfully hyperactive style. Lana Turner plays an actress who takes in a black maid (Juanita Moore) to look after her daughter; but when Moore's own, light-skinned offspring (Susan Kohner) grows up, she starts 'passing' (pretending to be white), visiting tragedy upon the household.

Though the Jewish-Italian Kohner is weirdly cast, she's very good (and hot) and her three key scenes - with her jock boyfriend, in a nightclub, and in a hotel room - are exquisitely directed. Unfortunately, the film is too shrill too often: going incredibly over-the-top with alarming regularity, and then going on forever. It's also saddled with terrible child actors, Sandra Dee striking a mawkish note as Turner's daughter, and a novelistic approach in which other story strands take the focus away from the single genuinely interesting one.

Having said that, Russell Metty's eye-popping cinematography is extraordinary, Moore makes a good fist of her part - steering the film largely away from 'Mammy' stereotypes with the help of the odd telling line ("You never asked") - and Turner is well used, if not at her best, as a somewhat blinkered matriarch, the actress returning to the screen after the Stompanato scandal. (3)

... and I also watched the original:



Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934) - The first version of this race relations melodrama - written by 12 people, including an uncredited Preston Sturges! - has an irritating paternalistic tone very much of its era, but is still a heartfelt treatment of an important subject rarely touched upon by Code-era Hollywood.

Twenty-five years before Douglas Sirk put his own spin on the material, Claudette Colbert plays the single mum (here a pancake impresario), Louise Beavers her maid and Fredi Washington the light-skinned daughter 'passing' for white.

Though Washington's character isn't given nearly enough of a voice, and a competing storyline about Colbert and her own daughter (Rochelle Hudson) falling in love with the same man (Warren William) is embarrassingly trite in comparison, she gives a terrific performance, while Beavers does what she can with a pretty patronising role.

The film is well-directed too and, while it drags on for too long, it's worth seeing as a snapshot of contemporary attitudes and a fairly grown-up mainstream Hollywood movie showcasing a pair of performers who would normally be neglected because of their race. Beavers also featured in the progressive, proto-feminist gangster movie, Bullets or Ballots, the following year, going into business with Joan Blondell.

***



Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

[Homer Simpson is watching Twin Peaks]
“Brilliant, ha ha ha. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”

David Lynch’s spin on Sunset Blvd. is a Hollywood nightmare, a uniquely disconcerting experience that builds to a glorious, incomprehensible climax. Naomi Watts is Betsy, a sweet, ambitious actress who arrives in Los Angeles in search of stardom. Moving in to her aunt’s vacant apartment, she strikes up an intense relationship with a concussed, confused young woman (Laura Hanning) who’s recovering from a car smash. Meanwhile, a hitman of variable quality goes in search of a black book, odd things start to happen to director Justin Theroux, and a man tries to understand his dreams, out by the bins at Winkie’s restaurant.

There are scenes here of utter brilliance, of heart-stopping terror, raven black humour and intoxicating sensuality: a psychic neighbour babbling harrowing warnings, a botched hit, the punchline to the Winkie’s set-piece, and Watts’ mesmerising audition (as much nibbling, biting and heavy breathing as actually acting). Those stand-out, almost self-contained passages are trapped in an unfolding, enveloping head-fuck of a film that’s comfortably one of the three or four scariest I have ever seen. Someone looking for something, somewhere they shouldn’t be, is generally the most frightening thing I can imagine: here, those sequences are almost light relief.

Though the trick of playing it purposefully phony when it’s light or cheery, and sharp and dangerous when it’s dark, is a familiar one from Lynch – who employed it memorably in Blue Velvet – the left turns, the use of sound, Watts’ harrowing, wide-ranging performance and the air of complete disorientation are like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. And it is an experience rather than just a movie. Usually I find it hard to suspend disbelief; not here. You can’t keep your distance from this film: it cuts off your escape routes, attacks your expectations and your preconceptions, walls you in. It is extraordinarily frightening and not in a transient, temporary way. I can’t get it out of my head, and I’m not sure that I want to. (4)

***



Riding the Rails (Lexy Lovell and Michael Ulys, 1997) - This acclaimed documentary about the teenagers who hopped freight trains during the Depression is somewhat jumbled in its themes, context and visual presentation (partly because of the dearth of film and photos of its protagonists as young people), but it's also full of great insights and fascinating characters, as it both embraces and debunks the enduring romance of hobo life. (3)

***



Le signe du lion (Eric Rohmer, 1962) - I spent £178 on a box-set of all Eric Rohmer's films, whilst drunk. I love his work but this - his debut - is fucking atrocious: interminable neorealism about a loser wandering around Paris. Great location photography helps, but not much. Thank goodness Rohmer discovered sex. (1)

***

TV



The Thick of It (S3) - One of the best things ever shown on TV: the penultimate episode is positively Shakespearean, the rest just hysterically funny. (4)



Veep (S2 and S3) - About as good as TV comedy gets: this comedy set in the US Vice President's office is vile, vitriolic and vital, stuffed with bastards knifing one another in the back, front and side, 27-and-a-half-minutes at a time. When Alexander Mackendrick called satire "the snarl behind the grin", he could have been reviewing this show. (4)

***

BOOK



Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)
- Probably the worst Vonnegut I've read: so carefully fatalistic that it becomes predictable, repetitive, restricted and rather joyless. That's a problem it shares with The Sirens of Titan - Kurt is best when he's in freewheeling form, not with his hands tied behind his back by the need to meticulously plot. There are truly great moments, though, including the lobster story and the fact it's narrated by the ghost of Kilgore Trout's son. (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading. Next time: five books, The Big Sleep on the big screen and Sherlock Holmes in New York.