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.


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)


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 clich├ęd (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)



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)


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