Sunday, 29 May 2016

A few thoughts on Love & Friendship - Reviews #237

CINEMA: Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, 2016) - Ah, Whit Stillman. It's so great to have one of America's best ever writer-directors back making movies again, and this one's a wonder. Jane Austen has been an influence since the beginning (his first and greatest movie, Metropolitan, is a rom-com in which love flourishes between two Austen fans), and for his fifth film he's presenting the author's first serious work: an epistolary novella written before her six major works, and only published posthumously.

Adapting it freely enough to humanise its widowed, magnificently selfish anti-heroine (Kate Beckinsale), Stillman retains plenty of Austen's acerbic gags, as Lady Susan plays all those around her off against one another in order to get rich, comfortable and laid. I saw the movie at the Curzon Chelsea yesterday, complete with a post-film Q&A with Stillman and Beckinsale, and the director spoke about how he has tried to revive '20s and '30s tricks lost to the grammar of cinema, like iris-ins and a climactic roll-call of characters, complete with clips. That's not all, though: there's also the spirit of Pre-Code and screwball comedy alive here: the ending is pure Jean Harlow vehicle (with more than a hint of Red-Headed Woman), and the debuting Tom Bennett plays a hilariously and distinctively thick posho who'd be very much at home in, say, Merrily We Live.

Stillman also acknowledged the debt he owes to the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility (a film he was slated to direct, after Rob Reiner and before eventual choice Ang Lee), and that's apparent throughout: its sets and its cinematography are virtual facsimiles of that earlier classic, which is by far Austen adaptation on the big screen so far, with inventions that even improve upon her novel. The feel of this film is very different though, mirroring its protagonist, who's caustic, brutal and duplicitous, where Emma Thompson's Elinor was gentle, wise and human. Beckinsale's slightly synthetic Hollywood glamour is an odd fit, imported back into a British period setting, but her performance is unexpectedly excellent, particularly her pitch-perfect comic delivery: she grandstands when she needs to, tips a wink to us at times, but often tosses away her barbs in a way that makes them even funnier.

The rest of the cast is great too. Morfydd Clark captures the right balance between childishness and burgeoning self-worth as Lady Susan's daughter, Xavier Samuel is suitably sensuous and endearingly naïve as our anti-heroine's next conquest, and Thick of It regular Justin Edwards exhibits his usual exceptional comic timing, as a singularly agreeable man whose wife (the excellent Emma Greenwell) hates Beckinsale's guts. In the bit parts, James Fleet (who also appeared in Lee's Sense and Sensibility) hits the sweet spot between pomposity, likeability and general impotence, Chloe Sevigny is fun as Beckinsale's American confidante (the pair re-uniting 18 years on from Stillman's Last Days of Disco) and Bennett steals every scene he goes near, as a vastly wealthy idiot with some extremely incorrect preconceptions.

I was incredibly excited when I heard this movie was in the works, and I'm delighted that it didn't disappoint, its short shooting schedule (entirely in Dublin) and small budget nowhere in evidence, except perhaps to lend it the same zippy, breakneck feel as The Thin Man, a film with the same modern, offhand sensibility, and delirious sense of fun. It'll take me another couple of viewings to catch all the gags, and to decide − as with Damsels in Distress − whether it's another Stillman masterpiece, or merely a terrific movie, and I simply can't wait. (4/4)

I also had a very quick chat with Whit Stillman. All my life goals are now completed.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Jerome Kern, The Boys from Brazil and Wilder's worst film - Reviews #236

Éric Rohmer has now made the best movie I've seen this year, as well as the worst. Also featuring this time around: Buster Keaton, D. W. Griffith and all that other stuff I won't shut up about.


After Le signe du lion, I'm back in love with Rohmer, courtesy of this double-bill:

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963) - A mesmerising, intoxicating Rohmer short that's as close to a personal manifesto as you'll ever see on screen. His enduring preoccupation was where eroticism touches romance, and his view of both was heady, wise, ironic. After the false start that was the director's abysmal debut feature, the tedious, neorealist Signe du Lion, this story of a law student (Barbet Schroeder) flirting with a counter girl at a Parisian bakery (Claudine Soubrier) as he waits for his true love (Michèle Girardon) to walk past is extraordinarily affecting, honest and insightful: grubbily conspiratorial as we're asked to see everything from his jaundiced viewpoint (it's a 'moral tale' in so much as it's about personal morality), a little eerie as it ponders fate and chance, and gloriously sensual when they duck into an alleyway to talk and he starts stroking her neck.

The first of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, and – at 23 minutes – the best film I've seen this year. (4)

Suzanne’s Career (1963) - The second of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, with quiet, judgemental Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) observing the relationship between his cruel best friend, Guillaume (Christian Charrière) and the put-upon, unglamorous Suzanne (Catherine Sée), who seems lost and beset by cripplingly low self-worth. The characters are tough to like – or even to spend time with – but Rohmer knows exactly what he’s doing, as he drags us towards a brilliant and completely unexpected climax radiating a peculiar warmth and empathy. A very unusual and interesting movie. (3.5)


Ben Affleck doing some acting.

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) - '70s-style thriller meets against-the-clock blockbuster in Affleck's Oscar-winning movie, which is best when cranking up the tension unbearably or playing it agreeably scuzzy, less appealing when it gets an attack of the smugs (all that "Argo fuck yourself" stuff is too smirkily Oceans 11-like for my taste, complete with cartoonish performances from John Goodman and Alan Arkin). Ben Affleck is a CIA operative (in the film, not in real life) who attempts to get six American diplomats out of Iran under the guise of a phony film entitled 'Argo'. There's a touch of Dog Day Afternoon about its short time-frame and docu-realism, more of an attempt to place international events in context than you usually get from Hollywood (though protesting Iranians are still portrayed as the 'other') and a really good supporting performance from Bryan Cranston as Affleck's boss, whose reaction to the fate of the mission is beautifully judged. Imperfect but impressive. (3)


SHORT: Hayseed Romance (Charles Lamont, 1935) - A funny Buster short from his fallow mid-'30s period, as his hapless handyman gets a job at a farmhouse and comes close to destroying the place. It opens with a tired gag stolen from his 1922 film, My Wife's Relations, but quickly picks up, with more than enough laughs and even some unexpected ingenuity, courtesy of that double-exposure trick he introduced so memorably in Sherlock, Jr (and which here brings his conscience into the picture). It's all fairly minor, but the star's timing is exquisite, whether trying - and failing - to wash dishes, mend a leaky roof or escape from the house via an upstairs window. Well above-par for one of his Educational vehicles. (3)


A Nazi smile, if ever I saw one.

The Boys from Brazil (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1978) - Completely stupid movie about Nazi eugenicist Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) trying to breed a new master race, to the understandable alarm of Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), a high-pitched, shambling and brilliant ‘Nazi hunter’ patterned after Simon Wiesenthal. It’s complete trash, but there are some very effective moments – especially involving the kids – and Olivier is absolutely excellent in a performance that seems at first to be alarmingly wide of the mark. The stunt casting of Peck works neatly too, though sadly James Mason is given almost nothing to do as his aristocratic confederate. (2.5)


Till the Clouds Roll By (Richard Whorf, 1946) - Sometimes you just have to go with the consensus: bad story, good songs. This is a middling musical from MGM about the life of Showboat and Swing Time composer, Jerome Kern, who told the writers that his life had frankly been too boring to adapt into a film, at which time they came up with a largely fictional narrative surely even more tedious than the real thing.

The script is just completely idiotic: a series of individually effective clichés stitched together to form a risible whole in which none of the characters’ actions making any sense. The second half concerns Kern’s entirely uninteresting (fatherly) relationship with his mentor’s daughter, Lucille Bremer – a regular in these musicals primarily because she was having sex with powerful producer Arthur Freed.

The composer’s played, incidentally, by Robert Walker, a reasonable, greatly troubled actor best remembered as Strangers on a Train’s Bruno, where Hitchcock used his essential callowness so chillingly (he is also very good opposite his then-wife, Jennifer Jones, in the Home Front masterpiece, Since You Went Away); here he’s adequate, doing what he can with such poor material. And it is poor: you know you’re in trouble when the amazing Van Heflin can’t make something look good.

I’m not going to say “thankfully Kern died during production”, but thankfully Kern’s tragic death – during production – led to the studio kicking this one into the A bracket, and stuffing it with stars, as well as incorporating a weird coda where he turns up at the studio to watch a gigantic production number medley, in which the ugly backdrop is exactly the same shade of red as singer Tony Martin.

There are quite a few good numbers, including a couple of appearances from June Allyson – who stole the studio’s next big composer biopic, Words and Music – a goofy I Won’t Dance featuring Bremer and Van Johnson, and a snippet of pre-fame Cyd Charisse dancing with Gower Champion to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, but the film is dominated by three others.

There’s Lena Horne’s plaintive, erotic Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man – from the compressed Showboat production that opens the movie (she wanted to reprise the role of Julie La Verne in the studio’s 1951 adaptation, but was overlooked in favour of Ava Gardner) – an incredible version of Look for the Silver Lining sung by Judy Garland and directed by husband Vincente Minnelli, who throws in a superlative tracking shot following her from dressing room to stage that underlines the hopeless, static camerawork elsewhere in the film, and Frank Sinatra’s Ol’ Man River.

The latter is so synonymous with black performers (and particularly Paul Robeson) that this version almost feels like cultural appropriation, but it’s long been one of my favourite things in movies: a breathtaking vocalisation by a complete arsehole at the peak of his unbelievable powers; I could write a thousand words about his breathing technique alone.

So yes, the consensus is right: not a great movie, but a movie with great things in it, and as such a fair tribute to a fine songwriter, even if it’s missing both his best song – The Way You Look Tonight – and the best Kern story, which is when he got stuck in a big glass jar outside Myrna Loy’s house, completely naked. (2.5)


The film is approximately this good.

The Emperor Waltz (Billy Wilder, 1948) - Chronically unfunny Wilder film, with a brash, irritating Bing Crosby going to Austria to sell gramophones and falling in love with a horrible, stuck-up countess (Joan Fontaine). It's ugly, dislikeable and boring, with banal dialogue and dreadful songs. Every plot development is to do with dogs. (1)


More like bleurgh-glar, am-I-right?

SHORT: The Burglar’s Dilemma (D. W. Griffith, 1912) - I can’t believe that this film only lasts 15 minutes, as I could have sworn that Robert Harron spent literally two hours shaking his head at the police while they took it in turns to shout at him. There are some real gems in director D. W. Griffith’s earliest work – particularly the gangster blueprint, Musketeers of Pig Alley, released just six weeks before – but this isn’t one of them. Henry B. Walthall (the Little Colonel in Griffith’s notorious Birth of a Nation) is a feckless, drunken lout who thinks he’s killed his brother (Lionel Barrymore) and pins the crime on a cowardly crook (Harron) terrorised by his underworld boss (Harry Carey). Despite the presence of those big names, it’s totally drab and uninteresting, with Griffith at his most pious, patronising and long-winded. It’s interesting to see Barrymore and Lillian Gish on screen together, though (she turns up to wish him a happy birthday, which is what sets Walthall off drinking), 34 years before they played husband and wife in the post-war box-office sensation, Duel in the Sun. (1)


Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Mankiewicz, The Shadow Line and the original House of Cards - Reviews #235


Somewhere in the Night (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946) - This was unexpectedly terrific: a very, VERY underrated movie from the great writer-director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It’s a brilliantly-plotted mystery-noir, full of that classic Mankiewicz dialogue: wise, hard-boiled and exceedingly sarcastic.

John Hodiak plays an amnesiac war hero searching for a shadowy hoodlum by the name of Larry Cravat, his Third Man-ish investigations bringing him into the orbit of a wry, warm-hearted chanteuse (Nancy Guild), her nice guy suitor (Richard Conte) and a gently omniscient detective (played with great charm by Lloyd Nolan).

There are outstanding self-contained, character-led scenes, including an absolute gem featuring Josephine Hutchinson (a former Warner female lead who never quite made it), fine, unexpected examples of jocular post-modernism – in the shape of meta movie gags about Lugosi, lighting and how detectives behave – and a succession of quite magnificent surprises, right up to the finish.

From the film’s reputation, I was expecting something fairly shabby and perfunctory, but instead got a film that’s impressive, interesting and almost impossible to second-guess. The leads are strictly second-tier, but while Hodiak is fairly bland, the director takes Guild into strong territory (like Hutchinson before her, she was on the cusp of superstardom that never came) – the actress emerging as a sort of Ella Raines-Ronnie Lake hybrid, with a gift for a one-liner – as Nolan and Conte hoover up everything that’s left. (3.5)

See also: I wrote about Mankiewicz's masterpiece, All About Eve, here.


They're even giving great performances in the publicity stills.

Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin and Hal Mohr, 1943) - A talky, grown-up and extremely powerful propaganda piece - from Lillian Hellman, via Dashiell Hammett – about German émigré Paul Lukas, his American wife (Bette Davis) and their three children moving to the States, where they face persecution from a dissolute, amoral Nazi sympathiser (George Coulouris). There’s a false note in the characterisation of the kids, who speak in that generic ‘foreign’ Old Hollywood way (all stilted full sentences), and Beulah Bondi is wasted in a weak part as a French maid, but much of the film is truly great, with perfect performances from Lukas and Davis, and mature, incisive writing that hammers its points across – even while showing the Nazis as cruel, sadistic thugs, rather than the genocidal ethnic cleansers they were soon confirmed to be. (3.5)


Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965) - A ‘60s time capsule with a European feel about the romantic adventures of capricious British model Julie Christie, who moves through relationships with a TV journalist (Dirk Bogarde), a louche, selfish playboy (Laurence Harvey) and an ageing Italian prince (José Luis de Vilallonga), on her way to partial self-discovery. It’s inconsistent and holds you at arms’ length, but Christie is very good in her Oscar-winning role, and there are some excellent insights and fine lines from Frederick Raphael – who went on to write one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen on TV, the BBC’s novelistic, challenging and brilliant adaptation of his book, The Glittering Prizes. Jim Clark’s editing is also extremely good, full of tricks inspired by the Nouvelle Vague, though the direction from John Schlesinger includes too much that simply feels like padding, particularly a party sequence as incoherent and unfulfilling as the one with which he almost sank Midnight Cowboy. The film’s bagginess and aloofness is compounded by a motivational murkiness and lack of clarity that’s not intentional: it strives to be adult and complex, but comes off as merely unclear, despite Christie’s best efforts. The idea that anybody would go after Harvey while they had Dirk Bogarde at home is also, of course, ridiculous. As you would expect, Harvey is as dreadful as ever. (2.5)


It is only as terrible as this half the time.

Excuse My Dust (Roy Rowland, 1951) - A broad, nostalgic musical-comedy about an aspiring inventor (Red Skelton) at the birth of the automobile revolution. Skelton is as funny as a hernia (and his various car crashes as funny as, well, a car crash), but the Arthur Schwartz-Dorothy Fields songs are good and Monica Lewis puts her numbers across with great gusto, sass and style. I like the hilariously incongruous ballet featuring female lead Sally Forrest too: it's very stylish and well choreographed and confusing. In support, Preston Sturges regulars William Demarest and Raymond Walburn are rather wasted, though Demarest does blow a sort of weird raspberry at one point. In addition, an uncredited Buster Keaton came up with a few of the gags and worked behind the camera (some of the Skelton business is a little better than normal, though he himself is dire), while the star's car was previously seen in Orson Welles' butchered 1942 masterwork, The Magnificent Ambersons, which is where the similarities between the two rather cease. (2)



The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945) – Nancy Mitford’s romantic comedy about the pretty, fickle, impulsive, small-eyed Linda Radlett is a playfully heightened, impeccably-written slice of escapism, laced with insight, understated emotion and dazzling wit, based upon her own life – and her experiences as a member of Britain’s most notorious family. It’s not especially ambitious in terms of scope, but it is magnificently realised, full of brilliantly-drawn characters, sublime running gags and effortlessly turned phrases. The chance to get a tour of Mitford's world and her brain is a rare sort of treat, and despite her rarefied upbringing, there’s a worldiness and a compassion here, allied to a rare intelligence and a matchless, piercing viewpoint, that can’t be missed. The foreword by her sister Decca is hilarious too. (4)


The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1934) – Hammett’s celebrated crime novel is, well, a bit of a damp squib, really. I came to it as a fan of the movie (which came out later the same year, having been shot in just 12 days!), the defining mystery-comedy of its era, and the first time that a modern, happy and equal marriage (at least within the parameters of its period) had been depicted on screen, touched with the alchemic chemistry of stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. All I can say now is that screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich did an incredible job of adapting this book, which is less escapist, more cynical, more repetitive, less funny and conspicuously less fun than the film, consisting chiefly of second-gen Greek immigrant PI Nick Charles saying that he’s not sure who committed a murder, while various dislikeable supporting characters try to either stitch up or have sex with one another. The relationship between Nick and his wife Nora (based on that of Hammett and his long-term partner, Lillian Hellman) isn’t bad, and sometimes the book’s eruptions of violence, drunkenness and cutting sardonism draw you in, but there’s always a long lull just around the corner. A real disappointment. (2)



The House of Cards trilogy:

House of Cards (1990)
- One of the most exquisite achievements in the history of British TV: a paraphrasing of Macbeth, with a repulsive psycho-sexual undercurrent, about Tory chief whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), who reacts very poorly to being overlooked in a cabinet reshuffle, and proceeds to destroy everyone in his path to power. Andrew Davies’s script – including those celebrated, conspiratorial fourth-wall-busting asides – the immersive direction, and a pair of sensational performances from Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker (as his mistress and most prized media contact, Mattie Storrin) make it simply unmissable: a dark, daring and delicious satire about an old soul poisoned by avarice, but with a twinkle in his eye. (4)

To Play the King (1993) - An interesting sequel to House of Cards, about Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) locking horns with the Prince of Wales (Michael Kitchen), resulting in a constitutional crisis. It’s less novel and more of-its-time than the original, but exceptionally well-written and acted, with an unforgettable climax containing more than a hint of The Godfather Part II. Kitty Aldridge’s performance as Urquhart’s new mistress, Sarah Harding, is emblematic of this sequel’s standing: better than almost any you’ll see on TV, but not in the same league as Susannah Harker’s last time out. Still, I can't help but think that this was a major influence on one of last year's most overrated plays, Charles III, which has an almost identical storyline (though was written in blank verse). (3.5)

The Final Cut (1995) - A very good but nonetheless slightly disappointing conclusion to the House of Cards trilogy, with prime minister Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) dealing with revolt and rebellion that threatens to push him out of Number 10. For the most part, it feels more like a cynical political drama than the black satire of House of Cards – while traversing some rather over-familiar ground – and the supporting cast isn’t in the same class as before (Isla Blair and Paul Freeman are simply lightweights compared to Richardson), but it’s still consistently entertaining, with confrontational storytelling, fine dialogue and a flamboyant if conventional pay-off. (3)


The Shadow Line (Hugo Blick, 2011) - The BBC at its best, a bleakly brilliant mini-series from writer-director-producer Hugo Blick that plunges you into an unexplained, nightmarish and narcotic netherworld, then begins to illuminate and tie up a few threads while leaving others dangling for the longest time. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a cop with a past, Christopher Eccleston a dealer with a heart, Rafe Spall an out-there gangster (whose tics are a thing of joy) and Stephen Rea a tall, quiet mystery man by the name of ‘Gatehouse’. It’s idiosyncratic and almost matchlessly imaginative, with more than an echo of Edge of Darkness (arguably the finest thing the Beeb did in the ‘80s) in its marriage of introspection and action, the latter showcased in a succession of creepy, eerie and ultimately breathtaking set pieces. (4)


State of Play (David Yates, 2003) - A dazzling drama from the pen of Paul Abbott, about a political scandal that begins to mount after the death of a political researcher, who was having an affair with her boss, up-and-coming MP David Morrissey. As reporters John Simm and Kelly MacDonald begin to investigate, further revelations follow thick and fast, impacting on the livelihoods – and lives – of them all, as well as editor Bill Nighy, a pale, sexy, floppy-haired, cool-as-flip freelancer (James McAvoy), a callow, irritating PR weasel (Marc Warren) and Morrissey’s unhappy, conflicted and opinionated wife (Polly Walker). The meshing of acting styles is simply exhilarating, the direction from future Harry Potter helmer David Yates is swift and immersive, and the writing is absolutely extraordinary: clever, funny, thematically complex but entirely accessible, and eloquently and pointedly personal while operating within a moral morass.

I always remember Abbott telling Charlie Brooker (in a personally inspiring special edition of Screenwipe about how to write) that he would throw in outrageous twists at will, then say to himself: “Write yourself out of that corner, you bastard”, and that gloriously abrasive, unconventional approach works absolute wonders here. It’s only Warren’s subplot that seems a little out-of-place, a cartoonish, relentlessly one-note storyline that occasionally stalls a mini-series of otherwise unstoppable momentum – and magnificence. (Also: Kelly Macdonald is bae, especially her voice.) (4)


Thanks for reading.