Friday, 17 June 2016

Shane Black, Black Orpheus and awfully big problems – Reviews #241

Some reviews. In chronological order.

This tagline has absolutely nothing to do with the story, for which I admire it.

Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 1957) – Tough-talking journo Barbara Stanwyck marries cop Sterling Hayden, then decides he needs a leg up the ladder, in this spirited if rather unbelievable late noir.

It stands out from the competition thanks to its decidedly adult approach, a typically imposing performance from Raymond Burr as Hayden's omniscient, brooding boss, and one fantastic shot after a key character receives a decidedly final comeuppance, though it doesn't change my conviction that Stanwyck did very little of value after 1944.

Hayden plays about the only characters in history who look as dishevelled and sweaty as me after working overtime at the office, which is reassuring and kind of disgusting. (2.5)


CINEMA: Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959) – An astonishing movie that I only heard of for the first time last month; it sounded amazing, so I got a ticket. It's the Orpheus myth transplanted to the Rio Carnival, with womanising guitarist Breno Mello falling in love with pure, troubled Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). They dance, have sex, and save one another, but his feisty ex-girlfriend and Eurydice's psychotic, death-faced stalker hint at the unlikeliness of a happy ending.

It's a feast for the eyes and ears, with impossibly vibrant Eastman Color cinematography showcasing Rio and its carnival (those yellows!), invigorating dance and intoxicating bossa nova music, while the story moves effortlessly from utterly joyous to blackly terrifying and then abstractly spiritual. Perhaps it runs out of steam towards the very end, but for the most part it captures Rio with a startling immediacy: its characters pulsating with passion, natural charm and an unapologetic, everyday eroticism.

The story - adapted from a Brazilian play - struck me as one of those high-concept ideas that might extract a certain truth from its material by dropping it into Rio. In actuality, it's difficult to believe when watching Black Orpheus that it would or could make sense anywhere else, such is the film's complete conviction, and the virtuosic skill that Camus displays in meshing these diverse elements together, while capturing the penury, charm and beauty of the setting, and inspiring a host of pitch perfect performances.

It's extraordinary. (4)

See also: The overall effect may have been what Orson Welles may have had in mind when he pitched up in Rio to shoot the carnival in 1942, backed by the Roosevelt administration's Good Neighbour policy. In the event, he and studio RKO proceeded to bugger up the entire venture – a process documented in the second volume of Simon Callow's biography of Welles – though tantalising clips surfaced in the 1993 documentary, It's All True.


The Pit and the Pendulum (Roger Corman, 1961) – This is the second of B-movie legend Roger Corman's eight movies based on the works of Gothic genius Edgar Allan Poe, and it's a step up from The Fall of the House of Usher: smarter, sharper and far more experimental. You can see it in the tinted flashbacks, a flirtatious attitude towards the truth and its stunning use of sound, which is used to disorientate, haunt and alarm us from the off.

As so often during this series, Vincent Price is a recluse who's either been driven half insane by the death of his wife, or is pretending that he has in order to avoid a few tricky questions, posed in this case by her brother, John Kerr. In comic roles, Price's scenery-chewing could look embarrassing, but amidst the horror milieu it's deliriously enjoyable, while attaining a histrionic truth with this more heightened material.

The movie dips a little in spots − trimming 10 minutes could have meant less time simply getting from one place to the next − but its coherent mix of visual stylistics, intelligent placing between madness and reality, and outstanding horror highlights make it an enjoyable watch, while the climax benefits from the groundwork done in ingratiating us with Price's character, before going off the deep end to delirious effect. (3)


TVM: The Best of Friends (Alvin Rakoff, 1991) – A remarkably thoughtful and mature TV movie based on the correspondence between legendary playwright George Bernard Shaw (Patrick McGoohan), esteemed museum curator Sydney Cockerell (John Gielgud) and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, a Benedectine nun who was one of the world's leading authorities on church music. Quite how a play in which the characters simply wander in and out of one another's rooms and gardens, reciting their letters, can be this entertaining, immersive and affecting is rather beyond me, but Hugh Whitmore's script is remarkably incisive, insightful and inspiring − even curiously, enduringly comforting − in its ruminations on friendship, religion and death.

That's especially true in the hands of these performers, with McGoohan a barnstorming but immensely likeable Shaw, and two of the finest actors of all time delivering late masterclasses: Gielgud's Cockerell understated, self-deprecating and self-aware, Hiller's Dame Laurentia radiating compassion, humanity and understanding: a fitting companion piece, in Hiller's penultimate appearance, to the greatest performance she ever gave, in Shaw's own Major Barbara. (4)


Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993) – A smug mess of a movie, in the Sherlock Jr/Purple Rose of Cairo tradition, about an annoying child (Austin O’Brien) who uses a magic ticket to enter the new Arnie movie, Jack Slater IV, causing the abrupt and unnecessary deaths of two people.

Shane Black, one of my favourite writers, was called in to rescue this one, and his dizzyingly post-modern screenplay has some great one-liners and clever, satirical ideas, especially at the beginning – from Arnie as Olivier as Hamlet (actually retained from the original script) to O’Brien’s mum saying “Tell me the story of your life starting this morning, first period” to a cartoon cat who turns up at various moments to smoke the bad guys – but it’s also long, flabby, frequently irritating, and infuriatingly aloof, establishing absolutely no emotional connection with the story and its characters, so that we don’t really care about anything that happens, we’re just waiting for the next spoof, barb, gag or absurdly OTT action sequence.

Nor does it actually seem to make sense within its own parameters (why would the world of a Jack Slater movie include cop characters from across other genres and eras?!), while the kid is really poorly written and played, spending most of the movie trying to convince Slater that he’s a character in a movie, which admittedly leads to a couple of vaguely interesting thoughts on artifice and reality, but is mostly just pointless and boring.

The film’s neither as bad as the initial reviews and box-office takings suggested, nor anywhere near as good as the recent re-evaluation would have it (or as it thinks it is): a shambles with some smart ideas, great gags and mind-boggling stuntwork, but a shambles nonetheless. (2)


Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré, 2006) – This is a pretty good homage to the French New Wave with one huge and inescapable problem: Romain Duris’ character. I’ve suffered from depression my whole life, and what you don’t – repeat don’t – do is abuse your partner because of it. We’re asked to side with a protagonist here who spends the first half hour of the film berating and assaulting his girlfriend, and even if the rest of it were as good as Les quatre cents coups, that wouldn’t be OK.

In fact, the remainder of the movie is mostly spent with Duris in bed and his weird, warm-hearted womaniser of a brother (Louis Garrel) attempting to give him some vicarious pleasure by sprinting and shagging his way across the city, the whole thing presented as an updated pastiche of early ‘60s cinema. Around half of its derivative but energetic trickery hits the target: the apeing of Magnolia’s sole excursion into non-diegetic song is brilliant, the opening direct-to-camera address excruciatingly irritating. The non-linear narrative works, the Bande a part-ish dancing doesn’t. Contemporary Paris seen through the Nouvelle Vague lens good, sped-up action shamelessly half-inched from Zazie dans le Metro bad.

It’s also only partly successful in its evocation of mental illness: there’s truth and honesty in Duris’s characterisation (his wordless listlessness, his idea that we are born with a great sadness embedded inside us), but also pretension and falsity (the sections about his sister don’t ring true, much of the chat on the sofa is meaningless twaddle).

I loved Garrel’s appealingly offbeat character, though – just a note off normal, but that note is everything – and the climactic reading of a children’s story: the invasion of innocence into adulthood, seen there whole and like home, amidst the fracture of grown-up life, like the bit in the Ghost World comic where Enid puts on her favourite record from when she was a kid, and it both comforts her and exacerbates her unhappiness. The relationship between the brothers works too: sincere, standoffishness and loving, an unbreakable bond between their mutual exasperation.

Dans Paris isn’t a great film – it’s too annoying for that – but there’s something about it that’s oddly special. Such a shame then that it’s morally repellent.


The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013) – An enormously fun movie that revives the spirit of '80s buddy-cop comedies like Stakeout and Running Scared, adds a pinch of Lord and Miller's 21 Jump Street, and injects a heavy dose of Feig's feminism. Sandra Bullock is an arrogant FBI agent from New York, sent to bust a drugs ring in Boston. There she clashes heads with lone wolf cop Melissa McCarthy, whose idea of pounding a beat involves mostly pounding kerb-crawlers and beating drug dealers.

I've loved Bullock for years, so it was her co-star's performance that I found a revelation. I came into this movie as a McCarthy sceptic and left it as a fan: her performance is big but not too big, as interested in creating chemistry as stealing scenes, and to the benefit not the detriment of the material (not the case in Bridesmaids), which is exceptionally good throughout. There are simply dozens of big laughs here, as well as moments of emotion loaded with just the right balance of sentiment and cynicism, right through to a hilarious end-credits scene.

There are a couple of mental illness gags that made me want to section the writer, but hey-ho. (3.5)


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Francis Lawrence, 2015) – The same deal as before, only more so. Take Lawrence out of the equation, and this series may be barely watchable; with her in it, you can scarcely look away, her matchlessly expressive face rendering every twist, every tragedy believable and real, even when she's sharing the screen with a retired stylist who has inexplicably turned herself into some sort of tiger.

I'm in two minds about the material: it's nice that the movie looks to consider the morality of revolution, but you do worry that it would fall its philosophy SATS, and while I'm glad that this fourth and final film isn't an endless, no-holds-barred battle, the narrative it chooses isn't wholly satisfying. There's also an issue with suspending one's disbelief: if the fascist dictatorship that Lawrence's 'Mockingjay' opposes is really so devious and brilliant, wouldn't the booby traps they set be a bit more, y'know, certain? Throw 10 more gallons of oil into that flood. Set the oil on fire. Nuke all the buildings. Don't put the underground station's exploding floor on a timer. Send a thousand troops into the sewer.

Yet for all that, I found it more entertaining than a couple of films to which I've given five stars − a dichotomy that still confuses me. With Lawrence front and centre, the film sweeps you along, in its love triangle, its story of rebellion, its moments that I recognise as Hollywood hokiness but adore all the same: like when Katniss turns up incognito on the front line, and her co-conspirators begin to recognise and salute her. Something about this series gets to me, even when I know it's trading on cliché, even when I know it it's dealing with big subjects in a juvenile, even trite way.

You can pick holes in the movie − in its narrative, the murkiness of some of the cinematography, the utter redundancy of its patronising sunlit coda − but Lawrence carries it on her shoulders, and makes it work. I'm not sure these movies deserve the performance that she gives in them (the only other people who create anything comparable are Jena Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who have little more than five minutes' screen time between them), but despite James Newton Howard's music, some snippets of strong action, and death scenes that surprise and therefore impress, it's her utter unbendable conviction that drags this out of the ordinary and sears it on your memory.

After the original, this final instalment is the second best of a series that I can watch all day, and then get infuriated about all night. (3)

See also: I've written reviews of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay – Part 1 at those linked pages there.


CINEMA: The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

"You know someone else who was just following orders? Hitler." *winks*

PI Gosling and thug-for-hire Crowe pool their erratic talents in this rollicking neo-noir buddy comedy from the inimitable Shane Black. It's such fun to gorge yourself on his cracking one-liners, exuberant set-pieces and subversive smarts, though I got full before the end.



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