Friday, 29 July 2016

Janis Joplin, Suburra and an old man called the Mississippi - Reviews #236

A mini-update, with an iffy play, some disappointing films and one hell of a TV show.



Festival Express (Bob Smeaton, 2003) - Well this is highly underwhelming. In 1970, a bunch of rock and psychedelic heavyweights travelled across Canada by train, partying hand, jamming endlessly and playing three huge open-air shows along the way. Stuck in a vault for 30 years, footage of the venture was eventually spruced up and edited into a movie which went over big with the classic rock crowd. But while there are some incredible things in Festival Express, this frustrating, disjointed documentary is neither one thing or another, an unfortunate and shambolic melange of short-sighted social document, hagiography, backstage musical, corporate statement and concert film.

The good stuff is mostly on stage: the Grateful Dead doing an impromptu Friend of the Devil free in a park (a pragmatic move to stop kids breaking into the $14 Toronto show nearby), an explosive Buddy Guy introducing us to his brand of rock ‘n’ soul, and The Band playing three really great numbers – Slippin’ and Slidin’ (by Little Richard), The Weight and I Shall Be Released, Danko and Helm bringing it and Robbie Robertson playing some spectacular licks while showing off a beard that makes him look like he’s wearing a bad disguise. And then there is Janis.

I work in a music venue and have been to hundreds of gigs over the past 20 years, but she is simply the most exciting live performer I’ve ever seen, even just on the telly. Her voice, her sexual charisma, her oneness with the music, her ease in her skin once she’s centre-stage, her passionate presence: naturalistic yet stylistic, a hurricane of angst and renewal, occasionally finding tranquillity in the eye of the storm, but more often gripped by a sort of urgent, furious grace, her hair always twisting and blowing in the breeze, even when nothing else on stage seems to be moving. She’s both flat and mesmeric singing Cry Baby, probably pissed as she consistently fails to hit the high notes, which is noticeable because she’s commanding your entire attention, but obscured because everything else about her performance is so astounding.



I’d seen a clip of a jam on the train in the recent doc, Janis: Little Girl Blue, with the lovely Jerry Garcia telling her, “I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you”, after a boozed-up Ain’t No More Cane that’s kind of magical and kind of frustrating: miraculously talented musicians singing a great song, but so far gone that they’ve become irritating, incoherent buffoons. There’s precious else here that’s actually worth seeing, really just Garcia and Sylvia Tyson’s duet on Better Takes Jesus’ Hand, a beautiful old spiritual.

That footage is interspersed with contemporary talking heads who say nothing of note or historic value, most notably promoter Ken Walker, as a film about the counterculture gives endless time to a bitter, intensely dislikeable entrepreneur boasting about what a big (and generous) man he was (though the revelation that a lot of young people thought they had a right to free entertainment shows that there is nothing new under the sun, not even the justification for illegal downloading). While some of the festival footage is amazing, a lot of it’s not: a post-Gram iteration of the Flying Burrito Brothers play a mundane version of one of their least inspired songs, Lazy Days, enlivened only by “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel, several of the Dead’s numbers are colourless and dull, and Sha Na Na’s Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay is fucking dreadful, a novelty item drowned in its own ridiculousness. How many great recordings were neglected so we could see that?

Then Janis sings Tell Mama, and you don’t care about anything else, the greatest blues singer of her generation working herself up into a frenzy and ripping the lid off her voice as everyone else on the Festival Express is simply left in the dust. The movie’s worth it for that number alone (and it’s worth picking up the DVD for two bonus Janis numbers, Kosmic Blues and Move Over), but the overall impression is of a massive missed opportunity, as a great story, documented almost endlessly, becomes an erratic, incomplete, self-serving and often not even particularly interesting film. Hard to believe it's from one of the directors of The Beatles Anthology. (2)

***



The Winning of Barbara Worth (Henry King, 1926) - A slow, superficial but good-looking silent Western, with wealthy easterner Ronald Colman turning up to help irrigate a desert, being predictably misjudged and then naturally having to ride to the rescue after much improbable plotting. E. J. Ratcliffe is his duplicitous mentor, insinuating his money-grabbing tentacles into every part of town life, Vilma Banky is Barbara Worth - the strong pioneer kid who still needs saving every now and then - and a young Gary Cooper plays the mopey suitor Colman’s trying to win her away from.

There’s some wonderful imagery – a makeshift cross shunted to one side of the frame; a Stetson crawling with flies; a heartsick Cooper standing disconsolately outside a dance – some technical ingenuity (King interrupting his overly static direction with a succession of dazzling tracking shots), and a truly flawless print in which to enjoy those efforts, tinted either orange or blue to stunning effect.

But while the story is fascinating as an indictment of corporate capitalism and has a couple of bravura moments as Colman turns from misjudged zero to matinee hero, it isn’t terribly inspiring, and nor are the performances: Banky has the best of it, but Colman is unexceptional, Cooper uncertain and Ratcliffe uninteresting. The famous flood sequence is also a washout: there’s some daring stuntwork in there, but it’s almost all done with miniatures, so you rarely see any people and any water in the same shot!

It's worth a look for fans of the stars or the era, but King's Tol'able David is infinitely superior, and for silent Westerns I'd suggest starting with one of John Ford's classics: The Iron Horse and 3 Bad Men. Barbara Worth's irrigation scenes too pale alongside those in King Vidor's enduringly controversial and radical independent film, Our Daily Bread (1934), the most left-wing movie to come out of classic Hollywood. (2)

***



*A FEW MINOR SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Suburra (Stefano Sollima, 2015)
- A functional, uninspiring Italian crime film from the Gomorrah team, set against the backdrop of 2011’s political and religious turmoil. As the nation turns itself inside out, and the rains teem, Suburra tells inter-connected stories about a corrupt politician swimming in drugs and hookers, a brutal, up-and-coming immigrant crime family, an omniscient, unshowy veteran called Samurai, and a bald, tattooed young hood with a junkie girlfriend and a thing about individuality.

It’s reasonably diverting, but also over-familiar and lacking in distinction, recycling the aged tropes of its genre while delivering neither a bruising reality check nor the shimmering, pulsating artifice of a thriller. Its main problem, though, is that as an unstinting indictment of Italy, it offers no alternative and little humanity: these are dislikeable people doing indefensible things, motivated only by avarice or self-preservation.

There are three really good scenes: a showdown in a church in which psychopathic crime lord Adamo Dionisi asks callow club owner Elio Germano to betray the woman he loves, a brief, terse meeting between Samurai (Claudio Amendola) and Number 8 (Alessandro Borghi) – which the film doesn’t seem to regard as its climax, but which in thematic terms undoubtedly is – and a conventional but impressive sequence near the close, as exceptionally dodgy MP Pierfrancesco Favino fights his way through a crowd, towards a departing prime minister. The best thing about the film, though, is the magnificent synth score, reminiscent of Drive, which drenches everything in terror, foreboding and import, no matter how familiar.

Elsewhere it’s just grisliness and cliches, from an opening sequence set in the Vatican to a man being fed to a dog. (2)

***



TV

Life on Mars, Series 2 (2007)
- I loved the first series, but this one is even better: more confident, more seamless and even more emotionally resonant, upping the ante and the eeriness as accidental time traveller Sam Tyler (John Simm) interacts with younger versions of his auntie, his nemesis and his mentor, gets sideswiped by uncertainty, and tries to keep afloat and alive while battling unreconstructed DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), an unrelenting Manchester crime wave, and the incompetence of his medical team in the present day, a shortcoming that lands him in Camberwick Green (an outrageously brilliant diversion). There were a few false notes in the first series, but here Glenister is completely in control of his characterisation, Simm is in the form of his life, and both the overarching narrative and the individual storylines are extraordinarily gripping and immersive, as well as rooted in a completely credible, enveloping world. The first and last episodes are about as good as TV has ever got. Incidentally, I was concerned that a series wrapped up in '70s pop culture might contain some unfortunate references, viewed through the prism of Operation Yewtree, et al. For the longest time, it's reassuringly free of retrofitted clangers, then Simm pleads with Jimmy Savile to save him. (4)

***

THEATRE



Show Boat (New London Theatre, 27 July 2016)
- This West End version of Jerome Kern's legendary 1927 musical sailed into London on a sea of five-star reviews before proceeding to die quietly on its bustled arse. It will close next month after weak sales that have seen ticket prices cut by more than 40 per cent.

Based on a novel by Edna Ferber - who wrote both pungent, celebrated comedy-dramas for the stage with famed wit George S. Kaufman, and also extremely long-winded family sagas in print, like this one - Show Boat is often heralded as a groundbreaking musical for dealing with issues like miscegenation and addiction, but its treatment of the themes is so brief, so muted and so melodramatic that these don't make any impact at all. It's a show that hints at the appalling conditions of black workers and the ruinous hypocrisy of prohibiting interracial relationships, but isn't really about those issues. In fact, it isn't really about anything at all.

The show's big numbers are spectacular, from a choked-up Ol' Man River - muscular, poignant and powerful - to a spirited, almost joyous Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man (an ode to the mystery of love that's probably my favourite standard) which brilliantly incorporates the black cast, perhaps unrealistically eroding the race barries of the time but paying off in spectacle. The staging is often vibrant, the choreography incisive and inclusive, and the singing absolutely out-of-this-world, from Gina Beck's exquisite, virtuosic soprano to the more jazzy, sensual treatments offered by Rebecca Trehearn, whose Bill is a tender, heartbreaking showstopper. When it needs to be rousing, it is, from Danny Collins' rubber-limbed hoofing to Alex Young's Martha Raye-ish delivery, and Emmanuel Kojo and Sandra Marvin's big-voiced characterisations as the African-American Joe and Queenie, melding cliche and a dynamic modernity. Those virtues, though, extend only to the musical passages.

The rest of it is a turgid, incomprehensible mess, full of terrible accents (special mention for Malcolm Sinclair's Captain Andy, whose sub-am-dram stylings include an accent best described as 'Donny Aussie'), laughably outdated comedy, and plot strands that are often just left abandoned. Characters act - or simply disappear - with no good reason, and since we don't feel we know or understand any of them (even in the unlikely event we're aware where they're living and working, or indeed with who), we also couldn't care less what happens to them. Intelligent settings, including a mamnoth moving boat set and monochrome projections onto slatted wooden walls, are all very well, but you need something else to put on them besides a handful of impressive numbers.

People may be staying away because the material is so old-fashioned, but if it was selling out I think it'd be leaving a lot of audience members nonplussed and perhaps even a little embarrassed. (2)

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

In Cold Blood: from book to film to film to film

by Rick Burin


Writer Truman Capote (right) with Perry Smith, the principal subject of his 1966 book, In Cold Blood.

I've always had an odd relationship with true crime. There are some books and shows I just won't touch (the book about Jimmy Savile's campaign of abuse, for example), because they're too ghoulish or ghastly or upsetting, then there are others I find fascinating but the fascination is tinged with guilt, and the stories go round and round my head afterwards (an unfortunate side effect, perhaps, of a chemically off-kilter brain) and make me regret that I ever indulged. For years I avoided true crime altogether (even neglecting newspaper coverage and switching off the radio when crime stories came on) to keep my mood up and my guilt levels down.

Recently, though, I've resumed reading about it, initially just because I seemed to be avoiding books that were held as unassailable classics, adhering to principle in a way that prevented me from doing what I wanted (this is nothing new, I didn't fly between 2005 and 2013 because of my eco-militancy, before I realised that actually I was preventing myself from exploiting the possibility of life to the fullest, which is surely the biggest mistake one can make). I read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood last summer, though I haven't written about it now, as I wanted to also cover the sporadic cottage industry inspired by the book, which led to a straight adaptation and later two films about its writing.



In Cold Blood itself, published in 1966, was a landmark (and notorious) "non-fiction novel" - chilling, hypnotic and horrifying - about a senseless apparently motiveless murder in late-‘50s rural Kansas: how it happened, why it happened and what happened next. Capote had written a series of well-received, often autobiographical short stories and the acclaimed novella, Breakfast in Tiffany's (brought to the screen in a bowdlerised version in 1961), but it was In Cold Blood that sent his star stratospheric, becomes a national sensation.

Its prose was spare and precise, the author’s inspired pacing and ingenious structure gradually unwrapping the characters of the amoral, unrepentant killers, one deadlier and yet much more sympathetic than the other. Exhaustively, aggressively researched and overwhelmingly factual - though with some flights of artistic fancy, especially towards the end - it remains a highly disturbing read, all the more so for being moving, blackly comic and almost impossible to put down. Simply put, it's a classic of the genre, a genre it essentially invented.

The aspect that's stuck with me most since I read it is its delving into the characters' pasts, in search of answers. It reaches no simple ones, and that makes it even more powerful, showing only a collage of abuse, abandonment and alienation upon which the killers' crimes are daubed in blood. The film was adapted, brilliantly, by writer-director Richard Brooks in 1967, and like Capote's book it exploded the medium. It employs the conventional grammar of cinema, but pushes the artform to its limits, not only in terms of its brutal violence and bruising characterisations, shorn of sentiment but not humanity, but in its rich, almost avant garde imagery.

It's a poetic, brutal and sickening film that vividly depicts the two damaged kids who slaughtered an all-American family, with Scott Wilson as the greedy, obsessive Dick Hickock, and Robert Blake (later a murder suspect in real life) playing his sensitive, extremely disturbed partner-in-crime, Perry Smith, whose relationship with the author was later the focus of two imperfect but interesting movies.



In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967) is a titanic achievement, which manages to attain a stark realism while utilising the full extent of the cinematic arsenal, through Conrad Hall's beguiling cinematography (those tears from the window, above: bloody hell), Quincy Jones' distinctive, perfectly-realised score, virtuosic cross-cutting from Godfather editor Peter Zinner, and brilliant performances from the leads, who inhabit their characters entirely. Wilson − who reminds me a little of Jason Dohring − is an abrasive but charming Dick, while former child star and virtual Smith clone Blake completely inhabits the conflicted, desperate and pathologically lonely Perry. The film reaches conclusions that Capote himself stopped short of, but whether that's the reductionism of the movies or the revealing nature of art is something you'll have to decide.

The only flaw is in the writing, which saddles the film with a voiceover near the end that recalls Fox's compromised FBI docu-dramas of the mid-1940s (like House on 92nd Street and The Street with No Name) and occasionally becomes unrealistic and Hollywoodised when incorporating details from Capote's book that don't quite fit anywhere: so Smith's father gets an extended, deluded soliloquy that investigating cops would never sit and listen to. Having said that, Blake's monologue near the end − which wasn't really said to a priest in the death house, but to Capote years earlier − is the best scene in the film, and an entirely justifiable deviation from the facts to find the truth. Elsewhere, you could argue that writer-director Brooks' search for realism leads to a morally indefensible ghoulishness: it's pretty hard to watch a re-enactment of the killings filmed in the victim's actual farmhouse, though on the other hand it adds a nauseating undercurrent to proceedings that you won't be able to shake off in a hurry.

It's morally questionable, then, and occasionally puts a foot wrong when wrestling with Capote's fact-heavy source, but it's nevertheless one of the defining movies of its decade, and a brilliant marriage of rare and eclectic talents, from Brooks to Capote to Blake to Hall to Jones to Zinner.



In 2005, 40 years after the executions of Hickock and Smith, two movies about the writing of In Cold Blood went into production. The better known is Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005), released in September that year, which won Philip Seymour Hoffman the Best Actor Oscar, and his shrill, cynical, complex and conflicted Capote is easily the best thing about the film, which is otherwise chilly, self-important and pedestrian, beset by an annoying artificiality, as if the real Capote has been asked to star in a slow, aloof recreation of events, a frankly unworthy home for such a superb characterisation. Brooks' film, despite occasional lapses into Hollywoodese, often felt like a documentary, whereas this production - as shiny as the Oscars it's ogling - never comes close. Why would you compromise the world that In Cold Blood has already captured so completely, and squeeze its story into a conventional rise-and-fall template?

Infamous (Douglas McGrath, 2006) has a major cult following, which insists that this is vastly superior to the bigger-budget film, but it's about as good, with similar strengths and familiar flaws, but an approach that's more glib and goofy, invoking smug culture-clash comedy that may not be very funny (or credible) but does at least paint the gloomy pay-off with greatest levels of contrast. In Brooks' film, the Capote part is essentially played by Paul Stewart, who played the butler in Citizen Kane and was as straight in all conceivable ways as Truman was entirely and exuberantly off-the-wall.



Infamous posits the theory that Capote (Toby Jones) was irredeemably in love with sensitive half-Cherokee Perry (Daniel Craig in absolutely ridiculous make-up), an attraction that is hinted at but not stated overtly in Capote. It's rather cheap-looking, has a curious number of big name actors in thankless, pointless parts, and bends the truth where it really shouldn't - like having Craig flip out and murder the family because he's accused of being gay, which completely misunderstands a key psychological aspect of the book - but it's worth it for a truly superb performance at its centre, and another just off it.

The centre, of course, is Jones's Capote: a waspish, quivering queen with an abyss at his core, his smug, offhand jibes giving way to something human and kind: the film suggesting that his writing underwent a similar transformation during the four years he spent on that seismic "non-fiction novel". Michael Sheen says that when you're playing an oft-caricatured figure, you should get the impression out of the way in the first scene, then play the person not the persona. Jones does that, and even when the film takes some incredible, unwelcome turns, his performance roots it in the real. The scene in the mirror in which his complacent joy turns to self-awareness and mounting horror is showy, but boy does it work.

The other great thing here - in fact the best thing in either film - is Sandra Bullock's understated Harper Lee, a straight-up woman who takes none of Capote's endless shit, but knows and loves him dearly. Director Douglas McGrath's script is frequently more interested in Craig's botched character and rather too on-the-nose about Lee's own subsequent literary failings, but Bullock inhabits the role superbly, rendering every line and gesture genuine, showing yet again just what an excellent actress she is.

Infamous can be overly simplistic - particularly in its ventures into signposted comedy early on - as well as shallow, misleading, inexplicable, overly fond of itself and TV movie-ish in presentation, but for fans of Capote and his crime classic, it's worth seeing, made as watchable as it is by two outstanding performances.



Daniel Craig (top, centre of photo) and Clifton Collins, Jr., both as Perry Smith.

Put Capote and Infamous together and you couldn't find enough to make one great film, let alone two, but it's interesting to see how differently they deal with Capote's contradictions and complexities, how they treat his legacy, and how much credit they give In Cold Blood for wrecking his psyche and ruining (while defining) his career. Jones's Capote is a man playing a part, an extrovert through necessity, playing trivial and trifling because it disguises his insecurity and his pain. Hoffman's is sadder still, but also less sympathetic: his Truman is glacial, imposing and calculating, not humanised by a Harper Lee with Bullock's conspiratorial compassion.

Really, though, I'm not sure that Capote needs to be a character at all. We learn more about him, without the superficial trappings, by reading In Cold Blood than we do from a film about its making. His preoccupations, his gifts, his distractions and his failings - both moral and artistic - are laid bare throughout the book, which is as much about his response to the crimes, and his immersion in the story of the perpetrators, than it is about Dick, Perry or the Clutter family they offed.

You know without even interrogating his sources that Capote has invented Perry's line "... I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat" and you know why he's done it, a combination of myth-making, yellow journalism, moral delinquency, empathy and stylistic vision. It's a decision that doesn't transgress the rules, because the author himself is writing them, and because he's searching not for the reality but for the truth. And while the Capote surrogate in Richard Brooks' film adaptation could scarcely be more different to the author, he may as well be stood just off camera, such is the movie's faithfulness not only to his text, but to its spirit and its purpose: reputation-making sensationalism shot through with sincerity.

Ironically, it's in the book and film of In Cold Blood that you find the real Truman Capote, not in the films that place him front and centre.



***

Thanks for reading. I wrote about another true crime book that was turned into a movie here: True Story by Michael Finkel. That post also includes reviews of other Capote works.

Monday, 25 July 2016

REVIEW: Ragnar Kjartansson at the Barbican (14 July-4 September 2016)


The Visitors (2012)

All I knew about Ragnar Kjartansson before this glorious exhibition was that he once got American indie heroes The National to play their song Sorrow over and over again for six hours. Feats of endurance are a recurring theme during the Kjartansson retrospective at the Barbican, but these aren’t just stunts, they’re part of a body of work that treats popular culture with both reverence and scorn (often simultaneously), deals with deadly serious subjects like familial strife and mortality with a beguiling playfulness, and manages to tread that line between being dully prescriptive about what we take from the work and seeming to be about nothing much at all.

It begins with an installation called Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, in which we stroll between 10 unkempt troubadours strumming guitars on crumpled beds, as in the background a soft-core sex-scene featuring Kjartansson’s parents is projected onto the wall: they’re actors and he was conceived during the projection of the movie. This performance is eight hours long, and the sound from this and every other room – most simply walled off with curtains – bleeds from one to the next. It’s not necessarily intentional, probably a happy accident, but it gives an added feeling of coherence and continuity to his ruminations and investigations.


Publicity shot for S.S. Hangover (2013)

The show mixes films, paintings, live performances and the debris of the artist’s life (from beer bottles to notebooks) to tell its story. There are diversions, including a soothing film showing two-and-a-half-hours from a six-month project in which a brass band on an old-fashioned wooden boat simply moved steadily around a picturesque Icelandic canal, playing music for whoever gathered, but most of the work is more complex and ambitious.

There are miniatures of Kjartansson’s sets for an hour-long opera with no performers, in which he embraces the visceral, comforting escapism of that world, without the challenging, cerebral bit – touched by genius, close to God – that allows the artform to transcend its setting. There’s a charming, funny monochrome film, worth of Truffaut, that examines childhood and children’s attitude to mortality and the afterlife, by the artist giving some kids on a summer camp a tour of a cemetery, dressing as Death. They’re slightly giddy from being both amused and a little scared, and flit between observations and objections. “Are you Satan?” asks one. “You are God’s enemy,” says another. “You’re not Death, you’re an elf with a stick,” contends a third.


God (2006)

A film upstairs has the chameleonic Kjartansson as a ‘50s-style crooner in a tuxedo, amidst a garish pink curtain (which also surrounds you, in the Barbican’s staging): his idea was that by extending the performance interminably, he could transform it from something transient into something eternal and solemn, like a mass. But by singing only the melancholy mantra, “Sorrows conquers happiness”, he also subverts the banality, transience and vapidity of easy listening, while investing the film with incentives to keep up watching: though the text is identical, the music ebbs and flows, as the string and brass sections periodically drop out and come back in.


A Lot of Sorrow (2013)

When the artist requested that The National play Sorrow for six hours, he was essentially asking them to pay homage to his own artwork, and once more there are mini-dramas and triumphs: the effect like a documentary (in its depiction of the chemistry between the band members and with their audience) and also a scripted film, with a cycle of narratives. The bit I watched saw the band attempting to pace themselves, as the drummer tended to his hands, then – once he’d picked up the sticks again – unable to stop themselves crescendoing amidst crashing cymbals and furious fretwork, no matter how many more hours of this they had left.


Behind the scenes in 2009

A couple of the exhibits are less compelling: endless paintings of Páll Haukur Björnsson (done for the Venice Biennale in 2009) contain only a couple worth remembering, while the room showcasing his attempts to play at being an Impressionist is rather redundant, but the latter is next to one in which four Ragnars of different ages stage a row with his mother, where she spits in his face. The text is brutal if satirical, but the emotions that underscore it – the bond between mother and son, their mutual trust and status as co-conspirators, toying with art – are a vivid counterpoint, and the action itself is in flux both thematically and stylistically: the first is furthest away, the second in close-up and with more advanced editing; in the earliest video they’re laughing and joking, in the next it’s more Expressionist, the third is realistic, then the last slightly offbeat and absurdist: Ragnar’s lacquered hair and deadpan expression like something from a mid-‘00s indie.


The Visitors (2012)

The piece de resistance (or "stykki de viðnám" in Icelandic), though, is The Visitors, a gorgeous meditation on music, communality and individuality, as eight musicians in separate rooms of a historic building some miles from New York perform a song together, build once more around a single mantra, this time heartbreakingly beautiful: "Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” I experienced it walking round and round, as in turn each screen came to life, and then each performer began to make music, accentuated as you reached them, from the professionalism of the drummer to the pianist’s classical flourishes, the artist himself crooningly in a bubble bath (a slightly glib gesture) and, best of all, the accordion player singing in an unaffected, Joanne Newsom-ish squeak. It’s an absolutely devastating, exultant and euphoric piece of work: a manifesto, memoir and concert film that you experience in a new way each time, and in a completely unique way based simply on where you stand and where you walk.

That unique, accessible but also labyrinthine, multi-layered work is emblematic of this stunning show, which gave me a lot to think about while slinging my emotions around the Barbican Centre. (4/4)

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Sam Fuller, Maggie's Plan, and Buster Keaton on the skids - Reviews #235

And nothing else.



The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (Samuel Fuller 1980/2004)

What doesn't this war movie have?

- Big speeches
- Monologues about 'back home'
- Emotional death scenes
- Acts of heroism
- Anyone with special skills besides a few words of German or Italian

Sam Fuller's masterpiece, released in butchered form in 1980 then 'reconstructed' 24 years later according to his original shooting script, is a war movie like no other: the episodic, wryly fatalistic story of four dogfaces, dubbed 'the four horsemen of the apocalypse' who fight the battles that the writer-director had in World War Two: in North Africa, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechslovakia, under the wing of a taciturn, decent and unsentimental sergeant (Lee Marvin, himself a veteran of the conflict). Fuller himself is immortalised as 'Zab' (played by Robert Carradine), a cigar-chomping wannabe writer with a smart mouth, though his daughter Samantha says she could see him in all four of the horsemen, including the initially cowardly Griff, the most notable non-Luke part that Mark Hamill played during the first Star Wars run.

The Big Red One, named after the 1st Infantry Division of the American army, is a series of brilliant suspense sequences, alternated with poetic, poignant vignettes bearing the mark of memory, that seems to reach an essential truth about war that almost no other film has managed: it's just about survival. There are a couple of incidental flaws − foreigners talking English to one another with foreign accents (a now outdated device) as well as a scene in a castle near the close, which I just don't see the point of − but I found the experience completely and utterly overwhelming, in turn bloody, brutal and enrapturingly beautiful, with moments of tabloid ghoulishness and yet passages of almost Bresson-like humanism. It places you in the centre of battle like nothing else, but has no interest in glorifying its country, characters or the conflict in which they find themselves. It's simply the best war movie I've ever seen. (4)

***



CINEMA: Maggie's Plan (Rebecca Miller, 2015) - The only previous film I've seen from Rebecca Miller was Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, an extremely earnest slice of arthouse feminism that didn't quite come off. This film could hardly be more different: light, funny and accessible, a bit like a Lubitsch movie (it's thematically similar to both Angel and his classic, still contemporary comedy, That Uncertain Feeling) transplanted to the literate middle-class world of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach.

The story concerns Maggie (Greta Gerwig), who works in arts marketing, sidelines as a complete control freak, and falls in love with a self-obsessed anthropologist and wannabe novelist (Ethan Hawke), bringing her into conflict with his terrifying wife (Julianne Moore). It's an odd combination of competing and probably contradictory ideas, but what it does really well initially is treating these characters as real, really flawed people, and allowing that − rather than Hollywood convention − to determine what happens next.

It also takes them seriously: Hawke nicely plays on his established persona as a sensitive intellectual, Moore seems too broad at first, playing Danish and with a soft 'r', but it's actually a really rounded performance, merely with a couple of quirks, while Gerwig is just magnificent. Again. She reminds me a bit of Jean Arthur, one of my favourite actresses, in that she has a screwball sensibility but roots it in the real. There's a vulnerability, an appealing hesitancy and a melancholia in her heroines, always just beneath the surface, that brings pathos to her comedy. But also her timing is impeccable. Over the past five years, the roles she's been given have mostly been within certain clearly-defined parameters (even stylistically: their outfits are broadly identical), but she never repeats herself: you could put her characters from Frances Ha, Mistress America, >Damsels in Distress, While We're Young (a rare misfire) and Maggie's Plan on screen together, and pick out each one in an instant. Finally, there's one of the best kids' performances I've seen in an age: so natural and unaffected that they must have simply left little Ida Rohatyn to it.

My problem with this movie, though, is highlighted by the ending. I really enjoyed watching Maggie's Plan: it made me laugh, and feel, and even think a little, despite a little flabbiness in the script and the occasional bum note, but the pay-off is just too conventional and convenient; so much so, that it feels like an affront to the rest of the movie. Then I realised that actually that didn't come out of the blue, I just hadn't picked up on the film's thematic failings because I was having too much fun, and because its narrative keeps you guessing through a succession of little twists. While it's dressed in the clothes of contemporary feminism, with a couple of strong female characters and a general disgust at the idea of Gerwig having to support her husband as the breadwinner, its message (if there is one) is actually pretty muddled, while it's very happy to employ worn old rom-com scenarios, including the snowed-in-lovers fallback used in innumerable '30s and '40s romances (especially comedies), from And So They Were Married and Sun Valley Serenade to My Reputation and the Garbo career apocalypse that was Two-Faced Woman, even if it does them very well.

What I love about Frances Ha isn't just its sumptuous monochrome photography and off-kilter humour, it's that it's about something: a relatable portrait of late 20s aimlessness. I'm not really sure what Maggie's Plan is about, beyond its immediate story, and when you think it's about to go somewhere exciting and novel in its final reel, it serves up a piece of wish-fulfilment that really disappointed me. So I'm in an odd position: as a film this is vastly superior to Personal Velocity, which often bored the pants off me as well as leaning on stylistic clichés like freeze-frames, but yet it doesn't feel an authentic statement of any kind, just a highly entertaining, extremely well-acted film that'll keep you laughing and interested for close to two hours. That's plenty, it's often what I feel like, but next to Gerwig's big artistic statements, and from a writer like Miller, I expected something different, and possibly something more. (3)

***

Buster Keaton shorts:



Keaton's heyday was the 1920s, an astonishing period of creativity largely unmatched in the annals of American film, with every single movie he made extraordinary in one way or another. He made the biggest mistake of his year in 1928, signing with MGM, who robbed him off his autonomy, stunted his creativity and then kicked him out the door in '34, by which time he'd become a hopeless alcoholic. Attempting to get back his mojo, he made 16 films at a so-called Poverty Row studio (a film factory with miniscule budgets), Educational Pictures. They're an incredibly mixed mag: some of them are utterly and irredeemably dreadful - embarrassing, depressing dirge bereft of imagination - but there's one genuine classic, Grand Slam Opera, which I reviewed here, and a handful of the others are really good fun. The problem is that it's almost impossible to guess which film will fit into which bracket, so I watched the lot. The final 10 are here:



The E-Flat Man (Charles Lamont, 1935) - This gentle spoof of Frank Capra's massively successful It Happened One Night - which sees Buster eloping incompetently with regular co-star Dorothea Kent - might not have cheered me before I started my Educational expedition, but viewed alongside some of the most upsetting comedy shorts I've ever seen, it's a welcome interpolation. The film starts badly but picks up, with a few strong gags and stunts that hark back to his silent classics Cops (that horizontal escape from the frame), Neighbours (as he's lifted onto a rooftop), The Scarecrow (a famous bit directly lifted from the 1920 movie) and The General (as he sits on the outside of a train before it unexpectedly sets off). Buster's persona in these shorts isn't very attractive: he's clumsy, finickity and frightened, light years from the energetic, era-defining young man who streaked like a comet across the sky of twenties cinema, and is now saggy, glum and more interested in slightly re-arranging items he's dislodged, like a proto-Hulot. He's also offered no thought into how you translate silent comedy to the sound era: so there's merely action without dialogue or the rhythmic, mood-enhancing narration of a score. In that damaging, alienating context, at least here there are some proper jokes, delivered with a hint of the elan that made him a superstar. (2)

The Timid Young Man (Mack Sennett, 1935) - Dire Keaton short incorporating the talents of washed-up Keystone Kops director Mack Sennett and former Laurel and Hardy heavy Tiny Sandford to absolutely no effect. Buster is Milton, the timid young man of the title, who flees a prospective wedding to bad-tempered Kitty McHugh (sister of then ubiquitous character actors Frank, Matt and Jimmy), picks up man-hating hitchhiker Lona Andre and gets into a spat with hulking bully boy Sandford, after inexplicably ramming his car off a cliff. Andre is appealing, the final shot is great and there are a couple of halfway-decent ideas somewhere in there, but they're drowned out by atrocious writing, painful running jokes and a succession of large continuity errors. (1)

Three on a Limb (Charles Lamont, 1936) - Buster romances a woman with two tough boyfriends in this weak short. A couple of the gags are funny - particularly the hero volunteering to a traffic cop that he also went through a red light - and womanising hard nut Grant Withers (later Ike Clanton in Ford's My Darling Clementine) gives the film a shot in the arm when he arrives, leading to an agreeably frenetic if rather botched ending, but most of it's just incredibly obvious and uninspired, the star's reunion with his nemesis from College and The Cameraman, Harold Goodwin, another pale shadow of past glories. (1.5)

Tars and Stripes (Charles Lamont, 1935) - Keaton's "in the Navy now" short is incredibly embarrassing and completely demoralising: painfully unfunny garbage with barely an ounce of ingenuity (and what there is restricted to the final two minutes). He's a hapless sailor perpetually in trouble with a superior (Vernon Dent) who keeps falling in the sea. Seeing Buster playing with a cannon calls to mind his Civil War masterpiece - The General - made eight years (and an entire lifetime) earlier, which serves only to make it even more upsetting. It looks like the studio, Educational, was so excited about the chance to film at a naval base that they rushed in without actually coming up with any material. The results are horrid. (1)



Blue Blazes (Raymond Kane, 1936) - Keaton's follow-up to Grand Slam Opera is a funny short with the star as a fireman, following that successful old formula in which he goes from patronised zero to celebrated hero. This one starts inauspiciously but the second half is great value, with three huge laughs. Buster's makeshift fire engine is such a great gag. (2.5)

The Chemist (Al Christie, 1936) - Another one that starts slowly but is really motoring by the end. Here he's a scientist working on various revolutionary powders, which make creatures multiply in size, women fall in love or things go bang. When he's illustrating these during a laughless sequence in the first reel, all you can think is: at this time, Chaplin was working on Modern Times. But by 1936 Keaton had got over his drink problem and got his confidence back, and from the time he's abducted by gangster Donald McBride (later a ubiquitous character comic, who looks a lot like Butch from Tom and Jerry) the good gags come thick and fast, leading to an un-PC closer that I really didn't see coming. (2.5)

Mixed Magic (Raymond Kane, 1936) - A good idea that really doesn't work, with Keaton as a hapless assistant to a tyrannical magician. There's barely a snicker, though you learn how a few magic tricks work and the star's Arabian outfit is cool. (1.5)



Jail Bait (Charles Lamont, 1937) - A fun little film, with Buster framing himself for murder, so his best mate can investigate the real crime. Again, the establishing of the plot is tedious, but the sequence in which he's trying to get arrested by a disinterested cop is genuinely hilarious, and there are some great ideas in here, including an outfit that's half convict-half guard, so his character can survive a prison break (Buster re-used the joke as a gag-writer on A Southern Yankee, a remake of The General starring the abominable Red Skelton), as well as a basic premise essentially reworked in the Fritz Lang thriller, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. The sign in the window of the jeweller's, incidentally, is a lift from Keaton's early silent classic, The Goat. (2.5)

Ditto (Charles Lamont, 1937) - An incredibly tired farce, with unfortunate echoes of Keaton's gobsmacking technical achievement, The Play House, which also concerned itself with twins − while taking the premise rather further! The opening gag is poignant, the rest is just shit. (1)

Love Nest on Wheels (Charles Lamont, 1937) - The last of Buster's 16 films at Educational is a lousy, predictable short that lifts most of its better moments from The Bell Boy, which he'd made with Fatty Arbuckle, 19 years earlier. It's fun to see his family acting alongside him, especially his mum Myra chewing on a corn pipe, but the material is very weak. (1.5)

Here's the overall ranking for the series (with links to the other six reviews):



Grand Slam Opera (3.5)
Hayseed Romance (3)
Jail Bait (2.5)
The Gold Ghost
Blue Blazes
One Run Elmer
The Chemist
The E-Flat Man (2)
Allez-Oop
Three on a Limb (1.5)
Mixed Magic
Love Nest on Wheels
The Timid Young Man (1)
Tars and Stripes
Ditto
Palooka from Paducah

My conclusion is that Buster simply hadn't devised a coherent way of translating the essence of his silent successes to the sound era. Even when his imagination is firing and there are brief passages of brilliance, you know that his vision will be thwarted by a lack of money or a lack of clarity, that his momentum is liable to be stopped dead by a stilted, awkward dialogue scene at any moment, and that whatever rare genius was crackling through him in his heyday has now departed. After a similarly problematic period at Columbia Pictures, the star abandoned attempts to revive his solo film career and settled into character parts. Occasionally these were poignant and beautiful (as in the barely-seen San Diego, I Love You, Billy Wilder's sensational Sunset Blvd. and Chaplin's Limelight), but more often they showed a man betrayed by the studio system and his own demons, carrying on as best he could, because there was nothing else to do. There was a happy ending, though: as he went back to his stage roots, dried out and inspired anew by his third wife, he became a hit in Paris. Then the critical and popular renaissance of his 1920s work (tied to the rehabilitation of silent movies as a respected artform, rather than a laughing stock) saw him lauded across the globe as a cinematic pioneer and a true original. Finally, in 1965 (a year before his death), he returned to silent film itself, travelling across Canada for the gentle, self-homaging film, The Railrodder, a fitting finale with nods to many of his early classics.



If you want to see the Educational films and make your own mind up, they're on this DVD, 'Lost Keaton'.

The movie stills are from busterkeaton.com.

***

Thanks for reading.

Jane Wyman, A Confederacy of Dunces, and the lost review - Reviews #234

I had a week off, so I have quite a few reviews to put up. Here's the first batch:

BOOKS



A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
- This near-mythic helping of acrid Southern Gothic is at times almost wilfully offputting, as its verbose, over-educated and oversized hero Ignatius J. Reilly gorges himself on rank hot dogs, unveils yellowing, stained bed sheets during a workers' revolt, or updates us for the thousandth time about the status of his "valve" - the God-given contraption in his stomach regulating his chronic flatulence. But it's also hypnotically original, full of virtuosic passages of bilious wit, as Ignatius and a gallery of hysterically funny supporting characters go almost aimlessly about their daily business in a vividly-realised nightmare of New Orleans, before you realise that Toole has been shuffling everyone expertly into position for a quite brilliant finale. Jones, the sarcastic, jive-talking black "vagran" who takes an interest in Reilly, would rightly walk off with just about any other book, but this isn't any other book: often revolting and sometimes repetitive, it's also a unique artistic vision, with a mesmerising anti-hero, that has to be experienced to be believed. (3.5)

***



Little Children by Tom Perrotta (2004) - A modern masterpiece that entirely transcends its suburban trappings, becoming universal through its specificity, because its characters aren't broad and aren't archetypes, no matter how much they may seem to be at first. From a jock-turned-stay-at-home dad to a feminist Madame Bovary apologist and a sarcastic child molester, this portrait of overgrown children, with little children either in tow or in their eyeline, gives every character their due, as each is crushed or raised high by their flaws and failings. One of Perrotta's gifts is his compassion for characters that you don't really like, and another is his ability to shift seamlessly from sarcasm to sentiment, and both are in ample evidence here. He writes with such pace and grace, and such alarming, beguiling honesty, that he changes the way you see the world. (4)

***

TV



Misfits: Season 1
Misfits: Season 2
Misfits: Xmas Special

An antidote to morality plays, Marvel movies and just about everything else, this high-concept comedy-drama about young offenders getting superpowers can genuinely be called great: acerbic, inventive and ironic, with a smart, sweary and avowedly juvenile sense of humour that's all its own, but also invested with a humanity that's expressed in unusual and surprising ways. You get the feeling that writer-director Howard Overman came up with some of these storylines simply because he thought they'd be funny, then couldn't help himself dealing with them seriously and empathetically (that's how the best episode of Freaks and Geeks, 'The Little Things' came into being), and the results are overpowering. Just when you think it's beginning to run out of ideas near the end of Season 1, it properly explodes into life, leading to a second series that's even better. That's dominated by a storyline about recovering social cripple Simon (Iwan Rheon) which provoked that back-of-the-throat feeling of nostalgia and complete immersion I haven't had since finishing Veronica Mars, though Robert Sheehan's tousle-haired, perma-quipping and unfailingly inappropriate Nathan is also a continuing joy. (4)

***



Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulesco, 1948) - Dark, near-classic Americana (though set in Nova Scotia) that blends all sorts of influences, from folksy dramas about rural doctors, to a pair of classic late silents: The Wind (a thematic cousin) and Lucky Star (a spiritual and aesthetic big brother). It's best known, though, for Jane Wyman's performance as the mute, brutalised heroine, Belinda, which won the late-developing actress, and first wife of Ronald Reagan, the Best Actress Oscar. And she is transcendent: gentle, steely and extraordinarily appealing as she blossoms under the tutelage of sympathetic doctor Lew Ayres.

I'm a huge fan of Ayres, particularly his performance in Holiday, as a dissolute, self-loathing playboy, but here his turn − though lit by moments of brilliance ("Forgive me, I didn't know") − strays a little far into corn, with many of his line readings given in identikit fashion, and the slow-paced delivery enforced by his need to translate for Wyman occasionally tips over into parody. It's probably only noticeable because Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead are so damn good: Bickford giving surely the best performance of his erratic career as Belinda's loving but quick-tempered father, and Moorehead once again taking a little while to adjust to, since her work − given direction by the young Welles − was bigger and more extreme than most actresses of her generation, at first emitting the whiff of melodrama, before you realise that actually there's a hell of a lot more going on here.

As well as boasting three truly great performances, it's also notable for its simply empathy and for some of the best photography of the decade. Ted McCord shot East of Eden for Kazan, but did most of his best work in black-and-white: the sleazy Flamingo Road, Huston's matchlessly evocative Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and this film, McCord busting the rule of thirds as he throws the horizon up to the top or usually down to the bottom of the frame, and finds astonishing compositions: Wyman pumping water as inky branches stretch into the blanched sky; the heroine writing up a tree, as her father watches her in the distance; or McCord sticking his camera inside the shop, fixed on the gift, as Ayres buys his protégé a veil. Images you could hang in your living room.

Not everything's as great: the shopkeeper is made-up as ridiculously as Lee J. Cobb in Golden Boy, Ayres' speech about "intuition" undoes some of the film's good work by suggesting that people who can't speak aren't really like the rest of us after all, and the denouement is somehow unsatisfying, not giving its heroine the chance to save herself, which for so long felt like the point of the film (the weird trailer, incidentally, neglects to mention the basic premise at all!). All this set against an isolated world that is intriguing and atmospheric, but also not entirely convincing, and peopled by supporting characters too underdeveloped to really connect.

It's imperfect then, certainly, but there's artistry here in both the acting and the cinematography that's often breathtaking to behold, as well as a human story that despite its ultimate shortcomings is extremely powerful and moving. Wyman's performance is so genuine and so far from the mannered, Oscar-ogling fodder I thought it might be, that I felt almost ashamed, as well as completely blown away. I always assumed that Dorothy McGuire's performance in The Spiral Staircase was an unassailable highpoint in the 'mute heroine' genre, but now I'm not so sure. (3.5)

***



La collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer, 1967) - Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales don't have a moral lesson (that would be terrible), but instead are six variations based on F. W. Murnau's classic silent movie, Sunrise - about a protagonist caught between two lovers. That protagonist narrates the story, so the tale is about their personal morality (or lack of), and how that informs their actions.

The fourth of the series (though released before #3, My Night at Maud's) is oddly nasty and vitriolic, as a smug art dealer (Patrick Bauchau), holidaying with a vindictive painter (Daniel Pommereulle), tries to explain away in voiceover his burgeoning obsession with the promiscuous Haydée (Haydée Politoff), amidst the hills and beaches of sunlit St Tropez.

Politoff is perfect, and so is the seductive, sensual yet clear-headed way that Rohmer uses her, but the film's central story, at times ironic, affecting and entrancing, is often hard to watch, as the two male protagonists − and another who enters later and can't act − are so misogynistic and cruel.

Those problems come to a head in a final act that makes you so hostile to Bauchau's character, playing a weird sexual mind game with Politoff, that it switches off our in-built affinity with a narrator, though the final scene is so brilliantly conceived that you can't help but be crushed by it.

Rohmer's second full-length feature and his first of any kind shot in colour (superbly by a debuting Nestor Almendros) is a really interesting film: philosophically dense yet filled with red herrings, but so difficult to warm to that I can't class it among his best. For all that, I won't forget Haydée in a while. (3.5)

See also: The first two entries in the series are reviewed here and include the best film I've seen this year: The Bakery Girl of Monceau.

***

I wrote this review when the film came out, then didn't post it as I was looking for jobs and didn't want my prospective employers to read all my wanking jokes. It's fine now.



CINEMA: Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013) - Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut as a writer-director is an entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking movie that doesn't quite go all the way. That's a joke about sex, like reviewers in newspapers do. Did you like it?

JGL, just about the most exciting man-actor in movies today, casts himself as Don Jon, an Italian-American stud with a silly haircut. He's muscular, handsome (apart from the silly haircut) and a hit with the laydeez: hence the nickname, which is a pun on Don Juan, off of the legend and the Byron poem. He's also addicted to porn, which is apparently a thing on the internet that shows men and women having full sex!

Be right back.

*returns three hours later*

I can confirm this is a real thing.

The film follows Jon as he tries to reform for the sake of a "dime" (an alleged 10/10 hottie, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson; I'm actually more of a Thora Birch kind of Ghost World fan), who-

Sorry, I've just got to go and "make a drink".

*returns four hours later, looking guilty*

-has some unrealistic expectations of her own, perpetuated by Hollywood romantic comedies.

At first Gordon-Levitt appears to be merely doing an impression of a young De Niro, having contracted smirk-itis, but after a while he disappears into the part, as the movie begins to cleverly and astutely shift our sympathies towards this arrogant, preening and conflicted young man. I'm not sure that he quite makes sense as a character, but at least he's arresting, and his story is a largely interesting one. And if his Italian-American family is less nuanced and interesting than the one in Moonstruck (or The Godfather), at least it's superior to the one in Full of Life. As the love interest, Johansson is better than usual, trying out a Jewish New Jersey intonation that suggests her character is a real human being rather than merely another of her appearances as herself-

Sorry, I've remembered another thing I have to do.

*returns 10 minutes later wearing different trousers*

-though Gordon-Levitt succumbs to cartoonish triviality at least once behind the camera, getting her to coo, goggle-eyed at her rom-coms (presented as a distractingly phony film-within-a-film), a point that could have been made with a bit more finesse. His other flourishes include a fondness for fast, rhythmic editing to hammer home a routine - a trick he presumably learnt while appearing in Scott Frank's The Lookout, but also done by Aronofsky in Requiem for a Dream - and, as a writer, that predictable gimmick of having an otherwise silent character (Brie Larson) whose one spoken contribution is something incredibly profound.

Speaking of profound, there's something profound I need to urgently research on the internet.

*returns three days later, appearing entirely drained of fluid*

Julianne Moore appears in a key supporting role as a nightschool classmate of Jon's, who isn't employed by the story in anything like the way you might expect. In that sense, and in its basic subject matter, Don Jon is quite original, and there's plenty to chew over in the movie, as it raises some interesting questions above love, desire and the presentation of sex in the media and beyond. Having said that, it doesn't necessarily have many answers, and seems too rigid and clichéd in its presentation of the sexes, making it a good film rather than a great one, and an intriguing experience rather than a satisfying one. Much like the way that Don Jon has sex at the start of the movie, which you're welcome to put in your newspaper.

*unpacks Kleenex*
*fires up laptop*
*removes trousers*
*dies of exhaustion*

(3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Dan Duryea, Weiner and Luke Skywalker: the Kinks fan − Reviews #243

All the stuff I've been watching lately. I've also been enraptured by Karina Longworth's series on the Hollywood blacklist.



Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, 2016) − Completely fascinating documentary about crusading Democrat and serial dick pic sender Anthony Weiner and his New York mayoral campaign of 2013, which started off promisingly, before the unfortunate surfacing of lots of photographs of his penis.

From a spectacular opening that shows what a barnstorming, populist performer he was in his congress days, through to a desperately and increasingly uncomfortable chance to be a fly on the wall as his marriage falters and his campaign implodes, it's a remarkable portrait − with remarkable access − of a narcissist who clearly cares about ordinary people, and yet is destroyed by his own rampaging demons and a recurrent shittiness in his private life.

It's the opposite, in some ways, of The War Room, Pennebaker's brilliant behind-the-scenes film on Clinton's 1992 presidential bid, in which somehow (through timing, strategy or just dumb luck) a philandering Democrat manages to keep the media focused on his political plan, and so wins the biggest prize in the land. Weiner raises questions about the duality of man: the gulf between our personal and public lives, and whether failings in one should disqualify us from the other. (3.5)

You're unlikely to come out of it with an enhanced regard for its central figure (who I knew mostly from his extremely erudite contributions to the financial crash doc, Inside Job), but it's undeniably a vivid portrait of the man, and has a great deal to say about media, celebrity and hypocrisy in the modern world.

***



The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999) − This is such an interesting, well-crafted film, with sumptuous period detail and a rich atmosphere of decadence and desperation, but it’s only about three-quarters persuasive and convincing, due largely – I think – to the way the central character is portrayed.

It’s the mid-1950s, and intense, slippery blue-collar kid Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) travels to northern Italy to bring dissolute playboy Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) back to the bosom of his family. Instead he becomes obsessed with his quarry, leading to tragedy, strategic impersonation and moral turpitude.

There’s so much to like here: Law’s seductively selfish Adonis, Anthony Minghella’s literate script (adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel), and the absolutely stunning editing from Godfather alumnus (and Return to Oz director!) Walter Murch – who takes location footage that could have been mere travelogue fodder, and spins it into something dark, stifling and gorgeous, matching voices and saxes, segueing from introspection to escape, and plunging us into Ripley’s unfolding dream and enveloping nightmare. The film drips with jazz and sex and longing. Dappled sun and toned bodies. Repression, revelation and self-revolution.

Its music is close to perfection, from trumpeter and bandleader Guy Barker arranging old standards (and turning up to play a solo), to a joyous duet between Ripley and Greenleaf, and an Italian boy chorister making his conductor weep through the sheer beauty of his voice. Echoes of The Jolson Story’s sensational opening, the jazz fetish of film noir, the gangster classic Angels with Dirty Faces. Its imagery is beguiling and disorientating: a stone bust beaten to death, Madonnas bobbing in the sea like Fellini at his poetic realist best.

But against this perfectly rendered backdrop, and alongside Cate Blanchett’s astonishing, film-stealing bit as a horny, lonely socialite (shades of Carol), Damon’s characterisation seems vague and unconvincing – a ‘90s movie star doing ‘90s movie star acting, a blot on the landscape. Jack Davenport gets largely past his retroactive typecasting through sheer gentle conviction. Paltrow is uncommonly and unusually good as Greenleaf’s confused, besotted fiancée. Law’s accent slips a couple of times – a failing that does almost nothing to detract from his erratically sensual, brutally real characterisation – and Philip Seymour Hoffman is thrillingly ugly and unwelcome and suspicious as his hellraiser buddy.

But while Damon has effective moments of panic and poetry, his performance keeps us at arms’ length. We’re only halfway complicit in his deception and downfall, and that half comes mostly from the script. Often his rictus grin is the only bit of him acting, except for his hair and glasses. Five years later, he would have been fine (he played a similar part in Behind the Candelabra, and The Informant!, for that matter); here he’s too close to a cipher, oscillating unhappily between two conflicting personas: a Machiavellian manipulator and a hastily improvising toy of fate whose subterfuge is rather too simplistic for the film’s scope.

Elsewhere the film’s flaws are mopped up by people of genius: a shot of pigeons in San Marco suggests that without Murch’s eye for rhythm and juxtaposition this may not have been the hypnotic experience that it is, but neither the script nor the actor quite know what to make of Ripley, his fate or indeed his talent. (3)

***



Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949) − The reputation of this 1949 film noir has become something of a cause celebre, with the film being hailed as a lost classic after a UCLA restoration, a prohibitively expensive Flicker Alley release and its subsequent appearance on Region B Blu-ray (from Arrow).

There are many lost classics of the genre just waiting for rediscovery: following the rehabilitation of Cry Danger, hopefully Dick Powell’s earlier vehicles Pitfall and Cornered are next, but this isn't really one of them. It's merely another superior entry in the cycle: a sort of pulpy extrapolation of Von Stroheim's Greed, in which housewife Lizabeth Scott becomes so intent on keeping the money dropped into her lap that suddenly everyone is dying.

I’m a huge fan of Scott, who is characterised in the making-of documentary as a ‘sexy June Allyson’, but is perhaps best understood as a less fantastical Veronica Lake, but this isn’t one of her best performances. It lacks the toxic sparkle of her work in Dead Reckoning or the enrapturing warmth she exhibited in Pitfall, it’s simply an exercise in neurotically unpleasant drudgery. She looks knackered and even that incredible husky voice – her dialogue typically filtered through a thousand Marlboros and bourbon shots – isn’t used to full effect. When she’s asked to throb with intensity (never the easiest mode to slip into), she’s caught acting, her eyes flitting all over the place. She isn’t bad: she’s fairly commanding and keeps us on our toes, whether intentionally or otherwise, as we’re left guessing as to whether her character is extraordinarily calculating and malevolent or a mere plaything of chance, but I was expecting the masterclass I’d been promised, and I didn’t get it. Nor does Arthur Kennedy offer anything as her more level-headed husband. I’ve always liked him as an actor, but here he’s almost offensively boring.

As a result, the acting honours are taken by Don DeFore, the year after his best performance – in Andre de Toth’s Western noir, Ramrod – as a jocular, charming mystery man doing his own investigation into what the hell is going on, and by Dan Duryea. Duryea came to Hollywood in 1941 to reprise his role in Lillian Hellman’s brilliant, pungent examination of avarice, The Little Foxes, and by 1949 had already made a name for himself in crime films, most notably as a thuggish pimp in Fritz Lang’s noirs Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window, and as a sweaty, nervy musician in the near-classic Black Angel. Here, his role is really interesting – an apparently cocksure heavy who finds the tables turning on him, and struggles to hold on, his amusing sardonism replaced by a drink-sodden disorientation – and he milks it for all it’s worth, without ever tipping over into excess, the film crackling with life whenever he appears.

Ultimately, I wanted more of that complexity and intensity than I got: either the silkily evasive, seductive Scott of Dead Reckoning, or else a central performance of paint-stripping vigour, such as Ida Lupino would have given. The reality is rather more pedestrian and the film does look a bit cheap (not in the deprived, depraved way that Detour looks cheap), but it’s still entertaining, with an interesting plot, a couple of good performances and the familiarly stylised seediness of the noir milieu: always a fun place to take a holiday. (3)

***



The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964) − The first couple of scenes are really great, then it just turns out that this is another entry in Roger Corman's Poe cycle that consists of Vincent Price being weird in a castle. Its main problem − aside from familiarity − is that the pacing is all over the shop, with endless scenes of people just wandering around ominously, but Nicolas Roeg's cinematography is amazing (I love the way he abandons the stately framing for a handheld in the climax, like Scorsese in Goodfellas), there are some interesting if underdeveloped ideas about intellectual evil, and the last 10 minutes is really strong, with a creepy coda that reeks of Bergman. The film also includes a man doing the worst ever impression of a pig. (2.5)

See also: I've reviewed several of Corman's other Poe adaptations: Tales of Terror, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.

***



Pierrepoint (Adrian Shergold, 2005) − This biopic of Britain's most prolific and high-profile executioner (co-written by Bob Mills!) looks and sounds like just about every other homegrown film of the past 15 years, but its limited psychological insights are put across fairly well by Timothy Spall (as Pierrepoint) and Juliet Stevenson (as his wife), and its rather cumbersome subplot pays off handsomely with by far the best scene in the movie. For all that, I got a lot more out of Martin McDonagh's recent play, Hangmen, which deals with the (fictional) second-best executioner around, and is fatalistic and blackly funny where this is prosaic and formulaic. (2.5)

***



Men of Boys Town (Norman Taurog, 1941) − MGM's sequel to its 1938 smash, Boys Town, is an overlong shambles that throws in everything from a miscarriage of justice to brutal reform school guards to Mickey Rooney pretending to "rassle" in slow-motion for what feels like two years. Spencer Tracy (who won his second Best Actor Oscar for the original film) is Father Flanagan, the Irish-American priest who runs a vast school for marginalised and often criminal boys, with Rooney returning as one of the town's success stories − Whitey Marsh, the subject of the first movie − along with popular child actors of the day like Bobs Watson, who's possibly too old to be behaving the same way he did three years earlier. The film begins as a rehash of the earlier movie, only with brutalised Larry Nunn needing redemption, before deciding − correctly − that we've already seen this, and just chucking in any other ideas that happen to be around. Some of them work, but mostly it's too sentimental, unbelievable and unrealistic to derive much enjoyment from, particularly when a wise-cracking, pint-sized hoodlum called Flip (Darryl Hickman) turns up, and the film gets very confused as to whether this is a joke or not. Where the sequences do come off, it's largely due to Tracy (who's effortlessly good) and Rooney, then in the middle of a white-hot streak, and absolutely excellent when he's prevented from mugging idiotically and instead asked to subtly emote. It's basically OK, but reminds me a bit of the Deanna Durbin film, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, which took a beloved original, reunited many of the cast and then delivered something so contrived and pointlessly gloomy that it threatened to torpedo your happy memories of the first film. My tried-and-tested method in this scenario is just to pretend the sequel doesn't exist, so I'm doing that. (2)

***



Plein soleil (René Clément, 1960) − The first screen version of (The Talented) Mr Ripley is quite different from Minghella's 1999 version (see above), with Alain Delon a much more calculating, straight, French protagonist. It's vastly inferior overall: glossy and stylish but empty, with plenty of dry stretches, though a few fine sequences of surprise and suspense, as well as a nice, spare score from Nino Rota. Delon is, of course, absolutely gorgeous. (2)

***

LIVE



Ray Davies & Mark Hamill (Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre, 28/06/16)
− In which we learned (amongst other things) that Davies generally recorded his vocals after laying down the track with the band, in case they thoughts his words were girly (which they were, magnificently). The evening began with us sitting in Hornsey Town Hall, watching a South Bank Show episode showing Davies in the deserted Hornsey Town Hall then, if anything, proceeded to get odder, as Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill) bounded on stage to interview long-time hero Davies and read bits from his interviewee's autobiography, while Davies interspersed their chat with acoustic versions of his own songs, almost exclusively from Muswell Hillbillies and Everybody's in Show-Biz. It was the first time I'd thought about anything but the referendum result for almost three days and such a welcome break: an insightful, informal, exciting and really quite peculiar evening. I think I may have been the only person there who wanted the pair's 10-minute chat about 1950s movies to carry on. (3.5)



Belle and Sebastian (Royal Albert Hall, 23/06/16) - A delightful evening at work, with a great crowd, a dancing horse and a rare airing for The Boy Done Wrong Again, as one of my favourite bands played their signature album, If You're Feeling Sinister, in its entirety, following by a slew of hits and rarities. (3.5)

***

TV



Hanratty: The Mystery of Deadman's Hill (Channel 4, 1992)
BBC Horizon: The A6 Murder (BBC Two, 2002)

These two documentaries deal with the notorious A6 Murder (and the rape of the victim's girlfriend), for which James Hanratty was hanged in 1962 − a divisive case that I've been interested in since reading Paul Foot's pieces about it in Private Eye as a teenager (though I was reminded of it by watching Pierrepoint). To some he's a callous killer who wasted his family's lives by asking them to fight on to clear his name; to others (like Foot) he's the victim of an outrageous miscarriage of justice that indicts the entire British legal system. It's certainly true that the furore over the case helped lead to the abolition of the death penalty in Britain. The first of these films was made for Channel 4 on the 30th anniversary of Hanratty's death, and tries to pick the prosecution case to pieces, with archive footage, talking heads and a wealth of recently released papers; it's pretty convincing and very entertaining. The Horizon programme, broadcast a decade later after DNA tests that suggested Hanratty was guilty, is more even-handed, but gives the last word to forensic experts who say there's little doubt that he committed the crime. Viewed consecutively, it's interesting how dissimilar these films are, with different contemporary news reports, different first-hand accounts and critical details shared out fairly evenly between them. The Channel 4 film is better TV − its rival programme has an ugly palette and is padded out with vague, distorted graphics that were then in vogue − but I found the Horizon programme's conclusions more believable, including its main one: Hanratty's DNA could have ended up on critical samples through contamination, but wouldn't there then have been evidence of two people's DNA, rather than just his? The suspect put forward by Hanratty's family, Peter Alphon, is nevertheless one of the creepiest people of all time. (3/2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.