Thursday, 29 April 2010

Tony Benn on film - Reviews #33

The Proud Valley (Pen Tennyson, 1940)



Ten years ago, I read a piece by the socialist politician (and personal hero) Tony Benn in which he wrote about his three favourite moments in film. One was the band sequence in the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (see #2). Another was the tear-jerking climax of The Railway Children. The third came from The Proud Valley, a vehicle for that icon of black America, Paul Robeson, set in a Welsh mining community. Here's what he wrote:
"A black Pennsylvanian man starts work in a South Wales mine. The other miners are not too happy that he is black until they realise that they are also blackened. In my favourite scene a choir is singing at the eisteddfod, but the lead singer is not present. The conductor is about to sing the solo part when they hear Robeson singing outside and are spellbound."
Benn slightly misremembers the story, since the racist characters are never shown to accept Robeson, despite his friends pointing out that they are "blackened", but his words on the film remain very moving. They certainly sold me on wanting to catch the movie, which I've finally done (10 years on!), thanks to the recent Optimum DVD release. In all honesty, The Proud Valley isn't as poetic, subtle or timeless as Benn makes it sound, but it does have some wonderful moments.

Robeson's David Goliath is a gentle giant who pops up in the Welsh mining village of Blaendy. Initially joining forces with terrible busker Edward Rigby, he gets an in with the locals via his remarkable voice. As Benn says, the scene in which he blesses choir practice with a mesmerising solo from the street below is tremendously effective. It would be even better if Rigby hadn't been prodded into providing some unsuitable comic relief just seconds into Robeson's performance.

The film has been praised for its complex characterisation, but compared to the twin peaks of this sub-genre, The Stars Look Down and How Green Was My Valley (see #19), it's shallow at best. The pro-union politics are also muted, aside from a poorly-executed if heartfelt variation on the Jarrow March*, but the film is notable for the friendship between Robeson and his white co-workers. Graham Greene heaped opprobrium on the presentation of the star, saying he was a "big black Pollyanna", keeping "everybody cheerful and dying nobly at the end". But while I'd agree that Robeson's death is entirely unnecessary and difficult to take (why couldn't a white character buy it in the final scenes instead?), the film's treatment of race is still far more progressive than in most Hollywood films of the period.

The notable exception would be Dr Kildare Goes Home, released the same year, a standard series film featuring the remarkable sight of a black doctor going about his job without comment on his colour. Disappointingly, given Robeson's standing as a leading trade unionist, his David Goliath sticks around in Blaendy for personal reasons, rather than ideological ones, but tellingly the actor said it was the only work of which he felt complete pride. Incidentally, the Herbert Marshall who penned the story was not the urbane leading man, but a left-wing playwright.

The performances are spotty. Robeson, though he has tremendous presence, is only adequate in dramatic terms, leaving Rachel Thomas to scoop the acting honours. Playing an unbending, fiercely proud but desperately poor mother, she does well in her first film, with what's really quite a cliched part. She reminded me a lot of Mary Gordon, the Scottish character actress who had so many nice parts in Hollywood during the '30s and '40s, most memorably in The Irish in Us.

The Harrogate-born (wooh! yeah! Harrogate!) Edward Chapman, best known today for appearing in the atrocious sci-fi movie Things to Come and playing Mr Grimsdale opposite Norman Wisdom, is also decent as the choir leader and town father figure. Chapman demonstrated his conciliatory, pro-union credentials in real life by trying to get John Gielgud thrown out of Equity for having gay sex. The Proud Valley also offers a cardboard romance between miner and management hopeful Simon Lack and Gail Patrick clone Janet Johnson, whose shop-owner mother is really hateful ("Before long, me and my girl will have cleared right out of this poverty-stricken hole" she says at one point), and a couple of tense sequences dealing with mine collapse.

It's an extremely erratic film. The production is slightly slapdash, sometimes cheap-looking and featuring sloppy editing. But every so often there's a painterly, artistic image that takes you completely by surprise: miners disappearing into the black; a slow, upsetting shot of bodies in rubble; townsfolk singing and praying in the dying light, before the motionless wheels of stalled industry. Likewise, while the plotting is often naive and over-convenient and the elements dealing with the outbreak of war are crowbarred into the narrative, the film ends in unexpectedly powerful fashion, before inexplicably leaping forward in time, robbing us of a reunion scene or the chance to pay tribute to Robeson's tragic hero.

Thankfully, the film has a calling card more wondrous than almost any other: Paul Robeson's voice. He only has around six minutes' worth of songs, but from his street-side solo to the take on Land of My Fathers that soundtracks the movie's coda, the sound of Robeson's booming, awesome baritone stirs a feeling quite unlike any other. Just a blast of it is enough to make the hairs on my neck stand up, and his version of Deep River, sung at a critical juncture of the film, is intensely moving. While not the lost classic I was hoping for, The Proud Valley remains an interesting work and - in those few Robeson songs - has a clutch of great moments to be savoured in joyous isolation. (2.5)

*Trivia notes: The Jarrow March is a key touchstone of the classic TV mini-series Our Friends in the North. The Proud Valley was the first film to be premiered on radio, with the BBC broadcasting an hour-long version edited from the soundtrack.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Kick-Ass, X2 and an unheralded screwball masterpiece - Reviews #32



CINEMA: Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) is an original, entertaining fusion of teen comedy and superhero movie that stops firing on all cylinders when its guns start blazing. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is an ordinary American teenager who decides to become a superhero. He has no powers, aside from “being invisible to girls”, but he does have a natty green costume, ordered online. After a spot of posing and some light training, the self-proclaimed Kick-Ass goes into action. Seeing two hoods trying to break into a car, he tackles them - and departs in an ambulance. Eventually, though, through a combination of resilience and dumb luck, our hero does attain local celebrity, along with the unwanted attentions of gangland kingpin Mark Strong, who thinks him responsible for a series of vigilante killings carried out by wronged ex-cop Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his foul-mouthed daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz, who is terrific). Meanwhile, Strong's neglected son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) decides he wants to get involved, and reinvents himself as the bequiffed Red Mist.

The film starts in an appealingly whimsical vein, its superbly-observed passages about teen life punctuated with blasts of graphic, realistic violence: one minute Lizewski is wrestling with love interest’s Lyndsy Fonseca mistaken belief that he’s gay, the next he’s wrestling three armed men in the gutter. There’s a superb moment in which Kick-Ass decides to leap between tall buildings, then thinks better of it, such subversion of comic book lore jostling for space with simpler pleasures, like two geeky teen superheroes dancing goofily to Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy as they cruise the New York streets. But these more engaging elements are ultimately overtaken by cartoonish mayhem in a less imaginative, more gratuitous second half that - while fine in itself - largely abandons the excellent premise in favour of stylised gore. It’s still a very worthwhile film, with well-drawn characters, a glorious sense of the unexpected and a dozen huge laughs. (3)

***



*SPOILERS FOR THIS FILM AND CONFESSIONS OF BOSTON BLACKIE*
X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003) is a stunning sequel to X-Men that ups the ante in terms of action, mystery and character drama. The premise is perfectly formed, as the heroes from the first film are forced to enter an uneasy alliance with former adversary Ian McKellen and his amorphous henchwoman (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). The danger this time is despotic military man Brian Cox, who’s harbouring at least two dark secrets as he plots the demise of the mutant race. All the key cast members return, while Alan Cumming is an excellent addition to the cast as Kurt Wagner, improbably channelling Nosferatu to create a lovely, sympathetic character. Utilising biblical reference and the actor’s effective underplaying, the film cleverly flips our initial impression of Wagner, introduced as a knife-wielding, teleporting psychopath in a bravura opening sequence.

This is an extremely well-plotted, satisfying action film that (presumably inadvertently) ends up borrowing the clever double-ending of Confessions of Boston Blackie (see #89), which also saw its heroes defeat the bad guys, only to face near-certain suffocation. Singer seamlessly balances the disparate story elements, which again mix story threads about friendship, love and loyalty with broad satire and disarmingly funny, well-integrated comic asides. Racism gets another battering here, while mutancy is also equated with homosexuality in a spoof of ‘coming out’ clichés that’s played solely for laughs. “Have you tried not being a mutant?” asks Ice Man’s mother, before adding: “This is all my fault.” Happily, Pyro is on hand to reassure her: “Actually, they discovered that males are the ones who carry the mutant gene and pass it on, so-” he points at Ice Man’s dad, “it’s his fault.” The film's heart is illustrated by the genuinely touching chat between Wolverine and Ice Man, which sees the latter use his powers to cool his friend's drink. X2 is littered with such likeable, knowing touches.

There are shortcomings, with a slight nastiness permeating several scenes and coming to a head in a sequence invoking a gruesome lobotomy. It’s also unnecessary for Singer to hit us over the head with flashbacks concerning Wolverine’s past, when that shot of the three scratch marks etched into a column in a grim cellar lab made the point so subtly and so well, while a lack of clarity about the dam site in the final set piece makes the ending a touch confusing. But this is a mightily impressive, immensely enjoyable blockbuster, with strong action sequences, a firm grasp of its source novels’ mythology and strong performances across the board. (4)

***



It's Love I'm After (Archie Mayo, 1937) is just a delight, an incredibly well-written screwball comedy that keeps the expertly-crafted witticisms flying thick and fast. Given the wrong material or the wrong direction, Leslie Howard could appear unbearably smug, but here he gets the role of a lifetime - and makes the most of it. He's a conceited ham, with two eyes for the ladies, who spends most of his time off-stage (and some of it on) warring with thespian girlfriend Bette Davis. Resolving one day to turn over not just a new leaf, but a whole book of them, he's forced to play the last word in unthinking bounders to disillusion the fiancee (Olivia de Havilland) of an old friend's son. It's a great set up: a reformed character having to appear even more reprehensible than before in order to do the decent thing, and it's developed in consistently surprising, imaginative ways.

And then there's the cast. Howard is flawless as the conceited, confused, compromised, increasingly desperate cad - who has more than a little of John Barrymore about him - with Davis giving her best comedic performance as his long-suffering lover, who packs an explosive temper. De Havilland is perfectly cast, both cloying and appealing as the starstruck girl who'll excuse anything her rambunctious idol does, while Eric Blore excels as Howard's valet and co-conspirator. Blore, one of the great supporting comics, is great in everything, but I've never seen him as funny as here. Displaying his customary lack of vanity and willingness to do anything for a laugh, he spends most of one scene making ridiculous bird noises and another displacing his silly toupee. Blore also gets the best line of the film, responding to Bonnie Granville's cry of "I know something you don't know" with one of the funniest, most petulant one-liners I've ever heard.

Drawing on Shakespeare to gets both its pathos and its laughs, in the vein of To Be or Not to Be and Withnail & I, It's Love I'm After is streets ahead of most other golden era comedies: intelligent, romantic and uproariously funny, eliciting the particular buzz that comes with watching something that's clearly very special. (4)

Note: This film is now available on Region 1 DVD, on demand from the Warner Bros Archive.

***



*MAJOR SPOILERS*
Daredevil (Mark Steven Johnson, 2003) - Speaking of Shakespeare, there’s something of Hamlet about Daredevil, the hero of Mark Steven Johnson’s grim, adult comic book tragedy on the subject of revenge. Ben Affleck is Matt Murdock, a lawyer by day, but a catsuited crimefighter by night. In between, he recharges his batteries by gobbling down prescription pills and sleeping in a coffin full of water at the back of a Catholic church. Whilst supposedly a protector of the public, Daredevil battles a burning desire for vengeance that threatens to consume him, as shadowy forces rob him of the only two people he loves.

The context is particularly interesting: in terms of the character’s background, his complexity and his moral ambiguity. Murdock, the son of a prizefighter, is blinded during a tough childhood in Hell’s Kitchen, but finds that his other senses acquire a superhuman sharpness. Exacting his own brand of justice, he comes into conflict with his priest and guardian (a character reminiscent of Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces), who tells him: "A man without fear is a man without hope." But as the desperate Murdock tells a cowering child: “I’m not the bad guy.”

The bad guy is The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), ably assisted by flicky hitman (“flickman”, if you will) Bullseye (Colin Farrell), who’s like a satanic, Irish Oddjob. Hilariously, Farrell is introduced with a hip hop song boasting the central refrain: "Top o' the mornin' to ya/Top o' the mornin' to ya". Indeed, one of the film’s main failings is an overbearing song score stuffed with unmemorable tunes that are either unsuitable for the action or else offer blunt narration. Farrell’s superb, though, in his colourful characterisation, and there’s a cracking joke about the way he deals with security guards.

Johnson’s direction is quite good, repeatedly drawing on a neat “radar” gimmick, later half-inched by wise old Morgan Freeman in The Dark Knight, as Murdock constructs a picture of his surroundings via his supersensitive hearing. The scenes in which the hero “sees” via the rain are poorly realised, there’s too much CGI in the Affleck/Farrell showdown and the non-linear structure is quite confused, but there’s a great shot of Murdock on the rooftop before the final fight that recalls the classic image of coward Chester Morris keeping an eye out for the cops above his safehouse in the pictorially striking Alibi. The final fight itself, in the pouring rain, is also very good - recalling the main set piece in Jet Li’s passable Born to Defend – and the payoff is admirable and brave.

Affleck is fairly good in a well-written role, supported by Jon Favreau - offering strong comic relief and emotional backbone as Murdock’s law firm partner – and Jennifer Garner, who’s a nice romantic lead. Her courtship dance with Affleck, a kung fu battle in a park, is daft but novel. I was surprised to learn that Daredevil is widely regarded as one of the weaker comic book adaptations of recent years, as it’s vastly superior to Spider-Man and more coherent and nuanced than the messy, if sporadically extraordinary Dark Knight. There’s also a funny bit in the funeral scene where it starts to rain and Affleck’s impeccably gelled hair begins to look like an umbrella. (3)

***

The following review contains one instance of fully-justified swearing.



Le mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) sounds intriguing, but staggers under the weight of its own pretensions. The plot, according to almost anyone you ask, is this: screenwriter Michel Piccoli is torn between an artistic director (Fritz Lang, good fun playing himself) and a commercially-minded producer (Jack Palance), his artistic problems coinciding with home life troubles. Really, though, this is a 90-minute lovers' quarrel, with a soupcon about art and compromise occasionally nudged into the narrative. If that sounds fun, then go ahead. The film is at its best in the first hour, with fine use of the central musical theme (later borrowed by Scorsese for Casino), some spectacular Cinemascope photography and snippets of fairly involving characterisation, but the final third is almost unbearably tedious, dominated by marital squabbling that becomes hopelessly mannered and repetitive. It's interesting to see Bardot as the director's muse, but while she's really rather good, she's scuppered by the infuriatingly shallow scripting. In the disc's accompanying documentary, Bardot et Godard, the narrator says: "All Godard's films are portraits of the modern woman: illogical, disarming, capricious, exasperating, regal ... mysterious." Try: "All Godard's films are artificial, unilluminating portraits of the two women he seems to have met: illogical, capricious, naked and really fucking annoying."

Likewise, though Lang has some interesting - if rigidly Godardian - things to say about man's relationship with God and with film, the movie too often lapses into self-indulgent rubbish. Godard is clearly delighted at the points he's making, but they tend to be either obvious or confused. The dearth of insight is typified by including the character of an interpreter, who takes up about a fifth of the running time saying something someone else has just said, making a pretty crude point about the incompatibility of the archetypes in a very long-winded, tiresome manner. While the key cinematic homage in Godard's first film, À bout de souffle, was stylised and clever ("Ah, Bogie!"), here the namechecking of Rio Bravo and Bigger Than Life comes across as pointless and laboured. Lang's contention that Cinemascope is "good for snakes and coffins" rather than people is a nice moment, while the unsurprising revelation that he prefers his 1931 film M to the bloody dreadful Rancho Notorious has a clear implication: one is a clear; artistic statement, the other Hollywood studio product. But I'd still rather watch Lang's Fury, or The Big Heat, than Le mépris, which is self-satisfied, overly familiar and ultimately dull. (2)

***



It Happens Every Thursday (Joseph Pevney, 1953) – Loretta Young, the toothy, huge-eyed leading lady, was known in Hollywood as “Attila the Nun”, due to her evangelical Catholic faith (which extended to introducing a swear jar on set, something I’ll have to implement at work) and iron will. She may have been voted the Hollywood Women’s Press Club’s most cooperative actress of 1950 (Bob Mitchum scooped their least cooperative actor gong), but then she always was a sassy self-publicist. Still, despite all that, and the bad press she’s had in recent years for the whole Judy Lewis affair, she remains an attractive performer: ethereal and appealing in those early years, then a fitting screen mother as her fascinating looks ebbed away.

It Happens Every Thursday was her final film and it’s a charming piece of Americana: something like the gentle cousin of Fuller’s Park Row, with a showy role for Young as the archetypal supportive wife – stoic, resourceful and loyal. John Forsythe is a New York newspaperman who buys his own small-town ‘paper – the Eden Chronicle – and finds it’s going to need a bit of work. The relationship between Forsythe and screen wife Young is smartly written and delightfully played, and the difficulties they face are nicely realised. The familiar baddie in such movies, a hateful, sniping little gossip gleefully ruining lives, is usually a harridan, but here you get a fey wannabe adulterer, played by Willard Wateman. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty much terrific, featuring the greatest character comic of them all, Frank McHugh, alongside Preston Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin and round-faced Edgar Buchanan, who’s excellent in a surprisingly deep role. Best of all is the magnificent Gladys George (also appearing on the big screen for the final time), the most sympathetic brothel owner in ‘50s cinema. This blend of Johnny Come Lately and Mr Blandings could have seemed stale, but thanks to good scripting, pleasant plotting and lovely acting, it turns out just great. (3.5)

Meeting Debbie Reynolds (includes review of Alive and Fabulous at the Leeds Grand Theatre)



REVIEW: Debbie Reynolds: Alive and Fabulous at the Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House - Sunday, April 26, 2010

Debbie Reynolds is very much alive. The Singin' in the Rain star, who lit up countless '50s and '60s films with her soft 'r's, wide-open face and cartoonish sensibility, is billing herself as the great survivor - and it's hard to disagree. She's lasted 63 years in showbusiness, surviving three failed marriages and a bout of bankruptcy (her second husband gambled away $12m of her savings) to come out smiling. And singing. And occasionally rapping.

Thrust into movies aged 16 after winning a beauty contest, Debbie broke into musicals in 1950 despite having had little formal dance training and - whether singing, hoofing or acting in that big, charming way - proceeded to light up the screen opposite Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Stewart, Sinatra and Dick Powell. As well as those great character players glimpsed in the pre-show slideshow, like Thelma Ritter and Walter Brennan.

Reynolds hadn't played in Britain since 1974 before embarking on this 17-date national tour, bookended by residencies in London. Returning aged 78, she exhibits a fine line in self-deprecation, alongside some unexpectedly catty and dirty fodder and a slew of jokes about her own mortality. She also shows off a solitary leg, maintaining "the rest of me is shot". But if there's one thing the young Reynolds was renowned for, it was her energy, and she's still got plenty in the tank.

The gossipy elements of this show, billed by Reynolds as a variety/vaudeville/live/in concert affair, are spliced with spirited musical medleys and engaging impressions. Clark Gable was the first film star she ever met, while she ignored Spencer Tracy's advice that she "be serious", after she met Ethel Merman. "I thought: be big!" Reynolds yells. It's served her well. Some of the barbs are smart, some less so, but it's undeniably satisfying to get the inside track from someone who really knew these legends. "I found out when I was in Norwich that James Stewart gave them a library," she says, before adding: "Cary Grant came from Bristol and he never gave them anything." Still, she named her daughter after him.

Reynolds does a mean (i.e. excellent) Jimmy Stewart and Barry Fitzgerald, then a mean (i.e. mean) Barbra Streisand, complete with absurd prosthetic nose, along with outlandish riffs on Kate Hepburn and Bette Davis. Backed by a pianist and drummer, who've been with her for 25 and 40 years in turn, Debbie slips into songs on a whim, performing more than 40 across the two-hour show. Her voice is deeper and less rangy than in her prime, but in pretty great nick considering her advanced years.

As well as concluding her Stewart impression with a lovely take on Home in the Meadow, which she sang in How the West Was Won some 48 years ago, she performs a jazz medley, a super tribute to her friend Judy Garland that climaxes with the unbeatable one-two of The Man That Got Away and Over the Rainbow, a string of Gershwin tunes and the show's unmissable highlight: classic clips from her flicks, with Reynolds crooning the tracks live.

There are the title tracks from Singin' in the Rain and The Tender Trap, along with All I Do Is Dream of You and the rousingly-received Good Morning (both from Singin' in the Rain), Dominique (from The Singing Nun, "which about six people saw") and a cut from The Unsinkable Molly Brown. It's not just uplifting, it's desperately moving, the passage of time adding an undercurrent of wistfulness and nostalgia to what's unmistakably intended as a celebratory routine. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile the guileless performer on the screen and the 78-year-old Debbie, with her conventional Hollywood razzle-dazzle, but every so often you see that familiar face through the paint and the years, and feel a little buzz.

It's a great show, despite some technical problems ("What am I going to do?" asks Reynolds in mock-exasperation as the screen fails to come down, "just sing Tammy for the next hour-and-a-half?") and a slip-of-the-tongue from Reynolds that implies she's in London. She made up for it by pouring praise upon the theatre. I hadn't been in the main hall of the Grand before. It is awesome. She climaxed the show with Tammy, the exultant smash hit from her 1957 movie Tammy and the Bachelor, also employed so memorably in Terence Davies' masterpiece, The Long Day Closes, then exited to a standing ovation.

After the show we decided to stick around by the stage door and wait for Debbie to come out. An hour less in bed for the chance to meet one of my favourite movie stars of all time seemed a fair trade-off. She was quieter, meeker and... smaller off-stage. We thanked her for all the great films and songs and told her how much we like The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, a phenomenally entertaining B musical starring Debbie, Bobby Van and Bob Fosse. She said thanks and added that it was "all a long time ago", which is true enough. She also expressed surprise at how young we were, though she'd appeared in 16 Hollywood films by the time she was 26. Then she signed a flyer and we had our pic taken, in the near-dark, with a low-res cameraphone. But we met her. There's the snap at the top. The girl with the movie star good looks on the right is my considerably better half. I'm the dopey one with the messy hair, clutching a pad full of scribbled notes.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The weekend has landed, 1920s German style - Reviews #31



*VERY MINOR SPOILERS*
People on Sunday (Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, 1929) is a sunny, carefree holiday film that's remarkable in a half-dozen ways. There's the sense of ambition, with incisive use of cross editing and jump cuts that's about 40 years ahead of its time. The use of non-professional actors well before "neo-realism" entered the filmic lexicon. Its portrait of pre-Nazi Germany: charming, accessible and somehow familiar, without the debauchery and excess commonly attributed to the Weimar Republic. Then there's the laid-back, quiet sexiness in the film's evocation of young lust that's unlike anything else in '20s cinema (I'm referring to the beachside frolicking, rather than the schoolboys slapping each other on the bum). The celebration of weekend freedom that's influenced everything from Bank Holiday to Spare Time to Human Traffic. And the truly staggering collection of talent associated with the movie, including five future Hollywood directors and an Oscar-winning cinematographer. Noir legend Robert Siodmak (The Killers, Criss Cross) helmed the film, assisted by B-movie legend Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, Detour). Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot) wrote the dialogue-free scenarios, based on an idea by Siodmak's brother Curt, who later penned The Wolf Man and directed some horror dross. People on Sunday was shot by Eugen Schüfftan - who photographed Eyes Without a Face and The Hustler - with help from From Here to Eternity director Fred Zinnemann. Yes indeed. That clunking sound you may have heard was my jaw dropping on the floor when I first read about this movie.

The story is simplicity itself: a taxi driver (Erwin Splettstößer) and a wine seller (Wolfgang von Waltershausen) take a pair of girls (Brigitte Borchert and Christl Ehlers) from Berlin to the country for a blissful, lazy Sunday, while Erwin's model girlfriend snoozes in bed. The quartet laugh, play, argue and flirt, as one coupling peters out and another holds strong. Both romances feature the same man, incidentally, illustrating the modern attitudes permeating this highly watchable, fast-paced film. The scale of invention is on a par with the dizzying Russian documentary Man With a Movie Camera, released the same year, but it's put to better use, serving an immensely engaging story with a rich rural atmosphere. Renoir must surely have seen this before preparing his own heightened, pastoral film, Partie de campagne. The non-professional actors, all essentially playing themselves, are extraordinarily naturalistic, enhancing the singular feel of this thoroughly lovely film. (4)

Trivia note: The BFI release features a brilliant score by Elena Kats-Cherin. The DVD's accompanying booklet includes an interview with Borchert published shortly after the film's release. Though the movie was a huge hit in Germany, she confides to the reporter that her friends didn't enjoy it, as it was too similar to their own lives.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Wolverine, the Black Sox and Meryl Streep being Irish - Reviews #30



*SOME SPOILERS*
Eight Men Out (John Sayles, 1988) is a meticulous reconstruction of the Black Sox scandal, which saw a gaggle of poorly-paid Chicago baseball players agree to throw the 1919 World Series for 10 grand a piece. Based on a 1963 novel, Sayles' straightforward, detailed telling focuses on Buck Weaver (John Cusack), pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) and the legendary "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney, who is just superb). Though Weaver sat in on meetings between the conspirators, he never took a penny and was singled out in contemporary press reports as the White Sox's top performer during the series. Cicotte initially resisted organiser Chick Gandil's overtones, but ultimately buckled after he was denied a bonus by club owner Charles Comiskey. Jackson's role remains disputed, though historians tend to lean towards his innocence. The three were ultimately banned from baseball for life, along with five other players.

We start with an uplifting opening sequence that sees the rampaging White Sox clinch the pennant. Superbly scored, shot and edited, with one particular high spot that sees Jackson thump a home run, the scene may just have got me interested in baseball. Returning to the club house, the players find a celebratory crate of wine and decide it's a good time to enquire about their long-promised bonus. You're looking at it, Comiskey's sidekick tells them. It's flat, naturally. With pay so low and their boss backtracking on his word, Sayles suggests, the players are plum pickings for unscrupulous gamblers, including Sleepy Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd, who's distractingly artificial), Billy Maharg (Richard Edson) and Sport Sullivan (Kevin Tighe), all three ultimately backed by multi-millionaire gangster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner). When the series starts, and the on-field fluffs keep coming, sportswriters Ring Lardner (Sayles himself) and Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) smell a rat - and start digging.

Sayles slightly contracts the timeframe for dramatic purposes - the incident with the wine happened after the team's 1917 series win, while the team played on into 1920 and the players' trial ended in 1921 - but shows an impressive fidelity to the bulk of the facts that extends to the locations of meetings. Where he falls short is in successfully elaborating on the motives of the crooked players, beyond the pay packet, which wasn't that substantial. Though Sayles shows Rothstein's exact movements during a matchday and Cicotte's aggressive pitch that signalled the fix was on, he skimps on the explanatory conversations that would have filled in various blanks and leaves out the odd telling detail, curiously neglecting to mention Cicotte's expensive new farm. Or Gandil's swift departure for California, with $35,000 in his pocket.

It's difficult to fault the rendering of time and place and, at least to this unskilled eye, the restaging of the matches is extremely adept and exciting. Cusack's look of bewilderment, alienation and frustration on the field as he sees the team crumbling around him is moving and the scenes of the Sox briefly reneging on their pledges and going hell for leather are triumphant, but given the absolutely fascinating, highly emotive subject matter, Sayles doesn't really articulate the scale of human drama present, or provide the social and emotional context to make Eight Men Out a great, even definitive take on the scandal. That the gut-smacking sledgehammer to end them all, a young boy's tearful plea to his idol for some form of explanation ("Say it ain't so, Joe") doesn't pack a wallop is a sign of the film's failings. Indeed, the film doesn't strike quite the right note until the devastating, bleached-out coda, which works extremely well and set the tone for the following year's Field of Dreams, another movie dealing with the Shoeless Joe legend. Eight Men Out is a highly engrossing, very well-acted movie, but given the writer-director and the entirely compelling topic, it doesn't quite hit the heights. (3)

***



The Perfect Specimen (Michael Curtiz, 1937) is a fun Warner Bros comedy, with Errol Flynn cast against type as the eponymous figure: a sheltered heir to a small fortune, imprisoned within the ivory towers of his grandmother’s estate. One day sassy chick Joan Blondell smashes through the fence and drives off with his heart. Not literally, of course, that wouldn’t play so well to a mainstream audience. The film is episodic and slight, but unapologetically so, with some amusing set pieces that include Flynn’s roadside punch up with hopeless pugilist Allen Jenkins. The ever-likeable Jenkins (later the voice of Top Cat’s Officer Dibble) is just one of a heap of well-known character actors turning up here, along with Hugh Herbert, May Robson, Harry Davenport and Edward Everett Horton – stealing the film hands down as a pathetically subservient, nervy personal secretary. There’s the odd concession to high culture, with a recurring reference to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but mostly this is standard screwball stuff, utilising the considerable charm of its impressive cast. (2.5)

See also: Flynn's screwball follow-up, Four's a Crowd.

***



Park Row (Samuel Fuller, 1952) – Maverick director and former tabloid hack Sam Fuller made 22 features. This 1952 labour of love remained his favourite: a hymn to the founders of modern American journalism that begins with a long, sentimental speech about the titans of Park Row (America’s Fleet Street) and features a great action sequence in which crusading editor Gene Evans repeatedly dashes a low-level gangster’s head against a statue of Benjamin Franklin. Nice.

Our story proper begins in that most Fuller-ish of places, a saloon. There, a bunch of hacks on New York’s bestselling daily, The Star, spends their evenings swilling booze and exchanging dreams and bitter bon mots. When idealistic reporter Gene Evans takes a break from the bar to nail an epitaph to the grave of an executed man that reads ‘Murdered by The Star’ – an acerbic bolt of pure fury from Fuller that’s among the neatest things he ever did – the paper’s owner (Mary Welch) marches in, sacking him and his chums on the spot.

So Evans starts up the paper he’s always dreamt of – The Globe – and cheery, impressionable young buck George O’Hanlon throws himself off the Brooklyn Bridge for a laugh, giving him a first-rate first splash. But Welch doesn’t take such competition lying down, especially not from a man she quite fancies, and so begins a circulation war that spills over into resentment, hatred and good old-fashioned violence.

As you would expect, Fuller has a real feel for the material, filling his script with the usual insider terminology and slang. Leaving just enough in his account for some vodka and cigars, the writer-director-producer spent the rest of his savings – some $200,000 accrued making hit war films – on this pet project. Much of the cash went on a fastidiously complete recreation of the Park Row of his memory, including a multitude of four-storey buildings. The film’s designers queried his logic, saying the tops of the structures would never be seen on camera. Fuller said he didn’t care: "I had to see it all. I had to know everything was there, exact in every detail."

The sets are constructed in an ingenious way that allows Fuller’s camera to wind his way through the nooks and crannies of the offices, the intensity of the shooting schedule belied by the wealth of innovation behind the camera. The director’s crab dolly, a wheeled platform that allowed the camera to move in any direction, aids the spectacular direction, getting us up close and personal during Evans’ periodic stomps up and down the titular street, generally looking for someone to thump.

Park Row is a punchy, sometimes dynamic blend of heartfelt sentiment and acerbic cynicism that could only have come from one director. Whilst it occasionally appears over-earnest or self-congratulatory, and has too much repetition across its 80 minutes, it’s flavourful and immersive, with a no-name cast that ideally suits its ink-stained universe. (3)

***


Ah yes, the old trick of filling the poster with pictures of boobs. To be honest, if you went to see the film based on this, you'd be disappointed. Steiger's Native American wife wears an unrevealing tunic for the whole film. At no time does she dig out a scanty green number and expose her heaving chest.

Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957) is an embryonic version of Dances With Wolves in director Sam Fuller's familiar tabloid style: short, flamboyantly written and with the best stuff right at the top. It begins on Palm Sunday, 1865, "the last day of the war between the states", with Fuller taking us to the very heart of the conflict via a mesmerising opening tracking shot. Corpses are strewn across the smoking landscape, where an unmanned cannon has fallen silent, smashed to pieces. An air of desperation and exhaustion hangs heavy over the action. A Yankee soldier on a knackered horse staggers towards some unknown, meaningless destination. A shot rings out and he slumps to the ground. A Confederate infantryman (Rod Steiger) lowers his gun and moves forward. Ransacking the man's pockets, he finds a food parcel and begins eating the spoils off the dying man's stomach. That line from The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down comes to mind: "We were hungry, just barely alive." Having had his fill, Steiger straps the man to the guy's own horse, and takes him to a field hospital. It's a brilliant intro. But then Steiger starts talking and the film goes downhill.

Accents are a funny thing. It's nice when someone gets a voice down pat, but it often feels like window-dressing. And illogical window-dressing at that, since Nazis don't generally converse with one another in heavily-accented English. Jimmy Stewart gave a great performance in The Shop Around the Corner without attempting a Hungarian accent, and Claude Rains was a fitting French captain in Casablanca despite his distinctive English tones. Keeping your own accent also means you avoid taking a road to supposed 'authenticity' that's full of pitfalls. A terrible voice can sink a film, or at least prove a major distraction, and that's the case here. Playing a second-generation Irish immigrant fighting for the Confederacy, who finds a new home with the Sioux, Steiger opts for an accent that can best be described as 'South Asian Norwegian'. Perhaps he was confused about playing an honorary Indian, because no matter how bold and progressive the film is, offering an insightful look at Sioux customs, it still has a hero who sounds like a sort of Slumdog John Qualen. By d'yevil.

Such self-satisfied broadsides aside (I'm sorry, I really do like Fuller), Run of the Arrow turns out alright. The titular rite-of-passage - which sees Steiger forced to outpace some rampaging Sioux, or else find a new skin - is exciting and well-paced, with an intelligent follow-up in the second half. Fuller's much-celebrated focus on the feet during that sequence was actually enforced by Steiger's sore ankle, but elsewhere there's some strong direction that makes the most of several ambitious, realistic sets. Steiger is periodically effective, even hampered by that ridiculous voice, with Ralph Meeker perfectly cast as his main nemesis - a cigar-chomping Indian-hater - and Brian Keith an effective moral yardstick, though the rest of the cast is largely nondescript. The interesting, well-researched portrait of the Native American lifestyle is ultimately overtaken by a drawn-out action climax that begins effectively, with an interesting subversion of Western folklore that sees the Indians riding to the rescue, but frankly goes on a bit. Fuller's script also lacks clarity, even when dealing with his favourite theme of redemption, which is very unusual for this filmmaker.

In the end, Run of the Arrow is a fascinating, admirably ambitious film, but it's a long way from being a classic, with confused plotting and an inability to build on its fascinating opening scenes. On this evidence, it's a damn shame that Fuller never made a full Civil War picture, as he seems ideally suited to the material. But then again, every Fuller film starts and ends with a bang, and though John Ford's 21-minute section of How the West Was Won ('The Civil War') is extraordinary, his feature-length treatment of the conflict he remained so obsessed with, The Horse Soldiers, is a shambles. (2.5)

Trivia note: This was the first movie to use blood squibs. No Run of the Arrow, no Wild Bunch. A small price to pay for that peculiar thing Steiger is doing with his larynx.

***


C'me 'ere Rogue: Paquin's mutant hitches a ride with Wolverine.

X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) is a superior comic book yarn, thanks to intelligent writing and deft characterisation, alongside the whizz-bang thrills. Anna Paquin is Rogue, a teenage girl who goes for her first kiss and leaves the recipient in a coma. She’s one of a breed of mutants left with powers they can’t control after a leap forward in evolution. Allying herself with a fellow mutant, cage fighter Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue is taken under the wing of Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who wants to forge a peaceful future for mutants and humans alike. Unfortunately his old ally Magneto (Ian McKellen) thinks a war is brewing and is keen to get in some pre-emptive strikes, ideally using the super-powers of Xavier’s students. The film has its shortcomings, relying too heavily on CGI effects – which date very quickly and don’t really have the requisite movie magic – and failing to flesh out several minor characters. But it’s a very well-scripted, engaging film: sometimes funny, frequently touching and with impressive star turns from Paquin and Jackman. Roll on X-Men 2! It came out in 2003? Oh I see. (3)

***



Dancing at Lughnasa (Pat O'Connor, 1996) is an oddly muted drama in which nothing really happens, for an hour and a half. "Progress is a comfortable disease," observed grammar-phobic poet e e cummings. For him, maybe, but for five unmarried sisters in '30s Ireland, it's anything but, as the march of time throws their life together into jeopardy. The spectre of industry and dwindling school rolls are looming, threatening to put teacher Meryl Streep (who is really annoying here, sometimes intentionally) and professional knitters Sophie Thompson and Brid Brennan out of work and break up the family unit. Not that they seem very happy to begin with, bickering and casting light on another's neuroses in a way that becomes quickly wearing very quickly. There's love in the house, for sure, but there's a lot more repression and glumness, much of it uninteresting and trite.

As well as the breadwinners, we meet happy-go-lucky Kathy Burke, fifth sister Catherine McCormack - spending a summer with returning lover Rhys Ifans - a clergyman brother ravaged by dementia (Michael Gambon), and young Darrell Johnston, the story told through his eyes. The film has uniformly good performances, but it's often cliched and unenlightening, with an opening and closing voiceover that apes How Green Was My Valley (see #19) and seems to bear little relation to the action in between. On the plus side, occasional moments of insight peek through the overbearing script and there are two really good scenes. One has the family flicking through a photo album and recalling lost love; it's a quiet tour-de-force from Burke. The other, which partly gives the film its title, is simply great, as the sisters begin dancing to a song on the radio, their celebrations growing ever more feverish until they spill out into the yard. It's a moment of sheer wonder amid much muddled misery. (2.5)

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Pick-ups, party people and Punch-Drunk Love - Reviews #29

When I compiled a list of my 100 favourite movies for the Harrogate Advertiser last October, this first film came in at #98. Truth be told, I’d only seen it once, about six years previously, but it had a massive impact on me. So at the weekend I belatedly got around to cracking it open again and sat there with an expression of gobsmacked wonder, and smugness at my excellent choice of film.



"I've got to make a living, so I can die."
Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953) – Former tabloid reporter Samuel Fuller knew his way around a grabby intro and Pickup starts with a classic: a wordless subway sequence that chucks us right into the story. Three-time loser and two-bit pickpocket Richard Widmark lifts a purse from unwitting commie mule Jean Peters, unaware he’s nabbed a strip of microfiche containing state secrets. The commies want him. The feds want him. And him? Well, he wants 25 grand. But as the net tightens, Widmark finds Peters is sticking – and sticking her neck out – causing him to rethink his nihilistic worldview.

From his explosive arrival as a giggling psycho in the tepid noir Kiss of Death, through Yellow Sky and Night in the City, to this slab of murky cool, Widmark was the archetypal anti-hero. An obnoxious smartarse. A bilious hothead. A real lowlife. In Pickup, Fuller periodically subverts that image, allowing us to see the central ‘cannon’ as the women in his life do. “He got under your skin too?” aged information peddler Mo (the peerless Thelma Ritter) asks Peters. Indeed, the relationship between Widmark’s cocky, pathetic outsider and Peters’ smitten dupe is one of the most affecting on celluloid. Their early exchanges fairly sizzle, crackling with noirish badinage. That heady, hazy, sweaty lust – articulated in some memorable close-ups – then turns to tenderness, as Widmark realises the girl isn’t playing any angles, she just loves him.

Great as the leads are, though, it’s Ritter who walks off with the film, delivering an unforgettable characterisation as a police informer whose sole ambition is to avoid a pauper’s grave. Her heartbreaking monologue to the commie hood who’s come to bump her off is as good a piece of screen acting as you’ll ever see.

Fuller fans continue to bicker over his greatest work, but for me, this is the one, an untouchable fusion of humanist romance and Cold War thriller that provides a vivid evocation of New York City, depicted here as a festering hellhole. The director’s screenplay seems to have been fashioned in the gutter, with wall-to-wall slang (you’ll pick it up) that casts the viewer into this foul, fascinating, fully-realised world. That goes for the direction, too, as Fuller’s camera swoons into kisses and lingers on telling details, the whole movie slipping into the shadowy palette of film noir as we visit Widmark’s waterside hole.

The anti-commie rhetoric is admittedly one-dimensional, but that’s hardly unique for the period, and it's employed in a way that works dramatically. Less satisfying is the slightly abrupt action climax, ending with a spot of face-pummelling that recalls Dick Powell’s meltdown in the 1945 noir Cornered. The sequence isn’t bad, but it’s a little uninspired and not very well executed. Perhaps it merely pales beside the film’s real calling cards: a pair of unbearably tense set pieces that see Widmark going about his daily business. (4)

***

The following review includes a bit of swearing, so if that’s likely to offend, please scoot down to the next one.



Tony Wilson: "You know, I think that Shaun Ryder is on a par with W.B. Yeats as a poet."
Yvette: "Really?"
Tony Wilson: "Absolutely. Totally."
Yvette: "Well, that is amazing, considering everyone else thinks he's a fucking idiot."
24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) – Highbrow literary references and obscenities litter the script of this exuberant, freewheeling take on the Madchester scene of the 1980s. Steve Coogan is Tony Wilson who, according to the movie, was the slightly twattish Svengali behind seminal musical acts Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays. And A Certain Ratio, who I have literally never heard of. It’s a complete mess, with Winterbottom throwing in everything from dream sequences and drug trips to novelistic pastiches and sitcom scenarios, but in this context, it largely works. He’s helped by Coogan, who – to borrow from a review of George Sanders’ turn in All About Eve – inhabits the role as snugly as a banana does its skin. Alternately all-seeing and a know-nothing blinkered shambles, Coogan’s Wilson provides a running commentary on goings-on, offering post-modern direct-to-camera addresses, including one on the post-modernism of what he’s doing. That might sound smug and wearying, but when dealing with the maelstrom of bullshit surrounding musical celebrity (much of it generated by people like Wilson), it seems legit. The pitching is slightly more troublesome, with a dearth of information for the uninitiated and some distractingly artificial characterisations of supporting characters (particularly members of the bands) for those in the know. Happily, though, when one recalls the frankly risible depiction of Johnny Rotten in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, the incomparable Sex Pistols are shown only in archive footage, as they blow the scales from Wilson’s eyes and set him on the path to enlightenment.

There’s a great bit of whimsy detailing Happy Mondays lyricist Shaun Ryder’s excursion to Barbados (‘The Adventures of Ryderson Crusoe’) that packs a killer punchline, and it’s fun on a personal level to see the beloved, detested haunts of my teenage years (The Ritz, Jilly’s Rockworld) cropping up, undisguised, as various incarnations of Wilson’s clubs. As a history lesson, 24 Hour Party People is gleefully unreliable and the bitty structure throws up its fair share of dead-ends, but it's often invigoratingly entertaining, from the self-mocking opening metaphor and shuddering, woozy credits, past a hysterically uncomfortable sex scene and some low-rent extortion, to the climactic appearance of God. “Tony, you did a good job,” he tells Wilson. “Basically, you were right. Shaun [Ryder] is the greatest poet since Yeats ... It’s a pity you didn’t sign The Smiths, but you were right about Mick Hucknall, his music’s rubbish and he’s a ginger.” (3)

***



"You're talking to the man who defended Camelot with a cardboard sword."
Hollywoodland (Allen Coulter, 2006) – TV SUPERHERO, OUT OF WORK, KILLS SELF. Or does he? That’s the question at the heart of this stylish, ‘50s-set thriller, which does a nice job of recreating star George Reeves’ final years, but provides a clichéd treatment of the subsequent investigation that simply peters out. The material is irresistible to old film and TV buffs. The hero of young America, former small screen Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck), is found shot. The cops says it’s a suicide, but rumours abound that notorious MGM “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) may have had a hand in his death. After all, Reeves had been screwing Eddie’s wife (Diane Lane).

The film has a dual narrative, with Reeves’ story unfolding in chronological fashion, each chapter sandwiched between a slice of lone wolf P.I. Adrien Brody’s impotent inquiry. It's an interesting, perhaps correct decision to keep the two story threads distinct, Brody’s fantasy theories about the shooting aside, but it means that the film doesn’t always gel. Even so, it’s blessed with a handful of memorable scenes. The ones concerning the filming of Superman are enjoyably tongue-in-cheek, whilst providing much of the film’s subtext about Hollywood, hero worship and human fallibility. There’s also a magical sequence that seems to have drifted in from another movie, as an entire street’s worth of kids dash through the white picket fences and into their houses to see Superman, which is about to begin. For old movie afficionados, it’s also fun to see Reeves incorporated into From Here to Eternity (admittedly quite sloppily), then to squirm as an infamous test screening draws titters from the audience.

Hollywoodland is a movie with some superior dialogue and interesting performances: Affleck is quite good, Brody very effective given the peculiarly disjointed, hackneyed material and Lane extremely strong in her key supporting part. But given the subject matter – which is pure dynamite – it winds up being a disappointment, stumbling to a close in a blur of compromise. (2.5)

***

Swearing's pretty big and clever, so I've quoted some foul-mouthed dialogue in this next review. Please avoid if you're sensitive about such things.



"I didn't ask for a shrink - that must've been somebody else. Also, that pudding isn't mine. Also, I'm wearing this suit today because I had a very important meeting this morning - and I don't have a crying problem."
Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002) - This is a magnificent foray into romantic comedy from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), that lends his stylistic sensibilities to a script with definite echoes of his namesake Wes. And as Wes did in The Royal Tenenbaums (see #60), so P.T. wraps the understated sentimentality and off-kilter humour around a central reinvention of a one-note comic performer: there Ben Stiller, here Adam Sandler. Expressing an intention to "make an arthouse Adam Sandler movie", the filmmaker coaxes a nuanced, attractive turn from his star that's entirely at odds with the performer's irritating blockbuster persona.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a quiet businessman prone to fits of rage, who confesses to his brother-in-law: "Sometimes I don't like myself very much." Plagued by seven gossipy sisters and - in an extremely odd subplot - the phone sex operator he ill-advisedly rang for a chat, his life is turned on its head by the appearance of sweet divorcee Emily Watson - who loves him despite his anger problems, and the fact he won't stop buying pudding. It's an extraordinarily good film, with a heap of elements one rarely finds in any type of movie, let along a genre so discredited by identikit entries. Characters say words they don't mean ("I'm very food," Sandler replies, when asked how he is), the hero is a mass of feeble excuses who lies near-constantly to cover his myriad eccentricities and, though we get nary a point-of-view shot in the whole thing, the flaring up of Sandler's neuroses is represented by pounding music that comes close to obscuring the dialogue. Invariably hating whatever it is he himself has just said, Sandler's Barry provides a particular high point by walking down a corridor repeatedly muttering, "well bye-bye, well bye-bye", before adding: "you stupid motherfucker".

This is a one-of-a-kind film: gloriously filmed and flawlessly played by the leads (as I've said before, Watson is the best actress we've seen since Lillian Gish), with an incisive examination of mental illness - and abject loneliness - that's light years away from the crude, ignorant treatment in Sandler's other, one-dimensional vehicles. It's also completely hilarious. (4)

***



We're Not Married (Edmund Goulding, 1952) is a series of star-studded short stories that's at its best when it's being sweet - not cynical. While its structure recalls If I Had a Million, which gave each of its main characters $1m to spank on the ventures of their choice, the story is reminiscent of Hitchcock's impressively tedious screwball comedy, Mr and Mrs Smith. Victor Moore sets the plot in motion as an over-eager, though slow-speaking, justice of the peace who starts marrying people before his licence permits. When the error is uncovered a couple of years later, five marriages are struck out, with the explanatory letters arriving at some critical juncture, giving the couples the chance to stick or twist.

As with perhaps my favourite anthology, Night on Earth, we start with the weakest story. The 'Glad Gladwyns', radio DJs Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers, are luvvy-duvvy on the air, bicker in the office and don't speak at home. Their story is mostly predictable and mostly miserable, stuffed with those leaden barbs that cinema enjoyed aiming at its rival medium during this period (see also: A Letter to Three Wives, It's Always Fair Weather) - including a string of audio adverts that seem to go on forever. Hmm. Anyway, onwards and upwards... The second chapter compensates by being pretty darn great: if you can imagine a good version of Lady Godiva Rides Again, made in America and lasting about 10 minutes - then it's like that. Marilyn Monroe is the reigning Mrs Mississippi, gunning for the regional beauty queen crown until she gets that letter, rendering her ineligible. David Wayne is in good form as her stay-at-home husband, changing nappies and avoiding sarky remarks from the postman until his trump card arrives. There are a couple of fantastic jokes in this one, which has a modern sense of humour along with its very '50s trappings, and buzzes with an energy most of the other segments don't possess.

Paul Douglas and Eve Arden are the next couple: again we're on slightly bleak ground, with the husband's motive for staying put leaving a sour taste - quite aside from not being that funny. Better, if no less cheery, is part four, in which multi-millionaire Louis Calhern is given the run-around by canny 'wife' Zsa Zsa Gabor, only to find a most unexpected escape route. The scene in which Calhern is framed by his partner's cohorts is funny, but we're ultimately asked to root for a bland if trusting financial weasel who's put a third of his money in secret accounts. Admittedly his wife is even more objectionable than he is. Happily, the movie saves its best for last, with a comic and moving segment reminiscent of star Eddie Bracken's collaborations with Preston Sturges - if lacking the touch of genius associated with that director. Bracken plays a soldier who's about to sail for overseas when he finds out that the baby he's expecting is going to be born out of wedlock. So he calls for his girl to join him and goes AWOL, dodging the Military Police as he tries to get hitched. It's madcap, in an agreeable way, with Bracken ideally cast as the eternally unlucky, put-upon little guy trying to do the right thing. There's also a small part for Lee Marvin, playing Bracken's army buddy. Finally, we get a brief coda giving a delayed wrap-up to the Rogers-Allen sequence that possesses more charm than the whole of the earlier chapter, and providing a fitting finale for Douglas and Arden. It's not a great film, but two of the five segments work really well and there's enough star power for the others to just about skirt by. (2.5)

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

My Darling Clementine - the Pre-Release Version (John Ford, 1946)



My Darling Clementine, John Ford's take on Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the rest, has long been one of my favourite movies. Perhaps the director's most optimistic, romanticised vision of the Old West, its every frame is tinged with a palpable nostalgia. And despite the film's cruel jolts and emotional interludes, it's dominated by gentleness and humour, and celebrated for its charming vignettes, like Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp on the porch, and on the dance floor.

Ford largely confines the traditional narrative to the first 10 and last 10 minutes, making it one of his purest portraits of a changing society and one of his most personal films. I really can't think of another director who could have made it. To prove the point, take a look at the 1939 movie on which it's based, Frontier Marshal, helmed by fellow former silent film director Allan Dwan. Ford is streets ahead of his contemporary in terms of his talent, ambition and artistic sensibility, but he's also making an entirely different film, focusing on different aspects of the story and creating something deeper, more intriguing and, ultimately, ageless.

But that's not the whole story.

Now, thanks to Fox's Cinema Reserve label (they're not sponsoring this, I'm just grateful to them), who released the movie on DVD in 2006, I've been able to see an earlier cut of the film: a work-in-progress, as hotshot producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Ford battled over their conflicting visions for the piece. Though the pair had massive mutual respect, regarding one another as the greatest director and greatest producer in the history of cinema, their egos and contrasting priorities made for fireworks. And their tussle over My Darling Clementine ended in acrimony and bitterness. Ford was fond of what he called "grace notes": seeing the narrative as something to be diverted from as he evoked a time and place and fleshed out the characterisation. Zanuck, naturally, placed an emphasis on commerciality and believed a high tempo was necessary to maintain viewer interest and keep the coin rolling in. The producer jokingly said to Elia Kazan that when Ford ran out of ideas, someone started singing, and the director cut to an extreme long shot full of slanting shadows.

Ford had numerous weapons in his arsenal to defy interference, the most potent of which was shooting only what he needed (known as "cutting in camera"). But in the case of My Darling Clementine, he overplayed his hand and lost the battle for supremacy, with Zanuck opting to chop an entire half-hour out of the film, commissioning a new (perhaps overly dramatic) score from Alfred Newman and conventionalising the hero. The pre-release version that exists was screened to test audiences when the bulk of the edits had been made, but shows us a little of what was lost. It's a more unusual, artistic film, with several key differences. Here's a quick summary:

1) Doc Holliday's character is less ambiguous. Here we see Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) hanging around with Billy Clanton when she's spurned by Doc. That would lead you to assume that he gave her the cross stolen from Wyatt's brother James, when he was gunned down, despite her protestations that she received it from Holliday. In the final edit, that foreshadowing is absent, meaning we see Holliday as a potential villain during Earp's pursuit of him. As this scene shows Billy buzzing around Holliday's girl, the later meeting between the two isn't such a jolt.

2) More interplay between Earp and Holliday. The pair enjoy a quick chat before the anticipated mystery play. Doc says he got a big scar on his face shaving, nicely playing into the sense of mystery surrounding his character in the opening stages, as well as the running gag about the barber's shop.

3) A brief set-up for the film's most famous sequence. The preview cut has a nicely paced take on Clementine's arrival in Tombstone, unfolding deliberately across several minutes and notably lacking music. Fonda's Earp plonks down his chair in anticipation of the stagecoach, a nicely observed detail that's built on later in the film's most famous sequence.

4) Further exploration of the Doc-Clem relationship. A brief exchange during the operation on Chihuahua ("Mrs Carter", "Yes, doctor") hammers home the impossibility of a renewed relationship. There's also more dialogue between the couple in the scene on the saloon balcony, with Holliday saying his old self is dead, but this was shot by Lloyd Bacon under Zanuck's instructions, then trimmed by the producer before release.

5) A very Fordian presentation of the changes in Tombstone. The extended church dance sequence begins with some fine scene-setting, as the townsfolk come out of the distance and proceed past the camera. It's like something from the director's lyrical 1950 film Wagon Master. You can see why Zanuck would cut it, but it adds great context to the set-piece and to the film.

6) Less melodramatic Newman score, employed more sparingly. Ford used silence very effectively in the preview cut, particularly in the sequence where Chihuahua sprints across town after Doc's stagecoach.

7) Chihuahua gets a better send-off, and Earp a more interesting end. In the pre-release cut, Earp acknowledges Chihuahua's sacrifice with a glance at her open window, before meeting Clementine on the outskirts of town. His shy, solemn handshake seems more in keeping with his character. In the final film, he gives her a peck on the cheek. The retake in the finished film was shot months after the movie first wrapped and doesn't match the original footage.

The pre-release version offers a fascinating insight into the creative process behind one of the great Westerns. But more than that, it's just a fantastic film, adding a little something to a movie I thought was pretty much perfect. (4)

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

An interview with Bing Crosby's producer


Geoff (left) picks out a melody for Bing in the studio.

Bird noises, golf and teaching Bing to sing – producer Geoff Milne talks about working with the legendary entertainer on the 1976 album, Feels Good, Feels Right.

“It was almost through Bing Crosby that I came into the music business to start with,” says producer Geoff Milne.

“I started collecting his records in Germany in 1946. I was in the RAF and had been seconded into the entertainment division, where I ran a record library. People from other divisions would come in to borrow Bing records – even from the army divisions. He was very popular.”

After leaving the RAF, Geoff spent three years at British Airways, before deciding he’d be happier elsewhere. “I was brought up with music and films,” the 85-year-old says. “I can recall standing on a chair pretending I was conducting the afternoon broadcast from the Savoy Theatre.

“In 1950, only EMI and Decca were around, of any substance, so I made a nuisance of myself and Decca gave me a job to shut me up. I started in the accounts department, though my aim was to get to the artists department as soon as I got in – and I had determination.”

Special treatment

When Geoff joined Decca in 1950, Bing had been at the company for 20 years. “Crosby was a permanent artist on Decca and the company had been associated with his records since 1930,” he says. “Decca were interested in promoting him rather specially because of the longevity of his tenure.”

Ultimately Geoff rose to be the manager of Decca’s London American label, spending more than 30 years at the company. It took until 1976, though, for him to meet the man who’d inadvertently launched his career in the industry.

Bing had come to England to create a spoken word, three-LP box-set, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with Geoff working on the sound effects. While Crosby was there, Geoff had snapped up his latest record, Southern Memoir.

“He said nobody wanted it. He had run out of steam, as far as the record labels were concerned,” Geoff says. “I knew John Scott Trotter [Crosby’s regular accompanist and director], whom I’d met in America, and he told Bing I would be interested.”

New record

Having released the album, Geoff was given the chance to produce a new Crosby record: 1976’s Feels Good, Feels Right. “One can get very blasé about this sort of thing, but it was quite an event to meet him,” Geoff says. “It was very pleasant seeing him. I was always interested in Crosby – he was a bit of a legend, a little bit special.”

Geoff says being in the studio with the singer was a memorable experience: “It wasn’t just a job. It was exciting, in a way, listening to him. It’s hard to explain, but he was a man who had been singing since 1926 and he was still going strong – he had an incredible track record.

“He went through a period in the 1950s when he sounded a little bit tired and the records didn’t sound as good, but he seemed to recover from the early ‘70s onwards – there was a new timbre to his voice.”

Songs

The first step was to decide which songs Crosby would record, with Geoff driving up to the singer’s rented house at Holland Park to talk over possibilities. “We were going through all sorts of titles in the flat,” he says. “He knew most of them, having probably sung them on the radio at one time or another. But I remember having to sing one of them for him, and him saying: ‘That was very good – you ought to record it’, very much tongue-in-cheek.”

And Geoff did get a chance to croon in the studio, as Bing struggled with one particularly tricky melody line. “There was another song, either Rose in Her Hair or Old Fashioned Love, where he couldn’t get the melody quite right and had to reminded of how it went,” Geoff says.

“If you look on the back of the LP, there’s a photo of me singing to him, because he couldn’t get it right. Everybody found that very amusing. I suppose even the master professionals can have their weaknesses.”



'Easy'

Mostly, though, Geoff was taken aback by just how easy Crosby found the process. “The actual recording didn’t take very long,” he says. “Myself and the studio producer Kevin Daley suggested titles and Bing usually went along with what we had to say.

“He could nail a song in the first go. If you did it again, it was just a safety, just to be sure. I often heard the first take and thought: ‘How’s he going to improve on that?’”

The album was recorded in one three-day period in July, with a second session at the start of August where Bing recut four songs he was unhappy with, using a different style and tempo, including one that never made the record – That Old Black Magic.

Geoff’s favourite song from the record is the enchanting, dreamy closing number. “The song that stands out from those sessions is When I Leave the World Behind,” he says. “He liked that song; I remember when we talked about it. Al Jolson had made it famous and we thought: ‘Hmm, is it the right sort of material?’, but Bing was convinced it was, and he was right.”

Happy-go-lucky

Geoff says that while Bing was “practical” and “no mug”, he had much in common with the happy-go-lucky persona he cultivated in films and on records. “He wasn’t particularly interested in money,” Geoff says. “We signed contracts with him for a very nominal amount. He was just happy to be working.”

Still, it wasn’t always easy for the singer to fit in studio time along with his other commitments. “Golf was more important to him than singing,” Geoff says. “We were fixing duties for the studio and he would say: ‘I shall be at the golf that day’ – that always came first.”

The singer used his trip to the UK to pursue several hobbies, going grouse-shooting near Ripon in North Yorkshire, playing cricket with youngsters at the High Side playing fields in Kirkby Malzeard which he had helped build, and attending a golf championship in West Sussex.

Feeling at home

While Crosby was in the country, Geoff did his best to make the star feel at home. “Bing used to come in with all sorts of requests,” he recalls. “That included getting hold of some records of bird noises for his wife Kathryn.” Feels Good, Feels Right was released during a major upturn in Bing’s fortunes.

“It did quite well in sales,” Geoff says. “Bing was in the middle of a resurgence of interest – people were saying his voice was even better than in the ‘50s. He was more relaxed. He had done a concert – two or three nights at the London Palladium, and that had sparked this big interest. By general consensus he was singing very well indeed.”

Polite

Geoff remembers Crosby as “a very down-to-earth sort of man”, matter-of-fact and unfailingly polite. “I remember while we were in my office, a West Indian waitress brought some drinks in, and he was up there like a shot to take the tray from her and thank her,” he says.

“He was on his feet instantly, a man of his stature. I can think of many artists who wouldn’t have moved.” Though the company tried to keep Bing’s visit quiet, word inevitably leaked out, with vast numbers of fans visiting the studio. “There are some who hate signing autographs, but Bing would sign anything,” Geoff says.

“He said when people stopped asking for his autograph, that would be the time to worry. People were constantly knocking on the office doors, but he never refused them. That just shows what kind of a man he was.”



Death

Bing died on the golf course on October 14, 1977, meaning that a trio of planned albums with Geoff never saw the light of day. “When he died, we had already got a second LP all worked out,” Geoff says.

“He was going to sing an album of Noel Coward songs next. We had decided that two or three titles would just be with Keith Nichols’ piano accompaniment, which was a bit of a departure for that period. I had a complete itinerary worked out.”

The musicians had already been booked for the session when Bing passed away. “If you booked them, you had to pay a fee,” Geoff recalls. “Not a full fee, but a fee. The musicians came and said: ‘We’re not charging anything’, because they were so upset that they would not be doing the record. I think that’s the first time that had ever happened.”

Respect

Geoff says the action illustrated just how other musicians felt about Bing. “I thought that was one of the finest tributes given to Bing Crosby – that showed what esteem he was held in by other musicians,” he says.

“He was very much a musician’s man – he would be in the studio with the orchestra as they recorded. It was a wonderful gesture.” As well as the Coward record, Bing had planned to make a Dixieland album with brother Bob Crosby’s band and return to the studio with friend and sparring partner Bob Hope, with whom he’d appeared in the popular ‘Road’ movies.

“The titles were set out and we’d talked about it. He said: “Bob Hope? Leave that to me.” In the years since Bing’s passing, Geoff has had a chance to work on more Crosby records, releasing numerous compilations, complete with scrupulously-detailed liner notes.

Legacy

Since joining the Jasmine label around 12 years ago, the producer has embarked on the ambitious Going Hollywood series, with the aim of compiling every song Bing recorded for the movies.

“There was a collection of 15 LPs with the studio versions of his songs from films, starting in 1934,” he says. “I said: ‘I think we can go one better than that, starting earlier and using all the recordings from the films themselves.’

“With Going Hollywood, I aim to use the soundtrack version where it’s long enough or not interrupted by dialogue. Some of the songs are truncated, shortened or interfered with and I resort to the commercial recordings in those cases. But we bring out as many of the film tracks as we possibly can.

“The commercial ones have been around for so long and they’re so familiar, that it’s nice to hear these alternate versions.” The project has meant tracking down recordings from as far afield as Australia and remastering them – a process that takes up to three days for a single song – in Geoff’s home studio near Upton-on-Severn.

Stalled

Four double-CDs were released in the series between 1998 and 2003, but it has now stalled. “It would be worthwhile finishing it off, as there’s another material for two more releases,” Geoff says. “The records have been well-received and the fans are always pleased to see them, as you’re promoting the name, though the last two haven’t sold as well.”

But Geoff’s participation in the series doesn’t mean he can stand to watch many of Bing’s early features. “Some of the early films are abysmal to watch as storylines, though they’re redeemed to some degree by the female stars and the songs,” he says.
“I know that will be heresy to some Crosby fans. Going Hollywood is OK as a film, but some others, like Here Is My Heart, they just weren’t very good.”

Still, he retains a great enthusiasm for Bing’s music during the period. “If I had to pick a favourite song from his whole back catalogue, it would be I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song, from 1933 or ’34,” he says. “I’ve always particularly liked that.”

***

Trivia notes: Geoff’s first record at Decca was released before he even began working in the artist department, when he helped compile an Ambrose & His Orchestra LP, followed by a record of eight British dance band tracks, in early 1951. “There was nobody else there who really knew about that stuff,” he says.

Since then, he has worked on hundreds of records, including a series of Deanna Durbin albums that sold 100,000 copies. His favourites are the compilations, particularly Dick Haymes – Broadway Melody From 1927 to 1957, with all the tracks sung by the original artists. “I don’t think anybody had done that before, so there was a sense of achievement getting hold of those recordings,” he says.

Slumdog, Bond and the finest wines available to humanity - Reviews #28



"If someone asks me a question, I answer it."
*A FEW SPOILERS - SORRY*
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)
- "The feelgood film of 2008" is really a harrowing portrait of slum life, a la Pixote (see #59) or City of God, with some Pather Panchali-style passages of euphoria, a timeless romance and an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire thrown into the mix. Dev Patel is Jamal, a call-centre tea boy who's just a question away from scooping 20 million rupees when he's accused of cheating by host and old-fashioned villain Anil Kapoor. Recounting his story to cop Irrfan Khan, we learn how Jamal's life - characterised by terrible hardship but fired by an unwavering love for childhood sweetheart Freida Pinto - gave him the answers to those nine testing posers. Though it could come across as improbable or contrived, the film's steadfast belief in fate and its unflinching conviction about the story it's telling mean it works superbly, with an engrossing, touching narrative where everything slots into place. My favourite scene is Jamal's autograph hunt - mixing pathos, childish excitement and the sight of a small boy coming out of the distance, entirely covered in slurry. The excellent writing and plotting are matched by Boyle's stylish direction, Anthony Dod Mantle's spectacular cinematography and some great performances, particularly from the kids and Madhur Mittal - playing the grown-up brother of Jamal's brother, Salim, apparently lost to gangsterism. Though eventually uplifting, Slumdog is categorically not the slice of escapism its canny marketers would have you believe. It is a fine movie, though, and one of the strongest Best Picture winners of recent decades. (4)

***



"You have the ask to wish for me your pleasure?"
I Met Him in Paris (Wesley Ruggles, 1937) is a pleasant little romantic comedy that keeps threatening to turn into a more interesting, adult film, but never really explains its central tenet: why sourpuss Melvyn Douglas must chaperone young lovers Claudette Colbert and Robert Young on their sojourn from Gay Paree to snowy Switzerland. In addition, the Paris setting isn't effectively utilised - presumably it was just a suitably exotic spot for Colbert to be romanced as well as a nice hook for the title - while the Swiss one brings largely slapstick peril. But the leads were consummate performers capable of lifting the most unpromising material and they make a good fist of it here. Lee Bowman is fun in support as Colbert's "trusting" suitor, in a David Niven-like turn. The snowbound scenes were shot at Sun Valley, Idaho, the setting for Fox's hit musical Sun Valley Serenade. The ending, with three men squabbling over the lead, was later borrowed for the Jean Arthur film The Lady Takes a Chance. (2.5)

***


The martians look very funny, I just wish the script was better.

*SOME SPOILERS*
"Ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak."
Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996) - Wow, this is a mixed bag: a movie based on a series of trading cards that satirises the piousness of '50s sci-fi movies, wastes - in both senses - an immensely promising cast and treats us to several teeth-grindingly pointless interludes spoofing films as irrelevant to its thesis as Apocalypse Now, Duel in the Sun and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Its overarching premise is unquestionably hilarious. Whereas The Day the Earth Stood Still told us that humans were the real savages - irrational warmongers who needed to be taught a lesson by their advanced galactic neighbours - here we're back on less preachy ground, with big-brained martian invaders who only pretend to come in peace so they can wipe out all of Congress in one go.

Usually spotty films are rescued by the incidental pleasures, but here it's the subplots that are often found wanting. Give Burton '30s star Sylvia Sidney and cult character actor Joe Don Baker and what does he do with them? Turns Baker into a stereotypical TV-loving trailer park hick, and Sidney into a one-joke sideshow. The joke? She's got dementia! Chortle. In her last film, Sidney has just a single funny line ("They blew up Congress, ahahahaha!"), though there is one absolutely lovely moment between the veteran former leading lady and screen grandson Lukas Haas that utilises the memory loss gag in a worthwhile way. The put-upon teenage misfit tells her that he is the kid she's just been chuntering on about. "I know, Thomas," she says. "Richie always was the best one." It's an unexpectedly affecting bit of Wes Anderson-esque sentiment amidst much offensive tedium - a contrast that just about sums up the film's maddeningly uneven tone.

The production design is inspired, but the (admittedly very amusing) martians would have been better in stop-motion as originally planned. The Congress set-piece, including cautionary signs intended to prevent causing further offence to the visitors that read "no applause" and "no birds", is quite well-handled and the film has a nice subplot featuring Jim Brown and Pam Grier, but then there's all that rubbish with Jack Nicholson's casino promoter and his hippie wife (Annette Bening, who's given nothing to work with), and a dozen other diversions designed to eat up the running time, or satisfy Burton's penchant for self-indulgence. Mars Attacks! also has the distinction of being perhaps the first film I've seen that's avowedly in favour of nuclear war, even if the weapons are ultimately replaced by Slim Whitman. In the end it's not a bad film, just wildly inconsistent. (2.5)

***



Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) - I don't really get Bond. I always want these spy yarns to be like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and of course they never are - and never could be. So, having been duped time and again by promises of a back-to-basics approach (back to which basics - Dr. No?!), with earthy combat and psychological complexity (that was the sell for For Your Eyes Only and countless others), I decided to sit at home and count my gold, rather than spanking it on Daniel Craig's debut outing as 007. That says something about my judgement, as this belated viewing marks it out as the best Bond I've seen: intriguing and visceral, with the welcome stain of realism marking its more impressive moments.

A great, tough opening scene in monochrome sets the tone, with footage of Craig staking out an MI6 office intercut with snippets of a grisly kill in a public toilet. It's then offset by a largely idiotic credits sequence that looks like a spoof - and you wonder which of these two polar opposites is going to set the tone for the film. Actually, it's both, with bracing action sequences and fragments of fascinating characterisation spliced with superficial villainy and the usual tiresome fetishising of cars and planes. The first full action sequence is an absolute wow: gritty and exhilarating, as Bond pursues a bombmaker through the Ugandan bush (not a euphemism), past an industrial estate, up a crane and then into an embassy packed with gun-toting militia men. It ends with our hero completely losing the plot, prompting this pithy exchange with M (Judi Dench). Her: "You're supposed to display some kind of judgement." Him: "I did. I thought that one less bombmaker in the world was a good thing." Then we're into the story proper, with 007 being pitched against middle management criminal and blood-weeping card sharp Le Chiffre in a high-stakes poker game. Also along for the ride is treasury accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) - who's surely so-named so he can do jokes about riding her, which doesn't happen.

Happily, while the film is essentially about cards, it knows that card games don't work on screen, so brief clips of the contest are alternated with punchy action and suspense sequences, each with a twist in the telling. There's also some sensitive interplay between Craig and Green that recalls the series' (few) emotional highpoints, but is undermined by slack writing, since the relationship isn't really explained by the action we see, the character development happening in jumps. Despite that, and the fact he runs like Forrest Gump, I think Craig is the best Bond we've seen - without the objectionable smugness of most other 007s. That self-satisfaction is replaced by an ambiguity that make the character much more interesting, even if such complexity isn't ramped up quite enough. His is also the first (J)A(ME)S BO(ND) to get an electronic tag, a sign of just how naughty he is in this film. A deft, intelligent score by David Arnold adds to the feel of this worthwhile, welcome reinvention of Bond which - for all its flaws - is hopefully a sign of things to come. So how come everyone says Quantum of Solace is rubbish? (2.5)

Trivia note: The 1967 "comedy" loosely based on Ian Fleming's Casino Royale is one of the worst films of all time.

Linky goodness: For a write-up of Craig's finest moment, the 1996 mini-series Our Friends in the North, please go here.

***



"It's not the fall that matters, it's the landing."
*A FEW BIG SPOILERS, INCLUDING ONE FOR THE LAST 10 SECONDS OF THE FILM*
La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
was one of the movies that got me into movies - along with Star Wars, On the Waterfront (see #63) and Les quatre cents coups - but I hadn't seen it for a good 10 years until the weekend, when it emerged as the only film my girlfriend's family all wanted to watch. The film, often startlingly directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, traces the lives of three working class kids from a Parisian estate whose lives seem to be heading inexorably towards tragedy as they pose, bicker and pontificate across 24 hours in the big city. Vincent Cassel is the obvious standout in a showy part as a combustible would-be hood who vows to kill a cop if his friend dies following a hospitalising encounter with the law.

But just as his Vinz effectively mirrors The Godfather's hotheaded Sonny - albeit with a buzzcut and a mouthiness borne of insecurity - so Hubert Koundé's reluctant rebel follows Michael Corleone's path from model son (of a sort) to law-flouting tough guy - a transition that's shortened from three hours to 10 seconds. And what a 10 seconds it is, as the film's themes dovetail into a hiply-shot but existentially terrifying portrait of a society breeding its own criminals. Co-scripter Saïd Taghmaoui, the nominal lead, rounds out our central trio as an inquisitive, cheery Maghrebin apparently untainted by his inauspicious surroundings or the impossible hand that life has dealt him - at least until the closing minutes. In fact, though La Haine is dominated in hindsight by where it ends up - and an interrogation sequence that's almost unwatchable - for much of its duration it's a fun ride, with an off-kilter sense of humour that gets its laughs through observation, repetition ("how did they get the car in here?"), surrealism (the cow) and a single, profane anecdote about the difficulties of having a poo whilst being exiled to Siberia.

There's a post-Tarantino pop culture conversation about American cartoons that seems forced and out of character for the film, but for the most part the script is bang on, acknowledging that while our (anti-)heroes may be heading for an explosive landing, their journey there is likely to be filled with tragicomic, satiric detail - only some of it apparent to the characters. Kassovitz's directorial ticks and masterful grasp of visual composition drag us through the story, with a sense of timing and an eye for a telling image that augment the compelling story. And the three stars are so perfect in their roles that every time I've seen them since, my first reaction has been to marvel at how they've dragged themselves up from the streets and - oh yeah, they're actors. Seen through the eyes of a young man (I'm now 25), rather than an impressionable teenager, La Haine appears every bit as brilliant, but even more tragic: its protagonists just damaged kids, their minds poisoned by a culture that glamorises the very path they should be avoiding. (4)

***



"We've gone on holiday - by mistake."
Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987) has one of the great scripts, with skies that are "beginning to bruise", a landlord "who was coming over all bald" and a pair of heroes who "are drifting into the arena of the unwell". Paul McGann is "I" (the script calls him Marwood), a mild-mannered actor who decamps to the country for the weekend with boozing, carousing flatmate Withnail (Richard E. Grant) - an eternally inebriated bullshit artist and wannabe thespian - and the unwelcome Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). There they battle against supposed starvation, fear grown of disorientation and alcohol, and the advances of predatory homosexual Monty, who has his eye on I.

The plotting is virtually non-existent, but the dialogue is sensational and Grant's theatrics as the gaunt, wild-eyed Withnail are the stuff of legend - culminating in a heartbreaking spot of Hamlet in the pouring rain. McGann, in his more restrained part, is also superb, while Griffiths oscillates between being affectingly vulnerable and hilariously irritating and weird with admirable regularity. Though there are moments of conventionality that jar with the brilliance frequently dripping from Robinson's pen - including some "fish out of water" stuff that could have come straight from The Egg & I - and Ralph Brown is a bit one-note (and a bit much) as a frazzled drug dealer, there isn't a half-minute that passes without some moment of borderline genius or a disarmingly hysterical joke. Though superficially dealing with excess and the foreign nation that is the English countryside, Withnail & I is really a film about self-destruction, self-delusion and friendship, as one young man heads for the big-time and another for the alcoholics' ward. As a comedy, it's virtually matchless - as a tale of lost dreams, heartbreaking. (4)

Trivia notes: Robinson boiled down three years' of experiences in a shared flat in London to a narrative spanning two weeks. Withnail is based on Vivian MacKerrell, a friend who talked about how he was the best at everything, "but never did anything" - in Robinson's words. Uncle Monty was famously inspired by the writer-director's experience of working for Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, who supposedly pursued the boyish Robinson after casting him in Romeo and Juliet. The line: "Are you a sponge or a stone?", is apparently ripped from that encounter.