Coney Island, lipstick and beautiful boredom in this week's reviews round-up.
Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley and Morris Engel, 1953) - Spellbinding, utterly original indie, shot on location in NYC, about a seven-year-old boy (Richie Andrusco) who believes he's killed his brother (Richard Brewster), and so flees to Coney Island. Wracked with guilt and fear, he finds temporary solace in carousels, sea-front games and all things equine, even getting a job as a bottle-collector to fund his pony-ride habit. It's a quiet, lyrical, funny and affecting film about childhood and the bonds between brothers that attains a simple truth about growing up and finds the visual poetry in everyday life. In doing so, it influenced everything from Les quatre cents coups to Killer of Sheep. A little masterpiece. (4)
Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927) - The first modern gangster film, and still one of the best, with its engrossing love triangle immersed in a vividly-realised underworld. Overbearing bank robber Buck Weed (George Bancroft) helps alcoholic attorney "Rolls Royce" (Clive Brook) back on his feet, only to see his moll - the excellently named "Feathers" McCoy (Evelyn Brent) - fall for the articulate, sad-faced college man. The first 50 is merely good, but the climactic half-hour is spectacular, with von Sternberg's exciting, imaginative visual sense going into overdrive as the story reaches its crescendo. The crime film formula may have been refined with Warner's Little Caesar four years later, which introduced the familiar rise-and-fall narrative (here, Bancroft is already at the top of his game when we come in), but this box-office sensation established the template with its tough-but-honourable hero, flavourful Jules Furthman dialogue and Tommy-gun-toting climax. Its influence can be seen on Scarface and its dreadful remake ("The City Is Yours," screams a flashing billboard) and Miller's Crossing, while its central dynamic of an unrefined bruiser with a big personality and a heap of dough losing the girl he loves to a quiet guy who practises law was also recycled for the saga with the last word on '30s crime pictures, The Roaring Twenties. Underworld, which made that decade's whole run possible, is gripping, amusing (though not when it's leaning on some dubious comic interludes) and even sexy, with superb performances from the central trio (especially Brook, who stank the place out in von Sternberg's snail-like Shanghai Express) and a bravura ending: a frantic, sweaty, emotionally draining reunion amongst a hail of bullets. (3.5)
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, 1957) - Advertising ideas man Tony Randall hits the jackpot with his latest ruse - now he just needs to convince pouty, bleached-blonde movie megastar Jayne Mansfield to use Stay Put lipstick on those "oh so kissable lips". She, meanwhile, is in the mood to make her cheating muscle-man jealous. Director Tashlin - a former animator who brought a uniquely cartoonish sensibility to films like Son of Paleface and The Girl Can't Help It and was a major influence on Joe Dante - chucked out almost all of George Axelrod's source play (a satire on the movie business) and replaced it with an exhilarating script that speaks its own language and takes aim at anything he fancies, starting with celebrity, corporations, conformity, marketing, materialism, Hollywood producers, TV and radio. Randall is excellent as the overnight success story wrestling variously with a tabloid nickname ("lover doll"), an oversized suit and the attentions of dozens of teenage girls, and there are two exceptional performances in support: a deliciously mannered turn from Henry Jones as a superficial executive with his own theory on success, and Joan Blondell giving a masterclass in old-style movie acting as Mansfield's world-weary secretary. Her monologue about the love of her life - a milkman-turned-movie-producer - is absolutely heart-stopping, a perfect marriage of tender sentiment and off-kilter humour. It's a definite, sorethumb-of-a-highpoint in a bright, funny film that doesn't strive for dramatic resonance too often, preferring instead to bombard the viewer with in-jokes, satiric barbs, absolute filth and moments of post-modern inspiration, as Tashlin hammers down the fourth wall like his old chum Wile E Coyote. (3.5)
Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980) – “You’ll believe three men and a woman can fly!” This extended advert for Marlboro cigarettes and camp villainy turns Lois into a smoker, hurls Supes (Christopher Reeve) through a branded lorry and pits our hero against a trio of baddies with the same powers as him: greasy, bearded General Zod (Terence Stamp) - who seems to have walked off the set of Carry On Superman - his missus and his henchman. The film has serious problems, lacking a consistency of tone, as original director Richard Donner’s promotion of the character’s mythos clashes with Lester’s annoying, tongue-in-cheek approach, while a vapid Lois (Margot Kidder) fails to bring anything to the movie except a nicotine addiction. But it remains a watchable – if disposable – superhero flick, thanks to good work from Reeve and Gene Hackman (as returning megalomaniac Lex Luthor), a fast-moving, pulpy storyline and a tour of some of the world’s top tourist attractions, including the Eiffel Tower – which is wired to explode by French terrorist... Richard Griffiths – and Niagara Falls. (2.5)
Twitter things: I asked whether original director Richard Donner's cut of the film was any better. Simon Underwood (@SiFoulaReel) said it was "less stupid" but "still not great", while Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz), TV columnist at New York Magazine, called it "a modest improvement", while acknowledging the series was "always problematic", despite being lifted by Reeve's work. Happily, we're in agreement over the majesty of Bryan Singer's bafflingly underrated Superman Returns. His superlative video essay on that oft-overlooked classic is here.
The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924) – Hotel doorman Emil Jannings loses his job due to old age, and falls to pieces. This legendary silent film – which dispenses with dialogue cards altogether – is visually astounding but actually quite boring: everything happens very s-l-o-w-l-y and the performances are all completely over-the-top. There are some effective dramatic moments – enhanced by cameraman Karl Freund’s technical wizardry – but it’s not enough; particularly in a film that has an epilogue this silly. I like Murnau and admire Jannings as an actor (it's tough to feel too affectionate towards him as a man, what with him being such a MASSIVE NAZI), but this is no Sunrise or Last Command. (2)
Buffalo Bill (William A. Wellman, 1944) – Mediocre biopic of the famed Indian fighter and showman (Joel McCrea), who battles eastern idiocy and romances flame-haired Maureen O’Hara, as a Native American with pigtails (Linda Darnell) looks at him through various windows. McCrea and O’Hara give it their best, but the film is poorly-paced and badly-scripted – the death of a child is mishandled dreadfully and whoever decided that a boy on crutches should stand up and yell: “God bless you, Buffalo Bill!” after the final show was frankly taking the piss. Still, Wellman does create some memorable tableaux by drawing on classic Western paintings, and the battle sequence with hundreds of horses thundering through water is very arresting. I presume Darnell was only crowbarred into this one because she was boffing producer Daryll F. Zanuck. (2)
See also: I've got a bit of a thing for Joel McCrea Westerns. Well, usually. Here are a handful of reviews: Four Faces West, The Tall Stranger and South of St Louis.
Kicking & Screaming (Jesse Dylan, 2005) – Abysmal Will Ferrell sports comedy that sees his put-upon vitamin salesman take over a youth football team and go head-to-head with his own dad (a braying Robert Duvall). The film has no understanding of football, narrative or characterisation, swinging randomly between mawkishness, supposed realism and desperately unfunny ‘comic’ set-pieces. There are about three jokes in the whole film, with modern comedy hero Martin Starr turning up briefly to provide one of them, sarcastically muttering “Yay!” in a coffeehouse. Bowie's son made Moon and Source Code; Dylan's did American Pie: The Wedding and this - the worst things to come out of that household since Saved. Duvall essentially reprised his performance in the similarly dreadful Four Christmases. (1)
Twitter things: I shared a bugbear, lamenting: "I wish there was a way to tell which Will Ferrell films are going to be rubbish." Damo (@Damo_24) hit back with this devastating one-two. If the reference escaped you, you've either forgotten or avoided Anchorman. Roger Armstrong (@StudioLAX) made reference to the magic of The Other Guys, my favourite Ferrell flick, but Peter Hughes (@peelyjhughes) said a very hurtful thing. Still, he is in the majority there.
See also: There is a great film called Kicking and Screaming. It's reviewed here.