Thursday, 31 May 2012

Sunrise, Louise Brooks, and stars in disguise - Reviews #118


*BIG SPOILERS*
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
– Perhaps the most famous silent film of all, and one of the best, equipped with an emotional tractor beam too often absent from Murnau’s eye-wideningly inventive works. George O’Brien is a farmer driven to the point of murder by a devilish flapper (Margaret Livingston). He takes his wife (Janet Gaynor) on a boat ride with the intention of killing her, but relents in the face of her terror – and, during a day in the city, falls in love with her anew. The film begins in matchlessly oppressive, moody fashion, morphs into a romantic comedy and then takes a hard left with the introduction of a great big storm. If you can accept a romantic drama with such wild shifts in tone, and in which boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy attempts to strangle girl and then boy relents and decides he really, truly and everlastingly loves girl – and I really can, such is the majesty of Murnau’s masterpiece – then Sunrise is just about as good as movies get.

To be honest, it’s almost impossible to conceive how talkies ever got off the ground, novelty aside, when you compare something like Sunrise with almost any sound picture made before 1930. Silent cinema had reached a startling apex of visual creativity, particularly in these Fox films where visionary artists were given completely free rein, with restlessly mobile cameras, jawdropping trickery and as much atmosphere as one can conceivably cram into several cans of film. Early talkies consisted of someone nailing a camera to the door like some Ozu-obsessed DIY fanatic and then not being able to move it because it was too heavy. The central performances in Sunrise are unspeakably wonderful. Gaynor won the most well-deserved Oscar you could ever possibly imagine for her work here, and in Borzage’s 7th Heaven and Street Angel, giving a more stylised performance than usual, while still exhibiting much of the breathtaking naturalism that was her forte. O’Brien, who had starred in John Ford’s The Iron Horse and went on to be one of his famous stock company, had clearly been directed to give a more expressionistic turn, at least in the earlier scenes, moving like a prototype Frankenstein's Monster – all high shoulders and odd, jerky movements, as if manipulated by some heinous flapper puppeteer – before freeing himself from the chains of destructive, avaricious lust, and consequently loosening up a bit. He's bafflingly attractive in the middle third of the film – considering what his character has just been up to – and appealingly repentant and lost in the frantic climax. By way of contrast with such wordless majesty, you can watch someone start to say a word in an early talkie, go downstairs, make some toast, put the kettle on, have a cup of tea, nip out to the shops because you’re out of milk, catch a bus to the park as it’s a nice sunny day, come back home again, wash up, go back upstairs, and find that the person is still saying the same word. There are vowels in The Black Watch that last longer than a typical working day.

Sorry, I forget where I was. Sunrise! Of course, Sunrise. It’s the best film Murnau ever made, from its swampy opening, through the moral quagmire of premeditation, to the rediscovery of love and life, and the affirmation of everything dear in the world. There’s also a bit with a runaway piglet. It really is very good. (4)

***


Skeletons (Nick Whitfield, 2010) - Bickering best friends Davies (Ed Gaughan) and Beckett (Andrew Buckley) make a living from psychically uncovering the skeletons in people's closets. Metaphorical skeletons, but real closets. As the intense Davies nears a nostalgic meltdown, his amiable, lumbering companion yearns for a normal existence, and their boss (a gruff, northern Jason Isaacs, in a flat cap) eyes them for promotion, they're pitched into the trickiest case of their career. The film starts off in a precise, literate comic manner, with hilarious scenes of obscure bureaucracy and awkward revelations, then gets stranger and stranger as it progresses. Though the whydunit isn't terribly mysterious, the film's frequent dips into the world of weird - dizzying diversions that drop the characters into one another's dreams and reminiscences - are satisfyingly original, the largely unknown cast is excellent and the film never forgets to be funny. "Going Bulgarian" must be my favourite comic invention of the decade so far. A high (3.5).

***


*ABSOLUTELY GARGANTUAN SPOILERS*
Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
– Pabst and star Louise Brooks’ follow-up to the legendary (and rather unpleasant) Pandora’s Box is a bizarre mix of tawdry melodrama and social comment that manages to keep an entire cake in its cupboard, while scoffing it before your very eyes. Brooks plays a nubile, bob-haired innocent who undergoes a litany of horrendous experiences, including being raped twice, losing her child and being widowed (even von Trier never put his heroines through so much), before becoming a kick-ass social stateswoman. Elsewhere, Pabst incorporates voyeurism, sadism and quiveringly lascivious lesbianism – a drooling, butch authority figure smacks a big gong and licks her lips as a group of abused young women bounce up and down in front of her – as well as a bald workhouse enforcer being bopped repeatedly on the head, and a baddie wearing a bobble hat on the beach. Pabst is clearly infatuated with his lead actress, and as she slips from backless evening gown to backless bathing suit and back again, a paragon of flapper fashion, it does sometimes appear that he made a list of costumes that he might quite like to see her wear, and then built the story around those. But his handling is stylish and sometimes striking, and Brooks is magnificent – sweet, steely, alluring and iconic, guiding the film through some uncertain, morally confused territory on the way to a stunning last half hour. (3)

***


Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009) – Gun-toting hermit Robert Duvall, who has neglected company since a mysterious incident 40 years earlier, decides to hold a party prior to his imminent death, and enlists the help of local funeral director Bill Murray – who doesn’t suit the ‘30s setting – and assistant Lucas Black (the boy from Sling Blade). This mixture of mystery and character study, with some concessions to wry humour, is reminiscent of The Straight Story, but never quite hits the heights, despite an interesting set-up and Duvall’s best performance in ages. Perhaps it’s the pace, which seems too leisurely by half, or a succession of half-hearted subplots that distract from rather than enhance the central story. It’s still worth a look, though, largely for the commanding central turn, and it’s always nice to see Sissy Spacek, who has a couple of good scenes as Duvall’s old flame. (3)

***


"White folks sound so stupid when they get mad. They be like, "Hey... I'm going to kick your B-hind'."
Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001) – It’s the last day of summer camp, and as director Janeane Garofalo begins a nervy relationship with astrophysicist David Hyde Pierce, and awkward Michael Showalter falls unwisely in love, most of the key American comic actors of the newly-minted decade pop up to engage in messy kissing (Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks), gay marriage (Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black), amateur dramatics (Amy Poehler) or last-gasp child rescue (Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio). It’s part teen movie spoof, part summer camp reminiscence and part complete nonsense, and though sometimes it doesn’t work, and it never amounts to anything more than a series of sketches, it's often very funny. Many of the cast had worked on the MTV sketch show The State, and re-teamed four years later for a brilliant little romantic comedy called The Baxter, starring Showalter and Michelle Williams. This comedy, which is now a cult phenomenon in the States (there’s a full episode of the underwhelming podcast The Nerdist devoted to it), isn’t in the same league, but it’s diverting and amusing, with a discombobulating habit of subverting the very thing it’s partway through emulating. (3)

***

Three legends: Frank McHugh, the greatest character comic of his generation, with Cagney and Kazan.

City for Conquest (Anatole Litvak, 1940) is an over-ambitious Warner film that tries to create a symphony of New York via three inter-linking stories, but lacks the eloquence to match its size and sense of self-importance. The main narrative sees truck-driver-turned-boxer Jimmy Cagney losing childhood sweetheart Ann Sheridan to her relentless, nagging ambition, while his little brother (Arthur Kennedy) composes an ode to the city and their neighbourhood pal Elia Kazan becomes a slick gangster. The portentous tone is set by Frank Craven’s garbled monologue, which kicks off the picture, uses the phrase “seven million teeming masses” and concludes with him bafflingly proclaiming: “I know this town, brother, because I got clothes on my back”, which turns out to be his catchphrase. Still, it’s a very handsome production, well-shot by Sol Polito and James Wong Howe, with a solid performance from Cagney and a fantastic one from legendary (and indeed notorious) director Kazan, in a rare acting role. (2.5)

***


*SOME SPOILERS, I SUPPOSE*
New Orleans (Arthur Lubin, 1947)
– Patronising, racist fiction about the birth of jazz - years in gestation - that features one of the most embarrassing stories you will ever see, and truly execrable performances, but scintillating music from Louis Armstrong, his band and the incredible Billie Holiday, insultingly cast as a maid in her only feature. Annoying, white opera starlet Dorothy Patrick falls in love with both smug white gambler Arturo de Cordova and the ragtime played in the back of his casino, and together they popularise jazz. Well, with a little help from Woody Herman (who on earth is Woody Herman?), who’s also white, not that good and – like Satchmo – playing himself in a film set in 1916. Frankly, I have no idea. The whole thing is pretty hideous, but as a rare chance to see Billie on screen, it’s unmissable. She sings three songs, including Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?, which is comfortably one of the best musical numbers ever put on film. Predictably, it’s reprised for the climax by a bunch of white guys playing in front of a white audience at Symphony Hall. Yuck. (2.5)

SHORT: A Rhapsody in Black and Blue (Aubrey Scotto, 1932) - A jazz-loving layabout gets thwacked over his head by his nagging wife and dreams that he's the King of Jazzmania, receiving a command performance - at a foam party - from a leopard-skin clad Louis Armstrong. This was Armstrong's second appearance on screen, and I've never seen him play with this level of intensity. There's a sense of fun about his performance, but also a sense of fire - he's not twinkling and goofing around, he's tooting, scatting and singing as if his life depended on it, shaking through blistering renditions of I'll Be Glad When You're Dead and Shine. The framing device is mildly amusing (I liked the last gag), but this is all about the exhilarating middle, and the chance to see a bona fide legend when he was keen, raw and almost impossibly magnetic. (3.5)

SHORT: Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life (Fred Waller, 1935) - These musical shorts usually require a little gimmick that leads into the main business of jazz musicians cutting loose. This one strikes upon the incredibly lazy idea of showing Duke Ellington writing some music at his piano, which segues into his band playing the pieces on stage, with some cuts to occasionally thrilling imagery. The footage of black labourers shovelling coal in time to the music at the beginning works superbly, but this idea of marrying the music to culturally significant visuals isn't really sustained. Still, Ellington's rhapsody is engaging and, while the film's various elements don't quite click, this 10-minute short does include Billie Holiday's mesmerising reading of I've Got Those Lost My Man Blues. (3)

***


The List of Adrian Messenger (John Huston, 1963) – Gimmicky thriller that puts a gaggle of stars – including Mitchum, Sinatra and Tony Curtis – under elaborate make-up, as George C. Scott wanders around Britain trying to work out why Kirk Douglas keeps killing people from a lengthy list. It starts off intriguingly, promising plenty, and Scott is very good indeed, but the film goes completely off the rails in the second half, with a coincidence-heavy plot and lots of boring footage of fox hunting. Added to that, the film’s USP sounds fun, but doesn’t really work at all. According to Lee Server, of those disguised, only Mitchum and Douglas actually filmed their parts in full, with Sinatra and Curtis just turning up for the reveal. The supporting cast includes two stiff Englishman of the Golden Age – the excellent Herbert Marshall and the often less excellent Clive Brook (though get a load of his performance in the silent gangster classic Underworld – wowsers) – along with Dana Wynter. (2)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Blessed Event, Sundays and Cybele, and Ryan Gosling (again) - Reviews #117


*MINOR SPOILERS*
Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)
is arguably the greatest comedy film of all time, with “that kid from advertising” Alvin Roberts (Lee Tracy) commandeering his newspaper’s society section, and turning it into the filthiest gossip column in America. But his take-no-prisoners journalism – and brilliantly abrasive persona – makes him a couple of powerful enemies: crooner Bunny Harmon (a hilariously peppy Dick Powell in his screen debut) and gangster Sam Gobel (Edwin Maxwell). Tracy was the crystallisation of everything great about Pre-Code movies – those fast-paced, scurrilous, say-anything films made before the censorship crackdown of 1934 – and this is his definitive vehicle. He’s just hysterically funny, spewing a constant stream of wisecracks and epithets, before a second half that demands every ounce of talent he had: Roberts throbbing with ebullience, self-loathing and finally righteous anger, as he tries to atone for the one time he took it too far. The script does everything right, circumventing a potential slip into melodrama with dismissive ease, and the supporting cast is truly spectacular, with each and every character – from Ruth Donnelly’s acerbic secretary to Ned Sparks’ pet correspondent and Frank McHugh’s ineffective press agent – given something memorable to do. Really it’s just one great scene after another, but there are several that are simply sensational.

The centrepiece is the terrifying, perilously dark set-piece in which Tracy talks mobster Allen Jenkins through a trip to the chair. He shoves a picture of Ruth Snyder in Jenkins’ face, before navigating the henchman through a florid, impossibly graphic description of state-sanctioned death, every part of his body seeming to contort as he dominates the screen. You would die with one finger twitching upwards, Tracy concludes with a shaking voice, “to where you’re… not… going”. It doesn’t sound like much fun, but somehow it’s exhilarating, because I’ve never seen anyone act like that before: it’s neither conventional, nor stagy, nor necessarily naturalistic, it’s just dynamic. There’s also Tracy being called a “nadir” – a shoo-in for any “top ten funniest scenes” list – his conversation with his mum about Bunny Harmon (she’s a big fan), a blistering showdown with Gobel in a café, and a bit in a hospital where a policeman keeps slapping a gunman in the face. Director Del Ruth has a cult following nowadays, on the strength of these breakneck early pictures he specialised in at Warner, and his handling couldn’t be better. But it’s Tracy’s show all the way, this 78-minute jolt of comic genius spotlighting his superb timing and singular style of acting – his high-pitched delivery, gesticulating fingers, monstrous self-confidence and gaggle of outrageous vocal trills combining to exalting effect. He's astonishing, and so is Blessed Event. (4)

See also: Here are my 100 favourite movies - Blessed Event is at #14.

***


*BIG SPOILERS*
Sundays and Cybele (Serge Bourguignon, 1962)
– A childlike amnesiac (Hardy Kruger), unable to repair his life after a wartime plane crash, befriends a 12-year-old (Patricia Gozzi) girl abandoned by her father. They enjoy blissful Sundays together, aside from his periodic attacks of irrationality, but outsiders begin to distrust the relationship, leading to tragedy. This intensely moving, truly original drama – with increasingly spare comic touches – confronts the cynicism, horror and alienation of the adult world, Bourguignon ingeniously shifting styles to contrast the stifling mundanity of Kruger’s apartment – and his unconnected life – with the tranquil idyll of the park where he and Cybele indulge in transcendent fantasy. It isn’t that Kruger doesn’t have love in his adult life, just that he wants to shrink from the world that forced him to gun down an innocent child. He, young Gozzi and Nicole Courcel – as the protagonist's conflicted girlfriend Madeleine – are terrific, while the film boasts some of the most striking black-and-white photography you’ll ever see: an endlessly creative variety of shots drawing you inexorably in to the heartbreaking story. (4)

***


*SOME SPOILERS*
The Young in Heart (Richard Wallace, 1938)
– Magical comedy about a family of con artists who move into the house of a guileless, lonely old woman (Minnie Dupree), hoping to become her heirs, only to be transformed by her benign influence, and by love. It’s a promising premise, but where it really succeeds is in the cast – every role filled by the ideal late-‘30s actor, from Janet Gaynor as a flinty daughter discovering her humanity, to Roland Young and Billie Burke as her parents, displaying that old Topper spark – and a wonderful script. It's like little else I’ve seen from classic Hollywood, fusing the sentimentality of a typical Selznick production with a sense of irreverence and absurdity that’s like something from an ‘80s indie movie. Take the scene where Young is forced to go to work for the first time, cutting short his sightseeing trips of London. “There were so many things I never did,” he tells his son, in a perfect parody of mortality cliches, “I never even went to the aquarium.” The film is full of these bizarre, underplayed comic moments, which are refreshingly intelligent, while possessing a thoroughly modern sensibility. Coupled to an interesting subtext about the family loving the very idea of its harshness, it makes the film's climactic leap into heartfelt emotion – which builds on short passages of kindness and wisdom at crucial junctures – all the more affecting. Ben Hecht used a similar approach for his 1941 film Angels Over Broadway (which also starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), while the plot presumably inspired the 1945 movie The Cheaters, which also cast Burke in her usual role as a wittering mother, while relocating the story to Christmas. The Young in Heart is a bracingly different kind of Hollywood movie, with a strikingly unusual feel and a superb cast that also includes Paulette Goddard, Henry Stephenson, Richard Carlson (doing a bad Scottish accent), a wobbly penguin and a cute puppy. Best of the bunch are Gaynor, who has some marvellous moments, Dupree and Young – in a perfect performance that requires him to be both loveably corrupt and touchingly repentant, without overegging either. The Fairbanks-Goddard chemistry is also first-rate. The only bit of the movie that doesn’t work is a slightly dull, unfunny scene of Young driving the car of the future, courtesy of some dodgy process screen work, but it’s only about 40 seconds long. The rest of it is amazing. (4)

See also: Gaynor had been perhaps the most important actress of the late silent era - her three films with director Frank Borzage are reviewed here (7th Heaven and Street Angel) and here (Lucky Star). She retired after The Young in Heart and made just one more film, a '50s movie about teenagers.

***


*MINOR SPOILERS*
Crazy, Stupid, Love (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2011)
– I enjoyed this a lot at the cinema and it’s just as good on DVD: a wise, touching, often very funny ensemble romantic comedy, dealing with the entanglements of divorcing couple Steve Carell and Julianne Moore, their son Jonah Bobo, and the incorrigible womanising slickster (Ryan Gosling) who’s teaching Carell to “be a man”. Carell – in one of those poignant parts he does well – Bobo and Emma Stone are all excellent, though it’s Gosling (*sigh*) who walks off with the film, exhibiting a masterful sense of timing and the ability to create irressistible chemistry with anybody who happens to be in the same room. (Can I be in a room with him? Oh please.) How he didn’t get a Best Supporting nomination is beyon- oh no, wait, I've just remembered the Oscars are rubbish. There are three very special comic scenes in the film, and Gosling is in all of them: the pep talk with Carell in a bar, his chat with Stone about a massage chair ("Who has one of those? Me, I do") and a classic bit of farce that brings together all the main characters in a surprising and clever way. On the downside, Julianne Moore isn’t very good at comedy and there’s the odd scene that drags, but I’m sticking by my oft-derided contention that this is the best mainstream romcom since Just Like Heaven. (3.5)

***


Three Colours White (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994) – The second of Kieslowki’s Three Colours trilogy is a black comedy on the subject of “equality”, as Czech immigrant Zbigniew Zamachowski reacts to life giving him lemons by making some horrible revenge. His target is heartless ex-wife Julie Delpy, who likes to mock him by being loudly pleasured down the phone. Visiting sadistic unpleasantness on its central duo, it's droll rather than funny, and the least impressive of the tricolore triumvirate, but well-constructed and engrossing, with a powerful pay-off. (3)

***


*MINOR SPOILERS*
Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin, 1955)
– When artist Dean Martin needs inspiration for a violent new comic book, he takes it from the dreams of his best pal (Jerry Lewis). Unfortunately they also contain the secret code for a new space station. This is the first Martin and Lewis film I’ve seen, and it was OK. Lewis isn’t particularly funny, but you acclimatise to his relentless mugging after a few minutes, and he had a few good moments – particularly his encounter with the Bat Lady and the fat lady. I watched it because of Tashlin, a former animator who specialised in big, bright comedies satirising anything he felt like, including the marvellous Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? But here his direction is overbearing to the point of being annoying, with sound effects at every juncture. The film’s best moments belong to Shirley MacLaine as Lewis’s girlfriend (it’s always amusing to see where stars ranked in the Hollywood Order of Attractiveness). This was her second film and she's so full of energy she's practically bouncing into your living room. Particularly good is her reprisal of the number Innamorata, where she leaps around a staircase, trying to kiss Lewis. In fact, the musical interludes are mostly surprisingly good; rather better than the comedy (the tone is set by the opening scene, which promises a man being flung through a billboard and then contents itself with dropping some paint on people’s heads). Martin’s Lucky Song, filmed in a similar way to I Got Rhythm from An American in Paris, is a joy, and the title tune is cleverly staged around an artist’s palette filled with various women. Did I mention that the film is quite sexist? All in all, I’m not in a rush to check out more Martin and Lewis movies, but if there’s one on TV, I might give it a go. (2.5)

See also: MacLaine is also in The Apartment. This piece is about how The Apartment is amazing.

***


Perrier’s Bounty (Ian Fitzgibbon, 2009) – When his plans to pay back a €1,000 debt go awry, scruffy criminal Cillian Murphy, the girl he loves (Jodie Whittaker) and his dying dad (Jim Broadbent) have to stay one step ahead of Brendan Gleeson’s goons, who want to lop off his willy and put it up his bottom. Given the cast, this crime-comedy is a big disappointment, with a poor, mannered script of the type currently entrancing the Irish Film Board: a torrent of swearing and a show-off’s vocabulary intending to compensate for a complete absence of anything to say. Man. Sorry, everyone in the film says “Man” all the time, like it’s 1967 (or Manchester in 1998). Films like Brick really did create their own vernacular; this isn't how you do that. The movie is also saturated in the kind of obvious post-modern irony of which The Guard was sometimes guilty. Gleeson gives an excellent performance and Murphy and Broadbent are both quite good, but it’s a smug and unsatisfying film, the agreeable invention of parts of the plotting and a handful of nice lines obliterated by a blizzard of bullshit and a climactic death scene that is a new kind of rubbish. Perrier's Bounty sounds like a two-for-one at WHSmith. That it's actually less inspiring than that is probably a criticism. (2)

***


Beautiful Lies (Pierre Salvadori, 2010) – When hairdresser Audrey Tautou receives a lyrical, unsigned love letter, she first throws it in the bin, then fishes it out and sends it to her mum, who’s in a four-year rut. Mumsy (Nathalie Baye) guesses who wrote it – over-educated handyman Jean (Sami Bouajila) – but not who it was intended for. After unwittingly waiting years for a love triangle featuring a mum and a daughter, I’ve seen two in two weeks (the other was It’s a Date), but this one’s no frothy confection; certainly not the Amelie-ish romcom promised by a disingenuous marketing campaign. It starts off cheerily, with an amusing opening 20, but gets lost, becoming a fraught, gloomy romantic drama desperately in need of a lighter touch. As an outwardly harsh businesswoman plagued by loneliness, fear and insecurity, Tautou is excellent, and Bouajila does a good job of articulating his character's predicament, but the film gives the distinct impression of having got out of hand somewhere along the line, with plot developments that simply don’t work. Jean is buffeted around by lies in a way that’s more bleak than funny. Beautiful Lies is neither enjoyable enough to work as entertainment, nor resonant or believable enough to have value as anything else. The French title actually translates as True Lies – I wonder why they changed that. (2)

***

This film doesn't deserve a nice high-res photo.

What About Bob? (Frank Oz, 1991) - Multiphobic patient Bill Murray crashes psychiatrist Richard Dreyfuss's holiday, and manages to charm everyone except the doctor, in this desperate screwball comedy. Murray has a few good moments in the second half, but Dreyfuss is embarrassingly bad, giving a relentlessly shouty performance that sinks the movie. Well, that, the script and a hideously intrusive score. It's like Boudu Saved From Drowning, if Renoir's film wasn't satirical, funny or really any good. (1.5)

***

I'm sure I've seen this somewhere before...

SHORT: Pirate Party on Catalina Isle (Charles "Buddy" Rogers, 1935) - There are loads of these musical-comedy two-reelers doing the rounds, with guest appearances from big stars who a) never interact with each other (they clearly all filmed their parts separately), b) never speak (it must be a payment thing), and c) generally just sit near a pool eating. I'm not sure how that was considered entertainment in the 1930s, though I suppose our generation had Big Brother. I watched this one because of Lee Tracy, but his appearance only lasts for four seconds - he grins, puts a knife between his teeth and throws his head back - which is about 0.33 per cent of the running time. The rest consists of the great Chester Morris struggling with some terrible dialogue as he introduces a few unfunny walk-ons and links various unexciting musical numbers, the best of which are the Busby Berkeley-esque We're in the Money - which steals shamelessly from Gold Diggers of 1933 - and a song-and-dance duo tapping on a ship. Which means the only real reason to check it out is if you want to see a few major players of the period in garish colour (I don't think Tracy ever made a colour feature, aside from the two-strip Doctor X) or are particularly interested in the Avalon, Catalina holiday resort. (2)

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Frank Borzage - Reviews #116

I reviewed the films on the BFI's Frank Borzage Vol. 1 DVD here - they're both fantastic (the films, not the reviews). Vol. 2 is more of a mixed bag. The first write-up is very heartfelt and about all high-falutin' things. The other two are mostly jokes:


*SPOILERS FOR VARIOUS BORZAGE FILMS, INCLUDING THIS ONE*
Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1928)
- "Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me," Morrissey once moaned. "No hope, no harm, just another false alarm." There's surely no-one living who hasn't, before ultimately finding some excellent brunette who also likes Melvyn Douglas, woken up with a hollowness in their middle, wishing those heady, involuntary ramblings of the previous hours were real. It's only Frank Borzage, though, who ever came close to capturing the gentle, lazy, in-sync rhythms of a romantic dream. Yes, his silent dramas feature mad dashes to the finish, with near-biblical love-fuelled miracles that restore mobility, faith and even life itself, but it's the tender mid-sections that are often the most remarkable (Street Angel is the glorious exception), rich in exploration and that most underrated of emotions - fondness - as the characters quietly circle one another in a dance of romance. Love stories in Borzage films honour honesty, patience and selflessness, while celebrating quirks of human behaviour rarely lauded on screen: naivety, innocence and loyalty beyond measure. While the forces manipulating his characters can seem clunky or excessively melodramatic - if in doubt, he tends to just send Charlie Farrell to war in France - the central duo, and the love between them, always ring utterly true. In their purest, sweetest incarnations these characters are played by Janet Gaynor and Farrell. While he was more of a star than an actor, she was unquestionably and invigoratingly both. I'm not sure I've ever seen an actress with such a startling, natural precision of emotion.

The pair's warm, wonderful chemistry dominates Lucky Star, a pastoral film that sees his straightforward wire-fixer and her amoral farm girl initially at loggerheads, only for the war to intervene (quelle surprise). Brilliantly, they truly connect after she takes some belated revenge on him for a spanking by chucking a brick through his window. Two years later. The film's set-up is amusing and the economical war scenes are nicely done (though the trick of intercutting between villain Guinn Williams grinning his head off and Farrell getting blown up is a little heavyhanded), but it's with the budding of romance that the film truly blossoms. The scenes in which Farrell "makes over" Gaynor - both inside and out, washing her hair and admonishing her for telling whoppers - are subtle, beautifully-conceived and wonderfully played. My favourite moment is when Gaynor drops the needle on her new music player, turning with a blissful expression to Farrell's lonely paraplegic, who's cooped up in his house and watching through that broken window. If Liliom (see below) seems to prove right every misconception about talkies (the utter nonsense you hear about stilted dialogue and bad acting does apply to a lot of sound films made before 1931), then the curiously-titled Lucky Star makes those who ignorantly seek to lampoon silent film look utterly ridiculous. The acting is naturalistic, the pace perfect and the baddie just a big guy trying to get his end away. He may be horrible, but he's no moustache-twiddling caricature.

In 7th Heaven, Borzage contrasted the dankness of an inner-city squat with the transcendence of the action within. Here, he makes the countryside a character: the pain of rural poverty drives the latter stages of the story, just as the airy idyll of the house and the trickling stream beyond piles atmosphere upon atmosphere in the film's immersive second act. Always one to place climactic obstacles in the way of his characters (an endless stream of people going in the opposite direction, redundancy, an iceberg), his final trick is to lob a snow blizzard at them; even the weather conspiring against these true lovers. But through it all their affecting romance never falters in tone or integrity. This, Gaynor and Farrell's last silent film together (they'd go on to make nine talkies, mostly musical-comedies), is one of the sweetest and most touching films I've seen. He equips himself notably well in a tough part - the scenes of his stricken soldier fighting to walk seem unusually realistic; well, apart from at the end - she's simply mesmerising, and together they're just a dream. Someone should tell Morrissey. (4)

PS: "I thought I was making you over and... you've made me over. Good as new." Sob.

***

Somebody, please make it stop.

*SPOILERS*
Liliom (Frank Borzage, 1930)
- Borzage's first talkie is absolutely dreadful, a lifeless telling of the Carousel story that features much of the worst acting I've ever seen, and moves at the pace of a dead snail. If you cut out all the awkward pauses, it would last about 10 minutes. Charles Farrell is Liliom, a carnival barker and all-round scumbag who snares the heart of a servant (Rose Hobart), while being primed for crime by his pal The Buzzard (my favourite actor of all time, Lee Tracy). Tracy's energetic performance and a few distinctive Borzage visuals are the only comforts in an abysmal first hour, then a celestial train appears - a jaw-dropping piece of invention - carrying H.B. Warner, and you could almost kiss him for injecting some gravitas into proceedings, only for the movie to decide that what it wants to do for an encore is mythologise domestic violence. Oh give me strength. Tracy would go on to become the most outrageously brilliant comic actor of his generation and Borzage would transfer the poetic eye and emotional beauty of his silent masterworks (including 7th Heaven and Street Angel) to extraordinary sound films like History Is Made at Night (a gobsmacking comedy-mystery-romance-cum-disaster-movie), The Vanishing Virginian (a remarkable slice of Americana) and Moonrise (a noir classic). But first, enjoy this complete piece of toilet. (1.5)

***

Psssssst. This next one is on the disc, but it's rarely advertised as such. You'll find it under the 'Extra Feature' section of the menu.


*SPOILERS*
The River (Frank Borzage, 1929)
- A quarter of Borzage's tale of fate, flirting and sexual frustation amidst the changing seasons is sadly lost, including the start and the end, but hey, this middle is pretty special. And if you liked La jetee, you'll love the still photos used in the reconstruction of the rest (a similar trick was used in the welcome re-piecing of the 1954 A Star Is Born). Charles Farrell is well-cast as a boyish barge-driver driven wild by vampy Mary Duncan. Unfortunately she's in rather deep with a murderer, who's left a scary crow to keep an eye on her while he's in the slammer. I'm always on the look-out for good movie advice that I can live my life by. What I got from The River is that you can prove your love for someone by chopping down all the trees around their house, and that befriending a hulking deaf-mute man is a good idea if you're expecting a killer to pop round looking for his girlfriend. There are some silly and predictable plot machinations (Mr Deaf-Mute, I'm looking at you - no, sorry, wait, I didn't mean anything by it, I'm not looking at you), but otherwise it's a fabulous film, possessing a stunning sexual charge thanks to Duncan's seductive performance. It's no slutty cipher, either: her one-of-a-kind turn hops between vulnerability, coquettishness, desperation and sauciness in arresting style. The Production Code had its place, but frankly something was lost when a leading actress was no longer able to say "Feel my heart" and get someone to hold her boob. In the mid-section that exists, Borzage doesn't overload on atmosphere - there's that one super set-piece where Farrell performs some overenthusiastic landscape design - but really these aren't the scenes where he would showcase that legendary visual artistry. One can only imagine what he achieved with the opening scene (an idyllic barge ride), Farrell's collapse and the final reel. It's a crying shame that The River no longer exists in its entirety, especially when this loving reconstruction suggests it was another of the director's silent masterpieces. (3.5)

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Edison, explosions and Deanna Durbin - Reviews #115

Presenting MGM's two-part Thomas Edison biopic, Douglas Fairbanks' silent swansong and Aziz Ansari helping his mate rob a bank, in the latest reviews round-up.


Young Tom Edison (Norman Taurog, 1940) - Captivating Americana based on the boyhood of the famed inventor, played here by Mickey Rooney, who is kicked out of school for his intense inquisitiveness - and his habit of staring out the window, and that big explosion - is branded "addle-pated" by the townsfolk, but ultimately comes good. Rooney's stock persona was as a brash, cartoonish know-it-all who gets a lesson in humility (at which point he starts crying and saying sorry), but his best performances came when he was asked to calm down and actually act, doing extraordinary work in The Human Comedy and National Velvet. He's superb here - using slightly broader strokes than in those seminal later performances - and surrounded by a cast of top character actors, including Virginia Weidler as his affectionate sister, Fay Bainter as his protective mother and George Bancroft as a stern patriarch with impressive sideburns but an unfortunate propensity to ignore his son's protestations of innocence. It's a wonderfully-mounted production, with a literate script that mixes things that actually happened, things you wish had happened and MGM staples like the family sing-along. And it climaxes with two extraordinary, unbearably tense suspense sequences. If you're a cynic, just don't bother. For everyone else, this is a rosy primer on Edison's early years and a poignant, exciting and flavourful example of MGM at its absolute best. (4)


Edison, the Man (Clarence Brown, 1940) - The second part of MGM's Ed-stravaganza, prepared by the same producers, was released two months later but featured an all-new cast, with the story picking up a good decade later. It's a more conventional biopic, with an unnecessary framing device and the needless fabrication of a villain (though if they were going to insist on a chubby, selfish financier standing in the way of progress, at least they had the decency to make it Gene Lockhart), but the story is engrossing, MGM's top production values are still much in evidence and there's a good central performance from Spencer Tracy - if not one of his very best. Incidentally, he was so affronted that the film didn't get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that he never attended the event again. (3)

***


The Long Kiss Goodnight (Renny Harlin, 1996) - Amnesiac Geena Davis delves into her past with the help of a low-rent PI (Samuel L. Jackson) and discovers that she used to be a deadly assassin. Meanwhile, her psychotic old adversaries find out she's still alive. This Shane Black concoction is shlocky, ridiculous and morally confused, but also incredibly entertaining, with a great performance from Jackson, dozens of brilliant jokes and a knowingly over-the-top climax that is one of the funniest, silliest and best things I've seen so far this year. (3.5)

***


*SPOILERS*
It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1966)
- Brownlow and Mollo's film has some bad acting and confusing plotting, but achieves something truly remarkable in convincing you that the Nazis really did occupy Britain during World War Two, and that Our Finest Hour was shortly followed by Our Collapse and Our Shameful Period of Collaboration, with Jewish areas ghettoised, resistance fighters betrayed and sick men euthanised. It's also remarkable in failing to provide any moral heroics - or moments of catharsis - while articulating with invigorating intelligence and a clear understanding of history and rhetoric exactly how collaboration would have been justified. A shame, then, that it starts so poorly and that the documentary levels of realism are undermined by the non-professional cast. (3)

***


The Big Year (David Frankel, 2011) - "Birders" Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin compete to spot the largest number of species in a calendar year, in this sweet-natured comedy-drama. Gratifyingly - given the presence of Black and Martin - it leans towards realism rather than zaniness, and while there are no real belly laughs or revelations, it's all very pleasant. (2.5)

***


*SPOILERS*
The Iron Mask (Allan Dwan, 1929)
- Douglas Fairbanks' farewell to silent swashbucklers has one of the greatest openings to a film I have ever seen - including D'Artagnan's exquisite, playful courtship of Constance - and climaxes with an utterly staggering final scene. What comes between is often excellent, but sometimes undermined by serving Dumas' story too slavishly, with dense plotting at the expense of action and character drama. It's still a great movie, better in fact than The Three Musketeers, with many wonderful vignettes and a fittingly heavy human cost that is rare in Fairbanks' films. (3.5)

See also: I've written reviews of Fairbanks' classic films Robin Hood and The Black Pirate right here.

***


*SPOILERS*
Pretty in Pink (John Hughes, 1986)
- Hughes's best film is an affecting teen drama about lovers from literally the opposite side of the tracks. Molly Ringwald is all homemade clothes and vaguely subversive socio-political leanings, while Andrew McCarthy is a "richie". Their budding romance is threatened, ahead of the prom, by their suspicious friends, including Ringwald's obsessive suitor (Jon Cryer) - who likes round shades, fast patter and leaping around a record store miming to Otis Redding - and McCarthy's horny bleach-blonde buddy James Spader, who's a dick. The leads are very likeable - well, except for when he bails on her, and when she calls her acolyte a "retarded little dwarf" - but the really great performances come from Cryer, who's moving, funny and most importantly credible in a potentially cartoonish part, and Harry Dean Stanton, as Ringwald's depressive father. In some ways it's a typical Hughes movie - full of rock music, teen angst and drunken parties, everything dripping with '80sness - but it's more incisive, mellow and heartfelt, without concessions to either idiotic humour (hello, Sixteen Candles) or heavy-handed speechifying (The Breakfast Club, I'm looking at you). A little gem. (4)

***


It's a Date (William A. Seiter, 1940) - Deanna Durbin wants to be an actress like her famous mum (Kay Francis). So when she lands the role of a lifetime, she's understandably chuffed. Unfortunately, her mum thought she was going to get the part. And they both want to get off with the same guy (Walter Pidgeon). This transitional vehicle for former child star Durbin has its fair share of cliches and contrivances, but it's appealing, particularly well-photographed and seems to have a genuine understanding of acting and the theatre, courtesy of screenwriter (and playwright) Norman Krasna. As for Deanna, her character isn't as obviously sympathetic as usual - she's a bit of a drama queen - but her songs are mesmerising (including Loch Lomond, Love Is All, Ave Maria and an aria from La Boheme) and that "smitten" routine with the glazed eyes and steady voice that she does in the penultimate scene is absolutely hilarious. She had everything. The excellent supporting cast includes Cecilia Loftus, Eugene Pallette, Henry Stephenson, S. Z. Sakall and Samuel S. Hinds. (3) This was the last of Durbin's 21 features I got around to, and one of two still unavailable on DVD in the UK or US.

***


30 Minutes or Less (Ruben Fleischer, 2011) - Pizza delivery driver Jesse Eisenberg is having a bad day. He's just fallen out with his best friend (Aziz Ansari) when an annoyance with a goatee (Danny McBride) straps a bomb to his chest and tells him to rob a bank. This lively comedy-thriller boasts a hilarious performance from Ansari ("'Do you think Lisa will go out with me?' I don't think so - she's laughing in your face!"), great chemistry between the leads and an entertaining, twisty-turny narrative, but relies too much on unfunny sex gags in its first half hour and stops dead every time McBride turns up. I don't know why all those talented people on the DVD documentary are falling over themselves to praise him - he's a no-trick pony. (3)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Avengers assemble, Borzage keeps silent, and Mark Twain has feet (and everything else) of clay - Reviews #114

Hulk smash, singing flea. Those are my best Prefab Sprout lyrics. Also in this update: Homeland reviewed! Robert Morley tied up! Janet Gaynor celebrated!


*HUNDREDS OF SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Avengers Assemble 3D (Josh Whedon, 2012)
– When sideburn-less intergalactic meanie Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals a big cube made of energy, it’s down to a supergroup of superheroes to stop him – and to save the Earth. The most hyped movie since The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (“Oh no, it’s coming right at us!”) can boast fine performances, strong character development and some good dialogue, but has a slight, slightly frustrating storyline and a disappointingly conventional action climax, in which most of New York blows up – again. Whedon and Mark Ruffalo make a great (smashing) fist of portraying the Hulk, who’s amusingly deployed, while, as alter-ego Bruce Banner, possessing an affectingly quiet, shambling and damaged manner. The best moment in the whole film comes when Banner loses his rag for the first time and Whedon cuts for a perfect second to a close-up of Ruffalo’s weary, terrified eyes. The second best is when he lamps Thor. The interplay between Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr, who’s extremely palatable in this context and these smaller doses), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk is also particularly persuasive – a mixture of banter and underplayed pathos – while Scarlett Johansson gives what must be her best performance since Ghost World, though the bar isn’t terribly high. Captain America looks absolutely ridiculous, and his dramatic potential as a character isn’t realised – Whedon’s one big effort is to hammer home a point we already understood about Nazi Germany – but his attempts to understand modern America are quite funny. And as the preening, sallow villain, Tom Hiddleston nails it again, with his posturing, Shakespearean diction and smirking malevolence.

Unfortunately the story can’t do justice to what’s going on inside it. It’s too brief and bitty, showing its hand too much and then not enough, with scenes that don’t need to be there (people going on a lot about energy) and others that seem to be missing. And while some of the action is really inventive and exciting (Johansson’s first fight, where she’s tied to a chair), elsewhere it’s strictly formulaic. It’s particularly noticeable in the climax. There’s one minute-long tracking sequence within it that must be among the greatest bits of action ever created, as we fly behind Iron Man up the side of a building, and follow each hero in turn, finishing by riding backwards as Thor and the Hulk beat up some bad guys in transit. It’s absolutely exhilarating and I don’t understand why more of the finale wasn’t made with that gleeful sense of abandon. Such is the excitement around the film, that I feel like either a killjoy or a pretentious idiot (both?) saying that it just isn’t that amazing. So I will say this: it’s as good as The Dark Knight. And a lot better than Iron Man. It’s just not quite as good as Thor. (2.5)

***


CINEMA: A Monster in Paris (Bibo Bergeron, 2011) – Paris, 1910, and a mishap at a botanist’s lab creates a giant, singing flea – dubbed “The Monster” by a crooked commissioner and his tabloid friends. The appearance of this mellifluous, gentle, red-eyed beast turns on their heads the lives of a cinema projectionist, his best friend, his would-be girlfriend, a nightclub chanteuse and a confused monkey. This ensemble adventure is wonderful to look at and fun to watch, with pleasant tunes and an incredible centrepiece, set to the title song, in which the Monster’s making is chronicled in POV flashback: it’s as thematically clever and dizzyingly inventive as Dumbo’s pink elephants. The other key song, 'La Seine', comes in standard and duet editions: the latter is joyous. I presume it’s coincidence, but fans of The Pirates! will note a hero who looks just like Aardman’s Charles Darwin, and a monkey who communicates via written cards. (3)

***

You know that thing that happened in The Artist? Yeah, that thing. That was, in fact, this thing.

7th Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927) - A sewer worker (Charles Farrell) rescues a tortured waif (Janet Gaynor) from the point of oblivion and they fall in love, but war is just around the corner. This touching, compulsively-watchable romantic melodrama, from the master of the genre, has an astonishing opening 70, but suffers a little from its change of tack, which begins with a frankly rubbish five-minute montage about taxi drivers going to war and climaxes in notably maligned fashion. I do think the somewhat far-fetched ending succeeds, though, thanks to Gaynor's peerless sense of conviction. While Farrell is merely good as the self-styled "very remarkable fellow", her staggering performance (part of a three-film Oscar-winning bundle) must be one of the greatest in all of silent cinema. I can only think of one other actress who conveyed such a fragility and emotional sensitivity, and that was Dorothy McGuire. Yes, 7th Heaven could have been even better given a script tweak or two, but it's still a metaphysical romance of extraordinary potency. And as with so many of Borzage's earlier films - he was somewhat sucked into hack jobs in the '40s - the screen just shimmers. (4)


*SPOILERS*
Street Angel (Frank Borzage, 1928)
- Director Borzage reunited with the stars of 7th Heaven for this heightened drama about a Neapolitan circus performer (Janet Gaynor) trying to shield her smitten boyfriend (Charles Farrell) from her past as the world's worst prostitute. Gaynor's unmatched expressiveness wrings every last drop of emotion from a vividly-etched story that builds to a violent, outrageous and ambitious climax, while Borzage's quick, mobile camera makes it all seem timeless and yet modern: strongly atmospheric without the snail-paced showboating of much Murnau. Farrell's woodenness does undercut a couple of key moments near the close (most humans don't move like Nosferatu, even when they're cross), but it's a minor shortcoming in a bewitching film. (4)

***


*MINOR SPOILERS*
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
– After her teenage son does a Very Bad Thing, Tilda Swinton reflects on their relationship, from the maternal instinct failing to kick in, to a new contender for the movies’ Most Uncomfortable Dinner Date Scene. It’s a gruelling, chilling and upsetting film, brilliantly directed by Ramsay – who made perhaps the best British film of the previous decade, Morvern Callar – and anchored by Swinton’s pitch-perfect performance: flinty, meek and desperate in turn, to meet the film’s peculiar requirements. The various Kevins are equally good ("Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah"), each inhabiting the character's particular brand of pale-eyed sadism. As the elder version, Ezra Miller’s two-handers with mumsy are jawdroppingly awful. And his one-hander’s pretty unpleasant too. John C. Reilly rounds out the family unit (at least until another little 'un comes along) in a clever turn as Kevin’s incredibly deluded father. It’s a horrific film; almost unwatchable. But it’s also another major accomplishment for one of the country’s truly great directors, whose ability with actors, fondness for an old pop song (in this case a heap of ‘30s country) and confrontational visual sense creates movies you’ll never forget – as much as you might like to. (4)

***


Big (Penny Marshall, 1988) - This was one of the only films I saw as a kid. I loved it then, have watched it rather too many times since, and still get a lot out of it now. It's the best of the "make me an old dude" body-swap comedies, with a normal 13-year-old kid waking up to find he is 30, has a hairy chest and is played by Tom Hanks. It's surprisingly if agreeably dark to begin with, while a sappy romance somewhat commandeers proceedings towards the end (and never gets over its problem of a grown woman boffing a kid), but the considerable middle is tremendous fun, with Hanks' brilliant comic performance, the famous giant piano set-piece and one of my favourite jokes in any movie. "She'll wrap her legs around you so tight you'll be begging for mercy," sleazy Jon Lovitz tells Hanks, pointing at a co-worker. "Well, I'll stay away from her then!" says Hanks gratefully. The delivery is amazing. (3)

***


*SPOILERS*
Outcast of the Islands (Carol Reed, 1951)
– A batty colonial Third Man, as raffish thief Trevor Howard winds up at a trading outpost, where he falls for a female warrior (Kerima) and proceeds to betray his best friend (Ralph Richardson). This strange, intense drama – complete with broad comic interludes – lacks a consistency of tone, oscillates between profundity and pomposity (though some of the commentary on imperialism is fascinating) and is too low-budget to realise its ambitions, leading to continuity problems and some iffy back-projection. But it has a whole deck of wild cards that make it a must-see for fans of classic British film. Where else would you get to watch Robert Morley trussed up in a cocoon-like hammock, swinging, whooping above a bonfire? Or Richardson – in full Captain Birdseye make-up – trudging up a mountain, unsure whether to shoot or lecture his protégé? Indeed, much of the acting has to be seen to be believed, with a masterclass in madness from Howard, a poignant part from Richardson, Morley’s bilious turn as a barking, greedy trader, and one of Wendy Hiller’s rare film appearances: impossibly touching, in what could have been a hackneyed part, as the unhappily-married woman looking to trade in one bastard for another. Strange, then, that Reed sometimes gets sidetracked with devious George Coulouris (a Mancunian of Greek heritage, wearing a lot of slap) and his band of colonial rebels – a supporting story that’s a bit too simplistic to really engage. This Conrad adaptation is a film of rough edges and odd diversions, but it’s very interesting, and at it’s best, it’s just great. (3)

***


*REVIEW CONTAINS ONE FAINTLY RUDE WORD*
The Three Musketeers (Fred Niblo, 1921)
– When devious Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel De Brulier) sets in motion a plan to control the French throne, it’s up to violent yokel D’Artagnan (Douglas Fairbanks) and his three muskehounds – one of whom is Eugene Pallette! – to kick his arse. This one lacks the epic sweep, visual grandeur and compelling character-driven narrative of Fairbanks’ greatest films, but it’s very entertaining, and Niblo – who had been behind the star's career reinvention in The Mark of Zorro – is a fine director of action, with a penchant for fun stuntwork. He also has a nice eye for detail: the opening shot of a symbolic chess game being a case in point. (3)

***


From the Ashes (James Erskine, 2011) is an enjoyable documentary about England's 1981 Ashes victory and the heroics of Ian Botham - who was so good at cricket he got two nicknames: "Beefy" and "Both", which is pronounced differently to the first syllable of his surname. The film is well-framed, pitching the action as a simple story of redemption, and it's strong on player sketches (though the pretend Bob Dylan music accompanying all footage of Bob Willis is a little unnecessary), while the talking heads do a decent job and the footage is - of course - a treat. Unfortunately, the attempts in Erskine's narration (read by Tom Hardy) to give a wider societal context are confused to the point of just being complete nonsense. He manages to mention the wedding of Charles and Diana, the Brixton riots and Thatcher's decimation of the manufacturing sector, but in the most baffling way imaginable. I think we drafted in Charles to keep wicket for the third test, with Thatcher bowling medium pace at the Aussies' Arthur Scargill in front of a burning sight screen, but I can't be sure. Oh well, it's still fun. (3)

***


The Adventures of Mark Twain (Will Vinton, 1985) - America's most famous writer came in with Halley's Comet in 1835 and left with it in 1910, as he'd promised. This film, the first in Claymation, reimagines his last days, spent here aboard an airship, chasing the comet in the company of his stowaway creations Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher. It's a magical premise, and at the film's centre lies an intriguingly rich vein of darkness and despair, but it doesn't quite work. The inventive visuals - coupled to treatments of some of Twain's lesser-known works - result in some wonderful moments: the chapter showing the Devil at work is both wise and frightening, and the affecting climax to the second Adam and Eve sequence must surely have been an influence on Up's unforgettable 'Married Life' segment. But, aside from James Whitmore's Twain, the voicework is poor, while the hero's dialogue - consisting almost entirely of epigrams from his work - becomes tiresome after a while and there are too many aspects that fail to engage, like the initial Adam and Eve vignette (which is poorly realised and goes on forever), on-board contraptions that add nothing, and a faithless, annoying, very '80s version of Tom Sawyer, who hogs the screentime. The film's occasional brilliance only makes those unfathomable stretches all the harder to swallow. (2.5)

***


*MINOR SPOILERS*
TV: Homeland (S1, 2011)
- When US marine Damian Lewis is fished out of a hole in Syria, eight years after being seized by terrorists, he's paraded before the nation as a hero. It's only bipolar CIA operative Claire Danes who thinks he might be up to something. This 12-part thriller is stronger on its central story than on subplots and dialogue (some of the exposition in the earlier episodes is really heavy-handed and the necessary vagueness of language is sometimes laughable), but the main mystery is so riveting, and the performances from Danes and Lewis so compelling, that Homeland simply blasts those shortcomings to kingdom come. There's a strong supporting cast too, including Mandy Patinkin as field agent Saul, and Morgan Saylor as Lewis's stroppy daughter. And who can quibble with a programme that uses Yorkshire Tea as a key plot point? (3.5)