Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Tom Hiddleston, The Wolf of Wall Street and the first of Fonda - Reviews #183

Here are the things I've been watching lately. Wow as I get a bit bored of Scorsese's latest. Thrill as I watch a Janet Gaynor film. Coo appreciatively as you read a potted biography of John Barrymore.

CINEMA: The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) - So what's all this then? Basically Banks of New York, with Leonardo DiCaprio as hedonistic stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the kind of guy who caused the global recession.

Here he is having an awesome time. Look at his wife. Look at his car. Look at the size of his house. Here he is snorting cocaine off a hooker's boobs. Here he is doing it another eighteen times. Here he is making money. He has lots of money.

Scorsese's admirers will tell you that the director's presenting the facts about Belfort without comment or embellishment, and letting us make up our own minds. I don't buy it. Look at the final shot of the agent assigned to Belfort's case (Kyle Chandler), then try to tell me we're supposed to be energised on his behalf, rather than gloating on his adversary's. I'm not saying Scorsese is on the side of rapacious financiers, more that the film's gleeful tone is a botch job.

The film is troubling and immoral, then, but is it any good? Not really, no. There's an unshakeable confidence about it, DiCaprio gives an assured star turn in the Catch Me If You Can mould, and there are some big laughs and good scenes, particularly near the beginning: Leo having lunch with his mentor - weird, unrepentant über-Gecko, Matthew McConaughey - aceing a penny-share sale, quizzing Jonah Hill about marrying his own cousin, and sparring with FBI agent Kyle Chandler on the deck of his gargantuan yacht. But while I chuckled a bit at DiCaprio's monstrous arrogance, there's a point where I stopped caring what was happening, or deriving any pleasure from the story. I think it was the 408th orgy.

I've seen the film compared endlessly to Goodfellas, but it's more like DePalma's wretched remake of Scarface. It's just deadeningly debauched: a three-hour, one-note exercise in coke-fuelled, fleshy excess with almost no narrative impetus, virtually nothing to say, and even a certain desperation in its supposed strong suit of comedy. Isn't it funny to chuck a dwarf around? Lol when he's on drugs DiCaprio says it's like having cerebral palsy. Now he's effectively raping a woman on a plane. What a card.

Given the critical bouquets being flung in its direction, I was expecting something special. But if you want a film that embraces con artistry, examines the American Dream, and delivers nuanced characterisation to go with its razor-sharp comedy, try Barry Levinson's eternally overlooked Tin Men, one of the great films of recent decades. Scorsese's best since Goodfellas? This is barely his best since his last film. (2)


National Theatre Live: Coriolanus (Josie Rourke 2014)

Coriolanus: "I had rather have one scratch my head i' the sun.
When the alarum were struck, than idly sit
To hear my nothings monster'd."

I want to monster Tom Hiddleston's nothings. (3)


Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012)

"Bye, Mum."
"You'll be back."
"I will, Mum, in a week."

Badlands. In the English countryside. With jokes.

I missed Down Terrace and found Kill List a major disappointment - albeit an intriguing one - but A Field in England, one of the most fun film events of last year thanks to its simultaneous multi-platform release, suggested Wheatley was clicking into gear impressively, another slightly iffy story given superlative, (then somewhat pretentious, long-winded) treatment. Sightseers, his third film, looked better yet, with a fun trailer spotlighting an ace premise and some sly gags - and so indeed it was.

The story sees Tina (Alice Lowe), an ordinary girl from the Midlands, leaving her impossible mum behind to go caravanning with her new boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram). They're hoping to take in some historical ruins, the Keswick pencil museum, and a fair amount of in-caravan boffing, only for his anger issues to fatally intrude.

The best thing about the film is its tone: aside from Tina occasionally being too dense and one radio broadcast that goes too broad, it creates an affectionate, believable adult relationship - very British in a way rarely seen on screen - within a credible environment of camp stoves, macs and rainy walks, then proceeds to chuck shards of black comedy and bloody violence excitedly into the mix.

While the story is fairly simplistic, though with one particularly clever development, the script is absolutely exceptional, and both leads are superb: Lowe perfectly articulating a certain sort of lovelorn but upbeat, unambitious 30-something Brit, and Oram personifying an outwardly avuncular but troubled man held hostage by his creative impulses, which aren't necessarily matched by his talents (oh dear, that sounds like me).

Wheatley's direction is mostly quite restrained, but with a few agreeably unusual shots (the door closing on Lowe's mum is inventively done) and a handful of extremely effective, intensely edited montages, rich in symbolism and with great use of music, including Donovan's Season of the Witch.

I'm in two minds about the ending. Wheatley seems to be obsessed with these abrupt finishes, where you can almost see him sitting back in his chair, going: "How about that, then?", and thinking that what he's just done is jawdropping, rather than mildly unexpected. On the other hand, this one is broadly in keeping with the story, and works fairly well.

All in all, Sightseers zips by. There's no real message or depth, but it does offer some amusingly askew philosophy, a little suspense - generally alleviated only as and when someone is dead - and a lot of good jokes, including Lowe's memorable putdown of her boyfriend's writing career. (3.5)


When the Wind Blows (Jimmy T. Murakami, 1986) - Hell. A devastating animated feature about the Atomic Age from the writer and director of The Snowman, which takes Peter Watkins' seminal drama-doc The War Game as its jumping off point, showing an archetypal, retired English couple as they prepare for an approaching nuclear strike.

Voiced by a perfectly cast Johnny Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, with a Roger Waters score that oscillates between wistful tranquility and doom-laden industrial mayhem, it's also a technical wonder, juxtaposing cartoons and strikingly grim photography as it juggles fantasy, reality and reflection to consistently remarkable ends, its gentle tone evaporating as the bomb approaches.

The World War II and wedding photo sequences - the latter surely an influence on Up's "Married Life" segment - are as moving and exalting as anything you'll ever see, depicting a world that at least, to these people, made some sort of sense.

By contrast, the film's long, slow and unremitting descent into ugly, pock-marked death is utterly horrifying. All this in a world that makes no sense at all. As much as Mills tries to reassure his wife, and himself, that there's some Government plan, that some help is on the way, he - and we - know that there's nothing. (4)


Alfred Hitchcock triple-bill:

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) - One of Hitchcock's most straightforward and entertaining films, with little visual innovation, just a meticulous, involving story about urbane psychopath Ray Milland plotting the murder of his wealthy wife (Grace Kelly), after learning of her affair with a mystery writer (Robert Cummings).

Taking place largely in a single London flat, it has just one notable set piece, and even that could have been done by a dozen other directors. But freed of the need to craft and then tie together those ambitious, show-stopping sequences, Hitch is instead able to throw his energies into making the clever, intriguing but stagy material cinematic and alive. And he's helped by a decent cast, with Milland in good form as the former tennis pro investigating a new and lucrative career in sociopathy.

A scene featuring Kelly's persecuted head is bafflingly rendered and the ending to this thriller could do without so much Basil Exposition, but those are minor quibbles with a first-rate film. (3.5)

Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) - Hitchcock loved an experiment. In 1954 he would shoot (almost) an entire movie, Rear Window, from a single vantage point. Six years earlier he presented this popular stage play as a "single take" feature - with one cut and some rather obvious cheating.

The effect is of being permitted on stage during a play with no scenery changes, and having Hitchcock push you around the set, occasionally grabbing the back of your neck to show you what you should be looking at. It's arguably negated by zooming in and out of someone's back every 10 minutes (Hitch's somewhat artless way of obscuring the joins between takes), and there's probably a reason why the exercise has only been repeated once or twice, but it's an interesting approach and one that really suits the material.

Rope used to be regarded as a lesser work, but is now ritually listed among his classics, perhaps because its technical showboating is more appreciated; perhaps because its cynicism is easy for a modern audience to embrace (while I've lost count of the number of times someone has praised a film noir for its nastiness, I'm yet to hear anyone laud an old rom-com for its consummate niceness).

Or perhaps its critical standing is simply because it's very good indeed: the gripping story of two murderers (John Dall and Farley Granger), patterned after Leopold and Loeb, who hide the body in a chest, throw a tablecloth over the top and invite the victim's friends and family over for the evening.

The first and last five minutes are rather weak, but the rest is first-rate, full of clever touches and lashes of black humour, with Dall and Jimmy Stewart very well matched: the former a superficially charming Nietzschean superman, the latter his erudite, endlessly joshing former mentor, and the one guest who smells a rat. (3.5)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
- Forget the story and feel the suspense, as Hitch uses that old kid-in-danger set-up to serve up a succession of virtuosic set pieces.

A dead man walking through a Marrakech market place.

Jimmy Stewart trying to make a critical phone call as he's interrupted by some luvvies, and heading to a secret rendezvous tracked by noisy footsteps.

The mesmeric, pulsating Albert Hall climax, which builds from a concert performance to one of the tautest sequences in the Master's oeuvre, as Bernard Herrmann conducts, a statesman watches, and a gaunt gunman lurks.

And Doris Day belting out Que Sera, Sera at the top of her lungs, hoping it will rouse her kidnapped kid, and bring him back to her.

(There's also that usual bit where Hitchcock gets really excited by a staircase.)

Hitch's loose remake of his own 1934 effort, concerning an innocent couple mixed up in an assassination attempt, is a film with many great things in it, rather than a great film. The script feels slight, padded and lacking in panache, Day and Stewart exhibit little chemistry, and the kid would like wildly out of his depth in a school nativity (look, I'm cool, I picked on a little boy). And then there are those hideous process shots that blight a lot of Hitch's '50s work (some unbearable critics have suggested he's purposefully introducing a theatrical unreality to his work; yeah, he's not, he just didn't realise how crap they looked).

But while the leads never quite click with one another, they both offer a great deal individually. Championing Stewart is, of course, as uncontroversial as thinking the effects in T2 were quite impressive for their time, but being a Day fanboy is resolutely uncool today. That's perhaps due to her wholesome image and the clunkers she was later forced into by her agent husband, but she was a remarkably talented woman with a singular voice. While her performance is best remembered for her Oscar-winning rendition of Que Sera, Sera, she also gives the film the undercurrent of love and humanity that it needs, lending the disorientating, brilliantly-filmed Albert Hall sequence an added feeling of maternal desperation.

It's those imaginative, self-contained and perfectly paced set-pieces that are the film's raison d'être, and those - as well as a certain slickness of production - that lift it out of the class of the original, even without Peter Lorre's delicious presence. (3.5)


John Barrymore double-bill:

The Beloved Rogue (Alan Crosland, 1927)
- John Barrymore was one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. That's simply a fact. His performances as Richard III and Hamlet on the stage in the 1920s revolutionised Shakespearean acting and inspired the likes of Gielgud, Olivier and Orson Welles. But it's often hard to make out his undoubted genius in his screen work, which was erratic to say the least.

That was down not only to the different demands of film acting when he was at his peak - less physical and at that stage soundless - but also his general disdain for the medium, and for the roles he found there. He went into movie acting because he was easily bored, abhorred repetition and liked money. And so although he is brilliant in the mental health drama A Bill of Divorcement and in parts of Wyler's punchy Pre-Code legal melodrama, Counsellor-at-Law, although he lit up Twentieth Century when perfectly set up to chew all the scenery he liked, although he provided brief flashes of brilliance across a half-dozen other roles, from Don Juan to Topaze to Midnight, it's often hard to reconcile the two Jacks.

On the one hand there is the consummate artist, a dizzyingly talented, ambitious thespian who reinvented himself from a light comedian to a mesmerising tragedian across less than five years during the Jazz Age. And then there is the increasingly hammy, increasingly dissipated "Great Profile", playing every role for a laugh, with a raised eyebrow in place of a performance.

So it was with some excitement that I came across The Beloved Rogue, an extravagantly mounted silent version of the story later made as If I Were King (script by Preston Sturges), in which Barrymore - if not approaching his scintillating Shakespearean apex - is at least astonishingly good. There are moments when that eyebrow makes its dreaded appearance, when he skips around merrily like a pointy-bearded pixie, but then he does something like the scene by the snow-capped monument, removing his Fools Day disguise as his heart quietly breaks, and all is forgiven. That passage is so touching and so beautifully restrained, the whole effect created solely with his eyes. There are lush love scenes too, rousing speeches, and several stunning sequences where his poet goes tête-a-tête with his king (an extravagantly weird, intensely good Conrad Veidt), and this vision of Barrymore, the greatest actor of his age, hoves quite unexpectedly and gloriously into view.

For those not familiar with the story from the respectful, lushly-mounted Ronald Colman version, Francois Villon (Barrymore) is a pickpocket and carouser who also doubles as France's national poet. He loves "France earnestly, Frenchwomen excessively, French wine exclusively" - not true of Barrymore, of course, who had no great feeling for patriotism, loved all women excessively and drank anything. Some people think he's a ledge, I think he's a tragic alcoholic who followed in his father's footsteps by throwing his God-given gift down the toilet. But not before doing things like this. Anyway, back to the story, in which Villon finds himself at loggerheads with the scheming Duke of Burgundy (Henry Victor) and so with the superstitious, weak-minded King Louis XI (Veidt), while vying for the hand of the monarch's hot ward (Marceline Day).

There are four credits that stand out. Director Alan Crosland essentially sounded the tinny, Jolson-y death knell for silent cinema the same year by making that abysmal first talkie, The Jazz Singer, but fills this one with lovely, stunningly-lit imagery, assisted by future John Ford cinematographer Joe August. William Cameron Menzies was a magnificent art director who worked on the likes of The Thief of Bagdad (the silent version) and Gone with the Wind, as well as directing Things to Come (great sets, boring film), and produces a grubbily opulent Paris, complete with a massive great tower for the climax. And Paul Bern, remembered today - if at all - for his marriage to Jean Harlow and tragic, mysterious demise, was a first-rate screenwriter who penned The Marriage Circle for Lubitsch, and wrote MGM's all-star film Grand Hotel five years after this one. His script here is dramatically imperfect, with a few sequences that stall the film's momentum - most notably the reunion between the hero and his friends at the palace, and his later torture - but it's full of rich characterisation, cleverly-conceived action sequences, and remarkably deft dialogue in its title cards, including plenty of witty verse for Villon.

Given over to Colman, Villon was an engaging if rather safe, smug speechmaker. In Barrymore's hands, he's quicksilver: a mercurial man driven to extremes by all-consuming passions: love, lust, righteousness, patriotism and drink. Though the film frames him as a swashbuckler in the Douglas Fairbanks mould, Barrymore is far too sensual to play an everyman, or transmit a straight-up heroic quality, and that makes the film, and his ultimate, fascinating conversion into this Christ-like figure, all the more intriguing. It is, to all intents and purpose, a piece of escapism, as Fairbanks' historical pictures were, and a slightly flawed one at that. But when Barrymore hits the heights, he's a far better actor than Fairbanks - or just about anyone else - ever was, taking Villon, and us, to new and incredible places. (3.5)

Trivia note: That's unmistakably Dickie Moore as the baby Barrymore, in his first screen appearance. Moore went on to feature in more than a hundred films, including Peter Ibbetson, Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait and Out of the Past. He's still knocking around today, and is married to fellow former child star Jane Powell.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920) - Did Mr Hyde have such comically oversized hands in the book? He looks like Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. This is a reasonable silent version of the oft-told tale, with John Barrymore having fun in the dual role of the idealistic doctor and the monstrous, big-handed alter-ego into whom he pours his moral failings. The film is pictorially static and dodgily adapted, with as many dry spells as great moments, but it's definitely worth seeing for Barrymore's performance(s), even if his troubled, nuanced, rather gorgeous Jekyll is more substantial than his off-the-scale Hyde. Incidentally, director Robertson was the figure immortalised in one of The Byrds' greatest songs, Old John Robertson. In his dotage, the Stetson-wearing eccentric was a figure of fun to Chris Hillman and the other neighbourhood kids. (2.5)


The Farmer Takes a Wife (Victor Fleming, 1935) - I don't like it, Mummy. Henry Fonda looks too young. This was the first film of Fonda's 56-year screen career, as he brought his breakout Broadway role to the screen, playing the titular farmer, who romances a feisty cook (Janet Gaynor) whilst working on the Erie Canal. And very smooth-faced and bushy-tailed he is too.

Its stage origins are obvious, but it is opened up well in places into something like Americana, evoking an under-represented area of U.S. history - the east just prior to the mid-19th century railroad boom - and throwing in a few references to the likes of Lincoln and Booth, wagon trains and government treaties with the Native Americans, which places it in context as well as just being good, eerie fun. It's also nicely photographed by Ernest Palmer, who shot many of Fox's best late silents, including 7th Heaven, Street Angel and The River for Borzage, and Murnau's City Girl.

There's plenty of character business featuring Slim Summerville, Andy Devine, Margaret Hamilton, Sig Ruman and John Qualen, though the film is at its best when either evoking a pastoral idyll or focusing on Fonda and Gaynor. The source of their trouble, for there's always trouble, is not unlike that in the Tom Waits song Fish & Bird ("He said, 'You cannot live in the ocean', And she said to him, 'You never can live in the sky'"): she won't leave the canal and he wants a farm. To be honest, it's rather an uninteresting dynamic - and the subplot about Fonda's "cowardice", featuring annoying Charles Bickford, is retrograde nonsense - so their earlier scenes are the best, but they're both such talented actors that they can make anything look good.

Fonda's technique is a little stagy in places, but it's surprising how quickly he adapted to the requirements of screen acting (and his adorable habit of prefixing any word starting with "w" with "huh" is present and correct: "Like huh-what?"). And Gaynor is just fantastic, cast in an unusually fiery part that recalls her early scenes in Lucky Star. It's a pity that the only existing print is missing a few frames here and there, making their first meeting choppy and sometimes difficult to follow.

The film is inconsistent to say the least, both dramatically and stylistically, and there's a character from "Yorkshire" whose accent is frankly very Welsh, but it has a few lovely moments as well as a pair of very attractive star turns. (2.5)


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