Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Boyhood, Carol Haney, and Kissimee in the Catskills - Reviews #194

Hello again. I haven't updated the blog since my summer holiday (the day job is heartily satisfying but all-consuming), so this'll be the first of a full four review anthologies unwantedly coming your way...

CINEMA: Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) - Richard Linklater's staggeringly ambitious film about growing up is sprawling, shambling, and stunning in just about every way, beginning as a series of episodic, often comedic scenes, then mirroring its hero's increasing complexity and uncertainty, searching for itself across a dozen time-frames as this 11-year production morphs into an existential examination of not just one boy but all of humankind, in all its fuzzy, confusing, conflicted glory. Well, I said it was ambitious.

Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, a Texan kid whom we follow from age five to 18 - and across almost three hours - the film attaining some essential kind of truth as it alights upon real life (albeit with occasional recourse to cliché), through its measured, incisive, often improvised depiction of human relationships familial, platonic and romantic, and the way its unique production allows it to document the unfurling of a person and a personality, like a time-lapse camera showing a plant budding and blossoming, while getting rained on a lot.

It has few conventional dramatic peaks and little actual story to speak of, and yet I wasn't bored for an instant, pulled into the story, never able to second-guess where it was going, and sitting there slack-jawed in amazement when it was all over, knocked sideways by the cumulative impact of it all. And by the Hollywood Dean Gaffney (sorry, Ethan Hawke), who has never been this good on screen before. Not even when he flew around in Explorers.

There are individual scenes we've certainly seen before, and it has its moments of verbal pretension - a problem I'm always going to have with the director's Before Sunrise - but it's one of the most arresting and exciting films of the decade so far, and its USP is far more than a gimmick; rather, it's what enables Boyhood to create such an indelible impact: visually, viscerally and deep down in your soul. (4)


CINEMA: Two Days, One Night (Dardenne brothers, 2014) - The Dardennes hit a peak with their stunning Kid with a Bike in 2011, a soaring, polarising story about juvenile delinquency, thwarted promise and the loss of innocence.

This one doesn't hit quite so hard, doesn't break then mend you so completely, but it's reliably superb, up there with films like Rosetta and The Son, and boasting the writer-director's usual calling cards. That means the sort of damaged, nuanced characters you've met in real life yet who never grace the big screen, a brief, inspired and polemical premise that allows them to tackle a headline issue in subversive, socialist but universal style, and a confrontational bleakness giving way to marginal catharsis. If I wrote a book about the Dardennes' films, I think I would call it 'Marginal Catharsis'.

Marion Cotillard, sans make-up and vanity, is a factory worker who's laid off, just as she's well enough to return after months away with depression. It had gone to a vote amongst her colleagues: either they got a bonus or she got her job back. With the help of a bolshy friend, she lobbies the boss, who agrees to a compromise: a secret ballot in two days' time. And so, encouraged by her loving, patient husband, she begins to do the rounds, trying to talk them round, like a sad, shy, insecure Juror No. 8 fairly drowning in self-loathing.

It's repetitious at times - we get Cotillard's explanatory spiel numerous times - but while that's not necessarily the most invigorating thing to watch, it is part of the point, the desperation and casual dehumanisation of her character both reminiscent of Joan Bennett getting her soul kicked in during The Reckless Moment, and an allegory about the perils of the free market, which pits workers against one another and ends like this: with someone begging mundanely for clemency.

It's also one of the best and least sentimental, sensational depictions of depression I've seen on screen, right up there with Kirsten Dunst's mopey, ugly, real, stupefied lollop of a performance in Melancholia. Cotillard is a good person who can't even muster the energy to see the good in her that others do.

The film is perhaps minimally inventive in narrative terms, but it is forceful and original and even profound: beautifully played, and concluded in the sole way it really could be - though that's apparent only when it fades to black. (3)


The Pajama Game (Stanley Donen and George Abbott, 1957) - It's very nearly great, this adaptation of a smash-hit Broadway show, most recently brought to the Shaftesbury Theatre in London for a spectacular production, which met with rapturous reviews and too many empty seats.

It has the mellifluously-voiced Doris Day - before her weird, evil husband ruined her career - some devilishly good Bob Fosse choreography (the play had been his big break), and a slew of unforgettable songs, written by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler.

But it's not great. Not quite. The comedy seems too forced, male lead John Raitt doesn't have the charisma to put his part across (despite initiating the role on stage), and though some of the dancing is frankly stupendous, there just isn't enough of it.

That frustration is never felt more keenly than during Steam Heat, a showcase for the tragic, incomparable Carol Haney, who had done as much as anyone to reinvent screen dance - working as Gene Kelly's assistant choreographer, then ripping up the rulebook in tandem with Bob Fosse, through those 48 seconds of finger-clickin' goodness in Kiss Me Kate.

Steam Heat is so startling, so innovative, so gobsmackingly, jaw-droppingly perfect in all its scruffy, stylised, androgynous splendour, that it shows up the rest of the film for what it is: a merely competent translation of a hit play, conspicuously lacking in gold dust.

The Pajama Game is likeable, entertaining and unquestionably melodic, but it should have been better. It should have been great. (3.5)

Psst: you can watch Steam Heat here. That squashed, semi-panned-and-scanned version is genuinely the best I can find online. It's still worth it, a hundred times over. Watch it a hundred times. Now.


This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942) - Robert Preston and Ronnie Lake are top billed, but it's Alan Ladd - in his first real role - who dominates this stunningly nasty noir, as a new kind of screen anti-hero: a tortured loner of an assassin who punches a woman in his first scene, kills one in his second and pretty much goes on from there. Drawn from a Graham Greene novel, his DNA is in every character from Richard Widmark's giggling psycho in Kiss of Death and sweaty hood in Pickup on South Street to Alain Delon's Jef Costello.

The film isn't as polished or consistent as Ladd and Lake's follow-up, The Glass Key, and lacks that film's seductive verbal poetry, but the performances are mostly great - Laird Cregar as a man of hulking frame and feeble character, Lake putting that astonishing voice to good use - and much of the imagery is unforgettable, including fine LA location work and the mighty, admittedly tiny Ladd strolling into a rendezvous wearing a gas mask. (3)


Wedding Present (Richard Wallace, 1936) - A very nice little screwball comedy that starts uncertainly but ultimately delivers in terms of both laughs and heart, as a pair of mishievous, tight-knit newshounds (Cary Grant and Joan Bennett) begin to grow apart after he makes city editor and she makes him mad... only surely it can't end like that.

This is the first time Grant's dynamic fast-talking persona really made an appearance and there are some brilliant gags - including an extended practical joke worthy of Jim Halpert - to go with William Demarest's surprisingly effective bit as a friendly mobster, and the film's secret weapon: a moving, heartfelt depiction of two perfectly-matched lovers kept apart by nothing but pride.

Incidentally, the wedding present of the title manages to be both incredibly tasteless, dated and offensive, and also really quite funny. Well, apart from the pay-off. (3)


Two Weeks with Love (Roy Rowland, 1950) - Jane Powell undergoes some slightly tiresome growing pains in this overly glib comedy musical, which just about gets by thanks to her exceptional sincerity and an ebullient performance by the 18-year-old Debbie Reynolds. (I once met Debbie Reynolds, look!)

Powell plays a young woman who's still treated like a kid by her parents (teenagers hadn't been invented yet). The family goes off to the Catskills for a holiday, where she is overwhelmed by the desire to inspect-a-Montalban-o (boom!), but how is she ever going to get off with him if she isn't allowed to wear a corset?

The film's main problem is that the script keeps too much distance between itself and its protagonist, patronising Powell's character by depicting her problems as trivial (like I just did), and putting her through too many slapstick trials, before getting sidetracked by several deadly dull comic vignettes - including her screen father Walter Catlett trying vainly to have a sleep, a sequence which does at least climax with some delightfully primitive special effects.

Thankfully, Powell has a great voice and a winning presence, and the scene in which she breaks down in tears after a calamitous experience at a party is beautifully played, giving the film the heart that it needs and yet so often lacks.

The other real selling point is Reynolds' typically energetic turn, which hits a peak early on with the uproarious Aba Daba Honeymoon number - a paean to simian romance full of stupid dancing and glorious gibbering. The best of Powell's tunes is probably My Hero, a singularly incongruous dream sequence in which her teenager dances around in her underwear being ogled by fully clothed men, as she sings about getting married. (2)


Gold Diggers in Paris (Ray Enright, 1938) - Mediocre final entry in Warner's series of Gold Diggers musicals, with peerlessly annoying comic relief from the Schnickelfritz Band - discovered by star Rudy Vallee and now fondly remembered by nobody. There are a few flashes of choreographer Busby Berkeley's genius in the musical numbers, but it's not enough in a film saddled with a weak story, an often irritating cast (including a dislikeable Vallee and an unbearable Melville Cooper) and a dearth of quality songs. The first scene's quite funny, though. (1.5)


Old Perry Mason movies:

The Case of the Curious Bride (Michael Curtiz, 1935) - The second entry in Warner's Perry Mason series is a whole lot better than the boring, static opener, with a fair story, the brief American screen debut of Errol Flynn, and some seriously stylish direction from Michael Curtiz, who shoots the opening scene like a time-traveller from the mid-'40s, then slightly overdoes the fades between scenes, like a man who's just discovered what that button does. Admittedly the comic subplot about Mason (Warren William) becoming a gourmand is pretty pointless - indeed, for a comedy-mystery there aren't really any good gags - but there's still enough here to get your teeth into, and the relationship between the sleuth and his assistant Della Street (Claire Dodd) makes for a pleasant if undernourished diversion. (2.5)

The Case of the Lucky Legs (Archie Mayo, 1935) - Slightly irritating third outing at Warner for lawyer-turned-investigator Perry Mason (Warren William), with a rather obvious culprit and a lot of self-satisfied comedy. The main plus point is Genevieve Tobin's sparky, saucy Della Street; best remembered as the über-horny Mitzi in Lubitsch's One Hour with You, there's something of the Joan Blondell about her performance here - and compliments don't come much greater. I also like the scene where a distressed woman shouts "Lucky legs! Lucky legs!", which was the funniest bit of the film, albeit unwittingly. (2)

The Case of the Velvet Claws (William Clemens, 1936) - A short, strange and slightly stupid Perry Mason film - Warren William's last of the series: a series that never really got going; he would fare much better with the Lone Wolf films. The Perry-Della relationship is pushed to breaking point and the story is a rushed, compacted mess. Still, a couple of scenes play out quite well - like Mason slyly obliterating his nemesis' alibi - and it's accidentally very funny that everyone keeps saying "Spicy Bits" in an extremely serious voice. (1.5)


Thanks for reading.

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