Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Sense and Sensibility, Kate Hepburn and whatever the opposite of a miracle is - Reviews #203

I read a book and went to a couple of shows, but you're here - if at all - for the film stuff, right? Film stuff:

CINEMA: Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)
- It’s one of the defining scenes of ‘90s British cinema: a star on the cusp of supernova, accompanied by a stunning Patrick Doyle score and Michael Coulter’s sumptuous cinematography, all of it capturing a very old-fashioned sort of English vision. Kate Winslet’s Marianne walks purposefully, forlornly through the driving rain to a hill overlooking her lost love’s house. “Love is not love,” she says, leaning on Shakespearean sonnet in her hour of need, “Which alters when it alteration finds/Or bends with the remover to remove:/O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken…” Then the poetry dries up and she just breathes: “Willoughby, oh Willoughby... Willoughby... Willoughby.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the sequence is that it doesn’t appear at all in Jane Austen’s source novel. Marianne doesn’t walk to Willoughby’s, and she’s never swept up by a similarly sodden Colonel Brandon; her dalliance with death is inspired by sheer morosity and listlessness, not a second, unwise walk on the wild side. It’s one of innumerable smart creations and clever excisions made by screenwriter Emma Thompson, who spent five years on this – her first script – and subsequently scooped one of the more deserved Oscars of recent years. I asked her about her conception of the scene at a Q&A event held on Sunday to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, and she said this: “That just seemed obvious to me. What would be more natural than going to the place where your lover is and just repeating his name? That’s what love is”, adding self-mockingly of Marianne’s subsequent malaise that “people weren’t as sturdy then – it was ‘Oh, I’ve got a bit wet, now I’m nearly dead’.”

As well as scripting, Thompson also stars: she is Elinor, a detached, unfailingly proper 19-year-old, who with flighty, tempestuous younger sister Marianne (Winslet) experiences love and loss in a vivid, irresistible Austenian world peopled by rogues, unhappily conflicted gentlemen and the odd thoroughly decent chap. In the past year, I’ve become a huge Austen fan, but Sense and Sensibility isn’t her best book: it’s romantic, clever and full of her usual understated wisdom, but its wit is so relentless – and so caustic – that at times the tone borders on smug superiority, and the pacing of the story is far less assured than in works like Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion.

Here, though, thanks to Thompson’s intelligent and exhaustive approach, its flaws becomes virtues: the flabbiness of the book allows her to slice away without losing much of real value (Willoughby’s fantastic monologue bites the dust, but its job is done by a line from Edward and a magnificent shot near the end), and her inventions both comic and dramatic succeed in matching the tone of what remains, ramping up the emotional resonance, retaining the dryness of the humour, and occasionally allowing the more caricatured comic elements passages of free rein, with hilarious bit-parts for Hugh Laurie (as the immortal Mr Palmer) and Imelda Staunton.

The cast is just about perfect: a who’s who of contemporary British talent, with Thompson giving arguably her finest performance, Winslet nailing Marianne’s combustible, impulsive nature – and eventual maturity – Hugh Grant displaying his astonishing comic timing (I’ll say it again – he’s a light comedian to match Cary Grant or Bill Powell) and Greg Wise rocking the cape, pointy sideburns and pouty, feckless caddishness you dream of when you read Austen’s words. Alan Rickman isn’t given a huge amount to work with as Colonel Brandon, but creates a handful of truly glorious moments, usually standing in doorways. And Imogen Stubbs? In the nicest possible way: what a bitch.

As I sat down to watch the film for the first time in almost 15 years, it took me a little while to settle into it. The opening scene seemed like a Comic Relief sketch, the villainess was played too broadly by Harriet Walter, and as the minutes rolled on, the film seemed oddly and unfortunately aloof. But with the arrival of Grant, it all clicks, then begins to build in resonance, before a succession of elegant emotional gut-punches to rival anything in director Ang Lee’s diverse and wonderful career. And it ends in the only way you’d ever want to, with Thompson playing the ending for both pathos and laughs, as she dissolves in wracking sobs. “Are you going to do that all the way through my speech?” asked Grant crossly on the set. “Yes,” Thompson replied. “It’s funny.” (4)


"The calla lilies are in bloom again..."
CINEMA: Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937) - I could only stretch to one movie in the BFI's current (and long overdue) Kate Hepburn season, so I plumped for this one, a long-time personal favourite.

It's a crackling feminist masterpiece that passes the Bechdel Test 90 times a minute, as a flawless ensemble cast trades blistering, bitchy, pitch-black wisecracks while hanging out in a theatrical boarding house for women.

Based on a Broadway melodrama by Edna Ferber and George Kaufman, in which the stage and screen battled for the souls of young actresses, La Cava and his writers chucked out everything except the character names and a couple of plot points, and devoted two weeks to improv-heavy rehearsal, creating in the process one of the fastest, funniest films of the 1930s, as well as the one that has the most profound emotional impact on me. Floods of tears. Floods.

Hepburn is Terry Randall, the well-off wannabe who turns up at the Footlights Club, hoping to turn her hand to acting. There she finds a multitude of cynical young women - among them Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and a 13-year-old Ann Miller - hardened by Depression-era knockbacks and offended by her easy, affluent manner. The Footlights is also home to Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), a painfully sensitive soul who a year ago was the next big thing.

A movie about a "different race of people" - actresses resistant to failure and oblivious to the charms of prospective family - it sees both Hepburn and Rogers in career-best form as the sparring, none-more-different roomies, and fosters a unique atmosphere, building to a genuinely gobsmacking climax that spotlights its stars to stunning effect, reaching an emotional apogee unparalleled in its era, and - to me at least - in cinema at large. (4)


"Whaddaya hear, whaddaya say?"
Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938) - One of the truly great films: a fusion of gangster picture and message movie, as career criminal Rocky Sullivan (Jimmy Cagney) returns to his old neighbourhood, where he reunites with his childhood pal - now a priest (Pat O'Brien) - and becomes an immoral mentor to a gaggle of impressionable adolescents.

The immortal Cagney is in the form of his life here, drawing on characters from his own, impoverished youth to create one of the indelible characterisations of '30s cinema. O'Brien too gives by far the best performance of his patchier career, exuding a Spencer Tracy-like essence of quiet authority that, coupled with intelligent writing, makes his character's speechifying immensely affecting, rather than patronising or heavyhanded.

For though Angels does present Sullivan as a sympathetic character - one to admire in some ways, and pity in others - it also shows the consequences of its hero's actions in a more explicit and far-reaching manner than any earlier crime classics attempted to; this is Warner holding its former glorification of gangsterism to account, without an ounce of the sanctimoniousness that sunk less assured productions.

The film is frankly littered with unforgettable sequences, from the gutting prologue to Cagney's reunion with O'Brien and his first meeting with the Dead End Kids, and if their cartoonish antics grate - and serve to stall the film's momentum - there's such greatness in the script, Curtiz's stylish, magnificent direction and the chemistry between Cagney and O'Brien, that you can forgive it almost anything. There's also iconic imagery to spare - not least in a shootout sequence strewn with sweat, bullets and exploding tear gas canisters - and an important early showcase for Ann Sheridan, as a bruised widow drawn to Rocky despite her better judgement.

It all leads, fatalistically, to a denouement forever etched on the mind of anyone who's seen it: an ambiguous climax that still engenders fierce debate, intense emotion and a sense of awe at the sheer artistry involved, whilst offering a treatise on redemption and making an enduringly relevant, humane argument about the manner in which criminals are created.

Yes of course Leo Gorcey is really irritating, but in this case that's honestly OK. (4)


Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller, 1961) - Sam Fuller's gloomy gangster tale deals with lowlife crook Cliff Robertson, who tangles with crime kingpins as he seeks to avenge his father's death. As with all of Fuller's films, it starts brilliantly - conjuring an atmosphere not experienced on screen since Warner's '30s crime wave - but sadly this one rather loses its way, due to a B-grade script and cast, despite a clutch of spectacular sequences in the director's familiar, sensational style.

On a personal note, I just upgraded from the secondhand TV I got in 2007 to a sleek Samsung widescreen thingymabob, so when Fuller was on form, it looked utterly delicious. (2.5)


The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986) - Earlier this month, I went to see Ennio Morricone in concert. Among the innumerable delights of the evening – which included bumping into Elizabeth McGovern mere minutes after hearing her Once Upon a Time in America theme song – was the performance of three numbers from The Mission, the 1986 film that boasts an erratic reputation but a devoted and sizeable following. As a huge Morricone fan, I've listened to the soundtrack many times over the years, but I'd never actually seen the movie, so I thought I better remedy that.

Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Bolt (who went to my school, *high five*), it turned out to be an extremely slow, ponderous Aguirre/Fitzcarraldo hybrid (not *high five*), based on a true story, about a Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons), who takes a lushly-bearded former mercenary (Robert DeNiro) under his wing, whilst running a remote South American mission. As the church moves to close the progressive outpost, violence returns to the jungle and DeNiro reverts to type in the defence of his adopted home. What could be beguiling and fatalistic is instead portentous and remarkably dull, as Bolt alternates between profundity when considering personal duty and the battle between church and state – subjects he dealt with in his legendary work, A Man for All Seasons – and complete ineptitude when trying to write anything else, including small talk. There’s also the issue of De Niro’s changeable accent, which moves between New York and generic “foreign”, the absence of insight offered into these pale characters, and a climax that manages to be completely underwhelming despite featuring fiery bows and arrows that you shoot with your feet, and Liam Neeson in a canoe chase.

There are utterly wondrous things about the film – De Niro’s facial acting, Chris Menges’ breathtaking cinematography and one of the finest scores ever composed – but they’re in the service of a script that manages to take a potentially fascinating story and bore you half to death. (2.5)


The Time Traveler's Wife (Robert Schwentke, 2009) - This glossy adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s staggeringly popular 2003 sci-fi romance takes a couple of ludicrous liberties and botches the central relationship, but has a handful of hugely persuasive moments all the same.

It tells the cyclical, ingeniously-conceived story of time-traveller Henry (Eric Banana) and the titular character, Clare (Rachel McAdams). She meets him for the first time when she is six and he is 38; he meets her for the first time when he is 28 and she is 20. And, as in the book, they fall in love, quarrel, search for a cure and try to conceive (cue the most unrealistic fake tummy of all time: it looks like a papier mache-covered balloon, then coloured in with a felt tip).

In a way, you’d think that film would be the ideal medium for a novel that had a great premise and some moments of real visceral, emotional impact, but a rather weak writing style, its clunky copy peppered with tedious detail about meals and outfits. Apparently not. One issue is that the meticulous plotting had to inevitably be picked apart in order to fit a 528-page book into 107 minutes, another is that the film opts for soft focus romanticism instead of kicks to the guts (even the way Henry disappears: gradually ebbing away rather than being dragged into another time-frame, arriving in a sea of vomit, is soft-pedalled), and a third is that the central relationship just doesn’t work.

I’m not one of those who fell head over heels for these characters, but they had a certain something on the page. Not here. The presentation is pure patronising chick flick, the leads are completely miscast (with McAdams lacking in any perceptible dynamism and missing Clare’s defining characteristic, red-blonde hair, while Bana rarely looks interested), and the script does a frankly risible job of articulating the depth of feeling between the pair that Niffenegger, for all her linguistic failings, gets dead-on. The writers’ lack of understanding about why the book works is evidenced by two idiotic inventions: in the first, McAdams essentially rails at Bana for grooming her as a child, in the second, the film manages to incinerate the novel’s famous coda, replacing it with a running-through-the-fields bit of faux-tearjerking nonsense that has no place in cinema at all, let alone in this film.

Where the movie does score, oddly enough, is in its articulation of the relationship between Bana and his mother (Michelle Nolden), who share one extremely touching scene that doesn’t appear in the novel, and in the sequences featuring Alba (no spoilers), which are often very moving. Sometimes it pushes too far, but mostly it works; ironically, the film even managed to make me cry – a feat the book didn’t approach. It’s a shame that those moments shine out like rare jewels in a wasteland. A glossy wasteland made of chick flick. (2)


Aled Jones and his bird.

Miracle in Milan (Vittorio De Sica, 1951) - The Bicycle Thieves' silly little brother, incorporating a three-minute tongue-in-cheek remake of that earlier masterpiece, an endless parade of L'Âge d'Or-apeing surrealistic gags and almost no story.

There are a few laughs at the beginning, but it gets very old very quickly, its trivial, one-dimensional approach and gimmicky fantasy sequences failing to successfully spear any of its apparent targets, from supercilious capitalists to traitorous proles.

If there's a point to any of it, then I'm afraid it rather escaped me. (2)


Thanks for reading.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Ten things I learned about Sense and Sensibility

Yesterday I went to a screening of Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's peerless adaptation of the Austen novel. It was part of the Tricycle Theatre's ongoing British Screen Classics programme, curated by Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton, and came with a post-film Q&A featuring Thompson and her co-stars Greg Wise and Alan Rickman. The highlight was probably Mrs Rick telling Alan Rickman that she had learned to raise one eyebrow after watching him as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (and getting a round of applause for her troubles), but I also learned 10 (exactly 10!) things about the production. Which is great, because that means it fits into my occasional 'Ten things I learned...' series. A review of the film will follow - the movie's a stone-cold masterpiece - but first, here are the revelations:

1. Emma Thompson spent five years working on the script. She was encouraged by producer Lindsay Doran, who had enjoyed a sketch that Thompson had written about a man whose genitals were a small creature, and suggested that the logical progression was to adapt Sense and Sensibility.

2. She began the process by scripting the entire book, then chucked out anything that didn’t work. She tried countless times to perfect the scene in which Willoughby justifies his past actions – after turning up unexpectedly at Barton Cottage – but felt that it just didn’t work, clashing unreconcilably with the final shot of the character. An American member of the Jane Austen Society told Thompson that she couldn’t wait to see how she brought Anne to the screen; when she found out that the character had been excised entirely, she immediately walked off.

That scene.

3. The near-legendary scene in which Marianne (Kate Winslet) walks to Willoughby’s house in the rain – which doesn’t appear in Austen’s novel – was added at an early stage. “That just seemed obvious to me. What would be more natural than going to the place where your lover is and just repeating his name? That’s what love is.” (This was from my question, as it's one of the movie's great moments and I wanted to know when she conceived it and whether the finished article matched what she had imagined when writing it.)

4. She knew that Ang Lee was the right director when she realised that the line: “What do you know of my heart?”, spoken by her Marianne, also appears in Eat Drink Man Woman, his 1994 Taiwanese film.

5. Thompson’s abiding memory of the shoot is “trying not to get found out”, as she was engaging in a passionate affair with Wise, now her husband. “Ang would say to me every morning: ‘You look tired, a heavy night?’ and I was thinking, ‘You have no idea’. Then he'd say: 'Let's pull the camera back.'"

6. Her favourite scene is the first meeting between Elinor, Edward, Lucy and Marianne, in which none of them can say what they really mean.

7. Ang Lee’s direction included (to Winslet, on the first day): “Don’t worry, you’ll improve”; (to Thompson): “Be less old” and (to Alan Rickman) “Be subtler. Do more”, which apparently meant: “Do more subtlety”. The director was troubled by the absence of his wife during shooting. On one day, Thompson found him sitting on a chair in the middle of a field, holding his head. “Tide go in, tide go out,” he lamented, “but still no sex.”


8. Greg Wise gave the costume designers clear directions regarding his first appearance in the film. “It has to be like Superman appearing,” he said. They obligingly gave him a cape. “He does have to be a superhero, because he’s this mythic figure,” he says today. “And he is mythic, in that he doesn’t exist. He’s a creation of Marianne’s.” That’s the actor’s favourite scene; Alan Rickman is fondest of the sequence in which his Colonel Brandon gets to gallop away at speed. “It must be something about men and horses.” (Rickman said his biggest challenge was playing "a thoroughly good person", as he likes to alight upon a character's imperfections, but feigned outrage at the idea that this wasn't his usual type, exclaiming that Snape "was a hero".)

9. The reason Kate Winslet is screaming hysterically in the sequence where she gets a high-octane buggy ride, is because Wise had accidentally taken the previous corner on just two wheels.

10. Hugh Grant complained about the climactic sequence in which Thompson weeps constantly during his confession of love, asking her: “Are you going to do that all the way through my speech?” “Yes,” she replied. “It’s funny.”


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Whiplash, Laird Cregar and body doubles of the 1930s - Reviews #202

Further adventures in popular culture.


CINEMA: Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014) - For once, the hype barely goes far enough.

Whiplash is a tense, taut thriller - with periodic explosions - that has four things sorely missing from most movies:

1. A purpose: in this case a worldview that's tough, confrontational, unforgiving and punched across without equivocation.

2. A lead who'll play the part without needing to be liked: who'll act sweaty, ugly, arrogant, selfish and sweaty again.

3. The ability and the desire to consistently surprise, within the boundaries of its familiar up, down, big up, big down… formula, but without ever betraying either its characters or its raison d'être.

4. At least a solid hour of J. K. Simmons shouting.

Miles Teller is Andrew Neimann, a talented, driven drummer who wants to be "not just great… but one of the greats". His passport to success? An obsessive, abrasive, black-suited, bald-headed and apparently psychotic professor (J. K. Simmons), who takes him under his wing, only so he can slap him repeatedly in the face.

Crucially, the film knows what its strong suit is: the dynamic between the combustible conductor and his potential protégé, whose development from a taciturn up-and-comer to a bleeding-handed, budding Buddy Rich not afraid to stand his ground, is invigorating to watch.

When the discredited intrusion that is a romantic subplot rears its head, you wonder if writer-director Chazelle knows what he's doing. He does. And just when you begin to think that he may have mislaid the plot with a change of direction in the final third: BOOM.

Chazelle's handling is unobtrusive but exceptional throughout, drawing you into the action through frequent close-ups, sensational music and a succession of jump cuts that help keep up the film's breathless pace. His direction is… well, I suppose… tight as a drum. He also elicits two of the best performances I've seen in age.

Andrew is closer to his mentor than he might imagine, his egomania, cruelty and self-obsession pouring out increasingly as he nears his goals. That we side with him is not only testament to the vicarious power of cinema, but also to the broad-nosed, scar-faced Teller, who communicates the film's essential idea: that sacrifices have to be made for art, not just in terms of time and talent, but perhaps also in basic humanity.

And, as Fletcher, Simmons is simply sensational, dominating every scene, keeping the knot in your stomach nice and tight as it becomes increasingly clear that he can flip out at absolutely any time. Blessed with an easy superficial charm and something intangible beneath the surface - which comes out in one memorable speech to his Studio Band - he's otherwise a monument to malevolence, darkly hilarious when spewing a torrent of Malcolm Tucker-ish invective at anyone who deems to play out of time or tempo, still more terrifying when stoking a silence.

I said it'd take something special to top Birdman this year, but Whiplash has done it already. As an antidote to innumerable 'inspirational teacher' of insurmountable treacliness, it's undeniably welcome. But more than that: it's not just great… it's one of the greats. (4)


I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941) - Let’s just dwell for a moment on that title. Brilliant, isn’t it? One of my favourites. It doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do with the plot, but it strikes a pleasing note of terror and despair, which I think we can all get behind.

I Wake Up Screaming.


The film itself is a little less wonderful than its name, but only a little. It’s also extremely important, especially in the evolution of one of classic cinema’s most modern diversions: the swerve into the abyss that was film noir.

Noir, memorably described by Lee Server as “the genre that didn’t know its own name”, was a hybrid of German expressionism, French poetic realism and post-isolation American malaise, peopled by poetic PIs and deadly dames. It fully congealed, and reached its popular zenith, in 1944, with Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet, but its inception was probably – and admittedly arguably – a full four years earlier, as the release of Stranger on the Third Floor introduced photographer Nicholas Musuraca’s pioneering visual approach to slack-jawed audiences. The following year saw a slew of crime films that traded either on the staple storylines of noir (The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra) or else the stylistic traits (Out of the Fog, this one), but rarely both.

I Wake Up Screaming, directed by Charlie Chan veteran H. Bruce Humberstone, is an extremely engrossing mystery about the death of a model (Carole Landis, herself sadly subject to an early demise), with the mystery being whodunit, and why. The chief suspect is promoter Frankie Christopher (never trust a man with two first names), a sweaty, understandably angsty man embodied by Victor Mature, the big-browed, man-boobed Italian-American leading man who remains celluloid proof that stars who couldn’t really act are nothing new.

Also in for questioning are the victim’s sister, Betty Grable – a Fox musical star making a foray into crime films, as Alice Faye would do in the exceptional Fallen Angel – and a former Shakespearean ham (Alan Mowbray), as our suspicions also alight on an urbane columnist (Allyn Joslyn) and a massive cop (Laird Cregar) with an intense interest in proving that Mature dunit.

Tragically, Cregar’s screen career lasted barely five years. After brilliant supporting parts in Rings on Her Fingers, This Gun for Hire and Heaven Can Wait, the 21-stone actor lost 100 pounds for his first marginally romantic role – in Hangover Square – and his body simply couldn’t take the strain. Here, as the laconically witty, mellifluous, hulking, terrifying detective, he simply destroys the competition, negligible though it is.

Still, while Cregar is the only truly great actor in these ranks, Joslyn has an excellent bit as a George Sanders type spitting sardonic one-liners, William Gargan is fine as the archetypal 'good cop', and both Mature and Grable give credible if rather limited performances. A deleted scene, in which Grable sings ‘Daddy’ while working as a music sheet saleswoman – rather than a stenographer – is so incongruous that it may have succeeded in killing film noir had it not been consigned to the cutting room filing cabinet. The finished film does, however, contain the frequent - and baffling - use of Over the Rainbow, which was hardly a little-known song even before the invention of VHS, since The Wizard of Oz had only come out two years earlier.

Despite that, I Wake Up Screaming remains a richly atmospheric movie that forms an essential part of the noir canon, replete with impressive, shadow-drenched imagery and poetic, hard-boiled dialogue touched with black humour. If the plot stretches credibility a couple of times, and the absence of a Mitchum, Dick Powell or Richard Conte is keenly felt, it’s still a cracking little movie, which paved the way for others to follow. (3.5)


The Beast of the City (Charles Brabin, 1932) - This is a film as sanctimonious and heavy-handed as its hero: a crusading police chief (Walter Huston) who vows to destroy the city's criminal element. His starting point? An oily kingpin played somewhat improbably by Jean Hersholt, who made for one hell of a twinkly-eyed mentor, but was hardly Edward G. Robinson.

Beginning with a blurb from President Herbert Hoover, and intended as a response to sensationally popular gangster movies like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and especially Scarface, The Beast of the City is a fitfully exciting film sadly undone by its overburdening sense of self-righteousness and a litany of fairly basic problems. Roger Ebert has argued that a thriller is only as good as its villain. If that's the case (and it's a debate worthy of a book rather than one review), then The Beast of the City is in trouble, as Hersholt is barely on screen and deathly tedious when he is. The movie is also bedeviled with a by-the-numbers plot littered with improbabilities and lapses in logic, like a car chase in which the bank robbers presumably have a five-minute head-start but can be caught within seconds thanks to some keen-eyed grocers pointing out the way they've gone.

I'm also not overly enamoured with Huston, who seems to attract a reverence far greater than most of his contemporaries for reasons that remain a little unclear. Perhaps it's his status as the head of an acting dynasty, perhaps his stage past, or perhaps it's just The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but he's not especially effective for the bulk of this one.

The film has a few aces up its sleeve, though. The first is an excellent opening montage which graduates from some slightly sexist, allegedly-comic control centre banter to a portrait of police across the city, the whole thing underscored by the familiar intonation of Ed Brophy (usually found on the other side of the law), flatly bellowing car numbers and crimes. It's strange that this triumph of sound editing, as well as some stunning, rather fascistic fetishing of the police ranks later on, sits alongside the kind of extremely boring visual compositions that genuinely wouldn't have looked out-of-place in 1915.

The second of its calling cards is Jean Harlow, who's quite good as the braless gangster's moll who seduces and corrupts Huston's detective brother (Wallace Ford). Though not quite fully into her stride, she does exhibit considerable charisma and presence, and performs an impromptu dance that manages to be both oddly sensual and hilariously, ridiculously of-its-time.

Finally, there is the climactic scene, which I won't spoil here, but which is worth waiting for, however much contrivance, cliché and moralising you have to sit through on the way. Let's just say that it seems unlikely that Sam Peckinpah had never seen The Beast of the City.

I'm sorry to disappoint Herbert Hoover, but Scarface is way better than this. (2)


A collection of fakes.

It Happened in Hollywood (Harry Lachman, 1937) - In the late '30s, you could hardly move in Hollywood for movies about movies, like Stand-In, Crashing Hollywood, A Star Is Born and this one: a harmless comedy-drama co-written by future B-movie legend Sam Fuller. Richard Dix - best-remembered nowadays (if at all) for Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship and the Whistler series - plays Tim Bart, a hero of silent Westerns who gets the boot when the talkies come in, then has to make good to impress an orphan with a poorly leg.

The first half, detailing his triumphs, his fall, and the subsequent rise of his frequent co-star and lifelong love (Fay Wray, who's in good form), is quite nicely done. It's not as funny as it might have been, wasting the sort of set-piece about talkie techniques that Singin' in the Rain famously slamdunked, but as a sort of embryonic version of The Artist, it's not at all bad, and also throws in some interesting if broad ideas about an artist's responsibility to his public, as Dix chucks away the chance to reinvent himself as a screen gangster.

Then the kid (Bill Burrud) turns up in Dix's life and it all gets too horribly literal, director Harry Lachman spooning syrup over everything, before Fuller and his cohorts serve up an absolutely atrocious ending. Surely, surely the ending that this one needs is a scene in which Dix either performs or thwarts a bank robbery in the vein of the scene he earlier refused, then the director yells cut and we pull away to Wray and the kid watching him on the set, hand-in-hand. Instead we get… well, 'idiotic' barely covers it.

Ironically, though, the film's main selling point is a sequence in its second half: about the only thing the movie does right from the midway point. In order to impress Burrud, Dix holds a party at a ranch, peopling it with lookalikes. The twist? The pseudo-stars are played by Garbo, Dietrich, W. C. Fields and Chaplin's real-life doubles - along with a dozen more. It's extremely surreal and, despite not really being mined in any inventive way, fascinating enough in itself to satisfy any classic film nerd. (2)


A lot of it is precisely this unbearable.

God Help the Girl (Stuart Murdoch, 2014) - Stuart Murdoch has spent a small part of the past six years working on his side project, God Help the Girl, in which a rotating roster of female vocalists sing the kind of irresistible pop tunes indelibly associated with the Belle and Sebastian founder. Now Murdoch has created a spin-off movie inspired by the idea, which proves beyond doubt that he is both an extraordinary songwriter and a very bad writer-director. Just as Bob Dylan’s wretched, nonsensical novel, Tarantula, proved that sublime compositional skills aren’t necessarily a transferable skill, so Murdoch’s debut venture into moviemaking shows that a sensibility that’s essentially appealing within the somewhat intangible, uncodified arena of pop music can become stale as soon as it becomes solid, and that a superb ear for lyrics can become a tin one for dialogue.

Emily Browning is the anorexic Eve, a young woman with an apparent gift for songwriting, who – after checking herself out of hospital via an open window – forms a band with misanthropic guitarist James (Olly Alexander) and an extremely poorly-defined character named Cassie (Hannah Murray), leading to a film not unlike We Are the Best, but with music which springs from the air, as per the tradition of the screen musical, and also nowhere near as good. The endlessly pouting Browning is quite persuasive as the damaged protagonist, but Murray is bland as anything – with what must be one of the worst singing voices I’ve ever heard – while Alexander is a frankly dreadful actor playing an utterly unbearable hipster who speaks in hollow clichés. It’s also a failing of Murdoch as a screenwriter that we don’t see Eve as a great composer, Alexander as someone for whom comfort is paramount, or Cassie as a potential mate for. We're simply told things and reflect: "Oh, I had no idea that was what was happening." That old “show, don’t tell” adage has rarely seemed more relevant. And essentially none of it makes any sense.

Occasionally there’s a moment that rings true or undercuts our expectations, like Browning’s line to Alexander when it looks like they may finally be about to get together, but otherwise the only real joy is to be found in Murdoch’s frequently excellent songs - which shine even when filtered through this cast - and flashes of invention in the choreography, though again it's limited by the people he’s found to articulate it. (Whether that’s why there are so many fast-cuts in the numbers, I’m not sure.)

Indeed, one of the oddest things about the film is Murdoch’s boring visual sensibility. While falling into the amateurish trap of shooting every scene in a different style, he also fashions an aesthetic that’s simply nowhere near as distinctive as the one frequently glimpsed in his lyrics. That richly-textured world of middle-distance runners, lazy line painters and girls who “smell of milk” , fashioned in a 1980s Glaswegian adolescence, is infinitely more interesting than the sort of yuppie-ish, Stylist Magazine dress code enforced throughout God Help the Girl, as well as derivative passages that lean on 'Swinging '60s' excursions like Smashing Time and Les Bicyclettes de Belsize.

If it’s worth seeing at all, it’s really for Browning’s relatively interesting characterisation and for the songs, including Pretty Eve in the Tub, which starts and ends in astonishingly witless fashion, but has a breathtaking middle. It’s enduring proof that Murdoch remains a virtuoso in one medium, if not really any good at making films. (2)



Josie Long – Cara Josephine (Soho Theatre)
– This new show from my favourite stand-up isn’t her strongest, but largely works – thanks chiefly to the Kent-born storyteller’s enormous personal appeal. Even at her finest, she doesn’t make me laugh as much as Richard Herring, or kick in the boundaries of comedy like Simon Munnery, but I’d rather spend 90 minutes in Long’s company than anyone else on the current circuit. She's a performer who makes an intense personal connection, locking personalities and drawing you into her singular world. She’s also warm, clever and self-effacing, all the qualities I prize in a comedian and/or human.

Largely dispensing with the political material that has dominated her recent shows, save for a hysterical fantasy about feeding Nigel Farage to death with marshmallows, Long instead talks freely and unusually frankly about the personal crisis that enveloped her during 2013, clouding her easygoing persona and destroying her insatiable appetite for intellectual and cultural engagement. It’s a show that takes in despair, philosophy, and at one point a torrent of menstrual blood, the gag-stuffed narrative - as ever - interspersed with post-modern observations about how the show is going, and self-mocking asides that reveal a performer completely in control of her audience and her talent, if not her apparent sense of self-doubt.

I was mostly chuckling rather than creased up with laughter – as in Be Honourable – and wasn’t knocked sideways by the freshness of Long’s current worldview – like in The Future Is Another Place – but this sweet, sincere and mature show is still well worth seeing, and contains one of my favourite lines of recent years: “If you are mainly interested in making money, I’m going to assume there is something sexually wrong with you.” (3.5)

Incidentally, I felt compelled to address Josie's contention that her favourite impression is of "a 1930s film noir detective".



The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
– Henry meets Clare for the first time when he is 28 and she is 20. She has known him since she was six, and he was 38. The reason: a neurological condition that sends him spinning through time, arriving naked and often vomiting. One of the more rapturously received novels of recent years, this sci-fi romance has a superb premise, an original and meticulously-executed approach to time travel and some passages of real emotional potency, but also possesses an abundance of superfluous material about what everyone was wearing or eating, uniformly weak dialogue and a fatal inability to make us fall in love with either of its protagonists; Clare is essentially a cipher whose only characteristics of note are a capacity for great love and understanding, and a lot of festishisable red-blonde hair. I have never met a man who thinks or acts like Henry. It’s one of those books destined to stay with you, for its novelty, its narrative cleverness and its sporadic ability to bring a lump to the throat, but you wish Niffenegger had the same way with language, character and humour that she has with complex plotting. The pay-off, with shades of both Forever Young and The Whales of August, gambles on Hallmark-style sentiment and somehow comes out well on top. (3)


Thanks for reading.