Friday, 8 April 2016

Bogie, High-Rise and another astonishing Philip Roth book - Reviews #232

Here's that update I promised.


CINEMA: The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

“You go too far, Marlowe.”
"Harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he's walking out of your bedroom."

I saw The Big Sleep on the big screen for the first time, revelling in Bogie and Bacall’s badinage, the great gallery of desperate supporting characters – especially Agnes (Sonia Darrin), a wry, selfish accessory to blackmail who keeps betting on the wrong guy – and the sheer sardonic poetry of the dialogue, provided by no fewer than four exceptional writers: original author Raymond Chandler, legendary southern novelist William Faulkner, Hawks regular Jules Furthman and the extraordinary Leigh Brackett, who went on to co-write Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back.

There’s an awful lot of plot, and the sets could be better, but this notoriously troubled production – two years in the making, with whole chunks of story chucked out and replaced by love scenes after it had already screened to troops overseas – is a heady proposition: sometimes sleazily, hazily nightmarish in the vein of Mulholland Drive, at others so frenetic and sarcastic that there’s nothing quite as much fun. While it’s not my favourite Marlowe film, and Bogart isn’t my favourite Marlowe (Murder, My Sweet and its star Dick Powell take those honours, and Altman’s The Long Goodbye gives this one a run for its money), there are new things to discover even on the fifth time round – the sixth if you count a recent viewing of the compromised original cut – including a throwaway line I’d missed that reveals just why Eddie Mars has held onto that crap henchman of his: it’s to keep the decent one company.

“My my, such a lot of guns around town, and so few brains.” (3.5)

See also: I've done a scene-by-scene breakdown of the differences between the pre-release and finished versions, on the off chance that you are also a big nerd.


In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)

"Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult."

"'Climb the mountain of conflict'? You sounded like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews."

"Within your purview? Where do you think you are, in some fucking regency costume drama?! This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel."

"Yeah, apparently your fucking master race of highly-gifted toddlers can't get the job done."

This alternate-universe spin-off from The Thick of It is a little less specific, vitriolic, rapid-fire and British than the unimpeachable TV series that spawned it, but in dealing with the prelude to the Iraq War in that rough-edged, foul-mouthed, shamblingly cynical style, it comes armed with a hefty black comic edge that's simultaneously hysterical and chilling. Plus some of the best one-liners in the history of anything.

The story sees Tom Hollander as an ineffectual, gaffe-prone British government minister caught in a tug-of-war between the doves and hawks, as America limbers up for war.

Though not everyone is up to the standard of regulars Chris Addison, Paul Higgins and particularly Peter Capaldi (as the series' breakout character, psychotic spin doctor Malcolm Tucker), Hollander and a cameoing Coogan are in fine form, and at its sporadic best Armando Iannucci's satire is as funny as just about any film I've ever seen. (3.5)


This is actually one of the better bits of the film.

Merry Wives of Reno (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1934)
– A mediocre Warner Bros programmer in the studio's usual slangy style, with cheating wife Glenda Farrell causing two other couples to break up, sending Margaret Lindsay and Ruth Donnelly to Reno, with all the men involved (Donald Woods, Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert) pitching up too.

It's dated more poorly than most of the studio's comedies, with too much time spent on Herbert's familiarly irritating persona, and unfunny running gags about a sheep and a mentally fragile attorney, but there are a handful of very funny lines, and while the wonderful, fast-talking Farrell is largely wasted, Kibbee is good value playing his usual slightly pathetic ruddy-faced philanderer, and the great character comic Frank McHugh has a funny part as a hotel fixer, strolling off into the sunset with a wad of cash, two hotties in fur coats and that unmistakable 'one-two-three' laugh - as he called it - "Haaerrr haaerr haaerrrrr." The bit where he is chased by the sheep almost justifies that whole endless subplot. (2)


SHORT: Les mistons (Francois Truffaut, 1957) – Well this could be better. Truffaut's second film deals with the preoccupations that dominate most of his best (kids, eros, American gangster movies) without much of the instinctive genius evidenced by his debut feature, Les 400 Coups, released two years later.

Partly it's the bad dubbing, partly the charmless, faceless performances from a bunch of kids who never did anything else, partly the voiceover-itis that afflicts too many of his misfires, though at least the narratSuch ion here is erudite and in the first person.

Bernadette Lafont (later the star of the director's risible A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, arguably his worst film) is Bernadette, whose nascent love affair with the blameless Gerard inspires an explosion of confused, spiteful jealousy in the gang of pre-pubescent children who idolise her.

Shot outdoors, mostly in the woods but also in a striking, part-ruined amphitheatre, it's atmospheric but bitty, and hampered with curious gimmickry, including a sped-up sequence with a hosepipe that wouldn't look out of place in a Benny Hill episode (though he would have turned it on Lafont). Despite that, the 'shoot out' sequence is a little gem, and the ending is poetic and oddly profound, if not quite satisfying.

By 1959, Truffaut's ingenuity and innovation had reached a white-hot peak, allied to a pitch-perfect semi-autobiographical narrative of aimless adolescent alienation. That breathtaking film makes Les mistons look like the largely amateurish effort it is. (2)


CINEMA: High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015) – Wheatley's supreme visual sense, gift for juxtaposition and staggering use of sound can't rescue Amy Jump's aloof, incoherent script, which is neither a capitalist critique nor a study of man: just a senseless, pointless wallow in moral and material degradation. The first 40 and the final two minutes are quite good, the rest is just extremely boring. Watch Skyscraper Souls instead. Or Attack the Block. (2)



The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)
– An astounding, chilling, completely believable piece of alternate history, with heroic aviator and fascist sympathiser Charles Lindbergh ascending to the US presidency in 1940 and agreeing an ‘understanding’ with Adolf Hitler. Against the slow-burn of burgeoning anti-semitism, the young Roth comes of age, while the older brother he idolises is co-opted by the establishment, his cousin is crippled by war and his parents are torn between pragmatism and self-respect. Occasionally the context that makes it so credible can drag, as you slog through the names and roles of those on opposing sides of the debate, but Roth’s gift for phrasing, impeccable personalisation of the narrative and jolting handbrake turns are beguiling to behold, while the unpredictable explosions of futile violence peppering the work are no mere plot devices, but rich manifestations of the irony central to Roth’s worldview. It's also the perfect time to read the book, as another racist demagogue approaches the White House on a wave of public euphoria. (4)

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (2011) – When millions of people simply disappear in the Sudden Departure, the residents of a small American town try to come to terms with their losses, some looking for love, some going off the rails, others seeking answers or solace as they join cults like the Guilty Remnant or Holy Wayne’s Church of the Healing Hug. Perrotta’s novel, since adapted as an HBO mini-series, is very readable, excellently plotted and frequently moving, with memorable, sometimes surprising characterisations and a few superb vignettes, but its sense of humour is bafflingly blunt and broad considering it’s from the writer of the intensely funny Election, while the suburban backgrounds and preoccupations of its characters can be irritating and trivial, even as Perrotta uses them as a subversive counterpoint. Studying a major catastrophe on such a small-scale is a smart juxtaposition (Roth did much the same in The Plot Against America, above) but a re-draft cutting out some of the clichéd language and putting in a few decent jokes would have kicked this up a level. (3)

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938) – A smug, underwhelming comic novel about journalism, with nature correspondent William Boot erroneously sent to cover a pre-war conflict that could have global ramifications. It's too much a self-satisfied hymn to language, with innumerable thin characters about whom it's difficult to care anything at all, though there are some funny passages, particularly in the mid-section. (2.5)

Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode (2013) – A lively, self-justifying polemic that's at its best when articulating its author's sheer love of film, but is ultimately both repetitive and shapeless, hopping from one subject to the next with a curious lack of narrative clarity, and grating when he ill-advisedly strains for comic effect. (2.5)

Duel in the Sun by Niven Busch (1944) – I read Busch's 1948 book, The Furies, last year and was impressed by his economic prose, sharp, shrewd characterisation and fatalistic plotting born of a bracing, cynical and deeply Freudian view of humanity - virtues familiar to anyone who's come across his peak-era screenwriting. A shame, then, that his earlier bestseller, Duel in the Sun, seems to be mostly descriptions of horses. The story sees fiery 'half breed' Pearl Chavez welcomed into the bosom of the powerful McCanles family, where her overpowering sexual connection to the nasty, feminine Lewt turns brother against brother, and unsurprisingly leads to cold-blooded murder. This one's a real slog, though, full of dislikeable characters, dense phrasing and tedious specifics relating to the minutiae of Western life, creating not a richly-textured evocation of a vanished world, more a shopping list of items seen on various ranches. Afterwards, you'll feel like a bath and probably something with which to prop open your eyes. Incidentally, the film adaptation (nicknamed 'Lust in the Dust') became one of the biggest hits of the decade, and gave Lillian Gish one of her few notable sound roles, as the gentle but opinionated Mrs McCanles, pickled by drink but still sure she knows what's best for her sons. (2)



The Thick of It (2005-7)
– Season 1 is an unpolished gem, Season 2 the programme at its darkest - the 'special needs' episode so extravagantly cynical and cruel that you may temporarily forget to breathe – and the specials slightly compromised by circumstance but a convincing, non-stop parade of back-stabbing, finagling and Machiavellian intrigue. At the centre of it all is Capaldi's exquisite, hard, impeccably nuanced performance, which could so easily have been cartoonish, but never is. Each of these early episodes is magnificent to some degree, though even better was to come. (4/4/3.5/3.5)

Elementary: Season 1 (2012-3) – One of the biggest TV-themed backtracks in recent memory concerned Elementary, the Conan Doyle update that followed lukewarm on the heels of BBC's Sherlock, sending Holmes to present-day New York and giving him an American, female Watson (Lucy Liu), a move that was ridiculed by everybody with access to a computer, telephone or broadcasting station. Imagine their surprise when it turned out to be really quite good. This first season takes a while to hit its stride, but the self-contained mysteries become increasingly neat and the warm, evolving friendship between recovering heroin addict Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and his sober companion (Liu) increasingly moving, helped by a pair of largely irresistible performances. Miller is occasionally gimmicky, Liu sometimes less than assured uttering putdowns, but mostly their story of mutual reliance and growing respect is persuasive and affecting, augmented by Miller's often intense emoting and Liu's innate implacability. The guest stars are largely a disappointing bunch (the first one I recognised was Vinnie Jones, and he couldn't act his way out of a Premier League midfield), though towards the end F. Murray Abraham adds some big-pored class to proceedings, a coup that augurs well for Season 2. I'm in two minds about the double-length final episode, with its ambitious reveal, but it certainly wasn't dull. And while the programme's look is rather too gory and murky for my tastes, the way it treats Holmes, his struggles and his addictions manage to warp Conan Doyle's creation without losing sight of who and what he is. A flawed but compelling first season. I'll be back for more. (3)

Harry Hill's TV Burp Gold (2008) – Between it being a late-night cult favourite and a dying staple of Saturday afternoon TV, this show managed to occupy a cherished place in the country's affections whilst also being pretty good. This first DVD captures that period of peak popularity, and while the programme had lost any teeth it had ever had and begun to lean on formula, it's still a diverting watch with a handful of massive laughs. "Marlon. Lanky Marlon." (3)



(c) Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall

CHVRCHES at the Royal Albert Hall (31 March 2016)
- One of the best gigs I've seen at the Hall in my ongoing capacity as resident PR weasel: an irresistible collision of loud, satiating synth pop (in a Scottish accent), endearingly irrelevant between-songs verbiage and as much hopping, twirling and attention-swallowing stagecraft as you could possibly want. An intense, intensely enjoyable and extraordinarily cathartic experience. (4)

Probably the least interest thing in the exhibition... but the only picture I can find.

States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness (Wellcome Collection) - This study of the fringes of the mind begins simply enough, with paintings representing synaesthesia and photos attempting to capture dreams, then becomes increasingly unsettling as it journeys through somnambulism, resistance to anaesthesia, temporary paralysis and memory disorders, augmented by eerie soundscapes and alarming, atmospheric installations. If you want to be terrified by reality, I would highly recommend going. (3.5)


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