Thursday, 23 June 2016

John Grant, French Cancan, and Making America Great Again not being that good – Reviews #242

LIVE


Pic from here.

John Grant at the Royal Albert Hall (15 June 2016) – Not the loud, sweaty, hyper-intensive show we got at Hammersmith Apollo in November, but no less memorable a night, with Grant in balladic, hypnotic and rhapsodic mood. He kicked off with a breathtakingly cathartic 'Geraldine' – “We’re not like them, we’re not that strong/At least that’s what they’ve been telling us all along – and invited Kylie on for a breathtaking, triumphant 'Glacier' duet that should perhaps have closed the show (but was merely the first of five songs in an extended encore), and in between offered a gallery of highlights drawn from each of his three stunning solo records – and then far beyond.

There was a surely definitive new arrangement of his most recent title track, 'Grey Tickles, Black Pressure', a heartstopping version of Mary MacGregor’s 'Torn Between Two Lovers' (co-written by Peter Yarrow), featuring Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon on lead vocals, and outings for just about every song of real note that he’s recorded: a blistering, euphoric No More Tangles for which he knocked the lid of his sensational baritone voice, recent single 'Disappointing' – with wah-wah guitar from Richard Hawley – and an uber-cool 'Black Belt', a track that showcasing every bit of his wit, sardonism and impeccable rhythm, but never quite moved like this.

There was the simple, simply wonderful love song, Outer Space; the discordant beast of a freak-out that his near-legendary 'Queen of Denmark' has now become (like Dylan doing Hendrix’s 'All Along the Watchtower', it’s closer to Sinead O’Connor cover than Grant’s original); the timely 'Jesus Hates Faggots' – now back on his regular setlist – and of course his anthemic GMF, introduced in his typically knowing, offhand manner, which can’t quite disguise that the song is about how motherfucking great he is. Throw out the risible 'Snug Slacks' (a hymn to seeing men’s penises in their tracksuit bottoms) and bring in 'You Don’t Have To', and we’d have had something like the definitive Grant show: overwhelming ‘70s-style balladeering and challenging but danceable contemporary electronica, all apparently adapted for the venue so that it all chimed with the opulence of the arena, rather than blasting the roof off the place. On any terms, though, an incredible evening. (4)

I also met him, as we were doing some filming for a work project, look.


This is a different gig. You can't see his surprisingly muscular arms.

COMEDY: David Cross: Making America Great Again at the O2 Forum (Sun 19 June) – I’m not sure quite the point of this was: an evening of Arrested Development star David Cross telling a bunch of liberal Londoners about the evils of Donald Trump, gun ownership and Catholicism. With a big grey beard and wearing an eye-grabbing Stars-and-Stripes cap that blazed in the lights, he delivered a set that kept threatening to go somewhere important, but ultimately settled for preaching to the converted, while occasionally shocking them with rape jokes. There are a few nice bits – routines about a shop boasting of its “get what you get” tattoo, the logic behind selling suitcases in an airport, and a guy who thought the notorious phrase was “Hi Hitler” – but he doesn’t seem to have the equipment to take these somewhere painfully, breathlessly funny: too many jokes are either blindingly obvious or fall well short of where they should land.

A new bit about Jo Cox’s alleged murderer finds the essential absurdity of the name he provided in court, then uses it for a lame Starbucks gag. And more often than not he simply went for the lazy shock option, with innumerable jokes about raping or killing children. He threw in one about cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad too, perhaps to balance the scales before a prolonged routine about transubstantiation that could have been written 600 years ago, suggesting that it would be fine to get a tattoo of him if it was on a milk carton, followed by a sequence in which he tried to explain the joke whilst being murdered. It kind of summed up the evening: a provocative theme, a flash of intelligence, then a cartoonish, unsatisfying denouement. (2)



THEATRE: The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre) – By far the best thing I’ve seen at the National since coming to London: a lewd, sharp and sordid version of Brecht and Weill’s classic musical that provides deliciously amoral fun while doubling as a critique of establishment hypocrisy – and perhaps humanity itself. Rory Kinnear is Mack the Knife, the womanising career criminal whose fucking and fighting may be coming to an end after he alienates his confidantes, his lovers and his police protector, then goes to a brothel when he’s supposed to be fleeing town.

The songs, the ensemble, the post-modern staging on a revolving stage – everything works. In order for it to do so, Kinnear has both to vocalise persuasively and radiate a brusque, sensual charisma that I didn’t imagine him capable of, and he does with ease, while there’s superb work in support from Rosalie Craig, Hayden Gwynne and particularly Nick Holder as Mack’s roly-poly nemesis, Peachum, a fey, flabby, curiously refined villain in the Sydney Greenstreet/Robert Morley/Francis Sullivan mold. It’s vividly, bawdily and joyously done, and yet underneath it all there’s malevolence and malaise.

While the barbs at bankers throb with malice, and the violent misogny makes you nauseous, it’s Scene 7 that knocked me sideways. Seeing the play the day after Jo Cox’s murder, the brooding, putrid patriotism that infests the characters – sprawled beneath a gargantuan St George’s flag – cast a pall over the theatre: one of those moments when great art captures the national mood almost through chance. (4)

***

TV



Life on Mars (Series 1, 2006)
– I finally caught up with this, a decade on. It’s a remarkable piece of television that plays into my own nostalgia, complicated relationship with the passing of time, and predilection for picking holes in our sincere but synthetic liberality – there’s something guiltily pleasurable about seeing a copper just thumping an apparent criminal, then alarm bells go off and you realise that you’re adrift in a moral morass and that whatever the temptation is to whack seven bells out of someone, it’s humanity, due process and a certain hand-wringing that represent the best of us, if not always the best chance of a conviction. Somewhere in my subconscious, I always think I’ll go back to a time before things went wrong. A Britain of easier choices and starker lines, of football as a working-class sport (as it was when my dad first took me in 1990), a country that looked like it did in those photo albums in the front room, from the billboards to the faces to the cars on the street.

Life on Mars pushes all those buttons, and though the dialogue sometimes slips into the obvious or the cartoonish, the programme’s essential eerieness, its dislocating iconography (special mention for the Test Card Girl) and mind-bending time-bending makes it a show like no other: not necessarily enjoyable a lot of the time, but unmissable and vital, dragging you into its vividly-realised world: part social experiment, part cop show, part flashback and part dizzying head-fuck.

As you’ll know because you saw it a decade ago, John Simm is Sam Tyler, a 21st century cop who gets hits by a car and wakes up in 1973, where he clashes heads with boozy, violent, chauvinistic alpha male Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), while dealing with the fact that he appears to be in a coma, sounds from the real world bleeding into this one, in the shape of wild, terrifying hallucinations and ultimata. Each hour delivers a self-contained mystery – dealing with themes like football hooliganism, police brutality and pimping – before an absolute knockout of a final episode that ups the ante in every way imaginable, though particularly emotionally.

The details are just right (as in that gem of a sequence where Sam wonders how he could be imagining something this complete), Glenister is perfectly cast – and mostly convincing – and Simm delivers arguably the best performance of a career that began a little inauspiciously (erm, Human Traffic), vibrating with angst, confusion, compassion and a certain arrogance as he’s tipped into a never-ending nightmare that most of the time he seems to be quite enjoying. There’s a really nice turn too from Liz White as Simm’s confidante and potential girlfriend, a WPC with a philosophy degree, while Dean Andrews makes for a pitch-perfect heavy and adversary.

Sometimes the show goes for the easy gag or the predictable twist ending, but taken as a whole it’s a remarkable, ground-breaking piece of television that discombobulates, confounds and enthralls, especially when drawing us into Simm’s childhood, a seductive proposition symbolised by Joanne Froggatt’s heartbreaking characterisation as his strong, proud and independent mother, a character I’ve met a dozen times before, and who reminds me a great deal of my late nanna. (4)

See also: Simm and Glenister had previously appeared together in State of Play.

***

FILMS


No, honestly, this is a great film.

CINEMA: French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1954) – Renoir's whimsical, beautiful film about the birth of the Moulin Rouge is handled largely with the lightest of touches, reaching eternal truths along the way, before exploding into an ecstasy of music, dance and colour.

Jean Gabin - more often seen as a laconic fall guy in poetic realist pictures - is a silver fox with ineffable charm but no money, who hatches upon an idea for a new club selling slick, sexy slumming to millionaires. He also finds the girl to put it across (Françoise Arnaul): a laundry worker with the talent and drive to lead the line in the new 'French Cancan'.

There's some questionable melodrama in the story, and a bit of weak slapstick, but Renoir evokes a remarkable, singular atmosphere, through sumptuous Montmartre studio sets, Arnaul's beguiling but completely unsentimental characterisation, and a stunning sense of composition: like a broken-hearted loner stuck unmoving in a chair, as the bright, tactile bustle of a chorus line snakes around and away from him, leaving him utterly alone.

There's glorious music too - some from the rehearsals, some from thin air, some from a montaged medley featuring Edith Piaf! - before a climactic show featuring a fast-talking cabaret performer, a mellifulous whistler, chanteuse Jean Raymond's beguiling 'La sérénade du pavé', and a sort of belly-dancing Janis Paige substitute (Arnaul's chief antagonist, María Félix). Nothing, though, quite prepares you for that completely overwhelming feel-good finale: the immersive, wordless and flawlessly edited "pure cinema" of which Truffaut often spoke.

Taken minute-by-minute, it's not a faultless film, but it's a heart-melting, uniquely textured and utterly rousing experience, with just the right undertug of melancholy and sacrifice, as Renoir suggests that a great creative life means no other life at all, but that the ultimate creation makes everything else pale into nothing. On this evidence, you can see his point. (4)

(I saw this at the BFI as part of their Big Screen Classics strand.)



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Woman Next Door (Francois Truffaut, 1981)
– A completely effortless Truffaut movie: easily the best of his later films, playfully told yet with the stifling feel of a '40s Hollywood melodrama, as married man Gerard Depardieu discovers that his new neighbour is ex-lover Fanny Ardant – and that the flame never really went out.

It’s beset with an unconvincing fatalism that Truffaut fairly crowbarred into his heavier dramas, as if tragedy and its foreshadowing lent a credibility that less incongruously tragic, violent stories lacked, but it's also brilliantly-directed from that opening fourth-wall-break onwards, with a restless, endlessly inquisitive camera, and a peerless understanding of the grammar of cinema that allows him to give every scene its due (with scarcely a wasted moment), and conjure up suspense from thin air, as well as including fun visual nods to landmarks in American golden age cinema, like Double Indemnity and The Searchers.

The characterisation is also superb, with outwardly arbitrary swings into action that we – as the characters’ co-conspirators – understand implicitly, and which enliven a potentially over-familiar story, as do a deftly-judged subplot concerning the narrator, and some glorious grace notes with the children, which you could watch by themselves and still know who directed them. Truffaut never quite matched his first two films, Les 400 Coups and Shoot the Pianist, getting sidetracked by gloomy adaptations of old novels and unambitious comedies about sex, but The Woman Next Door shows a filmmaker in complete control of his genius, even if the material he’s bringing to screen isn’t quite as good – or as sustained – as it might be. (3)



Spy (Paul Feig, 2015) – Director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy followed up Bridesmaids and their superb cop-comedy, The Heat, with this rather over-cooked offering. She’s a desk-bound CIA agent, but if you thought that this was going to be a great, cleverly moderated change-of-pace, a la Will Ferrell in The Other Guys, I’m afraid you’re wrong – she’s quickly back to doing exactly the same thing as normal (mostly yelling), pitched into the field after superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) unfortunately gets extremely shot.

McCarthy’s schtick is fine in small doses, or opposite a collaborative comedian as good as Sandra Bullock, but not so effective when she’s mostly with Rose Byrne – even if Byrne is a little less crushingly banal than usual. There are some really great jokes in here – the microphone gag, the Face/Off bit, McCarthy looking like a “homophobic aunt” – and a somewhat underused Jason Statham delivers in a specially-written part, but Miranda Hart is poor as McCarthy’s best friend, the non-sequitur sequences fall flat (hello 50 Cent) and the film ultimately runs out of steam with a good half hour to go.

It’s worth seeing once, for Feig’s usual offbeat comic sensibility, but those expecting something to rival The Heat should probably adjust their expectations. It’s also weirdly, gruesomely and excessively violent. (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Shane Black, Black Orpheus and awfully big problems – Reviews #241

Some reviews. In chronological order.


This tagline has absolutely nothing to do with the story, for which I admire it.

Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 1957) – Tough-talking journo Barbara Stanwyck marries cop Sterling Hayden, then decides he needs a leg up the ladder, in this spirited if rather unbelievable late noir.

It stands out from the competition thanks to its decidedly adult approach, a typically imposing performance from Raymond Burr as Hayden's omniscient, brooding boss, and one fantastic shot after a key character receives a decidedly final comeuppance, though it doesn't change my conviction that Stanwyck did very little of value after 1944.

Hayden plays about the only characters in history who look as dishevelled and sweaty as me after working overtime at the office, which is reassuring and kind of disgusting. (2.5)

***



CINEMA: Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959) – An astonishing movie that I only heard of for the first time last month; it sounded amazing, so I got a ticket. It's the Orpheus myth transplanted to the Rio Carnival, with womanising guitarist Breno Mello falling in love with pure, troubled Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). They dance, have sex, and save one another, but his feisty ex-girlfriend and Eurydice's psychotic, death-faced stalker hint at the unlikeliness of a happy ending.

It's a feast for the eyes and ears, with impossibly vibrant Eastman Color cinematography showcasing Rio and its carnival (those yellows!), invigorating dance and intoxicating bossa nova music, while the story moves effortlessly from utterly joyous to blackly terrifying and then abstractly spiritual. Perhaps it runs out of steam towards the very end, but for the most part it captures Rio with a startling immediacy: its characters pulsating with passion, natural charm and an unapologetic, everyday eroticism.

The story - adapted from a Brazilian play - struck me as one of those high-concept ideas that might extract a certain truth from its material by dropping it into Rio. In actuality, it's difficult to believe when watching Black Orpheus that it would or could make sense anywhere else, such is the film's complete conviction, and the virtuosic skill that Camus displays in meshing these diverse elements together, while capturing the penury, charm and beauty of the setting, and inspiring a host of pitch perfect performances.

It's extraordinary. (4)

See also: The overall effect may have been what Orson Welles may have had in mind when he pitched up in Rio to shoot the carnival in 1942, backed by the Roosevelt administration's Good Neighbour policy. In the event, he and studio RKO proceeded to bugger up the entire venture – a process documented in the second volume of Simon Callow's biography of Welles – though tantalising clips surfaced in the 1993 documentary, It's All True.

***



The Pit and the Pendulum (Roger Corman, 1961) – This is the second of B-movie legend Roger Corman's eight movies based on the works of Gothic genius Edgar Allan Poe, and it's a step up from The Fall of the House of Usher: smarter, sharper and far more experimental. You can see it in the tinted flashbacks, a flirtatious attitude towards the truth and its stunning use of sound, which is used to disorientate, haunt and alarm us from the off.

As so often during this series, Vincent Price is a recluse who's either been driven half insane by the death of his wife, or is pretending that he has in order to avoid a few tricky questions, posed in this case by her brother, John Kerr. In comic roles, Price's scenery-chewing could look embarrassing, but amidst the horror milieu it's deliriously enjoyable, while attaining a histrionic truth with this more heightened material.

The movie dips a little in spots − trimming 10 minutes could have meant less time simply getting from one place to the next − but its coherent mix of visual stylistics, intelligent placing between madness and reality, and outstanding horror highlights make more an enjoyable watch, while the climax benefits from the groundwork done in ingratiating us with Price's character, before going off the deep end to delirious effect. (3)

***



TVM: The Best of Friends (Alvin Rakoff, 1991) – A remarkably thoughtful and mature TV movie based on the correspondence between legendary playwright George Bernard Shaw (Patrick McGoohan), esteemed museum curator Sydney Cockerell (John Gielgud) and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, a Benedectine nun who was one of the world's leading authorities on church music. Quite how a play in which the characters simply wander in and out of one another's rooms and gardens, reciting their letters, can be this entertaining, immersive and affecting is rather beyond me, but Hugh Whitmore's script is remarkably incisive, insightful and inspiring − even curiously, enduringly comforting − in its ruminations on friendship, religion and death.

That's especially true in the hands of these performers, with McGoohan a barnstorming but immensely likeable Shaw, and two of the finest actors of all time delivering late masterclasses: Gielgud's Cockerell understated, self-deprecating and self-aware, Hiller's Dame Laurentia radiating compassion, humanity and understanding: a fitting companion piece, in Hiller's penultimate appearance, to the greatest performance she ever gave, in Shaw's own Major Barbara. (4)

***



Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993) – A smug mess of a movie, in the Sherlock Jr/Purple Rose of Cairo tradition, about an annoying child (Austin O’Brien) who uses a magic ticket to enter the new Arnie movie, Jack Slater IV, causing the abrupt and unnecessary deaths of two people.

Shane Black, one of my favourite writers, was called in to rescue this one, and his dizzyingly post-modern screenplay has some great one-liners and clever, satirical ideas, especially at the beginning – from Arnie as Olivier as Hamlet (actually retained from the original script) to O’Brien’s mum saying “Tell me the story of your life starting this morning, first period” to a cartoon cat who turns up at various moments to smoke the bad guys – but it’s also long, flabby, frequently irritating, and infuriatingly aloof, establishing absolutely no emotional connection with the story and its characters, so that we don’t really care about anything that happens, we’re just waiting for the next spoof, barb, gag or absurdly OTT action sequence.

Nor does it actually seem to make sense within its own parameters (why would the world of a Jack Slater movie include cop characters from across other genres and eras?!), while the kid is really poorly written and played, spending most of the movie trying to convince Slater that he’s a character in a movie, which admittedly leads to a couple of vaguely interesting thoughts on artifice and reality, but is mostly just pointless and boring.

The film’s neither as bad as the initial reviews and box-office takings suggested, nor anywhere near as good as the recent re-evaluation would have it (or as it thinks it is): a shambles with some smart ideas, great gags and mind-boggling stuntwork, but a shambles nonetheless. (2)

***



Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré, 2006) – This is a pretty good homage to the French New Wave with one huge and inescapable problem: Romain Duris’ character. I’ve suffered from depression my whole life, and what you don’t – repeat don’t – do is abuse your partner because of it. We’re asked to side with a protagonist here who spends the first half hour of the film berating and assaulting his girlfriend, and even if the rest of it were as good as Les quatre cents coups, that wouldn’t be OK.

In fact, the remainder of the movie is mostly spent with Duris in bed and his weird, warm-hearted womaniser of a brother (Louis Garrel) attempting to give him some vicarious pleasure by sprinting and shagging his way across the city, the whole thing presented as an updated pastiche of early ‘60s cinema. Around half of its derivative but energetic trickery hits the target: the apeing of Magnolia’s sole excursion into non-diegetic song is brilliant, the opening direct-to-camera address excruciatingly irritating. The non-linear narrative works, the Bande a part-ish dancing doesn’t. Contemporary Paris seen through the Nouvelle Vague lens good, sped-up action shamelessly half-inched from Zazie dans le Metro bad.

It’s also only partly successful in its evocation of mental illness: there’s truth and honesty in Duris’s characterisation (his wordless listlessness, his idea that we are born with a great sadness embedded inside us), but also pretension and falsity (the sections about his sister don’t ring true, much of the chat on the sofa is meaningless twaddle).

I loved Garrel’s appealingly offbeat character, though – just a note off normal, but that note is everything – and the climactic reading of a children’s story: the invasion of innocence into adulthood, seen there whole and like home, amidst the fracture of grown-up life, like the bit in the Ghost World comic where Enid puts on her favourite record from when she was a kid, and it both comforts her and exacerbates her unhappiness. The relationship between the brothers works too: sincere, standoffishness and loving, an unbreakable bond between their mutual exasperation.

Dans Paris isn’t a great film – it’s too annoying for that – but there’s something about it that’s oddly special. Such a shame then that it’s morally repellent.

***



The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013) – An enormously fun movie that revives the spirit of '80s buddy-cop comedies like Stakeout and Running Scared, adds a pinch of Lord and Miller's 21 Jump Street, and injects a heavy dose of Feig's feminism. Sandra Bullock is an arrogant FBI agent from New York, sent to bust a drugs ring in Boston. There she clashes heads with lone wolf cop Melissa McCarthy, whose idea of pounding a beat involves mostly pounding kerb-crawlers and beating drug dealers.

I've loved Bullock for years, so it was her co-star's performance that I found a revelation. I came into this movie as a McCarthy sceptic and left it as a fan: her performance is big but not too big, as interested in creating chemistry as stealing scenes, and to the benefit not the detriment of the material (not the case in Bridesmaids), which is exceptionally good throughout. There are simply dozens of big laughs here, as well as moments of emotion loaded with just the right balance of sentiment and cynicism, right through to a hilarious end-credits scene.

There are a couple of mental illness gags that made me want to section the writer, but hey-ho. (3.5)

***



The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Francis Lawrence, 2015) – The same deal as before, only more so. Take Lawrence out of the equation, and this series may be barely watchable; with her in it, you can scarcely look away, her matchlessly expressive face rendering every twist, every tragedy believable and real, even when she's sharing the screen with a retired stylist who has inexplicably turned herself into some sort of tiger.

I'm in two minds about the material: it's nice that the movie looks to consider the morality of revolution, but you do worry that it would fall its philosophy SATS, and while I'm glad that this fourth and final film isn't an endless, no-holds-barred battle, the narrative it chooses isn't wholly satisfying. There's also an issue with suspending one's disbelief: if the fascist dictatorship that Lawrence's 'Mockingjay' opposes is really so devious and brilliant, wouldn't the booby traps they set be a bit more, y'know, certain? Throw 10 more gallons of oil into that flood. Set the oil on fire. Nuke all the buildings. Don't put the underground station's exploding floor on a timer. Send a thousand troops into the sewer.

Yet for all that, I found it more entertaining than a couple of films to which I've given five stars − a dichotomy that still confuses me. With Lawrence front and centre, the film sweeps you along, in its love triangle, its story of rebellion, its moments that I recognise as Hollywood hokiness but adore all the same: like when Katniss turns up incognito on the front line, and her co-conspirators begin to recognise and salute her. Something about this series gets to me, even when I know it's trading on cliché, even when I know it it's dealing with big subjects in a juvenile, even trite way.

You can pick holes in the movie − in its narrative, the murkiness of some of the cinematography, the utter redundancy of its patronising sunlit coda − but Lawrence carries it on her shoulders, and makes it work. I'm not sure these movies deserve the performance that she gives in them (the only other people who create anything comparable are Jena Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who have little more than five minutes' screen time between them), but despite James Newton Howard's music, some snippets of strong action, and death scenes that surprise and therefore impress, it's her utter unbendable conviction that drags this out of the ordinary and sears it on your memory.

After the original, this final instalment is the second best of a series that I can watch all day, and then get infuriated about all night. (3)

See also: I've written reviews of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay – Part 1 at those linked pages there.

***

CINEMA: The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

"You know someone else who was just following orders? Hitler." *winks*

PI Gosling and thug-for-hire Crowe pool their erratic talents in this rollicking neo-noir buddy comedy from the inimitable Shane Black. It's such fun to gorge yourself on his cracking one-liners, exuberant set-pieces and subversive smarts, though I got full before the end.

(3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Alec Guinness, Ranown Westerns, and the best doc on iPlayer – Reviews #240

PLUS: The fall of Saigon, 1930s juvenile delinquents, and Danielle Darrieux destroyed the competition.



The War Room (D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, 1993) – An atmospheric, extraordinarily insightful wonk-on-the-wall Pennebaker doc about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, which focuses on inspirational strategist James Carville (who coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid”) and dreamy young communications head George Stephanopolous, whom you’ll know from that episode of Friends. There’s little context – this unapologetically unpolished film was released the following year, so it must not have seemed necessary – but it’s fairly easy to follow anyway, as well as utterly fascinating, remarkably candid and quite unnaturally exciting. It’s also very poignant, viewed either through the prism of Stephanopolous’s fast-building disenchantment with Clinton’s administration, or simply by taking a look at the ever-growing inequality in America, which the incoming president is repeatedly seen pledging to address. An absolute must for any politics or modern history nerd – and probably for any documentary fan too. (3.5)

If you want to watch, it's on iPlayer here until May.

***



Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy, 2014) – Pretty good doc about the air-lift out of Saigon in 1975. There’s some astonishing footage (special mention for helicopters landing on a boat and then being tipped into the sea by hand!), as well as a gallery of informative talking heads – who are even-handed about the complexities of the evacuation, if not what America was doing there in the first place – but it didn’t quite have the emotional impact I was expecting. That may be a problem with me, but I’m still taking stars off. (3)

This one's also on iPlayer, but watch The War Room first, it's better.

***



The Rage of Paris (Henry Koster, 1938) – A lovely rom-com, with near-legendary French star Danielle Darrieux making her Hollywood debut and running rings around her American co-stars.

She’s an aspiring model who sets herself up – with the help of waiter Mischa Auer’s savings and mentor Helen Broderick’s street smarts – to snare a rich man, but upon catching the eye of a millionaire (Louis Hayward, with little to do) she finds herself doing battle with his best friend (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) who owing to a misunderstanding has seen her in her underwear.

The script by a pair of regular Deanna Durbin writers is well above par (her most significant director, Henry Koster, is behind the camera), with plenty of surprises on the way to its predictable conclusion, but it’s Darrieux’s utterly captivating characterisation that makes it: a beacon of beguiling truth (and charm and intelligence and affable, near-perpetual confusion) amidst much artificial wish fulfilment. (3.5)

***



The Comedians (Peter Glenville, 1967) – Two-and-a-half hours of Graham Greene, set in Papa Doc’s corrupt, bloody Haiti, where a group of Westerners tangle with morality, religion and self-worth, from Richard Burton’s isolationist hotelier (shades of Bogart in Casablanca) and his lover (Elizabeth Taylor) to a pair of naïve Americans (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish!) and a war hero (Alec Guinness) trading on his swashbuckling exploits in Burma.

It’s interesting but inconsistent: mostly rather shapeless and murky in motive, though its draggy narrative is studded with fine moments and some arresting imagery. It’s also going somewhere: to a climactic, cathartic scene in a cemetery that’s so brilliant it’s somehow worth the uncertain two-hour build-up, as both Burton and Guinness are laid bare through magnificent, economical writing and confrontational, conspiratorial performance – particularly from the latter, who’s absolutely excellent throughout. While its revelations aren't necessarily a surprise, the way they're expressed and explored certainly is.

Gish is rather underutilised and relies too much on identikit line delivery, while the scene in which she’s struck by a policeman is oddly unconvincing (most scenes were done in just one take, due to the 127-degree heat), though she has a couple of strong bits, particularly when she joins a children’s parade, little guessing what she - and they - are about to see.

Overall, the film's an odd, slightly limp hybrid of Topaz, Outcast of the Islands and Greene's own Heart of the Matter (a cast-iron classic), though it certainly has its moments. (2.5)

***



The Devil Is a Sissy (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1936) – Tennessee Williams once called Mickey Rooney "the greatest actor of all time". I used to think this was absolutely ridiculous but, while I'd still go for Jason Robards or Lillian Gish, when you watch Rooney at his best, you can kind of see where Williams was coming from. Unless he was reined in, Rooney was prone to do something extremely cartoonish and embarrassing, and possibly racist, but in the early '40s, with MGM attuned to his talents and a succession of strong directors guiding him, he gave three of the finest performances of the 20th century, in Young Tom Edison, National Velvet and particularly The Human Comedy.

This earlier film can't compete with those genuinely classic movies, but it does show Rooney to excellent effect. As the son of a murderer, whose father is about to be executed in the state penitentiary, trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime in an NY tenement, he is usually magnificent and sometimes spectacular, eschewing sentiment in a series of scenes in which a town clock announces his father's death, an attempt to buy a fitting tombstone ends in disappointment, and a bruising hood sneeringly derides his father's legacy. Sadly the film isn't in the same class. It starts brilliantly (after a little sloppy exposition), with echoes of the brilliant Pre-Code film, Wild Boys of the Road, and for 52 minutes keeps us entertained and on our toes, as a posh little English boy (Freddie Bartholomew, obviously) moves to New York to be with his father (Ian Hunter, who's good) and falls in with Rooney and Jackie Cooper's gang of minor miscreants.

Rooney's superb, Cooper's very impressive and Bartholomew gives it his best (he's neither in the same league as the other two, nor nearly as bad as his current reputation suggests), even when the film decides that it needs to break up the grinding pathos and genuine emotion with a dance number in a Park Avenue penthouse. Unfortunately, once we get in front of Jonathan Hale's pompous and patronising judge, the film's tone swings from refreshingly modern to unbearably paternalistic, as the plot loses all credibility and intelligence, serving up a succession of clichés and coincidences, and climaxing with a clearly re-shot botch-job every bit as excruciating as the one that ended The Magnificent Ambersons (though you don't get the feeling that we lost a masterpiece here. Bartholomew, incidentally, would have greater success in Captains Courageous the following year, as his posh little English boy was taught life lessons again, this time by Portuguese fisherman Spencer Tracy, who won the first of his two Oscars - his second came the year after, opposite a reforming Mickey Rooney in Boys Town.)

For all that eventual disappointment, there's still lots of fine stuff in here, as well as further welcome evidence that Rooney may have been an insufferable egomaniac with no quality control or notion of what he was good at, but he was also really, really talented. (2.5)

***

I've written about the Ranown Westerns a few times before. Last week I saw two of them on the big screen.



CINEMA: The Tall T (Budd Boetticher, 1959) – Near-classic entry in Budd Boetticher's 'Ranown' cycle, with Randolph Scott as a taciturn rancher waylaid by contemplative criminal Richard Boone and his trigger-happy henchmen. It has a slow, slightly juvenile start, and won't win any feminism contests (Maureen O'Sullivan's plain-Jane heiress is an irritating wet blanket, and the plot hinges on her nearly being raped), but for the most part it's really interesting, with a decent plot, some rich characterisation courtesy of writer Burt Kennedy, and a couple of sudden jolts of extreme violence. Henry Silva's fey, showy gunman threatens to steal the film, only for the craggy, philosophical Boone to muscle him out of it. (3)



CINEMA: Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1957) – The best of Boetticher's 'Ranown' films, perfectly balanced between action, emotion and humour, and with sublime Cinemascope compositions that I'd never really appreciated until I saw it on the big screen today. Randolph Scott is another of his grim, grey anti-heroes, this time a bounty hunter taking giggling James Best to a hanging, accompanied by two gunmen who want a piece of the action (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn), and a widow with enormous pointy boobs and the voice of Marilyn Monroe (Karen Steele). It's exquisitely done, with Roberts absolutely unforgettable as the laidback, uber-cool Sam Boone (his surname borrowed from the chap playing his good-bad predecessor in The Tall T), whose inscrutable code of ethics seem to be leading us inexorably to a shootout. The final shot is extraordinary. (4)

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Fred Astaire, We Bought a Zoo and bricking it with Peter Lorre – Reviews #239



PLUS: Thai kitsch, William Castle and a trendsetting crime drama, in one of those review compendiums I insist upon doing. There's a lovely pattern to the star ratings too, if you are also a weird nerd...

I've also a written a few blogs for the work website lately, on Westerns, frequent actor-director collaborations and Buster Keaton (with gifs!).



The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953) – Perhaps the best musical that MGM ever made: a scintillating argument for escapism – along the lines of Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels – that offers entertainment as captivating as any of its era. It was producer Arthur Freed and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s follow-up to Singin’ in the Rain, and is arguably even better, having as much fun piercing the pomposity of the theatre as that earlier film did lampooning the movie business, and serving up a succession of treats every bit as tantalising.

Retaining only the title, the star and a handful of the songs from a 1931 stage hit, Comden and Green dropped those elements into a brilliant backstage satire that sees screenwriters Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray snag a has-been screen star (Fred Astaire) and an ambitious ballerina (Cyd Charisse) for their new light-as-air Broadway smash, only to have it torpedoed by egomaniacal producer Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who wants to turn it into a modern re-telling of Faust. None of Cordova's opus works, but everything in The Band Wagon does: a script that balances the writers’ mordant wit and sense of the absurd with their softer side, two perfectly-matched stars, and a clutch of irresistible Schwartz and Dietz tunes wedded to Michael Kidd’s exquisite choreography: thawing actors, backflipping hoods and a Brylcreemed shoeshine dude riffing off his client in a penny arcade.

There are outstanding musical sequences at every turn. The stars’ emotionally overwhelming, artistically dazzling 'Dancing in the Dark' number and hilarious, imaginative, outrageously sensual Girl Hunt ballet are justly celebrated, but the production number montage is no less astounding: four routines in four different styles, almost back-to-back and every one of them smacked way out of the park: the old-fashioned uplift of ‘New Sun in the Sky’, Buchanan and Astaire radiating old-fashioned class in ‘I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan’, Fabray’s glorious handling of the melody in the old-fashioned ‘Louisiana Hayride’ and of course three faux-infants shuffling from one leg to the other in the hysterically silly ‘Triplets’.

Bizarrely, the film tanked, after being trashed by the LA critics, but it looks almost perfect today: as a musical, as a beguiling comedy-drama, and as a hymn to Astaire himself, whose earlier pyrotechnics – like that outrageous office tap routine in You Were Never Lovelier – had been replaced by a quieter, more mature and yet also more adventurous style. After being usurped by Gene Kelly’s mammoth achievement with An American in Paris, this looks an awful lot like Astaire re-asserting his supremacy, aided by a narrative that wholeheartedly embraces the ethos of the song and dance man bringing joy to the masses. Glorious. (4)

***



We Bought a Zoo (Cameron Crowe, 2011) – Completely charming, surprisingly sombre family film from sentimental old Cameron Crowe, with widower Matt Damon, erm, buying a rundown zoo (spoilers) in a desperate attempt to cheer up his kids, a wise, eternally optimistic seven-year-old (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and a 14-year-old in considerable anguish (Colin Ford).

Some of its shorthand is cliched to the point of banality (Ford's unhappiness is repeatedly illustrated by his gloomy sketches), and Angus Madfadyen and Thomas Haden Church are saddled with shallow, poorly-drawn characters, but much of the writing and playing is desperately moving within its fairly narrow parameters - with echoes of two of my favourites, Pollyanna and Bridge to Terabithia - Scarlett Johansson was never more appealing (as Damon's highly capable second-in-command) and there's a typically brilliant song score, utilising Dylan, Tom Petty, Cat Stevens and Bon Iver - the latter suggesting (as 17 Again's use of Cat Power did) that someone has parachuted into this genre from another world, and lifted it way out of the ordinary.

A truly lovely and unexpectedly excellent film. (3.5)

***



Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000) – I’ve been meaning to see this for 16 years. It’s a stylised, cartoonish pastiche of Spaghetti Westerns* telling the story of outlaw Black Tiger (Chartchai Ngamsan) and his childhood sweetheart, Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), whose future happiness is threatened by fate, grown-up school bullies and a land war.

It looks and sounds incredible, with eye-popping pastel cinematography, cod-Morricone music and regular explosions of bloody violence, and just about manages to eat and yet retain its cake by asking us to care about these intentionally archetypal characters in the midst of much Tashlinesque (or perhaps Raimi-ish) mayhem. Perhaps that's because it takes its central romance more seriously than the world it inhabits, though its wider reliance on cliche and ironic distancing does undercut its emotional effectiveness, and I’m unlikely to ever love it as I love, say, Shane.

I suppose ultimately this hyper-heightened homage/spoof belongs in the same oddball, sparsely-populated universe as Kung Fu Hustle. It's a better film though, offset by a melancholia and fatalism that make it a whole lot less disposable. (3)

---
*and apparently Thai melodramas, which I know nothing about

***



Tales of Terror (Roger Corman, 1962) – An enjoyable Edgar Allan Poe anthology from director-producer Roger Corman, who made eight colourful horror comedies based on the author's work and starring a stock company of old Hollywood luminaries. This one tells three Poe stories, narrated by and starting Vincent Price, and topped off each time with a well-chosen on-screen excerpt.

The first short, Morella, is OK: the morbid tale of recluse Vincent Price's daughter turning up in his cobwebbed mansion, where he still keeps the rotting corpse of his wife - a bitter, beautiful woman who blamed their infant child for her untimely demise. It's a little draggy, undercutting its potential power through a thin, noisy and hammily sensational approach, but retains some effective surprises and has real heart, which we should have guessed from the jump cuts that open the piece.

The final film, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, is fine, if rather slight, as loathsome hypnotist Basil Rathbone strikes a strange bargain with a dying man (Price again), leading to a fittingly gruesome climax. Rathbone's performance is quite big, but this time it works, as the actor has put the groundwork in - oozing a malevolent gravitas - while Price is gently affecting as his unwitting victim.

It's the middle chapter that dominates, though: a loose, superb and blackly comic realisation of The Cask of Amontillado (titled after another Poe story, The Black Cat, in which gnome-like alcoholic Peter Lorre wreaks a deadly revenge on his unfortunate wife (Joyce Jameson) and her refined, unsuspecting lover (Price). Lorre's great gift was creating both pathos and humour through his unique ability to play two things at once, and here that mercurial fluidity sees him realising one, two, three, four, five elements in unison, drawing snorts of derision, laughter, pity, contempt, respect and alarm. He shifts effortlessly through modes and moods, most obviously in the superb sequence in which he collars a succession of strangers, asking each for money. He's so unpredictable in his response to each that the film pulses with a palpable danger, even though on the surface of it, the actor is basically just arsing around. He also provides one of the biggest laughs of his career (which I wouldn't dream of spoiling), while toasting Price with sherry.

Tales of Terror is good fun overall - I like Corman's Poe movies in general, they offer a weirdly morbid form of escapism - but that central segment is genuinely classic: an unforgettable piece of work true to the spirit of Poe's story, if not quite the letter, with Lorre a pathetic, magnificent and masterful Montres(s)or. (3)

***



The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948) – This near-legendary docu-noir-ma from groundbreaking producer Mark Hellinger - who tragically died before its release, aged just 44 - drew raves for its extensive New York location shooting and ambitious attempt to portray the whole of the Big Apple through a single murder case. Almost 70 years on, it's still a pretty interesting, well-done procedural, but rather pales alongside its more poetic, handsome and sourly sexual contemporaries: Out of the Past, Cry Danger, The Glass Key.

Jolly Irish character actor Barry Fitzgerald (the guy who keeps saying "no patty fingers" in The Quiet Man) is cast against type as a shrewd, deceptively tough detective, who keeps a wary eye on compulsive liar Howard Duff after a model is murdered in her bathtub. As we follow the investigation from the scene to the police station to the morgue, Hellinger's voiceover - addressing a huge cast of characters, sometimes incisively, more often portentously - shows us his city: dynamic, sprawling and merciless; liars, losers and desperate chancers rubbing shoulders with you and I.

The vogue for location shooting began in the mid-'40s when Fox made The House on 92nd Street - an FBI-approved thriller, which should give you some idea of how insufferable it is - and Boomerang!, directed by Elia Kazan, both of which were adapted from real-life stories and shot in the same buildings and streets where the events unfolded. This one allies that idea - often superbly realised - to the rather pretentious "symphony of a city" approach of Warner's City for Conquest (made when Hellinger was at the studio), while exploiting the slight loosening of censorship - and associated capacity for titillation - that followed the end of World War Two.

But while Fitzgerald is quite convincing, the realistic approach - all legwork and squalid criminal motivation - is unusual, and the intelligent, downbeat ending works very well, for a movie with such a gargantuan reputation, it rarely hits the dramatic or artistic heights you might expect. It also has one of those weird wrestling subplots that director Jules Dassin put in all of his films unless physically prevented from doing so. (2.5)

***



13 Ghosts (William Castle, 1960) – This haunted house horror from B-movie legend William Castle has a great first 30, as impoverished professor Donald Woods inherits an old mansion and moves in with his family, laughing off the preposterous suggestion that there's a baker's dozen of ghosts already waiting in the place.

After a tedious, uncontextualised opening gimmick showing off the spectres, Castle's command of the story seems absolute: knowing, smart and fun, exemplified by the casting of the house's resident 'witch'.

Then the apparitions materialise and the film's charm evaporates in an endless procession of unconvincing effects and laborious exposition. A real waste. (2)

***



Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944) – Not a romantic musical, as I was anticipating, but a dreadful drama about psychoanalysis, complete with massive, tuneless musical interludes, as unhappy careerwoman Ginger Rogers goes to see a shrink and has various lavishly-mounted dreams about how women should dress nicely, get married and generally just stop it.

Some of the production design is striking (especially when the smoke machines go into overdrive), but the material is hugely dated and only two of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's songs from the stageplay made the film. The showstopping, Cab Calloway-ish Saga of Jenny, sung and danced by Rogers, is about the only thing here worth seeing, despite the more general presence of Ray Milland, Warner Baxter and a very young Barry Sullivan, who only really makes sense to me in Westerns. (1.5)

See also: Leisen did make my favourite film of all time, though.

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 3 June 2016

A love letter to My Own Private Idaho (and some other bits and pieces) – Reviews #238

FILMS



My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) – I’ve only had three different favourite films since I was 19: Remember the Night, before that The Searchers, and before that: this. I’ve seen My Own Private Idaho well over a hundred times, but this was my first on the big screen.

It’s Gus Van Sant’s dazzling, gutting, phantasmagorical Rent Boy Henry IV, as narcoleptic hustler River Phoenix searches for his mother across Idaho, Oregon and Rome, in the company of his best friend – and love of his life – Keanu Reeves, the sire of a wealthy family, trapped between his domineering dad and a Falstaffian father figure (William Richert).

Its iconography, its laidback feel, its use of fantasy, of Eddy Arnold, Rudy Vallee and Pogues recordings, of real-life confessionals from genuine prostitutes, is like nothing else I’ve ever seen: beautiful, haunting, horrifying and seductive. And though it’s not without false notes now and then, its lax approach to scene length and oddball characterisation is part of its charm, forming a perfect whole not comprised of perfect pieces.

Its great virtue is Phoenix’s storyline, a tale of abandonment powered by his astonishing performance, which crystallises everything that made him the most important, interesting and artistically successful actor of his generation: the sensitivity, depth of inner life and impeccable, unsung comic timing he exhibited in an eight-year career that ended so abruptly and tragically in October 1993. His monologues which open and close the film are something like the apogee of slacker cinema – with a poetry and lack of pretension so rarely present in the oeuvre – while the scene between him and Keanu by the campfire (almost completely improvised by Phoenix) is simply one of the most genuine articulations of unrequited love that I have ever experienced.

Throughout, his character speaks to me profoundly and personally, a connection that has not lessened or abated over a centenary of viewings. (4)

***



Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1968) – This revolutionary lovers-on-the-lam flick changed the face of Hollywood, ushering in a decade of innovation through its offbeat approach, rich and distinctive characterisation, and spasms of extreme violence.

Warren Beatty is the charming ex-con who has a zeal for bank-robbing where his sex life should be, Faye Dunaway the bored waitress he hooks up with, while his brother (Gene Hackman), his brother’s neurotic wife (Estelle Parsons) and a shy, baby-faced misfit by the name of C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) round out the rest of the notorious Barrow Gang.

Despite decades of rip-offs – and its influence on movies as diverse and wonderful as Thieves Like Us, Bound for Glory and screenwriters Newman and Benton's own Bad Company – Arthur Penn’s film retains its visceral impact, while its overarching fatalism, tied to an unpredictability in the moment and the understated, fleeting nature of its peculiarities, keep both your head and your heart enthralled, as it starts off light, turns goofy, then becomes deadly serious. A special mention too for Pollard’s intriguing, naturalistic performance (Michael Andrew Fox was so impressed that he borrowed the actor’s ‘J’), and Dede Allen’s mesmerising editing, particularly during that unforgettable finale.

Studio head Jack Warner, who rated films based on the reaction of his bladder, memorably dismissed Bonnie and Clyde as “a three-piss picture”, while heavyweight American critics saw their reputations made or destroyed by their reaction to the film. It turns 50 next year and is still as bloody, and as bloody brilliant, as ever. (4)

***



The Fall of the House of Usher (Roger Corman, 1960) – Inoffensive Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) turns up at a crumbling Gothic mansion, hoping to carry off the woman of his dreams (Myrna Fahey), only to meet her rather difficult brother (Vincent Price). Corman’s first Poe adaptation doesn’t make a lot of sense in either story or execution, but it’s pretty creepy, with some effective suspense sequences and a good performance from a peroxide Price. (2.5)

***



A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Tay Garnett, 1949) – This second version of Mark Twain’s classic story is far better than the 1931 adaptation (which starred Will Rogers), with an effective framing device, a nice feel to its romantic scenes – featuring the not unattractive, flame-haired Rhonda Fleming – and one classic song, Once and For Always, but I’ve begun to find Bing Crosby’s screen persona really irritating: the embarrassing jivetalk, the smug intonation that masks a deficiency of sincerity, and that walky sort of dance he does in lieu of any terpsichorean ability. His singing’s great and the film is diverting enough overall, but it simply grates and stutters too often. (2)

***

TV



The Best of What's Left of 'Not Only... But Also'
– Peter Cook is perhaps the funniest person who has ever lived, so it's odd that this landmark series − his most popular and sustained creative effort − is so incredibly underwhelming. Working in tandem with regular foil Dudley Moore, Cook made a sustained effort to move away from the satire of Beyond The Fringe, only to waste much of his energy on lousy spoofs − which ironically age a lot more quickly than topical political gags. Still, he wanted superstardom, not a legacy.

Only about three hours of the three Not Only... But Also series that they made for the BBC still exist, the rest having been wiped to save expensive tapes, and I was shocked by how little of it is actually, well, funny. There are a handful of truly great sketches − mostly the 'Pete and Dud' routines, including an unassailable classic in the National Gallery complete with Cook ad-libbing to make Moore corpse, and an embryonic Arthur Streeb Greebling effort − and a few other good ones (the goblin cobbler, Alan A-Dale, Bo Dudley), but the rest is a mixture of pastiches that go on forever (the Thunderbirds one is fucking terrible), silly voices, pointless big-money stunts, Cook repeatedly using the word 'substances', and Moore doing the same unfunny faces and breaking off for regular musical interludes. Oof. (2.5)

***



Cunk on Shakespeare (2016) – Fine, but not really sustained, with too many of those awkward Ali G-style segments in which Philomena meets real-life experts. There's nothing in it as funny as this gag:



Oddly, the Guardian article that Morgan wrote to plug the show is better than the programme itself. (2.5)

***

BOOK



One Summer by Bill Bryson (2013)
– An interminable summary of second hand sources (and a few New York papers) that deals with the incredible summer of 1927, in which America saw the first Atlantic crossing, the birth of sound cinema, the invention of the TV, Babe Ruth’s record home run chase, and a whole lot more besides. There are some interesting details and funny stories, but it frequently drags and rarely gives you a sense of what it must have been like to actually be there. The Ruth sections promise much and deliver almost nothing. The book is also so mistaken on the bits I already knew about – attributing silent star Clara Bow’s decision to quit cinema to her voice rather than her mental health, mistaking the technical significance of 1926’s Don Juan – that it made me doubt the rest. Really disappointing. (Lovely front cover, though.) (2)

See also: David Stenn's Clara Bow biography is a gem. As it's in Bryson's bibliography, you might have thought he would have read it.

***

Thanks for reading.