Monday, 16 October 2017

Next year's best films: London Film Festival 2017 round-up − Part 2

Here are my 10 favourites from the BFI London Film Festival 2017. To read about the less good films, please toddle on over here. And thanks for reading, it makes me happy.

***

10. Wrath of Silence



Director: Yukun Xin
Cast: Wu Jiang, Yang Song, Wenkang Yuan
Country: China
UK release date: No release confirmed
Rating: 3/4

A genuinely unusual take on that old chestnut, the 'psycho looking for his missing kid' flick, but used to interrogate the iniquities of contemporary Chinese society (without anyone involved in the production gettinh killed), as a mute miner – left behind by the rapid pace of progress – engages in a bleak, apparently hopeless quest that's punctuated by moments of dark comedy and bone-crunching action (there's a lot of him just kicking people really hard).

The final shot could have used a bit of work, but the ending is otherwise superb, a fitting capper to a film with a few rough edges (cartoonish villainy, an opening that's more confusing than intriguing, a little mid-section bagginess) but interesting ideas, superb imagery – that in-camera shot of the desert giving way to the city! – and the best exhausted fight scene in aeons. Clever title too.

It's basically Kurosawa's High and Low, but for China in 2017. Having said that, and as the director acknowledged, there are no state officials involved in wrongdoing: the corruption shown is all in the private sector, even if it's high-ranking lawyers who operate within the public realm and increasingly dominate Chinese society.

... and curiously, like my previous film in the festival, Wonderstruck, it hinges on a mute person and a taxidermical diorama. This one's good, though.


Director Yukun Xin (centre), his producers and friends, outside NFT1 at BFI Southbank.

***

9. Our Time Will Come



Director: Ann Hui
Cast: Zhou Xun, Eddie Peng, Wallace Huo, Paw Hee-ching, Jessie Li
Country: China
UK release date: No release confirmed

Rating: 3/4

Stories from the Chinese underground: a film of great moments, appreciable humanity and unapologetic feminism, those virtues triumphing over some more prosaic flaws, like irregular pacing, a curious framing structure, and a few flirtations with propaganda and artifice.

It's a film of wit, stoicism and sincerity, with two key scenes ruminating on honour and duty that recall those towering triumphs of French cinema, Grand Illusion and Army in the Shadows, for which one can forgive some improbable (but dynamic) action heroics, a monochrome round-table that just made me think of Woody Allen, and a few too many scenes of people wrapping things up in blankets.

***

8. Angels Wear White



Director: Vivian Qu
Cast: Vicky Chen (as Qi Wen), Zhou Meijun, Mengnan Li, Weiwei Liu, Jing Peng
Country: China
UK release date: No release confirmed
Rating: 3.5/4

An excoriating moral thriller about the destruction of innocence – though not, director Vivian Qu says, the debasement of "purity" – which follows two girls left behind by the pace of progress in China: an 11-year-old abandoned to the appetites of a police commissioner, and the 15-year-odd runaway (Vicky Chen), doing odd jobs in a hotel, who's the only witness.

The film's closest analogue is probably Half Nelson – and not just because Qu and Dardennes cinematographer Benoît Dervaux get the most out of some playground tunnels amongst other quasi-surrealist diversions. Like that film, it's an intelligent, consistently surprising heartbreaker that never goes for the soft option when a tough lesson will do.

The writer-director of another Chinese film in the season, Wrath of Silence (see #10), said he steered clear of criticising state officials, as his scripts had to be cleared by the censorship office. Qu (who offers a heroic lawyer where Wrath's was corrupt) clearly doesn't give a shit, and this painful, richly symbolic work – which keeps its violence off camera, and any sentiment or sensationalism off the screen – is a vivid indictment of a society that simply isn't looking after its kids.

Angels Wear White isn't some worthy lecture, though, and while it's slightly uneven, it's a bleakly vibrant, well-acted, quietly poetic, furious film about desperation, the potential for change, and systematic, state-sanctioned abuse masquerading as justice and progress.

It's also the best Marilyn Monroe film since 1961.


Dervaus and Wu trying to ignore the weirdo with the mobile phone all up in their grills.

***

7. On Chesil Beach


<3 Saoirse Ronan. After Brooklyn and this, I'm starting to think she can do no wrong.

Director: Dominic Cooke
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough
Country: UK
UK release date: 19 January 2018
Rating: 3.5/4

For almost its entire length, this adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2007 novella is close to perfect: the beautifully-modulated, restrained story of a strait-laced couple in the still strait-laced early '60s who look back on their often idyllic courtship from the claustrophobic environs of their honeymoon suite.

McEwan and director Dominic Cooke don't change much of the book: they and their cast just subtly externalise feelings that were elucidated as thoughts on the page, and cast off a few memorable moments that might alienate or unwittingly unnerve a cinematic audience (a spasming muscle, jizz on the face).

The leads are brilliant, particularly Saoirse Ronan as the sexually repressed violin prodigy Florence, and if a couple of elements don't quite work − McEwan's slightly embarrassing fixation with Edward (Billy Howle) liking a good ruck, and Anne Marie-Duff's simplistic scenes as his mother, which are tonally off − those are offset by passages of understated lyricism and rich, convincing romance which clash gloriously with the hysterically uncomfortable wedding night, from the inedible none-more-1962 meal (rendered gloriously on the screen: slice of melon with glace cherry, anyone?) to Edward rolling off the bed because he can't have sex with his shoes on.

When the explosion comes, and it does, it's heartbreakingly portrayed, and one of those sequences that works so well because it's so faithfully rendered. Then McEwan starts to write new scenes that were merely summarised in the book, and all bets are off. The first three − dealing with Edward and his family − are minor but quite satisfying, especially the one with his father, and the fourth is an absolute belter, a slightly obvious but incredibly affecting scene set in a record shop in 1975.

If only they'd ended the film there, as the next has Edward explaining not just the moral but also the text of the story, before a closing sequence set in 2007 that has some of the worst Old Person Make-Up that I've seen: he looks like he's been badly burned, and the rest of the cast are only slightly less ridiculous. Yes, the moment that it's all leading up to got to me, even while I knew I was being manipulated, but from Edward's risible stance at the crease onwards, it's an embarrassing and completely unnecessary coda.

Look, lads, you've got a while till the general release, how about heading back and having another go? Because most of this movie is bloody brilliant.

***

6. Battle of the Sexes



Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman
Country: USA
UK release date:
Rating: 3.5/4

A hugely uplifting, entertaining movie, with a typically dynamic central performance from Emma Stone, who inhabits the character of Billie Jean King almost entirely, as the tennis legend breaks away from the sexist tennis establishment, confronts the fact she's a lesbian, and gears up for the eponymous match, opposite self-styled 'male chauvinist pig', the shy and retiring Bobby Riggs.

When I heard about the movie, I thought it might be dressing the occasion up as something it isn't, but it gets Riggs right − played by Steve Carell with great subtlety and chutzpah as a slightly pathetic hustler who plays the press like a violin − seeing the villain (represented by Bill Pullman's Jack Kramer) as the society that allows his phony chauvinistic bluster to land.

Almost everything about the film is first-rate: the montages (I love a sports montage!), the pacing, much of the dialogue, it's just the one-dimensional nature of the human villainy (Kramer, Margaret Court) and the overt on-the-nose social commentary that feels too shallow and Hollywoodised: Alan Cumming's character, a gay costume designer, seems to have wandered in from The Hunger Games and just doesn't seem real. The audience loved him, but he's so magic gay: an acerbic queen who's really a wise and profound guardian angel.

On the whole it's a really lovely film, though: incredibly fun and with such a deep, appealing performance from Stone: that penultimate scene in the changing room is so perfectly played, so complex and apposite, when most movies would have given her an unconvincing and sentimental fictional heart-to-heart with Riggs that explained her character and justified his.



***

At the midway point, let's pause for some trivia.

Cinematic celebrities spotted: Mike Leigh (at the next film in the list), Terry Gilliam at the #1 movie.
Most comfortable screen: Vue Leicester Square: Screen 5
Most exciting screen: Odeon Leicester Square (shame about the leg-room)
Best loos: Vue Leicester Square.
Worst loos: Empire Leicester Square, somehow worst than the portaloos at Embankment Garden Cinema.
Best Q&A: The Florida Project for the lolz and adorableness, Angels Wear White for the insights into Vivian Qu's creative process.
Worst Q&A: The pretentiousness of Zama, both film and Q&A, wound me up. Red carpet feeds (I saw The Battle of the Sexes and 3 Billboards) aren't for me, I just find the fawning absolutely unbearable, and though Emma Stone fielded her questions with a bit of humour and panache, and Martin McDonagh offered some insights into the genesis of his film, there's not much that one can really say to questions like "How are you so brilliant and gorgeous?"
Most exciting person to see in the flesh: AUBREY PLAZA FROM PARKS AND REC, especially as I was just about certain that she wouldn't come over for the film.
Request for next year: Please, more variety in the Q&As for the really big screenings: these always just centre around the same two questions (To the writer/director: 'How did you come up with the idea?'; to the stars: 'How did you get on board?' or 'What did you think when you read the script?'), and subsequently the same two answers, while the format is so rigid that there are never any follow-up questions. As a result, they're nowhere near as insightful as the Q&As for smaller events. It's such a wasted opportunity and makes it seem like we've just got the stars over from Hollywood for a fashion parade. Considering the incredible amount of preparation that clearly goes into this amazing festival, it seems really half-arsed.

All in all, though, it was just such a magical and exciting 11 days, and I feel so privileged to have been able to go to it at all, let alone to so many exciting events.

***

5. The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected



Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Sandler, Grace Van Patten, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Emma Thompson
Country: USA
UK release date: 13 October 2017 (on Amazon)
Rating: 3.5/4

A moving, frequently hilarious comedy-drama – sort of 'Woody Allen's The Royal Tenenbaums – about a family living in the shadow of impossible oft-married patriarch and undiscovered sculptor, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman).

It has perhaps a couple of endings too many, and Emma Thompson misses the mark as a ditsy New York alcoholic, but the rest of the cast is great, some of the comic, character-rooted flourishes are instant classics – Sandler and Stiller's conversation about business, the way Hoffman runs (I tell you, if he'd done this in Marathon Man, it would've been twice as good) – and there are several darkly comic passages addressing neuroses that frequently debilitate me: Stiller asking a nonplussed nurse if he's abandoning his father by going to a meeting, Sandler's summation of his dad's legacy.

In fact, Sandler has several scenes here that are superb, and if his familiar excesses occasionally intrude (or at least call to mind his dual life as the shittest thing on screen), he's now started giving so many good performances that he's in danger of becoming liked and respected. The call with his daughter (Grace Van Patten) early on in the picture is a beauty.

The Meyerowitz Stories is a really terrific film, Baumbach's best since the unassailable Frances Ha, and yet after 10 minutes I thought I was going to hate it, the director setting it up as a film about privileged, self-serious New York intellectuals with their meaningless problems, before tipping us a huge wink with a line about houmous.

***

4. You Were Never Really Here



Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman
Country: UK/France/USA
UK release date: No release date confirmed, but probably February
Rating: 3.5/4

Well what did you think a Lynne Ramsay noir with Joaquin Phoenix as a hitman would be like?

Ramsay can write great dialogue, but with a Hitchcockian desire to tell stories using just pictures, that visual imagination – CCTV action sequence ftw! – and her matchless ear for apposite pop music, she rarely needs it. Admittedly she loves a long arthouse silence, so your tolerance for her work may depend on whether you do too, but once this one gets going it's unmissable.

There's Phoenix out intense-ing himself to a Jonny Greenwood score, a deeply moving Jonathan Ames story that invokes and updates the likes of Taxi Driver, The Searchers and A History of Violence without ever feeling like a retread, and a lot of people being twatted in the head with a hammer. Really, what more could you ask for?

Except, of course, the star and director turning up pissed to the screening and spoiling the festival director's Q&A with a mixture of in-jokes and gratuitous flirting.

I just can't get over that line in the politician's dining room, this film's inspired inversion of "Let's go home, Debbie." It damn near broke me.



***

3. A Fantastic Woman



Director: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra
Country: Chile
UK release date: 2 March 2018
Rating: 3.5/4

This is really, really good.

I'm always struck by the sky-high ratings on IMDb for bad LGBT movies, and wonder if it's attributable to a) the comparative paucity of these films, meaning that we should celebrate those we get, regardless of their technical or artistic deficiencies (the extension, I suppose, is the tribalistic mindset this engenders, in which you can't judge them as bad films, as they're not just films); b) my lack of insight into what these films should be doing in relation to their audience and LGBT issues in 2017.

Anyway, no such ruminations necessary on this one, it's fucking brilliant: a dazzling, poetic, sometimes dream-like Chilean film about a trans woman (Daniela Vega) trying to hold it together – and reach some point of resolution – after the death of her boyfriend. I should mention that his family aren't helping.

Vega has the most fascinating face and the camera makes the most of it, not least in a dazzling nightclub sequence that moves from pain to sensuality to a fantasy dance number, but there's such depth to her characterisation too, and the film's refusal to give her easy, sassy victories is uniquely satisfying, grappling profoundly and humanely with issues that are both specific and universal.

The effect is of a Dardennes story adapted by Almodovar, but I haven't seen anyone like Vega before. I'm not sure she can really sing classical (the best use of 'Ombra mai fu' is now and forever in Humphrey Jennings' seismic short film, Spare Time, Handel fans), but the rest of the music's a treat, with British composer Matthew Herbert delivering an audial dreamscape that like the script, photography and performances serves to conjure a very particular mood.



***

2. Bad Lucky Goat



Director: Samir Oliveros
Cast: Jean Bush, Kiara Howard, Ambrosio Huffington, Honlenny Huffington, Elkin Robinson
Country: Colombian
UK release date: No release confirmed
Rating: 4/4

I was expecting Brewster's-Millions-with-a-goat, I got something like the very essence of charm: a wonderfully atmospheric story of burgeoning sibling friendship, set on a Caribbean island, about a brother and sister who accidentally wreck their parents' car by running over a goat, and hatch one scheme after another to try to get level.

Colombian director Samir Oliveros shot the film on Providence Island (an old colonial outpost owned by Colombia) using non-professional local actors, a score written by local musicians (several of whom play on screen) and the locales as another character in a way that recalls a film of escape, change and geographical flavour that I've always loved, Seducing Doctor Lewis. Bad Lucky Goat is very funny when it wants to be, though it's not packed with jokes: much of the joy lies in its genuinely offbeat sensibility and its deceptively lofty ambitions.

Oliveros, who'd made just one previous short and is now doing a master's in LA, told me (as I was bothering him in the lobby) that he shot this one "guerrilla-style" and is now learning how to be a professional filmmaker, ideally in Hollywood. I hope that training doesn't erode the instinctive brilliance of this debut, which is fast-moving but laid-back, packing an astounding amount into its 76 minutes, dealing with themes of superstition, familial loyalty and accidental goat slaughter, and featuring beautiful performances from the two young leads − both of whom are now eyeing careers on screen. Like the rest of the cast, they adapted Oliveros' English-language script into their phonetic local language, Creole, and I could listen to their slang-heavy exchanges all day.

I got lost in its world, and while the film's trip to the cockfights may be a bit of a rude shock to myself and my other libtard cucks, it ultimately did little to dispel the film's very special atmosphere.

***

1. The Shape of Water



Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg
Country: USA
UK release date: 16 February 2018
Rating: 4/4

Guillermo del Toro's wonderful fable – "my favourite thing I've ever done" – is kind of like Arrival starring Amélie, as a shy, mute cleaner (Sally Hawkins) at a government base begins to communicate with the aquaman in the tank, and feels the first flickerings of love.

Set – like my previous film at the LFF, On Chesil Beach (see #7) – in 1962, it's really about today: a plea for tolerance in the light of Trump and co's war on Muslims, blacks and gays, and a monster movie in which the monster isn't the Other, it's right-wing, gung-ho America, represented here by Michael Shannon, as a psychotic vet in a teal Cadillac who'll beat the living shit out of anything that doesn't conform to his very specific notion of a person. The toxic machismo and vicious hatred of otherness isn't restricted to him, though, it's endemic: and hiding behind the most benign of fronts.

Shot in a rich, stylised palette of greens and browns (admittedly more City of Lost Children), set partly above an old, working cinema and filled with little visual effects – though with a creature who's delightfully and resolutely real – it reminded me of nothing as much as Amélie. That 2001 movie might be the last time I felt quite so charmed by a lead character as by Hawkins' Eliza Esposito, whose increasingly appealing, steely, sexy performance recalls that holy trinity of great mute turns: Dorothy McGuire in >The Spiral Staircase, Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown and Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, and is just as full of nobility and pathos; just as lacking in gimmickry.

There's nice work too from Richard Jenkins, who is frequently held hostage in underwhelming comedies, but showed in Tom McCarthy's 2007 masterpiece, The Visitor that he's just about the best actor in America when he can be bothered. As Eliza's gay flatmate, a struggling, alcoholic advertising artist, he's never self-pitying or trite, and those traits no more define who he is than the fact he's bald.

The plot is fine: diverting, involving and well-balanced between moments of intrigue, suspense and humour, but it's the passages of poetry that completely bewitched me, including one sequence in a waterlogged bathroom that took the breath away.

There's another beguiling flight of fancy that memorably references Fred and Ginger's 'Let's Face the Music and Dance', and music is critical to this film: Hawkins and Jenkins engage in an impromptu tap, Alexandre Desplat equips her with the most enchanting theme, and del Toro exhibits his great love for – and understanding of – classic Hollywood by including several clips from old Fox musicals, including Bojangles and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel and colour clips of Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda rendered in the monochrome of '60s tube TV. Realising that I was in a cinema in which a modern audience was being forced to watch old footage of Alice Faye, and listen to a short monologue discoursing on her ill-fad career was just the most delightful thing.

So… a sci-fi, a horror, a monster movie, a romance, a Cold War thriller, and a history lesson about Alice Faye: this genre-bender is many things, but above all it's an emotional experience, a clear-sighted, glowing-hearted picture with some of the most beautiful imagery and a performance I'm going to be rhapsodising about for weeks, months, years.



Del Toro, his producers, and Richard Jenkins. Sally Hawkins got ill. ***

Thanks for reading.

Next year's best films: London Film Festival 2017 round-up − Part 1


If you see this man, do not approach him or he will bore you about films.

Well, you asked for it. Or at least partially dictated the format. So here's all 20 movies I saw at this year's London Film Festival, from worst to best.

Part 1 includes films by the likes of Todd Haynes, Dee Rees and Martin McDonagh, as well as a Chilean documentary on the world's worst aunt, a pulsating French drama about AIDS activists, and Aubrey Plaza being amazing (again). Plus at least two crushing disappointments.

It seems a little odd to make you read an article about the 10 worst films I saw at a festival, but not as odd as publishing a 6,000-word blog, which is why I've split this in two. Also, films #11-14 are really worth s

eeing, and hopefully the reviews of the others are more entertaining than the movies themselves, which isn't the highest bar. Now join me in saying the official catchphrase of the festival, spoken at least four times during every Q&A by a festival programmer: "Congratulations on what I think is an extraordinary movie."

***

20. Wonderstruck


"Make her look a bit cross-eyed with warty eyelids. There we go: old. Done."

Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Damian Young
Country: USA
Rating: 1.5/4
UK release date: mid-November 2017

How is a Todd Haynes film with a character based on Lillian Gish this bad? And why is this his follow-up to Carol?!

This YA mystery – adapted by its author – has an intriguing dual-time structure, a nice Carter Burwell score and some neat nods to silents, but it's also cloying, not very mysterious, and incredibly longwinded: not trusting its audience to understand anything, and struggling with some laborious translation problems reminiscent of Le mèpris, in which a lot of the dialogue has to be written down and held up. It doesn't help that the central kid seems to have wandered in from a school play. Or that it ends up looking like an extended advertorial for some museums.

It's sort of like Hugo, if everything that Scorsese's film had done had gone a bit wrong.

(The Gish films being homaged, incidentally, are primarily The Wind (the poster of the film-within-a-film starring 'Lillian Mayhew' is based directly on a publicity image for this 1928 masterpiece) and Orphans of the Storm, though she played mothers in few of her starring vehicles and Wonderstruck diverts considerably from her real life.)

***

19. Zama



Director: Lucrecia Martel
Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano
Country: Numerous
UK release date: No release confirmed
Rating: 2/4

"Think of the film as a whiskey... Sometimes you might get drunk and fall asleep. For me that's a good thing. There are some films I love that I've seen five times, and I fell asleep five times." – writer-director Lucrecia Martel

Yeah, I don't feel the same, though that does explain why your film is quite boring.

Zama is about a colonial magistrate who just wants to go home, but forever finds one more obstacle in his way. There's some glorious imagery, and the odd interesting scene – with Lola Dueñas great as a prostitute elevated to society life, and a neat mini-twist near the end – but the characters aren't for the most part well-drawn, and the film's lack of context and air of aloof pretentiousness got on my wick. With a half hour to go, I just couldn't wait for it to end.

The Q&A, as you can tell, managed to be even more annoying than the film (yeah, I shouldn't have stayed). At one point she said that hens have greater attention to detail than humans.

***

... and the award for The Biggest Disappointment of LFF 2017 goes to...

18. The Florida Project



Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera
Country: USA
UK release date: 10 November 2017
Rating: 2/4

An Our Gang movie set among the 'hidden homeless' in run-down motels around Disneyworld sounds brilliant, but this tone-deaf film is too horrible and muddled to be anything but a trial.

As it moves from a film about resourceful, anarchic children to one about the world they're forced to inhabit, it forgets that in order to root for a character, they have to not be just the most appalling dickhead. Because of my background, I tend to feel a great affinity towards damaged working-class characters, and subscribe to the lefty notion that there are few bad people, we're shaped more than we might ever like to admit by our privileges and opportunities, rather than by innate attributes. I'm sure, too, that the mum here loves her daughter, as that sweet scene in the rain attests. But she's still a selfish, ungrateful arsehole.

You don't have to love a film's characters to love a film, but from the way Sean Baker has set up this movie, and used it to try to open up a debate about homelessness, you're clearly supposed to feel something, if only pity. For a masterclass, see the Dardennes' The Kid with the Bike, which gave us a self-centred, troublesome protagonist incinerating his second chances and made us want to save his life. Here you see characters like Willem Dafoe's motel manager exhibiting a gentle human kindness towards Bria Vinaite's character, and her treating them repeatedly like shit.

Nor does the kid stuff come off much better. All the child actors are good, especially Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, but most of the jokes grow simply from kids behaving inappropriately like adults: a situation used solely for cheap (but undeniable) laughs, without ever really addressing its essential tragedy. I'm as much of a fan as the next person of a kid not really knowing how to swear and just shouting: "You are shit!" at a neighbour, but there's an inmate tragedy there that the film never approaches in its reluctance to acknowledge that while Moonee is slowly waking to a nightmare caused by the callous lie that is capitalism, her mum is also a dick.

It's only when the film slips into an improvisatory mode, allowing its kids to be kids, and a gentle, insular almost surreal silliness to intrude, that it manages to truly evoke childhood, and so achieve the juxtaposition essential to making its premise work. The ending calls to mind Les 400 Coups, surely not accidentally, and it's beautifully done, but it's hardly enough.

The hilarious Q&A with the kids was way better than this unpleasant, inexplicably lauded film.



***

17. Mudbound



Director: Dee Rees
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jonathan Banks, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell
Country: USA
Rating: 2/4
UK release date: 17 November 2017 (Netflix and simultaneous theatrical release)

Ronsel quick-drying mud stain: it does exactly what it says on the tin – attempts to create a weighty, socially-conscious art movie from Hillary Jordan's plotty, slightly trashy but well-meaning page-turner.

Dee Rees's film spends more time in battle, fleshes out the Ronsel-Jamie relationship, and dwells on the minutiae of African-American life in the Deep South, but in a choppily uninvolving way, and at the expense of Laura's intriguing story of love, repression, sexual and racial guilt.

Critically, it never summons the book's sense of inexorable, fatalistic dread, nor knows what to do as it reaches its climax, which is first silly, then rushed and finally pointlessly and unconvincingly rose-tinted.

Mudbound has a few painterly images, good performances from Jason Mitchell and Carey Mulligan (who has one fantastic scene largely disconnected from the narrative and the worst pregnancy prop in decades) and an unvarnished understanding of the unglamorous, subservient pragmatism needed to survive as a black man in '40s Mississippi, but it isn't very compelling or convincing.

I say this as a middle-class white bloke, but... what promised to be a timely exploration of the African-American experience from an urgent and valuable contemporary voice is instead just a standard book adaptation: a mediocre melodrama that deals with big themes in a handsome but hackneyed way. Plus lots of Mary J. Blige staring out of windows.



***

16. Downsizing



Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgård
Country: USA
UK release date: 19 January 2018
Rating: 2.5/4

Payne's latest is a funny, sometimes affecting but also confused and rambling satire about everyman Matt Damon joining the growing number of humans 'downsizing' to about 0.035% of their previous body mass, in order to save the environment (and get a better house).

Many of the familiar Payne themes and tropes are here – the search for meaning, economics becoming personal, a climactic moment of supposed quiet catharsis – but the film is all over the shop, mixing neat sight gags, piercing one-liners and heavyhanded comment with variable effects, disastrous diversions and Christoph Waltz being pretty funny but in a different film to everyone else.

Between a broad beginning and an earnest, incoherent end – and seriously, after this, Only Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant), Wanderlust (Wain), keep good American directors away from hippy communes – it does find a sweet spot and a real rhythm for what must be 45 minutes, with Hong Chau absolutely terrific as a bossy Vietnamese dissident (I await the terrible thinkpieces about whether her character is racist). And I loved the fact, perhaps minor to many, that it preached tolerance but took faith seriously: a balance that remains unusual, since evangelical America has rightly revolted anyone with a sense of decency.

But where Election was compact and deadly, and The Descendants elegantly elongated and profound, this feels like about five films cobbled together – and the last couple aren't really any good.

***

15. The Venerable W.



Director: Barbet Schroeder
Country: France/Switzerland
UK release date: TBC
Rating: 2.5/4
A pretty good documentary from Barbet Schroeder − a former Éric Rohmer collaborator who now makes factual films about awful people − dealing with Ashin Wirathu, the world's naughtiest baby. Oh, OK, he's a Buddhist hate preacher. Who's eaten quite enough alms, by the looks of him. It's more a potted history of the path to genocide − with a bit of access and some intelligently-compiled raw footage shot by others − than an in-depth portrait of its subject, though it's an important story and a timely primer on an urgent humanitarian crisis.

As a film, it might be more effective if it had taken the route of its trailer, which makes the Errol Morris-like decision to unveil The Venerable W's toxic Islamophobia at the midway point, rather than leading with it. In the screening, a woman behind me tutted at everything from fascist rhetoric to burning bodies, as if otherwise we'd think that she was endorsing the behaviour in the film.

***

... and the award for The Most Objectionable Audience of LFF 2017 goes to...

14. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Are McDonagh's films increasingly just an arsehole magnet? Discuss.)



Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage
Country: UK/USA
UK release date: 12 January 2018
Rating: 3/4

Martin McDonagh's third film may lack the effortless grace of his stunning debut, In Bruges, but it’s more coherent and confident than his follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, getting its humanistic points across covered by the usual maelstrom of swearing, violence and taboo-punching.

Frances McDormand plays a plain-talking cracker mom who hires three defunct billboards in a bid to attract the attention of a police force that has spent seven months failing to find the man who raped and killed her daughter.

Those cops are led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a family man dying of pancreatic cancer, and the slow-witted, hair-triggered Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, brilliant again), one of the most intelligently, interestingly developed characters I’ve seen in a while.

It doesn’t always delve into its serious themes in enough depth – McDonagh’s recent stage hit, Hangmen, dealt with justice and bloodlust in a more intriguing yet incisive way – and the writer-director’s unfortunate predilection for midget gags continues, suggesting a comic imagination that’s as committed to cheap laughs on any terms as it is to shocking us out of apathy (I’ll let him off on the profusion of ‘retard’s, as it makes sense for that to be in these characters’ vernacular).

But his sarcastic, pedantic humour is still great fun to indulge, even when he has to file off the cultural specificity for a mass audience, and there are stunning scenes here: a one-take act of brutality, a breakdown, letters from beyond the grave, and a fiery callback to In Bruges’ Raglan Road set-piece.

I don’t think the movie quite manages to make you feel McDormand’s grief and sorrow, only really her helplessness and exasperation, but this typically outrageous, confrontational and well-acted film is full of surprises, appealingly nuanced characterisation and moments of quiet emotion, and if it feels too disjointed and too detached from the more urgent themes at which it hints, it does have a little to say about the abandoned in America, the seductive symmetry of eye-for-an-eye retribution, and the reasons why tub-thumping calls to arms from a literal moron might currently have the capital that they do.

I might try to see this again when I'm not so tired, as it was my 20th big-screen film in 11 days, and it started really late.

Incidentally, is Lucas Hedges the most morosely uninteresting actor working today?

***

13. 120 Beats per Minute



Director: Robin Campillo
Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Félix Maritaud
Country: France
UK release date: 6 April 2018
Rating: 3/4

An intelligent yet visceral film about the gay community in '80s Paris, which starts brilliantly – focusing on the protests and meetings of Act Up, a group of guerrilla AIDS activists – before turning into a film about a man dying of the illness.

No matter how compassionately, credibly and intimately it does that, segueing from a film about ideas to one about the individual, contrasting the character's dynamism and beauty with his pain-ravaged impotence, and showing the body – not the city – as the battleground, it's ground we've covered countless times before, and (at the risk of sounding awful) it made the movie increasingly tedious.

At its best, this confrontational, unsentimental but humanistic film has unexpected echoes of Melville's Army in the Shadows, which looked at action, division and necessity within the French Resistance, and I understand why it included so many sequences of illness and fucking, but those elements don't seem as interesting as the story it started to tell. When it returns to it in those final moments, loaded with the suffering and sadness of what's gone before, the results are admittedly astounding.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is absolutely terrific as Sean, a founding member, Mesut Őzil-alike and all-round complex human being, first introduced to us justifying the fact that he and his mates have handcuffed a government official to a post during his team's PowerPoint presentation.

***

12. Adriana's Pact



Director: Lissette Orozco
Country: Chile
UK release date: TBC, but it's been picked up by Articial Eye
Rating: 3/4

A riveting documentary about a young Chilean filmmaker, Lissette Orozco, who discovers that her beloved aunt was a member of Pinochet's notorious secret police.

As a (debut) film, its balancing of the disparate elements is perhaps a little off – too much unrelated footage of other family members, too much of the director talking about her feelings – and it does become slightly repetitive towards the end, but its story and levels of access are incredible, and it's one of those few films deserving of that most overused of adjectives: brave.

Also Orozco has a lovely pretty face. Her next film, brilliantly, is about an uncle!

***

11. Ingrid Goes West



Director: Matt Spicer
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen
Country: USA
UK release date: 17 November 2017
Rating: 3/4

A genre-blurring indie starring Aubrey Plaza (I will watch anything starring Aubrey Plaza) as the lost, damaged and impressionable Ingrid, who gets out of the psychiatric hospital after one of the great opening scenes, takes the insurance money she got from her mum's death and hot-foots it to LA in the hope of befriending Insta superstar Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen).

Matt Spicer's film isn't always as piercingly, exaltingly dark as it might be, but it treats Ingrid with just the right balance of interest, empathy and fear, and Plaza − who also produced − is absolutely superb in the lead, bringing a great depth, sadness and humanity to a character who can be the most appalling, manipulative monster, but somehow still isn't that big on Instagram.

There are elements that don't quite come off (Billy Magnussen's Nick is an interesting second act catalyst, but it's such a big performance that he unbalances the film; the love interest's Batman fixation is funny but pushed beyond the bounds of credibility), but it's a very interesting, enjoyable film that works as a black comedy, horror, psychological thriller, character study and satire on the skewed and unhealthy forced perspective of social media, in which everything is 'the best' and everything is put through a filter until it's perfect.

That's not perhaps the most profound observation, but the unexpected human fragility beneath Ingrid's monstrousness gives the film a real resonance, and makes it something slightly different to the razor-sharp, take-no-prisoners movie being sold to us.

#iamingrid



At the screening: It was interesting to hear Plaza (above, with Spicer (second from left) and Magnussen (right) say that her own preference is for an ending with at least a little hope in it, a sentiment hinting at the warmth beneath the nihilistic bravado, which it's tempting to compare with that of April Ludgate, her character in all-time classic sitcom, Parks and Recreation. "In essence, we're all fucked," she said at another point during the Q&A, asked to pontificate on the future of the world.

***

Thanks for reading. Part 2 will be up shortly.

Friday, 11 August 2017

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu – Reviews #272

This will be the last update for the time being. I want to take a break from the blog to focus more on my fiction (I've written a kids' book and am trying to get it published), and after 10 years I'm not sure what more I have to say about movies, gigs, books and plays. I may post updates now and then: I enjoy doing the reviews of the year, so I imagine I'll put those up in December.

In the meantime, thanks to each of you who's read, commented on or plugged the blog over the past seven-and-a-half years (and for the three years before that, when it was Films on Friday). Bye then.

BOOKS



A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943) – Betty Smith’s novel about growing up in poverty in Brooklyn at the turn of the century begins with such an accumulation of detail that you feel as if perhaps she can’t distinguish between the mundane and the memorable. But then you realise she’s merely setting the scene, immersing you in the minutiae and the singular atmosphere of this atypical household in this dirt-poor, drably colourful place, so the stories – anecdotal, funny, heartbreaking – have a place to lay their roots. Her heroine Francie Nolan is the bookish, sensitive and poetic daughter of a mother turned hard by penury – just as her hands are cracked and weathered by work – and a father who is too dreamy, deluded and drunk for this world, and will be out of here by 35.

Kazan’s sensational 1945 film condenses the key events to a single year, but this book follows Francies from 10 to 18, flashing back to her infancy, and seeing her grow from a dirty-faced junk hoarder to a confident, intelligent, sexually-aware young woman finding her way in the world, negotiating the pain of betrayal and finally leaving that home in Brooklyn with its improbable, incongruously beautiful, neverendingly resilient tree in the yard. The film has been a precious thing to me for years, and this book has the same tone of yearning, of wisdom learned too young, and character being forged in the furnace of hardship, while offering dozens of deleted scenes with their new insights, moments of deft levity and piercing heartaches. I don’t think it’ll ever leave me, not least those details, like the one about her keeping the old house's carpet for the new one. (4)

***



Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity by Neal Gabler (1994) – Walter Winchell is one of those cultural figures so of his time that they simply evaporate from history. That time was the 1920s to the 1950s, when the former second-rate Vaudevillian turned from a gossip columnist into a political commentator, from a Rooseveltian Democrat into a McCarthyite Republican, and from a slangy if self-obsessed man of the people into a vicious bully forever sidetracked by meaningless, one-sided beefs. At the peak of his fame and influence, he was read or listened to by two-thirds of Americans each week.

It’s hard to write a biography of a man who was so unknowable and aloof – Winchell had few friends and almost no interests beside his career – but this book gets as close as it can through contemporary articles, secondary sources and interviews with his colleagues and near-confidantes, while doubling as a truly exceptional social history of America: an America for whom Winchell democratised but trivialised and sensationalised news, treating gossip, tragedy or politics with the same screaming, shallow reverence, and increasingly – like his protégé Roy Cohn, later the mentor of one Donald Trump – seeing life as a war between an Eastern intellectual elite and the common, simple and simply patriotic American. If you wondered too where Trump got his tweet style, then look at a ‘50s Winchell item, ending with an accentuated, hyperbolic blast like “Seven subpoenas!” or “Party card!”.

Gabler has a superb vocabulary and a grabby but cerebral style, while littering the narrative with mini-profiles of contemporaries, and short essays on the changing America – and how Winchell first powered that change, and then was powerless to resist it, eventually being destroyed by hubris, his association with McCarthy, his personal unpopularity and his utter irrelevance to the world of the 1960s. The author’s set-pieces are dynamic – including a brilliant chronicle of the Hauptmann trial of the 1930s, and Winchell’s initially understandable but then unbearably overbearing hatchet job on Josephine Baker – and so is his deep, thoughtful and truthful analysis, most memorably of his subject’s political conversion, which he attributes to Winchell’s fear of being investigated himself, his genuine, fervent and long-standing anti-Communism, and the opportunity it gave him to lambast James Wechsler, the editor of the New York Post and a former Young Communist League member, whose paper had just written a series dismantling Winchell’s mythos and reputation.

Gabler argues brilliantly that communism was “the weapon, not the object” and that Winchell’s decisions were often more political than personal. He had become a worshipper of Roosevelt only after being charmed personally by the new president, while – like McCarthy and Cohn, both of whom he liked personally – Winchell was earthy, bitter, working-class and attracted to power. Even in the ‘50s he didn’t see himself as a Republican – telling a party functionary who welcomed him to the GOP at Eisenhower’s election party, “I'm not a Republican, you're a Republican” – and never abandoned his one saving grace, the ‘premature anti-fascism’ (as the HUAC would dub it) of the early ‘30s, in which his uncanny antenna for anti-Semitism saw him repeatedly and passionately denounce the Nazis some five years before most of his contemporaries, and root out fascists and Nazi sympathisers throughout the United States (this role inspired Philip Roth to use Winchell as the defender of the people in his brilliant alternate history, The Plot Against America, in which the hero of the air – and of America First – the fascist Charles Lindbergh becomes president).

In the end, Winchell did as much harm as good: opening up the press to working class voices, challenging outdated mores and unquestionably enlivening the medium, but then using his platform to settle scores and wage vindictive vendettas, accumulating more and more wealth (a reaction to his Dickensian childhood), and – in a broader cultural sense – turning news into entertainment, with the accompanying callousness and collateral damage that engendered. He fought fewer and fewer justified or even coherent battles, was a lousy friend, and was an even worse father, but – for better or worse – he was also among the most significant cultural voices of the 20th century, whose life must be understood in order to understand the present. Without ever over-stretching or being caught up in academic-ese, Gabler’s incredibly entertaining book does as good a job as can be imagined of making that possible. (4)

***

FILMS



Grand Hotel (Edmund Goudling, 1932) – It looks like a relic compared to even similar contemporary films like Union Depot, Dinner at Eight and Skyscraper Souls: too static, melodramatic and light on, y’know, story. And yet once you adjust to its size and tempo, and the characters begin to cross into one another’s lives (always a joy of such all-star shenanigans), it becomes damn near unmissable.

John Barrymore is noble (and wearing way too much eye-shadow), Lionel turns from a trivial one-note annoyance into a hero, Crawford discovers an attractively tender humanity, and Garbo is just so damn Garbo: warm, sensual, tragic, and apparently in a different film to everyone else, as she dances badly and her silent film eyebrow works overtime. The moment where she discovers Barrymore’s true character, purring “Norrrr”, is such a transportative treat: dumping you right back into 1932. A mention too for Lewis Stone, playing an omniscient medic who got blown up in the war and is now Two-Face from Batman.

If you show it to someone who thinks black-and-white films are dated, clunky and even a little silly, they’ll laugh you right out of the room, but if you’re receptive to this era of cinema, it’s kind of amazing. (3.5)

***


Tagline clearly influenced by Annie Hall's 'A nervous romance'.

CINEMA: The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, 2017) – American stand-up is just crap, isn’t it*. The rest of the film’s great, though: funny, tender and coming at the rom-com from a different angle to normal, with what’s surely a star-making part for Kumail Nanjiani (who co-wrote the script, based on his own life). In support, Holly Hunter is ACTING and Ray Romano is playing for laughs, and yet what underpins their performances seems real, and so they really work. I liked it a lot. (3.5)
*not Louis C.K.

***



CINEMA: Cría Cuervos 1976 – A miraculous film, quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, that plays out on the face of its young heroine (Ana Torrent from Spirit of the Beehive) and exists in that strange place between memory, reality and fantasy, as scenes bleed one into the next, and Torrent recalls her authoritarian, adulterous father, conjures the gentle spirit of her neurotic mother (Geraldine Chaplin) and cautiously negotiates a new, lonelier life in the bosom of her strict aunt’s family.

Torrent is simply wonderful, as is Chaplin – who also plays the older Ana – and the film’s unpredictable storytelling, offbeat comedy and sumptuous camerawork is allied to a pained understanding of human cruelty – but also a firm conviction in human resilience. For all the political analysis made of the movie (it seems that every Spanish film, even if it’s a comedy about an ice-skating dog, is read as an allegory of the Spanish Civil War), it’s really a film about loss, its unique worldview encapsulated by the inspired use of a contemporary pop song that has the jauntiest tune and the most desolate lyrics, and seems to be the only record Ana owns. (4)

***



"I wrote it."
"I gave you the title."
"Okay, so when they have awards for titles, you can go to that."

CINEMA: Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987) – Near-perfect biopic of gay '60s playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), focusing on his volatile relationship with live-in lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), powered by a superb Alan Bennett script, and Oldman's best performance. It has the same appealing, distinctive, slightly washed-out look as almost every good British film of the period and, if it's perhaps a little light on Orton's writing, and its Morocco sequence drags, the film is just as bawdy, erudite, entertaining, non-judgemental and tragic as it should be. A film so fine, in fact, that Vanessa Redgrave is good in it.

Oldman has given so many mannered, lacklustre or just plain bad performances since the early '90s, but in his first few years he must have seemed a revelation, his star soaring as he subsumed himself in a succession of unforgettable, coruscating characterisations. Playful, reckless and morphing from a rough, nervy Midlands youth to a swaggering, dapper jack-the-lad toast-of-London, his Orton is the best of the lot. The relationship he evokes with sister Leoni (Frances Barber) too is wonderfully attractive and real.

'Synthesisers by Hans Zimmer'! (4)

***



CINEMA: The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968) – An American tragedy, impeccably constructed, with charming, toothy and toned Burt Lancaster resolving to 'swim home' through his gated Connecticut community via his wealthy friends' sapphire, sun-dappled pools. It's a film about innocence, idealism and moral rot: bombastic, melodramatic and surrealistic, but also human, profound and intensely moving as it depicts a body, a mind and a society running to ruin. There's also a scene in which Lancaster runs around a horse enclosure in slow-motion, leaping over hurdles, which is emblematic of the film's sometimes heavy-handed symbolism, and really very silly indeed. (4)

***



Fixer Dugan (Lew Landers, 1939) – Fast-talking Lee Tracy played reporters, promoters and carnival barkers in a career that saw him rise meteorically during the pre-Code era, then plummet to earth after he allegedly urinated on the Mexican Army whilst shooting on location in November 1933, was booted out of the country, and then sacked by MGM. (I wrote about it here.) Tracy was sensational when given a good script (his turn in Blessed Event, patterned after the life of national sensation Walter Winchell, is one of the great comic performances), but he seemed rather lost without one, and his performances lost much of their zip and vigour as he filled out and toured the cheaper studios in search of his lost career.

He made four films set around carnivals and circuses, where his characters’ conniving, finagling and, well, lying seemed right at home. The first and best of these was The Half-Naked Truth, a spectacular, lightning-paced comedy made while he was on the way up, and pairing him with the ‘Mexican Spitfire’, Lupe Velez. The other three – You Belong to Me, Carnival and this one – are sentimental yarns that offset his scurrilous, take-no-prisoners persona by making him care for an orphan. Here that orphan is Virginia Weidler, one of the better child stars of the era and a key part of the classic B-movie, The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, the same year, but sadly Fixer Dugan doesn’t amount to much: it’s rather functional and laboured, and its tiny budget sticks out all over the place.

The film reunites Tracy with Peggy Shannon six years after Turn Back the Clock, the brilliant Depression-era fantasy about a tobacconist returning to his youth and reinventing himself as a crusading politician. Here he’s a carnival ‘fixer’, she’s a lion tamer and together they’re trying to do the best for Weidler while keeping hold of Shannon’s big cats (which she accidentally sold to a scheming rival), but neither of them seem to have their heart in it. The scenes of the star sparring with William Edmunds and a funny Ed Gargan are enjoyable enough, and there’s a fair part for Irene Franklin as a has-been, but it’s slightly dispiriting seeing Tracy – formerly a human firecracker – slog his way through the B-movie mire, and the story’s outcome is readily apparent from the 10-minute mark. (2)

Many thanks to Owen for the loan. (I always feel ungrateful giving two stars to something someone’s kindly posted to me, but you’ve got to be honest I think, or what’s the point of reviewing? Spectre of the Rose next!)

See also: I wrote about some of Tracy's key early films in this piece on the American political cinema of 1932-33.

***



Big City Blues (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) – A bad pre-Code potboiler with a good cast, as Callow Woodenness Personified (Eric Linden) travels from Indiana to New York, where he meets crooked uncle Walter Catlett and brassy showgirl Joan Blondell, before clunky melodrama intervenes.

It's extremely 1932, with some fast-paced dialogue and an impressive-sounding supporting cast (Bogart, Lyle Talbot, Tom Dugan, Ned Sparks being aggressively deadpan, Guy Kibbee playing his usual drink-sodden lech), but the story is silly, muddled and joyless, alternating between hard-boiled posturing and mawkish hand-wringing, and much of the cast is given nothing to do.

The film's only real virtues are some snappy stylistics – including the epitome of old movie in-the-big-city montages, and that great shot of Blondell at the station near the end – Clarence Muse's nightclub numbers, and a pair of good performances: the big-eyed Blondell peddling a typically nice line in worldly-wise empathy, and Jobyna Howland stealing the film as a lonely, kindly socialite looking for a young gigolo. (1.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Warren William, The Girl From the North Country, and peaceful protest – Reviews #271

It's not all profiles of people from the 1930s, occasionally I review things that have just happened. But only if they're set in the 1930s.

THEATRE



Girl From the North Country (The Old Vic)
Saturday 22 July 2017 (matinee, final preview)

This new Old Vic production is a jukebox musical of Bob Dylan album tracks, allied to a Depression-era melodrama, and nearly as good as that sounds. Written by Conor McPherson, it takes place in a guest house in Dylan's home town of Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, where owner Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds) cares for his wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), who's animated by dementia, while trying to pair off their pregnant daughter (Sheila Atim), navigate an affair with a long-term tenant (Debbie Kurup) and cater for two strange man who arrive in the dead of night: bible salesman Michael Shaeffer and ex-boxing champ Arinzé Kene. All of them are waiting for their ship to come in.

The numbers are brilliantly chosen, adapted, staged and sung, ranging from a yearning duet on 'I Want You' (slowed down as it always should have been, and performed by parting couple Sam Reid and Claudia Jolly) to a dynamic, ensemble 'Slow Train Coming' and a climactic medley of 'Duquesne Whistle', 'Make You Feel My Love' and 'Is Your Love in Vain?', all accompanied by a period-appropriate Bluegrass ensemble. Even some of the more peculiar ideas, like commandeering that ode to gloriously malignant petulance, 'Idiot Wind', as a Dustbowl lament, leaning on 'Seňor' or making 'Like a Rolling Stone' a ballad, come off really nicely, with 'Jokerman' effectively reprised and 'Forever Young' finally where it belongs: as a West End weepie. (Other songs utilised include 'True Love Tends to Forget', 'Tight Connection to the Heart' and 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere', not perhaps the most obvious Dylan tracks, but more the welcome for it; the eponymous track, from The Freewheelin' doesn't get an airing.)

At times the scenes around the music can be too vague or muted, but there are moments of resonance − and bits of tension created from thin air − before the narratives coalesce satisfyingly (but not too conveniently) in two moving final scenes. There perhaps isn't enough at stake, or at least enough that's truly tangible in the script, but perhaps future viewings would reveal hidden depths or further truths. I enjoyed Kene's performance, and the voices of Atim, Reid and Kurup (whose stately grace and absence of self-pity still lingers), though I struggled to take my eyes off Henderson whenever she was on stage.

I've never been that taken with her, seeing her in films, but she has such a presence and physicality, flitting between pitiful and sensual, rabid and comatose, that I was transfixed. Though I tend to have a problem with portraits of mental disintegration which are big and tic-laden (as the journalist Tim Lott once wrote, a realistic piece of fiction about mental illness would just be very boring), this one managed to be funny, intelligently allegorical, moving and somewhat unpleasant, without traversing into unbelievability or hysteria, while her moments of lucidity unveiled an unexpectedly beautiful voice, shot through a Scandi-Minnesotan lilt. It's her, the songs and the atmosphere of quiet desperation which I think will stay with me. (3.5)

See also: I've written about a few other Old Vic plays, including Clarence Darrow, The Master Builder, The Caretaker (which I didn't care for), Groundhog Day (my favourite theatrical experience of last year), and King Lear.

***

EXHIBITION



People Power: Fighting for Peace (Imperial War Museum) is impressive, multi-faceted and a little unfortunate in having to follow the V&A's Disobedient Objects, which is one of the best exhibitions I've seen since moving to London, and dealt with a similar theme: public protest. Here that's scaled down to protests for peace, and zones in on four big British protest movements, those of conscientious objectors in World Wars One and Two, the CND campaign that ran throughout the Cold War (with a little on Vietnam), and the Stop the War coalition which protested Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq.

That's both its strength and its weakness: it has a formidable mixture of exhibits: striking banners, poignant paintings, and arresting posters, trinkets and oddities (from CND pin badges reading 'Guardian Readers Concerned About the Bomb' and 'Clouseau Fans Against the Beumb' to a protestor's accordion), alongside audio snippets also transcribed on a display screen, and fascinating archive videos: one shown via a dozen faux-placards forming an irregular whole, others sharing snippets of news reels, news reports and public information films.



One of those, offering advice on how to survive a nuclear blast, is comically, depressingly and appositely juxtaposed with Peter Watkins' chilling film, The War Game, which showed British unpreparedness and was subsequently banned by the BBC, which had commissioned it. The flip-side is that the exhibition doesn't necessarily have a sufficient through-line explaining or investigating the continuity of pacifism, while its personal case studies − including one of Paul Eddington, a CO during WWII because of his Quakerism − are sometimes too brief and slight to really hit home. Having said that, one inspired inclusion is that of hate mail sent to successive generations of those who excused themselves from war, written by ordinary men and women whipped into a patriotic, judgemental fever by politicians and press.

In that way, People Power allows us to appreciate that where British current affairs are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun. It also offers a huge amount to see, and has plenty to say on the iconography, idealism and discomfort of pacifism, though I found Disobedient Objects somehow more inspiring, perhaps because of its internationalism and diversity of activist art, or perhaps simply because it celebrated causes that are simply more easy to embrace, several of which actually won. The final room here tries to send out on an upbeat note, saying that another British war was less likely after Iraq, but all I could think was that Corbyn only stood a chance in the election because he vowed to keep Trident, and that I don't necessarily disagree with that. (3.5)


I liked this poster, which highlighted the hypocrisy of America at a time when anti-war posters (like the 'Fuck the draft' one above) were being seized under obscenity laws. Not much has changed.

See also: I wrote about the IWM's 'Real to Reel' exhibition last year. ***

GIG



Robin and Bina Williamson (The Half Moon, Putney)
– An evening with 'the mystical one' from '60s psychedelic folk heroes The Incredible String Band, Robin Williamson, who's long since stopped singing his old stuff, and now sings much older stuff: Celtic and pioneer songs, accompanying them on the harp and guitar. He's joined by his wife Bina, who seems lovely, but is a bit of a Yoko: while her voice works OK in harmony, it can't sustain songs by itself, and her psaltery-playing seems to require such concentration that there's no room for expression or timing.



Williamson still has it, though: that distinctive voice, topped by a slight clicking lisp, and the same mesmerising gift for fretwork and fingerpicking, poured into a dozen songs, each either contextualised or prefaced by a story or gag. Who knew that the mystical one would have such a weakness for delightfully terrible puns. Seeing a musical visionary, still performing a half-century on, was a rarefied and special experience, especially doing so in the back of a London pub along with just 30 other people. It might have been even better if he'd had the spotlight all to himself, but they're clearly in love and he's clearly in thrall to her talents, so good luck to them. (3)

***

FILMS



CINEMA: Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) – This film is so personal to me that writing about it honestly would be like posting my diary, so I'll just say that while one could harp on endlessly about its shots, its structure, its score and Tautou's mesmeric central performance – and although those elements are almost without equal – it's the film's intensely beautiful heart that takes my breath away every time. I can't believe I just got to see it on the big screen. (4)

***



The Match King (Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, 1932) – I bow to no-one in my appreciation of pre-Code Warren William vehicles, but this one's a bit of a mess. It's quite fun, though. The film kicks off with a pre-credit sequence (surprising, since the earliest pre-credit scene is generally cited to be Crime Without Passion, which came out two years later), showing how important and ubiquitous matches are. Then we're into the story proper: a thinly-veiled biopic of Ivar Kreuger ('Paul Kroll', as he is here), the Swedish-born conman who had died earlier that year (and was immediately immortalised in a novel), having cornered the world market in matches.

It begins uproariously in the amoral Warren William tradition, the star selling out friends, pimping out girlfriends and swindling bankers on his way up the ladder. But then it turns into a romance featuring Lili Damita, a business drama full of laughably bad expository dialogue, and finally a morality tale that exposes the star's limitations. He was always a dynamic scoundrel, but just opening your eyes very wide isn't enough for the serious bits. If you like pre-Code cinema, it's worth a look, with some scurrilous plotting, saucily suggestive near-nudity, and bits for Glenda Farrell and Claire Dodd, while its neat final line anticipates the capper to The Roaring Twenties' rise-and-fall narrative, but it seems to have been written, shot and put out in a tearing hurry, with flubs left in the finished film, haphazard editing and an increasingly crap screenplay. Plus Harold Huber pretending to be Portuguese. (2)

See also: I wrote about The Mouthpiece, a better Warren William film, also found on the Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 10 box-set here. His two defining films, Skyscraper Souls and Employees' Entrance are on Vol. 7, which I wrote about at length here.

***

DVD



Stewart Lee: If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One (2010)
– I'll give it to you straight, like a cider that's made from 100% pear.

This is perhaps Lee's best show, with a pair of inspired, extended set-pieces about Top Gear and Magners Cider that take unnerring aim at casual racism, manufactured outrage, and the corporate co-opting of the art, history and communal experiences that we treasure. The interview with Kevin Eldon on the DVD is a real bonus too, a fascinating insight into Lee's psyche, character and work, which reached some kind of apogee with this daring, thematically and formally original, consistently hilarious act: part deconstruction, part tightrope-walk, part epic fantasy about Richard Hammond being decapitated. (4)

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 21 July 2017

And introducing… #3. Lee Tracy

Here's part three of the series. Previous instalments were about John Ford and Wendy Hiller. Some of the films dealt with below also feature in my two-part 'FDR's Hollywood' feature, looking at political cinema of the 1930s and '40s.

#3. Lee Tracy



Who?
The electrifying, motormouthed comedian whose career came to a sudden and dramatic halt in the mid-1930s.

How so?
He pissed on the Mexican Army.

He what now?
He (allegedly) relieved himself nakedly on a passing military parade during the location filming of MGM’s Viva Villa! in November 1933, and was thrown out of Mexico.

Well, if you’ve got to go...
Indeed – though for Tracy’s part, he denied it all. He was sacked by the studio anyway and spent the rest of his career at lesser studios, before a brief, remarkable comeback in the 1960s.



Was he any good?
The best. Tracy was an explosive, compelling performer: the living embodiment of the “pre-Code” movie – those do-anything, say-anything films that packed out cinemas in the early ‘30s, before the Hays Office went and spoiled everyone’s fun. The impending censorship clampdown of 1934 effectively put Tracy’s kind of movie out of business, which might have been why MGM weren’t too sorry to see him go.

Any trademarks?
Plenty. A wild-eyed delight at his amoral manoeuvring getting him on top once more. A twirling forefinger, a selection of distinctive vocal trills (“You’re thrrrrrough”) and an arsenal of singular gestures, from the way he appeared to be literally seizing control of a scene – bending forward, arms wide apart – to his deft, farewell flick of the hand.



Where do I start?
With Blessed Event, the 1932 Warner Bros comedy about an unscrupulous gossip columnist, which may just be the funniest movie ever made (watch the trailer here). Tracy’s Alvin Roberts, “that kid from advertising”, is allowed to look after the paper’s social section while the regular author is away, and proceeds to turn it into the most popular – and unpopular – column in the country, incurring the wrath of a gangster, and engaging in a gleeful tit-for-tat rivalry with eternally upbeat crooner Bunny Harmon (Dick Powell). Playing a character loosely based on Walter Winchell – then one of the most influential men in America, and the subject of a half-dozen semi-fictional films – Tracy is hysterically funny, spewing a constant stream of wisecracks, though the film’s centrepiece is a terrifying, perilously dark set-piece in which he talks mobster Allen Jenkins through a trip to the electric chair. He shoves a picture of noted victim Ruth Snyder in Jenkins’ face, before navigating the henchman through a florid, impossibly graphic description of state-sanctioned death, every part of his body seeming to contort as he dominates the screen. You would die with one finger twitching upwards, Tracy concludes with a shaking voice, “to where you’re... not... going”.

That sounds, err, fun?
It doesn’t, but somehow it’s exhilarating, because you’ve never seen anyone act like that before: it’s neither conventional, nor stagy, nor necessarily naturalistic, it’s just dynamic.



What else did Tracy do?
Having originated the role of Hildy Johnson in the legendary stage play, The Front Page (above), he had come to Hollywood in ’29. He appeared as a low-level criminal in Frank Borzage’s abysmal translation of Liliom (later musicalised as Carousel), and had a bit in John Ford's gangster flick, Born Reckless, but came to real prominence with three supporting roles in 1932: The Strange Love of Molly Louvain – a nasty, compelling Pre-Coder that spotlighted his singular, rapidly-quickening style of delivery – Love Is a Racket (a film he would have starred in just months later) and the near-legendary two-strip Technicolor horror-comedy, Doctor X, playing an endlessly quipping reporter – a market he had quickly cornered. After Blessed Event, he starred in a succession of tailor-made vehicles making use of the go-getter persona so beloved of Depression-era audiences, beginning with The Half-Naked Truth (which cast him as a promoter), Clear All Wires! (sending his journalist to Communist Russia), the classic romantic comedy The Nuisance (with Tracy as the last word in amoral shysters) and the fantasy masterpiece, Turn Back the Clock, in which his unsatisfied grocer has the chance to live his adulthood over. The final two were made at MGM, the world's biggest and most prestigious movie studio, which could scarcely miss the impact he had been having over at Warner Bros, and didn't hesitate in offering him a fat long-term contract.

Is that all?
Of course not! This was the early '30s, when actors were treated abysmally, so there are always tons of films to enjoy. Tracy had also appeared in Washington Merry-Go-Round, which anticipated Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and went on to deliver an unforgettable supporting performance as the agent to alcoholic actor John Barrymore in Dinner at Eight (perhaps the most prestigious MGM film of 1933), run rings round Jean Harlow’s diva in the superlative, lightning-paced comedy, Bombshell, and star in a bastardised version of Nathanael West’s 'Miss Lonelyhearts' called Advice to the Lovelorn (sound familiar?), designed to cash in on the success of Blessed Event. It was his 14th film in just two years. After that came Mexico. And the rest, as they say, is history.



I’m not sure it is. Please fill me in.
Tracy did the rounds, pitching up at Columbia, RKO and even the Poverty Row studio PRC, where – looking a bit more jowly than 10 years before – he rolled back the years, recapturing some of that old Blessed Event magic in a zingy film called The Pay-Off. His other post-MGM films are a mixed bag, though the mid-‘30s comedy-thrillers Wanted: Jane Turner and Behind the Headlines are pretty great for what they are, while I’ll Tell the World – which cast him opposite Old Rose from Titanic (Gloria Stuart) – is a charming movie in which his dogged, dynamic reporter falls in love with a European princess, without losing his passion for skulduggery and sarcasm.



Tell us about the ones that didn’t work.
It’s not that they don’t work, it’s that they don’t work fully, sometimes leaving Tracy high and dry as the films run out of momentum, or trade sardonism for sanctimony. He’s always worth watching, though, and endearing oddities during this period include a boxing comedy alongside Roscoe Karns (Two-Fisted), a weird comedy-weepie co-starring Jimmy Durante (Carnival), the Hollywood-on-film shenanigans of Crashing Hollywood, 1940’s gimmicky Millionaires in Prison (inevitably featuring Raymond Walburn as one such moneyman), and a variety of vehicles with Tracy in crooked attorney parts, such as Criminal Lawyer – uneven but great fun – and The Spellbinder, which like 1934’s You Belong to Me cast him as a dad, before degenerating quickly into soap operatics.

That doesn’t sound very good. His worst?
No, his worst is definitely The Power of the Press (1943), a hopeless, excruciating collision of small-town patriotic wisdom and WWII propaganda flick – based on a Sam Fuller story, wtf?! – in which folksy newspaper editor Guy Kibbee takes over a New York paper infested with fascist fifth columnists, including Hearst-like businessman Otto Kruger, who's in preposterous form. Tracy’s OK as a snappy but spineless, circulation-chasing editor, but it’s a profoundly depressing experience. He made three more films over the next four years, each more obscure than the last, and then disappeared from the big screen.



So what’s all this about a comeback?
Having made his way slowly down the ladder, and then crossed over to TV, Tracy returned to the stage in the early ‘60s, playing a former President – patterned after Harry Truman – in Gore Vidal’s vital, vivid political play, The Best Man. When it transferred to the screen, Tracy played the role again: a glorious, measured, nostalgic characterisation that showed a range largely untapped by a Hollywood system forever trading off familiar persona, finally allowed him to swear (he swears superbly), and landed him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Sadly, talk of a comeback was scuppered by his faltering health – he died four years later – but as swansongs go, it was one of the finest.

A case of what might have been, perhaps, had he not made that ill-fated trip to a Mexican hotel balcony. He did, right?
Who knows? In his book, cinematographer Charles G. Clarke said he was standing outside during the parade, and the incident never happened. In his version of events, Tracy had responded to an obscene gesture on the street by making one of his own, but that after the papers got wind of his supposed insult to the nation, MGM had sacrificed Tracy in order to be allowed to continue filming there. Director Howard Hawks was also kicked off the picture for siding with Tracy.



What to say: “Blessed Event is the epitome of pre-Code filmmaking: daring, lightning-paced and furiously funny.”

What not to say: “Blessed Event is so good it makes me want to wee on soldiers.”

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Thanks for reading.