Thursday, November 26, 2009

Getting Back to the Present

I've just realised that aside from a paragraph on The White Ribbon I haven't really discussed anything current for a while, such is the never-ending quest through film heritage. My eighties and early-nineties viewing is pretty sparse so I've been trying to remedy that, trawling through dreck like Places in the Heart, Agnes of God, and the preposterously simple disaster movie When Time Ran Out. There have however been rays of light, and I'm struggling to believe why Kathleen Turner couldn't manage an Oscar mention for either Romancing the Stone or Crimes of Passion, which I watched the other day and enjoyed immensely.

But back to the present, and a few words on some 2009 films I've seen of late.

An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina
Grade: C

Carey Mulligan's Jenny is the perfect protagonist because her apparent telepathy with the audience allows her to voice exactly what we're thinking when we're thinking it. Nick Hornby's one-track screenplay has the fall-from-grace of a Max Ophuls film but none of the style. So many of the characters are hypocrites that it makes Jenny look positively heavenly, and so berating education with parental obsessiveness didn't do much to convince me that Jenny is capable of contravening the moral expectations of the audience at all, never mind ditching "an education".

Fish Tank
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Grade: B-

Teenager Mia is fucked in more ways than one in this film, seemingly unable to escape a failed education and deprivated working-class existence, not to mention her cherry-plucking at the hands of a rugged Michael Fassbender. Her urban dance dreams are completely convincing, and valuable in terms of exposure and social aspiration, but the attempts to demonstrate how she's craving freedom (her quest to let loose a shackled horse in particular) are disappointingly blatant. Arnold also expects us to be grateful that a child survives in a random act of melodrama that feels very unnecessary.

Harry Brown
Directed by Daniel Barber
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Jack O'Connell
Grade: F

Perhaps the most politically abhorrent film I've ever seen (and that's saying something), straight out of the Eden Lake sensationalist mould of British "thrillers" attempting to right the wrongs of the country. This makes Neil Jordan's The Brave One look like a world-beater, coming to a similarly immoral conclusion and scattering some grotesque characters in order to hammer home its points in shock-tactic style. It also polarises World warfare with Street warfare. War is war people.

Paranormal Activity
Directed by Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs
Grade: B-

Major kudos for creating such a compelling film on a miniscule budget and for a while Activity does a great job of mixing the couple's relationship with the anticipation of what's to come and the levels of skepticism that emerge. It'd be wrong to say that it isn't scary but it does feel a lot tamer than The Blair Witch Project (to which it has been compared) felt ten years earlier. Rather like last year's Cloverfield I don't think it can sustain its video-camera concept and draws attention to it more than it ever needs to.

Directed by Pete Docter
Starring: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson
Grade: B-

Cars was kiddie-Pixar and as many montages and ruminations about old age won't really change the fact that Up is the same kind of thing. It really doesn't look like Pixar made it at all. The attempts to be cute are more akin to the Ice Age series, which I like but for its modest purpose as an educational heart-warming piece rather than anything else. Maybe we've been spoiled but the level of insight and entertainment in Up is probably lower than in any of their other films, with the exception of Cars.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Actress Profile: Maggie McNamara in The Moon is Blue (1953)

When I caught Otto Preminger's The Moon is Blue last month on Youtube it was mainly for Maggie McNamara, who managed a Best Actress nomination in 1953 and who I really didn't know much about, having not seen her in anything else. She actually only did four films after The Moon is Blue (her debut) and sadly overdosed at the relatively young age of 49.

This stagy comedy sees McNamara pursued by a devilishly handsome William Holden and his would-be father-in-law David Niven, one of which wants to bed her, the other to marry her. She is required to dash off some cracking dialogue in which she's very candid about sex and foreplay while simultaneously declaring her unwillingness to engage in both. Contradictory perhaps, but McNamara juggles the character's complexities with ease, and for a debut it's a remarkably assured turn, laden with some wonderful comic timing and truly inspired acting decisions.

McNamara is a tiny girl, inoffensive, not particularly pretty, but she has an undeniable presence in the film and a warm demeanor, even when she's dashing off cutting quips and generally slapping down the lapdog-style attentions of her two suitors. As the piece was originally a play (penned and adapted by F. Hugh Herbert) Maggie isn't always framed like a leading lady and lingers in the background for pockets of the action, so it's kind of surprising that she managed to emerge as such an awards favourite. The role is cute but that particular feat was definitely garnered by the performance.

Friday, November 20, 2009

If There's Anything He's a Sucker For, It's Licorice

Sixty years since Adam's Rib, wouldn't you know? Sixty years since Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn went to battle in the ultimate battle-of-the sexes. I slate Tracy a fair bit on this blog but I'll give him his due here, he's wonderful, and I've yet to see a better performance from 1949.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Anvil! The Story of Undervalued!

I didn't get around to reviewing Anvil! The Story of Anvil! after I caught it on DVD a couple of months ago. I knew very little about either Anvil themselves or the film, a story of a band's attempts to revive the limited success of their early career. The movie is very low-budget but wonderfully gets inside the mind of guitarists Robb Reiner and Steve 'Lips' Kudlow, who trail around the deceprit state of European small-time rock with the ambition of plucky teenage bandmates. It's a wonderfully entertaining film that demonstrates the battle between artistry and practicality and the fine line between celebrity and non-celebrity.

Its omission from Oscar's documentary shortlist is truly saddening as it will likely remain one of my favourite films of this year, and probably one of the best reviewed.

Flying the New Moon Route

As the shamelessly commercial Twilight: New Moon hogs up to a third of cinema screens this weekend (and surely a lot more of the box-office) I find myself unable to see even the most mediocre, middle-of-the-road Oscar vehicles. Amelia has made a paltry amount this week (less than The White Ribbon?!) but it's hardly surprising given that Mira Nair's film is the pummelled filling in the gargantuan This Is It/New Moon sandwich. Having just returned from five days in London I'm flat broke, and somehow considering paying seven pounds to see Amelia outside of my cinema subscription, on the off-chance that Hilary Swank manages a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Drama.

But back to London, where I managed to do many fun things, the highlight of which was to meet blogger-extraordinaires Gabriel of
Modern Fabulousity (best known as ModFab) and Raj of Electroqueer (whose taste in music is impeccable) for coffee and a fiendishly good martini. I also did manage to see The White Ribbon, which I liked but wanted to like more. The visual saturation is better and less off-putting than in Schindler's List for example, and its starkness is stunning to behold, but Haneke's constant attempts to distance you from the characters somewhat frustrated me and it's a lot more conscious and definite about its themes than I would have liked. Haneke does however manage to get a lovely performance out of Leonie Benesch as the teenage affection of the film's narrator and true lead.

Yeah, maybe I don't want to see The Aviator: Part II after all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Deaf Versus Dumb

Good news for thesp equality -- the BBC have cast a deaf Actress to star in its latest thriller, The Silence, which looks rather like Wait Until Dark with an aural handicap rather than a visual one posing problems for its leading lady. Genevieve Barr is the woman in question, and the series is going to presumably come out in the Spring, when the BBC go into their serious programming mode.

Bad news for thesp equality -- Just this week, the casting of a hearing actor in the deaf leading role of a New York production of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has sparked controversy.

This argument has been going on for a long time, and reminds me of Marlee Matlin, who is sadly one of the few deaf Actors I remember seeing oncscreen. Her performance in Children of a Lesser God I liked, even if I consider her Best Actress Oscar win a bit much since I'd bury it at the bottom of a pile of great performances from 1986 (by Isabella Rosselini, Marie Riviere, Sissy Spacek, Helena Bonham Carter, among others). Nevertheless, I caught a special edition of See Hear where she talks about her achievements and she seems a very clever woman, who has been very vocal about casting issues. These two examples perhaps suggests that more needs to be vocalised, or some kind of legislation employed to prevent deaf actors being ignored.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Chaplin for £3.20

I was reading The Guardian today and spotted this article on a guy who bought a random film reel on ebay for £3.20 which turned out to be an unseen short film by Charlie Chaplin. Surely something to put on the IMDB trivia page, when it eventually gets one.

I guess one of the most famous stories is of Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc turning up at a mental institution in Norway in the eighties -- I shudder to think that that particular classic could have disappeared. It does make you think though; how many lost or unseen classics are out there somewhere? Arts heritage has definitely gotten better of late but damage has been done. Let's hope there are more spectacular finds to be had.

Men of the Thirties: 1938

The Nominees Were:

Charles Boyer in Algiers
James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces
Robert Donat in The Citadel
Leslie Howard in Pygmalion
Spencer Tracy in Boys Town

And the Winner Was:

Spencer Tracy in Boys Town

(Spoiler Alert!)
I find this the most baffling decision of the decade. James Cagney's NYFCC-winning performance is far more interesting than any of his competitors, and he does everything asked of a Hollywood leading man i.e. have tough, masculine presence, a soft(ish) interior, and die a hero. The only missing link was the lack of a Best Picture nomination for Angels with Dirty Faces, which has its faults but is far more competent than some of the nominees (I'm looking at you, Capra and Taurog). I imagine this is the kind of decision that saw Katharine Hepburn win in 1967 and '81 and could have seen Jack Nicholson's touching but hardly worthy Warren Schmidt tie Kate's four-win record seven years ago. Cagney and Donat may have been close but both end up cigarless.

My Ratings
(in order of preference):-

**** James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces

Akin to a bout of German expressionism James Cagney's Caligari eyes are fierce, and the strutting, plucky way that Cagney conducts himself indicates a man who means business. Angels with Dirty Faces is a deceptively light title for what becomes a rather heavy film, but it's an apt way to depict Rocky Sullivan and his band of criminal kids. Charming, cocky tearaways in a similar sense to Fagin's pickpockets in Oliver! Cagney plays his role as a semi-willing mentor (willing in the sense that it elevates his own prestige) with extravagant, streetwise fervour, beying everyone in sight to challenge his gangland superiority. Rocky doesn't have that much actual power, but you wouldn't know it.

*** Leslie Howard in Pygmalion

It's nigh-on impossible to match the overt chauvinism of Rex Harrison in pretty much everything, and Howard as Professor Henry Higgins comes across as a much less relevant part of the film. He knows that Eliza Dolittle is the showpiece of the production and gives way to her in a similar vein as he did Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage. He bounces off her well and their mini-battles are as uproariously funny here as they are in the Best Picture-winning musical adaptation.

*** Robert Donat in The Citadel

I feel sorry for Donat, who proves -- as he did in '35 -- that he is such a likeable and charming screen presence. The Citadel has promise but ends up marooning him when the ideas dissipate, and in the final act of this film Donat is utterly helpless and ineffective. Prior to that he illustrates his character's ethical dilemna readily, somewhat disguising the insipid attempts to generate drama. He carefully develops the changing perspective of Dr. Andrew towards his profession and I had actually grown attached to the character by the time the wheels started falling off.

*** Charles Boyer in Algiers

I like Algiers much more than any of the films nominated in this category, but certainly not for its acting. The tone of the film lunges violently but Boyer stays pretty much the same, and the role requires similar things of him as the previous year's Conquest. A gangster in a much different sense to Cagney he's an elusive, no-nonsense figurehead that crumbles into a songster at the sight of Hedy Lamarr (who can blame him, huh?). But Boyer captures the tragedy of a man trapped in a district, top dog in a prison, bound by limitations, much more successfully than he ever captured Napoleon's ambition.

* Spencer Tracy in Boys Town

Tracy sidles around as a mentor figure who, unlike Cagney's Rocky, has no flaws to speak of. Father Flanagan is at the head of Boys Town's admirable but lightweight advertisement for juvenile reform, and has to sort out the restlessness of Mickey Rooney et al. He does this through the occasional lecture, which Tracy can dole out in his sleep, and he is thoroughly incapable of contributing any grit or bite to the character. A bitter disappointment.

The Snubbed

***** Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (& Holiday)

Not one but two classic star turns they spurned. Grant's best comes when he reacts to the ever-increasing mania going on all around him, (i.e. in Arsenic and Old Lace, possibly the finest comedic performance there's ever been). In BUB his behaviour and rationality fades in sync with this ever-maddening environment, his character eventually reduced from skepticism to acceptance in what is a rousing reversal. After all, would a man really fall in love with a girl who ransacked his wedding, lumbered him with a leopard, and single-handedly dismantled his relationship?

*** Henry Fonda in Jezebel

Another man Bette Davis swallows and spits out, but this time she doesn't have the guy quite where she wants him. Henry Fonda wouldn't say boo to a goose in many of his films and his cowardice reaches a height when he reacts to Davis's famous brazen red-dress humiliation with the trepidation of a square society Duke. Fonda is totally right for the part -- cute, investable, self-important -- but when the going gets tough the tough get going (thank you, Billy Ocean) and even though you could maybe fall in love with this guy his predictability is ultimately sad. Davis is stellar and the film ain't so much about him, but he does everything you'd ask of the character.

** Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood

This is silly fun: Flynn is such a poser, and uses his bravado to craft Robin Hood into a dastardly commodity. The film is really all a technicolour confection, strewn with velvet and laden with pretty faces. Flynn is the prettiest though, and his snarls, smirks, and come-to-bed eyes are the intoxicating essence of a hero. It works perfectly for the film, but it's limited, and that's all he has to offer.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Missing Point

'night Mother (1986)
Directed by Tom Moore
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Sissy Spacek
Grade: C -

Nine years after Anne Bancroft could still get away with wearing a cocktail dress in Herbert Ross's The Turning Point she was into pernickety old woman territory in 'night Mother, a film adapted by Marsha Norman from her own Pullitzer Prize-winning play. Sissy Spacek completes the casting coup as Thelma's (Bancroft's) daughter Jessie, who casually informs her mother before their evening cocoa that she intends to shoot herself in the head before the night is out.

Norman wrings out the blackly comic mundanity of Jessie's approach to suicide (and existence in general) for a good half-hour before things get that heavy. Her meticulous preparation -- bags of clothes labelled with who she wants to donate them to, instructions on which pills her mother should take and when, a decade's worth of birthday presents -- detailed to generate irksome discomfort in Thelma and cynicism in the audience. Is death really as clinical a matter? 'night Mother doesn't come to any real conclusions about death (perhaps with the exception of the not-so-groundbreaking observation that it's inevitable) and is content to parade a checklist of issues that lack much depth or interest. In an attempt by her mother to assuage her daughter's morbid stance Jessie's mariage and son are discussed, but don't anchor our understanding of her and are hastily presented as outlets for empathy. If a woman's sole reason to stay alive is on the off-chance that she might get back with her ex-husband, I'd be tempted to load the gun myself.

Bancroft and Spacek go through the rigmarole of shifting their exchange from room-to-room in what are some very well-constructed scenes. Jessie manages to get through a day's worth of errands while soaking up her mother's flummoxed remonstrations and pleas, and it prevents the film's emotional turbulence from feeling as laboured as it might have. Anne Bancroft represents but a sliver of the film's faults but her often misguided histrionics do little to disguise 'night Mother's heavy reliance upon conservational quips and periodically shifting topics. Spacek fares better, her eyes at their hollowest best, generating poignancy against the odds and seeming completely synchronised with the dominant idea of Jessie as a fallen woman, graceful in defeat.

When watching 'Night Mother one is surely reminded of Ingmar Bergman's powerful Autumn Sonata, a film that creates such a rich historical overview of a troubled mother-daughter relationship through the same conversation-heavy style. Norman's script has theories but lacks real density and is disappointingly unequivocal in its discussion of mortality.