Wednesday 25 February 2009

Primer (2004)

Director: Shane Carruth
Stars: Shane Carruth and David Sullivan

The film that knocked me out the most over the last year was a science fiction film, but not one you're likely to have heard of. It won't ever get shown on the Sci-Fi Channel because it has no spaceships, no laser beams, no superheroes. It was a film called The Man from Earth and it posed the age old science fiction question of 'what if?' to a group of characters in a room. It was absolutely fascinating and it stunned me. Beyond the questions posed within the film itself, one question followed in its wake: why doesn't anyone else make this sort of film: pure science fiction not space opera? Well, this one has similarities and it's nearly as fascinating.

We're following four friends or colleagues or whatever they call themselves. They're technical folks working in technical jobs, but they dedicate a large amount of their spare time to building contraptions in a garage, with the aim of making money as entrepreneurs who have built something important. The catch, naturally, is that they need to build something important. What they end up with is something that's undoubtably important but also very hard to fathom. It's some sort of time machine, though it isn't immediately apparent exactly what and how and why, but really it's a MacGuffin.

What it is doesn't really matter because it's not really about the machine, it's about what the machine means. If you have a shortcut through the standard progression of life and you can safely and conveniently cheat to get whatever you want, what do you do? How much do you run with the thrill and how much do you fear the unknown danger. How much do you worry about the paradoxes and how deep into the logic maelstrom do you go? What do you do with knowledge you don't necessarily want? Who do you trust with the knowledge you do?

There are many many questions that leap out of the screen here and bludgeon us. I'm not going to pretend that I understood all the permutations, because it's definitely something to watch again and again to work it all out. I had a lot of reactions. Firstly, I was overjoyed to see another pure science fiction film. Secondly, i was confused and fascinated all at once as I tried to fathom the story. Thirdly, I was shocked to find that the film was made for only $7,000 and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Now, I've read a fascinating book by movie critic Joe Queenan called The Unkindest Cut: How a Hatchet-Man Critic Made His Own $7,000 Movie and Put It All on His Credit Card, so I have a healthy doubt in any quoted figures about how much a film cost, but I also know that that book is over a decade old and the world has changed considerably during that time. However much Primer cost, it's undoubtedly cleverly done and it undoubtedly looks a lot more slick than the budget could ever suggest.

The few people who made it juggled roles on screen and off and produced a very realistic set of characters. This is one of the most realistic non-glossy ensemble casts I think I'ver seen: nobody is a Hollywood actor for sure but nobody is a community theatre actor either. They all appear to be what they're supposed to be: professional people with a technical bent who are often both clever and naive. I don't get it all yet but I'm fascinated and intrigued and eager to return to the film again soon.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Stars: Lim Su-jeong and Rain

Of all the names in Korean cinema that I've been discovering over the last couple of years, the one that has stunned me most is Park Chan-wook and I haven't seen his mostly highly rated film yet. That would be Oldboy, the middle film in his revenge trilogy; but I have seen the first, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, as well as JSA: Joint Security Area, both films that amazed me. This is something completely different again, a difficult film to categorise; it has romance in it and comedy and drama, but isn't really any of those things alone.

Its influences are quickly obvious. The opening credit sequence looks like an Arnie film from the 80s but with a soundtrack by Danny Elfman, suggesting a quirky action film. The initial scenes back up that quirkiness but rather than Arnie we focus on a delightful young lady who looks like a Korean version of Audrey Tautou. She's Cha Young-goon, played by Lim Su-jeong, who is best known for A Tale of Two Sisters, one of the most highly regarded Korean horror films and one that I really should get round to watching. And yes, the way that the story unfolds, with all its quirky characters and back stories, is reminiscent in many ways of Amelie.

However this young lady is not a social misfit with a penchant for quirky hobbies, she's a nutjob. We first meet her at the factory in which she works making radios of some description, but she slits her wrist, inserts wires and plugs herself into the mains. As you might expect, she ends up not in a hospital but in a loonie bin where she explains to the soda machine and the light above her bed that she's a cyborg and that she needs to recharge and get rid of her sympathy so she can kill all the orderlies and escape to return her grandma's dentures to her. She also refuses to eat because, hey she's a cyborg, why should she?

Given the joyously bizarre fellow inhabitants that populate this institution, it's somehow amazing that she can keep our attention, but she does. Among these lovable fruitcakes, who include a man who constantly walks backwards and apologises for everything, a fat lady who's invented a means of levitation through static electrical tension and a young lady who's practicing to join the Edelweiss Choir, there's one in particular who becomes very important to her: Park Il-Sun, played by the Korean musician known as Rain.

He's even stranger than the others, not just because he walks around in very strange ways wearing a rabbit mask. His inherent ability is to steal things from people: not the things you might expect, like money or jewellery, but intangible assets like talents and emotions. Naturally young-goon wants him to steal her sympathy, which she sees as one of the deadly sins, and eventually he does. He's a striking character who fits this sort of strangeness perfectly. No wonder the Wachowski brothers sought him out to appear in Speed Racer, his second film and first after this one.

The story is amazing stuff to watch because all the various fantasies of the various patients get constantly mixed up, so that we quickly lose track of which parts are real and which are entirely fabricated. They're all great fun though and it's easy to ride along with the movie without thinking about what's going on behind it. I wonder what professionals working in the field would think to this with all its veiled suggestions that the only way lunatics can be healed is through clever manipulation of their fantasy worlds. The professionals really don't do much in this film, it's the patients who achieve the victories. It's a fascinating approach and it makes this film part Amelie, part Benny and Joon and part The Princess and the Warrior, along with a whole bunch of uniqueness.

Monday 23 February 2009

The Horse's Mouth (1958)

Director: Ronald Neame
Star: Alec Guinness

Two years before Alec Guinness starred with Kay Walsh in a Ronald Neame film called Tunes of Glory, Alec Guinness starred with Kay Walsh in a Ronald Neame film called The Horse's Mouth. He knew Walsh well, of course, given that they'd played together in Oliver Twist a decade earlier, but she played off him so well that it's not surprising to find another collaboration. This one isn't so well known, but what makes it important is that Guinness wrote it himself. As you might expect, he's a real character. He's Gulley Jimson, a painter but also an irascible, gravel throated, dirty old man: Wilfred Brambell was definitely paying attention when he built his character for Steptoe and Son.

We first meet him getting out of Wormwood Scrubs and promptly asking to be taken back in again because a young man is trying to help him. This is Nosey, who is a huge fan of Jimson's and who wants to be a painter himself. Jimson doesn't want to know and has a habit of being rude to everyone, regardless of whether they want to help him or not, so he steals his bike and heads back to his rundown houseboat. Naturally Jimson, like all apparent geniuses, has no money, so Mrs Coker, the barmaid at his local pub and very possibly special friend, takes him on a quest to raise some by locating some of his early paintings that a millionaire is apparently willing to pay good money for.

They can't recover the paintings but they do end up in trouble, as always. They're with Mr Hickson, an old collector who Jimson has taken money from for years, but he's not happy with him. Jimson has a habit of ringing Hickson up on the phone and threatening to kill him, which means that the police are very aware of who he is. Before they find him though, he finds the millionaire, Sir William Beeder, and decides that he has a mission to paint a wall in his apartment. So he does, even though the Beeders really have no clue about any of it because they promptly leave on a long holiday. Jimson moves in and takes over, selling most of the property in the apartment in order to pay for the supplies to turn this wall into his vision.

Jimson is an unlikely hero, and an unlikely anti-hero at that. He's a rogue and a terror and there's not a lot that can be said in his favour, but somehow he remains sympathetic in the way Guinness embues him with life. It's a very unique taken on life, but as Jimson describes one of his paintings, 'you can put any price on it because it's unique.' He's one of those people who through their very existence liven up everyone around them, usually in ways that aren't appreciated but which provide plenty of stories after he's gone. It doesn't take a huge mural of the Last Judgement, it just takes who he is. And he's who Alec Guinness makes him, as both writer and actor.

It's another peach of a Guinness performance, full of joy and bluster and blissfully characterful body movement. Just the way his eyes move is wonderful to behold and that final flourish of the arm as he passes another new wall is perfection. This one came a year after his Oscar winning performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai and a year before Our Man in Havana. Of course each performance is utterly unlike the ones around it, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest, but it's getting to the point that I'm beginning to wonder if he ever played any character twice.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Tunes of Glory (1960)

Director: Ronald Neame
Stars: Alec Guinness and John Mills

I grew up watching Alec Guinness, but looking back I find a surprising few of his films under my belt. He only made fifty of them, after all. I've seen the classics, or least the ones I thought were the classics, from Oliver Twist and The Bridge on the River Kwai to Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, to say nothing of Star Wars. What I'm finding though that they were pretty much all classics, even the ones I'd never even heard of, because every one of them contained a peach of a performance from Sir Alec. This one's no exception.

It pairs him with John Mills, with support from Dennis Price and Gordon Jackson. It even introduces Susannah York, so we're not talking minor names here. Guinness looks bizarre as Maj Jock Sinclair, DSO, MM, the acting colonel of a Scots battalion. However bizarre he looks with his red hair and moustache, to say nothing of his tartan trousers, he looks utterly appropriate, but the most telling thing he wears is his face. He's a loud and lively character with fire in his eyes and a fight right behind them. He's a good man, it seems, and a good leader, but he's a dangerous man and no gentleman, that's for sure. He worked his way up through the ranks from boy piper to get to where he is today.

Unfortunately tomorrow he won't be there any more. Instead of being promoted to colonel and granted him full leadership of the battalion, a fresh colonel is brought in above him, one who hasn't served with the regiment himself but who has history with it going back generations. He's Lt Col Basil Barrow, played by John Mills, and he's a university educated gentleman who saw time in a POW camp during the war, being waterboarded by the enemy in a way very similar to what the Americans have been getting up to in Guantanamo Bay.

While he's generally a calm man, these wartime experiences haven't left him incredibly stable and a battle begins building from the moment they first meet. Barrow doesn't even drink whiskey, which is nigh on heresy to Sinclair. It doesn't take long for him to order dance practice for all officers in the cold at 7.15am three days a week, even though some of them have been dancing reels for thirty years. He believes in the concept that 'dancing should be considered as a social grace rather than a noisy ritual' and that puts him at odds with what seems like every man in the battalion.

Now I've seen many films that saw battalions in battle, but this one may be the first film in which I've seen a full scale battle without ever seeing a war. What's most stunning here is the way it builds in the hands of two masters of their craft. Guinness is the standout but Mills is no slacker here: the scene when he first blows his top is a blistering tour de force. He's hosting a battalion cocktail party and he's ordered his men to dance like gentlemen, yet they disobey and leap around the dancefloor with raucous abandon. His rage grows until it can't be contained and he explodes at them.

Guinness is so magnetic here it's impossible not to watch him. Jock is a fiery character throughout but he does something very dumb halfway through the story and he knows it: on discovering his daughter Morag with one of his pipers, he knocks the man down hard. The worst of it is that he's in a pub and while an officer striking a corporal is a serious offence at the best of times, doing so in public with witnesses present is not easily ignored. For the next half an hour he's like a tornado raging through the film and we're almost scared he's going to rage through the fourth wall at us. Only Dennis Price, the executive officer of the battalion, can blissfully ignore the tension.

This is truly awesome stuff. Both Guinness and Mills give stunning performances, full of as much subtlety as raw power, text book stuff for budding actors to watch and spend a career trying to emulate. It's not just the words they're given or the way they speak them, though the not so subtle dismissals and barbed insults are note perfect; it's in the body language. This is my first time through Tunes of Glory but I'm sure I could watch it time and time with the sound off just to experience the pure craft of the pair of them. The film was only nominated for one Oscar, for James Kennaway's adaptation of his own novel. It's criminal that Guinness and Mills were overlooked, regardless of what the competition was.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont
Stars: Charles King, Bessie Love and Anita Page

Back in the days when Cedric Gibbons was the only art director on MGM films, The Broadway Melody became the first film with sound to win Best Picture Oscar. It's hardly surprising to find that once pictures picked up sound, they didn't just focus on people talking in stagebound dramas, they went whole hog into the world of the musical. This one is a little clunky and it pales in comparison to later Best Picture winners but it's not a bad film really and seems to have set the stage for much of what followed later, not just to the Warner Brothers musicals of the thirties but onward from there.

We begin with a Broadway songwriter and a sister act from back west. The songwriter is Eddie Kearns, who thinks he's a big shot but is really just an up and coming name, singing his own songs in Francis Zanfield revues. Yes, that's an obvious take on Florenz Ziegfield, about as obvious as it gets, as surely as Jock Warriner is a take on Jack Warner. The sister act are Hank and Queenie Mahoney, who are successful on the small town circuit but find themselves out of their depth on Broadway. The connection is that Eddie and Hank are a couple, so presumably Eddie merely found his way to Broadway first and it just took a while for the girls to catch up.

He gets them into a Zanfield show, but not everything goes according to plan. Anyone who's watched at least one early Hollywood musical knows what went on without even seeing it: the sabotaged audition, a quick catfight, the snap judgement from the man in charge, the accidental second chance and everything else, all the way down to the flaming gay costumer. Now Hank is the one with the brain, who has run their business all along, and she's played by Bessie Love, who is gorgeous with a face full of character. However it's her sister Queenie that everyone falls in love with, and she's played by Anita Page, whose death last year at 98 severed possibly our last direct connection back to this era.

The girls are a great couple when they arrive, but it doesn't take too long for everything to go sour. Hank stays on the straight and narrow, waiting for Eddie to propose and trying to stay in work. Queenie finds her way to the clouds though, because the rich and powerful Jock Warriner sets his sights on her. That causes no end of friction but what's worse is that Eddie falls for her too. I don't care too much for Charles King's portrayal of Eddie Kearns, though he fits the low down part well. Anita Page is excellent as Queenie though she's not a patch on Bessie Love as Hank. The best acting in this film comes when Hank realises that Eddie isn't hers and that's the closest thing to really Oscar worthy anywhere in the whole picture.

Bessie Love, the stage name of Juanita Horton, is a highly underrated name in cinema, unjustly forgotten today. Her first role was as far back as 1915 and she had a decent part in something as important as D W Griffith's Intolerance, Griffith having given her her stage name. Yet seventy or so films into her career, when the industry switched to sound, she was as natural in the new order as she was in the old. For some reason, even an Oscar nomination for her work here didn't keep her career on the up. By 1931 her star had waned and sadly her roles became fewer and less important, including a lot of bit parts in major films from The Barefoot Contessa and On Her Majesty's Secret Service to Ragtime and Reds. Watching The Broadway Melody makes me wonder how that could have happened. It was a Best Picture winner and she's by far the best thing about it.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Flying Tigers (1942)

Director: David Miller
Stars: John Wayne, John Carroll and Anna Lee

This early John Wayne war film is a very telling marker of the times, in a number of ways. Most obviously it's a John Wayne film with him playing the same heroic figure you've seen him play a number of times in a number of films in a number of wars. This could well be the first time of many for him in the type of role he'd soon become comfortable in and many viewers would become comfortable with, over and over again. This time out he's Captain Jim Gordon (no, not that one).

He's better known as Pappy and he's the leader of a squadron of Flying Tigers, American volunteer pilots who were training in Burma to fight the Japanese before the US ever entered the war. in reality, they saw their first combat twelve days after Pearl Harbor with notable success rates and it didn't take long for them to be immortalised on film, though the film plays fast and loose with the timeframe. Here, Pearl Harbor doesn't happen until almost the end of the film, when the long established and respected squadron listens to it on the radio.

Flying Tigers came out in 1942, so this is a wartime propaganda film, but that's notably less obvious than in many such movies. OK, the first time we see a Jap, he's bombing the United China Relief building which is feeding and providing medical care to an endless stream of Chinese orphans, but we really don't see much of the enemy except inside their cockpits and gun turrets being shot to death by the Flying Tigers. We do get introduced to the Japanese habit of machine gunning flyers hanging under parachutes, after they've bailed out of their planes.

Of course being World War II, the Japs are the bad guys and the Chinese the good guys. Global politics has a habit of turning everything on its head in the shortest time. Less than ten years later this was all reversed: the Japanese were a growing democracy with an Emperor who had relinquished his divinity, and the Chinese were a Communist power under Chairman Mao. There are a couple of telling changes in time from a cinematic standpoint too. One is a surprising use of copious amounts of blood: in the aerial battles, we see the shattering glass and the blood that pours out of the faces of the pilots and gunners. There's more realism in the surprising use of the Chinese language.

The other isn't surprising except in degree. As a flying film that pays a lot of attention to the flying and the fliers, it sits squarely with a string of films made ten to fifteen years earlier. However the pessimism and stark realism of writers like John Monk Saunders (some scenes are stolen directly from The Dawn Patrol, including those after Blackie's death) is generally progressed forward to a more Hollywood outlook, so we get a whole romance angle between Pappy and a nurse called Brooke Elliott that is pure hokum and a whole bunch of less than subtle subplots. Hap's death is overblown: one minute he's grounded after a medical because he's lost his depth perception, but the next he's apparently blind as a bat.

The acting is varied. John Wayne is fine in the lead, playing it a little more subtle than you might expect. He's there very much to portray what Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek describes in the opening quote as the 'intrepid spirit of the Flying Tigers in the face of superior numbers.' Pappy is the leader of the squadron and is intrepid but realistic, and caring about the Chinese people that he's working to keep safe. Some of those following him up into the air aren't quite so realistic though. The largest amount of time is spent in the film showing the difference between Pappy and a young hotshot pilot called Woody Jason.

Jason is an ace flier but he's gung ho for all the wrong reasons: the $500 bounty on the head of every enemy. He's played by John Carroll, who is so trying to be a lively Clark Gable it's unreal, even though he looks more like a cross between William Powell and Victor Mature. He mostly succeeds in being annoying, but then he's supposed to be: he has to learn what it's all about, not the flying but the war. How this all unfolds is not going to be surprising in the slightest but it's carried off pretty well. Anna Lee does her job as the love interest but the role is pointless.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Ed and His Dead Mother (1993)

Director: Jonathan Wacks
Stars: Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, John Glover, Miriam Margolyes, Sam Jenkins, Gary Farmer

I think every household has its guilty pleasures when it comes to cinema. This is one that keeps getting mentioned within the family I married into, second only perhaps to the soft porn version of Cinderella, which I finally saw in 2008. Everyone's seen Ed and His Dead Mother except me, but now I can catch up, given that my better half picked up a DVD copy for me for Christmas. She gets to catch up too, because the fact that it's such a memorable film for the family, they only saw it on late night TV and never found a copy to own.

As the film opens, the Ed of the title is stuck in black and white in some bizarre courtroom. He's there because he's cut off his mother's head, though apparently he didn't kill her because she was already dead. We reach colour when he wonders just how he got into all this, and then the story unfolds in flashback. He's Ed Chilton, who has been running Chilton's Hardware since his mother's death almost a year before. He's still mourning her year, something his Uncle Benny thinks is seriously unhealthy. Then again Uncle Benny spends his time watching the sexy new neighbour through a telescope.

Life isn't exactly peaches and cream but it's entirely stable, up until the moment when A J Pattle walks into Chilton's Hardware to sell him life. Mr Pattle is a salesman and the commodity he has to sell is life itself. He works for the Happy People Corporation and he promises that for a simple thousand buck fee he can resurrect his dead mother. The cinch seems to be that no fee is forthcoming until delivery of the service promised, so there's no risk of losing any money in case Mr Pattle is some random nutjob who can't wield supernatural powers. Of course, given that this is a comedy, it doesn't quite work out the way you might expect.

For a start, Mr Pattle keeps finding ways to charge Ed more money. He's a slick salesman, after all: one who has a tan that sets off his perfect teeth and a sharp white suit with an intricately folded red handkerchief in his breast pocket. He even has a licence plate that reads R U HAPPY. So the initial $1,000 becomes $2,500 when he brings the varied pieces of Ed's mother to him in his trunk, missing organs that she'd had donated to science. Then it's another $400 when she drops dead in the front room, because life is a drug and each dose only lasts so long. It's an expensive business, even when you have a Happy People Good Customer Discount.

As you can imagine this is a really dark comedy, but it never has a nasty feel. It has a valid if basic message and has a riot telling it. The script is a good one but it's the cast that bring it to life, because they're perfectly cast. In fact the lead role of Ed could only go to one person and just the fact that he speaks the very appropriate line, 'Why does all this stuff have to happen to me?' is a gimme to the casting director that they have to cast Steve Buscemi. Buscemi is excellent, not just because he's always great at walking that fine line between social misfit and whatever else he chooses.

Ned Beatty gets the top credit, even though he's neither Ed nor his dead mother. He plays Uncle Benny with a perpetual and blissful calm; he may get rattled on occasion given the increasingly trying circumstances, but always returns to this blissful calm. Miriam Margolyes is perfect as Ed's dead mother, effortlessly stealing many scenes. The image of her bouncing down the pavement in a stars and stripes outfit chasing a collie with a hungry look on her face and a large knife and fork in her hands is going to be highly memorable.

Sam Jenkins is a lovely sexy neighbour, who falls hard for Ed but has a secret she isn't sharing. Gary Farmer is a favourite in this household, not just from a couple of recurring roles (as Nobody in a couple of Jim Jarmusch films and as the reservation police captain in the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn TV movies) and he has fun here being deadpan as Big Lar who works at Chilton's Hardware, dealing with people who want to buy large pieces of equipment to kill people with, like the local priest who wants a bear trap to take care of his cheating whore of a wife. Best of all though is John Glover, who joyously evokes Bruce Dern's grin to play A J Pattle, the drug dealer dealing in life. I can see why it's a family guilty pleasure: now it's one of mine too.

Monday 2 February 2009

The Girl from 10th Avenue (1935)

Director: Alfred E Green
Stars: Bette Davis and Ian Hunter

Welcome to 1935 where girls who live on 10th Avenue are from the poorer end of society. This is another early Bette Davis, which sees her in yet another routine programmer but still holding down the title role. She's Miriam Brady, just a shop girl who's about to lose her job, when she stumbles on a drunk making a serious attempt to drown his sorrows after his fiancee dumps him at the altar. He's Geoff Sherwood, a lawyer played by Ian Hunter, and he's in a right state. He can't do anything but pine after his Valentine, even to the degree of turning up to her wedding to a landed gentleman played by Colin Clive and causing a mild scene outside the church.

And this is where he finds his way into her life, because she overhears a couple of plainclothesmen talking and doesn't want a stranger to get locked up for disturbing the peace while he's down. She takes him to a cafe to keep him out of the way, but circumstances keep them together. She ends up as his chaperone for the week, and by that time they're in New York State married at the end of a drunk evening. Of course at this point, none of this was really intended: he's still pining after Valentine and she's just trying to help. However it doesn't take long for them to start growing together, though they do so on the basis that she can leave whenever the time calls for it.

Now there's not much of a story here, but the kick is still to come. Back in New York, sober and grounded, Sherwood builds a new business and everything seems to be going fine. This temporary drunken arrangement seems like it's going to become a permanent fixture, but then back from honeymoon in Europe comes Valentine, unhappy with her rich husband and all set on stealing Sherwood back. So Miriam starts to fight back, regardless of whatever class she might be fighting from. And there's the story, which gets the pair of them on the front page of the paper in a completely different way to the way Bette Davis did it in Front Page Woman.

Bette Davis is great here, though she's outshone by Alison Skipworth as her landlady, a devious old Floradora girl called Mrs Martin who knows the ways of the world far better than she does. Ian Hunter is decent too but there are a number of supporting actors sitting behind him in the credits that bear watching as well. People like John Eldredge and Philip Reed are reliable character actors who I've seen a number of times without knowing or remembering what their names are. However the best of the bunch is Colin Clive.

Like most, I first watched the old Universal horrors as a kid and I saw the monsters. Dracula was about Bela Lugosi; Frankenstein was about Boris Karloff. Obviously there were other people in the films but they didn't really matter. Later on I started noticing people like Dwight Frye and Una O'Connor. Nowadays I'm focusing on the people who seemed to be the least noticeable in those films and finding that I'm noticing their talent more and more as time goes by in films that have precisely nothing to do with the horror genre: David Manners, Helen Chandler and Colin Clive. Admittedly here he's playing an alcoholic here two years before he died of tuberculosis made worse by severe alcoholism so he may have been playing himself, but whoever he's playing he's more and more watchable as time goes by.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Star: Steve Coogan

Tony Wilson was always going to be an interesting character to form a biopic around, being possibly the most important man in the musical industry to ever hit Manchester, one of the most vibrant and innovative spots in English musical history. Through his show on Granada TV he was the only man to play punk on the airwaves anywhere in the country, he created Factory Records to give voice to the Manchester scene enabling people like Joy Division to be heard, he founded the Hacienda nightclub which became the global centre of rave culture.

Michael Winterbottom's attempt at the Tony Wilson story follows some intriguing rules of its own, completely unafraid to break the fourth wall, and it isn't afraid to show Wilson in a variety of lights, far from all good ones. It even debunks rumours by showing them, in all their cinematic glory and then telling us that they never happened. It's a strange mix of drama, documentary, stock footage and intriguing combinations of the three, and it doesn't play at all like you'd expect a biopic to play. The casting of comedian Steve Coogan in the lead role certainly fits that concept, and the reconstruction of the rats with wings scene is truly surreal.

After a brief opening in the Pennines, we hit the real beginning: 4th May, 1976. The Sex Pistols play a tiny venue in Manchester with a sum total of 42 people in the audience. Someone at Granada the next day asks him, 'How could it be history? There were only 42 people there.' But Wilson knows how important it was, something easy for us to see when he looks at the camera and explains who everyone there is. The Buzzcocks are there. There's the Stiff Kittens, later to become Warsaw, Joy Division and New Order, meeting Ian Curtis for the first time. Mick Hucknall is there, much later of Simply Red. The name you won't recognise is Martin Hannett, who would later try to kill him and who would become the recording engineer on Factory Records. Everyone there was somebody.

I didn't know all of this story and, to be brutally frank, I'm still not sure I do. Obviously Wilson was a clever and educated man who tapped into a number of scenes and made a serious difference. He was a talented man and there's no doubt about it. However this is a story as much of ineptitude and waiting as it is of genius. Copious amounts of drugs are only part of it, and the depths to which Manchester had sunk don't tell the whole story either. The most obvious component here is sheer luck which oozes out every pore of this story. So how much was Tony Wilson the visionary instigator of much of this timely madness and how much was he just a constantly reoccurring name while it happened. This fascinating and wild film completely fails to answer that question but is incessive about posing it.

Coogan is excellent, in fact this is by far the best I've ever seen him, well above Alan Partridge, Hamlet 2 and even more than The Parole Officer. He's probably the premiere actor in the world when it comes to looking like an idiot but remaining somehow likeable and sympathetic. This performance is as stunning as it's unconventional. There are other excellent performances here: Danny Cunningham as Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays and Sean Harris as Ian Curtis of Joy Division spring quickly to mind. Another stunning yet unconventional performance comes from Andy Serkis who plays Martin Hannett. An incisive review mentioned by Wilson in the DVD commentary cites this as Serkis's strangest role, a somewhat bizarre statement given that he's best known for playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Even so, Wilson agrees with the review.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Front Page Woman (1935)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Bette Davis and George Brent

There's nothing like a thirties movie from Warner Brothers to guarantee a fast paced ride with plenty of fast lines and a dash of social issues to boot. Bette Davis saw her career stuck in these films for quite some time but they're not usually as bad as you might expect. Admittedly they're hardly Oscar material but it's rare to find one that doesn't elicit solid response from the viewer on at least some level and this one is no exception, because of some blistering sarcasm, the sort of cruel jibes that often populated thirties newsroom stories for hard boiled reporters to shrug off.

The point here is for Bette Davis to address the concept of a female reporter, in the form of Ellen Garfield who works for the Star. She knows the business, not only by working for the Star but because her fiance is the ace reporter for the Express, Curt Devlin by name. He's played by George Brent and the pair of them play very well against each other, both as lovers and as professionals. They're both jovial and light hearted as they pursue their various stories, but Brent tries a little too hard on occasion. Surprisingly, given that the film is called Front Page Woman, there are long stretches that focus on him and not her.

We begin with her though, trying to prove that women can be newsmen just as good as the men by covering an electrocution. Of course she faints while reading her story down the wire to her paper, yet more proof in her boyfriend's eyes that she isn't cut out for the job. He's a shameless male chauvinist but then this was 1935 and so was pretty much anyone else. He still calls her 'tidbit' though and I can't help but wait for Bette Davis to belt him one. Luckily it's Ellen Garfield receiving the insult. To get past this impasse, both use a current case to outdo the other, each for their own agenda: if she wins, she gets to be as good a reporter as he is, but if he wins he'll persuade her to quit the business and settle down to be a housewife.

The case itself is reasonably basic, but neatly done with standard Warner Brothers panache. An apartment fire produces an extra story: a murder. Marvin Q Stone made it out of the burning building but is murdered soon after. Garfield and Devlin hop, skip and jump ahead of each other discovering each new clue: where he went, who he went with, where the girl is, where the murder weapon is, the real stories behind the case. Both characters are get plenty of shots in the battle and the real question is not who's going to win but what that means for the central angle of the film, the feminist angle.

Davis and Brent are solid, more Davis than Brent, whose always did a good job but who has been mostly lost to posterity while his co-star here became a legend. Best of all is Joseph Crehan, who is great as Spike Kiley, Garfield's fast talking city editor at the Star, and he had to be great to stay above the ever dependable Roscoe Karns stealing scenes every which where as Devlin's photographer. Other familiar faces include those of J Carrol Naish and J Farrell MacDonald, among others.

Really though the acting pales beside the film itself. It isn't a great work of cinematic art though director Michael Curtiz does a highly capable job and the writers of the dialogue (perhaps mostly Laird Doyle) go to town with their insults, including a jaw dropping scene with blistering lines aimed at what could only be described in modern parlance as a bull dyke. Times have certainly changed. What really leaps out of this film is what the newsmen get up to get their scoops. How far into blatantly illegal territory? How far to screw over the opposition, even when they're engaged to be married to that opposition? This is amazing stuff but I wonder how much of it is amazing for the reasons intended.

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

Director: Douglas Sirk
Stars: George Sanders, Signe Hasso and Carole Landis

I couldn't resist this one: an independently produced adaptation of the life and unique career of Eugéne François Vidocq, based on his imaginative 'autobiography' with suave and sophisticated George Sanders in the role. Vidocq was one of the most fascinating figures in European history: a professional criminal and inveterate womaniser who ended up serving as the first director of the Sûreté, who introduced many scientific techniques in routine use today by criminologists and who provided the basis for various famous fictional detectives, not least Poe's C Auguste Dupin.

We start early, with Vidocq's birth in a prison thirty miles from Paris, and progress quickly through to the main focus of our story. Vidocq and his partner in crime, Emile Vernet, has returned to a town in which they had previously rested during their escape from prison and from which they had stolen a horse with which to reach Paris. Unfortunately to get the horse they had to pose for an artist painting St George and the Dragon on a church panel, making them rather recognisable. They also plan a daring robbery, to steal the jewels of the Marquise de Pierremont while guests in her home, only to find that she's the mother in law of the minister of police and her granddaughter Therese has already fallen in love with St George, even before meeting the model.

Yes, this is all highly convenient and it's hardly an accurate rendering of Vidocq's life, but then this is Hollywood, after all. We aren't here to learn accurate history, we're here to watch George Sanders get up to no end of villainy while remaining our hero. The supporting cast is decent without ever being stunning: Akim Tamiroff as Emile, Signe Hasso as Therese, Gene Lockhart as the prefect of police, Alan Napier as the minister and Carole Landis as a dancer called Loretta who happens to become the wife of the prefect of police, yet another convenience to smile at.

It's a fun ride but it's definitely a ride, Hollywood style. It isn't worthy of the life of the real Vidocq, whose story would be fascinating to see done properly on the big screen, and it isn't worthy of the talents of George Sanders, who could do this sort of thing in his sleep. I was hoping for something with depth enough to warrant a great Sanders performance but it just isn't there. It's enjoyable but it's predictable fluff, easy for the eyes to stray away from. The little monkey called Satan steals the show, and while it's great fun when he does so that's no great advert for a film. Everyone involved has done better elsewhere.