Jan 11, 2010

The Week in Movies 2

04 - 10/01/2010

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
Dir: Carl Reiner

Once upon a time, Steve Martin was funny. No, really. I wonder sometimes if it was just a dream, but he really was hilariously funny once. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (what a great title, by the way) is a brilliant noir spoof that, pre- CGI, has Martin playing against clips from classics of the genre, allowing him to interact with Humprey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Lana Turner and many more. The plot is gloriously silly, but appropriately twisty, with a McGuffin (the Carlotta lists) that could easily have worked in a straight noir, but it’s the parodic dialogue that is most fun. Martin’s narration is a constant joy, with lines like: “I hadn't seen a body put together like that since I solved the case of the Murdered Girl with the Big Tits." and “Carlotta was the kind of town where they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct them, they kill you."

Carl Reiner’s direction is clever; he and cinematographer Michael Chapman ape the noir style beautifully, and manage to integrate Martin into the clips brilliantly (remember this is long before the CGI tricks of Forrest Gump). Te performances are also great, with Martin brilliantly straight-faced amid the silliness and a wonderfully game Rachel Ward, perfectly cast as the femme fatale (she’d have fit right in with Gardner or Lake in the 40’s). This is perhaps a film most rewarding for film buffs, but even if you haven’t seen the movies it uses clips from, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is still an hilarious comedy.

A Kiss Before Dying [‘56]
Dir: Gerd Oswald

Noir just seems a bit odd in colour, particularly the pastel shades and bright sunshine that much of this Ira Levin adaptation takes place in. The idea is pretty good; when Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) discovers that this girlfriend Dorothy (Joanne Woodward), who he has been wooing purely for her father’s fortune is pregnant, and likely to be disinherited, he kills her. The death is ruled a suicide, but Dorothy’s sister Ellen (Virginia Leith) begins to suspect foul play, and the evidence starts to point to her new boyfriend; Bud Corliss.

The problem with A Kiss Before Dying is that, after an excellent, exceedingly creepy, first half hour, the film downshifts a gear. The acting isn’t great, with Robert Wagner especially wooden, and the beautiful Leith matching his style, the storytelling is predictable, making the film feel long. The look of the film just doesn’t work, it feels as though it is at cross purposes with the noirish feel of the story. A disappointment.

Dir: Tony Montana / Mark Brian Smith
Reviewed in my Top 5 Making of documentaries

Ball of Fire
Dir: Howard Hawks

I’m loath to employ such a huge cliché, but they really don’t make ‘em like this any more. That’s largely because the screwball comedy is an all but dead genre. This wonderful example, by the versatile director Hoawrd Hawks (who also made the greatest of all screwball comedies with Bringing Up Baby), has Barbara Stanwyck as a showgirl who has to hide from the Police. Fortunately she’s been invited to be part of English professor Gary Cooper’s study of slang. Stanwyck ends up staying with a whole group of professors; a cat set among the pigeons. The stuffy Cooper, of course, falls in love with her, much to the chagrin of her mobbed up fiancé Dana Andrews.

Reviewing comedy is hard, there’s little middle ground; it’s either funny or it isn’t, well, Ball of Fire is, minute for minute, one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. Stanwyck and Cooper clearly like one another (they also made Meet John Doe together in 1941), they spark wonderfully off one another, delivering their rapid fire dialogue crisply, every punchline (which sometimes seems like every second line) hits the bullseye, and their romantic chemistry is fantastic too. Of course, Cooper would have had be a eunuch to fail to have chemistry with Stanwyck, who has never been sexier than in this film.

The other seven professors are based on Disney’s seven dwarves. It’s not all that obvious in the film, but sreenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brakett give all of them a lot of very funny business, ensuring that no scene passes by without at least one belly laugh. The look of the film is functional rather than spectacular, but Hawks carries off the mayhem beautifully and Gregg Toland never shot an ugly film. Also worth mentioning is the costuming, largely for Stanwyck’s dazzling appearance in a hays office baiting Edith Head creation in her opening scenes.

Unusually for a romantic comedy, Ball of Fire is both romantic and fall on the floor funny, the fact that it isn’t on UK DVD is a terrible crime.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Dir: Steven Spielberg

Perhaps the most disappointing cinematic experience of my life. The third Indiana Jones film turned the eight year old me into the guy who is writing this, sadly I can’t for a second imagine the messy fourth film doing the same for kids who were 8 in 2008..

All my problems with the film were magnified on DVD; the bad special effects, the awful screenplay, the legions of pointless characters (does ANONE know what John Hurt is doing here, or what side Ray Winstone’s character was actually on in the end?), the weak villain, Shia, Shia and those fucking CGI monkeys, ALIENS, THE FRIDGE, THE CGI GOPHER.

There are a couple of saving graces though, and they just about pull the film through. Even though he sounds terribly, terribly bored, Harrison Ford is still Indiana Jones through and through, and seeing him in that hat for the first time in 18 years (and Spielberg’s iconic introduction for him) is a moment of childlike glee. Even better than that though, Karen Allen, brining back Marion Ravenwood for a wonderful encore. She’s as beautiful and spunky at 57 as she was at 29 and she and Ford play off each other with such obvious enthusiasm, it’s the scenes between them that really recapture the fun of the franchise, as Indy says when Marion asks if there have been other women “There were a few, but they all had the same problem… They weren't you, honey.”

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a pretty terrible whole, with a few sparklingly brilliant bits, and that’s not good enough for this franchise.

Dir: Peter Bogdanovich

He may have made enough crap to fill the sewer system of a major city, but Roger Corman also gave a lot of great filmmakers their first jobs and their first breaks. We have him to thank for the likes of Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppla, Martin Scorsese and, in this case, Peter Bogdanovich. Boris Karloff owed Corman two days work, so Bogdanovich got to make any film he wanted, providing he used Karloff and came in under budget.

What Bogdanovich came up with is a simple, but disturbing, thriller whose two disparate plots - one following an aging horror film star (Karloff) announcing his retirement, the other following a young man whose obsession with guns sees him become a murderous sniper - crash together in a strong set piece. Despite Karloff’s fine, and rather poignant, performance, the first hour of the film is a little slow and meandering, but it really picks up with an ultra disturbing silent sequence in which the sniper (Tim O’Kelly) hides in a power station and picks off victims as they drive by. It’s an even freakier sequence post Washington sniper.

Bogdanovich’s next would be an honest to god masterpiece; The Last Picture Show, but on a tight schedule, with a lot of limitations, this is a strong debut from a director who seldom gets his due.

A Night at the Opera
Dir: Sam Wood

It contains some brilliant set pieces, but this Marx Brothers comedy has some of the momentum sucked out of it thanks to a dull B-story, wet performances from the romantic leads, and several too many musical interludes.

That said, when it’s funny, when Groucho is on, when Harpo is causing havoc, it’s painfully funny. The contract scene is justly famous, especially Chico’s capper “there ain’t no sanity clause” and the physical dexterity on display in the scenes in Groucho’s very small cabin on a transatlantic ship, and Harpo’s destruction of the final operatic performance are as dextrous as they are funny, it’s just a shame that between times the film has to tread water for so long.

La Belle et La Bete
[Beauty and the Beast]
Dir: Jean Cocteau

I’m going to get mail about this one. I was impressed with Jean Cocteau’s beloved version of Beauty and the Beast at an aesthetic level, it is a ravishingly beautiful film, and it really does look like the illustrations from a book of fairy tales brought to dazzling life in crisp black and white. The problem was that I was left unmoved by it.

My main difficulty was with Jean Marais’ performance as the Beast. I understand that there was a different style of screen acting when this film was made, but even making allowances for that, and for the inexpressive make up through which he has to act, Marais’ performance contains more ham than the average delicatessen. It’s a huge thing, with gestures straight out of silent film and vocalisation as if to the back of an endless theatre. I found it rather comical.

The other problem was that I just couldn’t get Disney’s peerless version out of my head, it’s just as beautiful a film as this one, but infinitely more affecting for me, and better acted.

Night at the Museum 2
Dir: Shawn Levy

I love Amy Adams. I saw her first in Drop Dead Gorgeous, but when I saw her in Junebug, like so many others, I was smitten. She’s beautiful, certainly, but it’s not that, it’s the sheer charisma that she seems to exude on screen. It’s the way that she always seems to be able to be bright and cheerful, as if nothing bad could ever happen around her. It’s the way she, like so many of the truly great movie stars, simply seems lit from within. There’s not a movie she can’t save (well, bar Cruel Intentions 2, even Amy Adams making out with a girl couldn’t help that). She’s the only reason I saw this movie, and it took me a little bit by surprise.

Not only was I head over heels for Adams' spunky, adventure seeking, Amelia Earhart (now there, finally, is a reason to get over my paralysing fear of heights) but I actually had rather a good time with the film. It’s by no means brilliant, but there are a few good laughs, some neat comic turns (notably Hank Azaria’s) and it’s all very efficiently done and completely inoffensive, altogether, perfectly acceptable family fare.

Russell Howard - Live: Dingledodies
Fellow Mock the Week panellist Frankie Boyle is perhaps the funniest man in Britain right now, but the young, energetic, relentlessly positive Howard runs him a close second. This live DVD, however, is a lot better than Boyle’s, because this material is almost all new. There are a few things that were used on Mock the Week, but for the most part this is original, hysterical material from a great comic. Well worth checking out.

The Killers [‘46]
Dir: Robert Siodmak
And once again, I suspect there may be mail, as I sharpen a knife and place it to the throat of this sacred cow. It’s not that The Killers is bad, it’s just that it doesn’t live up to either its reputation or its tremendous opening scene, after the menacing first appearance of the killers, and the murder of Swede Andreson (Burt Lancaster) the rest of the story sees an insurance invetigator trying to uncover the story behind Swede’s murder, and thus recover money from a six year old robbery. The structure is rather like Citizen Kane, each witness triggering a flashback.

The problem is that for all the film’s incredible style, for all the fine performances and for all Ava Gardner’s jaw dropping beauty, it doesn’t amount to much more than a rather predictable mystery for me. I knew where this movie was going early on, and it never took me by surprise thereafter. Siodmak certainly produced a film that defines noir visually, but there are far more satisfying examples out there.

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