Apr 14, 2014

This Week We've Been Watching... April 7th - 13th 2014

This week we have a guest writer joining us to provide a couple of mini reviews from her week in film.  Rosie Alaska, a young critic posting over at The Rosebud Cinema, knows a whole lot more about classic cinema than I did at her age, and could probably still teach me a thing or two.  You'll find a couple of reviews from her below and you should follow her on Twitter @rosiealaska.

Sam's Been Watching

At Middleton
Dir: Adam Rogers
The romantic comedy has, of late, been in the doldrums as a genre.  It has largely descended into the act of watching people you hate make terrible jokes while falling into laughably unconvincing relationships with one another.  I was hoping that, given the participation of Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia, At Middleton would break that mould.

Farmiga and Garcia each play parents bringing their children to an open day at Middleton college.  They meet early in the day, argue but then hit it off and end up separated from the tour group, spending the day getting to know each other and perhaps falling for each other.  For about an hour this has a level of charm about it.  Farmiga and Garcia are both fine actors and while they are saddled with rather cliché characters (Garcia the uptight Dad, Farmiga the free-spirited Mom) they spark off each other quite nicely.  The chemistry works and so do many of the jokes, especially a scene in which the two stumble into an acting class and end up improvising a scene.

The cuts back to the kids storyline (despite a decent performance from Tassia Farmiga, Vera's much younger sister, as her daughter) never generate much momentum and in the first hour they drain a bit of the energy that is being built up.  This becomes a much bigger problem as the film segues into its long third act.  At 100 minutes At Middleton could be cut by a fifth and lose very little.  The last 40 minutes drag out, especially in an interminable scene in which Garcia and Farmiga get stoned with a couple of college students only to end up shouting "The ballsack is life" over and over.  Remarkably this is not the worst line in the film.

Towards the end At Middleton also develops a sentimental streak a mile wide, which meant I stopped believing in the connection between these characters.  Worse, it provides the film with one of the most vomit inducing lines of 'romantic' dialogue since the ending of Four Weddings, as Farmiga turns to Garcia, whose character is a heart surgeon and says "I thought you fixed hearts".  As I said, Garcia and Farmiga are both very fine actors, but you can't expect anyone to make that line, nor quite a few of the others this script puts in their mouths, work.  They try hard, but the last third of the movie finds them increasingly defeated by the material.

At Middleton is actually one of the better American romantic comedies of recent years, but sadly that speaks to the catastrophic state of the genre more than it does the qualities of this film.

How I Got Into College
Dir: Savage Steve Holland
Savage Steve Holland is one of those filmmakers that I have always wished was given the opportunity to work more at feature length (since this film he has been plugging away in kids shows and TV movies), his anarchic take on the teen movie in Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer marked him out as an individual voice in a scene that threatened to become stale, and this film is one with the same wonderfully skewed view of the world.

The plot is incredibly simple; High School senior Marlon (Corey Parker) is in love with Jessica Kailo (Lara Flynn Boyle) and his college plans revolve entirely around getting into the same school as her, as he's convinced that once she sees him as a grown up he might have a shot.  They're both trying to get into a small but prestigious school.  At the same time a young member of the admissions board (Anthony Edwards) is arguing that the school should look beyond grades when recruiting students.

Now, I understand that that doesn't sound that crazy, but it's not so much the structure as the approach that Holland takes to it that is so offbeat.  The surrealism begins from the first frames, with a question on Marlon's SAT's personified by two characters, A and B, who are endangered by Marlon's inability to get the right answer.  This is a comic device that just keeps on giving throughout the film.  How I Got Into College is not as fast with its jokes nor as incredibly odd as Better Off Dead, but it trades that off for a slightly more involved story, liberally sprinkled with gags (a running joke about the college admissions officer who accepted a fake application 'from' a pig is a particular joy).  

Corey Parker may not be the most charismatic of leading men, but his Marlon comes off as a likeable goof and a decent centre for the film's crazier moments to spin around.  Similarly, Lara Flynn Boyle is no Diane Franklin (though she appears briefly in a priceless bit as Marlon's young stepmother), but she's attractive and appealing enough to convince us that Marlon would want to follow Julie to college.  That story could be creepy, but by the end it has developed an essential sweetness.  As the college recruiter Anthony Edwards has that down to earth decency that has always served him so well on screen, as well as pretty spot on comic timing.  The rest of the cast are largely cameos, but everyone has enormous fun (watch for Better Off Dead's Curtis Armstrong in a typically offbeat moment).

How I Got Into College may not quite be the lost classic that Holland's debut is, but it's a wonderfully inventive, silly and often gut-bustingly funny film of the like you simply don't see anymore.  Seek it out.

Mike's Been Watching

What Maisie Knew 
Dir: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Adapted from Henry James' acclaimed 1897 novel, Scott McGehee and David Siegel's What Maisie Knew convincingly inhabits the emotional environment of a child pulled from pillar to post in the debris of divorce, updating the source to contemporary New York and casting Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as parents to the put-upon Maisie (Onata Aprile).

Its impressionistic structure isn't as radical as Katell Quillévéré's recent Suzanne, which spans twenty-five years in the life of two siblings, but Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright's screenplay is sensitive to the fluidity of time from a child's point of view, and stages the drama as if half remembered, slipping from scene to scene, and parent to parent, without a wholly cohesive sense.

This is all the more impressive for never explicitly stating that the film is from Maisie's point-of-view; the co-directors emphasize the child's personal space by foregrounding her in most shots, and the sound design responds to how she's positioned spatially against her parent's constant bickering. The sun-dappled aesthetic, courtesy of DP Giles Nuttgens, contrives this viewpoint also, casting events as if part of an eternal summer, and the film perfectly captures the spontaneity and optimism of youth even as its sanctity is threatened by the harsh realities of adulthood.

What Maisie Knew could be accused of biting its tongue when it comes to this reality, but observed through Maisie's eyes, eyes which naturally divert from her parent's vitriolic outbursts and emotional self-harming, it makes perfect sense, and the toll of their arguing is expressed in subtle variations on Aprile's face. The immensely gifted young actress beautifully conveys Maisie's shift from adolescent to a more mature, yet still pre-pubscent being, and even if her coming-of-age isn't as confidently portrayed as it was in James' source text, the gentleness and understanding of her performance creates an entire interior universe to explore - a place which, once we grow older as viewers, can only be recaptured through film. What Maisie Knew visits this place and leaves a lasting impression.

The Trouble With Harry 
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock's other film of 1955, To Catch A Thief, is one of his frothiest and most disposable, yet this adaptation (scripted by John Michal Hayes) of Jack Trevor Story's 1950 novel was one of the biggest flops of his career, a critical disaster lost for decades.

Like the cadaver which causes The Trouble With Harry's protagonists so much grief, the film doesn't appear where you'd expect it to; opposite To Catch A Thief, it sits beside one of the most classical Hitchcock vehicles, the 1956 remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. But its ostensibly baffling surface - a town with no villains or moral duplicity, only pleasantries and pastry - is perhaps even closer to what we perceive as "classic" Hitch, and not only because this marks his first (of seven) collaborations with Bernard Herrmann.

Like Rope, Dial M For Murder and Rear Window, this is one of Hitchcock's 'space' films, confining characters to a single location and using its dimensions to explore their psychology under duress. As in Lifeboat, Hitchcock winks coyly at the audience, moving this action to an exterior, and that he cultivates a sense of isolation and tension from the rolling hills surrounding a New England town is one of the pleasures of The Trouble With Harry. Of course, beside Rope, it is also the only other Hitchcock film whose primary narrative concern is a body, and perhaps the only time he gave a corpse the lead role (actor Philip Truex; oddly, in his last film).

I'm still not persuaded that this is some maligned masterpiece, but it is dryly and wickedly funny, brilliantly acted by a cast which includes Shirley MacLaine in her screen debut, and remains one of his most fascinating exercises in audience manipulation.

Rosie's Been Watching

The Last Picture Show
Dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Peter Bogdanovich's talent as a director and writer is evident in this fascinating tale of self-acceptance and maturity told through the eyes of a group of honest and convincing characters.

In 1950s West Texas, the town of Anarene plays home to the coming of age of a group of high schoolers. Caught in the awkward time between adulthood and childhood, they begin to think about their futures and as their graduation approaches, they learn some difficult lessons about love, loneliness, and jealousy. Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms and Cybill Shepherd are the troubled teenagers whilst Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn are the adults of the town, coming to the realisation that they are not as young as they once were.

The melancholic story is told in black and white with cinematography that captures the mood of the bleak town with such simplicity that only Bogdanovich could do successfully. In one of his earliest starring roles, Jeff Bridges gives a superlative performance as Duane, a troubled teenage boy, and equaling his performance is that of Timothy Bottoms who acts opposite Leachman with  understanding and sensitivity that make it hard to believe he is merely acting. The pain and loneliness of Lois is evident in every frame of Burstyn's portrayal, and as her daughter Jacy, Shepherd is innocent and naive. The Last Picture Show is a powerful and poetic film that audiences of all ages will find something of themselves in, making it all the more nostalgic and meaningful.

Guys and Dolls
Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Joseph L. Mankiewicz was known for his epic films and his 1955 musical feature, Guys and Dolls, was no exception. Filmed in glorious Technicolor and filled to the brim with exciting musical numbers, it is a lovely film to be enjoyed by the whole family.

In New York, gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) is challenged to convince a cold missionary, Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), to accompany him to Havana. His challenger, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), knows that if he wins the bet he will have the money to finance a gambling game against the wish of his wife (Vivian Blaine). When Sarah reluctantly agrees, she and Sky find themselves falling for one another but it is not long before she finds out the hidden motive.

Although somewhat outdated, the film is entertaining and heartwarming, the characters written with passion and humour not often found in more recent films. Brando's natural charm suits the charismatic character of Sky, and his chemistry with Simmons is a joy to watch. Neither actors are known for their singing skills but their acting gave it the magic needed, Simmons' idealistic Sarah contrasting perfectly with Brando's magnetic Sky. Sinatra's anger about having been cast in the supporting role of Nathan as opposed to the starring role of Sky shows in his stifled performance, but his singing is as enchanting as ever. Beautifully choreographed musical numbers and an exciting story make for a lighthearted yet sophisticated and entertaining viewing that leaves you begging for more.

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