Friday, December 14, 2007

Kiss Me Kate (George Sydney, 1953)

***½
USA



Limp backstage farce about the staging of a musical version of "The Taming of the Shrew" serves - and often takes far too long - to connect the numbers. But the numbers are worth the patience: Ann Miller, who's patently delighted to be part of the show and whose delight is catching, gets to hypnotise you with her legs in "Too Darn Hot"; she joins up with the very stylish Tommy Rall on "Why Can't You Behave?"; non-singers and non-dancers Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore have terrific fun with their shortcomings in "Brush Up Your Shakespeare"; and, most strikingly, there is cinema's first glimpse of the Bob Fosse style still in its formative stages but already electrifying (particularly in this context) in the climactic "From This Moment on".

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930)

***½
USA




The story of Rico Bandello was among the first half-dynamic Hollywood talkies and, although not the first, probably the defining gangster picture. Though it's more alive and engaging than a lot of things made around the time, it hasn't dated sensationally well. As directed by the rarely exciting Mervyn LeRoy, it lacks the zest and tension of the other genre-defining classics, like Scarface and The Public Enemy. But in his star-making role, Edward G. Robinson is still vivid and wonderful to watch. He went on to do much more nutritious parts but remained closely identified with Rico throughout his career.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

*****
USA



David Lynch's noirish, idiosyncratic, half-abstract love story was far too readily summed up as a moody, stylish mindfuck. Many adored it all the same, though it's a shame more people didn't dig a little deeper. It's intriguing more than confounding, and in a thoughtful, engrossing way.

The film may not be linear, but it's centrally tied to a story - a lurid, gruelling but morbidly touching love story. Lynch creates his own intuitive plane of dream-logic on which it can unfold, and it's organic enough (not to mention, rewarding) to go along with.

He does wobble at times - scenes like the pre-production conference and the dwarf overlord in the cavernous lounge feel a bit like auto-pilot. But they amount to minor eccentricities in a rich, sprawling, enveloping whole.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

*****
USA



Though not nearly as famous as James Whale's other comic horrors, this is arguably the wittiest, most chilling and all around best. The set-up - young travellers are forced by a storm to seek lodging in an isolated Gothic mansion populated by weirdos - may not yet have been a cliché in 1932, but Whale certainly treats it like one and peppers it with giddy, bizarre British humour.

Visually, it's his most sophisticated film - his compositions are more stylish and inventive than in either of his other classics - and it's also the one most tightly crammed with oddballs: there's top-billed Boris Karloff as a horrifically scarred, drunken, unstable butler, who communicates in unintelligible grunts and wails; the piercing, fundamentalist Eva Moore, who out-Una-O'Connors Una O'Connor; the ever-screwy Ernest Thesiger as the effete, shifty host; an odd, tiny, twitchy and bizarrely terrifying man named Brember Wills as the pyromaniac locked in the attic; and, most unforgettably, a woman named Elspeth Dudgeon (credited as John Dudgeon) as Sir Roderick Femm, the senile, bedridden, squeaky-voiced 102-year-old baronet, who makes funny noises all through the night. There's also the old lady from Titanic in the shape of a young, delicate starlet and the soon to be much more famous Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton among the civilised guests.

It's beguiling to watch Whale send up the still-quite-young horror conventions while at the same time exploiting them to ratchet up the tension. It's hard to say how it works, but it does terrifically. The climactic showdown is as absurd and outrageous as it is intense and unnerving.

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Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)

****½
USA



The story of straight-A law school graduate Christopher McCandless, who donated his $20,000+ scholarship to charity and disappeared without warning into the harsh American landscape to pursue the fantasy of every undergrad who ever read Walden, treads the spiritual-pathological territory that Werner Herzog has long laid claim to. Sean Penn is no Herzog. He puts in too many helicopter shots, too many redundant transcripts from McCandless' diary, too much slow motion - key scenes that are meant to resonate spiritually come off instead looking like credit card ads. More annoyingly, Penn glorifies the mystic-romantic appeal of McCandless' adventure where it would have been much more honest and productive to focus on the dangerous naïveté, the misguided arrogance and emotional instability.

It's a morbidly flawed film - more so than most other near-great ones. But it has a hypnotic power. It's built on a constant stream of thought-provoking, transcendentally beautiful passages and performances that obliterate all the minor and major shortcomings of Penn's writing and direction. The images, lensed by the great Eric Gautier, avoid the always-tempting postcard aesthetic and carry a forceful, primal beauty. Several deeply intelligent actors invest their crudely stitched-up cameos with a disarming, burnt but tortuously subsisting humanity. They render the mystic posturing insignificant and shape the canvas for the searing tragedy of the real McCandless to come through with tremendous force. You carry it with you.

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Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952)

***½
USA



Fritz Lang transported this Clifford Odets Broadway-realist soap opera from Staten Island to an obscure fishing village. So as to undercut the staginess of the dialogue and situations, he shoots much of the opening act like a documentary - with natural light, on location and keeping his distance from the actors. The freshness and the detail are absorbing. But then the picture loses some interest as things turn hysterical and claustrophobic.

World-weary Barbara Stanwyck marries a good-natured oaf and tries very hard to resist animal attraction to cynical, overtly sexual Robert Ryan. Guess what happens after - bear in mind, the anti-heroine has the option to end up destitute or domesticated.

As soon as she strides into frame and downs a whisky Stanwyck dominates her scenes as well as everybody else's, which goes a long way towards making the film at least half-compelling. Another plus is an early supporting role for Marilyn Monroe. She's not yet giddy, glamourous or breathy, but she's already very lovely.

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