Allied (2016)

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Different kinds of bad movies are bad for different reasons but we love them just the same. Sort of. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is the French-speaking Canadian intelligence agent parachuted into occupied Morocco on a mission during WW2.  He arrives in a bar and cosies up to his fake wife Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) who introduces him to her friends. They are all speaking French. Max and Marianne are spies and have never actually met before tonight. Before you can say Operation Desert Storm they’re having it away in a swirl of sand in their car and without even a hint of jeopardy they carry out their ostensible mission to assassinate the local Nazi chief at a lovely party. Then they fetch up in London at their wedding and while the city is bombed Marianne has their baby daughter. A year later Max is working and she’s staying at home and he’s asked to look at the evidence against his beloved – his superiors in the Special Operations Executive claim that he is sleeping with the enemy and the couple are pitted against one another as Max is forced to question everything and has to figure out if he must kill his own wife….  This starts out kinda like Casablanca. Well. That’s to say it starts in Casablanca which is not the same thing at all. But it does end in an aerodrome. The first half hour is in the realm of the ludicrous – perfect design, badly paced, poorly written and wholly unbelievable. The acting is debatable. I suppose there was some.  Marianne criticises Max’s Canadian French (I know – the worst insult I ever had in Paris was that my accent was Canadian – sheesh!). Except that it was a rainy Saturday, that was me. But it actually gets better. There’s something about dull old north London burbs that has a lingering interest and wondering how wicked Jared Harris might be in planting a seed of doubt in Max’s mind about his lovely wife – not that it lasts for long. This is a turkey that mutates into something of a hybrid spy romance melodrama. It wanted to be a classic but refined its ambitions to resemble something like Hanover Street. Oh I’m too kind. More story, less sauce, next time, you naughty boys with your Lesbian antics. Written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis. I know! Can you believe it? Frankly, no.

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Jerry Lewis 03/16/1926-08/20/2017

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The great American comic Jerry Lewis has died. One half of a famed partnership with crooner Dean Martin, in which he played an idiot to the smarter singer, he was a star of TV and radio before they conquered feature films. After working with Frank Tashlin it seemed Lewis found a desire to make films himself. Janet Leigh speaks about the fun weekends she spent at his home shooting slapstick shorts – he would of course become a famed auteur, making very formally dynamic comedies with himself as the star. The greatest of these is probably The Nutty Professor in which he apparently sends up Dino’s image as cooler-than-thou hep singer Buddy Love. In other works like The Bell Boy he creates astonishing tableaux of the kind beloved of the French director and comic Jacques Tati. He would come a cropper with The Day The Clown Cried, a Holocaust film too far which was buried by the studio (he reputedly owned the sole remaining print) but the French embraced him and he even starred in a couple of films in France in the 80s. That was the period when the American audience embraced him again as he starred for Scorsese in The King of Comedy, where he seemed to channel a part of himself that was not visible in his annual charity telethons. His appearances in supporting roles in films like Funny Bones kept him on the big screen but he more or less retired in 1995 until some very recent roles. His persona is indelibly connected with midcentury cinema but his career as director-star is something special. Rest in peace, Jerry, we shall not see your like again.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

The Love Lottery (1954)

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Long before George Clooney thought of it, matinee idol Rex Allerton (David Niven) decamps to Lake Como to escape the hordes of girlie fans who besiege him everywhere he goes, even in his dreams:  this commences with one such nightmare when he’s torn to pieces at a premiere by the adoring mob who all look like Peggy Cummins. He falls for mathematician Anne Vernon who’s doing the calculations for gangster Herbert Lom that blackmail him into being the prize in a worldwide raffle. This mild satire from Ealing has some ambition but the writing doesn’t really hold up – the story by Charles Neilson-Terry and Zelma Bramley Moore was written by Harry Kurnitz and producer Monja Danischewsky. There are some good scenes and Niven does a lot with thin material with Vernon making hay as the clever woman who eventually falls for his charms. The attempt to marry his lady love in church is good but the payoff gag with Cummins isn’t really done as well as it could have been. There are a lot of short dream sequences which detract from the narrative momentum but on the plus side it’s beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe and edited by Seth Holt, directed by Charles Crichton. And Humphrey Bogart does everyone a favour by showing up in a cameo.

Imperium (2016)

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Daniel Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, an FBI agent seconded to infiltrate a white supremacist group planning an Event when senior agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) wants to find stolen caesium-137. And therein lieth the problem. He’s tiny in comparison with the skinhead mobsters rallying around Vince Sargent (Pawel Szajda) who’s a follower of Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) a conservative hate-speech spouting talk show host. Nate has to prove himself and launches an attack on an interracial couple then stops it by rationalising that the CCTV and a local shopkeeper could ID them as he drives off at high speed. Things get tricky when Nate’s introduced to Andrew Blackwell (Chris Sullivan from TV’s This Is Us), the leader of a militia who isn’t as taken with Nate as his friends but when Nate saves him from anti-fascists at a rally he relents and lets Nate in on a plan to attack Washington. The drama ups a notch when Nate befriends Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), a family man, classical music lover and all-round good guy racist so the plot literally thickens … Until Nate figures who the real bad guy is and pretends that he will supply TATP for a dirty bomb. This works pretty well if you can get beyond the stunt casting but the ending is pretty predictable and not as tense as it should have been. Timely, if nothing else. But it makes me want to watch Arlington Road again, or even American History X, to see these themes more adeptly handled. Adapted by director Daniel Ragussis from Michael German’s story.

I Saw the Light (2015)

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It starts with a marriage in a garage and within the first ten minutes I had switched this off twice. Elizabeth Olsen plays the talentless attention-seeking narcissistic divorced mother Audrey Sheppard, who latches onto Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) like a leech and whines and wheedles her way on his radio show alienating his band, his producers and his manager mother Lillie (Cherry Jones). Her vile off-key nasal voice literally drove me to distraction and the OFF button. It may be true to life but boy did it rile me. Sometimes verisimilitude is fine for dialect coaches but not the audience. This manages to boast a sterling performance by Hiddleston in a story which tells you nothing about how this genius’ mind worked. It has no interest in portraying how he got those demons, how his mother drove his father away, how she ran her son’s life, just the external consequences and incomprehensible relationships. A musical biopic with no interest in music? How a man who couldn’t understand notation came to write some of the century’s greatest songs? No context for those significant radio shows? The wider musical landscape? His dealings with his bandmates? The beating Williams took before his strange death in his own car after being treated by a quack for his chronic alcoholism en route to a concert? Nope. That’s all folks. Hiddleston, who sings all the songs himself, and very well, is wasted. What a shame. If you knew nothing about Williams before you will know even less after this. Stick with Your Cheatin’ Heart  (1964) with George Hamilton.  Or prepare to get really irritated indeed. Adapted from the biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen by writer/director Marc Abraham.

My Friend Irma Goes West (1950)

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The famous radio sitcom gets another big screen go-round in this diverting entertainment whose principal attraction is the Lewis-Martin team, sidekicks to wannabe card sharp John Lund, Hollywood actress Wilson and singer Lynn. Lewis’ goofy scenes with a chimp are very funny and even the PC crowd will forgive him for redding up as an Indian. (Lewis, that is.) With gangsters, kidnapping, a loony tunes fake producer, TV stardom, and a typically good music track by Leigh Harline. Written by Cy Howard and Parke Levy, directed by Hal Walker.

While I Live (1947)

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The full-on Gothic/noir fusion that was Rebecca birthed a cycle of imitators throughout and after WW2 and this British MGM production belongs to that list. Sonia Dresdel is the nasty but guilt-ridden older sister who can’t overcome her obsession with her composer sister Olwen’s early death leaving her greatest work, a tone poem, unfinished. A wild girl (Carol Raye) enters her home on the 25th anniversary of Olwen’s death, just after her cousin and ward (Clifford Evans) is home from WW2 to be reunited with his wife, a Land Girl (Patricia Burke), whom Dresdel despises. She tries to break up their marriage and persuade everyone that the girl is her sister, Olwen and outfits her in her image. With the full panoply of Gothic tropes – a vaguely Lesbian villainess, a portrait, a staircase, a cliff, a seaside mansion, obsession and a haunting piece of music, this is a welcome and mysterious visit to the genre, with Dresdel recreating her stage role from Robert Bell’s play This Same Garden.  Adapted by director John Harlow and Doreen Montgomery, photographed by Freddie Young,  The Dream of Olwen composed by Charles Williams was a big hit.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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Newlywed Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas  (Charlton Heston) arrives with wife Susan (Janet Leigh) in his part of the world in the most famous travelling shot in cinema history and a car explodes ahead of the border checkpoint. That’s the audacious start to one of the best films Orson Welles ever made, in this tale of police corruption, gangs and drug running along the Mexican border. An unrecognisable Welles himself plays the crooked cop Quinlan, Marlene Dietrich shows up as trampy but honourable Tana and we have a preview of Psycho when Janet checks into a motel where a twitchy Dennis Weaver admits her as his only guest … Look out for Joi Lansing and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mercedes McCambridge makes a very welcome appearance. A classic that took far too many years to restore to its intended version.