19/12/2015

Holiday Inn (1942)


The picture that gave the world Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas', this musical caper starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire is actually a far more erratic and frankly odd affair than you may remember.

Crooner Jim Hardy (Crosby) is heart broken when his fiancée Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) ditches him for their co-star Ted Hanover (Astaire), preferring to carry on with her career rather than retire with Hardy to the isolated Connecticut farm he's just acquired. Hardy himself quickly becomes overwhelmed by the workload at his new ranch and decides to reinvent the venue as a nightclub, open only 15 times a year on public holidays. Meanwhile, Hanover is in turn dumped by Lila and follows Hardy to the Holiday Inn, where he encounters the latter's new protégé Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) and duly falls for her too, much to Jim's horror. The pair bicker over Linda, the competition escalating from Valentine's Day to Easter to Independence Day, before matters come to a head when Hanover finds himself in a position to advance Linda's career in Hollywood.



The Berlin songs are solid - from the aforementioned signature theme to 'You're Easy To Dance With' - the staging is charming and the leads are on fine form. I particularly enjoyed Crosby's bebop patois approach to slang: "Take a slug from the mug", he advises a hungover Astaire, brandishing a coffee pot. Walter Abel also makes an impression as the duo's cheerily manic manager Danny Reed.

However, there's something weird going on with Holiday Inn. Firstly, there's the ill-judged blackface number for Lincoln's Birthday, which is often scrapped from modern television broadcasts of the film despite its necessity to the plot - the greasepaint providing a ruse to disguise Linda and thus keep her out of Ted's clutches. Like any minstrel bit in old musicals, the scene is patronising and irredeemably ugly to modern eyes but would have been recognised as a common vaudeville trope at the time. Equally jarring is the July 4th fireworks party in which Crosby, dressed as Uncle Sam, introduces a montage of stock footage illustrating US military-industrial might. This may have been made in wartime, but the decision to include such brazen patriotic tub-thumping is surely at odds with the otherwise dreamy, escapist tone of the piece.


Perhaps the biggest problem with Mark Sandrich's film though is that it casts Astaire in a rather unflattering, predatory light, his Ted Hanover a disloyal and self-interested wolf who routinely trashes the romantic life of his best friend and business partner without a thought for the latter's welfare. A New Year's Eve duet with Mason in which Astaire dances blind drunk to the delight of his fellow revellers falls flat, unsettling and unfunny because it's depression that's driven him to this boozy stupor. The dynamic Astaire's character establishes in turn forces Crosby to play the melancholy loser, a creative sadly noodling away at his piano while his showbiz pals and rivals make off with the spoils. Not a good look for the less naturally starry of the leads.



For all that, Holiday Inn creates a toasty wintry mood and is an altogether pithier and breezier enterprise than White Christmas (1954), Michael Curtiz's Technicolor remake again starring Crosby, this time joined by Danny Kaye, which is probably the more often revived. That Holiday Inn's most enduring legacy should be giving its name to an international franchise of affordable hotels is an appropriately peculiar coda for this all-year-round Christmas comedy.

16/12/2015

Remember The Night (1940)


Before Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray became embroiled in murderous insurance fraud, they were paired together in this pleasing seasonal screwball scripted by Preston Sturges.

Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a shoplifter arrested in the run-up to Christmas for filching a $5,000 bangle. MacMurray is John Sargent, the prosecutor at her trial who realises that juries are prone to be more forgiving than usual around the holidays so connives to get her case postponed until the new year. Feeling guilty about his actions condemning Lee to Christmas in jail, Sargent secures her bail and befriends the girl, learning that she too hails from Indiana and offering to drive her home to restore relations with her estranged mother. When this venture proves a disaster, Sargent invites her to spend the season with his own family where, naturally enough, they fall in love. But what to do about her legal battle?


Sturges' script - his last to be directed by someone else, Mitchell Leisen in this case - follows the screwball comedy playbook to the letter, sending a mismatched pair out on the road as in It Happened One Night (1934) and revolving around a very Capraesque romantic thawing, as Stanwyck's tough gal learns to put aside her well-worn cynicism and believe in the simple homespun decency of her foil. The Indiana Christmas scenes around the Sargent hearth are especially heart-warming, however, and nicely contrasted with the grim Gothic melodrama of Lee's unhappy return to the cruel matriarch she deserted years before. There's also some lovely interplay between Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson as Sargent's gently sparring mother and maiden aunt respectively, the pair bickering over burnt biscuits and quietly conspiring to bring the young lovers together. There's something oddly moving about these women awaiting the return of their adored golden boy, the absence of Sargent's late father never mentioned but still clearly felt around the dinner table.



Other nice character business comes from Willard Robinson as Lee's attorney, a frustrated thespian quite spellbound by his own rhetorical brilliance, and from John Wray as a mean Midwestern dairy farmer who takes exception to the travellers parking in his cow pasture and embarks on a citizen's arrest. Not all country folk are sweet, it seems: some are every bit as venal, resentful and vindictive as New Yorkers, a fine lesson from the inimitable and deeply wise Sturges. His own pithy summary of the film? "Love reformed her and corrupted him."

15/12/2015

The Holly & The Ivy (1952)


This unjustly forgotten British Christmas picture from Alexander Korda's London Films proves to be astonishingly fresh 63 years on - thematically speaking, at least - and well worth a revisit.

Directed by George More O'Ferrall from a hit West End play by Wynyard Browne, the film tells of Norfolk parson Martin Gregory (the great Sir Ralph Richardson), whose brood of disgruntled children return home for the festive season. Alcoholic fashion journalist Margaret (Margaret Deighton) and wayward soldier Michael (Denholm Elliott) privately resent their father's neglect in favour of his parishioners and the years they've spent shielding him from the complications of their adult lives. They also blame the widower for failing to look after himself, requiring their self-sacrificing old maid of a sister Jenny (Celia Johnson) to stay on at the vicarage as his unofficial housekeeper at the expense of her own happiness. The siblings, however, underestimate the old man's capacity to understand their respective angsts, the latter proving to be a great deal more worldly than the hapless, irrelevant, bookish caricature they treat him as.

Hardly like to win favour with a generation who insist on Die Hard (1988) as their go-to Christmas classic, The Holly & The Ivy may be genteel and fustily old fashioned but nevertheless has much to say about veiled resentment and its corrosive impact on grown families that should chime with audiences today. Adapted by Russian writer Anatole de Grunewald to bring a Chekovian psychological rigour to Browne's original, there's a proto-Kitchen Sink grit about Margaret's backstory concerning the death of a child born (shockingly for the period) out of wedlock, the reason for her morose drinking bouts. The success of this bold and unflinching scenario is due to the considerable emotional pull of Margaret Deighton's tough performance, down but not out. As with the recently revived Brief Encounter (1945), the fate of Celia Johnson hangs in the balance and again we fall for it thanks to the actress's understated loveliness.



It's Richardson though who really sells the thing, giving a typically affecting performance of enormous charm and subtly. His misunderstood man of god railing against the vulgar commercialisation of Yuletide and expression of profound doubts over whether or not he's valued by his community or has succeeded at all in making a meaningful contribution to their lives ensure that The Holly & The Ivy remains prescient and interesting, even if the world it seeks to depict has largely vanished.

Sure, O'Ferrall's film is a more than a little creaky and stagebound in its execution and the snowy rural England it depicts the preserve of cards and chocolate box lids only, but it's a lovely bit of work all the same. I'd put it right up there with It's A Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947) and Scrooge (1951) among seasonal comforts.

17/10/2015

LFF: The End Of The Tour (2015)


Fans of David Foster Wallace were in uproar when Jason Segel was cast in this biopic of the cult author, horrified that someone known for Judd Apatow bromances should play the troubled genius behind Infinite Jest (1996). They needn't have worried. Segel is utterly superb, bringing charm and real insight to James Ponsoldt's account of the final days of Wallace's cross country tour to promote that novel, a mammoth 1,079 page tome (excluding footnotes) about addiction, pleasure and loneliness set in and around an elite Boston tennis academy.

The writer was being shadowed at that time by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and the screenplay by Donald Margulies essentially comprises one long conversation between these two men as they travel across the Midwest from one promotional appearance to another. Lipsky, a published novelist himself, is envious of Infinite Jest and pushes his editor for the assignment, keen to find out what sort of person could possibly have written such an extraordinary work. Arriving at Wallace's home, "a bookish frat" overrun by two portly black Labradors named Jeeves and Drone, Lipsky is astonished to find an affable, softly-spoken soda drinker with an Alanis Morissette poster on his wall. A friendship quickly develops, the pair enjoying each other's company, finding shared interests and exchanging ideas. The intensity of Lipsky's scrutiny never lets up, however, his barrage of questions, ever-present tape recorder and determination to test the limits of Wallace's "regular guy" persona eventually coming to irritate his subject. The writer's anxieties about Lipsky's motives and the forthcoming profile also begin to surface: he fears falling victim to a hatchet job, is bothered by the invasion of privacy and worries that engaging with publicity duties at all might contradict and undermine the points he's so carefully made about consumer culture in Infinite Jest. At one point, Wallace takes against Lipsky flirting with one of his ex-girlfriends and chastises him, exhorting him to "just be a good guy". A game of trust, with neither party ever entirely willing to show their hand, their encounter makes for fascinating and rewarding viewing.

Segel, the right physique to play the towering Wallace, will win all the plaudits for his deft impersonation, capturing the twitchy self-awareness, generosity and busy hyper-intelligence of the man. He's great - and the sight of him dancing in a Baptist church a joy - but Eisenberg has rarely been better than he is here. Not afraid to be unlikeable, his performance raises interesting questions about how far Lipsky's intense and sustained inquiry into Wallace is about professional diligence and genuine interest. It's possible he's instead enacting a revenge on some level, jealous of a rival's success and painfully aware that he is the lesser artist. Wallace teasingly introduces him to production staff at a Minneapolis public radio station as, "my amanuensis, Mr. Boswell", a joke we're not at all sure Lipsky takes kindly to, the subtlety of Eisenberg's performance leaving the uncertainty hanging in the air. A later scene in which Lipsky replays his old tapes soon after learning of Wallace's suicide in 2008, a single tear streaking down his cheek, is, meanwhile, incredibly moving, finally letting us into Lipsky's heart.



In addition to its excellent leads, The End Of The Tour has strength in depth with Joan Cusack, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner, Mamie Gummer and Ron Livingston all appearing in brief but telling supporting roles. Ponsoldt's camera marches after the men in documentary style and makes good use of the snowy Illinois and Minnesota landscapes.

Ultimately, what he's given us is a film about two smart dudes talking books. What's not to like?

15/10/2015

LFF: Carol (2015)


There's a sly reference to Patricia Highsmith's pseudonymously published 1952 novel The Price Of Salt, on which this latest prestige picture from Todd Haynes is based, in AMC's Mad Men (2007-15). Prior to her ill-fated marriage, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) lives with a timid female roommate who, it transpires, is secretly in love with her. Her name? You guessed it. A background detail, barely a sub-plot, but typical of series creator Matthew Weiner's shrewd good taste.

Visually, Mad Men is an obvious reference point for Haynes' lesbian love story, which matches its all-conquering television counterpart in sumptuously recreating post-war New York City, a world of men in grey flannel suits, vexed wives in furs and inviting bars lined with half-consumed Old Fashioneds, amber and ice cubes shimmering in the dark. Haynes of course has form in this field, having directed Julianne Moore in the Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven (2002) and Kate Winslet in an HBO serialisation of Mildred Pierce (2011). His latest neo-Women's Picture stars Rooney Mara as shopgirl Therese Belivet, who, after a chance Christmastime encounter, falls helplessly in love with the titular housewife, whose marriage is already crumbling due to her husband's suspicions about the extent of one of Carol's close female friendships. As their mutual attraction grows, the girls escape the city and head out on a road trip through the wintry Midwest, staying in motels and enjoying a taste of real freedom. Their happiness cannot last. The lovers are pursued by brutish and uncomprehending masculine disapproval at every turn, a pressure that jeopardises their relationship and threatens to separate Carol from her young daughter.


Blanchett, appearing in her second Highsmith film after Anthony Minghella's equally spot-on The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), is superb here, the part a much better use of her considerable star power and elegance than Woody Allen's ludicrously over-praised Blue Jasmine (2013). Never less than captivating, the actress looks as though she's just stepped out of an Edward Hopper painting: she could be the woman leaning alone in the aisle in 'New York Movie'. Mara is also winning as the intense, conflicted Therese, although the character has been toned down in the writing to make her more palatable. Highsmith's Therese actually follows Carol home, standing across the street and marvelling at the shallow perfection of her object's suburban life, an incident spun from the behaviour of the author herself. Doing away with this creepy element of voyeurism makes for a more straightforward romance but loses some of the murky moral ambiguities we come to Highsmith for. Director Jamie Thraves shot the novelist's similarly themed Cry Of The Owl (1962) with Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles in 2009, which successfully recreated that Peeping Tom theme if, sadly, little else.



Blanchett and Mara are complimented by deft supporting terms from Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson in a production so polished and moving it's hard to find fault with. Haynes' hopeful resolution leaves us begging for the flicker of a smile to cross Mara's lips as Therese confronts Carol in a restaurant, appealing for a fresh start. When it arrives and is returned, the effect is like winter sunshine breaking through the clouds.

12/10/2015

LFF: Gold Coast (2015)


Botanists seem to be having a bit of a moment on screen. Matt Damon plays a green-fingered astronaut in The Martian (2015) and now this handsome Danish historical drama washes ashore, in which Jakob Oftebro's horticultural expert Wulff Joseph Wulff is dispatched to Guinea in 1836, under orders from the king to establish a new coffee plantation on the colony.

Already compared to Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (1899) and the work of Terence Malick and Werner Herzog, Gold Coast concerns itself with the idealistic Wulff's wonder at the equatorial flora he encounters and the vibrancy of the natives and his growing horror at the drunken debauchery of the few white settlers living in the area's stone forts. Slavery is supposed to have been outlawed, but Wulff quickly learns that something is rotten and is encouraged by a sympathetic missionary to expand his brief beyond instructing his charges about planting cycles and Galileo. Inspired, Wulff appeals to the sickly governor (Morten Holst) to allow him to lead a campaign to arrest people-trafficker Richter (Wakefield Ackuaku), only to find his mandate revoked when Dall (Anders Heinrichsen) assumes control of the outpost. Ostracised and imprisoned, Wulff struggles to hold onto his sanity.



Speaking at the Cineworld Haymarket as part of the LFF, director Daniel Dencik agreed with the above comparisons and cited Herman Melville's Typee (1846) among his other influences, in addition to the many contemporary diaries he read as part of his meticulous research process. Dencik also advised us that watching Gold Coast was not a matter of weighing up whether or not we "liked" the film in the social media sense. Rather, we were instructed to simply dive in and sample its sensory wares, "like eating an oyster or LSD". A sound approach.

A documentarian and writer, Dencik's debut fiction feature is as gorgeous a spectacle as you could wish to encounter, holding its own against the likes of Roland Joffe's The Mission (1986) or Malick's The New World (2005) and capturing the stormy beauty of its shooting locations in Ghana and Burkina Faso. It's never po-faced though: a marvelling, microscopic close up of sunlight streaming through a leaf is quickly undermined by a cut to a scab on Wullf's leg, oozing pus. Similarly, although Gold Coast's interiors and costumes are splendid, Dencik deftly manages to sidestep the clichés of period drama, never forgetting the piss and malaria of colonial living. The film's good looks are complimented by a bold and counter-intuitive electronic score from the great Angelo Badalamenti and an extremely committed performance from Oftebro. The actor appears in almost every scene and undergoes visible weight loss, almost on a par with Christian Bale's in The Machinist (2004), when Wulff is starved and imprisoned by his corrupt peers.


Criticism of Gold Coast has inevitably centred on its earnestness and "problematic" failure to offer a black perspective on the events it depicts. People, of course, love to throw the word "problematic" around like confetti at a wedding. On the contrary, I found Gold Coast to be enormously compassionate and humane and regard Dencik's decision to stick to the perspective of one outsider a wise and economical one. This is very much an account of an individual's experiences and benefits from the intimacy of its scale. The young director succeeds in throwing a light on an overlooked and little filmed aspect of European colonial history in some style. A really admirable undertaking.

11/10/2015

LFF: Bone Tomahawk (2015)


Any film whose opening shot presents a sleeping cowpoke's throat being slit, swiftly followed by the disembowelling of Sid Haig, clearly knows its business. S. Craig Zahler's pulp cannibal western Bone Tomahawk actually turns out to be a rather more stately affair than this gory prelude might suggest, concerning the attempts of a posse led by Kurt Russell's Sheriff Hunt to track down a housewife (Lili Simmons) and one of his deputies (Evan Jonigkeit) who have been abducted from the quiet frontier town of Bright Hope by members of a mysterious cave-dwelling Tribe With No Name.

Borrowing its premise from John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and featuring Richard Jenkins as a rambling Walter Brennan-esque coot, Zahler's is the latest in a string of fine westerns we've been treated to lately, after Tommy Lee Jones's The Homesman (2014) and Slow West (2015) with Michael Fassbender. Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, also featuring Russell, is on the horizon and only Tarantino could hope to surpass the violence we find here. In fact, he'd be doing well to even match Zahler on that score.

When the citizens comprising Hunt's rescue party - Jenkins' Chicory, Patrick Wilson's desperate husband Arthur O'Dwyer and dandy loner John Brooder (Matthew Fox) - finally reach the troglodytes' mountain lair, we soon witness the execution of one of the captives they'd set out to save, Deputy Nick. The poor lawman is dangled naked upside down and cleaved in twain like a beef carcass, a genuinely shocking act of butchery carried out with the film's titular weapon, itself a sharpened bear's jaw fiendishly repurposed for the job. When Hunt himself is captured, he is trussed up and slashed across the torso. The natives then wedge the man's own tin hip flask - especially heated over a camp fire - directly into the gaping wound, to understandable howls of pain. Wild cheers erupted from the audience at the Odeon Leicester Square as the cannibal chief got his savage comeuppance for these atrocities. Your move QT.



Bone Tomahawk is entertaining, exquisitely lit and pleasingly character-focused, but far from perfect. Wilson's O'Dwyer is landed with a broken leg, which makes his participation in the group's mission complicated, slowing their progress, but also badly hampering the film's already suspect pacing. Quite why Wilson should have become Hollywood's go-to masochist I'm not sure, but the actor once more finds himself in a near-constant state of anguish and is again brutally operated upon by an amateur surgeon, just as he was in David Slade's Hard Candy (2005). Film School Rejects critic Rob Turner was particularly disappointed with Bone Tomahawk and blamed Fox for "auditioning for the role of Calvin Candie in an off-Broadway production of Django Unchained". I'll give him that one. We're also in agreement that Russell's grizzly gravity ultimately carries the day.

The usual tiresome reactionaries on Twitter have been quick to label Zahler's film racist, but that charge is absurd. Bone Tomahawk is clearly not about demonising an ethnic group. Its wyrd naked Indians are not identified with any real Native American tribe and, it's heavily hinted, may not even be human at all. Their dusty, boar-toothed look would certainly be more at home in The Hills Have Eyes (1977) or George Miller's recent Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) than Dances With Wolves (1990). The one positively identified Naive American on screen, Zahn McClarnon's Professor, is presented with respect as a dignified and learned man whose expertise Hunt actively seeks out and acts upon. Finally, the only racist sentiments actually mouthed by the film's characters come from Brooder, who's family were slain by warring braves. Brooder's attitude is clearly explained by his backstory and those determined to find a moral can take satisfaction in his death. A 19th century frontiersman's distrust of foreign Others would, incidentally, hardly have been uncommon. That certainly seemed like an idiotic accusation to me.



After the LFF screening, producers Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier told us that Bone Tomahawk's low-budget location shoot was completed in a remarkably swift 21 days, with every word of Zahler's 128 page script making it onto the screen. The only snag they ran into was only being able to afford four days' worth of production time with horses, hence the animals' unexplained theft while the posse are sleeping midway through the plot!