Friday, 21 January 2011

The Brave Little Toaster

35. The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
Dir: Jerry Rees


Once upon a time, two Disney animation employees had the idea of making an animated film using computer generated 3D backgrounds. They took their idea to two high-level Disney executives who dismissed the idea on the grounds that it would be too costly. The executives felt so strongly about this that a few minutes after the meeting they informed one of the employees that his job had been terminated. That man was John Lasseter and that movie was 'The Brave Little Toaster'.

Although this story immediately provokes a feeling of outrage, animation fans like myself have a lot to thank Disney for. Their termination of Lasseter allowed him to pursue his interest in computer animation by setting up Pixar, a company who would eventually go on to make some of the greatest animated films of all time and put Disney's contemporary output completely in the shade. Their rejection of 'The Brave Little Toaster' also meant that it was taken instead to the independent Hyperion Pictures and made into an infinitely more charming, energetic and original production than would have been produced under Disney.

I should say at this point that I am a HUGE Disney fan and you can expect to see many of the studios groundbreaking animated films appearing in future posts on this blog. However, during the 80s Disney was going through something of a creative slump, producing lacklustre efforts like 'The Fox and the Hound' (1981) and 'Oliver and Company' (1988), and they were being significantly outperformed commercially and critically by independent productions, chiefly the superb early work of Don Bluth ('The Secret of NIMH' (1982), 'An American Tail' (1986)). Not until 1989 would Disney pull itself out of this rut, with a renaissance that began with 'The Little Mermaid' (1989) and peaked with the realease of one of the studios most beloved classics, the breathtaking 'The Lion King' (1994). But given the so-so drear that constitutes most of Disney's 80s output, I am forever grateful that the cult classic 'The Brave Little Toaster' was taken out of their hands.

'The Brave Little Toaster' is an indie film in the truest sense, produced against the odds but with a creative freedom that would doubtless have been reduced by studio interference. Disney backed the film by purchasing the television and video rights and Hyperion managed to gain further backing from a couple of other investors but the film went into production with a budget of only $2.3 million, compared to an average of $24 for Disney animated features of the time and about $12 million for Don Bluth films. Consequently, the animation has a cheap TV look to it but this is rendered entirely superfluous by the ample charm, energy and wit that characterises everything about 'The Brave Little Toaster'.

Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas M. Disch, 'The Brave Little Toaster' follows the adventures of five outdated appliances who have been abandoned by their "master" in his family's former home, a country cabin. Sick of waiting in false hope for his return, the appliances decide to set out on a journey to the city to track their master down. It sounds like a fairly standard, kiddy film concept but 'The Brave Little Toaster' actually turns out to have dark, melancholy atmosphere constantly bristling beneath its brightly rendered surface. This is reflected in composer David Newman's extraordinary score which is unlike the score for any other animated film I've ever seen and a perfect fit for the atmosphere director and screenwriter Jerry Rees has gone for. From the opening moments, a bleak, grey dusk with the subtlest of musical accompaniments, Newman's music works on the viewer's emotions without them even noticing.

With the music setting the tone, 'The Brave Little Toaster' takes its time to set up its plot. We spend a good twenty minutes plus in the abandoned cabin, during which Rees and his animators makes us fully appreciate the genuine sadness and desperation of the abandoned appliances' plight. They keep the house clean and in order as they await the master's return, racing to the window at the sound of any car. This has clearly been going on for a long time and all but the most naive of the gang, a child-like electric blanket (voiced by 8 year old Timothy E. Day), have begun to face up to reality. This point is underlined by one of the most famously dark moments in the film, the explosion of a paranoid air conditioner (Phil Hartman). This remarkable opening sequence encapsulates 'The Brave Little Toaster's prioritising of mood over flash and helps us get to know the characters intimately before the film's main quest kicks in.

A major asset to 'The Brave Little Toaster' is the voice cast, many of whom were plucked from LA comedy improv group The Groundlings. Jon Lovitz claims the bulk of the voice work as a blabbermouth radio, Tim Stack is wonderfully perky yet snarky as a dim but enthusiastic lamp, Deanna Oliver has the right amount of cheery pluck as the titular toaster and Thurl Ravenscroft, as grumpy vacuum cleaner Kirby, is suitably gruff and will be instantly recognisable to millions of kids from my generation as the voice of Tony the Tiger, mascot of cornflakes-but-better cereal Frosties. Also notable in a couple of cameo roles is the late, great Phil Hartman. Familiar to millions as the voice of Troy McClure/Lionel Hutz in 'The Simpsons', Hartman had such a brilliant voice that he usually just used it without embellishment for all his voiceover work (no-one ever complained but Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure have virtually identical voices and remember Lyle Lanley, the man who sold Springfield a monorail... well, enough said). However, here he is heard impersonating two film stars, providing the air conditioner with Jack Nicholson's voice and turning a hanging lamp into Peter Lorre (the latter is also drawn to resemble Lorre). Having a group of comedians as your cast is inevitably going to throw up some great moments, and Tim Stack claims the best of these with his improvised final line "I'm aching from joy"! It's a line which both encapsulates the experience of watching 'The Brave Little Toaster' while also giving a sly nudge to the audience.

Having established its somewhat dark mood, 'The Brave Little Toaster' never slips into perky condescension and continues to include frequent moments of peril, emotional distress and downright disturbing, even frightening, occurences. Most famous among these is a nightmare sequence in which the Toaster is confronted by a psychotic fireman clown who leans as close to the camera as he can possibly get and quietly whispers the word "run". People still talk about this moment to this day and it truly does send a shiver up your spine. It's the sort of thing that never would have made it into a Disney production and, indeed, was nearly cut out of the film at the behest of producer Donald Kushner, along with the other legendarily dark musical number 'Worthless'. Given that these have become key moments in building the cult following of 'The Brave Little Toaster', it's a relief that Kushner's requests were ultimately ignored.

I'm becoming aware at this point that I may have made 'The Brave Little Toaster' sound like a bit of a downer. It's not at all. The melancholy and peril is more than balanced out by the cheeriness and originality of its comedy, the brightness and inventiveness of its visuals and the sweetness of its message. The opening cabin sequence, for instance, is lifted by a house-cleaning routine set to Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti'. The relationships between the appliances during their journey, while emotionally complex and peppered with frequent outbursts and jibes, are developed into a strong bond of friendship characterised by acts of self-sacrifice. The design of the characters is also a delight. While most of the appliances are shown with faces, the designs are varied so that sometimes simple anthropomorphisation is not settled for. The Radio, for instance, is drawn without human features and instead communicates through the voice of a typically corny DJ. Similarly, the Television, when not in use by humans, is depicted as a man on a screen who can converse with the outside world.

'The Brave Little Toaster's musical numbers are a mixed bag. The four original songs written by Van Dyke Parks include only one cheery number, with the three others being very dark indeed. Two of them, 'B-Movie Show' and 'Cutting Edge', are not very good and rely on strong visual sequences to carry them. 'B-Movie Show' is sung by a creepy gang of appliances driven to madness by a parts shop owner who strips and sells their mechanisms (the scene includes the "gutting" of a blender) while 'Cutting Edge' is sung by a jealous band of up-to-the-minute (for 1987) technological appliances who terrorize our heroes. Both sequences are great, despite the weak songs ('Cutting Edge' is particularly headache inducing with its bleeps and bloops) but it is the third dark effort which is truly unforgettable. 'Worthless' takes place at a junk yard where a group of depressed, burnt-out cars reminisce about their former glories prior to being crushed to death one by one. In this case, the brilliance of the scene is matched by a superb song.

The fourth song is the only upbeat number, the film's recurring theme 'City of Light'. The one song sung primarily by the leading cast, 'City of Light' will charm all but the hardest of hearts. It's a lovely, hopeful song and I'm not ashamed to admit that this sequence brings a little tear to my eye or that I often go back and watch it again when the film ends. In a film characterised by its light and shade, its the most truly heart-swelling, joyous part.

Upon its initial release, 'The Brave Little Toaster' became a huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival. Audiences and judges alike loved it and it garnered a nomination for the Grand Jury prize, the festival's top honour. The award ultimately went to the largely forgotten 'Heat and Sunlight' (1987) but, according to Jerry Rees, he was taken aside by some of the Sundance organisers and told that his film was the best thing at the festival but they felt they couldn't give the prize to an animated movie because this would lead to Sundance not being taken seriously. This frustrating, narrow-minded attitude towards animation has been a staple of the movie industry ever since Walt Disney's incredible 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' (1937) was denied a Best Picture Oscar nomination on the same grounds, the Academy instead fobbing Disney off with a gimmicky special Oscar with seven miniature Oscars attached. After the Sundance blow, 'The Brave Little Toaster' suffered another setback when Disney exercised its distribution rights by pulling the film from theatrical release and premiering it on their new cable channel instead. Without a proper cinematic run, the reputation that 'The Brave Little Toaster' had built up dissolved and the film fell into obscurity, quietly building up a cult following over the years through video rentals and TV showings.

'The Brave Little Toaster' is a film that transcends its modest budget to lodge itself in the viewers' hearts and minds. It certainly never left John Lasseter's head and proved to be a major influence on the classic 'Toy Story' series (1995-2010), with 'Toy Story 3' particularly betraying a strong influence. Though many have a nostalgic attachment to it (myself included. I remember first seeing it one Easter when my Grandad was visiting and still associate it with that youthful buzz of holiday excitement), 'The Brave Little Toaster' is one of those rare 80s cartoons that is exactly as good as, if not better than, you remembered thanks to its refusal to talk down to children and its multiple age-range appeal. Whatever age you happen to be, it's not too late to discover this remarkable film for the first time. Having just recently revisited it on DVD for the first time in several years, I can honestly say "I'm aching from joy"!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

34. Sotuh Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999)
Dir: Trey Parker


Attempts to turn adult animated series into feature length productions have rarely paid off. 2007's long awaited 'The Simpson's Movie' was enjoyable but unspectacular and failed to recapture the magic of the show at its peak, before its disasterous nosedive after its tenth season. Mike Judge's 'Beavis and Butt-head Do America' (1999) was a more successful transition, its modest achievements probably best summed up by Variety's review at the time: "The good news is 'Beavis and Butt-head Do America' doesn't suck. The bad news is it doesn't rule, either.' Judge's other, constantly underrated masterpiece, 'King of the Hill' (1997-2010) never made the transition to a full length feature, while Matt Groening's other masterpiece, 'Futurama' (1999- ) seems like the ideal candidate for the big screen but has only thus far been converted into a series of disappointing, small-screen bound TV movies. And future plans for a 'Family Guy' film make me wonder how a series known for its relentless gags over any kind of coherent plotting or emotionally consistent characters can possibly hope to sustain a feature length runtime.

It fell, then, to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's classic series 'South Park' (1997- ) to buck the trend. Not only did the series big screen equivalent, 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', top anything the duo had achieved previously, it set the series on the road to becoming the most vital, intelligent, relevant satire of recent times. By the time of 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', the 'South Park' TV series was already a phenomenon after just three series. Although these initial series of the show did include several memorable satirical swipes, at this stage its vulgarity, outrageousness and well-publicised gimmicks (the weekly killing off of hapless, permanently hooded Kenny, the romance-triggered vomiting of literally lovesick Stan) tended to be the focus. What 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' did was tighten up the social commentary and make it the main focus, retaining the show's recognisable style but upping the stakes considerably. The result was a monumentally smart movie which managed to satirize the controversy surrounding itself before it had even been released.

'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut's other major achievement was to prove to Trey Parker and Matt Stone exactly what they were capable of. It transformed their little, occasionally satirical show into America's sharpest contemporary social mirror. The series that followed the release of the film became progressively more pointed, intelligent and vicious, mercilessly mauling targets from conservative bigotry to liberal ineffectuality, from religious hypocrisy to the crassness of the media. Racism, sexism and homophobia all got taken to task. 'South Park' had no political alliances. Anything was a target so long as Parker and Stone deemed it worthy. They didn't always get it right (the episode 'Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina' is particularly dreadful, putting forth a feeble argument that sex change operations are akin to a man turning himself into another species, aligning the show with the sort of specious reasoning and bigotry it so often exposes) but their misfires were few and far between. In the process of tackling the big issues, Parker and Stone always stayed true to their characters, who have all grown and developed throughout the show, providing viewers with the essential emotional grounding that so much satire lacks.

'South Park' has its detractors. There are those who just don't really like its brand of no-holds-barred, biting satire which invariably makes its point by pushing a metaphorical situation to its very extremes. Of course, this approach is not for everyone but too often 'South Park's opponents are those who either totally misunderstand the show, taking it at face value as a crude, juvenile cartoon rather than reading between the lines to look for its message (and there nearly always is one), or those who refuse to even listen to the opinion that it could be more than what they have taken it to be, usually an impression botched together from seeing snippets of scenes completely out of context, or else just received information from other morally outraged bigots. Though it can be insensitive, 'South Park' is ultimately a humane show that aims to make the world better by highlighting its follies and how utterly ridiculous each and every one of us has the capacity to be. Episodes like 'With Apologies to Jesse Jackson', in which the word "nigger" is repeated over and over to make a staunchly anti-racist point, are frequently described as "Non-PC" when in fact they are extremely politically correct in the point they are making through the use and implied condemnation of offensive behaviour.

'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' is a searing indictment of censorship, examining the moral outrage that fictional series 'The Terrence and Phillip Show' whips up in the hot-headed adults of a small Colorado town. Parker and Stone created 'The Terrence and Phillip' show as a surrogate for 'South Park' itself, after one critic said their show was "nothing but fart jokes and bad animation." In the 'South Park' episode 'Death', the series, which consists of two flappy-headed Canadians repeatedly farting on each other, was introduced as a favourite of the children of South Park, much to the consternation of their parents. Park and Stone use the episode 'Death' as their jumping off point for 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', only this time Terrence and Phillip have made the transition to the big screen, where they can use far worse profanity than they could on television without getting bleeped (sounds familiar yet?!). When this influences the children of South Park to imitate them, misguided moral guardian Sheila Broflovski leads the other parents in a full scale war between America and Canada and the arrest and sentencing to death of Terrance and Phillip. Meanwhile, in Hell, Satan and his abusive lover Saddam Hussein plan an uprising which will be made possible by the spilling of innocent blood on foreign soil, fulfilling an ancient prophesy. It's up to the boys to stop this happening.

Parker and Stone's masterstroke was their idea to make 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' a musical. They had already proven themselves as excellent songwriters in their live-action movie debut, Troma Entertainment's 'Cannibal: The Musical' (1993), as well as with their number one hit song 'Chocolate Salty Balls', which gave soul legend Isaac Hayes his first hit in years, albeit in character as South Park's love god and cafeteria employee Chef! The songs Parker and Stone wrote for 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' (with the assistance of Mark Shaiman and James Hetfield) surpass all of their previous work, making it song-for-song one of the most memorable and witty musical movies in history. Although its impact has been lessened by the subsequent loosening up of censorship in the 'South Park' TV series, the early appearance of a song called 'Uncle Fucka', in which Terrance and Phillip repeatedly accuse each other of incestuous union with their uncles, utilising the word "fuck" 31 times in the process, was a genuine shock first time round. Also shocking was just how great the song itself was. True to the depiction in the film, audiences really did leave the cinema singing it!

But 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' has so much more to offer musically than this crude little ditty. There's "It's Easy, MMMKay", in which school counsellor Mr. Mackey attempts to re-program the children not to swear through the oft-used political tool of fear filtered through a show-tune. There's the extraordinarily catchy 'What Would Brian Boitano Do', in which the boys whip up inspiration by idolising ice-skater Brian Boitano to the point of attributing the pyramids to him and, of course, there's the Oscar nominated (!) 'Blame Canada', which encapsulates the film's main message in its final line, sung by the parents of America, "We must blame them and cause a fuss before somebody thinks of blaming us". Each musical number is impressively mounted and brilliantly executed, bulking up the already sturdy plot.

'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' makes great use of all its characters. Kenny, traditonally killed off in every episode (a gimmick which was later phased out) is quickly dispensed with early on and spends the rest of the film in Hell, counselling Satan through his relationship problems with Saddam (who is portrayed by a real cut-out of Hussein's face, which flaps open and closed wildly) and trying to contact his living friends to warn them about the uprising. Stan spends the film trying to find out what a clittoris is, as he's heard this will help him make his girlfriend Wendy like him. Kyle struggles to face up to his fear of his mother, weighing up the pros and cons of saving the world by admitting he lied to her, while Cartman (the show's most famous character, an overweight, spoiled and, in subsequent series, iredeemably evil 8 year old boy) becomes the subject of a 'Clockwork Orange'-esque experimental treatment which will subject him to an electric shock every time he swears. All these elements create amusing asides in the boys' central quest of saving the world from their parents' bull-headed stupidity.

Despite the series going on to become evermore outrageous, cutting, intelligent and downright brilliant, 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' still stands up as well as ever. This is despite the fact that many of the best and most popular characters were yet to be introduced or given anything significant to do. These characters include the likes of Token, the school's only black child; Timmy and Jimmy, two disabled children who, despite Network concerns upon their initial appearances, have gone on to become incredibly popular among the disabled community who have responded positively to finally being included in the joke rather than patronised and ignored; and my own personal favourite, the disarmingly sweet Butters who is probably the series most well-rounded character. All are absent, at the expense of characters who have since been marginalised, such as mentally-questionable schoolteacher Mr. Garrison and his puppet pal Mr. Hat, and Chef, whose conscription into an army mission known as "Operation Get Behind the Darkies" is another example, along with the townsfolks consistent racism towards Candians, of 'South Park's deft use of apparently politically-incorrect material to make a staunchly politically correct point.

Aside from its clever plotting, its strong characterisations, its brutal satire, its skillfully composed musical numbers and its subtle balance of crude production values and epic aspirations, 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' is very, very, VERY funny! It's jokes range from smart social criticism to crude gags about bodily functions so, if you don't like one of these comedy types, the other one is always on hand. And if, like me, you're a fan of both then you're in for a treat. Parker and Stone also use 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' to wrap up many of the show's gimmicks that were, by this point, becoming tired. This is one of the last times you'll see Stan throw up on Wendy, Kenny's tendency towards dying phased out a couple of series after the film in the hilariously pseudo-serious episode 'Kenny Dies', and, in a much publicised moment, Kenny's permanently hidden face is revealed, although the script plays it down and presents it as a simple, sweet moment with no big twists or revelations. His first ever non-muffled words are spoke by none of than Mike Judge, creator of 'Beavis and Butt-Head' and 'King of the Hill', and seen as something of a mentor by Parker and Stone. Other celebrity voices in the film include long term fan George Clooney, Minnie Driver and Eric idle.

The brilliance of 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' did not go unacknowledged and it remains a popular and admired film but few seem willing to call it a classic. I, however, think it deserves that tag and would include it among lists of my favourite animated movies, my favourite musicals, my favourtie comedies and, hell, even just flat out favourite films (though that list is a large and diverse one). 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' represents a landmark moment for one of the greatest TV shows of all time and it played a huge part in influencing 'South Park' to transcend its humble beginnings and become such an important programme.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Angels with Dirty Faces

33. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Dir: Michael Curtiz


During the 1930s, the Gangster film genre was one of cinema's most popular attractions. The early 30s saw the release of three Gangster films which are still considered classic milestones of the genre: 'Little Caesar' (1931), 'Scarface (1932) and 'The Public Enemy' (1931). Although they all ultimately depicted the fall of their mobster protagonists, these Gangster films caused moral outcry in some quarters. Fears about the heightened levels of violence depicted in these movies, as well as the possibility that audiences would identify with the charismatic criminals, lead to the tightening up of censorship rules in the industries Production Code. Subsequently, Gangster films shifted their focus to either the law officers tracking down the criminals or else to criminals for whom redemption was not out of the question. Far from hurting the genre, the Production Code instead forced writers and directors to find different ways to present the criminal characters in a genre which may otherwise have descended into repetitiveness and sensationalism.

Towards the end of the 30s, Warner Bros. released 'Angels with Dirty Faces', an unforgettably powerful film which has it both ways. Starring James Cagney (whose performance in 'The Public Enemy' forever cemented his association with the Ganster genre) and Pat O'Brien, 'Angels with Dirty Faces' tells the story of two deliquent childhood friends, Rocky and Jerry, whose bungled robbery of a railroad car results in their lives taking very different turns; Rocky grows up to become an infamous gangster, while Jerry goes into the priesthood. Despite the difference in their professions, Rocky and Jerry remain friends and it is this unusual love between two men which gives the film its considerable heart.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' presents us with a sort of sliding scale of villainy. Although we are left in no doubt that Rocky is a bad guy, the script and Cagney's astonishing performance establish him as a bad guy with a heart. Cagney is naughty but cuddly, trading folksy banter with his best pal Jerry when he isn't wielding a gun. Likewsie, O'Brien's Father Jerry is not your average wimpy moral guardian, punching out a barfly who mocks his religion. Both character's retain the essential sweetness of their childhood friendship but their opposing moral codes has shaped them in different ways. So, while we disapprove of Rocky's villainous ways, we also root for him to evade the murderous treachery of his criminal associates who are presented as the worst of the film's baddies. Chief among them, in a role of some subtlety, is a pre-fame Humphrey Bogart as Rocky's slick, corrupt lawyer Frazier.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' examines its two central characters through their relationship with a gang of street kids who Jerry is trying to keep on the straight and narrow. Rocky becomes a hero to the kids when they find out about his criminal past and, while his influence over them helps Jerry to keep them under control, it also sees them beginning to slide towards immoral ways themselves (manifesting themselves in the form of Hollywood's ultimate symbols of evil - alcohol and pool!). Jerry is impressed with how Rocky handles the kids, relating to them on their level by slapping them around when they step out of line. There's a hilarious scene in which Rocky takes over the refereeing of a basketball game, effectively slapping the cheating ways out of the kids! Jerry hopes to harness this power to set the kids on the straight and narrow and hopefully, in the process, do the same for his childhood pal.

Performances are great all round, although the presence of feisty Ann Sheridan seems superfluous and she gradually fades out of the story as director Michael Curtiz wisely focuses on the Rocky-Jerry dynamic. Cagney (Oscar nominated) is perfect as Rocky, giving a realistic, multi-layered performance whose realism gives essential heart to a film that could otherwise have been too melodramatic. O'Brien is a tower of dignity and gentle manliness as Jerry, while the ensemble known as The Dead End Kids strike the right note of impressionable vulnerability disguised as street-smarts. Bogart is detestably weasily as the lawyer.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' is most notable, however, for its remarkable script and the pitch-perfect direction of Curtiz. Curtiz is known as a 'journeyman' director, a prolific worker who would finish one film and then move immediately onto the next studio assignment. In the same year he made 'Angels with Dirty Faces', Curtiz made three other films including another defining classic of cinema, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood'. Unlike the work of more generic journeymen, Curtiz's personal touch is always visible in his work and he could seemingly turn his hand to any genre, resulting in warm, engaging and hugely enjoyable films that were usually of at least decent quality and frequently exceptional. 'Angels with Dirty Faces' is filled with the qualities that make Curtiz's films among the most entertaining experiences in Hollywood history and his not inconsiderably artistry is frequently apparent, particularly in the final scenes.

The closing scenes of 'Angels with Dirty Faces' are a triumph of writing, acting and directing and push an already brilliant film into classic territory. Incredibly moving, they are best experienced without prior knowledge so I will not say anymore about the exact details but I will add that they imbue the film with the sort of heart and emotional complexity that was missing from some of the more defiantly hard-bitten, pre-code Gangster films. Curtiz stops short of sentimentality and gives the scenes enough ambiguity that we can still speculate as to what possibly motivates the actions of the characters. It's a masterful moment of cinema and one which I will never tire of seeing.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' is yet another example of why Michael Curtiz should be, and is beginning to be, held in higher regard. My favourite 30s Gangster film, it's filled with action, humour, emotional complexity and a bittersweet, uplifting quality. See it for the performances, see it for the script, see it for the direction. Whatever the reason, please, please see it.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Color Purple

32. The Color Purple (1985)
Dir: Steven Spielberg


When he decided to make a big screen adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize wining novel 'The Color Purple', it seemed Steven Spielberg just couldn't win with the critics. Spielberg experienced strong opposition from those who felt a white director helming a predominently African American story was an implicitly racist prospect. He also received criticism both for deviating too much from the source text and for his negative depiction of black males, a plot element that stems from sticking extremely closely to the text. He was lambasted for perceived stereotyping, as well as mocked for being a director of Summer blockbusters striving to move into "serious" filmmaking. The latter criticism seems laughable given that Spielberg went on to become known for films like 'Schindler's List' (1993) and 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998). It also seems likely that this snobbish reaction to a director trying to broaden his range came from the same critics that would have accused Spielberg of resting on his laurels had he just kept churning out the blockbusters.

A further criticism of 'The Color Purple' was that Spielberg had romanticized the plight of his characters with the film's gorgeous cinematography. Aside from the fact that this and a great deal of the other criticism came from white critics whose attempts to speak on behalf of the black community was as presumptuous as Spielberg's choice of text, the implication of criticising the glossiness of 'The Color Purple' is that stories depicting African Americans should always depict them in grainy squalor, an equally problematic opinion. I don't want to focus on the criticisms levelled at 'The Color Purple' for too much longer because I'd like to get to reviewing what I feel is a superb film. All I will say is that while some of the concerns about Spielberg being the right choice to direct this material are certainly not without their validity, in my opinion he did a masterful job in bringing a strongly pro-African American, pro-feminist text to mainstream cinema when many of his critics in the film industry were doing little to that end.

'The Color Purple' spans a thirty year time period, following the life of poor black girl Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) in the American South of the early 1900s to the mid-30s. As we join the story, the fourteen year old Celie has already had two children by her sexually-abusive father, both of which have been taken away from her. Although this has obviously had an effect on Celie, she seems to have come to regard these events as the norm and informs us of them in a mostly passive narration. Her father marries her off to abusive widower Albert (Danny Glover), whom Celie refers to only as 'Mister' and under whom she suffers the same regime of joyless sex, frequent beatings and a slave-line existence. Celie's one joy in the world is her sister Nettie, with whom she shares the closest of bonds. Nettie comes to live with Celie and 'Mister' but, when she refuses his forceful advances, she is thrown out of the house. The sister's are split up, with Nettie defiantly stating that only death will keep her from Celie. When she hears nothing from Nettie for an extended period, Celie assumes she has died.

So begins 'The Color Purple's harrowing narrative. At this point you're probably expecting a pretty rough ride but Spielberg's legendary lightness of touch makes the film exquisitely entertaining without ever diminishing the magnitude of Celie's suffering. The central plotpoint of the sisters' seperation sets up an ongoing familial love story that becomes the film's major narrative thrust. It is also the point at which Spielberg initiates the first major jump ahead in the timeline, introducing many more wonderful characters as he does so. We are introduced to the seemingly indomitable Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), who marries 'Mister's grown son Harpo (Willard E. Pugh), the owner of a local juke joint. We also meet 'Mister's long term mistress Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), a singer who comes to stay with Celie and 'Mister' for a period of convalescence. These women prove to be a strong influence on Celie's growth from a downtrodden wife to an empowered woman in her own right.

Although it is largely set in and around the same concentrated area ('Mister's house and land) Spielberg's beautiful presentation makes 'The Color Purple' seem truly expansive. While never diminishing the terrifying domestic circumstances that Celie lives with, the film also allows us to appreciate the natural beauty of its Southern American setting, which is entirely in keeping with the theme that arises in the quotation which gives the film its name; "I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it". Only once, during Shug's climactic, gospel-soundtracked march to church, does Spielberg teeter on the brink of Coca-Cola advert aesthetics but the joyous energy of the scene just about saves it, just as the genuinely earned emotion of the finale prevents it from sliding into sentimentality.

As well as exhibiting impeccable storytelling and luscious cinematography, 'The Color Purple' is also a spellbinding actor's showcase with most participants turning in their best screen work. Danny Glover is detestable but believably human as 'Mister', never slipping into cheap cartoon villainy. Adolph Caesar as 'Mister's father, is equally excellent and his behaviour explains a lot about his son's attitudes. But 'The Color Purple' is undoubtedly a film that belongs to its female protagonists. The trio of central women were all Oscar nominated and deservedly so in at least two cases. Margaret Avery's Shug is a fine, subtle characterisation which perhaps lacks that something special that an Oscar nomination should demand. Oprah Winfrey, however, is a revelation, especially for anyone who, like me, knew her only as a presenter of vapid talk shows in which audience member's exhibit grotesque displays of almost religious rapture when presented with material goods! This lowest form of barrel-scraping entertainment never once entered my mind as Winfrey completely embodied Sofia through her emotional journey from no-nonsense powerhouse to broken spirit and back again.

But it is Whoopi Goldberg who gives the movie's defining performance. Latterly known for brash, sassy loudmouth parts akin to her Oscar-winning turn in 'Ghost' (1990), this early part allows Goldberg to explore a subtler style. Celie is a downtrodden, shy woman who gradually comes out of her shell through the influence of various strong women who enter her life, who she in turn influences. This subtle transformation is allowed the necessary room to develop by the films 154 minute running time and Goldberg essays Celie's gradual progress with captivatingly realism. A particularly impressive scene sees a giggley Celie experiencing the freedom of laughter without covering up the smile she has always been told is ugly. This is a turning point in both her relationship with Shug and her development as a strong, independent woman. In her deeply moving growth as a person, Goldberg seems to effortlessly incorporate elements of her co-stars' performances into her own character, so that when she finally inspires Sofia to snap out of her trauma-induced catatonic living-death, it's as if she literally reaches out and takes back a slice of her former self back from Celie.

While some found Spielberg's undeniably commercial approach to be an uncomfortable fit with Walker's story, it had the effect of ensuring 'The Color Purple' reached a wider audiences than any unpalatably dark reading of the text would have. While there is, and probably always will be, a snobby attitude towards the mass market in film criticism, it is likely that an uncommercial retelling of the novel would have seen Spielberg preaching to the converted, rather than presenting Walker's powerful mediatations on sexual and racial empowerment to the widest possible audience. As such, 'The Color Purple' is an admirable affair, making a disturbing story accessible and enjoyable without watering down its power. Only in a few ill-advised comedy asides does Spielberg's take on the book feel jarring but these are few and far between.

'The Color Purple' sees a master filmmaker broadening his scope without sacrificing his distinctive style. While many still maintain that it is an interesting but failed experiment, a good deal more people have reassessed the film in light of Spielberg's subsequent successes in the "serious" dramatic genre, divorcing themselves from the preconceptions that marred its appraisal at the time. It's fair to say that 'The Color Purple' may disappoint fans of Alice Walker's novel who expect something more radical and bleak but fans of Spielberg's work, and mainstream cinema in general, will likely find themselves swept up, as I did, in this beautiful literary adaptation.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

One to Avoid: The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Dir: Cecil B. DeMille


Whether you like Cecil B. DeMille's epic, Best Picture winning film 'The Greatest Show on Earth' or not will rest at least partially with your answer to the following question: Do you like the circus?

I HATE the circus. HATE it! From the ill-treated animal acts to the grotesque, unfunny clowns and the death-defying snooze-fest of the acrobats, there's few things I dislike more than this splashy, over-egged pudding. It was a pretty safe bet, then, that 'The Greatest Show on Earth' was going to bore me rigid. At two and a half hours in length, this brightly coloured, lavishly produced epic is very much aimed at the ever dwindling market of circus appreciators. There is a story, which involves a determined manager called Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) who has "sawdust for blood" and is determined to put on the best show he can, while still running a good, clean operation. The various exploits of Brad and his repertory company provide 'The Greatest Show on Earth' with its narrative thrust.

But DeMille's intention was to make a film that really captured the experience of going to the circus. So, at tiresomely regular intervals, the story is interrupted by lengthy circus acts performed by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey's circus troupe, captured in all their tedious glory. The only thing more boring than attending the circus yourself is surely to sit through documentary footage of it. DeMille anticipates this problem and attempts to solve it by intercutting the acts with shots of amazed punters, all of whom have a pre-rehearsed wonderstruck comment to share with us. It's horrendously corny and not even in that charming way that many films of this era make into a virtue. It feels like the equivalent of DeMille ramming the gaeity of his show down our throats while shrieking "IF YOU RESIST YOU ARE UNAMERICAN!"

A subtler form of this statement comes in DeMille's own opening narration, in which he informs us that the circus is a "Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages, from 6 to 60, into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter". It's all so insistently wholesome that it borders on agressive. DeMille's oratory is accompanied by more documentary footage of the circus being set up and the massive amounts of effort that goes into making the "magic" happen. These fleeting moments are probably the most fascinating parts of 'The Greatest Show on Earth'. Also worthy of applause is the fact that DeMille's starry cast made the effort to learn their acts to a certain extent, allowing them to participate in the action.

But that makes little difference when the action is so feeble. For anyone whose idea of fun doesn't correspond to sitting through a second-hand circus experience, a strong plot is required to hold interest. What DeMille serves up in the dramatic sections of the film is an intensely annoying, hackneyed love triangle between Heston and his two trapeze artists, Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton. The actors mostly enter into proceedings gamely and are likable enough. Heston does his well-practiced rugged, salt-of-the-earth routine, Wilde hams it up appropriately as the showboating new trapeze star and Gloria Grahame is agreeable cynical as the elephant trainer and Wilde's ex-lover. The one bum note is hit by the intensely irritating Hutton as the love interest of both men and, unfortunately, she gets the majority of the screen time, constantly changing her mind over who she loves until any right-thinking person draws the conclusion that whoever she settles on is ultimately the loser.

There's also a very weird subplot which involves one of the strangest bits of miscasting in film history. Dear old Jimmy Stewart, one of my own personal acting heros, is Buttons the Clown, a performer who never takes his make-up off even when the show is over. This turns out to be because Buttons is actually a former doctor who mercy-killed his terminally ill wife and is hiding out from the police. It seems like the perfect cover, if only medical emergencies didn't keep arising for him to deal with in a suspiciously expert way. Seriously, I'm not making this shit up! Watching Stewart trying to act beneath half a ton of clown makeup is somewhat disturbing and his distinctive persona clashes badly with this oddest of characters.

It's been a constant source of disbelief over the years that 'The Greatest Show on Earth' could possibly have won the Best Picture Oscar, especially since it beat 'High Noon' (1952). Suspicions that 'High Noon's chances were affected by its allegorical indictment of the blacklist, coupled with its screenwriter Carl Foreman's refusal to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Commitee, a force which DeMille actively supported, seem likely to have had some bearing. But even more unbelievable in my book is that fact that 'The Greatest Show on Earth' won the Oscar for Best Story, quite an achievement for a film that barely has a story!

'The Greatest Show on Earth' is often cited as the worst film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. While it's certainly up there with the worst, it does have one or two saving graces that put it ahead of some other weak winners. The sheer gloss of the lavish production values make 'The Greatest Show on Earth' undeniably attractive and complex technical scenes such as the disasterous collision of the circus trains are exceptionally effective. Plus, jarring and bizarre as it is, there's a captivatingly peculiarity to that Jimmy Stewart storyline that just keeps you watching through splayed fingers. But ultimately these small (miniscule!) mercies are little comfort in the vast ocean of tedium that is 'The Greatest Show on Earth'.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Murder, My Sweet (Farewell, My Lovely)

31. Mrder, My Sweet (Farewell, My Lovely) (1944)
Dir: Edward Dmytryk


Raymond Chandler's famous private eye character Philip Marlowe has been the subject of numerous film adaptations, the most celebrated of which is Howard Hawks' 'The Big Sleep' (1946). Considered a masterpiece of the film noir genre, 'The Big Sleep' is an enjoyable, sometimes brilliant piece of work but there is one element in particular that prevents me from including it on my list of all time greats: the plot. Chandler was known for his convoluted, perplexing plotlines and fans of 'The Big Sleep' argue that the ins-and-outs of the story's whodunnit matter little because Hawks shifts the focus away from the mystery and onto the detective. It's true that the dialogue is fantastic, the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart (as Marlowe) and Lauren Bacall is palpable and the pacing is swift and energetic. However, I feel that critics have been too kind to 'The Big Sleep'. The baffling, fumbled storytelling is a major flaw and, no matter how little some may claim it matters, it's increasingly boring once everybody starts shooting each other and you have no idea why!

One of the problems with 'The Big Sleep's story is that it keeps piling on characters until it gets laughable. Every time you think you're getting a handle on the plot, another new face turns up, bringing with them further twists and complications. The fact that most of the supporting cast isn't half as memorable as Bogie or Bacall means they all start to blend into one and when the references to them by name start to enter the dialogue it's nigh on impossible to remember who's who. Two years before 'The Big Sleep' came out, however, there was an earlier adaptation of a Philip Marlowe mystery called 'Murder, My Sweet'. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel 'Farewell, My Lovely' (the film's title was changed in America for fear audiences would take it for a mushy wartime musical), 'Murder, My Sweet' starred former song and dance man Dick Powell as Marlowe. Though Powell was primarily known for musicals like '42nd Street' (1933) and 'Footlight Parade' (1933), he made a move towards more serious roles as he approached his 40s. The part of Marlowe was a pivotal turning point in his career.

Given that the source material was the result of Chandler amalgamating three of his old short stories into a new whole, the prospect for 'Murder, My Sweet' being any easier to follow than 'The Big Sleep' seems unlikely. It would be a lie to say that 'Murder, My Sweet' is totally coherent. You have to listen carefully to everything that is said and there's the odd loose end here and there but, given that it's based on a Chandler novel and in comparison with 'The Big Sleep', 'Murder, My Sweet' is far less of a headache. John Paxton's screenplay keeps the focus on a small set of characters who are all introduced fairly early on. There's no need to worry about new characters turning up at the hour and a half mark and getting murdered before we even know what significance they have to the plot, if any! Like 'The Big Sleep', 'Murder, My Sweet' does intertwine two seperate cases but it pulls them together logically and neatly.

The plot involves Marlowe being hired by a big gorilla of an ex-con named Moose who has just finished an eight year prison term and is trying to locate his old girlfriend. Another, seemingly unrelated case involving a jade necklace, a gold-digging femme and a seedy quack psychiatrist becomes mystifyingly entangled with this woman hunt, leaving Marlowe at a loss but determined to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The story is told in flashback as an injured Marlowe recounts the details to the police in an attempt to clear his own name. This plot device allows Dmytryk to retain the hardboiled, first person narration of Chandler's work, the like of which became a much parodied mainstay of the detective genre.

While the description I've given of 'Murder, My Sweet' thus far may suggest a dated, cliche ridden noir clunker, the film is actually notable for many brave choices and inventive touches. Not least of these is the casting of Powell as the lead. Known primarily as a boyish crooner, Powell could have been a disasterous choice but, in fact, he's extremely good. He won the approval of Chandler himself and many critics have noted that Powell's playful, schoolboy-esque take on Marlowe is far closer to the character as written than Bogart's performance. Equally important to the appeal of the movie, and a key factor in making Powell a great choice for the lead, is John Paxton's script which is unexpectedly hilarious. Critics of 'Murder, My Sweet' often cite the fact that it's too much like a light comedy but I think they got the balance just right. Amidst the murder and intrigue, we get wonderful narrations like "She was a charming middle aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle." 'The Big Sleep' was full of this witty dialogue too but we'd never have expected to see Bogart playing hopscotch on a tiled floor like Powell does. Paxton's dialogue flows more naturally too, the zingers and put-downs sounding spontaneous despite their pre-packaged glisten.

There are several moments in the narrative when Marlowe is knocked unconcious, during which the screen is consumed by a drizzling black puddle. These sequences were quoted by the Coen Brothers in 'The Big Lebowski' (1998), in which The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is drugged and halucinates a porn film starring himself. 'Murder, My Sweet' doesn't quite go that far but one of these bouts of unconciousness does lead into a nightmarish dream sequence, in which the real mixes with the unreal as Marlowe attempts to escape a syringe-wielding doctor who can pass through doors. In an already inventive film, this sequence still comes as a surprise, adding a touch of the surreal to the heady mix.

Although it was a hit at the time, 'Murder, My Sweet' was somewhat overshadowed by the latter day critical clamouring over 'The Big Sleep'. A far superior film in my book, 'Murder, My Sweet' is punchy, funny, intriguing, inventive and concise, ending after just 90 minute. This means that the possible necessity for numerous viewings in order to put the plot together is not a daunting prospect and, if you're anything like me, you'll have been so charmed by the whole package that you'll want to dive back in immediately to fill in the blanks. Dick Powell, then, is my favourite Marlowe and 'Murder, My Sweet' my favourite take on his adventures. My second favourite Marlowe film would be Robert Altman's contemporary 70s version, 'The Long Goodbye' (1973) starring Elliot Gould. Despite it's monumental reputation, 'The Big Sleep' will have to put up with third place. My advice is if you want to see the wonderful Bogart in a great noir detective film, seek out 'The Maltese Falcon' (1941). If you want to see the best Philip Marlowe adaptation, go directly to 'Murder, My Sweet'.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Sherlock Jr.

30. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Dir: Buster Keaton


What's the coolest movie performance of all time? I'm not talking about the greatest performance of all time. Forget the quality of acting for now and focus on the realisation of the character as an in control individual who you really wish you could be like. The most common answer is one of the James Bonds because apparantly our yardstick for cool is a misogynist twat in a tuxedo! My nomination, however, would go to Buster Keaton in the classic 1924 silent comedy 'Sherlock Jr.' And here's why:

Like most people, I approached silent cinema not knowing what to expect. In an age when it's difficult to get some people to watch even black and white films, what chance have you got of convincing them that the removal of sound will do nothing to diminish their viewing pleasure? However, I immediately took to the medium of wordless storytelling. It's a unique art form in which the director and actors have to work much harder to get the story across, assisted only by occasion intertitles. Predictably, this results in a completely different, often more melodramatic form of acting. Most silent film actors resorted to big gestures and wild expressions so the audience were left in no doubt as to what they were supposed to be feeling. One man in particular, however, went in entirely the opposite direction, remaining stony faced and unsmiling throughout his many famous screen appearances and communicating all his feelings through the subtlest of evocative little flickers. That man was Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton is cool. He oozes it. The fixed, neutral expression, the astonishing control he has over his own body, the heroic execution of those jaw-dropping stunts. I'd say he was up there with the coolest screen presences of all time. So why have I picked this particular performance as his coolest of all? Well, despite their winning physical dexterity and the fact that they always win through in the end, Keaton's characters are usually portrayed as part-hero, part-sap. From the effete son of a manly riverboat captain in 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) or the shamed army reject in 'The General' (1926), his displays of acrobatic heroism are usually intended to prove himself to someone he has somehow disappointed, or else as a means of escape from a disasterous situation he has clumsily wandered into (a pack of angry brides in 'Seven Chances' (1925) or an entire police force in 'Cops' (1922)). 'Sherlock Jr.' takes a different approach by seperating the sap Keaton and the cool Keaton into two different entities. In the film's framing device, Keaton is the sap; a movie projectionist who is framed for a crime and whose attempts at amateur sleuthing to catch the real culprit are abandoned as a disaster almost immediately. However, as he dejectedly returns to his day job, Keaton falls asleep and dreams himself to be a heroic figure; the great detective Sherlock Jr. It is as this character that Keaton turns in what may be the coolest performance of all time.

That is not to say Keaton's turn as the projectionist isn't great too. For the first fifteen minutes or so, we are treated to some more traditional, if extremely well written clowning. A set piece like Keaton's discovery of a dollar in the rubbish he has to sweep up is a small scale but wonderfully clever little bit that requires Keaton to communicate numerous emotions in a short space of time. The moment in which Keaton shadows his suspect, walking ludicrously close behind him and mirroring his every step, is an example of the man's genius. At one point, the suspect tosses a cigarette behind him, which Keaton catches, takes a drag on and then discards. It's a moment of sheer cool which foreshadows the subsconcious creation of Keaton's detective alter ego later in the film and shows that he is very much a part of the sap projectionist. Even when the writing seems lazy, such as the ancient slipping-on-a-banana-skin gag, Keaton pulls off the physical performance so phenomenally that it still gets a laugh. Keaton was extraordinarily dedicated to his craft, so much so that he unknowingly fractured his neck while performing the stunt involving a water tower which closes the introductory section of 'Sherlock Jr.' The healed break was not discovered until years later.

But it is once Keaton falls asleep that 'Sherlock Jr.' really gets on its way to establishing itself as one of the greatest achievements in all of cinema. From hereon in, the film is full of tricks and stunts, some of them down to technical wizardry, others more closely linked to traditional stage conjuring, but all of them sheer cinemagic! Keaton steps out of his own sleeping body and walks up the cinema aisle and right into the screen, where he joins the action of the movie. What follows is one of my favourite scenes of all time; Keaton remains on screen as the background changes behind him several times, causing surfaces to disappear from under him or objects to suddenly appear in his path. The transition from background to background is astonishingly smooth and Keaton revealed years later that he and his cameraman used surveyor's equiptment to position Keaton and the camera in exactly the right position. This excruciating process paid off in spades.

The film within a film settles down as Keaton finds himself playing the role of the world's greatest detective. Resplendent in suit and top hat, Keaton has become Sherlock Jr., suddenly in possession of a completely assured manner. Now it is his enemies who are the dupes, though Keaton pays them little attention and foils them without really trying. He wanders through a series of booby traps, foiling each in turn. Most brilliant of all is his clearance of a pool table upon which one of the balls has been replaced with an explosive replica. Keaton performs a series of amazing trick shots, gradually pocketing every ball while never coming into contact with the explosive device once. Instantly, he is the coolest person I've ever seen but there's plenty more to come!

We cut to the next day and Keaton heading out to apprehend some villains. When his sidekick drives off without him, Keaton uses a level-crossing barrier to lower himself into the moving vehicle, where he lands, feet elevated, in a relaxed position. Again, can you imagine anything cooler?! I'll not go on to list every moment that follows but a few cannot go without mention. A magic trick in which Keaton seemingly escapes his pursuers by diving into a small suitcase held by his sidekick is still visually incredible to this day, while an extended sequence in which Keaton rides on the handlebars of a speeding motorcycle, unaware that it's driver fell off long ago, shows that he can mix obliviousness with poise and dignity. Sure, he's unaware of the mortal danger he's in but he still effortlessly evades every threat to his life. Finally, the case wrapped up, Keaton finds himself and his girlfriend mistakenly thrown into a river while still in the top half of an unintentionally dismantled car. Without even thinking, he puts the hood up and converts it into a sail, creating an instant boat in which he and his love drift happily and enjoy the view.

'Sherlock Jr.' runs for only 44 minutes, making it an ideal starting point for those curious about silent cinema or Buster Keaton in particular. Keaton uses every second of his barely feature-length running time to entertain, astound and delight. Apparantly he cut and recut 'Sherlock Jr.' in an attempt to make it as good as possible and the result is a film with no flab whatsoever. It zips along with thrills and laughs never letting up. 'The General' might always be regarded as Keaton's greatest achievement (and it is superb) but my favourite will always be 'Sherlock Jr.', for its utterly magical trickery, its perfect pacing and, of course, for the coolest big screen performance of all time.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Le Mepris (Contempt)

29. Le Mepris (Contempt) (1963)
Dir: Jean-Luc Godard


One of the great joys of loving cinema is the opportunity to discuss it with like-minded people. However, quite often you can discover a minefield of snobbery, groups of self-styled intellectuals who think their opinion is final, or else dedicatees of straightforward storytelling who dismiss anything a bit unusual with that terrible word, the very enemy of invention, "pretentious". Both types of snob are as bad as each other. Don't kid yourself that you're snobbery is any less vile because it's rooted in the mainstream. A person watching an art-house film and whining that nothing is happening, complaining that there are no explosions and sicking up the word "pretentious" every few seconds is an inverted reflection of, and therefore exactly as hideous as, someone watching an action movie and sarcastically saying "Well, that's good dialogue isn't it?", complaining "There's no character development" and shrieking the word "brainless" over and over.

Apologies for beginning this review with a rant. I'm sure at some point in my life I've been guilty of both the types of snobbery I abhor so much in the above paragraph and probably slip into them occasionally still but I aim to discourage them when I can. However, my mention of them here is not so much a noble attempt to encourage filmic open-mindedness but rather a tactical attempt at self-defense, to deflect the judgemental, instantaneous dismissals that in some quarters would undoubtedly follow the statement I'm about to make:

I don't like Jean-Luc Godard.

There, I've said it. I know Godard is considered to be one of the greatest, most influential and inventive filmmakers of all time but I just can't get on with him at all. I know what a good portion of Godard fans will be thinking as they read this: "Oh, you just don't get it". But I do! I do get it with Godard! I'm perfectly willing to admit that I don't get Michelangelo Antonioni and that I struggle to comprehend Andrei Tarkovsky but with Godard I can see exactly what he's trying to do, how he's trying to do it and why many people love him for it. But he's not for me. I would never go as far as to diminish his undoubted importance in cinema history and I even intend to see more of his films in the future but all of what I've seen so far just doesn't do anything for me.

Well, almost all of what I've seen so far......

As many people do, I began watching Godard with 'A Bout de Souffle (Breathless)' (1959) and thought it was ok. After that I sat bored rigid through 'Alphaville' (1965), had pretty much the same reaction to 'Pierrot le Fou' (1965) and found 'Week End' (1967) sporadically impressive but largely tiresome. Thus I approached Godard's 1963 film 'Le Mepris' with no expectations whatsoever and was extremely surprised to find myself become completely captivated with its concentrated, layered storyline, emotionally detached acting and sumptuous visuals. There are many similarities between 'Le Mepris' and the other Godard films I've seen but it has something extra that fascinates and delights me.

Or maybe it's what it hasn't got that fascinates and delights me. 'Le Mepris' has a simplicity to it that sets it apart from the self-concious visual tricks, surrealist touches and distracting innovations of Godard's early work that I've so often found smug or irritating. It's not a conventional film by any means but it avoids the wayward sideroads that Godard usually delights in taking, providing a sharper focus than usual. The slim plot runs thus: playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is hired by brash American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite a film version of 'The Odyssey' he is producing. He has hired director Fritz Lang (playing himself) to make it but is dissatisfied with Lang's arty interpretation. During their meeting, Paul brings along his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), to whom Prokosch immediately takes a shine. This meeting has a devastating effect on Paul and Camille's marriage, from which Camille can never recover. The film follows both the production of 'The Odyssey' and crumbling of the marriage, drawing many parrallels between the two.

'Le Mepris' is often seen as Godard's most commercial film, although it would hardly been seen as box office gold by the average producer. Godard plays on this tension between the commercial powers and the artist in his portrayal of Prokosch's meddling in Lang's film. Prokosch's demands and his lechery were certainly familiar to Godard. His own producer, Joseph E. Levine, insisted that he add a nude scene featuring Brigitte Bardot in order to make the film commercially viable. Godard did so but the scene, which opens the film, satirizes itself. An opening voiceover quotes Andre Bazin: "Film substitutes a world that conforms to our desires", after which we cut to Bardot and Piccoli laying in bed together. Bardot is, indeed, completely naked but she remains laying face down throughout the scene, her bottom on constant display but everything else tantalisingly hidden from view.

Leaving the viewer in no doubt that he is aware of the objectification of Bardot, Godard has her take a long-winded inventory of her own body, asking Piccoli if he likes each part of her in turn, from her feet up through her ankles, knees, thighs, buttocks, breasts, shoulders, arms and face. The scene is not without its sensuality but Godard makes sure to emphasise its ridiculousness more. When she reaches her breasts, Bardot stops to ask Piccoli if he prefers her breasts or her nipples, to which he replies "I don't know. Both equally." Although it was added at the last minute, the body inventory scene improves 'Le Mepris' immeasurably. Without it, there is never any indication that Paul and Camille are happy but, by beginning with this image of emotional and sexual bliss, Godard shows us that they are "totally, tenderly, tragically" in love. Without that confirmation, the subsequent breakdown of their marriage would be robbed of all its tragedy. This opening scene has become one of the most famous in World Cinema. Legendary comedy series 'The Fast Show' (1994-1997) even did a sketch in which a subtitled Charlie Higson took the same inventory of Arabella Weir's body parts, after which Paul Whitehouse wandered in and asked "Anyone fancy a pint?!"

'Le Mepris's other most famous sequence is a 34 minute argument between Paul and Camille which takes place entirely in their apartment. Godard follows them in a series of wonderful tracking shots as they set the table, take baths and wander from room to room. The mise en scene is exquisite. At one point, Godard films the couple in two different rooms at the same time, marginalising Paul on the edge of the frame, cut off from Camille by a dividing wall. This growing division between the couple is presented in visual terms throughout the film, most noticably when they sit on opposite sides of a cinema aisle. The argument in the apartment captures all the frustration and ludicrousness of a couple struggling with changed feelings. Camille's perception that Paul has attempted to pimp her off to his producer in order to further his career is ambiguous. Paul does seem to behave in an offhand manner and sometimes like a downright chauvinist in his scenes with Prokosch's interpretor, but his own struggle with artistic integrity over commercial gain (another self-referential element of 'Le Mepris') makes his pandering to Prokosch to the point of offering him his wife seem unlikely. This uncertainty means we do not have an obvious party to side with during the argument and share in all the frustrations on both sides.

Rather than present the ongoing arguments as hysterical, Godard has his actors remain detached and cold, their words sounding like philosophical meditations. His other characters are drawn boldly, with Jack Palance embodying sleaze as the producer who thinks nothing of observing images of Greek gods and saying "I like gods, I know exactly how they feel". Fritz Lang, meanwhile, is amusingly laid back and always on the margins, simply observing. Lang's appearance is just one of many references former critic Godard makes to film history. Numerous posters for influential films are glimpsed in the background, while at one point Paul mentions Nicholas Ray's classic film 'Bigger Than Life' (1956). Ray's famous use of stunning colour is clearly an influence on Godard's use of colour in 'Le Mepris' and he achieves similarly beautiful results. 'Le Mepris' is never less than gorgeous to look at, even when its confined to interior settings for extended periods. But it is in the later scenes on the isle of Capri that the film becomes a genuine feast for the eyes. As Paul and Camille follow the production of 'The Odyssey' onto location, the scenery gets appropriately monolithic and breathtaking, making the intensifying story seem positively mythic (equally appropriately).

'Le Mepris', then, is a glorious exception to my ongoing dislike for Jean-Luc Godard. I found myself unexpectedly rivetted while first watching the film and then thought about it for days afterwards. One of the most elegant films I've ever seen, 'Le Mepris' lingers long in the mind for all the right reasons and is a film I will cherish, as I imagine will most fans of World Cinema, be they Godard fans or not.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Dead Man

28. Dead Man (1995)
Dir: Jim Jarmusch


During the early 90s the Western, long considered a dead genre, underwent something of a revival. This was largely thanks to Kevin Costner's 'Dances with Wolves' (1990) and Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' (1992), which both won the Best Picture Oscar for their year, making them only the second and third Westerns ever to have this honour bestowed upon them (the first was 1931's 'Cimarron'). Both films remain popular but my favourite revisionist Western of this period is a lesser known cult item by one of my favourite director's, Jim Jarmusch's 'Dead Man'.

Jarmusch made his name in the 80s as one of the most important figures in the development of the American Indie cinema movement. His films are known for their narrative minimalism, featuring small groups of alienated characters, often foreigners or those who shared a similar sense of personal and cultural isolation. The focus tends to be on small, telling moments, the gaps between dialogue as telling (often more so) than the words themselves. This unhurried, contemplative approach is frequently offset by quietly absurdist humour, Jarmusch being one of the most subtley hilarious filmmakers of recent times. He quickly acquired a reputation as being the king of indie cool.

The prospect of a Jim Jarmusch Western initially seemed like an odd one. His work prior to 'Dead Man' tended to be largely set in claustrophobic, confined spaces; hotel rooms in 'Mystery Train' (1989), a jail cell in 'Down by Law' (1986), various taxis in 'Night on Earth' (1991). Yet 'Dead Man' is suprisingly expansive, following inadvertant outlaw William Blake (Johnny Depp) as he roams the old west with his newly acquired Native American companion Nobody (Gary Farmer). In terms of pacing, outsider characters and unsettling, hilarious weirdness, however, 'Dead Man' quite clearly dislays the fingerprints of its director.

What most viewers unfamiliar with Jarmusch's style will notice first about 'Dead Man' is how very slowly the story moves forwards. This is not a film for the impatient! From his opening scene of an on-edge Depp riding a train west, Jarmusch focuses heavily on mood with a liberal sprinkling of symbolism. You'll likely know whether or not 'Dead Man' is for you by the end of this sequence. The opening train section of the film tells us much about what to expect. Depp, superb as always, performs these early scenes in almost total silence but his carefully judged facial expressions tell us all we need to know. Also immediately apparent is 'Dead Man's stunning cinematography courtesy of Robby Muller. Shot in the crispest black and white, the opening scene cuts between the inhabitants of the train carriage and startlingly beautiful close ups of the train's workings, frantically propelling William Blake towards his destiny. It's just the first example of how much Muller's work adds to the film.

Two more consistent features of 'Dead Man' can be witnessed right off the bat. One of them is Jarmusch's structuring of his many scenes around a series of blackouts. These blackouts happen so frequently that they can, at times, become irritating when the scene's between them last less than a few seconds. However, ultimately they are an effective way of illustrating the passage of time and help Jarmusch cut between Blake's journey and that of his pursuers, a gang of vicious bounty hunters. The other feature we encounter first in the train scenes is Jarmusch's casting of big names in small but extraordinarily memorable cameos. The first of these is a funny but somewhat disturbing encounter with a coal-covered boilerman played by Crispin Glover. Glover's cryptic dialogue is just the first example of words that resonate throughout the film.

Other famous faces that appear throughout 'Dead Man' include John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Gabriel Byrne, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop and (in something of a coup) Robert Mitchum, in his final screen role. All of these familiar faces have about five minutes of screentime at the most (Buscemi appears for only a few seconds, heavily disguised and uncredited) but all of them make an impact. Particularly effective are John Hurt as the cocky business manager of the firm that promised Blake a job and reneges on the deal, and Gabriel Bryne as the cuckolded lover whom Blake shoots. This latter event sets the plot in motion as Blake flees, only to later discover that his victim was the son of his would-be boss, a very important and ruthlessly violent man who hires a trio of crooks to track him down.

Despite now having the basics of a conventional plot, Jarmusch remains focused on smaller moments and 'Dead Man' never threatens to become a chase film. Instead, we are offered a chance to drink in the awesomely shot, godforsaken landscapes, and ponder the dreamlike dialogues between Blake and Nobody, who mistakenly believes that Blake is actually a reincarnation of William Blake the poet, prompting him to recite many Blake passages. 'Dead Man' is filled with allusions to Blake's work; it's not necessary to recognise this to enjoy the film (god knows I didn't until I read up on it) but it enriches what is already an extremely rich experience.

Though it features many memorable performances, 'Dead Man' is dominated by the performances of Depp and Farmer. Farmer is exceptionally dignified but also very funny as Nobody, spouting Native American wisdom one moment and undercutting it with his catchphrase "Stupid fucking white man" the next. But it is Depp who gives the most incredible performance. As Blake, Depp portrays a constant sense of bewilderment but marries it to the most subtle of emotional progressions, running the gamut from fear through disillusionment, frsutration and an odd kind of acceptance but without ever making it overt. It's the sort of carefully understated, realistic portrayal that so often gets overlooked in favour of showier performances and, indeed, Depp achieved exactly zero nominations of any kind for his work. Still, it remains a performance worth cherishing for the emotionally attentive viewer.

'Dead Man' received several hostile reviews upon its release and was heckled at the Cannes Film Festival but ultimately it has gained a cult following and is slowly being afforded the respect and praise it deserves. Slower, more cryptic, grislier and stranger than anything else in Jarmusch's idiosyncratic catalogue, 'Dead Man' certainly isn't the ideal starting point for those wanting to check out the director's work (try 'Mystery Train', 'Night on Earth' or 'Broken Flowers' for more accessible introductions) but for anyone who finds themselves drawn to this kind of material, it's an experience you must get round to. Multiple viewings reward the initially perplexed viewer as not only does 'Dead Man's narrative become clearer each time, but its mysteriousness becomes more enticing, its comic asides more amusing and its peerless visuals more mesmerizing. It was never going to win the Best Picture Oscar but, for me, 'Dead Man' is king of the 90s Westerns.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Profondo Rosso

27. Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975)
Dir: Dario Argento


In Italian cinema, there is a fascinating genre known as the giallo. Giallo is Italian for yellow and refers to the yellow covers that characterised a popular series of cheap paperback mystery books in Italy from the 1920s onwards. Giallo films generally retain all the crime fiction whodunnit elements that were so popular in the novels that inspired them but also add generous amounts of horror and psychological thriller. The result of this marriage of genres tends to be vivid, operatic, sometimes ludicrous but always entertaining, blood-soaked nightmares. There are several directors associated with the giallo but none spring so readily to mind as the master of the genre, Dario Argento.

By the time he made 'Profondo Rosso', Argento had already dabbled in the giallo several times, starting with his debut film 'The Bird With the Crystal Plumage' (1970). The influence of that film is apparent in 'Profondo Rosso', which borrows the plot point of a murder witness who struggles to recall a crucial detail he observed at a crime scene, but 'Profondo Rosso' marks an important progression from Argento's more realistic early work, towards an increasingly dreamlike, haunting atmosphere which places greater emphasis on the horror elements. In 'Profondo Rosso', Argento seems most interested in exploring this atmosphere, sometimes at the expense of narrative coherence. This matters little, however, when the result is such a thrilling exercise in the development of a master's cinematic technique.

Undoubtedly, 'Profondo Rosso' is severely flawed but it is, nonetheless, a flawed masterpiece. Upon first viewing, the audience may well pick out such problems as overlength, incongruous comedy, self-concious visual flourishes and an intrusive soundtrack (by Italian prog-rock supergroup Goblin!). However, these problems all become part of the movie's charm if you're willling to go with them rather than fight against them.

'Profondo Rosso' follows the reckless attempts of pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) and journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) to conduct an amateur investigation into a series of murders being carried out by an unseen, black-gloved killer. As the investigation progresses, the bodies pile up via several virtuoso murder sequences which saw Argento being compared to Hitchcock for his deft execution of these suspenseful set-pieces. The film keeps viewers rivetted with the steady unfolding of the whodunnit plot but Argento always knows just when it's time to drop in one of these increasingly incredible and visually amazing scenes. Some moments seem to make very little sense, such as the film's most famous image of a creepy-as-hell robotic doll, but they tend to be so cool that we forget to question their credibility and the nightmarish world Argento has built up houses them very neatly indeed.

Bloody and disturbing, the set-pieces also toy with elements of the ridiculous (as most horror unavoidably tends to) and Argento, rather than shying away from this, embraces it. 'Profondo Rosso' features quite a few comedy moments. Marcus and Gianna are engaged in an ongoing battle of the sexes, in which the bigoted Marcus tries to prove that women are naturally the weaker sex, resulting in his repeated humiliation and childish frustration. These asides are refreshing and often genuinely amusing but Argento ultimately includes too many of them, making them seem like incongruous exiles from a romantic comedy. One of the reasons I am so drawn to 'Profondo Rosso' is its refusal to take itself totally seriously as so many of these baroque 70s horrors often do, but there's a limit. The scene in which Marcus gets a lift in Gianna's cramped, dilapidated car, for instance, is a good little bit of slapstick but Argento replays it later in the film when the seriousness of the main plot is intensifying, making for an awkward segue.

The film's soundtrack by Goblin tends to split critics right down the middle. Some find it mesmerizing and effective, others find it intrusive and ridiculous. I tend towards the former, although there are undoubted moments of the latter. For instance, a very effective early murder scene is made laughable by the sudden abrupt arrival of the forceful electronic score. However, for the most part this bold musical accompaniment perfectly compliments the visuals and lends the majority of sequences amazing power. The most memorable example of this is a beautiful early scene which Argento uses to establish 'Profondo Rosso's dreamlike atmosphere. Accompanied by Goblin's uncanny music, Argento presents us with a close-up pan across a series of strange objects which will play a significant part in the story. Finally, the camera rests on a chilling image of the killer's eye as dark make-up is carefully applied to it. It's a jaw-droppingly effective moment which crystalises 'Profondo Rosso's magical appeal at an early stage.

To address the problems of overlength, there are actually several cuts of 'Profondo Rosso' of varying length. The original Italian cut (which I suggest everyone see at least once) is a sprawling 2 hour+ affair which tries to include a good deal of silly comedy asides and a rather unconvincing romance between the two main characters. The version that I would recommend most is the 100 minute English dub. Although dubbed films have an unavoidably absurd air (hardly much of a problem in such an excessively bizarre film as this), the lopping out of over 20 minutes of extraneous material actually tightens up the pace of 'Profondo Rosso', as well as shrewdly removing the weaker comedic moments and all of the romantic subplot. I rarely approve of these butchered edits of films but in this case it improves the film immeasurably, maintaining it's unique charm without losing anything worth mourning.

For a film I love and recommend so strongly, I seem to have spent the best part of this review apologising for 'Profondo Rosso'. However, the point I hope I've made is that this horror landmark is a masterpiece both despite of and, to some extent, because of its ludicrous excesses. Horrific and hilarious, tense, gripping, occasionally stomach churning and completely unforgettable, 'Profondo Rosso' will stay with you whether you like it or not. Whichever version you choose to watch, if you're a fan of quality horror then you're in for a blood-soaked treat.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

M

26. M (1931)
Dir: Fritz Lang


When Fritz Lang's first sound film 'M' was released, MGM's head of production Irving Thalberg arranged a special screening of it for his writers and directors, after which he chastised them for not making films of the same power and quality as this masterpiece. To his credit, Thalberg also admitted that had any of them pitched him the idea of a film about a serial child murderer, he would have turned it down flat!

Lang's 'M' is a film whose power has not been diminished even by the passing of eight decades. An examination of the effect a serial killer of children has on a Berlin town, 'M' starts off with a daring premise and goes on to realise it with incredible invention and gripping storytelling. Peter Lorre made his name in the role of the murderer. It was a daring part to take on, especially considering that Lang hints strongly that Lorre is a paedophile as well as a killer. In recent times, the topic of paedophilia has inspired increasing hysteria and paranoia amongst tabloid readers, making 'M's portrayal of that same hysterical reaction seem utterly topical. As the murderer's hold over the town intensifies, anyone even talking to a child comes under suspicion. Accusations fly, tempers rise and yet the police can find no trace of this elusive child molester.

Uniquely, 'M' does not offer us a good guy detective to root for. Instead, Lang focuses on the entire community's hunt for the killer, following different characters for the small amounts of time that they play a relevant (or sometimes less than relevant) part in the investigation. But rather than make 'M' into a whodunnit, Lang makes it clear that Lorre is the murderer almost from the outset, meaning that the only continuous character the audience has to cling to is the monster himself. With his hooded eyes, creepy grin and impulsive whistle, Lorre is unforgettable. Lang uses this latter trait to particularly impressive effect, showing his inventiveness with the then new innovation of sound. The sharp whistling of the tune 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' becomes an indication that Lorre is close by and it puts the audience on edge whenever it is heard, particularly on those occasions when Lorre is off-screen.

Without a central good guy, Lang focuses on an expansive citywide plot, hopping smoothly from location to location and protagonist to protagonist. This is exceptionally effective in giving the viewer a sense of the exhaustive process of tracking a killer who could be anywhere and anyone. But Lang has further narrative tricks up his sleeve. As the police crack down on known criminals and increase the number of raids on shady establishments, the criminal underworld decide to pull together and find the child killer themselves so that they can resume business without constant harrassment. So now Lang has two large groups of people pursuing Lorre, effectively working against each other but to the same end.

As the net begins to close around Lorre, the focus shifts from a citywide search to the ransacking of a large office building in which the killer is trapped. Even in this condensced environment, Lorre proves difficult to track. Finally, however, the criminal gang manage to capture him and haul him off to an abandoned distillery where they assemble their own version of a court of law, assigning Lorre his own "lawyer". So begins the film's famous climax, in which Lorre gives an amazing performance as he defends his actions to the court by saying that he cannot help himself, he is compelled to commit his crimes, unlike those trying him who choose that lifestyle. Lang thankfully avoids portraying the terrified Lorre as a sympathetic character but what he does do is portray him as an understandable character. 'M' is an exceptionally important film in recognising paedophilia as a mental illness rather than a choice, a viewpoint that people seem even less willing to consider these days than they would have been in 1931. Lorre compares his own uncontrollable impulses with the lucid crimes of the criminal court, which include three murders commited by the judge himself, thus raising many questions about the nature of evil in relation to mental states.

'M', then, is a phenomenally important film in terms of the issues it addresses and the innovative narrative structure it employs. However, it doesn't end there. Despite its bleak themes, Lang makes 'M' massively exciting and entertaining. For every discussion around a table there is a tense moment of action. There are also several moments of tastefully executed humour. These could have been incongruous and damaging to the film but, instead, they enhance Lang's satirical, realistic vision of a paranoid community. Besides all of this, 'M' is also visually striking. The catalogue of unforgettable images is too vast to recall in its entirety: the shadow of the killer appearing suddenly on a poster, the branding of the killer with a large letter M and his subsequent discovery of this brand, the pan across the assembled, intimidating rogues gallery of the criminal kangaroo court. These images alone are testament to Lang's visual genius, indicative of a man who made his name in silent films.

'M' is that rarest of things: a film which maintains the same degree of controversy and relevance as it had upon its original release. A cinematic landmark designed to inspire intelligent debate through its own multi-faceted portrayal of a burning issue, 'M' is not only one of the great masterpieces of German cinema, but of cinema in general. Irving Thalberg was right to cite it as a touchstone of quality and narrative power.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Heartbreak Kid

25. The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Dir: Elaine May


Before we get into reviewing this largely forgotten comedy gem from the early 70s, there are a couple of important things to remember. First of all, do not confuse Elaine May's 'The Heartbreak Kid' with Michael Jenkins 1993 film of the same name. Although I have never seen the 1993 film, I do know that it became the basis for the TV series 'Heartbreak High' (1994-1999) and therefore feel that it's best to quicky disassociate myself with it! Even more importantly though, do not think for a second that I am recommending the Farrelly Brothers' 2007 remake of 'The Heartbreak Kid', which starred Ben Stiller. I like Ben Stiller and even enjoyed some of the Farrelly Brothers films but their horrendous update of 'The Heartbreak Kid' drained all the uniqueness and subtlety out of the original script, added some spectacularly unfunny gross-out sequences and tacked on one of those stupid bloody "Uh-Oh, here we go again!" endings.

Suffice to say, the version of 'The Heartbreak Kid' I want to focus on is completely different from the goofy Farrelly fiasco. It has a lot more in common with character-based television comedy masterpieces of the 90s and 00s such as 'I'm Alan Partridge' (1997, 2002) or 'The Office' (2001-2003). While the Farrelly Brothers resorted to over-the-top sequences involving deviated septums and farcical attempts to illegally cross the US border, director Elaine May and screenwriter Neil Simon keep their story firmly rooted in reality, which makes the excruciating events that unfold even more uncomfortably hilarious because they seem entirely plausible.

The plot of 'The Heartbreak Kid' is very simple: Newly-wed Jewish couple Lenny (Charles Grodin) and Lila (Jeannie Berlin) set off on their honeymoon to Miami. Almost immediately, however, Lenny begins to notice vulgar character traits he never saw in Lila before. Haunted by the conviction that he has made a terrible mistake, Lenny spots a beautiful, blonde Midwestern coed named Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) cavorting on the beach and becomes obsessed with the idea that he must make her his own. When Lila ends up confined to her hotel room with severe sunburn, Lenny steps up his pursuit of Kelly.

I know what you're thinking. It sounds dreadful. The plot, on paper, looks like a recipe for a sexist bedroom farce filled with convoluted misunderstandings, slapstick scrapes and people hiding in cupboards. Instead, Neil Simon's highly unusual screenplay and Elaine May's astute direction turn this premise into a darkly hilarious character study of a man who doesn't know what he wants but is determined to get it at any cost. Comparisons with 'The Graduate', the 1967 film directed by May's former comedy partner Mike Nichols, abounded at the time 'The Heartbreak Kid' was released and, while this is an accurate reference point, 'The Heartbreak Kid' pushes even further into the unpleasant reality of its unfortunate situation.

If you've ever complained that you didn't like a film because it had no sympathetic characters then 'The Heartbreak Kid' probably isn't for you. Simon's script offers us no-one to really root for, instead choosing to set in motion a series of social horrors for our voyeuristic delectation. May's direction, then, is absolutely crucial in making sure 'The Heartbreak Kid' is at all watchable. She works with her fantastic cast to draw out the human qualities of her selfish, hysterical, shallow and pig-headed characters so that, somehow, we feel for them as they stumble through their complex existences.

Charles Grodin is exquisite as Lenny. A case could be made for Lenny Cantrow being one of cinema's worst monsters but Grodin portrays him as someone with the potential to be a good man if only he could ever be satisfied. Although his actions are most frequently self-serving, Lenny tries desperately to orchestrate some happiness for himself with as little emotional damage to others as possible. His tool of choice to this end is complete and total honesty. Although he begins by lying to Lila, he tells Kelly that he is married right off the bat and, in a hilarious scene, takes it one step further by "laying his cards on the table" to Kelly's horrified parents in a monologue that sets out Lenny's sordid situation in incongruously matter-of-fact terms. Funnier still is Lenny's attempts to tell Lila that their marriage isn't working over a slice of pecan pie.

Grodin's tour de force carries the film but he receives more than able support from the rest of the cast. Cybill Shepherd, in only her second screen role, reveals Kelly's sweet side gradually, having initially appeared to be nothing more than an icy, spoiled and empty-headed brat. Jeannie Berlin is exceptionally game as Lila, revelling in the opportunity to create a superemely annoying grotesque who nevertheless gains our sympathy. Berlin was nominated for an Oscar, as was Eddie Albert for his scene-stealing turn as Kelly's WASP father whose hatred of Lenny knows no bounds. Far from another in a long line of over-protective father caricatures, Albert plays Kelly's father as exactly protective enough, considering he is dealing with Lenny Cantrow. His disbelief that this man has the audacity to keep showing up is a joy to behold.

Although it might initially seem aimless in its plotting, 'The Heartbreak Kid' sticks in the mind as an endlessly quotable series of inspired, original moments. The bedtime Milky Bar, the lobster bisque, the aforementioned dumping over dinner and, perhaps most memorably of all, Lenny's unbelievably over-the-top compliments about Kelly's mother's cooking ("There's no insincerity in those potatoes. There's no deceit in the cauliflower"). To top it all off, Simon's screenplay ends at exactly the right moment with an ambiguous image that encapsulates the sense of melancholic dissatisfaction that hangs over the whole film.

'The Heartbreak Kid' is certainly not for everyone. Like 'Withnail and I' (1987) or 'Harold and Maude' (1971), it requires a very specific sense of humour and if you don't happen to find it funny, you'll likely be bored, confused and maybe even a little bit angry! However, if you DO find it funny, you'll absolutely love it and want to revisit it again and again. It's that sort of film.