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Christmas in July (1940) Preston Sturges



When the Coen Brothers finally got their hands on a big budget and made 1994’s ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ I remember being introduced to the name of Preston Sturges, who the movie apparently owed a great deal to. This isn’t his most famous movie or the one with the most direct Coen’s link (I’d guess that goes to Sullivan’s Travels featuring the fictional ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’) but I think it is the one that Hudsucker borrows the most from. It has the same idea of someone being thrust into the spotlight on the back of an absurd idea and the same joy at satirising the silliness of corporations.

Barely over an hour long and adapted from Sturges’ own 1931 broadway play ‘A Cup of Coffee’ it tells the predictable but surprisingly sparky tale of Dick Powell’s Jimmy McDonald, an office clerk who can’t face marrying his fiancé, Ellen Drew, on his meagre salary who instead constantly dreams of the contest or slogan that will allow him to support her the way he wants to.

The movie opens with them on a rooftop, she wants to tell him about her idea for a piece of furniture that rotates and allows your one bedroom apartment a choice of functions, including a decorative non-lighting fireplace. He totally blocks her out to talk about his entry in the $25000 coffee slogan competition ‘ If You don’t sleep at night it’s not the coffee it’s the bunk’. She’s heard it, and his explanation that a Viennese scientist has proven coffee helps you sleep a thousand times and she still thinks it’s stupid.

I love this first scene, Powell is just so bull-headed, meeting Drew’s every complaint with a curt Shut Up. It sets an interesting tone for the movie as Powell tries constantly to explain what is a very bad slogan based on dodgy scientific advice and Drew manages to convey love at the same time as exasperation. It includes some great physical comedy and comments from a variety of neighbours who could do without being subjected to the lovers bickering. At no point do the leads stop being likeable but it’s clear from the start that Sturges has no time for regular romance. It’s not quite as knowing as the games played by the similarly cash strapped dreamers in ‘the Palm Beach Story’ maybe Sturges just got that little bit more cynical and absurd between 1940 and 1942 but it’s an interesting take on romance.

Besides liking the way they talk at cross purposes and have clearly had this fight a hundred times I also liked the realism of Powell’s comments about not being able to support Drew on his salary, this combines with a later speech from Powell’s manager about not splitting the world into winners and losers based on income and finally one on just how many mistakes Powell’s capitalist boss makes that seemed a lot more genuine than it needed to be to give the impression that Sturges has seen the absurdity of a lot of the American social set up, perhaps because of his own storied life of adoptions and changes of circumstance and he gives both speeches more heart than you would find in more acclaimed socially aware movies of the period. I’d take Sturges over Capra on the vagaries of capitalism any day.

The lovers, along with everyone else in New York, shown in a series of hilarious fake freeze frames, tunes in to hear the winning entry in the Maxford House slogan competition only to hear the broadcast come and go in a cloud of inspired Frankin Pangorn bluster as the jury hasn’t chosen a winner. Deflated, the lovers go home to bed and a regular days work the next day.

Pangborn does nothing more but read out some prizes but is completely hilarious in a tiny scene stealing part. Dr Maxford’s anger at his companies embarrassment, and the way he runs through the corridors of his building to scream at the still arguing prize jury is also hilarious, it reminded me a lot of the Coen’s constant scenes of people travelling into the heart of a stylised corporate building, especially in Huducker, ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ and in the rabbis office in ‘A Serious Man’

The Jury is locked 11-1 with the standout being Sturges regular William DeMarest, who even at this early point is clearly holding out for Powell’s slogan and ready to fight anyone who denies him his right to argue his point. As with Pangborn’s turn there is nothing in this scene that you don’t get in every single DaMarest performance but it’s still hilarious. I think to this point it is probably the out and out funniest of Sturges’ movies.

At work the next day three of Powell’s workmates fake a telegram telling him he has won the $25000 prize and he is instantly up on his desk celebrating. His boss invites him into the office to hear if he has any slogan ideas for his own firm and he soon has a raise, his own office and the afternoon off to take Drew shopping for an engagement ring.

Picking up the Maxford cheque from Dr Maxford; who hand sit over assumeing that he is just out of the loop as normal, Powell and Drew go on a massive spending spree buying up furniture for their parents and toys for the whole neighbourhood. It is only when they have returned home and started giving them all out that someone at Maxford work out the competition is still ongoing and both Dr Maxford and the department store owners turn up wanting Powell arrested and the goods returned.

An argument over just who is at fault leaves the neighbourhood with their gifts but Powell a broken man, returned to the status of failure he had been fighting against all his life. At the office it is shown that his new eminence depended on the validation given by the contest win and it is only Drew fighting for her man that keeps him his office (but loses him his raise)
As all looks lost, over at Maxford House William DeMarest has finally worn down his 11 opponents and a contest winner finally gets announced.

The sections once Powell has his hands on the cheque are nowhere near as strong as the first half. There are still some great confrontations and speeches, the dialogue and Sturges’ sense of the absurd are intact, i loved how quickly Powell’s neighbours just assumed he was drunk and delusional, but there is a lot of just watching people receive presents and a lot of build up to the inevitable eventual contest win.

In a longer film that might matter more, at 67 minutes with a first half that genuinely has me missing line after line due to laughing so much its’ less important. Powell is a likeable lead with the selflessness to happily appear dense and misguided at times. At no point does his slogan convince anyone who isn’t shown to be similarly unhinged. Drew is a little bland in the later stages but I liked her spark in the early scenes and the way she clearly has the measure of her man but loves him all the same. Sturges wouldn’t work with either lead again, I can see similarities between Powell and Joel McCrea who played similar roles in later Sturges films and Drew presumably just wasn’t as big a draw as the lead actresses Sturges soon had access to.

Sturges just seems to see the whole thing as a game, to feel that things will just fall into your lap, the more explicit message of his ‘Easy Living’ while also acknowledging that money really isn’t everything. His energy and wit and his willingness to undercut the genre have all stood up incredibly well.

The Narrow Margin (1952) Richard Fleisher



A taut RKO B-noir that initially impressed enough during production that it was left sat on the shelf for two years as Howard Hughes debated immediately remaking it as an A picture to star Robert Mitchum, who would I would imagine have been excellent in it. Fleisher was a long time director whose varied career took in Conan The Destroyer, The Jazz Singer and Soylent Green and was still working as late as 1989. Despite the long career this picture is by far his highest rated on IMDB and combines a nasty Noir feel with genuine twists and turns and a great use of a train setting.

A pair of LA cops have been sent to Chicago to pick up the widow of a gang boss so she can testify in a massive gangland/police corruption inquiry before she is murdered, their orders to get her on the LA train and keep her alive. One cop gets killed instantly and the widow, Noir Icon Marie Windsor never lets up a stream of invective that has remaining cop, Charles McGraw, constantly wondering whether she is worth sticking his neck out for. The violence is quite graphic and the movie creates the essential Noir mood that makes you feel that it doesn’t matter that the heroes are cops, they are outgunned by untouchable bad guys who simply have a better idea of how the world works. Any resistance is niave and foolish.

McGraw gets her on a train, already sick of the sight of her, locks her in a cabin and then sets about seeking out her possible assailants while getting to know an attractive widow and her young son. The train scenes that make up the vast majority of the movie are well shot, like classic train movies like ‘The Lady Vanishes’ you get a very paranoid atmosphere with assorted characters at very close quarters and everybody hiding something. Well everybody except the gangsters who quite brazenly proposition McGraw to give up his witness for $30000 laughing at the idea of being arrested for offering a bribe. Surely McGraw understands how the world works?

Every now and again McGraw checks in with Windsor to get another dose of scorn while trying desperately not to make Jacqueline White’s young widow seem like the girl he is guarding in the eyes of the mob.
I really liked the kinetic and quite brutal action sequences that make great use of the fact the train is constantly moving and the way that you never lose the sound of the moving train. This level of violence combines with the gangsters never quite giving up on the idea of buying off McGraw and his contempt for Windsor to make him a nicely seedy lead character. I’d never really noticed him in anything before but he comes across as a low rent Kirk Douglass or a young Richard Shaw, quite a no nonsense lead who really sells the police corruption and nastiness of the plot.

Marie Windsor is excellent throughout, I first noticed her as the poisonous, shrewish wife in Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ and here she totally drips venom throughout, the late twists in the plot add some depth to her but don’t detract from her nasty energy in early scenes. She puts in fine performances in a number of noir films and this one is definitely not an exception. The more wholesome Jacqueline White does well too and like Windsor handles the twists of the plot while turning in a consistent performance that makes sense whatever we as the audience know.

At 70 minutes with some genuine twists and turns, memorable minor characters and an effective atmosphere of menace throughout this is a really high quality minor noir and one well worth seeking out despite the lack of stars. It was remade in 1990 as a fairly average Gene Hackman vehicle

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) Wes Anderson



Anderson on quite familiar ground here but he generally makes things work that he hasn’t totally managed for a few movies. His movies and general style seem to have gone out of favour of late with the reaction to ‘The Fantastic Mr Fox’ and ‘Darjeeling Limited’ both quite mixed. His quirkiness seems to have become quite predictable over his short career and he doesn’t exactly move away from it here but does provide an emotional heart that the Darjeeling Limited, which I enjoyed, really didn’t have.

There is the same level of emotional detachment as in many of his films but rather than self referential irony it comes across as real sadness in almost all of the adult characters and, while the children are damaged and a bit strange, they do a least feel things. Where in the past his movies had a sheen that kept you out of the characters heads, here you can at least engage even if the emotional palate is quite limited.

It’s set in a 1960s New England that reminded me of John Cheever’s Wapshot, an outwardly comfortable, New Yorker short story world, where nobody is exactly happy but nobody really expects to be either or sees much need to change or hide it where all the damage was probably done years ago and people just got set in patterns of disappointment. Anderson uses Bill Murray at his most hangdog extremely well to show this, he knows his wife doesn’t really love him, he knows his daughter is losing it, he talks about being swept away in a storm and while he acknowledges he is feeling sorry for himself it is clear that he has thought long and hard on it and it is actually the most fitting response to his life. Bruce willis and Frances McDormand put in excellent performances of subtly different levels of sadness.

This world of Benjamin Britten performances and scout camps is disrupted when one of the scouts runs away to elope with the girl he met for a night the year before whose own life seems to be spiralling out of control. The police and the scouts are mobilised to look for the two children who in turn are set on creating their own world in the wilderness. Slowly, and unshowily, their need for something else does have an effect on the people around them, but only in tiny increments.

The cold reality for the adult characters helps you inside the absurdity of the youngsters attempts to create their own worlds really well. 12 year old, orphan, boy scout Sam knows he is unpopular both in the scouts and his foster home and would rather just live in the country with the love of his life. Susie, the occasionally violent but generally just disappointed daughter of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand’s emotionally distant lawers, who tries to block out her reality with story books and French pop but is finding it harder and harder to do. They run away so they can create their own little world in the interior of the island. The reality of most of the adults emotional lives makes the boy scouting obsessions and her storybooks seem necessary, attempts at distracting from the disappointments and constant angry violence that the two young leads seem to have found themselves in. It means we root for them without being given much to go on about what they actually see in each other or what they will do next. They both just need to get away and as bizarre as Sam’s wilderness techniques are they always seem preferable to this vision of the regular world particularly with the threat of Social Services and ECT hanging over him.

The humour as in most of Anderson’s movies is in getting inside the absurdities of the world until they seem real and then just going with it. It’s not a particularly witty or jokey script, there are some nice background sight gags but mainly you just get carried away with its own reality and it does end up seeming uplifting in a way his movies haven’t for a while. There is a lot of Rushmore about it . As in Rushmore the young performers manage a strange mix of seeming natural while playing quite odd characters. Jared Gillman reminded me a lot of Bill Milner in the thematically similar Son of Rambow.
The adult cast is also excellent, Tilda Swinton making a great pantomime villain, Bill Murray in a role that uses his world weariness perfectly and a very good Bruce Willis as a local policeman who finds that Sam actually lifts him out of his own sadness. Ed Norton is also good as the surprisingly sympathetic scout master. Bob Balaban is great as a narrator providing some of the most direct comedy of the movie.

It’s not an amazing movie but it looks great, with the usual attention of detail and meticulous colour schemes and it does manage to create it’s own fully realised world very successfully. Throw in more reason to actually care about the characters than in recent Wes Anderson movies and you have a decent surprisingly humanistic film.

The Naked City (1948) Jules Dassin



Just a short review, largely because I’ve actually sat down and watched a suitable film for the first time in a while and also because it’s good sometimes to not be blown away by something held up as a classic.

This largely gets defined as a film noir, partially because most crime films from the period get lumped into the movement and partially because Dassin’s movies around this one, 1947’s Burt Lancaster vehicle ‘Brute Force’ and 1949’s ‘Thieves Highway’ are much more fatalistic crime movies that deserve the title. As does 1950’s ‘Night and the City’ which does have a lot in common with this one.

This has a grittiness based on its location shooting but really doesn’t have much in common with the Noir movement at all. It’s a police procedural, whodunit that in later years would have been a tv cop show rather than an Oscar winning movie. The police are good, and right and will get there in the end, the people they meet lie and are weak but are totally transparent. There are red herrings or rather people whose guilt isn’t directly linked to the central case but they are just part of the immoral swamp that the police have to wade through. There is absolutely none of the amorality of the best, or even the worst, Noir’s. If the police will definitely get their man in the end it’s not because we are watching the fatalist tragedy of that man, he barely features, it’s because the law deserves to get it’s man and inevitably will.

Which is all fine, film noir wasn’t some existing movement that filmmakers tried to join but something retrospectively created by critics and viewers. However it has hit a point where almost anything from the period featuring any crime gets labelled noir whatever it’s philosophy, i suppose thats understandable, the only people likely to be seeking out movies like this will be Noir fans who will get something from it despite it’s conformist message. If anything this is a movie that rather than being a Noir takes the lessons of Italian Neo-Realist cinema and uses them to tell a regular mystery story. You can tell that Dassin is far more interested in the way the movie is shot than what the characters say or do. It spends a lot of time establishing that the policemen are just reliably doing a job and that repetetive hard work will bring a solution and then shows just that happening. There is no room for inspiration or even real mystery here, just some hours spent by a professional doing their job while we look on. It’s no wonder that your attention wanders to the streets and the regular people trapped on them, it helps that New York in 1947 was, and is still, something incredibly special, the modern city being born on an hithero unimaginable scale but in truth the real life that Dassin captures around his stiff actors would be the draw wherever it was set.

It has the sort of story that would soon be supplanted by television which eventually would even have the budgets to replicate it’s location shooting. It’s a movie with a large influence, firstly a late 50s crime drama that shared it’s title and more recently NYPD Blue and especially Law and Order but not one that remains dramatically interesting.

If it’s remembered at all it is for the location shooting, bringing home late 40s New York, a mass of humanity the world had never known and until this point never really been shown. The docks, apartment buildings and el trains are now familiar but familiar to us from later movies that either followed this one’s location shooting blueprint or recreated it’s world on a stage somewhere. Dassin uses and frames this world extremely well, just as well as his ‘Night and the City’ used London or ‘Rifiifi’ used Paris. But like those films the plot and acting doesn’t come close to living up to the shots and setting.
Dassin’s life and post McCarthy exile is interesting and as a visual director, and as the director of those aforementioned Noir’s he is interesting but his biggest films seem strangely empty to me.
The attempted realism, captured via a huge range of stratagems using unaware extras extends to the leads, character actors playing roles they don’t really have the charisma to elevate. You can tell very quickly that the police will win out but you don’t really care how they get there.

Worth seeing for the locations, it’s the real life version of the Godfather and to anyone brought up on crime movies there genuinely is something special to be had from this view of post war New York but thats about it, really the plot and performances won’t mean much to you.

Remember the Night (1940) Mitchell Leisen



Not a particularly well known film this one but the sort of 1940s romantic comedy that I love, one that rests firmly on the talents of Barbara Stanwyck and allows her to run the full range from witty verbal comedy to sentimental tear jerker.

She plays a shoplifter arrested for stealing a bracelet just before Christmas. District Attorney Fred MacMurray sees that the jury are going for her lawyers outlandish claims a lot more than Stanwyck herself is and is worried that their holiday cheer will make them acquit her. He moves to get the trial held over until after the holiday season but then feels guilty about condemning her to spend Chritstmas in jail without being found guilty and gets a bail bondsman to pay her bail.

These court scenes are excellent from Stanwyck, she says nothing but sits there amused by the lengths her lawyer will go to to get her off and at the gullibility of the jury. Not cynical as such, just seemingly above it all despite her predicament. A wonderful mix of streetwise and vulnerable that she did so well in countless films. Even as the film becomes a romance and a lot of people start seeing the best in her you never actually lose sight of the fact she was quite willingly a criminal. In fact one of the things I liked best about the movie is that it was as much about her ways rubbing off on MacMurray as her being raised up by the love of a good American family. Although there is a lot of that.

The bailbondsman assumes MacMurray bailed her because he fancied her and brings Stanwyck to his apartment where we finally get to see her in action. Flirting leads to a shared lift back to their home state of Indiana for the holidays. When her family is less than pleased to see her she spends Christmas with his before they plan to return to New York for her trial. Your standard screwball hijinks ensure but at each turn the film returns back to its surprisingly serious heart. This is a timeout in her trial not a reprieve and she never ever lets you lose sight of that.

The two leads are obviously best known for their work together in ‘Double Indemnity’ where MacMurray is captivated and used by Stanwyck. It was interesting seeing them in a more equal dynamic. Stanwyck still comes across as more intelligent and knowing than MacMurray, she did with all of her leads, but their budding romance is fun and two sided with her bringing out the rebel in him as much as he makes her see the error of her ways.

The love story is well handled with moments of real romance and emotion and if the ending is the only one available under the production code it is also a genuinely moving one. Surprisingly for a movie with a Preston Sturges script the verbal humour gives way halfway through. Their relationship moves from joyous flirting as they realise they like each other to a much more serious tone as the film treats her upcoming trial and potential imprisonment with a surprising amount of weight.

MacMurray can’t quite keep up with Stanwyck in the acting or comedy stakes, but is a fairly likeable lunk and you can believe she falls for him.

This isn’t quite in the top drawer of Stanwyck performances but she has such a naturalism and verve that she is still excellent. She can tell whole stories with her smile and she always seems to be the only one seeing the futile ridiculousness of the whole thing. Everyone else might come out with grand schemes to save the day but you can tell from the start that she knows how this story ends and who will be the one who gets hurt. She is determined to enjoy her brief little moment of relief from it all but she’s under no illusions and won’t let herself fall in too deep. The perfect Stanwyck character.

She deals with the broader comedy, and it gets as broad as a cow in their car, by giving every scene a really grounded reaction, never over playing or leaving character. The cow brings on a tiny, real, startled reaction, not a comic turn. Meetings with country stereotypes see her really seeming to take an interest and incrementally change, I was surprised by how taken I was by the sentimental elements of the movie and I think it was largely down to Stanwyck’s performance.

Well worth seeing for any fan of hers.

The Artist (2011) Michel Hazanavicius


I dont think there is much to say about this one. Howeber I will still join the chorus of people saying just how great it is. I’m not an expert but I have watched a few silent films and The Artist lovingly catches the feel of a period while making it’s own silence far more than a gimmick. At times it’s use of silence and sound reminded me of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this is a world where physics seems warped by the laws of cinema.

The plot is very similar to ‘Singing in the Rain’, silent films are being swept away by talkies and the old stars replaced with new faces. Some people adjust, some spiral into despair.

That’s it really, a love story where the lovers are rarely together, where the kindness and charm of the silent star are remembered by the hot young thing who has taken his limelight. It also clearly loves films and loves the period. I sat there with a smile glued to my face throughout.

The leads convince, Jean Dujardin has the looks and charm of a silent era matinee idol but deploys it on us, an audience used to subtler pleasures and less able to deal with full on, unironic charisma to devestating effect. Berenice Bejo is quite simply stunning, the camera, especially that of her director husband, loves her and I think she is one who will benefit most from this movie as far as Hollywood goes. They are backed up by familiar Hollywood faces, John Goodman for so long a badge of quality (at least in supporting roles) James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller who I’d guess also offers her name to the films Peppy Miller

Oh and the dog is amazing and the final dance number had me totally filled with joy.

I’m already planning on seeing it again

Top 10 of 2011


I’m afraid Christmas and New Year involved rather more real life activity than I was expecting so I’ve fallen behind with the top 10. I think today is probably the last day of the holidays for most people so I will rush out the remainder of the films. Not in as much detail I’m afraid.

“Adam and Joe”s Joe Cornish’s feature debut wasn’t anywhere near as ambitious as the “IT Crowds”‘ Richard Aoyade’s Submarine and I find myself agreeing with Mark Kermode that it wasn’t quite funny enough and wasn’t quite scary enough. But it really had heart especially from the cast of young performers and was paradoxically almost a feel good movie about friendship. By the time it came out on DVD the London riots had happened and I’m not sure it would have been able to be made and received in the same way but I still loved it as a slice of a recognisable Britain that took a chance on some young performers.

Probably the member of this ten that would get forced out when I finally get round to seeing some of the more arty hits of the year. Very funny without quite attaining the heights of the director’s brother’s film “In Bruges”. a can’t fail DVD rental rather than anything more really but a good little film.

Martin Scorcese’s Hugo, my first attempt at watching a 3d film and one that had my eyes watering throughout. I did enjoy the effects though and loved the mixture of friendship and film geekery at the heart of the plot. It actually felt like Scorcese’s most direct film plotwise, maybe he should do more kids adaptions. A lovely warm movie in which the two young leads were superb, Kingsley looked a lot like Melies and I particularly liked Michael Schulberg’s film professor.

Weekend, a gay romance set in Nottingham, probably along with Drive my actual favourite film of the year. Intelligent, wide ranging and very much recognisable as Britain today. As someone who has socialised in Nottingham quite a lot it was great to see somewhere other than London up on the screen and recognisable. It’s the one of these films that I wish I’d done first as it wasn’t much talked about and it was really great.

My other favourite of the year. But one thats had a lot more press than Weekend and one that I think I basically liked all the same stuff as everybody else who saw it did. an unbelievably tense and violent thriller that manages to stay grounded in reality despite it’s video game plot and minimalist acting. Gosling was very impressive but so was everybody else, especially Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston.

Maybe not as credible as some of my choices but another one that I just found very funny, another one that featured a British sitcom star (the IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd) stepping up to features and one that ended up being quite a touching film about relationships and friendship.

finally

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. wordpress doesnt like the poster for some reason.

Just engrossing, a once in a lifetime cast in which Tom Hardy probably stood out for me against some excellent competition. Incredible art direction particularly with regard to the colour palate and a very twisty, intelligent story that had presumably been incredibly condensed but still made sense and was very stylishly told. Excellent movie.