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Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 19/4/2012)
This year marks the centenary of the birth of Gene Kelly and the 60th anniversary of the release of his most popular picture, Singin' in the Rain. Rather like The Artist, this was a nostalgic paean to the art of silent cinema and the panic that rippled through Hollywood on the coming of sound. However, not everyone in Tinseltown viewed the studio system as a dream factory and Kelly's longtime collaborator Vincente Minnelli produced one of the sourest insights into the movie business in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), a key work in the canon of a director who was not only key to the success of the MGM musical, but also the kind of glossy noir-inflected melodrama that inspired such tele-soaps as Peyton Place.
The film's source was a George Bradshaw short story about a Broadway producer entitled `Memorial to a Bad Man' that had appeared in The Ladies Home Journal in February 1951. Producer John Houseman was intrigued by its bitterness and purchased the rights to another Bradshaw tale, `Of Good and Evil', so that he and screenwriter Charles Schnee could both switch the setting from New York theatreland to Hollywood and impose a flashback structure similar to the one used in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), which Houseman had also produced.
MGM chief Dore Schary was slightly nervous that there were too many parallels between the key characters and real figures in Hollywood's recent past. But he green lit the production and was rewarded with a clutch of five Oscars, including Best Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction and Costume, as well as a Best Supporting Actress nod for the ever-watchable Gloria Grahame. Seemingly, the film community couldn't resist seeing itself on screen, even when depicted at its most vain, venal, vulnerable and vicious.
Having each refused to speak to washed-up producer Kirk Douglas, director Barry Sullivan, actress Lana Turner and writer Dick Powell meet in studio boss Walter Pidgeon's office to listen to a final entreaty, despite the fact that each has vowed never to work with Douglas again. He asks them to reflect on how they owe their fame and fortune to Douglas and implores them to forgive the flaws that make him a first-rate heel, as well as a peerless showman.
The son of a studio mogul who was so detested that extras had to be hired to mourn at his funeral, Douglas always wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and convinces Sullivan's struggling hack director that they could make it big if only they could get on the inside. Deliberately losing heavily to Pidgeon in a card game, Douglas promises to work off his debt and begins producing a string of money-making B movies like The Doom of the Cat Men, with Sullivan calling the shots.
Eventually, however, they set their sights on more ambitious projects like The Far Away Mountain, to which Pidgeon assigns a $1 million budget and leading star Gilbert Roland. But, Douglas doubts that Sullivan can handle such a prestigious assignment and not only replaces him with Teutonic tyrant Ivan Triesault, but also barely credits his contribution in his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. The betrayal still rankles. Yet, as Pidgeon reminds Sullivan, if Douglas hadn't shown faith in him at the outset, he wouldn't have had the reputation subsequently to win two Oscars of his own.
Turner also has every right to detest Douglas. The daughter of an actor who had destroyed his career by drinking, she had almost been destitute when she landed a bit part in one of Douglas's pictures and he had spotted something in her that others had overlooked. Indeed, having duped her into thinking that he was in love with her, he had coaxed her through a screen test and bolstered her confidence on the night before she began shooting the movie that would make her a star. However, she had never forgiven him for slipping away from the premiere to canoodle with starlet Elaine Stewart and only begrudgingly accepts Pidgeon's reminder that she could be a backstreet tramp if Douglas hadn't saved her from herself.
By contrast with Turner's nettled resentment at being jilted, Dick Powell's loathing is far more justifiable. He was a Virginia college professor when Douglas tried to option his racy period novel, The Proud Land. Powell had no intention of going to Hollywood to adapt the book, but was persuaded to do so by his excitable Southern belle wife, Gloria Grahame. However, she proved such a distraction that Douglas had press agent Paul Stewart arrange for Gilbert Roland to keep Grahame amused while he went to Lake Arrowhead with Powell to finish the screenplay. On the way back, however, Powell learned from a newspaper that his wife and Roland had been killed in a plane crash and severed all ties with Douglas after he let slip that he had been responsible for their liaison.
Powell had gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize for a book inspired by Grahame and was now one of Hollywood's best-paid writers. But he is adamant that he will have nothing more to do with Douglas and invites Sullivan and Turner to leave with him. However, Douglas calls Pidgeon from Paris as they are walking away and Turner picks up an extension in the next room and her companions come closer to the receiver to listen to the irresistible proposition that Douglas is outlining.
It's always tempting with a film of this sort to surmise the real-life figures behind the fictional characters. Most critics agree that the scheming producer is modelled on David O. Selznick, with a few traits from low-budget horror specialist Val Lewton tossed in for good measure, while the studio honcho is most likely an amalgam of Herman J. Mankiewicz and Harry Rapf. The actress in her famous father's shadow is generally agreed to be Diana Barrymore, who was the daughter of John Barrymore, the stage and screen legend known as `The Great Profile'. The English director played by Leo G. Carroll is assumed to be Alfred Hitchcock, but opinion is divided over whether the sadistic German was based on Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg or Fritz Lang. Similarly, it's disputed whether the writer bears a greater resemblance to William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald, although the fact that Gloria Grahame's capricious spouse has much in common with Zelda Fitzgerald seems to suggest the latter.
But, while such à clef speculation enhances the intrigue of The Bad and the Beautiful and places its mostly compelling performances in a pseudo-satirical context, its real fascination lies in the direction of Vincente Minnelli, which drapes insouciant style over what might have been a mundanely melodramatic behind-the-scenes saga and transforms it into what might be called high pulp or class trash.
As in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), the gloomy tone reflects the crisis facing the studio system in the wake of the 1948 Paramount Decrees (which removed a vital revenue stream by preventing the Big Five from owning their own theatre chains) and the spread of television. But, whereas Wilder cast a black comedic pall over his story, Minnelli opts for a muted variation on the lustrous visual style he brought to his lavish musicals. Thus, the interiors created by Cedric Gibbons and set decorators Edward Carfagno; Edwin B. Willis and Keogh Gleason teasingly flit between knowing reality and a Tinseltown neverlandism that audiences had been fooled into believing actually existed. Similarly, Helen Rose's costumes are impossibly chic and their elegance is matched by the dexterity and subtle intrusiveness of Robert Surtees's monochrome camera.
There were more emotive, more perceptive and more cutting dissections of the Hollywood myth, including George Cukor's A Star Is Born (1954), Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife (1955), John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust (1975), Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976) and Robert Altman's The Player (1992). Indeed, Minnelli would also revisit the theme in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). But no other insider account made the American film industry look so alluring while exposing its dark heart.
A couple of months ago, Bertrand Bonello was curtly upbraided by several critics for glamorising life in a brothel in House of Tolerance. It will be interesting to see what sort of reception Malgoska Szumowska gets for Elles, which seems equally detached from the sordid realities of prostitution, even though it has been directed by a woman. Having previously impressed with Happy Man (2000), Stranger (2004) and the excellent 33 Scenes From Life (2008), Szumowska is clearly intent on taking the next step up the arthouse ladder. But, with its naive views on the ways in which women sell themselves out to men, this feels like a major misjudgement that wastes courageous performances by two fine young actresses and fails to make the most of Juliette Binoche's unique screen presence.
When not writing think pieces for Elle magazine, Juliette Binoche is acting as dutiful wife to businessman Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and stressing out as the mother of dope-smoking truant François Civil and game-obsessed tweenager Pablo Beugnet. Having packed them off after another family breakfast of grunts and shrugs, Binoche begins preparing coq au vin for supper that evening with De Lencquesaing's visiting boss. But, in between battles with electrical appliances (including a fridge whose door has a mind of its own), she thinks back on the interviews she recently conducted with two young women who see prostitution as a quick and effective way of financing their studies.
Anaïs Demoustier grew up in the projects outside Paris and has no qualms about sleeping with men if it gets her away from a background she detested and enables her to live in a nice apartment and develop a cosy relationship with an unsuspecting boyfriend. Pole Joanna Kulig appears equally phlegmatic, as she endures the odd kinky encounter to fund the party lifestyle that Binoche shares with some relish after a vodka binge. Indeed, both girls seem to enjoy sex with complete strangers a lot more than Binoche does with De Lencquesaing, who is too focused on work to relax when his wife attempts to seduce him.
All of this might have seemed rather racy when Catherine Deneuve was slipping away from an idyllic bourgeois existence to work in an upmarket establishment in Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967) or Delphine Seyrig was breaking off from her domestic chores to attend to her gentlemen callers in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). But Szumowska and co-scenarist Tine Byrckel draw no more insightful conclusions in this surprisingly conservative dissertation on sexual politics.
There are disconcerting moments, none more so than the juxtaposition of scenes showing Binoche pleasuring herself and Demoustier being raped with a champagne bottle. But the other trysts are presented with an explicit, but glossy romanticism that is so devoid of risk or consequence that they come perilously close to resembling the pornography Binoche is so appalled to discover De Lencquesaing and Beugnet watch so frequently. Moreover, the notion that chic wives and mothers have it every bit as tough as empowered sex workers is dismayingly trite and one might have hoped that a film-maker of Szumowska's evident intelligence and accomplishment might have had something fresher and more trenchant to say about a subject as old as the profession itself.
The performances are admirably committed, with Binoche eschewing her stellar veneer to seem genuinely astonished at the physical and emotional discoveries she makes as a result of her meetings with Demoustier and Kulig, who accept challenges that are seemingly becoming increasingly mundane in French films with commendable sang froid. But the use of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is portentously used on a score that's as intrusive as Michal Englert's camera, whose proximity to the faces of the lead trio clumsily attempts to make the audience complicit as voyeurs in the exploitation of these three in particular and all women in general.
South African sophomore Oliver Hermanus displays a surer touch with Beauty, a follow-up to the much-admired Shirley Adams (2009) that has been produced and co-scripted by Didier Costet, whose partnership with Brillante Mendoza has done much to raise the profile of Philippine realism. Tackling a contentious topic with sensitivity rather than sensationalism, this occasionally comes close to pushing its political luck in discussing the emasculation of the Afrikaaner male. But grounded performances and a palpable sense of pent-up frustration make this as intriguing as it is insightful.
Bloemfontein sawmill owner Deon Lotz has taken the ending of apartheid personally. Barely able to suppress his racism, despite being a regular churchgoer, he enjoys rowdy drinking bouts with his like-minded buddies that culminate in sexual encounters that belie his rampant homophobia. However, it becomes clear, while attending daughter Sue Diepeveen's wedding in Cape Town, that Lotz is going through a crisis of identity, as he slips away from wife Michelle Scott to ogle Charlie Keegan, the strapping trainee lawyer son of a family friend.
Unable to get Keegan out of his mind, Lotz returns to the Cape on a specious business trip and begins stalking the 23 year-old on campus, on the beach and in bars around the city. He marvels at his physique and social confidence, but avoids making direct contact, even though he has bought him a gift. However, Lotz also becomes increasingly aware of the growing closeness between Keegan and his daughter Roeline Daneel and, shortly after his car is stolen, he makes an injudicious move in his hotel room.
When using Jamie Ramsay's roving camera to approximate Keegan's gaze, this is a confident piece of film-making that exploits small details within the mise-en-scène to highlight Lotz's passion and prejudice. However, Hermanus allows too many sequences to drift and few match the precision of the bedroom exchange between Lotz and Scott, in which the conversation about their seemingly idyllic life is counterpointed by the complete lack of physical intimacy. The Cape Town bar crawl feels particularly extended, although the men's club session feels more inauthentic, as one member is turned away for bringing a black companion and the rowdy carousing descends into an orgy.
Lotz bullishly conveys a macho man rationalising his dubious behaviour and there is something affecting about the fact he buys Keegan an iPod when what he really wants is an iPad. But what is most impressive, even during the flawed ending, is the way in which Hermanus composes shots to contrast Lotz's seething or self-loathing with other people enjoying the freedom to express themselves in ways his uptight resentfulness will not allow.
Ambience and milieu are also vital to Austrian actor Karl Markovics's directorial debut, Breathing, which recalls the work of Romanian Cristi Puiu and Argentinian Pablo Trapero in its refusal to be hurried, its authentic sense of place and the manner in which the characters and their actions are always contextualised. Evocatively photographed by Martin Gschlacht, this is a touching tale that eschews sentimentality and easy solutions in exploring the intractable problem of dealing with the past in order to face the future.
Life hasn't been kind to Thomas Schubert. Abandoned by his mother and raised in various institutions, he was sent to a juvenile detention centre at the age of 14 for killing another boy in a fight. No one seems to care what happens to him (his ambition is to become a diving instructor) and his own lack of remorse and sullen attitude have frequently counted against him at parole hearings. However, counsellor Gerhard Liebmann has confidence that Schubert can make progress if he can only hold down a steady job under the work release scheme and the youth surprises everybody (including himself) by finding a niche transporting cadavers to Vienna's municipal morgue.
Despite initially taking stick from Georg Friedrich and his two colleagues, Schubert finds a strange solace in being alone with the dead that matches the hours he spends underwater at the centre pool. He also comes to enjoy riding through the streets in the morgue truck and commuting back and forth across the city, once even responding to the flirtatious questions of chatty tourist Luna Mijovic.
However, Schubert's mood changes when he is put in charge of a body fresh from an autopsy that shares his surname. Momentarily wondering if this is the woman who gave him away as an infant, he becomes obsessed with tracking down his mother. But the meeting with Karin Lischka doesn't go as well as he hoped it might.
As one would expect of an actor who came to prominence in Stefan Ruzowitzky's Oscar-winning Holocaust drama, The Counterfeiters (2007), Markovics elicits fine performances from a solid cast. Suggesting vulnerability beneath his saturnine surface, the non-professional Schubert particularly impresses, especially in the lengthy travelling sequences that adroitly reinforce the distance he has to go to forgive himself and others for his plight. But Markovics also paces the picture impeccably, while his collaboration with the typically excellent Gschlacht achieves an edgy lyrical realism that allows a touch of compassion to breach the bleakness of both the setting and Schubert's existence.
Samuel L. Jackson plays an older and supposedly wiser ex-con in David Weaver's Fury, as another blast from the past threatens to complicate his bid to reintegrate into a Toronto everyday he hasn't experienced for 25 years. However, a shocking disclosure draws him back into the shady and dangerous world of grifting that caused him to murder his unreliable partner and, now, each twist of the tale sees his options narrowing.
Promising parole officer Tom McCamus that he will find a job and keep his nose clean, Jackson asks after old pals in Gil Bellows's bar and discovers that many of his old crowd are either dead or disappeared. Former cohorts like Martha Burns (who lost part of a finger in revenge for one of their scams) want nothing to do with him and he is reluctant to accept a drink from Luke Kirby, the thirtysomething club-owning son of the man he killed, let alone an offer to get back into the game.
However, having rescued young junkie Ruth Negga from thug Aaron Poole in the bar restroom, Jackson finds himself falling in love and quickly moves in with her, even after learning that Kirby had sent her to try and coax him into pulling a con on Tom Wilkinson, the psychotic entrepreneur to whom Kirby is heavily in debt. More intent on weaning Negga off heroin than getting Kirby out of a jam, Jackson refuses to participate. But Kirby springs his surprise and leaves Jackson with no choice but to go along with the plan.
Also known as The Samaritan, this feels as though it should have gone direct to disc. It's by no means a bad film, with François Dagenais's photography, Matthew Davies's production design and Todor Kobakov's score all adding to the brooding mood conveyed by the magnetic Jackson. But the scenario by Weaver and Elan Mastai is too slight to sustain such an ominous atmosphere, while the failure to trust the audience's intelligence results in too many key plot points being ponderously staged. The finale is particularly sloppy, with Negga stepping into the shill role at the last minute and promptly giving the game away after Deborah Kara Unger hangs herself in a last act of revenge on the reckless and cruel Kirby.
The Irish-born Negga proves more than a match for Jackson throughout and there is an affecting intensity about their scenes together. But Wilkinson, sporting a decidedly eccentric accent, essays a wildly pantomimic villain, while Kirby lacks the menacing charm to make his plan to get even with Jackson seem even vaguely plausible.
For all its flaws, Fury is markedly more controlled than Ryan Andrews's Elfie Hopkins, a low-budget British horror that feels as though it is being made up as it goes along. Expanded by Andrews and co-scenarist Riyad Barmania from a short entitled The Gammons, this might have been spooky fun in a Children's Film Foundation Meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer kind of way. But 26 year-old Jaime Winstone seems far too old to play the eponymous teenage troubleshooter, while the tone veers unconvincingly between madcap comic-book, soft-boiled pulp and soapy Pobol y Cwm melodrama.
Set in the Welsh backwater of Thorntree Valley, the action opens with teen misfit Jaime Winstone breaking down in her antiquated car and being passed on the road by her newly arrived neighbours. She confides her thoughts to the dictaphone she carries everywhere and also to nerdy pal Aneurin Barnard, who is devoted to Winstone, but increasingly certain that he needs to move away if he is ever to make anything of his life.
He lives with ineffectual father Alastair Cumming, while Winstone deeply resents the presence of alcoholic stepmother Amanda Drew in the rambling house she shares with father Julian Lewis Jones (who was widowed in a hunting accident when Winstone was a child). Indeed, she is grateful for the distraction provided by the suave Rupert Evans, his elegant wife Kate Magowan and characterful children Will Payne and Gwyneth Keyworth. Ignoring the warning of enigmatic butcher Ray Winstone to proceed with caution and determined to get one over on horsey Kimberley Nixon, Winstone allows Payne to teach her how to fire a rifle, while Barnard finds himself the object of Keyworth's creepily quirky affections.
However, when the newcomers host a house-warming party and convince snooty couple Richard Harrington and Claire Cage to book an exotic holiday with their travel company, Winstone begins to distrust them and soon has Barnard tapping away on his computer to discover that the family has moved around a great deal since returning from a stay with a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. Thus, when she finds a bloodied bear belonging to Harrington and Cage's toddler son in the woods, Winstone insists on calling cops Sule Rimi and Sam Hartley.
But Evans proves too shrewd an adversary and exploits the well-known antipathy between the victims and local loner Steven Mackintosh to frame him for the crime. Moreover, he also makes a move on the gullible Nixon and Winstone finds herself fighting a lone battle when Barnard mysteriously disappears while snooping around the interlopers' refrigerator.
It's pretty clear from the get-go how this scrappy, but undeniably likeable comedy chiller is going to play out. But suspense matters less here than spirit, with Jaime Winstone throwing herself into the role of the grungily-attired, shamus-obsessed teen snoop desperate for an adventure to break the monotony of a rural existence that is only made bearable by Barnard and a plentiful supply of dope. However, too few of the supporting turns can match her energy or sly gravitas, although Evans twinkles malevolently, Winstone père contributes a splendidly over-the-top West Country-drawling cameo and Keyworth is deliciously kooky as the twee Goth with a sinister secret in the boxes she keeps in her bedroom.
Tim Dickel's production design and Tobia Sempi's photography are innovatively disconcerting. But, even though Peter Hollywood's editing, Jordan Andrews's score and, indeed, Ryan Andrews's direction aren't quite as accomplished, this has more than enough of whatever the Welsh is for je ne sais quoi to suggest it is destined for minor cult status.
Finally, with less than 100 days to go to the 2012 Olympics, Jerry Rothwell's documentary Town of Runners provides a timely reminder of the sacrifices required of athletes if they are to make the grade. Once again demonstrating Rothwell's laudable versatility, this is a far cry from his studies of an unconventional punk band (Heavy Load, 2008), doomed yachtsman Donald Crowhurst (Deep Water, 2008) and the sperm bank kids attempting to trace their father (Donor Unknown, 2010). But, while it brims with compassion for its young subjects, this is perhaps the least cogent or coherent of Rothwell's pictures to date.
Considering it only has a population of 16,000, the remote Ethiopian town of Bekoji in Oromia province (which lies some 10,000ft above sea level) has a remarkable record for producing world-beating distance runners, such as Olympic champions Derartu Tula, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, as well as such potent competitors as Tariku Bekele, Mestawet Tufa, Genzebe Dibaba, Ejigayehu Dibaba and Mestawot Tadesse. However, veteran coach Sentayehu Eshetu knows that his newest crop of hopefuls need to land places in one of the newly established, government-sponsored academies if they are to have even an outside chance of fulfilling their dreams.
As 13 year-old narrator Biruk Fikadu takes up the story, he is less concerned with his running form than the incursion of a Chinese road gang building a new highway that will skirt the town and divert traffic away from the tiny kiosk he manages for his ailing grandmother. However, improving her speed and endurance is all that matters to their 15 year-old tenant Alemi Tsegaye, whose family live in the country and have invested in her future, even though mother Bekelech Debele isn't particularly bothered about her sporting achievements and tends, like 14 year-ld Hawii Megersa's mother, Werkiyye Guddeta, to think she would be better off finding a husband and start having the children who will support her in old age.
When Rothwell first arrives in Bekoji in the ploughing season of 2009, Hawii and Alemi are training hard for the Regional Youth Championships in Asella. The meet is appallingly organised, however, and video evidence is required to convince the judges that Hawii ran in the 1500m heats and has fairly earned her place in the final. She takes bronze and wins further medals in the 800m and the relay. But Alemi comes in a disappointing ninth and has much to think about as the townsfolk rally together to clear weeds from the athletics ground as the dry season sets in.
Hawii is rewarded for her efforts with a place in the Oromia squad for the National Youth Championships in Addis Ababa. But her fifth place in the 800m final leads to her being replaced by an older girl using her name in the 1500 (even though she had earlier failed to qualify) and Hawii takes little pleasure in the team victory, as she knows results are what matters to catching the eyes of the national selectors.
As it happens, both Alema and Hawii secure places in one of the 18 state training camps. However, while Alema finds excellent facilities at the Holeta site (as they have been sponsored by the local flower industry), Hawii and teammates Betty and Freya discover Wolis (100 miles west of Holeta, which is itself two days from Bekoji) to be a half-constructed shambles and, with food often as scarce as decent training sessions, they quickly become disillusioned. Even a reunion with Alema at a launch rally in Addis fails to raise their spirits and they are dismayed to notice the sums lavished on entertaining the assembled dignitaries while they are living in near poverty.
As the 2010 wet season arrives and Alemi's father, Tsegaye Degefa, fears that the crops will be ruined, the girls remain at their respective camps, while Biruk takes the matriculation exam he needs to pass if he is to continue his education. When Hawii comes home for Easter, she fails to complete a training run and tells Coach Sentayehu that she has sand in her kidneys and has been idle for four months. She complains that the Wolis authorities have offered her negligible medical assistance and begs not to be sent back.
By the time the harvest comes round, Hawii has transferred to the Asella Athletic Club and is much happier. However, Betty and Freya feel somewhat betrayed at being left behind and things are scarcely better for Biruk, who failed his exam and had to help his grandmother make provision for renting out the kiosk, as he no longer had sufficient time to run it. He decides his best option is to concentrate on his running. But there are no guarantees, as Alema and Hawii discover when Holeta and Asella (after a team mutiny) meet at the Oromia Club Championships in Nazret in April 2011. Neither makes it out of the 1500m heats for their age group, but Alema takes silver in the 800m and Coach Sentayehu insists that both still have a decent chance of following their illustrious predecessors as the film ends.
Despite the fascinating subject of kids being forced to compete on what seems to be an increasingly unlevel playing field, this is a deeply frustrating documentary. Rothwell ably conveys the importance of sport in escaping rural poverty and exposes the chaos and corruption endemic at all levels of the system. But the storylines are fragmentary and too many intriguing issues are left undeveloped, including the genuine athletic potential of Alema, Hawii and Biruk (and what the future has in stall if they fail), the role of women in Ethiopian society, the ominous economic presence of Chinese agencies, the dismal state of the Wolis unit and the extent to which Bekoji's superstars pay their dues to their hometown. Thus, while this couldn't have better intentions, it too often settles for edited highlights instead of in-depth analysis.