Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A typically three-cornered hat discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer to the music of de Falla produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, and some of them would likely have refused had they been asked, (Alan Bates and Nicol Williamson spring to mind), and some of them would likely have refused contemptuously (*Dear EON, Patrick McGoohan has had quite enough of playing spies at this point, thank you very much). The EON producers would never have seriously asked a bona fide film leading man like Caine, in order to keep the budget down. They would have asked a TV star like Roger Moore, sadly tied up with The Saint, or Timothy Dalton, a supporting player in a major film. As indeed they did. But the actual shortlist of undistinguished Bond contenders from whom Lazenby won based on a screen test is the stuff of madness when you consider that all these alternatives were available. The roguishness of Oliver Reed’s 007, the undercurrent of menace of Malcolm McDowell’s Bond, the unpredictability of David Warner’s agent: these are the roads not taken. There seems to be some sort of retrospective attempt to insist they needed to cast an unknown actor, like they had with Sean Connery. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

November 3, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

The great Kenneth Branagh double-jobs again as director and star for a new adaptation of the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie’s most famous murder mystery.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) needs a holiday. But a new case always beckons, and so his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) insinuates him onto the fully booked Orient Express travelling from Istanbul to Dover. Among his travelling companions are his previous shipmates to Istanbul Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr). There’s also a missionary (Penelope Cruz), a car-dealer tycoon (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a man-eating widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), some highly strung and strung out (respectively) aristocrats (Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton), a Nazi professor (Willem Dafoe), a Russian princess and servant (Judi Dench, Olivia Colman), and the thoroughly obnoxious Ratchett party – shady oligarch (Johnny Depp), his butler (Derek Jacobi), and secretary (Josh Gad). As they run into a snowdrift a murder is discovered, and, before the police arrive, the world’s greatest detective must solve a baffling mystery replete with red herrings.

Branagh as director doesn’t allow himself many stylistic flourishes apart from a sustained track through the dining carriage as Poirot announces that he will be investigating the murder, and a startling use of a rigid overhead viewpoint for Poirot’s discovery and examination of the body. As actor he allows himself to sport a truly outrageous moustache, for an energetic interpretation of Poirot purposefully far away from David Suchet’s sustained and definitive ITV performance. This story previously made it to the big screen in 1974 with an all-star cast under the direction of Sidney Lumet. Branagh makes a better Poirot than Albert Finney’s splenetic turn there, and this screenplay is far less faithful to Christie’s source material than that adaptation. This is a Poirot investigation unconcerned with checking alibis against each other, and making lists of timelines, clues, and sleeping arrangements.

Instead Michael Green’s screenplay is more concerned with the mounting moral turmoil within Poirot as he finds more and more coincidences leading back to a horrific child murder case. If there is a word to sum up this film it would be a surprising one – melancholic. Regular Branagh composer Patrick Doyle’s piano theme for black and white footage of the titular crime lends the gory act an air of ritual rather than revenge. Poirot himself articulates the cost of the child murder not just in the innocent life ended, but in the lives destroyed of all those affected by the kidnapping and murder. And so, predictably, the detective who announced in the opening scene that there was right and wrong and nothing in between finds himself rattling his own sense of self by admitting shades of grey into his worldview.

Green redeems himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with an adaptation that whets the appetite for Branagh in Death on the Nile.

3.5/5

September 13, 2017

IFI Open Day 2017

The IFI is holding its annual Open Day on Saturday September 16th with a line-up of free movies running from 1pm to 11pm. As well as free movies, the customary barbecue in the courtyard and special discount on annual IFI membership, there are a number of tours and a jazz brunch in the cafe bar.

 

In addition to the one preview, handful of old favourites, and several sheer oddities, there are chances to lift the curtain and see the wizard; with talks from the IFI Archive staff and tours of the Projection Booth. The ‘Ask an Archivist’ desk in the foyer will give visitors the opportunity to learn about different film stocks, preservation, restoration, digitisation, and even view and handle film. But projection tours to go behind the little window of flickering light, and check out the busy working of the specialised department; handling anything from digital, to 16mm and 35mm, up to 70mm – the IFI being the only cinema in the country that can run 70mm reels; are sadly sold out. As always IFI Membership will be available at a discounted rate for the Open Day and there’s a BBQ on the terrace from 16.00 onwards. And this year Air France are running a competition for a pair of return flights to Paris so that one might finally fulfil that nagging desire to run thru the Louvre as if in a nouvelle vague picture.

But what are the free movies? Well, here is a guide to the 12 films being shown in Temple Bar.

Film 1

The Mighty Ducks (13.00)
It’s 25 years since the IFI opened its door in Temple Bar, and there is one notable film also turning 25 this year that has been much discussed this summer. But enough about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me… Emilio Estevez is Gordon Bombay, a cut-throat lawyer sentenced to community service after a DUI, who coaches an unruly youth ice-hockey team with ruthlessness to earn redemption.

The Big Sleep (13.15)
A high water-mark of film noir, The Big Sleep was adapted by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett from the first of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled novels about PI, and all-round shop-soiled Galahad, Philip Marlowe. The great Howard Hawks directs Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a murky tangle of shady LA characters, innuendo laden dialogue, literate zingers, and baffling plotting. Just don’t ask who killed the chauffeur.

Speedy (13.30)
Harold Lloyd’s final silent film from 1928 sees his customary ‘glasses’ character this time appearing as a baseball-obsessed New Yorker determined to save the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar, just as another expression of a fine, noble, and disinterested nature, and also to impress the girl whose grandfather owns it. 86 minutes of rapid-fire sight gags and elaborate comedy set-ups ensue, and a cameo from Babe Ruth to boot.

Film 2

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (15.10)

Robert Wise, director of The Sound of Music, was the unlikely figure picked to lead the crew of the starship Enterprise into the new frontier of cinema. 132 minutes, a regrettable portion of which is lovingly sustained shots of the post-Star Wars VFX accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s new Trek theme, sees Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al investigate a mysterious alien entity posing a threat.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (15.30)
Steve Martin continued his fruitful collaboration with director Carl Reiner after The Jerk with this homage to 1940s film noir. While Woody Allen was busy inserting Len Zelig into world events, Reiner and Martin wrote a zany plot and built a farcical amount of sets in order to have Martin interact with old footage of Humphrey Bogart, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, and many more.

Intermission (15.40)
Cillian Murphy woos Kelly MacDonald, Colin Farrell is obsessed with woks, bus-driver Brían F. O’Byrne is aggrieved at a kid, David Wilmot is being unnerved by Deirdre O’Kane’s lust, and vainglorious Garda Colm Meaney is being filmed by documentarians. The blackly comic intersections of Mark O’Rowe’s screenplay no longer seem as impressive as they initially did back in 2003 when everyone was talking about brown sauce in tea.

MILLER’S CROSSING, Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, 1990. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

Film 3

Sorcerer (17.30)
William Friedkin decided, for reasons passing understanding, to use his post-French Connection and Exorcist clout to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 suspense classic The Wages of Fear. Roy Scheider stars in a tale of men driving trucks with highly unstable nitroglycerine over rickety bridges on a mission to extinguish an oil well blaze. This is remembered now for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ account of its disastrous production and reception.

Miller’s Crossing (18.00)
The Coen Brothers stepped up their ambitions from indie noir and screwball comedy with this expansive Prohibition-era gangster film. Gabriel Byrne is right-hand man to Albert Finney’s mob boss. When Byrne is banished, over John Turturro’s bookie and Marcia Gay Harden’s moll, it begins a deadly game of cat and mouse between rival gangs; featuring much double-crossing, hard-boiled badinage, and a spectacularly OTT use of ‘Danny Boy’.

Delicatessen (18.10)
Amelie creator Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his one-time directing partner Marc Caro’s 1991 debut is a queasily slapstick spin on Sweeney Todd. Clapet is a landlord in an apartment building in post-apocalyptic France, who controls his tenants’ food supply via his butcher’s shop; prime cuts from the men he hires. Louison (Dominique Pinon) fills the regular vacancy, but his love for Clapet’s daughter complicates matters in this queasy comedy.

Film 4

Weirdos (20.00)

In 1976 Nova Scotia fifteen-year-old Kit and his girlfriend Alice run away from home in order to reunite with his estranged mother (Molly Parker), while the USA bombastically celebrates its bicentennial. Accompanied by Kit’s imaginary version of Andy Warhol, the two undertake a road trip during which they confront the difficulties they face in their teenage romance. Quirky and comedic, Bruce McDonald’s film features beautifully photographed Canadian landscapes.

??? (20.20)

The audience choice is yet to be announced but voting for the shortlist of 10 drawn up by IFI staff has closed. Here’s hoping for Hunt for the Wilderpeople! Although as that screened in preview at last year’s Open Day having it again as a returning favourite might be pushing it. Past winners include SubmarineGood Vibrations, Short Term 12, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

The Cohens and Kellys (20.30)

A genuine oddity is a silent movie in prime time on Open Day… Accordionist Dermot Dunne and saxophonist Nick Roth, Artistic Director of the Yurodny Ensemble, will provide a live musical accompaniment, drawing heavily on Irish and Jewish folk music. The 1926 film is an ethnic comedy of the broadest of stock characters in 1920s NYC: Irish cop, Jewish storekeeper, cheerful Irish wife, Jewish mother.

 

So, those are the films, but that’s only planning’s first step… Sadly after two years of running five sets of films; which saw movies begin near 11pm and end near 1am; things are back to the traditional four in this 25th anniversary year. Trying to do four films was always an endurance marathon, but to get into five films was surely beyond mere mortals, and yet undoubtedly somebody did try in those two years… But even to do four movies one must sort out strategy, for two sets of reasons.

One can, obviously, only watch one of the three films running, but the film chosen from each set determines what films are available in subsequent sets. Choose The Big Sleep from the first set of films, and it becomes damn near impossible to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture from the second set of films. To make a quick-change from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Sorcerer involves having to leave one screen and join a queue for another screen, with neither film starting on time, especially as some introductory speaker always overdoes curating their favourite film. The unexpected can derail well-laid plans as some films will be unexpectedly in demand whilst others unexpectedly languish, and it is impossible to predict which. Might one casually pick up a ticket for Miller’s Crossing a minute before it starts as Talking Movies’ occasional guest writer Elliot Harris once memorably did for The Purple Rose of Cairo? And how can popularity be predicted in the absence of announced screens? After all amongst past audience choice winners Good Vibrations and Short Term 12 did not make Screen 1, yet Submarine did. One needs a good mental map of run-times and queue-times for improvised plans.

And then there’s the second, newer reason to sort strategy if attempting multiple films. Tickets were allocated, 4 per person, first come first served, at 11am; which saw a queue forming from 9.30am, snaking to Dame Street. The days of that Open Day morning buzz are gone. For the second year in a row queues will form inside the IFI, a desk for each movie, an hour before screenings –2 tickets per person. Multiple movie devotees must work together, because they’d have to not be watching a movie in order to queue for tickets for the next movie; reducing them to a mere 2 movies! Expect the queue to form 30 minutes before tickets will be disbursed. Don’t expect pseudo-economists trading off queuing during films they don’t mind missing in order to get extra tickets for a film they do want to see, in order to get someone to queue for them for a later film they want to see.

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