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?

October 24, 2013

Ender’s Game

Wolverine director Gavin Hood redeems himself substantially with this sci-fi effort, but Ender’s Game, despite its celebrated source novel, is still some way from being a film that you simply must rush out to see.

Merlin_s_Asa_Butterfield_stars_in_first_Ender_s_Game_trailer

Ender (Asa Butterfield) is a twelve year old at space academy who shows such promise that Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) cuts him from the programme; to provoke a violent attack by a bully. Ender returns home to his empathetic sister (Abigail Breslin) and psychotic brother. However, his vicious response to bullying was what Graff hoped to see and Ender is dispatched to Battle-School to hone his potential to become the next Julius Caesar. There he quickly falls foul of his older classmates because of his superior intelligence. After clashing with his classmates, and commanding officer Bonzo (Moises Arias), Ender is given his own war game team. With new lieutenant Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) by his side he succeeds so well that he is promoted to the fleet’s command school bordering the planet of the Formics. The Formics were defeated decades before only by the sacrifice of legendary hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). But now their military capabilities have become threatening again…

This is a far slicker outing by writer/director Gavin Hood than his 2009 Wolverine muddle. The CGI work is unusually good, being very crisp looking so that the zero gravity war games are totally convincing. The script, however, is problematic. Far too many major characters are deeply unpleasant. There’s brutally abusive bullies at every level of education, an unhinged brother at home, and the voluble approval of ultraviolent tactics by Graff every step of the way. Hugo star Asa Butterfield’s blue eyes are as fetishised as Daniel Craig’s in Layer Cake, but there’s precious little emotion behind those deadened irises. Ender is a hero that it’s very hard to truly care about. True Grit’s Steinfeld is totally wasted (the script doesn’t ever bother introducing a structural romance with Ender), while Ford and Breslin are mere ciphers. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that the finale recalls The Matrix Reloaded in its subversion of action finales, as anything that recalls Reloaded is doomed.

But then Ender’s Game is a veritable echo chamber of influences. Mazer Rackham defeats the arthropod Formics with Independence Day’s finale. Except Orson Scott Card’s source novel predates it… And so it goes. Deja vu, all over again. How much influence did Card have on that other tale of adults forcing children to be violent, The Hunger Games? But then how much influence did Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers have on Card? Did Card influence Verhoeven’s subversive film of Heinlein’s bug-hunting? I spent far too much time trying to puzzle through the politics of the historical analogies employed by the film. The constant valorisation of ultra-violence as a strategy by Ender is quite troubling, and, I thought very Alexandrian, except that after therefore comparing the factions to Greeks and Persians throughout they turned out to be more Romans and Carthaginians. All of which is probably far too complex anyway given that Harrison Ford actually says Napoleon “conquered the known world.” Ahem…

The high concept of Ender’s Game; teenage children commanding an entire star-fleet while successful adult generals stand aside; never succeeds in making much sense, but despite a worryingly nasty streak it’s a solid movie.

3/5

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