Talking Movies

March 13, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Alas, Max Von Sydow

Another great has left the stage. 13 years younger than Kirk Douglas, Von Sydow was still working in high-profile productions. Indeed he worked for so many decades that one could say there are multiple Von Sydow personae. There is the Bergman art-house God that my mother remembered from The Virgin Spring, beating himself with sticks to build himself up for his vengeful rampage. There is the priest from The Exorcist and assassin from Three Days of the Condor which properly established him with American audiences after his underwhelming Hollywood debut The Greatest Story Ever Told. Then there was the first von Sydow I encountered, unrecognisable as Ming the Merciless in the gloriously silly Flash Gordon. He was already very old when I came across him as another villain, this time in Minority Report. And then I started coming across him in the art house as a tremendous supporting player in Intacto and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is astonishing to think that while Kirk Douglas thru ill health and bad luck had his last important roles in the early 1980s Von Sydow was still working in his 90s and goes out with cameos in The Force Awakens and his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones as recent reminders of his potency.

The Desplat Factor

I have, of late, been trying to distil down the elements needed to reproduce the essential Wes-ness of a Wes Anderson film. Some are practical for guerrilla film-makers, others less so. Colour coded costumes, hand-crafted sets of increasingly outrageous artificiality, whip-pans, tracking shots, overhead shots, especially of handwritten notes, and the laying out inventories, droll narration … Bill Murray. And, one might add, a score by Alexandre Desplat. Which itself may or may not be connected to the increasingly outrageous artificiality of Wes Anderson’s cinemascapes. Certainly I still regard The Darjeeling Limited as the highpoint of his work, and it was after that film, which used pre-existing music, that he replaced Mark Mothersbaugh, the composer for his first four films, with Desplat for his next four films. I rather liked Desplat’s largely percussive score for Isle of Dogs, but was not particularly taken at the time by either his Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel work. Although the latter is growing on me as I soak it in. I think my objections circle a certain childishness at the core of the Desplat/Anderson enterprise. The score for Fantastic Mr Fox had a childlike quality, which was entirely appropriate to the material. But The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film I thought soured in dialogue and action by an unexpectedly mean spirit, seemed to be given the same treatment. And in both cases they shared their approach with Moonrise Kingdom where, in thrall to the featured music of Benjamin Britten (especially his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) Mr Desplat’s orchestration was explained in ‘The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe Part 7’. Ralph Vaughan Williams held that a composer lacking confidence in their themes could be depended upon to orchestrate all hell out of them. Desplat’s work for Anderson though is a horse of a different colour. The orchestration is sparse but determinedly eccentric, with featured unusual instrument after featured unusual instrument [“Not to speak of the glockenspiel” “The glockenspiel?” “I asked you not to speak of it”]. And this complicated curating of harps, flutes, piccolos, pizzicato strings, electric guitars, ukuleles, classical guitars, dangling blocks, sixteen bass baritone singers, balalaikas, celestes, banjos, tubular bells, cymbals, timpani, vibraphones, xylophones, triangles, clarinets, French horns, tenor saxophones, trombones, tubas, trumpets, organs, snare drums, bassoons, pianos, and, yes, glockenspiels, is far more important than his simple melodies: timbres are more important than themes. In a sense that’s a musical reflection by Desplat of style being more important to Anderson than substance. Has Anderson fallen into the same trap of Tarantino, of losing touch with basic reality and human emotions in favour of constructing his own Neverland ranch? We shall see later this year…

No Time to Die Edit

Now that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed to November it might be an idea for Cary Fukunaga to go back into the editing suite and make some cuts. The already ramping up publicity push had unwisely seen Lashana Lynch brag about how 007 got put in his place for sexual harassment in this movie. Coming just weeks after Birds of Prey bombed after a publicity campaign that couldn’t stop talking about everyday sexism, male gaze, and misogyny, you have to ask the question staff most feared hearing from President Obama – ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ The trailer had already seen my tepid interest evaporate. Craig looks as past it physically as Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, but without even the lingering interest in the role. The moment where the security guard has no idea who Bond is clearly is meant to be hilarious and subversive, and yet it makes no sense; MI6 would remember. Think of the scene at the start of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation where a similar character realises who Ethan Hunt is, “I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true…” Lashana Lynch’s dialogue and smirks in the trailer quickly pegged her character as insufferable and, once again, made you yearn for any Craig-era Bond girl to measure up to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. But the idea that No Time to Die will see Bond, and by implication the audience, receiving an endless series of lectures makes one think again on the reasons for delaying it. Quite simply, this film cannot fail or it sinks MGM. But… even if everyone is primed to go back into packed cinemas in November, will anybody bother if the cast and crew of the film keep telling them it’s not a rollicking adventure but a vitally necessary lecture on their implicit biases? The evidence of Birds of Prey, Charlie’s AngelsTerminator: Dark Fate, and Ghostbusters (2016) suggests not. Films that wish to lecture a pre-existing audience must reckon with that audience not showing up, and the supposedly untapped new audience of people on Twitter that like and retweet that pre-existing audience getting owned will also not show up, they never do. Which means of course that no one shows up. And then goodbye MGM. Time to edit?

May 3, 2019

Ralph Vaughan Williams: 5 Works

Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis

The Lark Ascending

Phantasy Quintet

London Symphony

Pastoral Symphony

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: Sweeney Todd

A deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives dredges up an unpleasant encounter with my cinematic bête noire, Tim Burton.

Sweeney Todd showcases a match truly made in hell. No, I’m not referring to the serial killer combo of demon barber Todd and cannibal baker Mrs Lovett, but to the pairing of composer Stephen Sondheim and director Tim Burton.

Stephen Sondheim cannot write music, he is a lyricist. Tim Burton cannot direct films, he is a production designer. Both men have deluded themselves into thinking they can do something they really can’t. Burton can make a film look great but he can’t tell a story or make it look real to save his life while West Side Story lyricist Sondheim won’t admit that his work is better when paired with a melodic composer like Leonard Bernstein. Vaughan Williams said the sure sign that a composer had no confidence in their basic material was that it would be over-orchestrated. The deafening organ chords that play over the truly disgusting opening titles betray that very insecurity as well as establishing the queasy universe of gore that Burton wishes us to live in for the next 2 hours.

The real shock is that what follows these credits is a CGI London created with special effects infinitely worse than 2001’s Moulin Rouge! How’s that for progress. The acting is uniformly awful, Alan Rickman deserves special mention as he is practically enacting his Dead Ringers parody. Johnny Depp, needless to say, cannot sing. But then of course Sondheim is the one musicals composer for whom that really doesn’t matter that much. Even his best song ‘Send in the Clowns’ can be croaked by anyone with a feel for phrasing as Judi Dench wonderfully proved on the West End.

Tim Burton has long confused darkness both visual and thematic with quality. Here there is a startling moment, as Burton and Bonham Carter turn a corner into a particularly sepulchral open street, when you realise that this film might as well be in black and white. Tim Burton has, and always had had, a positive fascination with evil. He delights in a story that pits villain against villain and the few heroic characters in this film (Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener) are shoved off the stage quickly whenever they appear and, characteristically, the finale leaves their storyline hanging as Burton quite simply does not care.

1/5

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