Talking Movies

November 22, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

The late Spielberg and the late Hitchcock

Having recently, finally, watched The Post, just because it was on prime-time Film4 twice inside a week, I regard my scepticism towards it as having been fully justified. A movie about the wrong newspaper and the wrong heroic actors who were all not breaking a huge story, and featuring an intolerably annoying lead performance even for Meryl Streep, it’s only value was it that it set me to thinking about the late Hitchcock and the late Spielberg. It is no secret that Spielberg found it so hard to get financing for his ponderous Lincoln that it looked like it might end up like Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra – a cable TV movie in America, given a small art-house release in Europe. Such an outcome would have been a shocking fall from grace from a man who made his name being a crowd-pleaser par excellence.  But the truth is that Spielberg has entered a phase of decline in that regard. Since nuking the fridge in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg has struggled to find an audience. His 2010s output (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, War Horse, LincolnBridge of Spies, The BFG, The Post, Ready Player One) has been prolific, but desperately uneven when it comes to connecting with an intended blockbuster audience, and the more niche trilogy of Constitutional Amendment films plagued by dull writing. The technical mastery is still there, but, like the late Hitchcock (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot), it is in service of poor to middling scripts – so that outre camera moves stand out more and more than they would have in previous decades where the entire films were good, not just certain sequences or conceits standing out like oases in a desert. The fact that Spielberg’s next film is an unnecessary remake of West Side Story worked over by his Munich and Lincoln writer Tony Kusher does not inspire confidence that Spielberg can pull out of this slump, and that’s before you realise the star is … Ansel Elgort.

Yippee Ki Yay Memoriser!

A Die Hard Christmas jumper having just arrived in the mail I found myself wondering the other day whatever happened to its director John McTiernan. Lawsuits. Indictments. Jail. His Wyoming ranch being liquidated. And not a film made since 2003’s Basic. In fact, it’s kind of remarkable that McTiernan only made 11 films in his 18 active years, (allegedly he is making sci-fi blockbuster Tau Ceti Four with Uma Thurman, but I will believe that when I see it), but those films include both impeccable classics and unwatchable disasters. How can someone capable of Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard with a Vengeance have ended up battling studio incompetence and his own poor choices to have come away carrying the bag for Last Action Hero, The 13th Warrior, Rollerball and Basic? McTiernan has given some extensive and revealing interviews explaining how things went sideways so often, and he seems to have had a lot of bad luck. But one thing he said leapt out: while studying at the AFI a crazed teacher insisted on him memorising movies – shot for shot. On the grounds that a concert pianist would commit piano concertos to memory, and when asked to improvise a cadenza would have those to draw on, so a film director should have a set of classics in his cerebellum to creatively rework when needed. And so McTiernan said he had memorised every shot in A Clockwork Orange, among others. Which leads to one to think about his films in terms of such classicism. I can easily believe that it is possible to memorise every shot in Die Hard, with especial relish for the many delightful focus-pulls, but Rollerball?… Can the decline of McTiernan’s artistic clout in the editing room be directly seen in the betrayal of the principle of memorable shots rather than hyper-cut gibberish?

October 31, 2020

RIP Sean Connery

Sean Connery is dead at  age 90, and the world is without its first Bond, James Bond.

Sick Boy lacks moral fibre—Renton
Aye, but he knows a lot about Sean Connery—Mother Superior

Trainspotting (1996)

1962. Connery takes the lead in an underfinanced spy film where the director seems more interested in the wardrobe his star will wear than the performance he will give. Connery brought two sides to James Bond. He was a vicious bastard, true to Fleming’s character, but a faithful adaptation would have resulted in a flop notable only for the unpleasantness of its lead. Connery also brought a roguish charm to the role that was all his own invention. This is what made him a star and allowed Bond to get away with callous cruelty. Terence Young tried to emphasise the spy elements and the realism in the sequel From Russia, With Love. Connery was superbly paired against Robert Shaw and their extremely realistic fight was one of the most vicious then seen and still one of the longest sustained punch-ups in cinema. Guy (The Colditz Story) Hamilton directed Goldfinger as a stylish thriller not a Bond Film. A sensation for its characters, lines and casually brilliant plot twists it trapped Connery. He made the hit romance Woman of Straw, the psychodrama Marnie for Hitchcock and gruelling war drama The Hill for Sidney Lumet to showcase his serious acting abilities and desperately squeezed in A Fine Madness between Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. But the shadow of James Bond was enduring…

“Some age, others mature”.

At 50 he received the Time Bandits script from Terry Gilliam which described Agamemnon as resembling “Sean Connery or someone of equal stature but less expensive”. Connery accepted his age and played the supporting role. He did Bond once last time while he could still pass the action bar (although taking lessons from Steven Seagal he annoyed him so much that Seagal broke Connery’s wrist), reuniting with Irish Thunderball producer Kevin McClory for a remake, probably just to annoy Broccolli who had lost the rights to use SPECTRE or Blofeld to Fleming’s co-creator McClory. Exit Bond, enter everybody’s favourite grouchy uncle. Highlander, The Untouchables and The Name of the Rose saw him showcase this character and pick up a Best Supporting Oscar for crusty Chicago cop Jimmy Malone. 1989’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade showed just how good Connery could be in this sort of endearing role. The Hunt for Red October also showed he could still carry a film. He received $250,000 for a thirty second cameo in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as Richard the Lionheart and played King Arthur in First Knight adding wise but warm authority to his no nonsense persona. The Rock was even more jawdropping. Connery doesn’t really play a pensioner James Bond, he plays something more valuable: The 60 something Action Hero, a role he invented and only he could get away with. Compare how ridiculously old for proceedings Roger Moore seemed in 1985’s A View to a Kill against what Connery could do in 1996. Even in misfires like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Entrapment that persona is triumphant. He delivered in ensemble drama Playing By Heart and played a villain in The Avengers where his speech given while wearing a teddy bear outfit was the only minute of the dreadful film worth salvaging. Sadly we don’t know what he thought of the voluble opinions expressed on his career and importance in Trainspotting. While his close friend Michael Caine has continued working into his late 80s, memorably appearing in multiple blockbusters thanks to his friendship with Christopher Nolan, Connery quietly retired after the troubled production of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, passing up the role of Gandalf as well as a reprise of Henry Jones Sr in favour of working on his autobiography in his Bahamas home. Ironically for the bankroller of Scottish Nationalism (and a man who had ‘Scotland Forever’ tattooed on his arm when he was 16) he was awarded a Knighthood.

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